Science Fiction

Brilliance

By Jessica Reisman
14,388 words · 53-minute reading time
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Brilliance

 

     The Bosch broke cloud cover and banked low over the City of Shores, Athkiyar, spread below in a pattern of stone, sand, and the dark green of ancient soil gardens. The endless waterways gleamed in occasional slips of sun through pewter cloud.

     Jet scratched over the roughness of slight stubble on his face. The Bosch’s view cut any glare there might have been, but he squinted, thinking. Faces rose in his mind’s eye. His mother and father…gone now, through the next gate, one with honor, one without. Uncle Koll, the smell of smoke; his Aunt Kayla…an oppressive, echoing anxiety in his gut. The cousins--Kault, resentment and the weight of heavy fists, Niell and Droikus, shadows bulking behind Kault. And Dai. Dai, of them all, who part of him wanted to see.

     The tangle of conflicting emotions stripped years away from him, as surely as the protective distance had been stripped from between him and his family by his own spinning. He could have spun them somewhere else, anywhere else in the Aggregate. Could have told Arcady he didn’t want to come here--asked to be let out of his contract. 

     But Arcady and Snat trusted him to spin as requested, and after serving as contract crew on a blurred succession of ships, he’d found one where he honestly wanted to stay. He wanted Arcady to offer him full crew option. Wanted it almost more than he’d once wanted to get his persephone string. He ghosted his fingers over the fine, strong chain at his neck. The thin disc hung at the end, skin-warm under his ship tee.

     "What's the ambient?"  Arcady's voice broke into Jet’s musings and he blinked down at the boards. 

     "Nine-two, holding."

     "Ease around to seven-three." Arcady listened to the com button in her ear. Her gaze slid to Jet and an ill-boding shiver worked from his gut to the top of his head. "Got you, Main,” she said curtly.  “Will relay.  Bosch out.”

     The last two words cut com. He could feel Arcady looking at him. 

     She folded her hands in front of her on the board; it should’ve been prim, but wasn't in Arcady.  "Athkiyar Main," she said, "has asked me to inform my spinner, one Jet am'Diia, that his cousin Dai am'Diia, a member of the radical anti-enlightenment group suspected of being involved in recent terrorist activities against the government, has disappeared."

     She paused to scan the board, flicked a control.  "Their general drift seemed to be if you know anything concerning her whereabouts, you better come across with it."  She pinned him with a look.  "Do you?"

     He considered the tightness in his gut that had been there ever since entry into Athkiyar system. The Bosch hummed heavily. Okuta class hauler, elderly and snug. Com, boards, view and galley forward with crew quarters for four in semicircular config; cargo above, drive core and systems everywhere else. A reliable ship with a few quirks.

     Snat watched in his monitor; Jet met the pilot’s reflected gaze, saw curiousity and challenge there.

     His hand started to go to the sanction disc, to grip it through the tee; he caught the movement, set his hand back on the mons. It was a gesture he’d weaned himself of some time back. Proximity to his family had brought it back.

     "Jet? Give me some react here. You don’t know--"

     "No."

     "This Dai...were you close?"

     The ambient gauge under his hand registered drift and he toggled it down, then said quietly, "Yes."

     Dai. 

     "Is she—" He could see Arcady trying to figure out what she wanted to ask. "She’s a, what is it, an anti-enlightenment terrorist?"

     "Self-sovereign is what they call themselves. Anti-enlightenment is what the Belcathat calls them. Dai...she always had strong feelings about...things."

     "The sanction arguments on Athkiyar are long standing," Snat said. "The Belcathat party has always held majority, however. You have a dissident in the family? That’s interesting.”

     “Actually,” Jet said levelly, “my whole family are self-sovereign—dissident. All the am’Diias. Except me.”

     ****

     He'd told Arcady about the persephone string right away, having discovered it upset a captain to hire a spinner and then find out he had a sanction to kill himself. People tended to see it as a death wish. It didn’t seem to matter that the whole philosophy behind a persephone string was the cultivation of a responsibly lived life, so that, if the need still existed in one, death was made honorable by the nature of the living which preceded it.  

     The official title of the string was Belcathat Sanction of Enlightened and Honorable Passage from Life; the official title was rarely remembered. Various sentient life—depending what planet, ship, station or rotting hole in the Aggregate one was habitating—called it simply the sanction, enlightenment, the persephone string, saint’s cord, deader chip, asshole’s delight. Or they just tossed you off the ship for having it.

     Settled long ago by a small religious sect whose members adhered to a complex philosophy of responsible life, Athkiyar promoted a rather morose and serious psych set. They believed that if the present world wasn't working out for you, you could consider moving on to the next one, but that there was a tithe to pay to pass that gate, and a responsibility to be honored, to your life and all whom it touched.

     You can't just give up, was how Jet’s sanction mentor had put it, and leave a mess behind you. You have to cultivate your brilliance.

     After eighteen months standard, the mentor board had concluded that Jet had an acceptable grasp of the responsibilities of enlightened passage and Jet received his sanction. Jet’s mentor had suggested that Jet consider getting off Athkiyar for a portion of his period of responsible action, to see a wider slice of the Aggregate Worlds.   

     Athkiyar, though a big world with a rich economy, was well off the ship routes and didn't see much traffic. With few system-capable ships of its own and those private, it took him nearly five months standard just to get transport off to Quintep, to get evaluation and training to support himself offworld.

     In evaluation he’d discovered what he’d never been given the opportunity to suspect on Athkiyar, an aptitude for spinning that was upper percentile. He could throw his numbers into the air and pick the right ones every time. He hadn’t lacked for contract opportunities. But despite the hotshot spinning, he’d been let go from service repeatedly. Because of the sanction. Ten ships in four years, plus a stint on a mining station in the dust belt.  

     Then he met Arcady Bosch, who needed a spinner and took him on as contract crew, hiring him despite what had become a bad rep as a bad fit. Arcady, Jet learned, made a habit of doing things people told her not to. 

     The Bosch ran with a small crew. Arcady handled trade, contracts, licensing, chose destinations, fielded all com traffic, and did small mech repair. Jet spun the numbers for deep nav and fed them to Snat. He also took care of galley supply and helped Arcady with the mech repair. Snat flew the Bosch, did trade research for Arcady, and ran diplomatic interference in slant culture situations. Snat knew civstory and customs on about a hundred Aggregate Worlds. Twice Arcady’s age, he'd been with her since she took captaincy. Sometimes Jet talked about old flash kives with him. But Snat archived more information than Jet thought a person ought to be able to hold in their head. Other than number theory, spinner stuff, Jet archived pulp flashes. The Jensai Xel adventures were favorites, and some of the retro-epics out of Chaldinny. Warring families, sword battles, poisonings, doomed love.

     Snat said he was morbid. 

     Arcady said Snat liked him, but didn't approve of him, and that he wouldn't let the one get in the way of the other. Reg-thinking, she said, meaning regulation, and then got a funny look in her eyes. From which he gathered that either Arcady wasn't raised reg, or she was raised way too reg.

     He wanted, so badly it frightened him, to be offered full crew option when his contract was up. Then Arcady got this contract, moving kives and Megrantian metals in exchange for chi'ri glass and rare bio-chems, Athkiyar’s main exports. So here they were. 

     City of Shores, Athkiyar. Home.

****

     They berthed the Bosch in Athkiyar Main Port. The only other ships were a longhauler out of Quinteppi and a sleek little thing with Kakuli diplomatic markings, plus the Beidian hulk that’d been there since Jet was a kid.

     “Ship looked lonely,” Arcady said as they left port and boarded a transport.

     Snat squinted at the leaden sky. “Is this good weather?”

     “Perfect,” Jet said. “It’s not raining. Trifune Way,” he added with a wave of his hand, playing guide as the transport hove onto a long esplanade. Biolumes in mosaic chi’ri globes cast petals of color through down the main thoroughfare.

     “Belcathat,” Jet mumbled, throwing out his hand again as the bonded sand of the lower city buildings gave way to the fancifully carved stone of the Belcathat district. By the time they reached the groomed sandpaths bracketing lush soil gardens around the complex proper, he’d fallen silent.

     Belcathat complex was a big square, walkways and soil gardens all around, inner offices off archway-laced corridors. At the center, the tower spired into cloud cover. Here and there people strolled, Belcathat workers, groundskeepers, an early class of students from the chi'ri school. The smoothed sandpaths still bore the brush patterns of the late night crews.

     The sand gave under his feet as he stepped from the transport. The sound and feel of it made him draw a sharp breath and then the scents of water, stone, and greenery assaulted him. Bloody void, anywhere but here.

     Inside the Aggregate Traffic Office, tall windows of gray and blue chi'ri threw light across a wide stone chamber. Free standing holosphere comps glowed softly and soberly suited bureaucrats, dwarfed by the architecture, interfaced quietly at their comp stations, hands moving over the work spheres. Occasionally someone spoke a soft phrase or a comp chimed.

