“Really, Dee, what do you want me to do?”

Didymus Kahn settled his steadiest gaze on his twin sister. “Find out about her family situation, at the very least. Why doesn’t she get letters from anyone?”

“First you didn’t want me to have anything to do with her,” Gemi said, “and now you think I don’t meddle in her business enough. I wish you’d settle for one side or the other. She doesn’t want to talk about her family. I’ve made little tries, just on a casual footing, and she shuts down every time. Why are you so interested suddenly?”

“I’ve talked with her now,” said Dee. “She has a recessive personality. At present, her leader is chosen for her, but what will happen when she’s free to choose who to follow?”

“Then why don’t you pry into her business?”

“Because,” Dee retorted, “I have a similar personality, and a similar sympathy. And I’m male. It won’t work like it will if you do it, Gemi.”

“Calm down, you two.” Their mother leaned down and set a plate of honeyed cakes between them.

Their father chimed in, “Today of all days, you should not fight. Ammai, don’t you agree?”

Their paternal grandmother, a tiny wizened woman, patted her knee and looked to Gemi.

Gemi obeyed. Lying on the floor with her head on her ammai’s lap, she said, “I’m very sorry I worried you, Ammai. I ought to have paid more attention to the reports.”

“That girl.” Their ammai spoke so rarely that everyone perked up to listen. “Is she lonely?”

Gemi sighed. “Yes. She covers it with sass and daydreaming, but she’s very much alone.”

“The young Mother put her in your care.”

“I suppose so.” Gemi was pensive then, a rare state for her.

Dee took one of the honeyed cakes and savored its tenderness and sweetness. He thought of the girl Dinah and her comment from earlier in the day: You probably think any food that isn’t hard and dry has a weird texture. The army food was certainly unappealing. Only when eating with a local family did any of the soldiers get fresh food. Dee and Gemi, as locals with extensive family in Oasis, got good meals regularly. Dinah, apart from patrols and inspections, never left the base.

It was well past midnight when Gemi returned to the base, escorted by their father, an uncle, and a few male cousins. The rest of the family dispersed. Dee kissed his ammai on the cheek and retreated to his own small room at the back of the house. He lit his oil lamp to show a stark, simple room with only a low bed, a side table, and two books on the table. Dee picked up one of the books. As was his routine, he opened the front cover to look at the name inscribed on the flyleaf: Gull Hadumar. Dee gazed at this name long enough to say a silent prayer for Gull’s soul. Then he turned to the page he had last read. It was Dee’s practice to read one section out of the prayer book, which he had inherited from the previous chaplain, before going to sleep each night. That night’s section included prayers for the solitary and the forlorn. Dee repeated one of them for Dinah Aldine. 

He slept soundly that night and woke well before dawn. After going through his morning devotions, Dee padded on bare feet to the kitchen for cold lamb and roasted vegetables from last night’s supper. No one else had stirred by the time he finished eating, nor even when he pulled on his lightweight goatskin socks and his outer robe at the front door. 

His first destination that morning was Station Three, a solid six miles to the east of Oasis. He had grown accustomed to the run, which usually took him less than an hour. The weather was good. The predawn sky was pristine, with a few stars lingering in the west and a streak of rose coloring the eastern horizon.

Dee arrived at the research station just after the first full sunbeams spilled across the desert. He greeted the sentry and headed for the control room, the operational center of the station. There, a few researchers were already at work, analyzing samples of sand and rock from the barren area just beyond the station. At the far side of the control room, a group of security personnel were gathered. Dee joined them.

“Morning, Chaplain Kahn,” said one man.

“Good morning, Commander Dewar.” Dee sat in his usual spot at the edge of the gathering.

“How is she this morning?”

“Calm,” Dee answered. “No movement bigger than a rock hyrax.”

