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Chapter 1

spaceline

Tyris’s head lolled to one side, further and further, finally slipping off the back of the chair with a suddenness that jerked him awake. He rubbed his eyes and stared at the radio in front of him. The status light still showed red—they weren’t in communications range yet.

The file that he’d left open on the tablet computer in front of him caught his attention, and he changed a word or two. Despite the fact that he’d spent large chunks of the spaceflight writing the report, it still felt inadequate. How could he possibly describe what had happened on Zerris? He’d covered the crash and final repair of his ship, the condition of the anysogen, and the villagers remaining there, but there was so much he’d left out. Like the villager’s reasons for not wanting to leave, and his relationship with Marlee.

He sighed and glanced through the open door into the sleeping cabin. Marlee lay sprawled on the lower bunk, the sheet half covering her nakedness. The only thing she wore was the jade dolphin necklace he’d given her for her birthday. She never took it off.

His brother’s words echoed in his head. Give it time, bro. The dolphin works in mysterious ways.

When Milandra had walked out on him nine months ago, the only thought in his head had been how to get her back. It had never occurred to him that her departure might be the best thing that ever happened to him. If she hadn’t left him, he wouldn’t have left Urslat, and he never would have found Marlee.

Maybe there was something to Kerit’s belief that the dolphin was lucky.

An involuntary smile lifted the corner of his lips. He should be squeezed into the narrow bunk beside her, not dozing here in this uncomfortable chair. But they must be close to the central planets now, and when the first communication finally came through, he wanted to be awake.

Even after three weeks in space, he still couldn’t believe he was nearly home. A few months ago it had seemed so impossible, yet here he was. As he had predicted, the Hylista had no problems sustaining faster than light travel, even if she flew a little slower than normal. Any day now, they’d be close enough to Urslat to communicate in real time. Then he could relax.

He stood and stretched. If he didn’t get some rest, he’d be half asleep when the message came through. As he moved, the status light blinked, and the radio crackled to life. “Space Force Central to Colonial craft on bearing two seven zero by one nine three, please identify yourself.”

Adrenalin surged through his body. He grabbed the headset, fumbling and almost tripping over the chair in his haste. “This is the Hylista—Captain Tyris Bekkert on board.”

During the long pause, Tyris imagined the man frantically checking vessel records. “Hylista, please confirm vessel ID and pilot security code immediately.”

For a moment, he panicked, afraid he wouldn’t remember his code after all this time, but it tripped easily off his tongue, as it always had.

The silence on the other end stretched out again. “Hylista, your ID has been confirmed. Hanger Three will be cleared for you when you arrive. Please stand by for landing coordinates.”

“Thank you.” Tyris keyed the information into the autopilot. “The Hylista has sustained some damage. It will take us at least a day to travel the remaining distance.”

“Yes, sir.”

Tyris hesitated. “One more thing…”

“Yes, sir?”

“I have… someone with me.”

“Sir?”

“I have some important information for the Colonies, for the general’s ears only.”

There was a pause. “Yes, sir. I’ll inform the general, sir.”

“Thank you.”

“Yes, sir,”

He swivelled his seat around to return the headset to the hook on the radio, then turned back. Marlee sat up on the bed, sheet pulled over her chest, as though the voice from the radio might to see her. “Are we there?” Her eyes sparkled with excitement, and she glanced towards her discarded clothes, lying crumpled on the floor.

Tyris smiled and crossed to sit on the bed next to her. “Not yet. Another day at least. We just entered communications range.”

Marlee nodded and let the sheet fall again. “That’s not long.”

His eyes followed the curves of her body. But the waver in her voice stopped him from reaching out to do the same with his hands. Instead, he cupped her cheek. “Are you okay?”

Her eyes reflected some of his own uncertainty, even though she nodded.

She’d been so determined to come with him, so determined not to be left behind, even though he’d promised to come back for her. Still, she must feel overwhelmed, going from Zerris, with a population of only one hundred, to Urslat with billions. Her bravery amazed him. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. People on Urslat are quite friendly,” he tried to reassure her.

She nodded again, but didn’t relax. “What will happen when we get there? We can stay together, right?”

He gave her a quick hug. “Of course we can. We’ll probably be separated initially for medical exams, to be sure we’re not bringing anything contagious into the Colonies, but that won’t take long. It’s not as if there is going to be some alien virus on Zerris that no one has been exposed to before.”

He paused. He really should tell her about Milandra. He’d tried a couple of times on the way here, but each time, he’d put it off until tomorrow, not wanting to spoil the lazy days they’d enjoyed together on the ship. Now he’d run out of time. And he’d probably made it a bigger deal by waiting. It wasn’t as if they were still together. Milandra had left him. All he needed to do was sign the divorce papers she’d sent him, and it would be over. Milandra would just be a part of his past.

