Stalking Horse: Mutation (novella)
The novella “Stalking Horse” was originally drafted more-or-less immediately after “Blood Enemies.” At that time there were basically two independent elements — that subsequently published as the novella “Stalking Horse” in the Baen omnibus “Fleet Insurgent,” and one that was removed and dropped on the Cutting Room Floor. The basic plot driver of that excised plot, the idea that a virus rapidly mutating threatened people that we know and hopefully care about with potentially lethal consequences, found an important place in “Crimes Against Humanity,” in an altered format.
So what we have here is a revised version of that original plot-line from the early drafts of the novella that became the published “Stalking Horse.” It shows obvious elements of a superseded text: there are what are continuity errors once the rest of the published texts are considered, and other infelicities. I know you’ll see them as you read so I hope to be excused for not calling them out one by one (at least because I can’t help but notice that you don’t notice all of them). One way or the other, I hope that you will overlook the continuity errors or logical flaws in my plot, and enjoy the text for what it is.
Stalking Horse: Mutation
The Brixaler was a small ship, only seven regular crew and Medith — cargo handler, hired for the trip. She’d had the freedom of the ship since they’d left Gorset a week ago, eight full days, but she’d kept clear of the bridge until now. Saving up for this.
“Safehaven, Riggs,” Per Onstaad said, from the captain’s station. “Fourteen hours off vector. What do you think?” He gestured toward the forward screens, inviting her onto the bridge from the doorway in which she’d stood to make her presence known. Now she could see the visual displays more clearly. Not the crisp bright precise images depicted of an on-demand entertainment module, no, but she could see all she needed to see, and she’d never had much time for on-dees anyway.
“Different from Alcombe.” Where she’d shipped from. “Blue? Pretty nice.” She’d never been so far from home in her life. Till now. She was looking forward to making the acquaintance of an entirely new world.
“Yeah, more water,” Onstaad said. “The whole planet is full of it. Ripe for development.”
Which was why she was here. Gonebeyond Space was wide open for economic development, in fact, now that the Jurisdiction was no longer enforcing border control. Money could get in. Goods could get out. “Land of opportunity,” Medith said, to carry the conversation. She didn’t care about conversation as a rule but she knew how to be polite. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Medith herself was in the service business: cargo handling; dock work. Loading and offloading, merchandise inventory audit on demand.
Anybody with the willingness to undertake the physical demands associated with horsing the steering apparatus of worn lifts and cargo trundlers twice as old as she was, anyone who could work in and around the chaotic jumble of cargo crates of all shapes and sizes and management that was a “dockside” in Gonebeyond and survive could work her way from world to world as she pleased, one haul to another, port to port.
That wasn’t just Safehaven coming up on visual blue and white and garnished with two pretty little moons in tandem. That was Medith Riggs’ jumping-off place for the entire Nurail quadrant, and Langsarik Station beside.
Onstaad stood up and stretched, slowly and thoroughly. “Well, I’m going to get my meal,” he said. “Port Authority’s cleared us to our slip. Short turn-around, Riggs, bonus in your pay doc if we can stand clearance inspection in six hours. You can do it. I’m counting on you.”
Yes, she could do it. She’d been working load-and-unload since she’d been old enough for the apprenticeship, and she’d only gotten bigger and stronger — and taller, and better, and more experienced — since. There wasn’t much about cargo management she didn’t know, not at her cert level, at least.
“Got it,” Medith said, because yes-sir-I-will-sir was not her style — too many words — and of course I can was boastful. Tempted Fate to set up something really glitzed to complicate things, just to slap a person down a bit. Medith didn’t make promises she couldn’t keep, and a large part of that was not making unnecessary promises. “Prescans are done, looks like we’re in good shape. Ready to go.”
She did her prescans well in advance because making sure to run the scans was what smart people did. She’d been taught. She’d learned from her mistakes. Also because she wanted to carve out time to watch the visual display screens as Brixaler traveled steadily on toward the tangle-land of opportunity she hoped to find on Safehaven’s launch-lanes, in Safehaven’s warehouses and cargo handling docks.
“Don’t you forget to get your meal,” Onstaad said, over his shoulder, on his way out. “You never know.”
Where the next meal was coming from. Medith had never had a problem with that, but she appreciated the reminder. Onstaad was a nice man. So were the rest of the crew, all Onstaad relatives. And it was part of her wages, after all.
She could begin to see continental masses, clouds, geographical definition. All still very vague. She owed it to herself to watch the world as they approached it, and Mipps Onstaad pointed her to the clamshell at the currently unoccupied navigator’s station; so Medith sat down to contemplate her future, coming closer, coming soon, almost here.
The launch-fields were under construction. Of course. There wasn’t anything in Gonebeyond that wasn’t, or if there was Medith hadn’t seen it. Her experience was limited, true. But everybody who’d come to Gonebeyond space had thrown up temporary shelter when they’d got here, jerry-built houses and stores and working space, and the first order of business as soon as food production was under way and there was any time at all and some resources was building more permanent facilities.
So there’d been new construction to work around for launchfield labor on her home world of Garsteat as everywhere else, and she knew how to do it. Transient labor quarters at the launch-fields were pre-fab, but there’d been hot water and a decent common mess with plenty of hot bread and as much strong jifka as anybody wanted, and the bunkroom was well heated.
No complaints as far as Medith was concerned, but she only got the one day’s room and board before she had to start paying for her cubicle. So it was time to report to Scheduling.
To get there a person made her way toward the con towers where the Port Authority was headquartered. Workforce management was important to any launch-fields, so they had offices; but not as important as traffic and transportation or motor stables, so the office was a little on the plain side. Suited Medith. Windows up toward the ceiling, but natural light was nice, and the duty officer was an older woman so she probably knew her stuff.
“First time in Safehaven?” the duty officer said, looking Medith up and down. Yes. She knew that she was tall. So what?
“And I’m hoping to put my spare boots in the closet here, for a while. I heard there was work.” Half a year, maybe, out and back, out and back. Just to see if she liked it here. And of course to see if she could get the work she needed to keep herself, maybe send some money home. Maybe save up for something.
“Solid report on you from Onstaad, that’s good. Journeyman rating? Working on your next certificate?”
The duty officer was scrolling the feeds on her three desk-screens as she spoke, so Medith decided she was just making conversation. Medith had her basic certs. She was a little more than halfway through to her first Intermediate. “Sneaking up on it.” And she needed work experience that qualified. “Hoping to make it in a year or two.”
Medith couldn’t see the screens from where she stood, but she thought she could read the duty officer’s expression. The “I don’t know this person” look. The “I’d really like to save this one for one of my regulars” look. Frowning a little, the duty officer tapped one of her screens. Medith waited. She was entitled to the next vacancy in her rating; that was the rule. She could only be offered a job at a lower grade of certification if there was nothing in her cert range listed as on site or incoming.
“Here’s something,” the desk officer said — with reluctance, though Medith felt she was trying to conceal it. “It’s a tough slot, but it’ll count toward your intermediate-advanced. Good news, it’s in port. They do a lot of traveling, but there is the potential for repeat work. They’re a peculiar ship, military assignment, we don’t know much.”
“Military ship?” She’d never worked one. There weren’t many. Armed freighters, armed once-smugglers, yes; military, no. There was no military in Gonebeyond. There was no central government to maintain and deploy a Fleet. “Sounds hard to get.”
The duty officer nodded. “It’s an armed courier. Fisher Wolf, Aznir registry, and out on loan to Safehaven, they say. So, do I write the doc?”
Aznir. Aznir. What in a scow’s back sumps was an Aznir? Medith made up her mind: nothing ventured, nothing gained. She could take a decline if she didn’t like the looks of the job when she got there. Her certificate entitled her to three declines per Standard year, no questions asked; and she’d never declined a job in her life. Yet. “Yes. Thanks.” Who knew when she’d had a chance to take some military quals again?
“Out at the old launch-fields,” the duty officer said, passing a franked flimsy with the pertinent details across the counter-top. “Better access control, but you’ll have to get yourself in to the city. There’s a free shuttle. Good luck.”
Luck was what you made for yourself by working hard. Here she was less than a day in port, and a day’s work already — minimum standard on a lader’s chit. Maybe more. She’d wanted to go into the city, hadn’t she? She’d wanted to see the Great Estuary docks. Actual docks. On water. With fishing boats that that had fish in them. The only fish she’d ever actually seen in her life were pet fish the size of her thumb, or packaged slabs of filet-of-something at the food market. Good fried breading delivery systems.
Folding the flimsy to stow in a pocket after a quick scan of its information Medith nodded to the duty officer and went on her way.
Charging element number four stroke seven decimal one, activation switch, test for lubrication, check. Test for signal strength within parameters, check. Verify no aftermarket modification to switching, check. Test for failure of override of signal strength below parameter, check.
Soames Garrity had been a free man for more than a year, and had never expected to live to see the Day — the Day on which his thirty-year sentence of bond-involuntary servitude would be completed, his crime expunged from the Record, accumulated pay credited to account and full retirement benefits assigned.
There’d be no back pay or retirement benefits for any of them, because Koscuisko had stolen him from the Bench before he’d served out his term; and it wasn’t his crime anyway — merely the one for which the Bench had condemned him — so what did he care whether it was ever expunged or not?
Visual examination of anhedrals for contaminants. Check. Manual range of motion on free movement, no drag, no stop, no directional bias, no excessive wear on gimbals; check. Targeting over-ride, manual engage, test for master switching; check.
Swivels were swivels. The ones on Fisher Wolf were above and beyond the ones he’d worked for years, the ones on the Wolnadi fighters that belonged to the Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Ragnarok; but the maintenance sequences were not too different, in the end, and he enjoyed the elegance and grace of the Fisher Wolf’s armament every time he laid hands on any of the weaponry. He was fond of the swivel guns. They were his friends.
Visual inspection, protective covering over manual targeting arrays, check. Test bind-lock on array for break-away, check. Replace bind-lock strip and ensure housing is correctly seated, check.
He worked the flow link by link at the swivel mount, down in the belly of the Fisher Wolf where it could fire on all lines except the ones that backed on its own axis — so that it didn’t accidently fire into its host ship. No problem there; they could destroy the thula with the battle cannon if they had to, and they’d very nearly had to, but that was then and this was now.
Since he had the all-ship open he could hear the others on their own tasks, Pyotr, Godsalt, Kerenko, St. Clare. Chief Stildyne didn’t pull a duty shift, since he was on call thirty-two/eight, when they had a flight mission. Right now, for instance, when he was at the Port Authority, checking on the flight plans.
They had a new cargo handler on board this time, sent out from Safehaven Launchfields workforce management: tall woman with a round face and neutral expression — Riggs, that was her name. Things had gotten rather jumbled in cargo bays not too long ago — firefight over Canopy Base, and for a good cause, too — and they’d had their hands full with structural issues ever since.
No inventory done. Loss of control over the cargo map, what was where, and there were few things as discouraging in Garrity’s opinion as going for a ration supplemental issue of soup and dehydrated dumplings for third-meal and coming up with a set of panel-patches for the mattresses instead.
So Riggs was clearing out the cargo holds and taking inventory and building the map, and Garrity wished her well of it. He liked his own routines. There was protection in structure. He didn’t need the careful discipline he’d been taught to protect him from the governor in his brain — Koscuisko had removed it, very illegally, but Koscuisko held a Writ to Inquire and could do as he liked — but working a repetitive task was restful to a man’s mind.
Attention to detail was no less important now that he was no longer forced to go in fear of the punishment the governor would levy for any perceived flaw or fault.
And all the time he could listen to music. He hadn’t had music since the day he’d been put under Bond, because bond-involuntaries were non-persons — Security slaves — with no reason to live but to serve an Inquisitor in the execution of Judicial torture. They didn’t own so much as their own underwear; personal entertainment devices were right out.
They’d been criminals in the eyes of the law, under Jurisdiction. They were spared execution only because the Bench needed extra hands for Inquiry and he’d had the physical, mental, emotional strength that the Bench looked for in its candidates. So he’d been allowed to live, with qualifications; but there’d been no music. No fiddle tunes.
No old traditional songs of farms, fish, family sung in the good old way in a high hard voice so sharp it could cut even the densest loaf of Spitzstaten black-grain bread. He was listening to music now, a new set of songs that the thula had found somewhere, picked up out of someone’s ship’s memory with no one the wiser; the thula was sneaky like that, and couldn’t be trusted to cleave too closely to the rules of conventional morality.
They had the Fisher Wolf on loan from the Malcontent, the secret service of the Dolgorukij church of the officer’s — of Koscuisko’s childhood; and Malcontents were not to be trusted either. It had been a significant shock to senior Bench officials to discover that the Malcontent had a Kospodar thula in the first place, out of less than thirty ever even built. Lek had told Garrity that. Lek had been there when Bench Intelligence Specialist Ivers had discovered the thula at Chelatring Side, on Koscuisko’s home-world; it hadn’t been called the Fisher Wolf, though. Not then.
He was only listening out of one side of his head, so as not to lose situational awareness. When an unfamiliar voice — female voice — called out from the cargo bays Garrity heard it quite clearly. “Question,” Riggs called. Garrity marked his place in his inspection sequence and waited; but nobody answered — out of earshot or otherwise fully absorbed in their tasks — so it was up to him.
“Stand by.” A moment’s work to restore the swivel gun’s emplacement to resting ready, and turn off his fiddle tunes. Presenting himself at the door to cargo bay aft — main storage — Garrity leaned into the room, hands to the sides of the open doorway, not wanting to go in if things were a little alarming.
Riggs had the look of someone in full control of her environment, however, for all its apparent chaos; she had most of her back turned, though, studying her inventory-log with an expression that was more concentration than a scowl. So he had to get her attention. “Problem?”
Shutting her hand-held screen with a decisive snap she turned to face him. “No problem,” she said. “Situation. These crates won’t talk.”
She had the entire cargo bay opened up from wall to wall, crates clumped at orderly intervals on the decking. Garrity appreciated that. Some people he knew took a much more organic approach to inventory, and it wasn’t up to him to tell anybody how to do their job. He’d wondered whether it wasn’t some sort of subconscious reaction against the years of requirement under threat of torture to do things exactly as specified, but that didn’t make chaos any less chaotic. Or less disturbing.
There were more clumps on the tarmac outside the open loading ramp, but those were all covered by control sheets, so that they couldn’t wander off without alerting her. That was a little untrusting of her, wasn’t it? He liked that in a person.
Reluctant as Garrity was to get any closer to a wild and untamed cargo load — even in safe custody — there was no choice but to go in, because Riggs wasn’t coming out. “Let me see,” Garrity said. She turned her log to face him, the list-sheet scrolling slowly down the display on its now-closed lid; boxes assigned tracking numbers, dimensions noted, but blank fields where access numbers — priority of access, crate stacking protocols — should have been; and the same thing all the way down in the “item” field. Inquiry declined.
“Well, that’s no help.” He thought he might know what the problem was, though. The people on Canopy Base, the people who’d wanted to take over the Fisher Wolf, they’d annoyed the thula; so maybe it had marked some crates off limits, just because those people had touched them.
So they were the crates that had been fronting the stacks, maybe, the ones the wrong people had tried to get into, or the ones the wrong people would have most liked to get into had they known what was inside.
The problem with that solution was that he didn’t think the thula had let anybody into cargo any more than it had unsealed its secures on crew quarters, propulsion, weaponry, navigation, lavatory facilities. The battle cannon had certainly come as an unpleasant surprise to Canopy Base, and even that hadn’t saved them, in the end.
“It’s what your last inventory shows,” Riggs said. “Don’t tell me you’ve got unidentified.” Her tone of voice was neutral and polite, at least to a degree. No accusations of incompetence. Curiosity merely. This was Gonebeyond; Gonebeyond was full of smugglers.