“Nice to hear.” The commander asked each of his scouts the same question: How is she? To Commander Dewar, as to most of the locals, the desert would always be she

Dee listened intently to the reports. Small details he noted automatically for further inquiry: a truck passing on the southeast road at 0230, lights reported to the west at 0315. These were nothing but scattered facts as yet. What caused him concern was the dissatisfaction he sensed from Specialist Sistani, the most senior scout at Station Three. After the reports had been given, Aaron Sistani said, “I don’t like it. That truck… every night, between 0200 and 0330, there’s a truck passing on that road, for the last two weeks. Only one way, never a return trip that we know of.”

“It might be returning during the day,” Commander Dewar suggested. 

Sistani shook his head gravely, but he made no reply. “They’re connected,” he asserted. “The lights, and the truck. It’s always driving from southeast to northwest through our sector. It’s time we found out about the lights. Anybody asked Station Twelve?”

“They say,” Commander Dewar said, “the lights are coming from the east. They sent out a truck, but they found nothing in the area.”

“Ah, but what does Modasseri say?”

The other scouts nodded and murmured. Specialist Sharagha Modasseri was the oldest and most experienced scout in Southwest Territory. He was essentially in charge of Station Twelve, masking his authority behind a very young commander. Dee volunteered, “I will ask him when I come there.”

“If I could pull him up on video conference, we could know now,” Commander Dewar noted gravely.

“Modasseri won’t stand for that,” said Sistani, “and I don’t know that he’s in the wrong for not trusting the conference network.”

“The network is encrypted. We all know that.”

“Be that as it may,” Sistani said and lapsed into quiet thought.

After fulfilling these duties in his role as scout, Dee made the rounds to visit the other soldiers and researchers around the station. He had two objectives for these visits, just as his predecessor had taught him. The first was to gauge each individual’s inward condition for stability and growth. He could do this without speaking to them, simply by viewing them with his sympathy activated, but the second objective was to plant in each one a word of encouragement from the statutes and teachings. This second objective was dependent on the outcome of the first, and it could not be accomplished without direct conversation. Here at Station Three, Dee had very little trouble with these objectives. Commander Dewar only kept on staff he knew and trusted. Dee rarely found any meaningful disturbances in the souls of people Commander Dewar trusted. He had completed his rounds before mid-morning and started out for his next destination.

Station Four, the next research station on the circuit, was the closest to the border with South Territory. Dee arrived just at 1040 hours and reported to the station commander. Tanner Fernsby was a South Territorial and ran his station with a strong prejudice in favor of his own people. He was the only one of the twelve station commanders who didn’t employ local scouts. Instead, he imported his from Current-town’s westernmost satellite villages. Dee knew himself to be one of the few desert-born scouts who trusted Fernsby despite this. He could tell that Fernsby only wanted to be sure of his staff, that the commander was deeply uneasy about being posted so far from home, that he in his turn distrusted the desert scouts because he was unsure whether or not they had any connection to the traffickers of Southwest Territory. Fernsby was an upright and earnest officer. Dee kept reminding his peers of that from time to time, but as he was only able to confirm this fact via his sympathy, he had little success persuading the others to trust Fernsby also.

“How do you do, Chaplain Kahn?” Fernsby greeted him. 

“I do well, Commander. How is Station Four today?” Dee listened to the station commander’s brisk summary of recent events. He knew that the commander was only thinking in terms of the care of souls, since he regarded Dee as a chaplain and not a scout, but it was worth listening to the man’s perspective. Fernsby knew his people well, and in his own way he ran an efficient station. 

He had another source of information at Station Four. One of the junior scouts, a young woman by the name of Shuri Roshan-Deverell, was a second cousin to Dee. Her mother had married into the nearest South Territory village, so Shuri was technically a South Territorial, but she knew the desert. Dee found her under the mesquite trees behind the station. “Cousin Shuri.”

“Good morning to you, Cousin Didymus.”

Dee crouched down beside her. “Have you or the other scouts here noticed any traffic on the road from Rotenbury, mainly between 0200 and 0330?”

“Last night?”

“Or any other night for the past… let’s set it at three weeks.”

