Read an Excerpt
A Passage of Stars
Book One of the Highroad Trilogy
By Kate Elliott
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Alis A. Rasmussen
All rights reserved.
Because she would, inevitably, have hit her, Lily chose not to throw her glass at her mother.
"And furthermore," continued the Saress, "if what Hiro has told me is true, I think it is time we reconsider our decision to let Lilyaka continue attending that man's academy."
"What did Hiro tell you?" asked the Sar.
"It's not true." Lily turned to look at her cousin.
"It is too true," said Hiro, undeterred—or perhaps spurred on—by Lily's hand tightening on the glass. "I saw it. Six bounty hunters, with blazers, with license tags on their wrists, and Heredes took them all out. He was unarmed, and he scragged them all. And then he calls Security and has all six arrested for assault. What a push!"
"Nephew." The Saress swept her hand across the tight coils of her head scarf. "You will not use vulgar street terms at this table." She regarded her husband. "Bounty hunters. I always knew that man was a criminal. Well? Will Lily be allowed to continue?"
The Sar considered in silence, a silence that spread to the adolescents' table in the far corner of the room. Even Eldest Aunt's whispering to her ancient husband faltered and ceased as everyone else turned to hear the verdict. Lily did not move. The focus of her breathing centered on the tension in her fingers. Finally the Sar sighed. "That is a subject best discussed between Lily and me. In private."
"And I think this nonsense has gone on far too long," said the Saress. "Lily has been indulged to a ridiculous extent by you letting her attend class there, while she meanwhile refuses to show any interest at all in mining."
Lily remained silent.
"You know, Lily," said her eldest sister, "the Kollek Ransomes need a supervisor over in sector five-oh-two. It would only take a two-month course for you to be qualified."
"But I don't care about aluminum ore," said Lily.
"Spessartite," corrected her sister automatically. "That vein's spessartite."
Hiro laughed behind his hand. "They certainly aren't going to offer her the tech opening over in Tanrin's sector."
"You could have had an excellent bond alliance," said the Saress.
"That's true, Lily."
Lily jerked her head up. "What—the one Shardra Bajii Ransome contracted with, that fat Jai Foxmore merchant, just because his uncle owns some fleet of cargo boats? I think it's disgusting."
The Sar's face remained impassive, but he flicked an impatient finger over the square of buttons on his chair's arm. Strands of light shuddered to life on the wall behind him, tracing mineral veins, tunnels, current and future work, then died, fading back into the flat grey of the wall. "There is other employment available to members of this House, Lily."
"Should I be daring like Phillippa and try for a civil service posting out in the asteroid belts? But she had to have two children before she could even apply."
"I'll never understand why she agreed to be posted all the way out there," said one brother to another.
"Probably to get out of here," retorted Lily. "Does anyone here really have any idea of what I'd like to do? What I might be suited for?"
"What you'd like to do?" cried the Saress. "I fail to see how ten years of training by that man can be put to use, except by enlisting in the government troops, which you also refused to consider—not even when the Immortals came recruiting—" She broke off, as if this ground had been covered once too often. "It's time you realize that you have to contribute to the enterprises of this House like the rest of the clan. And we will start by forbidding you to enter Heredes's Academy again!"
"No!" With a crack like a sharp exhalation, the glass shattered under Lily's hand. "Never." She stood, a single scarlet drop of blood spreading into the white sheen of the tablecloth. "Beg leave to be excused from the table, Sar-father."
"Surely," began the Saress, "you won't allow her—"
The Sar raised a hand. The Saress stopped speaking. "You may go, Lily. I will expect to speak with you later, however."
In the silence, a last sliver fell from her fingers to land with a subdued chime on the porcelain. She nodded.
At the door she turned back to look at her cousin. "Master Heredes isn't a criminal, Hiro, no matter what you and your friends in that claustrophobic town say—just because he's a foreigner." But even as the door hissed shut behind her she heard voices opening into avidity as Hiro was encouraged to elaborate on his story. And behind that, lower, the Sar discussing the sixth vein workings with his eldest daughter.
Frustration as much as anger impelled her down the hall. She felt enclosed, tiled in, buried within rock. Ransome House might be vast, kilometer after kilometer of tunnel curving away into darkness, forgotten passages ending in abandoned rooms, but it was also utterly contained, sheathed both in metal and in the strictures necessarily imposed on a large conglomeration of people bound together under the surface of as turbulent a planet as Unruli.
