Author's Note:

This work is now appearing on Kindle under the title "Quirni". If you wish to read the book edited and updated please visit Amazon and download to your device. We will leave this unedited version up.

Chapter 1 as it now appears on Fiction Press, is the updated version of the story as it appears in the Kindle store. The rest of the Fiction Press version is unedited.

We are working on editing and releasing the rest of the series. Book two will be coming to Kindle soon.

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Chapter 1 – The QSDD Interlude

The boy stopped fifteen feet away from Erica, halting mid run, shock on his face, spun around and ran to the Customs House. He was the second child to do this. The first one hadn't concerned her, young children did odd things, but this one was older.

Nothing about her looked odd or out of place but the boy ran all the way into the building. The bags weren't too big for the kids to carry, or too small to bother. Children carried bigger and smaller bags than hers.

The passengers had all waited under the shade of the ship. No Parcles prat would have anything to do with someone from Tenpole so she stood alone. Now they had children helping with their bags. Only Erica remained. Any child would do, old or young. Instead another one trotted up, took one look at her, turned and ran. Erica sagged with frustration.

Maybe the Parcles prats were telling the kids to stay away from her. She watched the next child come towards her but without a word from any Parcles, they turned and ran. That wasn't it.

Could her long leather coat or wide brimmed leather hat signify something to the residents of this planet? The outfitter on Marril had talked her into the garments. Had he done it as a joke? No one else dressed in such a long coat or wore such a hat. Their coats were shorter and canvas. Their hats were pressed wool or they didn't wear one at all. If it was a joke, she wasn't laughing.

She had bought the coat because she wanted a lot of pockets. As for the hat, the outfitter had claimed it was necessary because of Quirni's harsh climate. That seemed unlikely since the sky was clear and a beautiful blue. The sun shined bright. On the other hand she had bought the things in Parcles and they didn't have to worry about sun. Their brown skin didn't react like pale Tenpole. Maybe he thought she would fry without the hat. It wasn't the case. The hat would shade her face from a beautiful day and do little else.

No children were close so she allowed her irritation to show with a huff and glare at the red shingled building hundreds of yards away. That was the customs office and where she needed to go. Multiple children carried bags towards it, sometimes three to a bag all trying to get paid by one passenger while she still wanted help and even waited for it. They shot glances her way as if worried she would run up and tag them. Blasted kids, what scared them?

Waves of heat rose from the tarmac. At home on Marril this heat was typical and it wouldn't bother Erica but in Quirni's gravity, with a heavy coat, loaded with luggage, that walk wouldn't be easy. Backwater, pisshole Quirni had a third more gravity than Marril. Walking, even standing here under the wing of the ship, took a lot of effort. She grimaced at the idea of carrying a load on her shoulders.

All of that effort would only get her to the lopsided, run down, Customs House, a building that wouldn't be a decent garage on Marril. The city of Parcles had sky scrapers of white steel and glass. Even old Tenpole had buildings of stone, something of quality. Quirni's Customs House was a wooden mess. It would be torn down so the wood could put to decent use on the other planets. In fact, the entire town would be.

The rooftops of the town beyond rose no higher than three stories. All of it was clay, wood, and brick and she had no idea how the hell they put it together without nails but according to what she had read, they did. Here, they didn't have steel to squander on building houses. Quirni was a metal poor planet and based on the Customs House the Quirni were poorer than she had ever imagined. There was a stable for horses down the road from the Customs House. The animals grazed in a fenced in area there. That was the Quirni means of transport. Not the means for the Quirni Delegate. They had trucks and helicopters.

She twisted and looked back at what had to be the Base's motor pool. Half a dozen trucks waited there. They all looked like they could seat six people at least. They looked to be in reasonably good repair but were ten to twenty years old. She hadn't seen such a model on Marril for at least that long.

A buggy pulled up to the Customs House and a man in a white shirt got out. The driver drove it over to the stable afterwards and right into the barn. Nothing else moved except the other passengers and children.

"What a blasted, horse and buggy hellhole," Erica muttered miserably and looked down at the bags. It appeared she would have to carry them since the agents on the ship had lied when they told her the children would carry her possessions. She even had a quid note out for a tip. Screw it, she would carry her own things.

There wasn't much, a computer in a padded case, a few pieces of clothing in a small suitcase that included some ammunition for her gun, and a backpack with antidote smokes for the thayanite poisoning in her lungs. Erica had money and intended to buy anything else she needed. Lords only knew what she might purchase in such a backwater pisshole. She could cry.

One of the boys left a group of passengers and trotted towards her. She smiled in relief and tried to look welcoming and friendly but then he too stopped, gawked, gasped "You!" and dashed off.

