Authors: Sharon Lee,Steve Miller
Tags: #Science Fiction
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this novel are fiction or are used fictitiously. That means the author made it all up.
Copyright © 1998 by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller.
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Shield of Korval by Angela Gradillas.
For the Friends of Liad: lisamia keshoc. We are in your debt.
Here we stand: An old woman, a halfling boy, two babes; a contract, a ship, and a Tree. Clan Korval. How Jela would laugh.
—Excerpted from Cantra yos'Phelium's Log Book
There was time, but neither night nor day.
Time. Current time on twenty planets was counted along the digital displays in the long left wall. The light was impartial, unchanging. Shadowless.
In addition to the silent, steady chronometers, the room contained a desk upon which sat two screens—one large, one small—a keypad, some few files of hard copy, a stylus. Behind the desk was a chair; in the chair was a man.
Those who owed allegiance to the Department, to the Plan, addressed him as "Commander" or, formally, "Commander of Agents." That was enough.
Commander of Agents touched his keypad, advancing the file displayed upon the larger screen.
Blindfolded and questioned—if any would dare it—he could easily have recited the entire contents of the file. He perused it without reading it, as another might shuffle and deal hand after hand of Patience, mind wrestling a problem light years beyond his busy fingers.
The immediate problem was threefold, the sections named thus: Clan Korval, Val Con yos'Phelium, Tyl Von sig'Alda.
Clan Korval. The Department of Interior had long been aware of the danger presented by Clan Korval, that maverick and most oddly successful of clans. The Department of Interior had taken measures—bold measures—in the past, with an eye toward nullifying Korval's menace. The culmination of these measures was the recruitment of Korval's young nadelm into the Department and the subsequent redesign of that same Val Con yos'Phelium into an Agent of Change.
That stroke, brilliant and necessary, had produced uncalculated results. Korval became aware of the Department. And, being Korval, measures—bold measures—had been taken. The Department found its name spoken in public places; long-stable funding sources came under scrutiny, several dummy accounts were unmasked and summarily closed by the Masters of the Accountants Guild, the funds returned to the Council of Clans.
Not satisfied with such unseemly commotion, Korval moved again—and more boldly yet. The clan vanished—ships, children, servants, and pets—all, all gone from Liad.
Not quite all.
Commander of Agents touched his keypad. One of the line direct remained upon Liad: Anthora, youngest of the adult yos'Galans, who had prudently moved to the ancient and formidable Jelaza Kazone, Korval's first base of planetary operation, and was living there retired. For now.
Commander of Agents advanced the file, eyes looking beyond screen and data. Korval was out
somewhere. Who knew what they might do? Or when?
The Commander considered the probability that they had gone entirely, leaving behind one too odd to understand her peril. Were Korval to abandon Liad and accept sanctuary from Terra, the balance long in favor of Liaden trade missions and Liaden expansion would be at risk. The children of yos'Galan were half-Terran. Mongrels. They might well go to kin.
The Commander was not one to feel qualms. The various actions against Korval, including fomenting revolution on the world of Korval's oldest trade partner, were necessary to reduce Korval's influence and bring about the true ascendancy of Liad.
The recent revolt had not been an entire success, for Korval's old ally and sometime bedmate had prevailed. Still, it would be a generation before the economy of the planet healed, and the political conflicts would take a dozen dozen relumma to settle.
More, there was rumor that one string not yet strung to the bow of the alliance was now gone. The Commander allowed himself a faint smile: fight them over and over, covertly, and even Korval must fall. They had almost been eliminated twice now.
The Commander blinked. This time, perhaps. On
This nearly open flight was unfortunate, and unexpected. That Korval searched for their missing delm-to-be was certain. To allow them to locate and reclaim Val Con yos'Phelium would be an error. A very serious error.
A most successful Agent, Val Con yos'Phelium. There was that in the madcap Korval genes that inspired its members to excellence, whatever course they might chart. Before the adjustment of his loyalties, Val Con yos'Phelium had ridden the mandate of his genes to a certain pinnacle of achievement: Scout Commander, First-In. A man of infinite resource, a pilot from a clan that bred for pilots; intelligent, flexible and—after suitable training—exquisitely deadly, he had among his armament the greatest of all an Agent's weapons, the Probability Loop.
The Loop allowed an Agent to calculate odds of mission success and personal survival. To some extent, it served as a predictor of coming action, and as a strategy program. There were, of course, certain other mandates implanted, as well as a self-destruct subroutine. These mandates and subroutines were provided to ensure that an Agent remained loyal to his mission, to the Department, and to the Plan. It should not be possible for an Agent of Change to break training.
And, yet, there was evidence—disturbingly strong evidence—that Val Con yos'Phelium, delm genetic of a clan that seemingly valued random action just slightly less than piloting skill, had broken training.
So. Agent of Change Tyl Von sig'Alda had been dispatched on the trail of a rumor, to seek Val Con yos'Phelium along the ways of an interdicted world, to offer transport to the home world, to debriefing and recalibration. Had the Agent merely come against mischance, these things would be accepted. Had he suffered severe mischance, Agent sig'Alda was to bring his Commander a body, a skull, sections of vertebrae—
. An Agent was no such thing to be carelessly left lying about the galaxy, after all. Especially no such Agent as Val Con yos'Phelium.
