"Go, go, go, go!” Squishy waved her arms, shouting as she did.
She stood in the mouth of the corridor and watched as scientist after scientist fled the research station, running directly toward the ships.
The corridors were narrow, the lights on bright, the environmental system on full. It would have been cold in the corridors if it wasn’t for the panicked bodies hurrying past her. The sharp tang of fear rose off them, and she heard more than one person grunt.
“Go, go, go!” She continued shouting and waving her arms, but she had to struggle to be heard over the emergency sirens.
An automated voice, androgynous and much too calm, repeated the same instructions every thirty seconds: Emergency evacuation underway. Proceed to your designated evac area. If that evac area is sealed off, proceed to your secondary evac area. Do not finish your work. Do not bring your work. Once life tags move out of an area, that area will seal off. If sealed inside, no one will rescue you. Do not double back. Go directly to your designated evac area. The station will shut down entirely in . . . fifteen . . . minutes.
Only the remaining time changed. Squishy’s heart was pounding. Her palms were damp, and she kept running her fingers over them.
“Hurry!” she said, pushing one of the scientists forward, almost causing him to trip. “Get the hell out of here!”
Another ran by her, clutching a jar. She stopped him, took the jar, and set it down.
He reached for it. “My life’s work”
“Had better be backed up off site,” she said, even though she knew it wasn’t. The off-site backups were the first thing destroyed, nearly three hours before. “Get out of here. Now!”
He gave the jar one last look, then scurried away. She glanced at the jar too, saw it pulsating, hating it, and wanting to kick it over. But she didn’t.
She stood against the wall, moving the teams forward, getting them out. No one was going to die this day.
A woman clutched at her. “My family”
“Will find you. They’ve been notified of the evac,” Squishy said, even though she had no idea if that was true.
“Are they far enough away?” the woman asked, clutching at Squishy.
What made these people so damn clingy? She didn’t remember scientists being clingy before.
“They are,” Squishy said, “but you’re not.”
She pushed at the woman, and the woman stumbled, then started to run, letting her panic take over. They’d had drills here: Squishy made sure of that when she arrived, but apparently no one thought about what the drills actually implied.
And this was no drill.
Her ears ached from the sirens. Then the stupid automated voice started up again.
Emergency evacuation underway. Proceed to your designated evac area . . . .
She tuned it out, counting the scientists as they passed. There was no way she could count a thousand people, not that all of them would run past her anyway. But she was keeping track. Numbers always helped her keep track.
Her heart raced, as if it was running along with everyone else.
Quint stumbled out of the side corridor, his face bloody, his shirt torn. He reached her and she flinched.
“We have to evacuate,” he said, grabbing her.
“I’m going to go,” she said. “I want to make sure everyone’s out.”
“They’re out,” he said. “Let’s go.”
She shook her head. “You go. I’ll catch up.”
“Rosealma, we’re not doing this again,” he said.
“Yes, we are,” she said. “Get out now.”
“I’m not leaving you,” he said.
This was not the moment for him to develop balls. “Get out, Quint. I can take care of myself.”
I always have, she thought, but bit back the words.
“Rosealma,” he said. “I’m sorry”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” she said. “Get out.”
And she shoved him. He lost his balance, his feet hitting the jar. It skittered across the floor, and she looked at it, wondering what would happen if the damn thing shattered.
He saw her. “Do we need that?”
“Aren’t you listening?” she said. “You’re supposed to leave everything behind.”
“You didn’t make the rules,” he snapped.
She pointed up, even though she wasn’t sure if the automated voice came from “up” or if it came from some other direction. It did rather feel like the Voice of God.
“Those aren’t my rules,” she said. “They’re the station’s. Now hurry. I’ll be right behind you.”
“Promise me you won’t do anything stupid, Rosealma,” he said.
“When have I done anything stupid?” she asked, sounding calmer than she felt. Sometimes she thought that everything she had done was stupid. Hell, she knew that everything she had ever done was stupid. That was why she was here, to make up for the stupid, and it wasn’t coming out so well.
“Go,” she said.
He gave her an odd look and then hurried, half-running, half-walking down the corridor. Twice he glanced over his shoulder, as if he expected her to follow.
The corridor was emptying out. No one had run past in at least a minute. The damn sirens sounded even louder in the emptiness.
Emergency evacuation underway. Proceed to your designated evac area . . . .
