Rita and Donegal were playing a word game over lunch in the mess when Linda interrupted them. “I think there’s a problem.”
“What’s up?” Rita asked.
“I haven’t heard from Pavi, Aliph or Bett in ten minutes,” Linda said.
“They’re on the Harper’s Cry. Maybe there’s network interference,” Donegal said.
“I should be able to hear them. I can’t. And the computer on the Harper’s Cry has gotten stupid in the last hour,” Linda said.
Rita shot Donegal a glance that looked like a cry for help, then forced a smile before speaking again. “Pavi had some special upgrades she was going to install on the Harper’s Cry. Maybe that’s it.”
“I thought of that, boss. And then I double-checked her message. It’s a fraud. I’d have noticed it right off, but I was ignoring fishy things coming from Pavi.”
“Shit. Should we go get them?” Rita asked.
“No, we should get out of here,” Linda said.
“We can’t abandon them. If they’re in trouble…”
“Then a ship full of pirates is the reason and we’re docked with that ship. We need to get out of here before they decide to commandeer the Whimper.”
“It’s hard to take this conversation seriously with that name,” Donegal said.
“Shut-up, Donnie,” Rita said. Then she put the fake smile back on. It was a trick to keep her voice sounding calm and cheerful. It almost worked. “Linda, I don’t know how to say this delicately, but this close to the ICA blockade, you’re under a lot of pressure to split loyalties.”
“I haven’t told the ICA we’re here yet. I was going to wait until Pavi uploaded her last hack to hobble me. Rita, trust me. Something is wrong.”
“Where do you want us to go?” Rita asked. It was the best way she could think of to test Linda.
“We should have the Whimper break away from the Harper’s Cry. Then I’ll go into a holding pattern at the edge of the system while you and Donegal get on a shuttle. Rita, I know Kempus has illegal settlements in the system, but I don’t know where and you do. Take the shuttle to one of them and hide there until all of this blows over. If I hear anything I’ll broadcast it to your chip. Don’t reply or I’ll know where you are. If you need to come back to me, take the shuttle. Don’t ask for me to fetch you. This close to the blockade, I can’t purge data about the Kempari.”
That was perfect advice and what Rita was afraid Linda would say. It meant she was still loyal, and she was right about Pavi being in trouble. “Grab your stuff, Donnie. We’re going to do what the lady says.”
“She’ll watch us,” Donegal said.
Rita shook her head. “Linda’s a gentleman. She can’t keep our secrets, but she’ll close her eyes so she doesn’t learn them.”
“Yup. Thanks, boss.”
“Was it mutiny or the ICA?” Rita asked as she ran to her bunk.
“No idea. Pavi was fine in the airlock but I lost contact with her when she boarded the Harper. Aliph and Bett didn’t get that far. Their vitals spiked and then six other people went in there with them before they left. I can’t tell who those extra people were, though.”
“Okay. Any chance we could reach Mike?”
“He’s surfing weft. Oh, hey boss, Dessie wants you.”
“Sure,” Rita said. She decided that it would be best if she didn’t decide which of the outlying colonies to go to until they were in the shuttle, and to pack for any of them. That would give Linda the least chance of accidentally guessing where to find them.
“Captain Valshorn? It looks like you’re preparing to break dock with us,” Captain Dessik’s voice whispered in Rita’s ear.
“There’s been an emergency. Donegal and I are taking the Whimper to investigate it. We’ll be back in a few hours to retrieve Pavi and the others. This shouldn’t push back the time-line for the plan too much,” Rita said.
“What kind of emergency? We could assist,” Captain Dessik said.
“Nothing we can’t handle on our own, and this close to the blockade I don’t think we should trust both our computers to keep the secret. I’ll check in an hour from now with an update.”
Rita crossed her fingers that Dessie would believe her, shoved the last of her things into her bag, and ducked into the corridor. Donegal was already waiting there, a bag on each of his shoulders.
“What climate am I packing for?” he asked.
“Bring both bags. We’ll decide on the shuttle.”
“Boss, we’re up to speed and well away from the Harper’s Cry. I’m going to contact them in an hour using your voice and ask to talk to Pavi. I’ll let you know if it works or what I get from it.”
“Sure thing. Take care of yourself, okay?”
Rita and Donegal climbed into the shuttle, sealed the door, and launched away from the Whimper’s Revenge. It didn’t matter where they were going, they needed to be further in-system, so Rita put them on a course generically sun-ward.
“Which one, do you think?” Rita asked.
“Nadiya, Morgan and Loki are our only options. Closer in and we’ll just be drawing attention from the blockade,” Donegal said.
“Not Loki,” Rita said.
The shuttle was quiet for a long moment.
“Not Loki, right?.”
