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Kylara Vatta looked at the mass of paperwork from Belinta's Economic Development Bureau and sighed. The real life of a tradeship captain: paperwork and more paperwork, negotiation with shippers, customers, Customs officials. The life she hadn't wanted, when she chose to enter the Slotter Key Spaceforce Academy, and the life she had fallen back into when she was expelled. Boring. Mundane.
Not that her recent experiences in Sabine had been boring or mundaneterrifying was more like itand no one would want another trip like that.
Except that she did. She remembered very clearly the rush of excitement, the soaring glee of the fight itself, the guilty delight when she'd killed Paison and Kristoffson. So either she wasn't sane or...or nothing. She thought of the diamonds tucked into her underwear drawer. Not enough to restore her old tub of a ship completely, but enough to take her to somewhere else, somewhere she could make the kind of life she really wanted. Perhaps the mercenaries would accept her violent tendencies; they'd offered a chance. Perhaps someone else. It would annoy her family, but not as much as the truth would hurt them.
No. She had to finish one job at least. Crew depended on her. The ship belonged to her family, as well, and she could not possibly earn enough to buy it away by the next stop or the next. She sighed again, signed another sheet, and stared at the next. All right, then. Take this old tub to Leonora, deliver that cargo, then to Lastway. If she couldn't finance a refit by then, return to the original plan and go home by commercial passenger ship. If she made enough profit, enough to do the refit, she could get that done and bring the ship back to Slotter Key, and then resign. Orshe stared into a distance far beyond her cabin bulkhead. She could send the ship back with someone else. Quincy, for instance, knew enough to run the ship herself.
In the long run, her family would be better off without her. If her father knew how she'd felt when she killed...no. She had had those nightmares, trying to explain to that gentle man, hoping for his understanding but seeing the horror in his face. Better the smothering, overprotective love that had annoyed her in their last conversation than that horror, that disgust, that rejection. If she went home, he would sense something; he would try to probe, try to get her to confide in him, and eventually he would wear her down. It would be worse than anything else that had happened, to have her father sorry she was ever born.
She should just go away. Years later, maybe, she might be able to explain it to him, and he might be able to accept it. Years might put a safe skin on the raw truth of what she was.
She worked her way through the rest of the forms, then decided to take them to the local postal drop herself. Belinta Station had few amenities, but a walk would be refreshing in itself.
"QuincyI'm going to drop the paperwork off," she said into the ship's intercom.
"Find anything to load, or do you want us to start transferring what we left in storage?"
"I haven't found anything yet," Ky said. "I may have to go downside for that. Go on and load...see if you can get some of the station dockworkers to help with that. Usual rates and all."
She glanced at herself in the mirror and decided she was presentable enough. She needed a new uniformthe one she had left after Sabine no longer had the crisp, perfect tailoring her mother had paid forbut only if she was staying with Vatta. If she joined a mercenary company, she would wear its uniform; if she stayed independent, she'd have to find one of her own design. But to drop off forms to be transmitted to a bureaucracy, gray tunic and slacks should be sufficient. She clipped on the Belinta Station access pass.
Outside the ship, Belinta Station hardly bustled with activity. Only three ships were in dock, and the other two were insystem haulers servicing Belinta's meager satellite mining operations. On their own dockside, Quincy was talking to a burly man in the ubiquitous green tunic of Belinta dockworkers. Beeah, beside her, held a compad ready to record employee data if Quincy's negotiations were successful. Ky walked briskly past two men chatting on a bench, a woman standing by a lift entrance, barely restraining a bouncing toddler, the faded ads for Belinta's few and unenticing tourist resorts, and turned left into the wide main corridor. Here were the currency exchanges, banks, communications serviceslocal and ansibleBelinta Port Authority, the hiring hall, and, finally, the postal service. Midshift, few others were in sight. Someone with a briefcase just going into Belinta Savings & Loan, two women chatting as they emerged from Allsystems Exchange.
Beyond were rows of blanked openings to spaces that would someday, if Belinta proved prosperous, house more services, more stores, more people. No traffic at all moved down there.
