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Chapter Fifty-Two

Ching-Hai lay barely 14.8 light-minutes from the F5 star Thierdahl, with an axial tilt of forty-one degrees. It was also dry-very dry-with an atmospheric pressure only three-quarters that of Old Earth, all of which conspired to produce something only the charitable could call a climate. Alicia couldn't conceive of any rational reason to choose to live here, and not even Imperial Galactography knew why anyone had. The handbook's best theory was that the original settlers were League War or HRW-I refugees who'd found in Ching-Hai a world so inhospitable neither the Empire nor the Sphere would want it. As guesses went, that one was as good as any; certainly their descendants had no better one four hundred years later.

Which probably explained their attitude towards other people's laws. They had to make a living somehow, and their planet wasn't much help, she thought, crossing to the coffeemaker and watching with a corner of her brain while Megaira slipped them into orbit. They were a few hours early, and Alicia was just as glad. She'd recovered-mostly-from the experience Tisiphone had unleashed upon her, but she welcomed a little more time to settle down before she had to meet Yerensky's local contact.

She carried her cup back to the view port. Ochre and yellow land masses moved far below her, splashed with an occasional large lake or small sea. It all looked depressingly flat, and there were very few visible light blurs on the nightside. The one official spaceport was well into the dayside at the moment, but whoever was in charge hadn't even bothered to assign her a parking orbit, much less mounted any sort of customs inspection.

You didn't really expect one, did you? Megaira asked.

"No, but this is so … so-"

Half-assed? the AI suggested helpfully, and Alicia chuckled.

"Something like that. Not that I'm complaining. I don't know how Yerensky got those medical supplies out of the Empire and onto Maguire without any customs stamps, but I'd hate to try explaining it to someone else."

There would be no need. Alicia and Megaira both bristled, but the Fury sounded totally unaware of any resentment they might harbor. Their inspectors would see precisely what we wished them to, no more and no less.

Alicia didn't reply. She suspected herself of sulking, and she didn't really care. The reminder of all the unresolved hate and violence still locked away within her had frightened her. Not that she hadn't known it was there, but knowing and feeling were two different things, and -

Whups! Heads up, Alley-I've got our landing beacon.

"So soon?" Alicia's eyebrows rose.

Well, it's in the right general spot. A mental grid superimposed itself over Alicia's view of the planet, and a green dot winked on the nightside. There-about midnight, local time. And it's the right beacon code.

"I don't like it. Yerensky didn't say anything about night landings."

But neither did he say it would be a daylight landing, Tisiphone pointed out, and this time Alicia and Megaira were too intent on their problem to bristle. Indeed, there was no thought in his mind either way, so I would judge he trusts the discretion of his local agent. In that case, might there not be some valid reason for choosing to unload under cover of night?

"On this planet?" Alicia frowned. "I wouldn't've thought there was any reason to hide medical supplies. They're valuable, sure, especially on some of the lower-tech Rogue Worlds, but I can't see needing to hide them."

She hesitated a moment longer, then shrugged.

"Put on your Ruth face and ask for the countersign, Megaira."

On it, the AI replied. A few moments passed, then, They came back with the right response, Alley. Far as I can tell, this is them.

"Damn. Well, I guess we don't have much choice." Alicia sighed. "Load up the shuttle with the first pallets."

Yes, Tisiphone agreed, but I trust your instincts, Little One. May I suggest that this is a time for Top Cover?

"You may indeed," Alicia murmured, and felt Megaira's total agreement.



* * * | In Fury Born | * * *