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Freehold: Chapter One

       Last updated: Saturday, July 19, 2003 15:06 EDT



    "Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents, which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant." -Quintus Horatius Flaccus

    Sergeant Second Class Kendra Pacelli, UNPF was looking forward to finally finishing the admin from her deployment to Mtali. The entire experience had been unpleasant, from the tedious, cramped trip there in a military transport, to the tedious, cramped trip back in a military transport. In between, the stay had been mostly boring, very aggravating, and exhausting when it wasn't boring.

    She'd been eager at first. The chance to visit another planet, even one torn by war, she found exciting. Upon arriving, they'd all been restricted to base, so she saw nothing of the local culture. They were shipped through the UN starport, and there were not even vendors of local food to sample. Most of the other UN troops, predominantly from Earth, had insisted on not listening to "that raghead crap" music. She'd heard nothing but Earth pop for the entire six months.

    Then the long-term troops had resented her for her trip's duration. They had eighteen-month rotations. It wasn't her fault, and she was there to help the Logistic Support Function, thus freeing someone else to go home early, but that didn't seem to matter. Apparently, they'd rather have stood the extra time than have her take a short tour.

    There'd been a couple of missile attacks on the base while she was there. She'd been in an orbital station doing admin during one, and the shuttle simply waited until it was over to land. The other one was over before she realized it wasn't a drill, and the damage was negligible. She understood some areas had been pasted daily and had regular body counts, but she was nowhere near those places. She wasn't complaining, but the end result was that she had no war stories of any kind.

    It had been typical logistics work, issuing, returning and accounting for gear and filing docs, except that the days were longer, the facilities non-existent and the entertainment lacking. She wasn't a big fan of vid and the rec center's supply of books and games was slim. She also found few people who could play table games well. All in all, she might just as well have stayed home and not left her dorm.

    She had received additional pay and got a tax incentive, which would mean more records-keeping in exchange to justify the tax return. The rest of the pay came at the cost of, naturally, more admin. Sitting at her carrel, she coded off on her travel itinerary, her waivers for tests and boards missed while deployed and the return of her issued combat equipment. She had been ordered not to open that unless attacked, which she'd found bothersome. The fact that to inspect her gear for safety was deemed wrong because it generated more admin seemed illogical. But then, it was the military.

    The thing which she wished she'd put off but had waded through first, was the documentation and her personal statement on missing property. Her personal gear was all accounted for, but literal transport loads of gear had gone "missing" on Mtali. She was a stickler for procedure, so she had accounted for the fact that everything she issued had gotten where it was supposed to. The First Sergeant had relayed to her second hand that some clown was claiming that her attention to detail proved she was involved. "He's just digging. Relax," she'd been told.

    She still felt nervous. Trucks, generators, weapons and tools didn't just walk off by themselves. Most required lift gear to move. A rapidly maturing and increasingly cynical part of her surmised that they were being sold by someone in system. Well, if they checked her bank accounts, they were all as she reported. She just wished they'd hurry up and do so and get done with it. Her musing was interrupted when her phone rang. Not a military line at her carrel, but her personal phone. She dug it out of her purse, wondering who was calling.

    "Pacelli," she answered.

    "Hi, dear. Don't mention my name," the caller said. It was Tom Anderson, an old lover who was an MP. "We are getting all kinds of activity. Arrests are expected for Robinson, Bruder, Jacobs, Pacelli and several others. If those people are lucky, they are off base right now. They'll be in for a nasty surprise when they return."

    "Why? What's up?" she asked, shocked beyond reason.

    "Apparently, the government has found the parties responsible for the equipment that went missing during the Mtali mission. All those people are part of the conspiracy."

    "I'm not part of any conspiracy," she protested in a whisper. "All I did was document what went walkies. That was at the general's request."

    He continued as if he hadn't heard her protest. "What's important is that they are looking for those people. The way things look, they'd be lucky if they were missing, permanently. You know how the Department of Special Investigations can overreact. I just hope they don't come through the gate; I don't need any excitement right now. Anyway, the reason I called: you left some things at my place last night," he said, although she hadn't been there in weeks. "I put them in the car. Gotta run, we are about to start a gate exercise. Love you." Click.