     Sanction discs glinted, worn on chains around the neck, like Jet’s, or hanging from worked pins attached to a pocket edge. Some people had smaller discs, fashioned into rings or bracelets. Unlike Jet’s, they were all worn openly. Jet saw a woman fidgeting with hers, a ring, as she peered into her work globe. He also saw Arcady and Snat glancing about, taking it in. Arcady’s gaze dropped after moment; she looked briefly at Jet, then away.

     At the trade and licensing desk, an older woman with augmentation in her eyes scanned Arcady's license and logged the trade vitals. She assigned an ATO verification rep to be present for the exchange at Tenrethi's, Arcady's on-world customer. They each palmed the log imprint on the comp pad. The pad was cool; as Jet’s hand appeared as a line etching, chemical profiles scrolling beside it, the comp gave a decorous little chime. The woman scanned her screen.

     "Jet am'Diia?"

     Jet pulled his hand back, stuck it in his pocket and bit the tip of his tongue, trying to generate a little spit in his dry mouth. "Yes, ma'am."

     "You have a message; if you wait one moment I can give you kive copy. Also, Authority Forces would like you to stop by their office. Do you need a map?"

     "The office is still on west corridor?"

     "Yes, sir."

     "I can find it, then." The comp spat out a little white message kive and the woman dropped it in his palm. It was warm. After a moment, he curled his fingers around the smooth lozenge and put it into a pocket.

     Snat waved a hand.  "I'll take one of those maps, cher." 

     The woman smiled and passed him a slim handset. "Prosper to you." 

     Outside of the trade office, in the shadowed corridor, they walked in silence. Through the archways the sky showed a lighter shade of lead. A man with a mentor band on his arm walked with an old woman along a nearby sandpath, talking intently.

     At the end of the north corridor, Arcady stopped and turned to Jet. "Are you going to listen to that?"

     He squeezed the message kive in his pocket, shrugged.

     "Okay."  She folded her arms. "Where's this office?"

     "You and Snat don't have to come.  I can meet you at Tenrethi's."

     Arcady folded her arms, one eyebrow raised. 

     "Don't be a jerk, Jet. You're my spinner. What if they throw you in the brig and won't tell me where you are? Spinners aren't exactly thick on the ground here."

     "They don't have brigs. Belcathat prisoners are--"

     "Jet."

     "They'll just ask me about Dai, where I think she might be, anything I can tell them, that sort of thing."

     "Sounds like a fascinating sociological study op, not to be missed." Snat rubbed his hands together and smiled.

     They struck Jet as white queen and black rook to his contract pawn. He shrugged again. "Great, come. Experience the boredom of the void. This way." He gestured dramatically down the west corridor. 

     Authority Forces had frosted, colorless chi'ri figured in the Belcathat sigil. The desks stood taller than in the ATO and the personnel wore crisp gray uniforms. The man at the entry desk surveyed them from under sand-colored brows that never moved over his eyes. He listened to Jet’s murmured explanation, checked comp for how to dispose of him, and told him he was to see a Parmen sec'Kyle, down the right-hand hall and through the third door. He turned his molecule-thin voice to Arcady and Snat next, informing them that they could wait on the nice bench out here.

     "Told you," Jet said.

     "Personally," Snat said, folding himself onto the bench and observing the Belcathat officer, "I am not disappointed."

     Arcady slouched beside him. She frowned generally, then specifically at Jet. "We'll wait."

     Parmen sec'Kyle's office window had a mostly open chi'ri design, rather than a closed pane. Mostly open was traditional Athkiyaran design, what one found in Athkiyaran homes. The window showed soil gardens, pale sand walks, bits of the gray stone of Belcathat tower and a holo-sculpture of Belcathar, writer of the Words. 

     Parmen sec’Kyle was a mild, brown-haired man with a stoop in his shoulders. He gestured Jet to a chair and leaned back in his own, hands folded together over his chest.

     "You hold a Sanction of Enlightenment, is that right, Mez am'Diia?"

     "Yes, sir."

     "But your family is, well," he looked out the window, the skin around his eyes slightly puckered, "--the am'Diia branch of House Diia has, historically, been quite active in the anti-enlightenment minority."

     Jet felt his eyelid twitch.  "Historically, yes.  But my mother studied for and took her sanction. She ended her life honorably."

     "Your father took his life illegally. And your mother, though she chose to become a legal member of the am'Diia family, was an ir'Arthkess. Might I suggest that your mother's actions were responsible for the re-heating of anti-enlightenment sentiment among her am'Diia contemporaries, and thereby, in the present generation of your family? Might I further suggest that branch am'Diia is manifestly unstable particularly in the person of your cousin."

     Apparently you might, Jet thought.

     The scent of mint leaves drifted through the window. He closed his eyes a moment. Smells were the one thing that were never right on a ship or a station, never what world-bred senses wanted.

     He felt the miniscule weight of the message kive in his pocket as though it were a small blackhole.

     Parmen sec'Kyle frowned and changed his tone. "A month ago, a small group of radical anti-enlightenment terrorists planted chemstars at a Sanction Investiture Ceremony. Two people were killed, Mez am’Diia. We are reasonably certain that the group responsible was the last cell in a larger organization that has been mostly cleaned out in the last year--"

     "Cleaned out?"

     "--and that your cousin Dai is the organizer of this cell and of this act of terrorism. They were nearly run to ground in Blue Archipelago. They're not likely to be in any of the cities now.  We suspect they must be in the Lindis Fringe."

     The Lindis Fringe. Jet shuddered. He found his hand had crept to the sanction disc, gripping it through the cloth of his tee. He pulled the hand back down into his lap, fisted it in the other hand.

     "They are still at large, Mez am'Diia, have proven themselves violently inclined--"

     "Isn’t the Fringe punishment enough?"

     Parmen fixed him with a look stripped of all mildness. "They will be better off in Belcathat custody."

     "In a work camp." They stared at one another. Jet looked down first, drew a breath. It occurred to him that he didn't care about any of this, but it was a thought among many, a growing confusion in his mind. "Look, I'm under contract on the Bosch; I haven't had communication with anyone in my family for four years. I have a sanction for drift sake. I don't want to see my family. I—none of this has anything to do with me anymore."

     “Doesn’t it? What’s the Second Tenet of Belcathar’s Words?”

     Jet glared at the man, then said tightly, “You are responsible to those who are your family, through them you entered this gate. Honor them or there can be no honor in passing through the next gate.”

     “You see? Brilliance cannot be cultivated without honor to your family.”

     “Belcathar’s Fifth Tenet,” Jet said, “states that your most sacred honor lies with those who are your chosen companions in this life.”

     Parmen sec'Kyle leaned back again. "You will go see your family. You will listen. If you hear anything that we ought to know, you will tell us. If Dai has been in contact with any of her brothers, or her parents, anything."

     "I--"

     "Thank you, Mez am'Diia, for coming in."  He moved unexpectedly quickly, out of his seat and around the desk, took Jet’s hand, pumped it once briskly with a hard squeeze, then released him. 

     Jet nursed his pinched hand and tattered indifference back down the hall. Arcady sat on the bench, looking bored. Snat leaned on the entry desk, head bent on long neck, asking the duty officer questions—beliefs, family life, personal hygiene perhaps. His hands moved in accompaniment.

     They left in silence. The Belcathat complex was active now.  Through the stone arches of the corridor Jet could see another class of students, sculpting on holo-modellers, strewn along the sandpaths, glancing up at the tower, back to their modellers. Finally, Arcady realized he wasn't going to say anything. 

     "So?"

     Jet shook his head. "They seem...sure that Dai is in a dissident cell responsible for the deaths of two people."

     "What did he ask you?"

     "They want me to spy on my family. I don’t..." He realized what was bothering him. "I don't understand what drove Dai--any of the factions--to do something like that. Things seem--" He shook his head.

     Snat made a disgusted sound. "You ought to archive some current affairs sometime, petit. Recently, your Belcathat closed down a general free assembly where anti-enlightenment—excuse me, self-sovereign party members—were speaking and taking petition imprints. Shortly after that, they broke up several groups that they said were cells of a terrorist organization and sent them all to work camps."

     "They what?" Jet stopped, staring at Snat like a chophead.

     "You did know the power base in Belcathat Tower shifted a year ago, from the Mentors' Order to Authority Forces?" Snat said it with a tone that figured otherwise. Jet shook his head. 

     Arcady stood with her arms folded, listening. "Do you think your family is involved?"

     "No."

     "Do you want to go see them?"

     "No." He heaved a sigh. "But I guess I have to, or they might try to keep me from leaving."

     "Mess with your license? Gravity wells,” she gestured rudely. “Look, I have to meet the ATO rep at Tenrethi's soon. Rendezvous back at the Bosch for load, then go meet Jet's kin. Agreed?"

     "'Cady, you don't hav--"

     "No, but we will. Call it curiosity, Jet. Anyway, how often do we get real well-dweller hospitality? Agreed?"

