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"All this time, I thought I was supposed to be a fighter, that I would make the most difference that way."
(Part 9 of “The Misfits” series)
Our crew was getting into a curious pattern of things, coming back together, saying goodbye, meeting back up again. It was getting to the point that none of us believed we’d be apart for long anymore, some sort of cosmic interpersonal gravity. “See you soon” was the expectation now, because we all believed we would. Leda too. After all, that was what the trip to the wizard’s lair had been about—meeting up with Verona who could escort us into Trasp territory; updating my missing parts so I’d fit in when we got there; and, against everything we’d believed possible, transferring our former ship, Rishi, to a brand-new technological body. All to go get Leda back.
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Those body-builders, the wizards, they kept the super-secret protocols in effect for our exit. Rishi, of course, flew Yankee-Chaos from their vault, and Verona followed in her ship Cannon to our rendezvous point in deep-space. After round two of a long, quasi-medicated sleep, our two ships popped up again in interstellar space fifty light years from Port Cullen, right in the heart of the Battery.
We had a roster settled for both ships, but there was still a fair amount that had to get sorted before we parted ways. Carolina was confident she’d gotten what she needed out of the early-war-era contacts on Sayla’s list. She was ready to start investigating the next cluster of names. To do so without Sparrow’s support, she was going to need a ship. And she couldn’t hire her own without the transaction in family money marking her trail. I damn well wasn’t turning our ship over to Transom. Sōsh flat-out told me it had to be either Ren or Carolina, because he didn’t want the stress of being captain. As much as I loved Ren, that point about stress was well-taken. You need a little nerve to make captain-level calls at times, and, if Carolina Dreeson wasn’t born for leadership, I sure didn’t know anyone who was. That was my thinking, and seeing as though I was only captain nominally, I let Rishi know my thoughts on the matter and asked her for hers.
“You want to put a civilian in charge of the Y-C, Burch?” she said.
“Just any old civilian, yeah,” I said. “I could give it to Transom. He’s got rank on me if we’re thinking chain of—”
“Joking. Joking, Burch. Carolina’s the right choice.”
“Are you going to be okay with this, Ship?” I asked her, gesturing toward the walls in my quarters.
“It’s weird enough being back in here,” she said. “I mean inside not in.”
“I know what you mean.”
“Carolina will be good. She’s got Maícon to handle operations; Sōsh, Ren, and Harold to keep the ship in order; Transom to watch her back.”
“It’s a good crew,” I agreed.
So it was settled. Carolina would captain the Yankee-Chaos and set off after the rest of the answers to the real players behind the West Battery War. And we’d head out after Leda as soon as Juice, Rishi, and Maícon finished rigging a receiver that could pick up the signal from Leda’s tech-eyes once we located her in Trasp space. The rest of the logistics would be up to Verona.
Verona’s ship, Cannon, was a sweet little cruiser. Not big like Yankee-Chaos, but comfortable enough for four and new—sleek, the kind of ship much more tailored to Carolina’s family than ours. We couldn’t help remarking about it once we got settled on the flight deck.
“We’re required to keep a day job for cover,” Verona told us. “One of the added benefits of our longevity is having a long time to accrue wealth. The sect has resources.”
Rishi gave her a long look.
“I have resources too,” Verona admitted. “Well, anyway, get settled and I’ll get us underway. As soon as we get within spitting distance of the Protectorate, I’ll ping my colleague with details on our needs for covers and get a proper search started for your friend.”
We strapped in for the initial jump. I was joking that her cruiser should have come with a butler bot serving us an aperitivo before we got underway.
“That wall closet in the side entry there,” Verona said. “Yeah.”
“No?” I said.
“I opted for the added cargo space,” she said.
“Maybe we should have brought old George,” I said to Juice. “Crackers and cocktails anybody?”
“I told Maícon he could keep George,” Juice said. “Even though he got a fancy new body from the wizards, you never know when that creaky old shell will come in handy.”
I could see Verona struggling to keep from laughing.
“What?” Rishi said. “What’s so funny?”
“It’s just the wizards thing. I can’t help but find it amusing. I know you know we’re not wizards, but where did that come from?”
“Transom started calling you all that when we were chasing Clem Aballi,” I said.
“Actually, it was the guy Transom was torturing in the airlock,” Rishi said. “If we’re being precise.”
“Oh, that’s right,” I said.
Rishi gave me a funny look about something, but I wasn’t quite picking up what kind of signal she was trying to send me. We were pretty attuned to one another, but we weren’t exactly well practiced at reading each other’s body language yet.
“Well, anyway…wizards,” Verona said. “It’s funny regardless of the origin. I promise not to cast any spells on you three.”
She looked back at everyone. “Jumping in five.”
We all nodded. Verona started the count and jumped the ship toward Trasp space.
As we were about to get up, Juice smiled and pulled out a small box that, from the looks of it, seemed like a set of Sabaca sticks.
“Game anyone?” he asked, opening the box.
“Where’d those come from?” I asked. “Looks like a custom set.”
“They’re mine,” he said. “Leda picked them up for me back on Texini when we were working on Maícon and George. Leda was looking for something to do, and it was the only thing I could think from that place I’d regretted not taking with me. Carved them myself.”
He handed me one of the sticks. Sure enough it looked like he’d carved the numbers, letters, and figures by hand. He’d even painted the lettering plates.
“We had a fair amount of spare time on our hands back then,” Juice said.
I handed a stick to Rishi and then one to Verona.
“These are beautiful,” Verona said, admiring the grain in the wood. “May we play?”
“Please,” Juice said.
Verona called the table up from the floor with a gesture, a nice little feature we were still waiting to be installed on Yankee-Chaos.
We played for about four hours before it was time for Verona to make contact with her agent in Danby. Verona explained that her sect infiltrated credentialing agencies. There was no better way to get a fake identity than from the government itself, and when you operated on timelines like their sect did, they could afford to be patient working their operatives into senior positions. She just needed our information and biometrics. Then we’d have legitimate Trasp identities, complete with military records, employment histories, life stories—the works.
“Now, your friend Leda,” Verona said. “I’m going to need whatever information on her you have so we can identify her and start the process of trying to locate her.”
“We know who Leda is,” Rishi said. “We were still recording her stream when the Colonel who took her told Leda her real identity.”
“Oh, that’ll be easy then,” Verona said. “Just tell me her name and I’ll have my people locate her.”
“Leda was a captain, a moon ranger,” Rishi answered. “Aida Jemeis is her real name.”
“Oh, I know how to spell it,” Verona said. “I’m just making sure you said what I thought you said; because I thought you said that your friend Leda is Captain Aida Jemeis.”
“That’s right,” I said. “You keep saying her name like you’ve heard of her before or something.”
“Burch, there isn’t a six year old in the whole Protectorate who hasn’t heard of Aida Jemeis. She was one of the most famous women in the sector before she came back from the dead.”
“That’s good then, right?” Juice said. “She shouldn’t be that hard to find.”
Verona looked at us, shaking her head. She may as well have buried her face in her palms she looked so exasperated. “How did you not tell me this?”
I looked over at Rishi and shrugged. “We didn’t know Leda was famous.”
