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Slotter Key, Port Major
Ky Vatta stood looking out the upper-floor window of the Vatta home in Port Major, just above the entrance. Below, she could see the brick walk bordered by low shrubs pruned into balls, the perfect green lawn, the white-painted palings and gate through which she and Rafe had entered a few hours before.
A chill draft came off the window, reminding her that she was still in the beach clothes she’d put on before leaving Corleigh just that morning. If Stella and Helen hadn’t arrived on Corleigh yesterday, if she and Rafe had gotten back to the mainland when they planned, it would have been warm here, too. She could almost feel the elation of the previous morning as they packed to leave the island, planning to buy their own ship and leave Slotter Key together. Her fortune, they’d thought—her back pay, her savings banked on Cascadia, and the money Stella owed her for the shares Ky had given up—combined with Rafe’s personal fortune and the stipend he had from ISC, would be enough to buy a spaceship, hire some crew, and go wherever their interests took them.
But then . . . it had all fallen apart. Stella and Helen arrived because the house—this house—had been attacked, a door kicked in, and Helen had feared for the children. They’d brought the news that the money Ky had counted on to help buy a ship—her back pay from Space Defense Force and money owed her for the sale of her shares of Vatta Transport and Vatta Enterprises—had been sequestered by the government of Cascadia, because she was being blamed for the death of her former aide. Jen’s father was on the Grand Council of the Moscoe Confederation. Stella’s position on Cascadia, Vatta’s secondary headquarters, was threatened, as well. Ky’s own accounts here on Slotter Key were also frozen because of the deaths on Miksland. The evidence she’d collected so carefully from the crashed shuttle and from Miksland had gone missing—the evidence that could clear her of suspicion that she’d murdered those who died. So much had gone wrong; probably more would.
The gray sky outside matched her mood. She felt alienated from the house, the city, the entire planet; eight years of physical separation, the attack—she wasn’t even sure exactly how long after she’d left—that killed her parents, her brothers, her uncle, Stella’s sister and brothers. It was too different—no, she was too different. She didn’t fit into the Vatta family structure anymore. She didn’t have a place in Slotter Key’s military; she no longer had her own fleet, the fleet she had built from one old battered tradeship. The men and women she’d commanded—those who knew her best—were either dead or far away, in the Space Defense Force. Her throat tightened; her stomach churned.
She took a deep breath, forcing herself to think forward and not back. She had things she could do, things that might—though it was hard to believe—be as interesting, as worthwhile, as what she’d already done. First she needed to find out what had happened to the evidence she’d brought back from Miksland, evidence that would clear her of charges of murder for every death that had occurred. Then find a way to convince the Moscoe Confederation that she had not killed Jen Bentik, so they would release the lien on her funds. And she needed to know how the other survivors from Miksland were doing. By now, they should be almost through the home leave she’d been told about, ready to return to duty. Grace, as Rector of Defense, would be able to get their addresses for her.
And—if she was stuck here long enough, all the way to the next southern summer, she might even return to Miksland, explore the deep levels, those mysterious laboratories, maybe even figure out who had built them. Rafe didn’t have enough money for a spaceship, but he certainly had enough for a charter flight. Scientists were probably down there now. It would be safe, with Greyhaus’s people far away and the mercenaries dead. Whoever had first claimed it surely wouldn’t dare do anything now that it was public knowledge.
She looked across the street to another front garden as formal as the one below, and the white brick house behind it with its flagstone walk, its rows of shrubs pruned into little pyramids. The second floor was built out over a rounded portico, forming a curved row of windows. Handy for neighborhood snoops, if there were any.
Rain spattered the window, a swift rattle that broke into her thoughts. Across the street she saw a curtain twitch, opening a dark gap, but she couldn’t see anyone. So there was a neighborhood snoop. Below, a black car pulled up in front of the house. Stella got out, accepted her travel case and two white containers from the driver, then tapped the code onto the front gatepost. It opened for her. Ky saw someone step out between the portico columns of the house across the street, and then disappear again. Stella waved the driver away.
Ky went back to the stairs and down in time to see Rafe open the door. A gust of cold wet air swirled in when he pulled it back.
