Star of wonder, p.14

Star of Wonder, page 14


Star of Wonder

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  * * * * *

  When the Balrog, out of Moria, finally overhauled the self-registered ship Wild Rover near the edge of the Louisville solar system, a no-nonsense woman’s voice gave the Balrog’s shuttle its docking instructions over the normal space com, and its owner met the Morian delegation and the representative of the First Responders at the shuttle bay doors with a scowl. “What exactly is the meaning of this?” she demanded, hands on her coverall-clad hips. “We have a schedule to meet, audiences expecting us, and if this foolishness makes us late—”

  “A missing child is hardly foolishness, madam,” said the Responder calmly. “May I have your name?”

  “Deirdre Rioghan, crewmember in good standing of the Wild Rover.” The woman so named swept her thick, dark hair back from her bronze face with impatient hands. “And you are?”

  “First Responder Imogene Silver, Ms. Rioghan. Pleased to meet you.” Responder Silver, whose eyes and hair, matching her name, contrasted strikingly with her dark brown skin, bowed slightly from the waist. “And the gentlemen here are Commissioner Robert Cleine and Mr. Frank Ghavouri, both of Moria—”

  “I’ve never seen you before,” interrupted Cleine, a pale and portly man who could have appeared jolly if he were not so clearly ill-at-ease, pointing at Deirdre. “There was a name like yours on that roster, but you I never saw. Kolesar, Doyle, Xiao, those are the people we want—”

  “Especially Xiao. Mikala Xiao.” Ghavouri, olive-skinned and balding, painfully thin, and unable to stand still, was glancing around the neatly-appointed reception area as though expecting the man he’d named to materialize out of the bulkheads. “He’s the one responsible for corrupting my poor little niece Carol, for exposing her to…to…”

  “Music?” Deirdre suggested tartly, making both Morians recoil at the word. “You will have a difficult time searching this ship if you cannot even deal with the concept, gentlemen. It is, after all, our business.”

  “Yes, about that business.” Silver’s face was quite calm, but a hint of humor had crept into her tone. “Can you possibly reconcile the records, Ms. Rioghan, while we’re here? Your ship seems to have registered improperly at Moria, and to have declared its purpose falsely…”

  Deirdre sighed. “Ms. Silver, this ship costs money,” she said. “Money to run, money to repair. Money to feed and clothe those who live aboard her. We needed money when we stopped at Moria, but we make our money by the playing and singing of music, and the laws of Moria expressly prohibit that. So we allowed them to come and look at our people, who happen to have a different appearance than most of the greater galaxy, and we told them a few little stories about us which are not strictly true. Who is harmed by that? And we never claimed any name that is not ours. We only…simplified it.”

  “That seems fair enough.” Silver nodded. “I’ll add the notation to the file when I get back to the office. Now, in the matter of Carol Fuhrman?”

  “No child by that name is aboard this ship.” Deirdre made her statement a flat negative. “I will not say she was never here, for she was. When we were docked at Moria, she visited often, and traded laughter with my daughter An-jing. But.” Her amber eyes met Silver’s gray ones and held them. “Since the day we left Morian orbit, Carol Fuhrman has not been aboard the Wild Rover, and to that I will swear if necessary.”

  “I don’t think it will be.” Silver glanced back towards the Morians. “But if you would permit us, just as a formality, to walk through the ship? Check to be sure you haven’t, shall we say, overlooked anyone?”

  “You suspect your niece has stowed away, and we are hiding her from you?” Deirdre bowed gracefully to Ghavouri, including Cleine in the gesture with a wave of her hand. “I would never have you think that of us. Come.” She started towards the elevators on the other side of the room. “Explore our home. Go where you wish. Only do be aware.” Her smile returned, with a wicked twist to it, as she pressed the button to summon the car. “Some of us may be practicing our trade.”

  “Disgusting,” muttered Ghavouri as the bell pinged. “Just disgusting.”

  “Now, Frank. Different planets, different mores.” Cleine stepped inside the elevator car behind the other Morian. “Though I can’t blame you,” he added in what was obviously supposed to be a tone too low for the two women to hear.

  Deirdre, facing the front of the car as the doors closed, curled her lip.

  “Remind me, Mr. Ghavouri,” said Silver after the car had been ascending for a moment or two. “How did Carol come to live with you and your family again?”

