The Butterfly and the Sea Dragon
A Yoelin Thibbony Rescue
By Tyree Campbell
Published by Nomadic Delirium Press at Smashwords
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The Butterfly and the Sea Dragon: A Yoelin Thibbony Rescue is a publication of Nomadic Delirium Press. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including physical copying or recording or by any information storage and retrieval systems, without expressed written consent of the author and/or artists.
The Butterfly and the Sea Dragon: A Yoelin Thibbony Rescue is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, are entirely coincidental.
Cover illustration copyright 2016 by Laura Givens
Cover design by Laura Givens
First printing May 2016
Nomadic Delirium Press
For my sister Georgia,
who loved Nyx and would have loved Yoelin.
R.I.P. . . .
Entry into the estate house had offered but moderate security impediments for the tall woman named Yoelin Thibbony. Encased in black vivar skin, she padded lithely along the darkened hallway that led to the study. She kept to the right wall; the house schematics had indicated four statues on stands along the left wall. The NV goggles allowed her to pick them out one by one as she passed, although they barely showed up against the general background of the hallway. In the goggles, a green line along the bottom of the study door grew brighter as she approached. Now she tensed; the intrusion had transpired easily so far, a sure sign that the unexpected lurked ahead.
When it came, it almost made her laugh. On one step, her sprayshoe-clad foot pushed off against plush carpeting; on the next, the arch of her other foot pressed against something sharp and hard, and she fought the urge to cry out. She paused, took her weight off that foot, and located and picked up the offending object with her toes, transferring it to her free hand. Through the microthin layer of black vivar that covered her fingers she tested the shape of it . . . and stifled a burst of mirth. It was a piece from a child's toy, a plastic building block, a Lego, of the type found on the floors of homes with children on every world of Corporatia. They never picked up all the blocks, ever. On this occasion the Lego served as a reminder that there were other people in the house, and that she would prefer to avoid them if at all possible.
The woman slid the NV goggles up over her forehead. The line of light under the door to the study, now a mere three paces away, caused barely a ripple in the darkness, although it had been a beacon in the goggles. Her left thumb ticked at the Palmetto in her hand. The reading indicated one person in the study, and his heartbeat rhythms matched the EKG on record for Gunther Middenhill.
She moved to the door, and aimed the Palmetto at the touchpad on the wall beside the jamb. In less than a second she received the entry code: a pedestrian 4321. A tick to the Palmetto entered the code, and the door slid open as she slipped the device into a hip pocket.
The man seated at the desk rotated his floating chair to face her, but he withheld his outcry of alarm when he saw the finger pressed across her lips for silence and the Kreisler Energo in her left hand. As the door snicked shut behind her, she scanned the study, though she already knew the contents by heart. No windows. Three classic oil paintings, two on the back wall, one on the right. The three shelves of a wrought iron etager in the corner bore ancient bric-a-brac. Against the left wall stood an antique oak rolltop desk with artstate trappings, including a multifaceted monitor above the desk. From her oblique angle of vision she could just see that the upper left quadrant of the monitor contained text—a report in preparation, possibly, or diary notes. The chair hovered two centimeters above the carpet. Middenhill's left hand rested over the chair arm, over the controls there. As yet he had not moved his fingers.
Middenhill matched the hologram she had filched from official records. Several centimeters shorter than her meter eighty-three and paunchy, with a round head, brown eyes, and a pasty tan acquired under a sun lamp. His after-hours casual wear suggested his favorite color was turquoise green, although it did not go well with his tan or his eyes. He had thick arms that were just too short for his body, and facial skin that, at his age of hundred and twenty-two, had twice undergone retrotherapy, although he could still smile. Or frown, as he was frowning now.
Yoelin spoke through the opaque vivar that covered her head like a second skin, in English, in a smoky contralto that might have buckled the knees of an ardent admirer. “I'll have the cameo opal pendant in the silver setting, on its silver necklace.”
Middenhill stared at her, his mouth open. “What?”
