“Oh, for stars and skies, it had to be her.” Chief Medical Officer Gemma Meyer groaned at the sight of the tall Gantharian woman striding toward her.
Dr. Ciel O’Diarda, Gantharian druid and herbal healer, moved with self-assured grace. Her black-white-silver striped hair was tied back in a low, tight braid, and startlingly blue eyes emphasized her chiseled face. All Gantharians were blue-blooded in the truest sense of the word. Their “red” blood cells were in fact the color of sapphire, which made Ciel’s skin tone faintly blue, as were her lips.
Gemma couldn’t help but compare this woman to her other Gantharian friends, especially Kellen O’Dal, Protector of the Realm. Kellen had invited her to Gantharat and was grateful to have her help restore and update Gantharat’s health-care system now that the Onotharian occupation had ended. But Ciel O’Diarda had not been coy about her disdain for Supreme Constellation medicine. Gemma found this attitude infuriating since the SC had just made Gantharat a free world again. On top of that, Gemma finally had a chance to visit some of the places where her plans had been implemented, and her Gantharian guide had to be Ciel. Wonderful.
“Dr. Meyer.” Ciel pursed her lips and bowed slightly. “The convoy is ready.”
“Dr. O’Diarda,” Gemma replied. Ciel clenched her jaws. Good, Gemma thought. Her scornful emphasis of her title had hit home. “What a surprise.” She wished Kellen had chosen someone else. To begin with, a real doctor would’ve been nice.
“I’m sure you’re as…astonished as I was when Protector O’Dal contacted me.”
“Astonished doesn’t even begin to describe it.” Gemma hoisted her sling-bag and walked up to the closest hovercraft. An SC soldier stood by the door leading into the passenger section.
“I’m Dr. Gemma Meyer. Which vehicle am I supposed to ride in?”
“In the second one together with Dr. O’Diarda, ma’am.” The soldier saluted. “We’re hauling your equipment into the cargo-craft and expect to head out in an hour.”
“Fantastic. Thank you, Sergeant.” Placing her hands on her hips, Gemma slowly turned to Ciel. “Looks like we’re going to muddle through this together.”
“I heard.” Ciel’s expression was stoic, but she looked like she wanted to sigh just as deeply. “According to our route, we should reach Paustenja by nightfall. We’ll set up camp—”
“I know. I know. We’re roughing it. I may have been a space rat most of my professional life, but I can still read an itinerary and retain the information.”
“Roughing it.” Ciel snorted, her eyes turning into slits of contempt. “Our respective definition of what constitutes rough might differ. Staying in environmentally controlled habitats is hardly rough.”
“You’re right.” Gemma made her voice sugary and her smile cold. “The habitats are not all that bad. That said, I can tell you haven’t been to my office in the former Onotharian bunker next to the exercise fields.”
“Nor do I ever intend to set foot where they conducted interrogations and conjured up all sorts of ways to torment my people.”
“Interrogations?” Gemma pressed her lips together at the thought of her offices having been the place of such atrocities. “In bunker 12?”
“In all of them.” Ciel sneered. “Ah, please, Doctor, don’t tell me you didn’t know?”
Swallowing, Gemma forced the images of what had gone on in bunker 12 and others from her mind. “Actually, no. I didn’t.” She turned and entered the hovercraft. When Gemma arrived on Gantharat, she’d thrown herself into the medical issues that needed her attention around the clock. Some of her peers went through a more thorough orientation, but Gemma saw the urgent need for her particular expertise. The first two weeks she had joined the trauma surgeons, and during the following two weeks, she monitored the work of some internal- medicine physicians. Long before her internship was over, Gemma knew she would have to remain on Gantharat much longer than the six months originally in her orders.
The hovercraft she and Ciel now boarded was divided into two small quarters. It was clearly one of the bigger vehicles, as it was luxurious by Gantharian standards. Gemma put her bag on the bunk in one of the spaces and sat down. She would have to wrap her head around the fact that the one person she clearly detested would be her guide. The fact that Ciel seemed to walk around with even bigger personal issues than Gemma would make for an interesting, putting it diplomatically, journey.
Another voice called out. “Ma’am? Commander Meyer? We made good time getting ready. If you are all set, we can move out within ten minutes.”
“Excellent. Find Dr. O’Diarda and let’s be on our way.” She poked her head out. “Is my communication panel online?”
“Yes, ma’am.” The young SC soldier stood at attention, her eyes covered by sunshades. “You’ll have audio and video in the more densely populated areas and, later, audio only.”
“Very good, Corporal.” Gemma nodded and ducked back into her quarters. She sat on the stool by the narrow desk and let the equipment scan her retina. “Chief Medical Officer Gemma Meyer to Admiral Rae Jacelon.”
A low hum echoed through the hovercraft and then a throaty, short-cropped voice answered. “Dr. Meyer. How are you doing, Commander?” The admiral’s pale features appeared on the screen. Blue-gray eyes and fiery red hair emphasized the commanding presence she projected. Gemma had known and served with the admiral for the last fifteen years and respected her highly. The fact that Rae Jacelon had married Kellen O’Dal and become an esteemed protector as well only added to her legend.
“I’m fine, thank you, Admiral. We’re heading out in a few minutes and I expect to reach the first small city, Rihoa, by noon tomorrow. We’re building a set of clinics in the residential areas, and I need to check up on the progress of the staff’s education. They’re the first to use the advanced module.”
“Yes, that’s quite exciting.” The admiral smiled. “I saw a summary of the initial reports.”
“Thank you, Admiral. I’m carefully optimistic, but—” Gemma stopped herself. “Speaking of this mission, any particular reason why I need an entire SC unit? I could travel faster if I had just a shuttle and a handful of soldiers.”
“No. Part of your mission takes you to areas where shuttles can’t navigate, let alone land. The radiation is harmless for humanoids and wildlife, but any high-altitude technology is useless there. The hovercraft are outfitted with protection.”