     "Agreed. I'm going to the kive center." Snat flicked on his map and sauntered away.

     "Jet?"   

     He met her look and realized there was some uncertainty there. He could have talked her out of it, met them back at the ship after.

     "Agreed."

     After she went, he found a public archive, fixed the headpiece on and slotted the message.

     A whisper boom of noise that would have been the ancient am'Diia unit powering up. His Aunt Kyla's face appeared, wide gray-green eyes and lines along either side of her mouth. The kive fed sense detail into his brain, smell of smoke and herbs, the cool, dank light of the room behind Kayla. Her voice slid, clear as water, into his ear, along with the heat of her breath. "Jet, we'll be expecting you." She reached out and it all fell to dark and silence.

***** 

      The am'Diia home sat on the easternmost edge of the City of Shores. Arcady and Snat looked curiously about the compound. Short stone towers, porches, arches, stone-sheltered walkways, a long, central court with the soil garden in it. The windows were open with branching designs in chi'ri glass, under deep overhangs to keep the rain out.

     The Chath, a strand in the network of estuaries webbing the city, flowed beside the compound. The Chath's pale spits of sand beach gave into long, lucent green stretches of vetch and spaghnum, interspersed with more strands of estuary, more pale spits of sand. Dark stone formations huddled here and there like cloaked and hooded communities of giants; so they’d seemed to Jet when he was a child. The stones had walked his dreams, not frightening, except for being so huge and at the same time so sad. 

     Beyond this brooded the tourmaline mist of the Lindis Fringe. The day was settling into Athkiyar's protracted evening, light bouncing between clouds above and sand and water below, to  linger in afterglow long past sunset.

     Uncle Prov's fishing skiff knocked against the dock. The water-gulp and wood-thunk came clear through the quiet air. They passed the garden, came under the stone overhang by the kitchen tower door without seeing anyone.

     Voices murmured from within the kitchen and the smell of fish and herb smoke was strong. He went in.

     "Jet."

     His Aunt Kayla sat at the long wooden table, with a kive set over one eye and ear, tying herbs into bundles. Uncle Koll stood by the stove, stirring a spoon in a pot with one hand while the other jabbed the air to make a point. His hand stopped, hung-up in mid-jab, as did the rest of the kitchen's activity, when Aunt Kayla said his name.

     He felt Snat on his right, tall and dark in the kitchen's dim biolumes, Arcady on his left, arms folded, and wondered what they saw. How it looked to them. The stone smoke-blacked behind the stove, the ceiling high, the rough stone of the floor worn smooth by fifteen gens of am'Diia feet. Kayla, with her dark hair cut short and standing up over her wrinkled face and large eyes; Koll, a slightly faded, male version of Kayla; Uncle Prov, also at the table, scaling fish. Aunt Aalvida, with a smoke hanging out of her mouth, chopping tubers. Not a sanction disc among them.

     Of the morbid collection of am 'Diia spawn, his cousins Kault, Droikus, and Niell, there was no sign. He hadn't expected to see Dai, though once she would have been the only one he wanted to see.     

     "Jet." Kayla removed her kive set and stood. "Come in, introduce us. Your captain, I presume?"

     He hadn't expected it to be easy; but he hadn't expected to actually feel ill. A giant finger was pushing down his throat, heavy on his tongue. He coughed, then swallowed. 

     "Aunt Kayla, this is Arcady Bosch, captain of the Bosch. Arkoonen Snat, pilot. Arcady, Snat, this is Kayla and Koll am'Diia, my father's sibs, Aalvida am'Kowtah, Uncle Koll's wife, Prov ot'Saer, Aunt Kayla's husband."

     Kayla wiped her hands on a towel and came to kiss him on the cheek, her lips dry and warm. She was Jet’s height and her too-large eyes and dark hair were like his own. She and Jet’s father had been twins. 

     Then Snat held out his hand to Kayla, palm up, which was proper Athkiyaran greeting from unknown guest to house host. Proper and ancient. Kayla eyed him, then barked a laugh.

     "We don't go in for that sort of amenity here."

     "Oh, really?" Snat raised an interested brow. "What do you go in for? Is that khet?" He ambled to the table and bent over to peer into a bowl. "I've read about it. Does it really turn blue as sapphires when boiled?"

     It occurred to Jet to wonder, suddenly, what Snat's family was like, and where he had fit into their life back on Tinchei. All at once, the walls, while they didn't seem any less heavy or close, no longer threatened to close off the rest of the Aggregate from him, no longer precluded all other perspectives. 

****

     Eventually Kault, Droikis, and Niell turned up, dinner was served, and it started to rain. 

     It was almost never cold in the City of Shores, or hot, which was why semi-perm had never come into use in windows. But it rained. Stone overhangs and pillared stone porches were built outside every window and door. There was a healthy market for field dehumers to keep things from rot. 

     They sat in the kitchen, at the long table, with the rain blowing a clean edge of air in occasionally. Dinner was fish with tubers and herb sauce, salad from the garden, and a big bowl of khet with fruit chutney. Aalvida brought out a bottle of the pesh she distilled every third season.

     Jet’s cousin Kault sat across from Jet, staring his way with a sort of heated impassivity. Kault was Dai's older brother and had spent his childhood informing Kayla of the activities of his sibling and cousins.

     Arcady sat next to Jet and ignored Kault, talking past him to Prov. "They have a saying in the inner worlds, ‘rich as the waters of Athkiyar.’ It always conjured images of rivers so filled with fish you could walk on the water."

     Prov rubbed a hand across his chin, bit into a tuber, wiped sauce from his lips. "The waters are rich; but the days are gone when any fool can wave their net through the flow and come up full. And some of the oldest species, the silvertail and the kinsetti trout, are 'coming scarce, beat out by the new speciations."

     "Really?" Snat cracked a blue leg and sucked the meat out of it. "Isn't Aggregate Native Ecologies monitoring?" He added the khet leg to the neat tower of discarded, flame-blue shells on his plate.

     "Theoretically," Niell put in from up table. "But the Natec labs on Athkiyar are a Belcathat-supported office; rotten through."

     "Bureaucracies," Snat allowed, but then continued. "I thought I archived, though, oh several years back, that a number of the native species of aquatic life were experiencing upheaval in their limit cycles and dying out. Weren't the new speciations part of the program to revitalize? It was independent sci agency kive, so I was inclined to put some trust in it."

     "You're well informed, Mez Arkoonen." Kault's sullen voice stopped the food on its way to Jet’s mouth. He set down his fork and reached for his pesh instead. Kault flicked a glance at him, back to Snat.  "Why do you think the so-called independents are any more honest than the authority-sponsored?"

     "Certainly--please call me Snat--I do not take any kive at surface. Ichthyology is a hobby of mine, however--my ancestral home on Tinchei is in a river valley--and I have followed the scientific work for some time. It is each person's privilege to believe as they choose, of course, whether by education or passion." Snat cracked anther khet body.

     Jet drank more pesh.

     "Do you also believe, then, that each person's life and death is their own to decide, without the interference or sanction of an outside authority?"

     "Do I believe so? Well," Snat wiped his hands, sat back a bit, and sipped his pesh. "On Samjadsit Station, suicide is a breach of the social contract, most illegal. The offense, if the attempt is unsuccessful, is punishable by psyche mod. On Piranesi, where I did my third course of study, one belief holds that death is the individual's property alone, and no one may interfere in it. Unless you're a clone, of course. And here," Snat said, "you have, among other philosophies, that of one’s ‘brilliance.’ An individual's understanding of his or her responsibilities to life as a highly developed concept. I've always rather admired it."

     "I asked what you believe." Kault's light eyes flickered. 

     "I believe in the sanctity of life and the virtue of individual choice within a contract of social responsibility."

     "Would you agree, then, that the Belcathat has no jurisdiction over the lives and deaths of Athkiyarans if Athkiyarans no longer want the Belcathat to hold that authority?"

     "Given that circumstance, I would agree that your Belcathat's authority would no longer extend to the regulation of certain issues." Snat sat back and turned to Kayla. "These khet are delicious. Do you export them?"

     Kault turned a smug look Jet’s way. Jet smiled at him, a sweet smile learned from a woman on the mining station. Then he reached for the sweating bottle of pesh and poured another.

     "Captain Bosch, I understand Jet is a contract hire on your ship?" Kayla cut through the other murmurs of conversation, barking down table from her head of the family position. The question alarmed Jet, though he was growing a bit too muzzy to make out why. 

     Arcady frowned. Kayla was cutting close to nosing into ship's business; were they on a station or in a more spacer-wise system, Jet reckoned Arcady would have told the asker off. After a moment, she nodded. "Yes, he is."

     "So, he'll be without work--when? Is the contract up soon?"

     "After this run, actually, but--"

     "So. Good. Jet, you've been off-planet long enough, I think. There is work for you here. As a sanction holder you have the prerogative of sitting on the Council. The am'Diia family needs a voice and an ear there."

