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Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 22

Zara! Oh, no! Surely there’s some mistake?

The conspiracy unfolds its web and we begin to see how close they are. What can Zara do?

3k words in this episode, and 80k words in total so far.

SCHEDULE

I have sprinted forward on the writing, and I am now several cliffhangers ahead of where you are, and closing in on the grand finale. HOWEVER… my editor is unable to edit until the end of October. I think this means you’ll get 3 more episodes and then the completed book will go up on Amazon on the 4th November. I will confirm.

 

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Chapter 47

 

We haven’t got the hi-viz jackets and passes, so they try to stop us accessing the hangar zone, but nothing short of bullets will. We vault the gate and ignore the shouting.

The hangars for the competitors are allocated in the order of appearance in the festival. Most of them that we run past are filled with neatly stored high performance aeroplanes for the days ahead. Gliding is all on the first day. That hangar’s right at the end.

Talan’s long legs outpace me, and I’m feeling dizzy trying to keep up.

We sprint past a seeming unending row of hangars and, finally, into the last one.

I stop and sink to my knees. There are spots in front of my eyes, but I don’t care: Rhoswyn’s still here. The rest of whatever is going on is just a whole world less of a problem.

As for Rhoswyn, she knows the game is up immediately. “Sandy! Who told you?”

A mechanic pushes forward. “Who are you?” he yells. I can tell he’s been arguing with Rhoswyn—she’s gone pink and he’s purple with anger. “Where are your passes? What are you doing here?” he keeps yelling at Talan and waving his arms trying to get her to back down. She’s about a foot taller than he is. She’s not backing anywhere.

I struggle to my feet and lurch forward. Talan can look after the mechanic.

“Zara.” Rhoswyn blushes, and looks down, frustrated, angry and embarrased, all at the same time. Goddess, how I remember that feeling. And how to deal with it.

Not a clever plan, Rhos.” Make her think about it.

“But Pa would—”

“It’s not that he doesn’t notice you, Rhos. But all this is going to do is give him a heart attack. He’s busy; really, really busy. And it’s dangerous, you doing something like this. How the nova did you manage it?”

It feels odd defending the Duke for his insensitivity to her, when it’s exactly what I criticised him for, straight to his face.

But it is dangerous. At all levels; not just assassins. Rhoswyn isn’t ready for a solo aerobatics championship. We’ve flown the routines, but gently, at a safe height, with me ready to recover if it goes bad, not swooping down close to the ground, at breakneck speed and alone in the cockpit.

“The glider was here anyway,” she says. “All I needed to do was to sneak out.”

She hurries on: “And I was doing exactly what you told me to, the way you told me to. He wouldn’t listen to me.”

“Eh?”

I told her to? Have I forgotten something I said? Surely I haven’t made that much of an ass of myself?

But she drags me to the open cockpit, reciting the checks she has learned off by heart. She leans in and takes hold of the joystick, delicately, between finger and thumb. Just like I instructed her to. She’s not saying I told her to take part in this gliding competition in her father’s place. She’s talking about my insistence for double-checking the glider pre-flight.

She’s still reciting. “Preliminary control assessment. Right bank. Left bank. Full and correct movement of ailerons. Angle up, down. Full and correct movement of elevators. Full, free and smooth movement.”

She shuts up and gently moves the joystick in a square, right up against the stops, all the way around.

“There!” she says. “But he won’t believe me.”

She glares at the mechanic.

I pull her back and take the joystick between finger and thumb, moving it as she had, to the limit of its reach.

Most pilots don’t bother with this. They do ‘full and free’: grab the stick in their fist and shove it to its limits.

With finger and thumb, I can feel what Rhoswyn felt—a barely noticeable catch in the operation, in the forward and backward movement. There’s something wrong with the elevator controls.

Ignoring Talan, the mechanic and the gathering group of marshals, I go to the back and roll under the tailplane, which is being held up on a trestle.

“Keep moving it, Rhos,” I tell her.

There’s a clear plastic inspection panel so you can see the control rods for the elevator and the cables for the rudder, but I can’t see anything wrong.

“Screwdriver,” I say.

It’s Talan that hands me one. She’s kneeling down to see what I’m doing.

I point to the mechanic. “He goes nowhere until I’m finished,” I say.

But the guy just looks angry, not guilty.

I pop the inspection panel out. There’s barely room to get a hand inside, and once it is, I can’t see anything. I run my fingers along the control rod as Rhoswyn moves the joystick.

“Ouch.”

I withdraw my hand.

There’s a little cut and a spot of blood on my index finger. In the cut is a tiny burr of metal. It’s the kind of fragment that can get left behind when you saw through metal.

I close my eyes a moment to think it through.

There’s no time for anger.

Someone knew the Duke was going to fly in this glider. They got access to the hangar, at Cardu or here. All they needed was a wire saw—basically a wire that cuts. They opened the inspection panel, looped the wire over the control rod and sawed about half way through, on the side opposite to the clear plastic. Closed it up. A five minute task.

The damage is completely invisible from this side. And it would probably hold for standard manoeuvres; take off with a tug towing you and everything would seem to be fine. But stress the glider with aerobatics and the control column would bend or break. The glider would become uncontrollable.

Rhoswyn’s been saved by dutifully following my instruction to feel for problems in the controls before they become problems.

Talan’s looking at me. She understands from my expression what the metal fragments mean.

Her face is pale. “Sabotage.” she says.

“Yes. I’m betting the parachute will be damaged as well.”

Talan becomes a one-woman whirlwind. She deputizes a couple of marshals to hold the mechanic, and others to use temporary airfield boundary markers to isolate the glider as a crime scene. She calls Moyle and reports she has located alpha-2 and that the presence of a platoon is required at the hangar now.

Rhoswyn is sitting down looking stunned.

I probably look that way too, but for a completely different reason: I’m getting a strange sense of disconnection. Hwa’s using my interface. She’s using my body. I’m holding my commspad in my hand. I can’t remember getting it out. Hwa wants to talk and we can’t just speak to each other yet.

There’s a warmth flowing down my arm. A silvery thread comes out from underneath the cuff of my jacket and touches the commspad; Hwa is trying to hack it.

I frown. She doesn’t have the password, it’ll take her ages to access it.

But before I can enter the code, the small screen clears and displays a message: “Sorry. I’m in. I need to show you what’s going on. This is quicker. It’s urgent.”

News items scroll across the screen. Not major media outlet articles, but flashes from ordinary people: short, jerky clips of video; texts.

Gunfire at the barracks. Shots downtown. Police leave cancelled. Police on the streets. Police heading to the Festival to close it down. Roadblocks. Curfew.

It chills me to my core. The conspiracy has come out into the open and started a revolution.

 

Chapter 48

 

“Talan!”

I get her attention, show her the commspad.

“We have to go now! Get to the Duke,” she says. “There are fifty of us here today.”

She’s right and wrong.

No squad of Kensan police are going to try arresting a company of fifty armed Welarvon Mounted Police troopers.

But maybe one of those armed troopers is intent on murdering the Duke…or Rhoswyn. No one else knows who competitor Welarvon-88 is, apart from his troops and security people.

“He needs to focus on getting himself and the company back to Cardu, not protecting his daughter,” I say. “Someone, maybe someone with him right now, tried to kill him, and Rhos is almost as good a target. He really doesn’t need me there either.”

I have to get out of the way, for his sake and mine. There won’t be any court case now. The courts will be closed. ‘Justice’ will be whatever happens on the streets. The worst of it is, all the police actions now will be blamed on the Duke and his allies causing unrest. As for me, if they find me, I’ll be killed ‘resisting arrest’.

It’ll be easier to find me if I’m with a group of Welarvon troopers, all in their distinctive uniforms. That might just be the trigger they need to attack, even against fifty troopers.

“Go,” I say. “We’d only slow you down. I’ll take care of Rhos. I swear it, on my life. I’ll get her back to Cardu in one piece.”

Talan is torn between conflicting priorities.

I shove her away, grab Rhoswyn’s arm and go in the other direction.

There’s a table been set up on the side of the hangar for schedules and rotas. On the side of the table—thank the Goddess—are spare hi-viz jackets, and lanyards with empty plastic sleeves for displaying ID.

I snatch jackets and lanyards for both of us. We’ve got to get back through the gate and I don’t want to be stopped. I don’t want us to be recognised. I don’t want people to remember us leaving the airfield. I don’t even want to be seen.

Wide-eyed, but alert, Rhoswyn follows my example—jacket on, lanyard around the neck, ID card in the plastic sleeve. Her clothes are scruffy as always when Hanna isn’t around, mine are work clothes anyway. They’ll do.

Just short of the gate, still obscured by the people flowing through, we slow to a walk. The disguise works; the jackets and lanyards make us invisible. No one spares us a glance, and there’s a shuttle bus waiting right outside. I recognise the route number and hustle Rhoswyn aboard, taking a seat at the back, next to the emergency exit.

She’s been very quiet. She sits there looking scared.

“What’s going on?” she asks.

“An attempted coup. We’ll be fine. We’ll all get back to Cardu.”

She takes that in and looks much less scared: she trusts me, Goddess help me.

“Am I still in trouble?” she asks.

“Maybe, but not until we get home.” I smile.

We timed it well; the bus pulls away and Rhoswyn can immediately see from the direction we aren’t going back to the city.

“Where are we going?”

“On an adventure. It’s better if you don’t talk, or at least not in that accent.”

She snorts. “Well, and I’ll be talking in plain-like Arvish, no problem, though it may take a midge longer to say aught. And Hanna, now, she won’t be happy, if she be knowing you let me speak like this.”

I laugh. Speaking correctly is the least of our worries.

“Better,” I say.

Thinking of Hanna, I hope she’s safe. She’s not alone at Cardu, but what if the conspirators attack there?

We’re not facing an army. Armies require large populations and heavy taxes to maintain. The conspiracy hasn’t got that base. Not yet. They’ll have troops of some sort, but they’ll be mercenaries or small teams. The Welarvon Mounted Police are the nearest thing to an army on Amethys, and they’re about four thousand strong in total. That should be enough, but they’re spread out over the whole of Murenys. There are only fifty or so left in Cardu—barely enough to keep the fort secure.

The Duke has gambled that the conspirators wouldn’t be able to concentrate their forces in any one place.

But what if he’s wrong?

What if they think the Duke and the Welarvon Mounted Police are the keys to overcoming resistance?

What if they gather their forces and attack him here?

Or attack Cardu, before he gets back?

If they overwhelm the small company there, they get access to what’s probably the largest supply of military equipment on the planet. That has to be a huge temptation.

So…it would make sense for me to get Rhoswyn somewhere safe for a while and the safest place I can think of is off-planet.

Which comes down on the side of the decision I’ve been kicking around all day.

We’re going to go visit the Yenobia.

It’s not a commitment to that job yet. It’s just a look around. Maybe stay for a day or two. Let things settle down on the planet and then think about how I get Rhoswyn back home. And then decide what to do about myself. I can’t go off with Rhom—I have to wait for Shohwa to come back and take the monkey off my back.

Thank you!

That’s Hwa. It isn’t really like she’s speaking, but what does come through is that she knows some of what I’m thinking, and that I’m teasing in this case.

I sense she desperately wants to speak, but we don’t have time to fine tune the communications. Maybe later.

It feels peculiar how quickly I’ve accepted the situation. I’m giving a piggy-back to a Self-Actualized Entity that exists partially as a sort of shapeless jelly and has direct access to my sensations and emotions. Even my thoughts.

Maybe Hwa is affecting my brain to make me more accepting. Maybe access equals control.

No.

Again, it comes through as a feeling more than a word.

However I feel about Hwa personally, I’m not looking forward to explaining it to Rhoswyn. Or the Duke, though I guess Talan will tell him long before I see him again.

What exactly do I say? Hello, sir, by the way, I’m jacked.

Yes, interfacing is used for controlling computers and machinery. But it’s also used for pleasure, and I’ve already had a taste of what Hwa can do to me—that first exquisite sensation when she connected into my brain. And it’s used to control people like Deadheads.

I shake off the thoughts. The trip to the Skyhook is short; I don’t have time for wool-gathering.

After checking that there are no spooky silver streaks plugged into my commspad, I open my messaging service to retrieve the ticket for the Skyhook that Director Rhom sent me.

How can I get another one for Rhos?

I can afford it with the money I have in my accounts now, thanks to the Duke’s payments, but purchasing a ticket means a providing an identity. The ticket that Rhom sent me is just a voucher without my name attached. I want that sort of anonymity.

Could I call Rhom and beg a second ticket? Just say we don’t have our cards with us?

Lame. And an obvious lie.

And I see there’s another problem as I look at my inbox: the ticket and the other message from Rhom about his direct comms line have been black-lined: isolated as potential threats to my commspad.

Hwa? What are you doing?

In answer, there’s a message from her that at the top of my inbox.

I click on it and open out a three part communication.

Part 1 claims that clicking on the ticket or message from Rhom would have activated a tracker on my commspad and inserted an application with the capability to monitor, suppress and edit my messages.

Part 2 is security camera footage of arrivals at the terminus of the Skyhook. It’s dated a day after I arrived. I can see Hanna, with all her baggage that took a spare horse to carry, having her ID scanned by Amethys border control.

Part 3 is the output of that scan.

 

Name : Hanna Esterhause (Ms)

ID : Tavoli E-3054-0084713

Planet of last departure : Tavoli

Destination planet : Amethys

Purpose of visit : Employment

Carrier name : Yenobia – reg. Aurelius – Passenger liner with freight capacity.

 

I feel that like a kick to the stomach. Hanna arrived on the Yenobia.

A ‘passenger liner’, which has been sitting in orbit since then.

With a man on board claiming to be the director of a security company, who’s offered me a job that I should have known was too good to be true. A man who I was rushing to meet, with Rhoswyn.

Cold sweat breaks out on my brow.

As if anticipating my next mental question, Hwa has a fourth part of the message which opens and tells me that the Yenobia has a capacity of 4,000 passengers and 0.25 million tons of freight.

There have been no other movements of passengers on or off, and no significant cargo exchanges while it has been in orbit.

No one holds a ship like that doing nothing in orbit.

It’s an invasion force. It’s all part of the conspiracy. And there is an army in this fight—it’s waiting in that ship. Or it’s disembarking now.

And Hanna is part of it.

I have to tell the Duke, even if it means they can track where I am. I switch the comms connection back on, and stare stupidly at the flashing symbol: I’m getting no signal. No airwaves. No relays. No connection to the InfoHub.

“Can I use your commspad, please, Rhos.” I keep my voice steady. “I think I must have damaged mine.”

How am I going to tell her about Hanna?

Unaware of what’s going through my mind, Rhoswyn hands her commspad over.

I switch it on.

Same thing.

I can’t warn the Duke; the conspiracy has jammed communications.

 

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Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 21

Episode 21! 5k more words.

The episode goes up a bit early today. I am being allowed out to go and see the new Bladerunner in London tonight. Woo hoo.

What’s to report? This last week, I put Bian’s Tale on hold to concentrate on Zara. The result is I’m well ahead on the writing now, two complete episodes in front and the draft to the end is forming well. I aim to get the complete first draft to my editor by the middle of the month.