“I'd rather you didn't tap your fingers on the control panel on that chair arm, Mr. Middenhill,” she said, and fired a yellow laser beam at his lower left leg, just searing the fabric there and the skin beneath it. Middenhill cried out, and stopped when he saw the Energo aimed directly at his nose. “I know it hurts,” Yoelin said softly. “I know you have no security personnel on the estate, so there is no one nearby for you to summon. I know the control panel can alert security authorities in Port of Burkee, but by the time they arrive, which would be ten minutes from now, you would be dead, and I would have the pendant. I know the panel can also awaken the other members of your family, but that would only result in their quite unnecessary deaths.” She paused, and added, “The pendant?”
“It-it belonged to my ex-wife,” he argued. “It was part of the divorce settlement. It's not worth anything.”
“I am fully aware of its history, sir. But that history is irrelevant to my contract, to this Rescue.”
“Res-rescue? I don’t understand.”
She smiled without mirth. “That’s what I do, sir. I rescue people, and things. In this case, the pendant. I’d like it now, sir.”
“I . . . I have to go get it,” he said. Beads of sweat popped through tightened pores on the retrofitted skin of his forehead. “It's—.”
“You keep it in the pencil slot in your center desk drawer, sir.”
The air seemed to go out of Middenhill. With a heavy sigh he drew open the center drawer, and peered down at the contents. After a moment, he reached in and fingered the necklace, and finally held it up so that the pendant dangled at eye level.
“Place it on the corner of the desk, and ease your chair back,” Yoelin ordered.
Reluctantly Middenhill complied. “I'll get it back,” he said, defiance in his tone.
Yoelin picked up the pendant and necklace and tucked them into a pouch on her left thigh, then drew a fingertip across the top of the pouch, sealing it shut. “Mr. Middenhill,” she said, her voice soft again, “even to attempt to retrieve this item will activate the other part of my contract, which stipulates that I am to kill you if you bother Elaine again.”
“I'll double whatever she's paying you,” blurted Middenhill. “Triple it, even.”
Yoelin shrugged. “I get ten thousand thalers for the pendant,” she replied. “Fifty thousand more plus expenses if the second part of the contract should be activated.”
Middenhill's brow furrowed. “But . . . but the pendant isn't worth more than a hundred thalers.”
Under the vivar, Yoelin smiled sweetly. “Heirlooms usually are over-valued by their owners. But that is not relevant to my contract.” She withdrew the Palmetto and rekeyed the door code, stepping to one side while it opened in order to avoid surprises. Light from the study reached all the way to the front wall of the house, and she could see that the hallway was empty. “I'll take my leave of you now, sir,” she said. “I do trust we won't meet again.”
Ten minutes later, Yoelin Thibbony had exited the house, remoted her spaceskiff Sequana back to the estate, and departed from Burkee. Safely ensconced in N-space, she retreated to her stateroom and began to strip. After slipping out of the black full body sock, she peeled off the second-skin layer of vivar, wadded it, and cast it into the recike. Naked now, she stepped to the wardrobe and paused, a what-to-wear expression on her freckled face.
Her personal computer, Abnoba, distracted her with an announcement. “You've been pinged.”
Yoelin removed a one-piece terrycloth leisure suit and held it up against her, turning to a full-length mirror to assess her look. The royal blue fabric set off the ultramarine highlights in her long black hair. “Gunther Middenhill finally became curious, did he?”
“Gunther Middenhill did not ping you.”
“Don't keep me in suspense, Abby.”
Yoelin, about to re-hang the leisure suit, paused. All expression left her face. Her voice, when it came, had lost its smoky edge and was now rough with controlled annoyance. “Tell The Axe to leave a message.”
“He says he is offering one million thalers.”
Swiftly Yoelin slid herself into the leisure suit and made for the bridge. There, she dropped into the captain's chair, cleared her mind of several memories, and said, “Put him on the commo monitor, Abby.”
A face of hard features appeared directly before her on the instrument console. Yoelin reflected that Exeter never changed much. Even now, five years after she had stopped working for him, and three since she had last seen him, he looked scarcely older. Perhaps there was just a touch more gray in the hair, but the color might have been an affectation. He would not be above combing in some steel coloring to match his eyes, or to lend his aspect a greater impression of experience and gravitas. To judge from his upper body, he had remained fit enough, his shoulders filling out the cobalt blue top half of his outsuit. She guessed he was sitting at a desk, probably on his estate. She could not imagine what he might want, but the fee he had mentioned was too large for her to dismiss the communication without at least granting him a hearing.
