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Assimilated

Silent Journey
DeJay

Iz's Story
Doreen Perrine

Communion
Fran Walker

Games With Chance
Andi Marquette

Backup Plan
Jess Sandoval

Bridgework
Darby O'Neil

Who's In Charge?
DeJay

Water Rites
Mary Douglas

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Torri waited as Bultor talked briefly into his link, verifying the delivery. She spoke little Salmi, but from his satisfied grunts, he approved. She scanned the crowded room, glad he always chose this bar. Dark, noisy, and situated close to the docking bays, it provided a perfect place to conduct her business.

They sat in a corner near the front door but not in its line of sight. She watched the closest patrons, automatically checking for anything out of the ordinary. And maybe something extraordinary. Every time she came to Hallifin Port, Torri hoped that she might run into a particular bit of her past. Bultor interrupted her reconnaissance and addressed her in standard Empire, perpetuating the illusion that he was just another merchant consolidating a deal.

"I am most pleased with the condition of the cargo. You have outdone yourself. My regards to your supplier." He grinned, reptilian lips pulling back from myriad pointed teeth.

She smiled with him at the joke. He knew damn well she'd lifted the jackprobes from a Coalition freighter. He removed a palm-sized credit disk from a pocket on the inside of his jerkin and ran his taloned finger over it, programming it with the amount he and Torri had contracted thirty days prior. He placed it on the luminescent tabletop.

"I have need of medical items," he said amiably in his gravel-scraped baritone. "Tirius, in Endor Quadrant. Sixty days."

Torri calculated her options. She knew the trade routes better in Zeta Quadrant, which was a haul to Endor through Coalition territory. That would require some maneuvering, given her outlaw status in that area. "How much?"

"Five hundred thousand."

"Done." Money like that was well worth the extra effort.

He leaned back and scratched a spot on his scaled neck. "It is most fortunate that you have visited us during Amanza. Truly the best festival in this quadrant. I recommend Shimba's for a meat pie." He drained his beverage and set the tall cylindrical container on the table then maneuvered his bulk out of the booth.

Torri watched him as he pushed through the crowd toward the entrance. She picked up the disk he'd left and pressed her thumb to its indentation. A tiny light glowed green, activating one of the many accounts she used. Once she cleared this city, she'd transfer it to yet another account. She slid the disk into a pocket on the inside of her left boot. Just as she finished, a group of five Coalition soldiers entered, all wearing their implacable black helmets, faceplates down. Not here for fun, then. No officers with them. These were rank-and-file, dressed in standard Coalition black.

She surreptitiously kept an eye on them as they moved through the crowd. One approached her table. She nodded as he passed. He ignored her, perhaps assuming she was a local. Her dark complexion and darker hair helped her pass as a member of some of the Wanderer tribes on this planet. She took a drink from her glass, let the heat of the liquid sit in her mouth for a moment before she swallowed. They were in no hurry. Probably just reminding Amanza-goers who held the balls of the city leadership.

Torri regarded the service symbol lights on the tabletop, toyed with calling for companionship. It'd been a long time since she'd enjoyed a bit of physical release with anyone. She opted against it. Payments could be traced. If she required such a thing, she'd find it in the crowd outside. Or here. She scanned the upper level, which overlooked her table, a force field ensuring no one visited the lower level via any way but the stairs. One form standing with her back toward her caught Torri's attention. She studied the figure, who turned, offering a view of her profile. Pleasantly stunned, Torri pressed the service button and within seconds a hoverdroid appeared, awaiting her order.

"A bottle of Ryzin Solstice for this table. And an empty glass to that human female there--" Torri pointed at the white-shirted figure she'd noticed at the upper-level bar. She slid her ID stick into the droid's slot and it whisked away, just over the heads of the patrons. A minute later the droid delivered her bottle along with an empty glass. It left and Torri poured herself a serving before turning to observe the upper level. The droid stopped at the appropriate woman's side, a second empty glass on its tray. Torri smiled and lifted the bottle, a question on her face when the droid's target turned and looked down at her table, puzzled. Upon seeing Torri, she started, visibly shocked, then smiled wryly and shook her head in a "you have got to be kidding" motion. But she took the glass and left the bar.