“What about the sensitive medical instruments the SC is donating?” Gemma asked, alarmed.
“They’re stored in protected containers. The Gantharians have been most informative and helpful. Dr. O’Diarda knows this vast area like the back of her hand. She’ll be able to guide you and offer advice.” Rae tilted her head. “Something tells me you’re not entirely pleased regarding that.”
“I’m hesitant. Dr. O’Diarda isn’t a physician. We don’t speak the same language, professionally. She’s some sort of shaman and herbal expert. How can she know what I need to prioritize?”
“You’ll find that Dr. O’Diarda knows more than most Gantharians. She’s a druid and, yes, an expert on medicinal plants. This made it possible for her to keep people alive during the occupation.”
“All very admirable and something I normally would find interesting, but she—”
“You’re stuck with her, Gemma. When I asked the former leader of the resistance, Andreia M’Aldovar, whom to send with you, Ciel O’Diarda was the obvious choice. I even made Kellen double check, but she claimed she didn’t have to. Even she had heard of Dr. O’Diarda while she was in the resistance.”
“All right.” When Rae had made up her mind and issued an order, that was it. “I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. Again.”
“I know you two butted heads over planning during your last encounter. Try to ignore that and learn from her as much as you teach others. That’s the best advice I can give you.”
“Will do my best.” Gemma felt more like thudding her forehead against the screen. “Please, tell Kellen I said hello. Being a protector dealing with an interim government can’t be easy. I hope you get to see her once in a while.”
“Once in a while,” Rae said, and nodded wistfully. “We know it’ll calm down little by little. At least we’re both planet-side and under the same roof.”
The hovercraft began to hum louder. “We’re moving out. I should let you go, Rae. I’ll connect to the base in twenty-four hours and deliver my report.”
“Remain safe. Jacelon out.” The SC logo appeared as Rae disconnected.
Gemma had moved to sit on the bed when she heard a knock on her door. “Enter.”
The door hissed open and revealed Ciel. Leaning against the doorframe, ankles crossed and arms folded, she looked at Gemma and smiled faintly. “Getting comfortable?”
“Yes. I checked in with Jacelon. Next report tomorrow this time.” She was oddly uncomfortable and thought it might be because Ciel’s devastatingly blue eyes rarely blinked as she gazed at her.
“You hungry? There’s a small kitchenette in the back with a table for four. I brought fresh vegetables and some food I prepared to last a few weeks. I can’t stand the synthetic stuff.”
“At least one thing we agree on.” Gemma pursed her lips. “Yes. Thank you. I’m quite hungry. Can I help?”
“I’m sure you can, but right now it’s not necessary. I thought I’d heat some g’benka soup. I have bread to go with it.”
Things might be looking up. Fresh food and real bread? Gemma navigated a narrow bulkhead and found the kitchenette more spacious than she’d thought. Granted, Ciel was at least ten centimeters taller and, uhm, curvier than she was. Gemma’s cheeks warmed at the too-personal observation. This was so unlike her. Her shoulders tensed into the usual square shape as she sat down on one of the stools at the small counter. Squinting, she followed Ciel’s easily flowing movements as she prepared their food.
Ciel didn’t believe in certainties. In her experience, the only inevitabilities in life were that she would die one day and that life in general was unpredictable. Now she would have to add a third to this very short list. She was sure, beyond any doubt, that she’d never met a woman like Gemma Meyer. The woman was clearly a brilliant doctor, but she was annoying, disdainful, opinionated, and obviously had worked relentlessly without much rest ever since she reached Gantharat.
“Here you go.” She placed the steaming-hot mug of soup in front of Gemma and watched her grab it with pale fingers. Her hands seemed frail, too slender and elegant to belong to an esteemed trauma surgeon from the Supreme Constellation. She knew, of course, that Gemma was also a commander in the SC fleet, which was a testament to how looks could deceive. No doubt the good doctor was as lethal as she was able to heal. Ciel’s thoughts visited her own past, but as quick as a Mirisian butterfly, they skipped ahead to present time. No good ever came from dwelling on those years.
“Soup all right?” Ciel sipped from her own mug and sat down.
“It’s amazing, actually.” Gemma sounded surprised. “I can’t even describe the taste other than it’s…delicious.”
“I’m glad you think so. It’s also very healthy. The main ingredient is a root that only grows in the wild. So far it has foiled any attempt by farmers to grow it, for hundreds of years.”
“Really?” Gemma looked into her bowl as if the root were readily visible. “Sort of like a farmer’s holy grail then.”
“Holy grail? I suppose.” Ciel wasn’t familiar with the expression but thought she understood the meaning. “The legend says that whoever tames this root will obtain eternal bliss.”
“Sounds like a dream for many poor farmers. Can it be synthesized?”
“I don’t know.” Ciel shrugged “I’ve never heard of anyone trying. I doubt you’d get the same healing qualities if you did. There are more to things than molecular structures.”
“I don’t entirely agree, but I can understand, in this case at least, what you mean.” Gemma finished the contents of her mug. “I don’t think it’d taste the same way if you dissolved powder in hot water. The taste and the fibers are probably part of its qualities.”
Ciel stared at Gemma, wondering if this was the same woman who had practically flogged her in front of some student physicians at Ganath’s largest hospital. Ciel didn’t visit the capital very often, and she remembered vividly how much she’d regretted going that particular time, a month ago.
“Don’t look at me like I sprouted another head,” Gemma said irritably. “I may be a stickler for traditional medicine and science, but even I know that a lot of it has roots in the knowledge of herbs and plants.”
“I wish you could’ve mentioned that to the students when we met last time.”
“We were discussing post-surgery routines. Hardly enigmatic roots or teaching history.” Gemma pressed her lips together, the tension around her eyes back now.
Ciel wanted to pinch herself for disrupting Gemma’s reasonable mood. They would be traveling for hours on end at a time in the hovercraft, just the two of them. Someone had to act mature and make sure this frustrating woman could do her job unhindered.
