Saer nodded toward the pictures on the wall, "It must be expensive, sending your son to private school."
Bjerd's expression tightened, and she didn't glance at the pictures, "Yes."
"You knew it wouldn't last forever. Not with Tidjias running it. If I had a way for you to come out from the other side of this in the clear and still earning would you be interested?" Saer smiled, "And you'd probably never have to see me again."
Bjerd hesitated, then nodded.
* * *
Tani Akell followed Saer through the duct. "Are we going to find Tidjias?"
Saer didn't look over her shoulder, or slow her crawl through the grimy metal tube, "Stay quiet until we're out of here."
Tani scowled, her feet rattling against the panels with enough noise to make Saer wince. Her clan teaches traditional things, isn't moving quietly one of those?
At the exit panel, Saer stopped and motioned for Tani to be still and quiet. The shadow of the patrolling guard passed the slats of the vent, and Saer counted out thirty seconds under her breath - enough time for the guard to turn at the next corner. She popped the vent cover off and slid out of the vent, dropping the few feet to the ground. She waited for Tani to tumble out, then carefully fitted the cover back on the duct.
Tani had recovered and was dusting herself off. Saer jerked her head toward the nearby industrial buildings, "Come on. Walk."
Saer walked purposefully, but not too quickly, away from the Maintenance facility. Tani followed, peppering Saer with questions. "Where are we going? Are we going to get Tidjias? Are we going to the police?"
What is it with this family and all the questions? Saer put a few blocks behind them and then stopped and turned on her. "What happened?"
"What happened?" Tani put her hands on her hips indignantly. "They hit me and tied me up!"
"After you what? Walked up and told them you knew they were stealing parts?" Saer asked dryly.
"No, of course not."
Saer started towards the motel again, keeping her pace at a casual stroll, two friends on their way home from an evening out. "What did you do, then? That made them suspicious?"
"I told them I knew how they could not get caught." Tani said, overtaking Saer and then slowing to match her pace. "They weren't even grateful!"
How is someone this naive even still breathing? "You expected them to be grateful?" Saer asked. "You let them know that you knew."
"You told me to find a way to make myself useful to them," Tani said. "How were they going to know I was useful if I didn't tell them?"
"Groups like that don't usually like someone coming from the outside and announcing 'I know what you're doing, and why don't you do a better job of it?'"
Tani deflated a bit. "Oh."
"You have to do it a bit at a time, Tani."
"Oh," Tani said again. She scowled. "So what do I do now?"
"It's up to you," Saer said. She paused as a group passed them, the worse for alcohol. One made a slurred, lewd suggestion to Tani and the girl clenched her fists. Saer grabbed her arm and gave the man a hard stare, cold as the void. He was sober enough to take the warning, and stumbled on with his friends.
Saer let Tani go as they moved away and said "Do you still want to be a mechanic there? If we got rid of some people?"
"Yes, but they do have to stop, or change anyway," Tani said. "There's going to be a crash, if they keep going how they are. Did you hear what that guy said to me?"
"Don't get distracted," Saer advised her. "I talked to one of them, on that crew. He mentioned there was someone in small parts who would be easy to work with. If she was in charge. do you know who he was talking about?"
"Yeah," Tani said. She jerked her thumb back in the direction they'd come from. "We just tied her up."
"Okay," Saer said. "Well, here's what we can do. We can go to the police and they'll shut down the whole department. They may or may not get everyone involved. You may or may not have a shot at a job there. It might stay exclusively Sebbie. That's one option. Or we do nothing. They probably won't go after you if they don't hear from the police after a little while. We have a copy of the evidence now. We put it in a safe place. That's what's called insurance. If they go after you, we can always release it."
"We can't do nothing," Tani said decisively. "They're using bad parts."
Saer had heard that tone of voice before, over years on ships and stations. It was the voice of an engineer or a mechanic whose professional standards had been affronted, and it was the end of that line of discussion.
Saer nodded, "Alright. There's a third option, too. We can find out who controls that department. We can offer them a deal: Either we go to the press with the evidence and they look incompetent or corrupt, or we give them a copy, and they use it to clean up the department. Getting rid of the people we want them to get rid of, and seeing that they are the ones that get tossed to the police. We make a deal with Bjerd - she gets to be the new boss, and in exchange she supports the internal housecleaning, and hires you afterward."
