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 chapters every week from here on out. Enjoy!
Warning: To avoid having issues with book retailers when I publish, I will be deleting all the Quinn of Cygnus: Lift off posts within a week. You have been warned!
See Chapter One here.
“Let’s trade jobs, Quinn.” Nat plopped down at her desk, her official Sister’s robe of a plain square of dark brown homespun flapping to her chest in the breeze she created with her dramatic collapse.
Q snorted. “Not a chance. I’m terrible at negotiations, you know that. I have a hard enough time teaching.” More than a year later and she couldn’t even teach Nat to use “Q” instead of Quinn. By the Mother, she was tired of everything here. Scrabbling for life, the completely inadequate net, trying to use that net to watch over the world authorities and beyond for Familia or other problems, the constant noise of construction as they widened their compound, the arguments between groups with conflicting beliefs, the constant heat and humidity—it was wearing her down. Being suspicious of everyone and everything didn’t help either. But she had to be strong for Nat and Brin.
Nat grimaced. “Not sure I care right now. I’m so tired of dancing around everything, telling everyone half-truths, and asking for twice what I want, just so I can get what we really need at a price we can afford.” She pulled the robe off over her head and tossed it onto the small cabinet behind her, wiping her forehead.
Those robes were just too warm for Secundus. Q was glad, again, that she’d refused to wear them from the start, since she wasn’t a Sister. But she had good news for the Sisters and Nat. “A message came in today that might make everything a whole lot simpler, Nat.”
“Really?” It hurt to watch the rise and fall of hope on Nat’s face.
“Really.” Q swept the message from Deneb over to her.
“Deneb make things easier? Since when? Our rich, environmentally conscious, adventure travel neighbors aren’t interested in anything except their bottom line. Usually at the expense of everyone else.”
“Ah, but we have something they don’t. Available land and lots of people, all organized to a fault. A non-profit organization with a proven track record. One that’s attracting more and more talented people and other non-profit organizations. And, most importantly, a medico school with an emphasis on trauma medicine.” Q smirked. “In a secure compound with the firepower to protect itself and a net they can’t break. These days, when Gov Human can’t be trusted and the military is distracted by internal leadership struggles, that’s a lot.”
“Wait a minute. If I’m reading this right, it says they want to fund our medico school.” Nat’s face could be the model for astonishment. “Full funding for ten standard years and partial for at least another ten?!” She sobered abruptly. “What’s the catch?”
“They get priority. No matter what’s going on here—flood, fire, pandemic—Deneb’s patients get priority.”
“Hmm. That’s a big ask for medicos. Doesn’t really fit their oaths, now does it?” Nat frowned at the desk.
“No. But, if you talk to them about the benefits versus the low potential? After all, what’s the max number of patients that will fold here? Ten, twenty? It can’t be big. And we’re not going to empty the school of medicos to respond to their emergency. They’ll never know if the school leaves a few behind. Or we tell them, correctly, that the specialists have to stay here with the specialized equipment. Head trauma will heal faster here with all the right equipment, treatment, and supportive environment.”
Q shrugged. “Besides, you’re a great negotiator. Do that thing. Get them to put a few limits on it, even if it means a little less funding.” Q laughed. “You have to bring Medico Administrator Ed’Whte into this negotiation, so tell him to bring Medicos Schmitt and Doering too. Between Schmitt’s ethics lectures and Doering’s ‘results at all costs,’ you’ll get to a middle ground.”
“Well, look who’s been thinking about this problem.” Nat raised her brows. “Bored again?”
Q shrugged again. “A little. You know there’s not much challenge here for me. Especially when you won’t let me steal from Familia anymore.” Along with stealing Enzo’s credits and some from the other enforcer accounts she’d found, Q donated most of Kathe’s credits, since there was no telling how they’d been earned. It felt cleaner to contribute most of them to the cause. She’d kept enough to jump on a folder to the other side of the universe and live frugally for a year, just in case Familia tracked her down.
Nat frowned at her. “We don’t need Familia’s dirty money. Besides, a bigger, nicer medico school will mean plenty of work for you.”
“Sure. But how I feel doesn’t matter, you know that.” Q lifted her hands helplessly. “I can’t go anywhere without attracting Familia’s attention. General Kerr’s gift, enlisting ‘me’ in the Gov Human military, only works if I stay here, mostly hidden, so my decoys in the Laniakea Fleet can show up and be ‘me’ on a regular basis. I’m grateful, I really am. I’ve learned a lot of new things here from all of you.”
Nat snorted. “Mostly that you’re too blunt and terrible at negotiations.”
Q shrugged a single shoulder. “Lizard can’t change its scales. At least not this lizard.”
“But you could. You could do a big body mod. Especially if we bring a bigger medico school here.”
“Well, that will take some time, won’t it?”
Nat wagged her head from side to side. “Maybe, maybe not. We can get the buildings done fast.”
“The Travelers again?” Q raised her eyes to the overhead. Nat was right, the Traveler building clans did good, fast work, but Q didn’t want to put up with everything else the Travelers brought with them. Parties, selling of pretty but useless items, accusations of cheating and theft from petty, jealous, and stupid Secundus people, and for her, constant, unending flirting and entreaties for her to fly away with them. “You’re so pretty, Q! Join us, Q! You’ll love living with us, Q!” It came from both sexes and all ages. The younger Travelers flirted with some of the other orphan girls but not to the extent Q got. She wished she knew why.
“Yes. You know they’re perfect for this kind of building and they won’t overcharge, not for this. Especially if we let them use the medico facilities too. You know they have a hard time getting accepted in some systems.” Nat gazed into the distance for a moment, then back at Q. “We could encourage them to send students!”
“Now, that might work. They definitely would play fair if we’re willing to take their people as students. Great idea, Nat.” And she’d put up with the constant flirting for that. Why were the Travelers so intent on seducing her? It made no sense.
“I have one every now and then.”
Q smirked at Nat. “Shall I send notice of Circle tonight, then?”
“Yes, absolutely. Never hide anything, that’s our motto. But I’m going to tell Lashtar about this right now!” Nat practically danced out of their shared office.
Q smiled at Nat’s joy. This was the opportunity they needed. After successfully rescuing their girls and helping with Gov Human’s cleansing of Secundus’s corrupt authorities, the Sisters developed a reputation for doing the right thing, even when it was hard. When they advertised their willingness to welcome other organizations working to better the lives of Secundus’s citizens, they made a lot of great connections. When they opened up land and buildings, they had more applicants than they could handle. And when wealthy benefactors sent them credits for more buildings, they attracted the very best, not only in Cygnus but in this quadrant of the universe. Unexpectedly, they also attracted almost twenty different religious orders, all wanting to settle in a cooperative, safe environment. With the turmoil in Gov Human, safety meant a lot. The Sisters sent a lot of business to the construction Traveler clans.
It was exciting at first, but after a while, Q found all the organizations were the same. They needed lots of help to get settled, spent the majority of their time fundraising, and none of them really needed her talents. Secundus was just too remote to attract the worst of the net predators. But she couldn’t leave, or Familia would find her. She was stuck, teaching basic net to kids and remedial net security to adults. But it could be worse. She put a hand on her stomach where the tattoo used to be. It could be so much worse.
Her e-torc pinged. Time for an Atlas Challenge session. Q grinned despite herself. Training again and practicing the full range of y’ga were true blessings. Even if she had to build her own course. But the advantage was she could change it whenever and however she wanted. Or her training partner wanted. Over the last year, they’d built three different courses—from beginner to expert. They left the beginner and mid-level courses alone but changed the expert often, trying to surprise each other.
Q left the office, changed from her shipsuit into athletic clothes, and jogged to the far corner of the compound with the course and other miscellaneous homemade athletic and training equipment. The high ropes course was quite popular with a wide variety of clergy and medicos, and everyone used the obstacle course. It was great for running the energy out of kids.
Ruth was already warming up. Q joined her, and they swung into a jog around the courses, then a run through the obstacle course at half-speed. One of the reasons Q enjoyed training with Ruth was the silence. Ruth rarely said anything unless it was relevant to their training. Q knew little about her background, other than she had associated with Lightwave’s crew as a young woman, and she’d endured terrible abuse since then.
When Ruth had expressed an interest in the Atlas Challenge course, one of the psych medicos immediately talked to Q because they thought the training would be good for Ruth. But the medico warned Q that Ruth could be unpredictable—she had experienced horrific violence, and she had military-style training, so if something went wrong, Q could find herself in a very difficult situation. But Q knew what it was like to need a physical outlet for emotional issues. She was happy to train Ruth and leave the talking to the medicos. Sometimes, quiet was better, and pushing your body hard could blow all the circling emotions right out of your head. Ruth had responded well, and Q considered her a full training partner—and a friend.
Q set up the timers for the dual beginner course. This was the only one that was side-by-side; the others were only against a clock, as they would be in competition. They’d run through this one together, and whoever won went last on the mid-level course, then they’d swap for the expert course after a short rest.
The timer counted down and Q sprinted. Up and over the wall, across the spring-loaded stepping stones, the pull-up ladder, ropes, jump bars, and all the rest. She won by a hair and frowned speculatively at Ruth. She was holding back, so Q was sure she’d made changes to the expert course.