“Shut up,” she whispered, wishing she could shut the stupid voice down. But she didn’t dare. She needed everyone off this station.
She needed everyone to live.
Nineteen Years Earlier
The mood on the skip was tense. The light was terrible. The tourist was lying next to the door, unconscious, blood covering his face. The three women running the dive stood near the control panel, looking down at him.
None of them wanted to help him. Rosealma knew that without consulting with the other two.
“He hasn’t even gotten off the skip yet,” Turtle said. She was thin and looked strange in her environmental suit. She hadn’t put on the helmet, and without it, she really did look like a turtle.
She had gotten the nickname long before Rosealma met her, but Rosealma understood why the first time she’d seen Turtle in her environmental suit with her tiny head sticking out of it.
“Just because they have money doesn’t mean they have brains,” said the spacer-thin woman leading this little dive. She wouldn’t tell anyone her name, insisting on being called Boss.
Rosealma didn’t call anyone Boss, particularly a thirty-something woman whose only claim to the job title was the fact that she owned the skip that was taking them to the celebrated space wreck.
Still, this Boss promised good money for the practice dive, as she called it, and if the dive worked out, then both Turtle and Rosealma could join her team of divers. Boss wanted to take divers to real wrecks, unexplored wrecks, not the historic wrecks that tourists wanted to see. But she couldn’t do that without government funding, and Boss never took money from the Enterran Empireor so she said.
“Look,” Rosealma said, squatting beside the stupid tourist. “I have some equipment. Let me see what I can do.”
“We need to get him back.” Boss ran a hand through her short cap of chestnut hair. “He needs a medic.”
“I am a medic,” Rosealma snapped.
Turtle looked at her in surprise. The two of them had been sleeping together for six months, and Rosealma hadn’t told Turtle about her background. Or, rather, Rosealma hadn’t told Turtle much about her background, including her medical training and her various scientific degrees.
“Then get to it,” Boss said. “I don’t think he’ll appreciate getting an infection on top of losing the eye.”
“He’s not going to lose the eye.” Rosealma grabbed the skip’s medical kit from beside the control panel. Then she took her own tools from the bag she carried on every single trip.
“He’s going to lose the eye,” Boss said stubbornly, and she didn’t sound sympathetic.
Rosealma wasn’t sympathetic either. The guy really was an idiot. He had a tiny knife and he had been gesturing with it, explaining to Boss how he would cut just a small bit of the historic wreck as a souvenir, and how it wouldn’t hurt the wreck at all.
Boss had gotten angry and told him that if he was going to cut up the wreck, then she wouldn’t take him to it. He had leaned toward her, shaking that little knife, blade up, and said, I’m paying you, honey, to take me to that wreck, and if you don’t put me on it, then I’m not paying for anything.
You already paid a deposit, Boss had said.
I’ll take it back.
Just try, she had said, and smiled.
He had leaned toward her, waving that blade, and the skip had lurched just enough so that he had lost his footing. He had let out a little squeak, and had fallen forward, the knife skittering out of his hand, leaving a tiny blood trail on the skip’s floor.
Rosealma had glanced over her shoulder at the crucial moment. Turtle had been standing near the control panel, but she hadn’t been touching it.
Or at least, she hadn’t been touching it a second after the skip lurched. What she’d been doing a second or two before the lurch no one would ever know.
“The idiot sliced through his own eyeball,” Boss said.
“I don’t know why you let him come on board with a weapon,” Turtle said.
“I didn’t,” Boss said. “The thing was small enough for him to conceal.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Rosealma said. “If you move away, I can help him.”
“I almost wish you wouldn’t,” Boss said.
“Then you’ll get sued,” Rosealma said, although she didn’t know if that was true.
She crouched over the stupid tourist, tilted his head back, and cleaned the blood away from the eye. Then she used her handheld to magnify the eyeball.
Just like she thought. He had nicked it, making it bleed. Most of the blood came from the socket, not the eye itself.
She had an entire stash of lenses. Too many cases of laser blindness had made her cautious. The lenses would graft onto the eyeball, and serve as a protection until the victim could get to a real medical facility.
Boss was watching. Turtle leaned over.
“Squishy,” Turtle said.
“What?” Rosealma asked.
“It looks squishy. Is it?”
Boss uttered a shaky laugh, and looked at Turtle. “For a minute, I thought you were calling her Squishy.”
