“A Probationary Period” by Vivian Caethe
Read our interview with Vivian Caethe
Carefully arranging jewelry in the safe, Lara placed each piece next to the matching set so her mistress would not have to search for a missing earring or misplaced ring. She benefitted from the years of training her family paid for after the Incident. The training prepared her well for her chosen role, helped her forget who she had been, allowed her to assume the guise of professional service after being told she was the best of the best.
The past two days called her assessment into question. It wasn’t the little things, the spilling of tea from a shaking hand, the improper arrangement of her mistress’s wardrobe. She had forgotten her place. She had directly addressed a guest.
It happened when her mistress was having tea with a delegate from Dranstov, a planet from the same system as Karsdin, Lara’s home planet. The delegate mentioned that the politician who had been indicted for embezzlement and immoral acts had been re-elected. Lara had gasped, a sound that broke the careful murmurings of her mistress and her guest.
“Pardon me.” She apologized to the guest, her training forgotten with the shock of the news of her family’s return to power.
Her family fell apart with her father’s disgrace. Even her mother, dilettante that she was, had been forced to look for options. Desperate to distance herself, Lara found the academy would take her, found a way to overcome the terrifying prospect of destitution, a fall from society so great that it shattered her sense of self.
If she hadn’t been forced into working, she might have been able to continue her life as it had been. The possibilities shocked her; what if she had never gone to the academy? Would she be the same person?
Her mistress gave her a chilling look after the outburst. As a politician’s daughter, Lara knew that servants were an extension of their employers’ will. She had all but told the delegate that her mistress had concerns in Karsdin, even though she didn’t. Such information could be used against her mistress; any information given away unintentionally was a weakness.
Her mistress was the perfect Elite, able to wield power judiciously, never selfish in her duties. It was an honor to work for such a woman. She had heard stories in the academy of masters and mistresses who were cruel. Elites who used their control of the planets and stars to their own selfish purposes. She was proud to work for her mistress, but she had ruined everything. If she didn’t pass the probationary period, she would be destitute. No one would hire her if one of the Elite had chosen not to continue her employ.
Even if her family was back in power, there was no way she could return to her former life. They wouldn’t welcome a daughter who had been someone else’s servant. There was an image to maintain, a need for superiority, however small, in the grand scheme of things.
She spent the rest of that day in terror, barely holding on to the shreds of professionalism she maintained. Her mistress’ coldness showed her displeasure; it had not been Lara’s place to interfere, to voice an opinion. Her mistress could dismiss her at any point during her probation, and with the cause Lara had given her, dismissal would be appropriate. She had to prove she was capable, that she would never make such a gaffe again.
“We will depart on the hour, Lara.” Her mistress stood and walked from the room, following the house servant who had been sent to escort her. Lara bowed, even though she knew her mistress wouldn’t see it. Form was important, even while it was vital that servants remained invisible.
Lara gathered her mistress’s scattered belongings and packed them efficiently. As a human servant, she was expected to be the equivalent of the automated systems. Here, in the highest echelons of society, the rich paid to have flesh and blood servants instead of intuitive systems. A sign of their wealth and power to have dominion over man instead of machine.
She expertly folded the last silken dress into the luggage and pressed the button for it to assemble and compress itself. The dress cost more than her employ, and was of a quality that she never dreamed of, even in her former life. A politician’s daughter was told she was the most shining star, the brilliant jewel of the constituency. She was never warned her of what happened when politicians fell into disgrace. Or what happened to his family. Working for an Elite showed her how small her family had been. The Elite operated on levels of wealth and power she could still barely comprehend.
Lara considered that it was her looks that had assured her future, even if they had threatened to ruin her past. If she hadn’t been beautiful then she would have been a maid or some sort of common worker. As it was, she had been almost too old to go to the specialized training school that catered only to the Elite.
Checking the map in her upper left vision, she located the most efficient route to the servant’s corridors and tugged the luggage behind her to get it started. It followed her obediently through the hallways and down the spiraling ramps to the departure area.
Her mistress would be making her goodbyes and promises, just enough time for Lara to stow the luggage in the flighter and set out her mistress’s tea. She strode through the loading dock and reveled in the fact that she was allowed to stride. In her previous life, she could never have been so purposeful, so strident even. A politician’s daughter was supposed to be demure, not diligent.
