Siduri's Net [The Cloudships of Orion Book 1]
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by Paula Downing King
Category: Science Fiction
Description: A descendant of Earth's gypsies, Sailmaster Pov Janusz continues the nomadic existence of his ancestors as he guides his cloudship Siduri's Net through the perils of deepspace in search of rich mineral treasures. Originally published under the pen name P.K. McAllister.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 1994
eBookwise Release Date: February 2003
22 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [378 KB]
Reading time: 234-328 min.
In the old days on Earth, he had read, a sailing ship gave a man the rolling of a wooden deck, the splash of seawater tossed high into the wind, and the joy of a trim and lovely ship plunging deep into each wave and rising as swiftly toward the sky. Sleek dolphins would leap ecstatically in front of the prow, racing the ship in their play, plunging smoothly into the cool salty water, rising swiftly, as madly possessed with the rush of the air and the ship's speed as the humans who drove her.
On Earth his people had never been sailors, preferring the solidity of earth and the open road, the bright color of their wagons, the next turning of the highway, and the bonds of family. But gypsies had always been travelers, and when humankind left Earth for other worlds, a few gypsies traveled with them on the new roads among the stars. Pov Janusz had never sailed Earth's oceans, but he often thought of those earlier ships when he went outboard to inspect Net's sails.
High above Epsilon Tauri's star-system, Siduri's Net and her senior cloudship, Siduri's Dance, sailed against the luminescent clouds of a comet's tail, their magnetic sails spread wide to gather a rich harvest. For six weeks Net and Dance had sailed the comet's tail, pacing the comet's blazing descent toward the local sun. With each new course into the tail, they had filled their holds, returned briefly to open space to sort their catch of power isotopes, then plunged again into the glowing tail. Two more courses, another several days, and, their holds filled with rare product, the two cloudships would turn out-system toward Tania's Ring, the Tauri world which held their contract for tritium fuel and unusual ices, atomic treasures that fueled Tania's newborn colony economy.
I should come out here more often, Pov thought wistfully, as he always did when he had the chance to watch Net from outboard. In design, his cloudship vaguely resembled the older wind-driven ships, but suggested other analogues in the large triangular prow that housed the control decks, the wide wings of the forward hull that powered the collecting sails, and the jumble of spheres and suspended bridges aft where Net's crew of three hundred lived, worked, and played.
Sometimes Pov saw in Net a fierce bird of prey, her wings stretched wide in flight, her head lifted proudly. Other times he saw the young sea goddess after whom Net was named, sporting playfully in the sea by her enchanted island, or he saw an alien beast, wise and strong and lovely, sedately feeding through a rich pasture. Net was many things to him -- even after three years as her sailmaster and most of his life aboard the Tauri cloudships, he never tired of looking at her.
Three hours into this latest course. Net had developed a sail fault neither he nor his Second Sail, Tully Haralpos, could track to its origin, and so he had come outship in his sister Kate's skyrider to data-track the collecting sails, not a smart personal move in plasma but necessary despite the risk. If the sails faltered, the dust in the comet gas could punch holes through Net's unprotected hull, a lethal ram of micrometeorites that could kill a ship. Dust was one of the larger risks of sailing plasma, one of the reasons a sail fault had to be tracked down before it phased into an irretrievable disaster. So far he and Kate had tracked the starboard spinnaker, finding nothing in particular, and now were working their way up the topside skysail that projected far above Net's prow, a tedious comparison of magnetic-field realities to the sail computer's ideas of perfection.
He glanced at his sister in her pilot's chair, where she watched her control board intently, determined to pilot a perfect sweep along the rearward curve of the sails. Kate never did a thing by halves, and had taken to driving her skyrider, one of the tiny guide ships that preceded the lead cloudship on every comet run, with all the intensity that had made a baby sister the chief plague of Pov's adolescence.
