The scorched air had a taste that Dinah Aldine couldn’t describe to her satisfaction. Breathing fast through her mouth after her last sprint renewed the taste. She felt her throat practically sticking shut with thirst. This couldn’t go on much longer, she hoped.
The woman crouching beside her in the shadow of the sun-baked rocks pushed back her hood to make eye contact. Gemini Kahn, even in those desperate straits, was still a cool, exotic beauty whom nothing seemed to faze. Her fine, sculpted face was tense and alert, but not fearful. She whispered. “We’re going to run for it. Are you ready?”
“No,” retorted Dinah.
“Too bad. On my mark…” Gemini rose to a runner’s crouch and kilted her desert-beige robe above her knees, out of the way, so Dinah did likewise. “And… now.”
They sprinted out of the shade into the searing desert sun. Gunfire split the breathless heat. Bullets spat sand and rock fragments all around the two women, but they were ahead of this violent reaction by a fraction of a second.
“Gemi, why are they shooting at us?” Dinah bawled.
Gemini laughed. “I don’t think they like us very much!”
They dove for shelter behind a second rock formation. A few more inquiring shots probed the rocks. Then the gunfire ceased, its echoes faded, and the desert was silent. Dinah whispered, “How are we better off here, Gemi? At least the other rocks gave us shade.”
“So do these,” her supervisor whispered. “Follow.” Gemini crept along the base of the largest rock into a crease that appeared at first to be a shallow cave. Here there was a little shade on the far right, but Gemini kept crawling toward the left until she suddenly disappeared as if by magic.
Dinah gasped. She crawled to the last place she had seen Gemini’s feet. Nothing was there but a dead end. Dinah sat back on her heels. “Gemi,” she whispered. “Gemi, where are you?”
A pair of hands grabbed Dinah by the waist and hauled her backwards. She screamed, but someone covered her mouth to muffle her cry. “Shut up, unless you want them to find us,” said an unfamiliar male voice in her ear.
Dinah found herself set on her feet with her face to a wall and her attacker at her back. Her heart raced. She thought for a frantic moment that she had been caught by the traffickers. Then Gemini said, “You’ve heard me mention my brother Dee, haven’t you? This is him.”
“Why did you bring her out this far?” the male voice asked. “You’ll get killed, taking risks like that, Gemi.” He released Dinah.
She wheeled around to face the man. The cavern was lit only by the hole through which she had entered. That indirect light was just enough to reveal a lean, fine face that was almost pretty, except for a hawkish nose and jutting chin. Two black eyes stared at her above several days’ growth of thick, dark facial hair. Dinah was flustered and said the first thing that came to her tongue: “You reek! When did you have a bath last?”
“The desert provides many things to those willing to take their time with her,” said Gemini’s twin brother, “but she is lacking in soap. You reek of perfume. Any trafficker could hunt you down in the dark, by smell alone.”
Dinah clenched her teeth and refused to reply.
“Now that you’ve gotten acquainted,” Gemi said, “can we head back to base now?”
“Is it that easy?” Dinah said. “They’re still out there.”
“And we are in here,” the brother said. He started walking deeper into the cavern, followed by Gemini. Dinah had to hurry after them with her pulse still throbbing. They didn’t rely on light, except for the few dusty sunbeams that fell through cracks in the rock overhead. The air underground was so much cooler than aboveground that Dinah started to shiver because of her chilled sweat.
There appeared to be no path marked out and multiple tunnels they could have gone down, but the brother pressed forward as if he had a map. Once, he brought them back into the scorching sun, but that was only to climb over a low ridge of rock and then down into another hole to a different cavern. As soon as her feet touched ground in this new cavern, Dinah took advantage of the light to check her wristwatch. “It’s past time for lunch,” she said pointedly.
“Are we on a picnic?”
“I’ll be honest with you, Dee. I’m hungry too.” Gemini bent with her hands braced on her knees. “We got caught up in this hours ago, and we’ve been running ever since. A break now will give us enough energy to push the rest of the way.”
He looked from Gemini to Dinah to Gemini again. Then he sank down in one graceful motion to sit cross-legged on the cavern floor.
“Thanks,” Gemini said. She dropped her pack on the ground and knelt to open the pocket with rations in it.