“I brought supper,” Stella said. She handed the containers to Ky. “Take these into the kitchen, please. I’ll be back when I’ve changed into something warmer.”
Stella came into the kitchen a few minutes later, dressed in slacks and a pullover, looking elegant as usual. Ky wished she had asked for her own clothes to be picked up that afternoon. She set out plates on the kitchen table, opened the boxes and made a guess at who wanted which. Stella pushed the opened containers to the middle of the small table and said, “Whatever you want.”
After supper, eaten quickly and almost silently, they made the rounds of checking doors and windows. As Stella looked out the double glass doors into the back garden, she shook her head. “I should have checked before supper. There’s that miserable stuffed pony, getting wet on a swing. Justin loves it. It’ll mildew if I don’t get it in the dryer. And the ball looks tacky out there.” She turned on an outside light, opened the door and went out, crossing the terrace and then the grass; Ky stayed back, away from the cold wind and rain, watching. Stella came back, raindrops in her hair sparkling in the light, the wet stuffed toy in one hand and the ball in the other. Just as she came into the house, the door chime rang and someone knocked on the front door.
“Take these,” Stella said, handing off the wet toys to Ky. She shut and locked the garden doors and headed toward the front. “Dryer’s just off the kitchen.”
Ky had no desire to visit with company; she ducked into the short passage to the kitchen as whoever it was pounded harder on the door. Rafe, she noticed, had followed Stella. Ky found the dryer, tossed the stuffed toy into it, and stared at the dials, finally deciding on gentle. She dried the wet ball with a kitchen towel, then sat down at the kitchen table. She could just hear Stella speaking, though she could not distinguish the words. The tone made it clear Stella was upset. In a minute or so Stella was back in the kitchen, color in her pale cheeks. “The utter nerve—” she was saying to Rafe, who followed her.
“What’s the problem?”
“Oh, some military police or something—not Port Major police—said they suspected there were dangerous fugitives in the neighborhood. They wanted to search the house and grounds. I said no, that there’d been a watchman at the house day and night. They thought the damage to the kitchen door meant someone might be hiding inside. I had to show my ID, even. Do I look like a fugitive?”
“Of course not,” Ky said.
“I told them to check with Port Major police about the break-in—maybe it was the same gang they were chasing—asked if they knew who the fugitives were, but they didn’t answer. Just said to be careful and lock everything up. Oh, and they’re going to be doing aerial surveillance tonight.”
“We should see what’s on the newsvids,” Rafe said. “Surely there’d be something about a prison breakout.” He led the way to the security office next to the lift and turned on another screen. A serious-faced man was explaining what cut of cattlelope to choose for braising. A streamer at the bottom carried ads for cookware shops. Rafe changed selections. Two women and three men were arguing about a recent election on Dorland and what it meant for the balance of power in the planetary legislature. Here the streamer carried what Ky recognized as financial news. Another try gave them an obvious drama vid, with a stationary block giving time, temperature, wind speed, and wave height.
“Wrong time,” Stella said. “Slotter Key’s media laws are different from Nexus or Cascadia. Much more tightly controlled.”
Rafe switched off the screen. “I’ll go on out, then, and repel lurkers, if any.”
“It’s cold and wet,” Stella said. “You should change.”
“I have nothing with me. I’ll be fine.”
“Backup?” Ky said.
“No. Stay here with Stella.”
“That’s his I’m up to something voice,” Stella said. “If only they hadn’t been so rude—”
“It upset him?” Ky leaned on the wall, out of the draft coming in the door Stella held half open.
“Yes.” Stella looked outside again, where Rafe was a vague blur in the dark.
“Why military police?” Ky asked.
“I don’t know,” Stella said. She glanced at the kitchen door, slightly crooked in its frame and braced with a couple of boards nailed across it. “But I hope they’re wrong about any escaped military criminals. That boarded-up door does look like an easy place to break in.” They watched Rafe move along the front of the shrubbery and waited for him to turn back toward the house when he reached the garage wall. Instead, he stood still.
“Found something,” Stella said. “I wonder what.”