Ky turned into the postal service's entrance and walked up to the counter where a display read NOW SERVING NUMBER SIX EIGHTY-TWO. The only clerk in sight did not look up, but said, "Take a number." Typical Belintan courtesy, Ky thought, and looked around for the number generator. By the entrance. She pulled the tab; the counter display changed to NOW SERVING SIX EIGHTY-THREE and the clerk said, "Number six eighty-three!" in an annoyed tone, as if she'd kept him waiting.
"This is all for the Economic Development Bureau," Ky said.
"To whose attention?" asked the clerk.
"It doesn't matter. Just the EDB."
"It has to be directed to an individual," the clerk said. "You can't send mail to the whole bureau."
"It says on the form," Ky said, pointing to the block under RETURN TO. "No name, just the bureau."
"It has to have a name," the clerk said. "It's the rules. All mail to government agencies must be directed to an individual."
Ky was tempted to make up a name. Instead, she said, "Do you have a directory?"
"Customers are not allowed to use our confidential directories or communications devices," the clerk intoned. "This is a security issue. Customers are advised to identify the correct recipient prior to arriving in the postal service office. Next, please."
Ky glanced behind her. No one stood in line. "It wouldn't take a moment to look it up."
"Next, please." The clerk still wasn't looking at her. Ky wanted to reach across the counter and wring his skinny neck, but that was the impulse of a moment. This was part of being a tradeship captain; this was the kind of senseless, ridiculous, annoying nonsense she could expect.
"Fine," she said instead. "I'll deliver it myself." After all, she had to go downside anyway, to find out if there was any cargo worth carrying from this wretched planet.
"Glad to be of service have a nice day," the clerk said all in one breath.
Ky went back the way she'd come, past the corridor that led to the docking area, past Goodtime Eats and Jerry's Real Food and Quick-snack, where the two women she'd seen earlier were head to head over a small table, to the ticket office for the shuttle service. She could not remember just when the daily service left
"Two and a half hours," the clerk said. "Be at the boarding area a half hour before departure."
That gave time to go back to her ship and change. She turned to go but a screech from the PA system stopped her. "What's that?"
"I don't know," the clerk said.
"Stay wherever you are," a bone-shaking voice said. "All personnel stay wherever you are. Emergency crews one and two, to dockside on the double. All personnel..."
"My ship!" Ky said. "I have to get back"
But the ticket office entrance was closed, the metal grate locking with a final chung even as she moved toward it.
"You heard 'em," the clerk said. "We're all supposed to stay put."
"Well, I can't," Ky said. "Open that thing."
"Can't," the clerk said. "It's automatic, like section seals. Station Security controls it. Unless you've got the override code like one of the emergency crews..."
The PA announcement had stopped. Fifteen minutes later, the grate slid back into its slot, squeaking a little. "Return to normal activity," the PA said. "All personnel return to normal activity." Still no announcement of what had prompted the lockdown. Ky hurried back to the docking area. She saw nothing unusual except a Station Security officer standing near Gary Tobai's open hold bay talking to Quincy.
"What was that about?" she asked, coming up to them.
"Nothing to concern you, madam," said the officer. "Please stand away."
"It's the captain," Quincy said, just as Ky said, "It's my ship; it concerns me."
"Oh." The man looked confused. "You're not in uniform."
"It needs cleaning," Ky said. "Here's my tag." She held it out, and he scanned it. "What happened?"
"We believe an attempt was made to rob your ship," the man said. "Individuals known to us as of dubious character were hired to move cargo, and this individual"he nodded at Quincy"noticed something untoward with one of the containers and challenged the individual transporting it, suspecting that a substitution had been made. Two individuals ran away; this individual called the alarm."
Theft by casual dockside labor was a constant threat, Ky knew. "Did you catch them?"
"They have not been apprehended yet," the officer said. "They made it to the unoccupied spaces. We are confiscating this container, which they tried to put aboard, and we are searching for the legitimate container your crewmember reports missing."
"I'm sure you'll take care of things," Ky said.
