08 September 2013

The Harshest Mistress, or: Miles Vorkosigan to go before I sleep

I wasn't going to write about Paul Cook's rather incoherent and inept screed on the Amazing Stories website. First, because he was roundly and soundly eviscerated in the comments--so much so that Amazing Stories actually shut the comments down within a few hours of Cook's piece posting, which has to be some kind of record. Second, other people have taken Cook to task already in the last few days, and they have pretty much said all the things I wanted to say anyway. Third, I find that my posts of late have all been of a piece, namely "THIS IS FUCKED UP AND WRONG AND I DON'T LIKE IT YOU GUYS," and I'm trying to be more positive and think about what I do like in SF/F, not what I don't like. Keep your sunny side up, and all that. Entropy is enough of an asshole without me adding to it via my own considerable cynicism and negativity, so nyah.

And then a fourth point came to light yesterday evening, quite unexpectedly, courtesy of my wife.

I don't mention my wife here much, except in passing--an error I mean to correct, as she's pretty damned awesome. Stef is a librarian par excellence and the author of her own blog, Views From the Tesseract, a great blog about kids' SF and Fantasy that updates more regularly than mine (dammit) and gets more views than mine as a result (which is a lesson for me, hmmm?).

I linked to Cook's piece on Facebook, and she was, shall we say, less than amused with Mr. Cook and his pedantic disposition. She ranted a bit in her comments on FB, and I thought she'd finished with it. Little did I know she had not--until lo and behold, last night she called me over to her computer, and showed me the following bit of brilliance, which I now reproduce her for you with her permission, and with my thanks:


“The Harshest Mistress” By Stephanie Ann Whelan
©2013 by the author and this website; all rights reserved.

Jim Starbucker revved the propulsion jets on his Cylotron 2800 just the hair necessary to propel him through the waiting entry hatch. He’d given it just enough juice to sail straight in, where the magnetic landing strip pulled it down with a firm thud. The portal slid closed and three sets of alloyed plates wove back together, interlocking and glowing with the green of a firm seal. Still, Jim waited until the entryway plates radiated out before he popped his helmet off.

With the ease of a long practiced maneuver, Jim popped the harness and dismounted, yanking his gunnysack and rifle free of their clamps. A quick code punch and the Cylotron switched to electric power, rising to low hover and purring off to it’s preprogrammed park slot. Jim headed out the entryway door, swiping his tag for the scanner eyes. There was a quick burst of violet light as the customs sensory program identified him and checked for contraband. Five seconds later the last doors cycled away.

“Welcome to Podkayne Station, Lieutenant Starbucker. Enjoy your stay.”

The melodious alto voice was simply computer created, but he liked to imagine there was an actual person behind it. “Thanks Poddie.”

He stepped out onto the raised entryway that formed a sort of balcony over the whole internal landscape of the fortress of steel and light that was Podcayne Station. Still the same hum and thrum of the internal engines, the same tang of recycled air, the same half lit signs welcoming the weary traveler in a hundred different languages. He was home.

He could have simply taken a hover pad—he had a full license to pilot one. But he decided to book a station cab instead. Just take it easy and let someone else drive for a change. The robo cab driver tipped its hat 

“Where to, Mac?” it barked from it’s voicepad. Apparently the station still remembered his setting preference for New York Cabbie.

“Baley’s Saloon. Level 26.”

“You got it, Mac.” The cab sped away from the entry ramp, pulling into a scenic curve around the core walls. Jim sat back and watched it all. Took it all in. The air whisked past them as the cabbie honked raucously at a hover disc driver who got too close, then the vehicle dived in a fancy corkscrew spin, heading down into the station.

Hints of jasmine and lavender tickled his nose. Jim stiffened, scanned the air around him. The scents were gone as quick as they’d come. Must have been a trick of the mind, thought Jim. There’s no way any of Them would be here.

After all, that was what the fighting on the borders was all about, wasn’t it? He’d been on the front lines for nearly ten years now—but that was lightyears from here. Podcayne station was safe. It had to be.

“Here ya go, Mac.” The robo driver barked again, breaking him out of his thoughts. Jim scanned his credit chit and disembarked onto the walkway.

