Chapter 1 – June 32nd

Erica knocked Lynsey back with a high kick to her chest but stumbled as she landed. She hadn't sparred with anyone in a while. She backed away to catch her breath. Erica had lost part of a lung after being shot months before. She felt well now but obviously this sort of exercise was still difficult. She put more effort into watching Lynsey's attacks and avoiding them rather than attacking.

Lynsey launched at her with a vicious kick to the stomach.

Erica pushed off her leg, spun, and then struck Lynsey's chest to slow her. She saw an opening. She struck the heel of her hand into Lynsey's face with her fingers splayed. Her palm barely touched her but her intent was obvious.

Lynsey froze with Erica inches away.

The crowd surrounding the mats froze as well.

"Recognize that?" Erica whispered with a Marrilian accent that any Marrilian would distinguish as lower class. Erica was a Kinsley but a lower class Marrilian nevertheless. She was a member of one of the most respected families in the three-planet system of Ipet although she was not one of the respectable family members. Only her family on Quirni had anything to do with her. They even worried about her. She had been hurt so bad. She was too thin, too reckless, or so thought cousin Matilda. She looked like Matilda with long dark brown hair and green eyes. They had the narrow Kinsley features with full mouth and quick moods that reflected in their eyes. They were both iridim patients too, treated as babies for a heart defect and cured but the iridim made them slight of build, shorter than most, and fragile.

"Yeah," breathed Lynsey. She pulled her face back from Erica's hand. "If you could hit hard enough I would be dead." She looked down at Erica with a mixture of concern and wonder.

Lynsey was soon to Erica's sister-in-law. She was a major in the Quirni Solar Defense Delegate-the QSDD. She was six foot, the average height of most Quirni born woman. She had brown hair that she wore pulled back in a braid for her military duties. Her features were round, almost child-like with full cheeks, big blue eyes that might look vacant when she thought hard but she wasn't dumb. No major in the QSDD was that. She loved fighting. This morning she fought in her white uniform shirt and brown pants with head protection and gloves. She took a step back.

Erica dipped her chin in a Tenpole nod. "You left yourself open when you turned from your kick," instructed Erica. She backed away. "Shall I repeat what you did so you can try it on me?"

Lynsey shook her head. "That move isn't used here. I never expected to see it." She adjusted the leather of her sparring glove straps. The action was pure nervousness. "Who taught you that?"

Anxiety clutched Erica's stomach. No wonder everyone was staring at them. They had so damn many rules! She wished she knew half of them!

"My pardons," she begged as her eyes scanned the crowd then she dropped them to the mat. "Didn't know that was banned here."

Lynsey's mother, Jesse Kennedy, a three star general in the QSDD frowned with disgust. Jesse was Erica's height although at least twice her weight. She wore an untailored uniform. She wore her light brown hair short and not styled with any feminine consideration and her attitude matched her plain attire; Jesse liked her rules and she liked people to behave. "It isn't banned, Claimant. People just know better than to use such a move. You seem to be the exception."

Erica stiffened. She nodded to her future mother-in-law slightly. "I was unaware of Quirni customs. My pardons. I learn."

"No need for pardons, My Lady," Lynsey replied graciously with a glance at her mother. She nodded to Erica deeper than she had before they sparred and ignored the stillness of the room. "I would like to practice with you whenever you have a chance. You used other techniques I have never seen. I could learn a lot from you."

Erica stepped back and lost any stance of readiness to continue the fight. She nodded and tried to smile but it wouldn't come. She had known James' family for only a day and had already horribly embarrassed herself twice. It was hard to keep from grimacing. "Would," she replied softly. She couldn't summon her regular tone. She patted her chest. "Have to get my wind back. Sparring would help."

Lynsey's mouth dropped open with alarm. "I had forgotten about that."

"You didn't hurt me. Don't worry." Erica used her glove to push back strands of hair that stuck to her forehead with then faced Lynsey again. "We could continue if you wish."

Lynsey nodded. "If you feel up to it." She glanced around, half daring anyone to disagree. Her eyes fell on her mother in particular. Then she backed up.

Erica took a few steps back and readied herself. This time she would work harder to use finesse. Then she might not do anything else against the rules. If she didn't attack how could they complain?

She watched Lynsey pull herself into a stance for her attack. She waited for her.

"Stop!" yelled a man from behind the crowd.

Erica and Lynsey both glanced in surprise.

The crowd quickly parted for a tall, lanky, dark haired man, the head healer on the base and the man who had been healing Erica every time she was hurt. They knew each other too well.

She stiffened as he stomped past the crowd and right up to her. "You have about as much sense as a fence post!" he complained. He grabbed her arm firmly and yanked her towards a weight bench.

She stumbled and slid after him. She didn't try to say anything. She had no idea what had him so mad.

"Sit," he ordered. He pushed her shoulder so she sat down with a bump.

"Lay down," he demanded and pushed her chest.

She lay back but then something suddenly occurred to her. "Thought you were on Mois Claim?"

He pulled a scanner from his bag. It fit in his palm and ran off of a thayanite drive. He turned it on with his thumb then glared at her for asking a question.

"Why are you here?" she managed to squeak as his eyes drilled into hers.

The crowd now gathered around to watch this new scene unfold.

"I am here in case anything happened to you or Matilda but I didn't expect this!" Levitus spat. "Although I should have knowing you," he added and pushed her down and not gently. Her head hit the cushioned bench.

