Cover image for A working of stars
A working of stars
Doyle, Debra, 1952-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : TOR, 2002.
Physical Description:
364 pages ; 25 cm
General Note:
"A Tom Doherty Associates book."
Program Information:
Accelerated Reader AR UG 6.6 18.0 75479.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



The new novel in the sweeping Mageworlds series. On the planet Entibor, Arekhon sus-Khalgath sus Peledaen has found shelter and domestic tranquility with his old love, Elaeli Inadi, at the price of what he had left behind: a dispersed and shattered Mage-Circle, an estranged brother who had tried to kill him, and a homeworld on the cusp of massive cultural upheaval.Arekhon finds himself impelled homeward by strange dreams and prophetic visions. The Great Working-the effort to do the unthinkable and reunite a galaxy long sundered by the Gap Between-remains incomplete, left unfinished in the aftermath of the dissolution of Arehkon's Mage-Circle. But too much energy and too many lives have been poured into the Working already; and it cannot end so long as any of the Circle members remain alive and bound into it.Home, unfortunately, isn't a safe place for Arehkon to be at the moment. For Eraasi has changed-and the great fleet families at the center of the Eraasian culture are girding for war.

Author Notes

Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald live in Colebrook, New Hampshire. Their previous SF novels include The Price of the Stars, Starpilot's Grave, By Honor Betray'd, The Gathering Flame, The Long Hunt, and The Stars Asunder . Their fantasy novel, Knight's Wyrd , won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

The prolific Doyle-Macdonald collaboration continues its far-future saga in a manner reminiscent of Star Wars--with one foot in sf and the other in fantasy. Resuming where The Stars Asunder(1999)left off, the team gives us Arekhon, exiled from his native Eraasian system to the far side of the Gap Between. He is content on Entibor, however, with his longtime lover, Elaeli Inadi, and nobody trying to assassinate or scheme against him. Unfortunately, his withdrawal from the Mage-Circles threatens a remarkable project, that of closing the Gap Between and making one galaxy of two that are now far, far away from one another. The effort has gone too far to halt, and, without Arekhon's support, will become more menace than hope. But Arekhon can support it only by leaving Elaeli and living in danger again. More action- than character-centered, this is imaginative, intelligent, fast-paced space opera, in the positive sense of the term. Roland Green.

Publisher's Weekly Review

Hold on to your phasers and space helmets, Trekkies and Star Wars fans all: here comes the latest Mageworld installment from Doyle and Macdonald about a rousing attempt to reunite an entire galaxy that's been magically sundered by the Gap Between. For the uninitiated, though, arriving in the middle of this complicated series can be daunting. Scattered across planetary systems 100 light years apart, remnants of great Magelord Garrod syn-Aigal sus-Demaizen's wizardly Mage-Circle, shattered by the treachery of Kief Diasul, are beginning to stir. Their leader, Arekhon sus-Khalgath sus-Peledaen, beset by prophetic dreams of reactivating the Great Working, is now on the planet Entibor, serving his lover, Elaeli, as her security chief. He traces the exiled members of Garrod's Mage-Circle and, abetted by a mysterious woman Void-Walker, they launch a dizzying expedition bent on returning to his home world, Eraasi, to defeat the vast power of Arekhon's estranged brother, Natelth, and his conniving scientist sister, Isayana. Besides the jaw-breaking character names and the violent bloodletting of the "workings" needed to move a chase-oriented plot along, keeping the planetary locales straight can be as taxing as untangling the various shifting relationships among the star-lord, agricultural and merchant families. Nonetheless, the authors occasionally manage a bright note of genuine human warmth in the chilly reaches of outer space, as well as offering plenty of action in this rapid-fire blend of sorcery and SF. (Apr. 23) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Having left his native planet of Eraasi and started a new life on the distant world of Entibor with his beloved Elaeli Inadi, Arekhon Sus-Khalgath sus-Peledaen finds himself called by dreams to return to his home and complete a cycle begun but not finished by his Mage-Circle. On Eraasi, however, Arekhon learns that the great-fleet families lie poised on the brink of war and no one's life is safe including his own. The seventh installment of the "Mageworlds" series (The Stars Asunder, etc.) combines swashbuckling space opera with romance and intrigue. A good choice, along with other series titles, for most libraries. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

Adult/High School-In this seventh "Mageworld" volume, Arekhon sus-Khalgath sus-Peledaen must deal with some unfinished business concerning the Great Working, crossing the Gap to return to a life he'd rather have left behind. Building on story lines introduced in previous novels, this entry in the series is must reading for those who have been following this well-written, complex fantasy-science-fiction saga, but it would not be a good place for new readers to jump in.-Christine C. Menefee, Fairfax County Public Library, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