    Kendra hung up the phone, hesitated a half-second, then stood, grabbing a folder. She tried to be casual as she walked down the hall. A quick nervous glance didn't show any suited goons coming for her, but she had no doubt Tom was correct. There were horror stories of people being dragged in for even being "associated" with criminals. But where could she go?

    Just before she reached the door, Janie came out of the back office. "Kendra, can you-"

    "Sorry," Kendra replied, waving the folder, "I've gotta take care of this for the lieutenant right now." The old trick of looking busy had always seemed rather shallow before. It now had a whole new meaning. She stepped outside, whipped her hat on and tried to walk slowly to her car, as if she were running an errand. Unlocking it, she climbed in and discovered an overnight bag on the passenger seat. As she started the engine, she glanced in. Street clothes, socks, shoes, underwear and some cash cards. Tom must have used a security code to override her dorm room lock. She hoped that wasn't traceable, but he was good at such things. That had made her nervous, too, when she discovered he could crack codes and bypass records. She thanked Tom silently while backing out carefully. A wreck now would really be hell. Could this really be happening? She had to believe him, but it seemed so unreal.

    The UN Bureau of Security was not known for its polite inquiries into alleged crimes. If they believed a person was involved with "improper activity" or "activity prejudicial to the public good," they proceeded to investigate thoroughly. The accused was held incommunicado, all assets seized and in-depth interviews conducted with the accused and any family or friends who might be involved. If they suspected any dissemblance, they could always revert to the clauses that gave them authority to hold the accused until they were satisfied. There were also numerous rarely-enforced laws they could invoke to continue their efforts. The story was that they only used those tactics against someone they couldn't prosecute any other way, but Kendra had recently come to believe, in part due to vids Tom had shown her, that those tactics were unfair and designed to make the prosecutors look good, not do justice to the accused. She'd been creeped enough by his near-sedition to stop seeing him. There were enough anti-government activists in America now without having to deal with out and out traitors.

    It had a whole new feel now, she reflected briefly as she drove out of the logistics zone of the sprawling base. They thought she was guilty. Several tens of millions of marks worth of property had gone missing during the Mtali mission. She'd done the file search, at the request of the chain of command, to determine how much. That was the total extent of her involvement. She knew she was innocent and they couldn't prove otherwise… or could they? "The wicked flee when no man pursueth" didn't apply when circumstances dictated that both guilty and innocent alike should wisely flee for their lives. She shivered slightly. Did she really want to leave? Wouldn't it be better to trust in her innocence? Where could she go?



    She aged ten years in the six blocks to the gate, then relaxed very slightly when she saw Tom in the booth. What is he getting himself into? she asked herself. The traffic control outside the gate signaled a stop and she aged ten more years. Behind her, she could see the barricades rising and swallowed hard. That made it rather permanent, she thought. She picked a route north into Maryland and kept the car on manual. She didn't know how long it would be before an override signal got her. She'd have to lose the car. She had no idea how, or where to go after that. Off planet, maybe? The Orbitals were not as strict on ID, but fleeing criminals were captured regularly. Outsystem? But where? Ramadan was not friendly to unescorted women, Novaja Rossia demanded strict qualifications and background checks, Caledonia was a UN nation...

    Counting the cash in her bag, she found a thousand Marks in three money cards and cash and a note scrawled, "All I can spare. Hate to see you get driven like this. I disabled your override circuit, so don't use auto. If you can lie low for a few months, they may sort this out. Still care about you." It was unsigned. She cried while driving and tried to think of a solution.

    Her mind was whirling too hard for thought, but she knew she'd need cash before they locked her Work and Insurance Number. Stopping at a rest area, she picked a remote parking slot and changed, hunched in the front seat. Wearing her uniform off base would not only be distinctive, it was also an invitation to be mugged and raped, especially for women. Once done, she pulled back onto the highway and found a suburban exit. She pulled into a plaza and used a bank terminal, then found another one a few blocks away. Six different transactions yielded every penny she had in the world, in small enough chunks that no single one would show up at UNRS immediately. As she made the last withdrawal, an idea occurred to her. It was insane, but there was no logical reason why it was impossible. The odds were such that no bookie would take the bet, but better than nothing, which was what she had now.