“Why not?” Rosealma muttered. “One name is the same as another.”
She worked on the eyeand noted that it was a little squishybut she didn’t tell them that. Then she patched him up, but she didn’t give him anything that would wake him. He needed to heal and they didn’t need to listen to his bluster. He wasn’t going to get to dive his precious little historic wreck, and Rosealma doubted he would get his deposit back, no matter how hard he protested.
Boss turned the skip around and headed back to her larger ship, Nobody’s Business. For the rest of the trip, Turtle called Rosealma Squishy, and giggled.
The name stuck.
The corridor was empty. The sirens continued to wail, and the androgynous voice repeatedly informed Squishy that she had only five minutes to evacuate.
She reached down and grabbed that jar. It was warm. She wondered what the hell it actually was. She knew what it wasn’t. It wasn’t a functioning anacapa drive.
But it might have been a malfunctioning version of it, missing the various pieces that actually made the anacapa function.
She carried the jar to one of the side rooms and set it inside.
Then she took one last look around. It hadn’t been a bad research station. The station had been well designed and well equipped, although all of the state-of-the-art protections, all of the one-of-a-kind technology couldn’t help it now.
She tapped into the control panel on the wall, looking for heat signatures and individual life tags. Everyone who was supposed to be here was tagged, and should show up on the panel. Everyone who wasn’t supposed to be here should show up as a heat signature.
She was the only heat signature and had the only tag. In a place that normally housed a thousand scientists, she was the only one who remained.
She let out a small sigh of relief.
The sirens sounded even louder than they had before, probably because the station was empty. All of the spaceships had left as well, except for her designated evacuation vessel. She opened its systems, checked to make sure it was empty, then shut it down.
Finally, she punched in an access code, opening previously sealed corridors, then sprinted out the door.
The androgynous voice accompanied her.
Emergency evacuation underway. Proceed to your designated evac area . . . .
She wanted to tell it to shut up, but of course it would shut up involuntarily, and not too long from now.
She ran as fast as she could down the escape route she had set up more than a month before. She wasn’t in the best shape any longer, even though she had made certain to exercise every day. It didn’t matter. She couldn’t run as fast as she used to.
She wondered if that would make a difference. Maybe she should have gone to her designated evac area.
As if to mock her, the androgynous voice was telling her to get to that evac area.
Do not double back. Go directly to your designated evac area. The station will shut down entirely in . . . five . . . minutes.
“Shut up,” she whispered, using precious breath. She was breathing harder than she expected.
She skidded around the last corner, putting out a hand to catch herself, then headed to the last remaining ship.
It wasn’t quite a single ship and it wasn’t quite a skip. It was a modified cruiser, one she had designed herself and parked on the station when she first arrived months ago.
She reached into her pocket, clicked the ship’s remote, and ordered it to start, hoping the station’s systems did not prevent the remote access. She had set them up so that they wouldn’t, but everything changed in an emergency.
Do not finish your work. Do not bring your work. Once life tags move out of an area, that area will seal off . . . .
If she survived this, she would be hearing that stupid voice in her sleep. Small price, she supposed. Maybe she could try some lucid dreaming and shoot out the voice.
The doors were open to the docking area. The stupid voice was lying about everything being sealed off.
Well, not lying exactly. Unable to cope with directions Squishy had programmed long ago. She wanted her ship, not some designated evac vessel that she couldn’t control. She hadn’t even checked her dedicated evac vessel for supplies and provisions, although she made sure her cruiser was well stocked.
The station will shut down entirely in . . . three . . . minutes.
She ran up the ramp. The door to the ship, which she had rechristened The Dane in a fit of whimsy, stood open. She hurried inside, slammed the lock, shot through the airlock and into the ship itself.
Only two meters to the command chair, and she crossed those faster than she had run through the corridors. She slammed her open palm on the controls, recited the Old Earth Standard nonsense poem she had learned in the last year, and the controls came on.
Then she hit the preprogrammed escape plan and the ship roared into life. It rose and headed toward the docking doors faster than they were opening.
She cursed and hoped there was some kind of failsafe for those doors, because she didn’t want to slow down and she didn’t want to hit them and she certainly didn’t want to be here with the station about to blow.
At the last second the doors seemed to slam openshaking the wall as they hit, which had to sound like slamming, although she couldn’t hear anythingand then she was free of the place.
