New Year's Wake: A Terran Empire story, p.1
Produced by Al Haines
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NEW YEAR'S WAKE
A Terran Empire Story
by Ann Wilson
Copyright (C) 1992 by Ann Wilson
Isle of Skye, 1 Jan 2149 CE
It was just past midnight when the woman in wet, torn forest green sawwhat had to be the light from windows of a small house. She stumbledtoward it gratefully, hoping for warmth and some sort ofcommunications. Dammit, equipment failure and a plane crash were noway to start New Year's Day!
As she neared the house, she heard party sounds, and grinned. Itseemed that someone, at least, was having fun here on--if sheremembered her charts right--the Isle of Skye. The North Sea in winter. . . yes, she was lucky to be alive.
When she knocked on the door, the party sounds got louder--until thedoor opened, and someone saw her.
"Och, we have a soaked lass out here!" the young man exclaimed. Heturned back into the house, called for blankets and a hot drink, thenput his arm around the woman, led her inside, and saw her settled intoa comfortable seat beside the fireplace.
"Our first visitor, with no coal or whiskey," an old man said ruefully."No good omen for the New Year, no warmth for heart or hearth."
"Och, uncle, 'tis no fault of hers," the young man said. "It's coldand wet she is, in need of help." He held a glass of whiskey to thewoman's lips, nodded as she sipped. "That's a good lass," he saidapprovingly. "I'm Geordie MacGregor, and who may you be?"
The woman hesitated, hiding it with another sip of whiskey. Theyhadn't identified her from her uniform; should she . . . no. See whatthey were really like, first. "Lindner . . . Sue Lindner. My planewent down, and when I made it ashore, I saw your lights." She turnedto the old man Geordie had called Uncle. "I'm sorry to be a bad omen,sir, but it may be I won't be that bad."
"Ach, lass, I'm the one to be sorry," Geordie's uncle replied. "'Tissuperstition, I know, but 'tis tradition as well. It's rest you shouldbe getting."
"I would like to warm up a bit, then if you have a phone, I should calland let the people expecting me know where I am. I'll pay for thecall, of course; it's long distance."
"You'll do no such thing," the old man retorted. "I'll not have itbruited about that Donal MacGregor's lacking in proper hospitality. Aplane crash, you say, and your clothes half gone . . . are you hurt?Will the Rescue Service not be looking for you?"
"I doubt it; my flight wasn't scheduled. And I'm not hurt, except fora few scratches and bruises. There's no need to disturb your party."She'd discarded her boots and equipment belt for the swim ashore, andsometime during that swim or her wandering--probably coming ashore overthose rocks--she'd lost her badge and pretty well shredded her uniform.It was no wonder they didn't recognize her; she doubted she'd be ableto recognize herself, huddled under a blanket with her hair plastereddown by salt water.
Another knock on the door brought laughter, especially from the womanwho opened it to admit a kilt-clad man bearing a piece of coal and abottle of whiskey.
"'Tis a few minutes late you are, Angus," Donal MacGregor called. "Ourfirst guest of the year is this poor cold lass here."
"And half drowned, by the look of her," Angus replied. He scowledferociously--a half-grin betraying his apparent ferocity--at the womantending Sue. "Tara, you know she needs something hot, not whiskey."
"Bridget's making cocoa, as you should be able to smell," Tararetorted.
"It's made," the young woman entering the room said, going straight toSue and handing her the steaming mug.
Sue traded her whiskey glass for it, wrapping her hands around the mugto warm them and taking a deep breath of the chocolatey steam, whileher hosts gave Angus the story.
When they were done, he looked at her curiously, with a half-grin."Your name's a familiar one, lass."
Sue returned his smile. He knew who she was, but he didn't seeminclined to spread his knowledge, if she chose not to reveal herself;he got points for discretion. "It's a common enough name, sir. Idon't believe we've met before."
"No; I'd remember if we had. It's an honor now, though, and I'd bepleased if you'd call me Angus."
"The honor is mine, Angus." Sue smiled at him again, briefly."Perhaps, under more formal circumstances, things would be different.At the moment, though, I'm just an unlucky pilot."
"And so you are, lass." Angus nodded once, then turned to their hosts."Well, now, this is supposed to be a party. Tara, may I have the nextdance?"
"Indeed you may!" Tara--Sue guessed her to be Donal's wife--calledacross the room. "Geordie, some music!"
Sue felt herself relaxing as warmth crept back into her, and sheautomatically evaluated her surroundings. They were nothing like whatshe was used to: a small living room, festively decorated but obviouslynot rich--more homey, she thought, than anything else. Bookshelveslined one wall almost completely, their ranks broken only by two smallwindows and a holoset--on, but being ignored; she couldn't tell whatthe program was. A five- or six-person table held food and drinks; itlooked too heavy to move easily, so this was probably the dining room,as well. Wall decorations were mostly stitchery, though a crucifixheld a place of honor above the mantel.
Not a rich place, no. And the party talk around her, gathered infragments from the twenty or so who crowded the room, didn't contradictthat impression. This seemed to be a subsistence-farming culture. . . here on Terra? Well, it was possible; talk of farm animals,equipment, and markets, and canning, yes. Nothing of politics, or theEmpire, or the nobility, as was so common in the circles she was used to,but the warmth and friendship here had value of their own. These peoplemight not have much money, but they couldn't be called poor.
Sue found herself pleased by that. It was people like these, afterall, who were the Empire's substance, its reason for being. It wasgood to be reminded of that, from time to time. Imperial nobles andofficers had the trappings of rank, yes, but the underlying purpose ofthat rank was to insure that Imperial citizens like these could livefreely and without fear. And she was one of those officers . . . Suesmiled to herself, and kept listening as carefully as Bridget kept herchocolate cup full and hot.
The MacGregor farm, she found, wasn't a particularly prosperous oneeven by this island's standards. Donal's tractor was unreliable atbest, Geordie couldn't seem to find a sponsor who'd get him even as faras being tested for the Military Academy--well. It had been a longtime since she'd had an opportunity to indulge herself.
About an hour after she'd been helped inside, Sue stood and attractedTara's attention. "Mrs. MacGregor, may I use your phone now?"
"Of course, lass. Back this way."
"Thank you." Sue looked around, gestured to Geordie and Donal. "Wouldyou come, too?"
The two men exchanged glances, then Donal shrugged and smiled. "If youwish, lass."
The MacGregors did have a phone in the kitchen, Sue found, but it wasclear that they seldom used it; Tara had to move half a dozen jars ofcanned tomatoes before she could take the phone out of the cabinet.And it was basic: small 20-cm screen, push buttons instead of voiceactivation--probably black and white, too, Sue thought as sheactivated it.
No, it was color. The screen lit up in pale green, reading 'Dial.' AsSue entered the various access codes, the readout changed.Intercontinental . . . Antarctica . .
"Voiceprint ID required," a flat voice said. "Speak."
"Ranger Susan M. Lindner, ident code RSR-0651-0173."
"Ident confirmed. To whom do you wish to speak?"
"Castellan Gordon, please."
"One moment, sir."
Within seconds, the Seal disappeared, to be replaced by the face of agray-haired, tired-looking man. "What can I do for you . . . ah . . ."He