“It’s not going to be a problem, is it?” Rishi asked.
“Well not locating her, certainly,” Verona said. “But you don’t seem to understand. Along with the war itself, Aida’s miraculous return was one of two news stories in the last six months—Captain Aida Jemeis coming back from the dead. The way she died, you know?”
“Not exactly,” Rishi answered. “Leda didn’t know the circumstances herself, just that she was in a nuclear blast on some little world called Kendry.”
“It was a selfless act of heroism,” Verona said. “Or at least that’s how the propagandists in the regime spun it. Nonstop for six months. Her face was everywhere. The face of heroism, martyr for the Protectorate.”
Verona pulled up a floatscreen and opened a news queue with articles and pictures of Aida Jemeis from before Kendry, before she’d become one of us.
We all looked at each image, contorting our views to make it fit with the woman we all remembered.
“That...sorta looks like Leda,” I said. “I can see the resemblance.”
“She did have her entire face reconstructed, Burch,” Rishi said.
“Her hair’s really dark,” Juice said. “I mean...”
“It’s definitely her,” I said. “I think.”
“It’s her, you guys,” Rishi said. “The colonel took her DNA.”
“Well, hell. This is a proper mess,” I said.
“Yes,” Verona responded. “It’s a proper mess. Do you people have any idea how difficult this will be, trying to get close to the Protectorate’s most prized living propaganda piece? I doubt if there’s a second of any day she’s not under direct surveillance and protection.”
“Protection?” I said. “There might be only one person I know less in need of protecting than Leda. Keeping her prisoner more like.”
“Semantics,” Verona said. “It’s going to be close to impossible to get anywhere near her. To get her out of the Protectorate?”
“Long odds?” I said.
Verona shook her head. “Yes, long odds indeed.”
I looked around the table. Juice and Rishi were smiling, and I started smiling too.
“What?” Verona said. “Why are you three smiling?”
“Miss Verona,” Juice said. “Those are just our kind of odds.”
The next time we heard back from Verona’s contact, she sent us a comprehensive itinerary for Captain Aida Jemeis’s public appearances, which Verona was correct about. They were not hiding her—parading her around the systems more like. Verona, looking over Leda’s schedule, grew concerned that we wouldn’t be able to get close enough to see her.
“We don’t have to get close enough for us to see her,” Juice said. “She’ll see us. Miss Verona, Leda can see halfway to Athos. So we just need to get close enough for Leda to spot us out, and she knows her eye-stream is still transmitting. I’d bet anything she’ll just tell us what to do to make contact.”
“That’s a damn good plan, Juice,” I said. “We just need to get line of sight to her and cause a commotion of some sort so she’s sure to look our way.”
Rishi was able to pick through the files in about five seconds and calculate the best options. Of the three suggestions Rishi gave, Verona picked the spot—an outdoor re-induction ceremony in the city of Astor on Rivera.
Re-induction was something I’d heard the Trasp did, of course. More or less everyone at the body bay talked about it during rehab. There wasn’t much else to do but talk. For most of us it was a nightmare, the idea of tossing our broken bodies back into battle, spare parts and all; but for a few, there was nothing they wanted more than to get back into the fray—Sōsh was one of those, for example. The Trasp Protectorate didn’t give their people the chance to opt out. If they could fix you well enough, you were fighting again. Rehab, re-train, re-induct. And, I guess, Leda was making an appearance to boost the morale of those poor souls who hadn’t yet given every last bit of what they had to give to this fruitless war.
Needless to say, I had some strong feelings about it. I’m not sure I could’ve properly named and articulated what those feelings were, but according to Verona, I wasn’t going to get a chance to.
“So, Burch,” she said. “One of the problems with your cover was re-induction.”
“You mean me?” I said. “They’d see me as fit and draft me into the service?”
“Back into it, technically. Your cover is as a wounded captain. That role, I’m sure you’ll have no problem being convincing in. It’s the other part that’s going to be a challenge.”
Rishi pulled up my cover on the floatscreen. I could read the body language on her perfectly just now. It was clear they hadn’t been looking forward to this conversation. I started to read and couldn’t make much of all the medical jargon—expressive aphasia status post whatever sustained…and then, brain injury something something.
“Would you just please tell me whatever it is you don’t want to tell me, Ship?” I said to Rishi.
“You need to have cognitive trauma that would prevent you from being re-inducted.”
“So you’re telling me I’m going to need to pretend to have a brain injury?”
“We’d anticipated this,” Verona said. “I can’t overstate how paranoid and suspicious the Trasp culture is. Our first question about any able-bodied person is always: why aren’t you on the front? And in your case, Burch, I’m sorry, but the answer is going to have to be obvious before they even think to ask the question. If they have cause to interrogate you, they will find you out, and you will be executed for espionage. So I spoke with your doctor Ren and ours back in the vault and they devised a methodology for inducing these symptoms.”
Verona opened a compartment under the ship’s dash and slid a small square filament across the table—one of those dissolvable films full of nanotech.
“Just while you’re in public,” Verona said. “It’ll take care of the problem with your accent as well.”
“What’s wrong with my accent?” I said, glaring at her.
I knew full well I sounded like a back-planet rock hound or metal miner to them, but I figured under the circumstances a hard time was warranted.
“It’s actually quite charming, I think,” Verona said. “It’s decidedly not Trasp, though, Burch.”
“So I stick this under my tongue, and then?”
“We can switch it on and off. We all understand this might be a sensitive issue.”
“If this is how it has to be to get Leda back, then that’s the way it is.”
I picked up the strip and put it under my tongue. “Fine then,” I said. “Let’s get to learning these covers inside and out.”
I pulled my file down from the floatscreen onto the table in front of me. I’d only glimpsed the medical section Verona had just shown, so when I opened to the cover screen, I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Helicon Burch?” I said, breaking the silence on Cannon’s flight deck. “Is that supposed to be my name?”
Verona looked at me funny.
“What the hell kind of a name is Helicon?”
“It’s a Trasp name, obviously,” Rishi said. “What kind of name is Hale?”
“It’s a good name, Ship. It means something. Hearty, strong. Helicon sounds like a skin lotion or an engine part. Better put some Helicon on that burn, Juice, or it’ll blister.” I was laughing. “Helicon Burch. What’s your name, Ship?”
“You’re going to have to stop calling her that,” Verona said.
“It sounds less ridiculous than Helicon.”
“Not to a Trasp it doesn’t,” Verona said. “Helicon is their name for the brightest star in the Vance Nebula outside Carhall. It’s a very popular boy’s name. Ship is a bizarre thing to call your wife, Burch.”
Rishi slid the front sheet to her cover across the table to my display.
“Rishi Ott-Burch. Hmm. Mrs. Captain Helicon Burch. Senior Logistics Advisor, support services, Reedy Canyon on Traston. What were you thinking, Ship, marrying a man named Helicon?”
“Ship, Burch?” Verona said.
“Middle name. Short for Friendship, so named after Friendship Column, where her distant Ott relations descended from. Easy. But I thought I wouldn’t be speaking anyway.”
Verona was shaking her head. I looked over toward Juice, wondering how he’d gotten out of military service.
