This is a somewhat revised draft, so there are some inconsistencies with previous chapters. For example, I’ve renamed the “extreme fitness challenge” to the “Atlas Challenge” and other such stuff. The main story hasn’t changed, and there are still some awkward phrases, typos, and some fine details missing. I’ll also be adding additional background for people who haven’t read the Folding Space Series. I’ll publish two new chapters next week. Enjoy!
Warning: To avoid having issues with book retailers when I publish, I will be deleting Chapters One through Eighteen the week before I post the last chapter, which is Chapter Twenty. You have been warned! Read fast!
See Chapter One here.
Q yelled, “Hah!”
Groans sounded. “Seriously?” Kylr asked. “How do you keep winning?”
Q looked him straight in the eyes. “I cheat.”
The young Gov Human military member stared back, then laughed, shaking his head. “No, you don’t. You’ve just got whip-fast reflexes.”
He was right. She’d gotten faster since she started training for the Atlas Challenge. But Q was kind of cheating, too, because she’d played every single variation of this game already. The game designers asked Adzari Academy to test it, so designing and writing testing protocols became a third-year student project, while the first-years got to do the actual testing. Q sighed, remembering. The game was fun the first fifty times or so, then it was just drudgery. It was back to being fun now because of the company, not the game itself.
She hadn’t appreciated being dumped off in the junior enlisted recreation compartment like a little kid at a care site, but this group of first-tour military was fun. They came from all over the universe, mostly core system worlds that were jam-packed giant cities. Q would love to see a planet-city, but she’d never want to live there. Omicron was close enough.
“Let’s go, Q!” Winby exclaimed, bouncing enthusiastically in her cloud-chair. How could she move that much in the squishy bag-chair? Winby was super-sweet and an organizational wonder—she’d been the one to group all of them into teams on various games, so they could all get some play time, even though few of them knew each other and there weren’t enough systems. Q helped by setting up temporary links between team members’ e-torcs, making Winby her new best friend.
Q shook her head with a smile. “I need a break, Winby. Go ahead without me.”
“If you insist.” She turned to the rest of her team. “Come on, let’s go.”
Sauntering over to the bev station, Q noticed that, despite Windby’s best attempts, there were several people not joining in the fun. A few appeared to be completely immersed in vids or books on their own, but there were also a couple who looked uncomfortable, nervous, or maybe even scared. Well, if she hadn’t been thoroughly terrorized over the last couple of years, she might be scared too.
Stuck in space on a fold transport or a station with nowhere to run, in a military structure that took away your personal freedoms and put control in your superior’s hands, with a whole bunch of people you didn’t know or trust could be a scary situation. Gov Human’s military said they did a great job weeding out predators and providing oversight and channels for reporting, but Q had already seen signs that wasn’t completely true. But she’d also heard several recruits talk about the military being their only way out of a terrible home situation. If they got the wrong commanders, could it turn into something worse?
From what Q saw in Familia, selfish, evil people tended to find each other, so if a recruit had a bad boss, it wasn’t unlikely the next person up the chain of command was just as bad, if not worse. It was probably the same in the military. In the two days they’d been on board, she’d seen more than a few instances of abusive language and intimidation already. Even though they were on the Gov Human Laniakea Fleet Commander’s flagship, she kept hearing alarms and warnings in her head. She’d seen too many Familia-like tactics used on the junior enlisted she was hanging out with.
“Q, right?” A man and woman crowded her against the bev station. They were a little older than the crowd she’d been playing vid games with, trying to intimidate with their stares, standing too close.
Q sighed internally. Why did she always have to be right? If she hadn’t spent the last year on a Familia enforcer fold transport, she’d be worried right now. Instead, she met their eyes with long stares back. “Yes.”
“You’re cute. We should play a different game. Alone.” The woman made a circle with her finger, obviously including the man and the two of them.
“You don’t want to turn us down, recruit,” the man said menacingly.
She laughed at him. Why hadn’t she turned on her personal vid? Q flicked a finger toward her holo, but the woman caught her hand and forced it down. Q said, “Let go, now.”
“I don’t think so, cutie.”
“Wrong girl to pick on,” Q told her. Now, what was her best play here? Victim or aggressor? Quiet or loud? These two had undoubtedly done this before. Loud and victim it was. Q dropped to her knees, one landing hard on top of the man’s foot, throwing her drink in the air, splashing both of them. “Ow! Let me go!” she screamed. Gratifyingly, everyone turned to look. Most looked away, telling Q she was right, these two had taken advantage of their positions multiple times. She poked at her holo and turned the vid on, the automatic identification feature turning on with it.
