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Maia's Veil [The Cloudships of Orion Book 2]
by Paula Downing King

Category: Science Fiction
Description: In an almost hopeless crusade to find desperately needed tritium, the Cloudship Siduri's Net not only came through and survived but also discovered a new variety of super heavy particles that could become the ultimate energy source to propel them across the galaxy. If only the ship's scientists could harvest this strange new discovery. Upon returning home, they would be able to control its power and unleash its potential. However, upon arriving at Sailmaster Pov, their homeport, the crew is split by an unforeseen twist of fate. Siduri's Dance, their mother ship, had made a disastrous deal with evil to save itself. Now the Net and its mother ship will be enemies playing a mortal game of cat and mouse. Rom, Slav, and Greek are faced with the ultimate decision of fighting and finding death or, worse yet, enduring a life of horrific enslavement. Their only other option is to make yet another impossible journey into the unknown, into the Pleiades. This time their flight isn't for fuel or fortune but for their future. Originally published under the pen name P.K. McAllister.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 1995
eBookwise Release Date: February 2003

eBookeBook

19 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [407 KB]
Words: 88820
Reading time: 253-355 min.


One

The morning after Siduri's Net returned to Tania's Ring and docked at Omsk Station, Pov Janusz and Athena Mikelos, Net's pilotmaster, stood in front of a viewing window high on Net's prow, watching the repairs to Siduri's Dance in the docking bay nearby. During Net's three-week absence at T Tauri, Omsk Station had replaced several of the senior cloudship's hull plates and had removed the damaged sail assembly, nothing more. Still crippled, Dance drifted idly at her mooring, with a single Omsk repair jitney hovering above her.

"Captain Rybak's first words," Pov said, "were, I quote, 'God, you took long enough, Net.' Then he berated Captain Andreos about this and that, sputtered himself into a total rage, and clicked off before Andreos even got a word in."

Athena grimaced and shook her dark curls. "Why am I not surprised? We took a long time, he says. Maybe next year, at this rate, Dance might be spaceworthy again." She turned away from the window and sighed.

"Yesterday I felt rich," Pov said gloomily, looking at Dance.

"We're still rich," Athena said. "Don't worry about it." She walked over to one of the lounge chairs and sat down slowly, then straightened one leg in front of her, then the other.

Pov turned and looked at her with concern. Athena looked deathly pale, a shadow of her usual energetic self. She saw his look and shook her head at him irritably, warning him off.

"How's the radiation treatment going?" Pov asked anyway, poking at her.

"Wonderfully, Medical says," she said, sounding cross. "On the green, sail."

"You shouldn't be on duty," he told her severely.

"Soar off," she told him. "I'm not on duty. I'm just sitting here."

"Oh, sure."

Athena looked stubborn. "I refuse to accept being sick. I will do what I please to do." She straightened and gave him a glare, then seemed to collapse slowly back on herself again. She sighed. "I do admit all those little radioactive atoms running around my body take their toll. It takes a while for that chelating goo to pick the atoms up, one cell at a time."

Pov looked her over. If the Medical Section's progress reports weren't as favorable as they'd been, he'd worry very much about Athena right now. She looked gray. "How much longer for the therapy?" he asked.

"Until the goo picks up every last atom, I guess." She grimaced. "Stop standing there worrying. Go do something useful."

"Ah, come on, Athena."

She tossed her head. "I'm sorry. I feel cross, and you're getting the brunt. I appreciate your concern, Pov, but you know skyriders and their image problems. Me, limited by anything? Radiation? What's that? Ho ho."

"That I do know. Kate'll probably tear apart half the ship by the time her baby gets born."

This time Athena's smile was more genuine, but still too wan. He looked at her with open concern, thought to say something more, then shut his mouth as Athena tossed another warning glare at him.

"At least go below and rest, Athena," he said patiently. "Let Gregori and your girls hover."