“What is that?” I asked, looking at the cover identity Juice had projected our way.
“CAHR-WAY,” Verona said. “It’s a top-secret clearance for military tech development. R & D. A very rare clearance we shouldn’t be in a rush to test.”
“What do you do, Juice?” I asked him.
“I’d tell you, Helicon, but I’m afraid I’d have to kill you.”
We busted out laughing, but Verona didn’t seem to be all that amused.
“I know, I know,” I said. “Serious business.”
“Nearly two centuries cultivating seven different covers, Burch,” she said. “That’s what’s on the line for me and my people here. Maícon promised Eddis Ali you could be trusted. Please don’t make fools of them both.”
Things got a lot quieter after that.
We had four days to get to Astor and get a plan in place for the re-induction ceremony. Verona pulled up the specifics on the stadium. Astor was a closed city on a planet with a toxic atmosphere, so there was no chance of sneaking Leda out there. According to Verona, every inch of the city was monitored by AI video surveillance, like most Trasp cities. We had to be perfect members of Trasp society—look the right way, act the right way, attract no suspicions.
Fortunately, Rishi could upload a proper library of cultural information and program her speech patterns for a perfect Trasp accent. We had a built-in excuse for my reticence.
Still, Rishi and Verona prepped me for my role, quizzed me on Trasp behavior and culture, major events and how I should feel about them. To prep me, they turned on the nanites that suppressed my neural pathways that were supposedly damaged. It was an odd feeling. It didn’t feel real, and by that I don’t mean surreal. It felt like I was fine but that something had put the brakes on certain parts of my brain. If I tried to speak a sentence, my mouth betrayed me. It was frustrating as hell.
When the morning of the ceremony arrived, Verona went out to get proper clothes for me and Rishi. She came back to the ship frustrated.
“My contact couldn’t find a captain’s uniform for you, Burch,” she told me. “Best we could do was a suit and the proper bars.”
“That’ll do, no?”
“It’s not ideal,” Verona said. “It’d be expected for you to be in uniform, especially if you came all the way from Traston for it.”
“Helicon Burch has nothing to hide,” I joked. “If anyone asks, I’ll have a one-word answer.”
Rishi looked at her apologetically. “I know what to say.”
The plan once the ceremony started was to wait for Leda to pick us out of the crowd. If she didn’t look our way, Rishi would use the nanites I’d eaten to trigger a neurological episode that would make us conspicuous. The only drawback was that it would get everyone else’s attention as well. In the meantime, Juice would be on the ship with Verona monitoring Leda’s eye-stream to confirm that she’d seen us.
Rishi and I went out together a few hours before the ceremony. It was uncomfortable. The neural intervention forced the left side of my face into a very odd and irritating muscular spasm. My left eye had a visible repetitive tick to it. I kept telling myself it was all for Leda. But if I’d ever felt like I’d done wrong in my life, it was this—wearing a brain injury like a costume. I’d seen enough of the real thing to feel like a proper fraud, even if it was a necessary part of a mission.
Rishi had me by my good arm, walking with me arm-in-arm along the causeways of the city. It was a different culture, that’s for sure. Several people stopped walking to salute me, even in civies, just on account of the bars on my chest pocket. That felt surreal. I’d gone back to Delta-Gamma for a few weeks after my first surgery, and people there couldn’t hardly look at me. Here, though, these people had no tolerance for anybody shirking duties and not a hint of disrespect for those who hadn’t.
Rishi and I sat for a drink for about an hour. The Trasp were real friendly, surprisingly so, talkative amongst their own. Rishi ended up having a few conversations with people passing in the cantina, answering for me sometimes, while I nodded and occasionally spat out a few one-word responses. Then it was time to make our way to the stadium.
“Juice just confirmed a signal on Leda,” Rishi leaned over and whispered in my ear. “She’s here on Astor.”
“Good,” I mumbled.
I sounded awful. I felt awkward and plenty ashamed of the cover. I was damn well hopeful Leda would pick us out of the crowd on her own, because I was not looking forward to causing a scene. But I supposed old Helicon Burch would be expected to feel some genuine embarrassment about such a thing. I wasn’t going to have to fake that.
Rishi led me by my arm into the gallery on one of the stadium’s upper levels. I guess I hadn’t conceived of how big a ceremony this event was. The floor was giant enough to fit a pair of football pitches, and in addition to nearly as much ground-level seating, there were three stadium tiers with tens of thousands of civilians. It was long odds that Leda was going to see us on her own. To pick us out of all these thousands? Real long odds. The more I looked at this enormous arena, all decked out in the deep red of the Protectorate—flags, banners, and flying colors everywhere—the bigger the scene I realized we’d have to cause to catch Leda’s attention. Rishi was apparently thinking the same thing as we found our place. She reached up to kiss me on the cheek, embraced me, and whispered in my ear again.
“When you go down, Burch, reach out and pull that woman down after you. Grab her hair.”
When Rishi pulled away, she smiled and gestured to the young woman directly in front of us with a big head of frizzy hair and what looked to be a big, ugly-looking boyfriend.
I gave her a look as if to say, “Really ship? The hair?”
She looked back at me and nodded.
Well, that’ll do it, I thought. That’ll spark a proper fracas. I spent the first fifteen minutes of the event simultaneously plotting the whole thing out and praying like hell I wouldn’t have to do it. But I knew. Long, long odds Leda would see us. I just kept thinking, damn. This poor lady and her big hair. All the years she probably spent growing it out and caring for it and one encounter with Captain Helicon Burch is going to inspire a whole new fashion.
After I finally got my head right about the issue—that it was an op, and the reality was, that functionally, there was no such thing as an innocent civilian in the Protectorate—then I started thinking right. By then, the floor of the arena was beginning to fill up with the pledges filing in. They were a long way down from where we were standing, but it was almost impossible to tell that anyone in that army had prosthetic tech of any kind. I supposed it wouldn’t have been easy for anyone to pick out that I had artificial limbs either, at least from a distance. They were all armored up, and their prosthetics looked identical to an ordinary armored limb—at least from our distance. I could pick out a few soldiers with Beta lenses over an eye, presumably after they’d taken a hit to the face and lost enough functional vision to require a cybernetic replacement.
They just kept filing in, line after line. Fifteen minutes, twenty minutes. Thirty minutes. I couldn’t help but think of Carolina and her quest to end this madness. The cultural inertia of the better part of a century of all this warfare. The scale of it. Twenty, thirty, maybe forty thousand soldiers down there. And to think that these were just the wounded, just the poor souls compelled to go back out there again. One city on one small planet in one part of the Protectorate. It was staggering.
Rishi squeezed my hand and gave me a look to draw my attention to the dais, where the brass had just paraded in. I could hardly make out anything from this distance, but Rishi’s new body had eyes every bit as sharp as Leda’s. She tugged on my hand, looking toward the end of the stage, and she nodded, which I took as confirmation that the figure on the end down there was Leda. I asked Rishi with my eyes. She squeezed my hand and slowly closed her eyelids, nodding. Confirmation.
