Despite the tension that filled the command room, no one spoke. It had been more than an hour since the last report had come in. At the moment, no one could do anything but wait. In the stillness, Gemini Kahn got up from her seat and paced to the doorway to look out into the hall. She had repeated this set of actions at least twenty times during the past hour. Finding the hallway empty, she paced back to her seat.
“Gemi, go home,” said Stephanna.
“I can’t,” Gemini replied. “Not until I have something to tell them.”
“Then go to your quarters.”
“I can’t. I can’t rest.”
“The commander has everybody alerted on this.”
“I know.” Gemini got up, walked to the doorway, looked into the empty hallway, and returned to her seat. “I know!” she repeated. “It doesn’t help, knowing.”
“He’s a sensible fellow, your brother. He knows the desert.”
“But he’s hurt,” Gemini replied sharply. “He’s hurt. There was blood in the back of the truck.”
“It might not be his.”
“Of course it is. He always sits that side, next to the door. You can’t shift him. Always next to the door, so he can be the first one out. He’s hurt, Stephanna, and Dinah’s helpless in the desert. I hope they’re out in the desert,” she said suddenly. “That smoke…”
“Stop fretting when you don’t know anything,” said Nenette, another of the older women of the intelligence department. “Speculation helps no one. If you can’t wait in silence, then wait in prayer, Gemi.”
Gemini got up and walked to the doorway. This time, she stepped out into the empty hall and headed for the chaplain’s office. She remembered Gull Hadumar, the man previously assigned to the base as chaplain, sitting behind the desk with his feet propped up and his chair tipped back. She sat in the chair tentatively. A scrap of paper with her brother’s handwriting caught her eye: only a few words, intelligible only to Dee, but it made Gemini’s eyes sting with tears. Three hours since Station Eleven had reported the supply truck’s failure to arrive. Two and a half hours since the first investigators had found the crashed truck, with Musa’s and Arman’s bodies still trapped in the front seats. No clues, apart from a set of heavy truck tracks, duals, leaving the road near the crash. But those went back to the road and were lost on the pavement almost immediately, the report said, and could have gone anywhere in the general westward direction. An hour since the last report that Dee, Saamsa, and Dinah were still missing.
The alarms went off. Gemini sprang up from the desk and ran back to the command room to find Commander Romy back from his tour of the crash site. He was in the midst of a full mobilization, but he saw Gemini as soon as she entered. He gestured emphatically for her to sit down and wait.
Gemini could only watch and listen as the commander gave orders, but she gathered a little information from those orders. The base was preparing for an assault on an Outsider compound in Outsider territory. This by itself was extraordinary enough, but the last command Romy gave was for notification to be sent to authorities at Anshaan, the nearest Outsider city-state. When Romy finally came to sit opposite Gemini, she gazed at him with wide-eyed solemnity. “This is getting big,” she said.
Romy nodded. “They’ve tracked down the vehicle from the crash scene. It has been seen at an armed compound south-southwest of Station Eleven, eight miles outside. Scouts from Station Twelve verified that the compound belongs to TD-069.”
All the blood drained from Gemini’s face.
“That is why we’re moving fast,” Romy said. “I suppose it’s no good, telling you to stay here.”
“No good whatsoever.” Gemini’s words came out with false calm.
“Then I’ll only say this: you stay at my side. No running ahead, no acting on your own. Understand me?”
All the way up the highway, Gemini turned over and over in her thoughts what was known about the Decay merchant who was identified solely with the code number TD-069. His true identity was still unknown. Even his employees only called him Boss. He operated his business executively, as a strategist and financier, and was never caught near a shipment. His policies were bloody compared even to his peers in the trafficking business. He liked to torture any of his rivals unfortunate enough to fall into his power, and there were darker rumors about him that no one had yet had the opportunity to investigate.