     He waited for Arcady to say she was going to offer him a full-crew option.

     Instead she said, "Jet's a hot spinner. He's got quite a rep on the inner system ring." She slid him a look on that double-edged compliment. "Forgive me, ma'am, but he'd be wasted in a gravity well." At that Jet felt a warm rush and lowered his eyes.

     Kayla waved a hand. "You're a spacer; it has no meaning for you. Hardly a waste to serve your family and your planet."

     "Well, it's up to Jet--" Arcady leaned back in her chair, her manner just short of obvious disrespect. She came down emphatically on the next word, "--after this run is completed, which includes, quite specifically, his service as the Bosch's spinner out of Athkiyar system and back to Aggregate Prime. Where, if I need to, I can find another spinner."

     "I see," Aunt Kayla said.

*****

     Jet managed to get thoroughly luced on Aalvida's pesh, something he hadn't done since sixteen, just before going to the Belcathat to begin mentoring. 

     At some point late in the wet night, Arcady and Snat were hauling him out under the covered walk. The air felt cool and the rain sounded nice. Arcady was warm, her skin smooth where it brushed his. He leaned against her.

     "Athra," Arcady cursed a time later, when they were in his room. He had no memory of how they'd gotten there. "You're a pain in the ass, Jet." She looked down at him with her hands on her hips. Snat stood beside her.

     Jet peered up at Snat, feeling dizzy. “Too tall,” he said.

     “I’ll leave you then,” Snat said. He paused in the doorway, looking up and down the walkway, squinting into the rain. “This way, I think,” he said and disappeared into the dark.

     Arcady still stood looking down at him. A lock of dark hair hung by her right eye. She sat down, sighing. Jet lifted a hand carefully to the lock of hair, moved it aside. She held still until his hand dropped.

     Then she looked around the room. A plain space, used for storage now, neat stacks off to the side, space cleared around pallet, table, biolume. The green stone table. There were little notches up one of its squat legs, part of a game Dai and he had once played. He'd left nothing in the room. Arcady looked back at him.

     "So what's the story?"

     He thought muzzily back over dinner, thought he understood what she was asking, and began, ramblingly, to answer.

     "My father reverted to true am'Diia form in extremity and took his life without sanction...my mother was so hurt. She'd been sympathetic to self-sovereign views and became a legal am'Diia when they married. I guess she never thought he'd do that, leave her."  He listened to his words and fell silent.

     The sound of the rain was both soothing and strange after so long out of a gravity well. 

     "I think she was hurt as much by the fact that their life together meant less to him than making a statement, with his death, in support of a political position, as..." He blinked at Arcady. "Is this what you were asking?"

     "Not exactly; go on."

     "Well...he didn't take proper leave, you see, didn't let her in, before he left her. In mentor parlance, he never cultivated his brilliance. It’s...” he could see by her face she was trying to understand, but didn’t. He tried to think like Snat, from more than one set of perspectives at once. He knew Arcady enough to know her own belief system didn’t include a specific next-life philosophy. He tried again. “We really do believe in a next world. Raised to. Even I do. Life isn’t one life, but a series of them, of gates...but between each gate, in each life—you have to value—to honor—that life, its commitments and relationships, what’s wonderful about it and what’s void-cursed-horrible. That honoring, that’s enlightenment: sanction. A lot of people, of course, believe without ever applying for sanction—now. In the founding years of Athkiyar, though, when we were still a monoculture and a small population, people were often eager to proceed on their path, to pass through the next gate into the next life. It was almost a mania at one point in our history, a few hundred years ago. That was when Belcathar lived and wrote his philosophies. His Words. So...anyway.” He shook his head, offered Arcady a smile. “Sorry. A month after his death, my mother went for sanction mentoring. For two reasons, I think...she couldn't picture her life without him. But she wanted to understand what it was he had done, or hadn't done, that had hurt her so much, because she didn't want to do it to me. Mentoring for your sanction is...it's philosophy as much as anything else. Practical philosophies, it's called. When her mentoring was over, my mother spent a turn of seasons with me, traveling Athkiyar. We did a lot, saw a lot; all the while, she told me her thoughts, took me as far into her heart as she could before she used her sanction."

     He stared down at the bed cover, running the worn, loose weave between his fingers. "But her death, after my father's illegal one--it was highly publicized. The Belcathat played it up.  The am'Diia's lost their seat on the Council, and a percentage of their trade rights."

     He fell quiet, listened to the rain patter, to Arcady's silence. She touched his hand.      

     Arcady's eyes, wide teal blue, had silver and brown flecks toward the outer edges of the pupils. Jet swayed toward her. Then he fell over onto the bed, too drunk to sit up. That was pesh: a moment of grand, thoughtful lucidity perched on a pyramid of marbles.

     Arcady snorted. "Get some sleep, Jet. Things to do tomorrow before we climb out of the well."

****

     "Jet."

     He woke to hear the rain sifting over the roof, his name being whispered from the square of lesser dark that was the window. Rolling over, he put a hand on the lamp; the biolume in it sent up a glow through iridescent chi'ri. A pale face hovered just over the window ledge, under the branching chi'ri design, etched out of the dark by the biolume's light. 

     "Dai?"

     "Yeah."

     He stared at the floating face, his head pounding like the core drive on an insystem barge. After a moment he got up and went to the window, leaning his head against the cool stone and looking at his cousin through the chi'ri branches.

     "Dai, what are you doing here?  Are you--did you--"

     She shook her head, looked off to the side, back. "Jet--I need your help. Meet me down by the skiff shed."

     "Um." He rubbed his face. "Dai, what--" But the window was empty. 

****

     Dai had been the closest any of the cousins ever came to being a sibling to Jet, a friend. Sharp and clever, she had included him in her conspiracies and rebellions. He could not remember at what point her plans became too serious for him. Perhaps it had only been that he was understandably distracted by events with his father and mother; he emerged from the time with his mother and that following her death to find he didn’t agree with Dai so easily anymore, and didn’t seem to know her as he once had. He decided to go to the Belcathat. Dai and he argued almost violently. He left. She'd always managed to be gone when he came home for obligatory visits during mentoring. Including the last time, before he went off-planet. And they hadn't been in touch since.

     A memory came to Jet: a blonde child with a biting tongue speaking up for him against a glowering Kault, an inexorable Kayla. 

     He took the stone path down to the landing by the skiff shed.  The Chath murmured at its banks, the rain pattering its surface. The air was wet and cool on his skin; it carried a smoky tang from the chi'ri kilns upcoast.  They'd all run around barefoot when they were kids and that's how he came out, barefoot and wearing only ship shorts and tee.  Stepping onto wet sand, he looked for Dai in the dim; he could just make out the bulk of the shed, a tangle of shapes that was Prov's fishing skiff. One of the shapes moved and he saw her.

     "Dai."

     "Hey cousin."

     "Dai—is what Authority Forces says true?"

     "What do they say?" asked another voice, behind him.

     A prickle went up his neck and he swung around.  Another shape moved, dimly visible.

     "Jet," Dai said, softly, reasonably, "we need your help.  Your ship. You can help us get off Athkiyar."

     He shook his head dumbly, then realized she might not see him. "It's not my ship, Dai."

     "But you have access, you're the spinner."

     "I can't ask my captain to jeopardize her license, Dai."

     "Then just take us off and leave your captain and crew safely out of it."

     "Spinners spin numbers for deep space, for system to system navigation; you need a pilot for insystem and well navigation. That's Snat."

     "Jet, you must be competent to pilot, it's a small ship, you have to back each other up."

     "It's not my ship, Dai. It's Arcady's." 

     He heard a shifting step behind him and swung around again, but there was someone to his right, too, and that someone got a grip on his arms. The one who'd been behind him stuck a small weapon up under his chin and tilted his head back with it. 

     "The Bosch," Jet explained carefully against the cold thing digging in under his jaw, "has an imprinted comp system.  I don't have access because I'm not full crew—just a temporary contract."

     There was silence around him, and then the weapon withdrew. A small sting, far colder than the rain, iced into his neck and made his head jerk back, his teeth ache.

     "Nnnuh--" he said and pitched forward toward the ground as the person holding him let go of his arms. Losing consciousness was, as all the pulp flashes said, like being swallowed by the dark. As far as Jet knew, he never hit the ground.

****

     There was an old Jensai Xel flash, from her pre-mega days, was one of Jet’s favorites. Jensai played a girl from an isolated, tech-poor world on the other side of the Deep Six Anomaly, that opened once a gen or so, allowing passage from that system to the Aggregate. Jensai’s character, running from great tragedy, signed onto a ship with its own secrets... 

     Arcady looked a lot like Jensai did in that flash, especially when she was being mad.