“I shouldn’t have brought it up,” Ciel said, shaking her head. “We don’t see eye to eye on this and we never will. I don’t want to keep arguing while we’re on this mission.”
Gemma studied her through narrow slits. It was amazing how stunning she was. Ciel was used to being suspicious of anyone who wasn’t blue-blooded like herself. She realized that a lot of Onotharians still lived on Gantharat, and most of them had lived there before the Onotharian Empire had occupied her home world. These Onotharians had either joined the occupants or remained loyal to Gantharat, but either way, it was hard to tell the difference just by looking at them. Watching Gemma now, who wasn’t blue-blooded or as warm-colored as the Onotharians, Ciel didn’t know how to respond.
Gemma wasn’t very tall and was quite slender, her skin transparent and pale. The only thing about her that looked Onotharian was the dark-brown, slightly tousled hair that reached her earlobes. Long and slender, her neck rose from the collar of her coverall uniform, which hid the rest of her very effectively. Ciel wasn’t sure why she paid such attention to detail when it came to Gemma. It had been the same the last time they met. Remembering how Gemma had lectured her in front of everybody, Ciel found herself reflecting more about how Gemma must have lost weight in the last month rather than how incensed she had been that time.
Now Gemma placed her mug in the recycler and pushed her hands into her pockets. “I have work to do. See you later.”
“Yes. Oh, here. You need to keep rehydrating. These hovercraft are horrible that way.” Ciel opened the cool storage cabinet and pulled out a bottle. “It has some tasteless cloves in it. It’s—”
“Good for me. Yes. I understand.” Gemma took the bottle. “I should have asked before I had the soup, I guess, but I assume you’ve checked that everything you serve me is compatible with Earth human metabolism?”
“Yes.” Ciel spoke through her teeth. Really. This woman was going to drive her into seclusion due to mental issues that no herbs or chants could fix. Yes, the question was warranted, she knew that, but did Gemma have to sound like she thought Ciel was a complete idiot?
“Good. Thank you.” Gemma nodded curtly and walked into her quarters.
Ciel took a bottle of clove water for herself and stomped into her own space. The door shut behind her and she leaned against it, closing her eyes. She dreaded the upcoming long days of clenched teeth and fists.
The Queen and the Captain
“It’s time to board the Koenigin, Your Majesty.” A young man stood respectfully at a safe distance from EiLeen, where she sat on the long couch beneath a window. She turned her head slowly, trying to not bite the man’s head off for using her old title. Being Queen EiLeen of Imidestria was a closed chapter in her life, but the public seemed determined to not let her move on.
She had never sought to inherit a title, but when her brother, the former King Reidder, had died in a hunting expedition on Imidestria’s second moon twenty years ago, EiLeen was next in line to take over the throne. Having no choice, she tried to fulfill her duties but also determined to work toward a more modern system. Imidestria had long sought to join the Supreme Constellations Unification of Planets, but certain requirements had to be met, and not having a feudal system was one of them. Four years ago, EiLeen had signed the documents stating that Imidestria was now a democracy, governed by a planetary leader and their sectional administrators, all elected every five years.
Never before had EiLeen felt so liberated, so free to do what she wanted and not have to be accountable for every second of her life. She had a mind for business, which had stood her well even as a queen, and it had taken her two years to double her already immense wealth. Now, her latest business endeavor was to board the Koenigin en route to Gantharat, the planet the Supreme Constellation forces had helped liberate from the oppressive Onotharian Empire.
EiLeen stood and walked briskly down the gate to where the vessel was moored. The Koenigin, a luxury cruiser, catered to the wealthy. Usually, she traveled on her own space yacht, but the situation with space pirates made such a voyage beyond SC borders dangerous. Hunt-and-assault fighter craft escorted the Koenigin whenever she went on these longer cruises.
As she stepped through the opening leading into the lobby, the captain and her senior crew greeted her.
“Welcome aboard the Koenigin, Madame Maxio. I’m Captain Dana Rhoridan and this is my next in command, Tory L’Ley. My crew and I will do our utmost to make this journey pleasant for you.” The tall ice-blond woman stood at attention before EiLeen, and though it was a relief that the captain hadn’t used her obsolete title, she had the distinct impression that Captain Rhoridan wasn’t too thrilled at her presence.
“Thank you. I wish to be shown to my quarters immediately.” She was exhausted after sitting through endless business meetings, and, though she hated to admit it, she felt every single one of her fifty-one years.
“Certainly, madame. Commander L’Ley will escort you. We’ll be on our way as soon as the rest of the passengers have boarded.”
EiLeen nodded curtly and followed the commander to her quarters. Behind them trailed several crew members and her personal assistant, Mock, hauling her hover luggage. Located on deck two, the quarters consisted of three bedrooms, en suite luxurious bathrooms, several rooms for entertaining, and an office with state-of-the-art computer and communication technology. She dismissed the commander at the door and allowed only Mock inside to unpack her baggage.
Mock had been her court attendee and footman ever since she was a mere princess. He was the closest thing to a father figure that she’d had, as her uncle, the former king, had been a notorious rogue. King Reidder had hunted, chased both women and men for pleasure, and enjoyed his status as sovereign without much though for his nation’s wellbeing. Taking over the reins had been hard on the young EiLeen. She’d been ruthless out of necessity while reconstructing the way Imidestria ought to be governed if it was to ever become a democracy.
“When you’re done, Mock, do get some rest. We’ve been on our feet for two days straight. That’s how I feel, at least.” EiLeen removed her gloves and coat. Glancing longingly at the en suite, she knew she had more work to complete before she could indulge in a long, hot aqua-bath.
Dana Rhoridan removed her gold-collared captain’s jacket and tossed it onto a chair inside the door to her ready room. She virtually growled as she slumped back into her chair, frustrated with the new assignment. Flipping her computer screen open, she noticed another message from Fleet Admiral Ewan Jacelon. Yes, it was flattering for the highest-ranking officer in the fleet to contact her, but this mission was utter crap.