At nineteen, Ekaterina Janusz was small-boned and slender, with the dusky female beauty of dark eyes and wiry black hair common to their gypsy heritage. In another time on an older world, Kate might have danced the flamenco, jingling her bracelets high and stamping her feet while the nongypsy outsiders, the gaje, tossed coins in her guitarist's case. Here Kate wore a close-fitting ship suit worth wolf whistles and flew her skyrider with skilled abandon, brashly skirting the pilotmaster's safety rules and indulged for her brashness.
As Kate turned the skyrider to begin another sweep, a side screen beeped for attention. She glanced at it and clicked her tongue.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Dance is signaling a twenty-degree shift to port," Kate said, giving him a dark look.
"I told you they would. What the hell is this, anyway?"
As lead ship on this comet run. Dance had a responsibility to Net in its wake, one she was choosing to ignore on this last course. Sudden changes of course distorted the smooth bow wave of the lead ship's passage through the flowing gas, a disturbance that impacted directly on the ship following her. As Dance began to turn, fitfully visible in the roiling gas ahead, Pov could see the whorls of gas behind her tighten into dangerous eddies for Net's unstable sails. He swore softly.
Net changed course to match Dance's new tack, meeting the disturbed plasma as squarely as she could. As the starboard sail swung with the turn, Kate touched her controls and took the skyrider down and portside, allowing the starboard sail to swing unimpeded over their heads. On his sail monitors, Pov saw Net's sails begin to react as the roiled gas spilled into them, maybe multiplying the sail fault to God knew where and complicating the multiple stresses on the sail points, an instability Net could not afford. The radio link from Net's Sail Deck pinged for his attention.
"Sorry, sir," said Avi Selenko, the sail comm watch. "I told them you were still inspecting the sails." Her irritation showed in slipped consonants more Russki than ship-Czech; Avi's Czech always suffered when she got mad.
"They said no more turns for four hours," Pov objected.
"To them, I'll guess, that's now a former reality. Sorry, sir. Please let us know when you restart tracking."
"Acknowledged, Net. Thank you." The comm clicked off.
Pov scowled at his monitors, not liking what he saw as Net turned more sharply against the gas flow, following Dance's tack lead. The port spinnaker sagged badly in response to the sharper turn, twisting the inflowing gas along the inner edges of the opposite sails. The sails'll ruff soon, he thought. A moment later the stressed port sail ruffed, bouncing an irregular field wave across the entire cone of the sails. The ruff rebounded off the bottom edge of the opposite spinnaker, then slowly ricocheted back across the sails. Like interlaced water ripples on a pool, the ruff worked itself out across the sails' standing field wave. Then the sails shivered violently as the port sail unexpectedly ruffed again.
Pov swore quietly and pulled a sail-integrity display onto his own screen, then called Tully on Sail Deck.
"Tully, keep an eye out," he warned. "I haven't found the fault, but I think we're getting a good idea where it is." Even under the stress of a course change, a port sail should not ruff this badly.
"Somewhere on the port spinnaker," Tully agreed. "I'm trying to find the point source on the edge."
Then the port spinnaker ruffed a third time, adding to the complicated wave pattern now dancing its confusion across Net's disturbed sails. A few moments later, a fourth ruff added its lacery as Net continued her turn to port. Pov scowled fiercely, his heartbeat accelerating, as Net's sails nearly faltered, then slowly steadied again -- not enough, but some. In their weakened state, Net's sails could not tolerate this stress for long.
"Tully . . ."
"Athena's trying to keep our turn as slow as she can," Tully answered tensely, "but Dance is still turning too fast . . . . " Then Tully swore abruptly as a sliding gap appeared in the port spinnaker, ripping downward from the edge. "Blast! There's the fault. Helm! Portsail's ripping. Back and down!"
"On the green. Sail," Athena Mikelos replied calmly on Tully's channel. "Kate, we are turning back and down."