1: Eraasi: Demaizen Old Hall; Demaizen Town; Eraasian Farspace Entibor: Rosselin Cottage Herin Arayet sus-Dariv took his rented groundcar around the last curve on the uphill drive to Demaizen Old Hall. The burnt-out shell of the ruined building reared up against the sky ahead of him. A little later, he saw a line of rusting metal hulks drawn up in good order on the overgrown gravel driveway, with clingvine spreading over them and tall stalks of field weeds springing up around their treads. He slowed the groundcar into a careful approach. He's taken his usual precautions before setting out on today's errand-a pocket-pistol concealed inside his jacket, a knife hidden up his sleeve, a note to the family's Agent-Principal filed among his personal effects-but he knew that against Magecraft, such measures would do him little good. And whatever had happened to the line of blasted and shattered assault vehicles had been a Mage's work. Nobody knew, or at least nobody admitted in public to knowing, exactly who had sent the private assault team up against Garrod syn-Aigal and his Circle. T The incident had taken place during the period of civil unrest that had disturbed Eraasi's main continent over ten years before; but Demaizen had been an independent Circle during that period, supported by Garrod's private fortune and not tied formally to any particular faction or institution. True, they'd had an informal connection to the sus-Peledaen fleet-family-Lord Natelth's younger brother had been one of the Demaizen Mages, and members of the Circle had taken part in the sus-Peledaen exploratory voyage to the far side of the interstellar gap-but such a connection should have given Demaizen more protection, rather than less. The one thing Herin could say for certain about he attack was that neither side had survived the encounter, and that no guilty parties had revealed themselves by coming in to clean things up afterward. The house and grounds has passed into the hands of the Wide Hills District Wildlife Protection League, according to Lord Garrod's testamentary wishes; and the League so far had operated strictly within the boundaries of its charter, leaving the ruined Hall untouched. Herin wasn't surprised. What the Mages wanted had a way of happening. Garrod had wanted the Old Hall left alone, and alone it stayed, unaltered except by the elements. No graffiti marked its smoke-stained walls, and no empty cans or broken bottles littered the shadowed ground beneath. Even the local adolescents, it seemed, chose to go elsewhere for their amateur debaucheries. He left his groundcar parked in the driveway and made his way up the front steps of the Hall and through the great, broken doors. Inside was more destruction, cracked brick and burnt wood and more than once a disturbing glimpse of something that looked like bone. He found the door that his contact had told him about, a small one that opened onto a service stairway, and started down the narrow steps into the basement. "Syr Arayet." The voice came from the darkness ahead of him. It was low and not unpleasant-a woman's voice, he thought. A moment later, a light came on in the corridor. After a few seconds, he realized that the pale, apparently sourceless glow actually came from a Mage's staff in the woman's right hand. He couldn't see her face, and it took him another few seconds to realize that the blank, reflective darkness underneath the hood of her black cloak was in fact a spacer's shipcombat hardmask. " Etaze ," he said, using the term of respect for a Magelord of high rank. Maybe this one was merely somebody's Circle-Mage, disaffected enough to send along a request for a personal meeting. But if she was not-if she was the First or even the Second of a major Circle, whether in Hanilat or in one of the fleets-then she would need polite and careful handling. "Your message reached me only a short while ago. I came as soon as I dared." The woman chuckled, a surprisingly warm sound to come from behind the dark plastic of a combat hardmask. "You mean you came as soon as you'd made sure that my message was genuine. Nobody's ever called you a fool, Syr Arayet." "I must need to work more on my presentation," he said. "What is it you wanted to talk with me about?" "I heard that you were interested in what became of the Demaizen Circle." Herin nodded. "I've only heard the rumors, and I'm curious." "That all happened a long time ago. Why start asking questions about it now?" "Call it a hobby," he said. "The past informs the present, and so forth." There was a long pause. Herin could feel the woman's gaze assessing him from behind the unrevealing hardmask. "A present," she said finally, "in which the sus-Dariv are debating whether or not to deploy private ground security forces as an auxiliary to their fleet arm." He said nothing, tough he was uncomfortably aware that the damp, cobwebby basement of Demaizen Old Hall was the sort of place in which a too-curious researcher could conveniently disappear. Lord Garrod's Circle had died there, as far as anyone could tell, and nobody had come to gather up their