Filled with the faint odors of oil, hot metal, and recycled air, the down-shuttle from Accord orbit control to Harmony was less than half full. In the left front couch sat a tall sandy-haired man wearing the formal greens of an Ecolitan. On his left uniform collar was a black-and-green lustral pin--a gift from the Emperor of the Hegemony of Light, more commonly known as the Terran Empire. The pin was a contradiction in terms because the substance of the lustral represented a small fortune and the form was a miniature of the crest of the Ecolitan Institute. Beside the Ecolitan sat a dark-haired woman in a blue jumpsuit.
Sylvia glanced sideways at Nathaniel as the Ecolitan fidgeted in the hard passenger seat of the Coordinate shuttle.
"Iffy approach," he said.
"And yours haven't been?" The slender and dark-haired woman offered a smile.
"Yours." The smile broadened.
"Which kind are you referring to?" he countered, trying not. to grin in return.
"Any kind, most honorable envoy."
"I'd hope mine, especially in shuttles and needle-boats, were less rocky," he finally said, squelching a frown as the buffeting shuttle tossed him against his harness.
"Do all pilots find other pilots' approaches questionable?"
"Probably. We hate being passengers."
"It sounds like you're all control addicts." She offered a softer smile.
"That's probablytrue, too."
"I still wonder." She shook her head. "This is so sudden. I hadn't planned to emigrate so soon. And certainly not to Accord. Your clearance officers on the orbit control station-they barely looked at me. Do all Ecolitans have that kind of power?"
"Hardly." Nathaniel laughed. "It wasn't me, but the Prime Ecolitans access codes."
"Just codes? Could any Ecolitan do that?"
"Not unless the Prime gave him the codes." The sandy-haired man swayed in the seat as the shuttle banked onto what Nathaniel hoped was the final approach. "They're held tightly."
"Does that happen often?"
Nathaniel shrugged. "Every few years, maybe. This was important to us." Still, he had trouble believing his mission as an agent/official envoy was over, and that he had actually managed to avert what could have been an interstellar war between the Coordinate of Accord and the Empire., Although he'd sweated and worried, especially when it had looked as though the Imperial fleet had been ready to deploy, now it seemed almost too easy...and as if he'd missed something. He refrained from shaking his head. At least he'd gotten Sylvia off Old Earth. But did she want off?
"You'd already gotten the trade agreement before you left Old Earth," Sylvia continued. "You didn't need me. Why was I important to your mission? Or afterwards?"
"Because I dunk so." He grinned. "Because you made it all possible, and because--"
"Please remain in your seats. Shuttle Beta is on final approach to Harmony. Please remain in your seats."
"--you'd be ah asset to the Institute."
"They'd take me on your recommendation?"
"Not automatically, but I can't recall when the recommendation of a senior professor was last rejected." He cleared his, throat and raised his voice above the roar of the landing engines. "That's because we don't make many, and we're held responsible."
"How many have you made?" Sylvia asked with a smile.
"You're the first. I don't know of any professor, or even the Prime, who's made more than three. Some never have."
Her eyes dropped to the green of the bulkhead before them. "You make me sound extraordinarily special, and I'm not."
"You're not? How many people would have had the background, the understanding, and the willingness to help me--and to prevent the deaths of billions of human beings?" And that was just where an interstellar war could have led.
"I'm not that special."
"We'll talk about that later, Ms. Ferro-Maine," Nathaniel said as the shuttle's tires screeched on the permacrete of Accord and he lurched against the harness. "Way too rough..." he murmured more to himself than Sylvia.
Even before the shuttle lurched to a halt, prompting another sour look by Nathaniel, the announcement hissed through the passenger compartment.
"Please pick up your bags or any luggage on the way out of the shuttle. You are responsible for carrying your own luggage unless you have made prior arrangements. Please pick up your luggage on the way out"
"Self-sufficiency begins from the moment you set foot on the planet, I see." After the final lurch, Sylvia eased out of her harness and stood, stretching.
Nathaniel watched for a moment, enjoying her grace, still half-amazed that she had not been good enough for a professional dancing career on Old Earth.
"Dancing takes more than grace."
"How did you--"
"You've said it enough, especially every time I stretch." Another warm smile crossed her lips. "Tune to become pack animals.''
"With what little you brought?"
"I had very little time to choose, as you may recall?"
"Sorry. I'll see that you get a stipend for that. "And he would, even if it came out of his pay.
"You aren't responsible for everything, dear envoy."
No, he thought, we Ecolitans only think we are.
One of the uniformed crew members--a woman in olive greens standing behind the baggage racks--looked sharply at the two for a moment as they retrieved their bags, two field packs for Nathaniel and two oblong black synfab cases for Sylvia.
Once they stepped out of the shuttle and into the shuttleway to the port terminal, Nathaniel took a deep breath. "Smells better than ship air."
"It smells like burned hydrocarbons to me," confessed Sylvia.
"Professor Whaler?" asked the redheaded young woman in plain greens, waiting by the end of the shuttleway.
"I'm Whaler," Nathaniel acknowledged. "And this is Ms. Ferro-Maine. She's accompanying me to the Institute."
"Trainee Luren, sirs," offered the youngster, probably a fourth-year trainee, Nathaniel suspected. "The Prime sent a flitter when he got your message." Her rust-colored eyebrows lifted just slightly. "If you Would follow me?"
"Thank you." The Ecolitan did not answer the unasked question. Few Ecolitans got private flitters on returning to Accord. Most carried their own luggage and took the monorail.
As they trailed Luren, Sylvia murmured; "I thought you said we'd have to take the monorail."
"I couldn't count on a flitter...didn't want to disappoint you."
"You won't be disappointed that you aren't flying it?" She raised her eyebrows.
"A little, but into each life some rain falls."
Luren paused by a narrow doorway. "We're down the steps and across the permacrete."
Nathaniel squinted as they stepped out into the bright sunlight of Harmony, if a shuttle port nearly twenty kilos south of . Harmony could be considered part of the Coordinate capital
"There it is, sirs," said Luren.
Nathaniel he green flitter as he eased the field packs through the doorway, then looked back toward Sylvia, whose mouth opened.
Nathaniel scarcely felt the needles that slammed him around, not after Sylvia threw him behind the slight cover afforded by their bags. For a moment, he just lay there. On Accord? With an Institute flitter less than a hundred meters away? How could an assassination attempt take place? And why? He'd already done his job, and nothing would stop implementation the trade agreement.
Nathaniel squinted through his sudden dizziness at the sprawled form of the trainee and then coward the flitter.
Thrummmm...thrummm...Almost as quickly as the stunner bolts flew from the Institute craft, two figures in greens sprinted from the flitter toward the three sprawled on the permacrete.
Eeeeeee...The sirens seemed to waver in and around Nathaniel from a distance as he slowly eased himself into a sitting position.
His entire side was a mass of fire.
"Are you all right?" Sylvia asked.
"Will be...need to get to the Institute." He struggled to stand, then found himself being helped by both Sylvia and a young Ecolitan.
"Whoever it was is gone, professor. We've alerted the Prime, but we're to get you home double speed." The young crewman turned to Sylvia. "You, too, Ms. Ferro-Maine."
Nathaniel forced his legs to carry him toward the still waiting flitter, although it was more of a stagger than a walk. Still, he knew every pace was worth more than antique gold, especially if the needles had carried nerve collapse toxins. He blocked the pain and kept walking, but the permacrete and the flitter began to swirl around him.
Copyright 1997 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.