Once it finally began, the ceremony was a spectacle. The brass in the center of the dais alternated readings of speeches from the Trasp historical record, many of them genuinely moving, even to an outsider. There were drill performances, musical interludes. And all of the floor ceremonies took place along the outside of a circular stage at the center of which were two enormous drone harriers set bolt-upright in the center of the arena floor, reaching nearly to the rafters, every last soldier on the floor gleaming red in their show armor, which occasionally shifted to black or white during the drill performances but never any other color than Trasp red.
Then came the moment everyone had gathered for, when all the poor bastards down there repeated their oath of service, likely winning a second trip to Burning Rock for their loyalty. The kicker in all of it, at least to me and Rishi, was the voice all of these soldiers were forced to echo line-by-line: it was unmistakably Leda’s voice. Rishi squeezed my hand and we looked at each other. It was strange how fast the body language had gotten pretty seamless between the two of us, because I’m sure we were feeling the same horrible weight of it. The enormity of it, Leda no more willing to issue the oath than most of these soldiers would have been to take it if they knew what we knew. Yet here they all were.
Rishi gave me a long look while the gallery was standing and applauding the courage and loyalty of these brave soldiers—that much had never been in doubt regardless of the circumstances. I was almost so distracted by the moment I didn’t pick up on what Rishi was trying to tell me. She hadn’t gotten a no-go from Juice, which meant Leda hadn’t spotted us yet. And that meant, the poor woman with the frizzy hair was about to have an unfortunate encounter with Captain Helicon Burch.
There was a program listed on each of the boards at the foot of each tier so everyone could follow the ceremony. The remaining items were the loyalty pledge and then a minute of silent remembrance before concluding remarks and the recessional march. If there was a time to cause a commotion that Leda would see from down on the dais, it was the minute of silence.
I spent most of the time between that exchange of looks between Rishi and me and the minute of silence thinking about how to do it—how I was going to make it look natural, casual, properly acted out. Then, a few seconds into that minute of silence, whatever the hell Rishi and Verona had programmed those nanites to do rendered all my planning moot. I didn’t have to pretend to fall. I fell over the seat in front of me like a bag of moon rocks, and as my eyes were rolling up in the back of my head, it was just right there—that big head of frizzy hair. I didn’t even have to try. I just grabbed—instinct—and the last thing I heard before totally blacking out was the blood-curdling howl of a completely unsuspecting woman as I pulled her down to the ground with me by her hair.
I was only out for a few seconds, I think. It couldn’t have been much more, because the poor woman was still half on top of me, and parts of my left side were still convulsing. All I could hear was Rishi shouting, “Captain, oh, Captain! Medical. We need medical!”
I met eyes with that very confused and disoriented woman, who looked to be more shocked than hurt, to my great relief. The big ugly boyfriend actually turned out to be a big brother, and as soon as he realized his sister hadn’t been assaulted but was simply the unlucky landing pad for an injured captain having a neurological episode, he actually turned out to be genuinely helpful and compassionate, both toward his sister and to me. He played his part better than we could have scripted it, the big fella, because he helped one of the usher’s pull me up and sit me down in the aisle to wait for the medics, all of this unfolding in the span of about thirty seconds, causing the ranking general on the dais to call a halt to the minute of silence for a medical situation in the crowd. I heard them announcing that they would wait for confirmation from the ushers and restart the minute of silence so it could be observed properly. As I was sitting on the steps, the entire arena looked toward our section—perfect line of sight from the dais to the aisle, and at one point as Rishi was apologizing and explaining and tending to her poor Helicon, I saw a little smile creep onto the corner of her mouth as she looked down at me. Mission accomplished. I turned my face to stare right down there to Leda, making sure she got a long clear look at old Helicon Burch. You bet it’s me, I thought. Damn right, shipmate. I was always coming for you.
Verona was correct about the Trasp and their internal security. Granted it was a military event, but I got whisked out of there fast after the medics gave the word to move me, to a rousing applause, no less. From then, we didn’t take a step without eyes on us from the ISB. And not just one inspector. There were security regulars with bots at their hips, a pair of junior inspectors, and then, finally the boss came in to see us. They were suspicious that I refused to be taken to the hospital over the matter. Captain Helicon had been discharged from Trasp service, though, so they couldn’t order me to go without arresting me.
The ISB inspector was a sharp-eyed, suspicious woman wearing a regular military uniform with a major’s rank and insignia. Her name was Hartline.
“The Captain’s stubborn,” Rishi explained when that major asked why I was refusing to go to the hospital.
They’d taken us to a secured room in the lower quarter of the stadium.
“I...feel...fine.” I said.
“He’s embarrassed more than anything.”
“You call your husband the Captain?” she asked Rishi.
“Only in public, Major Hartline. The Captain has earned that rank, just as you have.”
Major Hartline looked over at me. “That much seems indisputable,” she said. “What was this episode about, Mrs. Burch? You’ll understand. I have to ask.”
“Of course. Occasionally, the Captain has seizures. It usually only lasts a few seconds. Never more than a minute. He’s had maybe seven such episodes since his last surgery.”
“Eight,” I blurted out, thinking Rishi was sounding a little too well-rehearsed, so I added a little spontaneity to the situation.
She shook her head and said under her breath to the Major, “It’s seven. He’s still a little woozy. No matter.”
I grumbled and shook my head at her. Pretty good acting on my part, I thought.
“Anyway, he had an episode, and I’d closed my eyes to observe the minute of silence. It’s my fault, really,” Rishi said. “That poor woman. Larsa. She was very understanding, and thankfully only shaken.”
“What were you folks doing here?” Major Hartline asked Rishi. “All the way from Traston for a re-induction ceremony?”
“Friends,” I blurted out. “Friends.”
“He’s very active in the support networks. It’s all he does, really. When they finally make it back in, the Captain likes to congratulate them in person. It’s such a long road for all of them.”
The Major looked over at me skeptically.
I lifted up my right hand, and Rishi pretended to be dense about what the Major was wondering about.
“Ah, yes,” Rishi said. “Sorry. He’s a prolific writer. Hardly ever stops for a break.”
“Umm,” I said, nodding along.
“It’s just talking he struggles with.”
The Major took a deep breath. “Were you planning on heading home today, Captain?”
“Yes,” I said, taking a deep breath. “After.”
“After the ceremony?”
I shook my head.
“We were planning on meeting a handful of the Captain’s friends for dinner. Though, I think it might be prudent to head back to the ship and have a rest before deciding whether that’s a good idea.”
“Good,” I said, gesturing forcefully with my hand and with my face, “idea.”
“Well, I can see what he wants, Mrs. Burch,” the Major said, smiling. “It’s unfortunate that happened during the ceremony, but I can see you folks meant no harm by it.”
I looked away, shaking my head.
“He’s just embarrassed,” Rishi said. “You know. Not one to kick up a fuss or have one made over him.”
“I do know the type. It’s no bother, Captain. Everyone will be glad to know you’re all right. Mrs. Burch, I’d like a list of the friends you came to see, if that’s not too much trouble. I’ll look into it personally, and then you’ll be free to enjoy the rest of your day.”
“Special...day,” I said.
“You’re absolutely right, Captain,” Major Hartline said. “It was a pleasure to meet you two.”