bones. Another body moldering away in the dark would probably never be noticed. "Don't worry," she said, as if his hidden trepidation had somehow manifested itself around him like an aura. For all Herin knew, it could have. Mages saw things like that, where other people saw nothing but plain air. "I still have some standards. If I'd wanted to do you harm, I wouldn't have come up with anything half as melodramatic as this." "I'm relieved to hear it, etaze ." "I'm sure you are," she said. "Now for the reason you came here: Ask me your questions, and I'll answer them. At least, as much as I can and may." "Very well," said Herin. "What happened to Lord Garrod's Circle?" "Who sent the killers, do you mean?" "Well, yes." She shrugged. "The first time? No one knows. They"re all dead." "Yes, I know...what do you mean, 'the first time'? There was a second attack?" "When the rest of the Circle came back from across the Gap Between. But the Hall had already burned down by then." Herin felt a brief flicker of intellectual vindication. Investigating the destruction of the Old Hall had been a personal project. If he'd made it official, he would have had some trouble justifying his interest in a bit of recent history that the family's less irregular agents had chosen to overlook. Already, though, he had retrieved an interesting bit of previously uncollected knowledge-two bits, if he counted the implication that the identity of the second group of attackers, unlike that of the first, was not unknown. "You must have a theory about why the initial attack failed," he said. "You think that this--" she used the hand that held the glowing staff to describe a vague circle, presumably meant to include the entirety of the Hall "--was a failure?" "If the attack had been a complete success, somebody would have taken credit for it. Nobody ever did." Herin paused. He'd never intended to keep up his current pose as a hobby-researcher for very long-it was a means of gaining entry, and little more-but he shied away from revealing his true interests quite so bluntly. "I think that whoever sent in the strike team was afraid. Those assault vehicles up there were blasted by Magecraft. They had to have been; there's no record anywhere of the Demaizen Circle having weapons. If one of Lord Garrod's Mages survived long enough to do something like that--" "--then he or she might still be alive," said the woman. "And still angry." "Yes." "A good theory." "I like to think so," said Herin. "What I don't know is who he was." "Or she," said the woman. She gave a quiet laugh. "If it will make your mind easier, I can tell you that it wasn't me." "Can you tell me who--?" "Delath syn-Arvedan died in the first attack," she said. "So did Lord Garrod and Serazao Zuleimem." He knew the names of the Demaizen Circle, both the ones who had stayed behind on Eraasi and the ones who had gone exploring with the sus-Peledaen across the interstellar gap; he'd made it his business to find out when he began his researches. And he could do subtraction in his head as well as any man. "Diasul," he said. "Kiefen Diasul." * * * Iulan Vai stayed behind in the shadows and watched the sus-Dariv agent make his way out of the ruins and back down to the overgrown drive. He'd come to her for this meeting, not the other way around, and she wans't sure what that meant. She'd heard rumors that someone was asking questions about the Old Hall, and about Lord Garrod's Circle-maybe she wasn't the sus-Radal's Agent-Principal anymore, but she hadn't cut all ties with her old contacts in the shadow world of information gathering-and she had taken steps to make certain that the questioner made contact with her. Herin Arayet sus-Dariv had not been what she was expecting. To begin with, he wasn't a hireling. He was a family member from one of the inner lines, and probably well-off enough in his own right that he didn't need to work at all if he lacked the inclination to do so. She wondered what had induced him to take up his peculiar hobby. Was he moved by concern for the family good, or by the pleasure of finding out secret things-or had somebody high up in the inner family trained him for the work? He was suited for it, Vai conceded, at lest inasmuch as nobody would take him at first glance for one of the sus-Dariv. That family ran to slightly built blonds and redheds, especially in the inner lines, and Syr Arayet was dark and wiry and at least a head taller than the average. Something about the man continued to nag at her as she withdrew from the ruins of the Old Hall and made her way back to Demaizen Town. She kept a rented room there, upstairs from an all-night staples-and-sundries shop. The name on the lease wasn't hers, of course, except in the sense that she'd created the identity and used it off and on for over a decade. She'd wanted to have a bolt-hole available somewhere outside of Ganilat, and it had made sense, or so she told herself, to set one up where she could keep an eye on the Old Hall as well. The manager of the sundries shop collected the rent and watched over the place for her when she was absent. The cloak and hardmask Vai had worn at the Old Hall were out of sight in her daypack by the time she reached town. The staff wasn't as easily concealed, so she didn't bother. As far as the townspeople