Shuri started by saying, “That’s Benner’s route… he’ll be drinking coffee in the mess hall right now, if I don’t miss my guess. You don’t mean to ask him point-blank, cousin?”

“I know better,” he assured her. He followed her indoors to the mess hall. There, four of the other scouts leaned at one end of the long table, nursing cups of coffee while the staff members who had drawn KP duty that day were busily prepping for lunch. 

The scouts greeted Dee with a polite, “Morning, Chaplain.” 

Dee sat down next to Specialist Benner. “Good morning. I trust I find you all well?”

“Touch of arthritis in the knee,” said Specialist Tresden, seated directly across the table. “It could be worse, though.”

“Nothing that merits a sit-down with a chaplain,” Specialist Isley added, making the others chuckle.

Dee knew them well enough to ignore the bait and set out bait of his own. “After yesterday, I rather wish I could have a sit-down with a chaplain myself.”

“Yesterday?” Benner asked.

“My sister, Gemi— you know Gemi,” Dee said casually.”

“Everybody knows Miss Gemini, of course,” said Benner. “I knew she must be related to you because of the resemblance. She’s your sister, is she?”

“My twin sister,” Dee emphasized. “Yesterday, she nearly got killed. Someone detonated her truck and chased her into the desert, trying to gun her down. It was horrible.” He sensed the indignant anger that rose in the four men. “I’m making my usual rounds, but I’m also looking for information. That road was perfectly sound the day before. We know it was. The explosives must have been planted sometime during the night or early in the morning. I’ve checked at Station Three, and they say they’ve seen a truck going through from the direction of Rotenbury toward the West Territory highway. One goes through every night between 0200 and 0330. If they went through two nights ago, then we can narrow down the window of time to sometime after 0330, or else those travelers would have detonated the trap. I want to know who did this.” Dee shook his head. He had planned this approach, but he had not realized how true it was until he said the words.

“Miss Gemini is all right?” asked Tresden.

“Exhausted, but uninjured,” Dee answered. “I went out myself through the desert ways to find her and make sure of it.”

“You’re tougher than you look, Chaplain,” Benner noted. “I’ve been on the Rotenbury route all this month. You’re right, there is a truck passing through once a night from that direction, regular as clockwork. It’s the same truck. Strange thing about it,” he mused aloud, “is it never comes back the same way. I’ve been wondering about it. I thought all this time that it must be looping around Oasis and coming back by the Mirkley road, but… where was this bomb?”

“Halfway to Station Eleven from Oasis,” Dee replied.

“Then it’s driving through, and that makes no sense. How does it come back without us seeing it? Unless it comes back during the day, blending in with the regular traffic. I do wonder… Sutcliffe ought to be keeping watch for that one. He’s day shift on the Rotenbury route,” Benner said. “I’m just night shift. Planting bombs in the road… that isn’t playing the game,” he added grimly. 

“Send Miss Gemini our regards, Chaplain,” said Specialist Wickham, the fourth scout. He was habitually the most taciturn of them all, but Dee sensed outrage beneath his placid facade. “Glad she’s unharmed. I’ll talk to Williams about checking the roads through our patch. We’ll see that nothing of the sort happens here.”

“I appreciate that, Specialist Williams. When I think how near a thing it was…” Dee shook his head again. “I have not felt that angry in years.”

“I’m with you there, Chaplain. You tell Miss Gemini to stay close to base for a while. We’ll miss seeing her, but we don’t want her putting herself in too much danger.”

“I agree. In this case, we must use guile equal to our enemies while shunning their crimes, as the teachings say.” Dee rose from the table. “I intend to find out who is responsible for this.”

“We’ll help wherever we can.” Benner extended a hand to Dee. “Count on us.”

“Thank you.” Back outdoors, Dee asked his cousin, “Will you let me know if anything comes of this?”

Shuri nodded. “That was some deft work you just did. I always believed that only Gemi could persuade like that.”