They gave me a tablet and I wrote down the names of the soldiers Verona’s people had built a correspondence trail with. A minute later, they released us.
From the moment Leda’s ship got within range of Astor, Juice had been monitoring Leda’s feed. Verona had been correct about Leda’s security. They had body people on her at all times—two of them specifically dedicated to her. And once the ceremony concluded, six more joined them: four to manage the flow of the queue to greet Leda and two more undercover in the crowd. That was to say nothing of the people we couldn’t see coordinating her security team, the body scanners, the cameras and the AI body language analysis and listening devices. It would have been a hell of a gauntlet for Juice to negotiate had we gone with our plan B and sent him through the queue to have his picture taken with Leda. In retrospect, both were massive risks. With some luck, we’d gotten away with the first part by playing on Trasp respect for a wounded officer. But if Leda’s head-of-state-level security in public wasn’t bad enough, when the queue was finally exhausted, Leda went back to a changing area, and who was there waiting for her but Major Hartline herself. It turned out we’d just met face-to-face with the ISB officer in charge of Leda’s personal security.
The good news was that Leda had seen us. Juice showed us the clip. She looked right at me in that moment I was looking at her.
“Burch, what are you doing here?” Leda had whispered to herself. “Oh, go home, please. Please.”
Verona looked over at me as though we should consider it.
“Not a chance in hell,” I told her, shaking my head. “We’re not leaving Leda again.”
We watched the feed for a few hours. Leda didn’t have much more than fifteen minutes to change for the evening’s event—a large formal dinner with city leaders and the military brass from the ceremony. And we could tell easy enough it was killing Leda. If I could have written up a personal hell for each of us, this would be about as close to Leda’s as I could imagine. Rubbing elbows with bigwigs for the rest of her life? Every minute micromanaged, not a second of solitude? Smiling all day? Playing the role of living martyr for a cause she hated with every fiber of her being?
“We need to get her out of there,” I said to Rishi and Juice. “If this is her life now, she’s not going to make it.”
“They’re treating her well, Burch,” Verona said.
“You don’t know her,” I said. “You don’t. If we don’t get her out of there, she’ll lose it.”
Nobody said anything, but I could tell Rishi and Juice were thinking the same thing. The problem was that it looked impossible. If this was what it was—her security, all day, every day, a new ceremony, a new place—getting Leda out was going to be a problem, and not getting her out was going to kill her.
After the dinner, Major Hartline herself escorted Leda back to her room, where one of her body people was assigned to the door. It wasn’t that Leda couldn’t have overpowered that guard and snuck away, but where to? Where could Aida Jemeis escape to in the Trasp Protectorate?
I could tell from the body language of the others that they weren’t happy with Leda, or Aida, or whatever they were calling her. It was sour looks and frustration—the way they glared at her, all full of resentment.
Hartline turned and dismissed the bodyguard.
“You going to stay and watch me pee, Major?” Leda said. “To what do I owe the honor tonight?”
“You need to change your attitude, Jemeis. I know they said you went through hell and back, but who hasn’t? Tell me that. Your performance today at the re-induction…”
Major Hartline was shaking her head.
“What about it?”
“Frankly, it disgusted me. You recited that oath like those were just words, Jemeis. They’re not just words. Not to those soldiers who bled for them once and pledged to them again. We can’t have you moping around the Protectorate like a jaded teenager. Not you. Not much longer. You’re damn well going to start smiling and acting like the Aida Jemeis people believe in, or we’re not going to have any use for you. And then you’ll be saying those words for real.”
We all heard Leda inhale and exhale, a long sigh.
“You’re right, Major,” Leda said. “Thank you. Sometimes it’s hard for me to be self-aware about such things. You know I remember so little. It’s easy for me to forget just how blessed I’ve been. It’s no excuse, but you know how big a disappointment it was that I didn’t remember my family. I’d like to see them again if you can arrange it. I need to try again, please. I’d like to go back to Carhall.”
Major Hartline took a long look at Leda’s face, examining her. Leda looked down at the floor.
“Okay, Jemeis. I’ll see if I can carve out a day next week. We’ve been out four weeks straight. That’s fair enough.”
“It’s no excuse,” Leda said. “I know it’s not.”
“You’re human,” Hartline answered. “I know what you’re doing’s not easy, Aida. Have a good night’s sleep. It’s a long way to Ellenby.”
Ellenby. God. Right from the conscription hall of Astor to the staging area for Burning Rock. It was no surprise to us why Leda was miserable, giving oaths to the very people she was going to give pep talks to before they got sent off to the grinder. This was some job the Protectorate had for Leda—propaganda fixture, living goddess to Trasp fealty.
When the Major left, Leda quietly stepped into the bathroom. She started whispering. “If you’re watching. If you can hear me, Chaos. They’re always watching, always listening. Go. Home. You know who I am now. I love you, family.”
Verona thought she heard something different from the rest of us. She heard Leda tell us to go home. We heard her invite us to her home on Carhall. It was pretty clear to us. We were going.
Leda and her retinue took off the following morning. Our plan now was to pick up Leda at her home on Carhall, and, as it turned out, Rishi had a few more tricks up her sleeve than even I suspected.
We’d blown her primary cover, so once we got out into open space, she asked for Verona to pick out another identity, one from a system on the other side of the protectorate from Carhall. It had to be someone roughly the same size as Rishi with similar facial features. Rishi spent about five minutes scanning through a database Verona accessed for her.
“You might want to strap in for this part, Helicon,” she said to me, smiling.
Then, without warning, I watched as her hair changed color and her face morphed into an entirely different person’s face.
My eyes grew wide. “That’s some trick.”
Juice looked over at me in disbelief. Even Verona looked totally shocked.
“This body,” Rishi said, now in an entirely different voice, “it has a few features the Harolds don’t come with.”
She looked a full ten years younger, like a teenager—nonthreatening, Rishi declared, beyond suspicion. Her skin was darker. Even her eyes took on a darker shade of brown.
“So if that major sees me in Carhall,” Rishi said, “she’ll have no cause to suspect a thing. Now I only need to get Leda’s attention.”
Rishi had a plan for that as well.
“Long odds,” Juice said. “See what I mean, Miss Verona, just our kind of odds.”
We touched down in Carhall City the day before Leda. We walked about freely, scouting. This world, Carhall, rivaled any for beauty I had ever seen. Nowhere in the Letters was like it, nor anywhere else—maybe an arboretum on Athos, but this whole city was verdant. There were trees. The air was fine. There were clouds of pure white in a blue sky like Earth’s, a yellow sun, a temperature made for us. The place was glorious. There was green grass and flowers. It was as though the war hadn’t touched this city at all. Maybe it hadn’t, not directly anyway. It was almost impossible for me to believe the warrior I knew had sprung from such a perfect planet.
It didn’t take us long to find Aida Jemeis’s family home. People were proud to point it out, to claim her as theirs. Truly, Captain Aida Jemeis was theirs, more a Trasp creation than reality. In our reality, she was Leda. And she didn’t remember any of this, didn’t know any of this. But she knew us, and we knew her. This was not her place.