“Oh, so sorry,” the woman, Sergeant Z’Tera, said sweetly, gripping her hand tighter. “Just trying to help.”
“You’re rather clumsy, recruit,” the man, Sergeant Berten, added on, yanking his foot back and wiping drops from his face. Even wearing boots, that had to sting.
Q twisted her hand loose from Z’Tera’s. “Even if I was a recruit, you’d still be wrong.” In one move, she jumped to her feet and back and noted the surprise on their faces with great satisfaction. They glanced at each other and walked to the compartment’s hatch. Sand vipers. Quick on the attack but equally fast to run away if the prey fought back. Too bad she didn’t get vid of that whole encounter. She had a feeling the compartment’s vids had a “temporary malfunction.”
She refilled her bev-tainer—fortunately, she’d only had water in it, and a remote was already mopping—and plopped down in an empty chair. Despite her confident act, confrontation was hard. Q took a drink and breathed slowly and evenly, getting her heart rate back under control.
A few minutes later, a boy dropped into the chair next to hers, scowling. He wore the same grey T-shirt and black shorts the others did, so he was obviously in the Gov Human military, but he looked pretty young. Was he a new recruit? Or was this another attempt at seduction or information gathering?
The boy ignored her, scrolling through his holo, so Q ignored him. She checked her messages again, knowing it was too soon for the Sisters to send one back, but she was still worried. What if Familia went in, full force, looking for her? What if they just set up net sniffers, looking for messages from her? She’d sent hers from a Gov Human public address and didn’t use her name, but they might figure it out. Familia wasn’t stupid.
“Hey, who are you?” the kid next to her asked.
“Who wants to know?” Q retorted. She discretely flicked her vid recorder on. She’d have proof this time.
His brows jumped high, drawing her attention to the pink patches on his face. They stood out against his black-coffee skin tone everywhere else. “Oh, sorry. I just assumed you’d have access to the ship’s list. I’m Cap—” his shoulders dropped “—I mean, Lan.”
He didn’t know his own name? “Which is it? Cap or Lan?”
He sighed. “Look, it’s Caplan. I’ve gone by Cap my whole life, but in the military, ‘Cap’ is short for Captain, and I’m a long way away from that.” He snorted. “So, now, I’m stuck with Lan.”
“Ah. Makes sense.” It seemed like one of those things the military would insist on. “Sorry you’re stuck. So, which one do you want me to use?”
His mouth twisted. “Lan, I guess. I’m used to it. Mostly.”
Q shrugged. “Okay, Lan, you got it. I’m Q.”
“Q? Okay.” Lan shrugged. “So, what are you doing here? You’re not military. There’s no way you’re old enough.”
Q scowled. “You don’t look old enough either.”
“Well, I am. But you’re not.”
Q didn’t hold back her eye roll. These guys were all the same. “Technically, I am old enough. But I’m not military. I’m here because I’m with some people meeting with Gov Human military leaders, but I can’t be in the meetings because…reasons.”
“What kind of meetings?”
“The none-of-your-business kind.” Q frowned at him. She’d thought Lan might be smarter. Too bad.
Lan didn’t look very sorry. He looked curious. She’d throw it back at him. “What’s up with the pink patches on your face?”
He scowled at her. “None of…you know what? It doesn’t matter. They removed my tattoos, okay?”
“You had tattoos on your face?”
“Yes. It’s part of my culture, a family marking. But Gov Human military doesn’t allow it. Says it interferes with facial recognition and makes it easier to fool your teammates with a body modded infiltrator.” Lan snorted. “Like they can’t make a perfect copy of anyone if they start with the right height and weight. Or fix those too. But why would anyone bother with me? I’m a first-termer, just got here. By the time I’m somebody, people will know me.”
Q snickered. “You could be a deep-cover infiltrator right now, playing the long game.”
“Right.” Lan laughed. Then he sobered and leaned in, whispering, “I might be a spy.”
They stared at each other, Q holding back laughter, the twitch of Lan’s lips saying he was doing the same. Finally, they both laughed.
“You’re funny,” Q said.
“So are you. Cute, too.”
“Aww, thanks.” Q looked away for a second to collect her thoughts. She didn’t want to offend Lan, but she did want to know. “So, this tattoo removal. Um, I get that it sucks for you, but is it painful?”
Lan shrugged a little. “Feels like a bad sunburn. A little numbing spray and it’s fine. Why?”
“Because I need a tattoo removed.” Before Lan could ask, Q scowled. “And no, I’m not going to show you or tell you about it. I just need it gone. Thanks for telling me.”
