February 796 U.C., Heinessen
The journey back to Heinessen was trouble free, aside from Ingrid’s progressively more painful-looking withdrawal process, during which she could barely breathe from coughing so much. The imperial ship that had been poised to chase them had apparently been told that dealing with a ship full of Rosenritter was not worth the risk. This made Annerose’s first taste of command a success, but an anticlimactic one.
The trouble began, as it usually did, when they returned to Heinessen, and it found Annerose as soon as she climbed out of the shuttle at the Heinessenopolis spaceport, escorting Ingrid down the steep steps, her hand gently on Ingrid’s arm for support. Instead of the few people Annerose was expecting to find, there was a veritable crowd of media waiting on the tarmac, replete with big television cameras and microphones. Annerose had thought they were going to be meeting a doctor for Ingrid, Captain Schenkopp, and whatever case manager Ingrid had been assigned. It became abundantly and immediately clear, however, that the only one of these three people who had appeared was Captain Schenkopp, who was speaking happily to some woman reporter, with her microphone not pointing in his face, but instead held loosely at her side. Annerose frowned at that, which was, of course, the moment the photographer chose to take her and Ingrid’s picture.
Annerose placed herself in between Ingrid and the crowd of media. “Captain Schenkopp!” she called.
He looked up, grinned, and trotted over to her, abandoning his conversation with the reporter. “Glad to see you made it back in one piece. And this must be Fraulein von Roscher. Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Ingrid could barely speak through her coughing. “Pleasure,” she managed.
“Where’s the doctor?” Annerose asked. “We were supposed to be meeting one here.”
“Pardon me, Lieutenant Commander von Müsel, isn’t it?” the reporter asked.
“Yes,” Annerose said, voice clipped.
“What is the matter with Mrs. Goldenbaum?”
“She goes by Ms. Roscher,” Annerose said. They were speaking in the Alliance language, so Ingrid couldn’t exactly speak up for herself. “And she will not be answering any questions at this time.”
“Lieutenant Commander—“ the reporter said, but Annerose was already trying to push forward, and her team of Rosenritter, on Schenkopp’s signal, helped clear a path.
The journalists cleared away, some more obediently than others, but one small group of people did not budge, and were blocking the way.
Bishop Martine, whom Annerose had never met in person but had heard much about, was standing right in front of the doors into the airport. Martine looked like he was in his fifties, with a head full of curly hair that was still more black than grey, and dark eyes set against a sharp face. He was smiling, but Annerose was already predisposed to dislike him, and she stood between the bishop and Ingrid.
“Welcome to Heinessen, Fraulein Roscher,” Bishop Martine said. He spoke the imperial language somewhat clumsily. If Annerose had to guess, she would say that he had probably spent some time on Phezzan to pick it up. His cadences were Phezzani, rather than textbook. “I’m Bishop Martine.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Your Holiness,” Ingrid got out between little coughs.
“Lieutenant Commander, thank you very much for escorting Fraulein Roscher. I’m sure it was quite an imposition.”
Annerose was diplomatic when she spoke, even though she wanted to be doing anything other than speaking with the bishop. “As a refugee myself, it was no imposition to help someone else in the same position. I’m glad we are back safe on Heinessen.”
“Yes, I am very glad as well,” the bishop said. “But I’m sure Fraulein Roscher doesn’t want to stand here in the summer heat and be photographed, especially not with this bad cold she seems to have.”
Annerose narrowed her eyes at the bishop. “Yes, we were supposed to be meeting a doctor here,” she said. “If you don’t mind, Bishop…” she said, and tried to move forward.
“Well, I’m sure a doctor can meet Fraulein Roscher in her new home, if it’s as serious as all that.” Ingrid was coughing. The bishop turned to his assistant. “Could you give the lady something to drink? That might help with her dry throat, at least.”
The assistant dug through his bag and brought out a bottle of water and handed it to Ingrid. Annerose tried to stifle her horror as Ingrid drank a few sips, some of the water dribbling down her chin in between gulps. Schenkopp caught her discomfort and, by his side, made a hand signal asking for clarification.
