“The transmission cut off.” Nyha unhooked the tiny comm set from her ear and laid it down on the console in front of her, her gaze going to Catano.
The comms officer frowned.
“Interference?” Garett turned to Catano as well, his tone more annoyed than concerned.
Nyha knew he was impatient to get back to his job. He hadn’t bothered to hide his irritation at being ordered to accompany her to the comm station located at the top of the Cepi ruins. The fact that it seemed the trip was a waste of time obviously hadn't improved his mood.
Catano shook her head. “No reason for interference.” She lifted her own comm set and tapped her fingers on the screen in front of her, looking more and more tense as she did so.
Nyha watched her and felt a stir of worry. “I could stay until--”
“No.” Garret's tone was harsh.
She and Catano turned to stare at him, and he blinked, as shocked, Nyha thought, as they were at the explosiveness of his response.
“Sorry.” He cleared his throat, still shaking his head. “We're on a tight schedule. The Calling have put us all in a difficult position, and there is simply no time.”
That was indisputably true. Nyha dipped her head in agreement.
Catano picked up the comm set Nyha had left on the console and did something to it before holding it out to her.
“It may be it just needs to be recalibrated. I've rebooted it. Put it back on, and if that's the problem, you'll be in touch with your retrieval ship as soon as the comm set comes back online.”
Nyha took it, slipped it on, and thought Catano seemed a little too focused on her until it was securely in place.
She opened her mouth to ask what was wrong, but Garett put a hand on her arm.
“No time.” He squeezed and let go, but she had the sense he wanted to physically jerk her out of her chair and out of the room.
There was no time, she conceded again, and nodded, mouthing a thank you to Catano as she left.
The comms officer watched her with a considering expression and then turned back to her screen, her fingers dancing across the black and green in a pattern almost as intricate as the ones carved into the walls around her.
Garett waited for Nyha at the central spiral, jaw tight. He made a sound that might have been exasperation as she stepped up to his side and she felt the familiar spike of annoyance that had been her constant companion since she and the girls had arrived on Cepi.
Their presence was resented here.
Nyha knew it was because the ruins were due to be blown up in less than a week, and she and the girls were obviously in the way, but they had been invited.
Garett stepped onto the thin ribbon of the downward spiral, and Nyha followed behind him. She gripped the handle which protruded from the central column with her left hand as it spun them down, and let her right arm swing out, held suspended by the centrifugal force.
Garett glanced at her over his shoulder, his gaze going to her arm, and she watched him fight a sneer. She smiled serenely at him in response, then threw back her head, closed her eyes, and enjoyed the sensation.
She only opened them again when they reached the bottom, and found Garett had his back to her again.
The walk to the room the girls were studying was less than a minute, and she purposely trailed behind Garett, knowing he wouldn't be able to help himself in turning back to hurry her along, while simultaneously refusing to shorten his step.
The result was a strange dance, and while it was petty of her, she had to get her revenge where she could.
When they reached their destination, he went straight to Professor Faro, and as Nyha looked around the room, she had to fight the fury that rose up in her.
The archeological team could at least have tried to be accommodating, but instead . . . they truly were dismantling everything here. Not only that, the girls would have to be blind not to see the annoyance, the side-long glances of irritation, that had become the standard greeting they'd been met with over the last three days.
Since she'd been taken in as a child, Nyha's presence had evoked strong emotion in others. Sometimes it was guilt, sometimes sympathy; most often it was caution--as if she were a ticking bomb they had no clue how to dismantle. The girls were used to it, too, they'd been exposed to it all their lives, although it was her job to make sure they were shielded as much as possible.
Professor Faro would have to be a lot more openly hostile before he made a dent in the thick shell she'd grown over the years, but the fact that he had taken that tack at all, and set the tone for the rest of his team, did not sit well.
“Problem, Professor?” she asked him now as she approached him, keeping her tone even.
“It's just . . . we're clearing this room.” The professor met her gaze with a hard one of his own, but whatever he saw on her face made him lower his gaze almost immediately.
“I know.” She tipped her head. “That's why we're here. To see it before it's cleared.” She looked away from him and nodded to the girls, who'd all stopped and looked toward her when she'd come in.
