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Authors: Tracy Cooper-Posey

Tags: #Science Fiction Romance

Cat and Company (7 page)

BOOK: Cat and Company
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“Damn it…lights!” Connell demanded stridently.

Bedivere sat up as the lights came up.

Connell crossed his arms. It was the same posture Brant favored when he was angry and hiding it. “I have a question.”

Bedivere raised a brow and waited.

“What year did you reach the Silent Sector?”

Bedivere blinked. “Excuse me?”

“You left here in one seventy-eight. Did you head straight for the Silent Sector, or did it take you while to get there? Where did you go first?”

Bedivere frowned. “I don’t remember,” he said flatly. “There’s things I can’t recall, still.”

“You don’t remember where you went, first?”

Bedivere stared at him, wondering why he was asking. He didn’t voice the question, though. That would lead to explanations and more questions. “Darwin, I think.”

“Thanks.” Connell stepped out of the room and shut the door.

The lights stayed on.

Bedivere scrubbed at his hair and face and felt the scrape of whiskers. He’d missed a depilatory dose. He’d have to deal with regrowth manually until the next dose kicked in.

He reached down and picked up the board he’d left on the floor before falling asleep and flipped through some pages. None of them grabbed his attention.

Why did Connell want to know where he had gone?

He knew that asking would stir up stuff he had tamped down into a silent mass so he stayed sitting on the edge of the bed.

Yet the need to know grew.

After an hour of pretending to read, he put the board on one of the shelves and got to his feet. He rested his hand on the door, hesitating. Then he sighed. “Open,” he told the AI.

The door let him out.

It was quiet in the big room, but not empty. Lilly was at her desk and Yennifer was sitting in the armchair closest to it, a board in her hands.

Connell and Brant had a sofa apiece, with a heads-up display between them with a chess board on it.

“Isn’t playing chess with a Varkan just a fancy form of self-flagellation?” Bedivere asked.

Brant sat back on the sofa, spreading his arms along the back of it. “I like the challenge.”

Bedivere stopped in the middle of the floor, halfway between his room and the sofas and a long way from Lilly. There was nothing around him. No man’s land. “So, did I go to Darwin?”

Connell moved his knight and glanced at Bedivere. “You were there. I don’t know if that was the first place you went. It’s not like you had to check in with anyone when you arrived somewhere. Besides, you ditched your identity between here and there.” He frowned, studying the board. “Mate in three,” he added.

“Damn,” Brant muttered.

Neither of them were paying Bedivere much attention and that suited him fine. He took another few steps toward the sofas as Brant moved his pawn. “Mate in two,” he said.

Brant glared at him.

“He’s right,” Connell said with a smile.

Brant swore and dissolved the board. “Shouldn’t play with a goddamn sentient anyway,” he muttered.

“Why do you want to know where I went?” Bedivere asked. The
effort
it took to ask it aloud made his skin prickle. He was sweating.

Brant and Connell both looked at Lilly, sitting at her desk. Brant actually turned himself on the cushion so he was leaning on the back of the sofa.

Lilly looked up from her desk. “We already have a pretty good idea of some of the places you went to and what you did there. Once we hooked you up to a live stream back-up, the data built a picture we can interpret fairly well.”


Why?
Why dig it up?

Lilly looked at him steadily. “Nineteen short-term, high-risk, high-bonus no-ask contracts in the Silent Sector and places that no one goes to voluntarily. New Gaia, Fu-Sang. You were irradiated, dosed and hooked on Darzi to keep you compliant. Then, when you couldn’t keep it together anymore and reneged on your contract they sold you to the savage pits.”

Bedivere swallowed. “That…sounds familiar.”

Lilly got to her feet. Everyone else was silent.

“You could have ditched your ID and gone rogue, found work or business on some Terra world without the risk. Or if that had been what you really wanted, you could have suicided very neatly just by jumping to somewhere the datacore doesn’t reach. Yet you didn’t. You dived into a hole so deep that it took years to find you and pull you out.”

Bedivere’s breath was short and fast. It sounded loud in his ears. “So?”

