It was a fine day for a kidnapping.
The Trade Fair was in full swing on the surface of Chaitanya, and there were scores of ships parked in orbit around that less-than-hospitable world. The Trade Fair was held here, and not on a more inviting planet (of which there were of course dozens--hundreds, even--within the uneven sphere of human-settled space), simply because of its location; Chaitanya belonged to no group in particular, and to every human in general. And just as importantly, it was somewhere near the physical center of the area regularly plied by freighters and tankers and other such commercial starships; so gathering here at intervals that followed the solar year of long-abandoned Earth was as workable as any such gathering pattern might have been, although of course not every trader's House was represented at every annual Fair.
Valeria was always represented, though. Like most of the older Houses, that family held several ships and deliberately scattered them across the established trade routes in order to cover as much territory and consistently gain as much profit as possible. This year the old man's own ship, which according to custom bore the House's name on its superstructure, was itself in orbit above Chaitanya Spaceport. Of course, everyone in the trading community knew that Anders Valeria himself would probably take little part in the Fair's proceedings; but he was there, and his ship rode in one of the more coveted orbits where shuttle access could be had by an almost direct rise from the surface instead of by a circuitous routing in order to avoid everyone else's orbits and everyone else's shuttles. Everyone respected Anders Valeria, and because they knew the cause of his weakness almost everyone excused it by never mentioning it where any of his family members could hear.
But everyone knew, of course, that Anders Valeria would spend most of his time in a wine-fog in his cabin while his eldest child--a thirty-year-old son--ran things, for all intents and purposes as if his father were already dead. When his fellow traders spoke of this at all, carefully out of the Valeria family's hearing, they agreed that it was fortunate for everyone that Jock had both his father's gifts for starship trading and his long-dead mother's calm, sober personality. If Anders had bred another like himself as his firstborn, that ancient House would have been in deep difficulties by now. It had taken young Jock the entire nine years since he'd completed his military obligation and returned to his father's ship to get the House back on an even keel; it had been tottering dangerously by that time, with Anders Valeria's young second wife dead and his attention focused solidly on chemical consolation rather than on his business or even on his ship.
Jock would have liked nothing better than to have gone down to the Fair with his young half-siblings, on this day when the real business was taking place aboard the orbiting ships and what happened dirtside was for fellowship and entertainment's sake only; but he no longer had that luxury, had not had it since the year he himself had been just turned eighteen and on his way--literally, straight from the Fair--to Guardbase Alpha to begin his three years of compulsory military service. So he had sent twins Jason and Xanthe, who were celebrating their own eighteenth birth-anniversary this very day, down to the festivities with firm instructions: "Enjoy every minute of it! I wish I'd known when I was 18 that being young doesn't last forever!"
That, of course, made his half-siblings look at each other with mingled amusement and disgust. In a sense he seemed as ancient to them as did their father, and therefore it was not conceivable that he'd ever been as young as they were; and in another sense he was their brother, not their parent, and therefore had no business making such speeches.
They were technical adults themselves, as of today, and had for the first time been admitted to any entertainment they cared to sample; had been able to purchase intoxicants, experiment as they pleased--and hadn't bothered with much of it, because like so many of their kind they had figured out ways to do illegally at fourteen (or earlier) everything that today was supposed to be so new and magical at eighteen. Jason had spent much of his time discreetly trailing after a certain golden-haired, closely-chaperoned girl; and Xanthe had spent her time keeping an eye on her twin.
Which was why they were arguing now, uncharacteristically, as the shuttle they were co-piloting lifted from Chaitanya's surface toward their father's ship and as night began to come down on the hemisphere where Chaitanya Spaceport was located. No longer were they young enough for curfews, but staying dirtside to sleep hadn't even occurred to either of them. It was almost beyond imagining, to voluntarily sleep anywhere but in the safety of the Valeria's familiar compartments.
