Part One: Sub-Maron Nine
The bread was burning, but Qinda couldn't smell it through the scorching of her memories. Her heart dragged her back to that night the Baldasori blood-hunters bombed her foster-parents' farm. The reek of melting plastic, scorched stone, torched crops and burned flesh made the stink of her precious loaves darkening to charcoal sweet by comparison; and that was faint, coming from the cooking alcove on the other side of the loft in their agro-bunker, filtered through the day-room's flowering plants before it reached the computer room.
Qinda didn't often let memories take over, but today was a day of high emotions. Kayl had just sold all their crops at a larger profit than anticipated and Edrori took eight steps before plumping down on his well-padded bottom. Four ships had landed on their agricultural colony world in the last three days and Qinda had finished her data-dump scan earlier than anticipated. She had just sent her findings to her various employers, so now she could indulge in private research until her son woke from his nap. Qinda estimated at least a half hour of quiet to invoke the search bug she and Kayl devised and set it loose on the new data in the communal base of sub-Maron Nine.
Their enemies would never come near this backwater colony world. Qinda felt safe continuing her search for her scattered foster family. Between their farm and their special talents, they would soon be quite comfortable. Qinda was a data manipulator and had an almost mystical talent for making antiquated machinery work when it should have been scrapped decades ago. Kayl could design programs that almost had intelligence of their own.
They could have made quite comfortable lives for themselves anywhere else in the Conclave if their enemies would just leave them alone to do so. Eventually, they would have to reach the safety of the Commonwealth--but not now. Extended voyages weren't good for small children, and Qinda hoped to find the scattered remnants of her family before leaving the Conclave's boundaries.
She had searched for nine Sols now. Guerdon and Loreen Cuestor had raised her from the day she left her artificial womb, and she would spend the rest of her life trying to reunite their family. Guerdon was dead, but Loreen and the other children had to be alive. Somewhere.
Edrori woke from his nap ten minutes early and giggling. Qinda left the search bug buzzing through the system to fetch him. The burned bread set off the alarm while she cuddled her son and tickled his nose with the tip of her hip-length braid. Qinda held Edrori on one hip while she wrestled the three smoldering pans from the oven with her free hand. She was in too good a mood to cry over the waste of time and supplies. She dumped the blackened lumps into a towel, gathered the ends together, and with her son still on her hip went to dump the refuse. They walked down the circular stairs, through the echoing chamber that until yesterday had held their harvest, and out the back door of the agro-bunker to the riverbank. After Qinda left the bits of charcoal for the scavenger birds, she and Edrori stayed in the doorway watching the green and black birds squawk and mock-battle over leavings until he began to wriggle and grow aromatic. Time to change a diaper.
Nearly an hour passed before she returned to her computer. Qinda laughed when she heard the melodic hum which meant the link was still up. The bug had found something and dug deeper for more details, expanding on associations.
"Let's see what we found out," she whispered in Edrori's ear, making the wiggly little boy giggle. "Maybe we'll find your grandma today. Wouldn't that be wonderful?"
She put her son down on his blanket and handed him a squeeze toy and settled her lean frame into the chair before the darkened terminal. As she sometimes did, Qinda paused to study her reflection in the screen. Her genetic mother had deposited her in the artificial womb when she was only four Lunes developed. From whom did she get her dark eyes and ebony hair touched with flame? Or her superior hand-eye coordination? Or her long, golden face with the high cheekbones? Or her talent for crystal circuits and data manipulation and piloting? Mother or father? And why had they abandoned her to the Cuestors' custody? What trouble were her parents in, and why had they never returned for her?
Qinda knew one or both of her parents could be dead; the Conclave was not a gentle star-community, with every planet a law unto itself and civilization only maintained by laws generated for the sake of profit and safe trade.
Every time she did a personal data search, Qinda's hopes rose. Once she found Loreen and the others, she would be one step closer to her answers. Smiling at her reflection, she touched the keyboard.
Qinda froze and stared at the swirling colors of Kayl's predator trap program. It set up a loop and maze to tangle and baffle any infiltration program attacking their private database.
How long had it been running? It was supposed to tangle the intruder long enough so they could shut down their system without damage. Supposedly in less than a minute. Qinda stared at the screen, trapped in the choices of what to do. One mistake could freeze her defenses long enough to let the enemy in. She and Kayl couldn't risk even a single byte falling into the wrong hands.
The screen flashed--something had changed and that wasn't supposed to happen.
Unless the trap had failed?
Qinda's hands slammed down on the keyboard, flying to shut down her link as the first characters of fleeing data scrolled across her screen. Ice filled her lungs and sent a knot through her guts--the intruder had broken through!