Why had he put it off for so long? Marlee would understand. She had her own past relationships. He turned to her and opened his mouth to blurt out the words.

Marlee bit her lip. “Tyris? Do you know if travelling in space has… well, any effect on menstruation?”

He frowned. “I don’t know. It’s not something I’ve ever thought about. Why?”

“It’s just… I’m a week late. I know you said the implant stops you from having children, so I thought maybe my being in space…?” Her voice trailed off.

For a moment, his heart skipped a beat. There was no way she could be pregnant. Was there? “I hope that it’s due to being in space,” he said.

When her face fell, he rushed to explain. “It’s not that I don’t want to have a baby with you, Marlee. You know that. But I could get in serious trouble if you’re pregnant.” Even as he said it, he wondered if he would. Marlee could only be pregnant if his chip had malfunctioned, and that couldn’t be his fault. Could it?

Given the fact she’d lived her whole life on Zerris and had spent twenty years exposed to anysogen, the chances were slim she could ever become pregnant. She’d already been trying for several years before he arrived. It was far more likely that it was a reaction to being in space, as she suggested.

“What if I am, though?” Her forehead creased. “I don’t want you to get in any trouble.”

Tyris hesitated, torn between the certainty that she couldn’t be pregnant and the fear she might be. “There’s nothing we can do about it now if you are.”

“They won’t know anyway, will they?”

“The blood work for the medical exam will show a pregnancy—if there is one.”

Marlee frowned. “What would they do?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t think there’s much they could do. I haven’t tampered with the chip, so it could hardly be my fault.” He hesitated. “But it might be better if they didn’t think I was the father, just in case.”

Marlee twirled a lock of hair around her finger absently, something he’d noticed she did when she was thinking. “Tyris, why aren’t some people allowed to have children?”

He winced. He’d avoided explaining why he’d been banned from having kids. He remembered Milandra’s face when he’d admitted it wasn’t a mistake, that he really had done something illegal. How she’d tossed the word criminal at him.

Marlee wasn’t like that. She’d understand the reasons for his actions. But the fear remained, nonetheless. “Because Urslat is overpopulated,” he found himself saying instead.

“But there are lots of planets, aren’t there? Are they all overpopulated?”

“No, not all of them. In fact, at first, the government encouraged people to have more children to populate all the other planets. But most people didn’t want to leave Urslat.”

“Why?”

Tyris struggled to explain. At least this was better than talking about his past. “Most of the planets were like Semala. They were mining or farming outposts. They don’t have any of the comforts and luxuries people are used to on Urslat.”

“But if people want to have kids, can’t they just move to one of the other planets, the ones that need more people?”

“That would make sense. Except people would move to another planet, have their families, then when they were done, they’d move back to Urslat again.” He didn’t mention reducing the population was only part of the government’s agenda.

“But if no one is having babies, that’s going to be a real problem in a few years,” she pointed out.

Tyris forced the words out. “Some people are having babies. It’s just some who can’t.”

Marlee looked at him solemnly, and Tyris forced himself to meet her eyes. He knew, in his heart, that she would understand.

Then why did he have such a hard time telling her?

“How do they decide who can and can’t have children?”

“The government decided that people who…” His voice faltered. Marlee’s steady eyes encouraged him. “People who had a criminal record, who had done something against the law on Urslat, wouldn’t be allowed to have children.” Now that he’d started, he couldn’t stop. As though, if he kept talking, she wouldn’t have a chance to say something he didn’t want to hear. “There’s lot of crime on Urslat. There are reports of people stealing or killing every day on the news. Since many children of criminals also become criminals, they figured banning them from having children would not only lower the population, but would lower crime as well.”

Marlee saw the implications immediately. “What did you do?” she asked softly.

Tyris had to swallow the lump in his throat before he said, “I participated in a protest in college.”

Marlee’s nose wrinkled. “A protest?”

“Yes. The government had withdrawn the pensions for the soldiers who fought in a war, and I didn’t think they should have. A lot of other people agreed with me, so we all stood outside the government building to show our objection.”

She frowned. “You just stood there? You weren’t fighting?”

He shook his head.

“What’s wrong with that?”

He sighed. “That war I mentioned, the one they had withdrawn the pensions for, there were a lot of people who didn’t agree with it. One of the outer planets wanted to be independent from the Colonies—and the Colonies weren’t prepared to let them. People staged protests outside military bases and caused a lot of problems. The government made protesting illegal, saying it threatened the safety of Urslat, and they kept the laws even after the war ended.”

“So you’re not allowed to have children because you objected to something the government did?”

He nodded.

“That’s stupid,” Marlee said flatly.

Milandra’s voice echoed in his head. “You went to a protest? Are you insane?”

“I was young and idealistic. If I’d known it would affect so much, I wouldn’t have gone.” How could he have expected Marlee to understand? She hadn’t lived on Urslat and didn’t understand the laws. And when she wanted a baby so much, it must seem stupid of him to have done something to jeopardise that.

