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GCLS Goldie Awards — Finalist, Debut Novelist.GCLS Goldie Awards
In the Midst of Tribulation — Finalist, Lesbian Speculative Fiction.
The corridors of the spaceport were a seething mass of people. Striding through the crowd, Julian Mont’criff danced around a woman struggling with several pieces of luggage and three crying children. One of her bodyguards was not so lucky. After a sharp glance from her, he spared a moment to set the child he had knocked over back on its feet before rushing to resume his position guarding her back.
With the planet less than fifty cycles from invasion, everyone was trying to escape. So many desperate people were shouting, crying and pleading for passage to safety to any who would listen. The swirling chaos battered against Julian’s psyche, and the bitter tang of fear was sharp in her nose.
Julian and her entourage were heading for the section of the spaceport that held one of two remaining luxury liners. As the youngest daughter of the system’s ruling family, she had a secure berth on a ship that would not leave orbit without her. Her stomach churned with the knowledge that her privileged status was affording her an opportunity few others had. The fact her parents and two older siblings were staying on the planet did nothing but add to the acid in her gut.
Julian glanced up as they passed by a wall of monitors that usually displayed arrival and departure information for the busiest spaceport on the planet. Instead, they all displayed the same satellite telemetry of the outer reaches of their system. Approaching rapidly was a fleet of over a thousand ships. The armada was so numerous it appeared to be a solid wall of doom. The largest of the blips on the screen were battle cruisers, but even the smallest had more firepower than the ring of far-orbital defenses they had eradicated on their destructive swath toward the capital planet.
She shook her head in disbelief. Just seven days ago the Imperial Republic of Atropos had sat serene at the center of a six-planet system and she had been happy in her work as a healer on an isolated isthmus, far away from the political machinations of the capital. Surrounded now by the fetid odor of hopelessness, she longed for cold, clear air beneath the cloudless cerulean sky of her home.
The contrasts between the life she had left behind and her current race to safety was as stark as when the militaristic Babwe had swept aside the outposts along the border of their system like so many pieces of plas-film. After five hundred years of peace, the Atropos military was only suited for pageantry and the personal security of the royal family, not planetary defense.
In fact, all of the Atropian strategic alliances over the past century had been made for trade, not for mutual protection. The only real hope for the planet was for someone to make an appeal before the Universal Trade Conclave to condemn the Babwe invasion and to demand they relinquish control of the ground they had already seized.
This plan rested entirely on her politically unsavvy shoulders. She glanced at the four members of Royal Security Force assigned to escort her safely to the Unity home world of Helios where the headquarters of the Conclave Committee of Nations was located. They probably had forgotten more about diplomacy than she ever knew.
Julian adjusted the shoulder strap of the heavy valise containing the documents supporting her upcoming appearance and fought against an overwhelming sense of despair. Some of the feelings were residue from the people around her but more came from the knowledge that even her success would do nothing to bring back the dead. Her father had told her she was the survivors’ only hope, and his words echoed in her ears.
She tried to hide her fear beneath the large hood of her cape. Despite their panic, the fleeing citizens responded to the distinctive scarlet cape of an empath and tried to get out of her way. They did not extend the same courtesy to the members of her retinue. The members of her newly appointed staff had quite a bit of trouble keeping up with her and her bodyguards through the crush.
Julian felt a stabbing pain in her abdomen and abruptly stopped. It caused a cascade reaction as the rest of retinue stumbled to a halt around her. “Sorry,” she said absently as she pulled back her hood.
The commander of her bodyguards, Mikhail, stepped forward and pivoted to put his back to the wall so he could see both her and the crowd. Glaring out at the congested walkway, he growled, “We don’t have time for this.”
“There is something wrong here,” Julian replied as she extended her hand toward the solid-seeming metallic surface.
“You know I can’t do that.”
“We must get you on board the ship. It will not stay in orbit once the Babwe clear the last of the asteroid defenses, no matter who your parents are.”
Julian smiled at him. He was quite distinguished in his dress uniform and with his short-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. She remembered him claiming to have earned every gray hair on his head watching over her as she grew up. “You should have left with your wife instead of trying to keep me out of trouble.”
“And leave you to these youngsters? My hand weapon is older than they are.”
“They must be pretty good to have been chosen for this assignment.”
“Oh, there’s no doubt of that. I checked them over myself.”
“Then why don’t you trust me with them?”
“I have my duty, Your Highness. I am grateful for the arrangements you made to get my family off-planet. I have enough to handle with you, and I am just glad that I don’t have to worry about my wife as well.” He tapped his timepiece. “Please, we need to keep moving.”
“Just a minute. I can’t ignore the call,” she said, laying her hand on the smooth metal wall. Or at least what should have been solid metal. Her hand went right through the wall and, shaking her head, she stepped through what should have been a solid surface.
She found herself in a disused vendor alcove that had been disguised by the camouflaging. It was completely filled with a mass of boxes, equipment and four startled off-worlders. For a moment they stood in a frozen tableau, staring at Julian as she stared back at them.
The only woman of the group looked from Julian to her companions. Her blond hair was pulled severely back from her face, and her piercing gaze reminded Julian of the eagles that flew among the pristine white mountain peaks of her home.
“Did the concealment shielding fail?” the woman barked to her associates.
“No way.” The dark-skinned, heavyset man tapped on his handheld tablet. “No one can see through that.”
Wide-eyed, Julian gazed around the small space and smiled at the thought of all these people hiding in practically plain sight. The smile left her face as someone moaned from the floor. She looked down and saw an older man lying on a pallet. His eyes were closed and deep lines of pain were etched on his face. She pulled off her gloves and walked over to him.