But contraband was always marked. Falsely marked, but anything marked “inquiry declined” would only engage a customs officer’s curiosity — if they had customs officers in Gonebeyond, and Garrity hadn’t seen any, not in the past year. Of course they had some kind of port audit. There were things Gonebeyond wouldn’t traffic in, but proscribed pharmaceuticals would be pretending to be sweet-thin rondels, or something; not “inquiry denied.”
And still it was the Malcontent’s thula. From what Garrity had learned of the Malcontent this past year, from what Kerenko had told him about Malcontents, it actually wasn’t out of the question for these crates to be holding squizzle-tizzlies. “I’ll get Lek,” Garrity said. “He may be able to help.”
Outside of the open cargo bay Garrity could hear the inimitable voice of Security Chief Stildyne, a growl in a medium range in a voice that sounded like launch-rollers being dragged over an eroded slip with a rumbling sort of a roar. Sounded unfriendly, but it was nothing personal. Chief was actually not bad once a man made up his mind to give him a chance, and Stildyne had scars as well as the rest of them.
The deepest ones were self-inflicted, and labeled “Andrej Koscuisko;” maybe those would start to fade now that Chief and the officer had come to some sort of an agreement. Chief displayed covert signs of slowly developing happiness. Garrity hoped it wouldn’t be too much of a shock to Stildyne’s system.
“Load for hull-shift,” Stildyne called. “Officer transport. How quick can we get it done?” He was on his way up the cargo ramp, talking as he went, and Garrity knew he’d be taking it all in with a quick survey. Cargo hold, half-emptied, crates in stacks in the middle of the floor. Garrity; Riggs.
“Problem, Chief,” Garrity said, because it was a situation with the thula so it was their problem and not Riggs’. “We have crates not talking. Was headed out to ask Lek for help.”
That was Kerenko’s name. Lek. St. Clare’s name was Robert. Pyotr’s name was Pyotr, because nobody called him Micmac. And Chief Warrant Officer Brachi Stildyne’s name was Chief. “Can we solve it later?” Chief asked, in Riggs’ direction. “Port Authority has promised Koscuisko back to the hospital inside of four days.”
Canopy Base and back. Koscuisko had gone to visit with some Malcontents for debriefing. Garrity knew how much fun it’d been for the officer at Canopy Base the first time because Garrity had been with him there-then. Koscuisko was going to want to shut himself up in his room and drink a lot, but he’d have a chance to get some of that out his system on their way back to Safehaven.
“You’re the boss,” Riggs said, shrugging. “My report only goes to you. But I can’t vouch for the load-out if I don’t know what’s loaded out.”
“Maybe let you back at it when we return, then.” Stildyne clearly had things on his mind. “If you’ll just get all this back in the way it came out — ”
“It’ll go faster if I load to this schedule.” Riggs’ interruption wasn’t so much rude as simply factual. Garrity didn’t think Stildyne would be offended. “Pre-grouped. I was only waiting to resolve this last bit.” She was a fast worker, then, as well as efficient. Or maybe it was that efficiency meant fast work. “Inventory map isn’t completed yet, though, I’ll have to send that through to you. If you can’t wait.”
Raising his head to look at the back wall of the cargo hold Stildyne seemed to chew on that for a moment or two. “Work on it en route,” he suggested. “We’ll be taking on cargo at our destination. You’ll be fresh up on it all. Got spares on you? We’ll square it with Workforce.”
Can you leave right now, that was to say. Stildyne had apparently made up his mind: the person who’d most recently unstowed and restowed everything was in the best position to load additional cargo in the shortest possible amount of time. Riggs should take the offer. She’d be pulling her wages for in-transit stand-by en route to Canopy Base; extra cash for the time she couldn’t be looking for a better return on her time.
“Okay by me,” Riggs said. So she had a spare pair of clean socks in her kit. “Appreciate the chance to finish what I started. That way I can be sure I did it right.”
“Tell Garrity what you want for meals and don’t say starch-blocks,” Stildyne said; which made Garrity want to smile, though he had better sense than to do it out loud. She’d been about to say starch-blocks. The default choice of meals of entry-level journeymen everywhere, but the least they could do for Riggs’ inconvenience was provide a better grade of fast-meal. Anyone working as hard as she’d been had earned full rations. “We’ll shift as soon as you can close the cargo bay.”
Stildyne was in a hurry to return the officer. “I’ll help,” Garrity said. He could run the stack-shifters. “Anything to speed the process.”
Canopy Base had a big statement of work. All of those detained persons of interest; all of the high-level intelligence to be obtained from them. The officer was through with torture by Protocol: but that didn’t necessarily make it easier on a man, especially one with his own issues to manage. The sooner they could get there and back the sooner the officer could fasten himself to his civilian job again, and use the daily round of patient examination and surgery as defense against the dark.
Don’t say starch-blocks, the boss had said. What was wrong with starch-blocks? They came with their own soup, which was dried, so it could be sprinkled on burst-grains. They were coated with protein powder, and in a pinch or in a hurry they could be choked down raw. Crunchy. She’d never been so poor she couldn’t afford five packets of starch-blocks — but “I’ll have whatever you’re having” had worked out for her, Riggs had to admit that ungrudgingly.
She was going to be set for days by the time they got back to Safehaven. They ate well on Fisher Wolf — but all of the crew were big men and clearly accustomed to hard work, by their muscle mass. All taller than she was, which wasn’t usually the case. She was generally as tall as at least some of the men in any given group: and Nurail were at least as often on the short and scrappy side.
Hadn’t made ‘em any the less of a problem for the Bench, Medith knew that. She’d heard stories. Feelings ran close to the surface, even for those who – like Medith’s family – had taken themselves off for Gonebeyond before the Domitt Prison had so much as been in the preliminary design stages.
Up from Safehaven; two days to somewhere called Canopy Base, about which she’d been politely advised to not think twice. Enough time to get things sorted to her satisfaction, and the opportunity had been too good to miss, especially since it gave her qualifying time in cargo handling, and there’d been cargo ready to load on site waiting for them.
Three six-stacks on default, but the Fisher Wolf’s cargo bays ran a little low to the Jurisdiction standard — it was a courier ship, not built for hauling. That and the armament was after-market, from what she’d gathered, and that had lost her some space. Long story short, she packed three six-stacks as four five-highs and called it good.
They’d provided her with her very own “labor-one” assistant to help with the movers. That had been fun — the worker they’d sent didn’t know Medith’s still-junior status, only her basic certs — but Medith had worked hard at not taking advantage: and thought she’d managed well enough.
The extra help had sped things along and left her with leisure to sit on a crate just shipside of the loading ramp and take it all in, new buildings, blast containment walls all recent manufacture and showing absolutely no signs of starting to crack with age, not a single patch to be seen on the tarmac. An atmosphere containment dome all pristine and pearly.
“Nice facilities,” she said. Garrity was sitting there beside her and he was an interesting specimen. Blond. Blue-eyed, even if one of them was cyborg implementation implant and the people who’d plugged it in hadn’t bothered to match the color particularly well. Didn’t waste energy smiling too much. One of these men smiled a lot — Hirsel, she thought — and one of them had one of those faces that always looked like he was on his way either to or from a grin.
She had no objections to people who smiled a lot, but she didn’t, and she didn’t mind being thought unfriendly. Which was apparently not a problem on the Fisher Wolf.
“Dolgorukij,” Garrity said. “As I hear it there was trouble for the Langsariks before they got here, and the Combine felt responsible. So there’s been Combine money coming in ever since they got here. Oh, look, here’s the officer coming.”
A ground-car on its way out to the ship, going at a fair clip. Stildyne in the car; also a shortish fair-haired type. Medith squinted. Where had she seen that face before? She thought she caught the memory of a face passing the eye of the newser on its way past, recording the celebrity appearance of a famous executioner. No. Inquisitor. Well, same difference. Maybe not so much a celebrity as a notorious Bench officer.
There was a tone on the all-ship, and it was for her. “Load-master.” Pyotr, in the wheel-house. It tickled her ear to be called load-master. Generally that title of address was reserved for people on much larger ships, and they had to be freighters; so it was a kind of flattery, but she didn’t mind. “Ready to secure for lift, advise.”
All she had to do was close the cargo loading ramp and lock up, checking the seals. “Understood.” Standing up Medith keyed the initiate, and the loading ramp started to rise for hull secure.
“Maybe we’ll get into those crates now that the officer’s here,” Garrity said. “Lek’s only Sarvaw, he’s Aznir. Top of the food chain. Since Fisher Wolf wouldn’t listen to Lek. The officer’s Aznir Dolgorukij. And the thula’s a snob.”
She still couldn’t exactly place the face of the man in the mover, but she didn’t need to waste any time on wondering about it. “I’m for my station.” If they brought him into her cargo bay to try to get those crates to give up their data she’d be able to get a good look up close and personal.
Through the narrowing window of observation still available as the loading ramp moved up and into position Medith could see the passenger car pull up to shipside and stop with a fine flourish of look-at-my-brakes-I’ve-got-some. Garrity re-appeared on the tarmac below, in charge of carrying personal luggage apparently; then Medith’s line of sight was cut off.
The thula’s ramps didn’t waste any time. So how much power was this ship actually packing? Medith wondered. Maybe people would be bored enough to talk specs with her, on the return trip. Not that it was any of her business. There’d be no impertinent questions from her.
“This is cargo — er — manager,” Medith said to the ship’s communications systems. “Loading ramp secure, cargo bays ready to shift hull.” They’d be able to see that for themselves, in the wheelhouse, but Pyotr had asked her to let him know. All of her restraints were secured, tell-tales a cheerful blue color, pallet stabilization engaged and alignment monitors on watch; but check and double-check, machine seals and voice checks were good standard operating practice.
“Come on up,” Pyotr said. “Lift in twelve.” To the wheelhouse, he meant, to strap in to an observer’s clamshell. Maybe she’d meet the passenger. Base-of-no-particular-note was sending a fair whack of drugs and medications in the crates she’d logged and loaded — vaccines, surgical instruments, bandages. Medication was its own interesting class of cargo; there were usually temperature range requirements, and these crates were carrying their own thermal equalizers. Taking no chances.
There were other things, ammunition, projectiles to replace the prisoner management materials they’d offloaded; but it wasn’t any of her business. Cargo handlers kept their mouths shut and forgot what they’d seen as soon as the ship’s master had counter-signed the inventory systems and released her pay to account.
So she hadn’t asked Kerenko what any of those things were. If she found out along the way, she’d know the satisfaction of an itch scratched, but her pay accounts were more interesting than any crate of whatevers when it came right down to it, and if she didn’t get up to strap in she’d be delaying that exact thing, so she should shift rump to shift hull. And she did.
Security Chief Stildyne sat in an open passenger car on the paveway in front of Canopy Base’s port authority building with his hands laid palm-down atop his thighs looking up at the sky, looking out toward the parkways. Off to his left in the distance the thula was waiting for them, loading the last of the freight Canopy Base was sending on to Safehaven – some for Safehaven Medical Center, some several of Dolgorukij cortac brandy with Safehaven’s Provost Marshal “Beauty” Sangriege’s name on them, among other things.
Things were apparently moving as swiftly as a man could wish, in the loading process. He hadn’t planned on taking on any crew in Safehaven, but Riggs wasn’t crew so much as temporary labor, and she’d proved very useful to have along. Inventory had never been so organized. She’d found crates that seemed never to have been molested since the thula had arrived in Gonebeyond Space; and among them, there were the Mystery Crates.
Thinking about Mystery Crates called Stoshi to his mind. Stildyne nodded to the recollection, and let it go on its way. He knew what had happened to the Malcontent Cousin Stanoczk who’d become both friend and lover — “lover” not being too exclusive a concept where Stoshi was concerned; strictly one among many on Stoshi’s list, if he kept a list, which Stildyne doubted from the logistical challenges that physical custody of such a great mass of data would represent.
So Stoshi was away. Stoshi would chose his time and place to stop in; Stoshi would be all right. Not immediately. Maybe never completely. But he’d be back.
Stildyne had been on Canopy Base before, if under less innocuous circumstances. Then Canopy Base had been frankly gorgeous, new, shiny, gleaming, clean. Self-satisfied. He hadn’t liked much about Canopy Base even from the start, before it had given him any personal grounds for resentment; but Canopy Base had done the one thing for him. One critical thing. One astonishing thing.
Here came one of Canopy Base’s senior staff – Cousin Ekaterina, Stildyne thought, blond, beautiful, Malcontent, and therefore dangerous – out of the building with her guest, walking toward the passenger car; Stildyne opened the door and got out, leaving the passenger compartment gate wide. Andrej Koscuisko.
When he’d thought Koscuisko had been on the thula on that first visit to Canopy Base and not taken any of them into his confidence, it had been bad.
When he’d found out that it had been Stoshi who’d declined to take Stildyne into his confidence it had been worse, and when he’d found out that Koscuisko himself — not Stoshi pretending to be Koscuisko — had unexpectedly arrived at Canopy Base it had been worse twice over and again, yet totally better.
It was all totally better now. Stildyne did his best to suppress his happiness at seeing Koscuisko again. It was hard, but he had his face for assistance. It wasn’t a face people spent a lot of time looking at, by preference. And it wasn’t anybody else’s business if he was happy to be bringing Koscuisko home.
“Chief Stildyne,” the Malcontent – Koscuisko called her “Miss Crownéd” – said. “Good to see you. Loaded out, they tell me? That was fast.” She put her hand out as she spoke for a hand-clasp in the Langsarik manner, forearm to forearm. “They’re treating you well, at Safehaven?”
“Thank you, yes, no complaints.” He’d commandeered a closet along an as-yet-incomplete corridor at the hospital – big enough for a cot and a modest clothes-stacker – from which to initiate his plans for the future. There’d be a full Security suite there in time; Stildyne had decided on it.
They could hardly rely on mere station security to safeguard a man like Andrej Koscuisko, even if Safehaven’s Port Authority had done an almost adequate job of it in the year that they’d been separated from each other – the thula Fisher Wolf, and the so-called “wolf-pack,” Koscuisko’s Security assigned. Stildyne himself. “Dedicated quarters on site, never mind the perfume at low tide.”
According to the stories Stildyne had heard it hadn’t been all that very long since raw sewage had gone out with the tide. Sometimes back in with the tide. Now there were waste treatment facilities, and the stink from the mud flats was just seaweeds and kelp. People took licenses and went collecting the stuff. Big potential for Safehaven seaweed on Chigan markets, people said; Chigan were connoisseurs of dried seaweed, apparently. “Also plenty of work. We’re good. But thanks.”
Stildyne’s officer had been gazing off toward the thula, as if anxious to get back to it; now he spoke. “Who’s that on loads, then, Brachi?”
Andrej Koscuisko. Short, blond, still occasionally – cheerfully, socially – drunk, and Dolgorukij. He’d been Stildyne’s officer of assignment for years, now, and what had happened to Stildyne during those years had changed almost everything he knew – or thought he’d known – about himself. Koscuisko had found the key to a culturally sanctioned Dolgorukij model for masculine friendship of a deeply passionate degree. It hadn’t changed anything, not really, he and Andrej Koscuisko would never be lovers in a physical sense. But everything was changed even so.
“We kidnapped resources from Safehaven. She’s good. Inventory is running scared, pallets quivering in fear, crates gone pale.” And since he and Koscuisko were sworn to each other, now, as Tikhon and Dasidar had become bonded during the course of the great saga of the Dolgorukij nations, he was entitled to an embrace on the occasion of meeting and parting. Big deal, Stildyne told himself, it’s a hug. But it was a big deal. He hadn’t hugged anybody for years.
“Does she know we’re stopping at Jeddars?” Koscuisko asked, climbing into the passenger car. “Had you heard we were, for that? I’ve just been told. Safehaven will have to do without me for a little while longer, alas, but will anybody notice?”
Jeddars, where was that? “No,” Stildyne said. “And yes, of course.” Just now. “Any detail available?”