"I be fine," she insisted but he pressed her flat to the bench with his palm on her shoulder. He ran the scanner over her chest. "Healer I-"

"Shut up," he snarled.

Erica blinked at him to hear such a tone.

"Put your arms over your head," he ordered.

She did so.

"Quit moving," he told her with less anger and when she stilled he unbuttoned her shirt and continued scanning her chest and stomach through her undergarments.

"Healer, I'd forgotten," said Lynsey. "I'm sorry."

The rest of the Kennedy family stood with Lynsey. Erica's cousin was there as well, Matilda Kinsley. Her husband, Roger Serval, stood with her.

John Kennedy, Lynsey's father, shook his head at his stupidity. "The blame is mine. I should have checked to make sure she was clear for this activity." His was the face that gave the Kennedy children the rounded child-like features. Looking upon John made a person think they saw a kindly, big, blond, boyish man with a penchant for mischief, a bit of an oaf, perhaps at thirty or so years, a man who might one day come to something, but John was in fact in his seventieth decade and he was an active part of the QSDD. He was a three-star general.

Erica lay on the bench with her arms over her head as the healer scanned her abdomen. She watched Levitus with a mixture of annoyance and fear.

"Damn right you should have cleared it with me," Levitus returned and took a moment to glare at John. He didn't look at rank when he was angry about someone's health. "The plugs I used to heal her wounds haven't dissolved completely. They could have been rammed right through her. Thank God news travels fast on the base. I double timed it over here when I heard she was sparring."

The rest of the spectators didn't want any part of this argument. They left exchanging money.

"You idiots," Levitus snapped at no one in particular and continued to scan Erica's chest.

Erica's fiancé, Captain James Kennedy, had the same reaction his father did. He shook his head at his stupidity. He looked like his father but he was six inches shorter, only six feet tall. He had his father's dark blond hair, and a similar boyish face, and his build. He was deceptively strong for his size, which was something he worked at to make up for his short stature. But strength wasn't smart. He had forgotten about the healer's plugs. Erica had been so bouncy and happy lately he had forgotten her wounds altogether and therefore mentioned how much she liked to spar. He knew his sister would give her a fight.

Levitus noticed his guilt ridden expression. "How could you forget how badly she was hurt? Don't any of you remember how long she was in surgery? Don't you remember how hard it was to get her back on her feet? That was only eight months ago!"

All of them stiffened to attention. Everything Levitus said was right. He must have seen how sick they all felt because he left them alone. He turned back to Erica. "Get a shower and get over to the clinic," he ordered.

"I be fine!" Erica whined as she sat up. "I blocked her kicks to my body!"

"I will be the judge of that!" Levitus snapped.

Erica winced and pulled back.

He jammed his scanner in his bag. She wanted to say more but he sounded like he was swearing under his breath and she didn't want to hear it out loud. He finished packing and stalked out of the gym. They watched him go.

"Good lords," Erica muttered after the door swung shut. She slid to the end of the bench.

"I have never seen him so mad but it serves you right," Matilda told her. "You shouldn't be fighting. It's-"

"Unladylike, I know," Erica scowled up at Matilda. Erica noticed Roger's raised eyebrow, as if to say he wasn't the least bit surprised Erica had found trouble again.

"Perhaps next time you will act more like a lady?" asked Jesse.

"Not likely," Roger answered. He was from Marril but from Parcles, upper class. He was leaner and smaller than most Quirni men due to living there but he had left Marril young enough he still looked young. His hair wasn't even graying. It was dark, nearly black and curly. Today it was cut and combed, which was unusual but they were in the Padt City for the Council meetings and he had to look his best. Roger smiled slightly for Erica's predicament. He had eyes that looked sad except when he smiled and Erica thought his smile was his best feature. If it hadn't been for his sad looks and his sweet smile she would have disliked him for being a Parcles prat but he had that gentle side that few people from Parcles ever showed and, amazingly, he didn't treat her like dirt for being Tenpole. She had to give him credit for that.

"You don't need to stir the pot," Erica sneered at him. She would give him credit but not when he made trouble for her.

He chuckled. "You had best shower quickly and get over to the clinic or he'll drag you over whether the pot is stirred or not." Old phrases like 'stir the pot' that Erica brought from the lower class streets of Tenpole never failed to amuse him.

Erica had forgotten that. Actually she never knew what might set him to grinning. She ground her teeth hard against a retort as she pulled the sparring boots and helmet off.

"I'll take those," Jesse told her and pointed to a door at the back of the gym. "The shower is through there." Lynsey led the way. Erica stalked after her.

When they returned only James waited for them. He stood with his hands behind his back, his brown SDD uniform saved from the creases of sitting. He appeared the perfect SDD soldier up to his face. Erica thought him far too cute for SDD. He could look stern but generally he looked happy and amused. That was the natural curve of his relaxed mouth. His hair had been cut for the night he proposed to Erica at the council party a few days before so for once it didn't curl around the edges of his hat. Erica and James would be married in fifteen days.

Yesterday she had claimed Kinsley Claim with him. She had become the owner and therefore the administrator of one of the richest Claims on the planet. James was her co-claimant. None of that had been in their plans. They had wanted to get married and have a small ranch and a family in peace. They had been forced into the positions. She walked up to James and gave him a small kiss, standing on her toes to do so.

"Pardons, but it helped, Zoe be gone." The sparring hadn't been for the workout alone. Zoe was an auditory hallucination, another part of Erica, that pestered her.