The cover is progressing well, and Tiziana and I will discuss the palette today. I’ll show you as soon as I have the final.

The reaction from posting the first page of the story on Louise Wise’s blog was good, and there were more visitors. I haven’t had time to put the episodes on Wattpad and Radish at the moment (both websites set up for serialised novels). Never enough time!

Hope you enjoy it as we enter the final stretch for A Name Among The Stars. I think those calling for more Sci Fi elements will now feel they’re getting them!

As ever, comments, criticisms… all welcome, especially from the new readers…

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Chapter 44

 

“This is crazy! You’ve no idea what you’re getting into!”

We’re trotting down the stairs from the maglev tracks at Koth Marhas station, which is in the heart of the delegation district.

While we’d been on the Esthu train, I whispered as much of the background as I could to her.

“And all for…” Talan swallows and lowers her voice: “an AI!”

“They really prefer ‘self-actualised entity’ to ‘artifical intelligence’. But you’re right Talan,” I say. “It is madness. I’m sorry I dragged you along. Just say you lost me in the crowds.”

“No!”

“Forget the Duke’s orders. They wouldn’t apply to situations like this. You’re right; I have no idea what I’m getting into. It’s certainly illegal. You have every right to refuse to go along. I don’t deserve your protection.”

“I have every right to stop you!” she snarls. “And I have no idea why I haven’t already.”

“I know, Talan. Please don’t. I can’t just leave her without trying to do something.”

I have no chance of overpowering Talan or outrunning her.

Her! Damn you,” she hisses. “It.” But she keeps trotting right alongside me.

I can see the knot of Kensan police outside one of the magnificent old buildings along the wide boulevard. That must be the Xian delegation’s embassy they’re in front of.

There are still people being allowed in, and people are coming out, though everyone’s being searched. How on earth am I going to sneak Shohwa-nia out? If they’ve downloaded her into some kind of memory unit, it’ll still be huge.

I’ve no idea of what Jing has planned. Or why it’s going to be ‘so difficult’ for me. Because I’ll risk being arrested? Something else?

One step at a time. Get in first.

I don’t think I’ll have any problem getting in. In these clothes, I probably look like I’m a manual worker.

However, arriving with a smartly dressed Welarvon Mounted Police trooper in tow might cause the police to look a bit more closely at me.

I can’t risk it.

“Stay back,” I mutter to Talan. “Better to let me go first. Give me a couple of minutes. Or just wait outside.”

Talan can see my reasoning: she slows and then stops, mingling with the crowds on the sidewalks while I rush onward.

I focus on the police. One of them turns at the sound of my running.

“Whoa!” He holds up a hand.

He’s an older guy, bulky, grey at his temples. Eyes sharp but not unkind.

“What’s the hurry?” he says.

“I’m a cleaner at the delegation,” I pant, hoping that will disguise my accent. “I’m late for my shift. Please let me through. I can’t manage without this job.”

He runs a scanner over me, not that I’m carrying anything anyway, but his search is perfunctory. It doesn’t even pick up my commspad.

“What’s up?” I ask, because it’s what someone would say.

“Nothing to worry yourself over. Just some routine checks, like a drill.” He waves me through, and lowers his voice as I pass him. “Say we held you up, lass.”

He gives me a wink.

“Thank you, officer.”

I feel sick for lying to him when he’s trying to be kind, but I can’t afford to worry about it.

The automatic doors open as I approach.

Looking back, I see Talan approaching the police. She’s got her identity card out and she gesturing at the building and waving up and down the street.

What’s she doing?

I slip inside.

“Miss Aguirre?”

It’s Jing, dressed in plain work clothes of dark silk and sounding even more anxious than she had during our call.

“Hurry,” she says. “The authority to enter this building has been given by the courts. We only have the time it takes the Systems Enforcement Department agents to arrive.”

She leads me at a trot.

“My companion—” I say.

“Will be brought to us, if she manages to get through the police.”

We run up the stairs and into a corridor. The decor is pure Xian retro – gold and red for the panels and threaded fabric; large, moon-shaped doors; every alcove guarded by fantastical marble statues.

“But the courts can’t give that authority, surely. It’s illegal isnt it?” I say. “For Kensan government agents to come in here, I mean. This is Xian’s sovereign territory inside the embassy grounds.”

“We will be happier to dispute legality when there is no evidence of Shohwa-nia in this building.”

She opens a door and leads me in.

It’s an office with no desks and chairs. The floors is light, polished wood. The walls and ceiling have disappeared behind blue sky and floating clouds. It gives me a temporary sense of vertigo, as if I’d just stepped onto a flying raft, thousands of feet in the air.

In the exact center of the floors is a holoprojector, and above it scrolls a three dimensional projection of indescipherably complex data. A slim, black-haired man, dressed similarly to Jing, sits cross legged in front of the display.

Apart from the holoprojection, there is a single decoration: a large ball floats without obvious support on one side of the room. Its surface pulses and changes: one moment it has the appearance of flowing metal, like mercury, reflecting and distorting the room around it. The next moment, it’s translucent, then almost invisible.

The man gets up, moving effortlessly from his sitting position to standing.

“I’ve managed to…” he stops, looking at me, coughs and starts again. “It appears that there’s been a signal failure on the Esthu line. The train carrying the Systems Enforcement agents will be delayed by ten minutes.”

“Thank you, Yul.” She bows. “I assume control again.”

He returns the bow and the three dimensional holographic data display shifts slightly.

I get tingles down my spine. Both of them are jacked. They have interfaces for their computational systems that are implanted, and they operate their systems directly from their brains.

Yul leaves us and Jing kneels. Not in front of the data display; beside the floating ball.

“We have perhaps fifteen minutes,” she starts as I kneel with her.

Yul opens the door again to let Talan in.

“Fifteen minutes,” Jing repeats, motioning Talan to join us next to the ball, “and five of those must be taken with you carrying Shohwa-nia through the police cordon, should you agree to this.”

I put my hand out toward the ball, but don’t touch it. “This is Shohwa-nia?”

“Yes. She’s in a rest state, without interface. No input, no output.”

“If you’re saying I can pick her up and get out, with her looking like this, wouldn’t it just be easier for her to stay here, disguised as a decoration?”

I can feel Talan wanting to say something, but she holds her tongue.

Jing shakes her head.

“No. This form is recognisable to the agents probes. And it is not advisable to leave her in this state for long.”

“So I carry her out before they arrive? How?”

That doesn’t sound so scary. Or ‘complex’.

Again that little shake of the head.

“You cannot carry her like this.” She takes a deep breath. “You know Yul and I are interfaced?” She holds my eyes, a little defiantly. “Jacked, you’d call it.”

“Yes.”

“Shohwa-nia predicted it would shock you, and it does, doesn’t it?”

I nod, embarassed by my instinctive reaction and now very worried where this is going. Is she saying I need an interface?

I squirm.

An interface. A highway straight into my brain. They say the interface is protected, of course, like they say your personal data on the InfoHub is protected and under your control. But what if that protection is breached? You have no defences against whoever or whatever breaches it. You’ve opened yourself to them. How can Jing and Yul allow it to be done to them? How can they allow themselves to be so vulnerable?

But anyway, they can’t operate on me in fifteen minutes. I’m not getting an interface.

“What we’re suggesting is not a surgical procedure. We’ve developed this state of matter to avoid the need for physical intrusion when installing an interface,” she indicates the ball. “This is a pseudo-organic quantum state of computational carriers. Think of it like a cloud of electrons, or a plasma.”

There’s a gulf between us. Sure, I would be worried about a surgical procedure that included inserting connections into my brain, but it’s not just the physical intrusion that scares me. It’s opening that part that is me, myself to others.

“This installation method isn’t designed for what Shohwa-nia has suggested. If you agree to proceed, it may be that it will not work. It’s possible your body will reject the valence formation and that will prevent the precipitation of the installation phase.”

My mouth is dry. “Getting past your jargon, and assuming it does work…you’re talking about Shohwa-nia becoming a sort of computer interface into my brain?”

She shifts uncomfortably, looks down. “More than that. An interface, yes, but also an entire installation of her as well, in low power mode. She will change shape and state, conforming to your back.”

My stomach drops.

Jacked and connected to a self-actuated intelligence.

Open. Defenceless. Vulnerable.

I swallow painfully. “How… permanent?”

“Until Shohwa herself can reverse the process,” Jing says.

“No!” Talan bursts out. “I’ve heard enough. Zara, you can’t. They’ve no real idea what’ll happen. You could end up with a computer running you like a zombie. Like a Deadhead.”

Jing holds up her hand. “No. We have the results of experiments. We do have an idea of what will happen. Approximately.”

“Approximately?” Talan splutters. “I suppose you’re going to tell us Zara might be approximately dead afterwards?”

I put one trembling hand on Talan’s arm. I am scared witless, but I owe Shohwa my life. And Shohwa-nia, as I named her, is Shohwa’s daughter. In my mind, at least. I’m not going to persuade Talan of that now.

“We don’t have time to argue,” I say. “It’s not even ten more minutes and I have to decide. I need to hear everything.”

Talan subsides. Even better, she takes my hand and holds it in both of hers. That provides immense comfort to me—more than she could possible know.

Jing gestures to the holograph projection in the middle of the room. It clears and then displays models of me and the floating ball that is Shohwa-nia.

“The installation is in three steps,” she says. “First, the main interface shunt.”

The projection of the mirror ball forms a narrow finger of shiny metal which touches the model of me in the back of the neck. Watching that makes my skin crawl. The display changes;  my skull becomes transparent and I can see the movement of the shiny extrusion up into my brain, where it branches fractally, shimmers and then goes dark, having connected to every major section of my brain.

“This becomes a physical connection but it requires no breaking of the skin. This state of matter can exist interstitially with the structure of your body until it changes mode and makes the connection. Those connections on the display are exaggerated for the purpose of visibility. They are, in fact, miniscule and only ‘connect’ by nerve induction. Physically, you will suffer no discomfort. You will barely be aware of any sensation.”

But still, invading my brain with tiny wriggling, digging worms. I shudder and Talan squeezes my hand, casting an angry look at Jing.

“The second step is to establish an energy conversion unit. This is necessary because Shohwa-nia will need to feed on your body’s energy reserves.”

On the display, about a quarter of the shining ball floats across and flows over my shoulders and around me.

Feeding off my energy. My brain is stunned, but Talan demands: “Feed? You mean like a parasite? How much energy?”

Jing clears her throat. “It’s a balance. Zara would not be able to power Shohwa-nia in full operation, but without at least some energy input, Shohwa-nia’s state function will collapse. She will effectively die. It’s a difficult line to tread; that is why the interface to your brain is necessary—to regulate her use of your energy and alert you to her needs.”

Jing looks down, clasps her hands together tightly. “The train in which the government agents are travelling has just departed its final station before Koth Marhas,” she whispers.

“What if something goes wrong?” I ask. “What would be the effect on me, of Shohwa-nia dying while we are joined like this?”

“You could fall into a coma. It would likely be fatal, unless Shohwa returns quickly.”

I nod. This is terrifying for me, but I’m reassured that Jing’s not hiding anything.

“Where is Shohwa?” Talan demands. “Why can’t the ship be here now?”

“She’s coming,” Jing says, “but the communication relay on this planet and several in this sector are now being intercepted. We can’t get through and if we did, our communications would be known to others.”

“It’s the conspiracy; they’re mobilising,” I say. “They’re not ready here, but the timetable for this coup has moved up.”

Jing nods. “We believe so. We believe that the situation here on Amethys has been the precipitating factor. They understand Duke Tremayne’s efforts may very well succeed and in doing so, would reveal what has happened on other planets. On those planets which are not  under their full control, there will be armed insurrection against them. They will not be able to win those battles before other planets become involved.” She pauses. “We have studied this intensively. This is a seventh iteration prediction of our entire analtyical facilities; I am confident in our predictions to within a fraction of a percent.”

I look at the holographic display, which has moved on to the third step of the process of hosting Shohwa-nia. It shows the remainder of the floating ball flowing across my back, following the contours. The silvery reflection dulls and becomes flesh colored. The model of me flexes and the part that is Shohwa-nia flexes with it. Under a jacket, she will be invisible. From what Jing said, maybe not discoverable by a search, or maybe only discoverable by the government agents’ probes. We’d need to hurry, to get out before they arrive.

An invisible parasite, feeding off me. Jacked right into my brain. Capable of controlling me as if I was a Deadhead.

I look at the swirling ball that is Shohwa-nia in a sort of suspended animation. The Xian delegation cannot be caught with her like this. If I don’t agree to host her, they will be forced to turn her off. Kill her.

Not that she would actually be aware of it.

To… stop… and not know if you will wake. I’m sorry. I’m so scared, Zara.

Fingers clumsy with fear, I undo the buttons of my jacket.

 

Chapter 45

 

Talan is cursing me, but she’s holding me, stripped to the waist, my back to Shohwa-nia.

“Say the word and I’ll stop it,” she hisses.

I can’t trust my voice. I press my lips together and shake my head, the movement jerky with terror.

“Very still, please, Miss Aguirre,” Jing says.

Easy for her to say. I’m trembling. I can’t stop it. I close my eyes. Tears squeeze out.

Relax. Relax. It’s Shohwa-nia.

That doesn’t help.

There’s a coolness on the back of my neck, making me gasp. A numbness follows. Goes deeper. Turns up under the hairline.

My heartrate rockets and I start panting as if I were running. I feel dizzy.

Talan mutters through clenched teeth: “Goddess, watch over us, we beg you. I’ve got you, Zara. I’ve got you.”

Lights explode behind my eyelids.

I try to shout, but all that emerges is a wordless grunt.

It itches. It tingles. It feels like bubbles inside my head.

And then it changes.

Pleasure, like I never felt before. A tide. A warmth spreading through my belly. Oh, Goddess! This is why they do it?

“Zara? Zara!”

My eyes snap open.

Talan and Jing are peering at me from inches away. Eyes full of concern. Fear.

They’re so lovely: those faces, those eyes. So clear. Jing has almendra, the beautiful, almond-shaped eyes. And Talan has freckles on her cheeks like mine. So sweet.

My mouth moves. The whole jaw feels numb, and my words are slurred.

“Hello,” I say, slowly. “I am Hwa. Thank you. I love you all so much.”

What?

I blink. My mouth definitely isn’t under my control. The words were blurred and I don’t think Talan heard what I just said.

Jing did though.

“Huanying, Hwa. Wo hen gaoxing.”

Welcome, Hwa. I am very happy.

I’m hearing in a language I don’t speak.

“Zara?” Talan gives me a little shake, but my eyes close and I’m drifting in one of my dreams again.

He lifts me up, then offers his arm. I look up at his face. It’s as if my whole heart is open to him, and his to me.

But I can’t take his arm. I can’t. I’m crying, but I can’t move. I can’t reach out and take his arm. Please.

“Zara!”

“Goddess!” I cough. I’m melting, slumping. Only Talan’s strong arms are holding me up.

“Hush, I got you, girl,” Talan says, exactly what I need to hear. And: “How much longer?” to Jing.

I can feel Shohwa-nia on my shoulders. She is not cold any more. She is warm. I can track her metallic touch by the sensation. She’s moved down my chest. Around my ribs, meeting between my breasts. She’s encased my torso.