Lan held up both hands. “No problem. Happy to help.” He snorted softly. “At least one good thing will come out of this.” He pointed at his cheeks.
“I really do appreciate it.” Q’s messaging pinged with a message from Saree. Well, not Saree. It was “Restricted User 1701” because they were trying to keep her presence on General Kerr’s flagship quiet. Q still didn’t know why, but she was happy about it because it kept her presence quiet too. They all knew Familia had lots of sources inside Gov Human, including the military. She was Restricted User 1703. “Hey, gotta go. Nice to meet you, Lan.” She smiled. “Maybe I’ll see you here again.”
He returned her smile. “I hope so. Take care.”
Q left the recreation compartment and made her way to their favorite bev station. It was a favorite only because it was close to their sleeping compartments and General Kerr’s office level—all the military folder bev stations served the exact same thing. So boring. So was this e-torc, now that she wasn’t plugged into the rec compartment net. She stopped just in time to avoid running into Saree. “This thing sucks. It’s so slow.”
Ruhger joined them, sipping on his bev-tainer, probably one of those horrible protein shake things. Yuck. “Better than not having one at all, isn’t it?” Ruhger asked her.
“Maybe.” Q shrugged. “Yeah, sure. It’s better.” They walked way too slowly to their compartment. It was a real let-down after Familia’s luxury. She shivered. But it didn’t come with the inherent evil either. Well, hopefully, that was behind her. If she could get rid of this tattoo, she could leave the constant reminder behind too. It was as good a time as any to ask. “So, they get a lot of recruits through here. I’ve met a bunch.” Q frowned. That wasn’t very clear.
“Yes, they do.” Ruhger scowled. “Are they bothering you?”
“No, no, that’s not it.” Q waved Captain Super-Protective off. “I can handle those kids. No, someone told me part of military in-processing is removing tattoos and scars. Do you think they’d remove mine?”
“We can ask,” Saree said. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t.”
“Oh, good. Because I want this—” Q made a circular motion around her stomach “—gone. Now.” So badly.
“I’m sorry, I should have thought about that.” Saree’s shoulders drooped, then she perked up. “We can get you a full physical while we’re at it. Who knows what else those—” her mouth clamped shut for a moment “—people did to you.”
Q’s nose wrinkled and she held back a shiver. “Ooh, creepy. But a good idea.” She nodded, a little frantically, and tried to get her overreaction under control. “Yeah, the sooner the better.” She bit her lip to keep herself from saying anything else.
“I’ll send a message to General Kerr’s aide right now. After putting us through today, they’d better jump right on this.”
“So, no progress?” Q asked. Blast. More time in the rec compartment with the recruits. And the potential for more predators. She seemed to draw them in like candy.
They both shook their heads.
“What about…” Oh, wait, she couldn’t say the folder’s name. “…your crew?”
“Nothing,” Ruhger said. “I’m getting…concerned.”
They entered their compartment. Just four bunks, one of the bottoms made into a couch, a small table with four chairs, an auto-bev, galley sink, and a decent sani-mod. This sucked like giant black holes next to her compartment on Indomito. And sharing with the lovebirds was equally awful. All those longing looks. Q rolled her eyes.
“So, Q, we’ve got access to our credit accounts again,” Saree said. “How about a meal out in the Station?”
“Yes! Let’s eat some real food!” Military food was so boring. Nutritionally correct but mostly tasteless with an undertone of yeast. Yuck. She’d heard there was far better food on the Station. Commuter shuttles flew every thirty minutes between the flagship and the Station, so it should be easy to get there and back.
Ruhger chuckled. “Not Familia-style, right?”
What was wrong with him?! Ew. “No!” Q said.
Saree said, “I wonder if there’s an Old Earth Middle East restaurant here?”
Ruhger arched a brow at her. “Two kills with one shot?”
What was he talking about? More stuff she was too young to know. Q scowled at them.
Saree grimaced. “Let’s not do any shooting tonight.”
Especially when they wouldn’t give her even a stunner.
“Hopefully.” Ruhger shrugged. “Just a turn of phrase.”
“Oh!” Q remembered she was in recruit shorts and T-shirt. If they were going somewhere nice, she needed new clothes. “I need to figure out what I’m wearing, and I need a shower.” She opened the clothing storage compartment and peered inside. Was there anything worth wearing in here? Q missed the clothes printers from their Familia shuttle. Why didn’t everyone have those?
Ruhger said, “You go first, Saree. Take your time.”
“Thanks.” Saree slid past Q.