    The Grainne colony had been independent for ten years now and had not only refused to join the UN, but had refused to go along with most of the common standards of ship registry, public health, public standards or even reciprocity of laws. That was the crucial bit. If she could make it there, they wouldn't extradite her. It was quite the rogue as nations went. It also reportedly had an excellent standard of living. As with many frontier worlds, there were not enough people for all jobs. A frontier colony was not the nicest environment for an urbanite like herself, but it would be safe until this resolved.

    She gave one last searching thought to whether or not she should do it. The millions of marks at stake made her believe that scapegoats, bribes and various irregularities would be the end result of this. She was sophisticated enough to realize that being innocent would not protect her and being poor and of low rank would be used to make her a doormat. This was a chance to wait things out. She reached for her phone, hesitated, then sought a public phone and looked up the address.



    In a suburb south of where Kendra had made her decision was the embassy of the Freehold of Grainne. It was an old 23rd century windowless block, surrounded by a wall and other, less blatant security measures. In a spacious office on the top floor, an old discussion was being rehashed yet again.

    Assistant for Policy Gunter Marx entered the office and informed Citizen Ambassador Janine Maartens of the Freehold of Grainne, "The UN is protesting our declaration of withdrawal again."

    "Any new language?" was the bored return. Maartens' desk defied the advantages of electronic data. It was strewn with notes, official copies of documents, flash ram, memory cubes and assorted other items in archeological layers by age in a display that clashed with the spare blond paneling and carpet.

    Marx said, "No. All the same as last year. John Abraham requests a meeting with you to discuss the perceived inequalities. He is sure we can find an agreeable solution."

    "One that involves taxes, government interference, restrictions of our personal rights 'for the public good,' and a seven year plan for the future, of course. Tell him I'm dead."


    She sat back and ran a hand through her graying waves of hair. "You know what I mean, Gun. My regards to Secretary Abraham and I'll call him at my earliest inconvenience. Right now I am dealing with major industrialists and billions of credits are at stake. I don't want to deal with an issue that should be seven years dead."

    "Yes, Ma'am," he agreed. He didn't envy her position and wondered again why he'd elected to throw himself into the bureaucratic rat maze. "Also: Warrant Leader McLaren says there is a car across the street, occupied by a young blonde woman, that has been there for most of a div. She is watching the gate."

    "Great. An obvious decoy. Any sign of the real threat?" the ambassador asked. The UN and several of its member nations loved to play spy games. Observers here, line taps there, always some kind of low-level harassment.

    "Not yet. He says his people are ready, though," Marx confirmed. He'd made sure of that himself.

    "They always are," she nodded. At least the espionage kept her security people alert. "Keep me informed. I have to smooth out some details between GM North America and GM Freehold. The UN Secretary of External Trade is the problem. Everyone else sees the advantages of the deal."

    "Yes, Ma'am."




    Kendra became attentive as a truck pulled up to the gates. She started the motor and waited. Her plan was to pull through after the delivery of whatever cleared the entrance. Cautiously, she gave the motor a bit of rev to ensure it was working. It was, of course. She gasped her breath out in furious realization of how panicky she was. She hadn't realized she'd been holding it and didn't realize she was holding the next one. Watching the truck, she tried to judge distances and space while keeping an eye on traffic. There'd be an opening in the flow right after that red car in her mirror.

    The gates were already sliding shut on their powered rails. She stomped the accelerator while swearing, yanked the wheel hard and pulled right behind the red vehicle while almost crashing into a pillar as she bounced inside the embassy grounds. She immediately had to brake to avoid the truck, which was stopped for inspection.

    An armored guard leaped in front of her pointing one of the brutal looking weapons that the Grainne military used. He took a step sideways as she locked her car in park and barked orders that were clearly audible inside her little Mazda Jog as several other guards materialized from somewhere.

    "Shut the motor off! Place your hands on top of the steering wheel! Reach over with your right hand and open the door!"