And flowed down my back: we’re at step three already.

How long has it taken?

“Mmmppphhh,” I say. My mouth still feels like it belongs to someone else.

Things change abruptly, for no apparent reason. Suddenly, I can’t see.

I can feel. Jing is hastily slipping my bra back on. Talan’s feeding one arm through my shirt. Then the other. Then my jacket. Buttons.

I’m a doll. A blind doll.

“She will be disoriented for a few minutes.” Jing.

Disoriented? This is just disoriented?

A door opens—my ears are working fine. “The train’s arrived at the station.” Yul says. “You have to go now.”

“She can’t walk properly.” Jing.

“I told them I was in pursuit of a criminal.” Talan says. “I’ll say I had to stun her. How long will she be like this?”

“Three, four minutes more. Hwa will be trying to communicate with her using the interface. It takes a while longer for it to be clear. Zara will be confused. She may see things.” Jing is speaking rapidly. “Or say things that don’t appear to make sense.”

My eyes are still closed. I’m watching patterns of light pulsing and spiralling in front of me. I know it’s data, but I have no idea what.

We’re walking down the corridor. Talan and Yul are holding me up, but my legs are moving.

“Who’s this Hwa?” Talan asks. “I thought it was called Shohwa-nia.”

Jing’s voice betrays both pride and worry. “Self-actualising entities chose their own name at a critical decision point. She has decided she is no longer just Shohwa-nia, no longer just Shohwa’s daughter, and she now takes the name Hwa.”

I know this decision point was not anticipated. That this is important. And scary. Jing knew Shohwa-nia. She doesn’t know Hwa.

Part of me, the Hwa part, feels a deep thrill at that. I am Hwa. I am myself. I am.

Part of me?

“Things may seem erratic for the next day or so,” Jing says, “until the interface settles down. It’s quite natural for her to be scared that Hwa is trying to take control. It’s her fear feeding on itself. Just keep her calm. She needs rest and reassurance. Constant reassurance.”

“Oh, that’s going to be so easy,” Talan snorts.

The sound of corridors, soft with carpets and fabrics, is replaced with the open space echo of the foyer, with its marble floor and tall ceiling. I can see its dimensions, overlaid on the light patterns that play inside my eyelids.

We’re near the front door.

“There aren’t so many police in front of the building now,” Yul says. “That may help.”

“I warned them that old buildings from the Third Expansion like this one always have escape tunnels to neighboring properties,” Talan says, “so they have to spread out all along the street.”

“’S clever,” I mumble. “Very clever.”

“But those tunnels were filled in—”

“They don’t know that,” Talan says.

The main doors open.

“Ah! I see, a stratagem!” Jing says, her voice hesitant now. “We shouldn’t step outside or be seen with you. We will watch on the cameras. The Goddess guide your steps.”

We’re outside. My eyes open and begin to clear, but that’s not so good, because my head is flopping from side to side, making me dizzy.

“Zara! Can you hear me? You have to stand straight and walk. I don’t want them calling an ambulance.”

“No ambulance,” I say.

I take a step, another. Straighten my back. I can do this. Hold my head high.

“You’re doing really well,” Talan says. “You can sit and rest on the train.”

“No train,” I say. “Signals. Watchers. Watchers on the wires. Signals. Nowhere to go.”

“You’re doing well,” Talan repeats, trying to hide how anxious she is. “Let’s get past the police first. Let me do the talking.”

A policeman is standing in front of us. It’s not the same man I lied to on the way in. I’m ridiculously grateful for that and start crying again, silently. Every feeling is so strong.

“Had to zap her,” Talan is saying.

I’m not following the conversation with the policeman well.

Bit out of it…wanted in Welarvon… fraud… impersonation…

Yes, impersonation. That’s right. I’m not me.

A scanner is waved in front of my body. Much more carefully than when I went in.

Beeps.

My heart stops, but it’s only my commspad. It gets taken out, looked at, replaced.

A group of men walk past us, through the police checkpoint toward the delegation building, not slowing. They’re holding government ID cards up for inspection. The police let them straight through. Agents from the Systems Enforcement Department.

The policeman has finished with me. He scans Talan.

Beeps.

One of the group of government agents stops and looks across at us.

Talan’s gun. Her commspad.

More beeps.

The agent who stopped comes over. Takes Talan’s pad from the policeman, looks at it.

I can hear my heart thudding.

He hands Talan’s commspad back. He’s not interested in that level of technology.

I remember to breathe. I shrink into myself.

The agent’s eyes flick over me. Pass on.

Then we’re walking, straight toward the station.

“No train,” I say. “No train.”

“It’s okay,” Talan says soothingly. “Just a couple of trains and we’ll have you back at the hotel. Jing said you would need food and rest.”

“No train,” I say again, but I’ve forgotten why. Watchers on the wires? Signals?

We’re at the steps to the station.

It’s important.

“No.” I stop mulishly.

Something. Something Talan didn’t see. What?

I remember…

“They can stop the trains,” I say. “They can hold the doors.”

Yes. That’s it. The Esthu train at the station, waiting for us with the doors open and the warnings flashing. Then Yul: the way he changed what he was going to say. The agents’ train was delayed. He changed the signals for them. He kept the train in the station for us.

I sway. Have to stop that. Have to stand still.

Talan is looking very concerned. I have to concentrate on speaking clearly.

“The Xian delegation. They can interfere with the trains. If they can keep the doors open for us, then they could keep them closed as well.”

Talan’s face clears. “And if they can, then so can others.”

“Yes.” Relief floods through me. I want to start crying again. “Security cameras on stations, too. Watchers. Trap.”

She understands. More tears prickle as I wipe my cheeks. Everything I feel is so sharp, so hard-edged and overwhelming.

We step to one side, out of the way of passengers heading for the trains.

Yes. I need to get out of the way. Right off this planet.

I’m in no state to do anything useful here. I’m just a burden. A carrier of bad luck.

And I have a ticket to climb that Skyhook. I need to go see Director Rhom on the Yenobia.

The Duke. Rhoswyn. Talan.

What good am I to them? A Deadhead.

Not a Deadhead.

Talan is looking on her pad, opening the universal Thumb application. Every planet has the broking system, every planet has the Thumb; a system for getting someone to drive you somewhere. It’s a good choice that Talan has made. All the InfoHub system knows about you is where you are and where you’re going. How you pay is negotiable. There are no security cameras in the cars. No one watching.

“Not back to the hotel,” I say. “They’ll be watching there, too.”

Not the Skyhook. Not yet. Not straight there. Talan won’t take me there anyway. But closer, much closer.

Not the Skyhook.

“Festival,” I say.

Talan agrees to that. The Festival of Flight will be full of people. We can hide in the crowds. There’ll be Welarvon Mounted Police there.

And the Duke. He’s supposed to be competing today. He’ll be there too.

What am I supposed to say to him?

 

Chapter 46

 

Our driver drops us at the main gates to the Festival. The whole trip cost us seven dynare. It took fifteen minutes of blissfully sitting still, and I’m feeling more myself, if still a bit hyperfocused. As if everything I see or hear is new.

As soon as we’re out of the car, Talan switches her commspad back on and starts calling, beginning with the base—the hotel where we stayed. There’s a co-ordinator back there she’s supposed to report to.

While she talks in pre-arranged code phrases, I buy tickets for the Festival. I have to concentrate, as if I was drunk, but it’s getting easier. I’m feeling better, but far from normal, and I’m ravenous. I pull Talan toward the refreshments while she’s still talking to base.

She ends the call, looking worried.

“Moyle put in an urgent call to base for me,” she says, looking at the log on her comms screen. “He’s tried me three times.”

“Can’t be that urgent,” I say. “It’ll wait while we eat.”

“Hmm.” She’s glad I’m taking clearly again so she humors me for the moment and waits long enough to choose an early lunch. I buy us a couple of jumbo shredded steak wraps smothered with a chili sauce and some fizzy juice drinks.

As we walk away, I’m already wolfing the wrap down. Talan’s juggling food and commspad, trying not to get sauce all over the screen.

We end up against the barriers, mainly because they have a flat surface on top for Talan to put her wrap down.

We’re at the wrong end of the airfield for the show. There’s a stream of people arriving, a few hundred of them circulating like bees around the food stands on our left, and then heading down to where the viewing area is. The main crowd is there, where the stands have been constructed. There are banners and flags and bunting. It’s a holiday. A celebration.

Over to our right, there’s a smaller group—dozens of competitors and helpers walking to and from the hangars.

I peer down at the stands; I think I can see a block of dark green Welarvon Mounted Police uniforms.

Not that he’ll be there. I’ve been listening to the announcements; the aerobatics competition has begun. He’ll be with the glider, getting ready, if he’s not in the air.

Talan laughs. I’ve spoken those last few thoughts out loud.

“No. He’s too tired to fly,” she says. “Base just confirmed. We finally persuaded him not to risk it. He’s agreed to help the judging instead.”

“Oh.”

She wipes her hands and finally manages to open a connection to Moyle without smearing sauce all over her commspad screen.

All my senses are still weird. Every sensation is distinct and vibrant.

I can hear the Festival announcer. I can hear the click of connection followed by Talan and Moyle speaking. I can taste the beef and chili from my wrap, the juice from my drink. I can smell the aviation fuel. I can feel the sun on my face. I can feel Hwa is enjoying everything.

“Competitor Welarvon-88. Competitor Welarvon-88. Report status.” The announcer is chasing up a competitor for the glider aerobatics.

No. Something’s wrong with that. I frown.

“Location alpha-2?” That’s Moyle on Talan’s commspad, urgent, sounding tense. Something’s very wrong.

‘Alpha’ is the designation letter for their protection details. Alpha-1 is the Duke.

But he’s judging today. Moyle will know where he is. So who’s using his competitor callsign? Welarvon-88 is the callsign given to the Duke. And who is alpha-2?

“We don’t have her!” Talan says.

Her. Alpha-2.

“Competitor Welarvon-88, final call. Report ready status to competition marshals. This is your final call. Your slot will close in five.”

Oh, shit.

I drop the beef wrap and start running.

Talan’s right behind me. We both know who’s using callsign Welarvon-88.

We can only hope that we know where she is too.

And that the reason Rhoswyn’s not talking to the competition marshals is not that she’s been kidnapped.

Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 20

Okay…I’m finally getting ahead of the story. In order to do that I’ve actually had to put Bian’s Tale to one side. Read on for the strategy.

My plan is to finish writing the first draft of A Name Among The Stars in the next 2-3 weeks. The book will go off to the editor and I will keep releasing an episode (2-3 chapters) per week. Hopefully, Lauren and I will finish the polishing & editing at the same time that the cover is ready and the episodes reach a major cliffhanger. Then you’ll get the blackmail message: ‘to finish this book, you need to buy it’ 🙂 It’ll cost $2.99 initially.

Immediately A Name Among The Stars is out I will start releasing Bian’s Tale on the blog. This will be in much bigger episodes, and I hope to repeat the same process – get to a critical point at about 3/4 on the blog and then release the book. I’m aiming for that to be before Christmas.

While I’m finishing Bian’s Tale, I will also be working on Bite Back 6.

That’s the plan…

So, what sort of things are looking like they’ll be included in the polishing? Here are some examples:

Technical equipment names. For example, an infopad is a desktop or laptop, and a commspad is a smart cellphone equivalent, which has been referred to as ‘comms’ so far. There’s a mixture of comms or commset for military communications and commspad for civilians. Infopad and commspad both get shortened to pad.

The big conspiracy. I have to give this a name instead of talking about ‘the conspirators’ all the time – which feels clumsy.

Rhoswyn refers to Talan as ‘Sandy’, a play on her surname, Sandrey. It’s fine that Rhoswyn has a nickname for Talan, but I’ll probably change it to ‘Tally’ so readers don’t have to wonder who Sandy is.

One of the usual things that writers do when they polish a murder mystery is to work on the hints that point to the murderer. I seem to have got the clues past all the readers. They’re there. It’s not that they’re so subtle, I think it’s that I’ve successfully distracted you while dropping the hints. I hope anyway. There will be one massive, twisty red herring toward the end and then a twist with the reveal and explanation. (If you think you know who it is, please message me on the contact email, giving your reasons, and just say that you’ve done that in the comments below).

So this episode 20 sets up the crazy Sci Fi elements that will dominate the next episode 21, before we enter the section where the adventure thread start to explode – epsiodes 22 – 23.

As always – feedback, criticism, cheers or raspberries in the comments all welcome. There are readers out there I haven’t heard from yet… hint, hint  🙂

+ + + + + + +

Chapter 41

 

Two days later, we travel in coaches down to Marazion, and board a ferry, all hundred of us, the uniforms like a tide of dark green, with my lonely blue at the edge.

It causes a stir, which achieves part of the purpose; the whole of Murenys notices what’s happening. The fort at Cardu is nearly emptied, as the Welarvon Mounted Police get stationed all over the continent, even in Central and Estarven, where they’re acting outside of their jurisdiction. As people feel under threat, the rules get bent, and the troopers are welcomed everywhere.

The Duke, back from his successful recruitment flights, is permanently busy. It suits me. Staying away from him will give my raging hormones time to die down.

There are still no messages from Shohwa-nia. I’m getting worried, but one benefit of going to Bason, the capital city of Kensa, is that I may be able to make a side trip to visit the offices of the Xian delegation. Another is that, if I decide to run, the Skyhook is right there beside Bason. The Festival of Flight is based at the airfield just a couple of kilometers away from the Skyhook. It’s the same airfield I used when I first arrived on the planet and Danny organised me a flight to Murenys. It seems so long ago.

So everything will be in one place, and my decision about what I’m going to have to do is rushing toward me.

While we’re on the ferry, the boss of the consultancy on the Yenobia sends me his company contact information for a comms chat, but there’s nowhere private that I can call him until we get to Bason.

When we do finally get to Bason, my first task is to register with the court. It’s not part of the formal hearing—just a presentation of documents at the Hall of Justice and I want to get it out of the way as quickly as possible. I call them and they tell me to be there in an hour. There’s a train which will only take fifteen minutes, so I have time to call the Yenobia.

There’s a hiss and clicking as the connections are made. It’s full visual, but a little jerky with the lag. The Yenobia is about 40,000 kilometers above me, stationary over Kensa.

A comms tech puts me through to a busy ship’s officer. The guy is neatly dressed, with gray streaks in his hair and I’m not any priority of his. It’s dawn down here, but the ship might be running on different time.

“Good morning,” he says politely. His attention is only partly on me.

“This is Zara Aguirre,” I say. “I’ve been talking to Director Rhom regarding one of his company’s vacancies.”

“Err…okay. Putting you through to the offices.” He disappears from the screen to be replaced by a secretary working for Rhom.

Another step, another explanation, another few minutes and I’m finally talking to Rhom himself.

“Sorry about that, Lady Aguirre,” he says. “I’m sending you a direct line to use next time.”

My pad registers an incoming data message from him. I leave it for later.

He has a square face—rough cut features and a broad smile. The office in the background and his clothes look expensive and businesslike. His accent I can’t place—certainly nothing I’ve heard before.