"Jason, you looked just plain foolish!" Xanthe told her brother now, tossing her mane of dark hair and giving him a quick glare when her eyes weren't busy with the instrument console in front of her. "How could you think she'd be interested in you, even if she could get away from her chaperone? Do you think she doesn't know her father hates ours?"
Jason Valeria was not responding well to his twin's needling, because he was barely noticing it at all. The slim, wiry young man--shorter by centimeters than half-brother Jock, and so much less powerfully built that seeing the likeness of their faces was always something of a shock to strangers--was doing his job as co-pilot well enough, because that came almost as naturally as breathing; but he was thinking far more about that slender, blonde girl who'd been boarding another House's shuttle just as he and Xanthe had boarded theirs, than about his sister's chattering tongue.
"Jason! You do know that's Kyla Robie you've been trailing around all day?" Xanthe could have reached out and shaken him, the half-smile on his face was so aggravating. "I realize no one ever sees her, the old man keeps her locked up like some kind of exotic crystal--but you did know that's who she is? And you do remember what that means?"
Jason gave himself a small, deliberate shake. It was becoming obvious that his twin wasn't going to run down until she got a reply, and he was too happy to want to give her the sort of cutting response that she probably deserved (probably even expected!); so he was searching half-heartedly for some appropriate word or phrase that could be used to quash her gently, when he heard a different sound from her lips.
"What?" she said, and followed the word with another that Jock would definitely not have let her say in his presence no matter what birthday she'd just celebrated. "Jason! My console's off-line. Have you got her?" (Her, of course, being the shuttle.)
He hadn't. The shuttle was moving, at just the same speed as a moment earlier when Xanthe had had it firmly in her experienced grasp; but its course was altered, and neither twin had entered any request for that course change.
Jason tapped the comm. "Shuttle to Valeria," he said, in his surprisingly deep young voice. "Are you tractoring us? What's going on?"
There was no reply except static. At his side Xanthe tapped her own comm, and tried for another contact. "Chaitanya Control, this is Valeria shuttle," she said, with the outward calm of a lifetime already spent encountering and dealing with the sometimes terrible surprises that were part and parcel to a trader's life. "We're being tractored, apparently not by our own ship. Control, do you copy?"
More static. The twins looked at each other, then at the readouts on their consoles; and they went to work without a word, tapping in instructions--rerouting controls--reconfiguring power circuits.
To no avail whatsoever. The comms stayed dead, the consoles stayed off-line, and the shuttle continued lifting toward--where?
Alan Robie watched the dot on the viewscreen that represented the Valeria shuttle's progress, and he smiled to himself in that way that his elder daughter Alana (and before her, each of the two women who had been his wives) had learned to regard as the worst kind of storm warning. Kyla, his younger daughter and the proverbial apple of his eye, would not have felt that shock of unpleasant recognition; but everyone else who'd spent any length of time aboard the freighter Callon would have known that smile, just as quickly and with just as much foreboding as would Alana or her mother Treena or Kyla's mother Dorina.
No one was here to see that smile and realize its meaning now, though, because Robie was not on board the Callon. He sat in the control room of a just-purchased tiny yacht, with only a single companion; and that woman, although a long-time associate, had no personal relationship with him--had never had to work for him--and therefore saw only a smile. Nothing more. So all she said was, "You look pleased, Captain Robie."
"I am pleased," Robie admitted, deliberately letting the small smile become a grin that distorted his scarred face. "I've waited a long time for this."
"You're paying us well for this," the woman countered, returning his unholy grin. She did not have his horrible facial scars, but her smile was somehow not one bit less distorted. "So. We'll take the young Valerias somewhere very safe, and we'll release them only when you give the word. And, of course, when you pay the other half of the fee for their--ah--detention."
"Exactly." Robie checked his chronometer. "And now, although I don't want to be a poor host--isn't it time for you to be back aboard your ship so you can greet them? And then get underway?"
