Chapter 3

            And somehow I found myself back out the door with a priceless parchment and no money. Of all the things Neith warned me about, she’d never mentioned small print. Huffing a sigh, I pulled my comp from my belt and checked the directions. Time to start walking if I wanted to get paid today.
            At least the skywalk had a nice view. As I trudged along, I watched the various floats go by. Some of them zipped by fast enough to pull my clothing with the wind they created. Hardly something I’d have called a float. “Float” implied slow. I could practically feel the flick on my ear from Neith along with a scolding, reminding me that they went much slower when they were first invented. I smiled wistfully. It would’ve been worth the scolding to see her. The more complicated things got here, the more I longed for home.
            Warned by a growing whirr, I raised a hand to block the blowback as a float landed next to the skywalk. Brushing the hair out of my face as I moved on, I nearly tripped as I caught movement from the corner of my eyes. Brushing my hair back again, I peeked casually under my hand. The float was still there. It was moving in pace with me – not an easy thing for a fast-moving vehicle to do.
            What now? A mugging? The only thing I had of any value was the parchment. No. Surely a fancy float like that belonged to someone important.
            Even as I thought it, the door field dissolved, revealing cushy seats and Ter Dryst. I sighed with relief, then frowned.
            “Get in,” he said it with such quiet authority that I was obeying before I could think. Stumbling to a halt, I shook myself.
            “Why?” I asked cautiously. “Sir.”
            His lips twisted in what might’ve been a smile. It was gone so quickly that I doubted what I’d seen.
            “Ter Fless asked that I escort you.”
            This obviously powerful man was acting as my chauffeur? Just who was this Ter Fless? Something of the doubt and astonishment must have shown on my face. Again, that flash of a smile.
            “You won’t be able to reach Ter Fless’ on foot.”
            For all that he said it in that same uncaring tone, he’d backed me into a corner. And I had a glaring suspicion he’d done it on purpose.
            “It’s your bad luck,” I mumbled under my breath as I got into the float. The way this day was going, we’d get in a wreck, and I’d be blamed posthumously.
            As the door field reformed, the luxurious seat adjusted, conforming to my body and exerting exactly the right amount of pressure in all the right places. It was both extremely comfortable and slightly disturbing. The fact that I could probably buy the Whisp a total overhaul for the cost of one seat was even more disturbing  – make that nerve-wracking. Subtly, I counted the seats. There were four. Whatever this man was, he was not an average deathwalker.
            I sat and pondered in silence as he drove. He didn’t seem inclined to start a conversation. And his demeanor certainly didn’t invite one. A string of unanswered questions paraded through my mind. One by one, I dismissed them, deciding that the safest course for the moment was to keep my mouth shut and pay attention.
            Paying attention was not particularly difficult. While the Kaihmi were not especially poor, we spent our money on more practical items, not opulent toys like floats. Since stealing was taboo (including “borrowing” without permission), I had never had the opportunity to zip through a city at high speed. Space, yes, but space ships weren’t made to maneuver in tight spaces. This float was sleek and stream-lined. It whipped around corners and through tiny openings, blurring the passing buildings in a way that was exhilarating to say the least. I couldn’t help but wish that I was riding with my cousins so that I could yell and whoop with the pleasure of the movement. Instead, I had to sit perfectly still and silent.
            Well, not perfectly still. I was still a little too jittery from the accusations earlier to be that calm. My right knee jiggled up and down constantly. When I noticed and forced it still, my fingers beat erratic patterns on my side. I glanced at Dryst out of the corner of my eye. Had he noticed? He didn’t seem to be paying me any attention. I heaved a silent sigh and relaxed slightly.
            The sudden growl of my stomach echoed in the quiet float. Wincing, I risked another glance. His eyebrows were up again. But he said nothing. Was he even human? My leg began to bounce again. So did my fingers.
            “Excuse me, sir,” I blurted, unable to contain myself any longer. “But who are you exactly?”
            He executed a tight turn so fast that the force pressed me against the fancy seat.
            “It’s a little late to ask,” he replied dryly in the sudden dark of a narrow tunnel. “We’re here.”
            The float stopped with a suddenness that slapped me back so fast that the fancy seat barely adjusted in time. A huge CarbonCoreTM mesh gate towered inches from the float’s nose. There was no visible scanner. Of course, the dim blue lights of the tunnel weren’t conducive for seeing much of anything.
            Even as I opened my mouth to ask if this was the here he meant, the gate swung open inwardly, and I was blinded by a flood of light. Feeling the float moving forward, I blinked rapidly to try to clear my vision and then stared dumbly.
            And I thought I was nervous before.