  “Her fool of a father got himself and his wife killed—she was my half-sister, a good bit younger, I didn’t know her much—by crashing a flyer he thought he’d recalibrated to take two people instead of one.” The answer came without any particular passion. Clearly the words had been long established within the speaker’s mind as unalterable truth. “It’s part of the reason we watched Carol so closely, trying to keep her from following in her parents’ footsteps—to be honest with you, Ms. Silver, if Carol weren’t still so young, we might not have pursued this at all. She was never anything but trouble to us, and there’s only so much outside influence can do when they’re born already marked for it that way.”

  “I see.” Silver pursed her lips. “You have a daughter of your own, I believe? Close to Carol’s age?”

  “My Layna.” Now Ghavouri sounded doting. “She’s our little angel.”

  “And how did she feel about Carol? Was she, perhaps, glad to have a playmate of her own age so nearby?”

  “Ms. Silver, if I told you half the things that Carol put my darling through, you’d say I was lying to you.” Stern righteousness had replaced the Daddy’s-little-girl coo in Ghavouri’s tones. “Everything from copying homework off her tripad, to stealing clothing out of her closet, to saying, when my wife caught her brazenly humming a song, that she’d heard Layna doing it first! Now I ask you, is that—”

  The elevator pinged again, and opened onto a scene of chaos.

  Children swarmed the corridor, the colors of their furry faces and hands managing somehow to harmonize rather than clashing with the rainbow-mix of coveralls they wore and the multicolored litter of paper and plastic being attached to bulkheads and doorframes. Cheerful shouts filled the air, some in Vershal, the rest in a language which made Deirdre sigh. “I have told them and told them,” she said, leading her little party off the elevator. “Aelur is to be spoken within the cargo bay, Vershal on the rest of the ship. But then, we are getting ready for a holiday, a few of the rules can be relaxed—”

  A two-part shriek of “Ma!” interrupted her, and what appeared to be a red-and-green whirlwind bolted up, babbling nonstop in the Aelur tongue, four tan-furred ears, poking up through two heads of dark hair, quivering with indignation. Deirdre listened for three seconds, then cut off both halves of the whirlwind with a sharp handclap. “Todane!” she commanded. “Enough. We have guests.”

  The whirlwind, thus calmed, proved to be a pair of girls about twelve years of age, both of whom turned slant-set, inquisitive, slit-pupiled brown eyes on the visitors. Ghavouri shuddered and looked quickly in another direction, while Cleine frowned a little, as though trying to track down an elusive memory. Only Silver returned the girls’ regard as fully as they gave it, and all three of them smiled when they were finished.

  “These mannerless ones are my daughters.” Deirdre draped her arms around the girls’ shoulders. “An-jing, in red, and Séarlait, in green. What do we say, my ladies?”

  “Ishea uscait anthoras?” murmured the green-clad girl with a little bow, as her sister in the red coverall sketched a curtsey, accompanied by, “Welcome aboard, sirs and ma’am.”

  “Very good.” Deirdre kissed both girls’ cheeks. “Now, go and tell your brother that he is to give you the roll of sticky back immediately if he does not want me to get involved.”

  The girls nodded eagerly and raced back into the fray, both shouting for ‘Stefan’ before they had gone
three steps.

  “I apologize for the mess,” said Deirdre, returning her attention to Silver and the Morians. “If you will follow me, our living quarters are down this hallway, and then the performance area is beyond that—the ship’s functional areas are still further along, if you wish to inspect those as well, though I or another crewmember will need to be present, to satisfy our regulations—”

  “Er, Ms. Rioghan.” Cleine held up a hand, keeping a weather eye on Ghavouri, who had turned away and was leaning against a nearby bulkhead, muttering to himself as though he were trying to keep from bolting in the face of terror. “I think we may have gone far enough. What I mean to say is, it’s always been a bit of a long shot, thinking little Carol could be here—you wouldn’t be lying to the authorities, after all, and there are considerations—”

  “What he’s a little too nice to say,” Ghavouri interrupted, swinging around, “is that I’d rather see my niece dead at my feet than have her come back into my household after this! If she has been with you, you animals all this time, then she is dead—dead to all common decency, dead to any sense of propriety, and dead to me! Don’t bother giving us the runaround and skirting whatever little spot you’ve got her tucked away in. I wouldn’t stay on this ship another minute if you paid me!” He slammed his hand against the elevator button and darted into one of the cars when the doors opened, stabbing furiously at the panel until they closed behind him again.

  “Ah.” Cleine fidgeted, looking even more uncomfortable than before. “I do apologize for that. But he does have a point—Moria’s an orderly place, everyone knows what’s expected, we get on with our work and we don’t make waves, and little Carol was something of a disruptive element, if you will…”

  “Marching to the beat of her own drummer, perhaps?” Silver suggested with a small smile.

