The lines. No ship can traverse the void without them. Only linesmen can work with them. But only Ean Lambert hears their song. And everyone thinks he’s crazy…
Most slum kids never go far, certainly not becoming a level-ten linesman like Ean. Even if he’s part of a small, and unethical, cartel, and the other linesmen disdain his self-taught methods, he’s certified and working.
Then a mysterious alien ship is discovered at the edges of the galaxy. Each of the major galactic powers is desperate to be the first to uncover the ship’s secrets, but all they’ve learned is that it has the familiar lines of energy—and a defense system that, once triggered, annihilates everything in a 200 kilometer radius.
The vessel threatens any linesman who dares to approach it, except Ean. His unique talents may be the key to understanding this alarming new force—and reconfiguring the relationship between humans and the ships that serve them, forever.
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LINESMEN’S GUILD—LIST OF LINES AND THEIR PURPOSES
THE SHIP WAS in bad shape. It was a miracle it had come through the void at all, let alone come through in one piece. Ean patted the chassis that housed the lines. “You did good, girl,” he whispered. “I know that, even if no one else does.”
It seemed to him that the ship responded to his touch, or maybe to the feel of his brain syncing with hers.
The crewman who showed him the lines was nervous but polite. “We’ve waited two months for this work,” he said. “Glad they’ve finally brought someone back.” He hesitated, then asked the inevitable question in a rush. “So what’s it like? The confluence?”
Ean considered lying but decided on the truth. “Don’t know. I haven’t been out there.”
“Oh. But I thought—”
So did everyone else. “Someone has to service the higher lines,” Ean said.
“Oh. Of course.” But the crewman wasn’t as awed by him after that and left abruptly once he had shown him the lines.
Ean supposed he should be used to it by now. But everyone knew the “real” tens—and the nines—were out at the confluence, trying to work out what the immense circle of power was and how it worked. Not that anyone seemed to have come up with an answer yet—and they’d had six months to investigate it.
When the confluence had first been discovered, the media had been full of speculation about what it was. Some said it was a ball of matter that exuded energy on the same wavelength as that of the lines, while others said it was a piece of void space intruding into real space. Some even said it was the original source of the lines.
Six months later, with the Alliance and Gate Union/Redmond on the brink of war, media speculation had changed. It was a weapon designed by the Alliance to destroy all linesmen. It was a weapon designed by Gate Union, in conjunction with the linesmen, to destroy the Alliance. New speculation said it was an experiment of Redmond’s gone wrong. They were known to experiment with the lines.
Ean had no idea what it was, but he was sure he could find out—if only Rigel would send him out to the confluence to work, like the other nines and tens.
He was a ten, Ean reminded himself. Certified by the Grand Master himself. As good as any other ten. He sighed and turned to his job.
He worked forty hours straight, stopping only for the meals the crew brought him at four-hour intervals, immersed in the fields, straightening the tangled lines. Creating his own line of the same frequency, calling the fragments into his line, much like a weak magnet might draw iron filings. It was delicate work, and he had to concentrate. He was glad of that. He had no time to think about how he was the only ten left in the cartels available to do work like this because all the other cartel masters had sent their nines and tens out to the confluence.
He sang as he worked. The deep, sonorous songs of the void—line nine. The chatter of the mechanics—lines two and three. The fast, rhythmic on-off state of the gravity controller—line four. And the heavy strength of the Bose engines that powered it through the void—line six. He didn’t sing line one. That was the crew line, and this wasn’t a happy ship.
“I’ve never heard of a linesman who sang before,” said the crewman who brought him his third meal.
Neither had Ean. But then, most linesmen would never have described the lines as song either. He’d tried to explain it once, to his trainers.
“It’s like the lines are out of tune but they don’t know how to fix themselves. Sometimes they don’t even realize they are out of tune. To fix them I sing the right note, and they try to match it, and we keep trying until we match.”
His trainers had looked at each other as if wondering what they had gotten themselves into. Or maybe wondering if Ean was sane.
“It’s because you taught yourself for so long,” one particularly antagonistic trainer had told him. “Lines are energy, pure and simple. You manipulate that energy with your mind. You need to get that music nonsense out of your head,” and he’d muttered to another trainer about how desperate the cartel master was to be bringing slum dogs into the system.
Ean had never mentioned the music again. Or the fact that lines had to be more than just energy. As for the thought that lines might have emotions, he’d never mentioned that idea at all. He’d known instinctively that idea wouldn’t go down well. The trainers would probably have refused to train him.
His throat was raw. He drank the tea provided in one grateful gulp. “Do you think I could get some more tea?”
“At the rate you drank that one, you’re going to need it.” The crewman went off.
Ean went back to his work.
By the time he was done, the lines were straight and glowing. Except line one, which was straight but not glowing, but you couldn’t change a bad crew.
He patted the ship’s control chassis one final time. “All better now.” His old trainers would have said he was crazy to imagine that the ship responded with a yes.
He didn’t realize how tired he was until he tried to stand up after he’d finished and fell flat on his face.
“Linesman’s down,” someone shouted, and five people came running. Even the ship hummed a note of concern. Or did he imagine that?
“I’m fine.” His voice was a thread. “Just tired. I need a drink.”
They took that literally and came back with some rim whiskey that burned as it went down.
It went straight to his head. His body, so long attuned to the ship, seemed to vibrate on each of the ten ship lines, which he could still feel. This time when he stood up, it was the alcohol that made him unsteady on his feet.
“I’m fine,” he said, waving away another drink. “Ship’s fine, too,” slurring his words. He gave the chassis one last pat, then weaved his way down the corridor to the shuttle bays.
Of the quick muttered discussion behind him, all he heard was, “Typical linesman.”
The music of the ship vibrated in him long after the shuttle had pulled away.
• • •
BACK on planet, they had to wait for a dock.
“Some VIP visiting,” the pilot said. “They’ve been hogging the landing bays all shift.”
The commercial centers on Ashery were on the southern continent. There was little here in the north to attract VIPs. Ean couldn’t imagine what one would even come here for. Maybe it was a VIP with a cause, come to demand the closure of the Big North—an open-cut mine that was at last report 3,000 kilometers long, 750 kilometers wide, and 3 kilometers deep. Every ten years or so, a protest group tried to close it down.
Ean didn’t mind. He sat in the comfortable seat behind the pilot and dozed, too tired to stay awake and enjoy the luxury of a shuttle he’d probably never see the likes of again. He’d bet Rigel hadn’t ordered this shuttle. He fell properly asleep to sound of the autobot offering him his choice of aged Grenache or distilled Yaolin whiskey. Or maybe a chilled Lancian wine?
He woke to the pilot yelling into the comms.
“You can’t send us to the secondary yards. I’ve a level-ten linesman on board, for goodness’ sake.”
Ean heard the reply as the song of line five—the comms line—rather than the voice that came out of the speakers.
That was another thing his trainers had said was impossible. He might as well have claimed the electricity that powered the ship was communicating with him. But humans were energy, too, when you got down to the atomic level. If humans could communicate, why couldn’t the lines?
“I don’t mind the secondary yards,” Ean said. It would cut two kilometers off his trip home.
The pilot didn’t listen.