Miss Crownéd shook her head, waiting for Stildyne to follow Koscuisko into the ground-car before closing the door behind them. “Some sort of an outbreak, medical support requested, and Doctor Koscuisko is currently in travel status. You can divert at Hocave for the Ourenhalf, a few days on site maybe but I’m not the one who would know, am I? Thank you, Doctor Koscuisko, good travel, till next time.”
Well. This was awkward; because Riggs would have good reason to be annoyed — and the fact that there was good reason for the diversion wouldn’t really patch over the basic inconvenience of it all. Stildyne hadn’t had to deal with civilians for years. He wasn’t confident of his ability to understand what made them function to specification. But on the other hand it was extra time with Koscuisko, and that made him happy. Selfish and happy.
Koscuisko waved cheerfully enough; Stildyne tapped their driver on the shoulder, and the car swung out and away from the Port Authority’s main administration center to head back out to where Fisher Wolf was waiting for them. “I have letters,” Koscuisko announced, reaching into his blouse. “For you and for me, and for our Lek. I will give his to Lek. From my son, would you believe it? They must have had a heart-sharing, it has been more than two years by now, surely.”
Actual physical documents. Some holocubes, yes, but Koscuisko sifted those through his fingers muttering to himself, then tipped the cubes back into his bosom to sort through the holograph documents until he found the one he was looking for. “Yearly report, my mother, my lord father, Marana. Ferinc, what impertinence. Emandis. Rudistal. Ah.”
Heavy document in an envelope that couldn’t be called “flimsy,” even though it was in the same family. White, thick, something one wrote on with a stylus in one’s hand, and as unlike the “paper” of Stildyne’s childhood as Koscuisko’s cortac brandy was to the home-brewed industrial solvent people drank for recreation at Safehaven.
His name; not “Stildyne,” per se, because Stoshi had an economical habit of hand-writing, so that the letter Koscuisko passed to him seemed to be addressed to someone or something designated “lticly.” Stildyne recognized it all the same. He hoped the text inside the envelope was decipherable.
“How did it go?” Koscuisko would be curious about Stildyne’s letter, anxious for any news. For that they’d both have to wait, though, until Stildyne could read what Stoshi had to say. Koscuisko leaned back against the cushioned seat-back and looked up at the sky.
“They’ll have the hearings in the interrogations room,” Koscuisko said. “That place. With the prisoners to sit for examination where the holding cells were. And there is a very great deal of bustle and activity. I have hopes that in a not very long time the entire installation will be completely unrecognizable. And still.”
Still Koscuisko hadn’t liked being there. Stildyne could appreciate that. “You’ll be back to work at Safehaven in no time, Andrej,” he said reassuringly. “Provost Marshall Sangriege on the receiving end of periodic and pointed inquiries from your surgical staff, by report. Your absence at the helm particularly noted. Resented, really.”
There, that got a smile out of Koscuisko. “It is only the issue of the documentation, I assure you,” Koscuisko said. “Which I do not keep up to administrative standards. To which I object. My clinicals are scrupulously updated.”
They almost always had been. It was only everything else about the administrative responsibilities of a senior surgeon that seemed to be always escaping Koscuisko’s attention; and in the bad old days, when they had been under Jurisdiction, nobody had been able to say anything to Koscuisko about it, because he held a Writ to Inquire which granted him immunity from any requirements and regulations other than those of the Ship’s Inquisitor.
Koscuisko could have stayed drunk for four years if he’d wanted to, and nobody could have done anything about it, so long as the Captain tolerated the behavior. One Captain had; and Koscuisko himself had murdered him. But that was all over, now.
“Oh, I’ve brought that all with me,” Stildyne lied blandly, wondering if it would work. “Since there won’t be any calls on your professional services in transit to distract you from getting it all — what?”
He had almost gotten away with it. Stildyne didn’t mind. “Ah, the situation at Jeddars,” Koscuisko said. “Critical importance, Brachi, requiring complete concentration. In advance. Starting now. Besides which you have done no such thing, because removing administrative documentation from the premises would be at risk of them disappearing somehow, and after all documentation must be maintained. I am responsible for its guardianship. I may not complete it, but it will be there to stand witness.”
“To be fair to me, none of us knows what might be in some of the crates Riggs has turned up.” Although it was unlikely to be Koscuisko’s administrative documentation. “Twelve crates, I think she said. Secured, stacked at the back of the main bay, and they will neither disclose their contents nor open for inspection.” Crates could be forced. But a person wanted to know whether any fragile contents were explosive, psychoactive, drinkable, or invaluable before a person took a lever to an uncooperative cargo unit. “Any idea what the situation on Jeddah might be?”
The car was traveling at a fair rate of speed, its windscreen whistling softly. The thula was closer by the moment. Koscuisko watched it as they drew nearer, his expression thoughtful. “There’s a report,” he said. “I’ve only scanned it. A respiratory complaint, apparently, nothing new, just unexpectedly virulent, and lab technicians on site regrettably several years out of date on current compounding protocols. We’ll have to test for full spectrum when we get there, and I shudder to think what we’ll be having to work with, but I’m grateful to be away from Canopy Base, Brachi.”
It had been harder on Koscuisko than he’d anticipated, then. “Sorry to hear that, Andrej. Er. I mean. You’re away now. Have you had mid-meal?” Stoshi and Koscuisko, they’d been through it together, if the burden of physical suffering had all been on one side. And Stoshi would be all right in time. So also Koscuisko would manage and cope. Koscuisko had taught Stildyne what hope meant, after all, hope in the midst of abject hopelessness. Where there was life there was hope.
All of which was good to think about, but not immediately useful. Stildyne kept talking as if none of that had come to mind. “Canopy Base offered us a juicy refresh on edible stores. But we haven’t worked though our reserves, and we get full meal loads at Safehaven. Safehaven’s rations eat just the same as anybody else’s.”
No disrespect to Canopy Base. “Once we’re away, then, perhaps,” Koscuisko said. “I fled Canopy Base before fast-meal, I admit it, coward that I am.”
Hardly, Stildyne thought. But he wasn’t going to start an argument. “Here’s Garrity for your bags,” Stildyne said, as the passenger car came up alongside the Fisher Wolf. He could see the cargo loading bay ramp closing, flush to the side of the ship, secures engaging. They could be off. “After you, sir.”
He’d get Koscuisko to write an excuse note for Riggs. Yes. That would work. Maybe. He’d think of something to square this upcoming diversion to Jeddars with her; because she was good with the inventory, and she had a sharp eye for stowing by memory on the fly or she’d never have gotten the ship re-packed to lift from Canopy Base as quickly as she had, and he had a thought in the back of his mind that people with good skills in cargo management might be people to keep on the good side of.
Oh. That Andrej Koscuisko. Once Medith had placed his face the rest followed, and she wasn’t sure how she felt about being in a cramped — if not as cramped as before she’d gotten her hands on it — main cargo bay in such close proximity to a mass murderer. Psychopath. Sadistic maniac. No, the rest of these people didn’t seem to feel any reservations, quite the contrary — they seemed perfectly comfortable, even happy, to be here; but they were his, weren’t they? Now that she knew who “the officer” was, a lot of things fell into place.
“I’ve parked them those mum-crates here, Doctor Koscuisko,” Medith said, wrestling the crate from the top of stack one of three stacks to the floor, setting it down without a sound. “Twelve in all, and no information on record.”
As a psychopathic torture-killer he seemed innocuous enough, really, short man with blond straightish hair falling over his forehead and some cheekbones on him, wearing the same boots and plain bloused trousers and over-blouse as any one of octaves of other people all over Gonebeyond space.
Nicer fabric than what she usually saw, though, and his blouse was a little unusual maybe, heavy-ish cloth, something halfway to a jacket with a collar that stood up all around and fastenings down one side of his rib-cage in front rather than down the midline of his torso. Clean-shaven, looked maybe a little young compared to Pyotr and Stildyne.
Should she be annoyed at them that they hadn’t asked before taking her off to go fetch “Black” Andrej Koscuisko? Maybe. Maybe not. She’d sworn to the covenant like anybody else, and none of these people apparently thought twice about the fact that they’d never once actually said “Andrej Koscuisko” to her. Maybe they hadn’t noticed.
Because the whole story came back to her, Koscuisko’s bond-involuntary Security, the sexy courier, and that meant these people had probably never called the man by his actual name in years. Military protocol. “The officer” and “his Excellency.” All right, Medith decided. She’d overlook the lapse, this time.
Koscuisko crouched down on his heels to get a closer look at the crate’s secures. “I don’t know what I can do to help,” he said. “I don’t speak crate. Lek, they wouldn’t talk to you?”
Kerenko was there to one side, his arms folded comfortably across his chest and his hands tucked into his armpits as though his fingers were cold. Perfectly at ease in Koscuisko’s presence. Covenant or no covenant, a person had a right to know who she was going to be sharing air with, because there was a pretty wide room amount of space between the “I don’t kill you or attempt to inflict grievous bodily harm even though you’ve probably killed one or more of my relations Nurail family ties being what they are” and “let’s sit down and play cards, you get the drinks in.” All right, so she was still undecided about whether she was mad at them or not. Not scared, though, no. Really.
“Used my best accent, your Excellency. No help.” Relaxed as Kerenko was, his use of the title just reinforced what she’d been telling herself. They hadn’t said Koscuisko because they simply didn’t say Koscuisko. Nobody seemed to have noticed the “Excellency,” though she thought they were getting used to “Doctor.” Maybe that was why Lek was using the word. “The thula said it was none of my business. We did take the precaution of re-running the sanitation checks, and no, they didn’t come on board at Canopy Base, first time.”
“I am at a loss,” Koscuisko said, sounding a little aggrieved. Medith didn’t think she blamed him. “What am I expected to do, that you have not already done, and better?” Making a loose fist Koscuisko knocked on the faceplate of the crate in front of him. “You, there, crate. Excuse me that I do not know your name. Mine is Andrej Ulexeievitch Koscuisko. Be so good as to release your secures, and provide my cargo-master your full cooperation.”
“Yes, lord prince,” the crate said — startling Koscuisko to a considerable degree, apparently, though he did not actually fall backwards onto his rump. “Confirmed on voice-ident, if it please his Excellency. Security to base neutral, by your instruction, with which to hear is to comply.”
It was speaking Standard; but then so were they. So maybe that wasn’t such a big surprise, or shouldn’t be. If the crate had been waiting for one particular person to take delivery, though, why didn’t that person know anything about it? Medith pulled her scanner out of her hip pocket, and gave it a read-and-report command, just to see what would happen. Data. Data happened.
“Right,” she said. “Loaded on six-eight-five-one-eight, one of twelve, this is three in sequence. Description, miscellaneous personal supplies for the use of lord prince Andrej Ulexeievitch the-son-of-the-Koscuisko-prince, voice-release only.”
“How long has it been, since my cousin to you the thula sent?” Koscuisko asked, looking up at Stildyne. Pyotr answered, though.
“This would have come out on the thula, then, when it came to Gonebeyond. We hadn’t gotten around to a full inventory, not all the way to the back walls. Sorry, Riggs.”
Yes, they should be embarrassed. They’d been crewing this ship for more than a year, and hadn’t gone more than three levels deep into freight? On the other hand she guessed they’d been busy, now that she’d put them together with Koscuisko and the thula and everything. She knew that cargo loads were to be turned out and dusted and restowed four times a year, but that was because it was her job. The average layman on the average freighter didn’t bother, as a rule, and that was all right because it was work for her and others in her community.
“Help me with the secures, then,” Koscuisko said — to her, because she was closest to him. “If you would be so kind. Now I want to know what could possibly be in here.”
Still didn’t know that, true. “Miscellaneous personal supplies” was all the crate really had to say about itself, and the “personal” was a bit of gratuitous information at that. Her scanner re-confirmed that nothing was going to explode, so Medith shrugged her shoulders and crouched down facing Koscuisko to work the seals. She knew how. He was making it up. “There, Doctor.” The outer layers slid clear smoothly, the inner container opening out in its turn. What were those things?
Books. Bound material documents. Koscuisko pulled one out of the crate and opened it, leafing past the first few pages to get to what was clearly a contents page. Then he laughed. “It’s the Yasket compilation,” Koscuisko said. “With the Ishkanazhe textual reconciliations, and the Fannishter critical commentary. The saga, gentlemen, Dasidar and Dyraine.”
Standing up Koscuisko handed the volume to Stildyne, who received it with a moderately baffled air. “I hadn’t realized the Fannishter was actually finished, they’ve been working on it for — since my grandfather’s time, at least. My family were among the founding sponsors of the project, in fact.”
Stildyne passed the book around for the others to see, to open the book up at different places, to look at the pictures. “It’s all in Dolgorukij,” Stildyne said. “There’s me at a disadvantage, for one.”
Crate full of books. Multi-volume set, waste of space, inefficient in the extreme. Where was the indexing in that? “I will promise not to make things up, and you will promise to attempt to believe me,” Koscuisko said — happily. Taking the book from Garrity — who had looked at its apparently unintelligible text and passed it on without comment — Koscuisko put it back into the crate, and sat back.
“Come, I am consumed with curiosity now. Let us look at another, Miss Riggs, if you would be so kind.” Leaning back on his heels with his hands resting on his thighs Koscuisko waited; Medith positioned the next crate, ready for him to have to issue instructions before it would yield up its secrets. Generously sized crates. There were either more volumes than she could fathom in the first crate, or something at the bottom layer.
“Crate, I should like you to open up,” Koscuisko said. “Do we need my credentials to establish once again, or have you satisfied your requirement amongst yourselves?”
Moot question. The crate was opening up; Koscuisko leaned forward eagerly, and the rest of them with him. Clothing. Cold-weather gear. “This is for warmth,” Koscuisko announced, unnecessarily, Medith thought. “So it was already decided I would find myself at Safehaven, though perhaps such was the obvious solution. Oh. Look. Rhyti leaf. I am astonished.”
Stildyne was down on one knee beside the crate now himself, reaching in. “Dirt-rot,” he said. “This stuff ages, they tell me. Sugar. Here’s some Panaway, look at the curl on that leaf, that’s a good thing, isn’t it? Spare nibs for your stylus, all the comforts, Andrej, somebody was looking out for you.”
“It would have been my cousin Stanoczk, then, perhaps, sending on a few things for my stay in Gonebeyond. I wonder what is in the other crates, but perhaps I should best wait until they can be delivered to quarters in Safehaven. One does not quite trust Stoshi’s sense of humor, all of the time.”
Strangely enough something seemed to shift in Koscuisko’s mood as he spoke. Was there an issue of some sort, to do with Koscuisko’s cousin? “I was told that the last time you got freight from a Dolgorukij ship it was cortac brandy,” Stildyne said. “Lots and lots of cortac brandy. Don’t be forgetting your own, Andrej.”
Koscuisko seemed to brighten. “If so we shall all be the better for it, I’m sure. Or the worse,” he said. “Lek, I have something that requires your attention. Do you need further from me, Miss Riggs? Excuse me, then.”
Most, but not all, of the others followed Koscuisko out, two of them falling apparently unconsciously into what Medith suspected was military lock-step behind him. Garrity stayed behind. “Dasidar and Dyraine,” he said. “He and Stildyne have been talking about it for years. Great national epic. Everything that ever happened on Azanry. We have songs too, but they’re all a lot shorter.”
“No accounting,” Medith agreed. “Well. I’ll just put these new crates in order. See you not too long away, I’m hungry.” In other words, go away, but not because she had a problem with Garrity, particularly. No.
They weren’t going back to Safehaven; they were going to Jeddars. She’d had the usual issue of underwear in her kit when she’d reported to the Fisher Wolf in the first place, standard operating procedure for anyone who worked cargo loading, always be prepared; but if they were going to be out for another who knew how many days it was getting to be time to do the laundry. Again. Fortunately Fisher Wolf came equipped with so many different options in that department that a person’s personals were clean and dry before a person had completely mastered the instructions on how to process them.
