Title: Reformation: Chapter Twenty Four
Once upon a time, Claudia had been a botanist. She had gone to school for it, graduated with honors, and gotten a job with one of the premier vintners of the Central System, on her home planet. She had planned to dedicate her life to the finer things in life—rare vintages, new breeds of grape for pressing, and testing flowers, herbs, and additives to see what would make the most fragrant, harmonious combination on the palate. She had had it all worked out.
That was before she met Miles Caractacus, at the time an active-duty general in the Federation fleet. She hadn’t met him on duty, though; Claudia had been hired as the sommelier for a party his mother was hosting, and had been required to attend it as well. Required, in those very terms—not invited. That wasn’t something the Lady of the house did. But despite the rudeness of her interactions with her hostess, Claudia had agreed. It was an important event, full of important people—the networking opportunities would be tremendous.
And then she met Miles.
He was older than she usually looked for in the people she was interested in, but he had a way of moving, of speaking—a brilliant vitality that drew her and every other person in the room into his orbit. But he’d been drinking a Hoffman red while eating an octopus skewer, which was just an offense to Claudia’s sensibilities. Before she could stop herself, she’d walked up, held out a new glass of wine—a delicate pale pink Winnemaker from the mountains of Delgado—and said, “I recommend you try this instead.”
Miles had looked at it doubtfully. “I generally prefer reds.”
“I understand, but a red like that is for drinking on its own. It destroys the flavor of food, particularly seafood. This wine will enhance it.”
Miles had smiled a little half-smile. “I’ll let you in on a secret.” He’d leaned in close to her ear. “I despise seafood, but my mother has it at every party. This wine is the only thing I’ve found that lets me get through a plate of it without gagging.”
Claudia had blushed, but managed to keep from laughing out loud. “I see. Well.” She’d drawn back and put the Winnemaker down on the nearest table. “In that case, let me get you a refill.”
“How about I come with you instead, and you can tell me more about what I could be drinking tonight?”
“Oh, please don’t let me take you away from your friends.”
“Nonsense.” He’d smiled politely at the people surrounding him. “They’re all perfectly capable of amusing themselves for a while.” He’d held out an arm to her. “Shall we?”
She’d gone with him to the bar, spent the rest of the evening at his side in easy conversation, and ended up spending the night with him. He’d left the next day and Claudia had figured that was it, a delightful interlude in her very normal life, but then he’d commed her. Kept in touch, despite the distance and the challenges, and after two years of mostly long-distance courtship, when he’d asked her to marry him, she hadn’t had to think twice.
It was wonderful. It was terrifying. It was more responsibility than she’d thought she could handle at first—wife of the governor? Wife of a senator? She came from a planet with fewer than a million settlers, for crying out loud! What did she know about organizing events or schmoozing with politicians or living a life in the public eye? And it wasn’t easy, even beyond that. Miles was still gone much of the time, and there were moments when Claudia missed him so badly she wept, but she never let on. Thank god Garrett had been around for most of her adjustment period, or she wasn’t sure how she would have come out of it sane. Who would have guessed that Miles’s son by his first marriage would end up as one of her best friends?
Then Claudia had Renee, and life became more beautiful. Through Garrett moving away and starting his own family, through Miles almost dying during an assassination attempt, through the birth of her second daughter Yvaine, Claudia had found her center. She had settled into her abilities, come to a reckoning with her life. She could do this. She could live and thrive and be happy, no matter what happened.
Circumstances were testing her resolve right now, though.
“Nooooo!” How could a six-year-old girl howl so loudly? “I don’t want to!”
“Well, you have to,” Claudia told her firmly. “You did it yesterday, Yvaine, why won’t you do it tonight?”
“Because look!” She pouted and pointed at her knee. “I have a scrape today. I can’t have a shower when I have a scrape.”
“I told you I would fix it. Five times. You’re the one who said explorers don’t use Regen.”
“They don’t.” Yvaine folded her arms stubbornly across her chest. “And they don’t take showers either.”
“Little explorers in this family do, if they want a story before bed.”
Yvaine’s mouth dropped open. “I have to have a story. I have to!”
“Then you better get in the shower, my dear.” Claudia waited while her daughter mulled that over in her mind, then finally—reluctantly—acquiesced.
“Fine. But when daddy gets back, no more showers. I’m having baths forever.” She flounced off in the direction of the bathroom, and Claudia straightened up with a sigh and looked over at her friend and bodyguard, Thérèse Tousaint.
“I’m sure you’re happy you got babysitting duty with me instead of following Miles now, aren’t you?”
“Considering where he’s going? Yes, I rather am,” Thérèse replied with a smile. “Besides, if you think your husband isn’t on babysitting duty with hundreds of cadets under his direct command, then you’re dreaming. I’ll go make sure she’s actually getting in the shower if you want to check on Renee?”