“It’s the closest,” Donegal said.
“They’re the best place to find people who can go up against the ICA.”
“How did Loki feel about that navel-gazing committee?” Rita asked.
There was another long silence.
“Their delegation walked out before the final vote.”
“So let’s go to Morgan,” Rita said. Then she waited for Donegal to say something while she tracked down Morgan’s current coordinates. “Aren’t you going to argue with me?”
“You’re the captain,” Donegal said.
“But you think we ought to go to Loki.”
“I think that if you’ll be comfortable with going back there and getting a hostile reception, that it’s probably the better choice, and if you aren’t, then we definitely need to go somewhere else.”
Donegal was being frustratingly reasonable. If he argued, Rita could dig in and pull rank. But this, this was practically cheating. Besides, he was right. Pavi was in trouble, and they needed to go where the people who could help them handle it were. “Let’s go to Loki.”
Linda updated them an hour later, broadcasting as promised to Rita’s chip. Captain Dessik didn’t show any signs of suspicion, but said Pavi couldn’t talk to them. They’d allegedly had a problem with her upgrades to the ship’s computer and Pavi was in the middle of patching it back together.
Four hours after that, Linda updated them again. Captain Dessik wanted to know why they weren’t back from their emergency and why, for that matter, there weren’t any signs of one. She still refused to grant contact with Pavi. To top it off, Linda spotted a message heading from the Harper’s Cry addressed to an ICA message server.
“There’s your ‘I told you so,’” Rita said.
“I didn’t tell you so,” Donegal replied.
More cheating. Rita took the sensible approach and punched his arm.
“Loki, this is Captain Valshorn on Whimper’s Revenge shuttle one. We’re on approach to you and requesting permission to land.”
There was no response from Loki.
“That’s unsettling,” Donegal said.
“We’re still pretty far out and the blockade has been in place for a month. They’re probably being cautious,” Rita said. Nevertheless, she was unsettled.
Fifteen minutes later she had the same results.
“Okay, Loki, we’re landing whether you give us permission or not. If you’re there, we can exchange recognition signals on the ground.”
“That could get us shot at,” Donegal said.
“It could keep us from spending hours orbiting an evacuated colony, too,” Rita replied.
There was no response from Loki, even when the shuttle started its final descent. Donegal was actively fidgety and Rita didn’t feel much calmer. It didn’t help that, like the vast majority of out-system colonies, Loki was underground. There was no way to see what was going on there from a distance.
The colony’s ground control computer didn’t request control until the shuttle was half a kilometer from the landing platform.
“Maybe they just aren’t manning the coms since nobody’s supposed to talk to them anyway,” Donegal said.
“They’re nuts, but they’re human. They’ll be glued to the coms.”
The landing platform was empty when they left the shuttle. The entire field was empty, except for dozens of shuttles. The platform had the abandoned feeling that came with disuse.
“Full dance card. They haven’t evacuated,” Donegal said.
“Full dance card?” Rita asked. It was local slang. Rita knew it because she’d spent her first year training on Loki. Donegal’s training had never strayed from the anthropologist tracks.
“The landing platform – it’s at capacity,” Donegal said.
The lights were down, so they had to use electric torches to find their way. Rita and Donegal wove through the shuttles to the corridor, then followrf it to the main hub. The lights were down there, too.
“Hello?” Rita called. Her voice echoed off the ceiling of the cavern. It sounded desolate, ominous.
The floor of the cavern was covered in a thin layer of frost. Donegal and Rita swept their lights across it, looking for tracks. With the main lights out, Loki would be a hard place to cope with.
“Maybe they did evacuate,” Rita suggested.
“The platform can’t hold enough shuttles to move everybody. If there are any shuttles left, it’s because there are still people here,” Donegal said.
That was something else Donegal shouldn’t know. Rita replayed the conversation where he suggested Loki in her head. He’d definitely manipulated her, but for more than their current interests? “When’s the last time you were here?” she asked.
“Prep for Islandiski.”
“What?” Rita snapped.
“You were spying.”
“The things the ICA was buying from them weren’t turning up anywhere else. We wanted to know what they were doing.”
“And nothing. I finished my part of the mission and got pinched before I got out. Want an apology? I got bored, I decided to go see what being the movie version of the Kempari was like. And I almost got staked for it, so lesson learned. Next time, I’m all about goat herding politics on Shakti or somewhere.”
Rita shook her head. “I meant, and what did you find out about the ICA? Though if you want a scolding, I could oblige.” She’d meant to scold, but given the chance, she could be as frustratingly reasonable as he could.
“Oh.” His shoulders slumped and his hands relaxed. “Tiāntán isn’t the only ICA colony that’s off the books. I was going to head up the project to figure out how to start studying them.”