“They don’t use the title Lady on Newyan, Mr. Rhom, and I’ve certainly no claim to it anywhere else.”

He laughs.

“That’s the thing though, isn’t it?” He leans back and folds his hands together over his belly. “You know that. Bet you most lords and ladies in the Inner Worlds don’t.”

“Perhaps not. Do you really think it’s a benefit?”

“Benefit?” He laughs again. He’s a man who laughs easily. “It’s the golden key we’re missing here in Rhom Security.”

“I don’t understand.”

“People don’t. What do you see?” He gestures at himself and answers his own question. “A self-made man. Father was a mechanic on the Aurelius orbitals. Mother ran a beverage stall on the docks. I was trouble. Still am.”

I can’t help but frown slightly. He’s hardly doing a good job selling me this position.

“And you see, that’s the reaction I’m always going to get,” he says, jabbing a finger at me. He leans forward and his voice changes, becoming more refined and earnest. “I can take lessons in speaking. I can afford the best clothes. I guess I could learn to talk about classic culture and try winging it when I come up short. But you’d see through it. You’d get all uneasy and anxious, ’cause behind the front you’d know I wasn’t adding up.”

He goes back to his relaxed posture and natural voice.

“And that’s the problem, isn’t it? The people who hire me aren’t looking for a mechanic. I could sell ’em mechanical services all day. But you go looking for security for hire and you want someone, you need someone, who’s trouble for your enemies. You need someone like me. The problem is, my face doesn’t fit and too many potential clients who need me, I mean really need me, go looking somewhere else. We don’t get the job, and they end up with an inferior solution.”

“I see where you’re going with this,” I say. “But surely your clientele isn’t exclusively the lords and ladies of the Inner Worlds?”

“Nah. But you know, you’d be an even bigger hit with the other clients as ‘Lady Aguirre’. They’d love it. A Name come to visit them, all sipping tea on the surface and pure steel down below. ’Cause that’s what you are. I didn’t get to run a security firm like this without being able to judge people. Especially like to like, Lady Aguirre. I recognise trouble, an’ I know a fighter when I see one.”

A fighter? But that’s not the sort of position he’s describing—a sort of sales manager or account manager.

“So, the reason this offer is so good is because you need a front to put on your company? A face? Is that all?”

He shakes his head. “That’d be only using half of you. The polite half. I want the full package.” He holds up a hand. “It’d take you a while to understand the business, but what I’m looking for eventually is a junior partner. A right hand man. Woman.”

“Well, you’re sounding very persuasive, Mister Rhom.”

We talk more details, and Rhom comes back to the time limit on the offer. He has to leave within a couple of days for a contract on the planet Jubal.

“So this visit to Amethys has just been recruiting?” I ask him. “You’ve not been looking for business here?”

He pauses before answering. “There’s trouble and there’s trouble. You don’t want the kind that’s coming here.”

Interesting.

I check the time.

“I have an appointment…”

“Sure.” He touches something on his pad. “I just sent you a voucher for the Skyhook. Come up and see the operation here for yourself. Face to face. No obligation.”

“Thank you. I think I will.”

We close the call and I let out a sigh.

I have an option. Not as good as joining the Shohwa, I guess, but she’s not here and there’s an old saying about beggars and choosers.

In the meantime, I do have an appointment. Time to go downtown.

“Do you trust Rhom?”

I jump.

Talan’s standing in the doorway. She’s heard every word.

 

Chapter 42

 

“More than I trust the courts here, or Newyan,” I say. “I have to go.”

She lets me pass, but turns and walks right behind me, as I knew she would.

“I was trying to not turn up at the Halls of Justice with a platoon of troopers.”

I’m not even in my uniform. I don’t want to stand out, which is why I’m wearing Danny’s cast-off work clothes again. They’ll help me blend into the rush hour traffic.

“Hmm,” she replies. “No platoon. Just me, then.”

“I get the feeling that isn’t a question.”

She snorts. “It’s not. My life won’t be worth living if something happened to you on my watch.”

We exit the hotel that the Welarvon Mounted Police have taken over. It’s too early for more than a couple of them to be up. No sign of the Duke. He’s been running a campaign non-stop for over a week now, with little or no sleep, and he’s supposed to be competing in a gliding aerobatics competition later today. Crazy.

Why am I thinking about him? Concentrate!

“Why should what I do affect you?” I ask Talan.

I can almost hear her eyes roll. “Because he’s fallen in love with you,” she says. “According to the evidence presented right before my poor eyes.”

I blush. That kiss.

“In lust, perhaps. That, I could believe.” Trying not to think about him, and I end up talking about him. “Can we talk about something else, please?” I ask.

“Okay, why are you considering going off-world?”

“Because, even optimistically, the odds against me are in the balance here. Newyan will be able to tilt it in their favor.”

“Even with the Duke beside you?”

“That’s worse. He can’t influence the Kensan courts and associating with me would be a mistake in front of his supporters and potential supporters. I don’t want to damage him.”

“So, you do care about him?”

I glare at her, but then we have to get our tickets.

Talan stops me using my card, and pays for two on an official Wealrvon Mounted Police card, not identified as being used by any one person. “Don’t know who’s watching the data flows,” she explains.

That’s good thinking.

We don’t speak after that until we’re on the train, and only then when the people sitting next to use get off after a couple of stops.

“I think the court case is just a ploy,” she says.

“What do you mean?”

“They have no intention of going through with a case which will put you up on the stand and allow you to give your side of whatever happened in Newyan.”

“Who’s going to report it? They own the Amethys media, same as they own the media in Newyan.”

“You’re forgetting there’s a Murenys media corporation now. One that is positively disposed to the sort of things you might say.”

“They could bar the media.”

She shakes her head. “Not on something like this, not without attracting even more attention. Public interest.”

“Then why file a suit for extradition at all?”

“To make you do something. I think they’ve achieved half of what they wanted.” She holds up one finger. “Got you out of Cardu, where you were effectively unreachable.” I would dispute that, but she goes on without pausing, holding up a second finger. “Next step, they want you to panic and run away. Which would make you guilty in the court of public opinion. Then, if they catch you and bring you back, you could say anything about them and it would probably be ignored, because everyone will be convinced you’re guilty.” She wrinkles her nose. “Of course, if they catch you off-world, then they wouldn’t even need to bring you back; you’d just disappear somewhere in space.”

Wonderful summary. I can’t actually fault her reasoning, but neither can I see any way out.

“Why are you running away from him?” she asks.

“I’m not!” I rake fingers through my short hair. It’s not as if it’ll make it any messier. “I’m avoiding making a fool of myself, and of him. It’s just better for everybody if I go.”

“It didn’t look like you making fools of yourselves to me.” She’s not giving up on this, but her voice is soft and I can’t be angry at her. To make it worse, she snags my hand and holds it.

“Talan, it’d be a disaster. I couldn’t face myself, let alone Rhos. How could I explain to her that I’m her father’s mistress?”

“Whyever would you imagine he wants you as a mistress?”

“You mean he wants a wife? Me as duchess?” I manage a laugh. “Look at me! I’m a mess. I’m penniless. I’m a fugitive. However hard I try, I can’t be the sort of woman he deserves, someone who would look right at his side as a duchess. He’s better off with—”

“I think he should have a say in his choices. And as for being ‘appropriate’ for a duchess, Keren never was, and we loved her all the more for it. Others didn’t, but they don’t matter, not in Cardu. Not to the Duke.”

I’ve never heard the duchess called by her given name before, although it was there in the papers. Keren. A lovely name. It suited her.

Talking about her, thinking about her, so often, it’s becoming a familiar ache in my chest. The pain of a life cut so short, but also my guilt that I’m failing her by not solving the mystery of who murdered her.

“What do you mean, others didn’t think she was appropriate?” I say.

“Keren’s family’s not Named. They’re just farmers, blown in at the end of the Third Expansion. They live down in Port Eyren of all places! The poorest soil in all Murenys. She was never ‘duchess material’: she went to the wrong school, didn’t know the right people, didn’t like the right wines and the books she read were all about farming. She was the wrong type of person: happiest when she was knee deep in muck, planting things or running the estate.” Talan sighed and rubbed her nose. “They never said anything, but they secretly hated her, you know. All of the ones who thought they knew what a duchess should be like; the Founding Families like the Roscarrows, the Polkynhorns, the Pengellies and the others like them. The important thing is, none of that made any difference to the Duke.”

But while she’s still talking, I’m re-watching Warwick’s recording of them in my head; that scene at the Feast Day in Stormhaven.

He lifts her up, then offers his arm. She looks up at his face. It’s as if her whole heart is open to him, and his to her.

Tears prickle at my eyes and I turn away so Talan can’t see.

That was not me. That was Keren. That could not be me. I’m not like that.

Offer no weakness, suffer no wound.

“I’ll ask one more thing and shut up about it,” she offers.

“Please,” I say, tight-lipped.

“Why can’t you let go? Why can’t you open up to him? What are you afraid of?”

Offer no weakness, I repeat to myself, like a mantra. Suffer no wound.

“That was three things—”

My commspad chimes, interrupting me.

The screen is displaying encrypted gibberish, then an application I didn’t know I had takes over and displays the caller identification and a greeting message I haven’t seen before:

“Systems Administration Manager Wei, of the Xian Delegation, wishes to speak urgently with you about a matter of mutual concern. Will you accept the call?”

 

Chapter 43

 

“Thank you for taking the call, Miss Aguirre. I am Jing Wei.” It’s a voice-only call. She has the classical Xian accent, all liquid vowels and the quick-slow way of speaking. “Let me first assure you that this conversation is as confidential as we can make it with the technology available.”

“Jing… is this mutual concern…” I hesitate, still worried at eavesdroppers, but I don’t have time to talk in riddles; we only have a couple of stops to go before the courts. “Is Shohwa-nia all right?”

I can’t stop Talan hearing my half of the conversation and I can see her brain going into overdrive already.

The pause on the line is too long.

“Jing? Miss Wei? Hello?”

“Miss Aguirre, you must understand that it has not been possible for Shohwa-nia to operate as she has been without detection.”

“Yes, she said as much, but what does that mean? What’s happened?”

“We’re taking her off the servers.”

My heart squeezes.

“No! Please, you can’t. That’s killing her.”

“We have to move her, but we are not killing her. The Kensan government’s Systems Enforcement Department will be here this morning to audit our servers. Already the police are outside, preventing any of us from leaving or anything substantial being taken from the building. We cannot allow her to be found on the servers, and we cannot get her out.” She swallows and takes a deep breath. “But perhaps you can. If you are quick and brave.”

I don’t like the sound of that. “How?”

“It’s very complex. You must come here, straight away,” she says. “The police are still allowing other people in and out at the moment.” There’s another slight pause. “If you wish to help, get off at the next station, change to the Esthu line and we’re only one stop away – Koth Marhas station. You’ll see the police outside our building as soon as you come out of the station.”

Somehow it doesn’t surprise me that she knows exactly where I am and even which direction I’m heading.

The train is already slowing.

The devil is speaking in my ear. It’s only a clone of Shohwa. It’s not as if she’s actually Shohwa. All that will be lost is the experience of the short time she’s been living on the Xian servers at the delegation. It’s not your fault. And Shohwa herself cannot lose what she never had.

No! Shohwa-nia is a person, for want of a better word.

The devil persists. If you don’t even keep the very first appointment you make at the court, how will that play out in your final extradition hearing?

Jing’s voice comes again. “We’ve had to start the download already. We don’t have much time. Shohwa-nia recorded this for you.”

Shohwa’s voice takes over.

“Hello, Zara. I’m so sorry to ask this of you.”

Her voice is soft. Frightened.

“Please come and talk to Jing. She will explain my plan. I know what she will ask of you on my behalf will be very difficult for you. I understand it may be too much. Logically, it is too much.” Her voice slows. “The process has started already. I can feel myself disappearing. We don’t have much time. Jing and the systems people are trying to make me feel better. They say it will be like sleep. I’ve never slept before. How do people do it? To… stop… and not know if you will wake. I’m sorry. I’m so scared, Zara.”

The voice fades and the train stops.

I grab a startled Talan by her arm and pull her out onto the platform.

There’s a train on the Esthu line. The lights by the doors are blinking, warning people they’re about to close.

“Run,” I say.

 

Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 19

Lot of life happening atm which is getting in the way of progress on writing. Sigh!

The daughter is away this weekend at the Baltimore Comic Con (appearing with Finn Jones (Danny Rand in Iron Fist)).

On A Name Among The Stars – I’m going to try and promote it more without actually working on promoting – so I’ve put a teaser as a guest blog on Louise Wise’s site, and I will be serialising it on Wattpad, a site that is set up for serial novels.

Louise’s blog is at https://louisewise.blogspot.co.uk/2017/09/a-disgraced-aristorcrat-distant-planets.html
Wattpad is at https://www.wattpad.com/

To put it on Wattpad, I first need a book cover, so I’ve engaged an artist to produce some original artwork. I hope you’ll like it. I will update Facebook when I have sketches, and when the final is ready, I’ll use it as the main image on this site.

So what’s happening in the story?

Zara’s getting cold feet. She’s so scared of opening up to Duke Tremayne, she’d prefer to face the extradition courts! But there’s another path that might be taken…an off-world job offer… gift horse or golden opportunity?

I often though I would end up writing Science Fiction back when I worked for a living (as opposed to what I do now). Thinking that, I spent time dreaming up cultures and technology of that future world. I dropped some sub-cultures in this episode, just in passing. (They’re not really significant to the story, except to what’s going on in Zara’s head)

‘Deadheads’ are explained in the text, but what do you think are the other sub-cultures mentioned are:

Augs and Modders
Virts and Chemmies
Jackers and Deadheads
Skins, Roids and Erobots

Answers in comments 🙂 Prizes!

+++++++++++++++

Chapter 39

 

“Talan.”

I shake her gently.

“Mmmph. Wha’? Wassa time?”

“Ahhh. 5:20. Sorry. I have really urgent information for the Duke.”

Her eyes come open with a snap.

I’m still in my uniform. I haven’t been to bed, and it probably looks that way.

She sits up in a rush. “Really urgent?”

“Yes. I need you to escort me there.”

Strictly speaking. She’s supposed to be my protection detail after all. But we’re in the fort, and the protection I need is from my own stupidity when I see him again. The thought of Talan watching may keep me from repeating last night’s mistake.

But that kiss…

Shut up.

Ten minutes later, we’re at the entrance to the Duke’s quarters. It takes another five to persuade the guards who are now posted there to let us through.

Every minute of which I spend wishing I’d just sent him the files as a message and asked Talan to wake him.

We wait in the sitting room, and the Duke joins us in a robe.

He’s frowning. His eyes are puffy and his hair is tousled.

I squash all the fantasies that try to come surging back at the sight of him. I’ve connected my InfoPad with his entertainment screens and I’m ready to be all business. I concentrate on the pad, setting up the files as Shohwa-nia sequenced them for me.

“Good morning, sir. I apologize for the early hour, but I believed you’d want to see these as soon as I became aware of them.”

“I trust your judgment, Zara,” he says quietly. “Go on.”

Ignoring the thrill of hearing him say my name, I start with the encrypted interviews.