The commander’s mobile command center followed last in the procession that rumbled along the highway. When they reached the border, they met up with vehicles from Stations Ten, Eleven, and Twelve. This was no stealth operation. This was a raid. The most heavily armored vehicles crashed through the compound’s gate, drawing some fire. E-M sympathists from the second wave put a stop to that. Their barrage, like an electrical storm, dazzled and stunned the armed guards on the wall, freeing the third wave to storm the inner compound.
“Too little resistance,” Commander Romy muttered. “Where is everyone? Out on a staff picnic?” He listened to something from the earpiece of his headset. “No, keep on. I want this place searched front to back, top to bottom. Clear it out.”
And they did. By the time Romy received the all-clear from every company, twenty minutes had elapsed. Gemini was almost frantic. She perched on the edge of her seat in the front of the personnel carrier, remaining in place only by a supreme effort of will. Her heel beat against the floor mat in an unbroken rhythm. Commander Romy and his lieutenant exchanged a look. “Let’s take stock,” Romy said. “Beside me, Gemi, don’t forget.”
“Sir.” Gemini stationed herself at the commander’s shoulder. She kept exact pace with him as they crossed the outer compound to a gathering of officers.
“What should I know?” Romy asked the assembly.
“Sir,” said Captain Abilil, “we have an underground seeding facility on-site. That’s where most of the remaining personnel were. We’re dealing with it now, but…”
“What about Dee?” Gemini demanded. “Saamsa? Dinah?”
“That’s the other thing,” Captain Abilil admitted. “No sign of the chaplain, nor of your assistant, Gemi, but we… we located Saamsa. You shouldn’t come, Gemi.”
“I’m coming,” she said.
Commander Romy gave a small gesture of dismissal. “Let’s have it, Captain.”
Captain Abilil led them to an unprepossessing building with what appeared to be a lean-to attached to the back. “It’s like a slaughterhouse in there,” he warned.
Romy stepped inside. After a momentary pause, he said, “No, Captain, slaughterhouses are cleaner than this.” His tone and expression were heavy. “Come, Gemi. Touch nothing.”
She stepped inside the doorway and stopped, just as the commander had done. She only moved in order to let the investigators pass by her. Otherwise, she made no attempt to proceed.
There seemed no surface in the room that was not stained with blood. Footprints of blood criss-crossed the floor. Spatter marked the walls and the ceiling. The open drawers of the desk and filing cabinets seemed the least touched by blood, but they had been ransacked.
Gemini had deliberately left the area in the back corner until last, just as Romy had done the opposite. He was straightening already from his cursory examination of the two bodies lying there. He gazed at Gemini with steady, wrathful eyes. “Saamsa. And one unknown.” He looked around the room in cold assessment. “I suspect our unknown may be TD-069 himself.”
This startled Gemini out of her horrified stupor. “What?”
But Romy beckoned to his chief investigator, Major Esfir Gehazi. “How do you read this?” He waved a hand over the crime scene.
Major Gehazi came and squatted down next to the more mangled of the two bodies. “Immediate cause of death? Probably the stab wound, although exsanguination might have been close.” She turned her attention to the other body. “We would have to go in to confirm it, but it looks like this one died of epidural hematoma.”
“In plain language, Esfir?”
The major glanced up and said, “Bleeding in the skull. I see severe external damage to the pterion area, probably caused by a blow to the head, probably with this chair. Assailant must have been fairly strong. It was a sturdy wooden chair, looks like mahogany, matching the desk. Would have caved in his skull very thoroughly, probably knocked him out. I doubt that he ever regained consciousness. See the grip he has on that scourge? He might have died on impact.”
“Who hit him?” Romy asked.
“No way to know. There’s blood on the chair. Blood and tissue on the desk, around the knife blade. Be interesting to see if they match.”
Romy looked to Gemini. She stared helplessly back at him. “We’ve accounted for one of our missing soldiers,” Romy said. “What does this place tell you about the other two, Esfir?”