“Level ten I said,” and five minutes later, they landed, taxiing up to the northernmost of the primary bays, which was also the farthest from where Ean needed to go,
Ean collected his kit, which he hadn’t used, thanked the pilot, and stepped out of the shuttle into more activity than he’d seen in the whole ten years he’d been on Ashery.
The landing staff didn’t notice him. Despite the fact he was wearing a cartel uniform. Despite the ten bars across the top of his pocket. They knew him as one of Rigel’s and looked past him and waited for a “real” linesman to come out behind him.
Ean sighed and placed his bag on the scanner. He was a ten. Certified by the Grand Master himself. He was as good as the other tens.
He’d been through customs so often in the past six months, he knew all the staff by first name. Today it was Kimi, who waved him through without even checking him.
God, but he was tired. He was going to sleep for a week. He thought about walking to the cartel house—which was what he normally did—but it was four kilometers from the primary landing site, and he wasn’t sure he would make it.
Unfortunately, it was still a kilometer to the nearest public cart. A pity the pilot hadn’t landed them in the secondary field, where the cart tracks ran right past the entrance.
The landing hall was full of well-dressed people with piles of luggage: all trying to get the attention of staff; all of them ignoring the polished monkwood floor, harder than the hardest stone; all of them ignoring the ten-story sculpture of the first settlers for which the spaceport was famous. At least the luxury shops along the concourse were doing booming business.
Ean accidentally staggered into one of the well-dressed people. Rigel would probably fine him for bumping into a VIP. The man turned, ready to blast him, saw the bars on his shirt, and apologized instead.
These weren’t VIPs at all, just their staff.
Ean waved away the man’s apology and continued weaving his way through the crowd. It seemed ages before the lush opulence of the primary landing halls gave way to the metal gray walls he was used to and another age before he was finally in the queue for the carts.
It was a relief to get into the cart.
Two young apprentices got on at the next stop. Rigel’s people, of course. Who else would catch the cart this way? Their uniforms were new and freshly starched. They looked with trepidation at his sweat-stained greens and silently counted the bars on his shirt, after which they pressed farther back into their seats.
He’d been in their place once.
Four gaudily dressed linesmen got on at the stop after that. They were all sevens. Excepting himself, they were the highest-ranking linesmen Rigel owned. For a moment, Ean resented that they could take time off when he never seemed to do anything but work.
But that was the whole point of Rigel’s keeping him here, wasn’t it. Rigel’s cartel may have had the lowest standing, and Rigel’s business ethics were sometimes dubious, but he was raking in big credits now. The other cartel masters had sent their nines and tens out to the confluence. Rigel, who only had one ten—Ean—had kept him back and could now ask any price he wanted of the shipmasters who needed the services of a top-grade linesman.
“Phwawh,” one of the new arrivals said. “You stink, Ean.”
“Working.” Ean’s voice was still just a thread.
“Rigel’s going to have words.”
“Let him.” He’d probably dock his pay, too, but Ean didn’t care.
“And you’ve been drinking.”
Ean just closed his eyes.
Cartel Master Rigel was big on appearances. His linesmen might have been ordinary, but they were always impeccably turned out, extremely well-spoken, and could comport themselves with heads of government and business. For a boy from the slums of Lancia, those standards were important.
The conversation washed over him. First, what they’d done on their night out; later it turned to the lines. Conversation always turned to the lines eventually when linesmen were talking.
“I went in to fix line five at Bickleigh Company,” one of them said now.
Kaelea, one of the other sevens, said, “I don’t know why they don’t get their own five under contract. We’re in there so often, it would cost around the same.”
“They tried that. Twice. The second time they even got a five from Sandhurst.”
Sandhurst was the biggest line cartel. Over the past ten years, they had aggressively purchased the contracts of other high-level linesmen until now they had a third of all the nines and tens. Ean occasionally fantasized that one day the Sandhurst cartel master would see his work and offer Rigel a huge amount for his contract, too.
As if that was ever going to happen.
“I’ve been in there three times,” Kaelea said. “You push and you push, and just when you think you have it right, it pops out of true again.”
Sometimes Ean thought they were talking a different language to him. They used words like push and force when they spoke about moving the lines into place. He’d never pushed a line in his life. He wouldn’t know how to.
His trainers had talked in terms of pushing and pulling, too.
“Push with your mind,” the particularly antagonistic one had told him. “You do have a mind, don’t you?” and he’d muttered to the other trainer that it was doubtful.
The first six months of his apprenticeship, Ean had wondered if he’d ever become a linesman. Until he’d learned that when they told him to push, they actually meant they wanted the line straight. He could sing the lines straight.
“It’s probably a manifestation of your being self-taught,” the not-so-antagonistic trainer had told him. “You push as you sing, and that bad habit is so entrenched now, you can’t do it without singing.”
Ean had never been able to break the habit.
He could feel the two apprentices in the corner listening as the linesmen talked. One of them was strong on line five, the other on line eight. Rigel didn’t normally get anyone above a seven. Ean opened his eyes, but he couldn’t see which one it was.
The trainers had told him you couldn’t tell what line a linesman would be without testing, but sometimes Ean could hear the lines in them. The trainers had told him it was because he’d learned bad habits by not being trained in childhood, and that of course he could tell what someone was because he’d already seen the number of bars they wore. Ean didn’t care. He would bet that Rigel had just got himself an eight. How long he would keep him—or her—was another question altogether. A higher cartel would poach him.
The conversation turned to the confluence. One of the sevens—Kaelea—had been out there to service the Bose engines, “Because the nines and tens couldn’t do it, of course. They’re too busy,” and Ean hadn’t needed his eyes open to see the roll of eyes that accompanied that. “It’s . . . I don’t know. It’s huge, and it’s . . . you can feel the lines, but you don’t know what they are, and—”
He could hear the awe in her voice. But he couldn’t tell what the lines were. Sometimes he could pick the level from the linesman’s voice when they talked about the line. He hadn’t mentioned that particular talent to the trainers either. They wouldn’t have believed him, or they would have said it was another bad-training defect.
Kaelea had said “lines” rather than “line,” which meant there was more than one line out there. What would have multiple lines anyway? A ship? A station? As Ean had pointed out to Rigel, he was good at picking lines. He’d at least be able to say if there were lots of different lines or just a few.
He’d like a chance to prove that he could find out, anyway.
“We make more money hiring you out while the rest of the tens are busy trying to work that out,” Rigel had said.
That was true. Ean was busier than he’d ever been, and Rigel smiled more broadly every time he sent Ean out on a job.
Ean dozed after that.
One of the linesmen touched his arm. He blinked blearily, trying to focus.
“Are you okay?”
It was Kaelea.
He realized the cart had stopped, and everyone else was out.
“Come on, Kaelea,” one of the other gaudily dressed people said.
“I don’t think he’s well.”
“Leave him, or you’ll be fined, too.”
“I’m okay,” Ean said. “Just really, really tired.” He wasn’t sure she heard him. Next time, he’d take more care of his voice.
He struggled to sit up and almost fell getting out of the cart.
“I’ll help you,” Kaelea said, waving off his protests, and led him up to the house. “My room is closer,” and by now he was staggering too much to care. God but he was tired.