But before she did anything else she was just going to take an inventory of whatever Koscuisko had brought on board at Canopy Base, and get the new crates slid and stowed away so prettily that nobody would even be able to tell where they’d gone. Because a well-packed cargo bay was a thing of beauty. Koscuisko and Stildyne had their multi-volume saga, “Dasidar and Dyraine;” she had her inventory.
Who would say that hers weren’t as beautiful an art form as anybody else’s? At least an inventory suite was useful. And that was more than she’d ever heard of poetry.
Safehaven, and Canopy Base, and now Jeddars, Medith told herself with satisfaction. She was certainly getting her ticket filled. Nobody had said anything to her about not being on the bridge — in the wheelhouse, that was, this being a smaller class of ship — on their way in and out of Canopy Base, and although they had the extra passenger now there were still observer’s stations unoccupied. So she sat there.
Jeddars’ atmosphere was a little on the yellowish side, but ship’s comps apparently had nothing of note to alarm on so it wasn’t a toxic atmosphere. Breathable air. Maybe just dry; Jeddars Station seemed to be in the flat-lands, no nearby bodies of water that she could see. Otherwise a station like any other of moderate size, moderately populated to go by the size of the area she took for the residentials by gridding and location, moderately well-off. One star, no moons, some orbiters apparently full of water; Pyotr was watching those carefully as Fisher Wolf came into geosync half-cycle to make its landing.
“Jeddars, this is Fisher Wolf, medical mission assigned Safehaven Medical Center.” Kerenko pretty much ran the wheelhouse, from what Medith had been able to tell; a little unusual, since he was apparently the pilot, not command-and-control. But Stildyne, who was the acknowledged crew chief, just sat at his station and let things unfold. Maybe it was just that everybody had crewed together long enough to trust one another to know what they were doing; made for quiet work groups. Medith appreciated that. People were always trying to engage her in conversation while she was trying to get her work done.
It was quiet in the wheelhouse now. Dark, so that the crew could read monitors with the least amount of eyestrain. Not a lot of background noise; restful all around. Koscuisko was there as well, watching from the observer station at the other side of the station-well where the work happened. Jeddars was getting closer, on-screen; Kerenko keyed his transmit and repeated his hail.
“Jeddars, Fisher Wolf. Medical mission assigned Safehaven Medical Center, please advise docking clearance, standing by.”
The soft subtle whisper of the ventilation blowers was there, yes, she could hear that. Nothing more. After a moment Kerenko half-turned his head to the right, where Robert St. Clare sat on the comms. Tall man, easy on the eyes, genial in temperament if a little on the cheerful side for Medith’s preference. Nurail. Looked nothing like her good old daddy. “Traffic?” Kerenko asked.
“Picking up some background,” St. Clare said. “Not a lot of noise. Maybe they take meal-naps at Jeddars? Maybe everybody’s at the broadscreens.”
New entertainment package, was what he meant, Medith supposed. Dangerous to make assumptions, yes, but she’d been born and raised at a station of middling size herself, and she knew what happened when some fresh programming came in.
“Fisher Wolf,” Jeddars said, suddenly. “Welcome to Jeddars Station. We’ve been waiting for you, landing cleared to coordinates coming atcha by any minute now.”
All right, maybe not at the broadscreens. Still left the possibility of naps, because the voice from Jeddars Station sounded a little bit on the distracted side. As though she’d been sleeping. “Thank you, Jeddars,” Kerenko said. “Directions received, estimated arrival sixteen. Medical officer requests a briefing as soon as possible.”
“You can believe — ah — standing by for arrival, Fisher Wolf. Jeddah Station on stand-by. Briefing team on alert.”
Or maybe Jeddah was simply more relaxed about its traffic protocols than other places. There was nothing wrong with that. And if it looked like there wasn’t a lot of traffic to her — freighters tethered in close orbit, lots of smaller craft apparently parked and possibly unoccupied — the crew could see it as well as she could, so she was under no obligation to open her mouth to make a point which was already perfectly obvious.
The thula came down so soft and quiet that it was a little scary how fast it was going at the same time. Kerenko hit his points in perfect order, though; descent markers, lane contact, full down, half-brake, three-quarter brake, seven-eighths brake, full stop. Medith was going to miss Fisher Wolf when she got back to Safehaven, if she ever did. Maybe the thula would continue to get redirects, and she’d have the cargo bay for her own forever and ever. No. Her underwear would eventually just disintegrate, no matter how good the thula’s laundering systems were.
The thula was stopped and the thermals were bleeding off fast, if not quite as fast as they might in a cooler climate. Or at night. Base layer of heat to take into account, but the moments stretched and nothing happened.
Medith watched the forward displays, good as clearwall now that the thula was on the ground and the surrounding buildings much closer than almost anything there was to look at once a ship had cleared atmosphere. One or two people going from building to building, displaying no apparent curiosity about the thula. That was peculiar. The thula was a very interesting ship, and previously-unknown, unfamiliar visitors should be a welcome novelty at Jeddars.
Finally a small party — two or three people — pulled out of the cavernous shadows of a motor stables in a passenger car. Hirsel keyed some instructions, and the onboard ventilators switched to external air, though Medith was happy to note that the chills hadn’t cut off completely. “Plenty of particulate matter out there,” Hirsel said. “Whitesquares, everybody.”
For sneezing. Obviously. Medith had a whitesquare; not white, but square, and why they were called whitesquares when most of the people she knew carried patterned ones was just another one of the mysteries of life. Rich and over-fastidious people carried white whitesquares. Everybody else had whitesquares that were meant to be actually used, which meant not making a partially soiled condition egregiously obvious.
It was only Koscuisko and Stildyne who were actually leaving the ship, apparently. Medith followed people down the loading ramp and out, at a respectful distance, of course. Just stretching her legs, nothing more, like Godsalt, like Garrity. No, something not quite as casual, not with them. Security. Did that ever wear off?
At the last minute, though, as the passenger car pulled up, Koscuisko turned his head and said something to Stildyne; something that might have been “Perhaps Pyotr, Brachi.” And Pyotr must have been watching. Because all Stildyne did was look up toward the wheelhouse and Pyotr appeared on the loading ramp.
The three of them got into the passenger car, and away they went. Medith scanned the immediate area: nothing to see on the horizon but a yellow-brown day-fog, and nothing of particular interest on the launch-field either. If she’d had her running shoes she could have gotten some distance in, with the launch-lanes as empty as they were; but those weren’t part of her bivvy kit, so no joy there.
All right, been to Jeddah, seen Jeddah, she told herself, and went back up into the ship where it was cooler.
The corridors were empty, and the conference room to which Andrej and his party had been conducted had an air of abandonment that was scarcely altered by the arrival of a briefing team with vacuum flasks of cavene and an herbal tisane of some sort to pass as refreshment.
“We have a relatively high level of chronic respiratory issues, among our population,” the briefing officer said. Her name was Beste, and she was in the civil government in some sort of capacity — public health, Andrej thought. The introduction had been a little vague. “At first we didn’t think twice about it. But there didn’t seem to be any correlation between the atmospheric particle load and the uptick in sick days.”
She had the very most primitive presentation imaginable, barely better than charts printed out on flimsy. Not a very big step between them, either, simple — almost crude — graphics projected on the bare wall at one end of the conference room.
All the same the information was there, and Andrej could understand it. That was all a person could really demand of a briefing package. The communication rate of the disease, the exponentially increasing number of persons with clinical symptoms, was all too depressingly familiar. He’d never been in the middle of a viral explosion event, but he’d seen statistical analyses.
“You must be experiencing significant productivity loss.” That would be stating it mildly. If the curve continued to climb it could exceed a four-in-eight incapacitation rate; only for a few days per person, perhaps, but that was more than enough to bring a small station to a standstill. “Please tell me that we are in a safe environment. Or I will have my people seal the ship, and send out the suits.”
Environmentals. They were actually intended for use in the event that a ship lost atmosphere, or for the occasional requirement to send crew outside the ship in mid-transit to see to some repair that wouldn’t wait for the next ground base. On one memorable occasion in his personal experience — at Taisheki Station — they’d been used to rescue survivors from an evacuation craft that had been losing atmosphere.
That made them suitable for epidemics, or poison gas, or extremes of temperature on a ground station; or any number of other useful purposes. Environmentals were clumsy to manipulate, claustrophobic, uncomfortable; but they did offer comprehensive protection.
Briefing officer Beste swallowed, looking uncomfortable. “Ah. Regrets, Doctor Koscuisko, I have no guarantees to offer. In our defense we didn’t know what we were facing when we contacted Langsarik Station. Nobody had died yet.”
What? Died? And the status curve, was it his imagination — Andrej asked himself — or did it seem, on closer examination of the chrono markers, that it hadn’t been updated for several days?
“Your people on the ship should not be at risk,” Beste said, with confident emphasis. “We’ve been under quarantine here at the launch-fields, no signs of infection on site. No traffic out of station. No reports of any cases of carried contamination from ships that left during the early phases, so it seems, Doctor Koscuisko, from the best information we’ve been able to develop, that we have a mutation that took a wrong turn within the past ten days. It kills our young people, thirteen deaths so far. Five yesterday. Three this morning. Our old people and our children get sick, but none of them have died, not yet.”
Andrej thought fast. If the launch-field had been quarantined there might not be active mutated virus in this conference room. A respiratory illness could be guarded against by mechanical means while an antagonist was being developed.
Unless Jeddah Station had been through the conference room with a sterilization field he and Stildyne and Pyotr were exposed, but there were broad-spectrum medications on the thula. They could be safely transmitted if the people he’d left behind found the medical stores he wanted and brought them out onto the tarmac, and went back into the ship before any potentially infected personnel approached within propagation range.
Briefing officer Beste should have given them all this information before they’d landed; but it might be that the authorities at Jeddah Station had been afraid that the Fisher Wolf would in that case simply fly on past and leave the system. Nobody could be faulted for lack of clarity in their thinking when people were dying.
“I remember similar outbreaks.” From his medical foundation classes; he had no real experience of his own, but he didn’t need to trouble Beste with that detail. She was under enough stress as it was. Jeddah Station had concealed the serious nature of their situation, in order to get help; he could similarly conceal his lack of practical experience, to create an atmosphere of reassuring confidence and hope. There was no overestimating the power of hope.
“In other cases where an endemic respiratory virus has experienced a mutation of sufficient negative impact, and it was healthy adults who died, it was not the virus’ fault. It was the robust immune response of the patients themselves. We can isolate the villain and patch an inoculation, but at the same time we must suppress the immune responses of those already infected. So they will feel more sick for longer, which is a very great shame, but they will be less likely to die, and that is our first concern, is it not?”
Sitting down very suddenly Beste put her hands to her face, as if overcome. Overwhelmed. Or, Andrej thought, suddenly, perhaps not feeling very well; which could upset his assumption-set before he had had a chance to set the parameters in place. He could appreciate the stress Beste had probably been under; it didn’t excuse the endangerment of the thula’s crew, but he could understand. Beste straightened up. “What can we do, Doctor?”
That was a “ . . . to help” question, not a cry of helplessness. Andrej nodded. “First we will dose my people, I regret that we do not carry enough prophylaxis for more than a few of yours left over.” And he didn’t know for certain that the thula did have such supplies on hand; but he would be surprised if so well-equipped a vessel was lacking in that area.
“Second, I need lab space, and tissue samples. Several, and in chronological array, if it can be done. At this point I can only advise your station resources to deploy whatever supportive treatment they can. I don’t know how long it might take to locate and neutralize the virus that has gone wrong.” A new, young, foolish virus. Or it wouldn’t be killing its incubators. “You have a clinic? We go there. Just as soon as I have my people protected.”
He wasn’t an epidemiologist. He wasn’t a respiratory specialist, or a man with especial qualifications in autoimmune malfunctions and how to manage the body’s self-defense mechanisms when they went wrong.
But he was a doctor; and more at home in a clinical lab than many, because when he had still been a student at Mayon — and all innocent of what he was to discover about himself, and what was to become of his life — he had made a sub-specialty in psychopharmacology to go with his neurosurgical qualifications. He carried basic kit with him whenever he traveled, because that was what medical professionals did, especially in Gonebeyond. He would find a way to make it work.
“Thank you, your Excellency,” Beste said. There was something wrong with that, but Andrej couldn’t spare the energy to wonder what it was. He was on his way out of the room. He had to go talk to the thula. He had things to do.
By the time he reached the clinic a fresh cadaver had arrived from which he could obtain tissue samples. Langsarik female in the prime of her life, dead for less than two hours. That meant he had a progression, now, from the first fatality to the most recent.
May the Holy Mother pardon my intrusion on this woman’s rest, Andrej prayed absent-mindedly, as he harvested the basic tissue that would give him his test index. He wasn’t a religious man. Only where medicine was concerned, because in surgery all things were in the hands of the fates no matter how carefully a man prepared or practiced. That meant in the hands of the Holy Mother, if a man was Aznir Dolgorukij. Which he was.
The station’s clinic was small but not comprehensively inadequate, though not equipped for soft-tissue surgeries. Cardiac interventions, yes, but of the stabilizing variety. Brain surgery, no, but he didn’t need any brain surgery; the shadow of a respiratory virus was to be sought in lungs and lymph, liver and lights.
His people kept him well supplied with rhyti, although no matter how much he might have liked to he could not smoke in his laboratory. There would be physical contamination to consider, and corruption of the tissue samples, and remarks from Chief Stildyne about respiratory challenges that would be unfair since Stildyne was not unwilling to take a lefrol now and then himself. Stildyne was under no obligation to be fair.
The cargo manager from Safehaven — Medith Riggs — they’d left on the thula to keep watch; when people started dying, especially in small communities, social contracts started to break down, and nobody was willing to risk some desperate person or persons from Jeddars deciding to take the thula and try to escape from so desperate a situation. They’d just been through that at Canopy Base, or, if not through that exactly, something close enough to it that the problem was very much in the forefront of everybody’s minds.
The problem with the thula’s apparent vulnerability lingering in Andrej’s mind like a nagging doubt was not so much that it carried him back to Canopy Base and what had come to pass, what had happened there, what he had done to his cousin Stoshi whom he loved like a brother. No, better than a brother, better than Iosev Ulexeievitch at any rate – the problem was that it was all distracting. Andrej couldn’t afford distraction. He put it from his mind and concentrated on his virus. He would name it Iosev. No. Obrast. Anything but Iosev.
An influenza, yes. Sinus irritation; sore eyes; increased cerumen production in the ears, concomitant itching; inflammation at the back of the throat proceeding, once sinus congestion started to clear, down into the bronchial passages into the lungs where congestion developed, which led to a cough.
That led in turn to exhaustion and dehydration and the fever of pulmonary inflammation, and fluid in the lungs, and death from hypoxia but not before the helpless and reflexive spasms of the body trying to clear its airways of obstruction, its lungs of smothering mucus, broadcast the impudent upstart virus far and wide.
From upper respiratory symptoms to bronchitis to pneumonia. To the extinction of life, in agony. The greater part of the complications leading to that grim conclusion were the result of the immune response, not the virus; but either way he needed to find the combination to the virus, because that ruled the mirroring construction of the immune system’s antibodies, and he needed to neutralize both.
He worked. They brought him food. He ate; he drank; he lay down on the floor and slept, then got up and got back to work. All the while getting closer and closer to virus and antibodies alike. What if I tried this. No. All right. Strike that idea, stop, document, rule out. Continue.
There was a new cadaver; the virus had changed, but not much. If history was a guide the virus itself would mutate into relative harmlessness soon enough, but people were dying and he couldn’t wait. It was the antibodies that were getting better, which was worse for the patient.
Then another body. The virus had hardly changed at all; what had stopped its evolution? The antibodies only grew more fierce, more destructive, more savage. He couldn’t wait for yet another corpse. He was as close as he dared get; further delay would mean more deaths.
He went to synthesis. There were no new bodies, for a few hours at least. How many people were there, at Jeddars Station? He didn’t have enough serum. But he had to start now.