“That wasn’t soul influence,” Dee explained. “I have learned from dealing with the southerners stationed here that they understand family loyalty much as we do, though they call it by a different name.”

“Honor,” Shuri said.

“On top of that, Gemi is popular among them. Had it been just my own trouble, they’d have had no interest in helping me.”

“Don’t put it so harshly, cousin. They would still do their duty by you as a fellow soldier.”

“There wouldn’t have been any emotion behind it,” Dee said, “and that makes all the difference.” He parted from his kinswoman and started in on his chaplain’s duties around the station. Station Four had a few staff members who suffered from chronic depression or severe homesickness, and Dee liked to keep in frequent contact with these.

He departed from Station Four in the afternoon to make the eight-mile walk to Station Five. Because of the heat of the day, he strolled at a leisurely speed, observing the play of the breeze over the stark desert landscape and watching for any human activity. The desert paths aboveground still kept to what shade and shelter there was, so occasionally Dee climbed the occasional rock formation to sit and survey the desert from a higher vantage. The sun’s relentless heat made these ventures necessarily brief but, as it was winter, Dee simply enjoyed the freedom of traveling aboveground during the daylight hours.

He reached Station Five as the sun was slanting downwards in the west. Here, rather than checking in with the commander first, Dee went to the scout office to greet the lead scout, who happened to be Dee’s mother’s eldest brother. “Good day, Uncle Cyrris.”

“And how is your sister?” Cyrris Argadae held the distinction, rare among desert scouts, of holding the rank of command sergeant major. He was past the usual age of retirement for scouts by at least a decade and served as chief advisor to the Station Five commander. He usually knew everything of note that happened in the territory before it was announced, so his question came as no surprise to Dee.

“Shaken,” Dee replied. “That may be a good thing.”

“None too soon either. And how are you?

“Shaken,” admitted Dee, “and angered.”

“I have heard rumors that Father Everard is planning something,” his uncle said as an apparent non sequitur, “tied up with the trafficking problem. I expect it frightened them, having a manifestation in the capital itself.”

“I can’t rejoice in that incident, but if the rumor is true, then good may come of that breach in our only stronghold,” Dee said in agreement. “They have never been overmuch concerned about trafficking before. Is yesterday’s incident definitely tied up with traffickers, then?”

“Persa’s youngest was chasing strays yesterday, out west of the Noora Wash,” said Cyrris meditatively. “She saw trucks gathered at the bottom of the wash, off the road, out of sight of any passing traffic.”

“Not many know there’s a track there,” Dee said. “What did Shaada do?”

“She’s a sensible girl,” his uncle replied. “She went underground to check the tunnel. No sign of intruders, nor of any usage at all. She was able to get close enough to hear them speak. She marked them as bad men and ran back to her mother, leaving the strays lost.”

“Noora Wash,” Dee mused. “They have someone, then, who knows something of the desert ways, but not everything about them. Did she hear anything to reveal their affiliation?”

“Nothing I could discern.”

“Noora Wash,” repeated Dee. “It isn’t near the site of the bombing, but neither is it entirely unconnected.”

“You are old enough, Didymus, to know that no single part of the desert is unconnected to the rest of her.”

“I know, Uncle Cyrris. I might go back to base tonight, underground,” Dee said. “I don’t usually go from here, but from Station Eight. It has been a long time since I cut through the basin.”

“I’m interested to know what you find. Do you have a description of the suspect truck that they’ve been seeing on the road from Rotenbury?”

Dee had to smile. “No, but it would serve me well to have it.” He read the page that his uncle pushed across the desk to him. Having read it, he remarked, “A truck so carefully lacking all identifying marks is suspect, isn’t it? To identify it by its rust patches, like knowing a goat by its spots, is a good idea. I’ll know it now.” He handed the paper back to his uncle. “Thank you.”

Thus it happened that, after completing his chaplain’s duties and sitting down to supper with the staff of Station Five, Dee left again instead of staying the night. He sometimes would spend the night out in the desert, if his sympathy was getting to be too much for him. Because he explained nothing to anyone else besides his uncle, he might have been doing just that, for all they knew. But he made his way first to his cousin Persa’s tents just beyond sight of the research station.