“Bedivere, you had the worst luck someone could have,” Brant said. “Once you took that first no-ask contract, the events arrayed themselves to keep you locked on a path of self-destruction.”

Bedivere realized his hands were clenched in fists so hard it was hurting. He tried to loosen them and couldn’t. “So I had bad luck. Or maybe I wanted it that way.”

“No one dives that deep without help,” Lilly said. “We’re trying to find out who helped you.” She stopped in front of him. Not directly in front, but close enough for him to see the determination in her eyes. “Which reminds me. Yennifer?”

Yennifer didn’t move. There was a distinct sound of a door locking, behind him.

“That room will be emptied and sterilized. The lock will no longer open to your command,” Lilly told him. “You can have any other room in this place. I’ll even
build
you a room if you want it, but you’re not going back into that closet.”

Anger touched him. Along with the anger came a craving so intense it hurt as much as his fists did. “Why don’t you sterilize
that
room, while you’re spring cleaning?” he demanded, nodding toward the closed double doors by the main entrance. “I bet it looks exactly like it does when I left.”

Silence.

His longing for escape, for peace, intensified. He
ached
for it. He made himself say the words. “She’s not coming back, Lilly.”

“You don’t know that,” Lilly replied. Her voice was strained.

“She’s with Devlin Woodward. She’s doing work she loves. He’s doing more good in this galaxy than has been seen for an age and he’s brought peace along with it.” Bedivere met her gaze. “He’s a better man than I’ll ever be. I
told
her to go with him.”

“You thought you didn’t have a choice,” Lilly countered.

Bedivere shook his head. “I dived into a hole that deep because that’s the man
I
am. That’s why she won’t be back.” He headed for the front door. “Sterilize the room. Strip it. Then I’ll use it. Not before.”

And he got the hell out of there before he completely lost it.

Chapter Seven

Charlton Space City, New Cathay (Ji Xiu Prime), Ji Xiu System, Perseus Arm. FY 10.187

It became a lot easier to look them in the face after that…mostly because everyone went back to not talking to him. Lilly looked troubled every time he saw her.

The room where he and Cat had lived for over fifty years was stripped and the walls moved with Yennifer’s help. No one asked him for his help.

Once the work was done, Bedivere kept his word and added a bed and a couple of shelves for his reading material and that was all. In the meantime, everyone got on with their lives around him.

Time, the only reliable thing in his life, moved on.

Eventually, he found he could spend longer and longer amounts of time out among people. He could even walk the streets and corridors of the city, letting the streams of humans and Varkan wash around him.

The parks in the core city were a personal retreat. He had a favorite park bench where he liked to sit and stare at the ripples the fish in the stream caused as they fed. He could spend time there, disconnected from his digital core and simply…watch. He suspected that what he was doing was akin to a human meditating, except that he didn’t have to practice to quiet his mind. Simply shutting down all but the essential data flow did the same thing.

His days were filled with exercising to rehabilitate, eating, sleeping and when he wasn’t tired enough to sleep and wasn’t interested in sitting in the park, he distracted himself with meaningless research into the mysteries of the Silent Sector. There must have been some reason why he had headed there, even though he couldn’t remember it. He suspected it was because he could be anonymous and unknown there, just like he had once been in the Fringes, before they had disappeared. Whatever the answer might be, looking into the odd quirks of that section of the galaxy and some of the myths and stories that had built up around it passed the time.

The days slipped by in peaceful co-existence.

Until Yennifer announced that Cat was returning to Charlton.

* * * * *

Yennifer had full access to the suite, so she slipped into the room late one night. Lilly and Brant were already in their suite. Connell had found a flick and had it playing on a heads-up between the sofas. He hadn’t asked Bedivere if he wanted to watch it, although Bedivere had been gradually drawn toward the story playing out by the sounds and dialogue, until he gave up and sat at the other end of the sofa and fully committed to watching.

Through the display he saw Yennifer slip in the front door. She only opened the door just enough to move through the opening. As she was tiny to begin with, the door barely budged.

Bedivere glanced at Connell. He was still immersed in the story. So Bedivere got to his feet and met Yennifer halfway between the sofas and the door. She looked up at him, her expression troubled. “I was hoping Lilly would still be awake.”