were concerned, her local persona claimed affiliation with a minor Circle someplace in Hanilat, the kind of Circle whose members all had day jobs and only came together for fellowship and the occasional minor working. She stopped in the sundries shop to buy a pack of candles and exchange greetings with the night clerk, then went on upstairs to her room. She'd told the store manager that she was a field investigator for the Wildlife Protection League, using the small apartment as a place to rest and write up reports in between assignments, and she'd fixed up the room with the identity in mind: locally purchased secondhand furniture mixed in with a scattering of folk-art pieces from the Antipodes and the northern territories; bedspread and curtains made of hand-spun fibers block-printed in traditional patterns; maps and journals and data readers covering all the available; flat surfaces. She'd thought for a while of painting a proper meditation circle in white and black on the wooden floor-nothing in the terms of her lease said that she couldn't, and people would be unwilling to gainsay a Marge in any case-but in the end she had decided not to. The landlord would have to refinish the surface if she did that, and there was no point in giving him extra work. A chalk outline scrawled on the floor served well enough for her purposes, and scrubbed away easily afterward. Vai shucked off her daypack and tucked it out of the way beneath her local persona's cluttered desk. A pottery bowl at one end of the desktop held the stub end of a stick of chalk, along with a flick-top held the stub end of a stick of chalk, along with a flick-top lighter, a spool of black thread, and half a dozen small, weathered stones. She stood for a moment undecided, then picked up the chalk and used it t inscribe a circle on the polished wooden floorboards. Nobody would be surprised if the Mage upstairs chose to meditate upon a private intention. They would assume that she held the shop and its environs in her thoughts as well, and would be, if anything, grateful. The cabinet in the kitchen nook held a quartet of cheap glass candleholders. She fetched them down and set them out around the perimeter of the chalk circle, then unwrapped the candles she'd bought in the store below and put one in each holder. The rest of the candles went into the cabinet. Then she took the flick-lighter from the pottery bowl and used it to light each of the candles in turn. A quick tap on the desk's control pad, and the lamp that had come on when she entered the apartment clicked off again, leaving the room lit only by the yellow, unstable candle flames. Vai stepped into the circle she had drawn, and knelt. As always when she did this, she felt keenly the absence of the rest of Demaizen's Mages, the dead and the estranged and the unimaginably far away. She needed them here with her, needed their greater strength and their longer training as she opened herself to the vision of the eiran . The silver cords of life and luck came to her sight hesitantly at first, in wisps and tendrils. She let herself watch them, and tried not to think about them overmuch. If she focused her attention on them too soon, they would fade, and all her careful non-effort would be lost. Herin Arayet sus-Dariv . The name emerged unbidden out of her thoughts, not as a distraction but as something to be dealt with, a part of the unsettled state of mind that had led her to this meditation in the first place. She considered the name, and marked how the words insinuated themselves into the weave of the eiran as she watched. The silver threads caught hold of the name, and ran in and out of it like vines on a wrought-iron fence. Vai smiled at their eagerness. The eiran knew Syr Arayet, whether Syr Arayet knew them or not. She considered the matter a little longer, then pulled on the cords enough to twist and lodge them yet more firmly into the man's name and his place in the pattern-working the luck, just a little, for a man who was, in some sense, a colleague in a dangerous profession. And if more should ever come of it than that, well, the universe had a strange sense of humor sometimes, and she herself had first come to the Demaizen Circle as a spy for the sus-Radal. Satisfied, she let her thoughts move outward from the troubles of the present, following the eiran as they traced their patterns through time and space. Arekhon sus-Khalgath had seen the pattern of the great working, the binding-together of the sundered galaxy, both as it stood now and as it would come to completion-but 'Rekhe was on the far side of the galaxy and not likely to be coming home soon no matter how much she wished for him. She needed him, though; the working needed him. The Circles were changing, moving away from what they had been... we served all of the people once , she thought; it was that way even when I was a child. Now the fleet-families and the merchant-combines want to make us tend the luck for them alone and not for the whole world, and I don't know enough about the old ways to set things right . I don't even know if it's possible to set things right. Some things, when they change, can't be changed back . The tangle of eiran closest to her hand and mind had brighter and darker threads in it. She tugged at one of the dimmer