"I see you," Kate called. As Net turned sharply starboard, Kate soared the skyrider inward and dodged behind the safety of the ship's prow, then drifted downward behind the bottomsail. Over the open channel to Sail Deck, Pov heard Tully give rapid instructions to a repair crew about the port generator, then report briefly to Shipmaster Andreos, Net's senior captain.
"Turning now," Athena said. "Report to me, Pov."
"Stress building on the starboard sails, not badly," Pov said, though the compensating forces of the counterturn had helped slow the portsail rip. "Port rip stabilizing." The gap mended itself up a hundred meters, then slowly crept down again. "Keep it easy."
Net continued her turn downward, seeking smoother plasma and a better safety from Dance's wake. As a random eddy spun hard into the sails, the two starboard sails shuddered badly but held their integrity into the counterturn, slowing the acceleration of the echo pattern that still shook the sails. As Pov watched, the sail rip inched agonizingly down, abruptly zippered up again, then ripped as abruptly downward, opening a wide gap. Pov winced, guessing how much radiation had just squirted through Net's port hull.
"Slow the turn a little, Athena," he suggested.
Now the starboard spinnaker ruffed as the pressures counterstressed the sail, sending ripples across the sails that forced the portside rip upward again, a small benefit of a ruff he could do without. One ruff, yes, maybe even two at a pinch, but not from both sides. He watched the starboard ruff ripple itself into a new set of echoes, bouncing back and forth across the sails and complicating itself with each new pass. The portsail rip bounced up and down like mercury in a tube.
"Christ," he muttered helplessly.
"Completing down and starboard," Athena said at last.
Athena slowed Net's descent as Net reached smoother plasma below Dance's wake and turned the ship to face the gas stream hull-on. The sails steadied in the smoother gas flow, its stresses evening out on all her sail points. Pov sighed feelingly as the portsail slowly reformed itself on his monitor, mending itself upward clear to the outer edge. He heard Tully's slow hiss of relief echo his own.
"Yay," Tully muttered. "Good guys win again."
"That's a deal," Pov agreed.
He took a deep breath, then another, trying to counter the adrenaline still surging into his body from the narrowly averted threat to the ship. They had saved the sail, and likely Net had taken only minor damage. Even so. Medical would likely be treating some mild radiation sickness over the next few days, a totally unnecessary injury to Net.
"Hell," Pov said aloud.
" 'Damnation' is a better word," Kate said, "especially when yelled at helpless machinery. Mild, to the point, but inoffensive -- not even the machine cares."
"Be quiet, you. Take us out a few kilometers and wait until the sails have settled into the new course. Then we'll restart the grid."
Kate tossed her head, though she complained. "Didn't I say that Dance couldn't care less about our sails? Didn't I say this wasn't a great time because Dance was bound to turn if the particle count dropped, no matter what Sailmaster Ceverny told you? Didn't I say--"
Pov crossed his arms and glared at her. "Yeah, you said all those things. How do you know so much about what Dance thinks?"
"Skyriders rise above petty ship loyalties," she informed him loftily, waving her hand. "We tell them things, they tell us things." She turned and gave him a wide crafty smile. In her dotage, Pov thought, Kate would be a formidable old crone, with a gypsy's gift of calculated malice and guile from a lifetime of practice and their mother teaching her every nuance along the way. He eyed Kate warily.
"Andreos will just love to hear that," he grunted. Net's shipmaster generally tolerated the varied antics of Net's young crew people, but drew the line at indiscriminate babbling to Dance.
"So who's going to tell him? My own brother? Besides, what do skyriders know that's really important? In the economic sense, that is." She keyed the ship on automatic and swung her chair to face him. "You're the sailmaster -- you go to captain meetings and learn all the secret stuff. Skyriders just pilot. Our version of copper tinker and mandolin, right?"
"Bitter, Kate?" he asked, surprised. "I thought you loved skyriding."
