The Eurydice Compact—none of the other congolms—appear to be above using children to achieve means to their ends. There is no heart left to them, no compassion. In my time among them, I managed to help a few to see the truth and learn to feel again, but it will never be enough. It will never be enough until they’ve all been saved from themselves.
— Ambassador Alexander Channing, Psychean Guard, c. 5199
14 Novem, 5249 PD
“Is he any better?”
Ezra stirred from his doze at the sound of Alana’s voice. She stood above him and she blinked blearily at her, eyes momentarily refusing to focus.
Tired. What did she ask me? “Huh?”
The corner of her mouth twitched slightly toward a smile but the smile didn’t quite appear. “Brendan. Is he any better?”
“Oh.” Ezra rubbed the sleep from his eyes, stretching slightly. He glanced back over his shoulder, toward Brendan’s bunk. He was still out like a light, his eyes already ringed by dark circles. “No,” he said, shaking his head as he looked back up at Alana. “Not really. I’m still trying to figure out what happened.”
On the bunk across from him, Grant and America had fallen asleep, their bodies pressed together like a pair of spoons. Alana looked at them for a moment, then drew a blanket up over their sleeping forms. Ezra smothered a frown.
Never seen her quite that tender. And considering the reaming that Commander Channing tried to give her…what the hell was that all about?
It wasn’t safe to ask that question, though—not quite yet, but soon enough. He settled on a safer question. “When did they fall asleep?”
“A couple hours ago.” Alana sat down next to him on the deck, resting her elbows against her knees, letting her hands dangle between the V of her legs. “We’re on autopilot in hyperspace. Even I could pass out and we’d be fine for at least another two or three hours.”
“How long since I apparently dozed off?” Ezra rubbed his eyes again. His mouth tasted slightly sour, so it must have been at least three hours.
“That was at about 1500 Nova Spexi,” Alana said. “It’s a little after 1900 now. You feeling better yourself?”
Ezra made a sound that wasn’t a yes and wasn’t a no. “I don’t think I’ll get any real sleep until we’re back and I’ve got Dr. Vilenauva or someone to back me up with Brendan. I’d kill for something hot and stimulating right now.”
“All we’ve got are stim patches,” Alana said, looking at him sidelong. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. Something else to look forward to when we make it home.” Ezra stared back at her. “What about you? Are you okay?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
Ezra’s nose wrinkled. “Sounded like Commander Channing was ready to go about twelve rounds with you if he could. What was that about? It sounded like you’d met before.”
She winced, though the expression was there and gone so quickly that he almost didn’t see it. “We had.”
Huh. Is that why she’s so protective of Lindsay, then? “When?”
Alana stared at him for a moment, then looked away, toward the mottled gray of hyperspace outside the ship’s windows. “When he helped me escape from the Compact,” she said, her voice almost too quiet to hear over the hum of the ship’s systems. “It was a long time ago.”
“He helped you escape?” Why doesn’t anyone know about this? Did Rachel know? Marshal Windsor? I know Brendan doesn’t. Does Lindsay?
I doubt it. He stared at her for a long moment, studied the set of her shoulders. She was tired, her body loose-limbed and sagging. He’d never seen her quite like this before. He touched her shoulder gently. “Alana?”
She almost flinched, fingers twitching, but she caught herself, sighing and resting her head against her knee. “Yes. No one knows. No one knew except for he and I. Rachel…Rachel might have suspected a connection, but I never said anything and she never really managed to ask.”
“She did,” Ezra said softly. “She said it to me when I went to try to get her to help me talk Brendan into coming along. Told me that you’d do anything to protect Lindsay, her family—maybe not Brendan, but Lindsay and her parents.”
Alana turned her head to look at him, a strange, pained expression on her face. “Did she say that I wouldn’t protect Brendan?”
“No,” Ezra admitted. “But she said she was pretty sure you didn’t think they were a good match.”
She snorted softly. “For a long time, I didn’t. The more I saw them together, the more I realized that it was a good thing that I didn’t get to make the choice about who she should be with, because I started to realize that she really loves him and he really loves her, regardless of what I think of any of it. It wasn’t my choice and that was a good thing. Rachel did right by her—by both of them.” Her eyes slid closed for a moment and she sighed, lifting her head from her knees. “But if you tell him any of that before I’m ready to say something, I’ll have to kill you.”
Ezra choked on a laugh. “I believe you.” He reached over and touched her shoulder, half expecting her to seize his wrist in an iron grip.
She didn’t. She just looked at him and smiled faintly. “You do, don’t you?”
“I guess I don’t know anymore,” she said. “I’ve spent so long trying to make people feel that way. It’s never felt strange before.” Her gaze drifted away from him toward America and Grant. “No one ever goes looking for Alana Chase. People run away.”
