THE PRICE OF THE STARS
Freebooter at heart, spacer by trade, Beka Rosselin-Metadi doesn't want to hear about her father whose rugged generalship held back the Mageworlds -- or her highborn mother whose leadership has held the galaxy together ever since. Beka pilots spacecraft -- as far from her famous family as possible, thanks very much.
Then Beka's mother is assassinated on the Senate floor, and her father offers her Warhammer, prize ship from his own freebooting youth -- if she'll use it to deliver the assassins to him "off the books."
Looking for assassins has a tendency to make assassins look for you. In short order Beka's arranged her own very public death and adopted a new identity; now all she has to do is leave a trail of kidnappings and corpses across five star systems, and blow the roof off the strongest private fortress in the Galaxy. If her own family can just get off her case long enough ...!
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Night had come to Waycross on Innish-Kyl. Night, but not darkness or quiet. Bursts of loud talk and raucous music spilled out through open doorways, and the low thrumming of heavy machinery never stopped. Beka Rosselin-Metadi -- tall and thin, with pale yellow hair tied back from a face too sharply planed for prettiness -- strode through the crowded spaceport with a starpilot's fine disregard for the dirtside locals. The locals, in turn, took note of her purposeful air, backed up by a heavy war-surplus blaster in its worn leather holster, and let her pass.
In fact, Beka had no goal besides a cool drink and a few hours away from the ship. Claw Hard had been in hyperspace for two months on this latest run, plenty of time for Beka to grow heartily tired of both the freighter and her crew. This stop at Waycross was her first chance to get off-ship since Cashel; the layover at Raffa, the only other port on this run, had been too brief to allow the crew members any liberty.
Osa's probably afraid he'll lose the whole lot of us if he lets us out on the town, she decided as she stepped through the door of the Blue Sun Cantina. If her own duties as copilot/navigator hadn't ended when Claw Hard settled into the docking bay, she wouldn't be here either -- she'd be off-loading and on-loading cargo with the rest of the freighter's crew. But except for Osa himself she had the only deep-space pilot's license on board and Claw Hard's captain was getting too fat and lazy to do his own ship-handling.
Beka smiled thinly to herself. If Osa wants to keep his copilot, she thought, he can damn well let me off the ship for a couple of hours.
The door slid shut behind her, and she made her way through the crowd to the bar. The regulars at the Blue Sun weren't exactly the sort of people Beka had grown up with. Innish-Kyl was a frontier planet near the Mageworlds border zone, and Waycross had started out as a privateers' port during the worst years of the late war. Most of them probably hadn't seen a respectable woman more than once or twice in their lives, and wouldn't know what to say to one if she showed up.
Luckily, Beka's much-mended coverall and worn leather boots -- and the blaster -- were enough to spare her the burden of respectability in this crowd. She found a place at the bar, and pulled a ten-credit chit out of her pocket.
"Beer," she said in Galcenian. "Whatever you have on tap."
The bartender looked at her without speaking.
Beka sighed. I wonder if it's my accent. She didn't suppose that the Blue Sun got many customers who spoke the universal tongue of the spacelanes as it sounded on the Mother of Worlds -- but even seven years away from Galcen hadn't been enough to wipe all traces of home from Beka's voice.
It never fails, she thought with resignation. A few hours without sleep, and I start talking like I'm just out of finishing school. Oh, well. Try again.
"Beer," she said, enunciating clearly. "Tap."
The bartender blinked. "Yes, Domina."
Oh, damn. It wasn't the accent.
Beka exhaled slowly through clenched teeth. It wasn't the bartender's fault that random genetic factors had made her into a taller, thinner, plainer version of the civilized galaxy's most famous stateswoman. But what anybody could think Mother was doing in a place like this -- or maybe they haven't forgotten that she did come to Waycross once, when she needed the kind of help that no other place could give.
She drew a long breath. "I'm sorry, but I'm not the Domina. I'm not even a gentlelady. I'm a thirsty starpilot, and I'd like some brew."
The bartender gave her another strange look, then shrugged and turned away. He drew a mug of beer from the console behind the bar and slid the mug across the counter without speaking. Beka reached out to pick it up, but before her fingers reached the frosted glass she felt a touch on her shoulder.
She whirled, dropping her hand to the grip of the blaster. Then she saw who stood there -- a slight, dark-haired man in dusty black, a plain wooden staff slung across his back on a leather thong. Her blue eyes widened with recognition, and she let her hand relax.
"Master Ransome," she said. "What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you," the man answered. "You're wanted down at the docking bays."
Beka raised an eyebrow. "Somehow I can't see the Master of the Adepts' Guild running errands for the likes of Captain Osa."
"I'm not," Ransome said. "Your father is here."