"Of course I love it." Her dark eyes flashed with irritation. At him? he wondered, a little startled by her reaction. "I don't want anything else, ever," she said. "But who do they think they are?" She waved her hand toward Dance. "Wrecking your inspection, as if you were-- "
"Junior sailmaster on junior ship." He shrugged, realizing belatedly that Kate hadn't understood the near-disaster of the ripped sail -- or, more likely, chose to ignore it. To her it was only another gaje insult, another irritation on a long list. Kate lived a simpler life. "Well, that's what I am," he said.
"Oh, yeah? Just watch me stomp over to Dance and jerk a few hairs out of Captain Rybak's beard." She turned back to her controls and jabbed angrily at some buttons.
"You would," he said admiringly.
"Just don't dare me, Pov. You know I can't resist dares." He chuckled as a flush of dark crimson spread up her slender neck: a few of the dares he had offered Kate had led his impetuous sister into unexpected embarrassments. "Well, I can't, so at least you can respect my weaknesses."
"For a minute there," he said lightly, "I thought you were mad at me." She turned her head to smile at him, all the crafty girl-crone disappeared into whatever hold space Kate could put her at will. It was a wide and loving smile she didn't let him see too often.
"You're such a stupid idiot, Pov."
"Thanks so much."
"Anytime. Just ask me."
Net gracefully steadied on the new course well below Dance's trajectory, and Kate swept out to the interior edge of Net's starboard mainsail, waiting for the plasma to restabilize its flow into Net's sails. Pov scowled fiercely at the particle-flow monitor, not liking the complicated swirls and phase changes he saw still impacting his sails. Kate glanced at him.
"Not yet," he said, shaking his head.
The stress release of the torn sail had probably spared the other sail generators from developing faults, but he'd check all the sails, anyway. The port-sail fault now read clearly on his tracking monitor, then abruptly blurred and disappeared as Tully's repair crew switched generators and pulled the defect out of the line. With the fault gone, the sails steadied further as the last of the tiny ripples dissolved on the edges, undisturbed by any new disruptions. He waited a few more moments, then nodded to Kate. Kate turned upward toward the top of the skysail.
"Try the bottom skysail first," he said.
"The faults could have shifted anywhere, Pov."
"So it's intuition."
"Sailmasters don't need intuition," Kate said decisively. "They have facts. At least that's what you always tell me."
"So fact down to the bottom skysail, please."
"You're the pilot-driver. Net, we're restarting our grid."
"Acknowledged," Avi replied from Sail Deck.
Kate reversed in an end-over-end turn and guided their tiny ship gracefully around the ship core and behind the starboard wing, then soared downward to trace a patient grid back and forth along the bottom skysail. Pov frowned at the monitor, waiting for the irregularity that he hoped wasn't there -- somewhere -- but it happily eluded him.
He adjusted the sweep to finer detail and examined the force lines of the skysail, a tall looping curve projected nearly a thousand meters below the hull. The ship's consoles on Sail Deck constantly monitored the sails during flight, of course, but Net's metal bulk and own movement through plasma generated energy fields that interfered with certain finer measurements. The differences were subtle, but a sailmaster's problems began in subtleties, as cloudships discovered when tiny errors phased all too quickly into disaster. As they almost had, he reminded himself pointedly.
He waited, tapping his fingers on his chair, willing a fault into view with mind power. After a few minutes of null result, he leaned forward in his chair to look more closely at the particle-detector screen on Kate's board. "Hmmph. What was Dance chasing?"
Kate shrugged and threw him an expressive glance. "Our forward probe's been reading nine ions per cubic for over an hour. This is an okay density, Pov. So why the jigging by Dance?"
He shrugged back. "What Dance wants, Dance gets."
"That could change real fast," Kate said ominously.
"Not for a few years. We've still got our construction loan to pay off."
Kate shrugged. "This application dates back to the first cloudships. Where's the progress?"