Dana had gotten used to working undercover during the last five years. She actually enjoyed being among mostly civilian spaceship personnel and had made some lifelong friends as their captain. Only two of her crewmembers knew of her military rank as captain: her first officer, Commander L’Ley, and the head chef, Paymé Soth. Paymé was a security officer in the SC Fleet, and L’Ley held the same rank in the Marine Corps and had been undercover for almost a decade.
“And now we’re babysitting a damn celebrity. A party princess. Oh no, excuse me, a queen.” Dana pursed her lips as she drummed her fingers against the alu-carb desk. “Let’s see what Jacelon wants.” Dana opened the voice message, thinking it couldn’t be a good thing, really, to hear from the fleet admiral himself.
“Captain Rhoridan, I trust by now that you’ve rendezvoused with EiLeen Maxio and have made sure she is installed in your presidential quarters.” The white-haired handsome man who commanded the fleet and had faced down space pirates and the Onotharian Empire, and whose only daughter held one of the most powerful positions in the military as well as being a citizen of Gantharat, smiled politely. “I know you are under the impression that you’re merely delivering her like an expensive, high-profile package to Corma, but that is only half the truth. You will go via the Corma home world first, but then you need to take Ms. Maxio to the small cluster of planets between the SC and Gantharat. This is where we helped heal and train the surviving resistance members we rescued from the Onotharian asteroid prisons. Ms. Maxio has urgent business at Revos Prime and I’ve made a personal promise to her that we’ll take her there, swiftly and safely. I look forward to updates via security subspace communication channels.” Ewan Jacelon nodded curtly. “Safe journey, Captain. Jacelon out.”
Why the hell would EiLeen Maxio go to a planet inhabited only by rehabilitation staff, patients, and training camps for soldiers struggling to regain their strength to get back to reenlist? No doubt whatever endeavor the glamor-loving woman was up to involved money. The ex-queen must’ve pulled every string she’d ever collected to make someone like Jacelon dance to her tune. It still didn’t make sense, and Dana knew better than to jump to conclusions too swiftly. Something was just completely annoying about this woman—her way of dismissing people like they were nothing but space dust clinging to her survival suit. Dana hadn’t met EiLeen personally, but she’d of course read about her and seen her on transmissions when she was still the sole sovereign on Imidestria.
“And that’s another weird piece of the puzzle. Why would such an attention-seeking celebrity give up practically owning an entire planet?” Dana murmured as she rose to prepare herself for the evening’s dinner. Tradition dictated that Dana, as captain of the cruise ship, dine every evening with the VIPs. She undressed and stepped into the cleansing tube in the small en suite of her ready room. Just as she stepped out again, it dawned on her that EiLeen would most likely be at the table tonight. Wonderful.
An hour later, Dana went by the bridge to check on the unreliable space vortices they would pass later in the evening. The dust-filled maelstroms endangered ships unless the crew paid attention to the readings, as they moved without warning. If they managed to surprise a ship, its structural integrity could become compromised with micro fractures or even a full hull breach. So far, the vortices had stayed beyond the Bramanian asteroid belt, which meant Dana had no chance of having her dinner on the bridge instead.
She strode into the restaurant, its grandeur never ceasing to amaze her. Tall, old-fashioned brass columns supported the ten-meter ceiling. Vast viewports displayed the beauty of space on one side and a large stage at the far wall. The entertainment that commenced after dessert had been served was something new and fantastic every evening.
The table was impressively set as usual. As captain, Dana was expected to greet the VIPs chosen to accompany her, another duty she found rather silly, but she carried it out with the same diligence as she did everything else. Being the fourth generation in her family to captain a starship, Dana knew her reputation for being by-the-book and a stickler for rules and regulations preceded her.
Soon the dinner guests trickled in and Dana donned her best smile, shaking hands with dignitaries and celebrities as they took their seats. It hadn’t escaped her attention that the seat to her right held a name-cube with the Imidestrian royal insignia. Just as she started to get her hopes up that EiLeen Maxio would not show up, a faint murmur traveled among the five hundred and some passengers. Dana looked over toward the entrance and couldn’t stop from gasping.
EiLeen Maxio might have abdicated, but the woman framed by the door opening radiated regality where she stood, scanning the room. Meeting Dana’s eyes, EiLeen walked with obvious confidence between the tables toward her.
“Madame Maxio, welcome.” Dana took EiLeen’s hand to greet her like she’d done with the other eighteen guests at her table.
“Thank you, Captain.” The proud stance and slight disdainful tone of EiLeen’s voice grated on Dana’s nerves.
Still holding EiLeen’s hand in hers, Dana felt an utterly out-of-character spark ignite in the back of her mind. Not sure where the impulse originated, she raised EiLeen’s hand to her lips and kissed the impossibly soft skin. She then let go of it and pulled the chair out. “I believe this is your seat.”
EiLeen’s violet eyes with their unique star-shaped pupils narrowed as she examined Dana’s appearance. Dana refused to be intimidated by the former queen and sat down. Unfolding her napkin she placed it on her lap as she nodded to the waiters to begin. As soon as they had served the first course, Dana raised her glass, as was her duty, and toasted the guests. “May your stay aboard the Koenigin be relaxing, pleasurable, and safe.”
“Safe?” A woman two seats to Dana’s left frowned. “Surely that is a given? I’ve heard about pirates, but isn’t that a thing of the past, Captain?”
“Hush, darling,” her husband said. “This ship has its own security detail. Like a small army.” He smiled reassuringly. “Do you think Queen EiLeen would travel with this ship if it wasn’t safe?”
Dana chewed on a Cormanian asparagus as she listened to the conversation. She wasn’t surprised that the other guests knew who EiLeen Maxio was. The reputation of her extravagant way of life and the many juicy details of her private life no doubt fascinated the public.