That night we waited at the airfield, slept on the ship. I could tell Verona was nervous. She believed we could rush Leda out of there. She also feared we couldn’t do it without being spotted and ruining her cover. Verona looked around the city and around the airfield longingly as though she was saying goodbye to something important. She pretended that she was just scouting, but people like us, we can spot the difference as easily as the white clouds in the blue sky. It made me wonder what Maícon had promised her and Eddis Ali—what debt we’d need to deliver on when all this was over. I knew it’d be big.
When Leda’s ship arrived, her signal popped back onto Juice’s monitor with almost perfect clarity. It occurred to me that they might have touched down in the bay beside us, maybe not more than a few ships over.
Major Hartline was with her, along with a team of four security personnel and a pair of idle strikers that never powered up. It was a smaller detail but still no sure thing. All five people on the security team escorted Leda to her family home, where Leda’s mother opened the door. We watched the feed as Major Hartline and two of the guards swept the premises, clearing the whole property, even the back garden—the trees, the pond. I still couldn’t believe this garden planet. When the sweep was finished, Major Hartline went back inside.
“We need to leave tomorrow afternoon,” she told Leda. “If you want to go out somewhere, have Roche or Metz call in advance so we can double your detail. Do not try to slip them, Jemeis. Remember our conversation. I’ve done this much for you.”
“I am right where I want to be, Major Hartline,” Leda said. “Thank you.”
The Major took two of the guards with her when she left. One of the two remaining guards took up a post at the front door, set back a little from the street. Leda dismissed her body guy to the back room, requesting privacy in the company of her family.
Leda sat in a front room with her mother. and, after a moment, a young man entered the room, looking very much like he was comfortable there, like he belonged. Leda looked up at him as he entered.
“Do you know me?” he said.
Leda shook her head. “In a sense, yes,” she said. “I know that you are Omar. I know that you are my brother.”
“So it’s true?”
Leda stood up. “I’m not the same person anymore.”
“You are still my daughter,” Leda’s mother insisted. “I know you’re mine.”
“I only meant I don’t remember. The childhood you had with me, Omar, that’s not a part of my past anymore.”
He came closer and embraced her.
“Oh, big sister,” he said. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t come home to see you last month. I couldn’t leave my unit.”
“I understand, Omar.”
“What did they do to you?” he said pulling back and looking directly at her.
“They had to rebuild my body and my face. I know I look different.”
“I still know you,” he said.
The poor kid looked like someone had ripped his heart out. We all understood that loss. We watched as they sat together for several hours, Leda and her family—three perfect strangers.
Rishi was costumed in her new identity, wearing some Trasp teenager’s face, heading toward Leda’s house when Omar got up and declared that he needed a break. He announced that he was going for a drink and didn’t invite Leda. “The Harp,” he told his mother. “I’ll be back in a couple hours.”
Leda seemed disappointed when he left.
“He took it so hard,” Mrs. Jemeis told Leda after Omar left. “It’s not easy for him. Even if you don’t know, Aida, we do. We remember what we lost. But now at least we have another chance to make new memories.”
I had a feeling about it. It was the stupidest thing I’d done since getting assigned the Yankee, and I knew it. But I had a feeling. I had to see him. We couldn’t just take Leda like that—disappear her again. They had to have a sense she would be okay.
Verona was furious. But she also knew she couldn’t stop me. And I damn well wasn’t going to let her turn that neurological brake on again. This time, I went out as myself. And she was so sideways worried about what trouble I was going to get myself into that she demanded to tag along. The Harp was a fair distance from the ship, so we each took one of the hoverskids she had tucked away in a closet in the back of the Cannon.
“Good thing you didn’t turn down that option,” I joked with her. “We could use a few of these skidders on the Chaos.”
It was about a fifteen-minute skid ride. When we arrived, Omar was already there, sitting by himself at the bar of the dimly lit pub. Verona knew what I’d gone for, but for some reason, she still hoped she could talk me out of it.
“Burch,” she said, pulling on my arm.
“Be a good wizard and play along, will you, Verona?”
She hit me with a real sour look, but she followed me when I approached him. I walked up to the empty seat beside him and gestured. “May I?”
“Please,” Omar said.
I looked at that boy’s face and all I could see was Leda. He just felt like family. I could read it in his face now more so than on the feed. He was real torn up inside. Aida must have meant the world to him. For all the performative hagiography and hero worship the Protectorate was heaping on his sister, every last ounce of it couldn’t have held a candle to what this young man felt for the genuine Aida Jemeis.
“You’ve had a rough day by the looks of it,” I said to him. “Had plenty of those.”
“Such is our fate,” Omar said.
“Some of us more than others.”
Omar noticed my artificial hand on the bar beside him and nodded. “Burning Rock or Richfield?”
“The legs, defending supply stations for Nessel. I lost the arm when my evac ship was hit getting me out.”
“Bad days are all relative,” Omar said. “Mine’s no big thing, comparatively.”
“I believe I recognize you,” I told him.
“Yeah, the pictures. Everybody knows my family now. I’d love to talk about it, friend, but I’m not really allowed to talk about my sister.”
“Nothing’s stopping me from talking about her. I served with her,” I told him. “I knew her well.”
“Is that so?”
“The Captain’s forgetting his manners,” Verona said, leaning in front of me to catch Omar’s attention. “Can we get your drink?”
“Of course,” I said. “Please, allow us.”
Omar shrugged and nodded reluctantly. Verona ordered us a couple local cocktails and introduced herself and me to Omar, properly that is, using my cover of course, Captain Helicon Burch.
“I imagine the reason you can’t speak about your sister is that the ISB doesn’t want people to know that until she miraculously reappeared a couple months back, she didn’t remember her own name. Sound about right? You don’t have to say anything, Omar; just nod your head if I’m close to the mark.”
He nodded. “You have a strange accent, Captain. I’m not sure I can place it.”
“I grew up close to the Letters. Traveled a lot as a kid,” I said. “I can’t tell you how I know what I know, but I do understand what you’re going through.”
“It’s like losing her twice, am I right?”
“The thing is, you were wrong about the first loss. You just didn’t know it. And you’re wrong about the loss this time too. She’s still there. What you love about her—it’s all still there whether she shares your memories anymore or not.”
“I’m a little confused as to who you people are,” Omar said. “And, as you noted, this has been a tough day.”
“I served with your sister, Omar. I know her. I know who she is. All the things you love about her are all still true. You need to know that.”
“Where exactly did you say you grew up?”
“I didn’t say exactly. There are important things and there are unimportant things. The important thing I’m trying to tell you is that you haven’t lost anything, and the work your sister is doing is more important than you know.”
“Oh, I know,” he said rolling his eyes. “Keeping the Protectorate inspired, lifting morale. So important.”
He lifted his glass as though to toast. Then he caught something out of the corner of his eye. He turned toward the door and a look of disgust washed over his face. I was about to turn too, but Verona grabbed my arm, tugged me toward her and leaned over, kissing me on the cheek. Before she pulled away, she said quietly in my ear, “Don’t look back. Don’t. Major Hartline is here.”