Some parts of Podcayne stuck to the sleek metal and glass, or the synthetic nanocrafted shells that flickered with inset light and color. Level 26 preferred to remember old Earth . Imitation wood facades, holographic flowers and gardens, he’d heard rumors that somewhere on 26 was an honest to God pinball and Pacman pizza joint. Jim hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, but then, Baley’s suited him just fine. The saloon was on the station perimeter, away from tourist traffic, tucked into a corner strip, between a Pierson's Pharmacy and Wu's Genuine Italian Restaurant. It looked like the kind of place you’d see in old movies. No one knew where Baley got the earthstone and how he managed to shift it past the customs scanners. But the entire walkway was paved in smooth stone. The rest of the structure kept in character with synth wood panels and plasti-glass windows .

It was kind of place men went to drink--where the bartender always knew your name.

He’d been coming here since he was a raw recruit, just out of basic training and on leave with no where else to go. There hadn’t been much else for a backwater planet kid with no family and no money. GalactiCorp took him in, trained him up and set him out on the Rim, battling Them on the front lines. The first time he’d come in accidentally, and hadn’t known he’d been looking for the place until he found it. Bailey had chatted with him and offered him a rental space above the saloon for a song.

“I did my time on the Rim.” The old soldier had told him. “You need a place, you’ve got one here. It’s a sad thing when a soldier has no place to lay his head at night."

That had been twenty long years ago. Countless battles, advances and retreats. Comrades lost to Them. And Baley’s had been there, just like always. A promise that made the cold and merciless stars more bearable.

Jim stepped inside the saloon and handed his T. Swift regulation laser rifle and gunny sack to the service droid with a prompt to deliver it to his room. Once his coat and helmet were stowed, he strode into the reassuringly familiar world of Baley’s saloon.

The lights were dim, except around the bar itself where synth light tracks kept everything illuminated. Huddles of drinkers sat in shadows at their own tables. Someone had keyed in a jazz playlist tonight. There were a few bodies up at the bar, but most of the stools were empty. It had been this way the last few times Jim had been here; everybody was going to the new place in Sector G called Fuzzy's. No loyalty from some people. He'd been there once—it was a cheap imitation of a real saloon, not like this place or Callahan's down in the chronoports. There was no there there. It smelled wrong, somehow.

“Jim Starbucker? Where the hell have you been? Your ass was due for leave two months ago!” boomed Al. The seven foot Martian-born bartender had spotted him almost immediately. Al was Baley’s right hand man these last few years. The old man was still spry and had a wicked sense of humor, but the decades were catching up with him.

“Out on the Rim. We ran into a whole troop of the enemy out there. Lost some good men. Too many. They couldn’t let me go until reinforcements arrived. “

Al shook his head. “That bad? The news links all say we’re winning.”

Jim shook his head. “Can’t say official, but we’re just managing to keep them off the perimeter these days. Dunno. Maybe we’re holdin' them back, but we sure as hell ain’t advanced any in the last 2 years.”

Already Al had poured his usual: single-malt scotch into the nano-glass. The tiny bots lit up gold as they worked to adjust the container to the perfect temperature, then hummed green once that temperature was reached.

Jim traded a few more comments with Al before the man left him in peace to nurse his drink. Jim stared around at the tables. He thought he’d spotted a few of his brothers in arms gathered in the back. But just as he was about to head on over, a much more interesting prospect caught his eye.

She was four barstools over, dressed in a cadet uniform. He’d never cared much for the drab blue dress togs--but he had to admit, the tunic was a hell of a lot more appealing with those oh so sensual curvies underneath. She was a fresh young thing, straight brown hair at regulation length, the “shiny” of cadet school not worn off yet.

They’d only started enlisting girls in the last ten years. Jim had been against it at first, but had to admit having some women around the barracks made for something prettier to look at than the average soldier. Besides, most of them seemed to shoot and fight pretty well. The commander stuck most of them back at the outpost with work that’d keep them busy and out of harm’s way.

She was sizing him up with bright green eyes; he raised his drink to her in acknowledgement. She grinned back, and raised her own drink in turn. Jim slid off his stool and swaggered over while she sipped her cocktail and watched him.

“So you’re the famous Lieutenant Starbucker,” she murmured. “Everyone talks about you at the Academy. Did you really pilot a broken winged Stormblade Destroyer through the wormhole juncture without a solar shield?”