As she reached the flighter, the luggage followed her up the ramp and settled itself into the storage compartment. Lara tucked her smaller bag next to it and closed the hatch firmly. She locked the door and pulled the screen across the ugly compartment. As the fittings clicked into place, the screen activated, transforming the flighter’s parlor with the serene forest environment of her mistress’s homeworld.
It was strange to think of her mistress having a homeworld. Lara had grown up hearing of the Elite, of course, but they were always in the tabloids and dramas, never in real life. There was a dissonance, a distance, between the reality and fiction. But a few weeks in her mistress’s employ, she had come to realize just how far the Elite and their purposes were above her understanding. Her mistress would smile and nod at one player in the game, then the next day see him dead. Even now, the movements and motives of her mistress seemed to be as inscrutable as the movement of the stars.
She enjoyed the small rituals preparing for and ensuring her mistress’ comfort on their planet-hopping tour. In the context of her new life, this was the closest thing to importance she would achieve. Lara arranged the pillows perfectly and set the tea at the optimal temperature. She was admiring how it steamed when she heard someone coming up the ramp to the flighter. The tread was light, the footsteps delicate, but her mistress wore jeweled singing bracelets with her carnelian dress. There was no time to close the hatches; Lara faced the door.
As the intruder entered the flighter, Lara folded her hands in front of her. The woman stopped and reached for the gun at her hip, startled to see Lara. Although most Elites had servants, this stranger obviously hadn’t considered that any would be present, already preparing for their mistress’s departure. Most servants would have lagged behind, but Lara had been at the top of her class.
“Leave immediately before your trespass becomes an inconvenience.” Lara didn’t think the intruder cared, but there was an order to such situations. The offender must first be made to realize they had offended. Lara raised an eyebrow slightly, her gaze as steady as her voice.
“Your mistress and I have some business I’d like to address.” The intruder caressed the grip of the weapon with her thumb. Resisting the urge to roll her eyes, Lara noticed the weapon was an older model, one that had a nasty habit of misfiring unexpectedly. One of her schoolmates had learned that the hard way in one of their electives. Poor thing had lost her hand and her scholarship.
A smirk crossed the intruder’s face as she removed her hand from her weapon and folded her arms. Ignoring the scornful glance that took in her austere servant’s uniform, Lara examined her in return. The other woman was dressed in what could only be described as retro space bandit couture. The style had been amusing at parties three years prior, but now it was simply in poor taste. It meant that the woman was highly unfashionable, or seriously considered herself to be a brigand of some sort. Either way, she looked ridiculous.
“I don’t think I’ll be leaving anytime soon.” Her voice held the patois of the inner worlds, which did not host any bandits who would wear that costume. “You just make yourself useful and get me a drink.”
Lara sighed and raised her eyebrow further. Her mistress would be returning soon, but it would be impolite to simply kill the intruder without giving her a chance to retreat. Matters of etiquette were more than mere guidelines; they were all that defined man from machine. That, and she would have to clean up the mess.
The stranger’s smirk wilted as Lara waited for her to leave. Perhaps she had expected Lara to be intimidated, but the only thing that frightened Lara was the way the stranger’s boots clashed with the faux leather of her decorative bandolier. Lara folded her hands behind her back and discreetly pressed a button on the sleeve of her blouse. She would have to explain why she had sent the “not ready” signal to her mistress, especially if it impacted her opinion of Lara’s efficiency. But at least her mistress wouldn’t be forced into the middle of this situation.
It was time to be finished with this nonsense. Lara stepped around the couch and reached for the other woman’s elbow to firmly escort her from the ship. “I believe you have overstayed your welcome.”
“I don’t think so.” The woman stepped back and reached for her weapon. The bandit was plainly unaware that servants of Lara’s quality were trained in more skills than being able to pack clothes and set out the tea. Lara, given her family situation, had been possessed of significant spare time during school, and the academy’s curriculum had been rife with electives.
Lara grabbed the intruder’s hand before she could draw her gun and took two quick steps to twist the woman’s arm and up behind her at a painful angle. The woman tried to turn around, but Lara punched her sharply in the kidneys. Her opponent gasped and buckled at the sudden pain. Upon relieving her of her weapon – the fool had left her holster open – Lara threw it out the hatch.