Annerose signaled back, “STOP,” and twitched her fingers in the direction of the bishop.
“Fraulein Roscher, if you’ll come with us, we have a car waiting to take you home,” the bishop said.
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” Schenkopp said, cutting in, switching to the Alliance language. “Ms. Roscher needs to—“
“Surely, whatever that is can wait, Captain,” the bishop said, voice somewhat cloying. “She looks exhausted. Any paperwork can be handled later, I assure you. It is not as though she is about to vanish.”
“Of course not. But it is my responsibility to ensure that we are taking care of our refugees properly. After all, that was why the Rosenritter were chosen for this mission. We all know what it is like to be in Ms. Roscher’s shoes.”
“And if you had family waiting here for you, you would have been unhappy to have been delayed from going home with them,” the bishop said.
Annerose was unable to stop herself from saying, “Pardon me, Bishop, but you are not Ms. Roscher’s family.”
“Perhaps we misjudged you, Lieutenant Commander,” the bishop said. “I thought you would understand that the Church has been Ms. Roscher’s family since the day she left Odin.”
Schenkopp must have realized the situation was deteriorating. He switched to the imperial language again. “Fraulein Roscher, would you prefer to go with the bishop, or come with Lieutenant Commander von Müsel?”
This was a gamble. For some reason, the question itself twisted something inside Annerose, and she was tense, waiting for Ingrid to make her answer. Ingrid looked back and forth between Annerose and the bishop, a wide eyed and uncomfortable expression on her face.
“Annerose,” Ingrid said after an uncomfortable second, punctuated by fits of coughing. “I want to go with Annerose.”
Annerose herself could have melted with relief. She was consumed by the thought that if they had lost Ingrid here, she might be gone forever, in some way or another, even if she was physically present.
Schenkopp raised an eyebrow at the first name basis they were apparently on, but he smiled triumphantly. The bishop couldn’t really argue without causing a scene, which would look very bad in front of the media people, who were still standing around watching this interaction.
“Excellent,” Schenkopp said. He flashed a hand signal to the Rosenritter, who all formed up around Annerose and Ingrid. “I’m sure we’ll be in contact with you later, Bishop Martine.”
“I’m sure,” the bishop said. “Goodday, then.” He couldn’t keep the sour note out of his voice, and he watched Annerose, rather than Ingrid, like a hawk as the whole group moved past him and finally made their way into the airport and then through and out to waiting cars.
Schenkopp, Ingrid, and Annerose got in one waiting car. Schenkopp sat in the driver’s seat, but Annerose slid into the back with Ingrid, which made Schenkopp raise his eyebrows again. As soon as they were in the car and buckled, Annerose pulled the water bottle out of Ingrid’s hand. Ingrid didn’t protest. Annerose tossed it into the front passenger seat next to Schenkopp.
“We’re going to need to find a drug testing kit for that,” she said. She spoke in the imperial language, not wanting Ingrid to feel left out.
“What?” Schenkopp asked.
“She’s in the middle of severe thyoxin withdrawal,” Annerose said. “The Earth Church has been poisoning her for years.”
The sound of Ingrid’s coughing was the only thing that punctuated the silence of the car.
“Fuck,” Schenkopp said, finally.
“Yeah. I don’t know if there’s anything that can be done about it, other than waiting it out, but I wanted her to see a doctor. I asked for one to meet us at the airport. I’m not sure how that got derailed.”
“I have my guesses,” Schenkopp said shortly.
“As do I.”
“How are you, Fraulein Roscher?” Shenkopp asked, glancing at Ingrid in the rearview. “Is there anything we can do to make you more comfortable?”
She shook her head and stared out the window. Annerose took her hand, which again caused Schenkopp to make a face. Annerose met his eyes in the mirror, and he shrugged a little and looked back at the road.
“I don’t want her to live anywhere the Earth Church can control,” Annerose said, briefly switching to the Alliance language. “They’re not good for her.”