“Didn’t have much choice about it.” Jim replied with a shrug and wince. “Just did what I had to out there, Cadet . . .”

“Kate Striker, sir. Comm specialist for the Asimov.”

The Asimov? That’s the new top of the line Intergalactic Jumpership, isn’t it?”

“She’s a beaut. Holds twenty thousand troops, covers light years twice as fast as anything else we’ve got and she’s got the new hyperbeam Gatekeeper missles.”

Jim let out a low whistle. “So what’s a cadet with a plum position on the Asimov doing out here at Podcayne?”

“Oh, my parents live over on Tanstaafl. I’m catching the commuter ship there at zero eight hundred Podturn to celebrate my graduation and new post.” She explained. “Some of the boys I met on the way here told me about this place. I decided I might as well while away my time here.” She unleashed a brilliant, gleaming smile upon him. Her teeth were so straight you could use them to graph geometry proofs. “I didn’t think I’d get the chance to actually meet you.”

After a few more stories and a few more dazzling smiles from Kate, Jim was happy to escort the eager young cadet up to his room. The place was painfully utilitarian—just a bed some chairs, a table for card playing and a storage locker for his clothes and personal items. The kind of Spartan that gave Spartans a bad rep.

Kate didn’t seem to mind; she merrily oohed and aahed over his wealth of medals and his laser rifle. 

“We only get hand phasers on board the Asimov. We handled some laser rifles at the Academy, but nothing like the T.Swift series.”

“Want to give it a try?” Jim offered. “There’s a target practice zone about thirty clicks from here. We can take my Cylotron. Just me, you and all the stars you can shoot at.”

Kate raised an eyebrow. “You say the sweetest things, Jim.” She caressed the grips of the rifle then set it back on its charging stand. “You’ve been out on the Rim a long time, haven’t you?” she asked, sliding off her uniform jacket , revealing shapely, well muscled arms.

“ Twenty years about.”

“That’s a long time to be fighting.” She murmured, bending down to unzip her boots. Jim looked on, not bothering to hide his appreciation of the view she provided. “Do you ever think of stopping?”

Jim shrugged. “I get to retire in another ten, maybe fifteen years. If I’m lucky I’ll have enough saved for my own ship. “

Kate stood back up, stepping out her boots. “No Jim, I don’t mean retire. I mean do you ever think this fighting is pointless?” She stretched her arms up towards the low ceiling. He was so entranced by the view that afforded him that he almost missed what she said next. “Look at you, struggling out on the Rim. What’s it all for?”

“What do you mean, what’s it all for? To protect US. To keep our worlds, our people safe from Them. We’ve seen what they do . . . what their worlds are like. It’s awful. Their corruption gets in and poisons everything. Everything! I lost six hundred good soldiers just last month to Them! We have to protect the homespace and keep them out!” Jim knew on some level he was being baited but he didn’t care. The question rankled like a cold shock on his spine. “They want it all. Kate. They aren’t happy with their worlds. They want ours too. And if they get them, there won’t be any place left for us to go.”

“But Jim,” Kate murmured, green eyes shining in the low panel light. “This is outer space. Isn’t there room enough for everybody?”

Jim froze . . . the scents of lavender and jasmine suddenly assaulted him. He stared at the Cadet.

“No. We’ve kept you out. You can’t be here!” Kate smiled and shook her head a bit sadly as she unzipped the front of her suit.

“Poor Jim. Don’t you know? Your wars aren’t keeping us out anymore. We’re already here.”

She was wearing pearls. And ruffles under the suit. And–dear God—a corset.

Kate pulled off the rest of the suit and readjusted her leather trousers. “That’s better. I don’t know how you stand those things—those uniforms are soooo boring.”

Jim backed against the wall, desperate to get a grip on his rifle.

“You can’t have Podcayne.”

Kate waggled a finger. “You don’t get to decide that anymore, Jim dear. This is a new age. Podcayne is a sweet old station, but it could use some improvements. We’re thinking of having a few antigrav balls. And maybe we’ll even import some horses. Wouldn’t it be charming to have horses?” She smiled another dazzling smile, but this time Jim was left icy.

“Horses in space don’t make sense!” he gasped.