“Just call me EiLeen.” The sonorous voice of the former queen made the man color faintly. “It’s been years since I abdicated.”
“Eh. Yes, of course, Your M—EiLeen.”
Dana smiled inwardly at the man’s discomfort. EiLeen had a way of shrinking the person she homed in on. Her eyes were like lasers, piercing right through the layers of garments and skin if you let her. Dana would make sure EiLeen knew this method didn’t work on the captain of this ship.
“Tell me, Captain, how long have you commanded the Koenigin?” Another guest farther down the table, a young man sitting next to his parents, asked the question. He was handsome with his long, wavy hair in a ponytail. Dana estimated he was at least twelve years her junior.
“Four years.” Dana smiled politely.
“You’re very young to hold such a position,” the young man’s father said. He raised his eyebrow as if to imply that he found her too young.
“I started early.” Dana was used to these types of questions. She kept her polite smile, but inwardly she sighed at the repetitiveness of this part of her job.
“Most civilian starship captains started in the military,” an older woman to Dana’s left said, her voice kind. “Was that the case for you as well, Captain?”
“Yes, it was.” Dana forced herself not to shift uncomfortably. Sooner or later this topic appeared, and she was already preparing for the almost unavoidable follow-up question.
“Well, I don’t blame you for getting out, with the war effort and everything,” the first young man said, wrinkling his nose. “I mean, I’m all for letting the hardened soldiers deal with that.” He elbowed his dad pointedly, who clearly agreed with his son, judging from how he pursed his lips and nodded.
“We can thank the stars that not everyone reasons in the same spineless manner as you,” EiLeen said, and put her utensils down. “If all people regarded the universe like that, empires with a knack for oppression would soon take over every planet in our sector.”
“What—who do you—you cannot sit there and call my son spineless!” The young man’s father looked like he was about to choke. He stared at EiLeen, and Dana surmised that only her previous title kept him from demanding her thrown overboard for being insolent toward his offspring.
“I think I just did.” EiLeen smiled maliciously. “Fortunately we live in a sector of space where we’re allowed to have our opinion and not be jailed for voicing it. You see your son as the heir to your personal empire of…what is it you produce, Mr. Ta’Yans? Oh, now I remember. Among other things, you’ve built your wealth on plasma-pulse cassettes, haven’t you? I imagine the war effort has increased your wealth tenfold.” She wiped her mouth on the napkin and looked over at the approaching line of waiters. She turned to Dana, her eyes glittering. “Oh, look, how timely. The main course is here.”
Dana wasn’t sure whether to applaud EiLeen for putting the men in their place or smack her for being deliberately rude and not caring that she was. Was this what being a former queen did to you? As queen of Imidestria, EiLeen hadn’t had absolute power, but damn close to it. The political experts had speculated about her reasons for abdicating, but so far, they were a closely held secret. Dana slowly shook her head at her, wanting her to know she wasn’t entirely pleased with her display. To her surprise, EiLeen pressed her lips together and chuckled quietly while the waiters served the main course.
The rest of the meal passed without incident, but Dana was still relieved when the staff lowered the light and the entertainment began. Sitting to EiLeen’s left, she moved her chair so she wouldn’t hinder the other woman from seeing the stage. This brought them closer together and suddenly she was engulfed in EiLeen’s scent. Discreet, but distinctive, the sweet and warm perfume, mixed with something dark and spicy, wrapped around her. A woman began a gentle Imidestrian song, her voice following the enticing scent, helping it to reach yet another of her senses. She turned her head just enough to look at EiLeen, who seemed to be listening intently to the song. Such a proud profile, completely regal with high cheekbones, a delicately bent nose, and a tall forehead. EiLeen’s gray hair was combed back in stylish waves and she wore makeup that enhanced her beautiful features with a soft shimmer.
“Yes, Captain?” EiLeen suddenly murmured without turning her head. “Something I can do for you?”
Furious at being caught staring, Dana felt a blush creep up her neck and cheeks. “Just making sure I wasn’t in your way, Madame Maxio.”
“Please. EiLeen.” A faint curl of EiLeen’s lips made it clear that she wasn’t buying Dana’s explanation. “And I can see just fine.”
Dana cursed herself inwardly and kept her eyes on the performers for the duration of the show.
“She’s a cold-hearted, manipulative, insane know-it-all!” Meija Solimar stormed into the foreman’s office and threw herself into a chair. “She thinks we’re dealing with bloody cattle and not humans who require a damn life aboard these mastodon ships she’s building. The specs aren’t even fit for livestock, come to think of it. A cow requires certain things to produce milk fit for human consumption. She’ll end up producing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people gone space mad!”
Gessley Barr, normally a soft-spoken, authoritative man, regarded Meija with obvious caution, as if trying to figure out how to defuse her. This wasn’t the first time she’d exploded while trying to deal with the woman in charge of building the ships that would save the Oconodian people, but now Meija knew if she had to lay eyes on the infuriatingly stubborn Chief Engineer Korrian Heigel, there was likely to be bloodshed.
Gessley eyed her tentatively. “This has to be a record. It’s the third time this week alone that you’ve been in here tearing your hair out over the boss.”
“She’s not my boss.” Meija spat the words but then relented. This wasn’t Gessley’s fault. He carried out Heigel’s orders like everyone’s, civilian or military, because it was his job. But Meija was an independent contractor working for the Social and Cultural Department. She didn’t take her orders from Heigel but from the minister of her department alone. Her job was to make sure life was sustainable aboard the massive vessels being constructed in orbit around Oconodos, from a social-anthropological point of view. This task sent her on a perpetual collision course with Heigel.
“Barr, I need more engineers working on—” As if conjured up by Meija’s rage, Korrian Heigel flung the door open, spitting orders before she was even inside Gessley’s office. Spotting Meija, she pressed her lips into a fine line. “Ah, so this is where you come to get your bruised ego patted.”
“Now there’s a sign of an enormous ego if I ever saw one. Why would you assume that I’m bruised? Regardless of your lack of manners, I’m tougher than I look.”
“I would hope so if I were you.” Heigel sauntered over to the desk and rested her hip against it, effectively towering over the two of them, who were sitting down. She was as sexy as she was intimidating, not to mention frustrating. “I don’t know how many times I have to explain to a civilian just what’s at stake here. We can’t humor your romantic ideas of ‘generational space cities.’ We have to make sure we have enough bunks for close to two million individuals before this curse, or plague, turns us into something our species won’t survive. We have less than twenty years to do this. You know this, Meija.”
“I know the facts and the figures as well as you do.” Meija had never heard Heigel use her first name before. Normally she called her Solimar or, on even worse days, “you there.” “That doesn’t mean you can ship people like they were less than cattle. If you were to do this, you’ll have stark-raving-mad people after only a few years, maybe just months. Unless the scientists have developed cryo-sleep that won’t actually kill you, racking and stacking the people on the ships won’t work.”
“See what I have to listen to every single day?” Heigel flung her hands into the air. She was a stunning, tall woman with warm-toned, chocolate-colored skin. Black hair in ringlets tumbled out from the cap of her uniform. Adorned with silver trim around the edges, it was the first obvious sign of her rank as a senior officer.
Stark, icy gray eyes looked at Meija with barely covered annoyance. Her straight, wide nose with delicate nose-wings that often gave away the fact she was about to explode was contradicted by the fullness of her curvy lips. Normally, Meija would find such a mouth a hard-to-resist temptation, but when all the words that came across them were disdainful, impatient, and frustrated—hell, Heigel was still damn attractive, no matter her lack of manners or ability to cooperate. It was disheartening to know that no matter what, Heigel would never regard her in any other way than with cold exasperation.
“If you could at least try to spell the word compromise then we could have a slim chance of producing a prototype of a ship that our leaders can agree on. As it is now, Heigel, you’re creating more problems than you’re solving.” Meija crossed her arms.
“Have you listened to yourself? Can’t you hear how condescending and overbearing you sound? And my name is Korrian. You constantly point out that I’m not your boss, so stop referring to me as Heigel. I keep looking for my father when you do that.”
This sudden trace of humor was so unexpected, Meija blinked and merely stared. “All right. Korrian. I’m Meija.”
Nodding curtly, Korrian relaxed marginally and sat down on Gessley’s desk. “How the hell do we work together to keep Ms. Desomas happy?”.
“I don’t really care how happy or unhappy Desomas is. I worry what would happen to the population if they’re suddenly imprisoned and confined to less space than the inmates in the current prisons are.”
“The ships will save them, not imprison them!” Korrian slammed her palm onto her thigh.
“What will they do in their spare time, day after day, year after year?”
Jumping to her feet, Meija glowered at Korrian, trying desperately to reach her and not antagonize her further. “Surviving isn’t enough. It never is. You have to live. Laugh. Love your family, your spouse, your parents. Spend time with them. Play. Especially the children need to play, but the adults too. The youngsters will need places to meet and socialize, and learn the skills they need to navigate through relationships. If they’re confined to your tiny cubes, yes, we will get more people aboard each vessel, but we’ll see morale deteriorate very rapidly, probably within months after the novelty wears off.”
“What do you think of this type of reasoning, Barr?” Korrian whirled to face the man who clearly tried to look inconspicuous behind his desk.
“Both of your standpoints have merits. We need to save as many as possible, so compromising the size of the quarters is prudent.” Gessley cleared his throat and studied the ceiling. “I’m trying to picture myself aboard one of the Exodus ships, and the idea of being kept, fed, and stored is not very appealing.”
“Every basic need will be met,” Korrian said, frowning.
“We have other basic needs than merely surviving.” Meija made sure her tone was even. “People need a purpose, something to strive for, to play with, and to imagine. If we place them in tiny cubes with no options but to eat and sleep, soon you’ll have riots and downright mutinies.”
“Your job isn’t going to be easy, Commander Heigel.” Gessley laced his fingers and rested his chin on his hands. “I know Meija is coming on strong here, but she has a point. Our leaders have initiated Project Exodus, and soon the advance team will leave orbit to explore and reconnoiter a new home for us. I can’t even imagine the burden that lies on your shoulders, but don’t let our leaders’ anxiety attacks steer you off the target. The ships will carry our people for decades, maybe even longer, to a new home.”
Korrian opened the top button of her uniform jacket and sat down in the chair next to Meija. “I have lived, breathed, and dreamed these specs and my prototype for five years now. Ever since the so-called plague became public knowledge, this has become my reason for existing. I have daily messages from politicians and different governmental departments demanding I squeeze beds and cots into every possible area of the ships. Don’t either of you have the audacity to claim I don’t give this enough thought.”
Meija hadn’t realized how much pressure Korrian must be under. She’d only seen the woman’s pigheaded, opinionated approach. Her own frustration—she willingly admitted to be something of a hothead as well—had probably done very little to help Korrian see reason.
“I’m not saying that. Ah, well, I guess that’s what I’ve been implying, isn’t it?” Meija grunted. “If we can compromise, you should be able to come up with a prototype that allows for maximized passenger numbers and still make it the home it has to be—what?”
Korrian sat up straight, her eyes narrow slits. She didn’t look angry or annoyed, though, merely focused. “What did you say?” she asked slowly.
Suddenly nervous, Meija cast a glance at Gessley. “A prototype that can maximize—”
“No, not that. You said, make it a home.” Getting up from the chair, Korrian began pacing, a familiar sight by now. “A home. Not merely transportation.” She muttered under her breath as she pulled out a computer sheet and tapped it. She drew new lines, punched in commands, and it was as if she had completely forgotten she wasn’t alone. “Use the light-sensors to propel…add extra output…less need for propulsion energy.” Korrian stopped and looked at Meija and Gessley as if she’d forgotten who they were. “Meija, you’ve been on my case since day one. Now’s your chance to get some of your ideas through. That means you’re going to have to reside in the engineers’ quarters rather than the space station.”