“They’ll cause a fuss if we hide her. I don’t think we can.”
“I’m not saying that. I just don’t want her to be alone, because I think that’s dangerous.”
“What do you propose?”
Annerose bit her lip. “Is there any sort of refugee group housing that’s not run by the Earth church? Could she live with your grandmother?”
Schenkopp laughed. “Rear Admiral Cazerne making you adopt a child seems to have caused you to think that anyone would be willing to invite a stranger to live in their house.”
The problem was, the list of people whom Annerose trusted was quite short, and even in that list, she wasn’t sure who would be willing or able to take care of Ingrid. Most of the people she knew were in the fleet.
“How big of a fuss would people make if she stayed with me?”
“You’re running a boardinghouse now,” Schenkopp said. “Officer housing isn’t that big.”
“She can have Reinhard’s room. He’s staying on Phezzan for the foreseeable future, anyway. I’m not asking about if it’s physically possible. I’m asking if there’s anyone in the government who would complain.”
“People can find anything to complain about. Look, Müsel, it’s her choice where she lives, right?”
“You seem attached.”
“I’m just trying to protect her,” Annerose said. “There’s no point in bringing her through all of this if she’s going to be in just as much danger on Heinessen as she was on Odin, or Earth, or Phezzan, for that matter. She’s spent the last five years or however long having every independent thought poisoned out of her!” Annerose shook her head, frowning. Ingrid glanced over at her, concerned, and Annerose smiled, a little grimly.
They were pulling into the parking lot of the medical center now. “I won’t say anything against it,” Schenkopp said. He shrugged. “But let’s keep it professional, Müsel.”
She had no idea what he meant by that.
The doctors at the medical center took one look at Ingrid and declared that she was not going anywhere, with anyone, for any reason, until her condition improved. Annerose couldn’t exactly argue with that, since Ingrid had barely been able to breathe, in a way that scared her. Her fingertips had been blue, and she had been unable to sleep.
Still, Annerose felt bad about leaving her with the doctors, especially since Ingrid looked at her with such a sad expression on her face when Annerose explained to her, translating for the doctor, that Ingrid had to stay, while Annerose had to leave.
Schenkopp called in several Rosenritter and posted them to keep watch over Ingrid. She wished they weren’t both feeling so paranoid, but she couldn’t help it.
It was late by the time she arrived back at her house, and Julian and her mom were both eating dinner when she walked in the door.
“Annerose,” her mother said, standing with a smile as Annerose hung up her keys on the hook near the door.
“Welcome home!” Julian exclaimed.
“Hi, Mom, Julian,” Annerose said, smiling tiredly at them both. It had been a long day. The smell of food— a deliciously spicy curry— made Annerose’s stomach grumble, but it also made her bite her lip as she looked across the room at her mother. Thyoxin. Could she be sure she hadn’t just left her mother here to feed Julian thyoxin?
Julian looked as healthy as ever, though, and he had leapt up from the table to get Annerose a plate.
“How was Phezzan? What’s Ms. Roscher like? Did you see Lieutenant Commander von Müsel?” Julian asked, the questions coming out very quickly, as soon as he was facing her again, sliding the plate of rice and chicken in front of her.
“Phezzan was fine,” Annerose said. Julian sat down and looked at her with an enraptured expression on his face. “I didn’t stay there for very long.”
“And Ms. Roscher?” Caribelle asked. The question seemed far from innocent. Caribelle’s tone was mild, but she was looking across the table at Annerose with an expression that made it clear that this was an interrogation, of sorts.
Annerose steepled her fingers. The steam rising up from her meal was killing her, but she was not going to eat yet. She looked directly at her mother, and switched to speaking in the imperial language, which Julian did not understand.
“Mama,” Annerose said. Her voice was as steady as she could make it. “I love you, and I know in your heart of hearts, you want what’s best for me and Reinhard. But I am going to ask you a question, and I need you to answer it honestly.”
“Of course,” her mother said, though her hands twitched a little as she wiped her fingers on the napkin. Julian looked back and forth between the two women, clearly annoyed and worried at being cut out of the conversation.