Torri waited until the white-shirted woman stood at her table. "Captain," Torri greeted her. "Care to join me in an aperitif?" She motioned toward the bottle, hoping her voice didn't betray the turbulence within.

"I'm not on duty," she said stiffly, though a current of surprise colored her tone.

Torri raised one shoulder in a shrug. "Just recognizing your accomplishments. Have a sit-down with me, Kai. It's been a long time." Far too long. She gestured at the empty booth on either side of her.

With an expression that said this was clearly against her better judgment, Kai slid into the seat to Torri's left. She set her glass on the table and Torri filled it. "To old friends," Torri toasted, raising an eyebrow as a strange but welcome warmth filled her gut.

"To the past," Kai retorted softly, acknowledging the toast before taking a sip. She made an appreciative noise. "You always did have good taste in liquor."

"My many travels," she said, a metaphor for the distances between them. "How are you?" She regarded Kai over the rim of her glass, noting the new crescent-shaped scar along her right cheekbone. It added more character to Kai's face, lean and serious. She still kept her sandy hair clipped short, like she had when they trained together at the Academy on Earth.

"Promoted, as you know. How did you find out?"

"My vast network of spies." Torri offered her a smile. She'd followed Kai's career since their Academy days, though she'd never tell her that.

"I know you didn't come to Hallifin to look me up." Kai set her glass on the table. "What, then?"

"Amanza. Best festival in this quadrant."

Kai snorted her disbelief.

Torri chose to ignore it. "Why hasn't the Coalition stationed you somewhere more amenable? Is the pay that good in this shit hole of a city?" She raised an eyebrow, studying Kai's reactions to her, hoping they'd changed, hoping the four years since their last conversation had closed at least one wound between them.

"Because I seem to be very good at breaking up smuggling rings." Kai held Torri's gaze then took a swallow from her glass.

Torri ignored that, as well. "Is Hallifin so riddled with vice?" She asked innocently. "There goes my relocation plan."

Kai rolled her eyes though her expression softened. "How have you been?" She spoke in Empire, and the emphasis she used carried a hint of accusation as well as concern.

"Good." Torri swirled the liquid in her glass, allowing the past a foothold. "Busy." Torri's inflection recognized and accepted the undercurrent in Kai's question, and let her know that had circumstances been different, so too might the situation between them.

"Avoiding Coalition, most likely." Kai pushed her glass around aimlessly on the table, her eyes harboring questions, the nuances of the language inviting explanation.

Torri didn't take the bait. "I avoid anyone who threatens my livelihood," she said noncommittally, though her statement carried a barb.

Kai shook her head, maybe a little sad.

"I know we still don't agree on some things," Torri said with a sigh, battling a familiar ache in her chest. "And I won't talk about them if you won't. Catch me up with your family instead. And your life. It's been nearly six years since graduation. A lot has happened. Some of which you know." Most of which you don't. She flashed Kai her most disarming grin. "Truce?" She raised an eyebrow, hoping to recapture the easy comradeship they'd shared in the past, and to move beyond what had happened in the collapse of the Empire. "Alliances can be forged even in the unlikeliest of circumstances," droned Instructor Hani's voice through Torri's skull, from a seminar she'd had a decade ago. "Enemies are made, not born. And trust is not something to give. It is earned." She locked her gaze with Kai's. Funny, the things you remember.

"Damn you," Kai said, but she smiled. "Agreed." She pushed her glass to Torri for a refill and relaxed into the Kai who Torri remembered from their training days, the quiet but welcoming colleague, a foil to her own prickly and often fiery demeanor. They chatted amiably and shared laughter to the bottom of the bottle and when the last was poured and their glasses empty, Kai exhaled, a sound laden with what might have been regret. It lanced through Torri's heart, leaving a hole she wished she could fill. Wished she had filled years ago, before war and uncertainty came between them.

"This has been fun. Thanks." Kai sat back, her tone warm with honesty and a hint of what might have been relief.

"Care to indulge me further?" Torri coaxed. "Something to eat? You can show me the sights of Amanza."

Kai ran her fingers along the rim of her glass, a crease in her brow. "Probably not a good idea to be seen in your company on the streets," she said, though with less conviction than Torri expected.