Rita bumped him with her hip. “Maybe you still can. You haven’t been gone all that long, and we’ll have you home soon.”
Donegal grinned, then returned the bump. “Come on, let’s find the loonies.”
They made a circuit around the main square, searching the ground for footprints other than their own, looking in the windows of buildings, the doors, for any signs of life. Everything was quiet, still, and covered in undisturbed frost.
“Here,” Donegal said when they reached the far side of the square. “It’s almost frosted over, but a lot of traffic went through here. They might have moved over to C-dome.”
Two blocks up from where they turned off the main square was a small communications building. The lights were still on inside, so Rita and Donegal slipped in. It wasn’t any warmer – frost was accumulating on the lampshades. “It’s awfully humid here, for this much frost to form,” Rita said.
“The lights probably aren’t the only system they’ve shut down,” Donegal said.
Rita found the interface for the colony computer and wiped it clean with her sleeve. “Computer, are there any messages on the server?” Rita asked.
“One message on colony server,” the computer replied.
“This is Commander Piotr Vasily with the 97th brigade of the Interstellar Cartography Association’s tactical force. We have placed Kempus under blockade and detected you as an unauthorized outpost of that colony. A landing party will arrive at your colony in three hours. You will surrender to the landing party and cooperate with them during this time of crisis. I repeat, a landing party will arrive in three hours. You will comply with their orders.”
“Now we know where they went,” Donegal said.
“Maybe,” Rita said. The people on Loki didn’t seem like the type to peacefully surrender to the ICA. Yet, there were no signs of a fight.
There were more footprints in the frost outside the door, so Rita and Donegal continued following them. Half a kilometer along they reached C-dome. The street opened into a wide square. The lights were still out, but that was a blessing.
About a hundred people sat in a circle, their legs crossed, their hands folded in their laps, their blood spilled across the square. Rita walked across the frost-covered floor, pretended her feet weren’t treading over bloody ice, and examined the closest body. It was a man, his hands still clenched around the hilt of the knife he used to release his guts into his lap.
“Did the ICA…?” Donegal asked
“No,” Rita said.
“Suicide before surrender.” Rita stepped away, turning her back to the scene. It was cold enough that she couldn’t smell anything, and as that occurred to her she was intensely grateful. “God, this is what we get for playing at spies.”
“We should do something – cremate the bodies, or bury them.”
“Even if we had the means, we don’t have the time. We need help, and now we have to go all the way to Morgan to get it,” Rita said.
“Rita, I…you know this wasn’t pride, don’t you? If the ICA found this place, they know what it is. These people were afraid of getting staked.”
Rita nodded. It was too cold for scent to travel, but she could smell blood and viscera anyway. “I know. We’ll send somebody back. But the two of us can’t deal with this, not when Pavi might need help.”
“Okay,” Donegal said.
Rita’s brain shut down and didn’t process any of the walk back to the shuttle. Donegal didn’t know how to pilot it, so she must have been the one to get them out and set the course for Morgan. She wasn’t aware of doing it. The next thing she actually remembered, she was huddled on the floor at the back of the shuttle and Donegal sat down next to her.
“It wasn’t a whim,” Donegal said.
“What?” Rita asked while she tried to parse where she was and how she’d gotten there.
“I didn’t switch tracks on a whim. Things have been deteriorating for years. We’ll have to get proactive about the ICA if we want to survive. This blockade…I don’t know what triggered it, but it’s been coming for a while. I wasn’t standing with you when you tried to warn the masters and I’ve regretted it since. I switched tracks to do something about it – to help us find a way to protect ourselves.”
“Did you?” Rita asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe. It was definitely more useful than studying goat herders.”
“What do we do if they found Morgan, too?”
“We’ll deal with it then, if we have to.”
Rita leaned toward Donegal and put her head on his shoulder. “I’ve been gone so long.”
Donegal put an arm around her. “That doesn’t matter.” They fell asleep like that.
“Morgan, this is Captain Valshorn on Whimper’s Revenge shuttle one. We’re on approach to you and requesting permission to land. Please respond.” Rita held her breath and squeezed Donegal’s hand while she waited.
After an endless moment, “Please confirm, is that Captain Magritte Valshorn?”
“Yes. We also have Donegal D’Auchien on board,” Rita said.
“You have permission to land. We’ll exchange recognition signals on the ground. Be warned, failure to provide correct recognition signals will result in immediate execution as an ICA spy.”
“The Kempari paranoid about spies. That’s new,” Donegal said.
“I don’t care. There’s somebody alive down there.” Rita was so happy she was kissing Donegal before she realized it. After a slight hesitation, he was kissing back.
The autopilot had to take care of the shuttle’s descent without human supervision. Rita and Donegal were preoccupied.