The Dane zoomed away from the station as fast as the ship could safely go without hitting FTL. She turned the screens onto the station itself, imagined that snarky automated voice continuing its countdown to the now empty station:
The station will shut down entirely in . . . five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . . .
She raised her head, expecting to see the station blow into a million pieces. Instead it remained intact and she wondered if she had gotten her count wrong. She hadn’t really been paying attention to the clock. She’d been running, not counting minutes.
Her heart was pounding and she was breathing hard. Her palm had left a damp print on the controls.
She stared at the screens and wondered, for the very first time, if she had gotten it all wrong.
Nineteen Years Earlier
The woman sitting at the edge of the bar wasn’t pretty. She was too thin, her head too small, her features not clearly defined. She wasn’t even a womannot quite, anyway. She was probably eighteen if she was a day, but she pretended to be older, and that had caught Rosealma’s attention.
That, and the woman’s cap of brownish-blond hair. The hair was choppy, clearly cut by the woman herself. Her long fingers were wrapped around a mug of some kind of ale, and she looked lonely.
Maybe it was the loneliness that caught Rosealma. Or maybe it was the woman’s sideways glances. Rosealma tried not to watch her, but there was something, something interesting, the first interesting thing Rosealma had seen since she’d left Vallevu.
The bar was old and seedy, the space station not much better. Rosealma had used the last of her hazard pay to get here, and really didn’t want to leave. She had placed six months’ rent on a berth that wasn’t much more than a bed, an entertainment wall, and an unlimited supply of reading material from the station’s rather eclectic (and ancient) library.
At the moment, she was staying off the grid. Not because anyone was looking for her, but because she didn’t want to be bothered. And so far no one had. One old spacer had told her she had the “look.”
It’s your eyes, he said, leaving off the endearment she had heard him use with other women on the station. You got that long stare. You seen stuff, stuff I’m not sure I want to hear about.
He was right: he didn’t want to hear it. She didn’t want to tell him. She didn’t want to tell anyone. She didn’t want to talk, not about her past. She wanted to pretend that her life had started here, on this stupid station, way out at the ass-end of nowhere.
The young woman glanced at her again, and Rosealma lifted her own mug of ale in a kind of toast. The woman smiled. She tilted her head sideways as she did so, as if she couldn’t quite believe she had caught another person’s attention. She might even have been blushing.
The bar owner, who was also the bartender, shouted at someone near the entrance, something about non-payment of a bill. Rosealma didn’t listen. Out here, everyone was short of money, and everyone wanted something for nothing.
She found it was easier to remain quiet about everything, to be ignored rather than draw attention to herself. She had come as close to disappearing as a human being could without actually losing her identity and starting all over.
The woman at the end of the bar glanced at Rosealma again, then looked at the seat next to her.
Rosealma’s breath caught. She wasn’t sure if she should walk over. If she had a flirtation with the woman, then she would be noticed, and everything would change.
Still, she hadn’t had a real conversation in six months, and surprisingly, she missed talking. Not about trivial things like the quality of the ale or the best place to eat for the fewest credits, but about ideas and politics and science and the things that people talked about when they were laughing and relaxing with each other.
She missed interaction, and she’d never thought she would.
She sighed, stood, and grabbed her mug of ale.
Then the lights flickered out, and her stomach floated. She recognized the moment as it happened: the gravity had changed. The lights came back on just as she floated upwards, her ale floating with her, the glass emptying and beads of liquid dotting everything around her.
No one screamed like they would have had this been planetside, although a few people cursed as their beverages took on a life of their own. The chairs and tables were bolted down, but the mugs weren’t, and neither was the ice or the bar snacks or the lemons, olives, and cherries.
She and everyone else in the bar were in the middle of a choreographed mess, which would only get worse when the gravity returned to normal.
Behind her, the bar owner shouted, “You son of a bitch!” and that was when she realized that the gravity change wasn’t some kind of malfunction; it had been planned, probably to get money out of the bar owner.
She glanced at the woman and was startled to see how lovely she looked, her cap of hair spiking upward, her long limbs gangly no longer. The woman looked at home in zero-g, as if floating was her preferred method of travel.
She used the tops of chairs to slowly propel herself toward Rosealma.
“It looks like there’s trouble,” the woman said, glancing toward the main entrance. The bar owner was shaking his fist, propelling himself backward as he did so, probably the only person in the entire bar who wasn’t used to zero-g.