She nodded, taking no offense. Kai's position as a Coalition soldier prevented her from willingly consorting with known criminal elements, should someone recognize Torri as such. "Perhaps another time, then. In a system less hostile to my career." Or yours.

"Is there such a place?" Kai teased.

Torri grinned. "I'm sure of it. And I'll let you know." She regarded Kai for a moment. "My thanks for taking the time," she said, injecting the phrase with an extra layer of meaning she wanted Kai to hear, to interpret as she wished.

"I'm glad I did." Kai pushed her empty glass aside and for a moment, she looked like she might want to add something more. The moment passed.

"Long life to you." Torri offered the Cadet salutation and held her palm up.

"And you." Kai met Torri's palm briefly with her own. Something rippled in the air between them but Kai was already on her feet and working her way through the crowd before Torri addressed it. She sat in the din for a while, thoughts roiling, before taking her leave. Other patrons occupied the table as soon as she cleared the booth, erasing her presence as effectively as if she'd never been there at all.

Torri pushed through the crowded bar to the narrow dirt streets beyond, bumping against revelers, ignoring the vendors who pulled at her sleeve and trousers for attention. Twice Escorts propositioned her, but Torri only smiled and continued on her way, accompanied by thoughts of Kai and all matter of music couched in the heavy, earthy odor of Wallowee incense. It stung her nostrils and she fought an urge to sneeze. She turned down a foul-smelling alley, littered with trash and offal, and emerged onto the adjoining street right next to Shimba's. She got in line behind a tall, wispy Shordin wearing traditional Wanderer dress and was soon engaged in conversation with a half-drunk fighter-class mechanic behind her, who amused her with tales of his ingenuity.

Once inside at the counter, a heavyset female denizen of the city waited for her order.

"I have it on expert authority that Shimba's has the best meat pies." Torri leaned against the counter, exuding nothing more than interest in a culinary experience.

"We do."

"I'd like to try your personal favorite, though I'm sure my uncle would be pleased regardless of the choice."

The other woman offered a snaggle-toothed smile. "The bistekin, then. Half a credit."

Torri slid her ID stick into the payslot and waited for her meal, which appeared wrapped in flimsy parchment that Torri eyed dubiously as the vendor handed it to her. She accepted it and left, merging once again with the sea of festival-goers outside. Her link purred in her ear. She recognized the frequency.

"Jann," she acknowledged.

"We're fueled and ready. Cyr's itching for a brainjack and I could use a drink. Saryl's agreed to stay at dock as long as we bring her Amanza cheer." His soft tenor exuded fatigue but also humor.

"What do the comms say?"

"Nothing about us."

"Then indulge. We'll leave in the morning unless something comes up." Torri broke the line with a thought and took a bite of the pie. Bultor was right about Shimba's. She chewed slowly, savoring the explosion of spices and the tenderness of the meat as it melted in her mouth. She dodged a street performer dancing with a holograph and carefully took another bite, working the meat around in her mouth until she felt the minicomm with her tongue and reached up to wipe her lips, removing Bultor's instructions with the same motion. Leaning against a nearby wall, she reached into her left boot, scratching her leg, and deposited the tiny flat rectangle into the pocket therein next to the credit disk. She continued walking and finished the pie, the wrapper already disintegrating. Torri wiped her hands on her trousers.

Time, perhaps, to find a bit of entertainment for herself. Seeing Kai had brought up some longings that she'd managed to bury in the years since they'd graduated, and since Torri broke her Academy ties in protest of Coalition policies. Why Kai continued to buy Coalition propaganda escaped her, but even that hitch between them didn't quell the connection Torri felt for her still. And in Kai's eyes, Torri saw she'd felt it, too. She stopped at a street vendor and purchased a beverage, thinking about the first time she'd met Kai, her first day at the Academy. They couldn't have been more different. And the fates as well as the Academy Instructors charged with making bunkmate assignments paired them, for the duration of their training. "Your bunkmate is your soulmate. You will come to know her better in some ways than you know yourself. You may not like her. You may even hate her on some levels. But you will come to trust her with your life."