A hollow feeling started to form at the pit of his stomach. “That’s not true,” he said. “Not everyone.”
The corner of her mouth twitched slightly. “You and Rachel and Lindsay are apparently exceptions, and they’re stuck with me. I’m not sure what your problem is.”
I think I love you. He couldn’t say the words. He just squeezed her shoulder gently. “Maybe I’m just special.”
“Maybe you are,” she said. She kept staring at the pair on the bunk in front of them, comfortable in sleep, like two parts of a whole. In a way, Ezra supposed they were. Bonded couples were like that. Lindsay and Brendan certainly seemed that way most of the time, and so did a few of the other Bonded couples he knew back home.
Alana’s gaze shifted into a thousand yard stare as they sat there together. She folded her arms around her knees, looking small and vulnerable for the first time in all the years Ezra had known her. They sat together in silence, listening to the ship’s hum and the sound of their companions breathing, the sound of their own breath, their own heartbeats. Alana shivered a little and Ezra got up, getting a spare blanket from a storage locker. He draped it around her shoulders and sank back down next to her, but she never looked up.
What is she thinking about, I wonder? What is she remembering that she’ll never talk to anyone about, holding it all inside until it eats her alive?
Alana broke her silence a few moments later.
“He didn’t come looking for me.”
“Who didn’t?” Ezra asked.
“Commander Channing,” she said quietly. Her voice was small, reedy, as if she’d been crying for a long time even though she hadn’t made a sound. “He’d come looking for Sandro.”
“Alessandro Chase,” Alana said. “His brother.” Her arms tightened around her knees. “But Sandro died when I was still a child. While they were doing…this…to me.” She nodded to her metal-sheathed arm. “Commander Channing found me instead.”
Ezra’s voice came as a bare whisper, his heart pounding in his throat. “How did he find you instead? Searching for an A. Chase in the Compact database?” Commander Channing is from the Compact. Did anyone know he’d left family behind when he escaped? He got out young. I remember that part of the story. Did he even know how much he was leaving behind when his father got him out?
“He sensed me,” Alana whispered. “I was the only person that felt like his brother to him. Their mother was dead. His father was the one who’d gotten him to the Guard in the first place. Diplomatic immunity, all that. Channing was born a citizen of the Compact and a member of the Guard, but his father was an ambassador.” She squeezed her eyes shut. “I remember my grandmother saying that he tried to save her, too.”
“Ambassador Channing. It didn’t work out, though. She had to stay when he left. They tried to make her steal Commander Channing, too, to make sure the Ambassador couldn’t take him back to Mimir. She refused.” Tears glistened on Alana’s face, squeezing out from behind Alana’s closed lids. “They’d put her in his household to seduce him. They didn’t expect that they’d end up in love. Sure, they wanted her to have a child with him, but they wanted that child to be their pawn—not end up in the arms of their enemies.”
Blood pounded in Ezra’s ears and he felt light-headed. This was a part of the story he didn’t know. Does anyone know it? Rachel and America must. Marshal Windsor? The other Marshals? His arm snaked around her shoulders. He winced at the tightness of her muscles, the rigid set of her shoulders. She was like a spring coiled too tight, waiting for the pressure to be released in one big explosion of energy—or to snap.
Her eyes blinked open. She stared at him for a long moment, swallowing twice, jaw trembling. Then she leaned into his embrace and let him gather her into his arms. She’s kept this secret her whole life. Why?
“Why didn’t you ever tell anyone any of this?”
“It wouldn’t have helped me protect Lindsay,” she whispered, voice thick, roughened by tears. “So why bother saying anything? It just didn’t matter.”
“Alana.” He tilted his head to make eye contact with her. “Why have you been acting like a mother bear protecting her cubs around Lindsay for all these years?”
“I promised Grant,” she said. “He let himself get caught so I could get away. He did that for me. But he made me promise to take care of my cousin because he wasn’t going to be there to do it.”
Her cousin. “Sandro was your father.”
Alana nodded, tears still oozing from her eyes. “I barely knew him. But he and my grandmother…before the Compact took me from them and trained me…they made me understand what I needed to do, why I needed to do it. They told me everything.”
His stomach twisted. “That’s a heavy burden for a little girl.”
“Sometimes we don’t get to choose,” Alana said.
“No,” Ezra agreed. “No, we don’t.”
He held her until she pulled away, wiped her eyes on the corner of the blanket, and squared her shoulders again. Traces of vulnerability disappeared behind her mask of quiet, strong competency as she got up, stretching slightly and heading back to the console.
There was a trace of softness in her eyes, though, as she turned to look back at him before she dropped into the pilot’s chair. “Thanks, Ezra.”
His heart gave a strange little double beat. “You’re welcome, Alana,” he said. “Anytime.”