"A moment, Captain." The woman touched her private comm, listened intently to a message that was not audible to other ears, and then nodded in satisfaction. "I have more good news, although you may not see it that way. The young Valerias are safely aboard my ship--and so is young Mistress Robie."
"What?" It was almost a bellow. Alan Robie reached for his associate, almost as if he would put his hands around her throat and throttle her; but an instant later he had control again, although a vein throbbed at his temple as he stared at her. "Kyla? What have you done to my daughter?"
"Nothing at all, Captain Robie. And as long as you keep your end of our bargain, nothing will be done to her. But you've been known to--ah--alter agreements in your own favor in the past; and kidnapping is an offense with a large enough penalty that I've made certain you wouldn't decide that the safe return of the young Valerias to their family wasn't worth making the second payment. So you will get Kyla back, when the House of Valeria gets Xanthe and Jason back. Fair enough, I think?" The woman did not wait for a reply, did not even wait for an acknowledgment. She had risen from the co-pilot's chair as she had spoken, and she was leaving the control room for the access tube connecting the Robie yacht to her own shuttle. In fact, she was doing so rather more quickly than was strictly necessary.
Alan Robie gave a moment's real consideration to sealing his yacht's airlock behind her and dumping the access tube--atmosphere, pressure, unsuited guest and all--into vacuum, before the woman could gain the safety of her shuttle and cast off properly. If he did that now, he could claim imperfect knowledge of what had just been done between Chaitanya's surface and a certain doubtfully registered cargo ship orbiting a hundred or so kilometers from his current position. He could contact the small Guardpost below, raise an alarm, have the youngsters--all three of them, his own child and Anders Valeria's two brats--rescued before that ship had any opportunity to leave orbit. He could probably manage to do it without even getting fined for his actions thusfar, so skillfully could he place the blame elsewhere if he acted right now.
Which would mean giving up the revenge he'd planned for the past thirty years. If he'd had thirty more years in which to accomplish it, he might have chosen differently; he might have raised the alarm, because he honestly did not enjoy thinking about how frightened his daughter--that lovely, sheltered child of seventeen--must be feeling right now. But she was in no danger, and she was not going to be in any danger. He knew his associates, had done business with them on dozens of even more delicate matters over a quarter of a century and more. They would not harm Kyla unless it profited them more to do so than it profited them to hold her safely and return her to her family when the whole operation was concluded. And he not only didn't have thirty more years to set up another attempt at Anders Valeria--he didn't even have thirty more months. Right now he felt well enough, but the monstrous thing that was growing inside his body would soon begin to rob him of mobility--of clear thought--of all that was necessary, in order for him to do to Anders Valeria what he'd planned and dreamed of doing over so many long and strangely empty years.
No, he didn't like to think of Kyla's being frightened; but it was a price that must be paid. So, as he'd done so many times when sentimentality and one of his chosen goals had clashed, he decided in favor of pursuing the goal and deliberately put his daughter out of his thoughts.
She would be safe enough. And her psyche would recover; that was one of the best things about being seventeen, you could recover from just about anything. Since he did know perfectly well that he'd spoiled her thoroughly since her mother's death (and probably before it, for that matter!), maybe this experience would even in the long run be beneficial; a bit of adversity wouldn't necessarily hurt Kyla. It might actually be the making of her.
Robie checked his own private comm, trusting to the secured channel (which his associate had not been willing to do--that was why she had come over to speak with him in person), and spoke briefly with First Mate Berkey aboard Callon. Berkey was the only person who knew where his captain was just now. Not even Alana, who should be arriving soon on emergency leave of absence from her post as executive officer on an Interstellar Guard starship, knew or would know just how it was that her father happened to be missing.
If Alana knew the truth, she might do something stupidly "moral" about it. She would have to know, of course, but not until his plan was so far in motion that she would have no option but to go along with it; and then he would be dead, and whether she liked it or not she would have to give up that so-called military career of hers and captain her father's ship--at least until Kyla came of age and married.
