MacTague does it again… a fantastic end to the saga that has seen Jak and Torrin fight all sorts of battles, both physical and emotional. I love how MacTague mixes in the action scenes and conspiracy theories alongside the touching and sometimes angsty romance between Jak and Torrin. Neither the action nor the romance ever takes over completely, the balance is always spot on.
There wasn’t much left of the bread loaf in her hands, little more than the heel. Nat considered it carefully before breaking off a small chunk. She didn’t know how much longer she’d have to make the bread stretch. Her captor had taken off three days ago, leaving her a loaf of already-stale bread, some fruit and a couple of slices of meat.
“Make it last,” he’d advised her. “I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
Nat shivered. He gave her the creeps. When he looked at her, she was pretty sure he didn’t see a person. All he saw was a pawn in whatever game it was he was playing. She was unaccustomed to being at somebody else’s mercy and she didn’t like it at all. The first couple of days she’d spent in the tiny shack, she’d gone over every inch, looking for a way out.
The shack was a piece of crap. It was maybe three meters on a side and made of wood. There were gaps between many of the boards. She could tell that it had been painted at one time, but most of the paint had long since worn away. The gaps had given her a sense of hope that was quickly dashed. It might be a piece of crap now, but whoever had built the shack had known what they were doing. Maybe if she’d had a tool, something she could have used as a lever, but she had nothing.
The dirt floor was hard-packed and all Nat had accomplished when she tried to dig her way out was to bloody the tips of her fingers and to tear out three nails. He’d noticed, but hadn’t said anything. Somehow, that had been scarier than if he’d screamed at her. His blue eyes had simply traveled over her still-bleeding fingertips. A slight jump in his jaw muscles was the only indication she’d had that he’d taken note. That night she hadn’t gotten any food.
With trembling fingers, she popped the piece of bread under her tongue and sucked on it. Her mouth was immediately awash with saliva. The bread was hard as rock but tasted so good and she moaned slightly. The fruit was long gone. She’d learned after his first multiday absence to eat the fruit and meat first. They didn’t keep very long. The bread was hard to start out with and once it had gone stale, it would cut the inside of her mouth to shreds if she wasn’t careful. After the scant mouthful of bread had softened, she chewed it slowly, trying to make it last.
Wherever he was holding her was usually pretty quiet, but she would occasionally hear vehicles in the distance. She’d tried to get a glimpse of them from between the wooden slats of her prison but had yet to actually see anything. It wasn’t much of a surprise to her; the engine noises were usually very faint. If she could only see that there was some way of getting out, Nat could start planning her escape.
Her enforced idleness was as big a torture as the lack of food. At least she didn’t lack for water. When it rained, which was almost every night, the bucket by the door was filled through a short spout in the wall. That looked newer, and Nat suspected it had been added to the shack for her benefit. She wondered how long he’d been planning her abduction. A bitter laugh forced itself up from her chest, the sound surprising her.
He’d killed her partner before nabbing her. Nat rubbed her forearms, trying to warm the chill that moved through her. As long as she lived, she didn’t think she’d be able to forget Rudrani trying to keep the blood from spilling from her neck, then collapsing when her hands proved inadequate to the task. Nat’s hands hadn’t been any more successful. She’d had no chance to mourn before her captor had tranquilized her. She’d done little else since waking up in the shitty little shack. That and try to figure out why he had kidnapped her. She had the feeling that she wasn’t specifically necessary to his plan. That either one of them would have done. It had seemed to her at first that she was the lucky one, but from her current perspective it was starting to look like Rudrani was. At least her suffering was over.
One more shard of bread. She could afford that, at least. Her stomach ached, but she paid it little mind. It ached constantly. Even when he fed her daily, there still wasn’t enough. She placed the piece under her tongue, then pulled a couple of rags up around her. Dusk was falling. At least the gaps in the boards let her know what time of day it was, though they did very little to stop the wind or rain. Her first night, she’d learned to move the pile of rags that was her bedding into the middle of the floor and as far from the leaky walls as possible. Her shipsuit kept her warm enough during the day, but at night she got chilly and the rags helped insulate her a little bit.
As she moved the rags around in a vain effort to find a configuration that would both keep her warm and offer some comfort, the door opened. She scuttled back on all fours and looked up.