lines, hoping to tease it out of the mass and straighten up at least a fraction of the disarray. When she pulled on the thread, it grew brighter in response. Under the surface of her meditation, curiosity stirred and came to life. This was a new thread, stretching away out of the local tangle and leading off into strange and uncharted realms. Something different was coming into the working-something fresh and unanticipated, yet at the same time very old and very strong. Something dangerous. * * * The sun was rising over the hills beyond Rosselin Cottage, and a light mist hovered between the branches of the spring-green trees. Arekhon had risen early, after his custom when he was here alone. He sat in a wicker chair on the screened-in verandah, sipping at a mug of the hot bitter liquid the people on this world drank for a morning stimulant. Elaeli's summer cottage, she'd told Arekhon once, had been Elela Rosselin's first home on Entibor-part of the fictitious identity that Garrod syn-Aigal had made ready for her, knowing that the great working would bring her to it in time. Remote, isolated, and rustic, and cottage had provided a safe haven from which to launch a political career, and Elaeli had used it to play politics with a will. "I was planning to be Fleet-Admiral for the sus-Peledaen," she'd said to him, "back before Lord Garrod conscripted me into the great working and then marooned me on Entibor with a bankroll and a fake identity. I couldn't leave all that ambition behind just because I wasn't with the fleet anymore; I had to do something, or I'd go crazy. And when I came here, politics was what there was to do." The cottage itself was a rustic, sprawling building, built of wood and painted white, that floated like a low cloud on the brow of the mountain, against the forest's edge. At the moment, except for Arekhon himself, it was deserted. Elaeli was in the city, entertaining and being entertained by the Provost of Elicond; and it was better for everybody's peace of mind if her chief of domestic security-who was not, officially, her lover-stayed away until the Provost had finished his business and gone home. As a domestic arrangement it was less than ideal, but far better than nothing at all. They'd had a little over ten years of it, by local reckoning. Arekhon tried to do the arithmetic for converting the passage of time into Eraasian measures, and gave up when he couldn't remember the exact ratio of one planetary year to the other. At the moment, though, he was content. This world was fair, and this country house was fair, and here, when her business with the Provost was done, Elaeli would be joining him. For a little while, at least, they could pretend that nothing would ever change-though the time he'd had here with Elaeli would never be long enough, and the time he'd spent away from the homeworlds was far too long. But both times are the same , he thought. Like the Void, where all times are the same time ... "...and all places are the same place." The words were Eraasian, but marked by a strong accent, as though the speaker had learned the language as an adult. Turning, Arekhon recognized the strange woman who had come to him in his dream of Demaizen Old Hall, displacing Iulan Vai and telling him that he would know her soon. One of the wooden floorboards creaked faintly as she stepped forward out of what might have been a shadow left over from the night. so she was real, then, and a Void-walker as well, one of the powerful Mages who could journey alone and unprotected through the no-time, no-place that lay beneath the physical universe. Garrod syn-Aigal had also been a Void-walker, earning the nickname "Explorer" because of the worlds he had journeyed to in that fashion, marking a way through the Void for the ships that would follow; for that reason, Arekhon was less startled by the manner of his visitor's arrival than by the fact that she had spoken to him earlier in his dream. Seen in the unexpected flesh, she wasn't tall-perhaps half a head less than Arekhon's own moderate height, even in the sturdy boots that she wore with her white shirt and black trousers-but compact and trim with muscle. The staff she carried in her right hand was a cubit and a half of ebony, bound and ornamented with silver wire. "Why are you?" he asked. "My name is Llannat Hyfid," she said. "I'm your last student." "Llann--" He stumbled a bit over the unfamiliar syllables. The words weren't Eraasian, or any other language that he was aware of. That meant nothing, given that a Void-walker could be from anywhere, of any when. If such a one had deliberately sought him out, first in dreams and then in the flesh...he tried the name again, this time with better luck. "Llannat." "If the name given you trouble," she said, "you can call me Maraganha instead. Some people find it easier on the tongue." "Maraganha." The name meant "from the forested place" in Eraasian, which told him something, at least, about his mysterious visitor--and as she had promised, its syllables were easier for him to say. But the women herself remained an enigma. "I don't know you. And I've never had a student." "You were--you will be--quite a bit older then." Arekhon shivered, even though the morning was warm. He remembered how it had felt to look upon Garrod syn-Aigal sus-Demaizen