He couldn't imagine Kyla serving the required three years of military service in order to earn the right to be a ship's officer, and although he was leaving the Callon to her she would nevertheless have to qualify herself legally if she wanted to command it. And since that wasn't going to happen--he'd been very careful not to raise her with that possibility in mind!--if Kyla wanted her inheritance she was going to have to hire or marry someone who could command the ship on her behalf. Once that happened, of course, half-sister Alana would be free to go back to her precious Guard uniform if she still wanted to do so. She wouldn't have lost too much of her career; just a few years at most, and she owed that to her family.
Alan Robie was satisfied with the day's outcome, although being outmaneuvered by an old associate didn't please him and created a score that he might yet find a way to settle. He wouldn't be around to do it personally, though, so he would have to be very creative indeed and come up with a way to get Alana to do it for him after his death.
Hmm. A challenge of just the sort he liked best; he would have something to occupy his mind, after all, on the two week-long passage from Chaitanya to the remote and uninhabited star system that was both his and the freighter Valeria's next destination.
All was as it should be. The yacht left orbit, getting a deliberate head start on the freighter. Callon would follow, not far behind Valeria; Berkey reported that Commander Alana Robie of the Interstellar Guard had just notified her father's ship of her arrival at Chaitanya Spaceport.
Maybe things were working out for the best, after all. Alana was not notably fond of her half-sister, but she had a trader-child's normal fierce sense of family and there was little doubt about how she would react when she heard what had happened to young Kyla. She would go after her, and would bring her home safely or die trying.
But it wouldn't come to that, of course. Both of Alan Robie's daughters would live, and by the time Robie himself lay dead his life's last purpose would have been accomplished.
Anders Valeria would be dead, too. Alana Robie was thinking bitterly of just where her ship must be by now, of what her people must be doing. Her body was striding across the dusty field that was the private shuttle portion of Chaitanya Spaceport, headed toward the trim craft that said "Callon" on its hull; but her mind was back on the flagship, back ten days ago when that summons from her captain had turned her corner of the universe upside down.
Flag Captain Anna Sullivan had not treated the occasion in a strictly official manner, and that by itself had warned Commander Robie that something was terribly wrong. Sullivan had summoned the younger woman to her office, but had done so with her husband--and commanding officer, Admiral Mace Gelsey--present. Interstellar Guard protocol was not as formal as that of the old-time, Earth-based military services; if it had been, a woman like Anna Sullivan certainly could not have served as her own spouse's flag captain. But for her to confer with her executive officer in Gelsey's presence was most unusual, because the Admiral was very careful about staying out of his wife's relationships with her senior staff members. That sort of attention to the human relations side of starship life was probably exactly why the Gelsey-Sullivan partnership had not only endured for so many years, but had actually thrived; had even produced an adult son, who was now completing his required three-year cadet assignment on a little patrol ship somewhere far from his parents' flagship.
Alana Robie had been with Anna Sullivan for a scant three months, just long enough to have begun to form a comfortable and secure working relationship. She had barely seen Mace Gelsey in an official capacity during that time, and had never seen him at all in any sort of personal context. Yet here he was, sitting in his powered chair in his wife's office, his facial expression somehow telling Commander Robie that he was here to offer support instead of to act as commanding admiral of a battle group conferring with his flag captain and her exec.
Sullivan's face--kind, careworn, with far more laugh lines than frown lines in its middle-aged beauty--told Alana Robie both that the matter was personal, and that it was tragic, even before the flag captain opened her mouth to speak. "Alana, please have a seat," Sullivan said, her tone gentle. "I've been asked to give you some difficult news. When was the last time you saw your father?"
Thank goodness. It's Papa, not Kyla, was Alana's first--although perhaps unworthy--thought. She sat in the offered chair, with the captain sitting beside her instead of across the desk as was usual; and she answered without hesitation, "Years, Captain. I haven't been home since I was twenty-one."