It was him, but her captor looked different; gone was the usual mask of indifference. For the first time, she could see real emotion on his face. He was excited, almost giddy, and his eyes gleamed in the dim interior.
“She’s here,” he said, smiling. “It won’t be long now.” He rubbed his hands together.
Nat stared at him. When she didn’t share his glee, his face lost some of its excitement.
“What do you want from me?” Nat asked, as she had every time she’d seen him since her abduction.
“Keep doing what you’re doing,” he answered. “It’s perfect.”
With that unenlightening answer he left the shack, closing the door securely behind him. Nat stared at the door. In another first, he’d come in armed with more than a knife. Slung across his back was a familiar weapon. It was configured a little differently than the ones she’d seen Jak use, but there was no mistaking it. It was a sniper rifle.
“Did it work?” Torrin’s voice was tense. Jak placed one hand over hers, trying to calm her edgy girlfriend.
Kiera stood and walked over to the wall. With a sweeping hand motion, she transferred the image from the tablet in her hand to the wall. A graph with peaks and valleys appeared from floor to ceiling. She stood in front of it and moved her hands in opposite directions, zooming in on one of the graph’s peaks.
“You see this peak?”
“This represents higher brain activity. We see this kind of activity when you’re actively thinking about something.”
“That second wave is still there,” Torrin said. She sounded vaguely accusing, and Jak tightened her hand warningly.
“That’s the problem,” Kiera said. “The treatment isn’t helping much. The additional brain activity comes and goes, but we can’t eradicate it completely.”
Jak nodded. “That makes sense. The information from that last data dump is degrading and…migrating, for lack of a better word. They usually keep a sharp lookout for soldiers who haven’t had their last memory dump purged, but with my situation, I fell through the cracks. The symptoms are pretty obvious after it gets to a certain stage. Soldiers get treated once someone notices they’re having problems.”
Her hopes had plummeted during Kiera’s explanation. While it wasn’t the first time Jak was seeing the results of a data dump degrading in someone’s memory, it was the first time she’d experienced it herself. She’d hoped the doctors in Nadierzda could treat at least the symptoms of her condition, but the continued disorientation she was feeling told her that her hopes were in vain. The treatment had cleared up some of the mental echoes she was experiencing, but the maps of Sector 27 still lurked, trying to superimpose themselves again and again upon her thoughts. They’d been downloaded into her brain via the port in her hand for the mission that had led her to Torrin. Unfortunately, those same maps were now leading to irreversible brain damage. They should have been removed months ago, but with everything that had happened, Jak had missed her chance. Thankfully, they’d lost less than a day with this procedure. She was all right for now, but no one knew when the corruption would overwhelm her. Jak thought they had some time, but she couldn’t say how much.
“So how do they treat the condition on your planet?” Kiera asked.
“Since your treatment didn’t work, there’s only one way that I know of.” Jak looked over at Torrin. She wasn’t going to like the answer. “I need to get the data dump removed, and you don’t have the technology. If you weren’t able to fix things when you were tinkering around inside my brain this time, then the data dump needs to be completely erased.”
“Oh no,” Torrin said, voice heated. “You are not going back. There has to be another way.”
“I don’t think there is.” Jak looked over at her lover. Two spots of color bloomed high on Torrin’s cheeks, evidence of how upset she was about Jak’s revelation.
“Can’t you go back in for another try?” Torrin asked Kiera. “Surely there’s something you can do here.”
“I’m sorry, Torrin.” Kiera’s face was grave. “I think Jak has the right of it. There’s simply no way we can treat her here. The last procedure had its own risks and I won’t do it again. Besides, to go further I would need to bring in a neurologist and a cybernetics engineer. We have a neurologist, but the only cybernetics engineer that I know of is on Castor III, getting your factory set up.”
“Then we go to Castor III.”
“Torrin, it’s not going to get any better.” Jak hated to see her worked up like this, but she had to make Torrin understand there was no other way. She wasn’t exactly ecstatic about going back to Haefen. While she had unfinished business there, she’d gotten used to the freedom of being herself. Going back to her home planet would mean putting the mask back on, and so soon after she had gotten a taste of what it was like to bare her real face to the world. “If I wait too long, they won’t be able to reverse the information transfer. I’ll end up as a vegetable.”
