NAMMERIN: NAMPORT; SPACE FORCE MEDICAL STATION GALCEN: THE RETREAT
WHEN THE courier ship from Galcen Prime arrived on Nammerin, a light but steady rain covered the entire Namport landing field like a fine mist. Lieutenant Ari Rosselin-Metadi ducked out through the hatch of the courier, cast a resigned glance upward at the low grey sky, and climbed down the steep ramp to the ground.
The metal creaked under his boots as he descended. Along with his father's dark hair and his late mother's elegantly chiseled features, Ari had inherited the size and strength of some unknown ancestor on the Metadi, or spaceport-mongrel, side of the family. As a result, he was considerably taller and heavier than the average Space Force trooper the ramp was designed to support.
With both feet planted on the tarmac, he reached up a hand to steady the courier's other passenger as she emerged. It wasn't a long stretch; his head brushed the side of the courier vessel in spite of the landing legs thatraised the ship a good seven feet off the ground. His traveling companion--a short, brown-skinned woman with long black hair twisted into a knot at the nape of her neck--took the offered hand and paused for a moment in the open hatch.
"Rain," she said. "Why am I not surprised?"
"Because it always rains in Namport," said Ari. "The Space Force 'Welcome to Nammerin' booklet says that this part of the planet has a wet season and a dry season, but that's a lie. The only two seasons I've ever noticed are rainy and rainier."
The young woman laughed and jumped down to the tarmac, ignoring the ramp completely. Ari didn't feel her weight as she came down, even though her small, trim body carried more muscle than the appreciative eye might suspect. She'd taken his hand as a courtesy only, and he knew it.
Like Ari, the woman wore the uniform of a member of the Space Force Medical Service, but where he wore a lieutenant's bars, she wore no marks of rank at all. Mistress Llannat Hyfid was an Adept, and while the rules of her Guild allowed her to serve in the Republic's Space Force, they barred her from holding formal rank.
As far as anyone could ever tell, Llannat Hyfid accepted her in-between status with cheerful equanimity. Most of the time, Ari himself almost forgot that she was anything more than a fellow-medic and a good friend. Almost, but never quite.
He let go her hand as soon as she straightened from the slight crouch in which she had landed. "Time to collect our baggage before it gets mixed in with the mail sacks," he said. "Then we can see about an aircar rental."
They rescued their carrybags just as the Nammerin Mail hoversled pulled away from the side of the courier. The aircar rental, though, turned out to be unnecessary. When they got to the spaceport's vehicle lot, they found BorsKeotkyra from the medical station waiting for them beside the Med Station scoutcar. The stocky, fair-haired young officer was flanked by two of the hospital's senior enlisted personnel, wearing Ground Patrol brassards.
"I'm impressed," said Llannat as she and Ari tossed their carrybags into the scoutcar's cargo compartment. "Are you people that eager to see us back?"
"The CO wants to talk to both of you," was Keotkyra's oblique answer. "Nobody's sure whether he wants to kiss you or write you up for Punitive Articles 66 through 134, inclusive."
"How are the bets going?" asked Ari.
"Even money either way." Keotkyra peered into the cargo compartment. "Is that all you brought with you?"
"We left without stopping to pack," Ari said. "I've got ten credits that says we'll be in official disgrace before dinnertime."
"I'm not going to take your money," said Llannat as they climbed aboard and strapped in. "Gambling depends on luck--and I quit believing in things like that after I joined the Guild."
The Medical Station, when they got there, looked almost deserted. At the same time, Ari felt as if he and Llannat were the focus of a multitude of curious eyes. By the time Keotkyra and the Ground Patrol escort had finished marching them across the compound to the CO's office, he'd prepared himself to face the worst.
As far as anybody at the station knew, Ari and Llannat had last been heard of as a pair of kidnap victims, seized during an emergency medical call to the far side of the Divider Range and spirited off-planet by a heavily armed ship with an unprecedented turn of speed. Nobody here knew the truth: the pilot of the ship had been Ari's sister Beka--who had already died, officially and messily, in a spaceship crash on Artat.
Beka hadn't bothered to ask her older brother if he'dlike to join her in tracking down the men who had planned and hired out their mother's murder. She'd snatched him away from the Space Force without asking anybody's permission, least of all his own; and now that she was done with him she'd left him on his own to straighten out the mess.