"Oh." Sullivan exchanged a glance with her husband. "I didn't realize, Alana; you and I haven't had time to get to know each other very well as people. Anyway," and her tone became more familiar in its sudden businesslike briskness, losing the maternal tenderness that had made Commander Robie so uncomfortable, "its seems that your father has disappeared. His first mate is requesting that you go home, take the helm of your family's House, spend whatever time is required to either locate your father alive or to--wind up his affairs. I've already made out the paperwork to grant you an indefinite leave of absence. You will want to take it, Alana?"
The question that concluded the captain's words was understandable. Commander Robie's head had moved in a sharp, negative motion; and although she had done so silently, her lips had already formed a clear "no."
Leave of absence, when she was just settling into her new post--an assignment so enviable that she still could hardly believe she'd won it for her own? Executive officer of Admiral Gelsey's flagship, for heaven's sake! At twenty-nine! And someone thought she was going to leave this, and go back to the Callon? Just because Papa had decided to drop out of sight for who could guess what reason?
They were staring at her--admiral and flag captain, husband and wife, two fellow humans who had thought they were giving her terrible personal news and who had prepared to give her every kind of support she might need while she absorbed the shock. How could she tell them, now, that all she wanted them to do was let her stay right here and go right on doing her job? And to bloody hell with the House of Callon, the freighter that bore its name, and--might as well think it even if you can't possibly bring yourself to hurt these good, kind people by saying it in front of them!--to particular bloody hell with Alan Robie.
"Alana?" Captain Sullivan asked again, even more gently.
"Is there a personal message for me from Mr. Berkey, ma'am?" Commander Robie gave herself a firm shake. She wanted nothing more than to declare herself done forever with her father and his House, but she remembered now that her captain had said the message came from the Callon's first mate; and Mr. Berkey she remembered with respect, even with affection. If he was the person who needed her back there--only for a few days, of course, no matter what!--then perhaps she must consider going. At least she must listen to it, if the message was from him.
"Yes. I'll give it to you to take back to your quarters, Commander; you'll want privacy to listen to it, I think." Sullivan smiled slightly. "I'll sit on those leave papers for a few hours. Please let me know if you want me to approve them. All right?"
"Yes, Captain. Thank you, Admiral." Robie nodded to her two commanding officers, took the data pad from Sullivan's hand, and left the captain's office as quickly as she could.
Alone in her cabin--a solitude that was the privilege of only the ship's most senior officers--Alana lay back on her berth, more like an adolescent girl than a starship executive officer, and chose to listen to her old friend's voice instead of scrolling his words across the data pad's small screen. His voice was as it had always been, rough-toned and accented heavily by a childhood spent on a particularly infamous penal colony world (his father's fault, not his own!). Alana remembered that voice from her earliest days, and in it she had always heard the reassurance and support that had never been there for her in her own father's often strident tones.
"Alana, I know this is the last thing you want to hear when you're just settling in on board your new ship," Cameron Berkey began informally (he never had been expected to call his captain's children by anything except their given names), "but I need you back on the Callon for at least a few days. Your father was diagnosed with Deneva Syndrome just about as soon as we arrived at Chaitanya to get ready for the Fair, and the next thing I knew he'd disappeared. There's a message being held at his bank for you, coded to your biometric seal; I suppose it's a will, or power of attorney, or at least instructions of some sort. I wouldn't be able to access it, anyway, and the message he left for me specifically says you're to come home and take care of some business for him. I don't think he's dead, Alana. Your father's not the suicidal type, no matter what state of health he's in; and what checking around I've been able to do shows that the day he was diagnosed, he purchased a yacht. It's warp-speed capable and it's operable for one pilot only. So who knows what he has in mind? Anyway, please do come as soon as you can. You are needed, Alana, or I wouldn't ask you--I'd just pass on your father's request and leave it at that."