“Thank you.” Claudia found her older daughter in the living room of the bungalow they were currently living in, on the outskirts of a low-G tubular colony that projected from the surface of Kyres, a Central System planet—barely. It was a place billed as selling gentle, rehabilitative space to those suffering from transition illness or gravity sickness, both conditions that were more mental than physical, and untreatable by Regen. It was comparatively rural, but also moderately defensible, and bustling enough that Thérèse expected they’d be largely ignored.
Renee didn’t really seem to miss the crowds of Olympus, that much was clear. She was self-directed enough that leaving school had been as easy as anything, for her. Right now she was staring out the window and making notes on the glass screen.
“What are you looking at?” Claudia asked as she joined her daughter.
“See that ship right there?” Renee pointed at a decent-sized shuttle on the other side of the Ring Twelve. “It’s violating the timing clause.”
“How long has it been there?”
“Ten minutes! And the rules say that you can only leave your ship attached for personal loading and unloading not to exceed five minutes, because cargo is supposed to go through the ground docks.” Renee frowned. “It’s going to mess up the incoming traffic.”
“Hmm. What makes you so interested in it?”
“I’m doing a traffic census for my statistics class. I loaded my program into the visual computer system for our windows and set coded it to count all the makes and models and times, but when it throws up an outlier it alerts me. That ship—” she pointed again, “—is an outlier.”
Claudia was prepared to tell her daughter that sometimes allowances were necessary in life, but when she glanced at the ship again, she noticed that none of the dock’s light were flashing. Everything surrounding the shuttle was inert, standard green, like the ship itself wasn’t even there. Like it hadn’t even docked. Only there it was, and—
Claudia was moving before her thoughts could catch up with her, pulling Renee away from the window and turning off all the lights inside with a breathless command. The whole house went dark except for the emergency lights.
“It’s just a precaution,” Claudia said before calling out, “Thérèse!”
She came out of the bathroom a moment later, holding Yvaine all wrapped in a robe on her hip. “What’s wrong?”
“There’s a ghost ship out there.”
Thérèse’s expression went stony. “Where?”
“Straight across from us.”
“The Vacarra’s place. They’re away right now, but anything docked there should still have to follow protocol.”
“No acknowledgement by the docking mechanism itself, even though the lights are working. It’s been there over twice the usual allotted time, too.”
Thérèse nodded once. “Get to the pod.”
Claudia’s blood chilled. “Are you sure?”
“We’re not taking any chances. Get to the pod now. Two minutes, go, go.” She handed Yvaine, who was thankfully quiet, to Claudia before darting for the front door. Claudia took a deep breath, then turned toward her room, leading both her daughters along with her. She pushed the bed back into the wall, then pressed her hand to the center of the floor.
“Emergency protocol 99, initiate.”
When Claudia lifted her hand up again, the print remained, glowing green. A moment later the floor retracted, opening up to the door of the stealth pod beneath it. The escape pod was covered in a substance that made it invisible to light, radar, and emitted no radiation of any kind to follow. After launch, it would continue on the original course essentially dead in the water, but Claudia had a protocol to follow for that too.
“We’re not taking any chances,” Claudia said. “If it’s a false alarm, then we’ll—” The security system suddenly started to blare. Claudia turned wide eyes toward the door, where Thérèse appeared a moment later.
“They’re using acid-laced micro-explosives, trying to melt through the wall around the door rather than blow it up,” she said grimly. “They want you alive. Get in the pod, now!” Renee clambered down into the little black pod, then reached up for Yvaine. Claudia handed her youngest over, then looked back to her friend.
“Come on, we can all leave together.”
Thérèse shook her head. “Someone has to cover the energy signature of your escape.”
“They’re not looking for that right now, they’re trying to break in! We have time, it’ll fit four!”
“If they’re good enough to get this far without being noticed, then they’ve already seen more than we know.” She looked grim, but determined. “Get in there and leave immediately. Remember, don’t send out the signal until you’re at least twenty-four hours out.”
“No.” It didn’t make sense. Or rather, it did, but it didn’t seem like it could be real. Even with the scent of the acid at the door, the low thud of the micro-explosives digging deeper and deeper, Claudia couldn’t quite believe it. She couldn’t lose Thérèse. They had been friends almost as long as she and Miles had been married. “No, please—”
“Claudia, go!” Thérèse turned and vanished into the hall, and a moment later the security alarm said, Warning: Structural Damage Detected. Structural Damage Detected. Evacuation Required.
They had to go. There was no choice. Claudia lowered herself into the pod, then shut the hatch. Vaguely, she was thankful her girls both seemed too shocked to speak—she didn’t think she was capable of comforting them right now. She repeated her instruction—emergency protocol 99—and the pod obeyed. A moment later, they fell through the bottom of the bungalow and out into space, heading away from the planet.
A moment after that, the bungalow exploded.