Dinah sat down wearily. She opened her water flask first and swallowed the single metered serving it released. The water felt miraculous to her dry mouth and throat. She pushed the button to release a second serving, but this time she held it in her mouth for a few seconds before swallowing. Only then did she retrieve her rations from her own pack. “You know, Gemi, I never thought I’d ever dream of salad, but I do sometimes now.”
“Salad?” Gemini laughed. “That’s some luxurious dreaming.”
“I’m serious. Have you ever eaten a fresh green salad?”
“Once,” Gemini said, “when I was at a conference in Current-town. It had a weird texture.”
“I’m sure. You probably think any food that isn’t hard and dry has a weird texture.” Dinah took another bite of the hard, dry ration bar that was her lunch. She choked, coughed, and took another serving from her water bottle to help the last bite go down.
Gemini’s brother rose smoothly to his feet in expectant silence. Dinah tucked her water bottle in its pocket in her pack. It was hard to get back to her feet, and she groaned softly.
“Don’t complain,” the brother said.
“I didn’t say anything,” Dinah retorted.
He led off into the darkness and kept them walking without another break until the light from above started to weaken. “You can see the base from here,” he announced.
“You aren’t coming in?” Gemini asked.
“Not now.” Suddenly he was gone.
Gemini didn’t seem to find this the least bit surprising. She climbed upwards and pulled herself through a hole in the cavern ceiling. “Come on,” she said, “we still need to report before you can take another break.”
The sun shone at an oblique slant out of the west, casting their shadows long and thin against the hard-packed earth when they came out from the shelter of the rocks. Gemini raised her hand to hail the sentry at the outer fence. He knew her by sight and let them approach unchallenged.
The landscape of the territorial center, Oasis, still looked alien to Dinah. Fields of scraggly crops stretched out to either side of the road, with irrigation equipment at the near end of each field. Dirt mounds rose at intervals. These were the old buildings, the original hovels where the first settlers had lived when the land recovery project was just beginning. They were used for storage now, and sometimes as emergency shelters for the field workers during dust storms or attacks by traffickers. After they crossed the inner fence separating the fields from the city proper, Dinah followed Gemini past the stand of primeval cycads that marked the city’s namesake oasis, like a miniature forest bristling in the desert.
Headquarters stood on the east side of the city. Gemini led Dinah down the main corridor to the cramped office given over to the intelligence department. As she swung the door open, Gemini called out, “We’re back! Anyone home?”
A startled, relieved outcry met their entrance. It looked like all the intelligence staff, as well as a few others, had been in the middle of a meeting. For several minutes, chaos ensued as everyone tried to speak at once and no one listened. Dinah could tell that all these people had been severely frightened for Gemi. Now they were rebounding into a blend of joy and annoyance.
“I’m sorry about the truck, sir,” Gemi said to the army base’s ranking officer, Commander Romy.
“The capital can send us another truck,” replied Romy, “but they can’t send another you. What happened, Gemi?”
“Attempted ambush,” Gemini said. “West road, about three miles from station twelve. If we hadn’t both been soul sympathists, they might have got us. As it was, we knew they were there in time to pull over and pretend to be looking at something off the road, away from the truck. They got impatient and detonated the truck, thinking they could trap us on foot instead. We made for the tunnels and evaded them.”
“You had a close call at least once,” said one of the other investigators, a middle-aged woman named Stephanna. She pointed to Gemini’s pack.
Gemini took the pack off and turned it around to see what Stephanna meant. There, almost exactly following the seam at the bottom of the pack, a long bullet-graze had burned a hole in the fabric. Gemini made a sour face. “I hate mending this thing. Dinah, I’ll do your cleaning tomorrow morning if you’ll mend my pack tonight.”
“Deal,” Dinah said. “I’d much rather mend than scrub toilets.”
“I’d rather scrub toilets than mend,” Gemini laughed, “so that works out for us both.”
“You should both go lie down for a half-hour before supper,” Commander Romy declared. “You had a rough day. The rest of you, back to your regular duties.”
Thus dismissed, Dinah and Gemini headed for their sleeping quarters. They bunked on the east wall of the room. Their two west-wall roommates weren’t there when Dinah opened the door. “My feet are so sore,” she groaned.
“Then go to the sick bay and quit complaining,” Gemi said. She climbed onto the upper bunk, kicked off her boots from there, and said, “Before you go, set the timer.”