     He was trying to picture Arcady mad, because that was pretty much how he figured she'd be, right about now. He needed to picture something reassuring to distract himself. Waking with a tang in his mouth like someone had chem-primed his blood and then lit him up with a white-hot charge, his hands tied behind his back and the distinct impression that he was face down on a skiff going somewhere he really didn't want to go, Jet had decided it would be better to be distracted. Unfortunately, except for the frogs and the dunk-swish of the skiff pole, it was very quiet and he couldn't help but listen when voices started to talk around him.

     "I don't know," one of them said, "I think it might have been a mistake. What if the off-worlder doesn't give scrip about him?  She'll just take the ship and leave. I think we should have gone for the Quinteppi ship--"

     "No, Laejen," Dai said. "This will work. Kault told me Jet's some really glam spinner. His captain will want him back. And what should she care if we get away? What are Athkiyaran politics to her? Nothing. If she's smart about it, there's no danger to her license 'cause no one'll ever know. She brings the ship to the co-ords we left her, lifts us and her spinner and we're all out of here, one happy flash cast."

     Or what? Jet wondered.

     "That's not good enough, Dai." A third voice, hyped-up and strained. "I don't want to go to a work camp, but we can't stay out here too much longer."    

     Out here. The Lindis Fringe, Jet realized, and nearly moaned.  The bogey of Athkiyaran childhood; people who ended up in the Fringe always ended up worse than they'd started. Slow erosion of the body’s systems from chemical secretions in the water, in the air, in the soil. It came from the banyx trees. Not even trees, really, but leviathan vines that grew into twisted towering masses whose root systems burrowed the rocky ground of the inland Fringe to form many-chambered caves.  What fauna did thrive in the Fringe had developed complex, chambered lung systems along with coarse fur or thick hides that secreted an oil which protected them from the poisons in the banyx.

     Kesh, the poison in Jet’s permit disc, was made from a fungus that only grew on banyx.

     Jet opened his eyes and found them crusted with sand. Which proved that he had hit the ground, face first. He blinked several times, eyes tearing, saw the skiff edge, and beyond it dark water throwing back the weak, greenish cast of a biolume. The biolume, reflected in bits and waves, looked unhealthy; it had the waste, he decided, a strain of reyone fever common in the Fringe. The sickly light skimmed water reflections up onto a heavy canopy of banyx. The air and the water smelled both acrid and sweet. The skiff was slimy and sandy under his cheek, through the thin fabric of shorts and tee, against his bare legs. 

     Dai leaned down close and said in his ear, "Hey, Jet." She rolled him over. Getting his first good look at her, even by the dim light of the sick biolume, he could see it on her, and the other two. They were drawn thin and notched-up, skin starting to show rough, livid patches. Already they’d been in the Fringe too long.

     Dai patted a hand on his chest, then patted his cheek. "Good little cousin, went to get his enlightenment, became an upstanding civ, a saint." Her hand found the shape of the sanction disc under his tee, drew it out. She held it up and squinted at its prismatic surface. 

     "Responsible action agrees with you, cousin. Little saint." She tugged on his hair, then pressed the disc against his lips. "So, are you ready to die, then, Jet? Do you really want to? I know people out here--” she gestured to the dark beyond the skiff's moving hollow of light "—who could make you want to, real bad."

     "Dai," he whispered, but she pressed the disc down harder. A yellow cast overlaid the light blue of her eyes. Her breath was damp, sweet and burning, like the air.

     "How's it work, Jet? With the right pattern of pressure, the disc releases a sliver dose of what—kesh, right?--and off you go? Are you ready to go to the next world, Jet? Do you really believe in it? Really, really...sure and true..." Her voice ended on a singsong note and she laughed and took the disc from his lips.  She trailed it idly over his face, her eyes going unfocused, then dropped the sanction back down on his chest and leaned over him, close. With gentle fingers she brushed sand off his face, eyelashes, cheeks,  lips.

     "'They rule our lives. Shall they rule our deaths, also?'" She quoted self-sovereign cant at him in a whisper, her breath hot on his face. 

     "Dai—I can talk to Arcady. You--"

     "Too late." She pressed a hand over his mouth, then slid it away. Jet shivered. She tapped the com sticking out of one of her pockets. "Message already sent. Will she come, your Arcady?"

     "Dai, stop it," he whispered, trying to find the cousin he remembered in her gaze. 

     "You never understood, did you Jet…why I was so angry?"  She leaned close and kissed him. He tasted the Fringe, sweet and burning in her breath and saliva. When she drew back, he closed his eyes and turned his face away, trembling.   

****

     The skiff kept on for a long, endless time. Curled up on his side, Jet stared off into the banyx dark. Once he saw two sparks of orange fire floating on the air, then the bintig whose eyes the fires were, watching them pass, a dark animal larger than any of them. The flames snuffed out as the animal swung away, bounding back into the dark.

     Dai's companions, Laejen and Sedge, fell silent. Sedge poled the skiff and Laejen watched the dark beyond the biolume, the little Irdish stinger he'd held under Jet’s chin gripped tensely in his hand. Dai archived off a small handset. She'd went through the kives with singular concentration, snapping one in, eyes focusing inward, tracking deep-kive info, then a blink as she came up, snapped that kive out, another one in, began again. A tumble of discarded kives lay near Jet’s head. He focused on them, trying to make out the subject codes. Number theory, inter-system law, Aggregate system maps.

     As they went, the bits of rock that the banyx rooted to rose steadily into formations until the skiff traveled between walls topped by towering tree-like vines.  High above, the sky paled with the first traces of dawn. Soon the skiff was passing by openings, honeycombs where the rock was rotten with roots and the roots formed pillars reaching down into the water. 

     Then Sedge turned the skiff and maneuvered them deeper, into a system of caves. Fibrous, formed of roots with rock caught in the thick strandings, the cave walls oozed wet clay and sandy soil. The air was stifling and hot.    

     "Welcome to the Fringe, saint," Sedge rasped. "People live in here, in caves branching out from the waterway. Fringers. You'd be real, fine fresh catch to some of them, Dai's little cousin-saint.  Ru was."

     "Ru?" Jet peered up at Sedge.

     Laejen shifted. "Shut it, Sedge."

     Sedge shrugged. The cave walls slid by, occassional vine-groined openings into other places.

     Finally Sedge slowed the skiff. Dai stopped kiving, stowed the handset, stood and leapt to a small outcropping of rock, skiff line in hand. She snagged the biolume and held it aloft, her fair, dirty hair gleaming dully. The light revealed a passage disappearing into rock and banyx root. 

     The rock was rough, sharp with edges and spurs. Unable to use his hands for balance, Jet stumbled frequently. Sedge alternately dragged and pushed him, Laejen coming behind with the stinger raised as though he were a character in a flash kive. None of them spoke now.

     There was a noise, a  hollow skitter of sound from deeper within the caves. Dai, Laejen, and Sedge froze, listening. Then Sedge coughed, doubling over painfully, his grip loosening.

     Jet wrenched himself free and leapt over the ridge of rock beside them to the path just below. He just managed to keep his balance, staggering down the path back toward the skiff, dragging along the damp, crumbling walls to keep from stumbling every other step. His own breath loud in his ears, wet hair spiking into his eyes. Keep going, almost there. He could smell the water, hear it.

     Then steps, close behind—go, go. He pushed off the nearest rock, propelling himself forward just as a warm weight dove into the back of his legs and brought him crashing down. He slammed chest and face down into the sandy rock, breath driven from his lungs by impact and pain. Someone’s breath came hot and banyx-sweet in his ear. Then an arm wrapped around him and pulled him back to his feet. He was spun around and Laejen slammed him back into the cave wall.

     “Fu--” Jet began to shout, but Laejen slapped a hand over his mouth and jerked him still.  

     Jet saw Dai, then, over Laejen’s shoulder. She looked tense, weary. She put a finger to her lips, glaring at him.

     They made their way back to rejoin Sedge. Dai's head swiveled back and forth; sweat darkened her hair. Laejen kept a vise-like grip on Jet’s arm, but didn’t seem aware of it.

     They were scared, which encouraged Jet to be terrified. 

     The passage wound around, up, down, narrow and dripping. Sounds echoed strangely, their steps muffled. The stench of banyx was less strong than it had been outside.

     Finally, Dai stopped. She pushed aside a thick shag of fern between roots and knelt to shove something. It sounded heavy, a grinding of metal on sand and rock. She half-disappeared, backed out and gestured the rest of them through. 

     Laejen shoved Jet to his knees. He crawled through awkwardly. The ferns prickled into his eyes, tugged at his hair. Peering into utter darkness, he hesitated, then Laejen pushed from behind, breaking his precarious balance. He pitched forward onto his face in coarse, rocky sand. It tasted bitter but smelled sickly sweet in his nose. Jet bit off a curse, spitting as he struggled to a sitting position. 

     As Dai came through behind Sedge, her light sketched a rough chamber out of the darkness. She set the biolume in a holder. Laejen pushed an old dehumer back in place before the opening. Grain sacks, duffels, a med kit, a portable heatsource. Survival bedding, cooking utensils and other supplies Jet recognized from the am’Diia stores.

