The Mad Fisherman's Daughter
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by Nina M. Osier
Category: Science Fiction
Description: Christabel, daughter of Janek the fisherman and Eleen the magistrate, can't stop the mysterious aliens called Ast from annexing her home colony-not even by using her power as a Sector High Court justice. So, like it or not, duty calls her back to the last place in the universe she wants to see again. What Chris doesn't know is that her aging father's increasingly troublesome visions are actually nightmarish memories from his time as a prisoner aboard an Ast starship. Now their planet's population will live or die, depending on how quickly Chris can unlock those memories' meaning-and on how successfully she can outwit a species that stands to lose everything, if humans and Ast make peace.
eBook Publisher: ebooksonthe.net, 2004
eBookwise Release Date: April 2006
8 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [144 KB]
Reading time: 94-131 min.
"'Somewhere East of Suez?' What the hell kind of name is that for a planet?" The ticket seller cocked her head, roused (for the moment) from her boredom. She looked the traveler over from behind the remote spaceport's counter, where people paid for passage when they didn't have access to the Empire's credit transfer system. Or when they didn't want to leave tracks.
"It's the kind of name an ex-soldier would give it, when he'd found a place to settle down and make a home for his family. That particular ex-soldier was one of my great-grandfathers." The traveler shook her silvering brown head, and smiled faintly. Distractedly, as if her mind had already rushed out across the light years and reached the world of her birth. She wouldn't say it was "at home" there, though. Not for half of her lifetime had Christabel thought about Somewhere East of Suez in those terms.
"Oh. I see." The seller went back to being bored.
"Not many people read the ancient Terran poet Kipling these days. The line's actually 'somewheres east of Suez,' because it's written in dialect. It means a place where society's usual rules don't apply." The traveler leaned across the counter to look at the monitor for herself. "So from here I can make a straight shot? Great! Thank you."
"As long as you don't mind traveling by freighter, yes. And you're welcome, Ms.--Christabel? You don't have a second name?"
"Where I come from, humans don't." The traveler wouldn't mention that for the past decade and more she'd been using an adopted one. This far out toward the frontier, she didn't need her identity verified in order to conduct business. Or to do anything else, either. "Do you have any messages for me?"
"Maybe. I can check, if you want."
The traveler sighed, and drew out another of the untraceable credit transfer strips with which she'd paid for her passage. She put it down on the counter, because she knew better than to hand it over. That could open her up to charges of offering a bribe, and the seller to accusations of accepting one. Out here such "gratuities" were only customary, and both parties knew it; but they also knew that the laws of the Empire still technically applied.
Those laws still protected Christabel, for now. They would go on protecting her until she set foot once more on her native soil. But after that, all bets were off, because she was barely going to make it "home" ahead of the coming Ast annexation.
"You're crazy, do you know that?" her lover, Sienna, had yelled after her one last time. As Christabel Tyrone, Esquire, left their comfortable apartment on a not particularly overcrowded planet (one with plenty of park land, and reasonably clean air and water) within a sector's distance of the Empire's capital. "How can you change anything from there, when you already know you can't do it from here? Because when you tried, you got shot down in flames!"
"I don't know what I'll be able to do, but I can't stay here and wait it out," Chris remembered answering, from the sidewalk where she stood waiting for an aircab. "Dad hates to ask anyone for anything, but he says they need me. And if I don't go now, I may never see my family again."
"I thought you never wanted to see them again. That's what you've always told me!" Sienna trailed after her partner, down over the old-fashioned stone staircase at the apartment building's entrance, so she could deliver her parting shot at something less than a shout. "At least you could take me with you. Dammit all!"
"No, love. I can't." The cab was coming. Chris turned, and held out her arms. "Sienna, please. I have to do this. Can't you just let me go? And maybe even wish me luck?"
Sienna shook her head, and said again: "You're crazy." But when the cab touched down, she helped Chris hoist her travel bags into its cargo space; and then she kissed her.
"Will you be here when I get back?" Chris asked, her voice forlorn now.
"Of course I will." Sienna gave her partner a fierce squeeze, with the strong arms of a veteran peace officer. "You be careful out there, Justice. Hear me?"
