Chapter 64 Hat

        It was still morning in Bridges when Porett called Wineman, but mid-afternoon in Trilith. He was meant to be meeting some Lowlanders Wineman had organised for lunch, so he hadn't eaten and his stomach was getting noisy. This would be the Trans/Disc project's farthest ever exchange, but he knew it would work, the linking was handled the same way as for comspheres. Might be disorienting if he stayed for long, going to bed some hours later than normal, but he wouldn't be there more than half a day before returning. He'd planned that anyway, but had pressure now, news that Magicorp had bought out the Soatian arm of Khrov, the cosmetics people. Probably their response to his acquiring Farmer's team at East/Trad, strengthening their own illusion research group. Better make sure there's nothing else behind it, though. Maybe also find out why this was the first he'd known of it...
        Both Trans/Disc boxes had built-in comspheres, only model 1s but good enough to check out destinations before arrival, all that was ever needed. He looked in, found Wineman just entering the room.
        "Lauss, good to see you."
        Wineman wandered over to the open comsphere. "Yes, good, it's good, good to see you. Too."
        Porett smiled, falsely. "Sorry for the delay, I'm ready now, how's it your end?"
        Wineman looked around, absently. "Fine, you'll like it, it's warm."
        "I'll begin the gestures then, see you in person shortly." First thing I'll do when I've found my feet is get a local manager who doesn't sop his head with disposition-enhancers.
        "I'll listen for the breeze of your arrival."

* * *

        He kept his eyes open as he completed the gestures, lying on his back in the box. One moment he saw the high, vaulted ceiling of the south turret in his mansion, and the next it was the cobwebbed wooden beams of a Lowlandic warehouse. Seamless join, no odd effects. He sat up.
        Lauss held out his hand, shook Porett's energetically, smiling, always smiling. "I'm so glad to have you with us, Lord Porett. Talking through the spheres is as whispering to a ghost."
        "I'll take your word for it..." He freed his hand, climbed out of his coffin.
        "We can walk to the restaurant, think about things, unfade memories bleached by the sun of life."
        "Whatever you say..." I wasn't really listening. "Hold on, let me stitch a binder on the door; I know you people don't need locks but I'd hate to be marooned here."
        "If it pleases you, it pleases me."

* * *

        There were four other people at lunch, acquaintances of Wineman. So, though, were most other Lowlanders, judging by the number of times the man had waved, chatted to, complimented folk he'd passed in the street on the way here. They couldn't all have been strangers, could they?
        Porett speedily outlined his requirements: a trained unit, equipped and ready to move in four days. He was eager to start eating - service was slow, but he gnawed at a bread roll, bribed his belly to quit complaining. Three of his newly-introduced dining companions, the men, were clearly riding on some kind of drug, not so recently taken as Wineman's indulgence, but enough trace to take the edge off them, make them wander. The woman was Akrean, name of Malva. To Porett's eyes, if not to theirs, she regarded her fellow captains with complete contempt, and had total confidence that Porett would select her as his local leader in preference to any soft degenerate. This, he did, and even before he'd finished his soup. She knew, but for appearances' sake he kept up the sham that it was a difficult choice and that any one of them could have done it really, and that she only got the job in the end because his imported fighters would be mainly Akreans and might be more `empathic' to her. They understood that.
        Afterwards, he left Wineman to supervise the unloading of yesterday's coffee shipment, and agreed to let Malva show him some of the sights of Bridges.
        They were walking alongside what used to be a canal, was now a sunken park, trees sprouting unexpectedly from way below. Porett began to probe, gently, make surer he could trust her. "So, how long have you been in Seesel?"
        She hmmed. "Five years, coming up to six. It's well enough, there's work."
        "That long? I'm surprised you can bear all the niceness - it's getting to me, and I've only been here a couple of hours."
        "I tolerate the Lowlanders because they tolerate me. In Akrea, my kind is shunned. I sleep with women." Matter-of-factly, "Does that shock you?"
        It did. "Why should it? So do I!" Well I would, given the chance.
        She flickered a smile, the first sign of emotion he'd seen in her. Must hear that line quite often. She wasn't as tall as most Akreans, and her hair was straighter, probably treated, make her look more like a local. Still had an Akrean accent, though. How old would she be, twenty-nine, thirty? Hard to tell with warriors, they age so fast.
        "How many people do you have?" he asked.
        "Some are on other assignments: Lauss told me you wanted ten for this, ten is all I have free at short notice."
        "Two or three, but they're good, ex-army, they're off the Bliss. Most are immigrants, like me, running from somewhere for some reason, got accepted here."
        "Any Elets?"
        She sneered, he wasn't sure whether at his remark itself or at mention of the Elets. "No chance."
        "It's not a problem. As I said at lunch, after we've gone into details it might be that we could need more personnel. How would you feel about coming to Estavia tomorrow, pick some people who'll fit in? I've arranged to look over some Akrean mercenaries presently stranded in Trilith."
        "How do we get there?"
        She nodded, once. "So long as I can get back quickly if there's trouble. Don't want to have to kill anyone who knows me."
        "It'll be safe enough. I've arranged for several mages to be around when we're interviewing."
        "Mages?" She laughed, scornfully. "What use are they against steel?"
        Porett stopped walking, waited `til she turned. She put her hands on her hips.
        "If you're to work with me on this," he announced, slowly, "don't ever doubt the efficacy of magic. Ever."
        Her upper lip was still curled. "It's not fast enough, it needs time. One on one, I could take you before you'd got halfway to anything."
        He slipped his left hand into his pocket, nonchalant. "Try it."
        She froze a moment, caught his gaze, he could see her thinking, "Did he mean it?" Yes. She went for her dagger, he flicked out right-hand gestures but she'd thrown it before he could release, aimed for the shoulder, enough to put him out for a week, nothing permanent.
        The point of the knife rammed into his arm, he was twisted back, but carried on the spell, avoiding the blade as it fell to his feet. "Point armour," he said, calm. Out of his hand flashed a brilliant white light, dazzling the astonished Malva. "Conley light-prime." From his left- side pocket he snatched a cloth tab, slapped it on her shoulder, whipped away his hand in time to avoid the explosion. She yelped, grabbed at the wound. "Blow shot. If I'd put it on your neck, you'd be dead."
        She winced as her eyesight returned, could see her injury. "Damn the hell! I'm missing flesh!"
        Porett fumbled around inside his jacket, found a wrap-pouch, bit off a corner. "White gel, hold still, let me apply it." He squeezed gently, watched as a small glob appeared at the makeshift nozzle. He passed her the rest. "It'll ooze in, put some more on every hour or so, about the size of a pea, don't rub it. When you wake up tomorrow, you'll be right as ever."
        Cautiously, she lowered her arm, ready for the pain that never came. She bent down, picked up her dagger. "Why didn't the flash blind you, too?"
        He pulled at his lower eyelid, showed her, grinning gro- tesquely. "I'm wearing lenses, they reflect away all excess light, I can look directly at the sun if I want."
        She nodded, accepting. "If all your mages are thus endowed, why are you recruiting mercs?"
        "Well," he discarded the backing paper he'd creased off the blow shot, "there's a chance that, at times on this mission, magic won't work."
        She looked up, smiled.

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: isif64.htm