Shades of Honor(14)

By: Sandy Williams


She’d made it a policy to circumvent the loyalty training whenever possible. So if it demanded she leave, then screw it. She would stay no matter how much her conscience wanted her to run.

She would stay, and she would do this.

“I might have a few minutes to spare.”

Relief and worry lit Lydia’s face. It was an odd combination. Maybe she hadn’t wanted Ash to say yes?

“Great.” Lydia smiled, took her son’s hand, and started toward the row of homes.

Ash waited a moment, just long enough to notice the movement of a man in the park, the one other person whose attention hadn’t been riveted to the Kaelais like everyone else.

Ash pretended not to notice him and followed Trevast’s widow. The blue door slid into the white stone wall. Stepping over the threshold, Ash’s throat closed up. She wanted this to be two months ago. She wanted to grin at Trevast as she handed his son a gift he’d specifically forbidden her to give. She wanted him and the rest of the team to be standing in the social room, cracking jokes, acting like civilians and dads and sons and brothers. She didn’t want the memory of their deaths.

“Run up to your room, Grant.” Lydia looked tense. Nervous. “Have a seat, Ash. I’ll be right back.”

Ash didn’t drop onto the couch or the half-broken recliner that had been Trevast’s favorite. As soon as Lydia left the room, she walked to the wall that held the family’s entertainment system and found the small port that provided an access point to the home’s databanks.

She inserted the transparent drive. The system didn’t chime or register the device in any way, but Ash tapped on her comm-cuff, opened the not-quite-legal application that shouldn’t be installed there, and executed an algorithm very similar to the one she’d used on the mission to Chalos II. She had a hunch this would work flawlessly.

Turning her back to the system, she faced the opposite wall. Lydia hadn’t moved or changed any of the holos on the shelves. A 3D image of Trevast and his family sat happily atop one. He looked real. He looked happy. More importantly, he didn’t look like he was condemning her actions.

Perhaps he wanted her to be here? He wanted her to pry? To violate the family’s privacy and learn the truth behind the warning he’d whispered as he died?

Or was that wishful thinking? Trevast’s smile didn’t look as relaxed as before. It was starting to look forced.

She squeezed her eyes shut. His expression hadn’t really changed. It was all in her mind.

Lydia returned from the kitchen and handed Ash a steaming cup. Ash took a sip—

And choked when the alcohol hit.

“Keelian liquor?” Ash coughed.

Lydia blinked. “Yes, sorry. I…” She took a long sip from her own mug and didn’t wince from the heat or the burn. Lydia was from Keel. The inhabitants of that planet could tolerate a high level of alcohol, but even Keelians drank their heated liquors with caution. When mixed with certain tea leaves, their drinks were potent.

Lydia set her mug on the low table beside the couch. “I need to know how he died.”

Ash almost choked again. “What?”

“Was Brand’s death quick? Was he… afraid?”

Ash was tempted to down the full mug of alcohol. Instead, she set it next to Lydia’s on the table.

“The Fighting Corps didn’t give me details on what happened,” Lydia rushed on. “They said you were a Saricean spy, and that you’d caused Brand’s death. I knew it was a lie—you’re family. I know you did everything you could to save him, to save all of them, but I need to know…” Her voice caught. “I need to know if he suffered.”

Ash stared at the dirt stains on Trevast’s favorite recliner. Lydia hated that thing. She’d threatened to dump it every time he left on a mission. And every time they survived, he told the team he had to get home to check on his chair. It was still here, still waiting even though he’d never return to check on it again.

The memories of his last moments pressed in, squeezing the air from her lungs. Her hands prickled, the first sign that panic was closing in. She clenched them into fists and took a step backward. She couldn’t lose it in front of Lydia.