    She moved her left hand to comply and he bellowed, "Right hand! Place it back on the wheel! Eyes front!" She did as he ordered, eyes nervously leaving the gun, guts knotted in fear, and saw movement out of the corner of her left eye. One of the other guards was crawling under the area swept by the door, in case of a boobytrap. He rose next to her, placing the gaping maw of his weapon against her kidney and fastened magnetic shackles firmly around her wrists. Grasping them, he pulled her around and out of her car, his rifle now under her breastbone. About ten meters from the vehicle they stopped. Her escort stepped back and slung his weapon as a woman with an explosion of red hair around her helmet stood in front of her. The woman's face was mostly hidden by a darkened visor, but her mouth was visible and totally emotionless. Her weapon was unwavering.

    Kendra heard more orders from the first guard, who was behind her now. "Spread your legs wide. Wider. Place your hands on top of your head." She did so, feeling the shackles bite into her wrists. Her shoulders stretched back and awkwardly.

    She had expected to be searched by the woman, was surprised that the second male guard was approaching. He started at her head, mussing her hair, crushing the fabric of her collar while looking for small items, slid his hands down her back, over her hips, down each trouser leg and into the tops of her boots. He stood and walked around in front as the other two guards moved to keep him out of line of fire. He resumed his search. He pulled at her lips with gloved hands. He then felt along her sleeves and under her arms in a fashion that might have tickled had she not been so scared. He reached inside her shirt and felt the neckline again, then ran fingers along the contour of her bra and grabbed both her breasts. By the time she realized it was neither an intimate gesture nor an assault, but still part of a very thorough search, he had felt around her waistband and clutched at her crotch. He slid down her legs again and checked the fasteners of her boots. Finished at last, he stepped back.

    Kendra said, "I need asylum. My name is-"

    "Silence. You may see the ambassador later."

    He unslung his weapon and all three guards moved back. She was directed inside, the three standing well clear and keeping their weapons on her. Not a word was spoken to her and Kendra didn't feel like offering anything. She was taken down a service elevator, marched in front of a door and stopped.

    The woman approached this time and quickly unfastened every button, snap, zip and rip on Kendra's clothing. She stepped around behind Kendra, grabbed a leg and pulled off a boot and sock. She repeated the procedure from the other leg, then yanked her pants and underwear down together and pulled them off one foot at a time. Reaching up, she uncharged the shackles, whisked them away and pulled Kendra's arms down behind her. Shirt and bra were pulled off, leaving her naked. A wand ran over her, seeking anything dense, metallic or electronic, and while she expected it to be silent, she having nothing concealed, she was reassured that it didn't betray anything. Illogical, but her current situation had her scared beyond reason. "Bend over," she heard, and complied. There was the expected snap of a medical exam glove and cold but surprisingly gentle prodding, which she knew included a camera and another sensor. These people were thorough. She shivered despite herself. A door opened, and she was pushed gently but firmly into what was obviously a cell. The door closed with an ominous heavy click.

    Kendra looked around, breathing again, and took stock of her environment. It was adequately warm, well lighted, and contained a stall shower, a toilet, a sink and a futon with a quilt. The whole room measured three meters square.

    There was a security camera mounted in one corner. It was not even discreetly hidden. Kendra stared at it as it glared unblinkingly at her. Finally, she made an obscene gesture and ignored it. She needed to use the toilet, and the camera obviously wasn't going to be a gentleman. Or lady. Or polite machine.

    Brooding and pacing would be totally unproductive, so she brooded and paced. She had no idea of the passage of time, and was wondering if this attempt at asylum was the right idea. So far, she had been asked no questions, given no opportunity to speak and had no clue what was going on.

    Right idea or not, she had to play it out to the end. There was no possible way she could return now and be believed innocent.



After what seemed like hours, the door was opened. The redheaded woman was there alone, without armor. She still carried her rifle/grenade launcher. Her combat uniform, designed to be loose, was close in spots over firm muscles. She motioned slightly with the muzzle and said, "This way. You can see the ambassador now." Her voice was amazingly well-modulated and pleasant.

    Kendra walked out, still naked, preceding her guard. She was directed when to turn and quickly realized how large the building was. She passed a man in one of the corridors, who nodded disenterestedly. She flushed crimson. The second man they passed swapped greetings with the guard and Kendra wished for a swift end to her ordeal. After several minutes, she was shown into a well-lighted office with large windows. The woman behind the desk stood, nodded briefly at Kendra and said, "Romar, please get a robe for our guest. There's one in my suite." The guard snapped to and left.