            I had expected a mansion, something expensive and intimidating. What I saw was a compound. Fields of flora spread out to either side until they we ran into a vast wall. There were hundreds of different colors along with shades of green that I had never seen before. And the land! The entire city could practically fit in these walls. Of course, the house in the middle could probably have held most of the people from the city. At least half.
            Not only was it huge, especially by Kaihmi standards, but it also had an Old-World feel that simply wasn’t used anymore. I had never seen it outside of books or old shells that had somehow survived back on Earth or New Earth. People simply didn’t decorate their houses like that now. They couldn’t. It was nearly impossible with the new interstellar building standards. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could manage to build a place like this. Or why people weren’t knocking at the gates to see it.
            Unless they didn’t know it was there. I frowned. But we’d have to be completely out of sight of the city for that to happen. How far had we traveled in that tunnel?
            Eyebrows furrowed, I peered back behind me. The towering shadows of the city were visible but distant. People in the city should be able to see it. Come to think of it, I should’ve seen it as Whisp danced through the entry field. My eyes narrowed and I leaned forward as far as I could to look up. I could see the sky and the ships moving as they landed. I turned my head, trying to see the walls from a different angle.
            “Figure it out yet?” The laconic voice startled me so that I jumped and hit my head on the float’s ceiling. “Maybe you’re not so slow after all. Not many people ever think to look.”
            My head hurt, and the back of my neck heated as I realized that I’d been practically crawling around his float – I’d gotten so caught up that I’d completely forgotten he was there. Before I could catch my scattered wits, his door field had already dissolved, and he was out of the float. I nearly fell out of my side in my hurry to catch up.
            “It’s LightBlock isn’t it?” I asked quickly, trying to show that I wasn’t a complete rube. “A whole dome of it.” I had seen a dome during the flight in. It was the only explanation I could think of that made sense.
            He stopped and gave me a long considering stare. It was the first time I’d actually seen surprise on his face.
            “You’ve heard of LightBlock?” he asked instead of answering my question.
            Actually, the new factory head had hired Neith to talk to the inventor, who had unfortunately died before sharing the secret of the technology with his son. It was the first deathwalk Neith had let me sit in on, so I remembered it vividly although I hadn’t understood all the nuances at the time. But the son had been nice, so I was glad to see he’d gotten everything working.
            I didn’t say that though. Neith had recommended (ordered) me to never mention her name to the Ialuans, especially deathwalkers. So as much as I wanted to see Ter Dryst’s reaction to the story, I simply nodded instead.
            He considered me with cold, pale eyes for interminable instant. Then, he turned and silently led the way into the giant anachronism. Nonplussed, I gaped at his back for a moment then scurried to catch up. I had met dead men who were better conversationalists.
            We were almost to the door when movement caught my narrowed eyes, and I slowed. There was a bot patrolling the plants. Its outer shell was dark and matte – almost completely unreflective. Unless it moved, it was hard to see with so many bright plants to catch the eye. A quick glance over my shoulder revealed similar dark shadows, scattered among the fields. Too many for agriculture. Frowning, I turned my back to them and stepped inside.
            The inside was a surprise. From the expense and ornament of the exterior, I had expected a display of priceless paintings and pieces from across the galaxy, perhaps even from Old Earth. Instead, the walls were plain white, and the artwork hanging on the huge, double-height wall was from a recently discovered artist I had seen discussed on the news. As we walked through, I could see that the style of the house was fairly ancient (streamlined white with dashes of color), but the materials and furnishings were all modern. I saw no sign of the antiques the house seemed to call for until we had gone up the stairs and through a broad set of double doors.
            Here was the extravagance that I expected. Centuries-old paintings hung preserved in Sel-ar cases. Pots stood inside similar squares of light. And the floor itself was wood. Actual wood. Although I had never seen it before, I did not have to scan it to be sure. It was ancient with the low hum of the dead that only Deathwalkers could hear. I stared at it through the protective covering and wished fleetingly that it had learned to talk when alive. I had a long list of questions I’d like to ask it.
            “It is tempting, isn’t it?” the deep cultured tones broke the silence. Ter Dryst couldn’t have surprised me more if he’d hit me. Well, maybe a little. When I gawked at him, his lips quirked again. “Don’t look so surprised. Any true deathwalker would feel the pull.”
            “I was more surprised that you talked without prompting.”
            The words were out before I could think to stop them. Then, it was too late. The cold eyes widened, and then, Ter Dryst did the last thing I would have expected: he laughed. He threw back his head and laughed. At that moment, the dead of nine undiscovered planets could have paraded by, and I would not have noticed.