She waved negligently at the glowing river of comet gas that streamed past Net on every side. On an atmosphered planet, such an ionized storm would shudder with thunder, crackle with lightning, and howl with the high whistling rush of accelerated gases. It was easy to forget, within the safety of Net's metal hull and the distractions of work and Net's small community of people, what truly raged outside the ship's slender defenses. Pov looked at her, bemused.
"Want to go to the Pleiades, Kate?" he asked.
"Name the date, sailmaster," she said firmly. "I'll start packing." She turned and grinned at him.
Twenty years before, Diana's Arrow, the first cloudship of many and richly successful ever since, had led her two daughter ships and several other Tauri cloudships to the Pleiades. In the vast drifting Pleiades gas clouds, the lingering remnants of the star nursery that had formed four hundred suns, a cloudship could truly sail a molecular ocean. "I've heard they're beautiful," Kate said softly, and they exchanged a glance. Then she arched an eyebrow. "And I'd just love to be rich."
He snorted. "Kate, you'll never have a soul. Where's your romantic vision?"
"I save my romance for Sergei," she said complacently, "as often and energetically as possible. The vision I'll leave to you."
They completed the first pass down the skysail, and Kate turned them neatly around to track upward toward the ship, the skyrider monitors scanning the sail forcegrid line by line.
"Dina been around lately?" Kate asked.
"Dina isn't going to be around. She's made that quite clear." It was not a topic he welcomed, but Kate rarely bothered with subtlety.
"After weeks of following you around with glazed eyes, professing all that love and devotion? After balking at the last hour on making it official? Where's the loyalty after all that leading on?"
"Skip it, Kate," he said irritably.
Pov and Dina Kozel had fallen in love during last year's comet run, a dazzling and intense relationship that he lost abruptly after the cloudships redocked at Tania's Ring and Dina visited her Slav relatives on Dance. Dina had never really said why, choosing her own way to trash their relationship, but he could guess the likely reason. The anti-bigotry clause written into Dance's maiden contract by a half-crew of wary Greeks had given the Janusz and Dance's three Jewish families a technical protection against an ancient Slav prejudice, but obviously not enough for Dina's aristocratic family to approve her dalliance with a gypsy.
It was predictable, he knew. It even had a certain justice, given the Rom's own attitude about outsider alliances with gaje. He should have known better, knew better. Not that it helped to know it now. "I don't want to talk about it." Pov focused pointedly on his sail monitor.
"That I know. How long are you going to grieve, Pov?"
"I said I don't want to talk about it." He raised his head to glare at Kate. "She had a free choice. Leave it alone."
Kate looked at him stubbornly. "So where was your choice?"
"Kate, just drop it -- like right now. Leave me alone." Kate bit her lip and turned back to her controls.
"Pov," she said a moment later, and he tensed angrily. "Now don't soar off, please -- listen to me. I'm not a total idiot and I wouldn't bring it up if I didn't have a reason. Will you listen?" She waited patiently until he shrugged a sour acceptance, then took a deep breath.
"You're a great brother, Pov," she said, "and I love you fanatically. You're decent and smart and good to people, and you deserved somebody better than Dina. But she was the one you wanted. Okay. I'm sorry it didn't work out, whatever I've said before. But Dina's the type who likes to create men and have them beholden to her for the creating, and right now she's creating Benek to replace you."
His head swiveled. "Benek! He's only Fifth Sail!" Benek Zukor was straw-haired and goof-grinned, mediocre on all levels however hard he tried. "Benek?" he exploded. He couldn't believe it.
"He's got great family connections on Dance, just like Dina does," Kate pointed out.
"Ship rank isn't hereditary."
"Most of the time and theoretically, but you know better, especially for non-Slavs. The higher rankings still go mainly to the Slav families who started with Fan, that and the preferred stock and the swagger and the ship vetos. After all, how did Benek even make sail rank in the first place? You only get that kind of push, especially if you're a goof like Benek, if you've got the family influence. Even if it's not admitted much, a cloudship has its dynasties." She smiled ironically. "It's very Rom, even if most of them haven't the faintest idea of what Rom is, right?"
