Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald
A broken and drifting ship, its long-dead captain still strapped in the command seat: that's what free-spacers call a starpilot's grave. When one of these derelict craft appears in the Net, the artificial barrier zone separating the Republic from the Mageworlds, the discovery is no accident. It's a sign, a warning that the Mageworlds have not forgotten the Republic and the Magelords make long plans.
But the Magelords weren't planning on Beka Rosselin-Metadi. Beka has unfinished business to take care of, and his name is Ebenra D'Caer: the man who arranged her mother's murder. D'Caer is safehe thinkshidden among the Mages on the far side of the Net. Flying under a false name and false colors, Beka penetrates the Magezone and finds more than anyone expected: the Magelords have discovered a fatal weakness in the Republic's defenses, and are poised to wreak their vengeance on the hated enemy.
The Mages are too strong. They must prevail.
Unless one woman in one ship can do the impossible.
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Darkness had fallen over the city. Light from the streetlamps lay in stark white circles against the warehouse walls, with pools of blackness falling in between. Overhead, the fixed star of High Station -- Pleyver's giant orbiting spaceport -- burned down through the skyglow. No one saw Owen Rosselin-Metadi pass by like an unheeded thought, skirting the edges of the lamplight and pausing to catch his breath in the safety of the dark.
He wasn't sure how long he'd been running. Hours, it seemed like -- ever since leaving his sister back at Florrie's Palace, in an upper room where the acrid stink of blaster fire mingled with the heavier smell of blood. He didn't think anybody had followed him out of there; he'd put most of his remaining energy into staying unseen, and Beka had taken care of the rest.
Owen didn't like the favor he'd asked from her, that she take on the risk of drawing away the armed pursuit, and he didn't particularly like himself for asking it. But Bee was a survivor, the kind who could fight her way from Florrie's to the port quarter and blast off leaving a legend behind her. He'd seen that much clearly; far more clearly, in fact, than the outcome of his own business on Pleyver.
Nevertheless, he had lied to her.
Well, not exactly lied. But he had let her think that the datachip he'd given her, packed with information from the locked comp-files of Flatlands Investments, Ltd., was unique. He'd never mentioned the other datachip, the one he'd come to Pleyver to obtain. The information on the second chip belonged to Errec Ransome, Master of the Adepts' Guild -- or it would, if Owen lived long enough to deliver it.
Maybe I should have given it to Bee.
Owen shook his head. He'd briefly considered asking her, but the presence of her copilot had killed that idea. The slight, grey-haired man she called the Professor gave Beka an unquestioning loyalty -- that much Owen had perceived without any difficulty -- but it was a loyalty that would put Beka first and the Adepts' Guild a far-distant second.
No, it was better to let the two of them go their own way. From the look of things, Beka had kept her promise to distract the ordinary hired help, the ones who did their fighting with blasters and energy lances. Dodging the others should have been easy, if only he hadn't been so stupid as to get caught once already tonight. . . .
Owen had shown up outside outside the portside branch office of Flatlands Investments, Ltd., just before dusk. He'd hoped to get there earlier, but intercepting Beka at the spaceport and convincing her to abandon her own designs on the company's data banks had taken longer than he'd anticipated.
Beka wanted revenge, plain and simple: revenge on whoever had planned their mother's assassination and revenge on whoever had paid for it. She'd get it, too: Bee in pursuit of a goal had a straightforward single-mindedness that made a starship's jump-run to hyperspace look like a sightseeing trip. But that same trait could make her dangerous to be around if your purposes and hers happened to diverge. Owen didn't thing that the guild's interest in FIL was going to put him in Beka's way, but he didn't want to chance it.
Besides, he reflected as he approached the grey, slab-sided FIL Building, it was easier for one person to work unnoticed than for two. He could slip in, get enough from the files to satisfy Master Ransome and his sister both, and slip out again before Bee was through eating dinner.
The front door of the building was secured by an electronic ID-scan. Owen palmed the lockplate like any authorized visitor. Inside the mechanism, the electric current flowed through its appointed paths and channels as the door made ready to reject the identification. Then, without changing his expression or his physical posture, Owen reached out, using the skills that for more than ten years had made him Errec Ransom's most valued -- and most valuable -- apprentice.
The flow of electrons altered its course. The lock clicked quietly and the door slid open.
A stranger waited in the unlit lobby, a thin, hunched man in the plain garb of a low-level office worker. Owen tensed, but the man didn't make any threatening moves.
"I've got the password," the worker said.
Owen paused. He hadn't expected anyone to be here at all. But he hadn't sensed any wrongness as he approached the office building, and the man himself didn't project any great amount of menace either.
He must be one of Bee's contacts, Owen decided. He's certainly the type -- his coverall might as well have a tag on it saying, "Disaffected Employee."
"Well?" he said aloud.
The man licked his lips. "We need to talk about money first."
Money . . . Owen knew he shouldn't feel surprised. His sister was a merchant-captain, and dealt in the purchase and sold of whatever goods might find a market. But when Owen worked, as now, in the persona of a down-at-the-heels drifter, he carried as little cash as possible. A spaceport bum with money was a contradiction in terms.
"I'm just the messenger boy," Owen said. "You can pick up your fee at the General Delivery office." In addition to handling electronic and hardcopy messages, local branches of the giant communications firm made convenient, no-questions-asked cash drops for all sorts of legal and semilegal business exchanges. "I'm not authorized to carry cash."
He braced himself for an objection, and made ready to counter it in much the same way as he had dealt with the door. He was mildly surprised when the man only nodded, said, "Right," and began fishing in the pockets of his coat.
After a few seconds, the man came up with a thing slice of plastic. "The password's on here."