So you're running errands for Dadda instead ... which means that Mother has to be mixed up in this somehow. Beka felt the old, familiar anger stir to life at the thought. Seven years. It's been seven years, and she still thinks I'm going to change my mind and come home. Or maybe Master Ransome is supposed to drag me back to Galcen whether I want to go or not.
She gave the Adept a wary look. "I thought the Space Force stayed away from Innish-Kyl."
"The Space Force has nothing to do with it. Warhammer is in docking bay sixty-two-D."
Beka took a long, deep drink from her mug. So her father had finally brought his old ship back to the port that had made her famous. After all the times I asked him to take me to Waycross, back when I was a kid, and he said no, he didn't want to see the place again ... and now he's here.
She set down the beer and pushed herself away from the bar. "All right," she said. "I can take a hint. Let's go."
She followed the Adept through the crowded room and out onto the street. The rest of the Blue Sun's customers drew aside to let them pass -- not out of any regard for her, she knew, but out of well-founded respect for anyone who carried an Adept's staff.
For centuries the galaxy's Adepts had kept to themselves, living apart from those who distrusted their power to sense and manipulate the patterns of the universe. Then strange, wing- shaped scoutships began appearing above the outplanets. A few years later the raiding parties followed, first on the frontier and then in the heart of the galaxy itself. And in the opening skirmishes of what became the Magewar, the once-distrusted Adepts became humanity's chief defenders against the power of the Mageworlds.
Now Beka Rosselin-Metadi glanced over at Master Ransome as they walked through Waycross's narrow streets. "Mother's up to something, and I don't like it. Are you going to tell me what's going on, or not?"
Ransome shook his head. "The docking bay isn't far."
She bit her lip and said nothing. A few minutes later they reached the low-walled, roofless enclosure where Warhammer's flattened disk-shape loomed against the white glow of the dock lights. Beka paused for a moment in the entrance to the bay.
"Damn, but she's still a pretty ship," she said, more to herself than to her companion. "Makes Claw Hard look like a flying rock. Did Dadda bring her in alone?"
"Not quite," said Ransome. "I was copilot."
"Just like old times," said Beka, as they crossed the open bay toward the ship. In her fighting days, the 'Hammer had carried a full crew: pilot, co-pilot, engineer, and a pair of gunners. But Jos Metadi had flown Warhammer solo after the long conflict had ended, and had taught all three of his children to do the same.
Beka smiled a little in spite of herself. Ari and Owen never loved it like I did, though -- and I could fly rings around them both from the moment I was old enough to start learning. The smile faded as quickly as it had come. I wonder if Dadda would have taught me, if he'd known what I was going to do with all those lessons?
She hesitated at the foot of the lowered ramp, and looked at her father's onetime copilot and oldest friend.
"Master Ransome, can you tell me what he wants?"
The Adept shook his head. In the shadow of Warhammer's bulk, she couldn't make out his expression. She shrugged, and went on up the ramp.
The ship's door was open, and the faint glow of a force- field stretched across the gap. Master Ransome reached out one hand toward it, and the light faded. He gestured at her to go ahead. She stepped through with Master Ransome following a staff-length behind. The air brightened again behind them.
Beka made her way forward to the 'Hammer's dimly lit common room. A lean, dark-clad figure half-lounged in a chair at the mess table: Jos Metadi, once captain of the privateer ship Warhammer, now Commanding General of the Republic's Space Force. Marriage to Perada Rosselin had given him the rank -- in the old days before the Magewar, "General of the Armies" had been one of the honorifics granted by custom to the consort of the Domina of Entibor -- but Metadi's own formidable talents had made the courtesy title a powerful reality.
His chair spun round as the first footstep sounded on the common-room floor, and a small but deadly blaster appeared in the General's hand. After a moment the blaster disappeared again into its hidden grav-clip up Metadi's sleeve.
"Sorry," he said. "Old habits die hard."
Beka nodded, unsurprised. Innish-Kyl had that effect on people. She'd almost gone for her blaster herself back in the cantina and she was nothing like the old hand that her father was. Behind her, she heard Errec Ransome half-laugh.
"You could get a bodyguard from the Guild any time you wanted," the Adept said. "Will you take one?"
"I'll take a bodyguard when I run into somebody who's even fonder of keeping my hide in one piece than I am," Metadi said. "And I don't think the creature exists." He turned back to Beka. "Sit down, girl. We have to talk."
Beka took a chair on the other side of the mess table, and braced herself for a struggle. She hadn't written or spoken to anyone on Galcen -- except, once in a great while to her brother Owen -- since that last, bitter quarrel the night she left home. She wondered what twist in galactic politics had convinced the Domina to send for the family's runaway daughter.
It must be really bad, she thought. The realization stiffened her resolve. If Mother wants me to come back again, she's going to have to take me on my terms, not hers.
