City of a Million Legends Wildside Press 2003  Berkley, 1985 
First Lifewave Book 2





"What kind of a ship's name is Epitasis?" asked Shui Tshulushiem. He hadn't been with them long enough to know it was rude to ask a direct question in the presence of an Interface you hadn't hired.

"Greek," answered Ley, who'd done graduate work in linguistics under Zref's parents. "A dead Terran language."

The six of them, Khelin, Ley, Arshel, Zref and the two kren bhirhirn, Shui and Iraem, were crowded into the forward viewing blister of an orbiter, gazing at the outside of the void-spanner, Epitasis, the Cruise ship. It was the largest ship Zref had ever seen, much larger than the starhopper class, which had been in use when he was young.

"Amazing," said Arshel, "that such a small ship could provide for over two thousand people."

As their pod docked, Zref listened to the computers chattering to each other and said, "We can board now."

They hefted their hand luggage, the larger pieces having been sent ahead. The Epitasis store would have to supply many things for Shui and Iraem, who had left on four hours notice.

Shui had been bhirhir to Jylyd before Jylyd took the white. Iraem had been bhirhir to another white, and as often happened, the two abandoned bhirhirn found compatibility in one another. Jylyd had said, "I'm going to ask Shui and Iraem to go with you into this. They've made a career as discreet bodyguards to the rich—and even to Interfaces."

Jylyd had talked the Guild into hiring the pair to guard Zref, since Shui was an experienced paramedic.

Khelin and Ley had been hired by Lantern in the capacity for which they'd become famous at the Hundred Planets capital, Eiltherm. They were supposed to keep the passengers of various species from abrading each other socially.

The orbiter was full for this last trip to Epitasis, so Zref's party waited in the crowded exit corridor patiently. Zref counted eighteen species, even a group of Ciitheen, the only other semi-aquatics like the kren.

The Ciitheen, erect bipeds who seemed humanoid enough when clothed, had noticed the four kren and had withdrawn ostentatiously, as decent Ciitheen always did because most of them were vulnerable to becoming kren-venom addicts. This cruise could try Khelin's diplomatic abilities to the limit.

Even as they neared the portal, Zref, wearing his finest new Interface Guild uniform, was not jostled by the crowd.

Arshel said, "It hardly seems you need a bodyguard." Was her bhirhir's ego injured by Jylyd's sending the pair with them, as if she weren't protection enough?

"I don't think Jylyd was considering our physical safety. We don't know Shui and Iraem's past lives."

She twisted to gaze up at him—the top of her head barely came to his shoulder. "I never thought of that!"

Khelin had followed Ley into the crowd, beginning their job early. Ley paused to chat with an auburn haired human woman wearing a green shawl dripping with tassels. At the portal, four stewards—tall Sirwini with newly sharpened blue horns; a ball of pink fluff suspended over six spindly legs, who was a Jernal; a human woman with long blond hair; and a sleek, damp Ciitheen—

welcomed the passengers to Epitasis, emphasizing the second syllable of the name.

"Ah, Master Interface!" said the blonde. "Captain's compliments, and she requests your presence on the bridge at your earliest convenience." As she was speaking, another steward was welcoming the three kren in Camiat's trade language, and the other two greeted people behind them. The blonde handed Zref a guide beam to the bridge.

Zref saw no reason for this request, but he drew the others together at the first wide place in the corridor, and invited Arshel to go with him. She demurred, "It must be bedlam in there. I'll go see how our cabin is."

Asserting her independence, thought Zref, but he said, "I'll be there as quickly as I can."

They parted, and Zref followed the guidebeam through a series of hatchways labeled AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY and RESERVED FOR TECHNICAL AUTHORITIES, to the control room. Zref had seen many spaceliner control rooms, but never one so spacious; it looked more like a lounge than a bridge.

Sirwini and Theatens manned the few active stations, seemingly not working. Zref spotted a single female Almurali pacing around the padded lounge chairs in the central arena. She was tall for one of the erect bipedal quasi-felinoids, and her fur was magnificently long and perfectly groomed. She was wearing the immaculate ship's white in symbolic strips anchored somehow across her cream and tan colored body. Captain's stars gleamed on the leather device perched atop her head between her upthrust ears. He approached her quietly, and said, "Master Interface Zref, reporting as ordered, Captain." She whirled to face him, almost crouching into her species' fighting stance, then recovered gracefully. "Ah, Master Interface. Welcome aboard. Have you examined our onboard controlcom yet?"

"No, Captain, but from this"—he swept his hand around the bridge—"it must be most impressive."

