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Gone. Her child was gone.
Frantically, Judith Newland searched the small apartment she shared with her two-year-old daughter, Ruth.
Bedroom. Bathroom. Living area.
When she started opening cabinet doors and bending double so that she could look all the way to the back, Judith admitted to herself what she had known all along.
Somehow, during the short time she had stepped out into the hall to talk to that new woman from Human Services, little Ruth had completely and utterly disappeared.
A momentary urge to scream, to panic, filled Judith’s heart. For all that her nineteen years had included kidnapping, rape, murder, piracy, and countless other horrifi c experiences, these last two years had been relatively peaceful. Almost without her noticing, Judith had allowed herself to be lulled into accepting peace—rather than all the rest—as normal.
Now the steel at the core of Judith’s soul, the quality that had permitted her not only to survive her long captivity on Masada, but to prosper and grow, met the urge to panic and pushed it back. Judith closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
Ruth wasn’t in the apartment. Very well. Where might she be? The apartment had only one exit, but there was a safety escape outside the bedroom window. Th ere had been a drill just a few days before. Ruth had been fascinated by how the grav tube had appeared at the touch of a button concealed in the programmable nanotech “wallpaper.”
Judith didn’t think Ruth could have reached the button and activated it, but then again, Judith was the last person to underestimate someone merely on the basis of age. If her former husband had not underestimated Judith . . .
But, no. She wasn’t going to think about that. That, at least, was done.
Already Judith’s feet were hurrying her down the hall to the bedroom. A quick glance was all she needed to see that the grav tube remained undeployed. Ruth hadn’t left that way. Panic was trying to rise again, but Judith ignored it. Grabbing her apartment keys, she hurried out to check if any of her neighbors had seen anything.
The residential tower where Judith and Ruth lived was unique even among Manticore’s eclectic society, for it housed most of the four hundred or so refugees who had fled in a body from the planet Masada something over two and a half years before. This alone would have made the complex peculiar, but since those refugees had been nearly all female—the males had been small children, usually under fi ve years of age—the dynamic was skewed again. Add to this that most of the women had been accustomed to life in communal harems. Th ey continued to fi nd privacy, rather than the lack thereof, unsettling. Therefore, the three fl oors of the tower they occupied more resembled a beehive than a modern residential community.
Judith herself was one of the few who treasured privacy and hadn’t chosen to reside in a larger apartment with two or more adults and any associated children. But then Judith was different from her fellow Sisters of Barbara in many ways, including her birthplace, level of education, and complete lack of the faith that—although modifi ed—continued to be a dominant infl uence in the spiritual lives of her associates.
However, Judith still felt closer to her fellow refugees than she did to almost any Manticoran. She was especially attached to the woman to whom she now fl ed with her problem.
“Dinah!” Judith said, rushing in past Dinah and closing the door behind her. “Ruth is gone from our apartment, vanished completely.”
The tale poured from Judith’s lips, how the doorbell had rung, how the new woman from Human Services had asked if she could speak to Judith. How Ruth had been napping, so they had stepped out into the hallway.
Dinah listened without interrupting, her gray eyes hardening to steel as the import of what Judith was telling her went home. Too old to be given the Manticoran’s anti-aging prolong therapies, nonetheless, Dinah had benefitted from the Manticoran’s advanced medical science. Th e heart condition that had nearly killed her during the escape from Masada had been completely reversed.
Without a weak heart subtly undermining her strength, Dinah now appeared a decade or more younger—a gray-haired, grayeyed, round-fi gured dove rather than the haggard old woman her thirty-eight years of marriage to Ephraim Templeton had created. “I wasn’t gone more than five minutes,” Judith concluded.
“When I went back in, something seemed a little off . I went to see if Ruth had climbed out of her crib—she’s getting better and better at that—and she wasn’t there.”
“You checked everywhere.” Dinah’s words were a comment, not a question. She knew Judith better than most, and knew she was thorough, oft en to the point of obsession. It was a trait that had served them both well in the past.
“But you wouldn’t be off ended if I checked again?”