Annerose flicked her eyes down at her food. “Is there thyoxin in this?” Although the name of the drug was the same in both languages, it was clear that Julian didn’t recognize it. Good.
“No,” her mother said. Her voice was strong and clear. “You learned about that?”
“I couldn’t help but learn about it when Fraulein Roscher could barely breathe from coughing so much,” Annerose said. Her voice came out colder than expected when she said, “It’s a miracle that she could string together a coherent thought, after how much she’s been given.”
“The dose they give is very low,” her mother said.
“Every day. Every meal. For years,” Annerose hissed. “You KNEW about this?”
“And you’re still a part of their church?”
“Yes.” Her mother was perfectly willing to look her in the eye when she said this, but Annerose was disgusted. She couldn’t imagine what would compel her mother to stay with these people, knowing about this. Maybe there was one explanation, but Annerose didn’t like it.
“Are you addicted to thyoxin?”
“No,” her mother said. “I’ve taken it, but not recently.”
On one hand, this was a little bit of a relief, since she had no desire to see her mother go through what Ingrid was suffering, but on the other hand, this made her mother a willing collaborator, something that couldn’t just be explained away by drug-induced loyalty.
Annerose rubbed her temples. “Fuck.” She said that in the Alliance language, which made Julian gasp. “Why?”
“Because it’s a mark of loyalty. A test.” her mother said. She was speaking the alliance language again. “Just like how when you went to school, they shaved your head. It brings you closer together.”
“That is not the same, and you know it.”
Caribelle nodded a little, though the look on her face indicated that she didn’t quite agree. “It wouldn’t be practical to do it here the same way it’s done on Earth,” she finally said. “You don’t have to worry.”
“They would have done it to her again. They tried. They were going to take her away.”
“Special circumstances, maybe,” her mother said. “She’s important.”
“She’s a human being,” Annerose said, barely able to keep herself from yelling. Her voice was low and bitter.. “Not a tool. I thought you would understand that.” Annerose had never been this angry at her mother before. In fact, she wasn’t sure if she had ever been this angry at anyone before. The calm and falsely reasonable tone in her mother’s voice made Annerose even more upset, like her mother could just sit there and pretend that this was all fine. None of this was fine.
“I do understand that,” her mother said. “Which is why I suggested that Reinhard be contacted in the first place.”
This brought Annerose up short. “You set this up?”
“No.” Her mother stood and began picking up her own and Julian’s empty plates and putting them in the dishwasher. “But I’ve told you, I know more about what’s going on than you might expect. I know how to say the right things, to the right people.”
“I’ve demonstrated my loyalty. And I will continue to do so.”
“Why? Why would you stay?”
“Because I believe in the church,” her mother said. “It really— sometimes it is that simple. You could ask Ms. Roscher, and she would say the same thing.”
Again, Annerose spoke in the imperial language again, so that Julian wouldn’t understand. “Only because she’s been drugged into believing in it! You can’t give someone a drug that takes away their free will, their ability to think for themselves, and call that true belief!”
“She came to the church willingly, just like I did. Even if you don’t like what happened after that, you can’t take that away from her.”
Annerose scowled. “I don’t know what was happening to her on Odin. You don’t, either. There might not have been anything willing about it.”
Her mother finished loading the dishwasher. “You should eat,” she said. “Your food’s going to get cold.”
“I’m not hungry,” Annerose said, but her stomach betrayed her by grumbling.
“Liar,” Julian muttered. He seemed annoyed at this conversation that he couldn’t follow, and Annerose shot him an apologetic glance.
“Did you cook?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
His eyes widened, but he said, “Just me.”
Still, Annerose hesitated before poking at the curry. But then she took a bite, because she didn’t have much of an alternative, and it was delicious, and she cleared her plate before speaking again. Her mother sat back down with a glass of tap water and just watched her eat.