“You're looking well, Yoelin,” he said.
“Yo-e-lin. Three syllables. Accent on the first. What do you want, Director?”
Exeter leaned forward, and she could imagine him folding his arms on top of the desk. “Direct and to the point,” he said. “I'd forgotten how abrupt you can be.”
She doubted that, but made no remark, content to wait.
“Very well.” He spoke carefully now, but with a hushed urgency. “Corporate territorial archives have been stolen. I have been authorized to engage you to retrieve them.”
Yoelin started to decline the assignment out of hand. At the last moment she temporized. “That sounds like something for Corporatia Security assets.”
“Ordinarily I might agree with you,” Exeter admitted. “But there are complications. First, all of those archives have been downloaded onto an unsecured and unregistered Palmetto, and irretrievably erased from our computers. The only records that delineate and authenticate Corporatia territories are on that Palmetto. We want that Palmetto.
“The individual who stole the archives is Manohra Dhu. She seems to have come from nowhere. She obtained employment as a simple records clerk, in which position she worked for over five years. Nine days ago she bypassed security for the information, and departed for Havelox Rest, where we believe she is now.”
After the words “Havelox Rest,” Yoelin heard only the pounding of her heart. A wave of dizziness passed. Why there? Why did it have to be there?
With an effort not revealed in her expression or her tone, she forced calm upon herself. “One of the reasons I left CorpSec was that I wanted to choose when and where I would be expendable,” she told him, and wondered whether his sensors could detect her pulse. “This isn't it. The answer's no, I won't go into The Dragons for you.”
Exeter's face reddened for a moment, then softened. “I never understood why the periphery of Corporatia was called that,” he said.
She permitted him the diversion; it helped her relax. “Some folks still call it The Sock.”
“I didn't know that, either. Oh, wait . . . yes, I see. Corporatia occupies four hundred light-years of the spiral arm, with Earth about a third of the way along that cylinder of space, and outlying areas we don't control would be like a—.”
“Sock. The answer is still no, Director.”
“But why The Dragons?”
Yoelin, who was about to order Abnoba to end the communication, yielded to his curiosity. “It was something the Traders and Locaters and other privateers wrote on their star charts, before the Corporations established their hegemony. It dates back over a thousand years, back to Earth. Off the coast of Europe on the crude medieval maps lay the Atlantic Ocean. But if you went too far out to sea, you might not come back. No one knew what was out there. So the cartographers wrote ‘Here Be Dragons.’”
She paused briefly to regard him. Not for a second did she believe that any part of their conversation had been innocent. He was measuring her, she was certain of it, but to what end, she could not say. Surely he knew nothing of her long-ago and far-away; she had conducted a complete erasure. Even her name, validated on so many records, was a contrivance. He couldn’t know. He couldn’t hurt her, not that way.
With the silence between them now almost palpable, she nodded to him and said, “Abby, end commo.” After time had passed a beat, she swallowed the lump in her throat and added, “Raise Elaine Middenhill. Let's give her the good news.”
Adrienne's Pastries stood at the end of a row of kiosks on the Riverwalk in Borden, on Tianko, a Corporatia world some eighty parsecs further out the spiral arm from Earth. Yoelin Thibbony chose it as a meeting place because the open field to the west of the kiosks made an ideal spot to which she could remote her spaceskiff for a quick getaway, if necessary. As Elaine Middenhill resided in Borden, Adrienne's also provided a convenient location for Yoelin to complete the terms of the Rescue.
As was her custom, Yoelin arrived well early. It was most unlikely that anyone would be watching for her on the Riverwalk, or on Tianko, for that matter, but she was reluctant to deviate from her planetfall routine. After half an hour of shuffling along the Riverwalk, she had satisfied her personal security concerns, although her passing had not gone unnoticed. At least two pairs of eyes followed her movements for a brief time, doubtless because the single-piece lime outsuit that she wore covered but did not conceal her physical attributes. The admiration felt innocent enough, and as neither man got up to follow her, she dismissed it.