Rosealma couldn’t tell which of the people floating around him had made him angry, and she really didn’t want to find out. She smiled at the woman.
The woman’s eyebrows went up, giving her smile a wry cynicism. “Wow, that’s a mouthful. You don’t have a nickname?”
“Do I need one?” Rosealma asked.
“Everyone out here has a nickname. It’s easier.”
“Yeah,” the woman said. “That way we don’t have to clarify which Rose or Alma we’re talking about. We don’t need last names or even first names. We’re just too damn lazy anyway.”
And then she laughed. The laugh was raspy and deep, and Rosealma realized that the woman hadn’t been eighteen for a long time. She was at least in her mid-twenties, maybe older, and she had seen as much or more as Rosealma had.
“What’s your nickname?” Rosealma asked.
“Turtle,” the woman said. “You know what a turtle is?”
“Some kind of Earth creature.”
“Earth hell,” Turtle said. “The little ones are all the way out here. Some ships have them as mascots.”
“You’re someone’s mascot?”
Turtle grinned at her. “Naw. I look like a turtle.”
“You don’t,” Rosealma said, although she wasn’t exactly sure what a turtle looked like. “You’re the prettiest thing in this bar.”
Turtle smiled and tilted her head again. Her cheeks did turn red. “You be careful,” she said, “or I’ll start thinking you’re flirting with me.”
“Maybe I am flirting,” Rosealma said, startled at her own boldness.
Turtle’s smile grew. “Then we should get out of this bar before the gravity changes. It’s going to be a mess and I’ll feel obligated to clean it up.”
“I don’t feel obligated to anything,” Rosealma said. Which wasn’t true, of course. She felt obligated for everything, and sorry for even more, and the weight of everything, from the regrets to the losses to the destruction of all of her dreams, threatened to crash her to the floor quicker than a gravity change.
“So you’re running away,” Turtle said. Her tone was businesslike, not curious. She wasn’t asking a question, just stating a fact.
“No,” Rosealma said. “You have to care to run away.”
Turtle studied her for a moment, the smile gone. Then she nodded once. “Well, then, I need to run away from this bar.” She extended her hand. “You want to come along?”
Rosealma looked at Turtle’s hand, with its long fingers and visibly chewed cuticles. Rosealma took it almost before she realized she had made a decision.
“Let’s go,” she said, “and never look back.”
Turtle raised their joined hands. “Deal,” she said.
The station blew.
It started in the middle. A glow built, then expanded. The center disappeared in the light, and that’s when Squishy realized it was imploding.
She slammed her palm on the control panel, her fingers grasping for the FTL command. It took four movements to launch FTL, and her shaking hand made all four hard. It felt like the movements took forever, even though it probably only took a few seconds. Still, she had to get out of here.
Silently she cursed herself for wanting to see it go.
The Dane winked out, the images vanishing from the screen, and as they did, she collapsed in the command chair, hands to her face. Her heart was pounding and she was feeling just a little queasy.
She had pulled it off, and no one died.
“You want to explain to me what the fuck just happened?”
The male voice made her jump. She had thought she was alone. She had assumed she was alone. She hadn’t even checked to see if anyone had gotten into The Dane. The Dane would have masked a heat signature from the station’s control board. She would have had to ask The Dane as she got into the airlock, and she had been in such a hurry, she hadn’t thought of it.
She was such an idiot.
She dropped her hands slowly, making herself breathe as she did so. She wanted to seem calmer than she was, even though he had seen her jump.
She recognized the voicehow could she not? She had lived with it for years, and when she heard it again, even after the loss of decades, it was as if she had never been away from him.
She turned her chair toward him.
He leaned against the entrance, arms crossed. There was only one other room in this cruiser, and he had probably been waiting in it. She hadn’t bothered to check. Her mistake.
The blood had dried on his face, black and crusty, outlining the wrinkles he had allowed to appear on his skin over the decades. The ripped shirt was gone, though, replaced by his uniform’s brown jacket. He probably hadn’t looked at his reflection. He probably didn’t realize the blood was still on his face, if he had even known it was there in the first place.
The fact that he was on her ship surprised her. Not because he figured out it was hers, but because it took some stones to avoid the evac ships and wait for her, stones she hadn’t realized he had.
She hadn’t answered his question. He raised his eyebrows, silently asking it again.