Did that still hold, in the collapse of Empire and the ascent of a new, even more corrupt power? Can I still trust you, Kai? Torri stared into the crowd, eyes drawn to three black-clad Coalition soldiers who passed, visors on their helmets down. Can I trust you? Or did Kai's uniform dispense with history, with the bond they'd created in the years of their shared training? Did Kai still exist, beyond the gray fabric of her higher rank and her Coalition obligations?

Torri's hand clutched the bottle so hard that her body heat accelerated its decomposition and some of the liquid leaked out over her fingers. Kai was a damn fine pilot, but the Coalition kept her street-bound. The finest pilot the Academy had seen in three generations. Only one other had been better, and if Torri had to cast her lot with either of them, she'd pick Kai, no hesitation. But Kai put up with the Coalition's ineptitude and absurd assignments, probably because of the money she was able to send home. Paying tithe to Coalition colonization and familial duties, trapped in the chains of responsibility and legacy. Except the Coalition took what it wanted first and then demanded payment for its protection. Why couldn't Kai see that?

Torri grimaced and drank half the contents of the container. The liquid tasted florid. She finished it and set the empty on a vendor's counter as she passed, not wanting to carry it until it completely dissolved. She wiped her hand on her shirt and followed the sound of drumming and chanting to an impromptu dance, where she linked herself arm-in-arm with various participants, trying to escape thoughts of Kai in physical exertion.

When she finally took a break, a thin Talesian promptly offered a brainjack, already half-skitted herself. Torri declined politely and extricated her arm from the other's grip three times until the Talesian raised her voice, pleading, and clamped both hands on Torri's forearm. Torri forcibly jerked her arm away, catching the attention of two Coalition soldiers who stood on the edge of the dancing frenzy, faceplates up, revealing them as human males. Torri pretended she didn't know they were interested in her and she moved nonchalantly up the street, scanning the rough mud-hewn walls for an alley.

"You there," came the brusque command in the clipped cadence of standard Coalition. Several revelers around her stopped and turned toward them. Torri did the same, knowing she'd draw even more attention if she didn't. When the others saw the soldiers weren't interested in them, they all continued on their way.

"Yes, sirs?" Torri inquired, keeping her tone level and looking from one to the other. Young. Probably fresh out of training and stationed at the seething ass-end of this quadrant. Resentful, itching for some action. Which made them dangerous. Torri opened her link as they approached, ensuring a broadcast to Saryl. Just in case.

"ID?" The taller one held out his hand.

Torri complied and he slid it into the reader strapped to his wrist.

"Antara lo Vora," he said. "Hastor." He looked up from the image on his reader, suspicious. "That's an agro-colony. What brings you to Hallifin?"

"A cargo of torset fresh from the harvest . . ." She let her voice trail off then offered him a conspiratorial smile. "And Amanza." She recognized an understanding glimmer in the shorter one's eyes. Good. She might be able to talk her way out of this if it went further.

The taller one ran another check, probably on her ship. "How long in Hastor?" he asked, not looking at her.

"Three turns."

"Originally from?" He glanced at her.

"Baltene, Vector Quadrant."

"Not conducive to farming."

"No. My parents shifted us to Cordith, then Tauren."

The shorter one glanced around, bored, but the taller wasn't ready to end the game yet. "Tauren . . . I have kin from the San Colony." He handed her ID back.

She pretended confusion. "Sir? Isn't that on Mora?" She named Tauren's largest moon. "I'm willing to be incorrect, but--"

He opened his mouth to say something more when another voice joined the conversation.

"Antara! Did our little festival lure you from the farm?" Kai stepped between the two soldiers, who immediately jerked to attention, eyes staring straight ahead.

"That and a load of torset. How are you, Captain?"

"Well, thanks. At ease," she said to the men, who relaxed. "Did you check?" She looked at the taller man.

He nodded once.

"And does anything seem amiss?"

He shook his head.

"How long left on your shifts?"

"All night, Captain," said the shorter man. Torri heard the irritation in his tone, though he masked it with the obvious deference he held for Kai. Torri had seen flashes of Kai's leadership capabilities when they were Cadets. The intervening years had obviously nurtured them.

"We're over-staffed," Kai said. "Your shifts end in two hours. It is, after all, Amanza."