There wasn’t anything good in here, just plain shipsuits. Maybe they could buy something on the Station? She ought to be able to reach her numbered accounts. But if she did and Familia figured it out somehow, they wouldn’t think twice about activating an agent to capture her again. No, she was dependent on Gov Human, Saree, and Ruhger. This sucks. Q pulled a plain, dark blue shipsuit out of the compartment, along with some underclothes, and plopped down next to Ruhger to wait.
Even if she couldn’t wear something pretty, at least she’d get some real food out of this deal.
“That was delicious. Thank you,” Saree told their server, a young girl.
Saree was right, it was delicious. The spices reminded Q of some of the stews they had on Lightwave, folding away from Cygnus Gliese, but so much better. And it smelled so good. If only the Gov Human military folder smelled like this!
A man stopped at each table and eventually made it to them. He wore loose, floor-length white robes and a black cloth draped over his head, secured by a twisted black rope. The man bowed, with complicated arm and hand waving. “Peace to you. I hope you are enjoying the meal?”
Ruhger nodded at the man. “Yes. It’s delicious.” Ruhger kept staring at the man, straight in the eyes.
The man asked, “Is there something else I can assist you with, then?”
“Are you familiar with the Circinus Madras?”
What is that? She’d have to look it up later.
“Yes, of course. I have family there.” He frowned slightly at Ruhger. “Why do you ask?”
“Because we were there not too long ago and left under… difficult circumstances. We hoped to hear news.”
“Good news, preferably,” Saree said quietly.
“Ah.” The man nodded again. “They sustained some damage, but it was quickly repaired.” Both Saree and Ruhger looked relieved, but he held up a hand. “The physical damage was repaired. Political damage also occurred. There has been a change of leadership, and you will not be welcome. No outsider is. Many areas of study have been eliminated, and some students have departed.”
Saree asked urgently, “Is the Maulana all right?”
“The former Maulana is well, as is the new Maulana.” White teeth flashed in his tan face for a moment. “We are a religion of peace, remember? But still, the previous Maulana has left the Madras and entered a contemplative community on Circinus, taking a vow of silence, poverty, and service.” He shook his head. “You will not meet him again in this life. You must find another way to achieve your aims, whatever those are.” He turned away.
So, the Madras was a religious school, and Ruhger and Saree were there for a reason, not just a random visit. And that reason got the school attacked? Q bit her lip. She had to figure out why people wanted them.
“Do you know Al-Kindi or his wife Nari and how they fare?” Saree asked.
His robes flew wide as he spun back. “I don’t know them, but if they are in Circinus, they should be fine, barring normal accidents. Do not return to Circinus.” He scowled at Saree, then Ruhger. “Do not return here.” His tone was menacing. What happened to peace? The man turned, his robes billowing, and strode across the restaurant, ignoring everyone and poking at his e-torc, the motions short and sharp.
Ruhger looked at his e-torc, sweeping something away, then at Saree. “I suggest we go.”
She nodded, looking sad. “Yes. I suppose there is nothing more we can do or say.”
“But I wanted dessert.” Q wanted to try that flaky pastry thing she’d seen everyone else eating. It looked so good.
“We’ll get something on the way,” Saree said, standing up.
Ruhger stood and slashed a hand. “Not now, Clove, let’s go.”
Q scowled at both of them, then got up. “Fine.” Figured. The one time they got to eat something good, they didn’t get to finish. Was Saree some sort of criminal? Did she have some sort of huge bribery thing on General Kerr? Q knew Lightwave had a mixed reputation, but Saree was something different, something worse, but not worse. It was weird. Not knowing sucked like the big black hole of Andromeda. Outside, Q waited for them. They were slow too. “People don’t like you very much, do they?”
Saree laughed. “No, they don’t.”
Ruhger said, “Actually, they like her just fine. Everyone wants her. Me?” He jabbed a thumb toward his chest. “Not so much.”
Q laughed. “That I can believe. You’re grumpy.” But why did everyone want Saree?
“Thank you,” Ruhger replied, with a short bow.
He was proud of it? These two were strange.
Saree laughed. “I don’t think it’s a compliment, Ep.”
“I suppose not. There’s a freezee shop over there.” Ruhger tossed his chin to point it out. “How about that?”
Q turned to look. He was right. Well, it wasn’t pastry, but at least it would be sweet. “Sure.” Better than nothing. Once she got to the stand, she glanced back. Ruhger and Saree were talking quietly, somehow intensely focused on each other but also aware of their surroundings. That was a skill she needed to develop, even if she didn’t have someone special to share it with. Until she learned, she was grateful to have Saree and Ruhger backing her up, no matter how annoying it might be sometimes.
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