“The station blew up,” she said. “Or it was blowing up, just like we knew it would. I just hit the FTL. The last thing we want is to be near that part of space. There’s a good chance that explosion could open an interdimensional rift.”
He frowned. “A what?”
She almost smiled, but she didn’t. She had distracted him. He hadn’t really been asking about the station before.
“An interdimensional rift.” She swallowed. “The stealth tech was unstable.”
“It’s always been unstable,” he snapped. “You know that better than most.”
She nodded. She did know it better than most. That was why she was here. But she wasn’t going to tell him that. At least, not yet.
“Yes,” she said. “But this time, the entire research station paid the price instead of a few volunteers.”
“A few . . .” He shook his head. She could almost read his mind. They both knew that it wasn’t a few volunteers who had paid the price over the years. It had been hundreds of people, most of whom hadn’t volunteered at all, unless their induction into the Enterran military counted as volunteering.
“Only this time,” she said, “no one died.”
“That you know of,” he said.
“I do know,” she said. “In fact, I’m certain. That’s why I left last. I made the computer system check for anyone else.”
“And if someone else was on that station, what would you have done?” he asked. “With five minutes left, what would you have done?”
“Something,” she said, knowing her answer was inadequate, knowing that it was probably wrong. What would she have done? What could she have done?
At that point, nothing. Maybe opened a few corridors, prayed that whoever was trapped would get out on their own. Could get out on their own.
“Something.” He snorted. “Don’t lie to me, Rosealma.”
Amazing how all of the old patterns came back as if time hadn’t passed at all. Time was such a strange thingfluid and rigid all at once, existing in different dimensions at different speeds, and yet happening right now, this instant, moving forward, never backward.
Or at least, not backward yet.
“How come you didn’t go to your evac ship?” she asked, then felt a moment of panic. They hadn’t waited for him. Had they?
She made herself take a deep breath. They hadn’t. She had checked, made certain that all of the evac ships had left before she had.
She wondered if he saw the thought flick across her face. It had been decades, but he still knew her too. And it was taking him a long time to respond to her question.
“I wanted to make sure you got out,” he said, and she felt a surge of anger. Even the anger didn’t dissipate over time. It was like being an alcoholicone drink, one surge of angerand everything came back as if it had never disappeared.
“Don’t lie to me, Quint,” she said in the exact same tone he had used.
He tilted his head. The expression used to be attractive on his unlined, youthful face. On his older blood-covered face, it was a bit ghoulish.
“I’m not lying to you, Rose. If you’ll remember, I tried to get you out earlier.”
“I do remember,” she snapped, “and I told you to leave. You did. But you didn’t go to your evac ship, and now I want to know why.”
He stared at her.
“What if I hadn’t come here?” she asked. “You would have died. This ship is tied to me. You couldn’t have gotten it out of the station.”
“But you did come,” he said softly.
And he had known she would. She had asked the wrong question. The answer to her initial question was simple: he had come here because of her. What she should have asked was this: how did he know she would be here?
She stared at him, feeling a tug. She wanted to continue the fightit was familiar, it was comfortable, it was how they relatedbut she also wanted to get him the hell off of this ship. She had no idea who he really was now. She had changed a lot in two-plus decades. He probably had, too.
“The ship is registered to you, Rose,” he said after a moment.
She felt her breath catch. She hadn’t expected him to answer her.
“You still use my name,” he said.
She shrugged a single shoulder. She used his last name because it was her last name, at least in the Empire. Quintana. Young and naïve and supposedly in love, she had taken his name and had become the wife of Edward Quintana, better known as Quint. He had had a nickname then. She hadn’t.
“I saw no reason to change it,” she said.
“Never remarried?” He didn’t ask if she had ever fallen in love, ever had another relationship. Quint was about the legalities. He had always been about the legalities.
“No,” she said.
He remained silent so that she could ask What about you?, but she didn’t.
“Me, either,” he said after a moment.
She nodded once, then swiveled her chair away from him, and looked at the control panel. She tapped the coordinates, altering them. She couldn’t go to the rendezvous point nor could she go back to the Nine Planets Alliance, not with him on board.
She wasn’t quite sure where to go, so she programmed in a station at the edge of Enterran space.
“You changing our course, Rose?”