She pushed him down onto the bed and started to pull off his sweat-stained shirt. “I don’t think Rigel saw you,” she said. “You may not get a fine.”
He tried to protest, but closed his eyes instead and was instantly asleep.
• • •
EAN woke, naked and sprawled out on the bed and couldn’t remember how he’d come to be that way.
For a moment, he couldn’t work out what had woken him either.
“He’s a ten, you say?” The clipped vowels of the Lancastrian noblewoman made him think he was back home in the slums of Lancia.
He struggled awake fast. That was one nightmare he didn’t want to return to.
“Definitely a ten.” The oily tones of Rigel, Ean’s cartel master, reassured him on that much at least. He was years past the grottoes of Lancia. “Certified by the Grand Master himself.” Then his voice rose and cracked. “You can’t be going to—”
It was all the warning Ean had before the disruptor beam slammed into his mind and ten lines of song came together in a discordant cacophony. His brain almost burst with the noise. He didn’t even think. He turned the lines so they flowed back in on themselves down the line, back to the disruptor. The weapon disintegrated in a flash of heat and flame. He was only sorry to see that the Lancastrian lady had thrown it down before it had disintegrated. He would have liked to have burned off the hand.
A disruptor was a one-use weapon, made with a full set of lines, created especially to destroy other lines. Ean had heard they cost as much as a small shuttle. Who could afford one, let alone use it? Who would even think to use such a monstrous thing against humans?
“He is a ten,” the noblewoman agreed. She sounded almost surprised.
“Of course he is.” Rigel was white.
Ean was pretty white himself. A disruptor would have killed anyone less than a ten, could even have killed him if he’d been a fraction slower.
“I’ve dealt with you before, Rigel,” the noblewoman said. “Last time you sold me a five as a six.”
Rigel did that occasionally, when he thought he could get away with it, and most people knew a Lancastrian wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
“I . . . Surely not.” Rigel was back to his oily, obsequious best. He thought he was back in control.
Ean knew better. Lancastrian nobles may not know their line ratings, but they definitely knew revenge. He pulled on his pants and a pair of boots. He was in Kaelea’s room. He didn’t remember what had happened after they’d arrived. “So did you really want a ten, or just to teach Rigel a lesson?”
He was glad the gutter slum was gone from his accent. He spoke Standard now, could have come from anywhere in the Conglomerate. His voice, still hoarse, was better than it had been when he’d gone to sleep.
The noblewoman glanced at him and Ean saw for the first time the distinctive blue eyes of the Lyan clan. He forced himself to not wipe his suddenly damp palms down the side of his trousers. This wasn’t just any clan. This was royalty.
The woman was smiling, actually smiling, at a slum creature like him. She wouldn’t do that if she knew what stood in front of her.
“I did want a ten, but I wasn’t planning on getting one from here,” she admitted.
Rigel didn’t get it, not at first. He opened his mouth and closed it again. “But he’s a ten,” he whispered, finally.
“If I’d died, I wouldn’t have been, would I,” Ean said. He understood Lancastrian revenge.
“But I would have offered her at least a nine.” Not that Rigel had any nines.
Both Lancastrians shrugged.
“When I ask for a six, I expect a six,” the Lancastrian noble said.
“But—” Rigel couldn’t seem to stop the fish imitation.
Ean gathered up the rest of his clothes. “You obviously don’t need me.” He could see Kaelea hovering in the passage. “I’ll leave you to it then,” and made for the door.
“Hold,” said the Lancastrian noblewoman. “I’ll take him,” she said to Rigel.
Rigel smiled his oily smile.
“Less the cost of the six I purchased.”
The smile stopped, fixed. Then Rigel bobbed his head suddenly. “Of course, my Lady Lyan.”
Lady Lyan. Only three women could call themselves Lady Lyan, and Ean bet this woman wasn’t one of them. Any true daughter of the Lancastrian emperor would be tied up so tightly in protocol and security guards, she wouldn’t be able to move. So who was this imposter? She must be one of the illegitimate children. There were rumors they were plentiful. Not that Ean cared, he supposed, but he hoped they would never come across true Lancastrian royalty or soldiers while he was working for the imposter. They were likely to all be killed.
“And I want the contract,” Lady Lyan said.
The color faded again from Rigel’s face. “But—” Ean could almost read his thoughts. No matter what Rigel said, Ean brought in 90 percent of the money right now. “Well, obviously that will cost more,” Rigel said eventually.
“I don’t like being cheated,” Lady Lyan said. “I don’t like my staff’s dying because I give them tasks they can’t do. Take the money and be glad I didn’t destroy your whole cartel as I planned to.”
Rigel made one more token protest, but Ean knew he’d already lost. The Lancastrian had done her homework. She knew how much it would hurt Rigel to lose his only ten, whether by death or by contract conversion. That was what she had come in today to do, and they all knew it. Ean was just grateful to be alive.
Even so, he was surprised Rigel didn’t protest more.
Lady Lyan beckoned to Kaelea, still hovering in the hall. “Witness.”
Kaelea looked as if she would turn and run, but Rigel beckoned frantically, too.
The exchange of contract took less than a minute. They all witnessed, then it was over.
If Ean was lucky, the Lancastrian noble would on-sell his contract today. Then, finally, maybe, he could get out into the confluence with all the other nines and tens. He didn’t want to think about the alternative—stuck working for a Lancastrian. He’d sworn he would never have anything to do with Lancia again.
• • •
THEY left immediately, without giving Ean time to pack.
“Send his things on,” Lady Lyan ordered Rigel. She looked at the shirt Ean now had time to pull on. “Except the uniforms.”
The thought of Rigel’s pawing through his possessions gave Ean the creeps. He was unlikely to get anything sent through. He considered demanding time to get his things, but he hadn’t collected much in the ten years he’d been with the cartel, and anything of value was already programmed into his comms, which was in his pocket. Better to save his fights for important things, he decided.
His new owner had a private cart waiting. Not owner, Ean reminded himself. Employer. This woman might own the contract, but she was still obligated to pay him. And if she didn’t—for who could trust a rich Lancastrian to abide by their contract if they could get out of it—then he could go to the cartel Grand Master for breach of contract. His contract stipulated minimum amounts, plus bonuses, and how frequently he was to be paid. He thought about the contract as they waited for the cart. It wasn’t good pay.
His new owner—employer—must have been thinking similar thoughts. “Does Rigel pay everyone so badly?”
Only those desperate enough to indenture themselves into a twenty-year contract. Ean shrugged. A Lancastrian like her wouldn’t understand how badly he’d wanted to become a linesman.
“You’ve been with him a long time.”
Ten years two tendays ago. Ean had spent it repairing a military ship, the GU Burnley. He’d only realized the date because the captain of the Burnley had told him the ship was ten years old, too. Ean shrugged again. “You know what it’s like when you’re a kid and desperate to learn the craft.” Not that he’d been as young as most. “Sometimes you’ll do anything.”
“With age comes wisdom, eh.” His companion laughed. “I can relate to that. I’m Michelle by the way.”
Which didn’t help identify which Lyan she was, illegitimate or not, because every member of the Lyan household took a form of Michel as one of their given names. Still, it was clever. She had every right to use it although most of them would not have dared. This woman had guts, identifying herself the way she did.