“Good. I’ll do that. You go and speak with our neighbors. Ask if they saw Ruth. Ask about that woman from Human Services, too.” Judith was thrusting her keys into Dinah’s hands when the oddity of that last statement caught her.
“From what you told me about the questions she was asking you, I find it peculiar that she didn’t come and speak with me. I have been home for the last several hours, preparing texts for tomorrow’s service.”
Judith frowned. That omission was odd. Although Judith’s skills had made the escape from Masada possible, there was no doubt who was the leader of their community—and who had been the head of the Sisterhood of Barbara before they had ever left Masada. Th e new woman should at least have introduced herself to Dinah.
“I’ll ask,” Judith promised. She hadn’t thought she could be any more afraid, but Dinah’s words had crystalized a fear that had been budding in her heart.
She didn’t wait for the lift , but ran for the stairs.
The speaker’s voice was feminine, high pitched yet musical. It held a distinctly lilting note of welcome and invitation. Even so, rather than slowing at the sound, Michael Winton, lieutenant, senior grade, serving in Her Majesty’s ship Diadem, picked up his pace.
Michael tried to act as if the call might be meant for another Michael, not him, but although the name and its variants were very common in the Star Kingdom, his appearance was not. Michael’s skin was the dark brown of the Wintons, rather than one of the more ethnically blended mixes more common in the realm. Although Michael had been away from home over the last two years, there was no reason for him to believe his slight increase in height, and slightly more mature muscular development was adequate disguise. For one thing, he looked far too much like his father—and the late Roger Winton’s portrait still hung in many a public place, never mind that the king had been dead for over nine T-years.
Michael’s companion, a young man with dark blond hair and laughing, light brown eyes, hissed under his breath. “Michael, what’s your problem? She’s waving at you! Since when did you start running away from pretty girls?”
Square-jawed and handsome, Todd Liatt, one of Michael’s closest friends, was always trying to get his more retiring friend to join him in his leave-time pursuit of the fair.
Michael glanced side to side, looking for a route of escape, but although he knew both the public and private areas of Mount Royal Palace as well as he knew his own cubby aboard the Diadem, he knew he was couldn’t get away without being obviously rude—and pure rudeness was a tactic denied to him. He slowed his pace and swallowed a sigh. Then he schooled his dark, boyishly handsome features into a polite smile as he turned to face the young lady who was hurrying down the wide corridor toward him.
She had skin the color of coffee with lots of cream. The freckles Michael remembered from when they had been children had faded, but she still wore her dark honey-colored hair loose, the thick, tightly curled mass falling past her shoulders to the middle of her back. She’d been cute as a child, but now Michael had to admit Todd was right, she was decidedly pretty, maybe even almost beautiful.
“Alice! What a surprise to fi nd you here.”
“Daddy’s attending a meeting of some committee or other,” Alice said, clasping the hand Michael politely offered to her between two of her own. Her amber-fl ecked golden eyes danced with mischief. “His secretary is on holiday, and I’m fi lling in. What luck he told me he didn’t need me just when you were going by!”
Alice released Michael’s hand and stepped back a pace, looking up at Michael admiringly. “I thought it was you, but I wasn’t sure. You’re so much taller, and that uniform is so dignified.” Given that they hadn’t seen much of each other since Michael had switched his study program at the age of thirteen T-years, when he began seriously preparing to attend the Naval Academy, Michael thought Alice’s comment about his height idiotic. However, his training in not saying what he thought pre-dated his Academy education by many years.
“I would have known you,” he said. “You still wear your hair the same way.”
Alice laughed delightedly. “And you used to love to pull it. I remember you saying you liked how the curls bounced like springs.” She shook her head just a little, as if inviting Michael to take a tug, but he felt no such temptation. A slight motion at his side reminded Michael that his social duties were not concluded. “Alice, let me present my friend, Todd Liatt. Todd was my roommate at the Academy, and now we’re bunking together in Diadem. Lieutenant Liatt, this is Alice Ramsbottom. As you must have gathered, we went to school together.”
Alice off ered Todd a slim hand and a polite smile. Todd was generally thought the more attractive of the two men, but Alice’s attention didn’t stray from Michael. She gave a light laugh.
