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Fool’s War — Preview

Prologue

Curran watched the man whose life he required settle onto one of the dozen faux leather couches that were scattered around the station’s reception module. The monitors showed him Amory Dane, spruce, tall, and fair. Dane made the perfect picture of someone prepared to wait patiently for an appointment. He was a radically different creature from the furtive Freers in the corner dickering over the delivery price for the wafer case that sat on the floor between them, or the gaggle of haggard mechanics who had put in one shift too many at the bar.
Curran wondered idly what they would do if he spoke up and announced what he was. Would they laugh, thinking it was a crazy engineer’s joke? Would they scramble for the wall and try to get at the computer system? Or would they just start running for the hatches?
He ran through each of the scenarios and decided that any would be amusing, but that the risk of being recorded on a hard medium was not worth it.
From his position of safety, Curran calmly overrode the inspection commands for the module’s automatic systems. Then, he ordered the hatches to cycle shut. One of the mechanics, more sober than the others, jerked his head up as he heard the hatch seal.
Before anyone could make another move, Curran sent a single command to each of the three explosive charges his talent had laid against the module’s hull.
As the wind ripped through the room and the screams began in earnest, Curran slid away.
“How dieth the wise man?” He murmured as he hurried toward his next task. “As the fool.”

###

Chapter One

Al Shei got the distinct feeling that Donnelly was trying to stare her down out of the desk’s video screen.
“In that case,” Donnelly said, “the answer is no.”
Al Shei refrained from letting her shoulders sag. The talent agent was playing havoc with her worn temper. She was very glad of her opaque, black hijab, the veil that covered her hair and hid the lower half of her face. She didn’t want Donnelly to see her jaw move as she ground her teeth together.
“You aren’t even going to do me the courtesy of pretending to consult with your client, are you ‘Ster Donnelly?” For the hundredth time Al Shei mentally cursed her pilot for picking this run to sell out and leave. First class pilots who would work for the shares Al Shei offered were as scarce as water ice on Venus.
Donnelly held up his manicured hands and made an exaggerated shrug. “Jemina Yerusha is one of the best pilots I’ve ever represented. I know her. She’s not going sign on a ship that’s only got a Lennox rating of D for a twentieth share, which, according to your stats, doesn’t amount to all that much.”
Al Shei looked away for a moment to watch the clients at the other rented desks that filled the station’s bank. The noise of a dozen different languages was deadened by panels of jewel-​toned, wired plastics that covered the walls. The only quiet person in the room seemed to be Resit, who sat next to Al Shei’s desk. Resit shook her head at Al Shei and mouthed “I told you so.”
Al Shei tapped the edge of the desk heavily with her index finger and looked back towards Donnelly. “Yerusha is a highly skilled child who’s been out of work for three weeks and must be getting pretty sick of this station.”
“She’s a Freer, ‘Dama Al Shei.” Donnelly folded his arms across his chest, making his black satin shirt wrinkle and bag. “She doesn’t have a problem with stations. She does have a problem with anything under a C rating.”
Al Shei shuffled her boots against the bristly, brown carpet. She briefly considered telling Donnelly he was an unprofessional little weasel and that when Yerusha found out he was billing her at twice her worth, thus making it next to impossible for her to find employment, she was going to take him to pieces with the thoroughness that Freers were noted for.
“Thank you for your time, ‘Ster Donnelly.” Al Shei pressed her thumb against the corner of the screen, cutting the connection.
“I’m very glad you didn’t.” Resit tucked a stray wisp of hair behind her beaded, white kijab. Unlike her cousin Al Shei’s, Resit’s veil left her whole face bare. Lawyers who covered their faces, she said, were even less trusted than the ordinary kind, if that was possible.
“Didn’t what?” Al Shei pushed the screen down until it was level with the top of the desk.
“Say what you were thinking.” Resit drew aside her full-​hemmed skirt to let a man in maintenance coveralls squeeze past the desk. “I didn’t fancy spending the next two weeks trying to keep you out of the brig for slander of a fellow station client. The wire-​work alone would have used up most of my retainer.”
“You’re not on retainer,” Al Shei reminded her.
“Ah, you noticed that too, did you?” Resit gave her a cheeky smile.
Al Shei grimaced under her hijab. “Don’t try to cheer me up, Resit, I’m brooding.” She fiddled with the hem of her black tunic sleeve, a terrible habit she had never even tried to break. “Yerusha would have been a good catch. We’d’ve been halfway to that C rating just having her at the boards.”
Resit drummed her fingers on her burgundy-​clad knee and rolled her eyes towards the ceiling. “Jemina Yerusha is not the only available pilot in the whole of Port Oberon,” she pointed out with a touch of exasperation. “Pick one with an agent who’s a little less cagey.” She looked towards the bank’s hatchway and mumbled something Al Shei couldn’t catch.
“What was that last bit?” she asked, although she had a feeling she knew what was coming.
Resit sighed. “And you might try to find one that’s not a Freer.”
Al Shei felt her eyebrows draw together. In response, Resit stiffened her shoulders. “Before you say it, I am not being bigoted. Having a Freer on board is going to create strain on the crew, starting with Lipinski and working its way out.”
“All the way to you?” Al Shei did not feel in the mood to let her cousin off the hook.
“Yes,” said Resit flatly. “All the way to me. I do not like revolutionaries.” She paused. “I also don’t like people who have been sent into exile by their justice systems.”
Al Shei rubbed her forehead. “Push come to shove, Lipinski is a rational human being, as is my honored-​and-​educated cousin,” she drew the last phrase out for emphasis. “I trust you both to behave yourselves. I also trust you to recognize that we do not have the time or the money to be overly fussy.” It was an old battle, and there wasn’t much Al Shei could do but continue to fight it. The Pasadena was a good ship. When she had charge of it, she generally ran it at a decent profit, but acquiring that profit too often involved a miserly attitude and constant juggling between the need for skilled hands and the need for frugality. “And yes,” Al Shei sighed. “She is an exile. That’s why I thought she’d be willing to work cheap. I’ve already had Schyler check with his Freer contacts. He says there’s a lot of suspicion that the charges against her were trumped up.” She eyed Resit carefully. “Schyler says he’ll fly with her. If you have any comments regarding the competency of my Watch Commander’s judgement, I’d love to hear them.” The depressurization alarm sounded overhead. Reflexes jerked Al Shei halfway to her feet. Logically, she knew that if the leak was in the section she was currently occupying, she would have heard the whistle of the wind and felt it tugging at her clothes before the alarm even had time to cut loose, but she had half a lifetime’s training in responding to any unusual sound produced by her environment. She sank slowly back into her chair.
“Do you ever get used to that noise?” Resit wrapped her arms around herself. “I’ve been coming out here five years and it still gives me the shakes.”
“It’s supposed to.” Al Shei forced her hands back onto the desk top. “Somebody on this station is in danger of losing the means to breathe. If this does not upset you, you need a balance check very quickly.”
Port Oberon separated its ground-​side tourists carefully from its professional crews, so no information was forthcoming from the station’s intercom. The landlords assumed that all the shippers wanted to know was that they weren’t the ones in danger, and silence was enough for that. If it became important, she could get the information about what happened from the station’s artificial intelligence.
Al Shei gave herself and Resit a moment to recover from the alarm before she reached for the desk screen again. “All right, let’s try… ”
“‘Dama Al Shei?” said a woman’s voice. “I’m your fool.”
Al Shei blew out a sigh that ruffled her hijab and looked up. “I beg your pardon?” she said, not bothering to put patience into her tone. The woman’s Arabic was heavily accented. It was possible she didn’t know what she was saying, but it had already been a long morning.
Al Shei came from a family of small women, but the woman in front of the desk was not merely small, she was minuscule. She stood barely a hundred and thirty centimeters tall and probably weighed all of thirty kilograms, if you added the loose cobalt-​blue tunic, baggy trousers and soft boots into the calculation. Her skin was a clear brown, two or three shades lighter than Al Shei’s earth tones. That and the angles in her eyes and her face said a good chunk of her ancestry was European.
“I’m Evelyn Dobbs,” said the woman. “Fool’s Guild rating, Master of Craft, reporting for duty to the engineer-​manager of the mail packet ship Pasadena. I’ve a two year contract as part of your crew.”
Al Shei stared at her. For the first time she noticed that a necklace of red and gold gems encircled the other woman’s throat, representing the motley of the Intersystem Guild of Professional Fools.
Al Shei sighed again. It was turning out to be one of those days. Fools, like expert pilots, were required for a first class operation. They were entertainers, confidants, clowns who could say or do anything. They functioned as pressure valves for long trips and cramped quarters. As such, they were in high demand and short supply. That placed them even farther out of the Pasadena Corporation’s budget than Jemina Yerusha. If the currently unreachable Yerusha was half of the Pasadena’s Lennox C, the other half was standing in front of Al Shei’s desk, looking across at her with summer brown eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Al Shei switched over to English. “There’s been a mistake. I haven’t contracted a… a … Fool.” It felt strange saying the word to the woman’s face, but as far as Al Shei knew, the Fool’s Guild had never adopted another name for their members.