He looked at her gratefully. "Two hours, Captain," he repeated with formality. Even the taller one's demeanor changed.

"Dismissed. Good work." Kai waited until the crowd swallowed them before turning her attention back to Torri and switching to Empire. "I cross-checked docking permits," she explained apologetically. "So I know the name you're--" She broke off and offered a thin smile instead.

Torri shrugged and closed the link to Saryl. "I would expect nothing less. It's your job, after all."

Kai ran a hand through her hair, a gesture Torri remembered with affection. "I'm off-duty," she said, and Torri saw conflicting emotions in the gray of her eyes. "Any other time . . ." Her tone held an apology.

"And there'd no doubt be a different outcome here." Torri smiled, though disappointment settled along the bottom of her heart. "I don't expect favors from you. But I appreciate this one and I won't forget it. To Amanza, then." She winked and moved back into the crowds, not wanting to push her luck. Not about this. But ten steps later she turned around, narrowly avoiding bumping into a Miridian, whose feline features creased into a snarl as Torri quickly side-stepped and craned her neck. She caught sight of Kai's shirt through the throngs. Not understanding her reasons, Torri followed her, using the crowd to her advantage.

Kai led her through the heart of Hallifin, through the great square surrounded by decaying minarets that glinted gold and copper in the setting suns, tired testaments to an era before Coalition shills infiltrated and corrupted a once-proud dynasty of Tindor rulers. Torri had been through here many times before, and each time she found it less welcoming and more indicative of subterfuge and corruption. False gods. Like every other promise the Coalition made and broke. How strange that politics constructed the divide between her and Kai, that something like that could diminish the connection they'd built at the Academy.

Past the city center the crowds thinned like clouds in a wind until Torri was forced to hang back even farther in the shadows of the narrow streets, though Kai never once looked behind her, something out of character. Or maybe Kai had settled into herself and her routines so much during the last few years that she'd gotten complacent. "Once a habit is established, it can't be broken without effort." More words from a past seminar. Kai was too good a Cadet to lapse like that. More likely, she was all too aware of Torri following her. Or perhaps the uniform had clothed Kai in carelessness, even when she wasn't wearing it. The set of Kai's shoulders and her brusque stride indicated purpose, not presence, and more disappointment made Torri hang back a little farther. Had Kai forgotten her Academy days? Had Torri somehow made Kai someone she wasn't, somehow created someone from idealized memories?

They passed through another courtyard, the celebration here decidedly tamer than near the docking bays. Groups of residents sitting at tables, laughing and chatting. A musician picked a tune from his sitarri, a gentle melody that hovered above the strings. Torri fell in with two men and a woman headed in the same direction as Kai. She watched as Kai crossed the courtyard, walked beneath the arched entranceway on the opposite side, and stopped at a wide wooden door in a multi-storied stone building not fifteen paces from Torri's group. Kai pressed her thumb to the doorpad, waited, then pushed the door open, disappearing within. Probably living quarters.

Torri detached from her temporary companions and made it to the door before it closed. She placed the toe of her boot against the doorjamb. The door came to rest on the other side of her boot and Torri made a show of pretending to press her own thumb on the doorpad, suspecting surveillance pods hung on neighboring structures. She set her shoulder against the door and pushed, hoping its magnetic field hadn't yet fully engaged. It opened only a bit more so Torri increased her efforts, maintaining a steady pressure. The door relented enough for her to slide inside but before she could get her bearings in the dim interior, a hand closed on the collar of her shirt, whirled her around, and slammed her against a wall, knocking the breath momentarily from her lungs.

"I didn't take you for a common thief." Kai's words slid between her teeth like knives.

"Good," Torri managed, regaining her breath and equilibrium. "Because I'm not." She relaxed and Kai's grip loosened. Torri brought her left forearm up, knocking Kai's hand off her shirt though she felt the fabric tear. She reached with both hands before Kai recovered and gripped the front of Kai's shirt. She jerked Kai close and kissed her, a bruising, rough joining of mouths that lasted mere seconds because Kai braced both hands on the wall behind Torri's head and pushed herself back, away from Torri's lips. Shock and uncertainty flickered across her face, visible even in the gloom of the foyer.