“Even if we go to Castor III with the right personnel, there’s no guarantee that we’ll be able to fix the problem,” Kiera chimed in, to Torrin’s visible irritation. “In my professional opinion, it’s time to talk to the experts.”
Frustrated, Torrin tried to glare at both of them at the same time. It was no mean feat as Jak and Kiera were on opposite sides of the room. “Are you ready for this? It’s not going to be easy.”
Jak grimaced. “I don’t know. I don’t really think I have much choice.” She squeezed Torrin’s hand again. “If you’ll go with me, I know I’ll be able to handle anything.”
“If you’re sure it’s the only way, then I guess you’re right.” Torrin didn’t look happy but seemed resigned to reality. Jak was a little surprised. She thought for sure Torrin would put up a big enough fuss that she would need to get firm with her. Maybe this was a sign that Torrin wasn’t going to go back to her old ways of trying to keep Jak swaddled away from all harm.
“Thanks baby,” Jak said. “I’m going to need your help. I really don’t know how I should present myself when we get back there.”
Torrin cupped the side of Jak’s face with her hand. “I think you should go as yourself. You’re amazing and they should know exactly how amazing you are.”
“I’m glad you feel that way, but you don’t know how it is there.” She closed her eyes and turned her face into Torrin’s hand. “If they find out I’m a woman, they’ll discount everything I have to say.” Her people were remarkably hostile to women, though not as hostile as their enemies. The Orthodoxans made the Devonites look like the most enlightened bunch in the galaxy, and since her time on Nadierzda, Jak knew they were anything but. She’d worn the breastbinder for years and putting that thing back on was the last thing she wanted to do. Stomach acid tried to churn its way up her esophagus. Jak swallowed hard to force it back down.
“I can see you have things to discuss.” Kiera smiled at the two of them. She was a lot less tense around Torrin than she had been the last time Jak had been at the clinic. “I’m going to continue on my rounds. Jak, I want you to stick around for a day so we can make sure that you won’t have any complications from your treatment. I’m pretty sure we’ll be able to release you tomorrow.”
“Thanks for everything, Kiera.”
“You’re welcome. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t want to see you any time soon after you’re released.”
Jak nodded vigorously.
“We’ll have you over for dinner once this is all over,” Torrin said. She turned to Jak. “It will be good for you to get to know her out of the clinic. She’s pretty great.”
Kiera smiled at them again and left the room, doors hissing open to let her pass. Torrin looked into Jak’s eyes and grasped her hands tightly. “If you want to go as Jak Stowell, the mighty sniper that the Devonites knew, I’ll support you. But I think you’re doing your people a disservice. Most of them treated me pretty well. Your General Callahan especially. And they all knew I’m female.”
“How could they miss it?” Jak raked her eyes lasciviously over Torrin’s frame. “You’re gloriously female.”
“Stop that.” Torrin swatted Jak lightly on the chest. “You’re in no condition for that kind of activity right now.”
Ruefully, Jak had to concede that Torrin was right. Her head still pounded, most likely from the aftereffects of day-long brain surgery. Thankfully, the doctors had taken care of the worst of the problems she’d been suffering from days of exposure and dehydration. Kiera hadn’t offered any painkillers. She should have asked. “I don’t suppose you can ask the nurse for something for my head?”
“Sure I can.” Torrin gave her a look, her heart in her eyes. Jak wondered if she was going to say the three words she longed to hear. For a moment, she was almost certain that Torrin would say them, but she stood up and headed out of the room after a long silence.
Torrin does love me right? Jak knew she loved Torrin. She’d loved her since their trek across the Haefonian wilderness. Even when she thought Torrin had cheated on her and Jak’s heart had been rent in two, a part of her had been unable to let go.
Torrin had first told her she loved her when Jak was in the hospital recovering after everything had gone south with Tanith and she’d ended up wandering the countryside for days. Why hadn’t she said it again? Had she only said it because she thought Jak was about to die?