“I don’t need to go to the sick bay,” Dinah retorted. But she set the timer for thirty minutes before she pulled off her own boots, stripped down to her underclothes, and fell into the lower bunk.
The timer went off after what felt like thirty seconds, not thirty minutes. Dinah groaned.
“Don’t complain,” someone said.
“I didn’t say anything,” Dinah muttered. She dragged herself upright and let her bare feet rest on the cold cement floor. She yawned so wide that her jaw popped.
“Get dressed,” the same voice said.
Dinah’s eyes came fully open. She looked into the eyes of Gemini’s brother and shrieked.
“Doesn’t it wear you out,” he said, “always overreacting like that?”
“Get out,” she demanded. “What are you doing in here? This is the women’s quarters!”
“It’s my sister’s room,” he replied calmly. “I came to check on her. Who expects to find a grown woman lying around in her unmentionables at 1800 hours?”
Dinah had gathered her thin blanket around herself. “Just get out!”
“Dee,” said Gemini from the upper bunk, “you might as well wait in the hall.” When he let himself out, she said to Dinah, “But he’s right, girl, nobody expects anyone to strip down like that for a half-hour nap.”
“I can’t sleep in my clothes, not after I was crawling in the sand and sweating like a horse in them all day. And I won’t put on my pajamas without washing first.”
“You’re so fastidious about some things,” Gemini said, dropping down onto her feet, “and haphazard about everything else. Do, please, get dressed. That flimsy underwear is positively indecent.”
“It’s cute,” Dinah grumbled. “At least it was cute when it was new. The laundry here is so hard on clothes! There isn’t even an option for me to hand-wash my delicates.”
“It’s true, we aren’t set up for delicates, not laundry, nor in any other regard. Things need to last here. We don’t have the resources to replace anything that wears out easily. Why don’t you write to your mother and ask for new underwear?” Gemini asked.
Dinah ignored the question. She grimaced as she pulled on her grubby uniform pants.
“Don’t complain,” Gemini warned her.
“Like I said,” retorted Dinah, “I didn’t say anything.”
“Your expressions are positively noisy. So, whether you say anything or not, you’re always talking. And that doesn’t account for your extensive range of nonverbal complaining noises. Groan, sigh, grunt—”
“I do not grunt,” Dinah objected.
Gemini merely gave her an amused glance. “Let’s go. Dee is waiting for us.”
“That’s another thing,” said Dinah. “He avoids me for half a year, like I’m contagious or something, and now he decides to talk to me? What is his problem?” She exited their sleeping quarters behind Gemini, but the hallway outside seemed empty.
Then the brother appeared at her left, standing so close that he startled a squeak out of her. “My main problem is an oversensitive passive principle,” he said. “Influence gives me headaches, so I was not eager to spend time with someone convicted of coercive use of it.”
Dinah caught the grin that crossed Gemini’s face. Between that and the realization that the brother had overheard everything she had said, Dinah stalked ahead of the siblings in mortified indignation.
They were the last to arrive in the mess hall, a tiny room compared to the mess hall at the capital’s headquarters, without so much as a choice between two meals. Dinah knew what would be served before she reached the counter. The previous day had been salt cod, so today would be stew made from dried beef. Everything was measured out according to each person’s dietary requirements, based on weight, activity levels, and any known health conditions. It was all very scientific and unsatisfying.
Normally there was an empty place on the bench next to Dinah, but she found it occupied today by the brother. She noticed belatedly that he was now showered and shaved like a civilized man, and he wore a clean robe. This only made her more conscious of her own unwashed state. Dinah tried to ignore him and focus on eating quickly, but he kept talking across her to Gemini or one of the other investigators seated near them. He kept leaning across her when he gestured or when the other party wasn’t speaking loudly enough.
At length, Dinah got up to leave the table. She hadn’t done more than swing one foot over the bench in preparation for standing up when Gemini said, “Don’t waste food.”
“I’ll finish eating,” Dinah retorted, “but I can’t exactly eat with someone’s arm in front of my face all the time.”
“Dinah, don’t exaggerate,” said Gemini. “Dee, please stop teasing her.”
The brother seemed to be studying her closely. Then he smiled. “Forgive me, Miss Aldine.” He leaned back to remove himself from her space.