as a great Magelord in the vigorous prime of his life, and know that the same man would in time become the white-haired idiot the Circle had already left behind on Eraasi. The thought of Maraganha or anyone else looking at him in the same manner was profoundly disturbing. "I said something like that to my own teacher once," he told her. "When Garrod came back through the Void to show the rest of us way to Entibor. But there aren't any Mages on this world, Maraganha. Only Adepts, and they're cold and solitary lot." "It's their way." Maraganha came forward and took a seat in the other chair, the one that was usually Elaeli's, and laid her ebony staff across her knees. "I was one of them, until it didn't suit me any longer. My fault as much as theirs; I've known Mages who would do well in an Adepts' Guild-house--" "I've seen it happen," Arekhon said. "It's not for me." "Here you are, though, as lonely as any Adept in the galazy." "None of it was my idea. I had a Circle once, but it's broken and scattered across the interstellar gap." "Scattered, maybe," she said. "But not broken." He shook his head in protest. "I don't know that. How can you?" "My first teacher was called the Breaker of Circles. Believe me, I know all about these things." He sat for a moment in silence, not looking at her, gazing out into the flower-scented dawning. Then he said, "I'm not sure I like my future very much, if it has people in it with names like that." "It's all part of the great working. Did you think that putting the galaxy back together was going to be a quick and easy job?" "If I ever thought so," he answered, "it didn't take me long to learn otherwise. And if that's what you're here for, you've come a long way to tell me something I already know." "Well, I didn't come here for the sake of sitting on your front porch and admiring the view", she said, rather more sharply than before. "I've got forests at home that I can look at." "Why, then?" "I dreamed about you last night for the first time in--let's just say, for the first time in a long white--and when I woke up I had a feeling you were going to need my held. So I walked the Void until I found where you were waiting." " That's certainly clear," he said. "Did you happen to see what kind of help I was going to need?" Maraganha shrugged. "It's as clear as I can make it. And I'm afraid the universe did't bother to give me specific instructions." "I don't think anything scares you, etaze ." He gave her the title without thinking, and wasn't surprised when she accepted it as her right. If Maraganha was a Void-walker, then she'd have to be the First of her Circle as well. For all her superficial friendliness and ease of manner, Arekhon knew that he was looking at one of the great Magelords--Garrod syn-Aigal's equal and perhaps even more. "You'd be surprised," she said. "When I was young, I was scared to death of everything, and scared of myself most of all. That's the biggest part of what you taught me, in fact--to trust in what I knew and what I was." "I'm glad that I was able to help. Or will be able to, as the case may be." He shook his head. "If we're going to keep on talking like this, we need better verbs." "I can't help you with the verbs," she said. Then she looked at him straight on, and her voice had the same firmness and surety it had held in his dream. "But whatever else it is you're planning to do--I can help you with that." ";My Circle," he said. There was no chance, not after all this, that his dreams of late had been mere homesickness, born out of a wish that his life here with Elaeli could be something other than what necessity had given them. This was the great working, that he had pledged himself to finish when he was still the Third of Garrod's Circle, and there was no escape from it. "I need to find the rest of my Circle on Entibor, and take them home." * * * It was the damned ship-mind again. Lenyat Irao--known to his cousins and most of his workaday associates as Len--watched in disgust as the display on the chart table flickered. Fire-on-the-Hilltops was an old ship, a one-man light-cargo carrier purchased secondhand from the sus-Radal after that fleet-family had upgraded all of their own vessels to the new style. Len had known she was obsolete on the day he bought her, but that was how the game was played. New construction was for the star-lords, and everybody else took what was left over. Still. he'd expected the Fire to hold together long enough for him to finish paying for her. And it was starting to look like--absent a complete flush-and-renewal of the shipmind's quasi-organics--that wasn't going to happen. Lately she'd been growing reluctant to interface with anybody's charts but her own, and if that kept up, there went any hope of getting another decent contract. The display blinked on and off and on again one more time, then settled down. The false-color display took on a three-dimensional aspect, the orbital lanes in blue, the world in yellow, and the marker-buoy in white. "Finally," Len said. "Took you long enough." As usual, he addressed his ship not in the Hanilat-Eraasian that he'd learned in school, but in his milk tongue, the language of Eraasi's antipodal subcontinent. The Irao had never intermarried with outsiders, and Len's knife-blade nose and yellowish-hazel