"Why do you think I'm up here?" she said, scowling grumpily. "They act like I'm made of spun glass -- not that I'm minding, family is family and I love them too, and all that, but after a while I start to feel feeble just because they act that way. Mind over matter, the wrong way." She stood up and stretched her back, pacing a slow circle around her chair, and then sat down as if Environmental had suddenly boosted the ship's artificial gravity directly under her.

"Humph," he said, crossing his arms.

"Go grump at somebody else, Pov. I'll go rest in an hour or so when the watch is over. Okay?"

"Well, if you say so."

"I do."

Tully Haralpos walked out of the elevator and strolled over to join them, dressed formally in shipboard grays. All of Net's captains had dressed in uniform this morning, expecting a call to an intership hearing with Dance, and Pov had asked Tully to join the formal horde. Tully took one look at Athena's face and added his own chiding look. As he crossed his arms to comment, he suddenly shifted uncomfortably, then pulled irritably at his uniform sleeve. The months since Tully had worn his uniform last showed in the tightness at inconvenient spots. Tully shrugged his shoulders, trying to settle the tight tunic, then squirmed. "I feel strangled in this thing," he complained.

"Wait long enough," Pov suggested lightly, "and you find you've grown like a crocodile. Another year, another inch."

"Nuts to that." Tully pulled at his collar. "Though I'm afraid it's more like 'another meal, another pound.' Christ." Athena snickered and crossed her trim ankles, then dangled an arm over the side of her chair. She opened her mouth. "Not a word, you," Tully warned, bunching his thick black eyebrows. Athena smiled broadly, then snickered behind her hand, making an act of it.

"That's a word," Tully told her severely.

"Is not. Check your dictionary."

Pov inspected Tully casually. "I've got a clean spare that's a little bigger. You want to try it on?"

"No, I'll suffer. Greeks are used to fatalism: read your myths. All that dire tragedy, capricious gods, those unrelenting Furies chasing folks everywhere, hither and yon, shrieking at the top of their lungs." Tully wiggled, then glared at Athena as she snickered again. Athena pretended to ward him off with her hand.

"Sorry," she said, her blue eyes dancing. Athena had the lithe curves to gloat safely.

"I doubt if I'll get called over to Dance, anyway," Tully said. "No reason to dress up."

"Don't count on it." Pov scowled. "If Rybak manages to dust me out of rank this time, you're it on Sail Deck as Net's new sailmaster."

"I doubt that's an issue anymore, Pov. Not with three holds of tritium to buy Dance out of her problems."

"Yeah? Keep whistling." Tully frowned in concern, not liking Pov's mood. Pov shrugged and turned back to the window to watch Dance's repairs. Well, we've got the money, he thought tiredly, feeling a dull aching in his back and legs from accumulated fatigue and stress.

"This isn't going to be fun," Tully muttered as he joined Pov at the window. Tully's mouth set as he looked at Dance, sharing Pov's frustration and anger at their mothership.

Pov glanced at his friend. Even Tully showed the strain today, waiting like others on Net for new troubles, after so many troubles with Dance in recent weeks. Tully seemed more closed this morning, despite his raillery at Athena, his face drawn with a fatigue that matched Pov's own. The crew's celebration over Net's fantastic success at T Tauri had muted into a sober elation, pricked now by new worries, and those worries showed most in her senior people today.

"Found out what's hatched?" Pov asked, prodding him.

"Dance is shut up tight," Tully said gloomily. "We'll find out soon enough."

"True." Behind him, Pov heard Athena sigh and shift position in her chair, as unhappy with waiting and doing nothing as he and Tully were. It felt far too much like target practice, with Net as the target, not the laserman.

Dance did not call, and Pov spent a quiet morning watch on Sail Deck, mostly sail drills and data analysis of the T Tauri runs, then stopped by his sister's apartment on his way to lunch. Now in her third month of pregnancy, Kate had been grounded from her skyrider duties for the duration, a restriction that made her fret. Athena had relented by allowing Kate to work with the skyrider checkdown crew, and even allowed an inspection flight in the relative safety of Omsk's placid orbit: it helped.