Meija tried to follow Korrian’s thought process but failed, mostly. “You—are you saying suddenly you want my input?” What had happened the last few minutes?
“Won’t it thrill you that some of your outlandish ideas might have merit?” Korrian gave a crooked smile. “I would’ve thought so, as I have no problem recollecting your endless chatter about quality of life and areas to breathe in.”
“Of course I want you and the authorities to listen.”
“We have two days to get the first blueprints and model done. This will take some unconventional problem-solving.”
“Why can’t I stay at the hotel on the space station?” Meija had lived in the hotel for two months now and didn’t mind the short shuttle trip between the station and the space-dock where the prototype vessel was being built.
“I have to have access to you and your input around the clock, and I can’t wait for the shuttle to carry you back and forth. If you’re going to contribute, you’re going to have to forfeit the luxuries and share a room here.”
Meija had just begun to consider the idea of living at the local crew quarters but hadn’t counted on that last part. “Share a room? With whom?” She knew, of course, since Korrian looked a tad ill at ease. “Share your quarters?”
“As chief engineer, my quarters are more spacious than the others.” Korrian shrugged. “I can’t come up with a better solution, can you?”
Meija thought fast. On one side, she would finally have a chance to influence the design of the ships that would save the Oconodian people, and on the other, she’d have to stay in such close proximity to the woman that had made her life living hell for so long. Meija looked down at her hands, so tightly clasped her fingertips were white. “All right,” she heard herself say. “I’ll have my things sent over. I trust you’ll give me some closet space?”
“Sure.” Did Korrian sound relieved or was Meija’s imagination playing tricks on her?
“Excellent,” Gessley said, and rounded his desk. “This will work very well, I can feel it.”
“We’ll see.” Korrian buttoned her jacket and adjusted her cap. “Go sort your things out, Meija. I’ll be at the drawing board in the main studio. Barr, get me four more engineers, at least. I don’t care who you have to schmooze. Just do it.”
Meija merely nodded, still a little shell-shocked at what had been decided so hastily. She watched Korrian stride out the door and cross the main walkway, heading back to do her job. How was it possible that she suddenly was in this position of power and influence? Going from frustrated consultant to working closely with the brilliant woman in charge of constructing the only way for their people to survive boggled her mind.
Korrian gripped the laser pen and began working. Using the old draft as a template, she tried to remember all the things Meija had said that she had blown off as utter nonsense. Had she been so blinded by her own ambition to succeed and the desire to prove herself to her superior officers? As she’d told Barr and Meija, she’d lived and breathed this project for years on end, and at the rate the population changed and spread in some parts, they could complete it fast enough. Physicians and geneticists had declared they’d lose control of the situation if the planet-wide evacuation didn’t take place within two decades.
Now, for the first time in ages, she found herself reenergized and motivated to look at the project from a new angle. She couldn’t quite pinpoint why she’d resisted even trying a new concept, other than that she’d been stuck—and fatigued after working with hardly any days off for too long.
Meija Solimar had blasted into the space-dock, a strange and rare bird among the homogenous group of engineers and ships mechanics. Dressed in her very new Oconodian uniform adorned with the insignia describing her rank as that of provisional non-commissioned officer, she’d looked fresh-faced and idealistic. Korrian wondered if Meija’s ethereal beauty, which made her look younger and unseasoned, had made her not listen to her opinions.
“So this is where the magic happens.” As if conjured from Korrian’s thoughts, Meija showed up to her left, smiling carefully. “I don’t pretend to know anything about blueprints or technical drawings, but even I can understand that this is top-of-the-line technology. Our leaders spare no expense.”
“Nor should they if they want to save the Oconodians.”
“Part of the Oconodians.” Meija’s light-green eyes darkened. “The changed ones are still Oconodians.” Something, a catch, in Meija’s voice made Korrian stop what she was doing and put her laser pen down.
“These changes they’re going through, whether called the plague or the curse, puts them on a collision course with the rest of us. As they’re growing in numbers and the incidents where normal—”
“Normal.” Meija’s lips tensed. “An interesting word. Especially when wielded against something we don’t understand and which is much bigger than us.”
“Are you saying I’m prejudiced? Or merely uneducated?”
“No. There have been far too many incidents where Changed individuals have used their superior strength or mental powers to injure unchanged Oconodians. I just don’t want to believe that all those instances happened deliberately or with malice.”
“I see. Evidently someone close to you has Changed.” Korrian pushed a tall stool closer to the work area. “You don’t have to respond to that. It’s really none of my business. Take a seat. We have work to do.” Looking up at Meija, she could see that her words had struck a nerve. Meija, paling slightly, merely nodded and climbed onto the stool.
“Very well. You seem to have altered the original plans a bit already.” She pointed at the images on the sheet. “This looks like a strange sort of bicycle wheel.”
“Just a rough sketch. Something you said about the ships becoming the passengers’ home. I suddenly saw the design in my mind. Twenty ships altogether. Average 100,000 individuals on each vessel. Two in the center, eighteen others in a circle around them, all connected with the center ones by roads in the shape of spokes on a wheel, so to speak. Magnetic locks will keep the ships together in this shape, and the two ones in the middle will hold the propulsion system. By constructing the ship this way, I can make the other vessels in the outer ring much larger without compromising speed or wasting resources. In fact, it will actually be beneficial in the long run.” Korrian again watched Meija’s expression change—from being serious to curious to excited.
“You’re serious?” Meija leaned forward and her unruly ponytail landed on the drawings. “Oh. Sorry.” Smiling broadly, she tucked the strawberry-blond tresses into her cap. “So, what am I looking at here?” She pointed at the part of the drawing Korrian had just changed.
“That’s the addition. I can add about twenty-five percent of space to each ship without compromising speed or structural integrity. The bridge will be located here, in the middle, directly connected to both of the center ships.”
