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Authors: Sherwood Smith,Dave Trowbridge

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BOOK: The Phoenix in Flight
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Like a vacuum-eaten corpse
, Palmar thought in disgust
as she pushed her way through the group.

Fifty thousand years. So what!
She’d be long dead
when the dying star swallowed Paradisum. She snorted as she neared the
ParcelNet console. The red giant and the ring of fire ripped from its surface
by its now-eclipsed companion, Ophis, dominated the yellow sky.
Still
,
she thought,
I’ll be glad when we skip out tonight.

Paradisum and the Shrine Planet were the only Doomed Worlds
Palmar had ever visited, and if she had her way, it would be the last. What
kind of race had the Ur been, to make an art form of destruction, on a scale
that required a multimillion-year perspective to appreciate? And if they’d been
powerful enough to remake solar systems, what could have wiped them out so
completely?

She snorted in disgust. Granny would kick her through the
lock into vacuum if she admitted it, but that chatzing Shrine Planet and those
crazy Bugs had given her the shillies. Verin Palmar hated insects. The memory
of the Guardian towering above her, frozen by the gas bomb, made her
unconsciously speed her pace and lose the sense of her surroundings long enough
to collide with a man in elegant clothing, his hair and eyes dyed a muted
silver, forming an elegant contrast with his dark skin. She ignored his
apology, despising him for his singsong Douloi accent as he apologized.
Good-looking
enough, but just another strutting highborn nick.

Only one of the consoles in the ParcelNet bank was free, and
the screen lit as it sensed her approach.
“Virtwandhi?”
The word
scrolled slowly upward on the screen as the com spoke.

“Speak Uni!” Palmar snarled, jiggling with impatience to get
this over with. “D’ya think I’m a stinking Paradeezer?”

“Your pardon,
genz,”
replied the singsong voice, not
sounding sorry or anything else. “Your parcel’s destination?”

“Qoholeth, insured.”

“Value?”

“Contract, cash.”

“302.2 AU, please.” The port below the screen dilated and
accepted the box and the sunbursts Palmar threw after it. She was glad to get
rid of it. The mirror-sphere she’d stolen from the bugs —
why do they call it
a “heart,” anyway?
—was the weirdest-feeling thing she’d ever handled. Even
a Downsider would notice the dissonance between the sphere’s heft and its
apparent lack of inertia.
Like most Rifters, Palmar had a fine-tuned
sense of mass and acceleration, and handling the sphere had made her more than
a little queasy.

As she waited impatiently for the machine to process the
parcel, a fanfare of trumpets caught her attention, and she glanced up at one
of the vast public viewscreens above the bustle of the terminal.

“... at the center of the Mandala, where only a P-month from
now the youngest son of His Majesty will step into the Ranks of Service.” The
novosti’s face creased in exaggerated excitement as he gestured at an image of
the Hall of Ivory behind him. “Though Krysarch Brandon is the last Arkad of
this generation, it is said that this Enkainion will be the most brilliant of
those for all three royal sons. For not only will it be the premier social
event of the year, there will be important concerns in the political realm.
Genz Leseuer?”

Palmar glanced up at the female novosti grinning stupidly
down at them, the weird third eye of an
ajna
imager open on her
forehead. Who would see her broadcast?

“Who cares?” Palmar muttered, resisting the impulse to bang
her fist on the machine, as if that would hurry it any.

“Thank you, Genz Vu,” the female novosti gushed. “For the
people of Ansonia, Krysarch Brandon’s Enkainion will mark the first official
participation of our republic in the political ritual of the Panarchy, as
negotiations for our inclusion approach their...”

“Ha!” Palmar snorted.
First and last, most likely, if the
chatter about an attack is true
.

“... and we’ll be there, to bring you all the brilliance and
excitement of this historic moment.”

Palmar blew air through pursed lips in dismissive scorn.
More
nick-strut blunge, yammering on as if...

The machine blipped. On the ParcelNet screen appeared the
words: “Jiji Byron, care of Martin Cheruld, Aegios Prime, Qoholeth Anachronics
Hub, backup routing to General Delivery with passphrase ‘green phalanx
noiseless.’”

“Correct. Timing?”

“Estimated 30 days, 11 nodes plus or minus two, SPC variance
0.15. Confirmation required?”