“Just making sure it’s correct,” she said, feeling a bit breathless. It was hard to lie to him, just like it had always been. Her cheeks warmed. Somewhere inside her was that young girl who thought she had fallen in love.
“Tell me what really happened on the research station,” he said.
“I don’t know,” she said, not facing him. “Some kind of chain reaction is my guess. There should have been better protections for working with stealth tech.”
“Scientists have worked on stealth tech for years,” he said. “No research station has ever blown up.”
“Scientists had never had a dedicated site to work on stealth tech before,” she said. “I suspect that was the mistake.”
“Why?” There was something in his voice, something new. He didn’t trust her.
Of course he didn’t trust her. She had left him, then divorced him. She had never given him the courtesy of an explanation. She always figured he knew.
Only when she got older, and her relationship with Turtle decayed, did she realize that each person experienced the relationship differently. He probably hadn’t understood what happened, any more than Squishy could explain why her relationship with Turtle died on a disastrous dive with Boss ten years ago.
“Why would that be a mistake, Rosealma?” His voice sounded strangled as if he was trying to pull the emotion from it.
“I believe stealth tech builds on itself.” Or at least, the kind of stealth tech the Empire was developing. They were only working on one small part of what turned out to be a powerful drive used by the Dignity Vessels. The anacapa drive was dangerous in experienced hands. In inexperienced hands, it was deadly.
As she had learned repeatedly over the years.
“And your belief is based on what, exactly?” Quint asked.
She swallowed hard. She didn’t want to answer that honestly.
“I came back to stealth tech research a few years ago,” she said.
“When you left Vallevu?” he asked.
She turned, surprised. He hadn’t moved, arms still crossed, head still slightly tilted.
“I still have friends there too, you know,” he said.
She hadn’t even thought of that. She could have checked up on him in the two years she lived there without him, but she hadn’t even tried. He wasn’t someone she thought about.
She didn’t want to think about him, even with him standing right there.
“Yes,” she said tightly. “After I left Vallevu.”
“I couldn’t find you anywhere after that,” he said.
“I didn’t realize you were looking,” she said, refusing to be relieved. She didn’t want him to know she had gone to the Nine Planets Alliance. She didn’t want to tell him anything.
He shrugged. “The Empire had no record of your work after you got discharged.”
“You checked,” she said, feeling cold.
“When you got here,” he said, “you better believe I checked. You’d taken up a medical practice on Vallevu. I had no idea why you were back in stealth tech. I’m still not sure I believe it, not after so long an absence.”
“Sometimes the Empire doesn’t keep records about its researchers,” she said.
“I can access most records,” he said. “Even the ones they don’t keep.”
She felt cold. “You can’t follow everything.”
“I can try,” he said.
Her heart was racing. He wasn’t threatening her, was he? Was he here because he knew what she’d been doing, because he understood that her purpose on the station hadn’t been benign?
For the first time, she wasn’t exactly sure how to handle him.
She had to give him something. She wasn’t sure why; she just knew that she did.
“I worked salvage for a while. I gave the Empire a mostly intact Dignity Vessel back then. If you check the payouts, you’ll see one to me.”
He continued to watch her, as if he didn’t entirely believe her. If he mentioned that the same Dignity Vessel had exploded about two years later, then she would know she was in real trouble.
Instead, he sighed and let his arms fall to his sides. “Salvage, Rose?”
It was her turn to shrug. “Once a cargo monkey, always a cargo monkey,” she said with less levity than she had planned.
“Still,” he said, “someone as brilliant as you shouldn’t work salvage.”
“I needed time off from being brilliant,” she said. “Being brilliant kills people.”
“And working salvage doesn’t?”
She thought back to the dive that had caused her to break up with Turtle, the dive that had cost the lives of two other divers because Boss hadn’t believed that Squishy had known what she was talking about. Squishy had known that the Dignity Vessel they had found was dangerous, and Boss wouldn’t listen. The deaths weren’t the worst of it. The deaths had simply been a symptom of the way that stealth techimperial stealth techseemed to drive everyone insane.
“Do you ever hate your life, Quint?” Squishy asked.
He studied her for a few minutes. She could see him trying out and discarding several answers, including the first onethe truthful one, whatever that may have been.
“No, I don’t hate my life,” he said. “Why?”
Because, maybe if he did, they could talk. Maybe if he regretted all he had done, they could talk.
But he didn’t, and she knew that meant trouble.
Copyright © 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch