Shades of Honor(13)

By: Sandy Williams






3





The faded silhouette of the CSS Kaelais hovered in the sky between Meryk and its nearest moon. The atmosphere and angle of the sun allowed it to be seen even in the bright afternoon. It was a sleek, graceful ship that looked more like a pleasure cruiser than a lethal killing machine, and nearly everyone in the park gazed at it instead of the children playing.

Ash was one of two people whose attention wasn’t locked on the heavens. But unlike the other individual, she watched a blue door in the row of homes across the street from the park. It was a door she had entered before, but the simple steps she’d taken two months ago were impossible to take now. Her feet were leaden, her heart unwilling to pump enough blood to allow her the strength to rise from the park bench. She might very well be sick.

But she needed to enter that door. She couldn’t put it off any longer. Her ride to the warship overhead would depart in an hour. Who knew when she’d be back on Meryk? She might not make it back at all.

She rubbed her thumb over the smooth, transparent device in her hand. It was the same type of data-drive her old team had used on their last mission. Due to its speed, capacity, and stealth—not just visual stealth, but also digital—it was illegal to possess outside of approved military operations. And this operation definitely wasn’t approved.

She closed her eyes. It was distasteful to think of what she was about to do as an operation. She should be here for personal reasons. She should be here because it was the right thing to do. She should—

“Ash?”

The voice jolted Ash to her feet.

She turned. Lydia stood a few meters away with Grant, her kid.

Trevast’s kid. Even at five, he looked like his father.

Emotion clawed through her, triggering the instinct to flee. She glanced up at the Kaelais, then scanned the park before her gaze went back to Lydia.

These were the people Trevast had left behind, the people who had been told Ash had murdered their husband and father. Did they know what really happened? Shit. Ash hadn’t thought to ask, and the way Lydia stared made her think no one had revisited with the truth.

Lydia dropped Grant’s hand and lunged forward. Ash didn’t defend herself—she deserved this assault—but Lydia didn’t punch or push or tackle her to the ground. She didn’t wrap her hands around Ash’s throat.

She wrapped her arms around her shoulders.

The embrace hurt Ash more than any attack could have.

“I knew it wasn’t true,” Lydia said. “He loved you like a sister.”

Ash bit the inside of her cheek. She had to keep it together. Trevast’s widow was keeping it together. Lydia was pale, her eyes watering, but she wasn’t curling into a ball the way Ash wanted to.

“It’s good to see you again.” Only a lifetime of concealing emotions allowed Ash to make her voice sound normal.

Lydia stepped back. “Grant, you remember your daddy’s friend, Ash, right?”

The little kid grinned. “You got me the multi-tool for my birthday.”

“A completely inappropriate gift for a five-year-old, yes,” Lydia said, gently scolding Ash. Ash had bought the pocket-sized tool with the illegal signal jammer to irritate Trevast. It had worked.

“That’s me.” She smiled through the pain.

“How long have you been on Meryk?” Lydia asked.

“Not long.” Too long. Ash should have knocked on Lydia’s door the day she landed, but she’d been a coward.

She was still a coward. Discreetly she slid the transparent data-drive into a pocket. She should do the right thing now, give her condolences and depart. She didn’t need to make this an intelligence-gathering mission. There was likely nothing to gather.

“Why don’t you come inside,” Lydia said.

“I deploy soon.” She retreated a step.

“Already? I thought they’d give you the three standard months’ leave.”

“Usually they do.” Run, her conscience told her. Get out of here before you violate Trevast’s memory.

“Come in,” Lydia said. “Just for a few minutes. I’ll make you a drink.”

The Kaelais pulled Ash’s attention back to the sky. Her orders were to report to the ship. She didn’t have to look at her comm-cuff to know she was running out of time. The loyalty training served as her clock, tugging her puppet strings with each second that ticked past. That coupled with her cowardice made it almost impossible to accept Lydia’s offer.

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