    Turning back, the ambassador continued, "Please accept my apologies. Well-disciplined guards, but not overly familiar with Earth customs. Our typical climate encourages casual nudity, but I'm sure you're not used to it. She'll be back momentarily. Coffee?"

    "Yes, please," Kendra nodded, shifting her hands around to keep herself covered. While the ambassador poured, the guard knocked, stepped in, handed Kendra a robe and moved unobtrusively into the corner. Donning the garment, Kendra felt much more comfortable.

    The ambassador spoke again. "I am Citizen Ambassador Janine Maartens of the Freehold of Grainne. You are Sergeant Second Class Kendra Anne Pacelli of the UN Peace Force, wanted for embezzlement and pictured on all the news loads. I am recording. Please tell me briefly why in the name of God and Goddess you are in our embassy?"

    "I need asylum," Kendra began. "I was-"

    Maartens interrupted with, "We do not grant asylum to crimin-"

    "I DIDN'T DO IT!" Kendra shouted her down. "I knew nothing about it until this morning when the MPs tried to grab me. I have little idea what is going on, but I know they need me as a scapegoat. General Robinson probably has me rigged to take the fall as part of his cutout. My only way out is to get off Earth."

    Sitting down, Maartens chewed on a pen. "Tell me the rest of it," she demanded while gesturing at another chair.

    Sitting also, Kendra breathed deep and said, "I was assigned to the Forty-Third Logistics Support Function's detachment during the Mtali Mission. The general and Colonel Bruder were very concerned with our operation. Stuff was missing by the truckload on a daily basis and they made us keep track of it. No one knows where the stuff was going, so there had to be inside help. They were probably selling it to the rebels is my guess. This is all deduction in the last four hours. I assumed the problem was being investigated. Eight ay-em today, the MPs were going to drag me off for questioning. I saw where things were going, thanks to a friend of mine. I left the base and drove around until I figured out that of all colony worlds, you could probably help me."

    "We are not a colony anymore, Sergeant," Maartens said coldly, then thought hard. Colonel Richard, the Freehold unit commander from the Mtali mission, had made similar deductions regarding the UN Forces logistics system. Pacelli's story was probably true. Perhaps the military would be interested in her information. Citizen Maartens would have to decide that on her own. Unlike a national ambassador on Earth, she could not call for advice; advice was thirty-four light years away and any question would take at least two days for a response, to allow a message to be relayed through the jump point on the next ship. If it had to be sent physically to reduce the risk of interception, it would take at least twenty days each way.

    The best approach was a firm one, see how the situation developed, Maartens decided. "I'll have to check all angles of your story. You may stay in the meantime." Her voice was grudging but not hostile.

    Heaving a huge sigh and slumping from released tension, Kendra replied, "Thank you, ma'am."

    "You're welcome. There are conditions. Number one, if you are a spy, you'll disappear. Two, whether or not you are guilty, if the evidence points that way, you'll be handed over to UNPF. I can't risk an incident without solid substance to back it up. Relationships are critical and delicate right now; they always are. If you check out as legitimate, I'll help you arrange travel to the Freehold. It won't be cheap and you'll have to pay it. We don't have budgets for such things."

    "I have some cash. Not a lot."

    "We can acquire any assets that haven't been seized, and make it untraceable. Our technicians will expect a share, however."

    "Ma'am?" Kendra asked.

    Sighing, Maartens explained, "The Freehold is a completely neutral nation with a tiny government. We don't budget for refugees, publicity, tourism or any of a hundred other things you take for granted. We can't do anything officially, so this will have to be done clandestinely. If our staff are to convert your assets to cash or pull funds from your accounts, they'll be doing it on their own time and with their personal gear at some small but real risk. For that, they expect to be paid."

    "I have what I came here with," Kendra said, scared again.

    "Then with your permission, we can move your car as parts. This will make it harder to trace you, and gain you some more funds."

    Kendra though for a moment only and agreed.