     There was a pressure-sealed crate of Too'soi'ang chemstars. Answer to the question of whether  Dai and her companions were terrorists. Or had they only become terrorists after the Belcathat labeled them so?

     Dai dropped her kiving set into one of the duffels.

     "Not exactly flash accommodation, is it saint?" Laejen spoke softly. Apparently the ban on talking was off.

     "You throw your numbers," Jet said, then wished he’d kept his mouth shut. But Laejen only snorted.

     Sedge settled down against the dripping rock wall and leaned his head back. He had a heavy-boned face and body that had once been well-fleshed. Laejen, tall and lean, had eyes set wide apart above a thin nose and mouth. He sat on one of the crates, the stinger still in his hand. Jet wondered if he'd forgotten it was there. Dai squatted down and dropped her head for a moment.

     “Why?” Jet asked her.

     She ignored him, reached over, hooked a ration box and dragged it to her. She tossed a food bar to her companions, took one for herself. Sedge started to cough, an awful, hacking sound. Dai tossed him a water bottle and a vial.  "That's getting bad."

     Sedge took a tiny, blue bead of a pill out of the vial and managed, with difficulty, to get it down. Syl; Jet has heard of it, supposed to help the body withstand the banyx.

     Then Dai looked at Jet. "Why what, cousin?"
     "All this… Killing people, Dai. Reducing your options--you’re trapped here, where the very air makes you sick. And this—" He hitched his shoulders to indicate himself and the present situation.

     “It’s simple, saint,” Laejen said. “We’re cultivating our brilliance.” He laughed sharply. “Our sanction comes from our own minds and spirits.”

     Dai took another water bottle and came to kneel beside Jet. “You understood once.” She tipped the bottle to his mouth; he swallowed the tepid liquid, meeting her gaze. “Athkiyar may have been founded as a benign theocracy, Jet, but the founding was long and long ago. What we have, what we’ve had for decades, isn’t what was intended by the founders, it isn’t what Belcathar wrote the Words for.” She capped the bottle and went back to her spot.

     Now that they had stopped moving, Jet began to shiver in reaction. His back and arms ached, wrists sore, hands swollen. Shifting his shoulders, he stretched as much as he could, pain radiating down through his neck and back.

     “I know things aren’t right,” he said. “Authority Forces in control, shutting down assemblies—but this isn’t going to work, Dai. Please, don’t do this. Let me go, without threat to my captain or her ship, let me go and I’ll talk to Arcady. She’ll listen--”

     "Rest," Dai said, ending the discussion with a look. She, Laejen, and Sedge settled back, leaning among duffels, against the rock wall.

     Water dripped. Sedge coughed. Echoes occasionally came through the rock and roots, indecipherable. Jet worked at the binding on his wrists, twisting his hands. Options, he’d said to Dai. Options. He couldn’t let Dai and the others aboard the Bosch. That wasn’t an option. His responsibility was clear. His options…if he could get loose and get some of the chemstars, or Laejen’s stinger. Would honoring his responsibilities to Arcady and Snat absolve him of taking others with him when he pulled his string? No…but what other options were there…? He drifted.

     When he woke, Dai and Laejen were moving, packing things into duffels. Sedge leaned his head back, the hollows under his eyes like a second set of eyes. 

     Jet watched them from under his lashes. "Dai."

     She paused.

     "If you untie me, I won't be any trouble."

     Laejen snorted but Dai looked at Jet for what seemed a long time. Then she shook her head. "Sorry, cousin.  We need out of here. You're our leverage."

     "Where would I go? What can I do? Dai, just let me talk to Arc--"

     "Shut it." Laejen activated the pressure seal on a box of charges, added it to a full duffel and slung the bag over his shoulder.

     "Arcady won't let you on the Bosch with those."

     "I said shut it." Laejen glanced around, then at Dai. "We ready?"

     Dai looked at Sedge. He pulled himself to his feet, using the rock wall, took the duffel Laejen handed him. Laejen pushed aside the dehumer and ducked through. Sedge pulled Jet up by one arm and sent him after Laejen. He blinked, unsteady. Laejen's legs were in the way. Then they stepped aside and he saw there were several other sets of legs and what seemed, after the dim of the sick biolume, a lot of light. He started to say something, then a hand caught hold of his hair and pulled him sideways, the hand’s companion pressed over his mouth. He threw his head back, hoping to slam it into someone’s face, but only got his hair yanked savagely and the back of his legs kicked, sending him to his knees.

     He looked up and saw Laejen standing between two people, one of whom held the stinger to Laejen’s temple.

*****

       They were fringers. Sick, and edgy with it, but the syl could prolong that battle for years. Jet couldn't get a clear count of their number because one was always fading back or forward down passages, another that he hadn't seen before taking that one's place. 

     The leader bore an elaborate zoki-glyph inlay in gold on one side of his face and all down one arm. Dai tried to say something; she got whapped to her knees with a thick, use-polished staff of banyx root.

     They were herded along the turnings of a passage for what seemed hours to Jet; he knew it was likely only twenty minutes or so. At last they drew to a halt in a large, open cavern. Banyx roots big around as the Bosch snaked through the low illumination of the biolumes, groining the chamber from rocky ceiling to sandy floor. Stacks of assorted crates and shipment casings marched unevenly into the shadows, pallets and scatterings of habitation among them. One crate spilled over with rare metals in ingot form, glowing tubes of precious chemicals, contraband substances; wealth, all of it, the kind you could use anywhere. Except here, where it had no use.

     The floor ended in an underground bay. Biolume light etched an occasional gleam of water out of the darkness. Moisture spoke against rock and dripped from the upper reaches. The fringers pushed Jet, Dai, and her companions to their knees. The smell of unwashed flesh and unpreserved food nearly drowned the banyx smell.

     Zoki-glyph looked down at Dai. He rubbed at one oddly colored tooth, squatted before her. “Leaving us?”

     Dai swallowed. A livid red mark colored her cheek. “We're turning ourselves in, Bast. Want to come?”

     Bast smiled; Jet made out the glint of metal incisors in place of several of his teeth. If the man was heavily cybered, it might mean he had more immunity to the banyx.  That he'd been here a long time. 

     Nauseous with fear, Jet tried to think,; Dai and her companions—he understood them at least a little. What Bast and the other fringers wanted, why they stayed in this place--they were alien, more alien than any farworld or slant culture denizen he'd met in any port. 

     He stared at Bast and the man’s gaze snapped to him. Three strides brought him within striking distance. Strange, light eyes traveled over Jet. His eyes were augmented, too, data feeds like the woman’s in the ATO office, but for what kind of data Jet couldn't tell. He slid a finger against Jet’s neck, under the chain holding the sanction, lifted the disc to look at it. 

     Things moved in his eyes, flecks of light, glints. He dropped the disc. "A kesh-holding persephone-boy, that's what we have here." Heat index readers; high caliber, if he could read the chemical profile through the metal of the disc.

     "Who's the persephone, Dai? All packaged up so nice...who are you, hmm?" Bast smiled, showing his augments. The woman holding Jet on the right made an odd humming sound. Jet felt his stomach contract, the tiny hairs on his skin all standing up in a split second’s foreknowledge; then Bast drove a fist into his gut. He doubled over, gasping with the pain. They dragged him back up. The whole scenario. If this were a flash, depending on what kind, right about now there'd be rescue. Or somebody would get killed. Or there'd be a cut to some other scene. 

     It was not a flash. Bast gave him another fist in the stomach. Wheezing for breath as they dragged him up again, Jet found Bast close enough for him to smell the metallic rot of the fringer’s teeth.  He grabbed Jet’s balls, making him strain back with a strangled yell. 

     "You didn’t answer."

     Bast’s breath hung in his face; his hand squeezed. Jet yelped and squeaked at the same time. "What?”

     “Who. Are. You?” On the last word his grip relaxed and he patted Jet between the legs.

     Jet shuddered; he was going to throw up. “I...I’m…nobody.”

     "What's it matter, Bast?" Dai's voice cut between them. "You wanted our supplies, you've got them."

     Bast whipped around, pulled the stinger out of his shirt. He pointed at Dai, then shifted and shot.

     The stinger gave a thin hiss and left a hot smell in the air.  Laejen knelt there with his eyes wide open and a dark hole burned between them. He fell forward.

     Jet stared, still seeing Laejen’s face, dead, empty. He felt so sick he couldn't see.

     "We have your supplies, yes. Lovely chemstars. Your syl. Your package." He reached out and gathered a handful of Jet’s tee. "What profit might he be to us, hmmm? You have some use for him, and it's not as a bribe to any Belcathat; last I heard, they didn't trade in flesh."

     Sedge coughed. He was staring at Laejen. "Maybe we want to sell him the way you sold Ru, to those who do trade in flesh."  His voice shredded and trailed out in more coughing.

     Bast laughed. "So bitter. You needed to know I could take one of you when I wanted. This one, you took for some reason." He tugged on Jet. "What's your reason? You're politicals, not flesh traders. Now tell me."