“Ah, good old school days,” she said in a deliberately affected manner. “You were Mikey, then, but someone told me that you go by ‘Michael’ now.”
Alice paused, and Michael observed with slow horror that she was actually simpering at him.
“Of course,” Alice went on, “I realize I should have addressed you as Crown Prince Michael or Your Highness, but I was so thrilled when I saw you, I didn’t think. I hope you don’t mind . . .” She fluttered long lashes at him, and Michael felt relieved— not for the fi rst time—that his dark skin prevented anyone from seeing him blush.
“No. Sure. I mean, we’ve known each other since we were kids. Anyhow,” Michael realized that he was babbling, but the combination of Alice’s fl irtatious manner and Todd’s poorly concealed amusement were too much. “I mean, the ‘Crown’ bit is really a formality now that my nephew Roger is showing himself such a promising young man.”
“Prince Roger is a darling boy,” Alice agreed. “I’ve seen him at all sorts of receptions, so straight and manly in his formalwear, escorting little Princess Joanna so seriously. The prince is how old now?”
“Six T-years,” Michael responded promptly. “In fact, he’s almost seven now. In less than four more T-years, he’ll take his qualifying tests and be formally named heir apparent. Princess Joanna will second him in just a few years more, and the ‘Prince’ in front of my name will become in truth what it really is now—a mere courtesy title.”
“You’re so modest,” Alice said, “as if anyone could ever forget you’re Queen Elizabeth’s only brother, and a scion of the House of Winton.”
“I wish they would,” Michael muttered.
Alice’s amber-flecked golden eyes widened in surprise, but like him she had had training from the cradle on that kept her from saying the fi rst thing that came to mind.
“Well, it’s awfully nice that you gave me permission to call you by your fi rst name,” Alice said. “I don’t suppose you—and Lieutenant Liatt, of course—have time to go grab coff ee or something?” Michael saw Todd starting to nod agreement and cut in quickly. “Perhaps another time. We have someplace we need to be.” “Sure.” Alice looked disappointed, but Michael thought he caught a fl icker of another emotion—relief? It was gone before he could be sure. “Anyhow, I probably should be checking in with Daddy. You’re on leave for a while?” “A while,” Michael agreed, deliberately vague, lest he be pressed into setting up another meeting.
“Well, I’m off to Gryphon this aft ernoon to take care of some business for Daddy, but I’m sure we’ll see each other again. ’Bye now, Michael. A pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant Liatt.”
The two young men echoed her farewells, and turned away. As they walked down the corridor, Michael heard the soft whisper of following footsteps.
He didn’t need to turn and look to know they belonged to Lieutenant Vincent Valless, Palace Security, the crown prince’s bodyguard.
For Michael, accustomed as he had become during his time in the Navy to going where he pleased without needing to be trailed—the logic being that the entire ship’s company could be considered the crown prince’s bodyguard—Valless’s presence was disquieting.
Michael knew that most of his shipmates were looking forward to this holiday as a relief from the formalities and rituals of military service.
Why am I the only one, Michael thought with a flare of an anger he had thought long buried, who doesn’t get a holiday?
Todd held back the questions Michael knew he was aching to ask until they were in the air car Michael had been issued to use as his own during his leave and the flier had been cleared for departure from the palace grounds. Th e assigned sting ship followed it off the field, hovering discreetly in the background.
“Michael, why did you turn tail and run like that? You were
“And I’m never rude,” Michael replied seriously. “I know.”
“That isn’t an answer. We have hours before we’re due to meet up with that friend of yours. We could have had coffee or something. I thought that Alice was cute, and she clearly was glad to see you.”
“Me?” Michael retorted, feeling that familiar anger again, fighting to keep it from touching his voice. “Me or ‘Crown Prince Michael’? When I’m shipboard, I almost forget what court is like. Ever since the Masadan aff air when I was a middie, most of the Navy accepts me for what I can do, not for who I was born.”
“Alice called you ‘Michael,” Todd reminded him.