Ari paused outside the door of the office and looked over at Llannat. The Adept had a nervous, intent expression on her face, as if she were listening for something too faint for others to hear.
"Well?" he asked. Llannat had "heard" things before, apparently pulling knowledge straight out of the air; she'd saved his life that way at least once.
But this time she gave a helpless shrug. "Your guess is as good as mine."
Behind them, Bors Keotkyra cleared his throat.
Ari glanced over his shoulder at their escort. "All right," he said. "We can take a hint."
Ari palmed the doorplate and the panels slid apart. The office looked just as it had the last time he'd stepped across the threshold, several months before. Printout flim-sies covered the desk like fallen leaves, the CO's pet sand snake drowsed atop the office safe, and the CO himself wore his habitual expression of gentle regret.
He also wore his dress uniform--something that happened at the Nammerin Medical Station about as often as a month without earthquakes. Ari snapped to attention. That settles it. They're going to throw the book at us.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Llannat standing at attention beside him. Her left hand brushed the short silver-and-ebony staff clipped to her belt, and Ari felt a moment's flash of envy. She doesn't have to worry; even if she gets reduced in grade all the way down to a spacer recruit, she's still Mistress Hyfid, and the Guild takes care of its own.
That wasn't fair, of course. Llannat hadn't chosen to getcaught up in his sister Beka's half-mad quest for vengeance. The Adept had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, that was all; and if Master Ransome could spare her any of the consequences, Ari promised himself he wouldn't begrudge her the good luck.
Caught up in his thoughts, he barely noticed when the CO rose and said, "Follow me." It took a cough from Bors to get the whole procession moving again. They left the office by the side door, and marched back across the compound to the Main Supply Dome.
If protocol hadn't required that Ari keep his face expressionless, he would have frowned in puzzlement. Busting a couple of junior officers for Unauthorized Absence doesn't need a building big enough to park a spaceship.
Then the doors of the supply dome opened.
The crates and boxes normally held in Main Supply had been shoved aside. Where they had been, in the center of the dome, all Ari could see was dress uniforms lined up in formation.
I don't believe it, he thought. They've turned out everybody but Intensive Care and the gate guards.
The CO stepped up to a lectern facing the assembled ranks and nodded to the chief master-at-arms.
"Lieutenant Rosselin-Metadi and Mistress Hyfid," the master-at-arms called out, "front and center!"
This is it, Ari thought, as he and Llannat took their places in front of the lectern and came to attention. They're going to make a public example of us "for the good of the service. " Maybe I should have asked Father to take care of things after all.
But he'd never in his career asked for favors because he was General Jos Metadi's oldest son, and his father had never insulted him by making such an offer. Jos Metadi had begun his climb to rank and respectability as a privateer--some of his enemies said as an out-and-out pirate--and his ethics remained, to say the least, flexible; but onthat subject father and son were in agreement. Ari squared his shoulders and prepared to take what was coming to him.
If they throw us out, he thought, I can always see if the Quincunx needs a couple of representatives back on Maraghai.
Ari's honorary membership in the civilized galaxy's largest criminal guild--an unintended byproduct of the Med Station's need to obtain a supply of tholovine faster than normal Supply channels could operate--was a secret he devoutly hoped his superiors in the Space Force didn't share. When a simple business deal involving the exchange of cash for a perfectly legal but hard-to-obtain drug had degenerated into arson and armed pursuit, Ari had expended considerable creative thought on keeping the Brotherhood's role out of the official reports. He'd never expected that the Quincunx would be grateful, or that their gratitude might come in handy later.
The CO glanced down at a sheet of heavy paper resting on the lectern, then looked back at Ari and Llannat.
"Lieutenant Rosselin-Metadi, Mistress Hyfid, it is my extremely pleasant duty to inform you that you have both been awarded the Space Force Achievement Medal."
Ari heard Llannat's breath catch and become irregular as she fought the urge to laugh. The Achievement Medal was the smallest award the Space Force had the power to bestow, ranking even below the Good Conduct Badge. It meant only that the recipient had completed four satisfactory years of active duty. It also implied, to the initiated, that the officer giving the award was mildly surprised that this should be so.
For his own part, Ari felt a perverse indignation. If they're not going to break us, he wondered, why are they going out of their way to insult us?
The CO looked down at the lectern again for a moment, and then went on. "The citation for this award," he said,"cannot be read aloud at this time, because it is classified. It is, in fact, classified at such a high level that I myself am not cleared to read it. The name of the classification level is also classified."