He held out the keycard. Owen reached out a hand to take the card, and felt the first undefined stirrings of premonition, as their fingers touched.
Something's wrong. He ought to have made a fuss about the money.
Owen looked at the man again, this time using the physical contact to enhance his perceptions. Under that deeper scrutiny, the patterns of the office worker's consciousness showed up like a dark and knotted skein, with fear and duplicity and greed tangled up into an unlovely network.
Now I see it. He doesn't mind that he might not get Bee's money. Somebody else has already paid him more.
Owen smiled inwardly, though the face he presented to the office worker never changed. Sister mine, it's a good thing I came to this party instead of you. You were about to walk into a trap.
He tucked the keycard into the breast pocket of his coverall. Then, in a continuation of the same movement, his right arm snapped forward, and he smashed the edge of his hand against the bridge of the other man's nose. Cartilage and bone crushed inward, and a fine spray of blood misted out.
Owen caught the man as he fell and eased him silently to the floor. On his knees beside the unconscious man, he searched quickly and methodically through the other's pockets, and found nothing of interest except a second keycard, a twin to the first, equally unmarked. He pocketed it and stood up again.
He looked down for a moment at the sprawled form of the office worker. Perhaps the man would drown in the blood draining form his crushed sinuses, or perhaps not. Owen left the worker there for those who had hired him, and went about his own business.
He took the emergency stairs, not the lift, to the top floor, and paused briefly before the lockplate of the office at the end of the hall. The security system here presented no more challenge than the lock on the outside door. In a moment he was in, with the door closed and secured behind him. He'd probably taken care or any problems by silencing the man below; if he hadn't whoever had set this trap for his sister would find in it more than they'd expected.
The desk comp had a slot for the keycard. Owen paused for a moment, considering.
Without a physical card in place to complete the circuits, not even an Adept's tricks could shunt the electron flow to perform the task he needed. But which card to use? Owen weighted them in his hand, assessing them as he had the office worker below. One of the cards, the one he'd been given, felt limited, probably crippled on purpose. He discarded it without any more thought and switched to the card he'd taken from the office worker's pocket.
The password worked. He had Bee's datachip full within minutes; her need for information was narrow and specific, and easily supplied. Errec Ransome's chip took longer. The Master of the Guild cast his nets wide, and in strange waters, for the welfare of the galaxy's Adepts.
Errec Ransome had been a junior Adept in the Guildhouse on Ilarna when the Magewar broke out. Those days had seen slaughter done all across the galaxy, but few places had suffered worse than Ransome's home planet. Only Sapne and Entibor had experienced more destruction than Ilarna. Sapne, depopulated by plagues and reduced to barbarism, had no inhabitants left alive who could remember its ruined cities in their prime; and Entibor was an orbiting slag heap with nothing living on its surface at all.
Seeing all his friends dead and the Ilarna Guildhouse smashed into rubble, Errec Ransome had left the Adepts for a time. He had joined the privateers of Innish-Kyl in their hit- and-run war against the Magelords, fighting other men's battles for his own purposes. The Mageworlders had been crushed now for twenty years and more, and Master Ransome had long since returned to the Guild; but his vigilance never ceased.
Owen completed his second download and withdrew the keycard. And then --
The premonition slammed into him full force. His senses clamored with the awareness of enemies nearby and he clutched at the edge of the desk with both hands.
Danger! Too close --
He lifted his head to look around the office, and cursed under his breath at his own arrogance and stupidity.
What had seemed to be alternate exits -- windows and an inner door -- he saw now were only illusions, holographic projections with their reality enhanced by his own willingness to believe. The trap had closed on him in a room with no escape except by the door through which he had entered. He would have to fight his way out.
He crossed to the door and put his hand against it, still expecting little more than blaster bravos and hired thugs, the sort of vermin who were his sister's enemies. Instead . . .
Worse and worse. His enemies waited for him on the other side. His enemies, and not Beka's at all.
Owen paused again in the deeper shadows beside a trash bin and looked around. Still no visible pursuit. Closing his eyes and drawing a deep breath, he centered himself and cleared his senses as best he could.
Nobody near. I've lost them. I hope.
He couldn't be certain; he didn't have enough energy left to make certain and still keep himself hidden. The fight at the Flatlands Investment Building had taken too much out of him -- single-handed and unarmed against too many opponents, while most of his inner resources were diverted into hiding the datachips in his coverall pocket.
He'd lost the hand-to-hand fight, but he'd won the other struggle: he still had both datachips concealed when his enemies dragged him off to Florrie's Palace. There was somebody at Florrie's, they gave him to understand, who was slated for the honor of finishing him off.
He'd never expected to find his sister Beka waiting for him at the other end of a blaster. Once he saw her face, he thought for a few seconds that she was going to kill him after all. But she shot the guard, and cut another man's throat, and then surprised Owen even further by agreeing to draw away the inevitable pursuit.
If Master Ransome's datachip ever made it back home to Galcen, Owen reflected, it would be mostly Beka's work. For his own part he'd been half-blind from the moment he came here.
The blindness wasn't entirely his fault, he supposed. The enemy must have been clouding his vision ever since he showed up on Pleyver -- the old enemy, the ones who had laid siege to Entibor for three years, and not abandoned it until Entibor was dead; who had broken every fleet the civilized worlds had sent against them except the last; who had massacred the Adepts of Ilarna and half a hundred other worlds besides.
There were Mages on Pleyver, and not mere apprentices or self-taught dabblers in the ways of power. The great Magelords had returned.
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental.
Starpilot's Grave Copyright © 1993 by Debra Doyle & James D. Macdonald
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.
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