“There’s no one but me here to speak to,” Bedivere told her. “What couldn’t wait until morning, or be sent by text?”

She pressed her lips together. “I just processed a docking request. The
Hana Stareach
is due in two days’ time.”

His innards jumped, is if he had touched a live wire. “Here?” His voice was hoarse.

Yennifer was watching him, her gaze roaming over his face, looking for clues to his reaction. “Yes, here,” she said softly. Her tiny hand rested on his arm.

The sounds from the story halted. “Who is here?” Connell asked. He came over to where they were standing.

“The
Hana Stareach
,” Yennifer told him.

Connell’s eyes widened and a smile formed. “Devlin Woodward is coming back? That’s…wow, staggering news. I don’t think he’s been back here since—” His words cut off and his face fell as he realized what he was about to say.

Bedivere drew in a breath and let it out. “Since Catherine left,” he finished. “You can say it.”

Connell pushed back his hair with a nervous scrape of his fingers. “Wake Lilly and Brant and tell them,” he told Yennifer. “They’ll want to know before everyone else does.”

“Docking requests aren’t usually made public,” Yennifer pointed out. “And I’ve told them,” she added.

“You think
this
arrival isn’t going to leak by tomorrow morning? You’ve got dozens of people between you and the docking bay who have to know the ship is inbound,” Connell pointed out. “
You
might not say anything. Something this big, though…someone in that chain won’t be able to help themselves.”

“He’s right,” Brant said from the door to their private suite. “This will be all over the city before breakfast. Yennifer, I hope you gave them the biggest bay we have?”

“The largest is for cargo handling,” she pointed out.

“E Dock on the sun side?” he asked. “Give it to them anyway. You don’t think that entire observation deck won’t be
filled
with people when they land?”

Bedivere went to bed then, even though he wasn’t tired. There might well be thousands thronging the observation deck of E Dock to watch the
Hana Stareach
land. He wouldn’t be one of them.

* * * * *

Bedivere worked out in the gym for almost two days straight, driving his body as close to exhaustion as he could get, then falling gratefully asleep, only to wake some time later and start all over again.

By staying in the gym or his room, he managed to avoid most of the hysteria and public announcements about the
Hana’s
arrival and the events that had spontaneously coalesced around it.

The local feeds ran archived biopics and biographies on Devlin’s life and work, all his achievements and his future ambitions. The city obsessed about Devlin Woodward. There were nearly ten thousand people living in Charlton or registered as residents. More than half of them were Varkan, who plied their first trade, transport, using Charlton as their base of operations, the reason for the city exoskeleton being a honeycomb of docking bays. Most of the Varkan who used the city as a base managed to find their way back there over the next two days, so that the corridors and public areas became clogged.

“I hadn’t realized how much the city had grown,” Brant muttered when he returned to the suite on the second day, only a few hours before the
Hana’s
scheduled arrival. “There are people I don’t even recognize, let alone know. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.”

“I know them all,” Yennifer said, with a small smile.

“Nevertheless, we may have to revisit immigration control once this is all over,” Lilly remarked. “Remind me about that, please, Yennifer.”

Bedivere couldn’t find an isolated place in the parks anymore. There were people
everywhere
. So he retreated to the unadorned room where he slept and that was where Connell found him.

The big wall of glass had not been removed during the stripping, so the room still looked out over the park area and when he didn’t keep the window polarized and shielded, the sunlight blazed with artificial warmth. He had left the windows unpolarized this time, not minding the dazzle of the light.

Connell sat on the floor in front of him and crossed his legs to match Bedivere’s posture.

Bedivere opened his eyes. Connell was staring at him steadily, his green eyes puzzled.

“Why aren’t you at E Dock?” Bedivere asked. “The ship will dock in the next six minutes.”

“I don’t need to be somewhere I can watch through the feeds. I thought…I suspected you might like the company.”

Bedivere sighed. “Everyone else has left, then,” he concluded. No one had tried to talk him into going with them. “You should go. There’s no need for you to miss out.”

BOOK: Cat and Company
4.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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