"Good," he replied with a gentle smile and kissed her again.

Lynsey didn't question the exchange. "I would like to go with you to the clinic. I want to be sure I didn't hurt you."

"You did not," Erica reassured her. "Levitus probably has no one else to prod and poke right now. He be bored."

Lynsey continued to look worried. She didn't move. She placed her hands behind her back and waited.

"Oh, come on," Erica agreed. They walked across the SDD base together.

Levitus' daughter, Gina, usually sat behind the reception window but today she sat in the waiting room. She stood to greet them. "Father is readying the surgical suite," she told Erica when they entered. "I need to get you changed."

Erica froze. James and Lynsey practically walked into her. They stopped beside her just inside the waiting room. The outside doors swung shut behind them. "Surgical suite?" Erica asked. "Why does he ready the surgical suite?"

"To do surgery I suppose," answered Gina.

Erica took a step back without realizing it. James put his arm around her. She looked up at him with fearful eyes.

"My God, I did hurt you," Lynsey breathed.

"No," Erica told her. She tried to say it firmly but sounded anxious.

"I'll go get him," Gina suggested. She left through the doors next to her reception window.

'Erica,' a voice in Erica's head called. She stiffened when she heard it then closed her eyes and exhaled in exasperation. She dropped her head onto James' shoulder. Zoe wouldn't be quiet. She was driving Erica nuts. She spoke most often when Erica was emotional or upset. She had been upset a lot lately.

Erica had testified against the previous claimant of Kinsley Claim the week before. Zoe had become active then; she had felt it necessary to coach Erica through her testimony and hadn't shut up since.

"Zoe again?" James asked when Erica dropped her head.

She nodded. She wanted to knock Zoe out of her head. The sparring could do that. Zoe didn't like it.

James wrapped his arm around her and squeezed her shoulders.

Levitus returned with his daughter. "Gina tells me you're wondering what I intend to do," he said. He didn't seem angry now but he wasn't acting casual either, not like he usually did. He seemed on edge, tense. "I'm going to dissolve the plugs that are in you." He stopped in front of Erica, looking down at her with his thin, angular face. He was still scowling. "I won't have you killing yourself because of them. They're coming out today."

Erica would have backed up another step but James' arm was still around her shoulders.

"Get going." Levitus nodded towards the door he had come from. He stepped aside.

If Erica could be a turtle and hide she would have. He shoulder's drew up. She slid away from James until he tightened his hold. She didn't like anything to do with clinics. Surgery was the worst. The needles were a close second. She hated the smells of antiseptic, the feel of the drugs as they entered her, all of it. "I have a lot to do," she argued but she sounded weaker than she intended. She was a claimant now and had authority over Levitus but somehow that didn't matter with this healer. He and his wife had saved her life and she respected him too much to disagree so she pleaded instead. "I haven't time for this. The plugs will dissolve. You said so yourself."

"Not fast enough for you," Levitus told her, and he still spoke without a trace of his natural gentleness. "I won't have you going to Kinsley Claim and out of my reach while those are in you. If you behave you will be back on your feet by tomorrow. Now get!"

Erica jumped. "Yes sir," she replied and pulled away from James. She kissed him. Gina offered the hospital robe. She took it but since Levitus didn't move towards the door she didn't either.

Levitus faced James. He handed him a note that James read quickly. "Be back at five," Levitus told him but held up three fingers.

James nodded curtly. "Take good care of her, healer."

"I am always taking good care of her," Levitus muttered then dropped his hand on Erica's shoulder. His strong grip led her to the back hall. He left her with Gina so she could change into the flimsy robe. Gina led her into the surgical suite when she was done.

Levitus' wife, Major Betty Amble, a plump cureman with reddish hair and stern features readied her equipment. She smiled for Erica. Erica relaxed slightly to see someone smile. "Hello, dear."

Erica crossed to her. "'Lo, Betty."

Betty patted the thin mattress on the surgical table. It was covered with a white sheet. A tiny pillow was at the head of it. Erica knew from experience the pillow would be gone soon after they had her flat and started sedation. It was supposed to make her feel comfortable but it looked tiny and uncomfortable, useless.

"Climb up," Betty told Erica sweetly.

Erica took a deep breath and hoisted herself onto the table. "It seems I pissed off Levitus," she told the cureman softly. She glanced at the healer who pawed through a drawer several feet away picking the plastic wrapped equipment he wanted.

"That barely describes how outraged he is," Betty informed her in a whisper. "And don't use words like 'pissed' anymore if you don't mind. You no longer live on the streets of Tenpole. You are a claimant now." She put a paper cap over Erica's hair.

Erica helped her but frowned the whole time she attempted to get her curls to stay in the cap. "Good lords, you start that too? I am from the streets. Don't have the vocabulary of a friggin' princess you know."

Betty shook her head. "Lay down. And use your pronouns."

Erica exhaled sharply and lay on the table. "How does he dissolve the plugs anyway?"

"He puts a solution on them."

Erica sat back up, swung her legs off the table and stared Betty in the eye. "A solution on them? He won't cut me open will he?"

"He'll heal you back up afterwards and you will only be sore for a day or two. You will barely have a new scar. He might even get rid of some old ones."

Erica leaned away from her in horror.

Betty pushed Erica so she would lie again but Erica fought her.

"Haven't time for this," she said and tried to get off the table.