She halted at the warehouse lock. The sheen of the walls mirrored her: the slant of her eyes; the pale, graceful line of her neck; her slender, upright figure. There was a set to her shoulders, a cast of her legs in the finely woven trousers, a turn to her wrists, that betrayed her strength and agility. The Hae Ransomes were renowned for their beauty, all willowy height and brown skin and tightly curled hair. Some other strain had crept in to pollute Lily with straight black hair, pale skin, and a stature a full head less than her ten siblings—and, her mother claimed, with irresponsibility. Although less than five years from her majority at thirty, she had not shown any inclination toward a profession, an apprenticeship, a bond alliance, or the University. Had, in fact, shown no inclination at all toward anything except recalcitrance, stubbornness, and Master Heredes's Academy.
The lights on the door panel blinked red. The gauges ran into the warning zone: storm. How appropriate, she thought, gazing at these signs with the dispassionate gaze of a native as she pulled on parka, gloves, goggles, and hard hat. She smiled wryly, encoding the opening sequence into the panel. When the door rustled aside she slid a breathing plug on and went into the warehouse.
Only a few lights burned. Shadows disguised the distant walls of the cavern and spread, as disease brings decay and disrepair, over the equipment that littered the expanse of floor. Darkness hid the roof. Lily walked, her footsteps muffled on the bare rock, past broken-down mine engines and new machines from the provincial suppliers, to a far corner. Here lay the relics, machinery from the early days, smaller and more sophisticated—machinery her father could not use or repair but would not sell or scrap.
By the time she had graduated First School at fifteen it was obvious she was no technician: the five mechanical Kollek Ransome cousins had laughed at her because her suitability ranking for tech was impossibly low. So she had crept out secretly to the warehouse one night, piqued, furious, and humiliated as well by a failed attempt at running away from home, and she had made one of those ancient machines work.
Barely, not understanding it or its function, scarcely knowing how she had done it, but she had done it. It had taken one year before she could communicate with it in the most rudimentary fashion and five more before, achieving reasonable fluency, she had discovered that it could speak and understand Standard but preferred not to use it, because Standard was, after all, primitive compared to the sophistication of its own language. That was the year when, hidden in her room, it had somehow latched onto the University screening "computer programming" examination file and, taking the ten-hour test in fifty-two minutes, had gotten a perfect score—in her name. Five months later, she had received miserable scores on the entrance examination taken at Apron Port, and so ended that sensation.
Reaching the line of dust-ridden machines, she whistled a quick, intricate melody. After a pause, a light blinked in the darkness, steadying to blue, and the reply came, sung, as a recapitulation of that single line in four voices. A spherical shape, perhaps half a meter in diameter, moved toward her, out into the half-light, hovering at her eye level. Two appendages dangled like stunted arms from its equator.
A robot, of course, but when she had carefully asked her tech brother what it was, he had laughed: an ancient line, workings unknown.
In ten years she had learned that its primary language was based on music, that it seemed sentient, and that it was, with a few adjustments, in perfect repair—or so it had once claimed with an exultant full cadence. And because she, Lilyaka Hae Ransome, had saved it from decay and disintegration—the phrases it used translated more closely to power loss and loneliness—she gained its complete devotion and loyalty, and its series name and number: Bach 1689.
It was a felicitous relationship. Bach had infinite patience with her limitations, because, after all, she could only whistle or sing one voice at a time, and assured her she was making excellent progress through the collected works, rewarding her with a variety of pieces from other series, which bore equally strange names: Mozart, Gabrieli, Melep. For his part (she thought of it as a "he"), he loved to play on her computer. She would hook him up whenever she could get him to her room unseen. For she had told no one, not even Master Heredes, about Bach.
Bach sang now a lilting question.
I go to the Academy, she whistled.
A green light blinked on its topmost port and it sang back, seemingly oblivious to the complex formality explicit in all of its statements and absent from all of hers. Very well. And wilt thou require my assistance or attendance? A quickening of tempo here, like eagerness.
It is storm weather. I need you to stay here and track me, in case I have an accident.
Bach sang happily back and sank down behind a corroded drilling machine to compose.
At the surface lock she fished a beacon out of a rusting bucket and clipped a beam-light to her hard hat. Her code flashed on the com-panel. Ignoring it, she punched the exit sequence. The door shunted aside, sand scraping under its glide. In the lock, she waited through the long lift to the surface, felt the familiar rush of air, the moment of dense silence. The outside door opened, straining into the wind.
Lily stepped outside.
Turmoil greeted her. Clouds and wind roiled the turgid air. The ground lay unmoved by the furious swell and tear of the wind, but it rested in steep angles of rock, deep plunges, and abrupt thrusts upward, as if in some long-past era the wind had forced the stone into the turbulent dance and then left it, locked into the patterns of its forgotten frenzy. Behind her, the wind generators spun frantically.
