It was embarrassing to be as uneducated as she was, especially whenever she encountered someone from off-planet who was so obviously well-rounded and sophisticated like Lazlo Casta. Her family had never had, and never would have, excess funds to send her or any of her siblings to the Academy. Del already felt like a rube any time she dealt with a portie. That was why she preferred to stay outside the gates at the family home, or go even farther afield into the Outlands where it didn’t matter. “You mean you learned all of this on your own, with no classes or instructors?” Del nodded and decided not to say anything else. She certainly wasn’t going to tell him of her ambition to take some actual classes, invest in more equipment and perhaps even travel to a conference in the future. Those were her big plans, easily mocked by anyone who took those privileges as natural entitlements. “That’s impressive,” Lazlo rumbled as he gave her a long look before turning his attention back to his driving. “Not really.” “Yes it is. I bet you could show some of those emeriti a few things they don’t know.” Del shook her head, embarrassed in a different way at his praise. At least he wouldn’t be able to see her blushing under her wrapped scarf. Lazlo kept driving, slowing his pace a bit as they reached the ground rising toward the towering outcrops they needed to search that day. Pinkish-gray rocks and boulders began to litter the area. Del mentioned they were quartzite and Lazlo nodded again, struggling a bit to maneuver the cart around a particularly large boulder thrusting out of the ground like a striking fist. This section of the Outlands was gorgeous—enormous eroded cliff faces and canyons, brightly colored contrasting layers of sediment, lots of wind and movement. There were fewer algae and fungi here. Del guessed it was due to the dryness of the higher elevation but she’d never made a study of it. “Help me find a nice big piece of quartzite that we can use to hide this cart,” Lazlo asked and Del nodded, immediately scanning for something to suit their needs. They parked between two specimens the size of houses and unloaded their equipment. As Del pulled on her pack and adjusted her tools, Lazlo spread a speckled and textured sheet over the cart to conceal it even further. Then he reached back in and pulled out a longish battered case and strapped it on his back over his own pack. “What’s that?” “Rifle. Twinshot 850, old but very reliable.” Del took a breath and looked at Lazlo’s face, his eyes concealed by his shades. He looked big and imposing and entirely ready to shoot something. Del swallowed back a flutter of nervousness.
Lazlo read the tension in her when she noticed the weapon. Del probably didn’t realize that he’d already been carrying a stunner in a holster at his hip and there was also a ceramic knife in his boot. But the rifle was obvious and intimidating and accurate at long distances, which was the whole point of carrying it. Time to bring up a sensitive subject. At the major’s insistence and his own inclinations, Lazlo brought along an extra stunner today, a simple model that was easy for a beginner to use. “Del, I was wondering if you wanted to carry something, in case we run into trouble.” Del tightened up even more and put her little hands on her hips. “You mean some sort of weapon.” “Right.” Lazlo stayed quiet at that point, letting her decide what she wanted to do. She had joked before that she was a pacifist, so he didn’t want to push her into anything. But both he and Major Sekar agreed it would be better to give Del the option of arming herself. “And the trouble we might run into would be a person I would have to injure in some way?” “Yes, to protect yourself.” “Or protect you,” she replied with a quirk of her curvy lips. Del Browen was a spicy one. “Or you could protect me.” Lazlo waited again. “That would sort