“Firstly, that they aren’t here now,” said Major Gehazi, “but they were. I see one of our standard issue packs beyond the desk, ransacked. I see an open pair of handcuffs on the floor and a key ring next to it. Bloody marks on both. I see two pairs of footprints heading toward that door. You might not see them through all the other prints, but I know the marks of those goat-hair socks that Dee wears. He went out that way, and a woman’s size seven boot went with him.”
“What is through that door?” Romy asked.
From the open exit, Captain Abilil answered, “The seeding facility, sir.”
Gemini leaned back against the doorpost and sank down into a squat.
“Let’s take a look,” said the commander. He was already pulling on his respirator. “Gemi, with me.” He waited until Gemi stood up and donned her own mask. Then he took her by the hand.
The door opened into an antechamber. One complete protective suit hung on the wall, and two suits missing their respirators. Romy said, “Further sign of our missing lambs, I’d say.” He pointed at the bloody prints on the floor. Just as Major Gehazi had said, one was the track of a small boot. The other was just a fuzzy mark.
Through the next doorway, they were suddenly enveloped in smoke. The respirators allowed them to breathe, but it was almost impossible to see anything. Romy pulled Gemini by the hand. He was crouching low, closely examining the metal grating on which they stood. He pointed to a dark smear, then another, and yet another. These marks led onward to an emergency exit at the rear of the facility.
Commander Romy pushed the door open. Gemini joined him at the top of the emergency stairs outside. Romy pointed. “I’d bet anything, if I was a betting sort of man, that they’re out in that,” and he indicated the basalt labyrinth beyond the compound’s waste dump. When Gemini started forward, Romy grabbed her by the arm. “No you don’t. The condition was, you stay right beside me. No running off on your own. We’ll have the station scouts take it from here.” He turned her back indoors.
With the external door open, the smoke was thinning out. Gemini saw one of their soldiers approaching. It still was too hazy to identify the soldier until he was an arm’s-length in front of them. “Sir.”
“Martmourra,” said Romy. “Just the man. What should I know?”
Gemini’s cousin on her mother’s side, Norlin Martmourra, dropped his salute. “Sir. Initial containment is done. All the seedings have been destroyed. Somebody started it for us. We apprehended twenty-two suspects trying to put out a fire in the seeding tank directly below here. Looks to be one of our new micro-incendiaries. Dee must have gone through here.”
“That’s what it looks like,” Romy agreed. “I have a new assignment for you, Lieutenant. Take your cousin back to the base for me and sit on her until I return.”
Gemini began, “But, sir, they’re out there—”
Romy interrupted her with a gesture. “You know everything there is to know as of this minute. You need to step away. You look terrible. I won’t let this go until we get Dee back. Trust me with that. Trust me, Gemi.”
She stared into his eyes for several seconds. “I trust you,” she said eventually.
“You need to rest. See that she does, Lieutenant.”
“Sir.” Norlin saluted again. He escorted Gemini to one of the trucks in front of the compound. As he drove her away, he said, “It’s better news than we hoped, isn’t it?”
“It is,” Gemini sighed. “But poor Saamsa…” She shivered.
“Saamsa was prepared for this, you know. He went always in the protection of the Only One. As Chaplain Hadumar always used to tell us, say instead ‘poor us,’ for we are left behind to mourn while he runs ahead to rejoice.”
“You sound just like Dee,” Gemini said with a weary smile.
“Somebody has to say it in his absence. He’ll say it himself, without a doubt, when he comes home.” Norlin sighed. “I know you and Saamsa were close friends always. There were some who expected you two to marry one day.”
“Those who did expected wrongly, but he was almost another brother to me. Noor, Noor, I’m still scared. I’m sure they’re both hurt out there. What if… no, I can’t bring myself to say it.”
Norlin reached over to squeeze her hand.
“How do you cope,” Gemini continued, “with a twin who causes you such worry?”
Her cousin chuckled. “Life has grown much easier for me since Ietta married, I’ll admit. If I hadn’t the confidence I do have in her husband, I would be frantic with worry myself most of the time. But my brother-in-law is a good man, a smart man, and he watches over Ietta in our place. I do wonder what sort of mother she will be,” Norlin added with another chuckle. “She says this is to be the first of many. Jokulle must be a more patient man than I expected.”