"What in Cyllea's name are you doing?" Kai whispered, keeping her hands on the wall.

"Do you really need me to answer that?" Torri braced her back against the wall and moved her right hand to Kai's neck. She wanted Kai's lips again, wanted to feel what she wished she'd expressed five years ago but hadn't. Torri tried again to pull Kai closer. This time she met resistance, as she had with the door, but Kai's eyes reflected something else that was clearly at odds with her actions.

"Do you remember our last training flight before we graduated?" Torri kept her hand on the back of Kai's neck while her other maintained its grip on her shirt.

Kai nodded slowly, wary. "Magellan. Vector Quadrant."

"We had to shake off four drones," Torri said in a low voice, keeping her eyes on Kai's. "We picked up those other two after Vani and Jossell retreated."

"Our portside engine took a direct hit." Kai's voice softened and the muscles of her neck relaxed beneath Torri's fingers.

"You flew us back to base with one engine and six damaged thrusters, in the middle of a firefight. And then you landed without bellying." Torri unwound her left hand from Kai's shirt, let it fall to Kai's waist, where it lingered on the webbing of her belt.

"And you shot all those drones with our last working cannon. Even the Academy Council couldn't believe we pulled it off." Kai moved closer, no longer fighting, a slight smile on her lips.

"You were the best pilot in a century of Cadets." Torri's left hand worked its way to the small of Kai's back. "I'd stake my family's holding that you still are."

Kai took a small step forward, her right leg now between Torri's thighs and everything Torri had wanted to say years before expressed itself in the exhalation that escaped her throat.

"You were an amazing shot," Kai whispered, easing forward, her hips now against Torri's. "I had hoped we got assigned to the same post after graduation." Kai's hands dropped from the wall to Torri's waist and Torri felt their heat even through her shirt. "But we weren't." "And many other things happened, as well, that I couldn't have foreseen," her tone conveyed.

They shared a silence, Torri seeing in Kai's eyes the Cadets they'd been and the women they'd become. "I've missed you," Torri said simply and this time, Kai initiated the kiss, which evolved into many more, raw-edged but somehow tender, until Kai stopped, breathing hard against Torri's neck, arms wrapped around her.

Torri relaxed into her, sank into the weight of years and unspoken emotions. Long minutes later Kai finally pulled away, but she held onto Torri's hands, and her eyes asked what she had never voiced. Torri smiled assent, heart pounding, and she let Kai lead her up the marble steps to her quarters, let the boundaries between the past they'd endured and the choices they'd made blur until there was only sweat and heat and a slick merging of muscle and skin, the completion of a connection that ignited beneath their lips and hands that flared far into the night, fusing past with present and leaving them tangled and spent in new memories.

And Torri fought sleep, fought the pleasant fatigue that infused her limbs in Kai's arms, strove to remain awake and cognizant of what had happened here, what might yet happen. Whether ending or beginning, she needed the reality of Kai's skin beneath her hands, of Kai's lips and her touch and the way change might feel between them. But in Kai's embrace, Torri's body overruled her mind and succumbed to the warmth and safety she felt there and she slipped into sleep, Kai's lips on her neck.

A Hallifin dawn entered the room and expanded to fill the high, domed ceilings, coaxing Torri from a doze. She pulled Kai closer, breathing her scent, now mingled with her own, and watched over Kai's shoulder as the chronometer on the granite windowsill marked the inevitable. She dreaded what was coming, but knew, too, that this was the order of things.

Kai stirred against her. "I've missed you, too," she whispered. Her fingertips drew patterns on Torri's chest that somehow leaked through her skin to the surface layers of her heart.

Torri smiled, hope lighting the years between them and she brushed her lips against Kai's forehead, willing the chronometer to stop, willing the previous night to somehow bind them closer, if only for now. She studied Kai's eyes, not bothering to hide the regret in her own. Kai kissed it away and ran her hands the length of Torri's body, stirring the night's ashes into embers then flames until the chronometer announced the unavoidable and Kai reluctantly entered the shower while Torri dressed.