Not that she’d said anything to Torrin either. But…what if she was misreading the signals and Torrin didn’t really love her? Jak didn’t think she could be reading them wrong, not by that much. Still, something held her back. It wasn’t the right time, she finally decided. After all, it was barely a day since they’d been reunited and Jak had spent much of that time in the care of her doctor.
Torrin returned a few moments later followed by the stout nurse that Jak remembered. “We talked to the doctor and she’s prescribed a pain blocker.” Torrin resumed her place at Jak’s bedside.
“I guess they can’t give you the strongest medication, not with the treatment we put you through, but it should take the edge off.” The nurse smiled at her encouragingly as she pushed a medication into Jak’s IV drip. It didn’t take long before Jak felt some of her pain recede.
True to the nurse’s word, the pain wasn’t completely gone, but it was at a much more manageable level. Jak received a pat on the leg from the nurse before she left.
“That was weird,” Jak said.
“What do you mean?”
“The nurse. She was being all nice to me. Last time I was here, she was all business.”
Torrin laughed. “Everyone’s concerned about you. You’ve become a minor hero. The local news keeps hounding me for updates on your condition. Even the Ruling Council wants to know when you’ll be well enough that they can talk to you.”
They do? Jak was confused and her consternation must have been visible on her face.
“It was terribly brave, what you did. Not only did you kill a vicious animal that was terrorizing the countryside, but you unmasked and escaped from a traitor in our midst. You have to understand, this planet is more like a small village. It’s a safe place and not much really goes on here, so when something out of the ordinary happens, everyone wants to know about it.”
Jak pushed herself up into a sitting position, her back against the headboard. Everyone knew about her? Her skin crawled and her face heated. She worked best flying just under the radar. Sure, in the Devonite forces, a lot of people had known about her, but they hadn’t known who she was. Not really. No one had. No one except Bron. The idea that all of these women not only knew who she was but were also following reports of her exploits made her feel incredibly vulnerable. Exposed, even.
“There isn’t anything that interesting about me.” She stared at Torrin, horrified. “All I did was what I had to at the time.”
Torrin grinned. “There’s plenty interesting about you. And the best part is, you’re all mine.” Now it was her turn to look concerned. “You are, aren’t you? We haven’t talked about it, not really. We’re back together right?”
“If that’s what you want.” Jak watched Torrin, making sure she was answering correctly. “I mean, I only broke up with you because I thought you were cheating on me. And then I find out that Tanith set the whole thing up, and all to get back at you. There’s something really wrong with that one. She hates you.”
Torrin wore a rueful grimace. “We hadn’t gotten along for years. Growing up, we were best friends. Somewhere along the way, she turned our friendship into a competition. I didn’t even know we were competing, but I guess I was winning, at least in her mind.
“At least we don’t have to worry about her again. Her ultralight was found in the sands not far from the cliff where you shot the tiger. There was plasma damage to the fuselage, and it looks like she crashed.”
“Did you find her body?”
Torrin looked pained at the question. “No, we didn’t. That’s not unusual though. The sands are brutal and they’ll swallow up a body in no time, dragging it down. The ultralight was already half-buried when the Banshees found it.”
“I don’t know.” Jak hoped Tanith was dead. The lunatic was in a unique position to do a lot of damage if she was alive and had found a way to make it off the planet undetected. She shook her head and grimaced slightly at the resulting pain. “I’ll believe she’s dead when I see her body.” The feral grin on her face was ugly, she knew. “Am I wrong to hope that she’s alive somewhere so I can have the pleasure of taking her out?”
“I know what you mean.” Torrin nodded somberly. “I found out she was the one behind my trip to your home world. The Orthodoxans were supposed to kill me or at least get me out of her hair. I bet she was royally pissed when I came back, better than ever and with you.”
“I guess I should thank her then. If it weren’t for her, I’d never have met you. I’d still be moping around on Haefen, trying to avenge my brother and hiding in plain sight.”
“I bet it drove her nuts knowing that without her interference, we wouldn’t be together.” Torrin stood up and squeezed herself onto the bed with Jak. There wasn’t a whole lot of room, but they’d gotten the maneuver down the first time Jak was here after her disastrous thawing from cryostasis. Jak slid over to give her as much room as possible and Torrin lay on her side, an arm wrapped around Jak’s waist. She leaned her head on Jak’s shoulder. They lay together for a few minutes in companionable silence.