     He released Jet finally and stalked to Dai, holding the stinger up in front of Sedge's face. Sedge sweated like a glazed mushroom.

     "What's the persephone for? " 

     "Maybe he was a present for you, Bast, to buy our safe passage." 

     A muffled beeping sounded clearly in the chamber. It came from Dai. Static followed. 

     Bast plucked the com from Dai's pocket. It beeped again, more static, then Arcady's voice, distant and tiny, but clear. Angry. 

     "--repeat, where are you? We're at your coordinates. Where's my drift-cursed spinner?" She was angrier than Jet had ever heard her. It did him good, her voice.

     Bast laughed again. “It all comes clear.” After a moment, Bast held the com out in front of Dai's face. "You want off Athkiyar? I'm afraid your prosper is out, sweet. But ours is definitely in. A ship, eh? Confirm the situation for this distraught sounding captain, Dai." He thumbed the com button, while in his other hand the stinger hung between Sedge's eyes. Dai's mouth hung open a moment, then she licked her lips.

     "This is Dai. We have Jet, will rendezvous as arranged. Dai out." She looked at Bast. He switched off the com, tucked it into his belt. Passed the stinger to another fringer, he went to one of the duffels and pulled out the pressure-sealed box of chemstars. It unsealed with a small hiss. He gathered several of the round, spiky charges, tossed one up, caught it. 

     A shiver crept out of Jet’s gut and over his skin. 

     Bast held three of the chemstars in one hand, a fourth in the other. They were stable until set. Still, normal people didn't toss them into the air like play toys. 

     If he could get just one of them in reach of his hands. That would be it. A blast of heat and fire. End of flash. Somewhere--anywhere before they got near the Bosch.

     He was, after all, prepared and sanctioned to die. Jet closed his eyes. A sanction didn’t give him leave to take others with him—sanction discs only held enough for one person’s death. But chemstars would do the job; and he couldn’t let them reach the ship.

*****

     They were marched along the twisty, narrow passages again, Dai and Sedge in front with Bast, Jet near the back of the column. Jet looked for opportunities even while he thought over the situation. If he died here, Arcady wouldn't have a spinner. She'd find one eventually, but eventually could very well be a long, profit-zeroing time. She'd be mad. Snat would be disappointed. 

     Now that he was thinking about it, he realized the thought of the sanction disc didn’t carry the comfort it once had. It had been refuge, turned to again and again over the last five years, but now he didn’t want to leave this life, his life. There was no relief in thinking of the sanction and its promise.

     But if the fringers reached the Bosch, that would be bad. Unacceptable. He’d have to take all the chemstars, and Bast, with him. One hell of a passage. Would that do it? If any of the fringers survived, would they follow the path they’d been set on to its end? Could he, responsibly, pull his string now? Of course, he hadn’t yet figured out how he was going to get his hands on the chemstars.

     They were climbing a path that turned into rough-hewn stairs, then they emerged into open air from between great coils of root among banyx so tall Jet had a hard time convincing himself they weren't trees. He drew a deep lungful of air; it cooled the sweat on his skin, but choked on the acrid sweetness. Dusk was purple-gray in the sky. 

     The column drew to an untidy halt and Jet swayed on his feet, his arm gripped by the fringer holding him. He looked out past the others.

     They stood on the summit of a rock cliff that plunged down to an open plain of vetch. Waterways glinted here and there, stranded through the vetch, which rolled for miles, nearly colorless in the dusk light. 

     Dai looked around, then led them back under the banyx. Several feet of monstrous vine between them and the cliff edge on one side, depths of banyx on the other. They soon had to walk single file, the woman shifting her grip to the back of Jet’s tee, between his shoulders.

     The fringer in front of Jet let leaves and banyx vine whip back into his face. The trail disappeared frequently in the heavy flora. Jet was blinkered by his own sweat and hair, his arms and shoulders burning. Occasionally the fringer who gripped him simply bent him forward under a vine while moving it out of the way for herself.         

     Up ahead, Sedge began coughing, then tripped, falling forward into the fringer behind Bast and Dai. Reactions unfolded in neat overlapping sequence, accordion pleats in the continuum. As the fringer behind Bast swung around on Sedge, Dai slammed into Bast. They tumbled off the trail. Of the two fringers behind Sedge, between him and Jet, one went for Bast and Dai. The other went after Sedge, letting a huge banyx vine whip back toward Jet. 

     Jet ducked. 

     The woman holding him didn't. The swish-crack as the vine hit her sounded loudly in Jet’s ears. He barely heard the fringer’s curse as the hold on the back of his tee loosened for a second. Wrenching out of the woman’s grip, he flung himself in the direction he’d seen Dai and Bast go, tucked his head down and rolled, stumbled to his feet, ran, tripped, tumbled again, finally crawling on his knees and chest until he fell over a massive root, cracking his cheekbone against a rock and knocking what was left of the air from his chest.

     For a moment he just panted. Sweat stung his eyes. The roots and rocky soil were wet with recent rain. He hurt everywhere, with extra burning where he'd lost skin to the banyx and rocks. Slowly he rolled over.

     Through the thickness of banyx he couldn't see any fringers, or the trail, just the sinuous heavy vines, the wide, flat leaves, murk. He could hear the fringers, though, shouting and moving. The sounds echoed, muffled, then clear, then muffled again. 

     After several deep breaths, he curled up in a ball, working to get his hands around to his front. After which he had to pant for a bit more. The banyx scent filled his nose and mouth, thick as sugar.

     Close by the sounds of a scuffle came: curses, thrashing, thumps, gasping grunts. Jet inched between two giant roots. 

     Hampered by thick vines and heavy leaves, Dai and Bast struggled. The stinger was in Bast's hand, Dai's over it, their other arms locked around one another.

     Jet leaned his still-bound hands on the nearest root and pulled himself upright.

     Bast suddenly lunged with a snarl, carrying himself and Dai several steps. Jet saw the glint of his teeth as he dropped his head to bite Dai's shoulder. 

     He remembered the augmentation in the fringer’s teeth. 

     With a lunge, he grabbed for a handful of the man’s hair and dragged his head back. Bast gave a horrible yell that cut short in a grunt when Jet drove a knee into his back. Dai wrenched the stinger from the fringer’s hand, tore free, pointed the weapon at Bast's head and fired.

     Jet felt the stinger’s burn as Bast jerked back against him, his hands still in Bast’s oily hair. The fringer spasmed twice more, then slumped, dead weight. As the weight pulled hard on Jet’s burning mucsles, he let him drop. Several of Bast’s long blond hairs were left, tangled in Jet’s fingers. He stared at Dai. She panted, staring back, stinger still raised.

     "Dai."

     Slowly something like thought came back into her expression.

     The sound of static rose loudly between them. The com. Jet dropped down by Bast and fumbled it out of the fringer’s pocket with swollen, bound hands. He pushed the button. "'Cady—Jet—get the Bosch out of here—" 

     Sensing movement, his eyes tracked up in time to see Dai’s boot coming. The com flew out of his nearly nerveless hands, thunked a banyx trunk, fell to the ground. Dai fired at it; a small lick of smoke rose into the dim. 

     The stinger came back to bear on Jet.

     "Get up." She wiped blood off her face with the back of one hand, the hand not holding the stinger. The hand holding, instead, one of the chemstars.

     *****

     Dai stopped often, listening tensely. She held the stinger and the chemstar. Several times they heard other people, but the cover was thick.

     The going was easier with his hands in front, but everytime they stopped he found it harder to make his bruised body move again. He had a burning slash down his cheek, across his lower lip, and his left eye was swelling shut. He wondered about Sedge, if he was dead. Mostly he listened for the sound of the Bosch growling an in-atmosphere take-off, both relieved and angry when he continued not to hear it.

     Again Dai stopped him with a tap to the shoulder, the stinger hovering by his ear. In the dark he could only see several feet before everything faded into gloom. Close by there was a rustle of vines, a scuff of sound that could be footsteps. Then a hacking, painful cough, hastily muffled. 

     "Sedge?" Dai whispered. There was no answer, but a rasping breath. They found him a few steps away, crouched against the bole of a banyx. He was white and shaking, a pale, waxy icon in the dim, the dark of blood at the corners of his mouth.

     Dai looked down at him. Finally she put the chemstar in her pocket and offered Sedge her hand. He gripped Dai in a desperate hug when she pulled him up and Jet watched, swaying, eyes on the chemstar sticking out of Dai’s pocket.

     "What happened back there?"

     "Two of them blundered off after you and Jet; the ones left started to organize, but then they got into a fight." Sedge shook his head, coughed again. "Some took off into the banyx. I tried to go in the direction of the coordinates; I knew you weren't leading us the real way."

     "Good job." Dai caught him as he stumbled. He was breathing hard, sweating. She looked at Jet. "Hold up your hands."