“The adults first,” he told briefing officer Beste, handing over his first run of serum. “The ones who were strongest, who are sickest now. Come back as soon as these doses are exhausted. And I need another body, but, especially, I need to know if anybody dies after they have received this medication, what are you waiting for? Go away.”
He had serum to synthesize. The virus had slowed in its mutation; he needed to concentrate on the people who were sick now, or just getting sick now, because a serum would do no good for people who were already dying.
Halfway through the second synthesis run they brought him another cadaver. Not someone who’d had his serum. The virus itself was stabilizing; it was the immune response that destroyed the host organism. How soon would the virus learn to avoid triggering a defensive response strong enough to kill the host? He passed off his second run, and started a third. He had no new cadavers. If something new came up he would have to destroy the synthesis run and start again. Had he killed anybody yet, with his serum?
“Here for the population that has yet to sicken,” Andrej said to Beste. Vitamins, mostly; but people had to be given something, anything, that would provide some assurance, that would present the illusion of control. “Come back again soon, there will be more for the patients already under siege.”
No bodies. When had he eaten? He wasn’t hungry. He had a headache, yes, but he refused to acknowledge it. He had too much to do to have a headache. Dehydrated. More rhyti, yes, and he called for some rhyti after that, because he had nothing better to do than drink rhyti and watch his synthesis run and wait for the next body. Beste was here, bringing the air from outside into Andrej’s lab, the air full of particulate matter, sand and dust. No, there were no new bodies. Not yet. Not for hours.
Andrej gave Beste the third synthesis run, and another round for the as-yet-healthies. But he was worried, because he didn’t have any fresh corpses against which to check his baselines. Yes, his simulation model could continue to predict the continued evolution of the virus in real time, but how did he know whether his adjustments to the synthesized sera were responsive to the increasing lethality of the immune response, without a more recent set of tissue samples?
There was a solution. He sent Hirsel off to find Beste, to take some tissue samples from recent patients, from recovered patients, from uninfected patients. They weren’t as good, and it could be painful to pull from lymph when the clinical technician wasn’t particularly practiced, as Andrej suspected was the case.
He would take whatever he could get. He didn’t want to see Beste; his eyes itched from the sand and dust that she’d brought into his lab with her, and he already had a scratch at the back of his throat.
Hirsel came back with tissue samples. But they were all wrong. What was wrong with these samples? Patients have received serum, Hirsel said. These three, recovered. Well, that did Andrej no good, no good at all. He could see only a fraction of the immune response he expected. Why wasn’t that patient dead yet?
If only he could get new tissue samples, satisfactory tissue samples, anything to give him up-to-date information on what the virus was doing. As it was this sample gave him only the last generations of the mutated virus. He needed someone who had just come down with it, someone whose tissue would be carrying the most recent generation of the enemy troops. And then he needed that person to be dead. So that he could have tissue samples.
Why bother starting a new serum synthesis run? The information he was going by was hours old. He didn’t know how many hours old, because he’d noted the times in his test logs but he was having a hard time reading his hand-script. He would have to go find out, obtain independent validation of time and date.
He checked the mutation simulation and initiated the next synthesis run. Was there any rhyti? Why wasn’t there any rhyti? He was parched, and he had a filthy taste in his mouth, like rotten meat.
He’d been sitting in one place at his lab table for too long. When he stood up to go find rhyti he was almost overcome with dizziness. Someone was at the door; one of those large persons, his Security, restored to him after a year’s absence safe and whole and getting on with their lives. Just at the moment Andrej didn’t care exactly who it was, so long as he could get a flask of rhyti.
Starting forward toward the door Andrej was seized with another fit of dizziness, and tripped over the floor. Or something on the floor. How could a man trip over the floor? Well, any man who was drunk enough. Andrej wasn’t drunk. He was just stiff, and sore, and aching from head to foot, and thirsty.
But he had tripped. Robert had caught him; yes, of course, that was right. Robert. He knew perfectly well that it was Robert. Stildyne as well; that was all right, then. “Why can’t I have another body?” Andrej asked, aggrieved; slid down through Stildyne’s suddenly ineffectual grip to sit down, lie down, on the floor, and go to sleep.
“Going limp again,” Stildyne warned Robert as they maneuvered Koscuisko’s sagging body through the doorway into the clinic-care room. He had Koscuisko by the shoulders; Robert had the boot end, and since Koscuisko didn’t wear uniform boots any longer — cloth halves, a Dolgorukij soft boot, much easier to pull on — there was also the problem that Koscuisko would fall out of them much more easily than ever he had managed to get out of his duty footgear.
“Got it.” But barely. Stildyne himself only narrowly avoided smashing his knuckles against the door-jamb, cursing Jeddars for having doors on hinges in the first place. Easier to put up than civilized doorways with sliders, sure. Easier to slam shut on a person’s fingers, as well.
The bed in clinic-care hadn’t been made up, so Hirsel shook a sheet out hastily across the worn mattress just in time for Stildyne and Robert to get Koscuisko laid down on top of it. Pillows, where were pillows? Stildyne watched Hirsel pull a pillow out of the linen-stack, shake the miserable thin sliver of padding out with a disgusted look on his face, pull the other two pillows out as well to make a quick stack wrapped in another sheet. Right. Pillows.
Koscuisko wasn’t drunk, so there was no danger of him choking on his own vomit. But Stildyne didn’t like the sound of Koscuisko’s breathing: he could hear the congestion in Koscuisko’s lungs. He wanted Koscuisko’s head and shoulders up at a good angle.
“So what happened, Chief?” Hirsel asked, shaking a blanket out in Robert’s direction for Robert to catch the bottom hem. Stildyne got out of the way so Hirsel and Robert could get Koscuisko covered.
He’d already unfastened Koscuisko’s waistband for ease of belly-breathing, and Koscuisko’s cuffs didn’t need unlacing but he unlaced them anyway just to be doing something. And because Koscuisko’s skin was hot enough for Stildyne to want to allow for ventilation, even though Koscuisko would probably be feeling cold, because it was warm in the room but Koscuisko was running a fever. A good one. A really respectable one.
Hadn’t needed hot rhyti, Stildyne told himself. Koscuisko could have just wrapped his hand around the flask, and had it seething in no time.
“We were coming in to check up on him, he’d gotten up to come out for something. I thought he’d just tripped. Then he fell over.”
Robert had caught him, but only just in time to prevent a full-length plummet. They’d all seen Koscuisko clay-faced and white-lipped, if not recently; Safehaven’s liquor was that nasty, and Security was no longer required in constant attendance on drunken officers to ensure that they didn’t bruise themselves on the way to the lavatory.
So as a matter of fact Koscuisko could well be drinking himself into a stupor with his once-customary regularity and nobody would know. Except there were the women at night, coming for their peculiar Nurail revenge. They’d complain. Stildyne hadn’t quite figured out that angle yet, but it didn’t matter.
What it all amounted to was that while Koscuisko had been pale it hadn’t seemed that pale, he had a touch of color to his face which was pale to begin with, and now Stildyne knew it was fever. “He’s got the virus,” Robert said. Genius, Robert, Stildyne thought.
He didn’t say anything, because for all he knew Robert was worried out of his head, because a man he’d known — more than half of Robert’s life, Stildyne thought, with a dulled sort of surprise — and to whom he owed his life and so on and so forth and of whom he was apparently actually rather fond had suddenly collapsed in the middle of a viral outbreak that had been killing people until very recently. Fever. Chills. Cough. Bronchial pneumonia; death. The immune response, Koscuisko had said; cytokine storm.
Stildyne hadn’t paid too much to the details, because they were technical and he didn’t care, it wasn’t his job. It was only when the details pertained to Andrej Koscuisko that he cared, and he remembered the idea that it was immune response that did the lethal damage, because Koscuisko was Dolgorukij and characterized by a robust and very flexible and responsive immune system.
Stoshi claimed that it was simply that Koscuisko’s blood had too high an alcohol content for any pathogen to survive in his body; but Stildyne knew differently, and he’d never seen Koscuisko actually ailing. True enough that on shipboard all souls received preventive care, and —
“But how could he?” Stildyne asked, frustrated and angry. Not worried. Yes, worried, but everybody already knew that, and were worried to; so there would be no sense in bringing that up. “He dosed himself as well as us, before we left Fisher Wolf.”
And neither Stildyne nor Pyotr were sick, and Koscuisko paid attention to things like that. And to hygiene and exposure management in his lab, too, Koscuisko was at home in a laboratory almost as much as in surgery from what his subordinate officers had said to Stildyne from time to time in the past, and Koscuisko especially didn’t make stupid mistakes. Maybe when he was running a fever that was impressive enough to lay him out from an upright position, yes, but that carelessness came after the fever, not vice versa.
So whatever had gone wrong had gone wrong well before Koscuisko had fallen over. He hadn’t been drinking in the clinic. Stildyne would have noticed. “The symptoms match,” Pyotr insisted. “So does it matter so much how he caught it?”
Just then Koscuisko coughed; from the bottom of his lungs, too, it sounded. He quieted down and turned onto his side, curling his knees up toward his chest; the point was made, and there was no sense arguing it. They didn’t need to know how it came about that Koscuisko had caught the plague to recognize the plague when they saw it.
Stildyne looked around for somewhere to sit, because he wanted to fall over himself, though he wasn’t the least bit feverish. Was there a chair? There was hardly enough room for the several of them to stand. “See if you can find that briefing officer,” he said to Pyotr. “Maybe there’s some serum therapy still available. Maybe she can tell us whether there’s anything we should be doing.”
Apart from the obvious. Keep the airway clear. Watch Koscuisko’s temperature. Water bath available, in case things started to get really out of hand; but the fever in and of itself hadn’t been what had killed the others, maybe it wouldn’t kill Koscuisko. Stildyne couldn’t see calling for outside assistance. They’d been the outside assistance, after all.
If Koscuisko had come down with this thing it meant it was still out there and sufficiently virulent to get past Koscuisko’s best defenses both natural and clinical, so anybody else might prudently decide to write Jeddars Station off. Ragnarok would come to their rescue. Ragnarok would have to be within three days’ reach, though; that was how long the virus had been taking to kill people.
They had three days. If there was no more serum therapy available — Stildyne cut that thought off at the curb. If Beste said they were dosed out she’d just have to get into the lab and run another stream. What if she had no clinical expertise? None of them had lab experience. An Inquisitor’s security were trained in soft tissue injury, shock management, administration of the drugs of torment, traumatic broken bone, surface burns, neurological damage. Not clinical synthesis of chemical compounds. That was Koscuisko’s job.
Pyotr didn’t answer. There was nothing to say. Robert pulled another blanket down, Hirsel and Robert floated it over Koscuisko’s hunched-up figure to drop it down gently over Kosciusko’s body.
“I’ll go see what’s in stores,” Hirsel said. Robert went with him, but came back with a rolling-chair for Stildyne; nobody suggested Stildyne make himself useful, which was just as well. He was doing his job. His job was watching Andrej Koscuisko. Making sure Koscuisko continued to breathe.
Coughing, again. It hurt just to hear him, because that cough was so deep and so hard that Stildyne half-expected bits of lung to start coming up at any moment. Stildyne pressed a sheet of sterile film-wipe into Koscuisko’s hand gently, so Koscuisko would have it in hand if he needed it. Was a dry cough good news, or bad news? Was a productive cough evidence that congestion in the lungs was growing?
Kerenko came in with rhyti in a side-cup. Koscuisko wouldn’t take any, but at least it would be there and waiting. Stildyne would try again in a few minutes. Kerenko came back with the humidifier and started it up near Koscuisko’s head on the other side of the clinic-cot; good thought.
Suddenly Koscuisko rolled onto his back and started to sit up, eyes open, apparently awake; “I’m cold,” Koscuisko said, which was only what Stildyne had expected. “Have we got anything to drink?”
Rhyti. Koscuisko drank it off in a single draught and beckoned to Stildyne for more, so Stildyne gave him water; then more water. They hadn’t been worrying about whether Koscuisko was eating or not, because while Koscuisko got distracted, a man could fast for longer than they’d been here without any permanent damage so long as he got his fluids in.
Kerenko, again. Hot rhyti. “That’s good,” Koscuisko said, sounding very lucid, completely normal. It was only the exhausted way in which he sank back against the wall — his reclining only minimally impacted by what passed for pillows — that betrayed the fact that things were not in fact perfectly commonplace. “Does the heat adjust?”
There were only two more blankets. Stildyne wanted blankets rather than ambient heat, because a man’s temperature was easier to adjust by taking blankets off and putting them back in place than by making changes to the room’s temperature. It always took a little time for the therms to adjust at the room level. Stildyne had seen people with fevers; long ago, before Koscuisko. Before Fleet, even. He couldn’t remember how long ago. He had things on his mind.
They got Koscuisko covered up, the blankets drawn up around his neck, draped around his shoulders. He’d closed his eyes, he seemed to have fallen asleep; then suddenly he pushed the blankets away from him with a violent and impatient hand, and began to cough.
“Close the fisherman’s window,” Koscuisko said. “Dust. I can’t stand the dust.” Burning in his lungs. That was the virus, and the fever. Fisherman’s window? Stildyne wondered; then realized that it was just “fucking window,” in Dolgorukij. Which was funny, whether or not Stildyne had the heart to laugh about it.
More rhyti; another film-wrap. Koscuisko wiped his mouth with a convulsive gesture and looked around for the waste-can; Stildyne picked it up, Koscuisko dropped the film-wrap onto the bed and leaned back against the wall, knees tented. Stildyne picked the film-wrap up quietly and put it in the waste. Koscuisko’s cough was still unproductive. Sounded harsher and harsher each time to Stildyne, though.
Beste came in; they had to have told her, Stildyne was certain about that, but her face when she saw Koscuisko was still horrified, a little frightened. What? Stildyne wanted to ask. You’ve never seen a dying man before? But she had; she’d been in and out of the emergency wards all of this time, he knew. And Koscuisko wasn’t dying. Not dying now, would not start dying, wasn’t going to die.
Nobody even used the word. Nobody used anything that contained the sound. Koscuisko was going to be perfectly all right. Stildyne was going to get a stylus and some flimsy and write a letter to Koscuisko’s father, and Koscuisko’s father would write a letter back to Koscuisko prohibiting any dying in stern firm unchallengeable Dolgorukij father words, and then they’d just see about this “dying” business.
“It isn’t fair,” Beste said. “Why now? The therapy’s working. People aren’t dying any more. He’s done it.”
Done it, and now got it. “Is there any of the serum left?” Stildyne said. Beste shook her head, which was only what Stildyne expected, but which didn’t make it any better.
“His instructions were to double back on anybody in the exposed population who hadn’t developed symptoms. So we did. It’s strong medicine. But it’s worked.” Strong medicine; because typically a vaccination against an illness that a person didn’t have made a person a little sickish, in Stildyne’s experience. Because it was the immune response. Because that was the point.
“Can you reproduce the doses?” And again with the head shake. Stildyne tried again. “Is there anybody on Jeddars who can read a synthesis diagram? Anybody?” It couldn’t be that hard. But he couldn’t do it. So he had no business telling anybody else that they ought to be able to, and clinical labs were maybe a step toward the complicated direction from laundry-powder. He supposed.
He had to think of something to say, because Beste was waiting. “So get me some people who were running your emergency infirmaries.” It would be only supportive care. But it would help. And leave them all plenty of extra time to brood while they were waiting for Koscuisko to live or die. “We have a patient here. Is there any delirium associated with the course? Because he’s Dolgorukij, he takes more restraining than your average hominid.”
It was all right for her to shake her head on this one, though. This time it was reduction of complications, rather than denial of hoped-for possibilities. They were ahead of things by that much. “By the time people developed any signs it was end-state, strictly observational. No strength left to present difficulties. But we haven’t got anybody to send you. And we’re sorry. We’re so, so sorry.”
Right, fine. Sorry. Like it made any difference. “Can’t be helped now,” Stildyne said. “We’ll wait.” For Koscuisko to decide what he was going to do. One thing was for sure: it was going to get worse than it got better; and then it was going to resolve, and when that happened Stildyne wanted to be there, regardless of which direction Koscuisko ultimately decided to go.