“Why does the Ruling Council want to see me, do you think?” Jak asked after the silence stretched a little too long. Torrin shrugged, the motion carried through her shoulder to Jak’s torso. It was nice to have Torrin’s lanky body pressed against her again. For so long, she’d felt that she was immune to the need for companionship. Jak had scoffed internally at the men in her unit who mooned over one woman or another. She finally understood. It was something she hadn’t known was missing from her life until she’d found it. The weeks Torrin had been gone after she thought she’d walked in on her with her ex had been so long and empty. It wasn’t companionship in general that she craved, it was Torrin’s company in particular. She smiled and snuggled in to Torrin’s warm body.
“I don’t know. Maybe to congratulate you for finding out about Tanith.”
“Hmmm.” Jak snuggled tighter up against Torrin.
“So when do we leave?” Torrin asked.
“Soon, I guess.” Jak closed her eyes. Now that the pain in her head was back to a reasonable level and the warmth of Torrin’s body wrapped around her, she was getting tired. “I should talk to the council first.”
“Your health is more important than talking to a bunch of old biddies who only want their curiosity satisfied.” Torrin’s voice was indignant and she squeezed Jak around the waist again. “You can talk to them when we get back.”
“It’s all right. I’ll let them know I can see them tomorrow, before we head to Haefen. We can leave the day after that. It won’t really add any extra time.” Jak smiled; Torrin would appreciate where she was going with this. “If they can’t make time in their busy schedule tomorrow to see me, than I can stop in on them when we get back.”
“Excellent plan,” Torrin said. Jak kept smiling, content in the knowledge that she had somebody who cared for her. The thought made her warm inside as well as out. Knowing Torrin would be there when she woke up, she closed her eyes and allowed sleep to take her away.
Torrin waited until Jak’s breathing slowed. She stayed, wrapped around Jak, for longer than she should have. There were arrangements to make, but she was enjoying simply being with Jak, even if she wasn’t awake. She’d missed her so much. Her body craved Jak’s touch and now that she had it again, she was loath to let it go. It still didn’t seem quite real. After the heartache and depression of the past weeks, her heart felt so light and free that Torrin was surprised it didn’t float out of her chest. It was a feeling she never thought she would experience. It seemed her footloose days were over. Far from mourning the loss as she once thought she would, she was glad. Happy. Giddy, even. A grin unfurled, unbidden on her face. They’d talked and were back together and she was never letting Jak go.
Torrin’s arm tightened across Jak’s abdomen, pulling a quiet moan from her sleeping lover. She let go in a hurry and checked to see if she’d woken her. Jak resumed the deep rhythms of sleep when she could breathe again.
It was time to go, Torrin decided. She stayed snuggled against Jak’s too-thin rib cage for a few more precious moments. Finally, steeling herself, she unwrapped herself from Jak with delicate precision. She stood by the side of the bed and watched her sleep. A little longer, that’s all, she told herself.
Finally, when she couldn’t put off leaving any longer, she reached over and gave Jak’s hand a quick squeeze goodbye and left the room. The duty nurse waved at her as she passed by the nurses’ station. Kiera was nowhere to be seen, so she didn’t stop. The clinic doors hissed open and Torrin stepped into Nadierzda’s hazy sunlight to be greeted by a group of waiting reporters. When they saw her, they rushed over. It wasn’t a large group, but Torrin quickly realized there were representatives from all the planet’s news organizations. There were reporters from news organizations who didn’t even distribute in the Landing crater. They talked over each other, trying to get her attention.
“Over here, Torrin!” A woman waved a tablet over her head, trying to snap a holopic.
“What is Captain Stowell’s condition?”
A third woman shoved a small holorecorder in her face.
Torrin knew Jak’s story had gained a lot of media attention. Or at least, a lot for the small planet. She’d been teasing Jak about it, but she hadn’t realized quite how badly word of Jak’s condition was desired.
“Um, no comment,” she choked out into the recorder. She wasn’t about to violate Jak’s privacy without checking with her. Torrin knew that Jak wasn’t fond of the limelight. If their positions had been reversed, Torrin would have eaten up the attention. She felt ill at ease basking in Jak’s reflected glory and tried to push her way through the small crowd. It wasn’t that she begrudged Jak the attention. As far as she was concerned, everyone should know exactly how amazing she was, but not at the price of Jak’s discomfort. She in no way wanted Jak to feel that she was using her.