Annerose returned to the imperial language when she said, “It’s very hard for me to trust you, mama.” Her anger had cooled slightly, and she was feeling more rational with food in her stomach, for whatever that was worth. Still, when she looked at her mother, her stomach twisted.
“And that’s why you had your ward—“ she avoided looking at Julian directly— “spy on me?”
Annerose scowled. “No, that was because I wanted to give him something to feel useful. I guess he took his duties very seriously.”
“A child who has had no interest in religion suddenly asking to tag along everywhere I go is very suspicious. But he did a good job playing dumb when I was speaking to Bishop Martine. I’ll grant you that. He’s a smart boy.”
Annerose narrowed her eyes. “And you let him listen in?”
“Nothing of importance was discussed. But yes, I did.”
"Why? You’re acting like— on one hand you’re cooperating with them, but on the other, you’re telling me that you’re playing your own game. I don’t get it, mama. And I don’t like it.”
“I am also a human being, and not a tool,” her mother said. “And someday, the Earth Church might be useful to you or Reinhard. I am just trying to make smooth the path.”
“Everybody wants to think they’re not being used,” Annerose said.
“No,” her mother said. “Not necessarily. Some people just want to be used in the right way.”
Annerose frowned. Her mother always said things that hit a little too close to home. Perhaps it was a reminder that they were related, after all.
When Annerose didn’t say anything else, her mother said, “I heard that you had a fight with Bishop Martine.” Her voice was back to the businesslike tone she had used before, some of the personal nature stripped out of it.
“It wasn’t a fight.”
“An argument, then. Which you think you won.”
“I don’t like the way you phrased that.” Again, the anger was building up in Annerose, and she bit her lip. She wanted to shake her mother’s shoulders and demand she pick a side: the Earth Church, or her daughter. One or the other. She couldn’t have both. This wasn’t a game.
“It’s an argument you could win,” her mother said. “But you have to be willing to play the game of give and take.”
“It’s not a game!” Annerose said. “Whatever you’re trying to manipulate me into doing, stop. I don’t want anybody to put their hands on that woman.”
“I know,” her mother said. “Which is why you have to work with me here.” Annerose was silent, hands clenched into fists beneath the table, so her mother continued. “You’re going to keep in contact with her, I assume. I can work this situation with the bishop. I can make it so as long as just one person is keeping an eye on her, making sure she’s just living a quiet life until she’s needed, they won’t bother her.”
“You want to spy on her.” The words came out vicious and bitter. How her mother could pretend to be so poised, Annerose didn’t know. Ten years ago, she never would have been like this. Annerose couldn’t help but think of the way her mother had acted, the night that they had decided to leave Odin. The Earth Church had changed her mother, somehow, in some way that Annerose was only discovering the extent of now.
“It’s better than any alternative. I am trying to give you space to keep her safe. I’m on your side, and hers.”
”You can’t be on both.”
Her mother frowned. “I can try.”
“Look at yourself, mom,” Annerose said, leaning forward, trying to get her to understand. “You can’t be on her side if you’re helping the people who did this to her. If you’re spying on her for them.”
“If they think they have her where they need her to be, they won’t do anything else,” her mother said. “Think about it like harm reduction.”
“I could take her away.”
“No, you couldn’t.” Her mother’s voice was firm, as though Annerose had been acting like a petulant child. “You know this.”
“Because there are more people involved with this than just Bishop Martine. This is a matter for the whole Alliance government, now. They have vested interest in keeping her safe and in the right place, too.”
“You’re saying the Earth Church has the whole of the Alliance under its thumb.”
“No, I’m not saying that. You’re not listening to me.”
“I am, I just don’t like what I’m hearing.”
“The Alliance has decided that it’s willing to cooperate with the Earth Church, if it means bringing about the end of the war. I think that’s a good thing. You should, too.”
“And if I was her, mom? Would you say the same thing, if this was all happening to me? Would you tell me that this is all for my own good?”
Her mother’s face pinched a little, the professional facade broken for the first time. “I protected you.”
“And now I want to protect her, and you’re telling me that I can’t.”
