Read A Thousand Words For Stranger (10th Anniversary Edition) Online

Authors: Julie E. Czerneda

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General

A Thousand Words For Stranger (10th Anniversary Edition) (5 page)

BOOK: A Thousand Words For Stranger (10th Anniversary Edition)
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“My thanks for that,” Barac said truthfully, feeling some of his tense muscles relax. So Sira had gotten away— somehow. For once, these lackeys of the Trade Pact had been of some use. Usually they were a minor irritation, to be distracted as necessary by lower-rank adepts such as himself, or avoided altogether. He concentrated for a moment, assessing the damage to his body. Cracked ribs, burns, bruises, nothing worse.
Bowman wasn’t telepathic, but her instincts were good. “You were lucky, indeed, Hom sud Sarc. Our meds say you’ll be up and about very soon. But first, I’ve a few questions for you.”
“Your attention is flattering, Commander,” Barac said. “But surely this is a matter for local authorities. What interest can it have for Pact Enforcers?”
Bowman leaned forward, eyes narrowed. “When local assassins are using classified Pact equipment, it is a matter for us, Hom sud Sarc.” Bowman held up three connected disks of dull brown, the small two attached to the larger by a hair-thin wire. “We recovered one from each of your attackers.”
She paused. “These are mind-shields, in case you don’t recognize the effect. Quite impenetrable, aren’t they?” Bowman lifted the hair from the back of her head, turning so Barac could see the small, shaved half circle where her neck and skull met—an unnecessary confirmation of what his mind had sensed.
Barac remained silent, feeling this was the safest course. Bowman regarded him thoughtfully for a moment, choosing her next words with care. “You haven’t told me the whole truth, Hom sud Sarc. Why did your attackers need mind-shields? Why take the risk of stealing equipment from us? As if that weren’t enough, these so-called common thieves of yours also underwent surgical implantation—which I’ll confess to you is very dangerous indeed. Which makes me wonder if all their precautions were necessary for protection—from you.”
Barac sud Sarc coolly raised a brow, then winced as the movement irritated the bruises which marred one side of his lean, handsome face. He avoided looking directly at the disks. “I don’t know what you’re implying, Commander,” he said. “I was the one attacked, remember?”
Bowman apparently reached a decision. “Leave us,” she ordered her subordinates. Once the door had closed behind them, she continued. “I imply nothing, Hom sud Sarc— Clansman.”
“My ident is on record, Commander,” Barac said. “I’m sure you’ve also verified my travel clearance.” Who was she? he wondered furiously. How much did she know? How fortunate she sent out her guards, a darker thought intruded.
“Yours. But let’s talk about your companion. Her records are, let’s say, less than helpful. No name. No planet of origin. According to Port Authority, you were walking alone last night, Clansman.”
“We comply with your obsession with record keeping when convenient,” Barac countered. “The Clan—”
“—is not bound by Pact regulations. Yes. I know.” Bowman smiled. “Well, enough of this. Do you want to see your companion now?”
“Do not try your tricks with me, Human,” Barac tried not to snarl. “She has gone her way—as would any Clan. One of us here,” he glared around the room, “is more than you deserve in your net.”
“Net? I’m not your enemy, Clansman. In fact, my people were watching out for just such an incident.” Bowman hadn’t lost her smile. “You see, I communicate regularly with the High Councillor of Camos Cluster, Jarad di Sarc. A familiar name, I’m sure, since he also happens to be your uncle— and Spokesman of the Clan Council.”
Barac felt a familiar frustrated anger. How typical of the Council to include this—this Human!—in its intricate web of strategy while leaving the true risk-takers in the dark. “We are not under your authority, nor do I claim your aid,” he snapped, finished with evasions. This Human pet of Jarad’s was the last straw.
“Ah, but these devices were stolen from this facility before you arrived on Auord. Someone else was expecting you, Clansman. Someone with a healthy respect for your— abilities.”
“Your toys are your problem, Commander Bowman,” Barac said testily. “Not mine. I object to your insistence that the Clan has some strange mental power. This kind of rumor-mongering is why we refuse to join your Pact.”
Bowman’s smile tightened. “You may decide differently, Clansman Sarc. You see, I also want to talk to you about something that has nothing to do with last night—at least as far as I know.” She stood and walked ponderously to the end of Barac’s bed, her movements giving the impression of someone finding planet gravity a nuisance.