            “My apologies, Deathwalker Sephtis,” he said. “Ter Fless requested that I be terse with you until we arrived here.” He walked to me and held out his hand in an ancient, long-forgotten gesture. Blinking, I reached out my hand and shook his.
            “So you were testing me?”
            “Somewhat, yes, and again now,” he gestured at our joined hands before releasing me. “Many of our best read deathwalkers would not know this tradition outside of books.”
            There was a question hidden there, but I blurted the question bouncing around my head instead.
            “Are all deathwalker jobs like this here?”
            “No, Sephtis.” His almost paternal use of my first name raised all kinds of alarms in my head. “This job is rather special.”
            “Kau understates the situation, as usual.” The light, humorous response came from behind us. I was too worried about what made the job special to register the new voice for a second. When I did, it took me another instant to realize that Kau must be Ter Dryst’s first name. To dare to call Ter Dryst by his first name – this must be Ter Fless.
            I turned, scrambling to make my expression studious and trustworthy while absorbing as much as I could about my mysterious employer. The first glance didn’t tell me much. He was a bit taller than I expected, closer to 1.8 meters than the 1.5 that was more common for Ialuans. His clothing reflected the design of his home: his shirt and trousers were different colors with a dark gray on the bottom and a brighter blue on top. I had only seen the style in books from that era, but I had no doubt that the strange material was authentic and likely hideously expensive.
            As I examined him, I once again formed the Kaihmi gesture of respect. His face lit with pleasure.  I nearly smiled back. His friendly, open face made Ter Dryst look like a statue.
            “Deathwalker Sephtis, this is Ter Fless,” Ter Dryst’s low voice held a hint of irony as he made the introduction. Ter Fless held out his hand, and I released the salute to shake his as I had Ter Dryst’s a moment before. That marked both the first and second time I had seen that gesture outside of a book.
            “Kau is right. You have a remarkable knowledge for a new deathwalker,” Ter Fless said as we shook. “Especially for someone so young.”
            I wasn’t sure what to say to that.
            “Is it so unusual here?” I asked, hoping to shift the conversation away from myself.
            “You do not think so?” Ter Fless smiled genially. “Tell me, Kau, how many deathwalkers you think could successfully talk to Tomas on their own.”
            They both blatantly scrutinized me in way that was disconcerting to say the least. Ter Fless with that slight smile, and Ter Dryst in his usual clinical manner.
            “Perhaps half the licensed deathwalkers could have spoken to him in a team of two or more,” he replied after a moment. “Several of the higher level deathwalkers could have on their own with appropriate study. For any to succeed without study on their first deathwalk-”
            “Here.” I interrupted hastily. “It was my first deathwalk here.”
            As tempting as it was to let them think I was a prodigy, this was headed in a direction that sounded downright dangerous. I didn’t want them thinking I was capable of doing something I wasn’t. As Neith would say, “Blow enough hot air, and you’re bound to get burned.”
            The startled silence was surprisingly cold.
            “You’ve done deathwalks before?”
            I was getting better at reading Ter Dryst’s tones, and there was a definite edge under the neutrality. Ter Fless’ smile disappeared, and he glanced at Ter Dryst with a frown. My heart rate spiked, and my brain spluttered. Oh, spectre shit. Deathwalking without a license was illegal here.
            “No. That is, yes,” I spluttered, took a deep breath, and tried again. “I have done deathwalks but not in this system.”
            As the air warmed, I managed not to collapse in a relieved pile, but I hoped that would be the last legal threat today. The continuous spikes of adrenaline were frazzling my brain like an overheated ship’s computer. I was almost ready to go home and work for Aunt Apikalia.
            “We have never had a Deathwalker from among the Kaihmi before. You are licensed with them, as well?” Ter Fless asked brightly as if the awkward moment had never happened.
            “Not exactly,” I hedged. “The Kaihmi do not have formal deathwalking laws.” Probably because I was the first one they’d had. At least in our clan’s records. “We follow the laws of whatever system we are in.”
            That was probably true. I kept my expression neutral. Neith could have been guiding Great-Uncle to systems that had looser laws. Or she could have been ignoring the laws and not telling me. It was Neith after all.
            “So what system’s school were you in?” Ter Fless with cheerful interest.
            “It wasn’t a formal school,” I answered cautiously, glancing at Ter Dryst. His face was impassive, and his continued silence was a sharp contrast to Ter Fless’ chatter.
            “No?” Ter Fless sounded slightly alarmed, and I immediately gave him my full attention.
            “It was more of an apprenticeship,” I explained, resolving to ignore the tense silence of Ter Dryst. “Students go on deathwalks with experienced deathwalkers. At the same time, they study the history of different cultures.”