"What do you think we should do? Hiri would say go straight to the police." Tani went on. She snorted. "Like they helped her."
"I think we should find out who has oversight of that department," Saer said. "Offer them the deal."
Tani nodded decisively. "Okay. I have the department staff chart and contact list, we can - "
Plenty of drive. Now if she just manages to live long enough to get some experience. Saer reached out and grabbed the back of Tani's shirt as she started down the street. "Right now, we need to go check on your sister. Then we'll need to talk to Bjerd and make sure the authorities find- "
Tani stopped. "Hiri? What's wrong with Hiri?"
No point sugar-coating it. "When we were asking questions, one of the people found her. Beat her up."
"Beat her up? Hiri? How bad? Is she okay?"
"She seems ok." Saer watched Tani's reaction carefully and filed it away.
"Seems okay? Is she okay, though?"
"She was fine when I left," Saer said. She had already started walking again, "Are you coming?"
Tani scrambled to catch up.
* * *
"Good. I'm going to put the gun away. Don't do anything stupid." Saer watched Bjerd carefully as she tucked the pistol away. "Right about now, the director of operations for the shuttleport is calling a press conference. He's going to announce that an internal investigation has revealed a parts theft ring and that the perpetrators are being taken into custody."
"That's why you wanted what was on my terminal." A note of bitterness crept into Bjerd's voice, "How does getting arrested help me?"
"You won't be arrested. You're going to be promoted."
* * *
The streets near the motel were run down, the only windows without bars over them were the ones that were boarded up. Saer was relieved to see that even Tani seemed to be paying attention to their surroudnings. At least she isn't entirely oblivious.
"You know," she said, "Next time you see an... opportunity, you can give me a call first. I can give you some advice. You can still get hurt if you screw up. Even dealing with half-assed operations like this one."
Tani said "Like the advice about insurance?"
"Yes," Saer said. "You have to make sure it is always riskier getting rid of you than keeping you around."
Tani said soberly. "They talked about killing me. But they couldn't work out how to get the body off the shuttleport"
"Lucky for you," Saer said. "These are the kind of situations where people play for keeps, Tani. And people will panic and do stupid things when they're cornered, so if you decide to corner someone, make sure they don't have those options. Better to ease them into things, though, and not corner them at all"
"How do you do that?" Tani asked.
Saer considered how to compress a lifetime's experience into something Tani would understand. "Keep your eyes open, and your mouth shut. Make sure if you find things out, you keep a copy somewhere with instructions in case something happens to you. Be useful, but not loud about it. Be trustworthy and reliable. Take some initiative, but don't, for example, demand that someone change their whole operation because you know better. Help them make money, and again, show that you keep your mouth shut. Of course, it's a bit late for that in this particular case."
Tani frowned. "So I did it wrong?"
"Yes," Saer said. "Actually, it's possible it might have worked, if you'd had insurance. But usually just going right for the throat like that isn't the best way, even if it is quick. If you're using that kind of leverage, they're not going to trust you. It's a last resort if you're talking about the people you're going to be working with directly. It's more useful with superiors or people in a position to help you."
Tani studied Saer, and asked thoughtfully. "Do you do this a lot?"
"I used to," Saer said.
"Before you became a soldier?"
Saer shrugged as they reached the motel. "This is it."
Tani hurried inside. Saer overtook her and showed her the way to the room, Before, she thought, the girl starts knocking on doors at random.
Both sisters exclaimed at the sight of the other, Hiri with relief, Tani in horror at Hiri's bruises. Saer interrupted what promised to become a full explanation carried out in the hallway and herded them both inside.
"You look awful," Tani said frankly. "We should get you home, Uncle Husvard should look at you, who was it? Who hit you?"
"One of the people from maintenance," Saer said. "I've already discussed things with him. He was very co-operative."
Tani Akell turned to Saer "You didn't let him go, did you?"
Saer shrugged "He was still tied up when I left. Why? What do you want to do with him?"
Tani narrowed her eyes and clenched her fists.
"Tani," Hiri said with gentle reproach.
Tani looked at Hiri and then said to Saer, "What he did to my sister. To start."
"Why?" Saer asked.