"Yes, Chief." Damning the expense of the waiting cab, Chris clung for a moment and then collected another kiss. Then she turned away, climbed into the automated craft's tiny cabin, and didn't let herself look back.
When she left this place, this stepping off point for her long journey's final leg, she wouldn't look back, either. She was nine weeks' travel time away from Sienna already. When she arrived at Somewhere East of Suez, she'd have been more than twelve weeks on the way.
"No messages," the ticket seller announced, with a grin that showed several gaps where teeth were missing.
Christabel forbade herself to bristle. The "gratuity" had, after all, been for checking messages; not necessarily for finding any. Instead she asked, "May I wait here? It's not long until the orbital shuttle leaves, and I really don't want to waste credit on getting a room."
"Suit yourself. It's not very comfortable, but at least I can promise you it's safe." With another of those gap-toothed grins, the other woman indicated half a dozen dilapidated benches in the open chamber opposite the counter.
Christabel swallowed her sigh. In spite of the ticket seller's words, she didn't feel the least bit easy about doing what she desperately needed to do right now--which was go to sleep. The waiting area might be deserted, but in order to enter it she'd had to walk past a truly bizarre collection of aliens, part-aliens, and disreputable-looking fellow humans who were lounging on the cobbled street outside its (as far as she could see) only door. For a moment she let herself wish that she had Sienna, complete with weapons belt and stinger, beside her after all. * * * *
Janek's gnarled joints made going out in a boat impossible now. He could only stand on the headland, leaning on his stick, and watch while his son-in-law Friel and his only son, Gant, swept past in the catamaran that long ago had belonged to Janek's own father.
Or so he told his children, and his grandchildren. And so far no one on Mandalay, the largest of the island continents that were all the dry land Somewhere East of Suez possessed, had been unkind enough to expand on that perfectly true statement. Perhaps by now he didn't need to worry about it; perhaps no one was left alive who both remembered, and cared to repeat, that Janek's maternal grandfather (one of the world's original settlers, who'd helped to clear its orbit of the previous tenants' space junk) had given his father the boat. Given it to him in hopes that Jorge might develop into a worthy partner for the old man's daughter, after she'd married in defiance of his advice ... but it hadn't worked out that way.
What was it about being a man from their line? First came Jorge, who worked hard but didn't know how to plan for the lean seasons; and who, after his wife died when Janek was barely seven, never seemed right in his head again. Then Janek, himself, who imitated his grandfather by going off to fight in the Empire's wars--but who, unlike the old man, came home with something broken inside him that a lifetime of trying different palliatives hadn't managed to mend. Something that his third wife's love could in no way ease, nor could his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren even start to cure its pain.
After Eleen, their daughter Christabel was his life's greatest joy. Christabel, his baby, born from his life's one true love--ten years after Lara, his firstborn, and three years after Gant, who didn't in any way endear himself to Janek by looking, acting, and sounding like an echo of the now-dead Jorge.
What could a man do, when he had one son and he simply couldn't respect the boy? Or even (what was worse) manage to love him?
The catamaran wouldn't leave sight of land, because on Somewhere East of Suez no surface vessel ever did. Those who'd dared to try it, long ago, hadn't returned. But the schools of flying fish that were the main protein source for humans on the planet's islands lived, and thrived, on the under-sea shelf surrounding each land mass. So as Janek watched, and saw the far-off sparkle of sunlight on drops of water when his only son and his firstborn daughter's husband flung the nets skyward, he knew the fish would leap into those nets and be caught; and when the boat came back to land, it would do so with its tow-sacks full.
Janek remembered what it felt like to be out there with the sunlight on his bare torso, with the wind and the salty spray in his face, and the lines clasped in what then were his strong, brown hands. For a moment the recollection lifted his heart, and made his mouth curve into a smile. But then he remembered why he could never do that again ... and he glanced down at the hand that now rested on the knob at the end of his stick. The swollen joints, the twisted fingers, and the thinness of the wrist and forearm protruding from his shirt-sleeve, turned his reminiscent smile into a grimace of disgust.
Did he really want Christabel to come home, and see him like this? And did he really want to put her back within Gant's reach?
