High Spring: Parking Orbit, Burning Bright
Quinn Lioe walked the galliot down the sky, using the shaped force fields of the sails as legs, balancing their draw against the depth of gravity here in the planet's shadow. Stars glowed in the mirror display in front of her; spots of dark haze blocked the brilliance of sun and the limb of the planet, so that she could see and read the patterns that gravity made in the vacuum around her. The low-sail, under the keel of her ship, vibrated in its cup: the field calibration had slipped badly on the journey from Callixte to Burning Bright, would have to be adjusted before they left orbit. She sighed, automatically easing the field, and widened the cross-sails' field to compensate. Numbers flickered across the base of the mirror as the ship's system noted and approved the changes; she felt the left cross-sail tremble under her hand, as its draw approached the illusory "depth" of hyperspace, and shortened it even before the warning flashed orange and red across her screen. The galliot continued its easy progress as though there had been no chance of grounding.
"Beacon," she said to the ship, to traffic control waiting somewhere ahead of her in the parking pattern, and a moment later a marker flared in the mirror's display, ahead and slightly to the left of the galliot's course. She sighed, wanting to hurry, wanting to be done and parked and free for the five days or more that it would take to recalibrate the fields, but disciplined herself to safe and steady progress. The galliot crept forward, sails beating slowly against the weak currents of hyperspace that were almost drowned by the local gravity. Her hands rested lightly on the controls; she felt the depth of space in the pressure of the sails, saw the same numbers reflected in the slow swirl of the currents overlaid on the mirror's mimicking of reality.
At last she brought the galliot to a slow stop almost on top of the unreal marker, and shortened the sails until the system gravity took over, drawing the ship neatly into the designated space. She smiled, pleased with her precision, and kicked the lever that lit the anchor field. Lights flared along the mirror's base -- familiar, but nonetheless satisfying -- and the ship said sweetly, "On target. Anchorage confirmed."
"Nicely done," a familiar voice said, and Lioe glanced over her shoulder in some surprise. She hadn't heard Kerestel enter the pilot's dome, had thought he was still back in cargo space sorting out what had and hadn't gone on the drop. And, to be fair, cleaning up after the bungee-gars.
"Thanks," she said aloud, and ran her hands across the main board, closing and snuffing the sail fields. She set the anchor field then, watched the telltales strengthen to green, and turned away from her station, working her shoulders to free them of the night's -- morning's, she corrected silently, it was the beginning of the new day on Burning Bright -- painstaking work. "How's it look back there?"
"Bungee-gars," Kerestel said. He leaned against the hatchway, folding his arms across his chest. His hands and bare arms were still reddened from the embrace of the servo gloves he used to move the canisters that held the cargo safe during the drop to the planet's surface. "Gods, they're a grubby lot."
Looking at him, Lioe bit back a laugh. As usual, Kerestel was wearing a spacesuit liner, this one more battered even than usual, the long sleeves cut off at the shoulder to make it easier to work the servos. He had stopped shaving two days into the trip -- also as usual -- and the incipient beard had sprouted in goatish grey tufts. The hat that marked him as a union pilot -- this one a beret of gold-shot grey brocade, pinned up on one side with a cluster of brightly faceted glass -- perched, incongruously jaunty, on his balding head.
Kerestel had the grace to grin. "Well, you know what I mean. And Christ, the pair of them couldn't make up their minds what was to go in the drop -- if they had minds."
Lioe nodded, and turned to the secondary board to begin shutting down the mirror. Bungee-gars, the hired hands who rode the drop capsules down out of orbit to help protect particularly valuable cargoes from hijacking after landing, were generally a difficult group to work with -- you have to be pretty crazy to begin with, or desperate, to take a job like that -- and the two who had come aboard on Demeter had been slightly more bizarre than usual. "What I don't care for," she said, "is running cargo that needs bungee-gars."
"You got a point there," Kerestel said rather sourly, and Lioe allowed herself a crooked smile. Cargoes that needed bungee-gars were valuable enough to hijack in transit as well as at the drop point, and the free space between the Republic and the Hsaioi-An was loosely patrolled at best, with no one claiming either jurisdiction or responsibility. She shook the thought away -- there had been no sign of trouble, from Callixte to Demeter or after -- and keyed a final set of codes into the interpreter. Overhead, and across the front of the dome, the tracking overlays began to fade, first the oily swirls that showed the hyperspatial currents, and then the all-but-invisible blue-black lines that showed the depth of realspace. The stars blazed out around them, suns strewn like dust and seed, tossed in prodigal handfuls against the night where the plane of the galaxy intersected the mirror's curve. Then the shields that cloaked sun and planet vanished, and the brilliance drowned even the bright stars. Lioe blinked, dazzled, and looked away.
"But if they'd only make up their mind," Kerestel said, and Lioe frowned for a second before she realized he was still talking about the bungee-gars. "You probably felt it, Quinn, they kept changing which capsules were going, so by the time they'd decided, the whole ship was unbalanced. I'll bet money that hasn't helped the low-sail projector."