With a return nod, they went back to lifting their screens to scan pictures, or crouching beside the intricately carved walls and the strange squares scattered around the room.
The professor sighed.
“I know you have a time limit, Professor. We aren't here to get in your way. We're being picked up shortly, anyway. At least, that's what our ship's captain told me before I lost the connection.” She remembered the comm set, but didn't touch it. It was silent, so it must still be going through its reboot.
At the news they were leaving, the professor's eyes lit up, and she had to swallow back a cynical laugh.
She laid a hand on his arm. “Tilla will never forget this. The other girls, too, but this has been a way of closure for her that she will treasure forever.”
He seemed to deflate a little under her hand, and she let it drop back to her side.
“Of course,” he said. “Professor Dasty was the foremost authority on Cepi, and for her daughter to see it before it's destroyed is only right. If only the timing were better, but that hasn't been your fault. Not your fault at all. If it weren't for The Calling . . .” He trailed off, the fury and bitterness in his voice evident before he took a deep breath. “Forgive us if we've seemed a little . . .” He looked down.
“Distracted?” Nyha knew she was being particularly kind with that description.
He latched onto the word with alacrity, and she almost regretted being so forgiving. Almost, but not quite--because as she turned away from him, she knew that she had him twisted up in guilt and relief. He'd allow them free reign until they left.
Maybe they could go somewhere without Garett hovering over their shoulder.
Give and take, she told herself. If being gracious bought Tilla the freedom to go wherever she wanted for the short time she had left on the tiny moon, then it was a price she was willing to pay.
“What did you say to him?” Vika fell into step with her as she walked across the room, and Nyha glanced eye to eye with her charge. Of the four girls, only Fran was shorter than she was.
“He's been close to throwing us out a few times since you went to the comm station, but now it looks like he's finally taken the stick out of his butt--”
“Vik.” She kept her voice low, tried to keep her expression somber.
Vika grinned, unrepentant.
“Dr. Bartali.” Garett was suddenly beside her again, and his tone was that slightly condescending, slightly apologetic one she'd come to truly despise over the last three days.
Nyha caught the edge of Vika's smirk before she turned. “Yes?”
“Any response from your ship?”
She shook her head. “Nothing.” She looked at him expectantly, and he flushed under her scrutiny.
“Well, sorry to hear it.” He walked away, leaving her frowning after him.
He hadn't seemed that interested in the problem before, and she had difficulty believing he'd suddenly developed an interest now. Unless he thought the loss of comms signaled a delay in their departure.
That would worry him. He hadn't wanted them here.
“You know, Garett was the one who suggested Tilla come?” Vika said quietly in her ear.
“What?” She didn't believe it.
“It's true. Sugal told us.” Vik tipped her head in the direction of a member of the archaeological team. “There was apparently a lot of argument about it, and the professor was adamant we'd get in the way, but Garett had already sent a message about it to someone on the administrative council, and they thought it was a great idea.”
Nyha highly doubted the whole administrative council thought it was a good idea. If ever there was a confusing mix of ownership claims, Cepi was it. To the point they’d had to set up an administrative council in the first place.
Cepi had been discovered by the Arkhorans when they'd been taking their first, bumbling baby steps into space four hundred years ago. They'd Rediscovered Kalastoni on that mission, and had admitted the Kalastoni into the Verdant String--the last Rediscovery, with Kalastoni being the eighth planet found that was populated by a people who had obviously all originated from the same, mysterious place and settled across the five solar systems that comprised the string of eight green and blue planets.
Even though Cepi was one of Kalastoni's moons, the Arkhorans had hung on to it, charmed and fascinated by the evidence on it of a culture far older and different to their own. The Halatians had muscled in a bit, being further ahead, technologically speaking, than the Arkhorans, but their interest had been purely academic, and the Arkhorans had tolerated their presence.
It had taken the Kalastoni at least a hundred years after that to be in a position to resent the ownership, but they'd also found it very hard to get the Arkhorans to leave--they were the newest, least technically advanced members of the Verdant String, after all.