Edrori's laughter bubbled across the room, masking the dying whine of the power unit as it turned off. Qinda sat back from the terminal, sweat turning cold as it dripped into her eyes.
Three seconds of access, she estimated. Tops. How much had the intruder stolen?
Someone she knew, or just a nosy scavenger making a living at data brokering on the shady side of the law? But what law was there in the Conclave besides the law of 'might makes right'?
"Oh, please, Fi'in," she whispered.
The half-formed prayer froze on her stiff lips. The Cuestors had raised her on prayers and worship and reading the Spirit Books. Qinda's prayers dwindled after Guerdon died before her eyes and she found herself alone. She hoped her foster-parents had been right and the Creator didn't hold nine Sols of silence against her. She needed help now only Fi'in could give.
To protect against the enemy, she had to study the program used. Had the predator trap caught enough of the invader to identify it? That was the first order of business. What was the use of fleeing this haven of two Sols if she ran straight into her enemy's hands? She turned on the power and set to work with shaking hands.
Edrori was still happily playing--though he had abandoned his squeeze toy and was trying to remove his diaper--when Qinda had her answer. It was a hyber-spy; a program that attached itself to data, hibernated to hide from the security arms of search programs, then infiltrated systems seeking the host data. When 'awakened' it contacted the parent system. No damage occurred in the invaded system...until confidential data fell into the wrong hands.
Only the very rich and powerful could afford hyberspies. The programming was too delicate, too labor-intensive for casual programmers or independents to handle. Someone merely skimming the databases on every backwater planet wouldn't use such a program because it was tagged for specific information. The hyber-spy could only be used for one target. It was a waste of profit to use hyber-spies unless the operator was very, very rich and very, very interested in the object being searched.
This hyber-spy rode on a snippet about a nameless girl matching the bio-stats of one of Qinda's foster-sisters; killed in an explosion at the spaceport on Shandiili. Two sisters, one brother and their mother survived her. Could they be Loreen Cuestor and other foster-children?
More important, was it a trap?
* * * *
Qinda had all their data disks encrypted and snapped out for travel, all Edrori's supplies packed and had started on her and Kayl's clothes when her husband flew up the stairs to their loft. Edrori lay on the bed, playing with his toes and babbling to his mother. His face lit up and he squealed delight when he saw his father enter their tiny bedroom. Even with all her worries crashing down on her, Qinda's heart skipped a beat and she smiled as always at how father and son were mirror images; olive skin, gray eyes, and round faces topped with shaggy blue-black curls.
"Haynash's hub ship is in port." Kayl dropped to his knees next to Qinda in front of their clothes chest and wrapped his dusty, sweaty arms tight around her.
"She never lands her hub ship. She knows I'm here." Qinda had gone past tears or fear or even anger, into that state of calm that let her see clearly and plan. It was the only way she had survived, alone until she met Kayl.
"She knows we're here," he corrected, and cradled her close, his body shaking from running all the way back to their river-hugging farm in the afternoon heat.
"No." She clung to him, memorizing the feel of his arms, the sweet-salt smell of his clean sweat, the smooth roundness of muscle under his summer-weight clothes. "She never noticed you when we were on her ship. But if she knows we're married without her permission--"
"We never needed her permission." Kayl tried to laugh, but his voice broke.
"That cosmic hag thinks my genetics are hers to command. She'll kill you because you gave me a child she didn't order. She'll kill our son, unless Edrori meets her standards." She took a deep breath, feeling tears threaten. "We have to split up."
"What is my life worth if either of you dies? We have to separate," she whispered, and tried to push free of the comfort of his arms. They had work to do. With Gorigya Haynash's main ship on their colony world, they had little time.
"No." Kayl shook her. He knuckled away angry tears when Qinda twisted free. "If she catches you--"
"She needs me alive. If she sees us together, she'll kill you, and I'll never convince her I can be converted to her view. If you're free, I have a reason to fight and live."
Kayl was silent, pale with the pain of her common sense. He nodded and they embraced tightly enough that Qinda found bruises on her ribs three days later.
* * * *
Rivicka Anserno met them at the spaceport when they reached it before dawn; a skeletal woman with fiery green eyes and thick, glossy red hair pulled back in a braid that hung past her waist. There were times in the past when Qinda had reason to consider the acid-tongued woman a friend and guardian spirit. She nearly cried now, and wondered if Fi'in had sent Rivicka to help her once again. It had to be Fi'in who sent her; how else could Rivicka always show up when Qinda was in desperate trouble?
"Well, little one," Rivicka drawled as she stepped from the shadows of the gateway. "I guess the simple farming life doesn't suit you after all."