“Not you,” Marlee said, touching his arm, “the government. Why do they think they’re important enough to ignore what people want or tell them they can’t object to their decisions? The council on Zerris always listened when someone disagreed with them. That’s the way it should work.”

Tyris let out a breath he hadn’t even known he held. Deep down he’d known Marlee would understand. How had he doubted her, even for a minute? “It started out like that, but the Colonies have become so big, and they represent so many people, it’s impossible to listen to them all. Even if they could, they don’t all agree.”

Marlee nodded, but she didn’t look convinced. And he probably hadn’t allayed her fears about arriving on Urslat.

Bringing the topic back to their initial conversation, he said, “I’m sure it’s just being in space that’s caused you to be late, but it might be best to keep our relationship quiet until we’re sure.” He didn’t want to keep it quiet—he wanted to shout it from the rooftops. But that would have to wait until they had a definite answer.

“That’s probably a good idea. I’ll just tell them the father is back on Zerris.”

Tyris couldn’t believe they were talking about this like it was possible. She couldn’t be pregnant. He shook his head. “I don’t think it will come up.”

Marlee nodded. “What’s it like on Urslat?”

She’d asked the same question many times on the long journey, and Tyris still had trouble answering. “There are tall buildings, taller than the tallest tree on Zerris. And cars, they’re everywhere. And lots and lots of people.”

Her eyes were fixed on his face. “Tell me about your family.”

Tyris’s eyes softened. “My mum’s a scientist, and my dad works for the government. They weren’t around much, while I was growing up. But Kerit and I are really close. He’s going to love meeting you.”

Marlee reached out to touch the little dolphin pendant that hung around her neck. “Do you think so?”

Tyris reached out to hug her. “I know so.”

*****

Standing next to Marlee, a warm glow of accomplishment filled Tyris as he watched Urslat come closer and closer. Eventually, the planet filled the entire viewscreen. The sun glinted off one side of the planet, barely matching the bright, welcoming lights that lit up every corner of the continent below them, outlining its shape clearly. Slowly, the Hylista orbited the planet, until Tyris’s own continent appeared on the horizon, bathed in sunlight, with the space dock tethered above it.

“You made it. You’re home,” Marlee murmured.

Tyris nodded, choked up. Home. Not long ago, he’d believed he’d never see it again. Yet, here he was.

Marlee put a hand on his shoulder, and he put his hand on top of hers and looked down at her with a smile.

The beep of the computer behind him broke their moment. “You’d better sit down and belt up,” Tyris told her. “We’re landing on the space dock, so it shouldn’t be rough, but it always pays to be careful.”

She took the seat next to him and fastened her seatbelt, as Tyris checked the flight path that had been sent to his console. All looked good, so he confirmed the path and followed the directions, landing smoothly at Hanger Three near the terminal.

He took his hands off the instruments, put them in his lap, and just sat for a moment, trying to take in the fact that he’d finally arrived.

Marlee’s hand on his arm startled him out of his thoughts. “Shouldn’t we be going?”

“Yes, we should. Grab your stuff. We probably won’t be back.”

“Isn’t the ship yours?”

He laughed. “Oh, no. This sort of ship isn’t available for civilians to own.”

Marlee blushed. “Oh.”

“I know it’s a lot to take in, but it will be okay, really. I’ll be there with you the whole time.”

She took a deep breath, straightened her shoulders, and nodded.

While he grabbed his belongings from the cabin, she did the same. He pressed the buttons to release the door, and turned to her. “Are you ready?”

She wore her best dress, the one Jaimma had given her for her birthday, with pink frills. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”

He took her hand, and she gripped his fingers. Together, they stepped into the doorway.

Despite the bright sun he knew shone above them, the sky glowed purple this far up in the atmosphere. All around them, concrete and glass covered walkways ran, limiting their field of vision. So long as you weren’t in one of the outer walkways, it was easy to miss the fact that you were in the upper atmosphere.

There wasn’t time to take in the view though. Half a dozen soldiers stood right in front of them with sub-machine guns raised. Shocked, Tyris, shielded Marlee behind his back before stepping forwards, hands held up. “Here now, what’s all this?”

The soldiers didn’t lower their weapons. “General’s orders, sir.”

“Then where is the bloody general?”

“I’m right here, Captain Bekkert,” a loud, self-assured voice answered.

Tyris groaned under his breath. General Harrington strode towards them. What a piece of bad luck. They’d never been on good terms, despite their connection. Why couldn’t someone else have been on duty today? He let none of these thoughts show though, drawing up his own courage to shelter Marlee, who trembled against his back. “General, I can assure you we are no threat.”