In answer, Dobbs unclipped a light pen from her belt, touched the download stud and pressed the point against one of the blank films piled on Al Shei’s desk. The film’s chip read the transmission and printed a text file across the slick surface. Al Shei scanned the black print as it flowed across the grey film. It was a contract, complete with confirmation and certification information, between the Intersystem Guild of Professional Fools and the Pasadena Corporation for the services of one Master of Craft for a period of two years, measured by contiguous hours of active service. It was signed, confirmed and pre-​paid by Ahmet Tey.
The sight of her uncle’s name sent a spasm of anger through Al Shei. Would the man never, ever let up? She and Asil had done quite well, thank you very much, and they hadn’t had to beg one penny from the family. Why did Uncle Ahmet keep treating her like…
Resit must have seen her shoulders tense. With a lawyer’s practiced eye, Resit had already scanned the contract and filtered the implications through her mind.
“It’ll make us Class C Lennox,” she said calmly to Al Shei in Arabic. “Pick it up, Katmer, tell Schyler to get a spot inspection done, and we’ll be able to afford Yerusha.”
She did not, of course, mention the increase in profits the C rating could mean for this run. She knew well enough that a part of Al Shei’s mind had involuntarily worked the percentages out already.
Her anger did not cool, but Al Shei made herself swallow her pride in one, large lump.
“I beg your pardon, Master Dobbs. My uncle neglected to inform me that he had acted on my behalf.” She held out her hand. “Welcome aboard the Pasadena.”
“Thank you.” Dobbs beamed as she reached for Al Shei’s hand, but then her forehead wrinkled and she looked down at the desk top. Al Shei’s gaze followed automatically. The Fool’s pen was still pressed to the film.
“I’m sorry, I… um… ” Dobbs tugged at her light pen, but it didn’t come away from the film like it should have. “There’s a… ah… ” She frowned and tugged again. No good. The point of the pen stayed firmly stuck to the film. She grabbed it with both hands and pulled harder. “Must be a… sorry… ” She grabbed her own wrist and strained backwards with all her might.
Al Shei felt herself smile. Resit snorted out loud. Heads turned all around the room to stare coolly or curiously at the strange scene. Dobbs blushed heavily, put one foot against the desk to brace herself, grabbed the pen in both hands, grit her teeth and hauled backwards.
The pen came free with such force, Dobbs flipped tail over teacup across the carpet, coming up on her backside, brandishing the pen triumphantly.
Al Shei whooped with laughter and Resit applauded briskly. Dobbs smiled, leapt to her feet and bowed deeply to her audience.
“When do we start launch prep, Boss?” Dobbs asked, clipping her pen back onto her belt.
“Nine hundred tomorrow.” Al Shei knew Dobbs could hear the smile in her voice. “Check in with Watch Commander Schyler to get your weight allotment and cabin assignment and don’t be late.”
Dobbs grinned all across her round face. “I’m not that kind of Fool, Boss. I’ll be there.”
She bowed one more time and turned on her heel, too fast. She wobbled precariously, windmilling with both arms before she found her balance again and set off jauntily through the oval doorway in the narrow end of the room.
Resit giggled audibly. Al Shei turned and gave her a dramatically sour gaze. “Go ahead, laugh,” she said, dropping back into Arabic. “You’re not the one who has to thank Uncle Ahmet.”
“No. I’m just the one who has to try to get Yerusha’s agent to stick to his terms.” She grimaced. “Freers. What you want with a jacked-​up kid… ”
“Look who’s talking.” Al Shei laughed. “Grit your teeth and think about bonus pay. That’s what I’m doing.” And money in the bank and the plans for the Mirror of Fate which’ll have a B rating before we even get it crewed, and quarters for Asil and the kids…  She shuffled Dobbs’ contract into the stack of films in front of her that held Pasadena’s current certifications, crew contracts and share commitments. “What’s left?”
“Good thing I certified as a secretary as well as a lawyer,” grumbled Resit, like she always did, but she pulled her schedule pad out of her bag and checked the display. “We’re supposed to meet with Dr. Amory Dane about the packet he wants to send to The Farther Kingdom. Medical updates, he says. It’s a big load but it shouldn’t take long to iron out.”
“Okay.” Al Shei ran her finger along the edge of the pile of film, sealing the sheets together to form a thick book. “You meet with Dr. Dane and get the contract settled. Then, get into Donnelly’s office and sign up our new pilot. The Watch Commander and I should be able to burn through the red tape on the inspection. I want us re-​registered before we start launch prep tomorrow.”
Resit lowered her eyes in mock humility. “Your pardon, oh-​my-​mistress, but if ‘Ster Inspector should desire, Allah forbid, to create difficulty about the fact that you haven’t actually signed the pilot you are no doubt going to list… ”
“I shall threaten him with the keen and ready wit of my lawyer.” Al Shei stood up. “Who is going to get her share halved if she doesn’t… ”
“I’m going, I’m going.” Resit shoveled her films and her schedule pad into one stack. “See me go… Boss.” She made her way between the desks, imitating Dobbs’ swinging stride and making the hem of her skirt swirl.
“Kolay gelsin,” Al Shei called after her. May it go easily. Al Shei chuckled and shook her head. No one who faced Resit from the other side of a negotiation, over a contract or a court proceeding would recognize the easy-​going woman who was taking her leave. Having seen both sides of her across the years, Al Shei was forever glad that the woman was her friend as well as her cousin.
Al Shei took out her pen. The heat of her hand and the pattern of her fingerprints activated it. Using it as a pointer, she touched the active surface of the desk, flicking through the menus until she called up her private account for this trip and funnelled enough cash into the desk for a transmission to Ankara. She could have used the Intersystem Bank Network to set up a fast-​time link. Uncle Ahmet would have gladly paid the exorbitant fee that the banks charged for access to their crowded channels, but that would have been one more thing she would have had to thank him for. One more favor he could trot out at the next family dinner she attended.
She had heard of tribes from the Amer-​Indians who had the custom of the “potslatch,” where a person showed how rich they were by giving gifts. Uncle Ahmet practiced this method of displaying wealth almost constantly. Al Shei couldn’t help wishing, though, that he could make his gifts easier to accept.
The desk accepted the transfer, channeled credit back into the bank’s lines and raised the transmission screen. The blank, grey screen turned robin’s egg blue to indicate that record mode was on. Al Shei saw her own eyes framed by the hijab reflected on the blue background. She automatically straightened her shoulders and smoothed her brow. “Selamunalekum, Uncle Ahmet,” she said. Peace be with you. “I am sending this to thank you for your gift of a Fool’s contract. Because of your generous present, the Pasadena will be able to upgrade its rating and will pull down at least a ten percent increase in our profits this trip out. With luck, and the help of Allah,” she added piously, “this will mean it will be only three more years before I can commission a ship that will allow Asil and our children to travel with me.” I am not repaying you by grounding myself in Ankara. “So, again I say thank you, Uncle. I shall see you in eight months.” She clicked her pen against the desk top to shut the recording off a split second before the desk beeped at her to indicate that she had used up her deposit.
Why do I act like this? she wondered as she authorized the transmission with a stroke of her pen. He’s really just trying to help.
Because his way of helping has a way of reminding me that he thinks I should have become a banker rather than an engineer with a time-​share ship who’s spending her life, and her husband’s, trying to create a new family business when there’s a perfectly good one that goes back two hundred years just waiting for her.
She sighed again and reached up under her veil to rub her neck. Oh well, he loves the kids, and he did just get me my C rating.
She glanced at the desk clock. Fifteen-​fifteen. A little over three hours until evening prayers. It might be possible to get the inspection over with before then. What was it Schyler was always saying? God willing and the creeks don’t rise? She smiled. Schyler had told her it was a saying from back before The Fast Burn and the Management Union, when Earth’s rivers could still go into unscheduled floods. Al Shei found it a nicely quirky expression for the omnipresence of unpredictability.
Al Shei activated her pen again and sorted through the menus until she found the on-​call roster of station personnel. The Lennox office had three inspectors checked in. Al Shei wrote a request for a Lennox inspector to meet her at the Pasadena berth for the purpose of a ratings upgrade. The AI that ran the station had her handwriting, with most of its eccentricities, on file, so it didn’t ask for a rewrite. The desk just absorbed her words and replaced them with a much tidier line of text that said TRANSMISSION COMPLETED.
Al Shei wrote SECURE over the top of the ship’s book. The text on the top film blanked and the pages sealed themselves together. It would take her handwriting, Watch Commander Schyler’s, or Resit’s to open them again.
She touched the CLOSE icon on the desk. The desk inventoried the remaining supplies and funneled the change from her deposit back into her account, automatically forwarding a record of the transaction to the accounting program on board Pasadena. Once the financial transactions were taken care of, the desk shut itself down to wait for the next customer.
Al Shei tucked her pen back into her tunic pocket and stood up carefully so that the spin-​gravity wouldn’t disorient her. The business module was in the outermost ring of Port Oberon, which meant it had nearly a full one gee gravity, but the speed of the station’s rotation was still detectable to her inner ear. If she moved too quickly, it would remind her that she was aboard a rapidly spinning conglomeration of tin cans, not firmly on the ground of some planet. How Dobbs made all those quick shifts of weight without really losing her balance was beyond Al Shei, but then, Al Shei was a groundhugger at heart. The problem was that in spirit and in skill, she was a starbird.