He paused, and looked out over the assembly before going on. "I am allowed, however, to say that the award was signed by none other than the Head of the Grand Council."
I should have known Father would do something whether I asked him to or not, thought Ari, as the CO stepped in front of the lectern to shake first his hand and then Llannat's. He must have called in some debts from a long way back to get this--there's no way he could have told anyone the truth.
A bellowed command from the master-at-arms signaled the end of the official part of the festivities. The dress-uniformed ranks broke up, revealing a loaded buffet table behind them. The half-melted ice sculpture in the center of the table could have been either a spaceship or a shooting star, but the trays and plates spread out around it were unmistakably food.
"Broiled groundgrubs," Ari heard Llannat murmuring in the dreamy tones of one who has been too long on space rations. "Tusker-ox riblets. Pickled gubbstucker."
"Go ahead," said the CO. "Help yourselves. After all, you're the guests of honor."
Several minutes later, Ari had a heaping plate of Nam-merinish delicacies in one hand and a glass of the locally distilled purple aqua vitae in the other. He made his way through groups of well-wishers to the stacks of boxes at the edge of the cleared area. Llannat was already there, working on a dish of the broiled groundgrubs. A bottle of Tree Frog beer rested on a packing crate near her hand, and most of the station's junior officers clustered around her.
Bors Keotkyra lifted his bottle in a toast as Ari approached."Here's to the returning heroes," he said. "Whatever you did, it must have been exciting."
Ari exchanged glances with Llannat. He was no Adept like his brother Owen, who could see another's ideas almost before they took shape, but it didn't take any particular gift to know that the thoughts behind the young woman's dark eyes were echoes of his own--memories of blood and death and treachery, of his sister Beka reborn as the one-eyed starpilot Tarnekep Portree, of black smoke rising from the Citadel on Darvell.
He blinked hard to clear the images away, and took a long swallow of the aqua vitae.
"Yes," he said to Bors, as the astringent fumes of the liquor chased the last of the pictures back where they belonged. "It was more exciting than it strictly needed to be."
The Adepts' Retreat on Galcen stood on an outcrop of grey rock in the mountains of the planet's northern hemisphere. Over the centuries the massive, high-walled structure had been fortress and storehouse and hermitage by turns, and even among the Adepts, not many knew its true age. Other planets had their Guildhouses, where Adepts could live and study and go about their tasks--but the Retreat on Galcen was the heart of it all.
To study at the Retreat was a privilege granted to very few, to teach there, an honor granted to even fewer. For Owen Rosselin-Metadi, who had done both, the Retreat was home. The longer he had been away, the more its high grey walls seemed to beckon to him on his return, promising shelter and the company of friends and a chance to let go of the everlasting watchfulness that his work demanded.
This time, as always, he left his rented aircar in the valley below and went the rest of the way on foot. He could have stayed in town and called for someone to come gethim--the Retreat had excellent aircar and comm link connections, and the hike up from Treslin was an all-day proposition--but he preferred not to advertise his comings and goings.
The apprentice Adept who stopped him at the gate was new since Owen had left for Pleyver, and painfully young-looking. The boy can't be a day over sixteen, Owen thought, forgetting for the moment that he had come to the Retreat himself when he was even younger. Master Ransome is really robbing the cradle these days.
The apprentice couldn't have been long on gate duty, either. He stumbled over the traditional greeting. "Welcome, friend. What is your name, and have you--have you--"
"'--have you come to seek instruction?'" Owen finished for him. "My name's Owen, and I'm an apprentice in the Guild already. Could you tell Master Ransome that I've come back?"
The youth stared at him for a moment. Owen wasn't particularly surprised by the reaction. It wasn't often that an apprentice showed up at the Retreat looking like an out-of-work day laborer and asking for the Master of the Guild by name.
"Uh--right," said the boy after a pause. "You wait here and--I mean, let me call somebody to take you to him."
Owen waited patiently while the apprentice spoke over a comm link to an unfamiliar voice farther inside the Retreat. In time another, somewhat older apprentice showed up. Owen didn't remember her, either.