The damned thing ran like a serack at the end of a slack line, Garrity thought, bitterly. Like a sprinter. Like hope ran out of the bottom of the last cask of whey when it was still three storms and the thaw to come before lambing season.
Dolgorukij did things to unreasonable degrees. They drank more, they ate more, they shared their feelings. It was egotism pure and simple in Garrity’s book. A man should let his deeds speak louder than his words and take care to see that his actions suited his surroundings. It wasn’t good to excel to too great a degree in a closed community. Such haughty prideful boasting could really make consensus hard to maintain.
“I just don’t understand.” There was Kerenko, being all Dolgorukij. Despairing, even in a muted Kerenko fashion — the effect of having been under Bond, show no emotion at any cost lest you show it at the wrong time and offend the officer. “He was perfectly okay this morning. Ignored his fastmeal, just as he always does when he’s concentrating. No sign. No trace. Not so much as clearing his throat.”
While now, with third-meal still littering the bench-table in the clinic’s waiting area because nobody was all that interested in their dinner under these circumstances, they could all hear Koscuisko coughing. Beste’s people had brought ventilator gear, but there was a basic problem with portable ventilators and people with coughs.
A man with a cough was desperate to clear his airway. Coughing hard, coughing repeatedly, and although Jeddars apparently didn’t believe in cavene Garrity was confident that nobody was going to need any help staying up all night to keep the watch.
He and Kerenko went way back, to before Koscuisko’s arrival on the Ragnarok. Bond-involuntaries got along with each other because each other were the only comfort they had, their only safety in each others’ company; but he and Kerenko had always gotten along particularly well. There was something about Lek that made Garrity want to smile at odd intervals, though nobody but another bond-involuntary would ever be able to catch it. Another bond-involuntary, and Andrej Koscuisko, but there it was, Kerenko’s sense of humor and Garrity’s sense of humor were a lot alike, and if there was a truer measure of amity and comradeship Garrity didn’t know what it was.
Leaning forward over the table Garrity took Kerenko by the shoulder to get his attention. “Listen to me,” Garrity said. “Do you remember when we got here, into Gonebeyond, I mean? Crannock Station? We all took our doses on the ship, who was she, Kavkazki Pass. And we all got sick, too. But you, Lek, it was awful, I thought it was going to be the end for you.”
What he would have done, what they would have done, if they’d lost one of their number on the very cusp of freedom Garrity didn’t know. He could remember the dread he’d felt altogether too clearly.
Kerenko hadn’t sounded as bad as Koscuisko sounded now, maybe. But it had been bad enough. And the Malcontent had put them down into a quiet station for the sake of everybody’s nerves, and there hadn’t been a critical care facility worthy of the name within two days’ travel.
Kerenko raised his hand to cover Garrity’s where it rested on his shoulder; so Garrity knew that he was really feeling the strain. “I remember Robert singing to himself,” he said. “I would have done anything to make that stop.”
Actually Robert didn’t sing very often. When he did it was generally very quiet, and Robert didn’t have a bad voice. But it had become one of those traditions of their own private refugee community: Robert’s singing was dreaded more as a matter of convention than anything else.
“There you go,” Garrity said. The solution was obvious. “All we have to do is put Robert in there, and tell him to run through his repertoire. That’ll put Koscuisko right if nothing else will.”
Wouldn’t work, though. Nobody was going to ask Robert to sing the songs of his childhood, songs that would remind him of his family, of the life from which he had been brutally removed. Not even to make a joke. Not even to call Koscuisko out of the depths of fever and raging pneumonia.
“No, wait,” Kerenko said. It wasn’t about the singing; Garrity could hear it. Tone of voice. Not a trace of humor in it, howsoever dry. “Wait. We need to think about this. Yes. We all got our doses. We all had the hangover. I got sick. They sent an emergency courier in from somewhere, didn’t they? The Malcontent, I mean.”
Well, yes. Kerenko hadn’t been dying, but he’d been pretty miserable, and miserable to put up with, too. The Langsariks they’d been stopping with had sent a message out to their Malcontent contact. Who had sent some additional therapy promptly. A different dose for Kerenko. Why? Because the standard preventative worked for the rest of them, but they were amongst Langsariks, and Kerenko was Dolgorukij. Something about the Langsarik flavor of the Gonebeyond suite of sick-making viruses didn’t agree with Dolgorukij.
Koscuisko was Dolgorukij too. For a moment Garrity thought Kerenko was on to something; but the Malcontent had had to send a special courier. There’d be no special courier this time. The sickness was moving too fast. Koscuisko would be dead before local meridian, tomorrow. And still Kerenko looked like he thought he had something important to say.
“Those crates,” Kerenko said. “Remember? The ones that Riggs found. Books in one, and the other one, underwear, rhyti leaf, what else? Things a man might want in Gonebeyond and have no way of finding. Koscuisko said so. Said he’d wait to see what was in the other boxes. So.”
So . . . Garrity almost got it. He caught the tail of the thought. He held on; Lek was counting on him. So — what? So someone who was putting together some home comforts for a man newly arrived in Gonebeyond with nothing but a hand-case would know about the prophylactic doses and Dolgorukij versus Langsariks. Koscuisko hadn’t landed amongst Langsariks, but Cousin Stanoczk wouldn’t have taken the chance.
The thula hadn’t arrived at Crannock Station until some weeks after Kerenko had been so sick and recovered. It had apparently been carrying those crates all this time: so there was vaccine. Vaccine in those crates. Vaccine for a Dolgorukij in Gonebeyond, where he might be exposed to Langsariks.
“Let’s go,” Garrity said, shaking Kerenko’s shoulder with a firm squeeze as he stood up. “You tell Riggs. I’ll talk to Chief. We can be out there in twenty. Fifteen if we push it.”
And they’d push it. They needed to go through those crates. They needed to find whatever medical kit Koscuisko’s cousin — the Malcontent Cousin Stanoczk — might have packed. And they needed to have done it yesterday: so they had no time to waste.
Not the most interesting lay-over she’d ever done, whether or not she was doing it on a whole new planet. At least most places she’d been able to get off the ship, go out into the port a little, see what there was to see — usually not much, or not much different from the last port and the next port, but it made for a change regardless.
She could leave the ship here and now, but she couldn’t get far. She was responsible for keeping an eye on things. So it had to be strictly within the area in which she could get back to the thula faster than a passenger mover could get from the motor stables to the thula, between the alarms going off and her locking down the loading-ramp. She’d taken the time to test the field scientifically, how far could she get on a sprint out toward the front of the thula, how far from the side, how far from the rear.
Things were happening in Jeddars. She didn’t need to be out in the middle of that unless there was something she could do. She kept a cube in her bivvy kit with a sim-play and some tunes; she could keep herself amused.
She was well on her way to a new theory of two-dimensional representations of hominid athletes as a function of the underlying rhythm of composer Krans Heber’s body of protest music when the all-ship went off at her and broke her chain of thought completely.
“Riggs. Kerenko. Need your help, we need to search those crates, we’ll be there in twelve. Thanks, away.” Kerenko had finished talking and closed the transmission almost before she could make any sense of it. She listened to it over again in her mind, before she lost the memory; all right, the Mystery Crates, though they weren’t a mystery per se any more. She had them neatly segregated, she knew right where they were — of course. That was her business, after all. “We,” Kerenko had said; how many was that?
She pulled the mystery crates and tried the secures one by one; all of the crates opened. Search the crates, Kerenko had said. She was just getting the twelfth of twelve crates out into the light when she heard the cargo loading ramp to the thula engage, and knew that her company had arrived. It had to be authorized company — the thula would only open its belly on authorization codes — so Medith didn’t mind waiting in the cargo bay, arranging her swinger-lights for maximum visibility while the crew got in and got through.
Four of them. Kerenko, Godsalt, Garrity, and Hirsel. Meant that Stildyne, Pyotr, and St. Clare were with Koscuisko. The crew were in a hurry, so Koscuisko probably wasn’t dead. “Can I help?” she asked, because there were more crates here than crew to rifle through them.
“Yes. Thanks.” That was Kerenko. “You’ve seen dose-styli, I know you have, and those blisters that injectable medicine comes in. We think Cousin Stanoczk would have sent some to Koscuisko. We need to look, carefully, it might be even just one single little blister. Anywhere. But quickly, because Koscuisko isn’t getting any better.”
Of course it happened, from time to time; just one of those things. People could almost count on having some sort of a reaction when they got into unfamiliar ports, and it was usually gastro-intestinal. That and, what was the phrase, sub-clinical. People could be taken by surprise, all the same; and sometimes they died. And Koscuisko had been sent here in the first place to contain a bad actor that had gotten loose in the population.
“Right,” Medith said. “I’ll get started.” The rest of them already had, using the grapplers to move the topmost crates of each stack to the decking, kneeling down to bend over its contents. Great, Medith told herself. There’d be crate-guts strewn all over the deck, and who was going to have to re-stow all of that stuff?
She’d grouse about it to herself later. Yes, she’d seen the blister-packs full of vaccine or serum or medicine at the doctor’s office where you went for your basic immunizations when you were a child. If this Cousin Stanoczk person had sent only enough for a dose or two it could be a pretty small blister-pack, just as Kerenko had said, but it wouldn’t be loose in the crates and rolling around, would it?
Logically there’d be a dose-stylus. There might not even be a blister-pack if it was a pre-loaded stylus, in which case it would take up only as much space as a thin lefrol or a fat marking-pen. The kind people wrote with.
She wasn’t finding anything that looked like someone might have packed a dose-stylus in with it. Bedding: she had a crate full of bedding. Flat-packed in sealed squares, very light for their size; luxury goods, teeny tiny under-feathers from a tiny tiny duck that lived in a cold climate on only a few worlds in the Dolgorukij Combine and could only be harvested on a take-and-release basis for a few months a year during the first freeze or the second moult or something.
It was the sort of thing that everything else was always being compared to in the adverts, synthetic herach feathers, some-other-world’s similarly-branded spindrift, manufactured down, second-grade down from a transplanted flock of domestically produced crossbred herach ducks, chopped feathers of Abernathy’s goose. And so on.
Pillows, bed-clothes, fine-weave sheets. If she tried opening one of the packages to check inside two things would happen: she’d have white bed-linen all over the cargo bay deck, and she’d never be able to get any of it back into its original packaging.
She compromised. She felt each pressed-thin package carefully: dense, yes, but the whole point of herach duck down was that it was light, as well as inexpressibly warm and comfortable. She was sure she’d be able to feel it if someone had hidden a dose-stylus inside what seemed to be a blanket the size of an entire bunk-room.
She worked her way down to the bottom of the crate, found nothing; tossed the packages back into the crate in whatever order — she’d pack it up neatly later, she remembered the packing order — and went on, taking the unopened crate in front of Hirsel for her next.
She noticed something, about Hirsel and his crate. He wasn’t doing any wild and passionate tossing of crate contents over his shoulder. He was lifting and putting, lifting and putting, in a very careful and methodical manner, but at speed.
At speed. That was a reminder. Medith pulled her crate off to where the twelfth crate sat — where she had good light — and started.
Food. Preserve-packs. Fish eggs, roe; more luxury items. Fish eggs in context were anything but appetizing to Medith, but she knew people were supposed to really crave the stuff; or at least when people wanted their audience to understand that a character in a tale-cast was rich and cultured and elite they frequently showed their tables dressed with fish-eggs and sparkling wine. And herach down bedding, though not usually all of those things in the same scene.
Then she found what looked like the skinned thigh of a really big animal in clearcast packaging; but not as heavy as she’d think it would be, so processed — maybe dried? — in some way. Of course. It was an Allik ham. If this hadn’t been serious Medith might have smiled; as good as a catalog of drama broadscreen dishes, this was.
Heavy ceramic jars with pictures of fruit in something that looked like syrup. Some more of those dried leaves they’d found in the first crate, rhyti, Stildyne had said.
Not the rhyti Medith had bought from the store from time to time; black confetti-like bits in a brewing-sack, okay stuff, but nothing to write home about. All interesting, and it was starting to make her hungry; but nothing in these packages of meats and sweets and relishes and cordials was likely to have a blister-pack of medicine or a dose-stylus inside with the tidbits. Looked like original packaging, as of course it would have to be in order to maintain the integrity and freshness of the food over however long it had been.
Part of the on-the-job training of a cargo handler was learning how to see when a package had been opened and resealed, especially if there was no updated notation in the inventory. So she had a good idea of what to look for in the area of package-tampering and she wasn’t seeing any of it.
That didn’t mean writing off the crate, of course. Layer after layer, Medith persevered: sweets. Pastries. High-end packaging, too, they’d never be like fresh-made but they’d be close enough for people who weren’t picky eaters. Medith wasn’t a picky eater. She’d always had a good appetite, like anybody who worked hard at physical tasks; plain food and plenty of it was enough for her, but there was no question that these foodstuffs made a person curious.
Packages of thin-sliced cured — what was that, a kind of fish? This stuff wasn’t even for the Standard market, Medith realized. If it was for export the labels would have had to have been in Standard as well as what she presumed to be a Dolgorukij dialect of some sort. Some of it not for the market at all, packaged without explanation or identification by people who clearly assumed you knew what it was and were already presumably in an ecstasy of anticipation.
Crackers. Some kind of cheese. Stone fruit. Three bottles of what was almost certainly booze, clear-wall bottles that you could see through showing off the fruit inside. Whole fruit, inside the narrow-necked bottle. The kind you could only get in there by putting the bud in the bottle when it was only just then pollinated and letting it grow up inside the bottle.
Medith could see it, a shrub or a tree covered with bottles stuck over branch-tips; how did they keep the bottles in place while the fruit matured to fill most of the available space in the bottle? What did they do if a wind came up?
Dishes and table-linen, now. So the theme was consistent. Suddenly she heard something, though; something that she’d stopped hearing, really, the way that a person could always tell when a fan that had been running in background for hours had cycled off.
Rocking back on her heels Medith looked around her, seeing what was what. There was Garrity with something in one hand, standing up, slowly.
“I think I’ve found it, Lek,” Garrity said. “Standard doses-case. Contents apparently specific to Dolgorukij, I think I recognize some of the names. Can you read these markers?”
Everything in a neat stack to either side of the crate Garrity had been going through. Tidy, precise. All of them. So it wasn’t just Garrity. So there was a standard operating procedure for bond-involuntaries engaged in unloading crates.
Kerenko took what Garrity was holding — a brown case as big as Garrity’s hand, open across his palm. Medith saw the dose-styli if she couldn’t read the labels on the medications themselves any more than Garrity apparently could.
“I think,” Kerenko said. “Thula. Fisher Wolf. I need your help. This — ” He said something, a long something, not in Standard and as if he wasn’t familiar with the word or phrase, sounding it out carefully. It went on for what seemed to Medith to be a whole sentence. “Confirm purpose of this medication, is this what they used on me at Crannock Station? Do you know?”
The thula said something; again, not in Standard. It seemed to be what Kerenko wanted to hear, because he closed his eyes and sighed deep and gustily with evident relief.
“Let’s go,” Kerenko said. “Sorry to leave you with all this, Riggs. Drinks cabinet in common-room, lateral helm-forward cupboard, help yourself but watch out for the clear stuff, it’s wodac. Celebration almost safe. We’ll be back.”
Gone. They were all gone. Again. Drinks? She didn’t party alone, what was the point? She had stuff to sort.
The way they’d unpacked made it easy to re-pack because the method was apparently to take one layer in sequence from left to right and top to bottom and put it to one side and then lift the next layer in the same sequence but stick it on the left. Separate stacks, one to a layer.
She re-packed the crate Hirsel had started on and it fit perfectly, but that was simplicity itself because it was all books and all she really had to mind was the sequential numbering on the spines. That set of books about Dasidar and Dyraine? Twenty-four volumes of a size; six more of varying thicknesses, commentaries or criticism or something, Medith supposed. Bottom layers a little different; the books were larger, thinner, even heavier.