There the message ended. There was no formal closing, certainly no word of affection for the young woman who was the nearest thing to a daughter that old bachelor would ever be likely to have. But Alana found her eyes stinging, anyway; so she had to scrub a hand at them, irritably, when someone outside her door asked for admittance.
"Come!" she said, a trifle too sharply, and got off the berth before the door could swish open. She need not have bothered with either precaution, because the man who entered her cabin had seen her cry before and had seen her lie on that berth before. He'd been with her for so long that there was almost nothing they had not shared. "Oh, Dom, I'm glad it's you," she said as soon as she saw him, and she held out her arms.
He was taller than she by just a few centimeters, but his big arms enveloped her and his chest was a solid support on which she could lean. And right now that was exactly what she wanted and needed to do.
Lieutenant Commander Dominic St. Pierre. On this ship, Second Officer and her immediate subordinate (although of course everyone on board reported to her, through the chain of command if not directly); on each assignment that she'd held since her patrol ship days, her comrade and friend and companion.
He was as dark as she was fair, which made the two of them an unusual contrast in a humanity that had long ago begun to lose sharp distinctions of skin pigmentation and other such racial characteristics. When Earth had become lost to her children, those several thousand humans who were stranded aboard starships or already settled on colony worlds had had the good sense to pay attention to the avoidance of inbreeding; and the by-product of that informal but nevertheless firmly enforced social policy had been this blurring of the lines between what had been black and white, red and yellow (so-called--the old color-names were so long out of use that whenever Alana had encountered them in ancient literary works, she'd been puzzled as to how anyone had ever conceived such wildly unsuitable labels for skin colors that had never been black or white or red or yellow no matter how far back one looked in history). But somehow Dom St. Pierre had wound up with deep, rich, dusky skin, with hair and eyes darker still; and Alana Robie had wound up with fair hair (more golden than blonde, her mother had been fond of saying), blue eyes, and pale skin that always burned when exposed to a Sol-type star's rays.
Alana loved nothing better, now that they'd finally become lovers after being friends for so very long, than to enjoy the visual contrast their bodies made when they lay close and touched each other. Long before the start of their intimacy, she'd loved the way Dom's hand looked on hers when he touched her simply as comrade to comrade. And distressed as she was feeling right now, she still was intensely aware of the feel of his body against hers; of the strength of his arms around her, of the roughness of his cheek when he bent to press it against hers.
"Alana, what is it?" he asked her gently, in a voice that was deep but had a lilt that never ceased to startle her. Such a big man had no business having a voice like that. "When you didn't come back from the captain's office, I started getting worried about you."
"Come, sit with me," Alana said, and drew her lover with her toward the berth. Her cabin was private, and that was a privilege; but its only seating other than the berth consisted of a desk chair. Space on a warship was always at a premium, and couldn't be wasted on unnecessary comforts like sofas or guest chairs except in common recreation areas. "Dom, I have to take a leave of absence and go back to my father's ship for awhile. I don't know for how long."
"What?" Dominic couldn't have been more surprised if she'd announced she intended to abandon her career and take up the life of an exotic dancer. "Alana, you can't stand your father--and you haven't been back to the Callon since before I knew you. What's going on? And are you sure you have to do this, no matter why someone thinks you ought to?"
"Still telling it to me straight, aren't you, Mr. St. Pierre?" Alana found herself smiling, now that she was past the first shock and now that she had her best friend's familiar shoulder to lean on.
"Well--you're the one who trained me to ask you all the hard questions, to always challenge you when I thought you might be wrong. Ma'am." Dom's dark eyes twinkled with his infuriating brand of dry humor. "So I guess it's your own fault! How am I doing, anyway?"
"You're right that it's my own fault, and you're doing it just fine." Alana groaned. "Oh, Dom, I just can't think right now. I know that's not like me, but--"
"But it's human."