Qinda was too out of breath to snap back. Rivicka always brought out the sharp edge of her tongue, though the woman seemed to honestly care for her. Edrori chose that moment to lift his head from under his mother's cloak, peeking out of the gap into the shadows.
"What's this?" The sardonic twist of Rivicka's mouth trembled and a suspicious moistness glimmered in her eyes. She blinked hard and reached out, tugging away the edge of the cloak to reveal the sleepy little boy. "Taking up pets now, are you?"
"Our son," Kayl said.
"Oh, little one, worse and worse," the woman murmured. "You're not pure anymore. Have a child by common seed, you're tainted for life. Haynash will never forgive you."
"She'll kill my son and my husband," Qinda said, softening her voice so Edrori wouldn't understand.
"Trapped him for life, did you? I'm impressed. He has more common sense than I thought."
Qinda nearly laughed at that, because Kayl had sided with Rivicka when the woman insisted they risk everything they had, sell everything except their own skins, and get transport to the Commonwealth. They had worked crew with Haynash, who decided Qinda belonged to her breeding program--just after she became pregnant with Edrori. They had fled to save their lives. Gorigya Haynash destroyed those who would not obey.
Rivicka was silent, probably thinking backwards, calculating how old Edrori had to be, and realizing what had made them stop here instead of racing for the freedom of the Commonwealth.
"It's time to go to the Commonwealth," Kayl said.
"Yes, but not together. Not with Haynash dirtside. And other enemies." Rivicka's smile grew as thin as a blade. "But I think we can use our enemies against each other. Come."
She led them past the gate instead of inside the spaceport proper, to a long row of domed huts half-buried in the blowing sand outside the blast walls. Qinda and Kayl had spent two Lunes here in transient housing until they could obtain the equipment and seed for their farm. The land had been free; people willing to invest themselves on an agricultural colony world were the missing ingredient.
Rivicka palmed the lock scanner of the third hut in line and stood back as the panel slid open. She glanced in all directions for watchers as she gestured for them to hurry inside.
One look around told Qinda this was no transient stop for Rivicka. A shelf full of meal packs and entertainment cubes; a two-burner cooking pad; dirty dishes soaking in a sink; a cot half-hidden behind a curtain, with clothes strewn across it. Rivicka had been here for Lunes. Why?
Kayl slid their duffles off both shoulders and let his cloak fall across them. He took Edrori from Qinda so she could shed her own cloak and the two bags that hung from long straps criss-cross to rest at her hips. They made convenient seats for Edrori during their long night walk across the wastes between their river farm and the spaceport.
"Could I?" Rivicka asked, as Qinda settled down on the bench alongside the utilitarian gray-green table and Kayl handed Edrori back to her.
The hunger in her eyes made Qinda pause only for a moment. Nodding, she settled her sleepy little son into Rivicka's arms and watched the woman sit down slowly, carefully, as if she held something very fragile. For some reason she couldn't quite fathom, Qinda felt tears prickle at the backs of her eyes.
"If only my baby had been a boy..." Rivicka sighed. She brushed her cheek against Edrori's tangled curls, her face soft and wistful just for a moment. Then that scheming gleam came back to her eyes. "Well, little one. You're very good at hiding your secrets, but some come out no matter what we do, eh?"
"We've decided to split up," Qinda said. "Temporarily."
"Your man and this little pup don't have a chance if they're caught with you." The woman nodded, frowning. "Good plan. How will you keep contact?"
"We can't." Kayl's voice went flat. "We'll meet on Gemar. It's Commonwealth and ships go there on a regular basis. Whoever gets there first will find work and shelter and wait."
"Good...but not good enough." Rivicka let out a mirthless chuckle when neither one protested her comment.
By nightfall, they had a plan.
Rivicka gave them comm-chips; computer-link data chips coded in pairs to send encrypted messages. Qinda and Kayl could use any public communications station to record their messages, which would then be picked up by every ship that passed through for the next two Lunes. That information would then be included in data-dumps at every port of call for one Sol, at the end of which the file would disintegrate. Only the person holding the matching chip could retrieve the message. The advantage of untraceable communications no one else could read more than made up for the expense. Only Leapers and Spacers and government officials could afford to use them on a regular basis.
Rivicka found them temporary identities and jobs on two outgoing ships. Qinda had a place as medical assistant on the tramp freighter Nebula Core.
"And for you..." Rivicka chuckled as she turned to Kayl. "You're still a farmer trying to get back into space, but with a new name." She handed him the new identity chip to put into his tool wristband.
"What ship?" Kayl asked. "What position?"
"Oh, you're a hold drudge. Caderi's people don't let strangers work jobs any higher until they've proven themselves."
"Caderi?" Qinda kept her voice low; Edrori was finally asleep.