There he was greeted with almost painful exuberance. His cousin Persa, her husband, and sundry other relations lived the ancient nomadic life out on the desert basin. They and he met only rarely. He had to submit to being handed off from one relative to the next until he finally was free to greet the children of the family. He found young Shaada, Persa’s youngest child. “I have not seen you since you were ten,” he greeted the teenager. “You have grown handsomely.”

“Thank you, cousin,” she replied.

“Did you never find your strays, then?”

Shaada wagged her head. “They’re gone, I think. They’ve fed the desert, or they’re wild now.”

“She takes her share,” Dee agreed. “I heard of some other strays you found while you were seeking your goats.”

The girl paled under her rich tan. “I wish I hadn’t.”

“Will you tell me all about it?” Dee listened to her soft recounting of what she had seen. She was frightened to speak aloud, as if they might overhear her. Dee touched the back of her hand when she finished. “Thank you, Shaada. I would recommend that you set that all aside. Speak of it to no one else. I will find out what I can. Leave it in my hands.”

She nodded, wide-eyed. “Yes, cousin.”

Dee went back to the circle of adults. He asked them all generally, “Have you noticed anything else out of the usual? Tracks where there usually aren’t tracks, or lights at night?”

“Lights,” said Persa’s husband Elam. “I’ve seen lights from time to time, over the western horizon late in the night.”

Others nodded and murmured agreement.

“Is this tied up with our Gemi’s troubles?” Persa asked.

“It may be so,” Dee said. “I intend to find out.”

“Don’t put yourself in too much danger while you’re finding out,” Persa said. “Keep to the tunnels.”

“I intend to, cousin,” Dee assured her.

“You know how far light travels over the desert. It might be nothing at all inside our territory,” one of Elam’s cousins suggested.

Dee nodded agreement. “I want to make certain of its location and its nature. Too much is suspect these days.” He stayed to listen to their talk until they retired for the night. Then he accompanied the night watch out when they relieved the evening herdsmen of their duties.

One of the dogs barked at the shadows beyond the goat enclosure. Dee knelt down to rub the dog’s head. “It’s nothing human,” he told the nearest herder.

“Lion, maybe,” the man replied. “Only one, if so, or the other dogs would be making noise too.” He held out his staff. “Take this. You have nothing on you for fending off predators.”

Dee thanked him and accepted the staff. His eyes were adjusting to the luminous desert night. He saw a hint of movement out where the agitated dog was staring. Suddenly he stood up and strode out toward the movement.

It retreated before him. Its whine revealed it as a wild dog, separated from its pack. When Dee continued to advance, the wild dog fled.

From behind him, Dee heard a quiet voice say, “Go in the protection of the Only One, cousin,” to which Dee gave the customary reply, “And you also, until we meet again.” Within a few minutes, he was out of earshot of Persa’s camp, but for the occasional bark of the herding dogs. After a while longer, even that noise was swallowed up by the desert silence.

The moon was almost full that night. Dee could discern the path ahead of him as if it were day instead of night. Countless tiny noises from the desert life around him filled the night, heedless of his presence. Dee inhaled the sweet, dusty scent of desert night. There was greasewood growing nearby, and sage as well. If he took to the underground ways now, Dee knew he would come to a seasonal pool that reliably held fresh water during the winter. But he stayed on the surface, letting his senses soak up the atmosphere of the desert at night.