Yanking the other woman’s arm up higher toward her shoulder blades, Lara walked the would-be assassin down the ramp. She struggled, so Lara hit her again. Pulling the arm higher, she arched the bandit’s back and slammed her foot against the back of her knee.
The stranger crumpled to her knees at the bottom of the ramp, fighting feebly against Lara’s grip. Growing tired of dealing with her, Lara flicked her wrist, releasing a knife from the sheath in her sleeve. Catching it expertly, she jammed the ceramic blade into the other woman’s back just above the shoulder blades. The diamond-coated knife slid between the muscles and jammed between the vertebrae with a crunch. The bandit screamed.
She jerked her blade free and let the intruder collapse. Lara wiped the blood on the woman’s useless outfit. Any appropriately equipped bandit would have ensured that they had armor beneath those silly clothes. She checked the clock in the upper right of her vision and saw she was almost out of time. The small triangle on the map that represented her mistress was closer every second.
Sighing, Lara resheathed her knife and lugged the dying woman onto her shoulder. She didn’t have time to make it a proper kill; she would simply have to stash the intruder somewhere. Blood dripped onto her uniform and she sighed with irritation. Looking around the loading bay, she realized there was no place she could deposit the assassin while still remaining seemly. Deeply put out, she lugged her back into the flighter and dumped her on the floor of Lara’s own room.
Lara left her there and did a quick tour of the flighter, straightening the main compartment and refreshing her mistress’s tea. Then she returned to her quarters to strip the bandit and search for damning evidence. Lara placed all of the particularly interesting articles to the side then dragged the moaning woman to the maintenance room. There was blood on the floor of the flighter, but that would be easily addressed. She hefted the woman halfway into the disposal and then paused to get a better grip. Her mistress’s icon was almost at the flighter’s.
Lara heaved the dying woman the rest of the way into the incinerator and closed the door. Then she quickly cleaned the blood that had followed her to the incinerator, changed her uniform and straightened her hair, and did a final sweep of the main room.
Her mistress swept into the flighter, and Lara bowed deeply before offering her a cup of steaming tea. Seating herself, her mistress took the tea and nodded to Lara, who bowed again and went to secure the ship and ready it for departure. Once they were under way, Lara made sure her mistress was comfortably ensconced in correspondence. After Lara refreshed the tea, she took her leave. Her mistress preferred to be left alone to enjoy the beginning of a journey.
Retiring to her own room, Lara picked through the intruder’s belongings, searching the awful outfit for any clue as to the woman’s identity or motive. The outfit itself she took apart at the seams, discovering a datachip sewn into the lining of the pants. Setting it aside, she rummaged through the rest of the clothes, but found nothing.
She dumped the woman’s belongings into the incinerator and returned to her room. Sitting on the bed, she plugged the datachip into her reader. The only information on the chip was a small file. She selected it and read it as it opened in her vision.
“You have proven yourself to be a capable servant. I will be pleased to retain you in my service.”
A sigh of relief – close to a sob – escaped her lips and she clapped her hand over her mouth. The tightness in her chest eased. Still, her hands trembled as she reached for the data chip, afraid to reread the note lest she find it a mistake. But when she brought herself to look again, she noticed something strange about the file itself.
Her personal network had been upgraded as a reward for her academic success; it was a bequest from one of her professors. As such, it ran deeper scans than most, and provided better up to the millisecond updates. In the bottom of her vision, below the file’s contents, she saw that the data requirements for the chip’s processes were beyond what could have been expected for so little information.
Lara frowned and tapped her finger on her chin, a tic she stopped as soon as she realized she was doing it. She was slipping. First her gasp, then old nervous habits coming to the fore. She took a deep breath to ground herself. What she allowed herself to do in private became what she did in public. Form was everything.
The data on the chip exceeded the needs of the file. So the chip was doing more than showing her a message from her mistress. She sandboxed the chip and looked at its code. There was more there.
Scanning the code, she realized that the late and unlamented bandit had done more than merely serve as a pawn in her mistress’s game. Perhaps there were others who thought she would fail, who thought the woman would have been able to plant the chip on her mistress’s flighter without anyone realizing. And Lara had played into their game. If she hadn’t saved the clothes for examination, perhaps if she had managed her time better, then the chip would not still be on the flighter. By keeping it, she had broadcasted her mistress’ destination to the source of the duplicitous code.