"Yes you do," Betty told her. She had stayed so close Erica had no place to get down. "Lie back this instant, young lady."

"No," Erica said and her voice was several octaves too high. The smell of the antiseptic was all around her. Levitus came towards them with all sorts of instruments.

Betty pressed closer so Erica couldn't move down to get around her.

"Let me go," Erica hissed. When she saw she couldn't get around Betty she swung her legs up and over the opposite side but before she could jump down she felt a prick on her shoulder. Her muscles suddenly stopped working. She slumped forward and started to fall but Betty dragged her back. She laid her out. "You will be still," Betty told her. "Don't ever think you can outflank a cureman, Lady Kinsley."

Erica could still blink. She could still move a little and talk but it was hard. "They were supposed to dissolve on their own," she mumbled. "Let them," she begged.

"I can't," Levitus told her. He was on the other side of the table opposite Betty now. "Not after I scanned you. Sometimes the plugs can get adhesions on them. If that happens too much scar tissue is left when they dissolve. That is happening with yours. They have to be removed."

Betty swabbed her arm.

"Damn needles. You gave me Reagent 10."

"I'm sorry. I know. You don't have to remind me," said Betty kindly.

Levitus placed his instruments on a tray beside the table. He pulled Erica's chin to make her look at him. "This surgery also gives us an excuse to do something else. When you wake there are some things to be discussed in private."

Erica flinched as Betty poked her arm. "Damn dirty stinkin' needles," she muttered.

"I assure you they are not dirty," Betty told her as she took bags of solution from an arriving nurse. She attached it to the IV, started the drug, and then pulled on her surgical mask. Levitus pulled his over his nose as well.

"Discuss what?" Erica asked him suspiciously. "You have another stinkin' operation?" She could see he smiled because his eyes narrowed above the mask.

"I hoped I could get away with that and not have any questions," he told Betty. "You aren't fast enough with your drugs."

Betty threw him an annoyed glance.

Levitus dropped his eyes back to Erica. "You will understand later."

The drugs floated into Erica's head. She didn't argue any further.

Levitus' eyes narrow as he smiled again. He winked at Betty. "Maybe I was wrong," he conceded.

"Undoubtedly," Betty retorted.

Gina came in with warm blankets and put them over Erica's legs as Betty put a gas mask on Erica's face. "See you in a few hours," she told her kindly. "Breathe deep."

Erica did as told only so she wouldn't have to endure any more of the place but she wore a scowl. It softened as she fell to sleep.

She rested in a hospital bed when she woke. She heard the mutterings of several people. A soft beep sounded above her head.

"She's awake," Betty announced quietly.

Someone picked up her right hand and squeezed it.

"Hey, Doll." It was James.

Erica pulled her eyes open. He sat beside the bed. His parents, Ella and Marcus, the claimants of one of the richer claims on the planet, as well as Matilda and Roger were there. James' wasn't wearing his uniform coat and neither were his parents. It was odd to see the SDD agents out of uniform, wearing only their white shirts and black ties, but Erica didn't have the strength to ask why.

John took Erica's other hand. "How are you feeling?" he asked kindly.

Erica closed her eyes but felt like she would fall back to sleep. She forced them open again.

"Give her more time to wake up," Jesse suggested.

"Why…out of uniform?" asked Erica slowly.

"So we can have a private conversation," Jesse told her.

Their uniforms had listening devices in them. Erica knew this but James had told her no one listened to an agent unless the agent called a number and activated the device in the uniform. Was someone listening to them anyway? They listened without their permission? To three star generals? Jesse and John were both three star generals. That didn't sound good.

Erica drew a deep breath to clear her head. Her eyes started to close but she forced them open again.

A faction in the Quirni SDD had shot Erica. That was why she had the plugs put in her. She would have died on the road except for Levitus, Betty, and Elsbeth. The faction had mistaken her for Matilda whom they had really wanted to kill. They didn't want Matilda using the information about metal deposits on Quirni.

Loyal SDD agents had sought to protect Matilda and her knowledge from the traitorous faction of QSDD. General Burk, a one star general in charge of northern Quirni security, had routed out the traitors a few months before. Erica had helped to achieve this. John and Jesse had since assured Erica that the faction was gone and the Quirni SDD was whole again. So why did they need to take off their uniforms? Who listened? Who worked against them now?

Matilda stood behind James with Roger. "What's this about?" Erica asked her.

Matilda smiled slightly. She moved around James to be by Erica's pillow. She laid a hand on his shoulder and reached to stroke Erica's hair. "Betty and Levitus have led everyone to believe you won't wake for another few hours so we can all say we are waiting for you. Still, we have to be quick. If someone is listening through the devices in their uniforms it will seem odd to have no one talking around them. All of us can't stay for too long."

James squeezed Erica's hand to get her attention. She rolled her eyes down to him. "After we're done we can't speak of this unless my uniform is out of the room," he cautioned. "Do you understand?"

"So," she replied softly. She tried to sit since that would help her stay awake but James, John, and Matilda all held her down. "Lie still," Matilda warned. "The surgery was more extensive than Levitus thought it would be."

James lifted her small hand in his large Quirni palm and kissed her fingers. "I'm sure the healer's paste is stopping any pain for now. Lay still like Levitus asks or Betty will sedate you."

"Too true," Betty agreed. She stood by the door to oversee the conversation and Erica's movements.

Erica relaxed back into the pillow.