The general stopped on the tarmac in front of the ship, scrutinising them both. His eyes lingered on Marlee for a moment, taking in her handmade dress, then his eyes moved on, dismissing her as no one of importance based on her appearance. He turned to Tyris. “Of course I know you’re not a threat, son, but you said you had someone with you and we had no idea what you meant.”

“She’s no threat, either, so how about you tell the firing squad to stand down?” His terse demand bordered on insolence, but right now he didn’t care.

He could only imagine how nervous Marlee must be feeling. When he had arrived on her planet, he’d been met with kindness and consideration. He presented far more of a potential threat to the villagers on Zerris, but they had never treated him with suspicion. He felt a shadow of shame for the people here on Urslat.

“Stand down,” General Harrington ordered the men, and they immediately lowered their weapons, though they remained where they were. “So who is she?” the general asked.

Tyris held out a hand to Marlee. “It’s okay,” he urged, trying to ignore the general’s stare.

She took his hand again, putting her trust in him. He smiled at her, then turned back to the general. “This is Marlee, sir,” he introduced her. “And I think you’re going to want to hear about her home planet.”

General Harrington’s gaze flicked over her, then back to Tyris. “Come inside. You can tell me all about it.”

The general turned, and walked back towards the terminal. Marlee and Tyris followed a few steps behind, the soldiers taking up the rear.

“Why did he call you Captain Bekkert?” Marlee whispered.

“Because that’s who I am,” Tyris said.

“You’re a captain?”

He hadn’t actually told her much about his life on Urslat—it had never seemed necessary. Now, he realised a little background might have helped. “Yes, a captain in the Space Force. They own the ship too.”

“Oh,” Marlee said, conveying a world of surprise and confusion in that one word.

Tyris squeezed her hand. “It will all be okay.” He seemed to be saying that a lot. He hoped it would prove to be true.

When the general stepped into the tiny space elevator, Marlee held back.

Tyris nudged her forward. Probably best not to explain to her how the lift worked.

He didn’t let go of her hand as the doors slid silently shut behind them, ignoring General Harrington’s raised eyebrow. His stomach rose into his mouth as the elevator plunged towards the planet at rapid speed. Marlee swayed on her feet, and looked at him mutely.

“We’re just going down to the planet. It feels a little weird, but it’s perfectly safe, I promise.”

“Yes, perfectly safe,” the general echoed. “We’ve been going up and down in space elevators for decades now.”

Marlee nodded, but her fingers didn’t loosen on his.

Nor did she seem any happier when the doors opened and they stepped out onto the planet for real. Tyris though, was surprised by how much better he felt. The ground seemed more solid under his feet, whether from an effect of real gravity or simply his perception, he wasn’t sure. Their surroundings didn’t look much different to the space dock, all concrete and glass buildings. They followed the general into one, and through several corridors, to his office.

“So, Tyris. You have quite a bit of explaining to do.” The general’s broad statement gave no indication of where, exactly, Tyris should start with his explanations.

“Yes, I realise that, sir.” His posture stiffened to attention. Somehow, Harrington always had that effect on him, whether in or out of uniform.

“Let’s start with your new… friend.” He looked Marlee up and down, and for the first time in a long time Tyris realised how primitive and dowdy her clothes appeared.

Marlee pulled herself up straight, and looked the old man in the eye. “I’m perfectly capable of speaking for myself. Sir,” she added.

Tyris hid a grin.

“Well, then, miss. Who are you, and where are you from?”

“My name is Marlee, sir, and I’m from Zerris. Had the planet not been destroyed, I would have been born on Semala.”

The general’s eyebrows shot up, and his forehead creased. “Zerris?” He turned to Tyris. “What the hell? That planet was destroyed.” His voice was rough.

“Destroyed?” Tyris repeated. “Why would you think that?”

“What were you doing there?” the general demanded, ignoring Tyris’s question.

“No one told me it was destroyed,” Tyris pointed out. “I figured the Colonies needed more anysogen, and it had to be out there somewhere.”

General Harrington frowned. “How did you hear of it? The history of Semala is classified.”

“I didn’t,” Tyris admitted. “I made a couple of guesses and connected the dots. It wasn’t hard. I’m surprised no one else figured it out before now. But either way, it most certainly isn’t destroyed.”

“And the anysogen?”

The general’s eager tone put Tyris on alert. Instead of replying, he asked again, “What was supposed to have happened to the planet?”

The old man’s face went taut. Then he gave a forced laugh. “An astronomer told us it the meteor hit it and the impact triggered an explosion in the anysogen, taking out the whole solar system.”

“What was his name?” Tyris asked.

“Pardon me?” The general raised an eyebrow.

“The astronomer, what was his name?” He could make a pretty good guess, but he wanted to know for sure.

“I have no idea. I didn’t pay much attention.”

Tyris stared at him, at the tightness around his eyes and mouth that indicating he was lying. Why?