“Hold it right there.” A young man with skin and hair the color of late-season honey stepped between her and the wounded man. “What do you think you’re…?”
His voice trailed off as two of Julian’s retainers joined them in the space. At the sight of the three people around their charge, her guards drew their weapons. Julian used the distraction to evade the blond woman’s outstretched arms and the young man’s feeble attempts to stop her. Shrugging off her cape, she knelt beside the injured man, laid a hand on his forehead and centered her awareness. After a brief moment, she closed her eyes and reached blindly toward his hands, which were clenched tight against his belly. As she concentrated on the injury, gradually, almost imperceptibly, the tense form beneath her hands relaxed.
Julian shook out her hands and expelled the breath she had been holding. She then opened her eyes and looked down into the eyes of the now-conscious and quite surprised man. “How do you feel now?” she asked.
“I don’t think I have ever felt better. What did you do?” He laughed and touched his belly. “Never mind, I don’t think I want to know.” Shaking his head, he asked, “Can I get up?”
“You certainly can’t stay here with the Babwe heading into the system,” she answered.
He moved gingerly, slowly rising until he apparently realized the pain that had been incapacitating him was well and truly gone.
She waved off the hand he extended to help her up. When she made it upright on her own, she swayed slightly.
Mikhail stepped close to her and handed her a flask filled with caramel-colored liquid. It was a mix of herbs and tree bark steeped for a span in the sun, and it tasted vile. She grimaced as the pungent tincture coated her tongue. She only forced it down because it replenished the energy she expended in healing.
Taking the flask back and sliding it into his jacket, he whispered, “I really must insist we get to the ship.”
Julian patted his arm. “I have a better idea. I will go with them instead.”
The room exploded in deafening shouting as her retainers and the foreigners all argued against the idea.
Finally, the recently healed man roared, “Silence.” When they quieted down, he focused on Julian. “Two questions.” At her nod, he continued, “Why do you want to go with us, and why should we take you anywhere?”
She laughed. “How did you get on-planet and hide yourselves?”
The small group of foreigners exchanged glances. At their puzzled expressions, Julian laughed again. “You’re smugglers. I stand a better chance getting off this planet and to my destination in your ship than in anything else.” She looked around the room at their astonished faces and then returned her attention to the tall man. “And I saved your life.”
“You’d blackmail us?” the woman spat.
“No,” Julian said. “If I were intent on blackmail, I would have demanded passage before healing him. I just want to bring your attention to the debt. Besides, I will pay you what I would have paid for passage on the Queen Beatrice.”
“You can’t possibly consider this,” Mikhail pleaded.
“I can and I will,” Julian responded icily before looking back at the leader of the group. “You should take me with you because I will pay you and not hinder you.” She waved a hand at the half-packed containers that surrounded them. “And I am sure you would be happy to skip our customs inspectors. Even in this time of panic, I doubt what you have in there can stand scrutiny. I can ensure you get away cleanly.”
Once again the group exchanged glances. Finally, the much-older man nodded at the man she had recently healed. He had a manner of quiet dignity that went with his neat and tailored clothes and sculpted beard. “It sounds like a good deal.”
“Too good a deal,” the woman muttered.
The newly recovered man smiled at that. “It’s a risk I think we should take.” He stuck out his hand. “All right. I’m Captain Phillip Tices, and I welcome you aboard.”
Julian drew her gloves back on before shaking his hand. “My name is Julian, and these are my men.”
“We hardly have the space to take you; we certainly can’t take them,” the woman interjected.
“Clarice is right,” Phillip said. “We can only take you.”
Julian put a hand out to silence Mikhail’s immediate disagreement. “I can agree with that.” She turned to Mikhail. “Look at it this way. If our invaders hear of you three and the rest of my staff getting on the Queen B, they will naturally assume I am on it with you. If we all disappear, they might start searching or destroying every vessel in the quadrant.”
He nodded reluctantly. “That’s why we tried to get you on a less populous vessel.”
“These people have got ways of getting into places undetected. I’d be a fool not to take advantage of the opportunity.”
“Please,” Mikhail beseeched her. “Your mother will have my head if anything happens to you.”
Julian reached out a hand, and they clasped forearms. “You have been on my heart’s side since my Naming. Neither I nor anyone else questions your loyalty. This is a question of survival and me reaching my final destination. You know this could work.”
“But can they get you where you need to go?”
“I think they’ve made a career out of avoiding official attention and can more easily get me where I must go.”
“This plan is crazy,” he answered, “but it just might work.” Mikhail turned to the smugglers. “How long before your group is ready to leave the planet?”
Phillip shrugged and turned to the oldest male. “I’ve been out of it for a bit. Petric, where are we?”
“Four cycles at the earliest, counting getting all this stuff stowed on board and getting approval for takeoff.”
“Where is your ship berthed?” Mikhail asked.
“At level nine, alpha five, dock six-twelve,” Petric replied.
“Promise that you will take her on board and deliver her safely to her final destination.”
Phillip cupped his right hand over his heart and then extended his arm. “You have my word and my pledge. May my heart be ripped from my chest and fed to the beasts if I fail.”
Feeling a little queasy at the wording of the oath, Julian shook his hand.
Mikhail pulled out a handful of silver bars from the satchel at his waist and held them out to Phillip. “This is equal to the fare we paid on the Queen. I trust it will be sufficient.” Barely waiting for Phillip to take the funds, Mikhail continued, “We will meet with you at your ship in two cycles.” He motioned for Julian and the other guards to go back toward the corridor. “After you.” Glancing meaningfully at his charge, he whispered, “You and I have things to talk about.”
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