  “If you like.” Cleine flinched as first one, then more, voices rose above the general clamor, proclaiming what their true loves had given them to celebrate the season. “But still, we must fulfill the law, mustn’t we?” From the holster at his hip, he removed a hand-sized tripad. “Ms. Rioghan, if I could just check your daughters’ handprints against young Carol’s files from our database? To be absolutely sure, you know. The resemblance is rather striking.”

  Deirdre sighed deeply. “If you insist,” she said, and whistled a three-note pattern, bringing the two girls back out of the crowd with a rush. A few quick sentences in Aelur from mother to daughters, and An-jing stepped forward, her ears twitching in time with the half-heard song from the other end of the corridor.

  Silver glanced over as a narrow-eyed Aelur man with a swathe of platinum blond hair also detached himself from the swirl of children, taking a few slightly halting steps in Deirdre’s direction but holding off from a full approach. Cleine’s attention was all on the fur-backed hand resting on his tripad’s screen, and on the humming of the machine itself, which mulled over the lines and whorls on An-jing’s palm and fingertips for several seconds before spitting back a strident beep and a bright red “No Match”.

  “Well, then.” Cleine tapped swiftly at the tripad again, then held it out towards Séarlait. “One down, one to go.”

  Obediently, Séarlait laid her hand against the same spot her sister’s had occupied a moment before, making Cleine frown. “Excuse me, young lady, but your fingers…”

  “We’re only half-Aelur by blood, sir,” said An-jing from her place beside her mother, indicating Deirdre’s round pupils and the sleek fall of her hair, unbroken by eartips. “No one can be sure which signs will manifest and which ones won’t, even in twins.”

  “I—see.” Cleine touched the spot on the tripad’s screen that began the scan and compare. As the tripad hummed to itself, he looked more closely at Séarlait, who kept her eyes downcast. “I do see. Frank didn’t—well, that’s not much of a surprise, he never was one to look beyond the obvious, but—”

  The tripad beeped again, in the same tone it had used before.

  Cleine looked down, his eyes widening.

  The letters on the screen, outlined in a red even brighter than An-jing’s coverall, unmistakably read “No Match”.

  “And I think that’s just about enough of that,” said the Aelur man who’d been standing silent witness, coming the last few steps to join his wife and daughters. “I’d say it’s nice to see you again, Commissioner, but I doubt you’d believe me.”

  “Xiao!” Cleine took an involuntary step back. “But you were—you weren’t—”

  “I don’t believe it’s a crime in this galaxy to change one’s appearance from time to time.” Suncrest raised an inquiring eyebrow towards Silver, who shook her head, a tiny smile playing about her lips. “Especially when one’s livelihood depends on it to some extent. I’d like to think we do our jobs well enough to bring in audiences without our…unusual appearance, but I won’t deny the appeal of the exotic nets us a few filled seats at every stop that we wouldn’t otherwise have. Along with giving us a backup plan for such places as Moria, of course.”

  “Of course,” Cleine echoed weakly. “So then all those Lurans, or whatever they’re called—”

  “Aelur.” Suncrest flicked a finger across the tip of one of his pointed ears. “A strain of humanity distinguished from the standard by a few cat-like features, eyes, ears, pelt, and the like, but in full possession of all mental properties peculiar to the human race. We were playing a bit of a game with you, Commissioner, for which I do apologize, but as my lady stated, we were in need of the money.”

  “And you—they—” Cleine seemed a bit lost for words, and took two or three deep breaths before trying again. “In the matter of, well, breeding—”

  “You may recall I told you, last year, that I had named one of the occupants of this ship Sundance, as was my right and duty.” Suncrest kissed a fingertip and tapped it to the nose of An-jing, who giggled. “Who could have a better right and duty to name his little girl than a father? Both DNA scans and in vivo experiments have concluded, Commissioner, that the Aelur are perfectly interfertile with most of the human strains which exist in the greater galaxy today.”

  “As you can see for yourself,” said Deirdre briskly, nudging her twins towards their father. “And as your own tripad has just confirmed, neither of our daughters matches the handprint you have on record for Carol Fuhrman, and therefore Moria has no claim on any person aboard the Wild Rover. Is this enough to satisfy the law, Ms. Silver?”

  “Quite enough, Ms. Rioghan.” Silver looked over at Cleine. “Commissioner, your determination to find this young lady and ensure she hadn’t been harmed is a commendable one. But I think we’ll have to conclude this is something of a dead end. Unless you wish to pursue the matter further?” she added in a tone containing all the warmth and welcome of hard vacuum.