Pointless questions, because he'd had no choice but to send for her. Now he could only hope that she would come. * * * *
Eleen, daughter of Ethelle, slammed down the gavel and rendered judgment. "The girl isn't your daughter, Frederick. So you've got no right forbidding her to marry. If you offer her a dowry, it's a gift. If you don't offer her a dowry, that's your choice to make. Do you understand?"
The man in front of her glared, but he ducked his head in the proper response. "Yes, Magistrate," he said. After which he turned and walked away, along with the half dozen people (all of them members of his family, except for the young man whom his stepdaughter wanted to marry) who'd come with him.
Eleen sighed, and took the insufferably hot robe of her office from her shoulders. How she envied Janek on a day like this one. The warm season was just beginning, but already the meeting-grove where she heard cases and taught lessons was heating up. Oh, if only she could wander along the headland and watch while the boys sailed past!
Nothing was stopping her from doing that, of course. Nothing except the family's need for enough money to live on, both now and during the slack season to come. Janek's pension from the Imperial government arrived erratically, since that was how the starships linking Somewhere East of Suez to the rest of humankind operated this far away from the Empire's center. For a time after each payment's delivery, Janek and his family could live well; but budgeting his funds wasn't one of the aging veteran's talents. The generosity that was one of his best qualities, one of the reasons Eleen had started loving him--and one of the reasons she loved him still--was also his greatest weakness. Even if he'd known how long the money must last before he could hope to receive more, he would still have run out part way through that period.
Eleen knew that. And since the days were over when Janek could fill in the gaps by working on the fishing grounds, or by gathering seaweed and digging shellfish from the coastline's ledges and mud flats, her income as magistrate and teacher mattered more than ever as the family's steadiest source of sustenance. Her stepson Gant, after all, had a barren wife who spent all he could earn, and more. And her stepdaughter Lara, wife of Friel, had children and grandchildren who every year added to the demands on their extended family's hearth. Eleen supposed she should simply be thankful that Janek was now too feeble to go in search of liquor after the freighters visited.
Soon her afternoon class would assemble, so the magistrate didn't have time for more than a quickly inhaled bite or two of lunch. On worlds where humans lived primarily indoors, she'd once been told by a visiting medic who gave her advice about managing her chronic digestive difficulties, she would have needed major surgery for them long ago; but here people didn't use such invasive technologies. Nor did they live and work indoors, except when the weather turned brutal (or when couples wanted privacy).
The way people lived here was better, and healthier; but it required strength as well as fostered it. A part of Eleen still couldn't believe that her daughter Christabel, her only true-born child, really was coming back after fleeing this world's harshness many years ago.
Would the girl (for so Eleen still thought her) really be able to do anything to change their planet's situation? For all her training in the Empire's laws, for all her experience in arguing (and now, in deciding) cases, would she be of any use-or just one more person for Eleen to look after and try to protect, as the society humans had spent the past several generations building here on Somewhere East of Suez faced alien occupation?
Janek had faith in Christabel. Absolute faith. Friel and Lara thought almost as highly of her abilities. But Gant shook his head and snorted, whenever anyone at the family's communal evening fire mentioned his half-sister's homecoming; and Gant, after all, was the family's only son. So although Janek might ignore what the younger man said, and while Friel and Lara might take his words lightly (although they did listen to him with courtesy), Eleen must and would give Gant his due.
After all, the boy had overcome so much! Sitting on a stone bench that several of her pupils would soon occupy, and munching a piece of the fruit that she preferred to heavier foods when the weather grew this sultry, Eleen remembered how he'd come into her care. A boy in mid-adolescence, almost ruined by his mother (who was Janek's second wife-the one he'd married after abandoning Lara's mother, and before finally taking his childhood love, Eleen, to wed). Which was worse for a youngster, anyway? To be neglected, as Lara was during her earliest years; or to be indulged as Gant was until the magistrate on his mother's far-off island had told Janek, "Either you come and get him, or I'll have him drowned"?