She looked through one: a picture book, but of a particular sort. Thick pages. Colored carefully. A porno album. A porno album with really nice artwork rather than embarrassed-looking live-action models, but a porno album nonetheless. There seemed to be a running joke of some sort that had to do with fish.
Medith decided she didn’t need to see what else was in crate number one. Everything repacked a treat; she closed up the crate. No inventory. She might embarrass somebody if she prepared a list of contents, several volumes of poetry, several porno albums. Koscuisko’s crew might take offense, or else the pornos might possibly be diverted for common use before they were returned to their source crate potentially a little the worse for wear.
The crates she’d started with, bedding; now that she had time she repacked it layer by layer, wondering what it felt like to sleep in a bed made up with beaten-linen sheets embroidered with a thread so fine she hadn’t noticed the work at all before. Abstract motifs; vegetation, ducks and fish, no fish. That stuff couldn’t be dumped in a laundry machine; hand-cleaning, and that cost money. So it was impractical.
She restowed the second crate she’d been working on to ward off the temptation to dig a little deeper and see what else was there, and whether any of it was good to eat, not because she could, but for the entertainment value of it all.
How many more? Others had gotten through one crate and into the next; there was a crate completely emptied of clothing items, underwear, outerwear. Boots. Done. Personal items, grooming kit, cakes of soap, toweling; standard issue wasn’t good enough for Koscuisko?
Of course he clearly had money. Ship’s Inquisitor. Those people were paid well, partly because it was hard enough to sign anybody with a borderline medical competence up for institutionalized torture in the first place, let alone hang onto them.
There was some triangular wooden shelf-like thing that looked like it fastened to the wall in the corner, and a carefully wrapped looked-like-a-lamp that was so blackened with age that its outer surface had worn shiny in places. Antique, maybe. Tubes of something that rattled when she shook it. Packets of something.
She found a piece of framed artwork of roughly the same dimensions as the porno albums carefully packaged in clear film over corner-bumpers and possibly pane-glass, crude picture, blond man with blue eyes, something improbable going on in the background, older couple fleeing across a country-side, several other vignettes that didn’t make much sense to Medith. The other one like it was more interesting.
In the second one the blond man had brown eyes, and was represented as leaning out of the picture with his elbow on the frame and a glass in his hand. As if he was toasting the viewer. The vignettes in the background of that picture were easier to understand, if not decipher; people having sex, people feasting in a long hall, people relaxing in front of a fire with a great hearth, people carrying what seemed to be a statue in a procession of some sort through crowded streets, laughing uproariously and dancing.
Whoever had packed that crate hadn’t been quite happy with the safety of the picture, though it looked like exactly the same packaging to Medith. The someone who’d wrapped a red ribbon around the second picture hadn’t wrapped it very securely, or fastened it, and it wasn’t long enough to tie up a package of respectable size. So maybe it didn’t have anything to do with the picture’s packaging after all.
Medith packed it back up as it had come out of the crate, and went on to set the rest of the crates — and the cargo-bay itself — to rights.
“Andrej. Please,” Stildyne said, not caring if he sounded a little desperate. He was desperate. “Just lie still, it’s only a ventilator, you know what a ventilator’s for. It’s only to help you breathe. You can’t get air in. Please.”
That was repetitive. He was babbling. He knew he was. They had to ease Koscuisko’s breathing somehow; but Koscuisko wouldn’t lie still for the ventilator mask. Yes, it could be claustrophobic, but this was a therapeutic mask, it covered nose and mouth only, and Beste had pre-set the therapeutic level of atmosphere so the feeling of not being able to breathe should not be an issue.
Koscuisko didn’t respond. He was talking, broken phrase, incomplete, in High Aznir almost certainly and so far beyond what Stildyne could process that it drove him to near-despair. Then he was off on a coughing fit again; the labored sound of his breathing — like a man desperately gasping for air — was horrible. Made a man sick to his stomach with dread.
Stildyne knew — or thought he knew — why Koscuisko wouldn’t lie still for the ventilator mask; somewhere in Koscuisko’s mind he believed he knew exactly what it was.
But he was mistaken. This wasn’t the mask that Koscuisko had used to such diabolically effect at Bucane, all those years ago, the first they’d met Koscuisko, the first they’d known of his peculiar genius. Koscuisko would believe that ventilators that strapped across a person’s face were instruments of torture, because in Koscuisko’s hands they had been and could still be.
There was no telling Koscuisko this was different. If he had to use force — Stildyne told himself — he’d use force, because he’d have to kill anybody else who tried any such thing. Even Robert St. Clare, whom Koscuisko loved.
And they’d all seen what Koscuisko was capable of, to what lengths he could go, when he believed he had no alternative and what had to be done had to be done. He’d been right about that, at Canopy Base; so Stildyne had recent example to challenge his reluctance. Canopy Base and Cousin Stanoczk were no help to Stildyne now.
He couldn’t stand this. No, he couldn’t tie Koscuisko down to fasten the ventilator in place. Nothing to do with how Koscuisko fought it; if they nailed Koscuisko to the bed — the restraints were there, they were equipped for first-line management of a psychiatric emergency — Koscuisko wouldn’t be able to cough up matter and clear his airway.
What was wrong with these people? Why didn’t they have a special room, rather than a primitive ventilation device? Why didn’t they have — something, anything that would bring Koscuisko’s fever down, ease his breathing, let him sleep?
The sweat of Koscuisko’s fever smelled different than the sweat of his drunken stupors from years past. That was something: no particular danger of emesis, but Stildyne would have known what to do, if Koscuisko were suffering from self-inflicted ethanol poisoning. Stildyne had handled those medications often enough to know what they were.
If Koscuisko had been drunk all Stildyne would have had to do would have been to give Jeddars’ pharmacy a list. Then have them tell him that they didn’t stock the medications on the list, they were expensive, they were dangerous — strong medicine to counteract near-lethal doses of alcohol — and since there weren’t any Dolgorukij at Jeddars it made no sense to sink so much of what little they had to spend to stock their pharmacy with drugs that were appropriate for Dolgorukij but not so much for Langsariks. Then Stildyne would have to –
Koscuisko coughed, and coughed, and coughed. Straightening up from Koscuisko’s bed Stildyne flung the ventilator mask against the far wall, remembering to hope he wasn’t breaking the only one in Jeddars just that fraction of a moment too late. He’d have to get another one in from Canopy Base. Langsarik Station could make it happen; this was all Langsarik Station’s fault.
He turned to go, he couldn’t stay here, he was short of breath himself and fit to cough his lungs out in sympathy; but if he rushed out of the room he’d knock Kerenko over, and Kerenko had gone to look for medicine in those crates, on the thula.
Stildyne remembered Lek being this sick, or almost. Craddock Station hadn’t been as primitive a place as Jeddars; there’d been more traffic. They’d had more supportive therapy to offer. It had taken three days for medicine to come in for Lek even so.
Lek would have survived it; it had been a comfortable virus, a tame virus, content to make people more or less sick and unhappy for a few days or a few weeks and then reside back into quiescence until the next cycle. Not one that they’d caught at some point in a recombinant growth spurt that didn’t know its own strength.
“Got it, Chief,” Lek said. He had a dose-stylus in his hand and one of Jeddan’s medical orderlies — out of a grand total of three, count them, three — behind him. Stildyne got out of the way as fast as he could, and Lek put the dose through, because Lek knew as well as any of them how to get a dose into Andrej Koscuisko.
“I don’t remember,” Lek said. “How quick did it work, with me?” Koscuisko was as sick as Lek had been, but it had to be different, it had to, because Koscuisko had been on Safehaven for a year and exposed to at least some of what Langsariks carried around with them. Langsariks came and went at Safehaven. Anybody who had anything seriously wrong either got to Safehaven somehow or probably died.
“Day and a half, about,” Garrity said, from behind Lek. “Then they tried to keep you down and quiet for a month. You failed to comply.” Echoes. Failure to comply with instruction lawful and received. They’d made a lot of progress, to be able to quote a sentence of death by atrocious torture as a joke.
“Won’t tolerate the ventilator,” Stildyne said to the stuffy sweat-smelly world of the clinic. They’d know better than he did about the one in the torturer’s inventory. He’d never been forced to help Koscuisko deploy the mask, and give no sign of pity — horror — dread — revulsion, at risk of hellish punishment from the governors in their heads. “The only way through that I can see is to keep him sitting up. Suggestions?”
Nothing heard. But it wasn’t so easy as that, with a feverish man. They’d been with Koscuisko, sitting on watch, since he’d collapsed — yesterday. Only yesterday. He’d been able to sit up in bed, for the first few hours, propped up against the pillows. They were past that point.
“Right. Hirsel, if you’d bring me about half my head of cavene, sorry, pull it from the thula’s stores, ask Riggs to set some out on the tarmac for us, tell her it’s for a good cause. I’ll go first. Four hour shifts.”
Someone was going to sit with Koscuisko, embrace Koscuisko, hold him upright. So that he could breathe. It meant feeling every tremor, each spasm, each retching cough; Stildyne knew, because he’d been trying it out, not wanting to ask the others. Until now, since there was clearly no other way.
“Right, Chief.” Voices in chorus. Voices that went away and left him alone. Not far away, any of them; someone would be listening for the sound of his voice at all times, Stildyne knew. But the room was empty, for now. Stildyne sat down on the bed; Kosciusko pushed at him with two ineffectual hands — worried about the ventilator mask, maybe.
Stildyne wrapped his arms around Koscuisko, raising him to sit up in the bed, to lean forward against Stildyne’s body, to rest his head against Stildyne’s shoulder. It was awkward and it wasn’t easy — Koscuisko was heavier than he looked — muscle mass, Dolgorukij — and a more-or-less dead weight. Stildyne didn’t care. Koscuisko wasn’t coughing, and that was all that mattered.
All they had to do was somehow wait the waiting out, and everything would be all right.
Blinking his eyes in slow confusion — they seemed to be filled with grit, why would that be? — Andrej Koscuisko returned slowly, laboriously, to the land of the living. It appeared to be some time during the day, by the fact that there seemed to be sunlight coming through the windows. He could smell himself, stale perspiration, clothing that stood in emergency need of a thorough airing; but the other thing he smelled was Stildyne.
He didn’t think he associated any particular smell with Stildyne — or any of them, apart from Godsalt, whose body chemistry gave all of the hominids in his class a characteristic if faint odor of the last of the apples, left winter-long in a cool dark place to see the children of the Holy Mother through to the summer next. Even so he smelled someone else, and Stildyne was right there; so the logic proved out.
Raising one arm carefully Andrej put his hand to Stildyne’s shoulder. He thought he’d just straighten up, get up, find the lavatory; he ended up simply poking at Stildyne’s shoulder. He didn’t have the strength to push. “Brachi. Brachi, wake up. Need several things. Not . . . capable.”
Stildyne woke up with a bone-rattling start and sat there, holding Andrej for a long moment as he apparently gathered his sleep-scattered wits. “Andrej.” He put his hand to Andrej’s face, tenderly, the backs of his fingers to Andrej’s cheek; and Tikhon had Dasidar, and Dasidar had Tikhon, so Andrej understood completely. “You’re awake.”
“Wish I wasn’t,” Andrej said, with as much emphasis as he could muster. “Ribs hurt, belly hurts, stomach hurts. Thirsty. Throat, lungs, head.” His brain. He had to be careful with his words, he realized. He was using all his energy up, not to mention his air.
If he pushed too hard to maintain a conversation he’d be gasping, which would irritate his lungs as well as his throat. Then he’d be coughing. It seemed to Andrej that he’d gone through half-a-lifetime’s worth of coughing recently, though he couldn’t remember much by way of detail. “Thirsty.”
“Not surprised,” Stildyne said. “We’ll get you straightened out, Andrej, you can expect no mercy from these men. We’re all pretty annoyed at you. You had us worried.”
No, Andrej decided. There was just that hint of hesitation in Stildyne’s voice between “you had us” and “worried. “Sorry. Again.” Except that the first “sorry” had been him, feeling sorry for himself. The nuances were exhausting to try to comprehend. He thought about what he wanted to say next, what to ask, what he wanted to know; then knocked it all down to an absolute minimum. “Virus?”
Stildyne nodded. “Population stabilized, no new deaths for, what? Nearly three days. New infection rate in the waste-ditch as well. You’ve been our only cause for concern, because Safehaven is holding several cases for you and starting to make a nuisance out of themselves.”
“What happened?” Because he didn’t understand and Stildyne hadn’t offered an explanation. A report was not a reason. “Any of you?” He didn’t think anyone had been coming down with the virus, but —
“Again, you’re the only one. Then Lek remembered that there’s some insufficiency mapping between Langsariks and Dolgorukij, from when we got here. It got him. And Lek was pretty sick, for days.”
Stildyne sounded tired. Andrej decided he’d better hold the rest of his questions for later, so that Stildyne could go get some rest. “Meal,” Andrej said, because have you been getting your meals on schedule, all of you had too many words. It might confuse Stildyne, in Stildyne’s weakened state.
“All good.” Clearly exhausted, Andrej thought. “I’ll get right on that, Andrej. Meantime Godsalt will help you in the showers, take your time. We’ll go get you some clean clothes out of Fisher Wolf.”
That’d work. Maybe he could get Godsalt to explain more of what had been going on to him. If I wait much longer there is the possibility of perhaps even less cleanliness of my clothing because I do not seem to have found a piss-pot for a week. Something to eat will also be — “Good,” Andrej said.
“Going.” Stildyne leaned Andrej back in the bed, carefully arranging a pillow at the back of Andrej’s neck because he was apparently too weak to keep his head from wobbling. Godsalt came in with a shower-stool as Stildyne went out, and between the two of them Andrej was able to accomplish his personal business and take a hot shower, and was half-way through getting into a clean hip-wrap when he went back to sleep.
“I’d expect this hasn’t been the most enjoyable trip,” Stildyne said. He’d sought out Riggs for a word, which if he could predict at all Riggs would take for her briefing. I’m going to say — check the box — excellent, better than average, below average, never hire again and refer any disciplinary or other documentation to the Port Authority within three days of arrival on the survey, I’ve found your attitude to be — check the box — completely satisfactory, satisfactory, acceptable, somewhat unsatisfactory, completely unsatisfactory.
And so on. It was a civilian form, civilian operating procedures. He was learning fast, but he thought it was still going to take them all a while to adjust to the entirely new system of documentation.
Since what he’d led out with was apparently not part of the programmed departure protocol it seemed to take her a moment to respond. Maybe just reviewing her reply for inappropriate language. “I’ve kept busy. And I’m glad the doctor could help at Jeddars.”
She mostly meant the port population, Stildyne was sure. He had nothing to resent if she had. Koscuisko was a resource, so far as Safehaven was concerned; an item of hospital equipment. Like bond-involuntaries were in the inventory as items of Inquiry, created to be instruments of torture. His own investment in the man was strictly personal.
Stildyne nodded. “I’m glad it wasn’t too boring, is all I have to say. I think you said you were working on your certificate?” Of course she was. Any “basic” certificate holder was either actively engaged in the pursuit of promotion and responsibility, or deserved to be a “basic” all their lives — not that there was anything intrinsically wrong with that. “Will you get some good hours out of it, at least?”
Somewhat to his surprise she shook her head. “Not as many as you’d think. I only get to count a shift-and-a-half a day, two shifts max. Don’t get me wrong, that’s the system. At my level there’s an assumption about how many hours of useful work you can realistically perform over a given period of time.”
Stildyne thought a bit. Well. She got her full trip pay, no question, but it did seem a little hard that she wouldn’t get full credit for her work. “I guess I can get that. When you’re learning hand-to-hand there’s not much learning going on after the first three hours, in my experience.” He’d been impressed by her inventory, and her loading theory; maybe he was just easily impressed. No. “Seems a little hard to me, all the same. But rules are rules.”