  “Not at all.” Cleine shook his head. “So sorry to have bothered you.” From the corner of his eye, he cast another look at Séarlait, who peered around the fall of her hair at him with a shy smile. “Best wishes in this festive time, and all of that, of course—coming, Ms. Silver?”

  “Actually, Commissioner, I think it would be most convenient for everyone if I finished my business on the Wild Rover, and went with them to their next port of call.” Silver pursed her lips thoughtfully. “Triflume, isn’t it, from here, Ms. Rioghan?”

  “It is.” Deirdre inclined her head. “And you would be a most welcome guest.”

  “So if you could have a wally collect my things from my cabin and deliver them,” Silver finished towards Cleine, “then you and Mr. Ghavouri can be on your way without any further delay. It’s a long way back to Moria, and I’m sure you’ll want to be there in time for Christmas.”

  “If we could, yes.” Cleine nodded. “Thank you, Ms. Silver, and I do apologize for taking up your time.”

  “Not at all. This is some of the work I enjoy best.” Silver bowed, as did Dierdre and Suncrest.

  “Well, then.” Cleine returned the courtesy a bit jerkily.
Best wishes—oh, I’ve said that already, haven’t I?”

  “One can never have enough good wishes,” Deirdre assured him coolly.

  With a rather uncertain nod, Commissioner Cleine glanced one last time at the twins before hurrying into the other elevator and allowing the doors to close behind him.

  Deirdre let out her breath in a long sigh and looked over at Silver, whose smile had broadened. “I’ve seen your show before,” the First Responder said. “Followed your career, as a troupe. I won’t say there’s never been trouble surrounding this ship, but very seldom have your folk been the ones starting it.”

  “No, we merely finish it.” Deirdre chuckled. “Your thoughts?”

  “My most prevalent one involves the level of risk you’re willing to accept in your daughter’s name.” Silver folded her arms across her chest. “Lady Duskdance.”

  “A calculated risk.” The queen of Free Sky masked her eyes momentarily with her hands. “If our Starsong’s relations never saw how ill-suited she was to their life, we thought it likely that they never truly saw her. And the records, of course, we knew would not match.”

  “Of course.” Silver glanced up at the two other adults who had emerged from the crowd. “Since the day she joined your ship’s company, I daresay they have not so matched.”

  Killdeer returned the Responder’s look levelly. “I could hardly hack a database when I wasn’t in planetary orbit,” she said. “That kind of work requires a short-distance link, real-time stuff. You could prosecute me for it, I suppose, but I only touched a single set of records, and you’ll never prove it anyway.”

  “And it kept Duskdance from having to tell an outright lie,” Nightsinger added. “Carol Fuhrman, for all intents and purposes, hasn’t existed since we left Moria a year ago.”

  “Excellent.” Silver sighed. “We may yet have to do something about Moria. But that’s for another day. For now…” She looked firmly at the girl in the green coverall. “Miss Xiao, I assume?”

  “Yes, ma’am.” Starsong smiled. “Carol Séarlait Xiao. Starsong, for onstage and everyday.”

  “Very well, then. Starsong.” Silver chuckled deep in her throat, observing the way the two girls were holding onto one another’s hands. “I don’t think I have to ask where you would prefer to live. The case of Carol Fuhrman will be permanently dead-filed, as requested by her guardian of record. And perhaps, in our time in shiftspace, en route to your next destination…” She allowed her eyes to sweep down the corridor again. “We could discuss something of a partnership.”

  “Because we go places Responders may not come more than once in ten years or so?” hazarded Nightsinger.

  “Because we’ve already got the skills we’ll need to ensure we don’t get found out,” was Killdeer’s contribution.

  “And people talk so much more freely in front of entertainers than they do in front of Responders,” murmured Suncrest.

  “Precisely.” Silver bowed to all three. “You’re already in the business of brightening lives. It’s not too far a stretch to saving them.”

  “We have never thought so.” Duskdance bent to kiss Starsong’s head, between the pointed Aelur ears the med unit had bestowed upon her during her latest visit, before doing the opposite service for her mother. “Shall I take you to the guest quarters by another way, or will you brave the madhouse which is our children?”

  Silver laughed. “Eighteen nieces and nephews,” she said simply. “Bring on the little ones.”

  Starsong and Sundance looked at each other with identical grins. “Oh, Winterfur!” they caroled together.
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