Gemini smiled a little, but without much heart. She was silent for the rest of the drive back to the base. Upon arrival, she silently refused all offers of rest or refreshment. She headed straight for the command room and settled herself in at the video conference station, waiting.
From time to time, Norlin brought her coffee or water to drink. He waved away any words of thanks and ignored any hints that he should leave her to wait alone. Norlin and his twin sister Ietta were only two years older than Gemini and Dee. Where his sister was vivacious and impulsive, Norlin was like a stone wall, quietly relentless once he had taken his stand. He stayed within sight of Gemini through the rest of the afternoon and into the evening.
Reports arrived from the scene occasionally, mostly announcing negative progress. The missing pair were not in the volcanic boulder fields beyond the traffickers’ compound. They were not in any of the nearest tunnels. No tracks were found in the open desert to the west. There was a trace of recent presence in an old tunnel out Station Twelve way, but the scouts lost it again soon after. Sunset put a temporary halt to the search aboveground, but the Station Twelve scouts would carry on with the subterranean search. This last news came from Abi Larsa, Commander Romy’s aide de camp, when she returned from the border. She and Stephanna came directly to the command room and pulled their chairs up on either side of Gemini. Abi said, “Commander says we’re to spell you, Lieutenant Martmourra. He says you probably need a rest by now.”
Norlin chuckled. “I won’t go far.” He slipped out of the command room.
“When is the commander coming back?” Gemini asked tiredly.
“When he knows where those two are,” said Abi. “Didn’t he tell you?”
Gemini said, “He did say… but I didn’t think he meant…” She lapsed into thoughtful silence.
“Uncle Alec is serious about bringing them home,” Abi said. “Mahdi always talks about how stubborn Uncle can be. He went to talk to old Modasseri in person to enlist his help. He’s sure the old tunnels are our best lead, and Modasseri agreed with him.”
“If anyone can understand the commander’s stubbornness,” Stephanna remarked, “your mother can, little Abi. She married his eldest brother, and there isn’t much to choose between a Romy boy and a boulder.”
“She warned me, when I was ready to marry, ‘Be sure of a man’s character, Abi,'” the young woman laughed, “‘and don’t take him if you can’t live with his faults.’ She should know. And all in all, I have no real problem with my Dareus.”
“How is your Dareus?” asked Stephanna.
While the two women exchanged family news, Gemini gazed across the room without seeing anything. She started upright when Norlin tapped a fingertip atop her head. “What?”
“You nearly fell asleep sitting there,” he chided. “You’re worse than my little Lena when it comes to refusing to rest when you’re tired. Lean forward.” He shoved a pillow behind her. “Put your feet on here.” He moved another chair in front of hers. “Now rest. We’ll make enough noise to wake you if any news comes in.”
Gemini made a wry face at her cousin, but she didn’t argue. It seemed that she had only just closed her eyes and leaned her head back when a clamor of voices jerked her back to wakefulness. Commander Romy was back. Gemini struggled to her feet. “Where are they?” she asked in a sleep-thickened voice.
Romy grinned at her. “We found them. We’ve got them. They’ll be fine—”
What he might have said next, no one would ever know, because Gemini sprang forward and kissed him hard on the lips. Romy blinked rapidly in shock, smiled again, and said, “You’re welcome.” Then, as Gemini started to cry, he hugged her lightly. “This is good news. You’re coming with me. I came back for supplies and Dr. Vicena and you.”
As they headed for the garage, the army surgeon Dr. Vicena joined them. “What am I looking at, Commander?” she demanded.
“Nothing too serious,” Romy said. “Miss Aldine needs something more than just stitches for her right hand. The medics cleaned it and rewrapped it, but they wanted your opinion on what measures to take next.”
“Why didn’t you bring her to me?”