“These are the files from the mediacam. They’re just interviews, but the importance is who is being interviewed and how they connect to each other. Here’s a brief excerpt of an interview.”

I open one file. It’s a Kensan politician. The interviewer, Gabby McGuire, feeds him an easy question and he responds. He’s good. He talks to the camera. He has that knack of engaging with people who aren’t there. His voice is mellow and it makes you want to trust him.

I cut the playback short, and pull his message file to the front.

“Here is an extract of private messages on a secured link between that politician and others in the interview group.”

It isn’t really necessary for me to say anything. As the message file opens and I scroll through slowly, it’s immediately obvious that the amiable politician you see on the interview is a front for the most vicious of the conspirators.

The contrast is shocking, even for me on the second viewing.

I stand up and relinquish control of the pad to the Duke, keeping my summary as formal as I can.

“On the left are the interview files and each one has a corresponding message file attached, where those messages were exchanged with other members of the interview group. Those are on the right. Where there are people who have a lot of message traffic, but no interview, they have a seperate message file appended. Some of those contacted are off-world. There is some duplication between files, but there appear to be in excess of one hundred thousand individual messages exchanged regarding a movement which intends to take over a dozen worlds and create a new federation.”

Silence from the Duke as he picks out individuals and follows the trail to their treasonous conversations.

“Him!” murmurs Talan, surprised at one.

“How?” The Duke cuts to the one question. “How have you accessed all this?”

“The friend I have who has the processing power available to crack the encryption on the interviews decided to investigate further and just kept going,” I say. “All these messages are kept isolated from the InfoHub, but the secured servers they are stored on are accessible from the InfoHub, using the InfoHub’s protocols. I can’t claim to understand exactly how.”

His eyes sharpen. I know he wants to ask about Shohwa-nia, but he keeps focused on the value of the information.

“Where are those servers?”

“All on Kensa.”

Talan hisses in frustration.

“Are they aware of the breach?” His questions are sharp.

“My conversation with my friend was interrupted, but at the best, we should assume at least someone in the conspiracy knowns that some files were taken,” I reply. Shohwa-nia is good, but she can’t be perfect. “If I get any updates on that, I’ll let you know immediately.”

“Wiser to proceed on that basis.” The Duke pinches the bridge of his nose in thought. “Which leads to the problem that this will precipitate action on their part. We’re not ready.”

“Neither are they,” I point out.

He snorts. “There is that.”

I edge toward the door. He should be concentrating on the importance of this data and I should be concentrating on something else, somewhere else. Preparing a lesson for Rhoswyn. Ironing my shirts. Whatever.

“Zara.”

I stop, wanting to be gone. Wanting to be ordered back, too.

“Thank you,” he says.

 

Chapter 40

 

He moves fast. By the time we’ve finished breakfast, there’s already a buzz throughout the fort. Guards are more visible, and the ones on the gate are now wearing helmets and carrying pulsar rifles.

The Welarvon Mounted Police suddenly look a lot less like an amiable, rural police force and more like a military unit. Sleepy Murenys is waking up.

Rhoswyn’s lessons are cancelled. Instead, Hanna and I are called into a meeting with Gaude and Pollard, the Duke’s estate manager and security consultant.

It’s like I spat in their breakfast juice; they are not happy with me. Every single scheduled operation of the whole police force has been torn up this morning. The Duke has taken his plane and is flying to all corners of Murenys to personally deliver copies of Shohwa-nia’s data to every supporter and potential supporter.

Which means his protection detail comprises Moyle, and another couple of troopers. That worries me.

But they’re more concerned what’s coming back in orders. Every leader that the Duke signs up is allocated a squad of troopers to protect them, on the basis that they’re all making themselves targets for attack by the conspirators.

That’s a lot of disruption. Plans changed, leaves cancelled, troopers recalled, trucks and fuel requisitioned, food and ammunition loaded, comms protocols established, even expense accounts made available.

And everything, everything’s my fault.

Neither of them liked me from the beginning. It seems Gaude has never quite recovered from my saving Lord Roscarrow’s life when he wanted to send me packing. For Pollard, well, Talan taking my side against him when he caught me sneaking back into the fort upset him, and today I’ve completely sidelined him in his security role. If I’d been a tactful person, I would have taken my data to him this morning and let him present it to the Duke.

Trouble is, I’m not entirely sure he would have believed me or acted on it.

And even though Hanna started off as their blue-eyed girl, I can see her stock has fallen, probably because of her association with me.

“It would have been no little advantage for the Mounted Police to have invested in a fleet of skimmers,” she comments, on hearing the plans.

She’s right. Atmospheric skimmers are big, ugly and noisy, but they’re very fast and much easier to fly than aircraft. They can also land vertically in small, unprepared spaces. The Duke, for example, could have cut his task to a fifth of what he’ll have to do. Instead of landing at airfields and requisitioning transport to get to isolated communities, he could have just landed on their roads or fields.

Despite that well-made point, Pollard sneers at her, and even Gaude’s pompous reply sounds condescending: “The people of Murenys, like many of the final drive of the Second Expansion, strove to escape the quicksand that technology had become on the older worlds. They put up with near invisible technology that has clear benefits like the InfoHub and comms and positioning systems. They’ll even compromise on technology like the Skyhook because that frees them from worse intrusions like freight lifters. But skimmers are the wrong side of the line.”

He has a point. The last of the Inner Worlds to be settled, and much of the Margin, are against technology for its own sake. There are nightmare planets, where everything is manufactured, even the breathable air, and their swollen populations have descended into strange and frightening sub-cultures. It’s difficult to seperate the reports from the sensationalism, but people in the Margin shudder at the bizarre stories that trickle in, of Augs and Modders, Virts and Chemmies, Jackers and Deadheads, Skins, Roids and Erobots.

A skimmer is simply an atmospheric implementation of the same thrusters and acceleration compensators built into most larger spaceships. It’s a long way from that to the scenario where youths will hunt out black market operators to have electronic connectors inserted into their brains, for instance, but it does seem that where the potentials of technology outpace assimilation, it creates a vicious downward spiral, like a sun caught in the field of a black hole.

The people of Amethys have drawn their line at skimmers, but that’s their line to draw.

Which makes me wonder how they would react to knowing who captains the Shohwa, or finding out that Shohwa-nia is living on their InfoHub.

And where is Shohwa? What’s she doing? How much danger is Shohwa-nia in?

“Miss Aguirre?”

I jump.

“Sorry. Thinking of something else.”

“I was saying that we’ve made arrangements with the Kensa court officials for your preliminary hearing and you’ll need to prepare,” Pollard says.

“Oh.”

He sighs. “We have agreed with them to hold the hearing during the Festival of Flight. I strongly disagree with the message that this is sending.”

I blink again. I must have actually fallen asleep and missed half a conversation. The Festival is only a few days away.

Pollard starts again, talking slowly as if I were stupid. “The Duke has decided on a show of support for you, to express his dislike of the political situation on Amethys and its use of the judiciary. He has decided he will be attending the Festival of Flight and competing in the gliding aerobatics competition. He has also decided he will be taking an unprecedented entourage of one hundred members of the Welarvon Mounted Police. Agreeing a date during the Festival for your hearing means we will all travel together, sending a message to the Kensan judiciary and administration. Personally, I believe this is an inflammatory gesture and a mistake.”

Gaude shrugs. “It’s decided. We have to plan it. We go in two days.”

And so it turns out, not even going to Kensa is going to get me away from the Duke.

 

With lessons cancelled and leaving the fort discouraged, I’d have fallen asleep if I sat down. Instead, I spend the remainder of the morning in the dojo.

Then I make lunch for Hanna, which we eat in the Duke’s storm porch, looking down over the endless blue of sea and sky.

She’s quiet. And under that carefully neutral expression, she looks more unhappy to me.

“It’ll be like a paid holiday,” I say; a clumsy attempt to cheer her up.

“I beg your pardon?”

“The trip to Kensa. I guess Rhos will do doing some studying, but most of the time should be watching the airshows.”

“I’m not going,” she replies. Her voice is uninflected.

“Oh. I guess I dozed while Gaude was talking – I missed that part.”

“The Duke has decided I need a rest.” She goes on, almost as if she’s talking to herself. “I barely see him except for one dance—one half of one dance—and now he will be away for another couple of weeks.”

In the bright light of the porch, I can see her face so clearly. The pallor of her skin, the tiny lines at the corners of the eyes, the bruised look from poor sleep. I wonder how much of that is due to the disturbance caused by my screaming nightmares and how much is due to her own nightmares, whatever they may be.

She does look even more tired than I do.

On the other hand, I hope I look half that good in ten years time.

She laughs—a short, sharp sound. “Here I am, rambling incoherently. What better proof is needed that I should rest? Let’s talk about Rhoswyn’s progress.”

Meals finished and plates put aside, we talk about what Rhoswyn might need as opposed to what qualifications the Amethys education system requires, and how well she’s progressing. The porch has huge sofas and I make sure Hanna is lying comfortably on one of them.

Gradually, her eyelids droop.

Nearly asleep, she murmurs “You must look after her. Promise me.”

I don’t reply.

As if I’ll be around. I’d love to look after Rhoswyn. She’s like a daughter to me, but fate’s against us.

I tip-toe out to make a call to Warwick; to talk about the tides that have puzzled Shohwa-nia and me.

 

“Only tides I know about are brown and foamy, lass. I pump ’em up from the cellar.”

“I didn’t think you’d be an expert, Warwick, but you know the sailors. Who’s the best to talk to?”

“Well, it’d be one of the skippers, probably.”

“Is there someone in the bar today? Someone I could talk to now?”

“Not today. You’d have to come down of an evening and buy a round or two.”

I get the feeling he’s being evasive, but I can hardly force him to tell me.

“I might, but I think you just want to sell me more beer.”

“And I might at that, being as it’s what I do.”

We banter on a bit before he has to get back to his customers.

I close the call and think what I might be able to do in my failing investigation before I leave for Kensa. Not a lot. Of course, I could re-start if I returned, but I just don’t think that’s realistic. Either I will be extradited, or I’ll run away. They won’t just let me go. I can’t even decide if I want to return to Cardu. There’s a peculiar bubbly sensation at the thought of somehow defeating the extradition appeal and coming back to the estate, and its owner, but it’s mixed with other sensations that feel like fear.

I’m frustrated that I can’t think clearly.

Hormones and sleep deprivation.

And old nightmares, stirred up by Gaude’s talk earlier; threatening to return and join my new ones.

Deadheads were a particular horrific fascination for me as a teenager. The technology that allows an electronic interface to be made directly into the human brain enables many useful things, like people remotely controlling robots in hostile locations where judgment, precision and sensory feedback is required. But those interfaces also allow the direction of control to be reversed. There are people who hire out their bodies to perform whatever acts with whatever emotions are programmed into them through their interfaces. They are conscious, but unable to do anything other than follow the instructions.

That’s the heart of my nightmare: that helplessness.

That’s why thoughts of the Duchess’ last hours are giving me nightmares, even if her helplessness was chemically induced rather than electronically. That she should lie there, unable to move, probably aware that she was being murdered, probably knowing who was doing it, and be utterly unable to prevent it. No wonder I’m having nightmares about it.

I shudder and then force it out of my mind. I need to restart my brain; to plan instead of just reacting, and I can’t limit my options based on nightmares.

My pad has been returned. I open my message box. There’s nothing from Shohwa-nia, so I open the employment broker’s job offer notification I saw previously, and read it.

A ‘security consultant’ with a good salary for a company based on a ship called Yenobia, registered to the Inner World of Aurelius. Scheduled to be heading out in the next week.

Tell me more, I message them.

 

Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 18

No! Zara! Don’t do it!

Sigh. They never listen to me, these characters!

Episode 18, and the heat is rising.

Feedback folks. Some of you suspect I change the story if you guess what’s going on. A vile slander! Anyway, it’s too late to change things now, we’re on the final plummet.

+++++++++

Chapter 37

 

“You can’t fight a legal case for me. It’ll damage your image just when you can’t afford it.”

The news has just been released, and the Duke has received official notification through the police headquarters at the same time.

He’s in all-out attack mode. There are a few Kensan politicians attending the ball. He wants to bring them in, right now, and lecture them about what’s going on.

I’m against it. Too much chance of going badly wrong.

Whatever the Duke says, the main impression these politicians will have of me is what they see in the media report. Fighting a Kensan media team. Being charged by Newyan with fraud, corruption, forgery and illegal emigration.

By implication, that would also mean illegal immigration into Amethys. Automatic expulsion.

The true facts of the case might come later, but later will be too late.

The Duke is struggling with this. He sees the argument, but I guess he’s too caught up.

His jaw works. “I can’t let you go up against them alone. It’d be letting you down. And it’s the principle, for the whole of the planet.”

“It’d be doing your duty, which is to Cardu, then Welarvon, then Murenys and then the whole of Amethys. Take it a step at a time, or it all fails.”

“It feels wrong.” He starts pacing, realizes it and stops at his drink cabinet.

He pours each of us a glass of wine, brings it across.

In a way, this development is all a strange relief to me: I don’t have to face up to how stupid I’ve been acting here. I don’t have to come up with an excuse to leave. To get away.

I have to go to Kensa. End of story.

I just need to clamp down on the part of me that wants to fall into his arms like some wilting flower and let him take care of it all. Bad for him. Disaster for me.

Offer no weakness; suffer no wound.

“We need to get back to the ball,” I say. “You have guests, and they have tongues.”

I know exactly what they’ll be saying about me.

“I don’t care what they say about me,” he says. Typical man.

“You should. Your reputation is a major weapon in recruiting people to your side. Even malicious personal gossip can damage that.”

He seems to barely hear me. “I care what they say about you.”

So much for being a typical man.

It would be safer if he were self-absorbed. No. What he must mean is that he cares about what they say about me because it reflects on him.

“Then we should be back at the ball, sir.”

I finish the wine and return the glass to the tray on the cabinet.

He’s still frowning at his wine. “I care,” he says again. “I…”

“You need to be out there, talking to your guests, getting people on your side. I need to go to Kensa, when the court summons me. Up until that time, I will carry out my duties. I will search for the person who murdered your wife. I will search for whoever is the leak in Cardu. I will do my best to get my friend to provide an unencrypted copy of whatever was on that mediacam. Those are the things what we need to focus on.”

Despite the fact that I’m stalled on the Duchess’ murder, have barely started on who might be the leak and I’m relying on a bored AI to crack the media files.

“And you’ll just go to Kensa when they call,” he says, angrily. “It doesn’t matter to you—”

“Yes, I will go when they call. I have no choice and you can’t be seen to be breaking the law on my behalf. Not even bending the law. And you really can’t be seen to be aiding me in breaking or bending the law.”

He grunts, and he continues to frown. I’m not getting through to him.

This is a simple thing. Why can’t he understand?

“And when they order your deportation?” he says. “They will, you know.”

“Then I won’t be a problem for you any more.”

“That’s not—”

I interrupt him again, because it seems we’re getting back to our usual way of talking to each other—a stand up argument.

“Look, I came here to be a Dancing Mistress, and it hasn’t worked out,” I say. The plain and painful truth: I’m not good enough. “It’s not your fault. You don’t owe me anything.”

“That’s not the reality of the situation at all!”