“Yeah. I would have felt that was more genuine if she’d called me ‘Mikey,’ like when we were kids.”
“You weren’t crown prince then, were you?”
“Nope. Elizabeth stood between me and responsibility,” Michael said, trying to keep his tone light. “Then our dad died, and she was queen at eighteen T-years, and I was crown prince. I’d never expected to be, you know. Dad was young enough that he’d been eligible for Prolong. I was just a kid, still trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, and suddenly I was next in line for the throne of the Star Kingdom of Manticore.”
Todd knew this, of course, but oddly enough, they’d never really talked about it. Todd’s easy acceptance that Michael Winton wanted to be treated as nothing more, nothing less, than another student at the Naval Academy had cemented their friendship, a friendship that had not weakened over the years they had been separated for their different middie cruises and junior officer assignments.
Todd heard Michael out, then said softly. “That had to have been rough. Still, you’re never going to escape that you’re Queen Elizabeth’s little brother, no matter how many others come to stand between you and the throne. Isn’t it about time you came to terms with it?”
“I thought I had,” Michael said, and Todd—who hadn’t specialized in tactics without learning a thing or two about choosing his battles—had the sense to change the subject.
“Tell me about this friend of yours we’re going to visit. You met her during that Masadan aff air you mentioned, right?”
Michael nodded. “Judith was one of the ringleaders, only sixteen, about three-months pregnant, and fierce as hell.”
“No. The reverse. Calm. Controlled, but with fire in her soul.
Impossible as it may seem, Judith taught herself to pilot a spaceship with nothing but virtual sims—no tutoring, no practice fl ights. She did so despite the likelihood that she’d be beaten or even killed if anyone found her out.”
“Th ose Masadans are savages,” Todd said. “I’m glad the government has decided to throw in their lot with the Graysons. Your friend wasn’t the only one who escaped Masada at that time, was she? I seem to remember there was a whole shipload.” Michael grinned at the memory, although he’d felt like anything but smiling at the time.
“Somewhere around four hundred women and children. Only a few of them had skills beyond borderline literacy or maybe some simple mathematics. Even those who had learned some technical skills found them antiquated by our standards.”
“So, what did they do?” Todd asked.
“Th ey were given asylum by the Star Kingdom, and when the ship they’d made their get-away on was sold . . .”
“I bet that was one ship that didn’t go to a scrapper,” Todd said, “bet Intelligence couldn’t wait to get their hands on it.”
“For more reasons than one,” Michael agreed, relaxed now and cheerful. “Turns out Judith’s kidnapper—I refuse to call him her husband—was a pirate as well as a merchant. That ship and its computers solved more than a few ‘missing vessel’ reports.”
“So what do Judith and her associates do now?” Todd asked.
“They were settled in a nice community here on Manticore.
A lot of people don’t realize that Human Services has an entire division that specializes in integrating refugees into the population, but Dad organized it very quietly when we started getting so many of them from worlds the Peeps had conquered. HS has had a lot of experience dealing with culture shock, and they recommended we fi nd a place far enough from the big cities that the Masadans wouldn’t be overwhelmed—Masadan society is highly anti-tech, remember. Of course, even one of our ‘small-town’ towers was pretty overwhelming anyway, when they first saw it, but at least Friedman’s Valley is a lot slower-paced and more laid-back than someplace in downtown Landing.
“Since then, Judith and her associates have been getting educated and more integrated into our society. A few of them continue as consultants for Intelligence. Th ey’re not a burden on the taxpayer, in case you’re wondering. Th e money from their ship, even when split, gave them all a stake. Aft er what they did to escape Masada, they’re eager not to be dependent.”
“I’d guess not,” Todd said. “After all, if they wanted to stay barefoot and pregnant, they would never have left Masada. You know, I’m looking forward to meeting this Judith of yours.” “Not mine,” Michael said, maybe a little too quickly. “Very much her own. If she belongs to anyone, it’s to her daughter, Ruth. You’ll like Ruth, cute as a button, and smart . . .” Michael glanced at the air car’s chronometer and shrugged. “We’ll be a little early, but not too much. Why don’t we go on ahead?” He glanced back at Valless. “Any problem with that, Vincent?”