Tani asked incredulously, "What do you mean, why? Look at her!"
Saer looked at Hiri, then back at Tani, "She took a beating, yeah. So? What would be the purpose of doing more to him?"
Hiri took one of Tani's hands and uncurled her fist. "It wouldn't serve any purpose, Tani, you know that."
Tani scowled, but didn't voice any disagreement.
Saer nodded, "She's right. If you're going to hurt someone, you should have a reason. Making a point, getting information, making an example. He already gave up the information we needed, and I don't think we need an example, at least not yet."
Hiri eyed Saer, "I don't think that's exactly what I meant."
Saer shrugged. "It's just practical. If they take another shot at you, we might need to make an example. I'll use whoever they send, though. In the mean time, no need to make things any messier."
Hiri said to Tani, "You're all right, that's all that matters. You are all right? They didn't hurt you?"
"Yeah, I'm okay," Tani said. "They pushed me around a bit but that's all."
I should say something. What would someone say in one of those holo-shows? Saer frowned for a moment, "I'm glad that you're both alright."
"Okay, well," Hiri said, "Let's get you out of here. We'll get you home and call the police, okay?"
"I'll take care of the police," Saer said firmly. "Make sure that their investigation is focused efficiently. It's important they get the right people."
Tani opened her mouth, looked at Saer, and closed it again. A miracle, Saer thought.
"You take care of Tani," Saer said. "I'm sure that everyone will want to hear about what happened. And then perhaps it might be a good idea for her to visit her big sister in space for a little while, while everything settles down here."
* * *
"Promoted?" Bjerd frowned, "Promoted to what? Head janitor?"
"No, I think that's still a Vherokior job." Bjerd stared at Saer a bit blankly. Guess it wasn't that funny. "Head of maintenance. Tidjias's job. I understand there is a healthy pay raise involved."
"But Tidjias will-"
"Tidjias, and several of his cronies, are going to be in prison. For quite a while." Saer's smile was chilly, "I understand that when it comes to interfering with flight safety, the penalties can be severe."
"Okay. Yeah." Bjerd took a deep breath, "You said you'd help me, and I'd help you. What would you want me to do?"
"Nothing, for now. Forget about that kick Tani gave you - youthful enthusiasm. Don't share what really happened with anyone. Make the department run the way it should."
Bjerd nodded, shifting in her seat, "That's not all, though, is it?"
"Tani. If she still wants it, give her a job. Make sure that she doesn't take the heat for what happened, either. You don't want me having to come back here."
"I think I can do that. That can't be everything." Bjerd looked like someone bracing herself to sell her soul. "What else do I have to do?"
Well, at least she seems committed to the idea. Either the private school, or the imported soap, must be even more expensive than I thought.
Saer shook her head, "No, think that's everything." She stood up.
"That's- Then why did you do all this?"
Saer didn't bother answering as she left the apartment.
* * *
As the shuttle hurtled down the runway and lifted into the air, Tani leaned forward eagerly, face pressed against the window. Hiri leaned back in her seat, holding an icepack against the side of her face. Her bruises had reached their full glory over night, and whatever 'Uncle Husvard' had had to offer, it hadn't been close to professional medical care.
Saer had gone so far as to consider a hospital or at least a doctor who could be bribed, but they'd be back on station in a few hours.
She flipped through the holo-catalogue from the seat pocket in front of her, wondering if people really needed self-heating pen holders, and glancing up occasionally to make sure the Akell sisters hadn't been able to get into any more trouble. It was hard to imagine what they could find, seatbelts fastened and with Saer in the aisle seat, but you can never be too careful.
Hiri opened her eyes as Saer glanced up. "Saer?"
Saer closed the catalog and looked over, "Yes?"
Hiri said carefully, "Some of those things you said to Tani ... I'm not sure if those are the best things for her to be hearing, at her age."
"What would you prefer?" Saer asked with genuine curiosity.
"I know that, with what happened to you, it must seem as if the world works in certain ways," Hiri said. "Sometimes it seems to me as if you have a ... utilitarian view towards people you don't know."
Saer considered that. "I try to be practical," she ventured.
Hiri nodded, and winced at the movement. "But being practical isn't the only thing in life."