Dinah sat down warily, not trusting that beautiful smile. She tried to get back to her meal.
“Do you forgive me?” he persisted.
“Yes, of course,” Dinah said hurriedly.
But the brother shook his head. “A hasty answer is rarely a genuine answer. It more often shows an eagerness to end the conversation than a serious consideration of the question.”
Dinah forced herself to look at him directly and calmly. She waited until the count of fifteen before she repeated, “Yes, of course I do.” Then she continued to return his stare.
“Now you’re being childish,” he said.
On a whim, Dinah stuck out her tongue at him.
The brother raised his eyebrows and laughed suddenly. “Miss Aldine, you entertain me. Gemi, will you be staying on base for a few days?”
“She will,” said Commander Romy before Gemini could answer.
“I want to borrow your assistant to help me clear up some work.”
“That’s fine,” Gemini said. “As long as she does her own work first.”
“Wait, borrow? Am I a library book now?”
“Just be sure to put her back on the shelf when you’ve finished reading her,” Gemini quipped.
Dinah decided to ignore both siblings for the rest of the meal— no small achievement when they kept talking across her of personal business.
“Ammai wants you to come home soon,” the brother was saying. “She heard about your incident.”
“Did she hear it from you, by any chance?”
“She already knew before I stopped in to wash,” the brother replied.
Gemini sighed gently. “Is she angry?”
“Frightened, more like.”
“That makes it worse. And don’t say I should’ve waited for the scout report, like you always do.”
“How do you think I knew where to meet you?”
“Clairvoyance,” Gemini retorted.
“I heard the scout report from station eleven. I knew you planned to carry on with your regular inspection, estimated where you would run into trouble, and chose my intercept point. If you had listened to the early briefing, you might have taken more precautions.”
“Don’t lecture, Dee. Half an hour’s nap isn’t enough after the day I’ve had. Not for one of your lectures.” Gemini smoothly turned to Dinah and said, “If you’ve finished, you don’t have to sit in the middle of this. He’s my twin; I can’t escape, but you can.”
“Escape, is it?” The brother picked up his tray. “I’m borrowing you. Follow me.”
They returned their trays to the serving counter. Dinah followed the abrupt man to a small office tucked behind the base’s main entrance. That office was furnished with hard resin-and-metal chairs. The brother sat on one of these, so Dinah sat on another. “What do you want from me?” Dinah asked.
“Miss Aldine, do you know my name?”
“Of course I do.”
“Would you please use it?”
Dinah sat up straighter on her hard chair. “Of course, Mr. Kahn.”
“Thank you.” The brother took a booklet out of the drawer of the ridiculously tiny desk. He opened the booklet, turned two pages, and said, “I have some questions I want to ask you.” Then, apropos of nothing, he started reading out the kind of questions usually asked of very young children in the first year of public schooling, questions like, “From whom did we receive the statutes and teachings?”
Dinah realized after the second question that this was a test of sorts. She answered the questions with some impatience, wondering all the while if he expected her to answer every question in the booklet and what the point of it all was. She began to suspect it was a sort of insult to her intelligence until the brother put away the booklet with a nod of what appeared to be satisfaction.
“As I suspected,” he said. “Someone taught you the fundamentals, and you don’t lack comprehension. If comprehension isn’t the problem, then the gap must lie in conviction. Tell me, Miss Aldine, what makes you any different from the average Outsider in Haazak?”
“And what is citizenship? Of what does it consist?”
Dinah hated questions like that. They reminded her of her graduation year. She said lightly, “Birth, residence, and grasp of culture.”
The brother pondered her response for an unusual amount of time. He said at length, “Then explain to me how you, a citizen according to ‘birth, residence, and grasp of culture’, came to violate one of the foundational cultural mores of Haazak: the imprisonment, abuse, and attempted overthrow of the capital elders? That does not show a grasp of culture, as you put it, but a rejection of culture. I ask again, what makes for a good citizen?”
“I don’t need to sit here to be lectured by you,” Dinah replied, rising, “when I’ve already been through the same lecture from a hundred others.”
“A hundred? Please sit, Miss Aldine. If that question displeases you, I’ll ask a different one. Who would you identify as good citizens, if someone asked you to name a few?”