“To maildrop.” Palmar fed the machine the one-time card
she’d been given, then scooped her change out of the hopper and turned away as
the machine singsonged its meaningless thank-you.

The yellow, cloudless glare of Paradisum’s sky oppressed her
as she headed for the field tubes. Ophis was subject to vicious flares, so
Paradisum had no Highdwellings or any inhabited orbital facilities. It would
have made more sense for
Bloodknife
to take the package to another
system so none of her crew would have to waste time at the bottom of a well.
But that slug Barrodagh had given them no choice.

“From the Paradisum spaceport,” that pale-faced Bori had
insisted. No doubt the one-time card had sent the timing confirmation to his
local agent, although what good that would do them she couldn’t figure out.
Even Downsiders knew that data and packages moved at the same speed.

Palmar shrugged. There was a lot about this mission that
didn’t make sense, starting with why Barrodagh hadn’t mentioned the weirdness
of the sphere. She got it that he was running some kind of attack against the
nicks somewhere, and that if the
Bloodknife
family completed their
mission, they would get to be a part of it. But why send this thing by
ParcelNet?
Barrodagh orders us clear across the Thousand Suns to steal this
sphere from the Bugs, complete with passcode for the Shrine Planet Quarantine
Monitor, no less, and then he has us entrust it to his enemies for shipment!

Palmar had asked her mother about it after they got the
assignment, while Granny was busy. Mother was always reading chips, or
noderunning after dirt that others didn’t want dug up. Until their recruitment
by Barrodagh, Mother had made a tidy sum on the RiftNet databourse. “I don’t
know,” Mother had said, and Palmar had forgotten about her question until
Mother yanked her awake this morning, looking thoroughly spooked.

Palmar grimaced. Even that enormous bug hadn’t been as
disturbing as the sight of Mother spooked. “
This is way more crazy-bad than
I’d thought,”
Mother’d whispered, shaking her head.

“But the Syndics are backing us,”
Palmar had
protested
. “I thumbprinted the orders from the Second myself. Full Rift
Sodality Assurance.”

“But we thought that little slug Barrodagh was just some
rich collector with a grudge against the nicks somewhere.”

“It is for some collector,”
Palmar argued
. “The
Syndic Second said that Barrodagh is the collector, and if we do well, we’ll be
in on his raid. So?”

Mother spat over her shoulder, and made the sign of warding.
“Yeah. But you know who’s behind Barrodagh? He’s only a front. He’s run by
those crazy Dol’jharians. In fact, he’s no less than the front for their king,
or chief, or whatever ‘Avatar’ means—Jerrode Eusabian. And it’s for one of
their revenge customs.”

“Revenge?”
Palmar had asked, wondering how in the
Five Hells you got revenge by stealing a ball from a bunch of bugs.

“What we’re doing, right now, this is what the
Dol’jharians call a
paliach
,”
Mother had gone on to say.
“It’s a
formal vengeance, where the enemy has to symbolically take part in his own
destruction. Using the ParcelNet is probably part of it, too, since the nicks
run that, so it’s sort of like having the Panarch deliver it himself.”
Mother
cackled
. “Not that this Avatar is really taking much of a chance. Even the
Spider and her Invisibles can’t intercept something on the ParcelNet.”

“You’re talking like somebody in a chatzing wiredream,”
Palmar
had interrupted, really queasy by her mother’s uncharacteristic furtiveness.

Instead of slapping her for talking back—which disturbed
Palmar even more—Mother had looked around, as if wondering about telltales in
the middle of their own ship, then whispered even lower
, “We’re gonna wish
it was if we chatz it up, or vary from instructions by a finger.”
Mother
held up her own finger.
“Those Dol’jharian lords don’t like being crossed
even a tiny bit, and they have a thing called a mindripper that can take weeks
to kill you. And that’s why I don’t like this revenge thing. Because everyone
in the way of their vengeance gets...”
She drew her finger across her neck.

And that’s if you’re lucky.”

“Well, we won’t chatz it up,”
Palmar had snarled
.

And she hadn’t.