“It’s complicated to explain. Let’s say we decided not to transport them immediately and leave it at that.”
Dr. Vicena made a dissatisfied sniff. “Where is she, then?”
“Station Twelve. Uncle Modasseri brought them in.”
“Well! If that old goat is involved, I’d say it must be complicated to explain,” Dr. Vicena said.
“If not for him, those two would still be out there,” the commander replied. “The rest of the scouts were all in favor of working the old tunnels methodically, to be sure they didn’t overlook any hiding places. Modasseri listened to their conference, left without saying a word, and came back less than an hour later, carrying Miss Aldine on his back and leading Dee by the hand. I asked, how had he done it, and he told me, just like finding stray goats, you look for water first.”
“He would know all about the habits of goats,” Dr. Vicena said tartly.
When they reached Station Twelve, there was Sharagha Modasseri, apparently asleep next to the main entrance. He came upright when they were within a few steps. His dark eyes glinted from under shaggy, owl-like eyebrows. “The other Kahn twin, I see.”
Gemini grasped his hand and raised it to her cheek. “Thank you, Uncle. Thank you a thousand times.”
“You’re a good girl, Gemini Kahn. Don’t use your sympathy around your brother for a while. He has a bad enough headache as it is.” Modasseri patted her cheek. “Give my greetings to your ammai and your parents.”
“I will,” she promised.
At the infirmary entrance, Dr. Vicena announced, “I’m here; where is my patient?” A medic brought her to one of the curtained bays. There Dinah Aldine lay sleeping. Dr. Vicena said, “Did you sedate her?”
“Lightly, because she was very agitated by seeing the state of her hand.”
Gemini smoothed the wisps of coppery-red hair back from Dinah’s face. “Good work,” Gemini whispered. Then she turned expectantly to the medic. “Where is Dee?”
They directed her to the commander’s quarters, where the young station commander Elise Fearghus waited. She stood to greet Commander Romy and Gemini with a smile. “I have held back from interviewing him so that he could rest. He has a grade four concussion, they tell me, and he should be kept calm.”
“We understand, Elise,” said Romy. “We will make every effort not to agitate him.”
Then they finally let Gemini see her twin. He was lying on a sofa, reclining but not supine. A fresh bandage almost glowed white against his brown temple. His eyes were tired but clear. “Gemi,” he said.
She dropped to her knees beside the sofa, buried her face in her hands, and cried. She felt a warm hand come to rest on her head. “Why do you worry me so much?” she sobbed. “I could punch you, I really could!”
“Please hold back until my head mends,” Dee replied in his usual dry way.
Gemini sniffled and laughed at the same time. “What happened, Dee?” She raised her eyes to look into her brother’s eyes.
He turned his face away. For almost half a minute, he said nothing while Gemini and the two commanders waited. “You found Saamsa?” he said at last.
“We did,” said Romy.
Dee turned to face them. His expression was stern. “Has Miss Aldine been questioned yet?”
“No. She was sedated when we got here,” Gemini answered, “and Dr. Vicena is just getting ready to operate on her hand.”
“I’ll answer your questions, but no one is to ask her anything about this. No one. She needs to speak with a qualified trauma counselor before she gets dragged back through the memory of all this. Commander?” Dee turned his stare on Romy.
“We’ll get one,” Romy promised. “As soon as Mother can get one to us.”
Dee drew a deep breath and released it. “After we left Station Ten, we were hit head-on by a truck. Deliberately. I sensed the malice and gave the warning, but too late for Musa to do anything but swerve. I remember that much and nothing else until I was in the cargo area of some kind of transport truck. Saamsa was on my right. Miss Aldine was across from us, but the rough ground was tossing her all over the place. When she landed close to me, she held on. We stayed like that until the vehicle stopped. We were hauled out and taken to a building set apart from the rest. I was the only one with my hood on, so it’s likely I’m the only one who could see anything. It was dark in the back of that vehicle,” he said in a pensive tone.
“We were there,” Romy said. “In that building. We saw.”