Commander of Agents came to the end of the file and closed it with a flick at the keypad. He leaned back in the chair which conformed to his body's shape, and briefly closed his eyes.
Agent sig'Alda had been gone some time. It was understood that ransacking a low-tech world for one man—or one corpse—might consume time. The Commander was prepared to wait some small time longer, before loosing another Agent to the search.
Commander of Agents opened his eyes, seeking the smaller second screen.
This screen showed a sector map. Marked plainly on the map was Interdicted World I-2796-893-44, where Tyl Von sig'Alda sought Val Con yos'Phelium. An amber light near the world marked the location of sig'Alda's ship, as reported by the concealed pin-beam locator beacon. Some time ago, the beacon had reported that it was on world and Commander of Agents had allowed himself hope.
Alas, the ship lifted very soon, thence to dawdle in orbit now several more days, so the scent that had enticed Agent sig'Alda to the planet's surface must have proved false.
Commander of Agents moved his eyes to the chronometered wall. He was due in conference very shortly, where another portion of the Department's Plan would be reviewed.
Korval's links with outside interests were being attended to, carefully. It was the Commander's thought that Korval had dwindled to the point of being too few to attend to their own security. Thus a test case. It would do Korval no good, should
Hands on the armrests, the Commander pushed his chair back, glancing to the beacon screen—and freezing.
For the beacon's light was no longer the placid amber indicative of a stable position. It blazed green on the star map, its glow eclipsing the world called "Vandar" by its natives, the pre-Jump coil-charge smearing the telltale into a blur. Coordinates appeared at the bottom of the screen, the beacon phased from green to turquoise, then flared into nothing as it and the ship around it entered Jump.
Commander of Agents reached forth a hand and tapped a command into his keypad. The home system of the interdicted world melted from the screen, replaced by another map, this with a ship route limned in red.
Commander of Agents leaned back in his chair, and allowed himself to believe that all was well.
Tyl Von sig'Alda was Jumping for Waymart.
And from Waymart it was but two Jumps to Headquarters.
She was quick, canny, and careful, a former mercenary master sergeant with the battle wisdom of a hundred combat encounters behind her.
He was not without resources, trained first as a scout and then as an Agent, but the knife nearly penetrated his guard, so smoothly did she manage the thing. He snatched her wrist as it snaked past, shifted balance for the throw—and ended the move in an ignominious twisting breakaway as she broke his grip and rode the attack forward.
She danced back to the metal wall, gray eyes intent, muscles coherent; poised, not stressed; the sweat bathing her face the residue of physical exertion, rather than strain.
She let him regain stance, she allowed him time for orientation, time to conceive and launch an attack; uncommon courtesy from so deadly a battle-mate. He feinted with a move out of L'apeleka, saw the grin flit across her face even as she shifted balance in proper response to the phrase.
He danced another half-phrase of the Clutch discipline, choosing a subtle variant beyond her current level of attainment. He was not really surprised when she moved smoothly in response, timing perfect as a heartbeat. His mental Loop, residue of his days as a full Agent of Change, indicated her chance of besting him in this encounter was nearly seventeen percent—four times higher than it had been half a year ago.
Training took over and his hands flashed out, faster than thought. The knife spun away as he caught both her wrists this time and took her with him into the somersault, both aware of the constraining walls.
She twisted and broke half free. He countered, snaking around and pinning her flat against the metal floor, one hand tight under her chin.
"Yield!" he demanded, trying not to see how easily his fingers encircled the fragile column of her throat.
She sighed slightly, considering him out of calm gray eyes. "Sure," she said. "What the hell."
He laughed, taking his hand from her throat and rolling away to prop hip and elbow against the cold deck. "Not quite the attitude I might expect from a seasoned mercenary."
"No sense gettin' killed," Miri said reasonably, grabbing his free hand and laying it over her breast. She squirmed a little, as if to settle more comfortably against the deck plates. "That's better."
"Fraternizing with the enemy?" inquired Val Con.
"Taking a little rest with my partner," she corrected him sternly. "Liadens and Terrans ain't enemies—they just don't get along too good."
He opened his green eyes very wide. "Don't we get along, Miri?"
"Yeah, but see," she said earnestly, reaching to touch his right cheek and the scar that marred the smooth golden skin, "we're crazy. And that's besides you being a scout and having this funny idea about how Liadens and Terrans and for-space-sake Yxtrang are all from the same stock."
"It is true," Val Con allowed, feeling her heartbeat through the breast nestled in his palm, "that scout training may have identified those characteristics that are classified as 'crazy' and honed them to a fine degree. However, the hypothesis of the common root of the three human races is from my father's studies." He smiled. "So you see that insanity is hereditary."
"Yeah, all you do is believe it." She stretched suddenly and sat up, face abruptly serious. "Tell you what, boss: I think I'm cured."
He rolled over onto his back, crossed his arms behind his head and considered the other thing inside his head—a precious gift, balancing the Loop's distasteful, inevitable presence.
Legend said that lifemates had often been linked this way, soul to soul, not quite sharing thought, but rather sharing intent; joying in a knowledge of each other that went deeper than any kin-tie. That he and Miri should be so linked, now, when Liad's wizards were on the wane and lifemates were merely in love, was wonderful past belief.