He let her lead the way through the stone-walled passages to the room that served Master Ransome as an office. Like everything else about the Retreat, the room was immeasurably old--so old that its tall, narrow windows had no panes, not even glass ones. In the wintertime, a force field kept out the driving wind and snow, and a ceramic heat bar glowed on the granite hearth. But this wassummer; the hearth was bare, and a cool breeze blew through the chamber unimpeded.
A slight, dark-haired man dressed in tunic and trousers of dull black stood at one of the windows, looking out. The apprentice cleared her throat.
"Master Ransome. An apprentice calling himself Owen is here to--"
She got no further than the name before the man turned. At the sight of Owen, Ransome's face broke into a smile of delight that made him look twenty years younger. He strode forward and clasped Owen tightly by the shoulders.
"It's good to see you home," he said.
Owen returned the hug. "Believe me, sir, it's good to be here."
The apprentice spoke up again, somewhat diffidently. "Will you need anything else?"
"Not at the moment," Ransome told her. . As soon as she had left, the Master of the Guild drew Owen over to a pair of chairs beside the empty hearth. The momentary happiness that had passed across Ransome's features was already fading, leaving his face as somber and weary as before.
Owen saw the change come and go, and felt a chill, like the feather of some dark bird drawn across the back of his neck. Errec Ransome was a good ten years younger than Owen's father, but there was something about him these days that made him look all of General Metadi's years and more.
"I'd almost given you up for dead this time," Ransome said as soon as they both were seated. "And Jos was starting to ask some awkward questions."
All trace of welcome was gone now. If Owen hadn't seen the Guild Master's momentary change of expression and felt the strength of his embrace, he would have stiffened himself to endure a spectacular tongue-lashing, as befittedan apprentice who'd fallen below his expected standard.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I almost got caught."
He looked away for a moment at the bare stone of the hearth--some of the memories from Pleyver were still vivid enough to be painful--then turned his head back to meet Ransome's dark, inquiring gaze. "I did get caught, in fact. My own stupid fault, and if Beka hadn't been in town I'd never have gotten away. I couldn't make it off-planet, though; I had to hide out dirtside until everybody forgot about me. It took a while."
Ransome smiled, a quirk of the mouth that scarcely touched his eyes. "That's an understatement," he said. "We have apprentices at the Retreat who've never seen your face--two seasons' worth of them at least."
"I know; I met a couple of them just now. A bit young, aren't they?"
"No more than the usual," Ransome told him. "You, of course, are about to grow a long grey beard."
Owen gave a short laugh. "After the last few months, I feel like it."
He paused, hating to destroy the Guild Master's good humor, however faint--but it had to be done. He drew a breath and went on. "They were Magelords, you know, on Pleyver."
Master Ransome's features grew very still, and his dark eyes seemed to focus on something long ago and far away. "So," he said. "It begins again."
"I'm afraid so," Owen said. "We're not dealing with half-trained agents smuggled through the Net to do a bit of spying, or with a few talented locals who've put together a Mage-Circle out of what they've seen in the holovids. At least one of them on Pleyver was a Great Magelord in the old style--as strong by himself as any Adept I've ever known, even without the power of the others to back him."
"The First of their Circle, he would have been," saidRansome. "If they're working as they did in the old days." His voice sounded as though he had tasted something bitter. "How did you slip past?"
Owen shook his head. "I didn't. I spent the past two seasons on Pleyver working as a cargo handler down at the spacedocks. Eventually the First gave up looking for me, and the rest of them weren't strong enough to give me any trouble."
"The First gave up looking for you," Ransome said. "Do you have any idea what happened to make him stop?"
"No," Owen said. "But the whole time he was looking for me I could feel it, even in my sleep. Once or twice he backed off a bit, trying to fool me into making a run for the port, but he was too strong to be very good at hiding. Then one day he just wasn't around anymore."
Owen sighed. "I don't know. Maybe. But Pleyver wasn't a total loss, anyway. I still have this."
He pulled the datachip out of the breast pocket of his coverall and handed it to Master Ransome.
"I thought about smuggling it out to you," he said, "but I couldn't think of any way safer than carrying it myself."
Ransome's hand closed over the coin-sized slice of plastic. Another time, Owen thought, he would have looked pleased; but now he barely seemed to notice that he held it. "Is the information still good?"
"Most of it, I think." Owen leaned back in his chair and gave a tired sigh. The datachip had weighed on him more than he'd known. This was the first time in months that he didn't have it somewhere on his person, and its absence left him feeling almost light-headed. "There's a lot of trade and economic data--it looks like we've got stuff crossing the border zone into the Mageworlds that would give the Grand Council fits if they knew about it--plus a bunch of encrypted files I didn't have time to break."