Al Shei tucked the Pasadena’s book under her arm and followed Resit’s path out the door and into the curving corridor. She joined the steady stream of men and women from across a hundred cultures as they made their way around the module to the door that would let them into either their elevator, or their appointment room.
Port Oberon took its name from the fact that it hung over the lagrange point of Oberon, Uranus’ largest moon. It was the departure point for most of the fast-​time traffic from the Solar system. Consequently, it was always full to capacity and its owners able to milk the patrons for all they were worth. Al Shei noted smugly that they were at least a little less obvious about it now that they had to glance over their shoulders at the Titania Freers. The Freers had been indicating that they’d be more than willing to set up their own commercial station, should the market open up for it.
Resit’s comments about revolutionaries and jacked-​up kids echoed in her mind. Al Shei pressed her lips together. She would readily admit there were aspects of their philosophy she didn’t like, and some others that she regarded as flatly ridiculous, but she had worked with Freer contractors in the past. Certainly some of them had the arrogance that belonged to the self-​righteous, but their engineers and pilots were the best in Settled Space.
Even by the standards of corporately owned space stations, Port Oberon was huge. It usually had two hundred modules, each the size of a fifteen story office building, operating at once. That did not count the tethered cargo pods, the tankers off-​loading helium and methane from the mining operations in low orbit above Uranus, or the ships that were docked but still pressurized and crewed. Oberon was the major fueling station, traffic control, trade depot and all around place of business for all of the Solar System between the asteroid belt and Pluto, which, in the time since Al Shei’s great-​great-​grandparents had first helped set up the Intersystem Banking Network, had become a very busy place.
The Henry V Business Center was one of the twenty-​five modules permanently maintained by Oberon Inc., collectively known to the shippers, starbirds, miners and canned gerbils who put into the port as “the Landlords.” Like most of the other twenty-​four permanent modules, it was cylindrical, with a bundle of elevator shafts running straight down the middle. Its wedge-​shaped rooms, spiral staircases and circular corridors were lined with bristly carpet that could double as velcro when the module was in free fall, and covered in the bright, but unimaginative, panel decor.
The only loose things in the module were the occupants and their possessions. Everything else was glued, bolted, sealed or simply extruded from the hull or the decks. The walls had ears, and eyes, but between the garish panels, they also had arms so they could reach inside the tiles and work on their own repairs, or grab anything that actually came loose in an emergency.
Al Shei frowned at the automated hands that were retracted back into the panelling as she skirted the wall to get passed a knot of broad-​shouldered miners. In her opinion, Port Oberon relied too much on AIs and waldos and didn’t have half enough real engineers and maintainers. She knew the technical reasons. Like Pasadena, Oberon was a profit-​making concern, and real people cost real money. Still, AIs could do worse than any human being ever did. If a human went stir-​crazy and decided to run away, it was almost nobody’s concern. But if an AI did the same thing, it could mean the life of the station, or the colony. Could and had.
Al Shei ducked through a doorway that was relatively clear of other people and into the elevator bay. There were six lifts, any of which could have gotten her to the core in under four minutes, but Al Shei preferred to use the stairs. Every eight months she lived her life in confined spaces with varying gravity. She needed every second of exercise she could get. Even if she walked, the Lennox inspector wouldn’t get there that much ahead of her.
The stairs spiraled around the bundle of elevator shafts. Since only standard-​measure cans were allowed to link up with Port Oberon, the stairs fit together even between the bulkheads that indicated she had passed from one module to the next.
The core was forty stories up, or three rings inward, depending on how you thought about such things, with gravity getting lighter the whole way. She shifted her stride and the swing of her arms to compensate without even thinking about it. Every motion became smaller and gentler. Abrupt, expansive movements in .5 gee were not a good idea. Even so, she all but flew up the last fifteen stories.
Al Shei reached the hub landing. The door’s surface registered her palm print as belonging to a crew member for a docked ship and let her in, opening just the hatchways that would take her to the Pasadena, since no one had invited her to visit anywhere else.
The Pasadena’s Watch Commander, Thomas Paine Schyler was already in the little lobby that held the airlock to the Pasadena in its far wall. Schyler was the only full-​term crewman on the ship, working under both her and her partner, Marcus Tully. Most shippers signed on for a single tour and then took themselves a break ground or port side. On low-​rated ships, some signed on for only one run, working to reach their destination, taking their share and walking off to whatever it was that was waiting for them.
To Schyler though, the Pasadena was home. Every time they docked at Oberon, he, Al Shei and Tully went through the formality of renewing his contract and reviewing his share. It was required to keep their Lennox rating, but they all knew Schyler would have worked for free if they had asked him to as long as they let him stay aboard and do his job.
Next to Schyler stood a little man with the pinched expression of the perpetually fussy. Half of Al Shei’s family wore the same expression during business hours. He had his pen out and was waving it towards the ship. Around his ankles waited a small flock of rovers: squared off centipedes with waldos that looked more like mandibles and tentacles than hands and fingers. Schyler looked at Al Shei over the top of the strange man’s thatch of dust brown hair, and rubbed the end of his roman nose.
Al Shei smiled behind her hijab.
“Watch Commander Schyler.” She touched her forehead in brief salute. “And Inspector… ” she held out her hand.
“Davies, ‘Dama Al Shei, and… ”
“And thank you for coming on such short notice, Inspector,” said Al Shei before the inspector could finish his sentence. “I’m extremely sorry to have had to put in a short-​notice call and I assure you and the Lennox station that it will not happen again.”
“Well, yes.” The little man fumbled with his pen and managed to tuck it into his pocket so he could shake her hand. “Thank you, ‘Dama Al Shei. Let’s see if we can get this business over with.” Schyler was rubbing his nose again. Al Shei grinned, extremely glad of her hijab.
“Of course, Inspector. We won’t take up any more of your time than necessary.” She retrieved the ship’s book from under her arm and wrote OPEN across the cover with her own pen. The memory chip registered her handwriting and unsealed the book. “This is my crew roster and ship specifications,” she said, handing the stack of appropriate films to Davies. “You’ll find it in order, I’m sure.”
He took the pile and sniffed. “What I find is not the real issue, ‘Dama Al Shei.” Davies nodded towards his rovers. “It’s what they find.” He flipped through the films and extracted the ship’s specifications. He slid the stack into the chief rover’s scanner slot.
“Specification recorded,” it said in the bland, neuter voice that belonged to the vast majority of automated systems. “Proceeding with verification.”
The rovers lifted themselves up off the deck and marched in single-​file into the Pasadena. They’d go over the ship, checking, measuring, scanning. Davies would do a walk-​through and spot check when they were finished, but that was mostly a formality. Al Shei felt her neck muscles tense up. Maybe she should have checked things over first. Tully, for all his scheming, was generally a truthful partner and if he said the ship was in prime working order, it would be.
“The pilot you’re hiring.” Davies looked up from the open book that he held balanced on the palm of his hand. “‘Dama Yerusha, she is from Free Home Titania?”
“That is what her bio file says.” Al Shei realized she’d been staring at the airlock and fiddling with her sleeve.
“She’s a Freer then?” Davies put all of his facial muscles into the frown.
“I didn’t know hiring a Freer disqualified a Lennox rating,” Al Shei kept her voice casual.
Davies shrugged. “Not technically, no, but it can prejudice your security marks.”
Al Shei bit her tongue. It was Davies’ job to be skeptical. If she said anything, she’d just be giving him additional ammunition.
From the recess of her pocket, Al Shei’s pen beeped. She pulled it out and saw Resit’s name on the display. She pulled out a square of film and held the pen against it. Resit’s message wrote itself across the blank surface.
Al Shei: Got the contract with Dr. Dane. Big shipment. Had to check with Communications Chief Lipinski to make sure we’d have room in the hold. Dane’s paying extra. Terms are in storage for your eyes and say-​so.
Now the bad news. Your business partner and respected brother-​in-​law Marcus Tully may have been at it again. Dane wanted to know if this was the Pasadena that pulled the plug out of the Toric Station security code. I’m checking to see if there’re warrants out. Better say a few extra du’a’s at prayer tonight.
Al Shei felt her teeth begin to grind together slowly. She glanced across at Schyler. He must have seen the thunder in her eyes because he shifted his weight slowly and jerked his blunt chin towards the inspector.
Al Shei erased the message and tucked pen and film back into her pocket. “Inspector, will you need my seal for anything?”
Davies blinked up at her. “Mmm? No, no, not until the results are in.”
“Good. Watch,” she said to Schyler, “call me when I’m needed back here.” Mindful of her balance, Al Shei turned around. She did not need to fall over right now. What she needed was to find out was if Tully had left the station yet.
Once she was back in the stairwell, she wrote her request for a trace to Tully on a green wall tile and waited impatiently while the station’s AI tracked him down. He was in the Desdemona Hotel module on the outer ring, getting himself a drink in the Othello coffee shop.