“Is it true that Captain Stowell is suffering brain damage as a result of Major Merriam’s assault?” The woman with the holorecorder wouldn’t give up. She followed along at Torrin’s side. Torrin shoved women out of her way, trying to rid herself of the persistent newswomen.
“What?” The question was close enough to the truth that Torrin came to a sudden stop in the crowd. “Who told you that?”
“So it’s true?” The crowd tightened around her as the reporters scented blood in the water. Torrin was hemmed in on all sides. She’d made a tactical error, she realized. Now that she’d stopped moving, it was harder to get going again. The noise level in the crowd rose as the women yelled competing questions to her.
“Ladies!” A strong voice cut through the din and they all looked to the source. A small group of Banshees stood at the crowd’s edge. Captain Axe Yozhin stood at the head of the group and raised her hands. “I need you to hand over Miss Ivanov. She’s been summoned before the Ruling Council.”
Good deal, Torrin thought. For me and for the reporters. Things had been about to get hairy. She’d been about to start swinging to get them to move. Grudgingly, the small mob parted. She strode through their ranks and nodded gratefully to Axe.
“Thanks for the assist,” she muttered. “That wasn’t going to end well.”
“No problem,” Axe said, as quietly. “Let’s get this over with.” She took Torrin by the elbow to escort her away from the disappointed reporters. She glanced back over her shoulder at the reporters and raised her voice a bit. “You might want to stop by the Ruling Council chambers in two hours. They will have a statement to make on the situation.”
Torrin lengthened her stride to keep up with the blocky captain. She was actually taller than Axe by about ten centimeters, but Axe set a grueling pace. She was also built like a fireplug. Torrin had no doubts that if she’d wanted to, Axe could have tossed her over a shoulder and carried her wherever she wanted to.
“I’ll head over to the office,” Torrin said when they’d gotten out of view of the reporters.
“No, you won’t,” Axe replied evenly. “I have orders to convey you before the Ruling Council. They’ve set up an emergency meeting to talk to you about Jak.”
“That wasn’t just a line of bull that you made up for the reporters?” Torrin grimaced. She was on a deadline. She had to make sure everything was set in motion to get Jak back to Haefen as quickly as possible. Going before the Ruling Council would only delay her. She had planned to comm the council from her office and tell them that they could meet with Jak the next day, right before the two of them left.
“Afraid not. We’ve brought a vehicle for you.”
“I can get there on my bike.”
“My orders are very clear on this. We’re to escort you in front of the council. Apparently you’ve made a habit of ignoring their directives.”
Torrin shrugged. “They have a habit of letting me know they want to see me after I’ve already left the surface.” She didn’t like feeling as if the Ruling Council had her at their beck and call. It was true that on some previous occasions, she’d ignored their summons and left the planet instead. It wasn’t like she had that option now, not with Jak under observation at the clinic. They had her cornered. She sighed. “All right, let’s get this over with.”
She was escorted over to the first of two large antigrav sleds modified to carry personnel. Banshees milled around the two vehicles and the open back already held half of the Spec Ops women. Axe jumped into the passenger seat at the front and gestured her to take a place in the back.
“Is this really necessary?” Torrin asked. She didn’t need a full squad of commandos to drag her in front of the council. Three would have sufficed. She was a little pleased though. Clearly the council understood that the only way she would be muscled into something against her will was with the application of a whole lot of brute force.
“The council told me to make sure you couldn’t resist their request.”
“A brace of Banshees makes it a command.”
The other Banshees took up places in the second sled. Olesya waved at her from the passenger seat and grinned broadly when Torrin glared at her. Let them think that she was displeased with her treatment.
Women watched them curiously as they wended their way through surface streets to Assembly Hall. Military activity outside of the base was limited to training exercises that were conducted far from human habitation. So many of Nadierzda’s women were the products of oppressive societies. The Ruling Council was well aware of that fact and did its best not to remind them of their past, and so the militia was kept as divorced from the citizens’ daily life as possible. Sometimes, however, it couldn’t be helped.