“If you think we’ll be welcome,” Todd said. “Absolutely. Like I said, I’m looking forward to meeting this Judith.”
As outsiders saw them, George and Babette Ramsbottom were a highly unlikely couple.
George was a staunch Conservative. Babette was an outspoken Liberal. Although neither was a noble, both were something more important—rich and influential members of the most active and important levels of the Star Kingdom’s society.
George spent all his free time—when he was not serving in one senior ministry post or another or appearing before Parliament as an “expert witness” in favor of some bit of legislation—focusing on his many and lucrative business interests.
Babette, on the other hand, had run for offi ce several times with the support of her party. She’d won against her husband’s favored candidate more than once, and, like him, she had also served in appointed posts that had somewhat less public visibility, but no less opportunity for infl uence. When she was not involved in politics, Babette was a highly visible socialite, seemingly as devoted to spending her husband’s money as he was to making it. Th ey had been witnessed arguing both in public and when they believed themselves in private. Enemies wondered why they didn’t simply get divorced. Friends of one or the other—they shared few in common—had other theories.
George and Babette stayed together because neither wished to risk losing contact with their children. George didn’t want to settle any money on Babette. Babette didn’t want to lose access to the money George made with such seeming lack of eff ort. Another popular theory was that neither would budge on who received custody of the sizeable and historic Ramsbottom estate—an estate where both, despite their apparent acrimony, continued to reside. Oddly enough, for the amount of gossip and outright snooping expended on the effort, none of these speculations was correct, for all of those doing the speculating lacked a key piece of information.
Far from being each other’s most violent adversaries, George and Babette Ramsbottom were each other’s nearest and dearest friend and ally. They managed to hide this even from their three children—largely by sending the children away to boarding schools and expensive educational camps, and making their frequent and attentive parental visits separately.
The Ramsbottom estate did have servants, but George and Babette took care to maintain their charade even in front of these. And if the estate—and most especially the private offi ces and conjugal suites—were as heavily shielded as the most secure areas of Mount Royal Palace, what of it? George had been heard to say frequently and loudly that he wasn’t going to let Babette snoop on his business, and she to retort that she certainly didn’t trust him with her private matters.
If everyone overlooked that the same shielding protected George and Babette from being detected in their private conferences, that could certainly be excused. No one knew better than George and Babette Ramsbottom that people love a fl amboyantly fighting couple. Moreover, no one ever looks for what could not possibly be there.
“When do we place the call?” Babette asked.
“Th ree more minutes,” George replied.
“And if Judith Newland isn’t there?”
“She’ll have a comlink with her.”
George spoke with the confidence that had closed many a business deal, but when three minutes had passed and they placed their call, there was no answer.
“So she didn’t take her comlink,” Babette said with just a touch of the acid she used so well in public. “Remember, she’s a primitive, probably never thought of it.”
George scowled. He took his comlink with him even into the shower. Th e idea that someone—especially someone in a crisis— wouldn’t take her link was alien to him.
Babette soft ened. “Don’t worry. She’ll think of checking her phone before long.”
“But I want her to get the call before Prince Michael arrives . . .” “Don’t worry.”
Th e next time George placed the call, a female voice, quite familiar to them from the surveillance tapes they’d viewed, answered. A moment later, an image appeared on their screen.
It was of a young woman, slim and graceful, her thick, dark auburn hair pulled back from her face. Even if her features had not been tight and stern from worry, no one would have thought Judith Newland pretty, but hers was a face that many would turn to look at twice, and then a third time, aft er prettier faces had been forgotten.
Th e eyes were what would bring a person back—green eyes, ringed with brown, not blended as with more traditional hazel. Th eir expression was as fi erce and focused as that of a bird of prey. Babette found herself pulling back when that gaze was directed to the screen, even though she knew the dummy program George had set up displayed a crowd of sexless, featureless wraiths. Th eir shadowed forms overlapped, creating an image far more ominous than a mere blacked out screen could ever have been.
“Are you alone?”