He shrugged, conceding the point.
"So I'm telling you, Pov. I've been trying to find an opportunity for a couple of weeks, ever since I picked up the news from Dance's skyriders and started skulking after Dina in the corridors. Something is stewing on Dance, and it somehow involves Dina -- and you. You're so blind on the subject, thinking Dina is this wonderful version of femininity, that you'd never see it until it's too late." She spread her hands. "So I'm warning you. So I'm telling you Dina has her ax out and you're the victim. So wake up."
His jaw tightened. "It'd take more than Dina to disrank me as sailmaster."
"Good. I like that intimidating scowl: it means you've got a few brains left after Dina drained out the rest."
"Ah, come on, Kate!"
"Somebody has to tell you."
"You get appointed?" he asked, suddenly suspecting exactly that.
She flipped her hand negligently. "So Tully suggested. He's your friend, and he doesn't want to ever be Second Sail to Benek -- he likes you better or some such -- but he would have found the telling awkward. After she broke up with you, she sashayed around Tully first, married or not, just to sniff out the possibilities -- and had to backpedal fast, believe me, but all you would have heard is Tully and Dina, Dina and Tully, no?"
Pov repressed a groan, knowing she was right, especially back then.
"So Dina finally struck a fast fish at fifth-rank -- well, not that fast, considering, and so it's Benek. If you hadn't been so careful to be every place she's not lately, you could've seen for yourself." Kate's eyes were full of sympathy. "Ship politics are never fun, especially when somebody's using weapons that aren't right. I'm sorry, Pov."
He thought about it, trying to fit it in with Dance's flirting injury today at Net, if it did fit. Dina might think herself mistress of all her schemes, but someone else on Dance might be puppeteering, too, with Dina as the oblivious puppet -- or maybe not so oblivious. He had thought he knew her, a fatuous assumption that had blown up in his face several weeks before. He thought he knew Sailmaster Ceverny, too, and that possible mistake bothered him even more. Ceverny had trained him as a sail officer, promoted him upward through the sail rankings on Dance, then recommended him as Net's sailmaster against weighty objection from the other Powers on Dance.
He looked out at the comet's golden river with its charged lightnings, knowing the narrow edge that the cloudships sailed within its tail, and how easily that edge could cut a ship to ribbons if chance turned unlucky. A failure of the sails, a skyrider's inattention ahead at the wrong time, a random dismemberment of the comet hidden by the obscuring gas: Net relied on Dance, always had, and had returned the support against the hostile environments they faced together.
He struggled with all he knew of Dance, his home since boyhood until Net was built, trying to imagine Dance actively seeking to hurt Net. Insults and Slav arrogance, yes, but deliberate damage? Why? Dina's ambition? Her family's?
"Who else knows about this?" he asked.
"It's early. She took up with Benek only a little while ago -- but I would like to point out that Dina has a brother on Dance's Sail Deck and Dance didn't jig four times on last year's comet runs."
"I doubt if Dina has those kinds of strings," he said judiciously.
Kate shrugged. "All it takes is a suggestion at the right time -- it doesn't mean Sailmaster Ceverny is in the plot. But you ought to know. Is it okay that I told you?" She looked at him uncertainly.
He smiled, surprised at the hesitation in her eyes. He wondered how mind-dead he had really been the past weeks, to make Kate hesitate about anything. "Rom forever, Kate. Thanks."
Kate turned the ship again for another pass down the skysail, then glanced back at him cautiously.
"Am I forgiven?" he asked, trying to lighten the mood. "For the time I tied you up and stuffed you in the closet?"
"Are you out of your mind?" Kate demanded.
