Chapter 1 – The QSDD Interlude

Erica finally reached the customs agent. She stood alone in front of the chest high counter. The agent sat on a tall stool behind it.

"Papers," he requested. He didn't look up but straightened and clipped the papers that belonged to the previous group. He dropped their documents into a bin.

Erica patiently held out her passport with her manifest and her health records. She kept her eyes down. Tenpole didn't look authorities in the eye.

"Oh!" he exclaimed.

They didn't look them in the eye unless there was a reason to. She looked up. His eyes were wide with alarm. He stared at her for a moment then averted his gaze.

Even as rich as she was compared to the Quirni, Erica was still Tenpole. She did as authority wished from habit. She dropped her eyes while still holding her papers towards him. "Pardons," she begged. She kept him in view by looking at this chin.

His mouth twitched into a smile. "I uh, see you are…the last in line?" he said as if he had started to say one thing then changed to something else.

Erica returned his smile to let him know she was not going to start anything.

He stiffened. He stared at her.

What was wrong? This man had authority over her and he knew it. His eyes broke from her and darted around the room quick then they snapped back. Did he know she wore a gun? Had someone off the ship told him? He hadn't looked at her papers yet so he hadn't read about it.

Chaucer, she needed Chaucer for this. She pulled her gaze up towards his eyes, gave him the right sort of smile, and a suggestive slope of the shoulder. "As you will, sir," she replied.

"Uh-" His eyes grew even bigger. His hand trembled as he reached for her papers. He pressed on a solid smile and took them from her. His shoulders stayed tightly drawn up around his neck. His pupils had shrunk to pinpricks. "We'll be through this in a moment," he promised.

She watched his hands as he stamped. He didn't pause to read the documents. He was way too nervous. Someone must have told him she was armed. Guns were rare on Quirni. It would be a thing to discuss. She glanced around the room to see if anyone watched her but all the people who had been on the ship with her were busy with their own business. None of them seemed to give her a thought.

She turned back to the clerk. He was still smiling but it still looked fake. His upper lip twitched. His lips were pressed hard against his teeth, as if he did his best to keep his expression in place.

Erica watched to see his reaction when he looked at her manifest of belongings. Then he would know about her gun and her knife for certain if he hadn't already been told. She would see if he was surprised by it. Even if he was, he couldn't make her leave Quirni for that could he? He couldn't get so nervous he wouldn't allow her to immigrate could he? She didn't have anywhere else to go. The Marrilian agent had approved her imports, even though the woman had been difficult they were approved.

She didn't need to worry about that. The customs agent rushed through the check in process. He didn't look at her manifest. He slipped the list of her items out of her booklet, bundled it with a few documents she had to sign, stamped his papers, stamped her passport, clipped the papers together, and dropped everything in the bin on top of everyone else's paperwork. He had stamped the manifest without even a glance at her declared items. He held her passport out to her. "There you go Miss–oh," he flipped open the front of her passport, glanced down at it, smiled, then his eyes settled on hers. He smirked at her with a sly sort of look and leaned over the counter. "Ennis," he said her name in a conspiratorial whisper.

Erica reached over the counter and took it from him. "Thank you," she replied.

He leaned back. His shoulders didn't relax until she backed away a step then he began to collect all the papers from his bin.

She kept an eye on him. He was a loon. She didn't want him out of her sight. She coughed. She covered her mouth but watched him.

The coughing was a symptom of the thayanite poison in her lungs. She lit an antidote cigarette. Emotions tended to make the thayanite poison active, a thing about blood and oxygen if she remembered right. The Quirni air was supposed to heal her lungs and even remove the thayanite but considering what she had seen so far she wondered what would happen to her mind. Not only was the customs agent odd but the children who had helped all the other passengers with their bags had run from her. They had stopped, stared at her with their mouths open, and then turned and run. They were the reason she was last into the customs building. Everyone else had their bags carried in by the kids. She had carried her own. She supposed they didn't like the looks of her; light, almost blond hair, light build, and a pale complexion. She looked like Tenpole, which she was. Worse, she was from Chaucer Street. Maybe they could see that too.

She covered her mouth with the back of her hand and coughed, her cigarette trailing steam past her face. She tried to breathe. She tried to calm down, to ignore these odd people. They were all used to Parcles with their dark hair and fine manners. How often did they see Tenpole? Everything was fine. It had to be fine.

She glanced up at the customs agent.

He stuffed his papers in a briefcase. He hurried from the room and tried to tie the briefcase shut at the same time. He closed the door after him with the authority he should have displayed at his desk.

She shook her head slightly. What a loon. She drew off her smoke, coughed, and then turned her back on the customs desk and towards the cubicles that lined the walls of the room. She had to find a place to live.