"We will find you here?" the man asked.
"No," Ky said. "I must go downside to deliver reports to your government. My shuttle leaves" She checked the time. "Sorry, I must hurry. Quincy will serve as my agent for the duration of my visit down. All right, Quincy?"
The old woman nodded. "I can do that. Will you be buying cargo?"
"Quite possibly. I expect to be downside a few days. I'll keep in touch." Ky hurried into the ship. She put on her remaining uniform with the formal captain's cape and made two quick calls to arrange lodging at the Captains' Guild and an escort to meet her at the downside shuttle terminal. She hesitated, then put several of the diamonds in her pocket. She didn't expect anything to cut off her access to Vatta resources, but just in case, it couldn't hurt to have hard currency.
She made her shuttle connection with a few minutes to spare, and rode downside with a mixed lot of Belinta station workers going home for the weekend break. She cataloged them automaticallyclerical, clerical, equipment operator, service workerand wondered why she bothered. It was the same mix she could find anywhere across the galaxy, no duller here than elsewhere. She spotted her escort at the passenger exit and they exchanged the passwords and ID checks, another familiar routine. The ride into the city passed fields striped with a more vivid green than Belintans ever wore. She recognized the machine working its way across one of the fields as one she'd delivered from Sabine, and felt a surge of satisfaction. If she could learn to appreciate the good done by the cargoes she transported, if she could see things from that angle, maybe.
Gerard Avondetta Vatta watched as his pilot loaded his small case in the light plane. They would be back in the city by nightfall; he and Stavros would have a working dinner, and tomorrow he would tackle the delicate political tangle still left by his daughter's abrupt departure from the Academy. Now that she was out of danger, now that he had seen her face, had spoken to her, his attention had returned to the reasons behind the obvious reasons.
Why had a Miznarii complained about religious discrimination in the Academy? Miznarii were a difficult sect, to be sure, but they'd served in the Slotter Key Spaceforce for the past thirty years or so without any problems he knew of. And why had Ky been chosen as the vehicle? Her habit of helping lame dogs made her gullible, of course, and yet it did not quite satisfy him. She was a naturally generous person, yes, but he had noticed a streak of hardness in her that boded well for her survival in the cutthroat world of interstellar shipping. When she came back, it might be time to tell her a few things not in the basic Vatta database her implant contained.
The Miznarii...were they part of the resurgence of anti-humod feeling some of the Vatta captains had reported? They were certainly foundational purists who refused even the most common enhancements and modifications, such as cranial implants, but he hadn't heard they bothered with offplanet politics. Besides, Ky had little exposure to humods; she could hardly be a target for anti-humod bias.
Then there was InterStellar Communications. Vatta had supported ISC all along, and he fully appreciated what ISC had done for Ky at Sabine, but he wondered if its judgment matched its power. He'd tried to say something about that to Lew Parminer, the last time Lew visited, but Lew had shrugged off his concerns. "We pay our researchers enough to keep them quiet," he'd said. "No muzzling the ox that treads the grain, you know."
Still...there were other sources of wealth in the galaxy. Some who would be willing to pay almost any price for the secrets of ISC's labs. Some already funding research, he was sure, trying to duplicate the secrets of ISC's technology, or trying to advance it. The attack on the ansible platforms at Sabine had been crude, but to Gerard's mind clearly a test. How strong was ISC, and how fast could it respond?
The pirates, too...the information from Sabine was disturbing. An alliance of pirates? Of their agents in legitimate firms? And how did that work? Vatta had thousands of employees on dozens of ships, more dozens of support offices. Was one of them a traitor, feeding information to pirates? So far, the pirates had concentrated on smaller shippers, driving several out of business. According to the Captains' Guild figuresif they were accuratethe largest shippers hadn't been hit. But that wouldn't last, he was sure. They would run out of easy targets, and move on to take other prey. The great merchant companies, Vatta among them, had never persuaded the planetary governments that their trade served to combine and create a true interstellar space force capable of policing the spaceways. ISC had the resources, but refused to use them for anything but maintaining its own assets.