"What?" Erica tried to yell after the child but coughed. Attempting to yell aggravated the thayanite. It nearly choked her as she coughed harder and harder to clear the phlegm. It had her leaning on her knees and gagging before she was done. The other adults were coughing too but not as bad. They smoked the antidote cigarettes one after the other. She would smoke when she didn't have to carry her bags anymore because she sure as hell didn't look like she was going to get any help with them.

When she could breathe again she straightened and resolved to start the walk before she had to watch another dingbat child run off in apparent horror. She pulled the computer bag strap onto her shoulder, and placed her backpack strap over it. She held both straps in her right hand and picked up her suitcase with her left.

"Picks for brains," she sneered in an attempt to explain the children. They obviously shared mental aberrations but why did they act so shocked when they saw her? Stupidity didn't cover it.

Could Quirni children see she had lived in Tenpole? Her hair wasn't that light but she did have the starved look, pale skin, and blue eyes. They might know enough to avoid Tenpole. No. That was unlikely. These were Quirni and even if they did know about Tenpole they would also know she couldn't do anything dangerous in this gravity. That wasn't it.

Maybe her gun had scared them? People didn't usually own guns here. She glanced down at her right hip. It was out of sight so that wasn't it. She wore the pistol rather than pack it in a bag and risk it being stolen, same for the money in her belt, and the knife at her back but the children couldn't see that. If the weapon had been showing she would have sent a message back to Marril to get some ass kicked. At least that would have made sense.

Lords, but carrying her bags was a lot of work in this gravity. She stopped to rest, set down her suitcase, and removed her hat to fan her face. Sweat glued her hair to her forehead. Why didn't the damn ship pull up to the customs terminal?

It sat on old tires and landing gear that could use some paint, the QSDD Interlude. She had never seen a ship so used. It still leaked cooling nitrogen from its potbelly. "Probably burn the damn building down if it got too close." The Customs House was all wood. On Marril it would be worth a fortune. On Quirni, a planet covered in trees, it was crap. That had to be why the ship was parked so far away. It came in hot. It even took time to cool after landing.

The computer bag slipped from her shoulder. She grabbed at it and saved it just before it hit the ground. The near miss made her feel weak. Despite the enormous import duties, she had to bring this one piece of technology. She had to send one message back to Marril. After that it could break. To break it now would be more than she could bear after everything else that had happened.

She had no choice but to come to Quirni. The planet, Sirrus, was still closed to her because of the exile order and that left moving to Quirni or staying on Marril and dying from thayanite. Computers were not common on Quirni but she had no choice about that either. The message she needed to send back to Marril was full of names, dates, and data. That wasn't information she could share over a phone. It would take forever and potentially be overheard. This had to be a private message. After it was sent the computer would no longer be necessary. It would be a curiosity, a toy to play Solitaire, and a repository for some of her most precious data, which she hoped she would never have to use.

Erica placed her hat on her suitcase and pulled the strap to the computer case over her head and around her neck. It caught her dirty blond hair. She pulled it free from the strap, replaced her hat, shrugged her backpack up on her shoulder, and grasped the suitcase.

Then, right on cue, she had another coughing fit. It bent her over. She dropped the backpack and the suitcase. When her throat cleared, she spent a minute with her hands on her knees, bent, and breathing. When she felt her lungs fill fully, she drew a long, rattling breath and then picked up her bags again. Every hundred yards or so she stopped to rest, fan, and then continued.

She finally reached the Customs House and dropped her bags in line for the customs agent. Of the dozens of passengers only a couple of groups were left in line. All were rich Marrilian that came to Quirni for short stays. The planet healed thayanite poisoning so it was worth visiting for a few months but the wealthy wouldn't stay. Only poor Marrilians, or exiles like her, became tenants of Quirni.

The men and women around the edge of the room peered out from their cubicles at the new arrivals. One man smoked a cigarette that put off blue steam. A Marrilian. The blue haze was the telltale sign of thayanite antidote. A number of the passengers smoked too. The air in the room hung with haze. Erica could feel the burning phlegm in her throat break up somewhat by that weak dose of antidote so she pulled cigarettes from her coat pocket. She studied the room as she lit one.

The ceiling was in good repair despite all of the strange angles of the roof. Apparently the building had been enlarged a few times. The wood floor had a huge map on it, an intricate design of Quirni's land, seas, and insanely tall mountains. The names of the claims were written in two-inch script. It had taken someone a lot of time to do it. It was pretty and protected by a glossy finish. Maybe they liked art here. That gave her some hope.