He found Kate cleaning the apartment, her head buried in one of the storage cabinets in the living room. Her ears muffled, she didn't hear the door chime, nor his footsteps, so when he nudged her foot he nearly brained his sister on the cabinet doorframe as she reacted to the touch.

"God, Kate," he said, helping her back out of the cabinet to sit down on the floor. She had hit her head hard enough to start tears, and he knelt down and hugged her close as she gasped, squinting with pain.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to startle you."

"What an entrance," she muttered, then felt her skull gingerly. "Ouch, that hurt."

"Hell, Kate," he said in distress. She winced.

"Oh, I'll survive. Stop looking like the sky fell in on you." She fingered her head a few moments more, then narrowed her dark eyes, eyeing him. "I think it fell in on me, thanks to you." Pov backed away a step, wary that Kate might take some retribution, and heard her chuckle. "Ah, you're learning wisdom."

"Soar off. Are you okay?"

"The stars are out early, but yeah."

"What are you doing?"

"Cleaning. What does it look like?"

"That I can see. Are you that far down the list of things you could do?" Kate absently pushed her wiry black hair back behind her shoulders and smiled at him.

"I like the way you watch over me," she said. "I'm bored, true, but I'll survive it. Stop hovering. I told you not to do that, but you keep persisting."

Pov smiled as Kate bared her teeth warningly. He and Kate had always been close, even among a family as closely bound as their gypsy family. Just as she waged his wars for him, he involved himself in hers. "So I'm diligent."

"That you are, I agree."

He helped Kate to her feet and followed her into the kitchen, where she clattered among her dishware in the cupboard, playing the hostess.

"You look nice dressed up," Kate said as she set out two glasses on the counter, tipping her head to admire him. She reached to adjust his uniform collar, then neatened his sleeve. "Adds dignity or something. I've been trying to figure out what."

"Dignity?" Pov smiled at her. "What's that?"

"Oh, nuts to that. Half my time on skydeck, it seems, I'm defending my stuffy older brother, so serious, so determined, such a flat orbit of a man. Lighten up, Pov. Listen to Avi."

"Avi likes me just as I am," Pov informed her.

"I'll talk to her," Kate retorted. "Love can blind."

Kate poured him a drink of something fruity and pink from the refrigerator. "Try that." She watched as he sipped at it

"I don't recognize this," he said.

"This is from Patia's lab on Dance. Tawnie brought it back when she went over to visit the Dance Rom: some kind of clone of plums and Tania marshberry. It's certainly vividly pink. What do you think?"

"Sweet," he said judiciously.

"Too sweet, I think, but the children love it, Tawnie says." Kate capped the bottle and put it back in the refrigerator. "I keep expecting Patia to start making some weird kind of vat-meat or something, then expect us to eat it. Though, I'll admit, most of her experimenting hasn't been too bad. I'm not sure marshberry fits into the marime rules, though, and Bavol had a fit about this when Patia brought it home."

"He would." Their cousin Bavol, the middle son of Damek's three sons, had inherited most of his father's conservatism, a trial for the more modern-minded young woman he had married. He sipped at the glass again, rolling the liquid around in his mouth. "I like it."

"Tell Patia that. She wasn't expecting Bavol to get upset, and it always bothers her when she doesn't see it coming. I was thinking of going over to see her. Should I?"

"Why shouldn't you?"

"Because I'm the sailmaster's sister and Athena's probable spy, and it signals things maybe you don't want signaled. Why isn't Dance talking to us?"

"I don't know. I don't think it's going to end up to our good." He scowled.

Kate shook her head tiredly. "I get so tired of the divisions, Pov. I used to think all it took was reasoned talk, a few airy jabs to keep the other in place, but always there was some way to work it out. First came Mother's war against Sergei, and now Dance behaving like this. Will Captain Rybak really try to keep us here? Why can't he just let us buy free and go do what Net can really do?"

"Why can't Mother love Sergei like a son?" Pov smiled down at her ruefully. "I don't have many answers lately. It seems you answer one question and others pop up. It's called life, right?"

"Now, that's profound." Kate wrinkled her nose. "I feel truly enlightened."

"Airy jab -- I can take it."