Without saying anything or responding to Q’s look, Ruth started the timer and swung into action on the mid-level course, finishing within five seconds of her normal warm-up time. Q started as soon as Ruth finished, also finishing within the same margin. She bent over, breathing hard for the first few seconds, then made herself straighten, surveying the expert course. By design, the first obstacle, the high-ramped wall, blocked a lot of the course from view, so she walked to the far corner of the starting box and peered around the wall. No changes she could see. This was one of the places her lack of height didn’t help. It also didn’t help her get up the walls. She had to compensate with jumping height and there was only so much she could do to develop that.
The rest timer counted down, and Q enabled the vids. At zero, she sprinted for the ramp wall, running up it without issue. She danced the length of the rolling log, jumping the sweep arms, then launched herself to the curved monkey bars. Across and up the pull-up ladder, and her shoulders were screaming surrender. She flung herself onto the platform at the top—ah! Her body flattened to the platform, shins banging painfully on the edge. Struggling to breathe, Q slowly pulled her body fully onto the platform and over to the pole fastened to the end. Tricky Ruth—she added a grav generator!
Q pushed with her toes and pulled with her arms, making it to the long slide pole where, rather than sliding down, she hung in near zero-g. “Argh!” Pulling herself down the pole hand over hand, she finished the course without other surprises. After a few seconds of lying flat, Q rolled and sat, watching Ruth power through the course, beating Q’s time soundly, mostly because she pushed off hard at the end of the double-grav platform, sailing down through the zero-g without bothering to grab the pole and bounced off at the bottom into the next exercise. Q noted her technique. Would it be even faster if she kept pushing off against the pole with her toes on the way down?
“Great job. Tricky change.”
Ruth nodded once, breathing too hard to speak.
“I thought grav generators weren’t used in the Atlas Challenge?”
“They aren’t, but neither of us is going to any big competitions, are we?” Ruth asked in her gravelly voice. At some point, her voice box had been damaged. Q noticed Ruth’s visible scars were gradually disappearing, but that characteristic remained. “But we needed a new challenge, and I didn’t feel like building anything by myself. I didn’t try it out—this was my first time through.”
Q wasn’t surprised. Ruth was fanatical about fairness. “Well, let’s watch the vid and see where we can do better.” They discussed their mistakes and tried different techniques on the grav portion, cutting tenths of seconds off. After a final run-through with an audience—they always drew one these days—they swung into a y’ga-based cooldown. Then, they coached others on the first two courses, laughing and helping the littlest children on the taller obstacles. When they walked away, a small group of older medico students was running the expert course, but they were experienced and had enough safety watchers to work on their own.
“What’s next for you?” Ruth asked.
Q shrugged. “I can always do more admin work, but I don’t want to.”
“Yeah, there’s always more rads to blast around. I’m thinking about a quick escape to the jungle. Maybe do some hunting. Want to come?”
“Yes! Let me grab my gear.” These trips were all that kept Q—and Ruth—sane. They’d go mountain climbing or sea kayaking or, if they had to stay close, jungle bashing. Anything to get away from the stifling confines of the Sisters’ compound.
Q was slowly coming to realize she wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Ruth certainly did, but she wasn’t ready to face the wider universe. Even going to the larger towns on Secundus was a trial for her. But that wasn’t surprising. Q knew little about Ruth’s official history, but she occasionally let some tidbit slip while they sat around camp at night. Those tidbits usually gave Q nightmares and reminded her why she had to stay in the Sisters’ compound. If Familia caught her, the captivity might be more outwardly civilized, luxurious even, but the personal degradation would be the same.
The person who continued to surprise her was Lashtar. She kept stepping back, more and more, letting Nat and Brin make the decisions and lead the Sisters’ worship. Lashtar’s scowls were growing more and more obvious when the other leaders in the compound insisted on getting a final decision from her, rather than accepting it from Nat. Most of them were Lashtar’s age and saw Nat as a child, which she definitely wasn’t. Q saw how it chafed both Nat and Lashtar, but she didn’t think most people noticed. Nat was trying not to notice; she didn’t want to push Lashtar out, even if the constant need for Lashtar’s approval annoyed her too. Besides, none of them had Lashtar’s experience with physical security, and they still needed lots of that. They had too many people to protect.
Even so, Lashtar had taken to disappearing for days in a row too; they weren’t sure where she was going but probably just to one of the jungle outposts. Q had caught speculative glances from Lashtar; they’d both silently acknowledged a growing feeling of entrapment and agreed not to discuss it. But someday soon, something would break loose. The question was what, and who first?
As Q checked the safety on her rifle, an alert pinged. “Blast. Sister Lashtar needs me. Something related to that big remote attack in Sirius, killing all those beings and stations.” Q bit her lip, unwilling to go, even though they had no choice but to return anyway or waste a lot of meat. She’d planned to lure Ruth into the medicos’ gathering room, let the fancy soothing stones and meditation work on her, but that wouldn’t happen now.
“She doesn’t need me for intel work.” Ruth turned away, still breathing hard from the close call with the giant lizard. “I’ll take the kill for processing, then I’m going home.”
Q watched her go, towing the carcass behind her with a hand-tractor. Ruth had to reintegrate into society sometime, but not today. At least she was willing to spend a few hours in the compound now and then, rather than sneaking in and out like a ghost after their Atlas Challenge sessions. Deneb’s credits not only made the medico school bigger, but it brought more talented instructors and better equipment and treatments. And those pricey soothing stones. Q still wasn’t sure how they’d managed to get those, and she didn’t want to pry too hard in case she didn’t like the answer. She hoped they were donated.
But with or without the soothing stones, Ruth was making progress, if not quite as quickly as many of them hoped. She still wouldn’t speak directly to Lashtar, even though Lashtar wasn’t involved in the tragedy that led to her trauma.
But enough speculation—she had a job to do. Q slung her rifle across her back and trotted past Ruth, back to the compound. Sister Lashtar put a high priority on the message but didn’t make a call, so it wasn’t a true emergency, like an imminent attack. She shivered a little at the thought of an attack like Sirius happening to an unprotected world like Secundus.
Just like every other human world, suns, most sentient worlds, Secundus was still on high alert. It wasn’t long ago when the worlds and stations of Sirius were attacked by a huge, anonymous army of remotes. No one took responsibility for the attack, and Gov Human had been unable—or unwilling—to identify the attacker. The latest theory was an artificial intelligence, because not a single living being of any species had been found in the attacker’s debris—no compartments with breathable atmosphere either. Also, no unknowns folded out of Sirius—the attackers stayed and kept firing until they were destroyed.
But Lashtar wouldn’t call her back to the compound if they were under attack by something like that—they’d be told to hide. They didn’t have enough firepower to hold off more than a couple of shuttles. Q bounded up the stairs and into Lashtar’s office.
“Close the door. We need privacy.” Nat and Brin sat at Lashtar’s small conference table.
Q shut the door and set her comm interference script running. Anyone snooping would hear white noise. “What’s going on?”
“Lightwave’s coming in.”
Q couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. It wasn’t something horrible after all.
Lashtar scowled. “Maybe. Someone, most likely Saree, sent a message about needing medico help due to a head injury sustained in the De Ferra tunnel. Or it’s a fake, meant to lull us into complacency. Ferra’s name wouldn’t be hard to come up with, and everyone’s seen vid of the Cygnus Gliese tunnels, including the markings on the walls.”
Q brought up the fold hold orbit status. “Lightwave’s not in orbit. No folders of Lightwave’s model either.” She checked the incoming shuttles. “But a shuttle has filed a flight plan coming here. It launched from a folder that’s already gone. It’s the same model as Lightwave’s Beta shuttle, but that’s a common model. I say extreme caution is required; assume hostile intent. Meet them with full defenses. They’re due in twenty-nine hours, thirty-two minutes.”
“Agreed,” Lashtar said, Brin echoing.
“Agreed,” Nat said. “Full defense. Let’s keep it quiet, though, just in case it is Lightwave. They’ll arrive after hours, so we should be able to run a drill with the security personnel already scheduled, plus a few more. Have them land at the hot pad—if we have to use the big weapons, it will be safest there. I’ll let our more martial organization leaders know about this but not the purely religious. Brin, you decide who to add to the security roster.”
Q told them, “One other thing. When Ruhger, Saree, and I were escaping Familia, Saree used Ferra as her fake name. That increases the possibility it really is Saree.”
Lashtar nodded thoughtfully. “Maybe. Either way, Q, make sure Ruth’s involved. It’s been more than two years; she can’t run away anymore.”
“Yes, Sister, I’ll tell her.” Q wasn’t sure she agreed but she wasn’t in charge. She sent the message to Ruth at the highest priority and got an acknowledgment immediately. Hmm. Maybe Lashtar was right. She was still happy it wasn’t her decision to make.
From the shielded weapon control center, Q watched the shuttle land, shut down, and cool off. The hatch opened, and a too-pale Saree appeared, Captain Ruhger hovering close behind her, his hands poised at her waist. “Identity visually confirmed. Sending remote DNA test.” The little remote floated out, stopping Saree before she left the shuttle.
Ruhger said, in a commanding tone, “Saree’s injured. Get me a medfloat, now!”
Brin told the medicos, “Send the medfloat. You stay here until we get confirmation.”
Q tuned out the medicos’ complaints and sent the medfloat herself. Ruhger lowered Saree gently onto it. The movements and care for Saree sure looked like Ruhger. Once Saree was strapped down, Ruhger turned to the DNA remote and let it prick his palm, then he put Saree’s on it. The results, which Q made sure came only to her, were positive. “Identity confirmed.”
“Medicos cleared to approach,” Nat said.
“Finally. Paranoid idiots,” Medico Doering muttered as he and his team trotted away. Nat, Lashtar, and Q followed them.