Al Shei declined to transmit a message to say she was coming. This time, she took the elevators and moving walkways three modules down and ten sideways until she reached the hotel.
Once coffee houses had been introduced, they had never left human history. When humanity took itself out to the stars they brought their problems, their religions, their arts, and their cafes. Every station that had the room kept a coffee house for its patrons.
The Othello was on the edge of a spacious, plant-​filled lobby. The stairwell had been gilded and four different fountains splashed around it. As she made path towards the cafe, ducking and weaving between the other patrons, Al Shei decided that if this module went into unscheduled free-​fall, she’d rather be elsewhere.
Tully sat at a wide, round table. He leaned back in his chair with his legs kicked straight out in front of him. In between sips from a bulb of rich, black brew that could have been coffee, sarsaparilla, or Guinness stout, he whistled cheerfully between his teeth.
Al Shei unclenched her fists and waded between tables and server carts to where he sat.
“Tully.” She sat down across from him. Startled, he drew his legs in and straightened his back. Someone in his ancestry had supplied his parents with the genes to allow shockingly blue eyes to shine out of his medium-​brown face. “Tully, what have you been doing?”
He set his bulb gently down on the table. “Nothing you need to be worried about, Katmer.”
An alarm bell sounded far in the back of Al Shei’s mind. If Tully had been engaged in his usual petty hacking and cracking, he would have said so. “One day you’re going to remember that I don’t believe you when you say that.” Al Shei leaned forward. “I’ve got a client saying the Pasadena pulled a security plug out of Toric’s Stations secured codes.”
Tully glanced quickly around the cafe. “You really want an answer in public?”
Al Shei’s fingertips scraped against the table top. “Marcus Tully, you can run your little civil disobedience racket however you see fit, but if you call attention to the ship I have to fly, I am going to have you in the tightest sling the communications collective can sew together for you!”
Tully sighed toward his bulb. “The guy got hold of a rumor.” He glanced up at Al Shei, as if to see how she was taking the comment. Al Shei didn’t even blink, and Tully looked down again. “Resit will assure him that your crew and my crew have nothing in common. You’ll get the job and all your profits, and there won’t be a problem. Just like there’s no problem for me when you skirt the regs a little too close.”
Al Shei was glad he couldn’t see the hard line of her mouth. “Tully, what do you think you’re doing?”
He shrugged again. “Keeping the corporations on their grubby little toes, oh-​my-​sister-​in-​law. Same as you.”
“I do not break anybody’s law.” Her voice was low and furious.
“I’m not asking you to protect me.” He pulled another long draft out of the bulb. “If I’m careless enough to get caught then I deserve it, and you’ve got the Pasadena and all the remaining payments on it by default.”
His face was blank as a ship’s hull, reflecting her own anger right back at her, but giving away nothing of its own. He knew he could keep pushing her. He knew she would do almost anything before she had to break her sister’s heart and tell her what, exactly, Marcus Tully had turned into. That fact had nagged badly at Al Shei for years.
“Tully,” she said softly. “You don’t get it. As long as you continue to play the lone rebel, the ship is mine, because you have already crossed the line. I can take it away any time I want. Your petty temper tantrums have already taken your freedom. I’m trying to give it back to you. Your freedom, and my sister’s.” She got up and walked away without looking back.
Something hard collided with her back, sending her stumbling against an empty table. She caught herself with both hands, gasping at the sudden pain.
“Oh, sorry,” said a man’s bland voice. “I didn’t see a person there. I thought it was just a pile of rags and shit.”
Al Shei pulled herself upright and turned around slowly to face the chestnut-​skinned, auburn-​haired, totally unshaven, can-​gerbil.
She drew herself up to her full height. “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah.” Reciting the first pillar of Islam loudly was her standard tactic. Bigots seldom knew how to reply to a declaration of faith as a response to an insult. During the Slow Burn, when the fires were cooling and the survivors were starting their own wars, thousands of Muslims turned from their religion to save their lives. Al Shei’s family had remained unmoved. Drawing on those generations of pride gave her the strength she needed to stand up to the bigotry that still dogged Islam.
The gerbil sneered, and for a minute she thought he was going to spit, but he just turned and shouldered his way out through the crowd.
Burn-​brain, thought Al Shei after him. Some people had never let up. A Muslim named Faraq Hakiem started the Fast Burn. Never mind that he was Khurdish and she was an Arab from Dubai and that three hundred years had passed since the last ashes had cooled; she wore the veil, and that was enough for those who thought there was still something to be settled. Al Shei suddenly felt very much in need of a shower.
A flash of pink drifted past the corner of her eye and Al Shei looked involuntarily towards it. A blob of yellow floated down and was nabbed out of the air by a quick brown hand and replaced with a scrap of emerald green. The green was nabbed and replaced by the pink. The scene cleared up and Al Shei realized she was looking at Dobbs juggling silky scarves; snatching them out of the air as they fell and replacing them into the cascade so they could fall again. The Fool had a ridiculously intense expression on her face; grab, drop, drop, grab. She saw Al Shei staring and blushed a deep umber.
“Sorry, Boss,” she said with a twisted grin. “Dropped my napkin, and I can’t… ” drop, grab, drop. “ps. Darn it… ”
Al Shei felt a chuckle well up out of her throat and she let it go. Dobbs grinned back, snatched all her scarves out of the air and gave her little flourishing bow from her seat.
“Your contract says you don’t come on duty until tomorrow.” Al Shei watched, bemused, as Dobbs stuffed the colored scarves into her fist.
“At times discretion should be thrown aside and with the foolish, we should play fools.” Dobbs opened her fist, and, as Al Shei expected, the scarves were completely gone.
It was ridiculous and showy and simplistic, but Al Shei found herself smiling anyway. The filthy feeling lifted itself off her skin.
“See you tomorrow, Boss.” Dobbs looked down at her meal total printed out on the table top. Her eyes bulged in their sockets. She let her head fall back until she was staring at the ceiling, opened her mouth and broke into song. “Let’s vary piracy…  with a little burglary!”
Al Shei froze. The tune Dobbs sang was the same one Tully had been whistling. “What is that?”
Dobbs smile was a little puzzled. “Don’t share your partner’s taste in music, Boss? That’s from the Pirates of Penzance, a comic show from before the Fast Burn… ”
Al Shei stared across the cafe at Tully, who in turn was staring at his drink. She briefly considered going back there and demanding once again to be told what was going on.
Which will get me exactly nowhere. Aware that her newest employee was staring at her, but not caring, Al Shei strode back across the lobby. Her stomach had tightened itself into a knot when she heard Dobbs sing out the words to Tully’s tune, and every second it stayed tight she became more convinced that she was right. This time Marcus Tully was doing more than worming corporate secrets out of secured networks and shunting them to public arenas. It would be just like him to find a way to brag about it in public.
Back in the Henry V business module, Al Shei passed right by the bank outlet and went straight into the communications room. Unlike the bank with its open desks, this room was a honeycomb of enclosed booths for private conversations. Al Shei found an empty booth and stepped inside. There was barely enough room for her to stand beside the chair as she jacked her pen into the socket beside the doorway. The booth’s system acknowledged her as a registered station customer with a positive balance on her accounts and shut the door.
She could have just sent a packet, but she wanted to say her suspicions out loud and hear a response to them from the person she trusted above all others. She also could have done this from the Pasadena and saved herself the cost of the booth rental, but Davis was probably still not done with his inspection. The last thing she wanted was the Lennox inspector overhearing what she had to say now.
Al Shei lowered herself into the stiff chair and faced the view screen that filled the wall in front of her. She slid the desktop into her lap and checked the credit in her communications account. She stared at it a moment, running through sample conversations in her head before deciding there was enough. With a series of careful commands, she opened a fast-​time channel to Earth, Dubai City, Bala House, for Asil Tamruc.
Fast-​time communications were not effected by gravitational stress as drastically as fast-​time flight. A fast-​time message could travel most of the way to the Moon before it had to be translated into speed-​of-​light signals. The problem with fast-​time communication was the cost. The signals had to be boosted, refocused, and redirected every few light years, which required a vast network of both un-​manned repeater satellites, and manned space stations. There was a single FTL network between Earth and Settled Space; the Intersystem Banking Network. It had been established by a financial conglomerate that was quick to realize that such a network would mean a stable medium of exchange between Earth and the new worlds. They did let independent users send messages across their crowded lines, but they charged the worth of a first-​born child for it. Because of that astronomical price, ships like the Pasadena had a ready business transporting data from place to place.
Since Al Shei’s family owned one of the largest financial institutions on Earth, Al Shei could have easily had her fast-​time communications fees “overlooked,” or paid by Uncle Ahmet, but her ethics forbade the first, and her pride forbade the second.
The desktop displayed the message CONNECTING, and ticked off both seconds and available credit. After two minutes and an appreciable chunk of the account, the view screen came alive and Al Shei’s husband, Asil Tamruc, smiled at her from the tidy nest that was his office.
It had been ten years since she met Asil, eight since they’d married, and his smile still made her heart pound.