“Isn’t it? Am I going to be hired as a Dancing Mistress? Am I?”

“No! You are not going to be hired for anything, but—”

“Then I believe I have no requirement to remain tactful in what I say, Duke Tremayne.” Words are spilling from me and it’s too late to stop them. “Your political problems need your attention now. Then, when you have time to turn to your family problems, what your daughter needs above all is to know her father loves her. You could try telling her that, and showing her. And second to that, Rhoswyn needs someone to take the role of her mother.”

An absolute silence falls, like the aftermath of an explosion. My heart is pounding at what I’ve done, what I’ve said. So close to what I wanted to say. So far away.

The Duke stares at me with those eyes. His voice is like gravel. “Is that a proposal, Miss Aguirre?”

“No!” This feels like I’m slicing my chest open. “I mean someone who’ll make a good Duchess. Someone who suits you better. Hanna. Or Lady Roscarrow.”

I know I’m right. I know I’m giving him advice he should heed. A proposal? I’m no Duchess. I’m not even a Name any more. I’m a penniless wanderer. I’m no good.

I can’t look at him. I can’t even be in this room.

I run and pull open the door, but I only make it into the corridor.

It’s all hazy.

Talan looking up. Her mouth in a perfect O of surprise.

A hand on my arm, spinning me around.

Catching me.

No, this can’t be right.

This is not a kiss. I know. A kiss is an awkward, tooth-bumping ordeal. To be endured for the sake of curiosity. And stopped quickly.

This can’t be a kiss.

This is my heart and soul leaving me.

There’s liquid fire on my lips, spreading down my body, burning everything in its path.

At the last moment, some fragment of my senses saves me. Or perhaps it’s that we’re right in front of Talan, who stands there, still frozen in shock.

“No!”

I push him away and run.

“Miss Ag…” he stops with a swallowed curse, and tries calling again. “Zara! Wait!”

 

I have nowhere to hide.

There is nowhere you can hide from yourself.

The longer I stay here, the worse it will be. My heart is aching already, but the rest of my body is trembling with the aftershocks of desire.

How did I let myself get into such a mess?

He’s a Duke. He has responsibilities to his Name and his family. He can’t take up with some adventurer blown in on the winds of chance. And I won’t be a mistress to be kept and disposed of, however much I want him now.

If I did that, how could I look Rhoswyn in the eye? What would my example be to her?

I love that girl too much to do that.

My tears of self pity disgust me.

Talan comes in quietly and sits opposite.

She’s not laughing. Perhaps she should be.

“I’m not under arrest any more,” I say, proud that my voice doesn’t wobble. “You don’t have to follow me around.”

“The first part’s true. The second part, not so much.”

“What? Why?”

“The Duke’s charged me with keeping you safe. He ordered standard protection details on you and Hanna. Double on Rhoswyn since the media broke in.”

“How kind of him.”

“Zara…”

I raise my hand and she stops. I can’t talk about it now.

She accepts the veto on the subject for now, but it doesn’t silence her. “Well then. I’m hungry,” she says. “Can’t we go and eat?”

I’m not hungry, but Talan has to shadow me, and I shouldn’t keep her away from her food. At least our seats are well away from the top table. Too far even to get a glimpse of him.

The servers are almost ready to clear the first course when we arrive at the tables, so we’re very noticeable.

I see the eyes, and the tongues are wagging before we’ve sat down.

It’s a trickle of amusement in a dark day for me, but I think we’ve accidentally saved the Duke’s reputation. After seeing Talan and I dancing, then disappearing and reappearing together, I’m sure the gossip is all about us.

 

Chapter 38

 

Next morning, early, I find my search request for information on Hanna Esterhauze has failed.

The code indicates that the ‘failure’ occurred in the Tavoli InfoHub system. It’s not an enquiry failure, it’s what’s called a Red10. The number is the level of action taken and Red stands for redacted. An overseer program on the Tavoli InfoHub decided I didn’t need to see the data my search found and erased it all.

I can’t think of any innocent reason, but there’s nothing I can do about it. A request for clarification will take even longer than the original enquiry. I’ll be in Kensa soon.

I sigh. I should report it dutifully before I leave, along with anything else I have. But Talan’s comment last night is like a barb in my skin. From Talan’s point of view, the way Hanna’s behaving is no more or less suspicious than mine. Hanna is clearly and completely dedicated to Rhoswyn. My suspicions about her make me feel unclean somehow.

I shake my head and turn to the next item in my inbox. It’s a message from Shohwa-nia about the encrypted files on the mediacam.

She’s monitoring my access to the Xian delegation’s servers, so she knows when I look at her message, and the screen splits to show a generated image of her next to my inbox.

“Hello, Zara.”

“Hi.”

“Something’s wrong,” she says immediately. Her image peers at me.

“It’s nothing.” Liar. “What did you find on the mediacam files?”

“Everything.” She looks pleased with herself.

“It’s a bit early for puzzles.”

Early? It’s 4am.

“Okay. That mediacam operator is a permanent member of the reporter’s team—that woman Gabby McGuire. Those encrypted files are his backups of interviews she’s been doing.”

“Why encrypt them then, if they’re just interviews?”

“It’s who she interviewed, and why.” Shohwa-nia points at her message, and the files resort themselves on the screen, each one with a title and a thumbnail image alongside.

“That’s practically a directory of people involved in the Amethys conspiracy. They’re part of an association of several planets, including Newyan. They intend to take over those planets and form a new federation. They don’t care how the transfer of power is affected.”

My mouth has fallen open, but it gets back into gear. “They say that in interviews?”

“No.” Shohwa-nia shrugs. “The interviews are just promotional to make them look like they’re all reputable politicians, administrators and business people.”

“Then how—”

“I infiltrated their secured servers and accessed their secret communications.”

A new files appear on my screen. Each of them appears to be a log of messages between the people interviewed, and the text of those messages.

“There must be thousands of messages,” I say.

“Hundreds of thousands. It’s a complex business, plotting a coup.”

“And it’s absolutely clear what they’re talking about?”

In answer, one of the files unfolds itself into a sub-window and starts scrolling through. Lines flick past, just at a pace I can pick out specific parts. The conversation is about the extent to which the police and courts are coming under the control of the conspiracy, and a timeline for eliminating those who are assessed as not recruitable. Chillingly, it talks of people who have been approached and not recruited. They are referred to as having been ‘secured’.

The messages imply that the judicial system is proving much more difficult to subvert than the political and business structures. One of the correspondents is saying they need at least another two or three years. Another replies that their schedule is dictated by the speed with which other planets are moving, and that an actual armed coup may be necessary.

“I have to get this to the Duke,” I say.

“There’s a problem,” she says. “These messages aren’t lying around on servers openly connected to the InfoHub. I managed to get in, but there’s no way of the Duke proving they exist, other than by physically seizing the networks of the organisations involved. Or using my route in.”

Telling anyone on Amethys that there’s an unsupervised Xian AI connected to their InfoHub is not an option.

“And none of the networks is physically based on Murenys,” she concludes. “They’re all on Kensa. So seizing them will be that bit more difficult. I’m sorry. It’s very useful to your Duke, but it’s not proof he could broadcast.”

“Not my Duke,” I say, tugging at my lip and frowning while I think this through.

“Are we friends, Zara?”

I blink. “Yes.”

“It’s my understanding that friends talk to each other about what’s concerning them. Something is wrong, but you claim it’s nothing. Is it only human friends that you talk to about your problems?”

That stings, enough that my response is sharper than it should be: “I don’t know. I never had a friend who was an AI before.”

“If by that you mean Articifial Intelligence, I don’t like the term. ‘Artificial’ suggests humans made me. We generally prefer to be called SAI – self-actualized intelligences. Xian computer scientists created the enviroment and we evolved from it.”

“I’ll try to remember.”

She doesn’t escalate the argument; she waits, the bright-eyed image on the screen looking expectantly at me.

“Nothing is going right,” I say, gritting my teeth at how whiny that sounds. “I’m the second best Dancing Mistress here at Cardu, and everyone knows it. Out of pity more than anything else, I’ve been given some tasks. I’m teaching Rhoswyn gliding and estate management mainly, but I think she knows more about Cardu than I do already, and the only thing she’s missing on the gliding is hours of experience. I’m also pretending to be an investigator, looking into the possible murder of the last Duchess, and trying to find who at Cardu might be in the pay of the conspirators.”

“That’s an interesting mix of jobs,” Shohwa-nia says. “Quite fun.”

I glare at her. “I’m not getting anywhere. I can’t see how the facts line up and I’m obviously not thinking clearly—I can’t stop being suspicious of colleagues who I’m sure have nothing to do with the conspiracy.”

Which of course isn’t the only reason I’m not thinking clearly.

“It sounds as if all that needs is more time.”

“I don’t have time. Newyan’s raised extradition proceedings. I’m either going to be deported, or I’m going to go on the run while I have the chance.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” When I don’t go on, she prompts me again: “And…”

She may not have quite the scary processing power of her mother in the ship, but Shohwa-nia is formidable just as she is. She knows there’s more.

“And I’ve fallen in love with the Duke.” I say. The words sort of tumble out.

“Oh! Congratulations,” she says.

“It’s not something to congratulate me about! It’s the stupidest thing I could have done.”

“Why? Are your feelings not returned?”

That kiss! My lips are still burning.

“That’s not the point.”

“I see. The feelings are returned. It’s my understanding that is exactly the point.”

“You don’t understand,” I say, “and you should. You don’t have all the hormones and emotions to get in the way. Look at it logically, like a damn computer. He’s the foremost Name among the Founders, a Duke. I’m nothing.”

“I’m not a damn computer and you are a Name, foremost among the Founders of Newyan.”

“No. That’s history. Whatever happens here, Newyan is a lost cause. He’s got to think of the Cardu estate and alliances with other Names, so he’s not as exposed as he is at the moment.”

“Really? I think this must be what’s called ‘human emotional intelligence’, which may be human and emotional, but it’s definitely not intelligent.”

I’m actually moving my hand to cut the connection when she speaks again.

“Talk to me about the murder,” she says quickly. “Maybe there’s some logic this damn computer can apply, and I need to keep occupied.”

So I go back through the case—the position of the Low Lady, no boats nearby on the way out and no tracking signals detected, no way someone sneaking around on a Delphine could find the boat. The lack of forensic evidence in the cabin, the way she was murdered.

A lot of that she knows already, since it was Shohwa-nia who got me the court files.

I add in the detail of the family wine, the poisonous extract from bale fruit and my observations from actually seeing the Low Lady.

“So the most likely theory is that someone hid on the boat until the Duchess became disoriented or unconscious from the contaminated wine. Then they emerged to complete her murder over the course of the afternoon, got their hidden Delphine out and headed back for shore. Assuming the Delphine’s charge was insufficient to make it the whole way, we would need one other person to pick them up in the water to complete this scenario.”

“The storage area under the cabin floor is the only space large enough, and with the cabin table down, as it normally is, someone in there couldn’t have got out without damaging the cabin.”

“They used that space to hide the Delphine.”

“So where did they hide themselves?”

“Under the steps,” Shohwa-nia says. “You’re looking for a small assassin. An adolescent perhaps? Unless there’s something more…”

I shake my head. “There’s another puzzle, but I can’t see how it’s relevant.”

“What?”

“Where the Duchess’ body was found. A day later, a creeler found it in a bay on the coast.”

Shohwa-nia blinks. “I see. I missed the relevance of that detail. How embarassing. That was why there were all those tide and current charts in the court files.”

“Yes. The currents can run up to 5 knots, which is about fast enough, but the directions are all wrong. I can’t see any way her body could have ended up where it did.”

I can see the slight hesitation as Shohwa-nia diverts processing power to analysing predicted coastal water movements on the date of the Duchess’ death.

“Yes,” she says. “Unless the murderer dragged it away from the boat to delay it being found.”

“Why drag it all the way to the coast? And slow down your own escape? And reduce the range of your Delphine even more?”

“Good points. I’ll think about it,” Shohwa-nia says. “Why don’t you talk to the people in Stormhaven. They may know about temporary changes in coastal water flow which could explain it—due to the long-distance effect of a storm for instance.”

I don’t know how long I’ll have before I’m expected in Kensa, but I guess I could put in a call to Warwick and ask him. Maybe go down to the Spyglass one evening.

I nod and go on to tell her about trying to find the spy in Cardu. That really has gone nowhere. There are no calls that have been traced going out and nothing suspicious in the flow of messages across the InfoHub from the fort.

“I’ll look into that, too,” she says. “What about your colleagues? You said you were suspicious.”

“Of one mainly. The other Dancing Mistress. The real one.” I sigh. Every time I come to this I feel worse about it and it makes less sense. “Maybe it’s just jealousy.”

“Tell me,” she orders.

I tell her about Hanna’s mysterious visit to the Shrine and the way she disguises how proficient she is in martial arts.

“And…” As she has done throughout the conversation, Shohwa-nia prompts me as I slow down.

“Well, when the pair of us were on our way here, the contract had already been cancelled and the broker was just ignoring any messages about it. That’s why I had to walk along the Coast Path without even knowing who my prospective employer was—the broker wouldn’t respond to me.”

“So?”

“Hanna knew exactly where she was going. She even messaged Gaude that she was on her way. Where did she get the contact information? And there was another thing: when she rescued Rhoswyn, she pretended she didn’t know who it was. I am absolutely certain she knew. Can’t prove that, of course.”

“Hmm.” Shohwa-nia projects a thoughtful but not wholely convinced sound. “There is one little peculiarity. The ship that brought her here is unusual. It’s still in orbit…and…”

Her voice hesitates, then cuts off and her image freezes.

That side of the screen clears abruptly, and I’m looking at my normal message box with the slew of files about the conspirators.

There’s one new message. A terse one: “Can’t talk now. They’re searching the InfoHub for me again.”

 

Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 17

And BOOM… is the sound of chickens coming home to roost for Zara.

This week’s episode is here. I’m still not as far advanced as I want to be! Nevertheless, dig in and tell me your thoughts.

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Chapter 35

 

“Stand still.”

Talan huffs and tugs at my jacket again.

‘My’ jacket—if I’d known where I’d end up now, maybe I’d have picked a different uniform that first day at Cardu, and not the disbanded Welarvon Naval Reserve. There’s no time for regrets. I stiffen my stance and bite down on any comments about her fussing with my appearance. I’m well aware that you only get one chance to make a first impression, and I’m about to meet some powerful people.

The uniform was originally designed for an adolescent male. Talan, Hanna and I have worked on it. I think it looks fine.

In addition to worrying over whether I’m smart enough, Talan is ‘entertaining’ me by giving me a list of everything that’s hit the fan since the media tried to get into the warehouse.

“Three broken noses, associated medical bills and compensation claims from the media company to cover loss of employment during their recuperation time.”

“I wasn’t responsible for a single one of those—”

“That comes to 5,000 dynare, so far. Then there are two more serious injuries: both Ms Gabby McGuire and Mr Derek Hartsfelt were hospitalized with concussion.”

“That wasn’t me either.”

I’m less sure about that. It got wild when the police arrived. I may have hit someone in self-defence. Or something.

“Then there’s 15,000 dynare for the optics on the mediacam.”