No doubt the reason for some of the council taking up Garett's suggestion was politically motivated, or merely score-settling. Maybe that's why Garett was so hostile. He'd suggested they come, but that suggestion had damaged his career with the professor, perhaps?
She shrugged. What did it matter now? They were about to leave.
The girls were packed, she'd overseen that herself, and their things were waiting in the docking bay.
Tilla approached her, screen still raised and scanning. “I think we're all done.”
There was a happiness, a calm in Tilla's gaze, that made Nyha glad she'd been persuaded to do this, even though, like the professor, she'd thought it was a terrible idea.
“What would you like to do before we leave?”
“Sit in the observatory. The others are happy to come as well.”
Nyha brushed Tilla's cheek with her fingertips. “Let's go, then.”
Tilla's mother had loved the obs deck. She'd written about it in her journal, and Tilla had gone there every day since they'd arrived on Cepi. It would make a fitting last stop before they left.
“Goodbye, Professor.” Nyha waved to him from across the room, but he barely looked up, flapping a hand at her in a distracted way.
She hesitated, caught between good manners and irritation, and then decided to leave it.
As the archeological team kept telling her, they were running out of time. The Kalastoni had promised to blow Cepi up at the end of the week, no exceptions. The fact that The Calling had delayed the removal of the ruin's artifacts by two months with their spurious court application made no difference.
There were four days left before the ruins were gone for good.
“You want to say goodbye to anyone?” she asked the girls, and they shook their heads.
“Already done it,” Fran told her. “While we were exploring the room.”
That made things much easier. She led the way out, and took them to the spiral, let them laugh and do silly tricks as they were spun upward.
Ju hung on with both hands, jumped and lifted her legs, so the centrifugal force pulled her body horizontal to the central column. The other three were still laughing at her antics by the time they got to the very top.
Ju dropped lightly to her feet and grinned at Nyha over her shoulder. “You should try it next time.”
“Maybe I will,” Nyha told her. And maybe she would. After the excessively safe and subdued public transport on Arkhor, their adoptive planet, this was a little wild. A little more Halatian.
Then again, Arkhor had had to take her and the girls in because Halatia had been a little too wild.
There were things to be said for safe. But the spiral was just crazy enough to be fun. She and the girls seemed to be the only ones on Cepi who liked it, though.
The tech that made it work was similar to tech that had been used on the planets of the Verdant String for hundreds of years, so it wasn't scientifically interesting, except in its similarity to Verdant String tech.
There was even a theory that their original ancestors, the settlers of the Verdant String planets, had stopped at Cepi when they'd dropped off some of their people at Kalastoni, had seen the spiral, and tried to replicate it, thereby sowing the seeds of theories and experimentation that would eventually help them succeed in doing just that.
Nyha found the idea fascinating, but the truth of the matter was, the rest of Cepi was a mystery, the spiral was not.
Nyha glanced back at it with affection as she followed the girls. She'd miss it--it was hardly ever used in Arkhor anymore.
“That looks like our ship,” Vik said as they all stepped out onto the platform, protected from the nothingness of space by most likely the biggest Cepi mystery of all, the artificial gravity and atmosphere that surrounded the entire moon.
Nyha lifted her head and saw the sleek gray pick-up approaching, marveling, as she had every time she'd been out here, at how it seemed as if she could reach out and touch Kalastoni to her left, or Darga, the small ice planet in Kalastoni's solar system, to her right.
It was as if they were standing outside at home on Arkhor, looking up at the night sky, instead of on a tiny moon with no atmosphere.
No one knew what was powering the protective layer on Cepi.
The planets of the Verdant String had their own grav and atmosphere generators, but Cepi's ran silent and without any visible power source. And the protective layer was completely invisible. The Verdant String technology was only possible with a honeycomb layer around it, and it produced a hazy shimmer. You always knew the layer was above you, while the Cepi tech was silent and clear.
A genuine wonder.
Even more interesting, it was widely speculated that the reason Cepi's orbit had been strangely altered in the last year had something to do with its grav generator. Whether it was failing, or there was something else going on, Cepi was now on a collision course with Kalastoni.
If the planet was going to survive, there was no choice but to blow Cepi into tiny pieces.