Kate grinned at him, then fisted his ribs. "Thanks for coming by. You don't have to come by so often: I'm okay. The baby's okay, Sergei's okay, the storage is okay, everything's simply okay."

"So I check up. When I'm a problem, let me know."

"That's on." She kissed him. "Stay awhile. Sergei'll be home soon -- I hope. He and the physics lab have been going wild over the superheavy atoms you and Janina caught at T Tauri." She wrinkled her nose. "Sadly, the little beasties keep unpacking their little quantum shells or something, and Sergei can't figure out how to bottle them so they won't do that. Thinks I should give him a gypsy spell for quark stability. Is there one?"

"Not that I've heard." He smiled.

"I keep explaining to him that I don't have gypsy spells, him the scientific mind and all, and he just points to how I make him feel and says it has to be magic." She smiled softly. "Sweet man. Why can't Mother -- ?"

She turned away suddenly and clattered awhile with her dishes, her jaw muscles tightening. Pov sighed and put his hands in his pockets, wishing he did know some spells, one in particular that could change a mother's heart. If only it were that easy.

"I'm sorry, Kate," he said inadequately.

"It's not your fault, Pov."

"I'm trying to reason with her. All it gets me is more fights. She just doesn't believe you would leave the tribe for him, if she forces it."

"I would, believe me." Kate slammed down a pot hard.

"I know that, but she doesn't. She honestly doesn't. I'm about out of ideas. It makes me worry for Avi. Avi wants to get married, but I don't like the way the family has been changing lately. Mother wars on you, Bavol snipes at Patia, pushing and forcing and forgetting what's supposed to count. Mother blames Net for it, calling it gaje temptation, and she'll do something about it soon and break up the family. I see it coming, and I can't do anything about it, just watch it come at us." They looked at each other bleakly.

"Why does it go this way, Pov?" Kate asked sadly. "Why does family get all mixed up, doing the wrong things? Why can't the Rom be part of Net and keep the best of both? Why is it one way or the other and nothing in between?"

"I don't know." He looked away unhappily. "I don't have any answers for that."

"Maybe there aren't any answers," she said.

"Maybe not. God, I hope there are, but lately hoping hasn't gotten me much of anywhere. So cheer me up, chavali. Give me an airy jab. I could use another one."

"Oh, sure you could. Promise me, Pov, that you'll tell me if I ever start turning wrong on you. Don't even let me get started."

"I'll do that." He kissed her cheek.

Pov found Avi Selenko in the gym briskly wasting calories, thin and taut in an exercise suit and adamantly focused on staying that way. Raised in a Russki colony devoted to physical fitness and other perfections of the Great Rodina, Avi was better than he was about keeping in shape, making a duty out of her workouts that she followed zealously. He perched on a convenient equipment rack by the wall and watched appreciatively as Avi bent and swayed and jogged around the room, the several others in the gym making an odd but graceful dance around her.

Lev Marska, another of his Sail Deck crew, jogged by. Pov belatedly sucked in his middle, too late to be useful, and Lev hooted derisively as he bounded past, feet working smartly. Ah, well, Pov thought, eyeing Lev's hairy muscles with some envy. He wondered idly if Avi liked hairy muscles and whether he should get a few. As he watched Lev bob and weave around the gym, Pov decided the problem wasn't the initial investment but the upkeep. He went back to slouching loosely on the rack rail, watching Avi.

After a while, Avi sidestepped briskly over to him and jogged in place in front of him, her dark hair bouncing, damp wisps curling on her pale neck where the hair had escaped her hairpins. She considered him a moment, her feet bounding up and down.

"Lazy sot," she announced, deciding on the right label.

"That I am," he said cheerfully.

"Ten minutes after I'm done, I feel great."

"Good for you."

Avi chugged to a stop and put her hands on her slim hips, giving him a fearsome look. "And when you get fat, Pov," she told him severely, "remember why."

"God, why are fitness fanatics so fanatical?"