"He also put a tracking device in you," John added.

"I had a tracking device put in me too," Matilda reassured her when Erica looked startled at the news. "But only a few people will know the code to track us so don't mention it to anyone."

"Then, 'tis not over," Erica said quietly and swallowed hard. "'Tis another faction?" She had suspected as much. Before she had ever met Matilda Erica had been attacked in a town called Nigh on Mois claim but the attack hadn't made any sense. Why attack her? She was potentially someone the dead faction could have used against Matilda. Maybe this other faction was coming alive again.

"This is what we are here to tell you." John spoke softly, consolingly. "There isn't another faction. You asked to witness the questioning of the traitorous generals this morning. You hoped they would tell you who else is working against us on Quirni but they wouldn't. They can't. There isn't another faction on Quirni. What they have to say is something we can't let you hear."

Which is? Erica wondered when he stopped.

He smiled kindly. "Erica, when we tell you there is no way you can hear their testimony, accept that. Accept it poorly, by all means put up a fight, but don't file charges against them like you threatened to do. That would give you the right to hear their testimonies. You were astute enough to figure that out." John's expression changed. He looked down at her severely. "There is something you have to do before you may be privy to such information. You need to be whole. You have to be cured of your disorder."

She grimaced. She had been free of it once before and it had been hell to accomplish.

"We know it will be hard," James told her. "But you have to do it. We can't risk Sal coming out again. Last time it worked to our advantage but it might not again."

'Sal' was the part of Erica that would do anything for her father. Sal was the reason they didn't trust her.

"Claimants, Jesse," John called and nodded towards the door. "It's about time." They left. "We have to keep some sort of dialog up around our uniforms," John told Erica. "The Moises and Roger came along to help do that so Matilda and I have more time with you."

Erica hated the way politics never ended. "So you remove the local faction and now find even higher rank than general's Desante and Grund set against you," she said in disgust. She looked up at John who was taken aback. "Must be higher rank than you or they couldn't listen to you, not without your permission," she reasoned. "'Tis so?"

John glanced at James with alarm.

James smiled and shrugged.

"Can see by your face that be right," she told John. "Must be Marrilian and Sirrian SDD," she figured aloud. "Matilda's documents could take Quirni from the weakest to the strongest planet in our system. They must want to stop that. 'Tis SDD meddling as always," she complained. "Your organization always be up to something. 'Tis why I have hated and distrusted it for so long. Causes pain all the time and now you have me and James as claimants so you have a whole claim to help you Quirni SDD meddle. You will have a Quirni SDD agent as a claimant to help against the Sirrian and Marrilian SDDs." She squinted at John. His face had dropped into the emotionless SDD mask. "Does this mean you be in a military struggle with the SDDs on Marril and Sirrus or do they still act on behalf of councils?"

John held her eyes for a moment. "It seems James was right when he said excluding you from the facts is useless." He drew a breath. "You are right about the other planets not wishing us to proceed with using the documents. The MSDD and SSDD began embargos on Quirni in an effort to stop our progress with mining the metal in the northern territory. They will stop sending the daily supplies our Quirni SDD needs if we aren't compliant."

"Compliant? What does that mean?" asked Erica.

"It means we have to do what they want," answered John.

"Compliant," Erica repeated as she thought and looked him in the eye. "Compliant how?"

"You don't need to know that," he told her.

Her eyes narrowed. They all could see her think.

"As if," Betty muttered. "Keep her still while you bang your heads against the walls," she said and left the room.

The door drifted shut.

John watched Betty leave with slight alarm in his eyes. He looked across the bed at James.

James shrugged again.

"You caused me to become a claimant and you would have an SDD captain to support you," Erica repeated. She paused and eyed John, as if to dare him to comment.

John shook his head. "We didn't do that. The Claimant's Council chose you of their own accord."

"Really," Erica said softly. She considered that. She let it pass. "And Mati be in the middle of this struggle? She needs to claim the land up north as fast as possible doesn't she? Without the metal up there Quirni will remain dependent on Sirrus and Marril."

"But I have to have equipment to do it," Matilda explained. She shook her head. "We are looking for a diplomatic solution. So far, there hasn't been one and if you start asking questions about Nigh you will upset the proceedings. You are a claimant now, Erica. You can't be asking those questions."

"A diplomatic solution," Erica snorted. "This means you will kiss ass and bargain away your rights to your own land and metal."

"That is a bit harsh," Matilda scowled. "We will do no such thing."

Erica glared back. "Really. You know the Marrilians and Sirrians be happy having us rely on them rather than the other way around. You make those damn canisters to filter that friggin' poisoned Marrilian air. They should be grateful but instead they see a threat."

Matilda didn't give Erica the angry retort she expected. Instead a smirk spread across her face. "You said 'us'."

Erica squinted at Matilda warily. "Yes?"

"'Us'," Matilda repeated. "You're thinking like you're Quirni now. I never thought you would accept Quirni as your home."

"Can't call Marril my home when I'm a claimant here can I?" asked Erica.

"But you wanted to go to Sirrus. Aren't you upset you can't go now? That was all you talked about for so long."

Erica's family was on Sirrus. She had given up the dream of seeing them. It had been twenty years. She accepted they were no longer hers to call a family. Matilda and the Kennedys were her family now. John had welcomed her with open arms. She felt welcome, which she had never expected. "No, Mati, I'm not upset any more."