Ruhger stayed right next to the medfloat, answering the medicos’ questions about the injury, but from his constant survey of the area, he was aware of and approved of the Sisters’ security. Ruhger’s description of the injury, a localized grav generator error, didn’t seem likely. Doering didn’t think so either, from the skeptical look he shot Ruhger, but that was his story and he was sticking to it. It didn’t matter anyway. What mattered was the amount and type of force and location of the injury. Q had listened to enough medico lectures to pick up that much.
Lashtar stopped at the medico emergency department entrance. “Captain, when you get her settled, come see me,” Lashtar said.
“Understood,” Ruhger replied over his shoulder. “Thank you, Sister. Q, come.”
Huh. Q shrugged at Brin’s surprise and followed Ruhger into treatment room four. It wasn’t her first trip here; both she and Ruth had banged their heads more than once, fortunately, not severely. The medfloat slotted into the treatment room, and appendages appeared, applying sensors.
Doering asked something as Q entered the compartment.
Ruhger said, “Yes, as I said, she got some treatment. But it wasn’t specialized treatment, just what you’d get from a military-style shuttle-based medico suite.”
“Who did the treatment?” Doering asked.
“Classified,” Ruhger snapped. “I’ve sent you the report the medico wrote.”
Doering matched Ruhger’s glare. “This is for her health.”
“I’ve told you all you need to know, Medico. You can figure it out from here.”
“Idiots,” Doering muttered. “You’re all idiots.”
“Likely,” Ruhger agreed. “Still can’t tell you.” He turned away with a huff and stepped back so the medico staff could treat Saree. The corners of his lips turned up, and he held out his arms. “Q!”
Q stepped into him happily. Ruhger gave the best hugs.
“We missed you, but we’re both glad you were here, not with us.” Ruhger’s rumbling voice was a comfort Q hadn’t realized she needed.
“Very. And this last bit was nearly fatal.” Ruhger pulled away from her. “You look good, healthy.” He surveyed her closely. “Strong. You’ve been doing something intense.”
“Yes. I’ll show you later if you want. But, overall, I’m good. Bored, but good.”
“Well, this is encouraging,” Medico Doering said. “Whoever treated her was a somewhat knowledgeable medico, not a completely inadequate emergency technician. You were wise to bring her here, though. This medico obviously doesn’t have our equipment or head trauma experience.” He sniffed derisively. “Of course, no one does. I’m the best.”
Ruhger tilted his head toward Doering, with a quizzical look.
“Yes, he’s for real,” Q told Ruhger without bothering to lower her voice. Doering glared at her, and the other medicos smothered snickers. “But he really is the best, if also the most arrogant.”
“Out!” Doering snapped. “Don’t come back until you’re called. Her treatment will take weeks. At least two, probably three.”
Ruhger pushed him and the others aside. “You’re in good hands now. Let me know if you need anything.” He bent and kissed Saree gently.
“I will. Don’t worry.”
“I will, but don’t worry about me, just get well.”
“Get out!” Doering said.
Ruhger stepped into him and gripped his shoulders, glaring. “If she gets worse, you will not like the results.”
“Don’t threaten me, you Neanderthal,” Doering said, twisting out of Ruhger’s hold, his tone cold. “My reputation means more than your threats, by far. She will get the very best treatment.”
Ruhger glowered at him and stepped away.
Q shook her head at him, with a mock-glare of her own. “Come on, let’s go. Sister Lashtar wants to see you, remember?”
Ruhger stomped out of the treatment facility. Q glanced back, catching Doering wipe his forehead. He might have stood up to Ruhger in the heat of the moment, but Doering wasn’t going to match Ruhger for long.
On the way, Q punched Ruhger on the arm. “What was that for?” He didn’t even have the grace to say ouch.
“You were blasting rads at the guy who’s saving your lover. Does that seem smart to you?”
A brow raised and one massive shoulder shrugged. “Maybe.”
“You’re lucky. Doering’s reputation means everything to him. If it didn’t, he might have sabotaged Sar—her treatment!”
“That guy isn’t going to do that. There’s no way.” He slashed a hand. “But I’ll be nicer next time. I guess. You can use Saree’s name. We’ve given up trying to hide her.”
“With the medicos, okay. But not a good idea in the compound. Call her Sarah.”
They climbed the stairs to Lashtar’s office, Ruhger examining the security improvements with an approving nod. “You or Ruth?”
“Both of us, with Lashtar.”
“Good. I’m glad Ruth is talking to someone.”
“She’s getting there. Don’t expect to see her, though.”
“No, I suppose not.” Ruhger’s mouth twisted, and he shook his head.
Since the door was open, Q entered Lashtar’s office, Ruhger on her heels. She activated the privacy script.
“It’s good to see you, Ruhger, but where’s Lightwave?” Lashtar asked. She’d already removed her robes.
“I wish I knew.” Ruhger sighed. “It’s been a while since we’ve seen them. It’s been…interesting. We’re secure here?”
“Yes,” Q answered him.
“We were…” Ruhger glanced at Q, then returned to Lashtar “…in Octans, and a Gov Human military ship folded in and fired on Lightwave without warning. Lightwave folded out. They had no choice—it was fold or be destroyed. Saree and I were off Lightwave, flying Beta shuttle. We escaped the system with the help of some autonomous artificial intelligences.” His mouth twisted.
What in all the suns? First, Ruhger won’t say what they’re doing out there, and now, they’re consorting with artificial intelligences? Were they the same ones that attacked Sirius? Suddenly, the boredom of the Sisters’ compound didn’t seem so bad to Q.
Ruhger continued, “They call themselves The Consensus, which isn’t an accurate name. They were fooled by one of their members named Westly; we think he engineered the attack on Sirius. But before that, Westly captured us, along with one of the Consensus members named Maxine. Westly’s actions injured Saree. When she didn’t get better, Westly captured a Gov Human military pararescue team we worked with previously. Doc patched her up, and all of us working together managed to get away from Westly, and eventually, we folded here. The Gov Human team is on their way back to the Laniakea Fleet; we don’t know what happened to Maxine.” Ruhger huffed. “That’s the short version.”
Wow. Q blinked at Ruhger. Boredom was looking really good.
Lashtar snorted. “I’m sure you’re leaving out a lot. But that’s okay, we don’t need to know. For now, we’ll keep your identities quiet. I’m sending a directive to the medicos now. Do you mind doing a little manual labor, Ruhger?”
“Of course not. Especially when it looks like we’re going to be here for weeks.” Ruhger’s shoulders slumped momentarily. “Sorry, Lashtar, we didn’t mean to bring trouble your way.”
Lashtar waved a dismissive hand. “Don’t worry about it. Besides, do you really think I don’t know who sent us all those so-called grants? I had Q look into it.”
Q smirked at Ruhger.
Ruhger held up both hands with a return smirk. “That was all Saree.”
Some of the grants were Kathe’s credits but Lashtar didn’t need to know that.
“Sure, it was. Anyway, what shall we call you while you’re here?”
“Sarah and Rufus?”
“Good enough. What do you need to contact Lightwave?”
“We’ve done all we can there. Messages were sent and dropped. It’s a wait and see.” Ruhger shrugged. “It could take weeks.”
“Well, let’s talk later.” Lashtar turned to Q. “Get him settled in one of the visitor’s cabins, and put him to work with the grounds crew, then get back to work. No off-compound trips with Ruth until Saree and Ruhger are gone. Understood?”
Q bowed her head. “Yes, Sister. I understand.” She hoped Saree and Ruhger didn’t bring trouble with them. While it was too quiet, and she was bored, she wasn’t bored enough to want a Sirius-style attack on Secundus.
Lashtar nodded and turned to Nat. “Sorry, Nat, I should have let you take this. But this connection is mine.”
Q led Ruhger out of the Sister’s office before Nat replied. She didn’t need to get in the middle of the ongoing leadership discussion. Ruhger followed her downstairs and outside. On the walk, she found an empty guest cabin close to the medicos and assigned it to him, sending the door codes to his e-torc. She didn’t want any of Ruhger’s identifying information in their public-facing security net. “This is you.”
Ruhger stepped up and opened the door. The cabins were all similar; just big enough to fit a bed, basic sani-mod, and an auto-bev. They were designed to provide a refuge but encourage people to socialize. “This is great. Thanks, Q.”
“I’ll send you a schedule and an introduction to your new boss.” She grinned at him. “Hope you’re ready to work hard. We always need strong people repairing the fences.”
Ruhger snorted. “Fine by me. But what’s wrong with hand-tractors?”
“Physical accomplishments bring a sense of joy,” Q parroted one of the psych-medicos.
“Well, that’s true. But before I do any of that, I need to go button-up Beta shuttle. Want to come?”
They walked down the path, past the medico campus, and to the shuttle pad. Q checked her compound security status and the incoming shuttle schedule. Nothing for a while, but they needed to keep that emergency pad clear. “You should move Beta shuttle off the emergency pad. I’ve assigned you to pad Echo.”
“Copy that. Come on, fly with me.” He shot a tiny smile at her. “It will be like old times.”
“Copy that,” Q mimicked. But she was pretty sure getting in a shuttle was a mistake. All she’d want to do was fly away, far and fast. And she couldn’t. Not with Ruhger and Saree. Lightwave had enough trouble—they didn’t need more.