Torrin noticed more than one couple, arms around each other, some clutching children to them, as the small convoy drove past. Jak’s words rang in her mind, cautioning her about the security breach that Tanith represented. Even with the bitch dead, they didn’t know what information she’d passed on and to whom. She hoped a more pronounced military presence didn’t become these women’s new reality. Never for a minute did she believe that the local militia would become the oppressive force that some of these women remembered and feared. Instead, she worried that they would realize that the increased presence was there for a reason and start wondering what that reason could be.
Instead of pulling up to the wide steps in front of the hall’s main entrance, the two sleds pulled up to a side entrance. Axe and Olesya hopped out of their sleds and Torrin followed, but more slowly. It wouldn’t do to seem overeager. She’d considered what the council could possibly want from her and the possibilities were sobering. Torrin never approached negotiation from a position of weakness if she could help it, and now wasn’t the time to start. She needed to keep everyone off balance until she knew exactly what was going on. A few half-formed guesses weren’t enough.
Axe preceded her through the nondescript door and into the somewhat dingy hallways behind it. Olesya took up the rear—making sure she didn’t make a break for it, Torrin guessed. They negotiated their way through the maze of hallways and offices until the captain and lieutenant stopped in front of a door as featureless as the rest. The halls were narrow enough that they had to stand aside when a bureaucrat or minor functionary came scurrying down the hall toward them.
It had been a long time since Torrin had been in the government offices that took up the back half of Assembly Hall. It never ceased to amaze her how different the offices were from the impressive and elegant gathering hall. It was as if the architects had decided they needed to balance the grandeur of the hall with the insignificance of the offices. Not for the first time, she wondered if it was a tactic to keep the members of Nadierzda’s governing body from feeling too self-important. The crappy, windowless offices would kill the ego of most women she knew.
In response to Axe’s peremptory knock, the door slid open, revealing a small conference room. The seven councilors, one from each of Nadierzda’s districts, looked over at the open doorway. They were grouped at one end of a long table. It was clear they’d been interrupted mid argument.
Councilor Yozhin motioned them to take their seats. As the eldest councilor, she was considered first among equals, and the others acquiesced to her leadership, though some more grudgingly than others. She nodded to Axe, and as always when Torrin saw them together, she was struck by the family resemblance. Both of them had the classic Yozhin hatchet face. Prominent, beak-like noses framed by eyes hard enough to strike sparks off steel made Axe’s nickname no mystery. Torrin hadn’t been able to find anyone who remembered what her given name was; everyone simply referred to her as Axe.
“Captain Yozhin, that will be all. Thank you for the prompt execution of your order.” So today was not the day that Torrin would find out Axe’s real name. She’d half-hoped the councilor would let it slip, but no such luck. She did wince slightly at Yozhin’s use of the word “execute.” No one had been officially executed on Nadierzda’s surface, at least not in the official histories she’d read. With the planet’s pirate background, she suspected that their early history had included more than one state-sanctioned death. These days, however, the only executions that happened were carried out by the Banshees during their rescue operations.
Tanith might have actually been the most recent exception. To be honest, Torrin wasn’t even sure if the Nadierzdan penal code included capital punishment. She would be surprised if it did. It did include exile. Tanith would likely have been banished from the crater system with little to no supplies. Not an official death sentence, but for all practical purposes the result would have been the same. With what the psychopath had done to her first girlfriend and what she’d almost done to Jak, Torrin wouldn’t have shed a tear, even though they’d once been the closest of friends. Those days were long gone. If she’d caught up with Tanith before she was pulled down by the treacherous sands, Torrin would have pulled the trigger herself.
“Have a seat, Torrin.” Councilor Yozhin waved her to the only empty chair at the table. “We have some questions for you.”
“About what?” Torrin eyed them suspiciously as she sat down.
“First things first. How’s Captain Stowell doing?”
“She’s doing well. She said she can see you tomorrow for a little bit, right before we leave for her home planet. The doctor is keeping her overnight for observation.”
Yozhin sat back in her chair and folded her hands beneath her breasts. “That’s excellent news.”