            That was also true, or at least, it was more of an exaggeration than a lie. “They” was a bit of a stretch, but I decided it could be considered a generalization. Technically, Neith and I counted as plural, right?
            He was frowning again. I considered changing the topic by asking about the job they’d brought me here for. I glanced at Ter Dryst. What was it he’d said? That this job was… was it special? That’s what came to mind, but I wasn’t sure I remembered right.
            “So you wouldn’t have studied Origin history,” Ter Fless said slowly. I wasn’t sure if it was a question or if he was thinking out loud.
            “Um,” I stalled as I tried to figure out what he meant, “I believe we covered the main histories of the nearby systems and Earth.” Was that it?
            “No, no,” he waved that away, “Origin history. The history of deathwalking.”
            I blinked at him.
            “He means how tinkering with genetics led to deathwalking abilities,” Ter Dryst inserted in the dry, exasperated tone of a man tired of hearing people dance around a topic. Ter Fless didn’t quite wince, but he looked like he wanted to. I hoped my expression didn’t show my unease so clearly.
            “‘Tinkering’ is such a harsh word,” he objected weakly with a reproachful glance at Ter Dryst. He turned back to me, “But, yes, that is what I meant. The origin of deathwalking abilities. Was that part of your studies?”
            Now, I was caught between my greed (or hunger) and Neith’s advice about being honest about my abilities. Oh, well. It was nice while it lasted.
            “We did,” I hedged, “but although I understand the basic concepts, science is not my best subject.” I admitted and smiled apologetically. “I do know that genetic… adjustments eventually led to the deathwalking mutation.” Between finding another word for “tinkering” and remembering the word “mutation,” I was pretty proud of how scientific that sounded.
            Ter Fless’ sigh was less than impressed. On the other hand, Ter Dryst was looking quietly amused again, which was much less nerve-wracking than his silent intimidation.
            “I suppose that is accurate as far as it goes,” Ter Fless allowed and turned to walk to the back of the room. Ter Dryst made a terse gesture after him, and I scrambled to obey although it was difficult not to be distracted by the relics we passed. “The lead in charge of the project was a geneticist named Dr. Cruz. The good doctor did her best to save humanity and help us survive space travel.”
            He stopped in front of the only blank wall and looked at me expectantly. I nodded hurriedly. This much I knew. Satisfied that I was paying attention, he continued on like a history-lover who rarely found an audience willing to listen.
            “Yes, that is the standard history taught. But what happened to the good doctor afterward?” he looked at me again, and I had no answer. He seemed pleased by that, as well. “Perhaps you have heard the Old World saying about the road to Hell?”
            Even as I nodded, Ter Dryst quoted softly.
            “The road to Hell is well-paved with good intentions.”
            A shiver ran down my spine, yet Ter Fless seemed positively gleeful.
            “Oh, it is so nice to speak with Deathwalkers!” he beamed. I thought for a moment that he would clap his hands together with excitement. “No one else ever recognizes my references.”
            He immediately launched into a story about a group of businessmen he had been entertaining who had finally requested an interpreter, assuming his strange phrases and words must be part of some unique dialect. Under other conditions, the story would have been hilarious. With my stomach trying to eat its way out of my insides, it was a lot harder to laugh along or even follow along. The constant nerves from the last few hours had only made the gnawing sensation worse, and my head was starting to feel fuzzy and strange. As if I was floating instead of standing.
            And of course, right as he finished and looked at me expectantly, my stomach growled so loudly that I instinctively glanced down to see if it had actually eaten its way to the outside. When I caught his startled expression, I almost wished it had. This was not my idea of making a good impression.
            Heat rose on the back of my neck as Ter Fless blinked at me. I opened my mouth but was at a loss for what to say. A cough drew our attention to Ter Dryst. Despite his bland expression, I swore I could see the amusement leaking through. I mentally winced and braced myself for a dry remark.
            “Perhaps, we should move ahead, Ter Fless,” he said instead. Ter Fless blinked a moment more before nodding enthusiastically.
            “Of course, you’re right. Deathwalker Sephtis will have little enough time as it is,” he agreed merrily, as if the embarrassing interruption had never occurred.
            Time for what? My treacherous stomach dropped, and I wished futilely that my brain would work again. Ter Fless gestured at the wall, and it lit with a map of the system. It was my turn to blink as my brain struggled to catch up.
            “As you can see, the gravesite is just outside our system. The round-trip should take no more than a month.”
            “Assuming that he can get the good doctor to cooperate,” Ter Dryst interjected dryly.