"How did you get me a berth on board a Caderi ship?" Kayl rasped. He sat down heavily. "I'm not ungrateful, Mistress Anserno, but Caderi nearly rules four star systems. He has enough people begging to work for him, you almost have to bribe someone on his staff to even consider hiring you."
"What is Caderi's ship doing here?" Qinda asked. "What is on sub-Maron Nine to bring his ship this far out?"
"Me, probably." Rivicka's grin turned mischievous. "He hates me. Isn't it ironic that the safest place for you is in my enemy's ship?" She chuckled and settled down next to Qinda with a swirl of her long desert robe. "Little one, have I ever caused you harm?" She waited until Qinda shook her head. "Trust me. I will not let anything happen to your loved ones. Caderi's people aren't looking for them. I told the cargo master the truth; a farmer with some techno skills and his little son need to flee enemies. The woman has a soft spot for motherless babies and she fancies herself a fringe member of the Order."
"She what?" Qinda had to laugh.
The Order was devoted to scholarship, charity and aid in Fi'in's name. The founder of the Order had helped rebuild civilization after the Downfall. The very idea that someone who worked for Adlan Caderi would follow the practices of the Order was almost unbelievable.
Qinda had to believe Fi'in had worked on their behalf. She vowed that she would pray every day, and she would find a copy of the Spirit Books and resume her studies.
"Don't laugh away gifts in odd places," Rivicka said. "Caderi's ship will take Kayl and Edrori far from here, and when they leave it they can go straight to Gemar. No one cares enough to follow them. You, however, need a slow and winding route. Never let anyone guess where you're headed. If your enemies realize you are leaving the Conclave..." Rivicka shook her head, the mischief fading into somberness that turned her eyes into lifeless green stones.
Qinda cradled Edrori close and tried not to feel the chill working through her.
Were they fools to try to find safety in the shadow of Rivicka's enemy? Adlan Caderi was a man with influence and holdings in so many star systems, he was a legend. Rumors said when space travel returned after the Downfall, the Caderi clan was first to reach to other planets for trade. The Caderi were warlords and pirates during the Downfall. Legitimate now, Adlan Caderi was someone whom the wise never angered or crossed.
If Kayl kept his head down, he could hide in the shadow of Caderi's power.
The hours clicked away as they planned their schedule for message drops. Rivicka laid claim to Edrori, rocking the boy when he grew restless and sneaking him treats when his parents weren't looking. Qinda had never seen this soft side of the woman before, though Rivicka had always been kind to the Cuestors' foster-children when she visited during Qinda's abbreviated childhood.
Morning came and Qinda's ship was ready to leave. Kayl and Edrori would find other temporary quarters, so if anyone back-trailed them, father and son wouldn't be associated with Rivicka. The four were unable to speak as they gathered their newly-divided possessions and Rivicka handed Edrori over to his mother for one last kiss and hug. The sleepy boy giggled when Qinda kissed his nose and chin and forehead and both cheeks.
As she kissed him, she silently said good-bye to the tiny body left behind on their farm; her daughter who had died the day she was born. Qinda had always known she would leave the grave behind, but not so soon, so hurriedly, in fear that wiped away her shreds of sorrow.
"Two Sols, at the most," Kayl whispered, as he drew his wife close for one final embrace. "Then, by Fi'in's grace, we will be free and safe in the Commonwealth."
"Fi'in's grace, perhaps, but not without a lot of sweat and care," Rivicka said. "Go, little one. Don't look back. You may feel safer, but never look over your shoulder once you start a journey. Looking back will slow you and make you second guess yourself. Once you do that, you're lost."
"I don't know how I'll ever thank you." Qinda hugged Rivicka.
The woman stiffened, then surprised Qinda by wrapping her arms tight around her for one rib-threatening moment.
"Keep your head down and pretend to be a nobody--that's how you'll thank me. Get to the Commonwealth, as far from the likes of Haynash and Caderi as you can. If Leapers offer help, take it. Always be honest with Leapers, no matter how much they frighten you."
Qinda nodded, dazed by that advice. How did Rivicka know?
Then the hut's door opened and Qinda stepped out into the dusty, half-lit street. It was time to go to her ship, for a voyage of five Lunes under the name of Chayna Obray. The identity would only last that long, then she would be Qinda Cuestor again. Someday, she promised herself, she would be Qinda D'Sral, when it was safe to use her husband's name.
She didn't look back as she heard the door hiss closed, barely masking Edrori's sleepy "Mama?" Qinda bit her tongue and clenched her jaw and refused to acknowledge the burning at the corners of her eyes. The dry, dusty wind stole the damp before a single traitor tear could travel down her cheek.