Even Janek still agreed that they couldn't have permitted that to happen. But Janek didn't seem to realize that for someone who'd lived wild and uncontrolled through his first fifteen years, just adapting to military service (the only place there was left to send Gant, after Janek and Friel both despaired of his settling down to a fisherman's life!) represented a huge accomplishment. So did staying with it long enough to retire, at a precious 20-year pension. And if Gant didn't always feel up to going out to fish with Friel every day, now that he was part of their household again, what right had Janek to criticize him for that? Janek, who even when he was in fine physical condition had sometimes sat muttering on the shore-unable to make himself get up and launch the boat, much less take it out to the fishing grounds and cast its nets high to capture the flying schools?
Janek had good reason for staying ashore, now. And he was wrong, dead wrong, when he grumbled that it was Gant's fault whenever the catamaran's engines malfunctioned. Yes, Gant liked to tinker with them (and for that matter, with any piece of machinery on which he could lay his hands). So had Janek, when his hands could still manage such tasks; and so did Friel, now. It was coincidence, nothing more, that tied Gant's "tuning" of the engines to most of their major malfunctions.
That was one good thing sure to come from Christabel's return, Eleen told herself firmly as she rose from the bench and tossed the pit from her fruit into the depths of the grove. Reconciliation between her husband's two youngest children was long past due, and it couldn't happen while months of hyperlight space travel separated them. Not that it could do either Christabel or Gant, or the rest of the family, much good by happening on the eve of Somewhere East of Suez's annexation by the Ast; but still, Eleen thought, she didn't want her daughter facing the Great Beyond with lies told about her brother on her conscience.
They had to be lies, of course. Gant wasn't the best man the Father ever made, but neither was he what Christabel (as a girl about to leave her parents' fireside in anger) had made him out to be.
Hopefully she wouldn't repeat those ancient accusations, now that she was coming home. But no matter what happened, Eleen thought as she welcomed the first of her afternoon students, a timid thirteen-year-old who always came early and alone, even Christabel wasn't going to turn her heart against Gant. She hadn't borne a son, and hadn't known what a lack that was in her life until the first time she'd heard Gant's voice speaking to her, and calling her "Mother." * * * *
Janek sat on his favorite rock, beneath a pina tree in one of the headland's sheltered spots. He leaned back against its wide and solid trunk, and he closed his eyes. This promised to continue a fine day, and the boys wouldn't be in from the sea anytime soon ... and when they did arrive, he wasn't sure he wanted to be around to listen to Gant's babbling about what "just had to be done" to the catamaran's purring, perfectly running engines before tomorrow's foray.
The kid (Janek could never think of Gant as a fellow grown man, not even now that his only son's hairline was fast receding) fancied himself a mechanical genius, because he'd been an engineering mate on board several different Imperial space stations during his twenty-year naval career. He'd never seen star cruiser duty, which puzzled Janek still. How did an enlisted man, an ordinary, avoid serving at least a couple of shipboard tours while staying in the service long enough to retire?
Janek never asked Gant that question, though. He didn't feel like listening all over again to what the boy thought about his own service record.
Was he really a raider of the Empire's purse, a burden on its honest taxpayers, because he'd been hurt in ways that his body didn't show? Because his years in a combat zone, and then his Ast captivity--a time that he couldn't remember--had left him as he now was?
They think I don't know we live most of the time on Eleen's earnings. They think I sat here because I was lazy, all those times when I was younger and should have gone out to fish, but didn't because I couldn't. They think I don't hear, or see, or notice, when I go to Eleen's grove and the children she teaches draw back and stare. Or when the boldest ones mutter to each other, "There he is! The sponger!" Because their parents and grandparents tell them that Gant served his score of years, and earned what the Empire pays him now; but Gant's father, the magistrate's husband, came home early like the coward he is. They said the Ast held him prisoner, but that's a lie because everyone knows the Ast never take captives. So now he lives off the Imperial Purse, and sits on the shore and watches other men do honest work, because he has no shame.
I wish they might dream with me for just one night. Or do I wish that fate on anything as innocent as a child?
No. But I do wish it on the elders who've taught them to mock me!
With that vengeful thought, Janek slipped down into his waking dream-state. It came to him oftener now than it had when he was younger; and although he still couldn't recall specifics, he felt sure the visions had grown more vivid with the passing of the years.
How could anyone expect a man to endure this, and not be changed by it? This irregular yet unremitting descent into hell, that could (and did) claim him without warning? Drag him down when he least expected it, and then hold him without mercy until it deigned to let him go?