"This is the newest voidspanner class liner, and some of our systems are classified, so by order of the Star-Treader Lines, and by my personal order, you'll refrain from making even superficial acquaintance with our operational systems unless I so request. You're employed by Lantern Enterprises to attend to the needs of the students and faculty aboard the Schoolcruise via the Interstellar comnet, not my ship's systems. You may verify this with your Dispatcher."

Under cover of a sigh and a shifting of position, Zref opened, checked Rodeen's open file and found the new order. "My Dispatcher has indeed informed me of this new order. As per Guild Contract, I will abide by the Line's wishes."

The Captain circled Zref, casually examining the working readouts on the boards around them. Out of earshot of the crew, she said, "Between you and I, Master Interface, I feel more secure having you to call upon if this experimental design crashes. You did pronounce a personal name?"

"You may pronounce me, Zref, if you will."

"Then perhaps, now that the unpleasantness is out of the way, I may invite you and your—um—bhirhir to sit with me at the Captain's table for the first meal. It's a delightful old custom of the human species, which the Star-Treader Lines is reviving. The first and the final meals of the cruise will be formal affairs, and the crew will eat with the passengers. At other times, socialization will be minimal."

Zref accepted graciously, understanding that he should regard himself as a passenger and stay away from her crew. Then she assigned him an escort back to his cabin—as if to do him honor, but he suspected it was done to keep him from exploring.

His "cabin" turned out to be a suite occupying the end of a corridor. The door opened into a high-ceilinged sitting room dotted with lounges designed for many species, a dining area and an open hearth fireplace contained in a forcefield safety net. A mezzanine rimmed the room, and from that level doors opened into adjacent rooms assigned to Khelin and Ley on one side and Shui and Iraem on the other.

Straight ahead, a door led to a bedroom containing a sandbed and a full immersion pond. An area beyond a walk-in dressing room held sanitary facilities such as one would encounter in a luxury hotel. The room was decorated in muted skytones from many planets, and greenery from Earth, all clean and new and perfectly flawless.

As Zref came in, he heard Arshel's voice raised in fury. "I don't care what your orders are, you aren't permitted in here!"

He loped across the sitting room and through the door into the bedroom. Arshel stood before a giant Theaten woman attired immaculately in ship's uniform and evincing unruffled proprietary servitude.

"Madame, it is my duty and my pleasure to attend to the personal needs of the inhabitants of this suite. You will require service in order to uphold your position aboard—"

"One moment." said Zref, as he moved to Arshel's side. Only a slow blink of the Theaten's green eyes betrayed her surprise. Zref looked calmly up into those eyes.

She intoned, "Identify yourself! These are private quarters."

"My private quarters," insisted Zref. "You will identify yourself."

"Suite Steward-in-Chief Linraep, in charge of the staff of these rooms. My privilege to serve." She bowed.

"And I am Master Interface Zref. This is my bhirhir Arshel. We occupy these rooms at our pleasure, not at your sufferance. Is that understood?"

"Absolutely, sir." Her eyes were fixed in the distance behind Zref now, passing at least a handspan over his head.

"Perhaps you'd care to elucidate the difficulty?"

"It is my duty to have this room cleaned and to keep it in repair, as well as to provide body servants, wardrobe servants and secretarial facilities. So I must inspect the premises regularly, if discreetly in your absence. The Lady Arshel has requested that neither I, nor my staff, enter this room for the entire length of the voyage. I am personally responsible for this room. I cannot accept banishment."

"I understand your difficulty," said Zref before Arshel could protest again, "but our need for absolute privacy takes precedence." The Theaten surely regarded them as unworthy of these quarters.

"It would be regrettable to bother the Captain with such a minor matter," said the Theaten still at rigid attention.

"Therefore, we shall compromise," said Zref.

"I'll not have them in here!" said Arshel in a strangled whisper. Anticipating a molt, she was desperate for privacy.

Zref stepped full in front of Arshel, facing her. "They won't be—trust me." Then he turned to the Theaten. "Suite Steward, are there any kren on your staff?"

"Yes, sir."

"Would one of them be competent to take full charge of this inner chamber, without your supervision?"

"One could be trained to do so."

"And his bhirhir to take charge of the other two bedrooms?"

"This is most irregular."

"You may check my authority with the Captain."

"I will ask my supervisor to speak to the Chief Steward for permission to promote the appropriate staff to your service. Is it that a Theaten is odious to you?"

"Not at all, Madame Steward," replied Zref hastily. "However, kren can't tolerate even the most loyal servants in the room where the pond is located. A kren servant would detect the most sensitive moments and avoid the—dangers."