The general stared back for several long moments, not backing down. Tyris had no choice but to nod his acceptance of the general’s story, even though he didn’t believe it. “If it’s a simple case of the planet being destroyed, why not just say so? Why remove all trace of its existence if it wasn’t even there anymore?”

General Harrington frowned. “That’s classified. I’ve already told you more than I should have.”

“I’m not sure Marlee’s people are going to accept that answer,” Tyris said. “They were waiting for someone to come back and rescue them, assuming someone would return for the anysogen.”

“There are people living there?” The general stared at him in disbelief. “And they’ve survived all this time on an anysogen planet?”

Tyris gave a small smile. “They’re resourceful people.”

General Harrington’s eyes narrowed on Marlee. “I suppose your people are looking forward to being rescued?”

“Zerris isn’t exactly the most pleasant place to live,” Marlee said.

“The villagers are quite keen to leave Zerris, yes,” Tyris added. “They asked me to present their proposed deal.”

“Is that so?” the general rubbed his chin. “We can talk about the options later. I need to inform the president of this discovery immediately, and I imagine you’re both tired after such a long journey. You’ll have to undergo medical exams, of course, standard procedure after a long absence like this, but then I’m sure we can find somewhere for Marlee to stay.”

Marlee turned worried eyes to Tyris.

“Actually, sir, I promised Marlee she could stay with me. She’s come quite a long way, and everything is unfamiliar to her. I think it’s better if she stays with someone she knows.” It made sense to keep their relationship quiet just in case Marlee was pregnant, he told himself. It had nothing to do with how his father-in-law would react if he found out—nothing at all.

The general frowned, and Tyris did his best not to squirm. Then he shrugged. “That’s up to you, son,” he agreed. “Let’s get you kids along to your medical exams so you can get on home.”

“Yes, sir.” He couldn’t wait to get out of here, and he guessed Marlee couldn’t either.

Escape was not so easy though, General Harrington lead them out of his office himself. They walked through several hallways to the infirmary. A doctor came out, and took their details, then nodded to Tyris. “You can go through to the room at the end. Marlee, you can come with me.”

Marlee threw Tyris one last, panicked look, and he gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “I’ll see you soon, okay?”

She took a deep breath, and nodded, then followed the doctor who chatted easily as she led her away. Hopefully it put Marlee at ease.

Heading towards the room he’d been directed to, Tyris suppressed a groan when instead of going to call the president, General Harrington followed him.

Tyris sat down on the hard bed in the middle of the room, and the general took one of the more comfortable seats against the wall, just out of Tyris’s line of sight. Since they were the only ones in the room, the general kept talking. “So, what’s really going on? Did something happen to the anysogen?” General Harrington had never been one to beat around the bush.

“No, it’s still there, and the pollution it causes is probably the only reason the villagers are interested in leaving the planet.”

General Harrington sighed in relief. “How many people are we talking about? And what are they doing there anyway? Zerris should have been uninhabited.”

Tyris hesitated, but there seemed no reason to withhold the villager’s story. “They left Semala in an old ship when the meteor hit. They had little choice of where to go, since they only had an old rocket booster engine. They were lucky to make it to Zerris. They’ve lived there ever since, managing to survive against some incredible odds.”

“You sound as though you’re impressed with them.”

“I am, sir,” Tyris admitted. “I lived with them for nine months, and I know I could never have done what they did, or built what they have built there.”

“No doubt they’re eager to get off the planet now they have the opportunity.”

“Not exactly, sir.” Reluctant to mention Marlee’s father without more information, he spoke carefully. “You see, they’re actually quite happy living the way they are, hard as it is for us to understand. Some of the younger generation, like Marlee, would like to taste life in the Colonies, but the older generation is far more reluctant.”

The general frowned. “You said they were prepared to make a deal?”

“They are, sir. But only because they want to get away from the anysogen.”

“We can find them a place on some farming colony.” He waved a hand. “It sounds like they’d fit right in.”

“I don’t think so, sir.” Tyris shook his head. “They’re not too keen on re-joining the Colonies.”

The general raised an eyebrow. “Not keen on re-joining the Colonies? I can hardly believe that.”

“Unfortunately, it’s true, sir.”

“What do they want then?”

“They want a planet of their own, one they can run themselves, without being under Colonial rule.” A big thing to ask. The reaction to the rebellion a few years ago made it clear the Colonies preferred total control. Tyris tried anyway. “They’re quiet people, not the sort to make a fuss, and I think if we can find somewhere for them, then we probably won’t hear from them again.”

“Hmm, we’ll have to see about…”

The door opened and the doctor came into the room, cutting off whatever the general planned to say. “Good evening, Tyris. It’s good to see you again.”

Tyris smiled at Dr Benton. They’d gone through training together, and he’d always liked her.