Her heart pounded as the implications hit her. This was more than a matter of disappointing her mistress and being released from service. Whoever had learned about her gaffe had seen an opportunity to strike at her mistress. Lara had become a weakness in the armor that the Elite built to protect themselves from each other.
Her mistress hadn’t known about the double agent, had perhaps written off Lara’s failing as merely a personal issue. It was possible. With the interplanetary negotiations ongoing between Lara’s mistress and the other Elite, the summit happening in three weeks, there was enough for her mistress to handle already. Security issues like this were Lara’s problem. Her probationary period would not be over until this was resolved. It wouldn’t matter if her mistress had retained her if her mistress was dead.
After finding no more clues in the intruder’s clothing, Lara threw them and the offending chip into the disposal. They would be incinerated when the ship jumped into interspace. She tidied her appearance and went to make sure her mistress would be ready for the jump. She didn’t mention the chip. Whatever problems arose would be hers to deal with.
Hargan’s Star was one of the three major trading posts that slowly spiraled to the center of the galactic sphere of control. Lara’s mistress would be traveling the same path, like all the Elite on their way to the summit, their motions charted to the music of space itself. To alter those motions, to disrupt her mistress’s place, would irrevocably damage her position amongst her peers. As the autopilot guided the flighter in to dock, Lara knew it was flying them into a trap.
Although all Elites knew the path of their compatriots’ journeys, the dates and times of arrivals were closely held secrets. Before Lara destroyed it, the chip had broadcasted their itinerary to an enemy, and they would be prepared. Her nerves were frayed with the plenitude of ways in which they could be attacked. The only advantage she had was that she doubted her mistress’s enemy wanted her dead. Disgraced, yes, but death would only make her a casualty, not a victory.
In the intervening time, Lara had hardened their data systems, checked and rechecked the protocols, scanned the ship’s software and hardware for devices and bugs. She had even gone through all of her mistress’s belongings to ensure there was nothing suspicious among them. Her mistress probably noticed her activities. Lara hoped she would attribute it to the end of the probationary period.
The message came in as they arrived. “Elite, we have been expecting you. Please dock in level five.”
Lara frowned at the screen. It was the typical greeting; all Elites were expected at the orbital stations at any time. But the docking arrangement had been changed from their itinerary. They had been scheduled for level four. A slight? Or had a higher ranking Elite preceded them?
Uneasy, she took control from the autopilot and guided the flighter to the dock. There were many ways to kill an Elite. Destruction of status, a quiet, slow death, was one of them. She couldn’t object to the dock assignment though. The orbital controllers were outside Elite control. Perhaps the unseen enemy had somehow managed to undermine that autonomy. Even controllers could be bribed if given enough incentive. She had never heard of it happening before, but if enough leverage was applied…
The leverage required would be extraordinary though. She schooled her expression to blankness. There were only three Elites with that sort of power, only two of them were positioned to be threats to her mistress. At least Lara could make an educated guess as to who should be the target of her retribution.
Docking went smoothly and she helped her mistress dress for debarkation. She had chosen an azure sari and braided her mistress’s long hair with long strings of lapis lazuli. Blue was the color of control, the color of calm. It was her mistress’ favorite color and wouldn’t look like a change from the usual. It wouldn’t do to show anything but normalcy to her enemies, but the blue would still have the effect of showing her power and unconcern over the threat. Her mistress looked at herself in the mirrored wall and smiled at Lara. “An excellent choice.”
Lara bowed, wondering just how much her mistress knew or suspected. She preceded her mistress from the flighter, forcing herself to be calm. All of her training came to the fore and she moved as she had been trained, scanning the loading dock for threats, guiding her mistress’s luggage to her quarters. Her network linked to the local framework, providing her real-time updates on the movements of others in the immense station. People swarmed like fire ants through the corridors, as plentiful and just as dangerous.
Her mistress’s quarters were larger than those they had originally been assigned. Another change, small, but designed to keep them off balance. Perhaps the unseen enemy had intended to reassure them with luxury. It spoke to a certain immaturity, a heavy-handedness that reduced the suspect list one. It was no coincidence that he was the brother of the Elite who had witnessed Lara’s gaffe.