A man from one of the cubicles leaned down to a woman sitting in another cubicle and pointed at Erica but as soon as she noticed he put his hand down. He turned his back to the room to speak to the lady privately then the lady glanced past his arm. Erica caught her curious gaze but before she could drop her eyes, as any courteous Tenpole should, the woman dropped hers.

That surprised Erica so much she stared. Only Tenpole dropped their eyes. No one gave that respect to Tenpole. No one had ever dropped their eyes for her. That worried her all over again. It was weird, like the children.

'These strange fools don't matter' a thought in the back of her head provided.

Erica blinked when she heard the voice but agreed. They didn't matter if they left her alone. She turned away and took a long pull from the cigarette. Her throat cleared and she breathed easier. The line moved so she slid her bags forward.

A couple of the families exited through the front doors, ready to start their vacation while others talked to the people in the cubicles. None of them had been friendly to Erica despite the time they had spent together on the ship. Once she spoke, they avoided her. No other Tenpole traveled so no one associated with her during the journey. Not many from her part of town would accept coming to Quirni. Better to die on Marril. Erica didn't think so. Here she could live without being chased by the MSDD or forced to bed someone she didn't like or know. It would be nice to finally make decisions about her life.

The customs line shrank. Erica pushed her bags along. The group directly in front of her had ten people in it and they each had at least five bags. It would be a while. She smoked and waited.

Half an hour later she reached the agent, last in line and alone in front of his chest high counter. The man looked young but it was hard to tell age on Quirni. The planet kept its tenants young longer than Marril or Sirrus.

His skin was darker but she couldn't tell if he was tanned or the color of Parcles. Quirni tanned, she had read, so their skin color was no indication of social status. When Erica had read that she had wondered if the brochure tried to confuse the issue so Parcles didn't act like prats towards everyone they met on Quirni or if it was a warning. Apparently Tenpole could lose their accent and regain some coloring after living on the planet. She hoped so. Her eyes, hair, and skin had been darker once.

The customs agent had long, dark hair with not a bit of grey even though he had a few wrinkles on his forehead. The pamphlets said men wore short ponytails here and it appeared that could be right because he wore his pulled back. It gratified her to see some of her reading provided accurate information. Pamphlets about Marril or Sirrus tended to include only positive somethings.

The customs agent was a civilian working for the military so he didn't wear a uniform. Instead he wore a white, long sleeved shirt that puffed and twisted around his paunch. He resembled a flopped over pillow on a stool with a head. The man barely moved, but still sweated. The collar of his white shirt was stained yellow from previous sweat stains.

Erica sweated too but she wore the damn leather coat and the gravity pulled hard. Otherwise it did not seem warm to her. She was used to Marril's humid warm days.

"Papers," he requested tiredly, as if worked to exhaustion. He didn't look up but clipped the papers that belonged to the previous group together. Erica held hers out. He dropped documents into a wooden bin and extended his hand. That was when he looked at her.

"Oh!" he exclaimed as his hand touched her papers. He didn't take them. The edge of them lay on his fingers.

Tenpole didn't look authority in the eye unless given reason. That odd exclamation gave her reason. She looked up past the brim of her hat, raising her eyes but only enough to see him. Looking at him directly was out of the question unless she wanted to be harassed and kept waiting longer, or at least that was what would happen on Marril. Lords only knew about Quirni so she stuck with Marrilian manners but that didn't seem to work. The man looked alarmed. He averted his gaze from hers like the woman in the cubicle had.

What in the name of the lords? "Pardons," she begged for looking at him. She locked her eyes on his chin.

He froze like he saw a bust wall cracking. His mouth twitched. "I uh, see you are-uh, the-uh, last in line?" It was as if he had started to say one thing then changed his mind midway.

Erica smiled to let him know she wouldn't start anything.

He leaned away as if he didn't trust her and that seemed impossible; she had practiced that smile for years! She was from Chaucer. That was obvious. It said so on her passport. It was right there in front of him. He should understand her willingness to please given that, so what was wrong?

His eyes broke from her face and darted around the room then snapped back as if he searched for help. Did he know she wore a gun? Had someone told him? Did everyone on the ship know she had a gun? He couldn't see it. The stupid coat covered it or she would have taken the damn coat off. He hadn't looked at her papers yet so he hadn't read about it.

Chaucer, she needed more Chaucer for this. It always worked. She pulled her gaze up, gave him a more suggestive smile, sloped one of her shoulders and didn't bother to hide her accent at all. "As you will, sir," she replied with a breathy, alluring tone.

The leather coat creaked and half ruined her attempted appeal. Creaking wasn't sexy. She pushed the brim of her hat up to reveal more of her face, her blue eyes and blond hair. He had to understand what she offered. Her accent and coloring would identify her occupation anywhere in Ipet even if he didn't look at her passport or at least it should unless this guy had never heard a Tenpole accent before and never heard of Chaucer. Fat chance.