“Ean Lambert,” Ean said.
• • •
SURPRISINGLY, they made for the docks rather than the hotels, where the private cart avoided the landing hall altogether and went straight to a shuttle out on the edge of the field.
The name stenciled on the side of the shuttle was LANCASTRIAN PRINCESS—SHUTTLE 1. Ean shook his head at the bare-faced effrontery.
They took off without having to go through customs.
In the confined enclosures of the cabin, Michelle leaned back with a sigh and closed her eyes. Ean used the time to study his new employer.
She was classically beautiful, with the heart-shaped face and high cheekbones typical of the women of the Lancastrian royal family. Rumor said they had paid a fortune to geneticists over the last two hundred years to develop those looks. Her lashes were long and black, curled over clear, unblemished, cream skin. The geneticists had definitely earned their money in this case. Except for the hair, perhaps, which was the royal family black, but Ean could see a slight wave instead of the expected regulation straight. Nor the deeper-than-expected dimples in her cheeks, particularly the right one. The emperor definitely wouldn’t have liked that. Still, if Michelle was illegitimate, the geneticists wouldn’t have been involved this generation, would they. Maybe some imperfections had crept in.
Ean smiled to himself, but it was a grim smile. Ten years ago, there was no way he could have studied even an illegitimate child of his regent this close. Michelle—and of course he would never have dreamed of calling her Michelle either—might own the contract, but there was no way Ean was going back to what he had been.
“What’s so amusing?” Michelle had opened her eyes—so very blue—and was watching him.
Ean met the blue gaze. “Will you on-sell the contract?”
“I don’t know.” Michelle sat up as the bell chimed for landing. “We do need a ten.”
So was there a job? And was it at the confluence? Ean hoped it was.
On-screen they could see their destination. A large freighter. Ean didn’t recognize the model—it looked custom-built—but until six months ago, he had only worked on one- and two-man freighters and second-class company ships. Ships like this one in front of him were for the likes of House of Sandhurst or House of Rickenback.
The name painted three stories high on the side was LANCASTRIAN PRINCESS. The bay door they headed for had an enormous “1” stenciled on it.
The door in the freighter ahead irised open to let them in. The shuttle docked. The door closed behind them. This was definitely a private shuttle, and this was its regular docking pad.
Ean silently followed Michelle out into the ship proper.
The interior was luxurious. The softly textured walls and carefully placed lighting made the whole thing look like an expensive hotel. Everything was way above Rigel’s standard. Ean couldn’t even begin to calculate the cost of the fittings.
Even so, the ship had a military feel. It didn’t help that the staff wore gray uniforms piped with black, and that every single one of them walked straight and upright. They all noticed Ean, and he could see that they filed whatever they had noticed for future reference.
Michelle led the way quickly through the center of the ship to a room that looked like an office on one end but housed a comfortable set of three couches at the other.
One man was in the room. An older man. He looked up as they entered. “Misha. I found you your ten.”
Misha was an affectionate form of Michelle, used among close friends generally. So this man—who wore the gray-and-black-piped uniform everyone else did—was a close friend.
“I found us a ten, too,” Michelle said. “And I bet he didn’t cost as much as yours did.”
The uniformed man looked at him, and Ean was suddenly aware that he hadn’t showered for more than two days, that his Rigel-cartel greens were sweaty and crumpled, and that he needed a shave.
“This is Abram,” Michelle said. “He runs security and pretty much everything else.”
Abram counted the bars on Ean’s chest. “A genuine ten?”
“I couldn’t kill him.”
“So you hired him instead?”
“I didn’t hire him,” Michelle said, and her smile showed the full brilliance of the generations of genetic engineering that had made it, plus a dimple that same genetic engineering had probably tried to wipe out. She placed her card on the reader and brought up the contract. “I bought him.”
Abram read the contract, then nodded slowly. “That would upset Rigel.”
Ean thought it time to get back some control. He was a ten, after all. “If it’s all right with you.” He had to stop, because his voice came out thin and thready. He cleared his throat, and was glad the second attempt came out more strongly. “I haven’t had time to clean up. I didn’t get a chance to collect any clothes.”
Abram looked at Michelle, who shrugged. “Rigel will send his things on.”
Abram switched to Lancastrian. “We don’t all have personal servants who have things packed in five minutes, Misha. His effects are unlikely to arrive before we leave.”
“I’ll replace them then.” Michelle spoke Lancastrian, too. “I’d like that. He has a good figure under those stinking clothes.”
“And so like you to know that already.” Abram sighed and switched back to Standard. “I’ll get someone to show you a cabin and get you some clothes,” he told Ean, pressing a button on the screen as he did so. “Our other ten will be here at 19:00. We leave when she arrives.”
An orderly in a gray-and-black uniform appeared at the door.
“Take Linesman”—he looked at the contract—“Lambert down to Apparel and get him a standard kit. I’ll organize a room for him while you do.” He looked at Ean. “We eat at 20:00. I’ll have someone call you.” He half turned away, hesitated. “Your voice. Is that normal?”
“Take him via the medical center.”
Ean followed the orderly in silence. Abram was the sort who’d look up Ean’s record as soon as he could. He—they—owned the contract now. Nothing was private to them. That little slip with the language wouldn’t happen again.
The orderly—a tall, willowy woman who looked to be a little younger than Ean and whose name above the pocket said RADKO—was polite, but not truly friendly. Even so, she took time out to show Ean various parts of the ship. “Mess hall down there,” she said. “Officers generally eat with the crew. Unless they’re invited upstairs, of course.” She looked sideways at him and for a moment Ean thought she was going to ask what rank he was. “Main lift well. Although most of us use the jumps, of course.”
It was a well-run ship. The lines were clear and steady, their song bright and joyful in Ean’s mind. Unusually, line one was the strongest. This was a crew who worked well together and looked after one another and their ship.
Or almost joyful, Ean amended. He could hear a slight off tone in line six. It was only minor, but it jarred because everything else was so perfect.
“And this is the off-duty area,” the orderly said. Ean thought, from her tone, that it wasn’t the first time she’d said it.
“Officers have their own bar up on the fourth.”
The bar on fourth was one bar Ean wasn’t likely to end up in. He wasn’t even sure he would end up in this one. Which left him precisely where? Stuck in his room, probably, given that they weren’t on-selling his contract immediately.
“Here’s Apparel.” The orderly seemed glad to have arrived.
Ean stripped and stepped into the cubicle, where a grid of lights started at his feet and moved upward, building a perfect model of him. They didn’t have tailoring modules in the Oldcity slums. The first time he’d ever stepped into a cubicle like this had been ten years ago, when he’d started at House of Rigel. He hadn’t known what to do. Rigel had had to show him.
When he stepped out, the orderly said, “Your kit will take twenty minutes. I’ll bring them over to your cabin when they’re done.”
So at least he had somewhere to stay. “If you don’t mind.”
“Of course not, sir.”