As she set her mistress’s tea and unpacked her belongings, doing a subtle visual and electronic scan of the room as she did, she pondered the implications. The Elite witness hadn’t made use of the information himself. Perhaps it was a play to disgrace her mistress and his inconvenient brother at the same time. Even if it failed, it was guaranteed to take one of them down.
Her mistress had gone to take a nap when Lara found the first surveillance device. She stared at the flower, one in the multitude throughout the room. She plucked it out of its bouquet and turned it in her fingers as she thought. She could leave it, and use it against the unseen enemy. Or she could make a statement.
That night, when she accompanied her mistress to dinner, Lara placed the flower in her own fashionably simple bun. Servants were expected to complement their employers’ attire for dinners and so she wore a chocolate brown dress to go with the green and gold gown her mistress selected. A color choice to reflect an expectation of growth in power, grounded and stable confidence.
She let her gaze roam across the assembled Elite, seeing her mistress’s enemy for the first time. He was a stocky man, perhaps thirty years old, although he had undergone treatment to appear in his early twenties. A vain choice; perhaps he was as incautious as his actions indicated. Or perhaps that was also a ploy. She smiled inwardly when she saw his servant.
Lara had gone to academy with Grace, and knew her as well as a sister. Grace had not been in the first tier of their class. The heavy-handedness could have come from her. Perhaps this was Grace’s test; her probationary period.
As she made her way down the receiving line with her mistress, Lara caught Grace’s gaze and smiled slightly. A show of confidence would undermine Grace’s. It had always been a failing of hers. She turned slightly, knowing Grace would see the flower.
Preceding her mistress to their assigned place, she was unsurprised to find that they were seated next to the Elite who had seen her gaffe. He would want to see how his ploy was proceeding, and it was wise to be seen associating with her mistress, should only half of his plan succeed. He would want to appear convivial. As the Elite spoke quietly about nothing in particular, exchanging carefully nebulous pleasantries, she turned slightly to his servant, Kincaid. He was an older man; perhaps he had been in his master’s service for twenty years or more. “The flowers are lovely.”
He frowned at her, a bare downward twitch of his lips. “I am glad you think so.”
“From Rusania, aren’t they?” Grace was watching them.
“Only the best for my master’s dearest friend.”
“I saw that some were from his brother as well.” Grace’s stare was open now; Lara allowed herself a smile of satisfaction. “A little blatant, don’t you think?”
“His servant’s decision.” He nodded slightly toward Grace.
Grace’s behavior had caught her master’s attention. Belatedly, she tried to hide her interest. Lara nodded pleasantly at Kincaid and refilled her mistress’s wineglass. A scan of the wine told her there was a truth serum in the drink, enough to loosen her mistress’s tongue. She discreetly dropped the antidote into the wine, a small flourish of her hand that appeared nothing more than a graceful gesture as she handed the glass to her mistress. “Would your master care for wine?”
Kincaid quirked an eyebrow. “I would think he has had enough already.”
“I see.” Lara returned the carafe to the table behind her.
Dinner proceeded pleasantly and Lara kept her peace as Grace gave her furtive looks. Kincaid served his master the courses that arrived, mirroring her actions perfectly.
As the autopilot guided the flighter away from Hargan’s star, she allowed herself a moment of satisfaction. The small slights had ceased after that dinner. Her mistress hadn’t lost status. Rather, Lara and Kincaid had developed an easy truce, working together to improve both their employers’ statuses.
She had watched him at work through the rest of their stop, appreciative of the relationship he had developed with his master. He was an opponent with whom she would gladly spend years fencing. Grace hadn’t stood a chance against them. Her master had experienced a spectacular failure of his wardrobe during one of the balls, and had lost almost all of his status.
It had been a cheap victory, and not an optimal ending. Lara wished she could have ruined both conspirators, but she knew that it would take years of work to bring Kincaid’s master down. It wouldn’t be an easy task, but even Kincaid would make a mistake sometime. When he did, Lara would be ready.
Her probationary period was over.
About the Author
Vivian Caethe was introduced to speculative fiction at an early age by growing up in the Land of Enchantment. She writes on the side while sticking to her day job of telling people what to do and being mildly surprised when they comply. An avid tea connoisseur, she knits and cross stitches in her spare time.
Read our interview with Vivian Caethe