There was a long pause. Finally her father said, "You look like you've done well enough for yourself."
"I'm piloting for Frizzt Osa on Claw Hard," she said. "The ship's a pile of junk, and Osa's a bastard, but it's a job."
Metadi nodded. There was another pause. Finally Beka said, "I never expected to see you here."
"I never expected to come back," said the General. "The town's gone downhill since the old days -- the Magelords turned Entibor into an orbiting slag heap, but that's nothing next to what peace and prosperity can do to a place. He gave Beka an appraising look. "That blaster you've got -- are you willing to use it?"
"I already have once," she said.
"Good," said Metadi.
Once again, conversation lapsed. Warhammer's environmental systems kept up their low, almost subliminal hum. Beka looked from her father to Master Ransome, who had made himself inconspicuous after an Adept's fashion, leaning against the wall in a shadowed corner.
The Adept's face was hidden, and her father's was unreadable. Neither man seemed ready to break the silence. She drew a deep breath.
"How did you know I was going to be in Waycross tonight?"
The answer came quickly. It wasn't, she thought, the question they'd been expecting.
"Owen told us you were on Claw Hard," Master Ransome said. "Learning your next port of call wasn't hard after that."
"Owen," said Beka slowly. She'd kept in touch, over the years, with the younger of her two brothers, certain that the ally and co-conspirator of her childhood would never betray any secret she confided to him. If he'd come out with her ship's name of his own accord ...
"Whatever Mother needs me for has got to be more than just family politics. Now, is somebody going to tell me about it, or are we going to sit here and make small talk until I have to get back to Claw Hard for liftoff?"
Her father looked at Master Ransome.
The Adept sighed, and came over to take a seat at the table. He glanced down for a moment at the tabletop, rubbing his finger lightly over decades-old scratch marks in the grey plastic, and then lifted his head again. "The Domina of Entibor is dead."
For a moment, the words meant nothing. Then Beka heard a voice that had to be hers, although she didn't recognize it.
"So that's what the bartender meant. Mother is dead -- and I'm the Domina now."
Errec Ransome's dark eyes were somber. "Yes, my lady."
"Don't call me that," she said automatically -- the reflex of years. Inside her head, the old, old argument played on: Mother is "my lady," not me ... I'm going to be a starpilot, one of the best, not just some kind of political figurehead ... and someday I'm going to run so far away from Galcen that nobody will care who I am.
Under the cover of the tabletop, her fists clenched so tightly that the nails, even trimmed short for handling a starship's controls, bit into her palms. She hadn't cried in public since she was twelve, and she was damned if she was going to start now. She pressed her lips together until they stopped trembling, and then turned to her father.
"When -- how -- did it happen?"
More silence. "Tell her, Errec," her father said.
After another long pause, the Master of the Adepts' Guild began to speak. "There was a debate in the Grand Council," he said. "Hearings, on the expulsion of Suivi Point. The Domina ... your mother ... was against expulsion."
Beka nodded. Suivi Point had been a blot on the Republic's honor for longer than she'd been alive; this wasn't the first time the wide-open asteroid spaceport had come near expulsion from the community of worlds. She remembered a family dinner, long ago on Galcen, and her mother saying to somebody -- had it been Councillor Tarveet of Pleyver? -- "Suivi's a disgrace, I'll grant you that. But if the Suivans leave the Republic, there'll be no way left to control them short of open warfare. And gentlesir, I've seen enough of war."
Tarveet. It was Tarveet, and that was the night I put a garden-slug into his salad. Mother spanked me for it ... but I heard her laughing about it later. She didn't really like Tarveet any more than I did ....
Her eyes stung; she blinked once, hard, and kept her eyes on Master Ransome.
"The Visitors' Gallery was crowded that day ... it always was, whenever your mother spoke." Master Ransome smiled briefly. "Even your father was there."
Which meant, Beka knew, that the debate would have been more than usually important -- her father had no use for politics, as a rule. "It makes no difference to me what they decide," she'd heard him say once. "All it ever means is more work for the Space Force." Then he'd laughed, and smiled at her mother. "You shouldn't make so many speeches. It only encourages them."
She didn't dare look at her father now. Watching Master Ransome's face was bad enough. It made her wonder if the old portside story was true -- that when Domina Perada Rosselin of Entibor came to Waycross in search of a new commander for the Republic's shattered spacefleet, she'd taken away the hearts of Warhammer's captain and copilot both.
"Somehow," said Master Ransome, "the force field in the Visitor's Gallery went down. And there was an assassin. With a blaster. He got off one shot. Your father shot him before he could fire again."
Beka swallowed, and wet her lips. When she spoke, her voice sounded old and rusty. "That was how it happened?"