eyes would have passed without remark in the homeland that his family had left a hundred years ago. With the chart finally stabilized, he went to work setting up the Fire for emergence from the Void. The marker he'd asked for was a deep one, out at the farther limits of Eraasi's normal-space travel lanes. He'd have a long crawl past the outer planets, doing it that way, but he wasn't hauling perishable cargo and safety was better than speed. For a good enough contract, sure, he'd pop out of the Void close in over Eraasi, and risk having one of the big fleet-families take him for an unlawful intruder and respond with and Fire-on-the-Hilltops was listed with their fleet for the duration of the current voyage, but that wouldn't help much if a trigger-happy guardship captain decided not to bother with asking for his papers. All the Fire had aboard this time was mixed-lot bulk cargo: transport, not trade, most of it, and not big enough to warrant a fleet-family's direct attention. Independents like Len handled the small jobs, and the urgent ones that couldn't wait for a convoy or a fleet courier, but the star-lords would come down hard on any pilot they suspected of working without a contract--"in the grey," as the slang term had it. "Hard times, old girl," Len said to the Fire , as the ship-mind chewed its laborious way through the calculations for normal-space emergence. "Hard times. You and I, we were born too late." There had been a time, not more than a generation or so ago, when a family working in the grey could gather enough ships (by trade or purchase or outright capture) to put a syn - or even a sus -in front of their name and have it stick. Len had daydreamed of it himself in his boyhood, back when he was the space-happy one among all the cousins. He'd pictured himself taking the family out of the groundside shipping and transportation business and into the stars, making them syn-Irao and star-lords and a fleet-family in Hanilat. Then he grew, up of course, and understood that those days were gone. He took the figures the ship-mind ground out for him and entered the series of commands that would pass them to the fire's navigational console. "Emergence in five," he said, and keyed in the final sequences. There was only the ship-mind to hear him, but he'd learned to observe the formalities during his training days, when he'd served as hired crew aboard fleet-family ships. A little while later he felt the disquieting inner sensation of Void-emergence pass through him like an oily wave. The distinctive hum and vibration of the Fire's passage changed in response. Even if he'd somehow managed to sleep through the emergence, he would have known, by the sound and by the feel of the ship around him, that Fire-on-the-Hilltops was moving through normal space. It was eight hours before he heard the distress signal. He had the Fire's search-and-scan routines set to a tripwire sensitivity these days--a lowly contract-captain couldn't be too careful. They repaid him this time with a clamoring alarm and, when he put the signal onto ship's audio, a voice: "This is sus-Davriv's Garden-of-Fair-Blossoms ," it said, and the synthesized clarity of its pitch and elocution raised up all the fine hairs on the back of Len's neck. The only thing in space with a voice like that was a ship-mind, and if the ship-mind alone remained able to put out a signal, something very bad had happened aboard Garden-of-Fair-Blossoms . "If you are receiving this transmission, know that we are in distress and call for aid. We beg of you, make all speed to our location at--" There followed a warbling noise that Len recognized as the Garden' s ship-mind transmitting its reference coordinates directly to the ship-mind transmitting its reference coordinates directly to the ship-mind of whatever vessel might be listening. Then there was a pause, and the message started all over again. Len hit the Transmit button on the Fire' s communications board. " Garden-of-Fair-Blossoms ," he said. "This is contract carrier Fire-on-the-Hilltops . Try to hold on--I'm coming as fast as I can." He turned back to the navigation console. For once, the Fire 's ship-mind had behaved itself properly. The false-color display now included a flashing amber dot--the Garden 's reference coordinates. He contemplated the symbolic representation briefly, then checked the alphanumeric readout and tapped in his course-query. More numbers and letters came up in reply, and the false-color display shifted, then shifted again after a second query and a second response. After the third query, he said aloud, "I think you've got it this time, old girl." The Fire 's ship-mind didn't have an internal speaker. Instead, the alphanumeric display at the navigational console reset itself to zero, then said, This course contradicts previous expressed preference for normal space running during Eraasi approach. "That was then," he said. "And this is now. I'm not going to drag my feet through normal space on my way to answer a distress call, and neither are you." Copyright (c) 2002 by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald Excerpted from A Working of Stars by Debra Doyle, James D. MacDonald All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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