"I didn't feel we were off alignment," Lioe said. "She handled fine, and the projector didn't feel any worse than when we left Demeter. You did a good job, Micky."
She saw Kerestel's shoulders relax, subtly, and realized that he had been looking for that reassurance all along. She hid a sigh -- she liked Kerestel well enough, liked his ship even better, but his insecurities were wearing -- and said, "Speaking of which, have you scheduled the repairs?"
"Yes." Kerestel's face brightened. "The yard says they can take us into the airdock tomorrow, and they'll tear down the projector right away. The whole thing, including recalibration, ought to take about eight days. Not bad, eh?"
"Not bad," Lioe agreed. Not bad at all, especially when it happens over Burning Bright. "I thought I'd take off, go planetside," she said, carefully casual. "You're not going to need me up here."
Kerestel frowned slightly, said, after a heartbeat's pause that seemed much longer, "You're going Gaming, right?"
"That's right." Lioe bit her tongue to keep from adding more. This is Burning Bright, heart of the Game, where the best clubs and the best players -- the greatest notables -- live and work. I'm not missing this chance. Chances like this are only once a lifetime --
"It's a game, Quinn," Kerestel said.
"And it's one I'm very, very good at," Lioe retorted. She grinned, forced a lighter tone. "Christ, Micky, it's not like I'm quitting."
"One of these days, though," Kerestel muttered, and Lioe reached across to touch his shoulder.
"Not likely, and you know it. Piloting's a steady living, and I'm not stupid." I had to work too hard to get the apprenticeship, coming out of Foster Services; I'm not giving that up anytime soon. But that was none of Kerestel's business; she forced the smile to stay on her lips, said, "All I'm saying is, I think I'm going to spend the repair break planetside. All right?" She could force the issue, she knew -- they were both union, and the union gave her the right to move off the ship anytime it was anchored in orbit for more than five days -- but she liked Kerestel too well to use that lever unless she had to. And besides, he's getting old, one foot on the retirement line. I don't want to hurt his feelings.
Kerestel nodded, reluctantly. "All right," he said, and then made himself sound more enthusiastic. "And good luck with the Game."
It was those efforts that made him worth working for, even if he was getting old and querulous. "Thanks," Lioe said, and retreated to her cabin to collect her belongings.
It didn't take her long to pack: her jump bag was easily large enough to hold a couple of changes of clothes, plus her Gameboard and the thick plastic case that held the half-dozen Rulebook disks. She seized a hat at random, this one black, with a wide brim, shrugged on a jacket -- her favorite, heavy blue-black workcloth with a flurry of Game pins across the lapels -- and tapped into the local comnet to find a taxi-shuttle to take her across to the customs station. Kerestel was nowhere in sight when it arrived, and she hesitated, but called her good-byes into the shipwide intercom. There was no answer; she shrugged again, caught between hurt and annoyance, and pulled herself through the transfer tube to the taxi.
The landing check was strict and time-consuming. The officer on duty went over her papers with excruciating care, and ran the Rulebooks through a virus scan twice before grudgingly allowing her to carry them onto the surface. She made the orbiter with only minutes to spare, and collapsed into her seat, resolved to sleep for as much of the descent as possible.
She woke to the unfamiliar noise of air against the orbiter's hull, sat up in her harness to see fire rolling across the viewport. The orbiter bucked and fought the sudden turbulence, and then they were down into the atmosphere. Servos whined underfoot and in the cabin walls, reconfiguring wings and lifting surfaces, and the orbiter became a proper aircraft, banking easily against the heavy air that held it. The engine fired, a coughing explosion at the tail of the taxi, and the craft steadied further, came completely under control. Lioe released the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding, and craned her head to look out the viewport again.
"We'll be landing at Newfields in about fifty minutes," the steward said, from the front of the cabin. "It's day thirty of High Spring, the end of High Spring -- that's day ninety-four of our four-hundred-day year. Burning Bright has a twenty-five-standard-hour day, and you should program your chronometers accordingly. If you are keeping Greenwich Republican time, the GRTC factor is eighty-eight B-for-bravo one hundred fifty-two. Ground temperature is twenty-three degrees. If you need any assistance, or further information, please feel free to ask. Your call buttons are on the cabin wall above your head."
No one seemed to respond, and Lioe turned her head back to the window. Clouds flashed past beneath them, thin wisps that only partly obscured the glittering water. Burning Bright was mostly water; the main -- the only -- landmass was largely artificial, the new land built on the inner edges of the giant atoll's original islands, guarded from floods by a massive network of dikes and storm barriers. The city of Burning Bright -- city and planet shared a name; the two were effectively identical -- was one of the great engineering achievements of the nonaligned worlds: even in the Republic, and even in Foster Service schools, Lioe thought, you learn that mantra. And it was pretty much true. In all the time she'd spent in space, piloting ships between the Republic and the nonaligned worlds and Hsaioi-An, she'd never been anyplace that was at all like Burning Bright.
"Can I get you anything?"