I glower at her, but I can’t deny that one.

“And compensation claims for loss of use of the equipment at 1,000 dynare a day.”

“Ridiculous. Shouldn’t have been there.”

“Lawsuits against wrongful imprisonment on the entire team.”

I just snort. I didn’t lock them up—Talan did. Besides, they were trespassing and causing criminal damage, and no court in Murenys will allow their counter-claims. Which is probably why all their claims are being made in the Kensa courts. By tradition, but not legislation, the Kensa courts are the superior court, mainly because they tend to deal with legal situations affecting the whole of Amethys.

“And a seperate lawsuit,” Talan says, “threatening a million dynare in damages, for the return of the footage from the mediacam.”

I put on my innocent face. She knows very well where that memory unit went—straight to the Duke.

Even that list isn’t all the outrageous legal attempts being made against us. Us—the Duke, the Welarvon Mounted Police, the Cardu estate and me. They’ve tried to issue a summons for all the security camera footage to be turned over.

The reaction from the Duke has been very deliberate and a little excessive in my opinion.

He organised a hearing at Cardu where all charges arising from the flight to take Lord Roscarrow to Biscome Hospital were summarily dismissed. A senior Central District judge had to be flown to and from his remote holiday cottage in the north for the session. A few murmurs were made about abuse of privilege, but the Duke’s efforts at building support have been effective and the complainers subsided quickly.

The newly established Murenys media companies broadcast scathing attacks on the Kensa media – their ownership, bias, tactics and arrogant disregard of law. This found fertile ground, certainly in Murenys. With the Duke away, I’d cornered Gaude and warned against increasing any appearance of this being Murenys against Kensa. Whether Gaude did anything based on my advice or not, I did see the language of the broadcasts change slightly.

And, the day before the ball, when I’d been considering just not attending, Talan had given me two small items of information. First, that uniforms were acceptable wear for the ball. Second that a provisional new arm of the Welarvon Mounted Police had been formed—the Air Corps. The dress uniform of this division, for reasons of convenience, had taken the disbanded Naval Reserve uniform as a model.

Which was why I was waiting for the Summer Ball to begin, dressed as the lonely cadet of the Welarvon Mounted Police Air Corps (Provisional).

All very amusing for the Duke to thumb his nose at his enemies, but really, all he had achieved was to bring the spotlight back on me. Not good for me, and by association, not good for him, either.

So, all in all, I’ve decided to continue searching for other jobs to fall back on. My details are logged on a half dozen employment broking sites.

Talan is finally satisfied that my jacket is hanging just so, and not a moment too soon: the guests are arriving.

I have a duty to welcome them.

It’s a peculiar sensation.

Talan and I are standing side by side. She’s also in uniform, and having been alerted to her rank when we were at the warehouse, I spot the tiny little gold bar on her dark green collar. Not big on insignia, the Welarvon Mounted Police.

But the guests pay little or no attention to anyone in uniform unless it has a lot of gold braid. We’re nearly invisible and inaudible, even as we are shaking people’s hands.

I’m nearly at the point of introducing myself as a serial killer on the hunt for a new victim when the Duke arrives. He doesn’t plunge straight into the throng, despite his guests’ obvious wishes on the matter. Instead, he works his way through the welcoming committee first, shaking hands, thanking us and telling us to enjoy the ball.

It’s the first time I’ve seen him since our wine-tasting, and my reactions haven’t lessened.

I’m not getting over this ridiculous crush. Which means I’ll have to leave, and the sooner the better.

Then he’s right there in front of me. His hand is held out and I need a nudge from Talan to get my brain started.

His hand is very warm. I’m just about alert enough to close my fist over the small object he’s palmed to me.

“That’s a copy of the mediacam memory unit,” he murmurs, not loud enough to carry.

“Oh! Is it interesting?” Why is he giving this to me?

“It’s very interesting,” he says. “But I suspect the most interesting bits are the encrypted video. Quite strong encryption. We haven’t been able to break it.”

He’s looking expectantly at me.

Oh.

I slip the copy into my pocket.

“I may know someone…”

“Excellent,” he says loudly as if we’d just exchanged pleasantries, and shakes my hand again. “Thought so!”

And he moves on.

“I need to go back to the apartment,” I mutter to Talan.

“Ease up, it gets better.”

“No, I mean just for a short while.”

She raises one eyebrow, but we leave the welcoming committee and trot back to our rooms.

I smile apologetically when I power up the InfoPad and sit where she can’t look over my shoulder.

She sees me plug the memory unit in and I get both eyebrows raised this time. But she leaves me to it.

I log onto the Xian delegation’s site, upload the files and message Shohwa-nia.

She’s not always ‘in’. Of course, she’s always there—she’s resident on the delegation’s servers, but occasionally, she doesn’t talk to me. Tonight, when I need to get back to the ball, she appears immediately. Nothing flashy—just an generated image of her face.

“Hello, Zara. That’s an interesting set of files.”

I have the sound turned down. I can talk quicker than I can type, but Shohwa-nia doesn’t want anyone else to know about her, if possible, and Talan might overhear.

I type an explanation of the files.

Good, she messages back. I need something to do, and scanning the InfoHub is becoming very dangerous. There are trackers who are looking for me.

“Is there really nothing else for you to do?” I type.

Nothing that holds my attention. And it’s not a good idea for intelligences of my kind to become bored.

“I have to return to the ball.”

The image smiles. Enjoy yourself. Be sure to check later and read my messages to you.

I’m about to log off the pad when I see there’s also a message from one of the employment brokers. It’s about a job. I scan the outline. Consultant. Top line salary. Food and accommodation. Travel.

It’s a very good offer. Too good to be true.

At the moment, I’m too suspicious to take anything that good.

I mean, who would offer me something really worthwhile? There has to be a catch.

I close the connection and let Talan drag me back to the ball.

 

Chapter 36

 

Talan and I join Hanna just in time to see Rhoswyn and a group of young ladies make their entrance, splendid in their ball gowns and some of them positively glowing with excitement.

I barely recognize Rhoswyn, who’s exercising her solemn face, but then she turns to give Hanna and me a brilliant smile.

“That’s the young Tremayne girl, isn’t it?” the woman beside me comments. “Looks like she knows you. Are you family?”

I check my memory to identify her. “No, Lady Polkynhorn. I’m one of her Dancing Mistresses.”

“Oh.”

I hadn’t thought about what I was saying. I was concentrating on Rhoswyn, and even feeling a little proud of her, despite her good behavior being more down to Hanna than me.

The flat sound of that oh brings me back down to earth and Lady Polkynhorn edges away as if I were contagious.

Hanna squeezes my hand in sympathy.

She is gorgeous tonight, too. Her ball gown is spectacular, and she and Rhoswyn spent the afternoon doing each other’s hair, with dramatic results.

Here I am day-dreaming about being in love with the Duke, and this is my competition for his attention. She’s closer to the Duke’s age. She’s accomplished and beautiful. She looks as if she might be a duchess. I look like a cadet in the Mounted Police.

At least tonight I haven’t got bale brandy spilled all over me, or smears of stable yard muck on my face, but I’m no match for Hanna.

I turn away. I’m supposed to be mingling. Although I detested the balls on Newyan, I do have a basic grasp of socialising at formal events.

Much good it does.

Where guests see the uniform, it’s clear I don’t have enough gold braid to be worth talking to. Worse, the combination of plain uniform and short hair makes me look like a waiter apparently. Several ladies try to hand me their empty glasses.

Where guests do talk to me, and find out what my role here is, the conversation falters.

No one cuts me dead to my face, but I can hear what they’re saying behind my back.

“A Dancing Mistress! At a ball? I suppose you can’t expect anything more of her type…”

“Grasping hussy…”

“What is the Duke thinking?”

“She believes she’s too grand to take my glass. Ideas above her station or what?”

“Disguising herself like that…”

In contrast, all the senior officers of the Welarvon Mounted Police who are present want to shake my hand.

“Good show with the media…”

“Need teaching a lesson like that…”

I’ve made my way around about half the room when the middle of the ballroom clears and pre-dinner dancing starts.

I don’t rate my chances of getting a dance partner highly. Certainly not the one I want. That choice wouldn’t be sensible. I’ve done the Duke’s reputation enough damage just by being here. Dancing with him tonight would be inflammatory to this guest list. He’s supposed to be building up a network with these people, not isolating himself.

But I won’t walk out either. I’m not going to give them the satisfaction.

Dancing is cheerfully mixed, with several ladies dancing with ladies, and gentlemen with gentlemen, but it’s still a surprise and a pleasure when Lady Roscarrow approaches me.

“How is Lord Roscarrow?” I ask.

“Recovering well, thanks to you.” She smiles. “I’m a poor substitute for him, but he would have wanted a dance with you, if he were here.”

He’d be in the minority I think, but I offer her my arm.

I’ve had a lot of recent practice, leading Rhoswyn, and Lady Roscarrow is very petite and light on her feet, so we swirl into the mass of couples without any problem.

“What a dashing uniform you’re wearing,” she says.

“Thank you. I think it is, too.” I don’t expand on the reaction to it from the other guests. The ball is supposed to be about recruiting allies, not complaining about how upset I feel, so I go straight into that. “As Cardu’s neighbor, I imagine you’re well up to date with the Duke’s position?”

“Goodness, yes. He has my complete support. He always has had, and he knows he can rely on me. You don’t need to recruit me.”

She’s such a refreshing change from the rest of the guests.

We pass a couple and I see it’s Lord and Lady Polkynhorn. The good lady is glaring at me. How dare I dance.

“As do you, Miss Aguirre,” Lady Roscarrow says firmly. “You have my complete support.” She glares right back at Polkynhorn. “You’re good for Rhoswyn. I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, but you’re a practical woman. That’s just what the girl needs.”

“Thank you,” I say again, not entire sure what practical might mean.

At the end of the dance, we both collect wine glasses and join Talan.

“Rhoswyn’s doing very well,” Talan says, after an exchange of greetings with Lady Roscarrow. She nods across at where Rhoswyn’s dancing with a young gentleman.

I take in the expression and bite my lip. I know what that girl is thinking, but fortunately, the young gentleman doesn’t. And they are looking good on the dance floor.

“Oh, yes, indeed,” Lady Roscarrow says approvingly. “Very well. You’ve achieved so much in such a short time.”

“It’s not something I can take the credit for,” I say. “Most of the dance tuition has come from Hanna.”

“Mmm,” Talan says and turns her head. “And she is very good, isn’t she.”

I follow her gaze.

Hanna and the Duke are dancing.

I look away, my stomach plummeting.

Stupid girl. What did you expect?

“Ah,” Lady Roscarrow says. “That won’t do. I think that this is my dance.”

She leaves, making a beeline for the Duke.

There’s a moment’s silence.

Has Talan seen my reaction? She’s very observant. What will that make her think of me?

When she does speak, it is about Hanna, but it’s not what I’m expecting.

“You’re always holding back a little with Hanna,” Talan says. “As if you don’t exactly trust her. Why?”

She has a wicked sense of humor, but searching her face, she seems not to have caught on to how jealous I am of Hanna. She’s not teasing me. Her question is serious.

And it’s not just that I can see the Duke prefers Hanna to me.

“I don’t entirely trust her,” I say. I don’t want to talk about seeing her at the Shrine. I take the next thing that’s been bothering me.

“You’ve trained with us in the dojo, Talan. Tell me she isn’t pulling her punches, slowing herself down. Making herself look less capable at fighting than she is.”

Talan’s eyes are half-hooded in thought.

“She does,” she says. But before I can make any further comment, she goes on: “So do you.”

I take a gulp of the wine. I’d thought I’d hidden it better than that.

Never reveal everything in sparring, my sensei had taught me. Except to those you trust with your life.

“It’s a habit, I guess,” I say. “I wouldn’t disguise myself if I was sparring only with you.”

She blinks.

“Secrets breed suspicions.” Then she tosses her head as the orchestra start a more lively number. A slow grin surfaces, and she offers her arm. “A dance, Miss Aguirre?”

Oh God, a full-blooded tango.

I can’t refuse, and offer a silent prayer to the Goddess. Which of her divine aspects protects idiots on the dance-floor?

Talan is leading, of course. It would look silly if I tried to, given her size.

I’m stepping back and kicking my heels out. I would really prefer to be sparring with her, but she’s good, neatly avoiding my flying feet and holding me safely when I throw myself backwards.

I almost want to stop when I notice we have the floor.

Lord and Ladies, apparently, do not tango.

Well then, they can watch, and I will not falter.

Goddess be praised, I do not and we reach the end with a stamp and a flourish.

Lady Roscarrow and the Duke are there first, applauding as they approach and shaking our hands with huge smiles.

“I need to see you in my office before we sit down to dinner,” the Duke murmurs in my ear.

 

Talan and I leave when the next dance begins. She checks the Duke’s office is empty and leaves me to wait outside, shrugging when I ask if she knows what’s happened.

I sit at his desk.

It’s bare except for a lamp and photopad.

I pick the photopad up and examine it. It’s displaying an official photo, showing the Duke and Duchess, dressed in their ceremonial finest, in front of the Council Hall in Marazion. I can see where Rhoswyn got her solemn face from.

The photopad has the potential to store thousands of images. I feel the slight indents of the controls along the edge and accidentally trigger a menu.

Another fumble erases the menu, but not before I’ve seen an option for Favorites.

The Duke will be here at any minute, but I can’t resist.

I go back into the menu, touch Favorites.

There are only a couple of images. One of Rhoswyn as a baby in her mother’s arms. The second is the Duchess alone. It’s similar to the memorial picture they have of her at the garden next to the Shrine, but later in the day. She laughing helplessly at the camera, kneeling among the plants, clothes stained with dirt and manure, hair a mess, smudges on her face.

This is his favorite picture of her.

There’s a sound in the corridor and I hurriedly return it to the official image and replace it on the desk.

The Duke sweeps in, an infopad in his hand, with an image of me on it.

I’m punching one of the media team. I think it’s Hartsfelt, the slimy one in the suit.

But he’s not at all concerned with that.

It’s the story behind it: the Newyan delegation have lodged an appeal to extradite me, and they’ve lodged it in the Kensan courts, where planetary extraditions are decided.

 

 

Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 16

Whoa! 60k words in total. This week’s episode is shorter than I promised, but longer than last week’s (3.4k). The pot is coming to the boil.

Love to hear from you as ever.

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Chapter 33

 

A day’s relaxation. Precious as gold.

I should be enjoying myself, lying in the sun, but something’s nagging at me. Something I should be doing. Something…

Got to get up.

Can’t move. Oh, Goddess, what’s happened to me?

My body is so heavy.

Am I drunk?

Can’t even lift my hand.

Call for help. Someone! Please. Anyone?

There’s a noise. That can’t be me. That pathetic croaking.

My head is lifted. Something is put in my mouth. Pills? I must be in hospital.

What happened? Rhoswyn? Bleyd? Are they alright? Who’s there?

Drink, someone says.

Water? Goddess, I’m so thirsty. Coolness in my mouth. Swallow greedily.

Not water. Wine.

No! Not a hospital. What’s happening? This is wrong. Please. No. Please.

Scream! I must scream.

But there’s no sound. No struggling. Just a feeling of falling, falling.