His reaction to her offer wasn't the reaction she wanted. His eyes grew as if more alarmed and his hand trembled. "Uh-" He pressed on a smile. His pupils shrunk to pinpricks. "We'll be through this in a moment," he promised with a high, stressed voice.

He stamped the top documents hard and fast. He didn't pause to read anything, as if doing his best to finish the task fast. His hand shook as it moved papers aside to stamp the next under it. Why? What did he fear from her? Had someone told him she was armed? Guns were rare on Quirni. Carrying one would be a thing.

She glanced around the room to see if anyone watched her. No one did but many of her fellow passengers were gone. Those who were still there dealt with their own business. All of them talked to the men and women in the cubicles lined up along the walls. No one seemed to give her a thought not even the man who had pointed at her.

She turned back to the customs agent. He smiled but his lips pressed hard against his teeth, as if he sucked on them to keep his expression in place. He picked up her manifest of belongings. That list described every item she carried. When he read it he would know about her gun and her knife if he didn't already.

Could he make her leave Quirni if her gun worried him that much? Could he stop her from immigrating? She didn't know. The Customs House was on a Defense Delegate base. They had all sorts of rules and laws to harass someone like her but if they made her leave she had nowhere to go. That couldn't happen, could it?

That sneering hateful woman on Marril had approved her imports. They were all approved. The gun, the knife, the computer, all of it. The import duties were paid. She would argue the point if she had to, maybe even bribe this man if that was what it took. Damn her ill luck to get this bastard for a customs agent!

The man glanced at Erica when her irritation shifted her stance and made her breathe with a tiny huff. He quickened his pace. He rushed through the check-in process and much to her relief and surprise he didn't look at her manifest. He slipped the list out of her papers, bundled it with a few documents she had to sign, added a stamp over her signature, stamped her passport, clipped the papers together, and dropped everything in the bin.

He had stamped the manifest without a glance. He held her passport out to her. "There you go Miss–ah," he flipped open the passport, glanced down, forced another smile, and then his eyes settled on hers with a pleading fearful quality that amazed Erica. He leaned over the counter. "Ennis," he said her name in a conspiratorial whisper. He glanced around the room then leaned closer so only she could hear him. "I don't want any trouble, Miss Kinsley. I plan on walking out of here and I won't say a thing." He nodded once, as if to cement the agreement between them.

Erica's gut clutched. Kinsley. That was her birth name, Lynn Jillian Kinsley. Apparently he could tell by looking at her that she was one of them. People on Marril could so why not here too? She had the narrow Kinsley face and the full Kinsley mouth along with the wide eyes. At least her eyes weren't the typical Kinsley green.

Hers were blue, a light blue since the thayanite in Tenpole had bleached out so much color. Her hair was bleached lighter by the thayanite as well so she didn't have the dark hair of a powerful family, and her build was light because she had been sick and being an iridim patient made that worse. Her coloring and her size made her look like Tenpole, less like a Kinsley, but she was both.

"My thanks," she responded sweetly, forcing her smile as well, unsure if he warranted any thanks, but she didn't want trouble. She reached over the counter and took her passport from the where he had placed it between them. "My name be Ennis," she added. "Changed it legal."

He leaned back on his stool. "Of course. Have a nice day Miss Ennis." He kept an eye on her until she backed away to put her passport in her pocket and then he stood and collected his papers.

Had this man done a thing to make the Kinsleys angry? Was that what flustered him? He stuffed the papers in a briefcase. If the Kinsleys worried him, he might try to hurt her so she decided to keep him in sight. She coughed and covered her mouth but watched without fail.

The coughing grew harder. Emotions did that. Emotions made thayanite poison more active, a thing about oxygen in the blood reacting with it and the agent had stirred up a wealth of nervousness. She dug in a pocket to find her pack of cigarettes and her matches, then wacked them on the side of her fingers to make a smoke pop out. She took it in her lips. Her eyes left the customs agent only to light it.

Despite the antidote she continued to cough. She covered her mouth with the back of her hand then took another drag from the cigarette. The steam from it caught under the brim of her hat and burned her eyes but she didn't let that stop her from watching. Inhaling deep lessened some of the smoke. She squinted through the rest.

The agent finished stuffing his papers in a briefcase while darting glances at her, as if she were a threat. The briefcase wasn't closed when he scurried away. It was open under his arm, papers fluttering. He noticed and held the flap over the contents until he got to the door. He went through and closed the door after him with the authority he should have displayed at his desk.

