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By Timothy Zahn
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Timothy Zahn
All rights reserved.
The housecomp's trifling was quiet but persistent, and the machine itself of course had infinite patience ... and eventually Danae mal ce Taeger dragged herself out of her leaden sleep to answer it. "Yes, Rax, what is it?" she mumbled.
"You had a call this morning from Dean Hsiu, Danae," the housecomp's soft voice said. "I'm sorry to wake you, but he asked for you to call him back by eleven at the latest."
Danae forced her eyes open enough to focus on the holoclock at her side of the floatbed. Five minutes till. "Did he say what he wanted?" she sighed, shifting tired muscles under the sheet and cautioning a suddenly rebellious stomach.
"No, but from his tone I would say he was pleased about something."
"With Dean Hsiu that could mean practically anything," she said dryly, sitting up and scratching vigorously at her hair. A belated glance beside her ... but Pirro wasn't lying there trying to sleep through the conversation. In fact, from the looks of it, he hadn't come to bed at all. "Pirro up and gone already?" she asked with forced casualness, sliding off onto the floor and padding to her closet for a robe.
"I believe he left the house shortly after you went to bed last night," Rax answered.
"This morning, you mean." Danae glared back at the bed. For a moment she was tempted to search Pirro's half of the closet, to see whether he'd left in his work clothes or had simply gone off in search of another party after theirs folded up. But Dean Hsiu was waiting ... and checking up on Pirro was a waste of effort, anyway. She'd known for a long time now that this one was over and done with. "Code out Dean Hsiu for me, will you, Rax?" she sighed.
She was seated at the phone by the time the older man's holoimage appeared in front of her. "Ah—Ms. Panya," Hsiu beamed. "Thank you for returning my call. I hope I didn't disturb you?"
"Not at all, sir," Danae told him. "I'm afraid I was helping some friends celebrate their graduate assignments last night and it got a bit late."
"Well, you'll just have to call them all back tonight to return the favor," the other smiled. "Your own assignment request has just come back in—" he paused dramatically—"marked approved. "
Danae felt her mouth fall open. "You mean ... Triplet?"
"Triplet it is," Hsiu nodded. "Threshold, Shamsheer, and Karyx—you've been approved for all three worlds. And to the best of my knowledge this is the first time anyone from Autaris has been so honored. My heartiest congratulations to you."
Danae started to breathe again. "Thank you, sir. It's ... a lot more than I expected myself."
"Yes, I can tell," the other said, a twinkle in his eye. "But you've got a lot of work ahead of you, so get your heart restarted and get to it. First of all, you'll need to get a full high-retention mnemonic treatment; after that'll come a three-week language course. Then—let's see—then you'll have another three-weeker on the cultures of Shamsheer and Karyx; and finally, there'll be a lab on voice commands and the more common spells."
"Yes. Right. Uh, was there anything about the Courier I asked for?"
"Courier? I didn't realize you'd made a specific request ..." Hsiu peered somewhere off-camera. "Oh, yes, here it is. Most experienced Courier ... name given here is Ravagin."
"Am I getting him?"
Hsiu frowned slightly. "It's a little hard to tell from the wording ... but it looks like if he agrees to it Triplet Control itself is willing. He a friend of yours?"
"Never met him. But getting the most experienced Courier is important to the project proposal I made."
"Ah." Hsiu shrugged, apparently dismissing it as none of his business. "Well, anyway, I've already begun making the arrangements with the various departments involved. Why don't you check back with my office tomorrow for the final schedule?"
Danae's jaw clenched momentarily; but there was nothing of her father's casual arrogance in either Hsiu's face or voice. He's just trying to help, she told herself, sitting hard on the automatic rebellion the other had inadvertently triggered. Not trying to take over; not treating me like a child who can't handle her own life. Just offering assistance and common courtesy. It helped a little. "That would be fine, sir," she told him, managing to keep her voice civil. "Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule."
"Oh, no problem at all, Ms. Panya. Well, I'll let you go now. Once again, congratulations."
"Thank you, Dean Hsiu."
Hsiu's image smiled and vanished. Danae leaned back in her chair, eyes gazing unseeingly around the room as she tried to absorb the magnitude of her triumph. Permits to visit either of the Hidden Worlds of Triplet were as scarce as honest men ... and or her—for her—to actually have been awarded one of them was—
Was suspicious in the extreme.
She bit at her lip, the glow within her fading before the sudden doubt. If he had traced her here—and if he had, he would certainly have learned of her application to Triplet....
All right, Danae—stop emoting and think. She'd sent in the application ... when? Three months ago? About that. Okay: one-way spaceflight to Triplet would have been perhaps a week; evaluation would have included a check with Earth's master records for possible psychological, political, or legal problems. Another four to five weeks' round trip for that one, with handling and all; and of course at the very end there would be another week to get the approval back here to Autaris. Which left ... six or seven weeks at the most. Six weeks for them to shuffle her application out of the sacks and sacks of similar requests; to study it, evaluate it, pass it around to everyone in sight and up the decision-making hierarchy, and to approve it.