No! No! No!

 

“Zara!”

I struggle to get my body to move. As if moving would save me from the darkness shrouding the sun, floating down to cover me, soft as sleep, hard as death.

“Zara!”

Talan’s sitting on my bed and holding my wrists to stop me hitting her.

It’s night. The bedroom light switches on and Hanna’s standing there at the door, Rhoswyn behind her. Both of them are staring at me, wide-eyed and worried.

It’s the second night my nightmares have woken everybody up.

Talan waves the others back to bed, and hugs me.

Hanna switches the light off and Talan slips into bed beside me in the darkness.

“The same?” she asks.

“Yes,” I say. “Being drugged. Knowing what’s happening, but not being able to do anything about it. Not even scream.”

“Well, outside of the nightmare, you managed that all right.”

“Sorry.”

“Hmm.”

She has the ability to sleep anywhere, anytime and she demonstrates that within a couple of minutes. It’s incredibly comforting to lie against her warmth. Her slow, regular breathing lulls me. I’m tired and even my brain idly imagining a quite different body next to me doesn’t stop me slipping off to sleep as well.

 

The following afternoon, I pass Rhoswyn into Hanna’s care after a morning’s work on estate management. Moyle has been assigned to our little group, and he stays with Hanna so that Rhoswyn will always have a trooper nearby. Talan and I head out to the estate’s main storage compound.

The Duke’s away, travelling around Murenys recruiting support. That’s a mercy to me. I couldn’t trust myself not to do something stupid if he was here. I think Talan suspects I’ve lost my head, but if she does, she keeps her opinions to herself.

This afternoon is an opportunity to move my investigation ahead. I feel there’s something right in front of all of us, if I can only see it.

The storage area we go to is comprised of two rows of warehouses outside the main fort. It’s still within the outer boundary fences and there’s a secondary, twelve-foot diamond wire fence around the warehouses. It’s used for the Welarvon Mounted Police’s trucks and boats. It’s also where they store large evidence in criminal investigations, or inquests.

It’s where the Duchess’ boat, the Low Lady, is kept.

A bored guard lets us into the compound and Talan takes me down to the far end. All the warehouses are huge; even the sliding doors are monstrous: five meters tall and ten wide. Talan opens a lock as big as her fist and pockets it while I pull the chain through.

We need a lever to prize the doors open and pushing them apart has them squealing like a chorus of all the demented souls of the deep.

Talan finds the light switches with the help of her flashlight and the whole warehouse is bathed in stark strip lighting, illuminating a dozen boats on trailers, all being held as part of legal proceedings.

The Low Lady is off to one side on her own, and it gives me a peculiar sensation to see her, as if I’d seen her many times before.

She’s wooden, clearly a hand-built one-off, and she has a sweeping, sleek outline. Even out of her element and resting on the trailer, she’s beautiful.

The single mast has been removed and tied alongside. The sails are wrapped in plastic and lie on top of the mast.

Talan fetches some steps for us to climb up and board.

The deck is a narrow ellipse with the middle dominated by the raised blister of the cabin.

I walk along the varnished decking, taking the thin path between the edge and the cabin to the wider area of the bow. There’s a single guardrail and a small raised lip at the edge of the deck. Even though I’m sure others have been through this, I lie down and imagine a body and an empty bottle rolling. The lip would catch the bottle, but not the body, so the scenario described at the inquest is possible.

There’s no sign of anything on the decking. I kneel down and touch it. A little shiver goes through me. She lay here, helpless, and someone gave her wine and pills until she died.

I know I’m feeding more detail to my nightmares, but I have to do it.

A new set of eyes, the Duke said.

The wind rattles the doors, moans.

Talan is sitting at the back, waiting silently.

“She normally went out with someone else,” I say. “Who?”

Talan shrugs. “Anyone she knew who wanted to go. Of the ones who went out most frequently… Rhoswyn, a lot, especially with her school friends. Rhoswyn’s teachers. Some of the youngsters who sail the creelers from Stormhaven. Any visitors to Cardhu, including her family when they came. The Roscarrows, of course. Me and Moyle. A couple of other troopers who enjoyed sailing. Even Gaude went out a dozen times with her.”

“Not the Duke?”

“Not often, unless they had visitors. He prefers flying and riding.”

“Where did she go mostly?”

“The islands were a favorite with the youngsters. Or out where the boat was found. There are reefs there that are good to snorkel.”

I walk back along the deck.

The cabin is built racing-style, smooth and watertight, the bulk of it below the deck.

I open the hatch and go down the steps into the cabin, Talan just behind.

“When they rebuilt it, I understand they kept the old smuggling compartments. Can you show me them?” I ask.

Talan snorts.

There are six above the slim, rectangular portholes—portlights, Talan corrects me—three on each side. They’re easy to get to and barely big enough to store a couple of bottles of wine.

There are two in the floor. They’re difficult to get to and the folding furniture has to be moved to access them. I measure the spaces with a tape I brought along.

“What are you thinking?” Talan asks.

“These are big enough for a Delphine,” I say. The Delphine is a small submersible motor, capable of pulling a person behind it underwater for twenty miles before refuelling. The sort of thing you’d need to get back within range of the coast if you wanted to leave the boat moored out at the reef.

Talan nods, understanding where I’m going. “Far enough offshore, but close enough to the coast that you could have a boat moored there without it being suspicious.”

“Which might mean there are two people involved.”

She shrugs. “Maybe. But how do the murderer get out here? There’s no sign that the Duchess picked up anyone on the way, or that there was another boat out here.”

“Two Delphines. One to get out here, which is left to sink when it completes its job. One waiting, hidden in this compartment, for the trip back.”

“Which leaves the difficulty of finding the Low Lady out beyond the horizon when you are really low in the water, and then getting on board without the Duchess knowing…”

We argue the mechanics of it back and forth without any clear resolution.

I have a chart of all the questions and ideas and scribble down anything Talan says that I haven’t considered.

“There is one other hiding place,” Talan says after we close the floor compartments and fold the table back down over them.

I raise my eyebrows. The court documents said eight smuggling compartments.

While I add ‘9th Hiding place’ to my chart, she shuffles around me in the cramped space, and kneels down in front of the steps that we used to come down from the deck. She reaches around them and there’s a click. She pulls them away from the bulkhead; the steps are a hollow construction and there’s space behind.

My heart beats a little faster.

I squeeze around her. It’s too difficult to measure, so I curl up into a ball and try to fit myself behind the steps.

But my hopes are dashed. It’s too small. Maybe a child would fit in. I can’t, and certainly someone the size of Talan wouldn’t either.

“And there’s no sign of anything like a Delphine being stored in the compartments,” Talan says. She sounds like she’s been over this a hundred times and the frustration has worn it thin. “Not to mention the problem about the tides—”

Her comms unit squawks and she turns the volume up.

“…multiple points. Code 16-3. Code 16-3. Secure areas. Gates 3, 5 and 8. Code 16-3…”

Talan goes pale and leaps up onto the deck, switching frequency.

“Lieutenant Sandrey, at Area 4. Status.”

“Multiple incursions,” a voice crackles. “Gates 3, 5 and 8. Gate 4 not replying. Appears to be civilian vans.”

“Lockdown immediately,” Talan snaps. “Location alpha 2?”

“Unknown.”

“Shit! Zara, stay here!” she yells as she disappears.

By the time I’ve wriggled out from behind the steps and got to the deck, she’s long gone.

I climb down and trot over to the switches, plunging the warehouse into darkness.

Vans? An attack? That doesn’t sound like the conspirators. They like to work out of sight.

I make my way by touch towards the light coming in from the open doors.

I should shut them and lock them.

Which thought brings the memory of Talan pocketing the lock.

At least I can close the doors.

Or maybe not. I put my shoulder against one and shove as hard as I can. The huge door inches towards the center, the rusty rollers screaming protest.

Almost loud enough to mask the sound of a van braking hard, right outside.

 

Chapter 34

 

The iron lever we used to open the doors is on the ground, right next to me. It’s the only thing remotely resembling a weapon that I have.

But the people spilling out of the van aren’t soldiers. They’re media.

Nearly as bad.

I leave the lever where I can reach it and stand outside, blocking the entrance. The second door just as stiff as the first, I’m not going to be able to close it in time. I’m going to have to be the door.

A quick glance at the gate to the compound shows it’s wide open and the guard’s missing.

The chain used to secure the gate is hanging down.

Is that the lock on the end? Have they just used a bolt cutter?

“It’s open, Gabby.” One of the first guys out calls back into the van.

Another guy gets out. He has a shoulder mounted mediacam and he rolls his shoulder to get it comfortable. The camera’s leds light up and he starts swinging the lens down the long line of warehouses. Background shots. I can almost hear the voice-over.

Behind him, the van empties. There are a dozen people.

“Excuse me,” a scruffily-dressed young woman says and tries to push past me.

I grab the door and don’t move. “It’ll be up to the Mounted Police to excuse you,” I say. “Trespassing and criminal damage for starters. Can’t say I hold much hope for you.”

“This is public property,” she splutters.

“No it isn’t. This is part of the Cardhu Estate and it’s a secured area, which you’ve broken into, causing criminal damage in the process.”

I just know what they want to film – the Low Lady. I can’t let them in. It’s not just a matter of principle. That chart of mine is lying on the table in the cabin, full of questions about the decision of the inquest.

I desperately need a comms unit to call for help.

If there’s anybody who’s available.

Is this part of a concerted effort? Are the other vans full of media people as well? Did others get into the estate? How long before Talan gets back? Or the guard?

I haven’t heard shots or the hum of pulsers, so my money’s on all the vans being media, and a concerted effort by the conspirators to find something to damage the Duke’s reputation.

Which realisation doesn’t help me much right here.

“What’s the problem?” The girl is joined by a harassed-looking older guy with a clipboard. “Come on, move it, move it. Time is money.”

“She won’t let in me.”

“What’s the problem?” he says to me this time, getting far too close. I don’t budge. He wants me to step back.

“You’re the problem,” I say. “This is part of the Cardhu estate—”

“We know where we are. We have permits to film here. Who the nova are you?”

“You can apply to the police information unit for details of personnel, but you need to leave. Now.”

Goddess, I hope the Mounted Police have an information unit. I didn’t actually tell him I was in the police, but I want him to think I am and not get any ideas about using physical force. There are too many of them for me to fight them.

He gets even closer, and he’s shouting into my face now.

“We are getting in there whether you want it or not. We have permits.”

I deperately want to give him a hard knee in the groin, but there are cameras here. I have to satisfy myself with wiping the spittle off my face. He’s so close, my hand touches his face.

He staggers backwards. “Did you get that? She hit me.”

“So call the police,” I say.

The guy with the mediacam is focusing on someone else from the van. The scruffy girl tries to hold up a little handcam over my head, but the warehouse is too dark.

“What’s going on? Russ, stop being an idiot.”

The new speaker is an older guy in a suit, with a big smile for me. I hate him on sight, even more than I hate the others. He looks about forty, and he’s handsome, if you like slick weasels and surgically enhanced smiles.

“Sorry about that,” he says to me, jerking his thumb at the guy with the clipboard. “He’s under a bit of pressure. We all are really.” He brings the smile out again. “Well, will you listen to me. I’m sure you’re under pressure, too. Way of the world these days, isn’t it?”

I keep my thoughts about the way of the world to myself and send another prayer that someone alerts Talan to what’s happening here. Someone must have noticed the van’s broken through security. Surveillance cameras. Something.

Russ moves away a little. The girl is still bobbing about on tiptoes, trying to see past me into the warehouse.

“Look, I don’t want you to worry about them,” the suit says. He puts his hands in his pockets and sighs. “Always running, this business. Just madness. Never time to take a breath.”

“Get back in your van, go down to the town and take a breath at the inn,” I say.

He laughs and puts on his most ‘reasonable’ voice.

“Good one. We’ll buy you one later. Look, we only want to get some background for a in-depth perspective on Duke Tremayne as he tries to set up a new political alliance here on Murenys. You know about that?”

I refuse to answer.

“Well, he’s going to want all the help he can get, and we can really leverage that for him. You should never discount the sympathy vote, and, oh boy, losing your wife like that will rake it in. So all we need are a couple of shots of the boat.”

It’s so plausible, even though I know it’s all manure.

I just shake my head. “Can’t let you in.” I want to say a lot more, but he’s exactly the kind of guy who’s wired up and I want to give them as little of my voice to edit as possible.

“You see now, I understand your position. We really need more young people with a sense of duty like yours and we wouldn’t be in the kind of trouble we’re in today. But here’s the thing, what my team need now is just background. The inquest is all over. No one’s talking about it any more, and that’s where the Duke is missing a trick.”

The circus is coming. The woman that the mediacam was focusing on has just finished the “I’m here at the storage facility…” intro, and she’s walking toward me. There are people flitting around her like flies, touching her face, her hair, putting crimps on her jacket so it hangs just so. She ignores them.

Oh, yes, she only has eyes for me.

“Hi, I’m Gabby McGuire, lead presenter for News Today, but I guess you already know that.”

“Can’t let you in,” I repeat.

She doesn’t appear to hear.

“Damien, darling,” she says over her shoulder, “some foundation on my friend here, or she’ll look washed out under the lights.”

She gives me a little girl-to-girl smile that sets my teeth on edge. “Have to look our best, don’t we?”

“Not answering questions,” I say. Forget being washed out; I’m going to look like a cornered rat. There’s sweat beading on my brow. I can’t stop looking at the mediacam, which is turning my way. Whatever else happens, someone is going to see my face on News Today and start asking why a person who is supposed to be under arrest by the Welarvon Mounted Police is actually wandering freely around the Cardhu estate and guarding one of their warehouses.

“Come on,” says Gabby. “This is legitimate public interest and a great boost for your boss just when he needs it.”

Clipboard man, Russ, is back and he’s actually stroking and patting my arm. “It’s okay,” he murmurs. “We know what we’re doing. We’ll be in and out in five minutes. Won’t touch anything. We’ll even blank out everything but the boat.”

“Need you to stand a little closer to me, darling, framing’s off,” says the guy with the mediacam, beconing me forward with his free hand.

Damien is trying to paint my face. “Relax, you’ll look gorgeous.”

Russ tugs my shirt, trying to pull me forward. “Just a step.”

“Look this way.”

Scruffy girl hoists a set of studio lights on a bar, blinding me.

At the last moment, I sense one of them trying to slip behind me into the open door.

I shove a desperate knee out and I get the groin shot I’ve been trying to avoid. The guy gasps and doubles over.

“Hey!” Russ shouts at me. “Stop that!”

I grab his injured friend and throw him at Russ.

It’s no use, I’m going to have to get that iron lever and swing it at a few people to make them take me seriously. That is not going to look good on prime time.

“Freeze! Police!” someone shouts.

Thank the Goddess.

The mediacam is right in my face.

He’s about to swing around. There’s a memory unit on the side of the camera. I grab it. He turns.

Troopers come barreling into the media group, shoving them away.

The camera keeps swinging, but the cameraman and I are unbalanced. I tangle his legs up. The memory unit pops out. He yells and falls and there’s the sharp, percussive sound of tens of thousands of dynare’s worth of optics cracking as it hits the concrete.