The Theaten's eyes darted to Arshel's venom sack, widened, then fixed on the far bulkhead. Zref regretted embarrassing Arshel. Her venom was already flowing too freely. "You will leave us now," ordered Zref. "Send your kren staff members to us as soon as you can arrange it."

The Theaten bowed again and intoned, "May you have a pleasant voyage, sir."

When the outer door of the suite had closed, Zref let the starch flow out of his backbone, and apologized to her.

"Why didn't you just say we'd take other, less pretentious quarters? The ship isn't full."

"Lantern seems to be intent on honoring the Guild by the deluxe treatment. Relations have been strained since Lantern sued the Guild. The Guild can't turn down Lantern's offer of courtesy. So I'm stuck with a room that comes equipped with servants trained to creep about invisibly."

She laughed, her fangs slapping against the roof of her mouth. "Do you think we can talk a kren who's been trained by that woman into leaving us alone?"

"We'll have a strategy conference over this, but first let me express you so you'll be hungry enough for dinner. We've been invited to sit at the Captain's table!"

Arshel unpacked the molded leather venom bottle Zref had given her when they'd promised to pledge bhirhir, and they settled into the deep, ultra fine sand of her bed. She knelt, he beside her with one arm around her shoulders so his hand lay across the sensitive skin of her venom sack at the base of her throat. With his other hand, he held the venom bottle as she hooked her fangs over the padded lip.

He closed his eyes, concentrating on her breathing, the feel of her scales against his skin, the bunching of her neck muscles as the strike reflex gathered. For this to be a comfortable maneuver for the kren, the bhirhir had to trigger the strike reflex at just the right moment. Sudeen had suffered greatly to teach Zref the trick. He was gratified still to have the skill.

Cupping the distended sack in the palm of his hand to support the strained muscles. Zref set off the reflex, his other arm working hard against her repeated strikes. The last spasm came with an open throated grunt that was half sigh. And then she went limp into the sand.

He set the bottle aside and squirmed onto his back. He had to change clothes anyway before the formal dinner. He was almost asleep when he noticed Arshel gazing at him. The tension had gone out of her, but she was still gravely reserved. "I'll bet I know what you're thinking," said Zref.

"Oh? What."

"That I'm better than Dennis at that."

Astonished she drew back, and he could almost sense her firmly discarding the old superstition that Interfaces were invasive telepaths. "I was thinking that—but also that I'd determined to stop comparing you to him. Only I can't stop."

"It's all right. I was thinking of Sudeen, and what he went through teaching me to express. But I was also enjoying it more than ever before."

"Then I wasn't imagining that," she said, sitting up.

Zref agreed and suggested, "Let's swim!"

Later, when Zref was unpacking a dress uniform, Arshel surveyed her clothes despondently. "I didn't know we'd have to live in such style—and I had no time to shop anyway. Will what I wear reflect on the Guild?"

"I suppose. But don't worry about it. Tomorrow, we'll tour the shipboard shops to get whatever you need to put our Theaten in her place."

Dressed, they visited the room Khelin and Ley shared.

They entered the room on a balcony over a living area not so spacious as their own, but gorgeously appointed in mauve and taupe with green accents, a Theaten forest. The immersion pond was disguised as a forest glade pool. Under a voluminous hanging plant, Khelin was buttoning Ley into a formal jacket that fastened down the back. Heedless of the intrusion, Ley was objecting, "But I can't take a mate now! You know you'll be molting soon!"

"I saw how attracted you were," argued Khelin, "and I can see she's your type. I'm going to speak to her tonight, and that settles it. After all, what's a bhirhir for?" He spun the human around to check the front pleats. "I've kept you tied up too long. We'll manage the molt somehow."

Before he'd become an Interface, Zref would have been embarrassed to walk in on such a private conversation, and he could feel Arshel's flush of venom as if it were his own. "I see you two have been informed of the dinner."

"A Jernal brought an engraved invitation," said Ley, "Then it wanted to stay and dress me! We had a time getting rid of it. I think we hurt its feelings."

Zref and Arshel descended, telling of their run-in with the Suite Steward and their compromise. Khelin said, "I admit I'm relieved. Let me call Shui and tell them about it."

The kren went to a table console hidden in what looked like a canebrake, and called the others to the common sitting room. Zref, as Khelin's brother, and Arshel as immune to him, had casual pond privileges with Ley and Khelin, but Iraem and Shui were not family or mate. They, too, were intensely relieved at the compromise.

"We've traveled without luxury, but never without privacy. However, neither of us will mate or molt this trip," added Iraem. "We shall endure."