“And this?” Meija tapped with a perfectly manicured blunt nail on the sheet. “These areas running along—”
Ear-splitting thunder rolled through the dock toward them. Korrian looked up and went cold at the sight of loose objects being hurled through the air. “Down!” She tugged frantically at Meija and pulled her onto the floor. Covering the slighter body with her own, she closed her eyes and held on to Meija, who in turn hid her face against Korrian’s shoulder.
“What’s going on?” Meija called out, then coughed as dust whipped at them. “What the hell was that?”
“Damn if I know.” Korrian struggled to get up since the floor was still trembling because as the inertial dampeners had not yet recovered. “I have no one working on anything remotely explosive or combustible. Stay here.” She pushed away from the table and began walking on the still-unsteady floor toward the door leading to the space-dock.
“No way. I’m going with you.” Meija caught up with her. “Your temple is bleeding. She reached into her pockets and pulled out a tissue. “Here.”
Grudgingly, Korrian accepted it and pressed it to the side of her head that throbbed so badly. Examining the tissue, she saw that the cut was worse than she’d expected. “Guess I might need repairing.”
“You’re not dizzy, are you?” Meija placed a gentle hand at the small of Korrian’s back.
The touch elicited a shudder that traveled up her spine and down the back of her legs. Korrian sucked in her lower lip between her teeth. “I’m fine. Let’s go.”
They moved carefully between tipped-over cabinets, tables, and chairs. In the distance the alarm klaxons blared consistently. Finally they reached the tall doors leading into the vast hall that contained all the equipment, tools, and doors to the different airlocks. The doors leading out to open space, where they were building the prototype while outfitted with space suits and mini tool-shuttles, had several backup systems. As long as the reason for the explosion was unknown, she couldn’t assume the safety systems hadn’t been compromised.
“I see two guys over there, on all fours, but moving at least.” Meija pointed to the left. “And one more behind them. How many were working in here?”
“Six, unless they were fetching something from storage or—” Korrian motioned with her head toward the airlocks— “or outside. I have to reach the comm system over there by the main computer console. Do you think you can help the guys and look for the missing ones? I’ll be right there to help you.”
“Sure.” Meija narrowed her eyes and focused on Korrian’s temple. “The bleeding’s stopped for now. Just keep that tissue handy though. You’re going to need to see a doctor.”
“Later.” Korrian nodded briefly and turned to make her way through the rubble. She walked a few paces then turned. “Meija? Be careful.”
Shuffling through the mess of tools and other equipment toward the computer, she saw increasing activity outside the view ports and hoped nobody had to pay with their life for whatever had caused the mayhem around them. Reaching the console, she opened the emergency communication channel. “Emergency, emergency, this is Chief Engineer Korrian Heigel. What’s going on?”
A female voice replied. “Dispatch here. What’s your status, Commander Heigel?”
“So far no fatalities. I have Meija Solimar here and she’s searching our facility looking for my staff. I’ve seen three of them move but don’t know the extent of their injuries. Any idea what caused the explosion?”
“Not yet, ma’am. We’ve deployed rescue teams as one of the airlocks on the lower decks disengaged. We think that was the origin of the explosion.”
“Is Colonel Rayginnia there?”
“Ma’am, the colonel is among the injured. She was conducting a tour of the space-dock for some members of the Main Ministry.”
“Oh, damn. We have ministers roaming around the facility and this happens?”
“All right. Dispatch emergency personnel to my location. I’ll help Ms. Solimar conduct a search-and-rescue until they get here. Heigel out.” Hurrying back to where she’d left Meija, she found the first man, one of her engineers, sitting on the floor with a makeshift tourniquet around his thigh. A metal bar had perforated his calf and now he was grayish and pale.
“Belonder, how are you doing?” Korrian knelt next to the young man.
“Not too bad, Commander. Ms. Solimar is very capable.”
“Help’s on the way. Just stay put and they’ll take care of you.” Korrian moved to the other two. A woman was cradling the head of a man lying on the floor next to her. Korrian recognized two junior engineers, fresh out of a prestigious university in Conos, the capital. The man’s head was a bloody mess.
“Commander…” The woman looked up, wide-eyed and pale. “The cabinet fell, and, and, Toimi, he, the tools just—”
“Shh. Just stay with him. Help’s on the way. Do you hear me, Reeva? Emergency personnel are coming.” Korrian knelt and felt for Toimi’s pulse. Fast and thin, but it was there against her fingertips, and he was breathing. “Call out for me if you need me. I have to check for the others. Were all six of you in here?”
“No. Just Chassine. The others went off duty an hour ago.” Reeva kept caressing Toimi’s cheek. “That new woman, she went over there. Chassine’s station.” Sobbing quietly, Reeva pointed to the far left of the hall.
“I’ll go and check on them. Hang in there.” Korrian made her way, not without difficulty, as this was where they kept the large disks for the mainframe computers. Made of metal-infused glass, they had shattered and left sharp edges everywhere. She hoped some had survived with the backup plans and blueprints intact, but that wasn’t her main concern right now. Rounding two overturned desks, she gasped as she saw two uniformed legs sticking out from under a third desk, which in turn was buried under a large shelf.
“Meija?” Korrian bent down and tried to see what was going on.
“Korrian! Chassine’s in here. She’s stuck.”
“Pulse is very weak and her breathing is shallow. I’ve managed to support her head enough to help her breathe every now and then. I think she has bruised or broken ribs. We’re going to need the portable crane.”
“Got it. Help’s on the way. I’ll go see if the ceiling crane is working. Will you be all right?”“Sure, I will. I just ho—” Another explosion, this time farther away, shook the facility. The bookcase slid toward Korrian, who realized it would end up on Meija’s legs if she didn’t stop it. Throwing herself at the shelf with all her might, Korrian looked around for something to prop up against it. Anything. Her eyes fell upon a canister of metal bars, but there was no way she’d be able to reach it.