The whole scene kept Erica staring. The man's actions made no sense to her, no more than the children or the woman dropping her eyes. What a damn blasted situation. She wasn't even on the planet an hour and already had trouble and she wasn't sure what trouble. The customs agent knew. That seemed clear. He could walk out the door and bring back more trouble. Her eyes narrowed. The best thing to do was disappear. To do that she needed a place to live.

The antidote cleared her throat so she felt ready to tackle the next part of her immigration. According to the pamphlets the representatives of Quirni's claimants would be at the customs office. They could accept her as a tenant someplace, give her a claim to call home, and they were no doubt the people in the cubicles.

Erica studied the map painted on the floor. The bags of a small family sat on the edge of her uncle's claim, Kinsley Claim, far to the north. It bordered what looked like desert according to the color.

All of Erica's life her family name had hurt her. Quirni could be a new start if she could avoid her family, if they didn't interfere. It appeared they lived as far north as someone could go while staying in claimed territory. She would go someplace south.

The base she currently stood on was halfway down the settled part of the continent. She supposed that was far enough south. It was a big continent. Soto Claim was nearby, just north of the base where she had landed. She could walk there within a few days once she got used to the gravity.

A wooden sign stating 'Soto Claim' hung on one of the cubicles and a woman stood in the small space. She busily collected her brochures. As far as Erica could remember, no one had approached her so she didn't have any paperwork beyond that. Erica picked up her bags and started towards her. The woman stuffed her colorful brochures into her bag with as much care as the customs agent. She at least took a moment to tie the bag closed.

"Pardons," Erica begged as she set down her belongings.

The lady straightened with a jerk and spun. Her eyes were wide with fright, startled apparently even though Erica couldn't imagine why because she had dropped her bags with enough noise to announce her presence. The women curled her lips in an odd smile, much like the custom agent's forced smile.

Whatever it was that bothered these people Erica couldn't let it stop her from finding a place to live. "Would be fine to live towards the south. Could you-"

The woman's smile fell away. Her eyes stayed wide. "No, please. I've filled the positions we had. My claimant would be furious if…you - you understand?" she added as she pulled down the front of her pink suit coat to straighten it and then ran her hand over her dark hair even though her hair looked fine. Her coat looked fine too but she tugged at it again then forced a wider smile. "May I pass, Miss?"

The woman sounded like she asked. Again, weird. Erica dipped her chin for an answer, a Tenpole 'yes' and then pulled her bags aside. The lady squeezed by with her briefcase clutched to her chest and hurried across the room and out the door. The representative of another southern claim repeated the scene with one difference, the man scowled at her but hurried off nonetheless.

"By the lords," Erica muttered after the last attempt. The door swung shut after two more representatives including the one from Vaughn Claim darted off before she could speak. She didn't bother to move her bags and inquire again. It took too much energy and she was too tired.

Eventually Quirni's clean air would heal her lungs, or so the pamphlet about Quirni's health benefits said. For now the antidote only kept her lungs clear so she wouldn't get pneumonia. It didn't give her any extra strength. Breathing deep, resting, and smoking was all that would help for now. She leaned against the abandoned cubical of Vaughn Claim and inhaled but before she could get a full breath she started coughing.

The pills that the ship's cureman had supplied were supposed to bolster her strength for the gravity. If felt like the one she had taken before leaving the ship had worn off so she searched her coat pockets until she found the bottle and took another one. Without them smoking was like trying to inhale air through a wet sponge. Still, she kept at it.

Sweat trickled down her back. She dragged her hat off and flung it onto her bags. She had left them at the edge of the map, west of Kinsley Claim. She shook her hand through her hair to get it unstuck from her face then sucked hard on the cigarette and held the steam in her lungs.

All the Marrilians had been chain smoking since they arrived except her. Her poisoning had come on so hard and quick she had gone straight to using an antidote chamber. A chain smoking habit would be the only way to care for thayanite pneumonia until her lungs healed. Too often her cigarette would burn out before she thought to light another. They were horrible things, smelly, painful to the eyes if the steam drifted the wrong way. They left a bad taste but without them her lungs would fill.

So she rested against the cubicle and smoked. When she could breathe again she would leave this city and head south. There was no need to approach another representative. Six had denied her. She got the message. They didn't want Tenpole living with them any more than Parcles did.

The cubicle wall was a solid place to lean. One side was tall and the other short so the person sitting inside could see over it. She leaned against the tall side. She could smell the wood.

That was the smell of luxury on Marril. She breathed it in with the antidote and tried to convince herself that any planet with so much wood couldn't be so bad. It wasn't the hellhole Tenpole believed it to be. Lords, she hoped that was true.