    "Fine. I'm afraid we must keep you under guard for the time being." Maartens waved and the guard approached. "Corporal Romar," she said, "You are to accompany Sergeant Pacelli. She has free access to unrestricted areas, but only under escort. Find her secure quarters in the guest wing tonight. Keep me informed of anything relevant. She is not to leave."

    "Yes, Ma'am," the young woman replied. Turning to Kendra she said, "Please come with me, Sergeant."




    Kendra stepped into the hall. After the door was closed, Romar asked, "Where do you wish to go, Sergeant?"

    "I...don't know," Kendra replied. "I'd like to get some clothes and some lunch, if possible."

    "Certainly. Would you like a shower, too?"

    Kendra realized how stressed and exhausted she was. It had been less than six hours since her ordeal started, but seemed like a week. She needed a shower, both to wash away cold, clammy sweat and to relax. "Please," she said. "And call me Kendra."

    "Okay. Follow me, Kendra. And you can call me Jelsie, since it doesn't appear I'll have to shoot you anytime soon." There was a disturbing dryness to the joke.

    They wound up at what apparently were Romar's quarters. The room was small but well appointed and had a fantastic comm system. "Shower's in there," Kendra was told, as the woman pointed through a door. "I'll be next, so don't take too long."

    Kendra gratefully made use of very luxurious facilities, borrowed soap and shampoo and was surprised to find her bag waiting when she got out. All ID had been removed, but her clothes and personal items were intact. She picked casual clothes, dressed and entered the room.

    Jelsie was sprawled in a chair, watching a news load. "You're on vid again," she said. "What evidence are they basing all this on?"

    "I belong to the same unit as those responsible. And I deal with logistics," Kendra quipped.

    "I can see that. You have a felon's eyes. I'm about to shower. My orders are to keep you secure. You can sit in here and we'll talk through the door while I do, but I have to cuff you to the doorknob. Otherwise, I lock you in a guest room and come back for you. Sorry, but that's as much leeway as I have."

    "I guess so," Kendra replied. The Freeholders apparently took security a lot more seriously than the UN forces. Romar ordered her to sit in the corner and to not move without permission. The cuff was firm on her wrist and she said so.

    "It'll loosen up with wear," Romar joked with a friendly grin, but loosened it slightly.

    Kendra watched as her guard stripped and headed into the bathroom, an action reinforcing that nudity was a casual thing for her. Romar's skin was flawless, hairless except for the flaming waves on her head and matching eyebrows and rippled with heavy muscles. Kendra asked, and found out that she spent almost three hours a day in the gym. She also recalled that their gravity was a bit more vigorous than Earth's. Remembering a brief encounter with the Freehold 3rd Mobile Assault Regiment's staff on Mtali, Kendra decided she never wanted to fight with them. They seemed to regard their military service as a religious duty. Romar even kept a pistol with her in the shower. "I know you won't try to escape, considering your circumstances," Romar's shout echoed from the tiled room as she lathered her rich red hair, leaning out of the stall to make eye contact. "But I'd look pretty stupid if you got away. It's a rough duty model anyway."

    Kendra was shown to a dining hall that was again small but luxurious. She grabbed some sandwiches and a bowl of soup, which she found too spicy. The sandwiches had a lot of mustard and peppercorns, but she found them manageable. Once she got past the heat, they were actually quite tasty.

    Jelsie showed her around briefly. The compound had a gym, small theater and a day room that included a decent-sized pool and a long, rectangular hot tub, which held an older man and an Asian woman and had room for several more. They waved at Romar in passing and resumed talking and drinking. "I'm off duty now," Romar told her, "except for my responsibility regarding you. If you don't mind, I'm suggesting a plunge."

    "I don't mind," Kendra said. "I'll just sit and watch vid."

    "Why? You're welcome to join us."

    "I don't have anything to wear."

    "Sorry. That's a problem here, isn't it?" Jelsie said, peeling out of her uniform. "Well, if you change your mind, feel free. Sit on that side," she gestured, "so I have you in plain sight."

    Kendra watched vid halfheartedly. More people wandered in and part of her mind deduced it was a shift change of some kind. They looked over and saw the depression emanating from her, but decided not to interfere. She was grateful for their discretion, but made no outward sign. Being properly morose took work.