According to the immigration pamphlet she would be talking to the representatives of Quirni's claimants at the customs office. They were no doubt the people in the cubicles.

Erica was related to one of the claimants on Quirni, Claimant Kinsley. He was a distant uncle and he was trouble. She 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. The claim bordered unclaimed land that looked like desert according to the color. Someplace south, she decided. Soto Claim. It was nearby, just north of the base where they had landed. She could walk there. A wooden sign stating 'Soto Claim' hung on one of the cubicles and someone stood in it.

Erica picked up her bags and started towards it. The woman stationed there was collecting her things to leave.

"Pardons," Erica begged as she approached.

The lady straightened with a jerk and spun to face Erica. It was as if she were afraid to have her back to her. She blinked a few times and curled her lips in an imitation of a smile.

"Would be fine to live towards the south. Could you–"

The woman's smile fell away. "No, please," she replied, cutting Erica off. "I've filled the positions we had. My claimant would be furious if…you-you understand?" she added weakly as she pulled down her pink suit coat to straighten it and then ran her hand over her dark hair a couple of times. Her hair looked fine. She tugged at her suit coat again. She forced another smile. "May I pass, Miss?" she asked politely and gestured towards Erica's bags.

Erica dipped her chin for an answer. She pulled her bags aside. The lady squeezed by with her briefcase and hurried across the room and was gone. Erica stared after her for a moment, raised an eyebrow, then sighed and dragged her bags towards the representative of another southern claim but the scene repeated itself with one difference, the man scowled at her but hurried off nonetheless.

"By the lords," Erica muttered after the third attempt. She didn't bother to move her bags this time. She had no energy. She would be so happy when she got used to the gravity and Quirni's clean air healed her lungs. The antidote in the smokes only kept her lungs clear so she wouldn't get pneumonia; it didn't give her any extra strength. She tried to breath deep as she leaned against the abandoned cubical of Vaughn Claim but that started her coughing. She took one of the pills that the ship's cureman had supplied to all of them. It was supposed to bolster their strength. She felt like she would crumble to a heap if she didn't get energy somehow. She hoped the pill worked fast. She lit another smoke to calm the constant tickling in her throat.

Was smoking harder in higher gravity? Lords it felt like it was.

Sweat trickled down her back. She took her hat off and left it on her bags at the edge of the map, west of Kinsley Claim. She ran her hand through her hair to get it unstuck from her face then straightened and sucked hard on the cigarette. She had to get her lungs clear. She would have no energy if she got pneumonia even if she took all the energy pills at once. All the Marrilians had been chain smoking since they arrived except her. She hadn't smoked long enough to be in the habit of caring for the thayanite poisoning that way. She had gone straight to using an antidote chamber since her poisoning had come on so hard and quick.

"Hello."

Erica looked over her shoulder towards the voice. Kinsley's representative was leaning by the door to his cubicle and was openly staring at her. "Hello," he greeted again when her eyes settled on him.

"Hello," Erica returned, imitating his greeting. Where she came from the word had been shortened to a quick 'Lo'. Erica stared back at the middle-aged man for a moment. 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.

"Am not interested in living on Kinsley Claim but many thanks," she answered and then looked away before he could ask to hire her for her skills. She didn't need to sell herself anymore.

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

Hadn't he already heard that? She thought he had been asking about her skills as Chaucer. Most people would hear that right away. If not, then what had he been talking about?

"Yes sir," she replied. She straightened in case she needed to defend herself but she still regarded him over her shoulder. "But truly, sir, no interest in Kinsley Claim. You represent them, so?"

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

Erica eyebrows knit in irritation. "They be the color they have always been."

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

"Really. Who?"

"Matilda Kinsley."

So there it was. It was the damned Kinsley crap again. That was why they treated her so odd. "She be a cousin or some such," Erica told him as she tried to keep her irritation out of her voice. "'Tis of no interest. They caused a spark of trouble back home and well…" She smiled as she relaxed against the wall once more. "You know how it be when family falls apart. Some things don't fit back together."

His eyes narrowed. "A cousin huh?"

Erica took a long draw off the smoke and held it in her lungs for a moment before exhaling. The pill, staying calm, and getting antidote in her were helping her feel stronger. She nodded in answer. "Not a close one. The families parted a while back."

"That hardly matters. It is going to be an issue for you."

"Truly 'tis not so," she replied harsher than she meant to. She smiled. "Have changed my name. No one knows me as a Kinsley anymore. 'Tis sure they won't have any part of me."

He smiled at first, returning hers, but then it dissolved. He frowned. "You are going to have problems. Matilda isn't well liked."

Erica grunted. "What Kinsley ever was?"

"I mean…" He stopped himself.

"You mean what?" Erica asked when he cut himself off abruptly. She finally stood and faced him.