Q scowled at Nat. “Why are they coming this time? We don’t have any work for them.” The Travelers were too good at finding out secrets, and Saree and Ruhger had a lot to hide. Saree’s three weeks of active treatments had just finished, and still no word from Lightwave. They were all starting to worry. They didn’t need the Travelers’ inquisitive minds poking around.
Nat shook her head, mockingly. “Such intolerance. Shame on you.” She sighed. “Has it dawned on you that they aren’t welcome in a lot of systems? That we’re one of the few places they are? And we have food and other materials to sell them. After the Sirius attack, systems are even more suspicious of the unknown, and the Travelers fall into that category. Besides, I think they’re dropping a student or two with the medico school.”
“I don’t understand why you dislike them so much. Yes, they all flirt terribly. But they don’t push. Just say no and they’re gone.”
“I don’t think I should have to. I’ve already been clear.” Every time the Travelers visited, she had to turn down invitations from what seemed like everyone on board. Invitations to travel with them, invitations for sex, invitations for gambling, for worship; it was exhausting. And when she asked them why they were so determined to bring her onboard, they never answered. They wanted something from her, and if they weren’t telling her what it was, she wanted no part of it. She was done with liars and users. Although, at this point, she was ready to leave with them just to get away from Secundus.
“Get over it, Quinn.” Nat tossed her head and went back to reading something on her e-torc. Probably the Travelers’ provision requests, which Q should be handling but wasn’t. Not for the Travelers.
Sister Lashtar entered. “Come, I need both of you.” She left without waiting for them.
Ruhger’s voice rumbled from Lashtar’s office. “So, I guess where and when is the question.”
Lashtar’s voice was unusually cheerful. “Oh, that’s easy. Here. As soon as the Travelers fold in.” Lashtar waved a hand at Q. “Quinn will help you navigate our suppliers. Nat will organize the party and invite the locals. I’ll invite the Travelers.” She grinned, and Q stared in astonishment. Lashtar never smiled these days. “Do you want me to officiate? Or do you have some other religion in mind?” She shrugged. “There’s lots of them here, now.” She sat behind her desk, and Q moved to her shoulder. Whatever Lashtar needed, especially something that made her smile, Q was happy to help with.
Saree looked at Ruhger and shrugged at the same time he did, and they laughed. Wow, whatever they were planning, it must make Ruhger and Saree really happy. Laughter from both of them and Lashtar? Must be spectacular.
Ruhger had eyes only for Saree. “The Sisters are the only religious tradition I’ve ever been a part of, no matter how peripherally. If you’re comfortable with Lashtar, I am.”
Saree smiled back at Ruhger. “Yes, Lashtar, please officiate.”
Officiate what? Q looked between the two of them. Oh! Yes!
“Excellent. This will help in more than one way,” Lashtar said. Saree and Ruhger finally broke their stare and turned to her. “As a new couple, you’ll be left alone. You might get a break on your transport, since new couples are given gifts to help them establish their joint households. For the Travelers, that often means one person leaving their clan and joining a new one, since marriage inside the clan is discouraged. And throwing the Travelers a party is always a good idea. Be careful at any Travelers parties—their alcohol and drugs are particularly potent. They also use some to enhance spiritual awakenings and travel.”
They were leaving? I want to go too! But with the Travelers? Q wasn’t so sure about that part.
Saree shrugged. “I can’t use drugs or alcohol, not for the foreseeable future. It’s just too risky with the head injury.”
Ruhger said, “And I won’t. Can you make it clear to the Travelers that Saree’s health would be endangered?”
“Of course.” Lashtar snorted. “I’ll take one for the team and drink your share.”
Q looked at Lashtar, a little surprised. She knew Lashtar was ready to make a change, but drinking wasn’t one of the changes Q had considered.
Lashtar laughed harder. Ruhger—and Saree—were just as surprised, glancing at each other.
Eventually, Lashtar sobered. “What? Life is short.” She motioned at her bionic leg. “I came here,” Lashtar spread her arms, encompassing the Sisters’ compound, “because I needed to do something else, something life-affirming rather than life-taking. Helping people makes me happy, and the girls needed me. Especially over the last year. But,” she slapped her hands on her desk and rose, “that’s not the case anymore. Nat’s been leading us for six months. We adopt out children faster than we get them in. I’m not particularly useful with the abuse victims because I’m just not outwardly sympathetic enough. I can’t even get through to Ruth. The medicos are in charge of her. She’s not a potential Sister. We’ve made all the security improvements possible with this location and mission. I’m just a figurehead to a dying religion.”
“That’s not true!” Nat said. “You’re our spiritual leader. The one who keeps us on the straight and narrow.”
The Sisters might not have a lot of members, but Q didn’t think they were dying. The religion was important, something for women, especially those who’d been abused, to grasp when everything else had gone wrong and everyone else turned against them. She’d certainly found comfort in the Mother, especially after her years with Familia, both at the Academy and on Indomito.
Lashtar turned and sat on the edge of her desk. “Nat, maybe it’s time to let this particular straight and narrow go. Most of you want to move on and do other things. We’re not necessary for this world, and we’re losing members. The work for abused families will continue without our religion. I think we make this not only a ceremony for Ruhger and Saree but a final ceremony for us too.”
“But…” Nat stuttered, shocked.
Poor Nat. Q glared at Lashtar. Why say this to Nat, a true believer? It was a terrible thing to do, no matter how much she might want to escape. But doing it this way also made it shockingly clear to Nat that Lashtar was serious. She wanted out. Maybe this was Q’s chance to leave too?
“I know I just sprang this on you, and I’m sorry. But I’ve been thinking about it for a while. We’ll meet in Circle tonight.” She grasped Nat’s shoulders. “No matter what, I’m resigning this position. You truly have been in charge since I lost my leg. I lost more than my leg, I lost my passion. I haven’t lost my faith in the Mother, but I’ve lost interest in leading others to faith. I’ve been hanging on, grimly, but I need to do something else now. Something fun. Something different.”
Yes! That’s what I want too. It would be a lot easier with a partner, especially one who’d been everywhere and could defend herself. They’d make a good team. But would Lashtar see it that way?
“What exactly are you thinking, Lashtar?” Ruhger asked warily.
She laughed over her shoulder at Ruhger. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll join the Travelers with you.” Lashtar chuckled. “Don’t worry, I’ll make my own deal and accommodations. But I need to travel, move, go places, and see things. Not take care of anyone but me. Be selfish.”
Now was her chance, maybe her only chance. If Lashtar left, Nat and Brin would rely on Q more and more, and she didn’t want to stay here. She was done with Secundus. And if Familia was still looking for her? Well, they’d get what they had coming. Q laughed loud enough to draw everyone’s attention. “Hah. I’ve been thinking the same thing. I’m tired of taking care of everyone else. I want to go, to explore, to see new things, meet new beings.”
“That didn’t work out so well for you last time, Quinn,” Ruhger cautioned.
Q smirked at him. “Well, I’ve learned a few things since then, Dad. A lot of things.” She grinned at Lashtar, hands on her hips. “You’re right. Nat’s been in charge, and she’s good at it. You can leave the Sisters in her hands. You know more about the universe than I do. Want to go adventuring?”
“Yes, I think I do. We’d make a good team if you can quit calling me Sister.” Lashtar raised one brow.
Q snorted. “Oh, I think I can do that, Lashtar.” With Familia’s indoctrination on titles, it might take some work, but she’d do it.
Saree and Ruhger glanced at each other. He shrugged.
“What about me?” Nat said, with a bit of a wail. “I’m not sure I want to stay here either.”
Well, that was just silly. Nat was a true believer, and she loved it here. She especially loved leading the entire compound. She was born to be in charge of something big.
Lashtar smiled at her. “There’s nothing to hold you back if you want to go. You can train someone to do your job and leave in a few months. But I think you find this work fulfilling. That, and I’m not sure you and some of the others want to let the Sisters of Cygnus go.” Lashtar grimaced. “I’m sorry, I was wrong to call it a dying religion. I still believe, and many others do too. There are many ready to take on spiritual leadership. Some of the women we’ve taken in have become entirely devoted. There’s every reason they should take the reins and make it their own, a true refuge for body, spirit, and mind.”
“Maybe, Sis—Lashtar,” Q said, chuckling at herself for the slip, “it’s more than time to make our religion more flexible. Why shouldn’t women come and go as they please? There’s no reason to tie anyone down, restrict anyone. Perhaps living here, in our compound, means staying celibate, unattached, and sober, but living in the community, women and men can still worship but live their own lives as they need to. Raise children, travel, do all the things. I think the complete control over individuals is part of what led to Ferra’s fall.”
“Yes,” Lashtar said, smiling gratefully at Q. “That’s a much better idea. You’re right, there’s no reason to hang on to old ways.” She turned back to the bewildered and shocked Nat. “You know it’s time for me to step down. I’ve seen you chafing under the necessity of justifications. You’re ready to fly on your own, make your own rules, and it’s better if I’m not here when you do it. You all know why.”
Lashtar was right. She had to leave, or everyone would keep coming to her rather than Nat. That made it the right time for Q to leave too.
Nat bit her lip, but as Lashtar spoke, her confidence returned. “I hate to see you go, but you’re right. It’s been annoying for a long time, a useless process slowing everything down. It’s frustrating when so many won’t agree with me unless you’ve agreed with me publicly, and you haven’t disagreed with anything I’ve decided for months.”
Lashtar snorted. “And that’s not because I agree with every decision you made, but it was more than time for you to make your own mistakes, find your own way.” She shrugged. “Develop your leadership style.” She nodded once, sharply. “You’re ready, and I’m ready. It’s time for me to fly.” She laughed. “I have a new target. I aim to misbehave.”