Pov chuckled as she started to boil, sputtering impotently, as she always did when he reminded her of his one undeniable and glorious victory. It had taken ten-year-old Kate an hour to get loose, rumpled and red-faced and mad as hell. Pov had never caught her off guard afterward, however sorely she had tempted him, and Kate had promised a "suitable revenge" ever since, merely lacking the right idea.
Kate flipped her hand again as he grinned. "So laugh bravely, sailmaster -- while you can." Then she chuckled to herself, enjoying her own joke, and things were all right again, better than they'd been for a while. "Completing sail pattern," Kate said a moment later.
So much for intuition, he thought. "Try the other spinnaker."
"No, starboard. We've already fixed port."
"Sail faults can--"
"Move around, I know. Starboard, Kate."
"Going starboard." Kate glanced at a subsidiary screen. "Dust is up," she warned.
He craned his neck again to look over her shoulder. "Hell," he muttered.
"Damnation," Kate agreed. "This is fairly active flux. The comet nucleus must be shedding a gas pocket of something besides water ice." She flipped a lever to display more data on the hazard screen. "We've definitely got a dust explosion up ahead."
"What's the dust size?"
"Still in microns, but diameter is rising. The lasers could flash soon."
As she spoke, a brilliant line flashed by outside, pulverizing an invisible meteoroid too heavy for the sails. Two other laser flashes followed immediately after, one splashing on the skyrider's hull as a dust mote pierced the sails and whizzed achingly close. Kate damped the automatic alarm and glanced at him.
"I saw it," he muttered absently. "Damnation."
Pov studied the dust counter, hesitating as he weighed the risk to Net of another sail fault against the risk to the skyrider if the dust conditions worsened. In heavier dust concentrations, the steady flashing of Net's sail lasers resembled a storm of sheet lightning, another of Net's beauties Pov would like to watch someday from outboard, though likely he'd never have much of a chance: skyriding through a swarm of micrometeorites had its own inanity. The lasers flashed again, one bolt again uncomfortably close to their skyrider.
"Pov--" Kate said uneasily.
"I saw it. Take us inboard, Kate. We'll hope there's only the one fault."
The comm chimed. "Sir, the dust count is rising," Avi warned. "The probes say it's getting worse fast and Dance is recalling its skyriders. We recommend you come inboard."
"We see it. Thank you, Avi. Coming inboard now."
"Acknowledged, sir. Skyrider coming inboard." The radio clicked off.
Pov sat back to watch the sky change as Kate accelerated into a wide turn outward away from the sails, heading for the skyport behind Net's prow. "Thank you, skyrider," he said formally.
"Thank you, sailmaster," Kate replied. "Hey, when are you going to come out and ride with me just for fun?"
"Fun, Pov. After 'fairly' and before 'funk' in the dictionary. Fun, you know? All that bed time with Dina and you still don't know what 'fun' is? I'm surprised."
"Soar off," he said mildly.
Kate chuckled to herself, then turned her head to give him another wide smile. "You must be healing. Two weeks ago all I'd gotten myself for that crack is a frozen glare."
"I've been that bad?"
"Yeah, you have -- but who's counting?" She shrugged. "Maybe Mother's right -- it doesn't work to fall in love with a gaje."
"Sergei isn't Dina. Don't listen to her."
"Not so easy," Kate said absently. "Girls get different rules than sons do."
Kate completed their wide turn under Net's port wing and headed inboard to Net. To outsiders, a cloudship seemed a bewildering jumble of different shapes strung together by a dozen bridges and struts, but a spacefaring ship needed little of the sleek styling of an atmosphered craft. With her sails and ship field, Net sailed smoothly through the comet's glowing turbulence, a great and lovely alien beast, placid and mild. He smiled, thinking of that image again.
As the skyrider passed under the central companionway, the long corridor linking the prow with holds and stem, a span of lights began rippling on the underside of another bridge ahead, pointing the way toward the landing platform.
"Requesting approach," Kate said into the comm.
Helm Deck acknowledged, directing her downward and warning nearby traffic. Kate concentrated on the flow of data returning to her screens from the sky-dock computer.