“Hello, Beloved,” he said easily. Even across the vast distance that separated them, she could see the cheerful light in his dark eyes. He knew, of course, that only a serious matter would make her lay out the amounts required for a fast-​time call. Despite that, his whole body was relaxed, and his long, expressive face was set in an attitude of gentle humor.
How did such a man become an accountant? thought Al Shei, as she had almost every day since she met him.
“Hello, Beloved.” Al Shei allowed herself a brief smile at the sight of her husband. “There’s trouble, I’m afraid.”
When the signal reached him, Asil straightened up just a little, not alarmed, but alert. “What kind?”
“Marcus Tully.” She told him about the note from Resit, her uninformative conversation with Tully, and the additional spin Dobbs had added to it. She sat back and waited for her words to reach him.
Asil’s sigh puffed out his cheeks. “Well, I’d say there’s no doubt he’s been up to something. But I don’t understand why you think it’s more than the usual. It’s a suggestive song, certainly, but he always has had a taste for cultural arcana.”
“I know, I know.” Al Shei shrugged her shoulders. “It’s more a feeling than anything else, Asil. I just think it might be a good idea if you traced where Tully’s money came from this last run. We may need to cover ourselves.”
“Then I will.” He pulled out his pen and made a note on the desktop in front of him. He glanced up at her, and there was quiet mischief in his eyes. “You could have sent me a text message with all of this, Katmer. I’d have had it in two hours.”
She pulled herself up and put a tone of injured dignity into her voice. “Perhaps I wished to speak to my husband. Surely this is my right.”
His smile warmed and Al Shei felt her heart begin to melt. “Surely it is.”
“Tell the children I love them,” she whispered. “And know full well that I love you.”
“I will.” He reached out and pressed his fingertips against the view screen. “And I do.”
Al Shei copied his gesture, pressing her fingertips against his and imagining it was the warmth of his hand she felt, not the cool glass of the screen.
“Salam, Beloved,” he said softly.
“Salam.” Al Shei cut the connection. The view screen faded to black.
She sat where she was for a moment, staring at the blank screen. At last, she dropped her pen into her pocket and stood up.
Whatever happened has already happened, she told herself as she left the booth. It’s time to face what’s still to come.
Dobbs watched her new employer walk away from the cafe and with a small smile of her own. The Fool pulled her scarves out of her sleeve, folded them up neatly and stowed them in her pocket. The Guild’s profile, as usual, was proving entirely accurate. Al Shei was a determined woman with a strong sense of herself and her goals, but not without a sense of humor. Of course, people without humor or empathy seldom hired Fools, except when certain certifications or ratings required them. Dobbs had found herself a little worried that Al Shei hadn’t known she’d been contracted.
Well, every assignment has its own challenges.
She took out her pen and wrote out a credit draft on the table top, adding her thumbprint as authorization. The table checked her writing and print and added the words ACCOUNT SETTLED before it absorbed the text. Dobbs considered the blank surface for a moment and drew a simplistic smiling face before she tucked her pen away.
Marcus Tully was still sitting at his table, swirling the dregs of his drink around the bulb and watching the way the waves rose and fell in the station’s spin gravity. The report on him had been cursory, since he wasn’t an active part of the crew she’d be working with. He’d been an independent shipper for ten years, dry-​docked for at least a third of that time for lack of work before he’d married Ruqaiyya Al Shei. After his partner had been arrested for attempted financial mis-​dealings, Tully had invited Ruqaiyya’s sister, Katmer Al Shei, to become his new partner in the Pasadena Corp. to share the expenses and risks of operating an independent mail packet ship.
He’d apparently benefited from both the marriage and the partnership. He managed to stay constantly employed, even though the rating for him and the crews he assembled was one to two ranks lower than those Al Shei put together. But judging from the pitch and timbre of Al Shei’s voice when she talked to him, there was something serious going on and that it was affecting Dobbs’ new employer. Add that to her abrupt reaction when she’d found out what he had been whistling, and it would take a greener Fool than Dobbs to miss the fact that something was seriously wrong.
Need to plug in and find out what’s what. Dobbs got up and left the cafe.
The lobby was crowded, but she threaded an easy path between the trickles of patrons. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the bigoted station worker who had slammed into Al Shei. People like him were commonly called “gerbils” because they spent their time running around inside wheel-​shaped space stations. They could become be acerbic, opinionated and develop pretty crude senses of humor.
Dobbs darted around into his field of vision.
“It’s you!” she shouted. “I knew it was you!” She slapped her hand against her forehead. “Holy sun and stars, I cannot believe they let you in here, you wart-​brained, six-​toed, fractured excuse for a corpse’s ass!”
The gerbil looked around confused, as members of the passing crowd slowed down to stare.
“Who could’ve thought they’d let you just walk around in here!” Dobbs spread her hands out and appealed to the crows. “I can’t believe it! Can you believe it?” she demanded of a woman in a bright red sari. “Him! The ugly, twisted, burn-​brain! They let him just… ”
“Damp it down, Sister!” shouted the gerbil. “Who are you?”
Dobbs gave him a look of utter incredulity. “You mean you don’t know me?”
“No!” The gerbil stabbed a finger at her. “And I’ll lay any money you don’t know me!”
“Oh!” Dobbs covered her mouth with her hand and let her eyes go wide. “You have to know somebody in order to insult them! I’m sorry.” She gave him an apologetic grin. “See, you got me confused when you assaulted a total stranger back there.”
His eyes blazed and his big, calloused hand rose.
“Master Evelyn Dobbs.” She drew herself up to her full height. “Intersystem Guild of Fools.”
They stood there like that for a moment, then the gerbil, anger burning in his eyes, lowered his hand.
Fools could not be touched, by anybody. If he committed assault, the Guild would register his name and no crew that he worked on would be able to hire a professional Fool. There were a lot more gerbils than there were Fools. If the Guild black-​balled him, he would never be able to work a first-​class ship or station again.
He could, of course, report her and she’d have to take the backlash. The Guild had very strict guidelines about the proper use of casual clowning.
But he just gave her a look that could have blistered paint as he turned and shouldered his way through the gathering crowd.
Whistling, Dobbs left the hotel in the exact opposite direction.
Despite the fact that Guild scale pay was generous by shipper standards, a full room in the luxury hotel was more than Dobbs wanted to pay out for just the few days that she’d be on-​station. Instead, she had berthed herself in what the advertising referred to as a “traditional, economical, Tokyo-​style cabin.” That meant it was a private bunk with all the boards and terminals within arm’s reach on the walls. It included a stowage area for her baggage and access to the showers.
Her rented bed was two modules over and three levels up. All the modules in this section were dedicated to public business, which meant they were all crowded. Dobbs theorized that shippers spent so much time in space with the same people that they looked for excuses to get out and meet with someone new. As a result, there was a great deal of face-​to-​face business done here, even though Port Oberon had excellent video and holo-​projection facilities.
Only some of the space was cut off into the normal wedge-​shaped rooms for private, or semi-​private negotiations. The rest was opened up, much like tapes Dobbs had seen of ancient flea markets. Sound-​dampening panels took the place of canvas awnings. Patrons could order food in bulk or as individual meals. They could acquire tailored uniforms or personal clothes, or any service that could be transported between two points. Some shops took up three and four levels and had their own staircases zig-​zagging up the sides of their private walls. An open medical lobby fronted the passage to the hospital. A couple of people in bright white med-​tech coveralls marshalled a drone-​gurney through the sterile-​sealed doors. She got an impression of severely bruised skin and clotted blood and winced. If they were still bringing the victims in, that alarm she’d heard earlier had produced a lot of injuries. She knew that Port Oberon had a full-​scale bio-​garden, but she wondered how far it was going to be able to provide for the people who would now need new eyes and eardrums, and maybe even lungs.
Dobbs shoved the grisly thoughts away and stepped nimbly between the crowds and knots and flowing waves of people. Her small size facilitated freedom of movement as she flitted from one clear spot to another. For her, it was like a game of tag with empty floor space as “it,” and if anyone was laughing at her as she darted past them, then she was just putting in a little overtime.
Dobbs spotted an empty square foot of carpeting and jumped into it, planting both feet firmly on the floor. She looked up to see a tall, thin, pale man step abruptly away from the wall. She slid sideways just in time to avoid the collision, pressing her back against a wall of order terminals for C-​Stacks Inc.
“And if they say one word, one, about the budget, that’s it, I’m done!” the pale man shouted at the terminals. He glowered down at Dobbs and she saw bright blue eyes, and instantly got the feeling that he wasn’t looking at her.
“You’d think,” he thundered, “that they’d ask! That there’d be a meeting! But no it’s just Lipinski we’ve got a packet and you have to fit it in the hold!”
Dobbs dropped to the deck, rolled into a fetal position, and shook.
Above her, there was a long moment of silence.
“Are you okay?” he asked finally.
“Are you done yelling?”
“I think so.”
“Then I think I’m okay.” Dobbs somersaulted backwards and came up on her knees.
“You’re a Fool,” he said quietly.