Q and Saree joined Lashtar’s laughter while Ruhger and Nat looked skeptical. Ruhger finally huffed a chuckle and shook his head. “Well, you used to be pretty good at that, Lashtar.”
“Run away, run away!” Q’s relief bubbled through her like a soda spring. She would leave Secundus with someone to watch her back. And with just two of them, they could hide easily. Q knew exactly where to pull their escape credits from too. She’d finally found a clue to another of Enzo’s personal accounts. “We’ll find a quest and have a good time.”
Lashtar chuckled. “We’ll have to come up with some funds, get some weapons, get a few short-term jobs, but I’ve done it before. We can do it again.”
Q snorted. “Oh, I’ll get the credits, don’t worry about that. Plenty of slimeballs who need a little lesson.”
“Quinn, I thought we’d discussed this,” Lashtar said, scowling. “We’re not stealing.”
“If it’s already stolen, then I’m not stealing.” Familia stole more than credits—they stole lives. They deserved to lose their ill-gotten gains.
“It can go back to the original owners.”
Quinn shook her head, sadly. The majority of those beings were gone. She always tried to find the original owners first. “Not when they’re dead. Where do you think I got the credits for our rebuild?” Lashtar wasn’t that naïve. But Nat was.
Lashtar and Nat scowled at her. Ruhger snorted, but his look was approving.
Q told them, for what had to be the four-hundredth time, “Look, I can show you where it came from, and you’ll agree I’m more than justified.” She took a breath. Time to move on from this never-ending argument. “More importantly, Lashtar, you’ve been a leader in this community for a very long time and never taken a salary. The Sisters owe you more than a little. I think we can fund your escape.” Quietly, she added, “And mine.” After all, she’d never taken a salary either. And she’d repaid the Adzari Academy fees many times over.
“Well, since you’re more likely to find a job, Q, I’ll go as your bodyguard, and we’ll see what happens.” Lashtar grinned.
Q jolted up. What a perfect idea!
Ruhger snort-laughed, shaking his head. “Right, that will work out just great.”
“Back to the issue I came here for,” Nat said. Determination and mourning seemed to war for supremacy on her expressive face. “You wanted me to plan a wedding, right?” She looked between Saree and Ruhger.
Ruhger pointed to Saree. “All yours, Saree. As long as there’s a lifetime vow, I don’t care what the ceremony looks like.”
Saree chuckled. “I don’t either. I’m just ready to do this.”
“Well, then, let me do it,” Nat said. “Nothing fancy, just a simple ceremony, right?”
“Yes. Use whatever the Sisters use,” Saree told her. “I’ll leave it in your capable hands.”
Nat nodded. “Come on, Quinn, we’ve got work to do.”
Well, she’d rather stay, but Nat would need some help with planning this party. Q followed to Nat and Brin’s office. “Standard invite to everyone for a communal meal with a commitment ceremony?” The phrasing was deliberate—a commitment could be between people or between a person and an organization, or several other circumstances.
“Yes. Just tell anyone who specifically asks that ‘Rufus and Sarah’ decided to tie the knot after her recovery.” Nat looked at her, with a mix of sadness and anger. “Look, I know you haven’t been happy here. But you still have Familia on your tail. The minute you leave, your Gov Human military cover is blown.”
“Not quite the minute, but you’re right. Once I leave Secundus, General Kerr doesn’t have to cover for me anymore.” Q grimaced. “That was the deal. I stay here, she ‘enlists’ me on her flagship. But if I’m careful to stay in the fringes and away from Familia systems, no one should ever know.”
Nat frowned. “I hope you’re right. But I’m also worried about Ruth. She relies on you.” Nat held up a hand. “No, that’s not a good enough reason for you to stay. But maybe Ruth should go with you. Think about it.” She looked away. “And get Brin in here. She needs to find someone to train as a deputy. Make sure you leave your net security deputy with everything except Sisters-only things.”
Q shrugged. “Already done. Jeffe has been running net admin for everything but the Sisters for more than six months. K’tleen has the Sisters’ net admin. They’re both more than adequate for Secundus. They need more challenges, actually.” Q sent Nat’s message to Brin, with a high priority tag.
“I thought so. I just wanted to confirm.” Nat scowled at her desktop and then at Q. “Sand flea. I can’t believe you’re leaving us.”
Q sighed, got up, and hugged Nat. “I’m sorry, but I can’t stay. Really, you’re all safer this way. The Gov Human trick was going to fall through eventually, so it’s better if I’m already gone.”
Nat held on to her. “I know. But I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too.” And she would.
Q rubbed her eyes. She was so close to breaking this final code for Enzo’s account. But was she too tired to continue? If she messed up, she might have to run, right now, possibly leaving tracks for them to follow, so she couldn’t go with Lashtar and Lightwave. But if she quit now, someone could discover the progress she’d made so far and lock her out. Then, she’d have to start from zero.
Stupid. She was letting her desires rather than her needs drive her. It was time to quit and go to bed. She could finish this tomorrow or even on Lightwave. Suns, it would be easier to do from someplace with better connectivity, especially on a folder. Then, if Q’s scripts were discovered, she wouldn’t be because they’d fold away and be long gone before someone could track her down physically.
Continuing now was a great way to mess everything up. Plus, Saree and Ruhger were leading a special meditation session tomorrow. She didn’t want to miss that—or fall asleep because she was too tired to pay attention.
Q chuckled, the sound echoing in the empty office. Now or later, Enzo would pay. Q carefully backed out of her script locations, leaving them running, shut down all her active transmissions, and disconnected the dedicated comm link to the fold message center, making sure there was no way to trace anything back to her. Then she got up, stretched high, enjoying the movement of stiff muscles, and headed for her bed.
Q floated, secure in the arms of the Mother, in tune with the universe. A ripple passed through her consciousness, bringing a sense of discordance. It increased, then gradually smoothed away, like it had never occurred. Environmental disturbance noted, Q returned to her meditative state.
“You return to full awareness. Your breath pulls in…pushes out,” Ruhger rumbled, growing louder, firmer. “You feel your muscles working, your heart beating, your diaphragm, your chest, your legs, your arms, your head.”
Q took a breath and took stock of her body. A little stiff from lying on the yoga mat for so long, but overall, she felt good.
“Remembering your sense of peace and beauty, come back to your body. Become aware of how it feels. When you are ready, stretch a little, roll back and forth, and return to a sitting position.”
Q sat, feeling relaxed, yet energized. A very good y’ga meditation—Ruhger was an excellent leader. But he should be—he’d been doing it his entire life.
“Gentle beings, I thank you for joining us tonight,” Saree said. “Thank you for trusting us to lead you in meditation. As I said during the introduction to this advanced session, I had a specific reason for offering it. As you may have heard, there is a human clock maintainer working for the Time Guild now, tuning fold clocks.”
Q snapped her head around to look at Saree. Really?
“Those rumors are true. The Time Guild is looking for more humans with this ability, the ability to sense something we call ^timespace^. One of the ways we find humans with potential is through meditation. Some of you may have noted something during this session, something that wasn’t inside of you. I’m not going to tell you what it was because it may look different to everyone, and I don’t want to plant a false memory. But if you did note something exterior to yourself and you want to explore the notion, knowing the job itself can be hazardous, come talk to me. Now or later.” Saree smiled serenely.
Interesting. Q had definitely noted something, and she already had trouble on her tail. If she had a talent, one that was useful to the Time Guild? That might offer more protection than harm to her. She’d noticed Saree didn’t confirm or deny she was the human Clocker. While Q had heard rumors of a human clock maintainer many times, she always thought it was wishful thinking or a ploy by Gov Human to keep humans safer in the universe. Time to find out if this was the big secret Saree had been keeping all this time. She waited for everyone to leave. A few people stopped to thank Saree or Ruhger, but no one stayed to talk.
When everyone was gone, Q padded over to where the pair were rolling up their mats. “Saree?” Quinn asked. She sounded so tentative. Yuck.
Ruhger spun and Saree peered around his ridiculously large shoulders. “Yes?”
“Can I talk to you for a minute?” Quinn flashed a grin at Ruhger. “Girl stuff.” She shrugged. This would be hard enough with just Saree, she didn’t need Ruhger hovering.
Saree blinked at Quinn and motioned to the mediation mats. “Let’s talk.”
Ruhger walked away. “I’ll leave you two to it and check in with Lashtar about the Travelers’ status. See you back at the shuttle, Saree?”
“Yes. Thanks.” Saree shot the last word over her shoulder, a soft smile on her face.
They were perfect for each other.
“So, what did you need, Q?” Saree asked.
Q sighed. “I think I might have seen…something.” She shrugged. It wasn’t really explainable, but she had to find some words. “There was a ripple, a disturbance, a wrinkle? Something I noticed, then pushed away, like you normally push aside things outside of yourself during meditation.”
Saree’s mouth twisted. “I guess I should have given different starting instructions, then. Blast. I didn’t consider the normal response.” She shrugged one shoulder. “Something for next time. Anyway, as you’ve undoubtedly guessed, I’m the human clock maintainer. I access ^timespace^ through meditation and use the frequencies of transuranic metals to tune the clocks to the universal standard. I’m still not sure if I’m only tuning the clock or ^timespace^ itself or both, but ^timespace^ is disturbed by fold. The more folders, the worse it is and the more often the clocks need maintenance.”