“No? Oh . . . well, maybe not.“ Kate made a pouting face and then pulled a Stygian silencer from somewhere in that curved bosom. “You could join us, Jim. We’re always looking for handsome men with relationship issues. I’m sure there’s someone out there who could be your soulmate.”

“No! Never! We’re not about that! I won’t bargain with such . . . froufrou and silliness!” Jim grappled along the wall, desperately searching for the security panel.

“Oh, well then—I guess it’s goodbye, Lt. Starbucker. Too bad; I’d have liked to join you for target practice.” Kate regarded him with a sigh and wry smile. She patted her hair into place, blew him a kiss and then she raised the silencer to fire.

There was a bright flash, and an explosive crack.

She fell, with a smoking hole in her forehead. Jim fell back against the wall shaking with reaction and clutching his Colt .45 series 700. It had been his father’s way back when, and Jim had defied customs and found a way to sneak it aboard Podcayne. Now he was grateful he’d taken the chance.

As soon as he had his feet steady under him, he grabbed his rifle and made his way back to Baley’s. Al raised an eyebrow at his appearance.

“Back so soon? Thought that sweet little thing would keep you busy for at least a few hours. What happened?”

“I need to talk to Baley. It’s an emergency.” Jim barked.

Al blinked. “Baley isn’t here, Jim. He’s off setting up some new ventures for the saloon. Settle down, have a drink. What’s got you so all-fired upset?”

“Podcayne’s been compromised, Al. They’re here already. The wars haven’t kept them out. “ He blindly picked up the drink Al handed him. “We need to regroup, I need to let my superior—oh hell, I need to let them all know! I’ve got to patch a link in to our Intelligence Unit.”

Jim brought the drink to his lips . . . and froze. There was a paper umbrella in his glass. Worse the drink was something pink and bubbly.

He flung it to the floor where it tinkled like music.

“Now Jim,” Al adminshed, “that wasn’t really polite. Peony wine is hard to come by as of yet. And here you spilled it all over the floor. And you don’t need to worry about letting anyone know. They’ll all know soon enough.”

Jim stared at Al. When had he gotten the weird looking swirly tattoo? And was that . . . nail polish? Al too?

He backed away and raised his pistol. “What’ve you done with Baley, traitor?” he demanded hotly.

“Baley?” Al laughed. “Son, Baley’s out getting us some chandeliers and tablecloths for this joint. We figure we can have it up to snuff in a few months. “

“No. No! He wouldn’t, you can’t –this isn’t right!”

Jim fired, but the force screen over the bar merely disintegrated the bullet.

“You’re not playing well with others Jim. Don’t you get it? There’s room for all of us here. It doesn’t have to be war.”

Jim swore and raced out the door, nearly colliding with a group of men outside. He could just make out their fatigues in the haze of panic, and grabbed one of them. They were his men! His brothers! They couldn’t have given in to the enemy.

“Aronson! Haldeman! Kinsey! They’re here. The Enemy got behind us somehow.”

“They’re everywhere, Jim. It’s like this everywhere.” One of the men whispered.

“Tell me you didn’t give in, tanj-dammit! You're soldiers! You don’t put up with foolery and fizzy drinks and . . . that romance nonsense!”

“We fought all we could, Jim” Aronsen muttered weakly. “They’re a devious bunch, but we resisted being drawn in. But we couldn’t win against them. I’m sorry.”

“So that’s it? You gave up? You’re manly men! The best of the best! Soaring on the cutting edges of space with guns and toughness and uncompromising facts. You don’t give in to romance and fantasy! “

Kinsey put a shakey hand on Jim’s shoulder.

Jim stared full into Kinney’s face, the grey skin, the shadowed eyes. The rotting stench that rolled off the soldier.

“I’m sorry. It’s worse than that.”

A desperate glance confirmed that all three of his comrades were desiccated, rotting corpses.

“We’re dead, Jim.”



My wife is awesome. I think I'll marry her. ;)


  1. Oh, I love this. I love this like puppies. :) Well done, Stephanie!

    (Also, thanks for the link shoutout! I've pointed at you over on my blog too.)

    1. Thanks Angela! (This is Stef, by the way. Wordpress is being persnickety about logging my ID in.)