“How long have we got before we have to board?” Tilla asked, her head tipped up to watch their pick-up edging in.
Nyha remembered her comm set again, fiddled with it, but it was still dead. “Maybe an hour. It looks like the ship's right on time.”
It couldn't come fast enough.
She knew she often held a grudge too easily, a remnant of the unfairness of her childhood, but in this case, she thought she was justified in feeling resentful of the way the scientists had transferred their anger at The Calling onto her and the girls. They'd been handy stand-ins for the cult and its crazy leaders.
Not that the scientists' anger at The Calling was unjustified. The Calling had fought against common sense and pragmatism at every step. They wanted to stop Kalastoni from destroying Cepi, or at least prevent Arkhor and Kalastoni from stripping the ruin of its artifacts.
But eventually, after they'd employed months of delaying tactics, the courts had stood firm against them. The Kalastoni had the right to protect themselves from a moon smashing into their planet.
So goodbye, Cepi.
The Calling's case hadn't even made sense. No matter what, Cepi was going to be destroyed. The only variable was whether or not it took a planet of two billion people with it.
The Kalastoni had insisted on having a two-week window before final impact in case something went wrong, and would have destroyed the ruins months ago if The Calling hadn't held everything up.
Because of that, the scientists had to be happy with whatever time they were given, and they weren't being gracious about it.
At least the courts, when throwing out The Calling's application, had barred them from Cepi while the scientists stripped it bare.
The Calling had annoyed the courts as much as they'd annoyed everyone else.
And now she and the girls could leave the whole festering mess behind them.
The small, sleek pick-up seemed to drift downward like a floss seed on the wind as it came into the final approach, and Nyha was gripped with a need to just go.
But it was customary for the crew to get at least half an hour of off-ship time, and so there was no sense hurrying the girls to the bay yet.
She forced herself to sit on one of the benches and close her eyes, half-listening to the girls as they chatted to each other and took final scans of their surroundings.
She lifted her hands up and released her hair from the high, tight, twist she'd put it in this morning, shaking it out and massaging her scalp.
It felt blissful to have it down.
She usually kept it off her face because the color was less obvious that way, and she'd spent her life living on the razor's edge of refusing to deny her physiological roots, and her need to blend in to her new home.
Tying her long blue hair in a complex twist was probably a poor compromise, but it was the only way she could appease both deeply-held needs.
The girls had never drunk the waters of Halatia, with its minerals that changed the composition of its people's hair follicles, but their mothers had, and their hair was a paler, almost sky blue shade to her darker, brighter color. She could dye it, had been urged to shortly after she entered her teens, but that would have been denying her origins.
A sharp, almost painful, spike of sound pierced her ear, and her eyes opened in surprise. The pick-up was out of her line of sight, having docked below the obs deck, and she stood and walked to the edge of the platform.
“Hello?” she said into the comms set, looking down at the smooth dark gray of the ship, neatly connected to the docking bay. “Captain?”
“Who is this?” The voice in her ear was deep and rough.
Nyha frowned. “You aren't Captain Farga.”
Captain Farga was a woman, and whoever she was speaking to was most definitely a man.
“No.” The man paused. “Who connected you to this channel?”
She opened her mouth to answer, but before she said a word, someone screamed below.
She stepped even closer to the edge and looked down, saw one of the Cepi security guards had fallen to the ground and a man in a dark blue Arkhor space crew uniform was standing over him.
She drew in a sharp breath.
“What is it?” the voice in her ear asked, but she ignored it, her gaze fixed on the scene below.
The security guard squirmed back a little, then tried to pull himself up.
The man in the blue uniform lifted both arms, and she realized there was a weapon in his hands. She called out a warning, but it was too late.
There was an audible buzz, and the guard fell back down and didn't move.
The man in the Arkhor crew suit turned his head, looking straight up at her, and Nyha stared back, eyes wide.
“Tell me what happened,” the man talking to her through the comm set demanded again.
“One of the pick-up crew just shot a Cepi security guard.” She spoke quietly, voice soft with shock.
“Then I have one word of advice for you,” the man said, low and urgent. “Run.”