"Descending," Kate said into the comm.
"Acknowledged," Helm comm watch replied. "Skyrider descending."
Kate tipped the skyrider sideways and scooted a shortcut through a narrow span between the prow and a downward strut. Pov winced as they cleared the gap with only a few scant meters on either side, a risk he highly doubted the computer had approved: the skyriders liked their fancy piloting over regs and boasted of it. Still . . .
"I could report you for that," he warned.
"But you won't," Kate said complacently. "And the computer will just log it and later Athena will frown and tsk and the other skyriders will admire me fantastically. Approaching dock. Safety cautions, please."
"Rather belated," he grumped and obediently pulled his shoulder straps into place.
"Soar off, sir. I'm driving this boat -- spectacularly, you'll notice."
"Just don't crash into Net while you're doing it. I've still got work to do today."
"How dull. When are you going to get a life, Pov?"
Pov muttered a useless retort under his breath and suffered Kate's knowing snicker. A gypsy male might have his Rom dignity and rank, but gypsy women usually managed to keep it a draw -- and worse when they could arrange it. It kept the wits of both sides alert.
The skyrider steadied on a straight course for the ship platform directly ahead, then lofted up a few meters over the platform edge and set down smoothly on the metal surface. As the wheels touched the deck, Net's artificial-gravity field snatched at them, giving Pov a stomach lurch that he never quite anticipated correctly, for all the skyriding he'd done, and which gave his body a few startled seconds of rechecking its reality. Kate engaged the ground controls and wheeled them briskly toward the irising entry port ahead. However she did it, Kate always landed with wheels down.
As the skyrider stopped inside the skydeck, Pov unbuckled his belts, then stood up and bent over Kate's chair. She looked up.
"Hot jets," he whispered admiringly, probably undoing every useful nag he'd given her today. "Thanks, chavali."
"Who's a kid?" she asked in mock indignation, but lost the pose in her smile. "Come to dinner tonight? Sergei's cooking." She rolled her eyes. "Big event. Mother's coming."
"How'd you get her to agree to that?"
Kate shrugged. "Oh, I suspect she wants to present her disdain personally. She's tried ignoring him, tried leaving the room whenever he comes in, tried exclaiming aloud to the ceiling, tried reading the cards with moans and clucks and sighs. I expect we'll see a whole new panoply tonight." Pov grimaced sympathetically. Their mother had her ways of letting her opinions be known, too, not as directly as Kate, but just as surely.
As Rom of a new generation, Pov and Kate had adjusted to patterns far different from the older life his mother still lived in her heart. His mother fretted that her children found too little time to listen to her stories, both too occupied with duties and friends in the larger gaje community aboard Net and Dance. The Rom had resisted the lure of the outside world for centuries, keeping to their own traditions, surviving the harsh oppressions imposed by a larger society that resented their differences, always remembering their heritage and choosing their own way. Too many Rom in Taurus had chosen the temptations, his mother thought, forgetting who they were, becoming gaje in all but name and complexion and occasional speech. And so she fretted, worrying for her children.
And so Margareta Janusz had not approved of Sergei Rublev, a Tania's Ring Russia who had joined Net's astrophysics group upon Net's commissioning three years before. Practically speaking, Kate had few eligibles among the twenty closely related Rom aboard Net and Dance, and even their mother admitted that a few of the younger Janusz might have to marry outside the tribe to avoid the birth risks of a couple interrelated too many ways. She did not, however, agree to Kate as one of the few. Never that.
"You just have to outlast her, that's all. Even Mother has to give up eventually."
"You're sure of that?" Kate sighed. "I've warned Sergei, and he's promised to be patient. But I could use you as intermediary, Pov."
"I'll be there." He kissed his sister lightly on the lips, then popped his data carrier from the slot and left for Sail Deck.
Copyright © 1994 by Paula E. Downing