He was less than a mile from the Noora Wash when he caught a whiff of blood and rotting flesh. Nothing ever had much time to rot in the desert, so it had to be recently killed, whatever it was. Dee sensed no human presence in the vicinity. Partially masked by the stench of death, a smell of garbage lingered in the air also. Dee proceeded along the wash. He saw a dark mound at the base of a rocky outcropping. When he drew near, he saw the outline of a canine head. It was a pile of wild dog carcasses. No sooner had he established that fact than a growl warned him that he was not the only one interested in investigating the smell. Dee looked up to find a desert lion prowling nearer. He stood and took a step backwards for every forward step taken by the lion. Its head, highlighted by moonlight, bore a rather tattered mane. It was an old one, a scavenger without a pride of lionesses to feed it. Dee was able to retreat without incident only because its interest was absorbed by the carcasses.

His retreat took him a little off his path. He found signs of a camp, not built by desert-dwellers but by travelers. A heap of garbage was still discernible under a meager covering of earth. The proximity of the two piles could not be coincidental. Whoever had camped there had killed a pack of wild dogs. It was likely that the lone dog near Persa’s camp was a survivor of that hunt.

Dee considered the possible reasons for slaughtering the dogs. They would have been no threat to a camp of humans. A nuisance, perhaps, if there were herd animals in the camp, but wild dogs had no liking for human settlements in general. It might have been a hunt for sport, but a lion in the area, no matter how old, was a far more desirable prey for sport hunters. Moreover, as far as Dee had been able to see in the moonlight, the carcasses had not been stripped of anything: not heads, not pelts, not tails. Sport hunters always took trophies. 

It seemed best to retreat to the underground ways at that point. Dee had seen what he initially had sought. The ensuing questions were just as well pondered in the tunnels.

How old the desert tunnel system was, no one could tell. Natural caverns and subterranean waterways formed the basis for its labyrinthine courses. Human ingenuity had shaped and refined those natural ways for generations. Underground, one could take refuge not just from the deadly heat of the sun, but from sandstorms and the hostility of evil men. It wasn’t that the enemies were unaware of these tunnels. On the contrary, everyone used parts of the tunnel system when the need arose. Not everyone knew the entirety of it, though. Dee had been exploring it since his mother first sent him out to work the gardens with his father, back when he was six years old, and he was reputed to know the system better than most. He was less familiar with this section, since it led nowhere but the wash, but he did know where the entrance was: a large hole like a well’s mouth, leading down into what would appear to be a shallow cistern. It was not a cistern, of course, but a blind entrance meant to deceive those who didn’t know. 

Dee lowered himself into the hole. Before his feet touched ground at the bottom, he felt a cold, nauseated prickle at the back of his throat. Something was there that shouldn’t be there. “I commit myself to the Only One, who alone has power to protect us from evil,” he whispered aloud. He drew out his pocket flashlight and turned slowly in place. He knew what was there even before his light fell on the dull gray box. He kept his distance and held his flashlight high. What he saw only confirmed what he already knew: it was a seeding-box for the Decay.

From that point, nothing mattered but speed. The seeding was still immature, still indeterminate in color, but Dee knew it must be seeded off a wild dog carcass. He kept his flashlight in hand and ran through the tangle of underground passages, surfacing where the tunnel system forced him to surface, always making as straight a line as possible to the main base.

He arrived, muscles burning and lungs heaving, to startle the night guards on duty at the south checkpoint. “Need a ride… to base,” Dee panted. “Emergency.”

The guard turned to his partner, who was leaning out of the guard hut. “You take him. I’ll hold position.”

So the second guard loaded Dee into a utility truck and tore off through the night. They reached the base within minutes. By that point, Dee had his breath back. He uttered a quick word of thanks to the guard and hurried inside to the command room, where he knew he would find someone on duty. 

Commander Romy and Specialist Kamran were chatting over cold drinks when Dee burst into the command room. “Dee,” Romy exclaimed, “what’s wrong?”

“New seeding,” Dee answered, “in the tunnels.”

The commander got up without another word and pulled the alarm handle. A shrill, brassy note pierced the air. “Kamran, you take the debriefing. I’ll see that everyone is prepped.” He strode out of the command room, leaving the two scouts together.

“There’s a story in this,” said Saamsa Kamran, “but we’ll start with the basics.” He dragged out a book of maps. “Location.”