            Ter Fless waved that aside with a degree of faith in my abilities that I was finding more and more disturbing – although not quite as disturbing as the map. Millenia ago, the area he’d gestured to would have been left blank except for the words, “Here be monsters.”
            “That area’s uncharted,” I blurted, staring at it with a mix of blatant horror and illicit excitement. To be the first deathwalker in an uncharted sector? That would either get me famous or dead very quickly. Possibly both.
            “Officially, yes,” Ter Fless admitted, “scans showed little incentive for settling in that direction, and since the Deists held the senate when the vote was raised, we have basically left the inhabitants alone.”
            I bit back the urge to ask if that was really the party name. Ter Fless also hesitated, lingering over his next words as if choosing them carefully.
            “However, the Carbon Core Convoy has done some… limited trading within those restrictions.”
            In other words, smuggling but not. Ter Fless was certainly clever and knowledgeable enough to stay within the letter of the law while completely violating the intent.
            “What Ter Fless is trying to say is that several of his ships are familiar with the planet,” Ter Dryst interrupted. He seemed to loathe wasting time – or roundabout conversations. I really wasn’t sure which. And I was a little too busy absorbing the fact that Ter Fless apparently owned Carbon Core to care.
            “More or less,” Ter Fless acknowledged reluctantly before moving on hurriedly. “The crew is readying as we speak. She leaves in 3 I.S.H., and there’s a cabin prepped for you. What do you say?”
            Swallowing down the instinctive “Yes!” I tried to appear professional and consider my options. And the practicalities. As much as I wanted to offer to fly myself, it would be foolhardy to refuse an experienced crew with an uncharted system. Plus, even the payment for the Tomas job (if I ever got it) wouldn’t cover the fuel and supplies for that trip. My only option was to run and get the Whisp into a long-term docking contract before I had to board.
            If I took the job. Obviously, it would be a great career move – impressing Ter Fless and Ter Dryst would basically make my reputation on Ialu. My only problem was how to ask about money – both already owed and the fee for the new job. So far, Ter Fless hadn’t mentioned it at all. I cleared my throat.
            “It is definitely an interesting proposition, sir,” I started excruciatingly politely, “but what did you say the fee for this job would be? And would it pay upon completion or upon my return here as with the Tomas case?” I was kind of proud of how I mentioned the Tomas case without obviously stating he hadn’t paid me yet.
            To my surprise, Ter Fless turned to Ter Dryst with an exclamation of delight.
            “I told you he would not forget, Kau!” He chortled. Turning back to me, he explained, “Kau insisted you would agree without discussing your payment.” He wagged a finger at Ter Dryst who seemed completely unperturbed.
            “I am pleasantly surprised,” was his only response.
            “Your meals and transport will be covered, and as for pay, shall we say triple the fee for talking to Tomas?” Ter Fless said it so offhandedly, my jaw wanted to drop. “Payment to be received on turning in the answers to me here, just as the Tomas case. Feel free to check and be sure it has posted to your account.”
            It took an instant for me to realize the last was referring to the payment for talking to Tomas. When they both continued to look at me expectantly, I shifted uneasily. It looked like I had no choice but to check in front of them.
            Reluctantly, I clapped the fingers of my left hand against my palm sharply to activate the implants and then spread them wide as a screen of light appeared between them. An alert bounced across the screen, announcing the payment from the guild. Satisfied, I clapped the fingers down again, and the light faded away. It was my first time using it in front of strangers – that seemed like a good way to lose a hand – and the pressure of their interested attention made my skin crawl.
            “You surprise me again, Deathwalker Sephtis,” Ter Fless said in a soft, wondering tone. “Is this technology common among the Kaihmi?”
            “No, sir,” I replied. I wanted to stop there, but their expressions demanded more. “It’s a new technology developing on Velius. It’s still a prototype – I’m testing it out for them.” The deal had been a bonus for a successful deathwalk, but I didn’t think they needed to know that. And I was cursing myself for leaving my old compwatch on Whisp.
            “Velius… I don’t believe I’m familiar with that planet.” Ter Fless threw Ter Dryst a questioning look. Ter Dryst shook his head minutely. I could see the wheels turning in Ter Fless’ head and jumped to head them off.
            “Perhaps I can tell you more about it when I return,” I suggested hastily and rushed on. “From what you said, I need to hurry.”
            His whole face lit up, and I could see that Velius was forgotten instantly.
            “You’ll take the job, then?” He beamed and held out his hand. It made me smile.
            “Yes, sir.”
            In an ancient gesture, we shook hands and sealed the deal.

Continue to the next chapter…

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