“Day keeps getting better,” Omar said. “Listen, Captain—”
“What’s wrong?” Verona said, leaning across toward Omar, touching him on the forearm.
He turned back toward Verona. “Oh, it’s just...well, the ISB. My mother told me they followed her around when Aida was home last time, even when she was out by herself. I guess I’m getting the same treatment now too. Fun.”
Omar took a long look at me, noticing me sitting there, my eyes front, conspicuously uninterested in the three ISB agents he and Verona were looking at.
“Where did you serve with my sister, Captain?” he said.
“Lots of places,” I said, taking a sip of the bitter cocktail. “Too many to name.”
“Start with one,” Omar said.
I shrugged. Omar looked back at Major Hartline and her two colleagues again and kept talking.
“My unit spent some time in the Alphas, Captain Burch. You ever been out that way?”
I nodded. “Many times.”
“Many times,” he repeated, imitating my accent. “Not back to Carhall all that often, though, I’ll wager.”
I shrugged. Verona shook her head at him, begging him with her eyes.
“My sister had a nickname from school, in the JO’s Corps. It stuck with her all the way through ranger school. You’d know it if you served with her.”
“I only ever knew her as Leda.”
“That’s a fact.”
Omar looked back toward the ISB and back toward us a couple times. He took a deep breath and picked up his drink.
“You know what I noticed about people in the Letters when I was out there, Captain Burch?”
I shook my head.
“See, we Trasp have this culture about loyalty to our schools, to our cities, to our units, to the Protectorate—that’s the big one. The chief difference I noticed when I was out there in the Letters was that people were much more loyal to each other—to their families, to their friends. You’ve been out there. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. Just a slightly different way about them. The kind of thing that would make a person do things that they know to be costly, foolish, and maybe even fatal just to help out a friend. Nothing bigger than that, no grand narrative. I have to say, I found it to be...I don’t know exactly. Call it a strange mix of naïve and shockingly commendable. I wonder if we Trasp used to be that way too and that it’s just another casualty of war that doesn’t get counted. You understand what I’m talking about?”
“Better than you know, Omar. Yeah. I do understand.”
“Important work, you said?”
I nodded. “The most important work. Much bigger than you could possibly believe.”
“Okay,” Omar said, picking up his drink. “I admire you, Captain. I really do.”
He got up, turned around, and started walking toward the table where Major Hartline and her people were seated. Verona’s eyes followed him, filled with terror. She didn’t know what to do, I could see. I thought she was going to bolt, so I grabbed her hand, held it in mine, squeezing it, still facing forward.
“Slowly,” I said. “Don’t draw attention.”
As I stepped off the stool and stood, I could see, just within my peripheral vision, Omar was standing beside Major Hartline’s table, having positioned himself opposite the door and away from the bar, drawing their eyes to him. He was pointing at them angrily, and though it was too loud in the place to make out what he was saying, I had no doubt it was something performative, about not appreciating being followed around by the ISB in his own hometown.
As we walked out, heads down, my arm over Verona’s shoulder, Omar glimpsed up at me for just a moment, not directly, and not for long enough to catch the Major’s attention, but he knew. I knew that he knew far more than I’d given him credit for.
As I said, Omar was family.
Verona was shaking as we stepped outside and started back to the ship. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t her brand of espionage, well trained as she was. We didn’t say a word to each other on the way back to the ship. When we got there, Rishi was already back, wearing her own face again. And she was alone.
“We shouldn’t linger,” Verona said.
“Rishi?” I said. “Rishi, what happened?”
She shook her head at me.
“Rishi, what happened?”
“Leda wouldn’t come, Burch. I couldn’t talk her out of staying.”
“We need to go,” Verona insisted. “Strap yourselves in.”
“Juice?” I said, and I’m not sure whether I was asking for validation or an explanation or what.
“You’ll just have to play it back yourself, Burch. I was recording.”
“I can’t accept that,” I said. “I know she wouldn’t want to stay. We didn’t come all this way to leave here without Leda, you two.”
“It was her call, Burch,” Juice said. “Verona’s right. We should go asap.”
I don’t know what I was angrier at, that Leda didn’t come with us or that I’d stuck my neck out to give her family closure or some other kind of comfort only to realize that we were the ones losing Leda all over again, not them.
And just like that, we were in the air, out of Carhall City without her. In that moment, it seemed to me like Leda, our Leda, had chosen Aida Jemeis.
Verona was anxious until we got to the exclusion zone. Once we hit the line and started the jump out of the system, she finally took a breath. I was sitting the whole way in silence, wondering about what had gone wrong. Verona turned and looked at me, and I could tell she was pretty damn furious about what I’d just dragged her through.
“I know,” I said. “That was the stupidest damn thing I’ve ever done.”
“What the hell were you thinking, Burch?” Verona asked.
“I was thinking I couldn’t do it to them all over again for a third time. Just sneak in there and steal her away, their sister, their daughter. Not without a sense that she would be okay, that it was for the right reasons.” I shook my head. “It wouldn’t have been right.”
Verona didn’t say anything. She just kept staring at me, shaking her head in disbelief at my stupidity.
“Anyway,” I said. “Looks like it was all for naught.”
“No, I don’t think so,” Rishi said. “I don’t think that at all, Burch.”
Verona and I told Rishi and Juice about what had happened in the bar, how things had gone down with Omar, how close we’d come to getting caught. Then Rishi queued up the footage of Leda. It was crystal clear—from Rishi’s eyes and ears this time, not Leda’s.
Rishi, wearing that teenager’s face, walked up to the door of the Jemeis’ house, fully expecting the bodyguard at the front to shoo her away, which he attempted to do.
“Please,” she said. “I have something for her, a gift.”
“She’s here with her family. Please, young lady, you need to respect the family’s privacy and leave Captain Jemeis alone.”
“It’s something she’ll really want, sir. Please, it would mean the world to me to give it to her.”
“I’m sorry, but you need to go.”
“I’ll wait here all night.”
“Then I’ll call for officers to come and arrest you.”
“Please, will you just tell her what the gift is, and I promise you I’ll go if she doesn’t want to come to the door.”
The young guard on the detail tapped his ear and started mumbling something, presumably to Leda’s body guy inside. “Okay, hang on,” he said to his partner. “Just tell Aida what it is and then I’ll send the kid away. Yeah. Yeah.”
Rishi pulled Leda’s prayer card out of her bag.
“Okay, kid, what is it?”
“Tell her it’s a prayer card for my brother. He’s deployed on the border in the Letters. It’s from Tressia.”
“Something about a prayer card,” he repeated.
“Tell her it’s from Tressia,” Rishi insisted.
“She says it’s from Tressia. Yeah. See if she’ll come to the door.”
A few seconds later, the guy at the front door raised an eyebrow, looked over at Rishi and said, “Okay, I guess she’s coming down.”
When the door opened, it was Leda, yes, but she was wearing casual clothes. It was funny to see her there like that, in the doorway of the house she’d grown up in, dressed in clothes she’d probably had lying around since her school years. She looked like Leda, but at the same time, like a totally different version of her.
“Captain Jemeis,” Rishi said. “I brought this for you.”