Dee turned the broad pages until he came to the map of the northern basin area. “Noora Wash,” he said as he tapped the spot on the map. “The false cistern.”

“What stage is it?”

“Early, very early. It’s a commercial seeding. Lead tank, dead animals. Wild dogs,” Dee specified. “My guess? They filled the lead tank with as many as it would hold to start the seeding and left the rest on the surface to lure live animals.”

“Typical strategy,” said Kamran. “There were carcasses on the surface?”

“They had already lured an old lion. Not too far away, there was a small garbage dump,” Dee mused, making the connection suddenly.

“They were going full out for live animals,” Kamran noted.

“The whole area will need special measures.” Commander Romy was back and had overheard the last exchange. He had with him Captain Abilil and Lieutenant Naboni, leaders of disposal team A. His remark had been for their benefit, not for the scouts.

Abilil only replied, “Yes, sir.”

Soon the command room was crowded with personnel. Dee edged his way out into the hallway, seeking distance from the chaos of emotions, only to walk straight into the arms of his sister.

“Dee, are you all right?” She didn’t wait for him to answer. She rarely did when riled. Instead, she swept him down the hallway to a quiet room. “Sit,” she commanded.

Dee shuddered at the grating sensation of soul influence. “Gemi, don’t talk,” he said. His throat was tight, making speech difficult. He sat down, leaned his elbows on his knees, and hung his head as the nausea caught up with him.

Suddenly, he found a utility bucket being pushed into his hands. Gemi’s assistant, Miss Aldine, returned his gaze warily. “Just in case,” she said. Then she turned and grabbed Gemi by the shoulders. “You need to sit down and calm down, Gemi. He’s safe enough now.”

Dee exhaled slowly. His nausea was slow to subside, but with the two girls keeping silent, Dee had time to collect his thoughts. “I didn’t tell them,” he said carefully. “Gemi, warn the disposal team that it’s already far enough along to start using coercion. It’s weak, but it’s there already.”

Without a word, Gemi stood up and left the quiet room. In her absence, Miss Aldine sat on her chair. “She was really frightened when they said you ran across the Decay in the tunnels.”

“It’s a frightening thing to experience,” Dee replied shortly.

“I know.” There was a moment when neither of them spoke. Dee raised his head. His gaze met Miss Aldine’s. 

She looked away. “It’s nice that you look out for one another like that.”

“Don’t you have siblings, Miss Aldine?”

“I do, Mr. Kahn,” she replied with a flippancy that she obviously didn’t feel. “But not like you two.”

“I was born first,” Dee found himself saying. “Only by about twenty minutes, but I’m the older one. I have always tried to look out for Gemi. It isn’t an easy task,” he added with a dry chuckle that jarred his sick stomach. He lowered his head.

“I believe that. But, you know, she said the same about you.”

Gemi returned almost before Miss Aldine stopped speaking. “They know now. What were you doing so far out in the middle of the night, Dee?”

“I wouldn’t make him talk right now, Gemi, unless you want him to have to use that bucket,” Miss Aldine advised. “He’s still really sick.”

“Did you come into contact with it? Directly?” Gemi grabbed Dee by the face and forced him to look into her eyes.

“No. No, I kept my distance. Stop fussing.”

“You haven’t scared me this much since you were shot,” she complained. 

“Shot?” Miss Aldine echoed.

“We were nine,” Gemi said, “and we got caught out in the gardens during an attack. He shoved me into a trench and took three bullets in the back.”

“None of which hit anything important,” Dee clarified.

“You were still in hospital for a week,” Gemi retorted. “Are you sure that you didn’t get contaminated?”

“Perfectly sure. I’m feeling better already.” Dee gave Miss Aldine a warning look. “I just need rest, and then I’ll be fine.” He was steady when he stood up, steady when he told his sister, “I don’t want to alarm everyone at home. I’ll rest in the infirmary here for the rest of the night. Go back to bed, Gemi. Leave the rest to Abilil and his people.”

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