"Yes. It sure is. And this time I'm not going to try to think it through, Dom; all I'll do is give myself one hell of a headache, because there's nothing logical or sensible about the way this message has me feeling." She reached for the data pad, which she'd placed beside the bed when the door had announced a visitor, and she touched its controls and allowed the message to scroll across the screen where her companion could read it with her. She didn't want to hear Berkey's voice say the words again. Once had been more than enough.
"So it's not just your father; it's his first mate. Your old friend, the fellow who almost raised you himself after your mother died." In the eight years they'd been together, Alana Robie had told Dom St. Pierre more than she'd told anyone else about her childhood and youth; and if she hadn't told him everything, she was sure that he sensed much of what she'd deliberately held back. He was without doubt the most perceptive human being she'd ever met.
She nodded. "Yes," she said softly. "And that's why I have to go, Dom. Not for Papa--for him I'd do nothing, and not have a second's guilt about refusing. But it's not Papa who needs me. So I do have to go."
"I guess you do, at that." His arms gathered her close, and she felt the gentle brush of his lips against her forehead. "I wish I could go with you, Alana. I'm not used to having you go off without me to guard your back."
"I wish you could, too. But you can't." She nestled against him for a moment, feeling as she always did that to be held like this was luxury no woman of her rank and position had any right in the universe to expect. "Not only couldn't you get a leave of absence based on my family's request; this is something I've got to take care of on my own, anyhow. I'm not sure why, but I'm dead sure it's true."
"I know." He understood that when she kissed him, it was a farewell and not an invitation; he held her tightly for a moment longer, and then let her go. They stood, walked to the cabin's door together; then turned into each other's arms and kissed again. "Alana?"
"I'm not going to see you again until you get back, am I?"
"That's right. I'm going back to the captain, she's going to approve my leave papers, and then I'm gone. I'll come back here to pack just the minimum, but I'd much rather you stayed away and let me go." Blue eyes met dark ones, their message firm and clear.
"Understood. But before you go, I need to ask you something."
The intensity in his eyes was unsettling. Unsettling, but not disturbing; Alana had long ago discovered that she rather liked the way her lover's intensity unsettled her. She said softly, "What is it, Dom? What do you need to ask me?"
His hand touched her face, very gently. "When you get back, Alana--will you marry me?" That musical deep voice of his had a small and uncharacteristic catch in it. After all their years together, he was used to knowing what she would do before she acted; to knowing what she would say before she spoke. But this time it was different. For the first time since the night he'd become her lover, he was asking for something he wasn't certain she wanted to give him. And now, as then, he was afraid of the risk in a way that he had never feared injury or death in service under her command.
He wanted her to say yes. Oh, god, how he wanted her to say yes.
"Dom--darling.... "Alana Robie's endearments were few, but when she spoke them she meant them. Fully, unreservedly. Her eyes were stinging again--but this time her tears had nothing to do with regret, nothing to do with anger or frustration.
"You don't have to answer me now. I'm not even sure I want you to answer me now. I just want you to go away knowing that no matter what happens, when you do get back I'll be right here waiting." Dom bent his head and brushed his lips across hers, and his hands gripped her shoulders firmly. "Go on now, Alana. My love."
She wanted to say yes. She'd never in her life wanted to say that word with quite as much desperation as she wanted to say it now. But could she?
No. He was right. What they wanted, and what they could have, were as usual two very different matters.
"I will come back, Dom," she said, her voice suddenly fierce as she pulled his head down again and claimed one last hungry kiss. "I promise. And I'll answer you then."
Now, as Alana Robie approached the freighter Callon's shuttle at Chaitanya Spaceport so many light-years from her lover and from her starship, she could still feel the heat of that last kiss and could still see the pain in Dominic's dark eyes as his arms had released her and she'd turned to leave him. They'd stepped through her cabin's door into the passageway together, and had walked together to the nearest lift; but that had been as comrades, as first officer and second officer. At the lift they'd exchanged polite nods, she had boarded it, and he had stayed behind there in the passageway of Officers' Country.