Erica looked over her shoulder towards the voice. Kinsley's representative leaned against the tall side of his cubicle and openly stared at her. "Hello," he greeted again when her eyes settled on him.

"Hello," Erica returned, imitating his greeting. Where she came from that word had been shortened to a quick 'Lo'. Erica stared back at the middle-aged man. He had invited her attention so she didn't drop her gaze courteously. She did nothing to invite him closer either.

He smiled in a wry way. "Do you have any particular skills?" he asked and that wasn't a smile at all but a smirk. It was similar to the custom agent's smile right before he whispered her name, somehow conspiratorial, knowing a thing.

"Am not interested in living on Kinsley Claim but many thanks," she answered and then looked away before he could ask to hire her. She didn't need to sell herself anymore. The looks and gestures she had learned were still useful but she didn't have to get paid for them. She would use her body for her own ends now.

"Huh?" he said in surprise. Erica looked back at him. His grin mixed with a frown. "Tenpole?" He took a few steps towards her and gestured at his throat. His grin faded. "Your accent. It's pretty thick. It is Tenpole isn't it?"

Hadn't he already asked her that? Maybe that wasn't what he meant by skills. Maybe he hadn't been referring to her Chaucer skills. "Yes sir, Tenpole." Perhaps he talked only to get closer and get his hands on her. She straightened to defend herself, not taking a defensive posture yet but she was ready. The pill had already given her enough strength to do something. She regarded him over her shoulder. "But truly, sir, no interest in Kinsley Claim. You represent them, so?"

"Yes. I didn't suppose you would be interested but I thought you…" He looked into her eyes intently. He pointed at her. "Your eyes are the wrong color."

Erica's brow knit in irritation. "They be the color they have always been."

"No, I mean, you look like her except for that."

"Really. Who?"

"Matilda Kinsley."

Her stomach turned and her heart sank. That explained why people acted so odd. It was Kinsley crap again. A relative here looked like her. That had to be why they seemed so certain she would be a problem. The girl must be a demon to be treated so. "Suppose she be a cousin or some such," Erica told him as she tried to suppress her dismay. "'Tis of no interest. They caused a spark of trouble back home and well…" She smiled as she leaned against the wall once more as if unconcerned.

This man was a Kinsley Claim representative. It would be best if he didn't call up her uncle and tell him a niece had arrived ready to stir up mischief. That is what most Kinsley's would do. They tended to stomp in and try to take over. "You know how it be when family falls apart. Some things don't fit back together. Changed my name to put an end to such. Wouldn't even be here except for the poison." She lifted the cigarette to make her meaning clear.

His eyes narrowed. "You are a niece to Claimant Kinsley huh?"

Erica took a long draw off the cigarette and held it in her lungs for a moment before exhaling. "'Tis a distant uncle who owns a claim here. Great great grandma went to Sirrus and her brother came here. The families parted, lost touch. Have no interest in them. Came here to get healthy and off Marril. 'Tis all."

"I seriously doubt that is all. It is going to be an issue for you."

"Truly none such." Her irritation tinged her tone but she smiled to offset it. She had to convince him she wouldn't start anything. "Have changed my name. No one knows me as Kinsley anymore. 'Tis for sure they will have no part of me. Expect such. Welcome it."

He frowned. "You are going to have problems whatever your name is. Matilda isn't well liked."

"What Kinsley ever was?" she asked then sucked in a long drag of steam, as if smoking was her only concern.

"I mean…" He cut himself off so abruptly she grew curious.

She exhaled, stood and faced him. "You mean what?"

"I work for the Kinsleys you know? I probably shouldn't be talking to you." He glanced around. The Customs House had emptied out so they were alone. "But, I mean." He paused. "You are Chaucer, right?" She stiffened. "Don't take me wrong," he added quickly. He extended his hands, palms facing the ceiling, the universal sign of friendship. She could see he held no weapon and no offensive stance started like that. "I would hate if you got hurt. It isn't often we get Chaucer here. They usually go to Sirrus."

Had she heard that right? "Pardons?"

"After the trouble between Matilda and Claimant Kinsley she was kicked out of the family. If Claimant Kinsley learned I was talking to Matilda I'd be in trouble and I don't want to lose this job. It's gravy. I like meeting people. I don't want to lose it."

Erica glanced around. There was no one else there unless they hid in a cubicle and were staying silent. That seemed unlikely. She had seen so many leave.

"You look like her." He continued to stare.

"Pity her," Erica replied with a small attempt at humor because she knew she was attractive if she wanted to be. She was too thin right now but otherwise she had a decent shape and a pretty enough face. She could lure men to do as she wished. She tried to chuckle and ease the man's mind because she wanted to find out why Matilda wasn't liked but instead she began to cough. The man didn't even grin. He took a few steps closer and spoke lower as the coughing subsided.