General Harrington made no move to leave, so Tyris did his best to carry on as though he were not there. “I’m not that easy to get rid of, I’m afraid,” he said with a rueful smile. Although he’d always made a habit of flirting with Dr Ameli Benton, the thought suddenly held no appeal.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Dr Benton said as she checked his pulse, then looked into his eyes and ears. “Did you sustain any injuries or contract any illnesses while you were away?”

“I suffered a concussion after my ship crashed. I was unconscious for almost a day.”

“Hmm,” she said and made a few notes on her computer. “Have you had any recurring tenderness to the head, persistent headaches, or dizziness?”

Tyris shook his head. “No, I had no problems at all afterwards. I wasn’t sick and had no headaches the whole time I stayed there actually.”

She nodded. “Good, sounds like you’ve recovered well. We’d better run an MRI anyway, just to be sure.” The doctor turned to General Harrington. “This is going to take a while. It might be best if you waited outside.”

The general grumbled a bit, but couldn’t really argue. Medical examinations were always private, even if the report would land on his desk eventually anyway.

Once the door closed behind him, Tyris heaved a sigh of relief. “Thank you.”

She smiled. “He may be your father-in-law, but that doesn’t give him any right to crash your medical exam.”

“Even less I’d think,” Tyris said with feeling.

She looked over the notes on her computer and said, “Before we get started, I’d better check your implant.”

Tyris stifled a grimace, and sat still, staring out in front of him, the shelves full of medical supplies blurring in front of his eyes. She held a scanner up to his arm and it beeped as it communicated with the chip implanted under his skin.

“Hmm,” Dr Benton said.

A nervous flutter rose in Tyris’s belly. “What is it?”

Her forehead furrowed. “There’s been some damage to your chip.”

Tyris’s heart beat a little faster. “What do you mean?”

“It’s not functioning properly. Do you have any idea how it could have been damaged?” Her taut voice didn’t ease his concern.

“My ship crashed, remember? I can only imagine the damage was caused then. I certainly haven’t touched it.”

“Probably,” she agreed. “I’ll need to take some photos of the site, just in case they’re needed at any point, and you’ll have to make a statement.”

Evidence. Of course. The government documented everything. Except what they didn’t want the public to know. “So by malfunctioning, you mean it’s not working at all?” His mind reeled. Marlee could well be pregnant. He hoped she remembered their conversation on board the Hylista.

Was he going to be a father?

“Are you all right?” Dr Benton asked.

Tyris swallowed and nodded. He needed to keep a straight head. “Lucky you found out now.”

Dr Benton stared at him. “Right. You’ve been away from your wife a long time. As soon as I’ve written up this report, I’ll replace the chip for you. Then you’ll have nothing to worry about.”

Tyris searched her face, but it was carefully blank. “What…” He licked his lips. “What would have happened if you hadn’t discovered the malfunction? If… Milandra fell pregnant?”

Dr Benton didn’t bother to hide the distaste on her face. “Terminations have been carried out in at least two cases, though the official line is the couples agreed to them.”

Tyris swallowed. “Lucky I’ve been away from home, as you said,” he managed. He hoped against hope Marlee named someone else as the father. Anyone else. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be responsible for what he’d do to someone who even suggested a termination to her.

The pictures and x-ray seemed to take forever. Finally, the doctor walked across to one of the cabinets lining the wall. “I’m going to replace the chip now. It will only take a few minutes.”

Tyris nodded. He gritted his teeth for the local anaesthetic jab, and hoped Marlee was okay in his absence.

How was he going to fix this?

Chapter 2

spaceline

Marlee took a deep breath as she followed the doctor into another room. This wasn’t what she’d expected when she left Zerris. Of course she knew Urslat would be different—there were billions of people here. But back on Zerris, she hadn’t been able to imagine thousands of people, let alone billions. People here didn’t all know each other by name. Most of them didn’t know each other at all.

Even so, she hadn’t expected to be greeted with guns and separated from the only person she knew. Had she made the right decision? She thought of Tyris, sitting through the same thing in another room, and her heart warmed. She was with Tyris. He knew how this world worked, and he’d teach her about it.

“I hear you’ve come quite a way,” the doctor said. “What’s your name?”

“Marlee,” she managed, though the word came out somewhat strangled.

Strange beeping machines filled the room, and a high, white, narrow bed stood in the centre. The smile the woman gave her reassured her just a little. “I’m Dr Hansin. If you’d just sit down on the bed, we can get started.”

Marlee sat carefully on the edge of the bed, afraid it might collapse underneath her.

Dr Hansin wrote with what looked like a pen on a small tablet. “And your last name?”

“Royn,” Marlee said. She rarely thought of the name she’d shared with her father. Surnames hadn’t been important on Zerris.

The woman nodded and wrote it down. “Are there any medical conditions I should know about before we start?”

Marlee hesitated. Tyris hadn’t thought she could be pregnant, even though she was late. It had to be a side effect of being in space. “No, no medical conditions.” Then she hesitated. “Aside from the effects of anysogen pollution. Is there some way to know if… if I’ll ever have a baby?”