“You will postpone your trip.” Councilor Tachay leaned forward and drove a finger into the table’s surface for emphasis. “We will block your clearance to leave the surface if we need to.”
“That won’t be possible. Jak needs medical treatment that only her people can provide.” Torrin glared at Tachay. They hadn’t gotten along since Torrin had dallied with her daughter. Lynnie hadn’t really minded when they’d broken up. Torrin had seen her socially a few times since then but had never rekindled their brief romance. It seemed her mother resented Torrin’s actions more than her daughter had and continued to hold them against her.
“Nevertheless Torrin,” Yozhin said. She added her glare to Torrin’s and Tachay sat back in her chair, disgruntled. “Surely delaying your trip by a day or so won’t hurt. We need to discuss important issues with her.”
Torrin was unwilling to give in without a fight. “You’ll have to run that by Kiera. If she says it’s all right to delay, then we will. But not without the doctor’s say-so.”
“That’s a reasonable request.” She raised her hand when Tachay looked ready to interrupt. “It’s not why we wanted you here though.”
“What is then?” Torrin was already wearied by the council and she’d only been there a few minutes. Bunch of busybodies, trying to tell her what she could or couldn’t do. Her relationship with the Ruling Council was sometimes contentious. She didn’t appreciate when they tried to exercise control over her business. Sure, there were times when it was prudent for her to keep them apprised of what she was up to and they had a duty to keep the planet safe and hidden. More often, their interference felt like meddling, like they had some power and thought they had the right to exercise it over all aspects of her life. No one had that right, and she wasn’t shy about telling them when she thought they’d overstepped.
“You were close with Major Tanith Merriam?” Councilor Mashir asked. She was the youngest of the group, a few years younger than Torrin’s chronological age. She represented the smallest crater group, one that was almost exclusively agricultural. Her election to the council had been a bit of a surprise; she was the youngest member they’d had in years. Torrin actually liked her, in no small part because she imagined the councilwoman’s relative youth irked the other council members to no end.
“I haven’t been close with Tanith for years. Decades almost.” They’d been extremely close, almost sisters. “She got…competitive. Couldn’t stand losing. Apparently, she killed my first lover when she wouldn’t leave me for her.” Jak hadn’t been very lucid when she’d related that part of the story, but Torrin had understood well enough. Back then it had never even occurred to her that Tanith would kill Galya, but now it made only too much sense. She had tried to track Galya down, she’d been that head over heels in love with her. She’d been so hurt when there was no trace of her and she’d assumed that Galya had disappeared on purpose.
“So you don’t know who she was involved with?” Mashir probed further.
“Romantically?” When the council didn’t crack even one smile, Torrin continued quickly. “I do know that my ex, Breena, was involved in a plot to set me up and wreck my relationship with Jak. There was also that gangster on Tyndall. Beyond that Monton knew her, I don’t know how closely they worked together.”
“Major Merriam often left on trips, ostensibly to procure weapons for the militia. She may be dead, but we don’t know who her contacts were. We’ve been unable to locate Breena. It looks like she left when the truth about Merriam came to light. Her ship left the surface without clearance. It may be that she is on her way to them.” Mashir looked her in the eye. “Are you sure you can’t think of anyone else who might be close to her?”
Torrin shook her head. “I’m sorry, I don’t. Like I said, I haven’t had anything to do with her for years. Some of the Banshees might know or other members of the militia maybe.”
“This is a waste of time,” Tachay said, glaring at Torrin like it was her fault she hadn’t kept up with Tanith. “We need to be doing something about this, not wasting time talking about it.”
“And we will,” Yozhin said. “But we need to find out as much as we can, to minimize the damage.” She turned to Torrin. “Tell Captain Stowell that she is to report to the council tomorrow immediately following the noon hour. We will clear it with her doctors. This is important, Torrin. Try to understand that this is bigger than any one person. We know Jak understands.”
Torrin stood up so quickly that her chair shot back across the smooth floor. “I’ll tell her, but it’s up to her if she comes. Her and the doctor.”
“It’s not up to her, Torrin.” Yozhin stood and the other councilors followed her lead, rising to their feet as one. “As the heads of Nadierzdan government, we are summoning Captain Stowell to a war council to prepare the planet for possible attack or invasion.”
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