“And you’re Rurik Lipinski, Communications Chief for the Pasadena.” She tightened her muscles and leapt to her feet. A small twinge told her she shouldn’t be trying that move in full gravity anymore today. “I didn’t expect to meet you until tomorrow.”
Since the Pasadena was a mail packet ship, Dobbs knew the comm-​chief, or “Houston,” was the second most important officer on the ship. The first would be the Chief Engineer, the person who kept the ship running; Al Shei herself.
Lipinski gave Dobbs a smile that showed a row of even, white teeth. He was an anomaly, in more ways than one, Dobbs realized. First of all, he was really tall. Professional shippers tended to be a compact breed. Even then, most people looked tall from her five-​foot elevation, but Lipinski stood head and shoulders above the rest of the passers-​by. Secondly, he was nearly colorless. His hair was straw-​blond and his skin was the milk-​white color that turned lobster red in bright sunlight. Dobbs found herself wondering if he was a refugee from one of the Aryan Purist colonies.
“You’re with us?” There wasn’t a trace of his previous anger in his voice. “That’s great! We must be getting an upgrade this run.”
“That’s what I’ve heard.” Dobbs spread her hands. “But who knows what a Fool might have heard? So, tell me.” She made her eyes large, round and innocent and blinked rapidly. “Do you always shout at walls and passers-​by?”
Lipinski blushed an extraordinary pink color. “Actually, I do. Lousy habit, but there it is. Get me tense and I’ll yell at anything that doesn’t get out of the way fast enough.” He arched a knowing eyebrow at her. “I’m death to apprentice comm-​officers. They can’t run.” His grin spread into a leer.
Dobbs cowered behind her hands. “Oh, spare me,” she pleaded, all the while deciding she liked this man. “Please, spare me.”
“Okay.” He shrugged and turned his attention back to the order terminal. “I’ve got to finish getting this order in anyway. Al Shei will not thank me if I keep us here contemplating our navels while there’s deadlines to be met.”
“Is there something wrong with the data hold?” Dobbs stood on tip-​toe and peered over his shoulder.
“Yes.” He pulled out his pen and bent over the terminal board. “But there wouldn’t be if our fearless leader Katmer Al Shei wouldn’t keep letting Marcus Tully try to commit felonies with her ship.” He started scrawling orders across the memory board. The station AI must have had his handwriting on file. The screen kept printing out ACCEPTED even though Dobbs couldn’t make heads or tails out of the scribbles on the board.
“I thought they had a time share,” she remarked, lowering herself back onto flat feet.
“They do, sort of…  I shouldn’t be talking like this.” He scanned the acceptance notifications on the screen and punched the TRANSMIT key. “All I know for sure is that Dr. Amory Dane has a complicated load he wants us to carry to The Farther Kingdom. Lots of interconnected, self-​referencing programs and a cart-​load of background data. Tully’s guys burned out three main wafer stacks and reconfigured another four with whatever it was they were doing out there.” He shook his head. “This is why I’m yelling at walls.”
“And Fools,” said Dobbs with a grin. “Don’t forget the Fools.”
“I don’t think you’d let me.” His smile took on a contemplative air and Dobbs found herself thinking it might be time to make an exit. But Lipinski just sighed and turned back to the terminal. “And, since no one’s ever gotten a direct brain-​to-​computer interface to work, I can’t just crawl into the lines and see what’s going on in the hold for myself. So, I’ve got to rent all kinds of extra tracers and an AI coordinator, and Al Shei is going to be furious when she sees what I’m doing to her credit balances.”
“Only if the data doesn’t get where it’s going,” said Dobbs.
Lipinski gave her another thoughtful look. “You’re not half the Fool you ought to be.”
“Shhh!” She waved him to silence. “You want me to get fired?” She glanced around frantically.
As she did, Dobbs saw a woman push herself away from the wall and turn deliberately towards them. It would have been difficult to miss her. Her golden-​brown skin was mottled with masses of purple and black bruises. Her tan sleeve had been rolled up to expose a blood blister that spread across her forearm like a spoiled rose. Her other arm was encased in the beige plastic form of a stasis tube. A sterile patch covered her right eye. Her good hand clutched the handle of a wafer case so tightly her knuckles had gone white and she walked with the care of someone who didn’t really want to make the pain any worse.
“Sorry to pry, Fellows.” Her language was English but her accent had a nasal drawl to it which could have come from Australia, Cornwall, or the southern reaches of Northern America. Her greeting, though, marked her as a Freer. “I heard you say you were under contract to Katmer Al Shei?”
Lipinski’s adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed his shock at her appearance. “Yes, we are.”
The woman’s right shoulder rolled forward as she tried to move her arm. She winced and scowled at the stasis tube. “I’m Jemina Yerusha. I’ve just contracted to be the Pasadena’s new pilot for this run.”
Lipinski choked. “A Freer? They hired a Freer?”
Yerusha shifted her grip on the wafer case and dropped her gaze so she focused on Dobbs. “I need to report to the Watch Commander.”
“Who will immediately tell you to report to the bio-​garden for a new layer of skin.” Dobbs looked her over with an air of exaggerated criticism. “You might want to save yourself a step.”
Yerusha smiled sourly. “Already been there. They’re growing me a new arm and a fresh eye. They’ll be ready in another twenty-​four hours or so.” She tried to chuckle, but she winced again. “I was helping lock down the module after the blow-​out. Didn’t move quite fast enough when the extra seam burst.”
Dobbs nodded thoughtfully. It was part of the Freers’ system of living. If there was a disaster on the station or ship where you were, you helped.
“Anyway, my agent is an idiot and I don’t want him babbling to Watch and the owners about what went over. That groundhog could ruin my chance at a job when the contract’s less than two hours old.” She gave Dobbs a twisted grin. “I’m ugly, but I’m mobile and I can at least check in and see my station.” She propped herself up against the wall.
Lipinski looked her up and down. All trace of humor had vanished from his face, and been replaced by suspicion. “The meds didn’t mind you walking out like that?”
She snorted, an action she seemed able to manage without hurting herself. “I’ll go back when I’m sure I’ve still got a job.”
“Because the full effect of your heroism couldn’t possibly be conveyed over the video lines.” Dobbs hoped the quip would elicit an explanation. Yerusha could have easily checked in with the Watch Commander over the monitors and explained herself.
Yerusha squinted down at her. “Watch yourself, Fool. My headache shot hasn’t kicked in yet.”
Dobbs arched her eyebrows and opened her mouth, but Lipinski cut her off. “And what’re you planning on bringing aboard with you?” He pointed at the wafer case.
Ah. Here it comes, thought Dobbs warily. The white plastic case was thirty centimeters on a side, which made it big enough to accommodate a fifty-​wafer integrated stack. It had a blue border, which was the Freer color code for top-​grade hardware. Lipinski would have spotted all of this. He probably would have jumped to the same conclusion she did about the contents.
Yerusha’s mouth hardened into a straight line. “What business is it of yours?”
Dobbs was surprised. Freers were brash, proud and contentious, but they were seldom secretive.
“Because I’m Communication’s Chief aboard Pasadena,” replied Lipinski firmly. “And I have a right to know what’s coming aboard my ship.”
“And I have a right to bring aboard anything that’s legal, non-​infectious, isolated, and under my weight limit.” With difficulty, she hefted the case to show the Landlord’s double-​ring seal emblazoned on the side, certifying that the contents of the case was everything she had just stated.
Lipinski’s jaw tightened. Dobbs tensed, in case she needed to intervene. “Yes,” he admitted. “You do. But if anything comes out of that case, I have a right to inspect it and confiscate it.”
“You do.” Yerusha did not let her gaze waver.
“As long as you understand that.” Lipinski pocketed his pen and turned away. “I’ve both got to check in at the docking bay,” he said to Dobbs. “You want to walk along?”
Yerusha evidently decided to ignore how the question was directed. “You two go ahead.” She gingerly pushed herself away from the wall. “I’ll follow.”
Lipinski gave her a hard look, but shrugged and took the lead. Dobbs fell into easy step beside Yerusha, watching the way the woman concentrated on making her body keep moving.
“Did we lose anybody?” she asked.
“Eh?” Yerusha cocked an eye towards Dobbs and the Fool saw it was a bright hazel despite being sunken in from the bruise. “Some, yeah. Could have been a lot more, though.” The sheen in her eyes told Dobbs she was seeing something other than the crowded corridor. “That’s why it’s going to take the bio-​garden so long to do my arm. There’s a couple of gerbils that need new lungs. The can’s a total loss.” She shook her head with a resignation Dobbs was used to seeing in engineers, architects and others who worked and lived with machinery.
“Do they know what happened?” Dobbs cocked her own eye in an imitation of Yerusha’s expression.
“No,” said Yerusha, too sharply. It could have been her pain, or Dobbs’s bad imitation, but Dobbs didn’t think so. “No idea.”
“The Landlords have got to be crawling up the walls,” Dobbs suggested.
“Do them good.” Yerusha stared straight ahead. “They don’t get enough exercise.”
“I thought gerbils were noted for running around their wheels,” Dobbs remarked as they followed Lipinski through the door to the elevator bays.