Bowman produced a compact image box and aimed it midway between them. “What do you know about this, Barac sud Sarc?” she asked, activating the device.
Barac craned his head forward, staring at the image hovering above his waist. It showed the interior of a standard stateroom, the type common on intersystem transports. A figure in blue and yellow lay upon the floor in a hunched, tormented position. Barac heard the sudden roar of blood in his ears as a distant thing, a sign of the body’s ability to react to pain before the mind dares admit the truth.
He drove a questing thought into the M’hir, seeking a familiar channel through its nothingness, the effect close to draining his reserve of energy, heedless of all but the contact he sought. There was no answer, no anchor drawing him to the comforting strength of that other mind. There was nothing at all.
With all the disinterest he could muster, Barac shrugged and lay back against the pillows. “Why do you expect me to know anything about this? I’ve never seen that man before.”
Bowman pressed another control. Instantly the image shifted, spun dizzyingly larger until only the left hand of the dead man and a portion of the deck showed. “I expect you to tell me something about this, Barac sud Sarc,” she said, her eyes never leaving his face. The carpet beneath the hand had been burned away down to the dull shine of metal. The metal itself was incised with tiny, irregular but plain letters. “That is your name, isn’t it?” Bowman added unnecessarily, just as the door to the room opened.
Barac ignored the too-convenient return of the two Enforcers, meeting her gaze steadily. “I do not have to answer your questions, Human,” he said. “Or are you planning to hold me here?”
“That won’t be necessary, Clansman Barac.” Bowman’s voice held a hint of smugness. “Let’s say, for once, our interests may run together. I have a murder to solve, a murder which took place on Pact commercial shipping. I can’t imagine how your name was written by that man—suffice it to say that it’s one of your kind’s more interesting secrets. But I intend to learn how he died—and your involvement.” She paused, her expression hardening.
“The room was locked from within,” the commander went on. “The crew of the ship have been thoroughly mind-searched by our people, and are innocent. My willingness to oblige the High Councillor or the Clan will not extend to unknown lethal weapons—or to Clan wars in my space.”
“Kurr.” Saying the name made it real. His power ached for a target, but there was none. Yet.
“What did you say?” she said blankly.
“Whatever name was on the manifest, the dead man is . . . was Kurr di Sarc. And before you ask, yes, he was my brother, Commander Bowman.” Barac faltered, trying to restore calm to his voice. “All I can tell you is what you must have already guessed: Kurr left my name so that I would be contacted. He must have been desperate if he had to rely on Humans to relay his message.” A heavy silence. “When did it happen?”
Bowman decided to look sympathetic, an effort which fell short of credible, but then Clan never relied on Human expressions. “I had no way of—”
“When. Where.” Barac had almost succeeded in burying his own emotions under a cold detachment. The discipline of a scout had its uses.
“Three days ago. He was last seen alive when they went insystem in Acranam. The body was discovered the next day enroute to Letis VI.” She paused. “The ship and all aboard are being held at the Letis Pact facility. Will you want the body?”
Barac ignored her question, with its Human assumption. To the Clan, what remained after death was a shell, dropped from the M’hir, of no significance to the living. “What killed him? Who?”
Bowman’s eyes glittered, her sympathetic air discarded. “We don’t know. And that is why you’ll stay and talk with me, Barac sud Sarc, Clansman and focus of trouble. I’ll have no more of your Clan business leaving bodies in Pact territory. I want answers.”
Barac nodded slowly. “I understand. And in return for passing Kurr’s dying message to me, I’d honestly like to help you. But I haven’t time to search out Kurr’s murderer now.” His handsome face might have been carved from ice, its bruises stones embedded beneath the surface. “I have someone else to find—” And before Bowman could open her mouth to dispute this, Barac’s body shimmered and disappeared. The white blanket slumped flat with a surprised sigh of air.
“Damn,” Bowman said to the empty bed, annoyed she had driven him away. Then she consoled herself—who’d have guessed the injured man could summon such power? She activated her implanted communicator with a twitch of one eyebrow. “Med-com. Did you get anything unusual just now on your scopes?”
“Your guest left the room, sir. I don’t have scanners in the hall. Is that what you meant?”
Bowman sighed. Still, it was always worth trying. “Any more from the prisoner?”
The whisper in her ear was apologetic. “Just what you know already, Commander.” A pause. “I don’t think we can keep her alive much longer.”