The “sir” was new, and as she led the way back to the newly allocated cabin, Ean thought he knew why. The soldiers’ quarters—and he couldn’t help but think of them as soldiers—were comfortable, but they were a marked contrast to the luxurious quarters that Lady Lyan—whichever lady she was—inhabited. Somehow, Ean had scored himself a cabin on the luxurious side of the cruiser. Some tens would accept that as their right. Rigel’s people might be trained to handle it, but he—Rigel’s only ten—had never experienced it.
“I’ll get your clothes, sir,” the orderly said, and loped off.
Ean left the door unlocked and went into the fresher. Michelle was right. He did stink. He soaped up, letting the needles of water wash the stink away. Eyes closed, thinking of nothing but the bliss of the warm water, the song of the ship flooded into his mind, still with that slightly off tone on the sixth line. Ean hummed a countermelody under his breath, trying to coax the line straight, but it was no use. Humming didn’t work. He had to sing it.
The orderly was waiting when he came out, the freshly woven clothes in a neat pile in front of her. Standard issue included underclothes and shoes, Ean was glad to see. She handed him an outfit.
“Thank you. You don’t have to wait on me.”
“Of course not, sir. But there’s still the medic.” She pointed to a uniform placed apart. “That’s the dress uniform. You’ll be wearing that tonight if you’re dining with Lady Lyan and Commodore Galenos.”
Commodore Galenos being the casually introduced Abram, Ean presumed. “Thank you,” and he smiled his appreciation. “I know nothing about uniforms, ranks, and what to wear.”
The orderly smiled back. “I didn’t think you did, sir.”
Ean was sure she didn’t mean it as an insult.
“The medic’s expecting you. To look at your voice and to check you over. He’s already called to see where you are.”
“Let me put these on first.” Ean took the clothes into the bedroom. He had a separate bedroom, which he was sure wasn’t standard military practice. He dressed quickly. His uniform was gray with the characteristic black piping. The only decoration was a tiny cloth badge woven into the pocket on his left chest and the name—LAMBERT—above it. Ean didn’t count the bars on the badge, but he knew there would be ten. It was a total contrast to the pocket of his companion, which was covered with badges.
He came out, and the orderly left at a fast walk. Ean followed. “Radko. That is your name?”
The orderly glanced back. “Yes, sir,” she said.
Ean wished she wouldn’t keep calling him sir. “Thank you for all this, Radko.”
“Just doing my job, sir.” But she smiled and somehow the atmosphere seemed lighter as they made their way through the corridors to a well-equipped hospital. It was worrying that a ship this size needed a hospital so equipped. What was this ship?
The medic was waiting for him. “At least you’ve cleaned up some,” he said, as he made Ean strip his freshly donned clothes and lie down under the analyzer. “I hear you stank when you came on board.” He held up a hand to stop any comment—not that Ean had been going to make one. “Nothing travels faster than shipboard gossip. Not even a ship passing through the void.”
“Even on a military ship like this?”
“Especially on a military ship like this.” Which confirmed, once and for all, what type of ship he was on. Ean wished he’d taken more notice of politics suddenly. He didn’t want to end up in the middle of a battle.
“What happened with the voice?” the medic asked.
“My own fault. Too much—” It sounded so lame. “I was singing.” He wondered how the other ship was going. It had probably moved on by now. Ships didn’t stay in port any longer than they had to.
“Hmm. Let me see you breathe.”
For the next ten minutes, he peered into Ean’s throat, X-rayed it, and finally gave him a drink of something warm. It soothed as it went down.
“The miracles of modern medicine,” the medic said. “We can tailor your genes so that your voice is deep or high, but we still can’t fix a strained larynx. Although”—he paused— “if it’s truly damaged I can replace it with a synthetic one.”
“I thought not. If you continue to sing like that, maybe you should take some lessons on breathing and voice control. Have you been trained?”
Ean shook his head. Rigel had paid for lessons on how to speak with a faultless Standard accent, but there hadn’t been any voice training with it.
“So you won’t use your voice so badly that you strain it again, will you.” It was an order.
“No, sir,” Ean said meekly, and the medic let him go.
Radko escorted him back to his rooms and left him there.
He had two hours until dinner. Ean set the alarm on his comms—it wouldn’t do to be late—then kicked off his boots and lay down on the bed.
He couldn’t sleep. The off tone on line six buzzed into his brain and set his teeth on edge. After ten minutes he sat up, then stood properly—he wasn’t going to be able to do this sitting down—got himself a glass of warm water from the sink in the bathroom, took a deep breath, and started to sing.
The line responded immediately. This was one beautifully tuned engine. It didn’t take long. When it was done, Ean flopped back across the bed and didn’t hear anything more until the increasingly loud, persistent beep of the alarm dragged him out of heavy sleep a hundred minutes later.
FOR A MOMENT, Ean lay there and thought about staying in bed.
The alarm beep grew louder, and he realized it wasn’t the alarm at all but the comm. He pressed receive.
Abram’s face came up. “Ean. Formal dinner tonight. Did Radko show you what to wear?”
Should he stand to attention? What rank was a commodore anyway? The hell with it. He’d been introduced as Abram, Ean would keep on thinking of him as Abram until told otherwise. He wasn’t a soldier. “Yes, thank you. The uniform with the thinner piping and the fancier shoulders.”
Abram smiled faintly. “That would be it,” he agreed, and clicked off.
Ean dragged himself out of bed. He had seven minutes to get ready. If Abram thought it important enough to tell him what to wear, then he probably shouldn’t be late. He showered in three, only wondering afterward whether showers were rationed on ship, shaved again—maybe he should depilate if he was going to be here awhile, a lot of spacers did—and dragged on his second new uniform for the day. Then there was only time for a quick comb-through of his hair—thankfully, combs were part of the standard kit, too—and he was out the door with two minutes to spare.
He almost ran into Abram.
Michelle joined them at the lift. She wore a close-fitting midnight blue silk slit skirt that emphasized more success of the genetic engineering of body shape—and probably hours spent daily in the gym—plus a more-than-close-fitting white crop shirt that stretched across her chest, so fine it really didn’t hide the breasts underneath, so short that as Michelle lifted her arm to work herself into the matching blue silk jacket she carried—also close-fitting—she exposed five centimeters of muscled abdomen.
“I can’t believe you’re wearing that,” Abram said.
“This,” Michelle said with dignity, “is the height of fashion for both men and women.”
“For a formal dinner?”
The genetically enhanced smile flashed again. “At least three other people will be wearing shirts like this. Bet?” She held up a hand.
Abram’s palm met hers. “I don’t know why I’m so stupid,” he said.
The lift stopped.
They stepped out into a room of richly dressed people and were instantly swamped. Rigel would love this. It was what he’d lived for, what he’d trained his people for but had never managed himself. At least, not at this level.
Ean saw two minor royals who’d been in the vids, a politician from Ganymede whose name he couldn’t remember, and so much military braid he could have set up his own private navy. There had to be a hundred people in the room, probably more. Hadn’t Abram said they were departing into space at 19:00 hours? He could hear from the ship lines that they had, so where had all these people come from?
How big was this ship anyway?
The glitterati wanted to talk to “Lady Lyan.”
Ean slipped away. This was a lot of people calling Michelle Lady Lyan. Which meant that this woman really was one of the Emperor’s children. Or that he, Ean, was right in the middle of planning for one of the biggest political conspiracies of the century. Or that there were a lot of gullible people out there. Get them far enough away from the center of power, and they’d believe anything.