Dinah hesitated. He seemed sincere, not mocking. She sat down again. “I suppose everyone I’ve met here would qualify.”
The brother made a dissatisfied face. “I’m not asking the right questions. Miss Aldine, I have been observing you, though you did not notice me, these past months. I was opposed to the plan for Gemi to take you on as her assistant. Her work is dangerous, and I did not like the idea of a known traitor putting her into more danger. Naturally, Gemi being who she is, she refused to listen to my protests.” His mouth twisted with something like humor. “Observation was my only option. You have puzzled me, Miss Aldine. On every front, you puzzle me. That is why I wish to hear from you what are your convictions about what makes for a good citizen. It is, perhaps, too early in our acquaintance for me to ask you the questions I most want to ask, but I want to understand why you did what you did.”
“What do you mean?” Dinah eyed him with caution.
“First of all, why did you accept an accusation of coercion when you’re incapable of soul influence?”
Dinah started up from her chair again.
“We haven’t told anyone,” the brother said, as if that would reassure her. “I don’t know why it must be a secret, but as yet only Gemi and I know. That leads to a second question, naturally: how did your leader Miss Glazmere not know? Or did she know?”
“No,” Dinah said sharply. “She doesn’t know. She mustn’t know.”
That one syllable, simple, serious, honest, hung in the air of the small office. Dinah sank back down onto her chair. “Because Glory thinks passive-principle soul sympathy is worthless. She despises anyone who can’t use influence.”
“And yet,” pursued the brother, “you count her as your friend? I worry about you, Miss Aldine.”
“There’s no need.”
“Oh, but there is a need. I have watched you, remember, for half a year. Miss Aldine, I’ll be blunt with you. You are isolated. You receive letters from only one person, namely Miss Glazmere, and those have a negative effect on you. In six months, you have formed no connections with anyone here but Gemi, and that connection is only as her shadow.”
His words stung. “I know everyone in the investigation department,” Dinah objected.
“You know them as Gemi’s shadow,” he insisted, “not in your own right. You have been placed here only temporarily, so I can understand why you might be reluctant to form bonds with people you must leave again fairly soon. What worries me most is your habit of molding yourself to the most dominant personality in your life. Whenever you receive a letter from Miss Glazmere, for at least an hour afterward, you become huffy, entitled, and impatient, as if you draw your personality from her words.”
“What would you know about my letters?”
“I’ve seen them,” he said calmly. “You leave them lying around the women’s quarters often enough.”
“You have no business reading them,” Dinah snapped.
“I tried not to, but an open page draws the eye. I have seen only a few words here and there— enough to give me an idea of your friend’s character.” Judging by his expression, the brother meant a negative idea.
“She’s just unhappy right now,” Dinah said. “You don’t understand her. Glory is… she’s like a princess who’s lost her throne and crown. She’s…” Her face heated under the brother’s askance gaze. “You don’t understand,” Dinah repeated.
“I’m afraid I do. You are too malleable, Miss Aldine. I worry that, one day, you will fall under the influence of someone thoroughly evil, who will lead you into a depth of trouble from which there is no escape. You were lucky this time. Under the law, you could have been imprisoned, or exiled, or executed for your treason.”
In spite of herself, Dinah caught her breath. His words released a visceral memory of the criminal hearings. She had faced the judicial board with bravado at Glory’s side, because that was the least that a princess’ lady-in-waiting ought to do, but she had been frightened. Real life had sprung upon her with bared claws, tearing her imaginary world to shreds without mercy. Then, being separated from Glory and the others, she had felt on the edge of a bottomless precipice in an alien world. It had been a relief to find that she was just entering a new and exciting story, less a fairy story than a gritty adventure story, with Gemi as its capable, fearless heroine.
But the brother was not finished. “Not only are you too malleable, but you have no connections of your own. Do you have no family, none at all?”
This too made Dinah wince. “They rejected my friendship with Glory, so I left home,” she admitted in a hushed voice. “They won’t speak to me now.” She couldn’t meet the brother’s eyes after that.
He sighed. “Miss Aldine, you need to consider your future. As I’ve been given to understand, your time with the army will only last another three and a half years. This is a temporary respite for you. Do you intend to wait until your respite is nearly over before you consider what you mean to do with your life?”
Dinah couldn’t bear to break down in tears in front of him. She stood up and left without a word.