Avi wrinkled her nose and bent over a moment, breathing deeply, then walked around in a circle with her hands on her hips, strutting nicely as she worked her arms forward and backward. Avi had the length of leg and the smooth curves to make a strut worth watching. "I'll never be fat," she declared.

"I'm not fat," Pov groused.

"Oh ho. I saw you suck in your middle when Lev went by. Don't tell me that drift-gas."

"Come get naked with me and I'll show you who's fat."

"Hush, you." Avi glanced at the others in the gym, not that anyone on Net didn't know all about Net's sailmaster and his pretty Russki Sixth Sail. "Brag on your own time, sailmaster, sir. I'm busy doing important things." She worked her elbows some more as she strutted another circle, showing off, trim and sexy and full of herself.

"Now when do I brag?" he asked. "I don't hear me bragging at all."

"Oh ho," she said mockingly. "Sure you don't."

He spread his hands, inviting. Avi stepped into the circle of his arms, then rested her forearms comfortably on his shoulders, dangling her hands behind his neck. He pushed back a damp tendril of hair from her face, then pulled out a hairpin to watch the dark curl fall down on her shoulder. She kissed him, then smiled happily.

"Want to go to lunch?" he asked.

"Sure. Russki's choice of the skyside lounge?"

He hesitated. "Okay."

She sighed. "It's still hard, isn't it, eating food outside your gypsy rules? You suggested this half-and-half compromise, you know. Half the time we're Russki, and half the time we're Rom. I don't mind eating by your purity rules. How you fix it doesn't change the taste."

"We've been over that. I'm trying to meet you halfway."

"To your discomfort, I'm afraid. I appreciate the effort, Pov, but you still squirm."

"And so do you, when we turn tables. Sorry." He smiled. "It's the way I was raised. Once a Rom -- "

" -- always a Rom," she finished for him. "All that's fine with me, but I still say you squirm, Pov Janusz." She suddenly slipped her fingers into his armpit and wiggled them, finding a ticklish place he unwisely allowed her to discover in bed. "See?" she said as he shied away from her poking. "I'd call that a squirm."

"Stop that," he complained. He grabbed her hand and then tussled with her as she laughed, pushing against his strength to tickle him again. "Stop it, Avi. That's an order."

"Order? What in the hell kind of order is that? Thank the stars I'm not ticklish anywhere." She sniffed and then gave it up. "Well, it's Russki choice today, so I've changed my mind -- let's eat in at my place." He released her hand and she slouched her arms comfortably on his shoulders again, smiling at him. "I still don't understand why you backed off on asking me to do the whole gaji romni act, as Sergei does for Kate in keeping the rules. I'm willing to try -- I think."

"It's the 'I think,' Avi." He pulled her closer, and she relaxed against him, the warmth of her body palpable through his clothes. "We're trading places: you were the one worried about pushing away someone who's special. Now look at you, secure and sassy and willing to try -- and I'm the worrier."

She toyed with a lock of his hair, arranging it into a curve on his forehead, then smoothing it back onto his head in a caress. "I'm not going anywhere, Pov."

"That's good to hear."

She smiled sweetly, and he kissed her, tightening his arms around her as she responded to him. She opened her mouth and he pulled her even harder against his body, and the kiss got totally out of hand.

"Hey!" a voice said. "Save that for private."

"Soar off, Lev," Pov retorted.

Lev grinned and flexed the muscles on his bare chest, his blond hair slicked back wet from sweat, then flipped his towel briskly about his shoulders, making a breeze. Pov watched Lev's muscles flex and pursed his lips. "Disgusting," he said loudly.

"Just envy, sir." Lev's grin broadened as he snapped his towel again.

Avi half-turned and bared her teeth at the Slav computer tech. "Watch out, Lev. I'm not as nice as he is."

Lev rounded his mouth in mock dismay, goggling at her, then laughed and danced off, legs pumping high.

"It is disgusting," Pov said. "Come on, let's get out of this fanatic's den."

"Speaking as a fanatic, that's on."