James squeezed Erica's hand. He kissed her cheek gently as he stood. "Roger and I are up." He nodded to Roger and they left.

Matilda wouldn't stop grinning.

The Claimants Mois and Jesse returned.

"So you let them put a global positioning device in you," Erica asked Matilda to try and change the subject, but she hadn't missed the fact Matilda let slip; there was something about the attacks in Nigh that spanned the planets. The silly look on Matilda's face made Erica self-conscious so she turned to John. "I understand putting one in her but why put one in me? You shouldn't have to track me."

"We are being safe. They could make a mistake and take you."

"As in kidnap?" Erica was appalled. "Kidnap Mati? Someone would still try that?"

"Or more likely, you could come up missing like you did when you changed into Sal and went to see your father," Jesse explained. "We have to know where you are." She sat in the chair James had left. "You don't mind that we tagged you like this do you? It's for the safety of all of us."

"No," Erica replied quietly since Jesse's tone dared her to disagree. The SDD had been Erica's enemy not so long ago. It was difficult to lay aside her suspicions and having one of their tracking devices in her took a mental adjustment to accept.

"Even if I can't go north yet there is still a lot I can do to get ready," said Matilda. Her eyes had shifted to Jesse briefly but she kept her pleasant expression. "Once ores are available we'll be able to start making metal and then our own machinery. And the Marrilians haven't stopped their miners from coming here yet. We can still get to the ore here in the south. We have that."

"And since we can't buy the machinery Matilda needs we will have to build it," John added. "It will just take longer but she will go north."

Erica knew her claim would undoubtedly be required to mine what Matilda needed most. She wouldn't mind. The North's huge supplies of metal would bring Quirni power and luxury instead of remaining the backwater horse and buggy world it currently was. But Erica could see herself ending up in the middle of the politics between the planets as Quirni progressed. She shuddered to think of it.

Matilda laid a consoling hand on her arm.

Erica looked up at her. "How do you think I can do this? I have no experience. I was not raised as a claimant's daughter. I grew up on the streets of Tenpole. 'Tis insane." She would be working against commanders, four-star generals, the councils, and claimants of the two other worlds.

Marcus Mois laughed lightly. "No one has experience at being a claimant, Erica."

"But they have experience in politics," she shot back. There was a time not too long ago when she wouldn't have spoken to him without adding 'sir' or 'My Lord' to every sentence. "You came to this planet rich enough to purchase your claim. You didn't get that money begging in the streets."

"Neither did you," he replied sternly. "You came to Quirni with nearly four million quid. You made that with the same sorts of decisions with which I made my money."

Erica had heard this argument before. She didn't know if it was true or not and the surprise would be his when he learned she had a lot more than four million quid but she had made the majority of it illegally. How would they like her to run a claim like that?

"As for politics, I've seen you talk your way around the SDD as well as a business deal. You'll manage," Marcus told her.

"We will be asking a lot of you but you will do fine. You have to," John said as his face turned grim. "There are certain things that need to be done both with the base that is on your claim and with Matilda's plans. We'll let you know what is happening when we can."

He held her hand tighter. "We are in a good position to make Quirni a powerful world. As Quirni SDD that is our goal. To reach that goal you will have to put up with a lot. Bear with us. Bear with James. It will take time and resources you may not understand and we can't explain ourselves as long as you can switch into Sal. You need to use our psychologist and free yourself of your dissociation before we can include you in our plans."

"I'll do what I can," Erica told him quietly.

He squeezed her hand and smiled.

"There is something else we have to discuss," said Jesse. She took a breath as she glanced at her husband then back to Erica. "We need to change the location of the base on Kinsley Claim. We want you to donate land to us, a fifty square mile area."

"Your current base be too small?"

"It is a ten by twenty mile area and we want to keep it too," John explained.

"All right," Erica agreed cautiously. "But Jesse worries about asking. Why?"

"Was I that obvious?" Jesse snorted.

Erica nodded.

"It's a lot to ask," explained John. "Claimants pay a great deal for their land. Land is what defines a claimant's worth. We acquired our Northern base from Cyril Kinsley when he came to Quirni but that base is too close to mountains and it's too small for our present needs. There is only enough room for one runway. We need more runways. We can only land one ship at a time. We need to land several. It is very difficult to land with the mountains nearby as well, which was what we wanted then but we need more access now. We need a base away from the mountains."

Cyril Kinsley had given the SDD that land when he had become a claimant just as Erica was going to do now. Cyril was Erica's great, great, uncle and Matilda's father. Now he was in prison for causing the deaths of over 6000 people on Cobal Claim. Erica had helped to put him there. "I'll give you the land but there must be concerns regarding that. I don't know what those might be."

"I do," Matilda told her. "There may be tenants displaced. The property might be farmland and that would be an enormous loss. There could be valuable ores under the property. The claim will have to support the base in several ways that could be expensive. But in return you will receive certain benefits such as fuel and privileges to land ships."

"So it would give claimants in northern claims a place to land their ships?" Erica asked. "Give them runways closer to home?"

Jesse made a funny face. "There are no claimants that own ships on this planet. The runways would be purely for SDD use."

"What?" Erica tried to sit up again but John and Matilda held her shoulders. "Oh, for lords sake put the damn bed up would you?"

John chuckled, found the controller, and raised the bed. "That isn't to say we wouldn't allow private ships. As for Matilda's concerns we want unused land at the southern border of Kinsley Claim near Mois Claim. The land is near a road. It isn't going to displace anything except a hunting cabin."