No way. There was simply no way.
"Damn," she said, very quietly. "Damn. Damn! "
"Danae, are you all right?"
"No, Rax, I am not all right," she snarled. "Where is he?"
"Pirro? I believe—"
"The hell with Pirro. I mean Hart. Where is he?"
There was a slight pause. "I don't believe I know anyone by that name."
"Check again," she snapped. "He's here somewhere—next door, down the street, maybe under a rock in the yard." Abruptly, she raised her voice. "Hart? I know you can hear me, you bastard. Get your butt in here, now. You hear me? Now."
There was no answer ... but she hadn't really expected one. Tightening her robe sash savagely, she stomped out of the room and downstairs to the foyer. There she waited, glaring at the front door.
There was a gentle, almost diffident rap on the steel-core wood. "Come in," Danae gritted, making no move to unlock it. A short pause ... and with a click the electronic lock disengaged and the door swung open. A medium-nondescript man stepped quietly into the foyer, slipping a small electronic scrambler back into his pocket.
For a moment they just eyed each other in silence. Then Danae took a deep breath. "You did it, didn't you," she said. "You got me that slot on Triplet. You and Daddy Dear and a hell of a lot of money."
Hart shrugged fractionally. "I only make reports," he told her. "What your father does with the information I couldn't say."
"Sure." She closed her eyes briefly, all her earlier excitement turning to ashes in her mouth. "What if I turn it down? I can do that, you know. What would Daddy Dear do to you if he knew I'd caught on to you and his little interference-running?"
"My job isn't to stay hidden forever, Ms. mal ce Taeger. You're far too intelligent for that, and your father knows it. I'm here to guard you. That's all."
"And to help him interfere with every aspect of my life he can get his hands on. Right?"
Hart didn't answer. "How long have you been on to me?" Danae asked, for lack of anything better to say.
"Almost since you started at the university," Hart answered. "The 'Danae Panya' cover was one of your more transparent ones." He cocked a speculative eyebrow. "Almost as if you knew you'd never get to Triplet without some help."
She very nearly spat in his face for that one. What stopped her was the gnawing suspicion that he might just be right. "You think that, do you?" she snarled at him instead. "You think all this is just Daddy Dear's little girl nibbling on both ends of the pie? Trying to have things both ways?"
Hart's lip twitched, just noticeably. "I couldn't say, Ms. mal ce Taeger. If that'll be all ...?"
Danae snorted. "As if my orders meant a damn to you. Sure, go on—get out of here."
He started to go, but then hesitated. "Ms. mal ce Taeger ... will your friend be accompanying you to Triplet?"
"Who, Pirro?" She smiled lopsidedly. "Ah, yes—I suppose Daddy Dear's pretty annoyed by him, isn't he? His sweet, innocent daughter living with an ambitionless, borderline bum. Well, you tell him, yes, I'll certainly be taking him to Threshold with me. Maybe even into Shamsheer and Karyx if you've bribed the officials there adequately."
"As you wish," Hart said evenly. "I presume you'll want to give Pirro the good news personally. I believe he's still in the apartment building at the corner with the woman he escorted home from your party last night."
At her side, Danae's right hand curled into an impotent fist. "Get out," she whispered.
Hart nodded and slipped quietly outside, locking the door electronically behind him. Closing her eyes, Danae sagged against the wall beside her as the steel of her resolve turned to water and drained away. Pirro's tomcatting behavior was no real surprise—she was honest enough to admit that to herself—but the bluntness of the revelation had still hurt. As Hart had no doubt meant it to. The bastard.
She stood there for a long minute, pressing the fresh bruises on her psyche. Then, taking a deep breath, she straightened up. The University of Autaris was no longer a haven for her ... but then, she'd had no intention of staying here forever, anyway. Hart was here; Pirro was on his way out—and to hell with both of them.
Because whatever his own reasons, Daddy Dear had finally outsmarted himself. For as long as she could remember he'd been pulling on her strings, refusing to let her live her own life or to accept the feet that she was an adult now and—she had to admit it—embittering her in the process. But now, by opening this particular door for her, he'd just possibly given her the way out of the cocoon that was smothering her.
Buying her way to Threshold was one thing; but Shamsheer and Karyx were another story entirely. Money didn't reach through the Tunnels—not money, not connections, not Hart and his private spy network. Once inside the Hidden Worlds she could do anything she pleased ... and there wasn't a damn thing Daddy Dear could do about it.