“Then you have some idea of how brutal it was,” said Dee flatly. “I was helpless from the start. That man had the most repulsive soul I have ever encountered. Between my sympathy and my head injury, it took all my strength to stay conscious and not throw up. Miss Aldine protected me the best she could.”
“Dinah?” said Gemini in mild surprise.
“Yes. She took your fears for me very much to heart. That man, his intention was to torment her by torturing first Saamsa and then me. Actually, he mistook me for you. He claimed to possess soul sympathy.”
Gemini stared at him, shocked now.
Dee went on, “He delighted in her terror and my disgust. The only one he couldn’t get any reaction out of was Saamsa. Excellent man,” said Dee softly. “Despite the pain, Saamsa remained firm. He refused even to cry out when he was being torn to shreds. When that man tried to get a reaction out of him, he quoted the teachings to him. Excellent man,” Dee repeated in almost a whisper. His brow lowered and his eyes narrowed. “And then, when that man had scourged him until Dinah was numb with shock, he said Saamsa was no good and drove a stiletto blade into the base of his skull.”
In the pause that followed, no one else spoke. Gemini reached out and seized Dee’s hand.
He looked at her as if reminded suddenly of her presence. “Don’t look like that, Gemi. He wouldn’t like it.” Again, he drew and released a long breath. “After that, that man decided to start on me. He was after you, Gemi. He was behind the attack on you. He said as much. He was disappointed at first that I wasn’t you. Then he said it just gave him something to look forward to. Something to look forward to,” Dee repeated in revulsion. “I was overwhelmed. So disgusting. He pulled me away from her, and she went at him. Not enough to hurt him,” he clarified, “but just to get in his way. I suppose she thought it might give me time to recover, but there was no recovering in his presence. Not with my sympathy.” He said those four words bitterly. “He was so malicious, so false. He started talking to her, calming her down, leading her away from me toward the desk.”
“The knife,” Romy said in a voice of realization.
“Yes. When he had her calmed—confused, I should say— he drove a knife through her hand to pin her to the desk so that she couldn’t interfere with him.”
“I was handcuffed and hung by the cuffs from a hook in the ceiling. Dinah was in a frenzy of panic, so much so that it went to his head. I’ve never been intoxicated myself, but that was how he seemed in that moment. It was incredibly strong. I heard her shout. She…” Suddenly he smiled. “She said, ‘You can’t hurt Gemi’s brother.’” Dee met Gemini’s gaze. “She was thinking of you, even at such a time. She has amazing loyalty.”
“How did…” Commander Romy stopped suddenly. “How did she hurt her hand more, Dee?”
Dee nodded and then winced. “I shouldn’t have moved like that. Too soon. Your guess, Commander, is probably correct. I couldn’t see her at first. I was facing the wrong way, facing toward… toward Saamsa. I twisted back when she shouted. She was already there, swinging that chair as if it weighed nothing. She broke it against that man’s head. He was dead instantly. She doesn’t realize, Commander. As far as I can tell, she still believes that she merely knocked him unconscious. She was in such a panic that she didn’t give him a second look. She just came to me and checked that he hadn’t physically harmed me yet. I had to talk her around to looking for the key to loose me from the handcuffs. I saw that she couldn’t use her right hand at all. When I did get a good look at it… I saw that she had torn it almost in half between the bones. Then, I was so dizzy from the head injury and from the sickness, I wasn’t capable of walking out of that place on my own. She had to hold me up. We made our way out through that cesspit of seeding vats and went into the desert to hide.” He closed his eyes and leaned his head back with a heavy sigh.
“I’m glad you’re back in our care,” said Commander Romy. “We’ll let you rest now.” He took Gemini by the shoulders and steered her out of the room, with Station Commander Fearghus behind them. Out in the parlor area, with the door shut between them and Dee, he asked Gemini, “What do you want to do now?”
She bit her lower lip for a few seconds. Then, slowly, she answered, “I need to speak with Mother Locke.”