"You want it there?" Matilda asked in surprise.

"Is there a problem with that area?" Jesse asked. "Are there important ores there?"

"Not in particular." Matilda knew because she alone had the old SDD scanning documents for the metals. She shrugged. "The hunting cabin belongs to our family, Erica. It's no loss."

Erica silently thanked Matilda. It would have taken her weeks to come to that conclusion. "Then I agree to donate it. Let me know what to do. 'Tis bound to be paperwork."

"Not much," John assured her. "It was the asking that was difficult. We had to find the privacy to do so."

"Why ask in private?"

"So we can act surprised when you announce it then no one will expect us to have plans for it. If we asked for it then it must mean we have needs. We don't want anyone to be suspicious of what those might be."

Roger and James returned.

Jesse quickly filled them in on what had been discussed. Matilda and the Moises left. Jesse stood so James could sit beside Erica once again. "Do you know a lot about Kinsley Claim?" she asked him.

"A fair amount," he answered.

"To become a captain in the Quirni SDD he had to learn the political structure of each claim and who holds which office including the signed tenants," John told her. "To become a major he has to learn the laws of each claim as well. James hasn't studied that enough to pass but I'm willing to bet he remembers a lot."

"Especially about Kinsley Claim," James told her. "I spent a great deal of time there once so it held particular interest for me."

"Good," Erica said but before she could finish her thought Levitus hurried into the room.

"Pearl is coming," he warned.

James and Jesse immediately headed for the door. John paused. "Erica, act like you are just waking up from surgery. We have not spoken with you in private." He left.

Betty let them pass before coming in with a syringe.

"I met General Pearl. She was at the Reagent 10 questioning," Erica told them as Levitus lowered the bed and straightened the blankets. "She seems all right. Why do you fear her?"

"She is second in command, her and Lufkin, and she is originally from Marril," Levitus explained. "She worked under Mitchell Derek there. We don't know where her loyalties lie. We aren't taking any chances. She is too damn smart and suspicious."

Levitus and Betty were too busy to notice Erica's response to Derek's name. She covered her surprise with a frown so fast by the time one of them looked at her she appeared annoyed.

Betty injected the syringe into the IV. Erica immediately felt sleepy. "You're just waking up," Betty told her. She placed her finger over Erica's mouth to stop her from asking any questions. "She's about an hour early so I made the dose strong. You won't need to do any acting but you will have to remember to not say anything about the last hour."

By the time she withdrew her hand Erica barely heard her. She couldn't respond.

She felt Levitus pull the blankets around her chin then smooth her hair. "You'll do fine." They left the room as she fell to sleep.

James touched her hand. Again she heard the tone above the bed that let them know she was awake. "Hey, Doll."

She pulled open her eyes as she had before. He wore his uniform now. She noticed several other people were around the bed but this time she was too sleepy to look at them. She let her eyes close. She fought the drug Betty had given her but it was too strong. She nodded off. James still sat beside her when she woke again. He stroked her hair gently.

"I didn't like the way that healing looked," Levitus was saying. "I'm going to keep her here tonight. There were a lot of scars and adhesions. She will stay here until I'm certain everything has had time to hold."

"That was the worst of the wounds wasn't it?" James asked him.

"No. The lung I didn't remove is. Adhesions were all around it and her stomach. She will be better now but don't you dare let her spar or do anything beyond a simple walk until I approve it."

Erica opened her eyes to look at the healer. "She never touched me," she told him but it took most of her strength.

Levitus pointed his finger at her. "You are going to take care of yourself from now on!"

Erica smiled as much as she could.

Levitus shook his head. "You're worse than Matilda ever was. At least she had the decency to act contrite when I scolded her."

"Major, that is hardly any way to speak to a claimant," General Pearl told him. She was a thin, tall, woman with short gray hair. She was one of the oldest appearing women on Quirni but in time her aging would slow and maybe even be reversed by the planet's healthful atmosphere. That was her hope.

Levitus stiffened and faced her. "You may find it is the only way to talk to this claimant, General Pearl." He stepped aside. "She needs to stay still. Don't let her get up. I'll be in the lab." With that he stalked out of the room.

Matilda slipped in beside James. She leaned over and rested her hand on Erica's forehead. "Erica, he means what he said. You stay still. He didn't just dissolve the plugs. It wasn't that easy."

"Wonderful," Erica whispered. The drug took over again and she closed her eyes.

"I was hoping to speak with her," grumbled Pearl.

"Give her more time to wake," Betty told her. "She'll be alert in half an hour or so."

Pearl sighed in irritation. "Is she cognizant now? Can she hear me?"

"She can until you hear three beeps from the monitor. That means she has fallen to sleep."

"All right then, I would like to speak with her alone."

Erica opened her eyes. She saw Pearl return salutes.

"Claimant Kennedy," Pearl called after James as he turned to leave.

"Yes," James replied and turned back.

She took off her uniform coat and held it out to him. "Please hold this for me." She passed it over the bed.

He kept his face stoic, unreadable. He took the coat and left.

When the door closed the general leaned over the bed and smiled down at Erica. "I have a simple request to ask of you, Claimant Kinsley. I ask you to please donate a piece of land to the SDD for a new base."

Erica couldn't imagine how to reply. She closed her eyes then barely managed to open them again.

"Will you do this?" Pearl pressed her.

"How much land?" Erica asked slowly.