“So, what does this ^timespace^ look like to you, Saree?”
Saree shrugged, with a tiny smile. “Initially, it was a place of beauty and peace, and I’d just drift there. The Sa’sa taught me to look deeper in ^timespace^ for the fundamental frequencies of the different transuranic metals used in the varieties of fold clocks and then ^pull^ them into my consciousness, for lack of a better term. Then, I ‘tune’ the atomic clock to that frequency. That ensures that all Time Guild clocks across the universe are telling the exact same time. It’s a pretty difficult thing to do at first.”
Saree smiled just a little. “These days, I can easily access ^timespace^. I’ve been doing this a long time and working hard, learning to talk to the Sa’sa in ^timespace^, so I’m always somewhat aware of it unless I’m actively blocking it out. I don’t know how hard it will be for other humans to learn. It may be easier for me to access ^timespace^ because I’ve been sensitive to the Sa’sa since puberty. I wasn’t born on the Sa’sa homeworld, but I grew up there, and that’s how they found out about my talent—I was dreaming and interfering with the juvenile Sa’sa clock maintainers. I don’t know if a connection to the Sa’sa is necessary to easily access ^timespace^ or not.”
Q frowned. “I didn’t notice anything like a place of peace and beauty. I only noticed a strange…disturbance running through my consciousness.” Her nose wrinkled. “Kind of like a single wave across water, it rolled through and was gone.”
“Interesting.” She raised her brows, with a challenging look. “Are you willing to go through some training? And endure the danger? The risk of abduction is real.”
“Really?” Q snorted. “Familia is already looking for me, hard. Why not give them one more reason?”
Saree chuckled. “Indeed, why not?”
A memory struck Q. “So, that’s why I remember you as a Scholar! It was your secret identity!”
Saree laughed. “Yes, it was. I traveled the universe as a Scholar of Ancient Music, studying an unknown field of folk music called filk for many years. But eventually, the cover wore thin. Big data processors matched traveling beings with clock tunings, and I ended up on a shortlist of suspects.” She sobered and tapped a little rhythm on her thighs. “We’ve been running and hiding for longer than I thought we’d be able to.” Saree gave a tiny shrug. “But we’re safer now that I’m known to be a Time Guild member because I can call on the Sa’sa Warriors for help. They’re pretty terrifying.”
Q grimaced. She’d seen pictures but not the real beings. “They seem scary. I don’t speak Sa’sa. Do they speak Trade?”
Saree tilted her head. “Some. But if you can do what I do, you can call on them in ^timespace^, which requires a lot less translation. It’s not really a language, more of a place of impressions, thoughts, and emotions. You have to learn how to push your thoughts—folders incoming!” She jumped to her feet and ran out of the Circle room.
Q sprinted to catch up, then passed her. “Come on, I’ll get a lifter; we’ll pick up Ruhger.” They pounded down the hall, everyone flattening to the sides, and out the door. Using her e-torc, Q selected one of Security’s all-terrain lift vehicles and started it remotely while she ran down the hall, Saree right behind her. They sprinted out the door, across the yard, and to the charging station. Jumping in, Saree didn’t even try for the driver’s seat. Which was good because Q knew the compound far better.
“He’s in the stable with Lashtar,” Saree yelled.
Q drove like a racer, taking what might look like a roundabout way to the stables, but no one would be on this path this time of day, and it got them headed in the right direction. She came around the backside of the stable, immediately spotted Ruhger sprinting toward the shuttle pads, and pulled up next to him.
“Jump in,” Saree shouted.
Q slowed a little, but Ruhger jumped and grabbed the roll cage behind Saree, rolling into the cargo area behind them. “Go!” he roared.
Q pushed the power up, bouncing along the narrow, muddy path, and brought the lifter to a skidding stop just outside the shuttle’s marked blast radius.
Ruhger was sprinting for Beta shuttle before Q halted the lifter; Saree was right behind him, and Q ran all out to catch up before he reached the hatch. Ruhger put his hand up for the DNA sample while entering codes in his holo, and the hatch swung open. “Saree, you’ve got security.”
“Copy,” she yelled, running past Ruhger.
Q squeezed past him too, bringing up the shuttle’s net and the backdoor she’d left. Would it still be there or did Katryn find it? But her regular profile was still active, so no reason to find out right now. She logged in, a vibration jolting through her as the main thrusters warmed up. Ruhger slammed into the pilot’s seat. Q told him, “I’ll take the weapons.”
“Sure.” Ruhger entered more security codes and another DNA sample and then swept the weapons over to her.
Q checked the weapons status; all fully charged and ready. No surprise there.
“Stand down,” Ruhger said, pushing a surveillance picture to the shuttle’s screen. “It’s the Travelers. And, believe it or not, Lightwave.”
“Really?” Saree said, incredulous relief clear in her tone.
Ruhger laughed, and Q stared at him. He was so much happier and relaxed these days. It was so strange to see. But she was relieved too. What if it was a remote army or Gov Human military gone rogue? There was so much turmoil in the human-controlled constellations right now.
“Really. Suns. I wasn’t looking forward to searching for them.”
“I wonder how they managed to get in with the Travelers?” Saree said.
Ruhger huffed. “I’m sure it was Chief. He did a lot of different things before he came to Phalanx Eagle.”
Grumpy Chief? That didn’t seem likely to her. Q told him, “It could be Loreli or Grant too.” They were both a lot more outgoing and friendly.
Ruhger laugh-snorted. “Not likely. Grant’s more likely to have started a blood feud by seducing a daughter, son, or both.”
“Not anymore,” Saree said.
Grant was kind of a flirt but nothing worse. A nice guy.
“True,” Ruhger said, bringing Q’s attention back to him. “Loreli usually makes friends on planets where she can get new foods. If it’s been grown or raised in space, she’s already eaten it.” He started writing Chief a message. It was addressed to Charani, registered to the Romani system in Draco.
Q commanded the weapons back to standby and checked to make sure everything was recharging correctly. Then she secured her status in the net. It took her a while to work around Katryn’s security, but since she had a crew profile and full access affirmed by Ruhger’s DNA, it wasn’t too hard.
Ruhger said, “Are you all right?”
Q looked up. Oh, he was talking to Saree, lying there with her eyes closed.
“Yes,” she said, turning to look at Ruhger. “I’m just minimizing screen time.”
“Makes sense. Okay, you sit there. I’ll button us back up but in warm standby mode this time.”
Q recalled their conversation after the meditation session. If Saree was the human clock maintainer, and fold disturbed ^timespace^, she might not feel so good with… nine folders coming in. Wow. That was more than the Travelers normally brought. She should ask. “Saree, are you really okay? There are nine folders in close proximity. It must have disturbed ^timespace^ a lot.”
Saree sat up. “Really? I’m not going deep in ^timespace^ now, that’s for sure. I wonder why they’d do such a thing? Everyone knows you have to spread arrivals as much as possible.”
“The Travelers do what they want, when they want,” Q told her. “If there are consequences, they’re usually long gone before it’s a problem for them.” Like all their flirting. Some of the younger girls and boys found that out the hard way, no matter how often they were warned. But that wasn’t fair either; Q knew the Travelers were upfront about their lack of commitment. Sometimes, people heard what they wanted to hear. After all, people fell for Familia’s blast and rad all the time. The Travelers were completely honest; they just omitted details. If you weren’t smart enough to ask…
“You have experience with them?” Ruhger turned to ask, glowering a little.
Q frowned at him. “A little.” More than she wanted. “I worked with them during the medico school build. They have an interesting type of honor. They’re way better than Familia though.”
“There’s no reason you have to do anything with them, Quinn,” Saree told her, her eyes still closed. “We can take care of it.”
Quinn waved her concern away. “It’s no big deal. Just be careful what you ask for and what you tell them. They’ll take advantage of you if they can.”
Ruhger huffed. “Most beings will. Better to learn that lesson now. A large group or extended family of some sort is just easier to target and blame. Everyone’s looking for an advantage.”
Q snorted at his lecturing tone. “Okay, Dad.”
Ruhger turned and mock-glared. Q grinned at him. A smile flickered, then he turned back to the shuttle command and control. “Quinn, you’ve already integrated yourself into the Beta shuttle permissions, right?”
“All right, let’s head back to the compound. There’s no reason to stay in the shuttle, is there?”
“Nope,” Quinn said, popping the end “p” loudly. She led the way to the airlock. If they wanted a commitment ceremony, she had a lot of work to do.
“No, I don’t think so,” Saree said with a heavy sigh. “I’ll tune the clock before we fold out.”
“Roger that, let’s go,” Ruhger said. “We’ll give it time to settle. By the time we fold out, ^timespace^ should be better, right?”
Q looked back at them, embracing. They were so sweet together. And sweet was the last description she’d ever thought she’d use for Ruhger.
Saree said, “I hope so.”
“We’ll worry about it then. Ready?” Ruhger let her go.
“Sure.” Saree stepped away from him but didn’t let go of his hand.
The hatch opened, and Q bounced down to the pad. “Okay to walk, Saree?” She nodded, so Q sent the lift vehicle back to its charging station. She wasn’t the only one wanting to expend the energy of adrenaline.
About halfway back, Ruhger said, “Saree, I just got a message from Chief. Everyone’s safe. He also says no ‘big’ issues. I guess we’ll find out what issues exist when they get down here.”
“Can’t be soon enough for me, now,” Saree told him.
Ruhger opened the chow hall hatch.