Bowman tapped her brow with one stubby finger; the new implant was supposedly sensitive enough to control with an unobtrusive twitch of muscle, but she’d rather be sure the wretched thing was really off. She pursed her lips thoughtfully, glancing with approval at the pair waiting patiently for her commands, their composed faces too well-trained to show any reaction to Barac’s startling departure.
The feathered Tolian, P’tr wit ’Whix, and his partner, the dour-faced Terk, were the most senior of Bowman’s personal staff. They had been together long enough to know when to wait and when to speak. Almost.
Terk scowled. “So we forget this one, too? Diplomacy.” The word might have been a curse.
Bowman’s lips curled. It wasn’t a smile. “I forget none of it. What you continue to forget, Terk, is that we’re not law keepers—or diplomats. I know how you feel,” she said more gently. “It’s a thankless task, keeping everyone’s feet, flippers, or whatever, off everyone else’s anatomy.” More sharply. “But as Enforcers, we have nothing to do with justice—get used to that. We enforce the treaty rights of Pact member species. The Clan aren’t Pact, not yet. But so long as they live on Pact worlds we’ll watch them.”
“What use is watching?” Terk went on, not cowed. His face was all angles and planes, with harsh lines running from mouth to nose and framing eyes that even his few friends found uncomfortable to meet. When happy, his voice was a low, heavily accented growl. Now it rumbled like so much thunder. “Seems to me they do pretty much what they like.”
“As long as they keep it to themselves, that’s fine,” Bowman said with sudden weariness. “God knows, there’s enough to do without disturbing the peaceful ones. I just need to know if the Clan are beginning to push at the Pact.”
“Then what?”
“You know as well as I do. We push back. We damp the pendulum. Then we leave them alone.” A decision was needed, urgently, and Bowman was no longer in a mood to hesitate. “We’ll begin with what we know so far,” she said.
Terk shook his head. “Which is a lot of nothing.”
P’tr wit ’Whix fluttered disagreement. Unfortunately, the effect was lost while most of his iridescent feathers were covered by his uniform. He raised a slim four-fingered hand in emphasis instead. “Right after the explosion, I saw Sarc’s companion go west on West Central Street, grid coordinates 140-5D,” the being said firmly. “She wore clothing similar to the Clansman—a detail confirmed by our less-than-healthy prisoner. Thus we have time, place, and description. You are always too quick to say it cannot be, Partner Terk.”
Terk muttered something under his breath that sounded like: “Featherhead.”
Bowman stood, paced a few steps, then turned to look at them. “Things are happening among the Clan,” she said, heavily. “Dangerous things. The key is Barac’s mysterious companion.”
“He’s gone to find her,” Terk rumbled, unaffected by his partner’s optimism. “Probably teleported right to her.” For a moment, he looked wistful.
Bowman shook her head, eyes bright. “I know them, Terk. I know how they think. Barac had put aside his brother’s murder because of this woman. Why is she so important? Someone arranged an almost foolproof attack. Who was the target—Sarc, or was it her? While we’ve no proof they can all teleport, certainly Barac has that ability. So why didn’t he use this ability when attacked? Was it because of the woman?
“No,” Bowman continued, “I think our Clansman, for whatever reason, is worried that he won’t be able to find her easily. That’s going to be to our advantage.”
“What do you want us to do, Commander?” ’Whix asked.
“Want?” Bowman’s smile grew predatory. “I want you to find her first.”
Chapter 2
VOICES brought me back to myself, anxious voices arguing in heated whispers so close I could smell ammonia on the breath of one. “—gonna get caught. This was a stupid idea.”
“You worry too much.”
“And you’re a greedy fool. I told you to make sure you doped ’em all before shipment. So what do you do with this one? What do you think will happen when Smegard finds out?”
“He won’t find out. Dregs die in sleep passage all the time. Come on, we don’t have much time.” I kept limp as rough careless hands picked me up, not daring to open my eyes. The voices were familiar—the recruiters from the alleyway. I somehow doubted they’d believe me if I protested I had no skills to sell. Or care.
They dropped me onto some flat surface and I bit back a cry. Something heavy and dusty was thrown over me. I remained limp, opening one eye a tiny crack only to be met by total darkness. The surface under me began to move slowly, with a rhythmic mutter of machinery. I felt around cautiously, stretching out the fingers of one hand in slow motion. Where were the Auordians now?
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