"A fifty by eighty mile tract at the southern border of your claim."

"You removed your coat. You be afraid you be heard by your commander or some other commander?"

General Pearl stood back. Her face dropped all expression. "I would rather not say. Will you donate the land?" She didn't sound too hopeful all of the sudden.


Pearl smiled and relaxed. "Thank you. You will have to announce your intention to do so and it would be best if you didn't tell anyone about this discussion. We would like it to appear you have done this of your own accord. Will you do that as well?"

Pearl had said 'we'. Erica wondered who 'we' meant to her. Erica took a while to gather strength. "Ask James to help you. You can have what you will." She blinked slowly. "Hell, you can have the whole claim." She didn't want to be a claimant.

"Claimant, I want you, not Captain Kennedy, to tell the council you are donating the land. Tell them you are doing this because we have helped you so much and you are grateful."

Erica drew a long breath. It seemed General Pearl was on the same side as the rest of them. She was getting ready to defend Quirni too. Erica's eyes drooped shut.

The general shook her shoulder gently. "Claimant, please try to stay awake. I know this is a bad time but I have to make a trip to the space station."

Erica managed to pry open her eyes.

"Will you tell the Quirni Council this?" asked Pearl. "Will you present it as I ask?"

"Let James help you," Erica muttered. "You be on the same side."

Pearl sighed in frustration. "The same side as what?"

"The side to stop Sirrus and Marril."

Pearl stiffened. "Stop what?"

"You want the land for more ships. Why else but to compete with Sirrus and Marril or worse."

"Or worse?"

"War," Erica sighed heavily. She didn't have the strength to add a questioning tone. She knew it was the only reasonable explanation for the request and she wanted to sleep.

General Pearl slowly sat in John's chair. "How do you come to that conclusion?"

"Military grows for war," Erica answered. She drew another deep breath. "Your timing be awful. Too tired. Talk to James."

Pearl touched her arm. "Don't say anything of this to anyone else. Donate the land as I ask. You do it, not Claimant Kennedy. He's SDD. That would look odd."

"Oh," Erica finally understood. "So," she agreed. She let her eyes fall shut. "Fifty by eighty. Fine."

Pearl patted Erica on the shoulder. "I appreciate this. My commander, the commander over Quirni, does as-" She stopped speaking as the door opened. She looked up. "Captain, I asked to speak with Claimant Kinsley alone. Is there a problem?"

"It interests me that you have asked to speak to her without your uniform coat, General Pearl," James answered. He closed the door behind him. "It suggests you want the conversation to be private. It suggests you fear someone might listen to you."

Pearl sat up. "Is this why you are out of uniform?"

"Yes, General. I fear the same thing."

"You do?"

Erica let her eyes fall shut again. James would take care of this.

"Yes, General," he said again. "I do."

"And who do you fear is listening?" demanded Pearl.

"I would rather not discuss this in front of Claimant Kinsley, General. If you would be kind enough to speak with me away from her I will answer your question."

Erica fell back to sleep as a quiet conversation took place. She woke once more to a gentle shake. "Thank you." Pearl leaned over her and rubbed her shoulder gently. "You do as the healer tells you."

Erica tried to at least mumble an acknowledgment but she hardly made a sound. She woke yet again when Matilda rubbed her cheek.

Matilda sounded choked. "You did good."

Erica opened her eyes with alarm. "What's wrong?"

"I'm just happy you're here with us. I'm just really happy they brought you to Quirni." Erica tried to smile. Matilda wiped her eyes. "It's such a relief to know Pearl is with us. We were worried about her." Matilda laughed a little. "She was worried about the Kennedys."

"James'?" Erica asked.

"No, John and Jesse. They have had control of your situation since the start and she worried they might have arranged the attacks. She thought they might be helping – well – it's hard to imagine. They have gone to talk with Pearl and get each other's views on things."

"Suspicious dolts," Erica mumbled.

"They are not dolts and they have every reason to be suspicious," said Marcus. He stood beside Matilda. "General Pearl transferred here recently. She came from Marril and the Kennedy's have family all over the system. They could easily orchestrate something like this and become exceedingly powerful if they pulled it off."

Erica knew Pearl or any Kennedy could never be anything other than loyal SDD, that was if Erica recognized Pearl and she really thought she did. If she was the same woman Erica had dealt with on Marril she was a stubborn, absolutely clean SDD loyalist who had crossed paths with Erica multiple times already.

"She asked for a fifty by eighty mile base," Erica told James. He had circled the bed to sit in the chair. "She can have what she wills." She closed her eyes. "Blasted I'm tired."

"Which is as you ought to be because you have to rest now," Betty told her from the foot of the bed. "I'll let you wake up when Levitus says you can move. Until then the meeting is over."

James kissed Erica's cheek. "Get some sleep. I'll come back when Levitus calls me."

Erica gripped his hand. Everyone else filed from the room except him and Betty. He leaned over her to kiss her one more time. "The planets may go to war," she told him quietly.

"She told you this?"

"No. But 'tis true."

His face didn't change. "We can still avoid it. Don't worry."

She held on as he tried to straighten. "Tell my why. Tell me what you do to stop it, to protect Quirni."

"I can't. We fear telling Sal too much, Erica."

They looked in each other's eyes for several moments then Erica relaxed her grip.

He brushed his fingers over her eyes to close them and kissed her lips. "Sleep," he coaxed her.

She had nodded off before he left.