Dr Hansin hesitated. “There are some tests we can perform which can give an indication, but I can’t say for certain.”

Marlee nodded. “Of course. I expect it will say I can’t anyway.” She tried to keep her voice steady, but it broke on the last word. She took a deep breath. “Not that it matters here on Urslat I’ve heard.”

The doctor gave her a sympathetic smile. “That doesn’t stop anyone from hoping, does it? Let’s have a look, shall we? This won’t take long.”

She asked Marlee to lie back on the bed, and took her pulse, checked her blood pressure, shined a flashlight in her eyes, and looked in her ears and mouth. Marlee tried to relax. It was just like one of Karla’s check-ups. Nothing to be afraid of.

“I just need to take some blood.” The doctor turned around with a long needle in her hand. Marlee nodded. Karla used to give all the children immunisations, before they’d all run out, so she was prepared for the prick.

The doctor turned away with the needle. “You can sit up now.”

Marlee sat up on the narrow bed and shivered a little. The silver and white room was clean and shiny, and rather cold.

Dr Hansin bent over a narrow bench, looking through a microscope. Straightening up, she scribbled something on the tablet beside her. She tapped it a few times with her finger, then turned back to Marlee with a smile on her face. “This may come as a surprise, but you’re pregnant.”

Marlee’s breath caught, and she stared at the doctor. “Pregnant?” she repeated. Her heart thudded. Tyris had said he couldn’t. How? “That’s not possible,” she said, even as joy bubbled up inside of her.

“Blood test results don’t lie. You’re perhaps a month along.” The doctor fiddled with the tablet in her hands. “Do you know who the father is?” she asked, her voice almost too even.

Her words bought back the conversation she’d had with Tyris on the way here, about how much trouble he could get in if she was pregnant. “I don’t really want to say. The father is with someone else, and I don’t want to cause problems.”

Dr Hansin’s eyes narrowed. “It’s not Tyris Bekkert, is it?”

Marlee’s heart beat uncomfortably. She’d hoped to get away without outright lying, hoped hinting the father was with someone else would lead the suspicion away from Tyris. “No, of course not. The father is a young man back on my home planet. Things are… complicated there.”

The doctor stared at her for several more moments before her expression relaxed. “I guess that answers the question about whether you can have children or not,” she said and turned back to the desk.

Marlee stared blankly at the wall in front of her, Pregnant! For so long she’d she wanted to hear that word, and now it came at the worst possible time. What would this mean for Tyris? Would he be happy?

“Would you like to see your baby?”

“What do you mean?” Marlee stared at her.

Dr Hansin smiled. “Don’t worry. It’s nothing to be afraid of. We have a machine, an ultrasound, which can show us pictures of the baby while it’s still in the womb.” She reached for the tablet she’d worked on earlier, and swiped across it, then placed it on the bench next to the bed. Marlee twisted a little, how could she watch when she couldn’t even see the surface from where she sat? Then a picture seemed to come out of the tablet, hovering in the air above it, like a blank, grey screen. The doctor picked up another small device and showed Marlee. “I just need to press this against your belly.”

“It won’t hurt the baby, will it?” Marlee asked, uncertain.

“Not in the least,” the doctor assured her.

Marlee hesitated. Without Tyris to confirm or deny the woman’s assertion, she had to make a decision for herself. “Okay then,” she allowed.

The woman put a jelly-like substance on the end of the little device she held. “This is going to be a little cold, but it won’t hurt.”

She ran the device across Marlee’s belly, pressing a little in one or two places, then suddenly a loud, thump echoed through the room.

“What’s that?” Marlee asked in alarm.

The woman smiled. “It’s your baby’s heartbeat.” She pointed to a blob on the screen. “And this is your baby. I’d say you’re around five weeks along.”

Marlee stared in wonder. It was a stretch to call the alien-looking image on the screen a baby, but the pulsating blob was a strange sort of proof. “It’s amazing,” she breathed.

The woman smiled, and moved something on the table next to the screen. A couple of small white crosses appeared.

“What are you doing?” Marlee asked.

“Just taking a few measurements to be sure the baby is growing properly, which it is,” the woman reassured her.

Marlee nodded. She’d seen Karla check a baby’s growth by measuring a woman’s belly. This device probably gave a more accurate result.

The woman smiled. “I think that’s it for the day, unless you have anything else you want me to check?”

Marlee shook her head, still stunned by the morning’s revelations. She sat up, and followed the doctor back out into the hallway.

They walked down a corridor and into an open room with comfortable-looking upholstered seats around the edge. Half a dozen of the chairs were already occupied. “It looks like Tyris is still in his medical exam,” Dr Hansin said. “Are you okay to wait here for him?”

Marlee hesitated, not really wanting to be left alone.