And frequently there were ways to get around them. Koscuisko was particularly adept in some areas of that art; he’d have a word with Andrej, and see what might be done.
It had certainly been a longer job than she’d thought she was signing up for, when Workforce Management had sent her to Fisher Wolf — ten days ago, maybe, with all the travel time factored in. Not without its points, and the crew were interesting to the extent that they were all men of war in a sense: people whose employment had been down to fighting space battles or doing that other thing they did. Given the choice between the two major jobs of a bond-involuntary she knew which one she’d prefer, but that was why they’d had to be bond-involuntaries. As long as they didn’t talk about it she was okay with them.
One final meal at the customer’s mess, per standard contract terms and conditions. Laundry done, because she hadn’t actually found a place to stay yet, she hadn’t planned on taking off for a week. Thula down on the old launch-field, all ports secured; time to leave the ship. Two of the crew went out first — Pyotr, Garrity.
Then Koscuisko; then Stildyne; and then her, because she had no further business being on someone else’s ship once her pay-packet had been posted. It was a nice pay-packet. It would keep her going for nearly two months, during which time she would be collecting more pay-packets that would extend her financial resources further still. She had very cordial feelings with regard to her pay-packet.
There were people waiting outside, and a ground-car marked for medical evacuation. Several people looking anxious and also maybe a little annoyed; “I am lost,” Koscuisko said, to Stildyne, but Medith was close enough behind to hear, not that she was listening. “Somebody should tell them that I am really quite recovered, Brachi, there is no cause for — ”
Good luck with that, Medith thought, because Stildyne wasn’t making any moves to stand between Koscuisko and the medivac car. Two kinds of people were there: several in uniforms that meant Port Authority, and others in what she had to assume was medical uniform of some sort because they were clustered around the medivac car.
“Uncle,” the oldest of the Port Authority people said, coming forward with his hand extended. Oldest, shortest, and had one ugly scar all the way across his face; nice hair, though. “Er, Doctor Koscuisko. Good to have you back, glad you aren’t dead, and Langsarik Station sends its very most sincere apologies. Riding on top of some expressions of appreciation on behalf of Jeddars Station.”
“Thank you, Beauty, I’m glad to be back. We owe Jeddars for one ventilator mask, I suppose there are requisition forms? I should go right away and start on them, I think. And a trip report. I’m sure I have a great deal of documentation backlogged, and I am anxious to be at it.”
An obvious lie, and not only by the way Koscuisko kept glancing nervously at the medivac car as he spoke. “Beauty” just grinned, pulling his face into yet more contorted furrows. “You go ahead, Doctor,” Stildyne said; as though he was enjoying himself, just a little. “These people will take good care of you.”
Serves you right for the scare you gave us. Medith heard the words in her mind’s ear, because on the one hand they were just as clear as clear could be; but on the other hand she was as sure as she needed to be that Stildyne hadn’t said them out loud. Out loud he only said “I’ll be helping the crew with your boxes, stack them in quarters for you? Very good.”
For herself Medith didn’t need to wait around and watch the show. Starting her fade-back she checked quickly to her right for the nearest line of escape, then to her left. There was an obstruction, on her left. It was wearing the Port Authority’s uniform. “Medith Riggs?” the obstruction said. “I’m Biddalf Shandy, Port Authority administrative staff. I’ll give you a ride to the main launchfield, they’re holding your gear.”
The gear she’d stowed in their locker on her way out to Fisher Wolf. They wanted their locker back; but it couldn’t be very urgent, they had plenty of lockers. No, I’ll get myself out, I need to learn the public transport systems — “Good,” Medith said. “All right. Fine.” There was no sense in standing on her dignity when a favor was offered. A free ride was just that, free, which meant one meal of starch-blocks the less. Prudent people paid attention to where their meals were coming from. “Thanks.”
She could see Koscuisko getting into the medivac car. Shandy from the Port Authority led her off in a different direction to a much more modest passenger car, homely, familiar, comfortable. It always seemed somehow shorter to go back the way a person had once come; even though she’d only come from the new launch-field to Safehaven city once, days ago, she was startled at how little time it took them to get back. Maybe Shandy knew short-cuts, Medith thought. Unavailable to public transport.
They were pulling up to Workforce Management, so Medith got ready to say her thanks and leave; but Shandy parked the car in a marked slot near the door and closed it off. Coming in with her. Fine, Medith thought; though it did seem a little strange. Maybe he just liked her.
There were a lot more people in the dispatch office than the last time she’d been here, and two or three people in line on top of the five or six seated and waiting for whatever. When it got to be her turn Medith realized that the duty officer was the same one who’d given her the chit for Fisher Wolf: and the duty officer certainly seemed to remember Medith.
“Riggs,” the duty officer said. “Well. Welcome back. Have you brought your job-log with you?”
Weird question. The duty officer would know as well as anyone that the log was sent by the ship, direct entry into port records, not hand-carried in flimsy. She would have explained that, too, but Shandy coughed a little, as though he was embarrassed about something. “That’s me,” he said. “Right here, Desk.”
The duty officer reached past Medith to take the flimsies Shandy was holding out to her. Medith had to move aside a bit to make it work; she happened to notice, when she did, that the other people in the office were all looking at her. What? Her jacket was clean. She’d washed her face.
“Wish it had been me, frankly, Riggs,” the duty officer said. “There’s nobody here has stepped foot on that ship since it’s got here, oh, except for cabin refresh. And they’re escorted on and off, shadowed all the way. Here’s you — twelve days, with departure and return accounted for — ”
Yes, that was right. Twelve days. Medith had forgotten to make the allowance for time-creep; she was glad she hadn’t said anything, because it made her feel stupid when she did that. It was a trivial detail. Records didn’t lie, she’d be paid — Fisher Wolf billed — on what her log sheets said, and log-sheets always knew what day it was.
The duty officer had stopped talking, though, scanning the summary top-sheet. Same format, whether flimsy or record entry; was there a problem?
The duty officer was looking at Shandy, who was looking bland. “I’m not getting this,” the duty officer said. “Cargo management is cargo management. You can’t make it load supervision when there isn’t a load supervisor on the manifest. Forensic inventory? What’s going on?”
Medith had no answer because she had no idea. She wasn’t the one who prepared the skill codes; her job was to punch in her license and her hours worked, and leave the rest to the record because she couldn’t make any direct skill-code input anyway. Was someone playing a trick of some sort on her? Why would the crew of the thula falsify codes to make her look ridiculous?
There were no guarantees in life, no, and people could surprise a person, but she’d had nothing but perfectly cordial exchanges with any of them. Even Stildyne.
It was Shandy, though, and not her, that Desk appeared to be asking. “And security. Ship’s Security? Cargo loader, ship security? You mean to tell me they all went off and left just anybody — no offense, Riggs — in charge of a Kospodar thula, when nobody else has been able to so much as talk them out of a tour?”
All very well for Desk to go to Shandy about it. Medith was distinctly uncomfortable, even so. There was no offense, maybe, but the duty officer was still loudly and publicly scoffing at the idea that Medith had done her off-schedule work, and Medith had. Cargo-master, no, she didn’t have the rating, but she had planned and placed and inventoried and inspected and done all the things a cargo-master would have done if there’d been one. Practicing for when that was what she was.
Forensic inventory, well, she had done the inventory, she’d found cargo not on inventory or manifest, it had turned out to be important and without her they would never have known it was there. Maybe Koscuisko would have died. That didn’t mean she had a medical degree, but inventory management had saved the day. So Medith started to get angry. Someone was making fun of her. And “Security?”
“Ah, calm down, Desk,” Shandy said. “That’s what the log says, that’s what the log means. Check out the authorization chop, why don’t you.”
Yes, Medith thought. Tell her who put that log together. Tell her who sent her to Workforce Management all innocent and unsuspecting with a practical joker on the loose. Go ahead. I’m listening.
Desk flipped up the corner of the topmost flimsy; stopped, and stared. What? Medith stretched herself as tall as she could go, not disdaining to come up onto her toes just a little. Craning her neck, but as unobtrusively as she could manage. The duty officer put the flimsy down on the counter, smoothed the crease to keep the sheet with the authorization signature exposed, and turned the whole thing around so that Medith could read it. Signature block. Not Stildyne.
I attest and affirm that this log has been correctly completed to the best of my knowledge and ability based on my knowledge of the actuals and my examination of applicable job standards and descriptions. Andrej-something unreadable-Koscuisko, Chief of Surgery, Safehaven Medical Center.
“Senior ship’s officer,” Desk said to Shandy. “Koscuisko is a civilian. Not ship’s master. Unless we’re redefining that, as well? Senior ego on board? Has the Port Authority seen this?” Now Desk was frustrated and angry. Medith thought Desk had some reasons, too.
It was an absolute point of reference. The ship’s captain was the ship’s captain. No matter how much a passenger might outrank the ship’s captain, it was the captain who was in command of the ship So what had Koscuisko thought was the point of him signing off on her log, her apparently creatively compiled work experience report?
“Port Authority said two things.” Shandy was apparently enjoying himself. “One of them was that Koscuisko’s a medical officer, but we’ve all heard the story about the Ragnarok at Taisheki Station. That Koscuisko was actually the ranking officer on board when it shot up the minefield.”
Once Medith stopped to think about it she could see the logic behind that. There, though, Koscuisko had stepped into the role of the actual ship’s captain; that was how the story went, anyway. Which in turn meant that he’d had command delegated to him. So his signature was pushing the line, but not past its point of flexibility.
“Go on,” Desk said. Clearly feeling a little less certain of the firmness of her position. Shandy nodded and grinned; it was a friendly grin, with no malice of nastiness to it, and it seemed to help Desk relax. At least a little.
“And the second thing was that if anybody was going to take it back to Andrej Koscuisko and tell him he was wrong it wasn’t going to be the Port Authority.”
Medith had to accept the logic of that argument. Andrej Koscuisko. No. Not going to challenge him. “Well,” Desk said, apparently all out of anger for the moment under the influence of the humor of the situation. “He was a judicial officer, our uncle, wasn’t he? All right, Riggs.” The duty officer took back the flimsy and pulled the front sheet back into place. “I’ll record as written. No question you did what he said, and I’m sure you did it well. A little — ah — outsider’s interpretation of the standard, maybe, but no unfair advantage.”
Time logged as cargo-master and ship’s security officer looked good on the record, but didn’t really apply to the next level of certification. Medith felt a little better once she realized that; there’d be no unearned qualifying experience. Stildyne’s fault, Medith decided. They’d had that talk.
“No accounting for some peoples’ senses of humor.” She hadn’t been in on it, but she was confident that everybody here understood that clearly, now. “Thanks, Desk, Shandy. Sorry for the trouble. I, ah, should go retrieve my gear.”
Picking up her identity chop Desk waved it over some on-screen icon with a flourish, touching chop to screen to authenticate an entry. “Go ahead and take another day in TQ,” she said. Transient quarters. Bed and board courtesy of the port. “Not like they gave you any time between then and now. Vacate quarters four shifts, tomorrow. Better get situated before you come back for work, though, there’s no telling what might happen.”
As good a summary of the past few days of her life as a resident of Safehaven as any. Medith nodded. “Yes.” She was all in favor. “Thanks again.”
It had been a unique experience, a truly once-in-a-lifetime introduction to Safehaven. She hoped it was once-in-a-lifetime. Because she was ready to settle down to normal regular jobs, now, for the next while at least; a room to put her boots down and a bit of a kitchen to keep her starch-blocks, and she could be just as happy with the calm routine of nothing to do with the thula Fisher Wolf and its crew ever again.
He’d sprung Koscuisko from Koscuisko’s own Infirmary by promising to keep him quiet and drinking plenty of fluids on top of a range of doses. Or not Koscuisko’s own infirmary, maybe; Koscuisko was chief of surgery here, not clinic management. It was only him, the crew, who still thought of Koscuisko as Chief Medical Officer. He did have more experience of managing medical specialties taken together than Safehaven’s sitting Chief Medical Officer, but Koscuisko showed no signs of wishing to have the office for his own.
He needed larger living quarters, no question; especially now, with twelve substantial boxes taking up half of the available space in the front room. Stildyne had some ideas about Koscuisko’s living quarters, but he was going to need to line up his resources before he broached the subject with Koscuisko.
For now the small dim hush of Koscuisko’s quarters was comforting, pleasant, secure. Safe. Koscuisko was safe. The thula was safe; the crew, safe. Everybody was safe and nothing wrong for the next little space of time; there was never any telling how long a space of time he would be granted to enjoy everything being all right. There was no sense in disturbing this quiet contented time with any of the otherwise obligatory Security Chief Warrant Officer thoughts.
“I am sorry that there weren’t another few eights of cortac,” Koscuisko said. “But it will be fun to see what all is there, regardless. Tomorrow I will start in on it in earnest.”
They’d opened up the crates as they’d stacked them, just now, he and Andrej, just to see what was there. Bed-linen, for one. Personal linen, for another. Riggs had presented the baldest possible inventory, just repeating the original contents designations; so she was discreet, Stildyne knew. There’d been no choice but to dive into Andrej’s personal effects, or personal effects meant for Andrej anyway, but there was no reason to advertise the fact.
“There’ll be that much more room for cargo, now. Twelve crates of Bucane-leaf lefrols, maybe. Currency all its own in a place like this, I’m sure.” Hard cash money was at a premium in Safehaven, as in Gonebeyond generally; luxury goods were useful in a barter economy. Not that Stildyne didn’t have an interest in the idea of a shipment of Bucane lefrols on his own behalf. He didn’t smoke often, but when he did his experience of Andrej’s habits had pointed him toward what was emphatically at the high end of the scale.
“No, they’ll be wanting the space for practical cargo. I’m sure,” Andrej said, mournfully. It was the Malcontent’s thula, after all. “Pharmacy stores, that would sweeten the administration towards me by some fraction. I can hope. If I have to go often to Canopy Base, though, Brachi, they will owe me an entire cargo-bay full of rhyti and cortac brandy, and some lefrols to fill in the cracks. And a milche cow, so that I can have fresh cream. We should get Riggs to pack the shipment, if she could be persuaded to take an interest in going to Azanry for the cow.”
There was wastage to consider every time a ship stopped over in port and had its cargo checked. That was a fact of life. So what if a bottle or two, or a handful of lefrols, somehow evaporated, from time to time? Someone like Riggs was unquestionably capable of keeping it to a reasonable minimum, and it was a small enough price to pay for a smooth passage. It was actually a relief to slip the port authority a little something on the side, just because they could.
“Hard worker, that,” Stildyne said. “And minds her own business. She’d be good to have on board. Have her in for quarterly audits, maybe, and then just unexpectedly have to leave, four times a year.”
Koscuisko laughed at that, setting his glass down on his desk. “She would become suspicious. I change the subject. Do you know what I saw in one of those crates? I took it out.” He was sliding something out of the desk’s under-shelf as he spoke, lifting it up onto the table surface. “Tiles. The point is not that they are so carefully made of such materials that a man almost hesitates to touch them. The point is that it is freshly arrived, perhaps new, but even if antique it will have all of its tiles still.”
And a nine-fold increase in the potential complexity of the game. That was all right. There were books, all however many volumes of them. Stildyne supposed he was going to have to hunker down and study harder, no matter how much Dolgorukij syntax hurt his brain.
“One eighth-set, and we’re done,” Stildyne warned. “You’re to be resting.”
“What is more restful than a quiet game of tiles?” Koscuisko replied. He wasn’t objecting to Stildyne’s admonition, all the same. He was standing, he was walking, but he was far from completely recovered. Stildyne was going to make it his especial mission in the coming days to see that nothing stood between Koscuisko and complete recovery — not even Koscuisko. “One eighth-set, then, Brachi, you choose first.”
Life could be good, Stildyne though, despite its best efforts. He drew his first tiles from the small group in array and set his mind to concentrate on winning a cordial game of tiles with Andrej Koscuisko.