Jo Clayton: Fire in the Sky

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Jo Clayton Fire in the Sky
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    Fire in the Sky
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    Боевая фантастика / на английском языке
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Jo Clayton

Fire in the Sky

1. Off to See the Wizard

Shadith rubbed herself dry, then dropped the towel and inspected herself in the bathroom mirror. It wasn’t a child’s body any longer. The breasts had grown large enough to yield to gravity’s pull, the muscles were more defined, though that probably came as much from her fight training as from maturation. She was even a little taller, having grown an inch and a half in the past two years. Her face was thinner,, the hawk etched on her cheek distorted by the change. She leaned closer to the mirror, turned her head, and laughed because the line drawing had acquired a bad-tempered sneer she hadn’t noticed before.

She’d cut her hair into a cap that fit close to her head and indulged in extravagant earrings to please the taste she’d discovered in herself for strong colors and wild designs, a reaction to the drab, shipsuits she’d spent so much of her lives wearing, whether it was her body or another’s.

She left the bathroom and dressed slowly, thinking about Aslan’s dinner invitation. More than dinner involved, she was sure enough of that to speculate about the offer she thought was coming. She’d enjoyed the past two years here, she was fond of her teachers, Quale had dropped by a time or two to pay her grinning compliments before he went off with Aslan, and she was gaining respect for her compositions as well as her performances. This was a very pleasant life, but… Always that but, she thought. The last several months she’d found herself getting restless, as if this peaceful existence were a waste of a precious and limited resource-the hours of her mortal life.

It wasn’t that she needed more meaning in her life. Breathing. Moving. The various modes of sensuality. Those were all the meaning she needed.

What she wanted was passion. She felt dimmed, cool. Even music had stopped reaching deep.

She thrust her feet into soft black slippers, smoothed the silky black dress over her hips, spun in a circle so the long skirt would bell out from her ankles. “While the body prowls howls growls, the soul revels and bedevils,” she sang.

Dizzy, she wheeled to a stop, laughed, then danced to the dressing table and chose earrings that were a complex dangle of diamond-shaped silver pieces attached to fine silver chains of various lengths. She ran a comb through the cap of tiny curls and smiled at her image in the mirror. “You can’t wait, can you. You’d leave tonight if you could.”

It was one of Citystate Rhapsody’s more splendid spring nights, the twilight lingering longer than usual, the air cool and soft against the skin. University’s single moon was a hairline crescent passing through iceclouds flung like horsetails across its path as it neared zenith. She stood a moment outside the housing unit, thinking she might walk a while, then sighed and went to push the button that summoned a chain-chair. The streets after dark in most of the Citystates of University were not for the fainthearted or those who wanted to keep appointments in reasonably clean and unmussed clothing.

Shadith stalked into Nik t’ Pharo’s Fishhouse swearing under her breath; she stopped just inside the door and tried to push the post of one of her earrings back in the bloodied hole.

Aslan came from the alcove where she’d been waiting. “Let me do that. You have the pinchclip?”

“Here.” Shadith clicked her tongue at the smears on her hands. “I’ll need a wash and a terminal. I’d better get my report in before the medic’s.”

Aslan snapped the clip onto the post of the earring, stepped back. “That should do it. What happened?”

“Scholars’ brats out on a tear, drunk and high, thought they were going to play some games with me.”

“Right. Let’s go get you cleaned up.”

Aslan looked up from the menu as Shadith reached the table. “Get through?”

“I go under the Verifier tomorrow. Assault complaint.” Shadith pulled out a chair, threw herself into it, her dark eyes sparking with anger. “Louseridden little stinkards said I jumped them. Seems I broke a couple arms, cracked some ribs, and took out a spleen. Didn’t do anything to their brains because they don’t have any. Want to bet the complaint is pulled soon as someone with sense shows up?”

“Not me, Shadow. Still, when Scholars are involved, it can get tricky. Looks like a year or so offworld might be a good idea. Let things cool down.”

Shadith leaned forward. “What’s up?”

“Later. Let’s order first. Anything special you want to drink? I’m on expenses.” Aslan grinned. “Recruiting.”

With a sigh of pleasant repletion, Aslan moved her plate aside and drew the glass of pale green wine in front of her. “Nik never fails. I make Quale bring me here at least once each of his visits. It’s the only way I can afford it even with Voting Stock.”

Shadith smiled; her enjoyment of the evening had returned with the food and the company. “Recruiting. For what, Lan?”

“There’s a project I’ve been offered. If you’ll do it, Shadow, I want you with me.”

“Why me?”

“Let’s say it’s a mix of a few things. What I know about you. What my mother told me. Quale. Rumor. Scholar Burya Moy from the Music School who’s drooling over something you did for him.” Aslan lifted her fork and tapped it against her plate, drawing a musical chime from the fine porcelain. “The Yaraka Rep said music is important to the Bйluchar. Especially harp music.” She tapped the plate twice more. “And there’s another thing. I’ve a feeling this business could turn awkward. Which I’ll admit may just be leftover paranoia from what happened on Styernna. On the other hand, it could be real. Whatever, you’re a lot better than I am at dancing round traps in strange places,” She looked at the fork, set it down. “I am scared of going out again, Shadow. But I know if I don’t…” She wrinkled her longish nose. “I want backup.”

Shadith ran her finger round the rim of her glass. “I don’t work cheap, Lan.” That’s a laugh, if she knew… ah gods, just the thought of getting away from here has set my feet to itching.

“Don’t have to. The funding’s sweet.” Aslan smiled, tilted the bottle over her glass, refilling it and then Shadith’s. “Sweet as evenbriar wine. A thousand Helvetian fielders and a Voting Share of University Stock.”

“It’ll do.” Shadith sipped at the wine, set her glass down. “So tell me about it.”

“Duncan Shears will be: managing the project.”

“Wasn’t he the manager when…?”

“Yes. No fault of his what happened. With the local Powers running the frame, wasn’t much he could do but get the rest of the team off planet and the word back here about what was happening.” The green wine shivered as her hand shook. She set the glass clown with finicking care. “I don’t think I’ve ever been closer to dead.”

“I’ve been dead. I don’t recommend it.”

Aslan’s mouth twitched, but it wasn’t much of a smile and soon gone as the memory of the fake trial on Styernna and her year as a slave deepened the lines in her face.

Finally, with an impatient tssah!, she lifted the glass, drained it, set it down. “Seriously, Shadow, no pressure. It’s up to you if you want to go or not, but University wouldn’t make a bad base for you. And there’s that Voting Share. That’s one of the concessions I got from the Governors. Yaraka must be making a very nice contribution to the Fund.”

“That’s the sweet. What’s the bitter?”

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