And there was a good chance he'd live to regret letting her in there.CHAPTER 2
It was rare that the area around Reingold Crater was treated to more than a brief glimpse of the sun, but today was one of those rare occasions. Sunny and warm, the usual winds moderated to gentle breezes, it was the sort of morning that reminded Ravagin of the more carefree days of his childhood, tempting him to hike out into the surrounding hills and put off finishing his report. No one seriously cared about the damn things unless something went wrong, anyway, and God knew he'd earned himself an extra day off.
But duty called with its damned Siren song ... and anyway, it would be Corah Lea who took it in the neck if the stupid busywork was too late. In the end he compromised, skipping the usual shuttle service and instead walking the two kilometers from his house to his Crosspoint Building office.
The Courier wing of the sprawling structure was, as usual, a haven from the controlled pandemonium that always seemed to fill the rest of the building. With supervisors and planners continually rushing to meetings, new groups preparing for their sorties into the Hidden Worlds scrambling madly with last-minute details, and bone-weary returning groups slogging toward debrief rooms at half the speed of everyone else, Ravagin had often felt that getting through the Crosspoint Building was the most dangerous part of any trip. Today was no exception, and he breathed a sigh of relief when the Courier wing door sealed with its solid thunk behind him.
Only to discover he'd relaxed too soon. Keying onto his terminal, he was confronted with a red-lettered message plastered across his screen:
RAVAGIN: PLEASE REPORT TO ME AS SOON AS YOU COME IN.
"Great," he muttered. "Just great." Lea didn't call Couriers to her office just for the hell of it. If she wanted to see him in person, it was almost guaranteed to be bad news. Grimacing, he got to his feet and headed out again into the pandemonium.
Supervisor Corah Lea was waiting for him, the neutral expression he knew so well plastered across her face. "Ravagin," she nodded in greeting, waving him to a chair in front of her desk. "I expected you here rather earlier."
"I took the long way in," he said mildly. "You can dock my pay if you want to."
That got him a harrumph and an almost reluctant smile. "You never were one to try with intimidation gambits, were you? All right; let's get down to business. This application you've filed for a leave of absence, for starters. Are you really serious about leaving?"
Ravagin nodded. "It's not a ploy for more money or vacation time, if that's what you mean. If I'd wanted something like that I would have asked for it directly. You know that."
"I know." Her face and voice softened a bit. "Mind telling me why?"
He sighed. "You've seen the test results. I'm tired, Corah. Just tired. I've been shuttling people through the Tunnels for sixteen years now—that's two to three years longer than any other Courier you've got, and a year longer than the supposed maximum."
"You're good at what you do," Lea said. "Damned good. We wouldn't have finagled the rules so hard to keep you on this long if you weren't."
"I appreciate the compliment," he nodded. "If I wasn't so good at it I'd have left long ago with or without your help."
She snorted wryly. "Not much for false modesty, are you?"
"False modesty is for politicians," he shrugged.
There was a moment of silence. "Well," Lea said at last. "Is there anything I can offer that might change your mind? You did mention extra money and vacation time."
He smiled. "Not unless you've got some kind of magic salve for the terminally burned-out psyche."
"Sorry—all the technological miracles are down the Tunnel a ways in Shamsheer. I don't suppose ...?"
"If they had something like that, I would have used it long ago," he said dryly. "Probably. Was there anything else?"
"As a matter of fact, there was." The neutral expression was back in place, with a twinge of discomfort hovering at its edges. "I've had a ... let's call it an unusual request come down from an unnamed source—unnamed because no one will tell me where the hell it came from, either. It asks specifically that our most experienced Courier be assigned to take a female graduate student from the University of Autaris into the Hidden Worlds for her field assignment."
Ravagin frowned. "A single student? One ?"
"That's what it says."
"What the hell do they think we're running here, a personal guided tour service?"
Lea shrugged. "I don't know any more than I've just given you ... except that there are distinct hints that pressure is going to be brought to bear on your neck if you don't agree to take her in."
"Whoa—freeze that frame, huh? What does this have to do with me? I'm leaving, remember?"
"Maybe, maybe not." Lea took a deep breath. "It isn't like we can pretend someone else is more experienced than you are—it's an on-record fact we can't hide. The higher-ups have already made it clear they want you to stay on for this one last trip. If you don't ... it's entirely possible your leave of absence might not be approved."
"Well, I'm sure that's a triumph for some branch of human stupidity," Ravagin snorted. "I presume you offered my last med/psych test results for their reading enjoyment?"
"And I told them you were suffering the entire Courier burnout syndrome," she sighed. "None of it did a scrap of good. Most experienced is what they want, most experienced is what they're determined to get."
"All right, then. If that's how they want to play I'll quit outright. Then I'm out of their grasp entirely."
"Yeah. Well ..." Lea looked acutely uncomfortable. "I would presume, though, that you're not ready to retire at the ripe old age of thirty-eight."
Excerpted from Triplet by Timothy Zahn. Copyright © 1987 Timothy Zahn. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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