Babette heard George’s words twice: once as spoken, once in the whispery voices supplied by the avatar program.
“I am. Is this call to do with my missing daughter?”
Despite the research that had told them Judith Newland was a tough young woman, Babette was surprised by this composure. Th at same research had told them that if there was one person in this universe that Judith loved without reserve it was her young daughter, Ruth. Babette had expected crying and wailing, at least those green eyes fl ooding with tears, not this iron control.
But George had permitted himself a chuckle. Without speaking, he pointed to a line of fi gures streaming across the bottom of the screen. Using infrared scanners and some very sensitive analysis programs, the computer gave lie to Judith’s apparent calm. Her pulse rate was elevated, and George tapped an overlay where green and black patterns showed hot spots beneath Judith’s skin, hot spots that revealed just how upset that composed young woman really was.
Babette relaxed. George spoke.
“We are. Here are our terms. Ruth is alive and intact—for now.” At that cue, a picture of Ruth, the date/time stamp showing it was concurrent with the transmission (although that stamp was a forgery) appeared on the screen for a tantalizing half-second. Th e little girl was curled on her side, wrapped in a pale pink blanket, sound asleep. Her balled fi st was snuggled close to the rosebud of her cupid’s bow lips. Even Babette, who normally preferred almost anything to small children, had to admit Ruth looked adorable.
George continued to speak.
“If you wish Ruth returned in that state, you must convince your friend Michael Winton to publicly and openly behave in a fashion unbecoming his rank and station. Public lewdness would be an admirable choice. If he is asked about his behavior . . .” As we will make certain he is, Babette thought smugly. She already had the newsie picked out and primed.
“. . . then he is to comment that he is a Winton, and that the Wintons have always done what they desired—and that nothing, especially not the reaction of a bunch of superstitious, prudish primitives even if they are the residents of a newly allied world makes the least diff erence to him.”
For a moment, the wooden expression on Judith’s face changed to one of confusion.
“Why do you think he’d listen to me?”
“Just do it,” George said sternly, his avatar voices hissing and echoing in a truly frightening fashion. “And remember, mentioning to anyone that Ruth is missing would do at least as much damage as anything Prince Michael might say. Aft er all, if the Wintons cannot protect those who live on their own home world, what can they do to protect those who live in distant systems?”
Judith’s face again became carved wood. “And if I do as you wish?” “Within a day of Prince Michael’s announcement, you will be told where Ruth can be found.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Then Ruth will be returned to someone who wants her very, very much—her father, Ephraim Templeton.” Th is time Judith’s composure broke completely. “You wouldn’t!” “Return a daughter to the father who has never had the privilege of holding her in his arms, of stroking her soft , fair hair . . . Why, I think that would be a wonderful thing. Don’t take too long, Mrs. Templeton. I get teary at the thought of such a wonderful family reunion.”
Judith was stammering something incoherent, but George cut the transmission.
“Th ere,” he said with satisfaction. “Message delivered. I was a bit concerned by Judith’s reaction when I indicated that she could infl uence Prince Michael to behave in a fashion so out of character—and so contrary to his sister’s policies. We couldn’t possibly be wrong . . .”
“About how close she and Prince Michael are?” Babette concluded. She shook her head decisively. “Not in the least. Remember, this whole idea came to me when I happened to see them together a year ago. He tried to hide it, but it was very apparent to me that the sun and moon rose and set in that unattractive primitive’s green eyes.”
Babette stretched catlike, and continued, “And I’ve done quite a bit of research since. Th ey write each other regularly. He sends little presents. She sends photos of the kid. I managed some rather adroit questioning of the social secretary who handles Prince Michael’s appointments those rare times when he’s in-system and off -duty. She was quite amused that the fi rst—and only—thing Prince Michael always insists on is time to visit with Judith Newland.
“More importantly, although there was every evidence before he met Judith Newland that Prince Michael was a perfectly active heterosexual young male. Since he met her, he has had no serious relationships—not even fl irtations. I couldn’t even get any solid evidence that he has frequented pleasure parlors—and what sailor on leave does not?”