He paused. "There were some other files that had to do with what happened to Mother. I gave those to Beka."
"Was that wise?" Ransome asked. "Your sister is headstrong, to say the least. The rumors I've been hearing say a good deal more than that."
"She's also Domina of Entibor now that Mother is dead--whether she wants the title or not. If anybody has a right to those files, it's Bee."
Owen studied Ransome's dubious expression for a minute and then added, "If she hadn't drawn off the armed pursuit, you probably wouldn't have your data right now. And the fact that all those files were taken while she was on-planet may have sown some useful doubts about exactly who was looking for what in FIL's data banks."
Ransome nodded slowly and tucked the datachip into an inside pocket of his black tunic. "A persuasive argument," he said. "And I am grateful, both to her and to you. But I need you to go out again as soon as possible ... we have another situation that needs attention."
Owen's heart sank. He could feel his longed-for time of quiet safety receding before him like a wave drawing back from the beach. But he was Master Ransome's apprentice, and had promised long ago that he would serve.
"How soon?" he asked.
"I was hoping to stay here through the fall and winter at least," Owen protested. "Teaching a bit, maybe, and meditating. After all those months hiding out on Pleyver, I'm so jumpy I twitch whenever the wind changes."
"We don't have that kind of time left, I'm afraid," said Ransome. His voice was firm, in spite of the regret and weariness in his dark eyes. "The wind has changed already, and the storm is coming sooner than anyone thinks."
Ari had been back at the Med Station for over a week before he remembered to drop by the station post officeand pick up his accumulated mail. Being himself a dutiful, rather than an enthusiastic, correspondent, he didn't expect to find anything of particular interest waiting there for him.
The crew member on duty had been at the awards ceremony with everyone else. He handed Ari a mixed bundle of printout flimsies and sealed envelopes with nothing more than a half-apologetic "You've been gone awhile, so the junk messages had a chance to pile up."
Ari glanced at the top item in the stack--a four-color 3-D flyer announcing a special bargain rate on the purchase of ten or more cases of Tree Frog beer.
"They certainly have," he said, tossing the flyer into the trash-disposal unit. He hadn't felt the same about Tree Frog beer since the affair with the Quincunx, when somebody had tried to poison him by slipping mescalomide into a bottle of Export Dark. The gaudy little advertisement made an unpleasant reminder of a night that had begun with fire and attempted murder, and had ended with Llannat Hyfid fighting a black-masked Mage assassin for Ari's life.
That particular enemy was long dead, but Llannat herself had said once that the Mages preferred to work in groups ... . Ari growled an oath deep in his throat, and distracted himself by sorting through the rest of his mail at the counter instead of taking it to his quarters.
He recycled five more advertising flyers and the catalog of a firm dealing in exotic herbs; scanned the printout flimsies notifying him of private messages in the electronic files (three from his father and one from Beka's old school chum Jilly Oldigaard, all six months out of date); and set aside for later reading an equally outdated but probably still amusing letter from his friend Nyls Jessan, formerly of the Nammerin Medical Station and last officially heard from at the Space Force Clinic and Recruitment Center on Pleyver.
That left the newest item in the stack, a plain envelope with a local postmark and no return address--just his own name and Space Force directing codes, written in a light, even hand.
Ari worked at the sealed envelope with his thumbnail. Namport's moist equatorial climate had already weakened the adhesive; after only a little urging the flap peeled back and he was able to extract the square of cheap paper inside.
The letter had no salutation and no signature, and only three neatly lettered sentences:
If you think you see me, you're mistaken. It's somebody else; I'm not here. Stick with Mistress Hyfid and stay out of trouble.
Even if the handwriting hadn't been familiar, Ari thought, the elliptical style would have been a dead giveaway. Out of the entire population of the civilized galaxy, only his brother Owen habitually addressed him with that kind of half-condescending obscurity.
Frowning, Ari tore the envelope and the note into confetti-sized pieces, then dropped the scraps into the trash disposal unit. "Stick with Mistress Hyfid and stay out of trouble," he quoted glumly to himself. Good advice ... but I don't think it's going to help me very much.
Copyright © 1993 by Debra Doyle & James D. Macdonald