An elegant-looking woman near the door stood up. “I couldn’t help but overhear you. Are you waiting for Tyris Bekkert?”

Marlee hadn’t realised the beautiful dress Jaimma had made her would be out of style with those around her. But the tawny evenness of the close-weave skirt and the light femininity of the blouse the woman wore, tailored perfectly to her shape, left her feeling dowdy, and at a loss for words.

“Yes, can I help you?” the doctor asked.

The woman smiled and held out her hand. “I’m Milandra Harrington. Tyris’s wife.”

Marlee stared at her in shock. His wife?

She’d wondered a couple of times about the woman he spoke of with such venom. “You’re just the same as Milandra,” he’d spat at her during their one fight. It had never occurred to her Milandra was his wife.

The doctor continued on as though nothing was out of the ordinary. “Of course. I’m sure you must be looking forward to seeing him again after all this time. This is Marlee. She came back with Tyris, and she’s not used to things here on Urslat. Would it be all right if she waited with you until Tyris comes out?”

Marlee almost bit her tongue off to prevent the vehement denial from leaving her lips. If only she could find a small corner somewhere and hide until all this was over. But it wasn’t going to be over. She was stuck here, on this planet, far from home, with a man who was married to someone else. Why had he never told her?

“Of course,” Tyris’s wife agreed, and before Marlee could argue, she was sitting next to Milandra on one of the padded seats, watching the doctor’s retreating back.

“It must be a little daunting, being so far from home,” Milandra said, unaware how accurate her comment was.

Marlee just nodded, afraid that if she spoke, she would burst into tears. In all their time together, all their nights sharing a bed and a home, Tyris had never mentioned being married. Why?

Was it because he’d given up all hope of returning here, and of returning to his wife?

Still, once he knew they were coming back, why hadn’t he told her? Why had he continued to pretend that they could stay together?

Or was there another reason he hadn’t said anything? The one time he’d mentioned her name, he hadn’t sounded as if he liked her.

“I guess you must be looking forward to seeing your husband after all this time,” Marlee said, hoping to glean some further information from the woman’s response.

Milandra nodded, her face solemn. “I am. We had the most awful fight right before he left, and I felt so guilty when I thought he was dead. I’m glad he’s back, and we have a second chance.”

Marlee’s heart sank. A fight. That would be the other reason for Tyris’s animosity when he spoke of his wife. It seemed though, his wife had gotten over it.

Had he?

*****

Tyris tried to lie as still as possible while Dr Benton performed the MRI, then stared at the results for what seemed like an age. Finally, though, she pronounced him completely healthy, with no after effects from his accident at all. She let him go, reminding him to come back and have his implant checked in a week.

He headed straight to the waiting room, then paused in the doorway. Marlee sat in one of the chairs, just as he’d expected. What he hadn’t expected was to see Milandra sitting next to her. “Landy,” he blurted out as he strode into the room. “What are you doing here?”

Milandra jumped out of her seat, and to Tyris’s surprise, threw her arms around his neck. “I thought you were dead,” she said through her tears.

Over her shoulder, Tyris’s eyes met Marlee’s, and he pushed Milandra back, a little more roughly than he’d intended. “You left me, remember? I didn’t think you’d care.”

Milandra pouted, the expression so obviously put on he wanted to laugh. Except it wasn’t funny.

“I was angry, Ty. I didn’t mean it. You know that.”

“So you didn’t mean the divorce papers you sent me?” he demanded. He tried to catch Marlee’s eye, but she refused to look at him. He should have told her about Milandra, but he thought she’d have well and truly moved on by now.

Milandra tried to slide close to him, but he took a step back, and her playful pout turned into a frown. “You mean the divorce papers you refused to sign? You didn’t want a divorce any more than I did, so don’t pretend now. You begged me to come back, remember? Begged me not to leave. So why the change of tune now?” She glanced over at Marlee, and her eyes widened, then flicked back to him. “Is she the reason why? Don’t tell me you brought your lover back with you? That’s going to mess up your plans to get your ban removed, isn’t it?”

Her words, combined with the news Dr Benton had given him in the medical exam, caused Tyris to check. He forced himself not to glance over at Marlee. Was she pregnant? There was no way of knowing, he couldn’t ask her now, but given his chip had malfunctioned, it seemed more possible than it had an hour ago. And if she was…

“No, of course not,” he said and forced himself to slide his arms around Milandra’s waist. “I just needed to know if you really cared about me, or if you were just coming back because I’m going to be rich when I get a reward for finding all that anysogen.”

He could see Marlee’s bright red cheeks and stricken face out of the corner of his eye. He wanted to push Milandra away again, take Marlee into his arms, and reassure her he had no interest in being with Milandra anymore.

Terminations have been carried out…” Dr Benton’s words echoed in his head, and he hardened his heart and smiled at his wife instead.

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