They lingered at the door, both leaving possibility unspoken, and their last kiss might have been a promise though Torri knew better than to expect it. She left first, but at the bottom of the steps she turned. Kai stood at the top of the staircase, watching her, the gray of her Coalition uniform reiterating a chasm between them but she raised her right hand in a Cadet salutation, and Torri accepted it as a bridge, however tenuous. She raised her own hand then left, before her impulses overrode her intuition, and she retraced her steps to the dock, her quick, easy strides carrying her through the bleary-eyed city, and back to the gulf that separated them.

She nodded politely at an obviously hungover dock agent, who waved her through the forceshield with only a cursory check of her ID. Two Coalition soldiers lolled against a nearby wall, talking in low tones. They barely glanced at her as she passed. Their wrinkled uniforms and the dust on their boots and equipment said more than their actions. Not part of Kai's troops, Torri thought as she passed, and a perverse sense of pride about Kai and her abilities made her smile to herself, at the incongruity of her pride for Kai but her distaste at what Kai represented. What's next? Recruiting for the Coalition?

Torri commed Jann as she approached the ship and the hatch opened, extending into a ramp that she ascended.

"And how was your night?" Saryl asked with a smirk as Torri boarded, her tall frame filling the cramped entryway.

"One I won't soon forget," she responded with a grin. "I think I rather like Amanza."

Saryl raised her eyebrows. "Glad to hear it. It's about time you had a little fun."

It was much more than that. Torri shrugged. "Are we ready to go?"

"Of course. That's why you hired me." Saryl moved so Torri could get around her in the narrow corridor to the bridge.

"Oh, is that it? I thought it was your charming personality."

"There's always that." She followed Torri to the bridge.

Jann turned his red-rimmed eyes to Torri as she entered. "And did Amanza treat you well?" His throat sounded as if it had treated him well. As it had Cyr, who kept his head down.

"Very. We might make this festival a habit," Torri said as she slid into the right-hand seat at the control panel, punching in coordinates for Zeta Quadrant before she opened a link to docking authorities and switched into Coalition. "Cargo Vessel Far Seek requesting departure clearance."

"Declaration?" came the response in a guttural monotone.

"Off-loaded one full shipment of torset from Hastor."

"One moment. Checking voucher."

Torri made an adjustment on the control panel, waiting for the authorities to compare arrival and departure weights of her ship. She glanced at Jann, concentrating as he made appropriate calibrations for lift-off.

"Voucher received, Antara lo Vora. Cleared for departure in sixty seconds. Out."

Torri broke the link and Jann's fingers flew over the controls from his station. She clicked her seat harness into place around her torso and glanced at the controls, checking readings on her crew. Everybody was strapped in and ready to go.

"Fifteen seconds," Jann intoned as Torri felt the ship's thrusters engage, a subtle shift in the power currents through the walls of the vessel. "And five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . and lift-off." The ship jerked slightly as the magnetic docklock released. Torri took the controls and guided them to proper altitude above the bays before she accelerated. Fifteen minutes later they orbited Hallifin and Jann prepared the ship for a jump.

"I take it you've lined up more work." Saryl turned in her seat to look at Torri.

"Of course," Torri said. "Tirius needs medical supplies and I know a Coalition supplier--"

Jann snorted with amusement and Cyr groaned softly.

"You do like testing your luck," Saryl said with a laugh.

"Not luck. Options." Torri flashed her a grin then turned to watch the stars lengthen into lances of light in their hyperjump. She thought about Kai, in her Coalition uniform, preparing for another day. She knew that by now Kai had found the commdisk she'd left, might even have played it on her reader, and found her message. Torri quoted it in her head. "I hope when you're off-duty again, you might think of me." And maybe Kai would even use it one day to contact her. Maybe.

They emerged from the jump and slowed to cruising speed. A weakness, Torri knew. That's what Kai was for her. And one day, that might prove her undoing. But oh, how she knew she'd enjoy it, no matter the outcome.

Torri reached into her boot and removed both the credit disk and Bultor's instructions. "Cyr, bring up the trade routes and find me the best ones that put us in range of Endor Quadrant with as little Coalition interference as possible. We've got thirty days."

Cyr muttered something about her synapses lacking proper impulses, and Torri smiled mischievously. "And if we're lucky, we'll find another festival."

He groaned again.

(c) 2008 Bedazzled Ink Publishing Company