There weren’t many Lancastrians. Michelle, Abram, himself, plus three more men in uniform talking together over near the drinks table, watching their arrival. One of them said something quiet to the others, then made his way across. He’d be lucky to talk to Michelle right now. He’d be better waiting until the scrum had quieted.
But the soldier angled off and came straight to Ean.
This close, it was easy to see his rank. The ship’s captain. Like everyone else on board, he had a veritable pocket of badges. The name above the pocket said HELMO.
“Yes.” What could the captain want with him?
“Nobody touches the lines on my ship except my crew.”
He could argue that technically he was part of the crew. “Line six was off.”
“We were aware of that. We were taking steps of our own to fix the problem.”
They’d been taking their time about it. He thought about apologizing, but the captain didn’t give him time. “Keep out of my lines,” and turned and walked away.
That was one person he hadn’t impressed. Ean collected a drink from a passing server and turned to survey the crowd. No one else came near him. He wasn’t sure if it was the uniform—one richly dressed man handed Ean his empty glass—or if it was just that there were really only two centers of conversation. Michelle, of course, and a woman in a long blue silk dress that from a distance was almost the same color as Michelle’s.
The woman’s glossy brown hair was piled on top of her head in an elegant bun. Her green eyes were made up as a blue-and-green piece of art. A butterfly. With red spots. The red color was picked out again, shiny and glossy on her lips. She looked like a princess dressed up for a gala occasion. Then she moved and Ean recognized her.
Rebekah Grimes, from the Sandhurst Cartel. Sandhurst Cartel was the prime supplier of linesmen, known for their quality and service. They had twelve known tens at last count, and Rebekah was the best of them. Abram must have gone straight to the top. How much had he paid?
Ean moved closer.
“Just came in from the confluence,” she was saying as he got close enough to hear her. He didn’t hear the murmured reply, but when Rebekah answered, “You cannot imagine,” Ean thought it might have been about the glory of the confluence.
“And how do you feel about this mission?” He was close enough now to hear the other speaker, a swarthy woman with so much gold jewelry he was amazed she could hold her arm up to take a sip of her drink.
“Excited,” Rebekah said. “Delighted to be part of it. Happy to be working with people like this.”
So she knew more about it than he did.
“And the other ten? You have worked with him before? Out at the confluence, maybe?”
“Other—” For a moment, Rebekah looked disconcerted. Ean was glad she didn’t know everything. She recovered quickly. “I have worked with most tens.”
Not this one, she hadn’t. She probably didn’t even know who he was.
Ean normally worked alone. Rigel had no one to pair him with, but jobs involving tens were usually single anyway. No one could afford two tens. He didn’t often get to talk to other people of his own level. Not only that, this was Rebekah Grimes. He could learn a lot from her. He felt a flutter of anticipatory pleasure. Please let Michelle not on-sell his contract until they had finished this job.
The woman with the gold bracelets handed her empty glass to Ean. He reached for it with a sigh. It was the uniform. Plain and unadorned. This wasn’t how he wanted Rebekah to see him—as a servant.
Michelle, whom Ean hadn’t even seen come over, plucked the glass out of the woman’s hand just before Ean touched it and passed it back to a real server. Radko. Ean looked around. There were more soldiers here than he realized—and most of them were carrying trays. No wonder she thought he was the hired help.
Radko smiled at him.
“Governor Jade.” Michelle picked up two full glasses. She handed one to the gold-adorned woman, and one to Ean. “So you’ve met both our tens.”
Ean quietly slipped his other, half-finished glass onto Radko’s tray as well.
“Ean Lambert.” Rebekah sounded as if she’d swallowed a lemon. She nodded regally and half turned to talk to Michelle and the governor. It seemed accidental, but the turn placed her so that her body was facing away from Ean.
She knew him. He made himself smile. “Rebekah.” If she didn’t want to talk to him, then he didn’t want to talk to her. He nodded to the other woman. “Governor.”
The governor had obviously decided to ignore her faux pas. She nodded graciously back. “So what do you think of our project, Linesman?”
Rebekah’s smile was almost condescending. “This is your first real job, isn’t it, Ean? Until now, you’ve been doing odd jobs, or so I hear. You haven’t been anywhere near the confluence.”
His jobs had been challenging lately. He smiled at the memory of his last job. He’d done well. He knew that. But it was interesting that the foremost linesman knew what he’d been doing.
Ean smiled at the governor. “Honestly?”
“I don’t know enough about the job to have an opinion yet,” and thought he imagined the warm approval in Michelle’s blue gaze.
“And so you should think that,” said one of the men who’d come over with Michelle. He was in uniform—although Ean couldn’t pick the world—and had been one of the first to swarm them when they’d stepped out of the lift. “It’s dangerous. We don’t know what we’re playing with here. We shouldn’t even touch it.”
“That’s why we have the linesmen,” Michelle said smoothly.
“And didn’t one of your linesmen get killed recently.”
Michelle’s lips tightened.
“That was nothing to do with the ship,” Abram said, close behind Michelle as usual. “That was something else altogether.”
“Still. It shows that we’re meddling in something we’re not supposed to be. Blow it up, I say. Get rid of the damn thing before it kills any more of us.”
They had found something. Ean tingled with expectation. It might not be the confluence, but it was new and unknown.
“But Admiral,” said Governor Jade. “Think what we can learn from it.”
“Every crackpot in the universe will be thinking of that as soon as it becomes public knowledge.”
If the representatives gathered in this room were anything to go by, everyone knew about it anyway.
Whatever “it” was. Since lines nine and ten were only used to travel through the void, and Abram and Michelle had recruited level ten linesmen, it was likely to be a ship. But what kind of ship could generate such a gathering of VIPs?
“It’s a warship,” the admiral said. “Will Redmond or Gate Union stay away once they know?”
The three major political groups—Gate Union, Redmond, and the Alliance—had been on the brink of war for years now. In the ten years Ean had been at Rigel’s, he had seen the balance of power shift subtly, but surely, away from the old power, the Alliance, toward the other two groups. Over the past six months, he’d also had to fix a lot of warships, many of them built in the last twenty years.
Gate Union, in particular, was becoming quite powerful. The union had started out as a loose affiliation of worlds that had agreed to monitor and assign void jumps—after all, no one wanted to jump cold, that was deadly. They made up a network of sector “gates,” tracking each ship, controlling their passage through. These gate worlds had become the major trade routes because all jumps went through their controllers. Fifty years before Ean had been born, they had formalized that loose affiliation into a political entity. Gate Union.
A lot of the cartels were covertly pro–Gate Union. The cartel houses were close to the gates—after all, the big money came from lines nine and ten—and the nines and tens were all on the ships that jumped through the void.
Ean realized, suddenly, that the Alliance had to be worried about that. Control the void, and you controlled shipping.
“That’s why we are here,” Michelle said. “To prevent Gate Union or Redmond getting anywhere near the ship. To protect and claim what is ours.”
The gong chimed for dinner then, and huge doors slid open at one end of the room. “Admiral, Governor,” and she walked in with them to the formally set dining tables now exposed.