"You won't find a job. No one in their right mind would hire you. Their claimant would be outraged."

Erica lowered her hand from her mouth. "Well, not to worry." She sounded hoarse. "There be no need for a job." She cleared her throat and stiffened her back to look up at him. "Just want a place to live."

He shrugged. "Same there."

That startled her. How could someone come to a planet and not get a place to live? "You mean no one will accept me as a tenant?"

"Yes, that's what I mean."

Could that even be a thing? How could a person be on a planet and not have a place to live? How did that even work? Claimants owned the land. They rented it to tenants who farmed and ran businesses which the claimant taxed. If she stayed on their land without paying rent or taxes they wouldn't be happy and she would be guilty of a crime. What crime she wasn't sure but there were always crimes to be committed and she found a whole bunch to commit in her days.

Without a tenancy she would have to constantly move, always the visitor. No. There had to be a law against that. "'Tis ridiculous. A person must live someplace. Where does the Kinsley girl live?"

"Actually, no one knows. The QSDD took her."

The QSDD, the blasted Quirni Solar Defense Delegate was involved. Every planet had a Defense Delegate that supposedly kept the peace between claims and the other planets. They had destroyed Erica's life. Sirrus was her home and she would still live there with her family if not for the SSDD. She wouldn't be sick with thayanite poisoning or immigrating to Quirni or need to send a message back to Marril except for the Sirrian Delegate. Then again, hadn't he had said another thing?

She thought a moment, replayed what the man had said about the Delegate. They took Matilda. Her eyes narrowed. "Took her? Why?"

He shrugged again. "They protected her. They caused the riots. They managed to get her out of the city after the trial and since then no one has seen her."

Trial? Riots? By the Quirni Delegate? The military caused riots? By the lords, what had she blundered into? She was almost afraid to ask. "What trial? What did Matilda Kinsley do?" Her stomach began another slow roll as the man took a step back. He didn't want to talk about it. He flushed with fear and worry. "What?" she repeated. "Please."

He looked around again. He considered answering but didn't want to be seen doing it.

She stepped closer. "Please," she begged.

His eyes met hers. There was pity there. His shoulders drooped. He leaned to speak lower and shared what he really didn't want to say. "Matilda wanted to become a claimant and she wasn't willing to wait until she inherited her father's claim. She tried to buy Cobal Claim but the claimants of Cobal refused to sell to her so she decided to make the claim hard for them to keep, turn their tenants against them or something." His face darkened. He paused, swallowed, glanced around, and then continued. His eyes fell to hers and stayed there.

"Up on Cobal Claim they have a filter system for the water that goes into the capital city. It filters out Bacillus pyrogenzes. If you drink Quirni water unfiltered, you'll get a fever that kills. It makes you sick. It maddens you. You'll tear yourself apart. After a certain point, nothing can be done. No antibiotic will work." He took a breath and glanced around. They were still alone. "She stole the filter system's replacement parts then hired someone to sabotage the working filter. The water was contaminated before anyone expected. They had no parts to fix the filter. Matilda Kinsley killed over six-thousand people. They were poisoned because of her and they died horrible deaths."

Erica forgot her cigarette.

"Then she walked. She got off free thanks to the QSDD. Everyone knows she is guilty but the QSDD took the judges into a back room and convinced them to find her innocent." He said that with a sneer. "The QSDD protected her. We can only guess why. She owns, or owned, some of the biggest businesses on the planet and they couldn't have them fail, but if anyone ever gets their hands on her, she's dead." He shook his head. "You look like her. I mean, you really look a lot like her." He took a breath. "If you want to live I think you should go get the protection of the QSDD too."

Erica's chest felt tight to realize the weird Quirni weren't reacting to her at all but to her cousin. "Why didn't they say something? Was a QSDD ship that brought me here. The crew would have known. Any of them would have known." She spoke with the same low urgent tone he used because that was all she could manage.

He shook his head. "I'm sorry." He picked up his bags and walked away as fast as he could without running.

Erica stared at the door for so long her cigarette burned her. She dropped it. It fell on the map north of Kinsley Claim, in the unclaimed territory that looked like desert. She stamped it out with her boot. She wore good hiking boots. It sounded like she would need them. She would have to stay away from people.

Where was Cobal Claim? She looked for it. It was under her bags. It butted up against the western edge of Kinsley Claim. Six-thousand dead. She felt like she would be sick. Six-thousand!