“That bunch isn’t gerbils.” Yerusha leaned her bare arm against the wall. “They’re spooks and ciphers.” She closed her eyes and sighed. “And groundhuggers, the lot of them.”
Coming from a Freer, that was a much more dire insult than it generally was. Dobbs glanced up at Lipinski who was keeping his eyes straight ahead and studiously ignoring Yerusha.
She tapped the wafer case softly. “What’s his name?”
Yerusha’s eyes snapped open, and Dobbs gave her her most non-​threatening smile. She’d been right. The wafer stack inside the carrying case held Yerusha’s artificial intelligence.
Freers believed that planetary ecology kept human beings trapped. They believed that true freedom came when humanity built its own environments specifically tailored to their needs. Freers lived in stations and ships and were not permitted to even set foot on the ground.
They also believed that the cycle of life and death was a leftover from the time humans had lived exclusively on planets, and that when a human died, their soul was released into the void, where it travelled along, useless and voiceless, like a photon packet without any eye to see it. Their belief system posited, however, that if a sufficiently complex artificial environment could be created, the soul could be trapped in it, just as it could be trapped in the body of an infant born about the time of its death original. This unique explanation of reincarnation was the Freers explanation for artificial intelligences that occasionally achieved violently paranoid independent life. Their massive neural nets, the Freers said, had caught a human soul.
Some Freers “adopted” artificial intelligences and spent their time trying to create an environment that could catch a soul, and thus finally end the loss of knowledge and kinship that evolution had forced on humanity.
Some people regarded this as incredible blasphemy. Some, especially people who’s worlds had known the disastrous after-​effects of an AI becoming a rogue entity, saw it as a dangerous idiocy.
Dobbs studied Lipinski’s stiff shoulders. It’s trouble in the making. Well, what’s a contract without that added spice of a personality clash? she asked herself ruefully as the elevator doors opened and they crowded themselves inside along with twelve other shippers.
The elevator rose and gravity dropped, creating confusion inside Dobbs as her sense of balance worked out how to respond. All around her, the passengers eased their weight from foot to foot, or swallowed hard, or twisted their necks, or made any of the hundred other mostly useless physical compensations to the changes. Everyone but Yerusha. She just leaned against the wall, held onto her AI case, and continued to breathe.
It took no great skill at observation to notice that something was seriously wrong with her and that the meds should not have let her go. On the other hand, Freers were a notably contentious and militant group. Titania Station had become Free Home Titania by withstanding a siege that cost the landlords more than five hundred lives and hundreds of thousands in equipment and negotiations. Yerusha might just have been proving she was as tough as her parents who stood the siege.
Then again, she might not.
Dobbs eased her own weight from foot to foot and wished she hadn’t thought of that.
The doors opened onto the hanger bays. Yerusha’s eyes opened at the same time. Lipinski and Yerusha stepped out in the middle of a small gaggle of passengers who dispersed in different directions, moving with the care required by partial gravity. Dobbs followed them all out, keeping her eyes open for whatever was going to happen next.
It happened just as the airlock to the Pasadena opened. Dobbs looked ahead and saw a squared-​off, roman-​nosed man with skin the color of baked earth come out of the Pasadena airlock, obviously called out by their arrival in the bay. He wore the pocket-​filled coveralls that was as close to a shipper’s uniform as anything. Then, she heard footsteps brush the carpet behind her. Dobbs turned to see a man and a woman in Oberon security green lope out of the corridor.
Yerusha hissed and jumped forward. The male green snatched at the air behind her. In the next breath, Dobbs lifted herself on her tip-​toes and leaned forward. The green’s torso collided with her shoulder. In the light gravity, it just knocked Dobbs forward half a yard, keeping her right in his path before she began to slip towards the ground. The greens ducked frantically around her as she rolled onto the deck plates.
In two long, bounding strides, Yerusha was through the airlock and across the threshold into the Pasadena. Her feet slid out from under her and her body lazily settled down until her back measured its own length against the floor with the wafer case clutched against her chest. Green Man shoved the roman-​nosed man out of the way and lunged towards her. Lipinski caught Roman Nose’s arm before he lost his balance. Green Woman grabbed Green Man’s arm and pulled them both up just short of crossing the Pasadena threshold. Yerusha rolled over and held up her hand to the approaching greens. A glaze of pain crossed over her eyes, but there was a puckered smile on her face.
Roman Nose pulled himself upright and looked down at Yerusha as if he was memorizing her face. Then he turned and took in the greens with the same care.
“Pilot Jemina Yerusha,” Yerusha called past the greens to Roman Nose as he steadied himself. “Checking in.”
“Watch Commander Schyler,” he replied, his gaze darting between Yerusha and the security greens. “Wondering why the hell you’re doing it like this.”
Yerusha grimaced and shifted her one-​handed grip on the wafer case so that its corner was no longer digging into her chest. “I was trying to avoid a hassle.” She nodded towards the greens.
Schyler stuffed his hands into the pockets on either hip. Dobbs saw the cloth bulge and strongly suspected he had just thumbed a button on his pen. She picked herself up and made a great show of dusting herself off.
The Green Man did not wait for Schyler to ask what was going on. He walked up to the threshold formed by the seal between Port Oberon and the Pasadena. Dobbs did not miss the grim look that formed on Schyler’s face. She settled herself back against the wall next to Lipinski, who was staring at the bizarre scene with his jaw hanging open. Dobbs reached up and closed it for him.
“Jemina Yerusha.” The Green Man let his shadow fall across the pilot.
“Yes.” Yerusha propped herself up into a sitting position.
“Registered with the Titania Freers?” He pulled a fold of film out of his pocket.
“Yes.” She tugged at her overall to straighten out at least some of the wrinkles.
He shook the film open. “You’re wanted for questioning in regards to the explosive decompression in the Richard III business… ”
“No, I’m not,” Yerusha replied calmly.
Schyler faced the Green Woman. “‘Dama, maybe you’d do me the courtesy of telling me what’s going on?”
The Green Woman blinked and gathered her professional lines. “The decompression event in the Richard III business module had features which match a pattern of… ”
“What they’re trying to say is that they think a Freer blew out an airlock,” chimed in Yerusha. “They’re trying to get us all tidied into the security can where we won’t upset anybody.” She glowered at the greens. “We were helping. Do you think I’m happy about the fact that I lost an arm and an eye for a bunch of ground-​hugging… ”
“There are questions,” said the Green Woman firmly and loudly. “That need to be answered by the personnel on the scene.”
“The AIs recorded the whole thing… ” Yerusha swept out her good hand.
“The AIs cannot be used as uncorroborated testimony.” Green Man clenched the film in his fist.
“Oh right, I forgot,” sneered Yerusha. “We are capable of building intelligence but not of trusting it, or what it has the potential to become.” Her hand curled even more closely around the edge of the wafer case. “What an enlightened, progressive outlook you have, ‘Ster.”
Green Man strangled a sigh. “Let me help you up, ‘Dama Yerusha and we can get this over with.” He shoved the film back in his pocket and held out his hand.
Yerusha’s mouth twisted into another grin. “Unless you’ve got a specific warrant to enter the Pasadena you cannot take me out of here.” She turned her attention to Schyler. “I think that’s the reg, isn’t it?”
“Oh yeah, that’s the reg,” agreed Schyler, and Dobbs couldn’t decide whether his tone was bemused, or just confused. “Unless I decide to throw you out of there,” he added.
At the moment, Dobbs guessed, he was trying to decide who was annoying him worse, Yerusha or the greens.
“Are you refusing to cooperate with security?” Green Woman asked Yerusha pointedly.
“Am I being arrested?”
“No, but you are being stupid.” Green Man took a step forward. “Do you think anybody’s going to stop me if I just haul you out of there?”
“I do.”
Everyone in the hanger spun around. Resit stalked out of the corridor, burgundy skirt billowing around her ankles in lazy waves. She stopped right between the security greens and the entrance to Pasadena, then turned on her heel to face the greens. “I’m Zubedye Resit, ship’s lawyer for the Pasadena,” she said smoothly. “‘Dama Yerusha is under contract to Katmer Al Shei of the Pasadena Corporation, which makes her my client.” She paused to let the entire speech sink in. She folded her arms and tapped her fingers impatiently on her forearm. “Why are you pursuing my client?”
“Not bad, considering she just got here,” whispered Lipinski to Dobbs.
“Slow lawyers get eaten young,” Dobbs replied seriously.
Green Woman looked like she was forcibly swallowing something unpleasant. “Shouldn’t you be praying or something?”
Resit smiled. “It’s only time for the Salatul Jumu’ah, the Friday sermon. That’s optional for women.” She flipped open the flap on her bag and pulled out a film and her pen. “I believed I asked a legal question.” She squinted at Green Woman’s badge and wrote down the number. “Do you really want me to request that the recording of this conversation be transferred to your superior immediately?”
Green Man gave his partner a dirty look. “‘Dama Resit, we just want ‘Dama Yerusha to come to the security module to answer some questions about the … decompression event.”
“They couldn’t talk to me in my hospital bunk either,” said Yerusha to Resit. “They were hauling Freers out of there left and right.”