"I work for the Kinsleys you know? I probably shouldn't even be talking to you." He glanced around. "But, I mean." He paused and considered her. "You are Chaucer right?" She stiffened. "Don't take me wrong," he added quickly. He put out his hands, palms towards the ceiling, the universal sign of friendship, no weapon and no offensive stance started like that. "I would hate to see you get hurt," he told her. "It isn't often we get Chaucer here."

Erica wasn't sure if she had heard that right. She frowned at him. "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."

Erica squinted in confusion. She glanced around. There was no one else there.

"You look like her," he said as 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. She wheezed as she tried to get her breath.

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

Erica lowered her hand from her mouth. "Well, not to worry," she said hoarsely. "There be no need for a job." She cleared her throat and stiffened her back. "Just want a place to live."

He shrugged. "Same there."

That startled her. "Sir? You mean no one will give me a place to live?"

"Yes, that's what I mean."

Erica coughed out a short laugh. "'Tis ridiculous. A person must live someplace. Where does the Kinsley girl live?"

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

Erica blinked. Her eyes narrowed. "Took her?"

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

Trial? Riots? By the QSDD? The military caused riots? No.

But this man looked so sure.

By the lords, what had she blundered into? She was almost afraid to ask. "What trial? What did Matilda Kinsley do?" She felt her stomach begin a slow roll as the man winced and took a step back. "What?" she repeated. "Please."

He looked around again. He considered answering for a moment.

She stepped closer to him. "Please," she begged.

His eyes met hers again. He nodded slightly. "She 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 Claim refused to sell to her. She decided to make the claim hard for them to keep, turn their tenants against them or something." His face grew dark. He paused, swallowed, and then continued. His eyes fell as he talked.

"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 it 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 once the sabotage was discovered. Over six-thousand people were poisoned. It was too late for antibiotics. They died horrible deaths."

Erica forgot the cigarette burning at her side.

"Then," he continued, "She walked thanks to the QSDD. Everyone knows she is guilty but they took the judges into a back room and convinced them to find her innocent. The QSDD protected her. We can only guess why. She owns, or owned, one of the biggest banks on the planet and they couldn't have it fail but if anyone ever gets their hands on her she's dead." He shook his head at Erica. "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 get the protection of the QSDD too."

"My lords," choked Erica. "Why didn't they say something? Was a QSDD ship that brought us here. The crew would have known. Any of them would have known."

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

Erica stood staring at the door he used 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.

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…

Those SDD bastards, they were causing her trouble again. That had to be it. That was why they 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. No wonder she could only get a ticket to Quirni and on a QSDD vessel at that! She should have checked on the Quirni Kinsleys but she had never planned on coming here. She had had so little time. But if she had checked she would have at least seen she had a twin and changed her appearance.

She tried to breathe deep, force air into her lungs, but her breath caught and she started coughing again. She sank to the floor. 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 cry. Emotion would stir up the fluid in her lungs and weaken her. She couldn't be weak now. How could someone kill over six-thousand people and not be punished?

The SDD was how. The damned SDD. 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 with her family on Sirrus.

The SDD had killed her great, great uncle Cedric. He had been too successful, so the story went, and they had killed him. At that time all the Kinsleys were all from Marril but after his death Erica's great, great Grandma Leta, Cedric's sister, had moved to Sirrus. Leta and Cedric's brother, Cyril, had moved to Quirni. Their half-brother, Silas, had taken over the Kinsley property on Marril. That was what the SDD had wrought, breaking up the family and creating an enmity between brothers and a sister that had lasted for half a century.

Cyril Kinsley still lived on Quirni, a bit of history who had outlived his siblings.

Erica sat back against the cubicle wall. She lit another smoke as she thought. She inhaled deep and kept at it until it was gone.

She studied the map on the floor and lit another smoke. Her lungs were feeling better. She had the pills. She took another one. She felt it working. It seemed like it helped her breathe. She could do this. She could survive this. She had done harder things.

So, she had family on this planet. Did that matter? She suspected it didn't. Not only was her Uncle too far away but if he would fire a man just for speaking to Matilda how could she ask for his help when she looked like Matilda? Erica had heard rumors Cyril worked with the SDD as well. She might not be able to trust him.

She yanked 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. She couldn't drag all of her stuff around. She needed to stow it. Businesses and hotels, banks and restaurants were labeled on the Padt City side of the map. The city was set up in blocks around the large court of the Quirni Council Buildings in the center. She smoked and held the steam in her lungs as she searched the page for a convenient bank. She found one on the road that ran in a straight line to the other side of town starting right from where she sat. It had to be a main road for people to come to the shipping area. She smiled that. The Quirni were practical. She liked practical.

The bank wasn't far away. She stood and gathered her bags. She had to move before anyone saw her and thought the worst.