And she had left half her heart and just about all of her soul back there with him, Alana thought now, as she keyed the shuttle's hatch with her palmprint and was recognized despite her long absence.
She didn't want to be here. Oh, how she didn't want to be here! But when the hatch opened and she saw her old friend and (to all intents and purposes) foster father waiting for her just inside it, she forgot to be a dignified grown woman and an Interstellar Guard full commander. She threw herself into Cameron Berkey's waiting arms, and laughed and smiled in spite of herself. "Mr. Berkey! Oh, it's good to see you. Why haven't you changed?"
The freighter Callon's longtime first mate was a massive man, not obese but built like one of the great oaks of Earth's fabled forests. He had, no matter what his captain's daughter might claim, grayed considerably during the eight years since she'd last seen him; and his brown face was lined in places it hadn't been before, Alana realized when after a moment she stood back and studied him properly. But he was as happy to see her as she was to see him, and his broad grin showed it plainly. "I was about to tell you it's time you called me something other than 'Mister,' Alana," he said, turning from the hatch and walking with her toward the two seats at the shuttle's console. "But I just realized--you should still call me 'Mister," because now I'm going to have to start calling you 'Captain.'"
"I suppose you are, aren't you?" It did sound very strange. Captain Robie. Alana had always hoped--to be honest, had always confidently expected--that the day would come when she'd wear four pips on her collar, and have the right to be called "captain." But she had always expected that it would happen in the context of the Guard's hierarchy, not aboard her father's freighter.
She shuddered. "Captain Robie" in this context went beyond feeling strange--it felt threatening, somehow. Creepy. Unnatural.
But Berkey was right; it was appropriate, and whether or not she liked it wasn't an issue. So she said, "Tell me everything, please, Mr. Berkey. Everything you couldn't put in that transmission to the flagship. And everything that's happened since."
As they talked, they worked; two expert pilots, clearing their little craft for liftoff and then accomplishing that task smoothly and swiftly. The shuttle rose toward its orbiting mother ship, and the stars began to appear in its viewports as Chaitanya's atmosphere was left behind. Cameron Berkey sighed. "Captain," he said, using her new title with deliberation in his tone. "Your father hasn't been heard from. But your sister and her companion have disappeared, too, and no one's been able to trace them."
"Disappeared? Kyla and Phillida?" Alana was startled at the stab of alarm she felt at that thought. For Phillida, who had been Dorina DeLong's nursemaid decades ago and who had cared for Dorina's daughter Kyla literally throughout the girl's life, Alana had no particular concern; she disliked the woman personally, but wished her no ill. But that anything should happen to Kyla ... little bright-haired, lively, laughing Kyla ... no, that couldn't be. The child was spoiled, dreadfully so; but she was still Alana's baby sister, and nothing could be allowed to hurt her.
"Just yesterday, as their shuttle was lifting to return to the ship," Berkey acknowledged. "It vanished from sensors. The Guard couldn't trace it, Chaitanya Control couldn't trace it, our own sensors couldn't trace it. It was just gone."
"Oh, no," Alana said softly, and stared out the viewport as the Callon's bulk began to fill it. "And to think I almost...."
"Almost didn't come home?" Berkey reached out and touched her arm, briefly before he busied himself with docking maneuvers. "I wouldn't have blamed you, Alana. No, Captain!" he corrected himself, and laughed without humor. "But I'm damned glad you're here."
"So am I, now," Alana admitted. And frowned, thinking to herself but not saying to her companion: Papa disappears, then Kyla disappears. Has to be connected. How, I don't know--but it has to be connected.
She was cold. She missed Dom's warmth beside her. She shivered, glanced down at her civilian clothing, and felt alien and frightened and alone.