She used hands and feet as she went. The wind pulled her one way, pushed her another. Streams of air caught on the rocks and whipped round to strike her face. She steadied herself with her hands, testing each step before she put her full weight down. Only the lull of her breathing through the plug remained constant. In the distance she heard the echoing roar of an avalanche. The early settlers to Unruli had suffered an astonishing number of casualties; later, with the discovery of the stability of the rock below, they built primarily underground, cutting themselves off, except for their generators, from the surface. And now, Lily thought, their descendants could not understand that such containment might seem restrictive to one of their own.
Master Heredes's home, and Academy of Instruction in a wide variety of martial arts, lay on a brief stretch of unbroken ground. From a distance it appeared to be a swelling of polished stone covered with the dense, flashing swirl of wind generators. Lily trudged across the flat, her head thrust into the wind, shoulders hunched and tight. She felt, pushing against it, as if it were the physical manifestation of all that she was struggling against, and that the sloping door of the Academy was her only refuge.
As she laid her hand on the lock, the door slid open. A blast of wind pushed her in. Sand skittered across the floor in frenzied patterns, freezing suddenly in haphazard lines when the door shut. The ceiling receded into darkness. She took off her goggles and rubbed at her eyes. The floor sank, stopping at last at the inner door, which opened with a low beep. In the anteroom, she changed quickly into the obligatory loose white pants and waist-belted tunic worn by Heredes's many students. Barefoot, she padded down the corridor beyond, her strides keeping time to the frantic melody she whistled, an out-of-series song Bach had taught her. The door to the master's parlor was open; she went in. He was reading, seated cross-legged next to the holograph, but as she entered he laid down his screen and turned to face her.
"Well, Lily," he began, halted abruptly, and frowned. "Finish it," he said.
For a moment she did nothing. Then she remembered what she had been doing. She picked an appropriate measure in the song and whistled to the end of the elongated phrase.
"Can you sing it?" he asked.
She laughed and sat down on the floor next to him. "I haven't got the voice."
"No," he agreed. "Melep is notoriously hard to sing. But you've got the inner melody." He smiled, reaching out with a dark hand to touch the holograph. He looked much younger than her father, but she was sure, without knowing why, that he was much older. "I haven't heard that for years."
"But how could you—" She halted, confused. "How did you know?"
That made him blink. "How did you know? I've never heard that Melep was taught in these schools. Well, Lily." He studied her thoughtfully.
"I learned it. But I didn't think anyone else—Melep was a composer?"
"Oh, yes." She had known Heredes ten years and now she watched as a thought developed in his eyes and moved out to adjust the positions of his body. "You're angry," he said.
She stood abruptly and walked to the wall. "My mother means to forbid me from coming here. She's using—" She stopped, unwilling to mention Hiro's bounty hunters. Heredes waited; his eyes were of a clear green cast, set wide apart, his cheeks broad, so that his expression, expectant, appeared almost childish. Lily spun away to face the wall. "I can't entirely blame them. No one's ever accused me of being lazy, not with the hours I study here, but it's true that I don't know what I can use all this training for. And it's true that the Sar has indulged me. It isn't as if I've tried to involve myself in House business like the rest of the clan. But I just don't care about new mines and next week's trading schedule and tax percentage." She let her palms support her on the wall. Behind her, the measured, quiet breathing of the master brushed through the room. "I should. But I can't."
"And there rests the flaw in hereditary systems of class and government," he said. She allowed herself a reluctant smile. "That's better," he continued. "Although you're still tense."
"Maybe I should have joined when the Immortals came recruiting," she said into the wall, then shook her head. "But that would just have exchanged one set of restrictions for a worse set. I've gotten to the point where I would apprentice in anything just to get out of here."
"And I not knowing a single person in this sector."
"Well, I'm not accusing you. But there isn't a chance in high weather that mother will let me out before I'm thirty, not now, not without a bond or a sponsorship. Without either of those, I've got no resources to draw on. None, even though Ransome House is one of the richest on Unruli." She paused, thinking over the inequities of this system. "And I won't bond."
The monotone hum of the circulation vents hung in the air. "Your father," Heredes began, "once told me that you received the highest score on your computer programming exams ever recorded in this system. The University might have let you in without the pregnancy requirement."
"Damn that," said Lily. "I'm sorry." She turned. "It was a mistake. I didn't really get that score."
He stood, the loose, ankle-length pants and cloth-belted tunic rustling as they unfolded. Under the cloth his posture and his way of moving revealed complete self-possession. "You would have received it at this University." He went to the door. "Come with me."
Excerpted from A Passage of Stars by Kate Elliott. Copyright © 1990 Alis A. Rasmussen. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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