Lashtar waited for them. “I’ve told Nat the ceremony will be tomorrow night.” She smiled. “I’m assuming you’re both still going ahead with it in the same format?”
“Yes to both,” Ruhger said as Saree said, “Of course.” Saree continued, “We’ve told you the ceremony is up to you. The form doesn’t matter that much to us.”
Lashtar chuckled. “Tomorrow night, then. We’ll have the ceremony, then a party.” She sniffed. “I’d have a feast, but Loreli would never forgive me.”
Ruhger laughed. “Sure, she would. If you tried to label it a Loreli feast, then she’d never forgive you.”
“Right.” Lashtar shrugged. “Well, whatever you call it, there will be a ceremony, food, drink, and music. We’ve arranged for a local band to play, but I’m sure the Travelers will bring a group down too. They can trade off or play in another building. I’d like to hold the whole thing outside, but you know it’s likely to rain.”
“Doesn’t it always?” Ruhger asked, shuddering. “This place is terrible. Space is much better.”
Lashtar held up her hands, turning and inspecting them. “I’m always surprised I haven’t grown fins or flippers yet.”
Huh. Q had never realized Lashtar was funny.
“Or developed rust to go along with the ground-in mud,” Saree said. “Everything else has both.”
“I never knew cerimetal could rust until we moved here,” Lashtar said, laughing. A shadow crossed her face, and her laughter stopped. “I can hardly wait to leave. This place is terrible.”
Q felt her eyebrows raise. Was this really how Lashtar felt all along, or was it the relief of letting go of all her responsibilities?
Ruhger gripped Lashtar’s shoulder.
“Let’s grab some tea and see what last-minute chores Nat has for us,” Saree said.
Ruhger smiled at her. “Excellent idea.”
Lashtar snorted. “I’ll leave you two to deal with Nat. She’s not my problem anymore. I’ll finish packing.” She turned down the passageway. “I’ll see you at dinner.”
“See you then,” Ruhger replied. Q followed them, sure Nat had more for her to do too. Even if she didn’t, Q did. She had an account to crack and a head enforcer to annoy.
Q walked through the halls of the Sisters’ main building and up to the security offices, plopping down in one of the chairs in the small area outside the main offices. There was never anyone here, and the chairs were surprisingly comfortable. She retraced her steps through the scripts she had running in Valenti and found they’d finished and done their work. She had the account numbers, access instructions, credentials, and tokens she needed. Enzo thought he was clever, hiding his credits in an Antlia bank used by lots of Gov Human personnel, but he wasn’t smart enough on his own. He’d done the transfers from Indomito, and she still had access to the comms there. He really needed a net expert to help him—his paranoia was his downfall. Q considered for a moment. It was a little surprising—she was sure they would have found her comm sniffer by now, but if they had, they were trying to use it to track her down. Since she was routing the traffic through the addresses the Gov Human military gave her on General Kerr’s flagship, they’d be hitting some pretty solid blocks. Q chuckled evilly, punching both fists to the ceiling.
After a short celebration, she got back to work, sending the scripts that would back her out of the security holes she’d exploited and wipe her traces from Valenti’s nets, along with a couple of little traps for anyone following her back on the route she’d used. She erased her current profile from the fold message centers throughout Cygnus and all her history. Since she had administrator access to Secundus’s fold message center, that part was easy.
Using a brand-new identity at the Cygnus Secundus messaging center, she sent the formal request to transfer all the credits except the minimum balance from Enzo’s account in Antlia to her new accounts on Nexus Station. Then she transferred half the funds from all those accounts to a numbered account she’d set up back on Valenti, administered by the “Emergency Worker Relief Fund” she’d set up for the families of those unfairly targeted by the enforcers on Indomito. Angelo and Roberto’s spouses ran the board.
Then she set an order to her Nexus bank account to transfer the remaining credits to four different accounts, three of which were at other banks. From there, she’d transfer several more times, but eventually, most of the credits would go to the Antlia bank account set up for her Gov Human military pay, the same one half of the new Fleet recruits used. Ten percent would end up here, with the Sisters.
Ironic, because the amount she’d stolen from Enzo was about the same number of credits she’d earn in a thirty-year military career. Q laughed. Once again, Enzo would lose. She could almost see his face growing purple, his teeth gritting, and his fists clenching. Hah! Q strikes again! She got up, bopping around and chortling for a minute, then went to check on the big ceremony.
Q stood just behind Lashtar, Nat and Brin beside her, on the hastily erected stage at the front of the dining hall. She was flattered Ruhger, Saree, Lashtar, and Nat had all insisted on her involvement in the actual ceremony. Ruhger and Saree walked slowly toward them down parallel but separate aisles in the crowd. Both were throwing big grins at each other the whole way. Q couldn’t help but smile—their happiness was contagious.
The dining hall was packed. Even Ruth was there, at the very back of the crowd. She stood with a wall at her back, scanning the crowd for threats.
Saree wore an amazing dress with huge, gorgeous jewels. The dress was a deep, rich red at the shoulders and bust, matching the giant rubies in her necklace, then it faded to orange and finally pale, pale yellow at the bottom. Saree let them touch it—Tazan silk dress was so soft, so comforting. Ruhger wore Chef Loreli’s kerchief, the blindingly white triangle of Tazan silk around his neck. The two met in front of Lashtar, grasping hands. Sister Lashtar looked regal in the Mother’s ancient white, silver and gold robe, and Her blackwood staff.
Ruhger leaned in and kissed Saree quickly.
Aw. They were so cute.
Lashtar chuckled softly. “Ready?”
“Of course,” Ruhger answered, with Saree saying, “Yes!” at the same time.
Lashtar nodded at Brin. She rang the Sisters’ Circle bowl and let the tone ring. Whispers and conversations ceased, everyone gazing up at them.
Ruhger smiled again at Saree.
Q muttered, “Look at that, he does smile!”
Nat said, “Shh,” and kicked her lightly. Brin picked up the Sisters’ ancient worship text and opened it carefully, holding it so Lashtar could read it easily.
Lashtar’s voice rang out, sure and yet humble. “Gentle beings, welcome one and all. You witness the binding of these two human beings into one, partners for life, under the Mother’s care. Does anyone here object to this binding?” She waited for a moment, then continued, “Can anyone here attest to the good intentions of this couple, someone who has seen their fidelity and devotion demonstrated, who believes this partnership will endure forever?”
Chief Bhoher, standing just below them, said, “We, the crew of Lightwave, attest to the good intentions of both Saree of Jericho and Ruhger, Captain of Lightwave Fold Transport. They have proven their love and loyalty many times.”
Chief used their real names? Surprising. Everyone knew there were big rewards for information about Lightwave, her crew, and especially Saree. Well, they were all leaving immediately after the ceremony—the perfect way to bow out of the Sisters forever.
“So attested.” Lashtar looked at Ruhger, then Saree. “Both of you, repeat after me. I, state your name, swear to love and honor you for the rest of my days.”
Ruhger said, “I, Ruhger, swear to love and honor you, Saree of Jericho, for the rest of my days.”
Saree echoed him, “I, Saree, swear to love and honor you, Ruhger of Lightwave, for the rest of my days.”
Lashtar continued, “Do you swear to cleave only to each other, forsaking all other romantic and sexual attachments? To open communication and full disclosure? To nurture each other in every way possible? To act in each other’s best interests ahead of your own in balance with the greater community of living beings and the Mother?”
Ruhger and Saree both answered, “I do,” to each question. Somehow, Saree’s voice projected, even though she wasn’t yelling. She was a singer, so it must be something she’d learned to do.
As soon as the last, “I do,” rang out, Q turned back and carefully picked up the binding cloth. No one knew how old the cloth or the worship text were, so they handled them as little as possible. Lashtar took the long, narrow, roughly woven cloth from her, and Q breathed a sigh of relief.
Lashtar wrapped the cloth gently around the couple’s clasped hands. “As the faint reflection of the Mother in this universe, I hereby bind you, Saree of Jericho, and Ruhger, Captain of Lightwave, to each other forever.” She raised their hands high. “What is now joined, let no other part.”
Q yelled, “Yes!” while Nat and Brin said, “Mother bless you!” Applause, whoops, and blessing from the crowd were almost deafening. Lashtar eventually brought their hands back down and carefully unwound the ancient cloth, handing it back to Q. She carefully rolled it on the holder and placed it back in the case. Whew.
Ruhger pulled Saree into his arms and kissed her.
Nat stepped forward and announced, “Let the celebration begin!”
Ruhger released Saree, both of them turning to accept blessings from Nat and Brin. Q waited for her turn and got a hug from each of them, vaguely aware of Nat and Brin removing the Sisters’ precious relics. Ruhger jumped off the platform and lifted Saree off too. They got hugs and congratulations from their crew, joining into one giant hug, Lashtar with them. Q didn’t feel like she was quite family yet but maybe someday.
“Okay, enough of this for an old man,” Chief mock-grumbled, pulling out of the group hug. “I need a drink to cut all this sweetness and light.”
Lashtar laughed. “You and me both. I’m done. Nat and Brin can make sure no one gets too out of hand.”
Thanks be to the Mother Lashtar hadn’t named Q—she had every intention of celebrating her goodbye.
Chief grinned and put his arm around Lashtar’s waist. “Good. I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time. Let’s go!” They disappeared into the crowd, the rest of the crew following. Ruhger and Saree were caught in a crush of congratulations, well-wishes, and blessings. Q sent a reminder to Saree that they’d stocked Beta shuttle with food and drink for them.