Palmar glanced back at the ParcelNet console, ready to make
an obscene sign at any lurking spies or however Barrodagh—or those
Dol’jharians, if Mother was right— kept watch.
She had followed the
instructions exactly.
I’ve done what they wanted. Now we get the new gear
Barrodagh promised—whatever it is, the Syndics guarantee it’s gonna get us more
sunbursts than we ever seen before, and better yet, it’s bad news for the
nicks. And afterward?

Rifthaven, here we come,
she thought happily, and the
doors closed behind her.

o0o

Suomo ban-Lennikani stepped out of the ParcelNet line and
watched the young Rifter woman stride off from a console a few positions away.
He’d felt the strength of her body when she collided with him—he’d always been
drawn to muscular women, an unfashionable taste among the Douloi of his
far-away Highdwelling—and the ferocity of her expression had fascinated him
even more. Her raiment was a jarring combination of expensive material and a
flagrant lack of taste typical of Rifters, adding to her allure, which was why
he’d decided to follow her and watch, daydreaming pleasantly. He’d never had a
Rifter lover—although under present circumstances it might not be very politic...

As if summoned by the thought, Eduor’s voice sounded in his
inner ear.
(Sumi, where are you?)
Without waiting for a reply, he
rattled on.
(You’ll never guess who I found in the High Concourse, waiting
oh so impatiently for us. Tani says she’s been here most of a day...)

Suomo gritted his teeth, glad he’d set his boswell’s
sensitivity too low to transmit the sensation, and let Eduor’s chatter flow
past without attention, a talent he’d been developing more and more lately.
Tani
again
, he thought, after flexing his wrist to cut off his boswell’s
subvocal pickup. Flaunting the speed of her new yacht as the two of them danced
attendance on Eduor vlith-Fregomec from system to system across the Thousand
Suns.
You come back with the Fregomec family alliance,
his mother had
said, and his father had added,
Or don’t come back at all.

With a regretful glance at the Rifter woman, Suomo continued
on his interrupted walk back to the High Concourse, chuckling as he caught up
with the sense of Eduor’s words.

(...but I said I like it slow, and she said...)

Just like that, an idea flowered. Speed was one thing, but
knowing one’s way around—whether a lover’s body or interstellar space—that was
better. He would bet his pilot’s navigation against Tani’s any day—she was
over-proud of her nav training and tended to meddle with her pilot, which was
why she couldn’t keep them—and he’d overheard where the Rifter woman was
sending her package.
Qoholeth!

He’d had lots of time to study his yachting charts on the
way to Paradisum.
There’s an excursion of the Rift between here and there.
A difficult jaunt like that, through the chaotic conditions of the Rift, would
give him the advantage he needed, and the ParcelNet next-skip algorithms would
now be scanning outbound ship routes for the first-destination closest to Qoholeth.
If he filed a flight plan to Qoholeth, requesting the first possible departure,
the ParcelNet would automatically jump his liftoff to the top if he was willing
to take cargo.
Good thing I kept my ParcelNet bond current!

Suomo flexed his wrist to bring his boswell back on. He
filed the flight plan, and started for the docks, flexing up his lover.
(Eduor, I have the most diverting idea...)

A few hours later, Suomo was even more delighted when his
pilot confirmed that the DataNet upload to the ship’s cryptobanks after he’d
filed their destination had been tagged with a request from the ParcelNet
dispatch system to carry a pallet to Qoholeth. The briefly renewed connection
with the attractive Rifter stirred his groin to life momentarily—
She’ll
never know that I got her package there a lot faster than she expected—
but
even more satisfying was the fact that his gambit had paid off: accepting would
now give him priority liftoff from Paradisum. At Qoholeth, he and Eduor would
be waiting impatiently for Tani. He might even win not just the race but the
alliance that would make his future secure.

Life was so good for the quick-witted!

o0o

DOL’JHAR

Morrighon shuffled with care into the half-circle inlaid in
the corridor outside the door to the Commons and braced himself with his hands
on either side of the doorframe. The floor seemed to drop out beneath him as
the gravitors cancelled a portion of Dol’jhar’s brutal gravity and a quarter of
his weight leaked away. The door slid open and he stepped through. His breath
eased along with the ache of his twisted frame; for that one moment he could
imagine he was again on distant Bori, the planet of his birth.

BOOK: The Phoenix in Flight
8.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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