In time Yoelin took a seat at a patio table overlooking the Moyenne River that divided Borden into northeast and southwest on its way to the North Gnossic Ocean some five hundred kilometers to the west. Stone bridges across the sixty-meter-wide Moyenne stitched the two halves of the town together. They reminded Yoelin of the bridges of old Europe she had seen in travelgrams and history books. The kiosks themselves lent a medieval atmosphere to the Riverwalk. Here no one was in a great hurry to move along to somewhere else.
Yoelin sighed. I could spend the day here . . .
A serving girl in her early teens approached the table and waited patiently for Yoelin to notice her. “A pot of coffee, and two cups,” said Yoelin, “and a basket of rolls, and butter.”
“Very good, mum.”
After the girl departed to fill the order, Yoelin released a bemused chuckle. Barely thirty-three, she felt she hardly qualified as “mum,” yet the years reminded her that she had no real roots, no particular place to call home. She spent most of her time aboard the Sequana, itinerant. Under other names she owned three pieds-a-terre, on three different worlds, where from time to time she lighted, rather like a moth to a lamp, and for the duration of a moth to a lamp. If she stopped moving, she might be trapped, caught. Even this sojourn on Tianko involved a quantum of risk. That thought made her blink. Already the Moyenne was mesmerizing her with its slow and steady flow. To recover, she found a fixed point—a pier on the far bank of the river—and gazed directly at it for a few seconds.
The coffee and rolls arrived, acknowledged by Yoelin with a nod and a smile. Something about the pier teased at her. Perhaps it was the stability amid all that watery restlessness. Or the refusal to budge despite the immense pressure against it. In the end, of course, the pier was doomed. Movement always triumphed over fixed points. Wind weathered rock. Floods ravaged continents. She was safest aboard her Sequana in space. The pier was impossible.
Nearby movement caught her eye, and she started, her left hand darting toward the Kreisler Energo. In the next instant she paused, and flashed a smile. “I see you're early, too,” she said.
Elaine Middenhill waited until Yoelin gestured her to a chair. Like her ex-husband, she was approaching middle-age—one hundred and four, Yoelin knew, from her Social Record. She had yet to undergo retrotherapy; although her looks and figure were consistent with her age, her impressive economic status took years off her. She had a matronly face, round with kindly wrinkles, that reminded Yoelin of a baking advertisement. She half-expected to find the woman's brown hair festooned with bits of dough and bare arms smudged with flour. Elaine's clothing belonged on a somewhat younger woman. The white silk blouse housed an ample bosom, and the full-length blue skirt served to conceal the extra fifteen or so kilograms she carried.
“I confess I am glad you did not have to activate the second half of our agreement,” said Elaine. “I'm not as blood-thirsty as you might have imagined, from our earlier conversation.”
Yoelin shrugged. “When I hire out, I hire out,” she said.
“Yes, of course.” Her mouth twitched, as if she were about to frown distastefully and thought better of it. She opened a small blue carrybag with a shoulder strap and fumbled around in it, coming up with a fundscard, which she passed to Yoelin.
“Business first, I see,” said Yoelin. “Please help yourself to coffee and rolls.”
“Nothing for me, thank you. May I see the pendant?”
“Certainly.” Yoelin slid the sealed pouch across the table, then keyed her Palmetto to read Elaine's fundscard. “The other half of the ten thousand thalers into my account,” she said aloud, turning the Palmetto so that Elaine could read it. “The twenty-five thousand for the second half of the contract to remain in escrow for one Standard year, and to be returned to your account if not activated before then.”
Elaine slipped the pendant from the pouch and fastened it around her neck. “It has followed the maternal line of my family for eighteen generations, ever since we left Earth,” she said softly, more to herself than for Yoelin's benefit. “Thank you for retrieving it.” A short series of reedy beeps made her eyes widen. “Is there something the matter?”
Yoelin frowned, studying the face of the Palmetto. “Funds won't transfer from my account into escrow,” she said slowly. “I don't . . .” She punctuated this unfinished statement with a foul word. “Exeter. He's frozen my account.”
“I don't understand . . .” said Elaine.
“I do.” She turned in her chair, and barely managed to conceal the grimness in her tone. “Elaine, I will fix this. In the meantime, though, ah, . . .”
“Would you please pay for the coffee and rolls?”