“Or someone,” Ky said. She moved her pistol from her shoulder holster to the pocket of her shorts. Then Rafe turned back toward the house, walking steadily, not looking back, and behind him the first figure came out of the shrubbery. Then another. And another. They were hard to see in the rain and poor light. Ky heard Stella’s indrawn breath, Rafe’s sandals scuffing in the damp grass, and behind him, other footfalls, softer. He stepped onto the terrace, walked across it, his sandals slapping lightly on the bricks. He quirked an eyebrow at her. Behind him, just visible in the dim scattered glow of his handlight, she could see the first of the three following him: short and slight, a bald head paler than the brown face, wearing some kind of thin garment—a robe?
Rafe stepped inside and walked on, turning around as the three came in: all women, Ky could see now, shivering as their wet clothes clung to them. All were bald, scalps and faces completely hairless. Were these the escaped criminals? They didn’t look like it. Their legs were bare from well above the knees, their feet in thin, now-sodden cloth slippers. Stella shut the outside doors and pulled heavy linen curtains over them.
All three knelt, dripping on the floor. The one who had led them in said, “Admiral, please help us. You’re the only one who can.”
The voice gave Ky the name. “Inyatta?”
“Yes, sir. Please—don’t turn us in—”
Ky fought to keep her expression calm despite a surge of rage at what had been done to them. They did not need her rage; they needed her help.
“Stella, lock us down,” Rafe said.
Stella looked at Ky, at Rafe, at the three wet women who’d been hiding in the shrubbery. “No one can see in now. And lockdown will seal off the kitchen annex.”
“Do it,” Ky said. She held out her hands; Inyatta grasped them. “Inyatta—all of you, get up; the floor’s cold.” She reholstered her pistol. “These must be who those men were hunting.” She had not looked away from Inyatta; she heard Stella walk to the master panel and key in the code. “Corporal, what’s happened to you? Are the others all right?”
“No—and we don’t know what, or why—they separated us—they changed our implants—” Inyatta’s voice was shaky as she clambered up; she was shivering.
The house lights brightened and a current of warmer air moved across the room. “Internal power and environmental confirmed,” Stella said. “Now what? You know these people?”
“Yes. This is Corporal Inyatta; she was with me on Miksland.” She still didn’t recognize the other two. Ky glanced at Rafe, then back at Stella. “We need to get them dry, warm, and fed. Then find out what’s been going on.”
“You won’t send us back?” Again, the voice gave her the identity: Corporal Barash. “Please!” The third had not spoken at all, and Ky hadn’t figured out who she was yet. She had a fresh scar, a raised red-purple ridge, on her head, and puffy swelling that changed whatever her face had been.
“Of course I won’t. Come on upstairs. Hot baths, towels, clothes—Stella, have you got some extra warm things? All I have is a change of shirts.” Ky headed for the stairs. “I trust you left nothing behind that could be noticed in the morning?”
“No, sir. We ate the paper off the fruit bars.” That was the third, and again the voice gave Ky the identification. Kamat—that was Durga Kamat? The shaved head, scar, and puffiness obscured what had been an unusual beauty. What had happened to her—to them—and what about all the others? Questions erupted in her mind, but right now these three needed care.
Ky led them to the first of the two bedrooms on the right of the landing. “I’m guessing you’d like to stay together?”
“Yes, please.” They were clustered in the doorway, staring at all the flowered chintz.
“The sofa will make another bed. The bath’s back here—” She led the way. “This should be a linen closet—yes. Towels, robes—ready for guests.”
They looked worse in the brighter light, bruises and puncture marks as if they’d had many injections, marks on wrists and ankles from restraints. Ky said nothing about that. “Stella’s my cousin. She and I will be looking for clothes for you, but feel free to wrap up in blankets or anything you find to get warm.”
She kept her voice level and calm, for their sake, but when she went back into the hall, her anger shot up like a geyser, dimming her vision for an instant. All of them must have been taken, drugged, held. Separated, Inyatta had said. Probably early on, perhaps even at Pingat Base while she had been on a flight to the mainland. Who had done this to her people? And how? Why hadn’t Great-Aunt Grace made sure the other survivors were properly taken care of? She should not have agreed to fly back separately—she should have thought—but too late for that. First things: take care of these three. She crossed the head of the stairs and met Stella coming back with a stack of folded clothes.