"Not quite," said the Adept. "Unlike your father, the assassin missed his target. All his shot hit was the floor of the Council Hall. But one of the flying shards of marble from the floor struck your mother. It was just a scratch, barely enough to justify visiting the Council's medics. But she went ... and somebody had given them Clyndagyt instead of their usual variety of antiseptic spray."
"I don't understand," Beka said. "There's nothing wrong with Clyndagyt. It's what we've got on Claw Hard."
Her father spoke again, for the first time in what felt to Beka like hours. "Clyndagyt works just fine, as long as nothing's managed to sensitize you to it. And that's hard to do -- about the only way to get yourself sensitized was in one of the Mageworlders' biochemical attacks. But almost everybody who was at the Siege of Entibor lived through a couple of those -- and your mother wouldn't leave until the Magelords had just about wiped the whole planet slick. She had some kind of damn-fool notion about staying there and making them kill her in person."
Beka bit her lip. "She never told me that."
"It makes a lousy bedtime story," said her father. "And anyway, I talked her out of it. Now let's get down to business."
So it comes down to family politics, after all, Beka thought. She clenched her fists again under the table.
"No," she said. "I'll say to you what I said to Mother seven years ago. I don't give a damn about duty and family and all that. I'm not going back to Galcen and letting myself get made over into the next Domina of Entibor."
Her father shook his head. "As it happens, I didn't have anything of the sort in mind."
"Then what -- ?"
"You say that Claw Hard's a pile of junk and Osa's a bastard. How would you like to be captain of Warhammer instead?"
She caught her breath. "Me? Pilot Warhammer?" For a moment, in spite of all that she'd just heard, the prospect dazzled her like walking out of a cave into the sunlight. Then she shook her head. "I don't have the kind of money a ship like the 'Hammer would cost. And I'm not taking any family favors."
"Don't worry," said her father. "I'm not in the business of doing favors, family or otherwise. And I'm not asking anything you can't afford."
"There's more than one way of looking at that," said Master Ransome quietly. "And I don't particularly approve of what you're doing."
"Then stay out of it," said her father. "And I don't approve of everything the Guild does, either -- but I don't interfere in things that aren't my business."
He turned back to Beka. "Are you interested?"
"In getting Warhammer? Of course I'm interested."
She looked about the common room -- cramped, grey, and utilitarian -- and thought about all the things that had made this ship a legend during the Magewars: the heavy dorsal and ventral energy guns; the cargo holds that had once held the captured treasures of the Mageworlds trade. The speed no ship of her class had ever equaled.
I could stick to small cargo, Beka thought, pricey stuff, and run it fast. With those guns, even flying solo I wouldn't get in too much trouble. I could outshoot anything I couldn't outrun.
She bit her lip -- that was fantasy, and she knew it -- and met her father's gaze directly. "Ships like the 'Hammer don't come cheap. And I haven't exactly struck it rich out here."
"I don't want money," General Metadi said. "I want to know who planned your mother's murder."
"What do you think, girl?" he demanded harshly. "A lunatic with a blaster could happen any time, and a shorted-out forcefield could be bad luck, or the wrong antiseptic delivered to the Council medics could be an accident-- but not all three at once. Somebody wanted your mother out of the way, and wanted it badly. Hired blasters cost money, but getting that Clyndagyt past Security must have cost even more."
"You're talking about somebody very, very rich," she said quietly. "And very, very powerful. And I'm very, very sorry, but I gave up running around with people like that seven years ago. Much as I'd like to help you stake out our unknown friend for a cliffdragon's breakfast, and much as I'd like to have the 'Hammer to call my own -- no."
"We're talking about somebody who either comes from Suivi Point or has connections there," her father continued. "And that, my girl, is exactly the sort of person you've been running around with for the past few years. Do you deny it?"
She shook her head, the brief flare of resentment gone. "No. But if all you want from me is inquiries out on the fringes of the law, you don't have to buy them with Warhammer. I'll do it for free."
"That's no good," he said. "You'll never be able to follow up anything if you have to go where Osa and Claw Hard drag you. You take Warhammer; and I get the names, when you find them."
She looked about the 'Hammer's shadowed common-room. "A ship like this -- for nothing more than a couple of names? I can't take her, Dadda; it's not enough."
"She's my ship," said General Metadi, "and I say what she's worth. The names will do."
For a long time, Beka sat without answering, listening to the whisper of forced air through Warhammer's vents, and to the soft in-and-out of her own breath. The two sounds mingled in her ears, like the breathing of a single creature.
A ship of my own, she thought. I used to say I'd give anything to have one. So now I get to prove it.
"All right, Dadda. You have a deal." She squared her shoulders, and extended her hand across the mess table to seal the bargain free-spacer's fashion. "Your names -- my ship. Done?"
Her father met the grip with his own. "Done."
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.
The Price of the Stars Copyright © 1992 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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