A message from Ruth popped in, and Q swiped it up. “Caught a sneaky lizard. Come to the north treehouse, now.” Blast. Q glanced at the party below her. She really wanted to celebrate, but if Ruth needed her, she had to go. She made her way to the back of the stage, dropping her borrowed Sister robes, and exited the rear door, checking to make sure it locked behind her. Then, she summoned a lift bike from the nearest charging station—she really didn’t feel like running tonight—and steered it virtually to meet her at the north gate.
Exiting the gate, Q was happy to see, from the messages on the security net, that Security was doing their jobs, rather than being completely distracted by the party. They were aware Ruth caught an intruder and were looking for more. Q sent a quick message back, thanking them, then pushed the power up on the bike. Night meant taking it slower, but she knew this route like the back of her hand, so it wasn’t long before she reached the treehouse and climbed to the top.
Peering up over the edge, she saw a man, upside down, swinging gently back and forth from ropes at his ankles, and Ruth, tapping her toe next to him. She was wearing hunting gear, including a head net, which not only kept the insects off her face but also concealed her face enough to confuse a stranger.
“New toy?” Q asked.
Ruth almost smiled. “I guess you could call him a cat toy.”
Q chuckled. “He does rather look like one.”
“Now, he does. Before, he looked like a scavenger, trying to mimic a sniper.” Ruth’s voice was raspier than usual. “He didn’t even come close.” She gave him a little shove, sending him swinging over the edge of the platform, and he moaned.
Q wasn’t sure why—it was dark, so he couldn’t see the drop. But Ruth had to bring him up here to begin with, so maybe the distance up was enough of an indication.
A derisive snort and Ruth jerked on the ropes binding the man, bringing him to a halt. “But I asked you out here for a reason. This guy’s got the look.”
A pin light appeared, spotlighting the man’s face. It was dirty, covered with the red slashes of swinging branches and a few bug bites, but Q recognized him. Unfortunately. “That’s Fabriano. I told you about him, remember?”
Ruth sniffed. “The bookie? They sent a screwup? It should be Idito, not Indomito.”
Q snickered but sobered quickly. “My guess is he isn’t here for anything but reconnaissance. He’s not supposed to be sneaking into the compound—he’s supposed to be checking nets here on Secundus.” She sniffed. “But the Sisters’ nets are locked down pretty well, aren’t they, Fab?”
He tried to sneer, but it looked pretty funny upside down.
Ruth sent him swinging again. “When he first woke up, he actually looked relieved for a moment.” Ruth snorted. “That didn’t last long. So, Fab, either you tell us exactly what you’re doing here, or we’ll just leave you here, like this. You won’t last long; the wildlife is pretty aggressive. Too bad for you it will be small wildlife, eating bits and pieces of you, slowly and painfully.” She sounded gleeful, but Q could tell Ruth wasn’t entirely comfortable. The counseling might have been more successful than any of them thought.
He jerked against the ropes but stopped when he swung harder. “Okay, okay, just don’t leave me here!”
Q told Ruth, “I didn’t think it would take long.”
“Do you promise not to leave me here?” Fab whined pitifully. “And cut me down?”
“Sure.” Ruth took out a machete and cut through the rope holding Fab up. He thudded down like an already-harvested lizard carcass.
Ruth toed him. “Talk.” When he didn’t say anything, she added, “If it was me, I’d just cut your throat and toss you over, so talk.”
“Okay.” He gasped a bit. “I’ll talk. Give me a second.”
They both waited, Ruth’s toe tapping again. Q finally took a little pity on him. She held up a bev-tainer, and when he nodded, she dribbled some water in his mouth.
“Thanks.” Fabriano sighed. “Yes. I was sent to see if Quinn was here. They just wanted to get a pic or a vid because they figured out you’re not really on General Kerr’s flagship. I don’t know how they know that; it’s what they told me. If I could get sight of you, I’d get a chance at enforcer.”
Q’s lip curled. He was nasty enough to be one of them, but he didn’t have the trickiness required.
“But I couldn’t get through the net, and no one in town would talk about the Sisters at all. No one in Gov Human would, either, so I figured if I came out here and snuck up to the fence, I’d see you eventually.” Fab’s whining tone made Q’s ears ache.
“Why did they send you here?” Ruth asked.
“Because everyone goes home, even when they shouldn’t.” Fab looked so sad. If he hadn’t come looking for her, Q might be sympathetic—he’d obviously found that out for himself.
Ruth asked, “What happens if you don’t come back?”
“They’ll come looking for me in a week!” Fab’s eyes were wide—and scared.
Ruth’s mouth twisted in a parody of a smile. “I doubt it. But they might in two or three. Or never. So, here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to have a lovely stay in a secluded little cabin. You’ll be giving me your e-torc, with full access, and telling me exactly what messages need to be sent. If any of it is false, you’ll never see me again and you’ll die. Probably of starvation. Or cold if you’re lucky.” Ruth shrugged. “I won’t care, and Q will be long gone. See, if I hadn’t caught you, a predator would have, and you’d have never seen Q. She’s leaving tomorrow and never coming back.” Ruth looked in Q’s eyes as she said the last part.
Q nodded at Ruth. It was true—she couldn’t come back, not with Familia looking actively.
“You’re also going to tell me everything you know about Familia. Everything.” Ruth barked a rough laugh, or as close as she came to one. “Yep, you and I will get along fabulously, Fab. Get it?” Fab rolled his eyes, and Ruth gave him a sharp little jab with her boot. “Don’t disrespect me, Fab. You won’t like the results. I don’t like men. At all.”
“It’s true, all of it,” Q told him.
“I’ll string Familia along as long as I can. Then, I’ll let you go. But only if you cooperate—fully. And I do mean fully, Fab,” Ruth snarled.
“Okay! I get it! Capisce!”
Q shook her head slowly. “You’ll have to remind him more than once, Ruth. Probably every time you talk to him. But it’s a good plan. I’ll help you with the e-torc right now.” Q took Fabriano through the settings, making sure everything was unlocked, then she pulled it off his neck. She didn’t put it around her own neck but grabbed a game bag from Ruth’s belt, wrapped it around the e-torc, and held it up next to her. Fab’s face fell. “Really? You expected that to work? You are an idioto.” She sighed and put it back down around his neck, where she walked him back through all the security, then she held it up again, and started going through files. “Here’s the instructions for check-in, Ruth, I’m sending those to you now. And it looks like he’s got a ride out in a month.”
Q looked down at Fab. “If you’re smart, you won’t go home again. If you survive this, and there are no guarantees, you should run far and fast. Take that ticket and change it for a fringe world in Octans, Apus, or Pavo. Make a life for yourself far from Familia, Fab. Because you’re not going to make it through this one. Or you’ll wish you hadn’t. I don’t care how much your family has sheltered you so far, they can’t help you now. Run.”
Fab started blinking back tears, and Q turned to Ruth. “Even though it’s safe now, don’t put this on. Give it to K’tleen, tell her to use the captured enemy protocols.” She handed the e-torc to Ruth, who put it in her pocket. “You’re going to the mountain cabin?”
“Yes.” A smile flickered on Ruth’s face.
“Good choice.” Q grinned, then sighed and looked down at Fab again. “Goodbye, Fab. I hope this is the last time I see you because you won’t survive the next time. And, Fab, if you’re dumb enough to go back to Familia, warn Justice Fatima that Enzo must give up.” She shrugged. “I know he’s obsessed and embarrassed, but coming after me is useless. I have friends in very high places, and they’re not all human. He might end up a target if he’s not careful. And these beings don’t miss their targets.”
“Trust me, I’m not going back. I’m running just like you said,” Fab told her.
Q shook her head. “I doubt it, but I hope so. You’ll be a lot happier.” She tilted her head toward the other side of the treehouse, and Ruth followed her. “Thanks for taking care of this and not just killing him. He’s not very smart, or nice, but maybe he can learn.”
Ruth sniffed. “I doubt it. But we’ll try. Everyone deserves a second chance. If he takes it, great. But he’ll survive this and go back, I’m sure of it.”
“Yeah, me too.” Q took in a deep breath and let it out, letting all the regrets and could-have-beens go. One thing her time with the Sisters had done: she’d practiced forgiveness a lot and was getting better at it. “So, this is goodbye, right?” she asked Ruth.
Ruth actually smiled at her, a real smile. “Nah, it’s just farewell. I like you. I’ll see you again, but it won’t be here.”
Q laughed and held out her arms. “Deal.”
Ruth hugged her, then stepped back. “Farewell and safe folds.”
“You stay safe too.”
“See you soon.” Ruth left, and Q heard the noise as Ruth used a hand-tractor to lower Fab through the foliage.
Q stared up at the dark, cloudy sky until she couldn’t hear Ruth and Fab’s passage, then climbed down and started back to the compound. Time to make her final goodbyes and wish everyone here the best of luck and happiness. They didn’t need luck, though, because they were in great hands. Nat and Brin would lead the Sisters of Cygnus to a wonderful future.
That left Q free to fly, far and fast, and find a new adventure, taking some dangers away with her. She was more than ready to take control and move ahead on her own, rather than dance to someone else’s tune. If she could help the universe as a whole as she did? That was a fabulous opportunity. Q wouldn’t waste a moment—she’d thrust full power, straight ahead, into her new future!
The End! Thanks for reading! Q’s adventures continue in Quinn of Cygnus: Escape Velocity, coming November 2020.
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Quinn of Cygnus Copyright © 2020 by AM Scott. All Rights Reserved.