“Must have been interesting to see,” remarked Dobbs.
“Oh, that it was.”
Resit shot them both a “shut up” glance. “You have the authorizations on hand, I hope?” She tucked her own film away and held out her hand to the greens.
Green Man handed over a pair of films. Resit scanned them. “This does not give you the authority to pursue, detain or forcibly enter.” She handed them back. “I think we all have a complaint to register now.” She gestured towards the hatch to the station corridor.
“You’re not… ” exclaimed Green Woman.
Resit’s grin showed her teeth. “Oh, but I am. Shall we?”
Green Woman’s face flushed darkly. Green Man pointed up at the station camera and she swallowed again. Side by side, they headed towards the station airlock.
“Talk to her, will you?” said Resit to Schyler before she followed the greens out.
Schyler touched his forehead in salute. Then, he turned towards Yerusha and extended his hand. “I really wouldn’t try that again.”
Tucking the wafer case awkwardly under her arm, Yerusha accepted his hand and let him pull her easily to her feet. “Thanks.” She wiped at the sheen of perspiration that had appeared on her forehead. Dobbs knew she’d been right. Yerusha was not in any shape to be up and about. “I’m not about to let security shove me around, Watch. I’m under orders to you, not them.”
“I don’t care what you try to pull with security. I mean with Resit.” He jerked his thumb towards the airlock.
“Oh, marvelous,” Yerusha twisted her neck sharply and Dobbs heard a joint crack. “Another one who doesn’t like Freers?”
Schyler smirked. “Another one who doesn’t like unnecessary wirework. Filing a complaint on your behalf is not going to make her evening, I’d be willing to swear to it.” He stopped and took a good look at the blister on Yerusha’s arm. “Do you want to sit down someplace comfortable?”
She shook her head. “I’m fine.”
Schyler looked her up and down. “You’re lying,” he said bluntly. “All right. Since you acknowledge my command, you are ordered to get back to the hospital and have them do something about this.” He waved towards her bruised face and arm.
Schyler pursed his lips. “Lipinski, will you walk her down? I want there to be somebody who can holler for Resit if any other greens decide to pick her up.”
“Sure, no problem,” said Lipinski to the wall. “I’ve only got the whole data hold to reconfigure.”
“And you need to pick up the parts you ordered,” Schyler finished for him. “Good. That works out fine.”
The look that passed between the two men was one that Dobbs decided she would have to learn to read.
Lipinski left with Yerusha and Schyler turned slowly, thoughtfully to Dobbs.
“And you are?” he inquired.
“Evelyn Dobbs.” She touched her forehead in salute. “Master Fool for the Pasadena.”
“Oh, you’re our Lennox C.” Schyler shook her hand. “Impressive entrance.”
She beamed. “Takes years of special training.”
“I suppose,” he said, favoring her with the same calculating look he’d used on Yerusha, “that I don’t need to tell you that Resit really does not like Freers.”
“I got that feeling.” Dobbs nodded. “But thank you.”
Schyler leaned against the Pasadena threshold and rubbed his clean-​shaven chin thoughtfully. “I hate to say this, Master Dobbs, but I think we’re really going to need you on this trip.”
Dobbs bowed. “‘Let a fool be serviceable according to his folly,’” she quoted. “I am also, by the way, checking in.”
“I thought you might be.” He crossed the Pasadena’s threshold and waved for her to follow him. “Might as well formalize at least one of you.”
“Thanks.” Dobbs climbed aboard the ship that would be her home for the next eight months.
She had studied the plans when she had received the contract. The Pasadena followed the standard layout for packet ships. It was two bulbs held together by a long drop shaft. The larger bulb held the bridge, the berths, the kitchen, the shielded data hold and much of the life support. The smaller bulb held the engines and the reactors. The fuel and air tanks were strung on the drop shaft like rings on a pole.
Like the station modules, the shaft meant every deck was a hoop. Schyler led her around the curving corridor. This deck, which was probably the data-​hold, was stark, with only labels and green memory panels to break up the white, ceramic walls.
Schyler took her into a briefing room. An oval table surrounded by enough chairs for Pasadena’s entire sixteen member crew took up most of the space. The wide wall at the far end was one solid memory board. Schyler settled into the nearest chair and used his pen to activate the table space in front of him. He wrote his authorization across the main screen and added CREW CHECK IN after it. The table absorbed the text and lit up two palm readers next to the active space.
“I’ll need your pen,” said Schyler.
Dobbs handed it over and he slipped it into the socket in the side of the table. Dobbs, familiar with the standard, Lennox-​approved check-​in procedure, pressed both hands against the palm readers that lit up in front of her. The table copied the contract from her pen. Then, it confirmed that the fingerprints that activated the pen were the same as those pressed against the reader and printed ACCEPT in front of Schyler. It did not speak, though, which surprised her.
Schyler saw her eyebrows arch. “Owner prejudice,” he said. “Neither Al Shei or Tully particularly likes the machinery to talk back.”
“Must frustrate the AI.” Dobbs lifted her hands off the reader and stuffed them in her pants pockets. “They don’t like being mute.”
Schyler shook his head. “There’s only two AIs on board this ship, and neither one of them lives in the hull. There’s Resit’s boxed law firm, and the Sundars’ medical advisory.”
Dobbs raised her eyebrows as far as they’d go and waggled them. “Al Shei doesn’t like machines that think either?”
“No, she just doesn’t like it when they try to think too much.” Schyler extracted her pen. “Partly it has to do with being such a mechanical engineer. Partly it has to do with flying with Lipinski for ten years.”
“That’s right.” Dobbs re-​pocketed her pen. “He was at Kerensk, wasn’t he?”
Schyler nodded and Dobbs sighed. Most settlements and stations depended on artificial intelligence to run the power and production facilities that made life away from Earth possible. Twenty-​five years ago on the Kerensk colony, one over-​programmed AI bolted from its central processor and got into the colony network.
Panicked officials shut the computer networks down to try to cage it. Never mind the factories, the utilities, the farms. Just find that thing before it gets into the water distribution system and the climate control. Before it starts to make demands. Before it starts acting too human.
Electricity and communications went down and stayed that way. Before three days were out, people froze in the harsh cold. They began to starve. They drank tainted water. They died of illnesses the few working doctors couldn’t diagnose on sight.
When the colony did try to power up again, they found their software systems shredded to ribbons. It could have easily been human carelessness, but the blame was laid on the AI.
“Fifteen thousand, three hundred and eighteen dead,” said Dobbs to the table top. Not one of the worst AI break-​outs, just one of the more recent.
Schyler’s brow wrinkled. “You too?”
Dobbs hooked one finger around her Guild necklace. “I was born there.” She’d been totally incapable of reason when the disaster happened, but she still carried it with her. The ideas of the screams, the desperation, the hundreds of useless, pointless deaths. All of it caused by one rogue AI, by a creature that found itself suddenly alive and didn’t know what to do about it. She could understand Lipinski’s fears, and why he would be infuriated by Yerusha, who actually wanted to try to reproduce such a phenomena, even under controlled circumstances. He knew about violence that could ignite between frightened, ignorant, wildly different beings. He possibly knew that, even better than she did, and from the look she’d seen on his face, he was less than willing to forgive the stranger for wanting to stay alive.
Schyler clucked in wordless sympathy and changed the subject. “You’re all set.” He got to his feet. “Your clearances will be listed on your cabin boards when you get settled in. You can bring in thirty-​five pounds of personal effects. Sorry about that, we’re trying to run a little light this trip. Do you want to see where you’ll be?”
“Thanks.” She let her necklace go and put a smile back on her face. “I’d actually — ”
The left-​hand wall beeped, cutting off her sentence. “Tully to Pasadena,” said a man’s tired voice.
“Schyler, here.” Schyler tilted his head up.
“Can you let me in?” Dobbs tracked his voice to the intercom patch below the left-​hand memory board. “There’s some stuff I still need to get out.”
Schyler leaned both hands against the table. “I’m not on my own in here, Tully.”
“Thirty seconds, that’s all I need. Just left some stuff in my cabin.”
Schyler pressed down harder. With the light gravity, Dobbs thought he might actually lift himself off his feet. “You’re checked out, Tully. I can bring what’s left… ”
“Come on, Tom. Thirty seconds.”
Schyler leaned back and let his hands drop down to his sides. “I’ll be right out. ‘Bye.”
He turned to Dobbs with a worried look. “I’m going to have to give you the tour later… ”
Dobbs waved her hand dismissively. “I’m a Master Fool, I’ll find my way around.” She spun on her toes and marched straight into the wall. “Ow.” She clutched her nose and staggered backwards. “Eventually,” she said, rubbing the offended appendage.
Schyler gave her a grin that might have become real if she’d had a few more minutes to work on him.
Dobbs let Schyler escort her out the door. She stepped out of the bay and didn’t give Marcus Tully, who was fidgeting by the elevator doors a second glance as she got into the lift and picked her floor.
As the lift began to sink, Dobbs remembered that when she had left the cafe, she had intended to try to find out what was really going on with the co-​owners of this ship.
That, she fingered her necklace, may take longer than I thought.

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