"Why did you come?" asked Arshel with real curiosity. "We've all been involved in the search for the City before—"

"We wanted to be," replied Shui. He was a little taller than Arshel, heavily built, and of the freshwater, mountain bred stock of Firestrip. He looked young, strong, healthy and competent. "But Jylyd and Frie were studying at Mautri, so we stayed with them. It all worked out. Jylyd even got us onto this cruise, which we never could have afforded!"

Khelin laughed. "That's just like Jylyd—letting two problems solve each other! And I for one am glad you're here!" At Zref's raised eyebrow, he explained, "There's already enough greed and desperation aboard to create a vicious aklal. People can be possessed by such a force, and become a dangerous mob."

Iraem said serenely, "And we will not be possessed." He was shorter than Shui, but taller than Arshel, and shared Shui's strong look. His features were regular and handsome in the light, freshwater kren way, though as with Shui there wasn't a hint of family resemblance to MorZdersh'n. Zref made mental note to treat their venom with extreme respect.

"How high did you go?" asked Khelin cryptically.

Shui looked to Iraem as if consulting, then answered, "Light blue. But we don't claim it. We're pledged."

So, these two were priests ranked just below Khelin in the rainbow hierarchy of the kyralizth. But neither of them had any intention of pursuing the balbhirhir life.

Khelin scrutinized the pair. "I'll keep that in mind. But you should wear your medallions at least for this formal affair. There are kren-phobes and Ciitheen aboard. It will go easier for Zref if we aren't considered dangerous."

Arshel spread one webbed hand over her breast. "I forgot mine! It's been so long since I dressed up!"

The kren departed in search of their jewelry, and Khelin hooked one elegant leg over the back of a carved mahogany perch. "I hate to ask for privilege, Zref—"

"Ask," prompted Zref, expecting a comnet query.

"We signed on so hastily, Ley and I are not sure if we initialized a salary account with Lantern. If we didn't, the Camiat taxes will be charged to the MorZdersh'n accounts, and my uncle—"

"Say no more!" Zref held up one hand and cast his eyes aside to open. When they'd first hired him to audit their accounts, the family business had filed the necessary permissions to allow Zref to audit their accounts. While he was waiting for comnet to respond, Zref felt a trickle of chatter filtering through the edges of his mind, some computer talking to the Lantern net.

"…Zref exudes an aura of restrained power."

"Hardly surprising in a friend of Jylyd's. But it is odd in an Interface." It was Iraem's voice.

"Jylyd said he read his past. An Interface's past! I wish he'd explained what's so special about this human."

"That's easy. The moment I saw him, I was sure I've known him before, and I'll bet that's why Jylyd put us here."

Zref cringed away from the contact. The conversation had been compressed into a squeal and squirted at one of Lantern's dishes by the Epitasis's own computer talking to Lantern. And his orders were to stay out of Epitasis.

There was pressure on his knees—his whole body's weight. His lungs burned, thirsting for air as he crouched gasping, his head pounding, reducing all to impressions. Khelin's voice shouting; Ley's steps pounding; a human male voice calling, "Arshel!"

The other two kren came racing from their room, skidding down the steps and falling over each other to reach Zref. Zref pulled himself up, the waves of pain receding. "It's nothing," he gasped, fending off Arshel's firm hands.

He climbed back to his feet, felt his knees begin to give and collapsed in a deeply padded chair. Arshel sat on the arm of the chair. "Do you need oxygen?"

"No, no." And he told them of his conversation with the Captain. "I accidentally intercepted Epitasis's computer, and the Guarantees threw me. It's nothing, really."

"Nothing! I thought you were dead!" said Ley.

Catching his breath, Zref rummaged in the drawer of an end table and found a pad of ship's notepaper. Tearing off one sheet, he wrote, These rooms are sound-tapped by the ship's computer—maybe visuals as well—the information is squirted to Lantern Enterprises.

Reading over his shoulder, they looked at each other wide eyed. Aloud Zref said, "Here's the number of the account you opened with Lantern." And he wrote, I don't have the number yet, but there is an account.

Arshel started to say something, but Zref opened and dropped a message to Rodeen, telling her about the bugging, adding, "Kren can't live under surveillance. I can't touch that computer to turn off the recorder. We're getting off at Sirwin unless you can do something about this. Zref."

"Surveillance was no part of our agreement. One moment. Rodeen." She came back, "It's taken care of. The next time the Epitasis checks in with a Guild astrogation beam, Epitasis will be instructed to black out your three pond rooms and your person. Your person only, Zref. I'm guarding the Guild's reputation, not your privacy. Rodeen."

Zref came back to awareness to see consternation on human and kren faces. "Now let's go to dinner," he said, scribbling, I'll tell you when it's safe to talk aloud. But even then don't mention this to anyone until we see what Star-Treader will do next.

End Chapter 3  

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