Rebekah swept in behind them.
Ean waited until most of the others had moved in, then followed. Thankfully, another orderly was there to seat him. He was placed at a table halfway down. If Rigel’s ranking lessons made any sense, that meant that he was halfway up the pecking order. Rebekah was at a table nearby; Michelle was at the top table, and Abram at the second table. Michelle’s table was a riot of richly dressed color. Abram’s table was all uniforms and fancy braid.
The woman on Ean’s right wore a Balian uniform. He recognized it from the Picasso, which had been the first military ship he’d ever worked on. A massive warship, it had also been the first big ship he’d worked on. He had no idea of her rank, though, or her age. She was slender and looked fit, and her skin was flawless, but her eyes looked ancient, and the fingers that reached out to pick up her glass looked more like claws than hands.
The man on his left was a civilian. And Michelle was correct. The skimpy, see-through shirts were in fashion—for both men and women. Unfortunately, they required a perfectly sculpted body underneath, and this man was carrying some flab. The shirt hid nothing, and showed a roll of fat at the bottom.
“So what do you think of this ship they found?” the civilian asked.
Ean forced himself to look at the man’s face. He probably couldn’t afford one anyway, but he was never going to buy a shirt like that. He fell back on the answer he had given before. “I don’t know enough yet to think anything.”
The soldier on his right nodded. The military seemed to like his answers, at least.
“But you must have an opinion,” the civilian insisted. His eyes were unnaturally bright, and his breath smelled of wine.
“Not really.” Ean’s voice was going again. He took a mouthful of the wine in front of him. What he really wanted was some warm tea.
The soldier laughed. “Give it up, Tarkan,” she advised. “He’s one of Lady Lyan’s men. Of course he’ll be discreet.”
Tarkan was a formal title used on the three Gaian worlds. Rigel’s etiquette coach had covered that much. The man was a landowner and a parliamentary minister. And if a Tarkan could end up halfway down the dining room, who in the worlds was on the higher tables?
“Admiral Katida,” the soldier said, holding out her hand to Ean.
“Ean Lambert.” They shook hands. He didn’t add a title. They already knew he was a linesman.
“I know,” she said, making him wonder momentarily if he had said it out loud anyway. “You worked on one of our ships. The Picasso. The captain was very pleased with your work. He’d had it in three times in three trips before that. Hasn’t had to take it in since.”
Maybe he should ask her captain to put in a good word with the captain on this ship. Ean smiled at her, and she smiled back. Her smile was more than warm, it was sizzling and held an invitation. She held his gaze until he had to look away. Right now, he needed another drink. This sort of thing didn’t happen to Rigel’s people.
Eyes lowered, he looked back to the Gaian on the other side. Naturally, he saw the shirt first, and raised his eyes a second too late to be really polite. He could feel the color rising in his face.
The Gaian smiled at him and pulled in his stomach muscles. He held out his own hand in turn. “Tarkan Heyington.” His hand clasp was warm and a little too long.
“Delighted.” Ean had to rescue this conversation somehow. He indicated the tables. “It’s a diverse mix of worlds,” he said. “Did everyone send a representative?” He thought that topic was safe enough.
“Every single member of the Alliance,” Admiral Katida said. “Lady Lyan has done a remarkable job.” She grimaced, and added, “I am glad I am not in charge of keeping this particular ship safe. If anything happens to us, it will start a galaxy-wide war. Lady Lyan has guts putting us all together like this. I’ll give her that.”
Ean thought of the harmless-looking freighter he had seen in the viewscreen. It didn’t appear to have much protection. “People must have seen you arrive,” he said. He’d probably seen some of them himself yesterday, on the long walk from the primary landing site to the carts. You couldn’t hide that many ships, especially not ships carrying high-ranking government and military dignitaries.
“Of course people saw us arrive,” Tarkan Heyington said. “We’ve been on the vids all week. But who would dare stay away from the party celebrating the impending nuptials of Emperor Yu’s oldest daughter to Yu’s close personal friend, Sattur Dow. Not I. I wouldn’t dare.”
It was rumored that Sattur Dow owned half the galaxy. Ean didn’t know if the rumors were true. He did know Dow was a hard man, not someone he’d want his daughter to marry.
When Ean had been a boy—almost too young to remember but everyone in the slums remembered this—Sattur Dow had bought up Settlement City for the mining rights. He’d given the inhabitants two days to leave. On the third day, he’d sent in a demolition crew with explosives. By nightfall, a city that once held half a million people was a pile of rubble. The influx of refugees to Ean’s home district had caused turf wars that had lasted years.
“Nor would anyone else here refuse to come to the wedding,” Heyington said. “Except the daughter, of course. Who, rumor has it, is not happy about it at all. So—according to rumor again—she decided to take off and study the confluence, hoping that her father will get over this latest foolishness like he did last time.”
Which solved, once and for all, the question of whether Michelle was one of the legitimate or illegitimate offspring.
“So are we going to the confluence?” Ean asked. Please let them be. He wanted so desperately to go. He’d just never have imagined Lancia would be the world to get him there.
“Of course not,” Katida said. “Telling everyone she’s studying the confluence gives her an excuse to get some tens. That’s why we’re here. There are four cartel houses on this planet.”
Rigel’s was the smallest and most insignificant, and Sandhurst wasn’t one of them.
“But—” Tarkan Heyington held up a hand to forestall Ean’s next question. Not that he had one. “The Emperor is determined this time. If the daughter won’t come to him, then he will go to the daughter, and all of us will go with him.” He shook his head admiringly. “Like the admiral said, she’s got guts. Right under everyone’s nose.”
Ean looked around the room. “So are you all here for the ship or are some just here for the wedding?” And was Michelle actually getting married or not? There would be some guests you had to invite to the wedding—like Yu’s grandmother, former Emperor Consort Jai—but he couldn’t see her among the dignitaries, and based on her reputation, you wouldn’t want her on a secret mission either.
“Oh no,” Katida said. “Every single person here is handpicked for this mission.”
Except him, but he didn’t tell Katida that.
Ean glanced up at the head table, to where Michelle was laughing with Governor Jade. The woman he had met today didn’t look the sort who would come up with such a complex conspiracy. Or maybe she could. She’d been prepared to kill for revenge. Which was typical of a Lancastrian, even down to planning it out. “So when does the Emperor arrive?”
“Tomorrow. But we’ll be gone by then.” The Tarkan waved an expansive hand, nearly knocking Ean’s wine over. “Sorry,” as Ean rescued his glass. “At least, we’d better be. I’m sure he doesn’t want that particular wedding to happen any more than his daughter does.”
“Sattur Dow wouldn’t mind,” said another admiral from farther down the table.
Ean pondered the mix of people on board as he listened. If Gate Union took this ship out, the Alliance would lose a large number of high-ranking soldiers and politicians in one swoop. He hoped that Abram, who Michelle had said was responsible for security, was good at his job.
Even so, how long could it stay a secret? “People will suspect something.” There were too many dignitaries, too many soldiers, for people not to notice.
“Haven’t you been watching the vids?” Tarkan Heyington asked.
“I’ve been a little busy.” He hadn’t seen the vids in months.