Leda stopped, struggling not to react at the sight of the metal plate, her Tressian prayer card, the Leda plate with its scorched fringes and bent edges. It was impossible for her not to recognize it as her own. She was puzzled, less about the object than its currier.
“It’s a prayer card. I’d like you to have it so you can pray for my brother.”
“Okay, kid,” the guard said. “I think you’ve—”
“She’s fine, Metz. Back off.”
“I can teach you the words to recite,” Rishi said. “Will you say them with me, please, Captain Jemeis?”
“Sure, love. What’s your name?”
“Rishi?” Leda said, cautious not to react.
She didn’t seem to believe or understand that it could be Rishi.
“Here are the words to say,” Rishi said; then she spoke very slowly as though teaching Leda a prayer. “Atta-sōsh-teki Kinesa-makana-toneko.”
As we were watching, I didn’t really understand why she’d chosen Sōsh’s name as a code word, but I guess it was pretty damn clever, because to the guard there, Metz, it just sounded like some foreign gibberish to him.
“This is very important to you, Rishi. I can see that,” Leda said. “Come with me to the back. I want you to teach me those words properly so I can remember and pray them.”
Leda took Rishi by the hand and started around the house toward the back.
“Captain!” Metz said to her.
“Oh, come on, Metz. Take a deep breath, will you?”
“You know how strict our orders are on you. If anything happens—”
“I was a moon ranger, Metz, and this is a teenager. I’m more likely to get struck by an asteroid than any harm comes to me by this girl in my own backyard. Shelve it for a moment please, Corporal.”
“Line of sight,” he insisted, following Leda and Rishi to the side of the house but stopping there while they continued.
Leda led Rishi to a spot in the middle of the grassy garden behind the house, where they sat. I couldn’t get over that. What a place to live. It made me sad for Leda that she’d forgotten all of it. What a loss.
“How do you know those words, and who are you really?” Leda said. “How do you have this?”
“It’s really me,” Rishi said. “I know those words because I wrote them on the wall for you in ultraviolet, and I have your prayer card because you left it in my back left pocket, so to say.”
“I don’t understand. How is this possible? I can’t believe it’s really you.”
“Maícon had some very special friends. They were able to transfer me to the same kind of processor he uses. And they gave me a body, a very convincing one as it turns out.”
Leda shook her head. “I’m really trying not to react here, Ship, because Metz would think something was up; but don’t think I’m not going to cry myself to sleep tonight over how happy I am for you.”
“It’s a big change,” Rishi said. “We can talk all about it, but this is more time-sensitive than we’d hoped because Burch has apparently done something rash, and if we’re going to do this, we should get a move on now.”
Leda took a deep breath and shook her head.
She gestured to the plate and said, “Do you remember what he said to me that day, Rishi?”
“He said a lot of things that day.”
“About good people,” Leda said. “How they don’t get to do what they want.”
“They do what they must,” Rishi said.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about Carolina lately. Ever since I got back. Getting paraded around like a celebrity has made me think a lot about Carolina’s life. The famous daughter of the Dreeson family. A few weeks of that kind of fame and I’m going crazy, everyone in the whole Protectorate thinking they know me, knowing what I am, who I am, when I don’t even know myself anymore.”
“We know who you are,” Rishi said. “You know.”
“Not really, though,” Leda insisted, taking a long breath. “They’re going to kill Carolina, Rishi. Her own family. They will. If she really crosses the line they’ll kill her, just like these people here will quietly make me disappear the second I prove a hindrance rather than an asset. And the thing is, Carolina knows it. Deep down she knows it, and she’s doing it anyway. You guys took a big risk coming here, and I appreciate that, and I love you for it. But I’m sure you’ll appreciate that I can’t do more back there with you guys than I can do here, meeting every dignitary in the Protectorate, gaining their confidence and respect. I haven’t really been doing a good job of that, but I didn’t understand the opportunity it was. I didn’t really get it until now. When Carolina pulls back the veil on the war, someone in the Protectorate is going to need to speak, and it needs to be someone the people will listen to.”
Leda suddenly laughed and shook her head. Rishi looked at her inquisitively.
“All this time, I thought I was supposed to be a fighter, that I would make the most difference that way. Pretty ironic that after all that, I’m going to need to be a diplomat.”
“I should go,” Rishi said.
“Tell everyone I love them,” Leda said, standing up. “I’m going to miss you, Ship. All of you.”
Metz was growing suspicious and encroaching into earshot.
Leda embraced Rishi, who handed her the Leda prayer card. “This belongs with you, Captain Jemeis. Please keep it safe.”
Rishi cut off her recording at that point. Then Juice chimed in.
“I closed Leda’s ocular stream on the off chance anyone ever detected that odd frequency and wondered about it. Not before I captured this, though.”
A final image from Leda’s stream flashed up on the floatscreen. Metz walked over to Leda as Rishi was walking away. He was looking at her, and it seemed like Leda was starting to tear up, having said goodbye to Rishi.
“What was that all about, Jemeis? If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you might be starting to care about something other than feeling sorry for yourself.”
She looked over at him and took an audible breath.
“You know something, Metz,” she said. “I’m starting to remember some things it’s been really hard for me to remember lately, like who I really am, for one. I’m going to be a better person.”
Metz looked genuinely shocked by her response.
“Oh. Well, that’s good news, Captain. Great news. I’m happy to hear it.”
The feed cut out. I didn’t know what to say. Neither did anyone else. It was just silence as the floatscreen vanished above the table. There was nothing to say or do except to feel sad and hope that the feeling in my gut was a true feeling, telling me for certain that it wouldn’t be the last we’d see of Aida Jemeis, our Leda. It just...things wouldn’t be the same without her.
About three hours in to the jump, which I was presuming to be back toward the Letters to catch up with Yankee-Chaos, Verona dropped the ship out. She told us she had something to show us and something she needed to talk about. I wasn’t looking forward to the conversation. I figured she was still upset over my going after Omar, how that one stupid mistake could have jeopardized about a million important things for her sect, and really, I didn’t have much to say in my defense. It was just a gut reaction. A call. A stupid, in-the-moment call.
I got a bit more optimistic when the jump drive cut and we found ourselves floating in interstellar space before a rather stunning cosmic vista. Rishi looked over at me and smiled.
“This is the Vance Nebula,” Verona said. “I thought this would be a good place for us to talk. Over a century ago, they used to run commercial tours of the Outer Battery, astronomical tours on luxury cruise liners. This used to be a very popular stop. Nobody really comes out here anymore. And, Burch, I thought you might like to know that the bright pink star at the center down there is Helicon.”
“That one there? That’s quite a sight. Helicon. I can see it. Sure.”
“We’ve risked a lot,” Verona said. “Far more than we’d agreed to at the outset when Maícon contacted Eddis Ali, I’m sure you’ll agree.”
“Look, Verona. I’m sorry about all that—”
“Burch, this is not me soliciting an apology. We were always going to have to have this conversation. We agreed to help you—whatever that entailed. But we agreed to help you in exchange for your assistance on a matter of great importance.”
Verona stopped talking and left that statement hanging there like she was expecting a drum roll.
“Well?” I responded.
“We need to talk about your friend Sebastian.”
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