    Ten minutes later, her face was flashed on the screen. At least it wasn't mainstream news, only a specialty channel on political matters. Hopefully her parents wouldn't see this immediately. The announcer gave a fairly accurate description up to the point where he claimed she was armed and dangerous and had overpowered Sergeant Janie Woods, then attempted to run over Sergeant Tom Anderson as she fled the base "Just seconds ahead of the Military Police." Kendra snapped it off viciously and strode over to the tub, which now held six. She snatched off her tunic, almost ripping it, and jumped in in her underwear. The water was scalding, and shocked her out of her daze.

    "You okay?" Jelsie asked, looking concerned.

    "No." After a few seconds of silence, Kendra continued, "I'm supposed to have attacked two of my friends as I left. They're probably being interrogated."

    "Goddess. That's a pretty slimy trick to pull."

    "This isn't going to work," Kendra said, shaking her head sadly. "I need to go back. If they have Tom, it means either they retrieved the phone call or they think it suspicious that I got out when I did. And Janie didn't do anything. They might wind up dead because of me."

    "You won't change that by going back," an older man said. Kendra recognized him as one of the two who'd been here when she and Jelsie arrived. She looked at him in curiosity.

    "Walter Andropolous," he introduced himself. He was about forty, very lean with near black skin and had a wire braided through the entire length of his left ear. "I'm the intelligence analyst here and I used to be in military intelligence. If they have your friends, it's to make you come back. You do and they'll rope them in too. If you stay, they have nothing to go on and might let them go."

    "Do you know what they do to people when they interrogate them?" Kendra asked, teary-eyed.

    "In disgusting detail," Andropolous assured her. "And you won't help them by going back. Your friend Tom risked his life to cover for you, presumably because he believes you're innocent. Your coming here took an equal amount of guts. If you skip, you'll be wasting both of you, because it'll be assumed you're guilty, and I know how your investigators will proceed with that assumption. The best thing for you to do is have a drink," he suggested while handing her a glass, "and display some more of that courage by not wasting your friends' sacrifices."

    Kendra gulped at the glass as Jelsie placed a hand on her shoulder.

    Three hours later, soddenly drunk, Kendra was helped out of the pool by Andropolous and Romar. They assembled her clothes and half-carried her to an elevator. Kendra allowed herself to be led into a small suite. The other two put her on the bed, then took seats across the room.




    Kendra woke bleary eyed and glanced at the clock. It gave both Freehold and Earth time, claiming it was 0430. At twenty-five, she was barely old enough to drink and had never had a hangover before. She decided that everything she'd heard about them was hype and propaganda designed to entice people. Her head hurt. So did her stomach. Things were spinning very eerily.

    Jelsie looked up from the screen she was reading, came over and handed Kendra an effervescent glass of orange stuff. "Drink this," she said.

    "Thank you, no," Kendra replied. "I just want to lie here and regret it."

    "It wasn't a request," Jelsie insisted, hoisting her upright with one hand. The room spun again and Kendra decided to comply. It tasted okay and did seem to settle her stomach.

    "Didn't you sleep?" Kendra asked, her brain finally starting to track.

    "No. I didn't want to lock you in and leave you alone, so I stayed. That requires me to leave my hardware outside and cuff you to the bed or stay awake. I prefer to stay awake."

    "You didn't have to do that for me," Kendra said. These people were strange. Compassionate and warmly friendly, but utterly unforgiving in their security.

    "I know." Jelsie sat back down and asked, "Feeling better?"

    "A little," Kendra agreed. Her memory was starting to fill in some gaps. Remembering some snippets of conversation, she asked, "Was whatsisname interrogating me last night?"

    Considering for a moment, Jelsie said, "I don't think it's a security breach to say 'yes.'"

    "And what did he find out?" Kendra prodded.

    "I have no idea. Obviously he doesn't think you're a spy or you wouldn't have woken up," Jelsie explained.

    "That's a pretty cold-blooded trick," Kendra commented.

    "Yes," Jelsie nodded. "We could have done what the UN agents do and tied you to a chair, beaten you senseless, injected you with drugs and left you in a flophouse afterwards."

    Kendra winced as she thought about Janie and Tom.

    "Sorry," Jelsie said, sounding very sincere.

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