She was here because of the Delegate. They wouldn't sell her a ticket to Sirrus and she bet it had something to do with this and not the exile from Sirrus. Her father had been exiled too but he had gone back while she couldn't. This had to be why. The damn Delegate wanted her here. That had to be why the crew didn't say anything to her. She looked like this girl and they wanted her for something. She would be damned if she would fall into their trap.

Lords, but she could be such an idiot sometimes. She should have checked on the Quirni Kinsleys but she had never planned on coming here. She had so little time when she did get a ticket. No doubt that had been their plan. If she had been given any time, she would have checked. Damn the SDD to hell!

She tried to breathe deep, force air into her lungs, but her breath caught and she started coughing again. She sank to the floor with her back to the cubicle. As the fit passed, she drew up her knees and rested her forehead on them. She would keep calm. She would not get upset. She would not be angry. She would not lose hope. She would not cry. Crying would fill her throat and lungs with phlegm. It would weaken her and rob her of breath. She couldn't be weak now.

How could the SDD allow someone to kill over six-thousand people and not be punished?

How could they ever expect her to do anything for them after all they had done to her?

How many times would they mess up her life? If it hadn't been for their meddling she would still be a Kinsley. She would still be on Sirrus.

According to family history, the SDD had killed her great great uncle Cedric. He had been too successful on Marril and they had killed him. At that time Kinsleys were all from Marril but after his death Cedric's sister, Leta, had moved to Sirrus. Cedric's brother, Cyril, had moved to Quirni.

Erica lifted her head and rested it against the cubicle wall. She lit another smoke, thinking, inhaling deep until the cigarette was gone and then lighting another. Her eyes trailed over the map on the floor. She had to go somewhere. She had to sneak somewhere, not ask permission, not be seen, not settle down at least until the mess with Matilda was over. So where?

There was a lot of land between towns. The further north the more open the land. If she went that way she might go anywhere. Maybe all she had to do was camp like all the rich Parcles did when they came to enjoy their Quirni Wilderness Adventures. She could stay away from towns and people and leave the claims altogether by going north.

She rolled out the butt of the cigarette and dropped it in the small pile she made. She lit another.

Her lungs felt better and her throat was clear. She inhaled deep without coughing. With a little maintenance her breathing should stay clear until morning. She knew the feeling of finally getting enough medicine and this was it; clear lungs, deep breath, energy. The gravity still dragged but she had the pills. The cureman on the ship said she should take them as needed. They wouldn't harm her only make her light headed if she took too many. She took another one. She could do this. She could survive this. She had done harder things but where to go?

Her eyes fell to Kinsley Claim. Claimant Kinsley didn't have an argument with her. Could she ask him for help? That would put her back in the Kinsley crap but she could have a claimant at her back. Would he help her if she reminded him of his daughter too much?

It was a risk. Anyone might think she was Matilda and stop her from seeing him. They could jail her and forget about her. Chances were she could wheedle her way out the same way she always had on Marril but was it worth the risk?

If she did manage to see him, how would that help? Erica had heard rumors that Cyril still worked with the Defense Delegate. It was only rumors but she didn't want to be around SDD. They could nab her and do with her whatever they had planned. Going to her uncle could deliver her to very thing she wanted to avoid. Should she take the chance?

The Kinsley Claim representative had said her Uncle would fire him for talking to Matilda. He also said the QSDD protected Matilda. Would they protect her if Cyril had kicked her out of the family and they worked with Cyril? That wouldn't make sense. If they worked with Cyril and he no longer recognized Matilda then they wouldn't have anything to do with her. A claimant was a far more important ally than his estranged daughter.

Erica sighed in irritation. She knew more rumors than facts and the rumors didn't make sense. She decided she shouldn't trust anyone. That had worked well in the past. The best plan was to camp and stay away from people altogether until the business with Matilda blew over. That meant going to the least populated area so she would go north, farther north than Kinsley Claim. North of the claimed territory would be the only safe place.

She slipped a map out of her inside coat pocket and unfolded it. A map of Quirni was on one side and the Southern Padt City on the other. That was where she was, the Southern Padt City. That map had vital information too since she couldn't drag all of her stuff around. There had to be a place to stow it.

Businesses and hotels, banks and restaurants were labeled. The city was set up in blocks around the large court of the Quirni Council Buildings near the center. The Base was at the northeast side of the city. She found a bank on the road that ran straight west to the other side of town starting right from where she sat. It had to be a main road to and from the shipping area. There were no deviations in the road. The Quirni were practical. That made her life easier and that was important right now.

The bank wasn't far away. She stood and put on her hat with her hair hanging down around her face and the hat tipped forward. The wide, flat brim should hide a lot. The pill was working so she gathered her bags without too much effort and then left the Customs House with her chin dipped down but aware of every movement around her.