“He’s a ten, Tarkan,” Katida said. “He has better things to do with his time.”
“Should still watch the vids. Best indicator of public sentiment around. And driver of it. But I suppose a linesman doesn’t have time for politics.”
“Let me give you some advice.” And the Tarkan leaned close. “Linesmen do play politics. Especially the higher levels.” He leaned even closer, so that their arms were touching. Ean could feel the warmth through the jacket of his formal uniform. He managed not to lean away. “That’s why I’ve heard of that woman over there”—he inclined his head toward the table Rebekah was at—“while I’ve never heard of you, whom the admiral’s captain is so taken with. It’s not how you do the job, it’s always about how you play the people.”
Rigel had believed something similar. It hadn’t got Rigel anywhere.
The Tarkan laughed. “Look at his face, Admiral. He doesn’t believe us.”
“There’s a lot to be said for someone who thinks doing a good job is the only thing that’s required.” Katida sounded wistful. She gripped Ean’s other arm. “Hang on to your delusions as long as you can.”
It was time to rescue the conversation again.
He gently disentangled himself from them both on the pretext of taking another mouthful of wine. “So what—” His voice had mostly gone again. He took a second mouthful. “So what will the vids do when the Emperor arrives and finds us gone?” It was bizarre to talk about an undertaking like this in terms of how the media would react. Shouldn’t they be discussing how Gate Union and Redmond would react?
“Well, the ones who predicted it will say they knew she’d run all along. The others will dig up something.”
“Public sentiment is 70 percent for her running, 25 percent against,” Katida said.
“And the other 5 percent?”
He’d seen opinion polls himself, but he’d never been intimately involved in one like this. That made it different.
“Getting that 70 percent was hard,” the Tarkan said. “I tell you. I thought we’d be stuck at 50 for a while. Many people thought she’d stay to face her father.”
“So you—” It was time for another mouthful of wine. Ean took a bigger gulp than he meant to.
The man on the Tarkan’s left—another civilian—leaned forward. “Don’t let him convince you he did it on his own. We all contributed.”
“But 20 percent is a big swing.” Ean thought it was safe conversation. Everyone liked praise.
The Tarkan snorted. “It was more like 50 percent altogether,” he said. “It was only the last 20 that was hard.”
It was appalling, but it was impressive. There had to be a better way than ruining one woman’s reputation to get a group like this together in secrecy. Not that Ean had ever thought of the Lancastrian royal family as having a good reputation. He would probably have been one of the cynical 30 percent who’d believed the bad news already. Or was that 25 percent?
“What will you do if we find nothing?” All this secrecy, all this expense, for a ship no one knew anything about.
“That ship destroyed three Alliance ships,” Katida said. “If the only thing we find is the weapon they used to do that, then it’s worth it.”
Ean had worked on a lot of military ships in the last six months. Gate Union, Alliance, Redmond. The ships were the same, give or take a few features.
The second-to-last ship he’d worked on had been a warship. The captain had met him personally and escorted him first to engineering, where line ten was holding together with little more than a thread, then up to the bridge, to the Captain’s Chair, where what Ean thought of as the brain of the lines resided.
Not that his trainers agreed with that. They were simply lines of energy, they had reminded him, and attributing a brain to any component meant that he would never be able to fix them properly because he couldn’t treat the whole thing as a constant line of energy.
Captain MacIntyre of the GU MacIntyre had been proud of his ship, which had been the first of the newly designed honeycomb models from the factories at Roscracia. After Ean had finished repairs, they had dined together, and after that, MacIntyre had given him a tour. He’d explained in detail how the honeycomb design allowed each sector to be quickly shut off and isolated in the event of a hit; of the titanium-bialer alloy that each sector was built from that could withstand the direct hit of a million-terajoule bomb; and how parts of the engineering section—inside the central honeycomb—were duplicated outside of it and could take the power from the shuttles so there was no single point of failure except for the lines, which were in the exact center of the ship, with multiple layers between them and the surface.
MacIntyre had been convinced no one could destroy his ship.
Either Alliance ships were a lot weaker than their Gate Union equivalent, or this new ship—which Ean still knew nothing about—was a degree of power greater than anything known. The way Katida said “destroyed three ships” implied deliberate destruction in a military sense. Ean looked around the room again, at the sea of uniforms and everyone discussing the find with animated expectation.
Were they going to war?
He was glad the next course arrived then. It gave him time to chew in silence and think.
There were ten courses. Small serves, but Ean was still full by the fifth. The people around him seemed to take it as their due. No wonder the civilians tended to be on the plump side.
The military, with a few exceptions, were more in shape. He had known an old soldier in the Lancastrian slums, so skinny his bones showed through translucent skin, who claimed to have been dismissed from the military for being overweight. At the time, Ean hadn’t believed it—Old Kairo was so thin that, even as a boy, Ean had been able to encircle his skinny wrist with his forefinger and thumb—but now he wasn’t so sure.
Conversation drifted on to other things. What it was like to be a linesman? He didn’t know what it was like to not be. Had he ever had a crazy ship? No, although privately Ean wondered if the last ship he had worked on might have been if it had been let go much longer.
The talk switched from there to general talk about crazy ships. Strathcona, whose crew had gone insane. Davida, a military ship Ean hadn’t known about. “Her captain saved his crew, then disappeared into the void with her,” Katida said. And of course, the infamous liner Balao, who had killed her passengers and crew by jumping with the lines wide open—or so it was commonly believed—subjecting them to the terrors of the void, so that they all died of fright.
Some people still believed it was sabotage.
“Now that is one weapon I’d like to have,” Admiral Katida said. “Whatever it is that turns those ships.”
The casual way she said it gave Ean the shivers. “You don’t believe they truly did go crazy?”
“They’re ships. Machines. A piece of equipment went faulty.”
Ean bet the captain of the ill-fated Davida would have disagreed with her.
He disagreed with her.
Lines had . . . “personality” was the only word Ean could think of to describe it. He remembered one level-two apprentice who had accompanied Kaelea on a job and fallen afoul of the ship’s cook. Kaelea swore the apprentice had done nothing wrong, that the cook had attacked him unprovoked. Whatever the cause, after the incident, line two hadn’t worked properly in that ship’s galley. Since line two controlled heating and cooling, the galley had been unbearable for weeks. The chef had blamed the apprentice, but Ean thought the boy had been too traumatized and too inexperienced to do anything. After Rigel’s ineffectual attempts to fix the problem—and even he had enough linesmen to fix level two—the cook had resigned. The ship had never had any problems with line two since.
Katida must have seen something in his face, for she said, “Crazy is only a term because no one has a real explanation for the technicalities.”
The man seated beside Tarkan Heyington—who was also a Tarkan, Tarkan Reynes, only more soberly dressed—put in with a laugh. “You won’t convince him, Admiral. He’s a linesman. They believe all ships are alive. Same way they believe all ships are female.”
“Female ships are an old tradition,” Katida said. “Brought in two hundred years ago to appease Redmond. The lines alone know why. Look where it got us.”
Excerpted from "Linesman"
Copyright © 2015 S. K. Dunstall.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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“Riveting and fast-paced. Linesman is a great read.”–Jack Campbell, New York Times Bestselling Author