     He held them over his head, stretching them as far apart as the ropes allowed. Dai lanced the stinger beam through them. The ropes fell away and the stinger's thin, deadly energy beam never touched him.

     A strange sensation squirmed through his right hand, a little worm of energy caught there, wriggling. It itched, then stung. Jet shook his hand, peering at the palm through the dim. No mark on it, though his wrists were raw meat, fingers swollen and discolored. He flexed them painfully.

     "Help him." Dai proffered Sedge with one hand, pointed the stinger with the other. After a moment, Jet slipped the man’s arm over his shoulders. They went on. Sedge's sweat soaked through Jet’s clothes, the heat of his body nearly unbearable. Jet could hear the breath catching in the man’s lungs.

     Full night crept over them through the course of a slow, painful trek.

     They emerged out of the thick, banyx-sweet blackness at the edge of a shallow bowl of rock. In the dark, it was a paleness surrounded by the black of jungle, maybe two miles across. The sky stretched overhead, a litter of stars visible through thin cloud shreds. A clean smelling wind blew wet-fingered into Jet’s face.

     Cupped in the center of the rock bowl was the Bosch, her running lights bleeding into the wet night air. Jet flexed the hand that had gone numb and touched his sanction disc, gripping it hard.   

     Dai gestured with the stinger, pale motion in the dark. They started down. His back itched at the openness of it; they were easy targets. But there was no movement other than that of the Bosch's running lights, an occasional wink on and off, and, around the rock perimeter, banyx vines stirring in the wind. Sedge coughed, leaning heavily against him; he almost fell when Jet kicked a loose pebble, stubbed a toe and stumbled. The pebble skittered along jagged rock. Jet pulled Sedge back up, limped on.

     "Move," Dai breathed. "Just move, we're almost there." She pushed at him. Sedge hung limp, his skin clammy.   

     Arcady and Snat should have seen them by now. Unless fringers had gotten there first. Jet stared at the ship. Were they alive in there? Intact? He tried to move faster, limping and burdened by an ever-heavier Sedge. 

     The running lights bled in Jet’s sight as his unswollen eye teared with sweat. Then they stood before the ship, sheltered by its bulk. The hydraulics gave a shudder and the gangway began to lower with a heavy whinging hiss. 

     It touched rock with a thump. Jet clenched one hand around his sanction disc.

     "Move.” Dai nudged him in the back with the stinger.

     They climbed the steps to the small buffer lock, Jet nearly dragging Sedge.

     Arcady stood in the inner lock bay. An older woman in Belcathat Authority Forces gray stood beside her, a regulation tranq gun leveled at them. Jet stopped.

     Dai, a bare step behind, came up level. Seeing Belcathat gray, she grabbed Jet by the hair and jabbed the stinger into his neck. The new pain made him close his eyes a breath; then he opened them, everything coming into sharper focus.

     His cousin held him between her and the security officer. He could feel Dai trembling, strung tighter than a tension cable. Sedge slid away to lean on the bulkhead, coughing.

     "You, Arcady Bosch, you tell the Belcathat you're taking us out of here, off planet."

     The Authority Forces officer shook her head, looking sad and stern. "Captain Bosch has no authority to do that, Dai."

     Arcady bit her lip, looking supremely incensed.

     Dragging Jet back a step to the edge of the entry, Dai spoke quietly. "You fucked up, captain. Supposed to come without alerting anyone. Someone's going to pay for your screw-up."

     "Dai, please, it's enough." Jet’s voice came in a whisper. He put a hand to hers, the one holding his hair. "Please."

     She jerked his head back. "Shut up, Jet.” She wrapped one arm around his neck, stinger under his chin, let go of his hair and moved the other hand down between them. To her pocket.

     She slid the chemstar slowly out, keeping it hidden. It poked Jet in the back. He felt her fumbling for the prime sequence, under the star’s outer casing. The chemstar vibrated once, against his back, primed. Jet set one bare foot against the bulkhead. His cousin drew her arm back to throw the chemstar into the open hatch of the Bosch. Jet looked up at Arcady; she seemed far away.

     He pushed off with his foot, hard as he could, a fast heave, putting everything he had left in it. There was a brief moment of resistance, weight,  then he and Dai were flying, back and over.

     Back and over they tumbled off the entry deck, over the gangway. There was an empty space, the sound of the wind rushing through his ears, sight of stars, banyx, his own hand, Dai’s pale hair. He felt a hot chemical wind and then the concussion of explosion slammed into them both, hard.

     Dai's arm let him go. Someone was screaming. There was another slam, of ground or explosion. He felt his arm break, bent under his body, a distant, grisly crack. 

     Then he fell over nothing, senses fraying into the shredded clouds high above.

****

     A face, horribly emptied of life, floated into his thoughts. He put a name to it: Laejen. Unmoored memory rocked through him. Death. Callous, instant; shocking and numbing and stupid. With a murmur he turned away from the image and the thought. A moment later he opened his eyes. In another moment, he put sense to place. The Bosch, his cabin. Closed his eyes another moment with relief.

     His left arm was set in cereplas. The drifting sense of well being imparted by meds lingered. The ship’s hum was minimal, powered down; that meant they were still in port.

     His gaze fell on a filthy, ragged pile by the bunk: the tee and shorts he'd been wearing. Torn, burned, stained with mud, sweat, blood. Destined for ventilation when they got out of the well. 

     Slowly things began to wash through his mind, one event, another, a run of corrupted kive data. More death. Bast. Dai? And himself, shouldn’t he be dead? He’d taken his passage. Was this the next world? He peered down the bunk. His left leg was also set in cereplas. On his unbroken arm and along what he could see of that side of his body, healskin covered his own. Burns, that meant. On his face, too; he could feel it now, a thin overlay of healskin.

     Dai. Dai and Sedge. And Laejen. And all those fringers. And his Aunt Kayla; had the kidnapping been her idea, or had Dai taken the information given her and made her own plan? The questions went through his mind; he turned his face away from them, gaze roving his cabin.

     His cabin. Destined soon for the next contract hire, probably. Too much trouble, all this, for a small runner like the Bosch. Who knew if Authority Forces would even let him leave. Nice to be here now, though. For however much longer.

     His hand went to the sanction disc. It was as much a part of him as spinning or a love of Jensai Xel flashes. He hadn't taken it off in four and a half years.

     Awkwardly, one-handed, he drew the chain off, over his head. Pain ghosted through his broken limbs, through his muscles under the meds. Gritting his teeth, he dropped the disc and its slither of chain onto the filthy tee and shorts. Disc and chain made a little pool of cool, prismatic metal. He looked at that for a while, then sank back into the kindly embrace of the meds.

     When he woke again, Arcady sat on the edge of his bunk, examining a palm unit. Jet watched her.

     She looked up. “Hey.” She picked a bulb off the floor and handed it to him. He sucked cool water through the spout, easing the dryness in his throat. Even so, his voice came out a croak.

     "What…Dai?"

     She looked down a moment. "When you went over, the momentum threw the chemstar back, out of your cousin’s hand. It went off below you both. Your cousin took the worst of the explosion. She—her body—she shielded you from it. She’s dead. I’m sorry, Jet."

     He couldn’t think of anything to say, or feel. Distantly, he sensed loss and knew it would come, in time.

     Arcady took the forgotten ship cup from him. "You were a mess. Pumped you full of rejuvers, knitters, sealed you in cereplas and healskin." She shook her head. "They tagged you, you know."

     Jet blinked at her, trying to make meaning of the statement.

     Arcady held up her right hand. "In the hand. When we went to the security office. They were tracking you, hoping Dai would try to get off planet through you." 

     He remembered his itchy hand then; and, further back, Parmen sec'Kyle's emphatic handshake.

     "We brought Sedge and the Belcathat woman back to Athkiyar Main. I guess Sedge will--”  She paused and Jet realized he’d been drifting. Then she said softly, “Well. I have my spinner anyway. As soon as you're even vaguely mobile, we're out of here."

     He blinked again; that was important. In a minute he’d remember why. Warm fingers touched his hand. It seemed like a miracle that she was there. Of course, it was her ship. He wrapped his fingers around hers. 

     "Jet, about your contract." She paused and he felt the void open up in the center of his med-induced well being. "If you want it, a full crew option is on the board.” She looked shy for a moment. “I—well; it seems like you’re pretty committed to keeping your berth from getting blown up, so you must really like it. So, it’s—if you want it."

     He gripped her hand. " I want it. Please. Yes."

     She squeezed his hand back, then stood up. "Snat got a load of kives from crew on the Quinteppi ship. If I don’t make him do some work he’ll archive several eras before remembering to eat."

     “Did he get any Jensai Xels?”

     Arcady sighed. “The complete works. I’m not going to get any work out of either of you, am I?” The shy look crossed her features again, then she turned to go. She paused and glanced down at his ragged, blood-stained clothes, the slither of chain and sanction disc on top. “You venting this?”

     He nodded. “All of it.” 

End

 

This story originally appeared in RevolutionSF.


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