Avi had the afternoon watch on Sail Deck, and Pov decided to catch up on some sleep he'd been missing since T Tauri, firmly bypassing more of the T Tauri scans that had kept him up too late, since he had a bad habit of replaying endless data screens in his dreams. He and Tully had almost finished the analysis of the magnetic flux that had made Net's runs into the protostar's gasjet as much improvisation as planned intention, though the theoretical physicists in Sergei's lab were still arguing about the new theories that might fit reality. As he walked through the residential corridor to his apartment, he felt the fatigue in his leg muscles, dragging at his calves with little catches and twinges. The tiredness seemed to seep upward, climbing his spine like sifting ink the more he noticed it. He yawned, then yawned again until his jaw joints cracked. Bed, he told himself. What a wonderful idea.

As he snapped on the overhead lights in his apartment, his eye caught a gleam of metal from the small triangular table in the far comer by the window. He walked over to the Rom shrine and picked up the gypsy token, then the note that had lain beneath it. He looked at the slender statue of St. Serena standing on the shrine table. Dissatisfied with the few hundred gaje saints handed to them by the Catholic Church, the European gypsies had invented St. Serena and a few other saints to be their special patrons, untainted by gaje ideas of a proper saint. Serena was the patroness of Rom families and of Rom tradition, a gypsy queen beloved by all the Rom and welcomed happily to every Rom wedding and baptism.

To Pov, St. Serena was also Siduri herself, the Babylonian goddess after whom Net had been named, as graceful and lovely as Siduri's Net herself and somehow his cloudship's essence. In Babylonian myth, Siduri had loved the hero Gilgamesh for a short summer season on her sea island, pleading with him to stay and give up his heroic adventures. I am music and the dance, she had told him: I could give you the security of a family, a wife, all a man needs to be happy. Listen to me. But Gilgamesh had not listened, and had left her behind on her sea isle, bereft and longing.

Pov dropped incense on the small square plate in front of the statue, then watched the thin curl of scented smoke swirl upward. Grace to you, Siduri, he thought in Romany. Please look after Kate, I am asking.

The statue's face changed subtly as the wisp of smoke briefly shadowed the eyes, a flicker of expression he always noticed, as if, for a moment, Siduri had smiled at him. He smiled in response, as always, not at all minding that Rom ancestor worship was only superstition, that the illusion of movement was a simple combination of carbon particles and the angle of overhead lights. It suited him to think Siduri smiled at him.

He opened the note in his hand and saw Lasho's mark at the bottom. The token, a small pierced coin tied with a short length of colored yarn, showed Tawnie as the messenger. Half of the Siduri Rom lived on Net, half on Dance, with Damek's two younger sons and their wives staying behind on Dance when Net was built three years before. Until Net's recent quarrel with Dance, the division had not interfered with his family's contact, with the two groups of Rom freely traveling back and forth between Net and Dance to share their Rom feast days or just to visit. Lasho was the third of his uncle Damek's sons, Karoly and Tawnie's youngest brother, about Pov's age. He read the brief note and scowled, wondering why Lasho wanted a private meeting -- and why on Omsk Station.

He put the token back on the shrine by Siduri's sandaled foot for safekeeping until he could return it to Tawnie. Trust Tawnie to blaze ahead and visit the Rom on Dance, mere hours after Net's arrival, indifferent to the opinions of any gaje who objected. He smiled, guessing just how Tawnie had carried it off, dressed gypsy-style to the hilt with flowing skirts and loud jewelry, her baby Cappi on her hip, flouncing onto Dance and tripping through the older ship's corridors, gaily greeting every gaje who passed, stiff-arming any security guard who dared to question her intention. On certain things, Tawnie Janusz, barely sixteen and just topping forty kilos, could not be outdone.

He put Lasho's note in his pocket for its Omsk location, some eatery on the space station, then walked into his bedroom to his computer and logged himself offship. He turned and looked at his bed for a long wistful moment, knowing how it would feel to stretch out and go boneless, drift away and do nothing but sleep and sleep and sleep. He shrugged fatalistically, then changed out of his ship's uniform into other clothes, repocketed the note, and left for Omsk.

Copyright © 1995 by Paul E. Downing


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