Lioe looked up to find the steward looking down at her, balancing easily against the movement of the orbiter, one hand resting on the back of the empty couch beside her. She shook her head, but smiled. "I can't think of anything, thanks."
The steward nodded, but didn't move. "I couldn't help noticing your pins."
Lioe let her smile widen, grateful she hadn't had to set up this encounter herself. "I saw yours, too." She glanced again at the pair of Game pins clipped just below the company icon: one was the triangle-and-galaxy of the Old Network, but the other was unfamiliar. "Local club?" she asked, and was not surprised when the steward shook his head.
"Actually, it's a session souvenir," he said. "It was a Court Life variant, run by Ambidexter about five years ago."
"I think I saw tapes of that," Lioe said, impressed in spite of herself. The steward didn't look old enough to have been playing at that level five years ago. "That was the one that featured Gallio Hazard and Desir of Harmsway, right? The one that really made Harmsway a Grand Type."
"That's right." The steward glanced quickly around the cabin, then lowered himself into the couch next to her. "I'm Vere -- Audovero Caminesi."
"Quinn Lioe." They touched hands, awkward because of her safety harness.
"You wouldn't be the Lioe who wrote the Frederick's Glory scenario," Vere said.
"As a matter of fact, I am."
Vere grinned. "That was a great session. There's been a lot of talk on the net about it; I'm still trying to find someone at the club who'll run it. Are you going to be doing any Gaming while you're here?"
The conversation was going just the way she'd hoped it would. Lioe said, "I was hoping to. I don't know the clubs, though."
Vere spread his hands. "I can give you some names, if you'd like."
"I'd appreciate it."
"There are really only three clubs that are worth your while," Vere said, lowering his voice until she could just hear him over the noise of the engines. "Billi's in the Old City, Shadows under the Old Dike in Dock Road District, and the Two-Dragon House, in Mainwardens'." He grinned suddenly. "I think Shadows is the best of the lot -- it's where I play, so take it for what it's worth."
Lioe smiled back. "What's the setup like?"
"They're all about the same, really," Vere answered. A chime sounded from farther forward in the compartment, and he lifted his head to look over the seatbacks for the source. Lioe followed the direction of his gaze, and saw a call light flashing above one of the seats. Vere grimaced, and pushed himself to his feet, but leaned down to finish what he had been saying. "Shadows has newer machines, but they're not state-of-the-art. Billi's was that maybe four, five years ago. Two-Dragon is pretty standard stuff, a little older than Shadows."
"Thanks," Lioe said, and Vere smiled down at her.
"Don't forget me if you run an open session."
"I'll keep you in mind," Lioe said, and meant it. She would be needing good players, if she managed to persuade a club to let her lead sessions, and anyone who could play for Ambidexter was good enough for her. It was just a pity Ambidexter himself was no longer in the Game.
She turned her head to the viewport again, was startled to see how far the orbiter had dropped. The water was no longer just a blue haze, had gained a crumpled texture, and flecks of white dotted the metallic surface. Burning Bright City was just visible in the distance, if she craned her neck, but mostly hidden by the orbiter's nose. The craft banked sharply then, showing her nothing but the brilliance of the sky, and when it steadied onto the new heading, Burning Bright lay spread out beneath the orbiter's wing. It seemed very small at first, an island split in three by a forked channel, but then the orbiter banked again, losing altitude, and she began to make out the smaller landformed islands that made up the larger masses. Most of them were thickly settled, furred with brick-red buildings, light glinting occasionally from solar panels and interior waterways. Only the high ground at the outer edges of the islands remained relatively uncrowded. She frowned idly at that, wondering why, and the speakers crackled at the front of the cabin.
Vere said, "I've just been informed that we are starting the descent to Newfields. We should be on the ground in about fifteen minutes."
The orbiter canted again as he spoke, and when it came level again, Lioe was looking at a scene she recognized. Twin lakes lay to either side of a piece of land like a small mountain, falling steeply to the sea on one side and more gently into settled country on the other. That was Plug Island, where the first-in settlers had first dammed the shallow lagoon to create more land for their growing city. Double headlands cradled each of the lakes; the desalination complex and the thick white walls of the tidal generating stations that closed each lake off from the sea gleamed in the sunlight. Outside the generating stations' walls, surf bloomed against the storm barriers that defended the Plug Island lagoons; it frothed as well against the base of the cliffs to either side. They were coming into Newfields. Even as she thought it, the orbiter rolled a final time, then steadied into the familiar approach. They flashed over the clustered houses of the Ghetto where the off-worlders, and especially the hsai, lived -- still on the inner edges of the island, overlooking the land, away from the sea -- and then dropped low over the administrative complex. The orbiter touched down easily on stained and tire-marked pavement, and she leaned back in her couch, no longer watching the blocks of warehouses that flashed past beyond the empty field. Not long now, she thought, not long. I'll find a room in the Ghetto, and I'll call some clubs, and I'll have a Game to run. She smiled, losing herself in a dream.
Copyright © 1993 by Melissa Scott