Saer could tell from Hiri's tone that this was one of those times when the blandly mundane words were supposed to convey a far more complex message than she could decrypt. She settled for a nod. "Of course it isn't."
Hiri paused. "The advice you gave Tani, last time we were here, and today ... I know you meant well."
"Well," Saer said. "I hope she can benefit from my experience."
"I know you do," Hiri said. "But I think perhaps the lessons of your experience might not be the best ones for Tani to learn."
"Why not?" Saer asked.
Hiri said gently "Saer, do you ever think about the ways there are difference between how you look at things and how other people do? Me, for example?"
"What differences do you see, when you do that?"
Saer eyed Hiri carefully and chose her words precisely. "You believe that people in authority are there to help. For example."
Hiri nodded. "I know that when 'authority' is the people keeping you as a slave, that's not what it feels like. I do know that, Saer. But that experience, it's exceptional. It's not a good guide to the rest of the Cluster."
"I've been on both sides of that line, being subject to authority, and being in authority, Hiri." Saer said patiently, "I've been other things a lot longer than I was ever a slave. I don't think my experience with it is exceptional at all."
"Do you think your perceptions are in line with other people's perceptions?" Hiri asked.
Saer shrugged. "What about you? What are your perceptions, based on your experiences relying on authorities?"
"That individuals in positions of authority are as variable as individuals in any walk of life," Hiri said. "In good and bad ways, but that the structures that give a community order are important."
"I agree," Saer said.
"Yes," Hiri said. "But I think that what Tani understood from your advice wasn't exactly that."
"Well, she did bite off a bit more than she could chew, there," Saer said. "Very enthusiastic. I did try to impress on her that it was a serious situation, and to be more cautious."
"Yes," Hiri said. "Um. Saer. That's not exactly what I meant. I don't think it's a good idea for Tani to think that the only thing she did wrong there was being 'enthusiastic'."
Saer nodded. "What do you think she did wrong?"
"She should have gone directly to the police when she found out what was going on," Hiri said.
Saer nodded again. "And what do you think would have happened then?"
"The police would have investigated," Hiri said, "and there would have been arrests and and investigation and so on, but that's not the point. The point is, it would have been the right thing to do."
"Even if it got your sister hurt worse?" Saer asked.
"You can't just take things into -" Hiri paused. "Well, you can. You can take things into your own hands, Saer, and you have, I understand that. But it hurts Tani is a different way to think that's how it should work. Do you understand?"
Saer considered. "So, it would have been better to go to the police, and risk them being paid off or bungling it, allowing them to go after Tani for talking? I don't disagree that there are many situations where the police are an excellent resource, Hiri. I prefer to be as careful as possible, though."
Hiri said "I understand that you believe things are best handled in a certain way, yes. But that is not the way I think they're best handled or the way I want my sister to grow up believing they're best handled."
"So, it's most important to do the right thing?"
"Yes," Hiri said. "It's most important to do the right thing." She added gently, "I know that sometimes it might be hard for you to see what the right thing is."
"Well, I appreciate you explaining things to me. Is that true even when it's a choice between what you think the right thing is, and something that will keep people close to you from getting hurt?"
"That's what we call an ethical dilemma," Hiri said.
"And doing the right thing wins by default?" Saer smiled slightly, and shook her head "I've never worked for anyone that was really interested in teaching a lot of ethics."
"Sometimes people make the right choice, sometimes the wrong one, in these situations," Hiri said. "But a lot of the people who end up talking to someone like me are there because they made the wrong choice and they don't know how to live with it. I don't want Tani to grow up making the wrong choices."
"Do you think I made the wrong choice in not calling the police to begin with?"
"I think you made the best choice you knew how to make," Hiri said carefully, "but I think it might have been better to go straight to the police, yes."
There is so much to try and understand. So much that makes no sense at all, but people really believe it. Saer thought. All she said was, "Well, hopefully it won't come up again."
Hiri nodded, and winced again. "Hopefully. But I'd really appreciate it if you remembered, talking to Tani, that it's important to me that she doesn't get the wrong idea about things. And remember that when you're giving her advice."
Saer nodded. "I will remember."
Hiri smiled. "Thank you. Please don't think I don't appreciate everything you've done."
Saer smiled. "Well. What are friends for."