“I’m not saying that. I’m trying to help you. But sometimes the best way to protect someone is—“
“I don’t think I’m interested in what you think is best, at this point, since it seems to involve all of this.” Annerose waved her hand. “What good is the Earth Church doing, really?”
“They rescued her from where she was before.”
“And brought her someplace worse!”
“And this might end the war,” her mother said. “You should want that.”
“I do, but not like this!”
Despite Annerose’s indignation, her mother smiled a little. “You think I don’t know that your brother has dreams of riding a ship into Odin as some kind of triumphant conqueror? I understand the impulse, but if the universe was going to find peace through that route, it would have happened a long time ago.”
Annerose shook her head vehemently. “This isn’t better.”
“But it’s what we have.”
Annerose bit her lip. “It doesn’t have to be.”
“I should get going,” her mother said. “I can see that you’re not going to agree with me right now, but I’ll do my best to smooth this over for you, anyway.”. She stood, then squeezed Annerose’s shoulder briefly, which made Annerose tense up. “It was a pleasure to stay with you, Julian.”
Julian looked at her, obviously confused by what had passed between Annerose and Caribelle over his head. He looked to Annerose for direction, and she gave him a weak smile and slight nod.
“It was nice to have you over, Mrs. von Müsel,” he said. “I had a good time.”
“I’m glad,” she said with a smile. “I’m sure I’ll see you around.”
“Do you need a ride to the train?” Annerose asked, standing.
“The bus isn’t far,” her mother said. “And it’s a fine night. I can walk.”
“If you’re sure.”
Her mother nodded. “Goodnight, Annerose. I love you.”
“Yeah,” Annerose said. Her mother gathered up her packed bag, already sitting near the door, and with one last smile at her daughter and Julian, headed out into the night.
When she had left, Annerose let out a heavy sigh and leaned back in her chair.
“What was that about?” Julian asked. “Is everything okay?”
“I don’t know,” Annerose said. “It’s complicated.”
Julian nodded solemnly. “I understand.”
“I’m sorry for making you feel left out,” Annerose said. “I promise I’ll tell you about it later. Just— not right this second.”
“Okay,” Julian said. “As long as you’re all right.”
“Me? I’m fine.”
“You look unhappy.”
“There’s just a lot going on.”
He nodded again, then got up and went to the freezer, pulling out two ice cream sandwiches. He handed one to Annerose, and she took it. Her hand shook slightly as she unwrapped the paper. It didn’t look tampered with. She wasn’t going to throw out all the food in her house, though she had half a mind to.
“I think Ms. Roscher is going to come stay with us,” Annerose said after a minute. “Just for a little while.”
Julian’s eyes widened. “Really?”
“Why are you so surprised by that?”
“She’s a princess.”
Annerose scowled. “Do me a favor, Julian. Don’t mention that when she’s around, unless she brings it up.”
“Why is she going to stay with us?”
“Because I’m not sure I trust her to live alone, and I’m not sure where else she can go. Well, I mean, I trust her, but I don’t trust other people not to bother her.”
She ate the ice cream sandwich, the cold giving her something to focus on, something to calm her mind.
“What’s she like?”
“I don’t know,” Annerose said, which was the truth. “She’s been very sick.”
“Is she okay?”
“I hope she will be.” Annerose hesitated for a second. “Julian…” she said.
“Yes, Lieutenant Commander?” The use of the title made her smile. He was such a funny kid. She loved him.
“When she’s here, can you… Just… Do me a favor?”
“Just make sure she’s safe,” Annerose said. “I trust you.”
“I will,” Julian said. “I promise.”
“Thanks,” Annerose said, and it was actually a relief.
Ingrid stayed at the medical center for over a week. Annerose visited her daily, and Ingrid’s eyes always lit up when she came. Being trapped in the medical area was clearly not doing Ingrid any good, for all that she was being treated well and given plenty of books to read and tv to watch in the imperial language.
Annerose was on her way into the medical center, after her duty hours at work were over, bearing a small box containing a fruit tart for Ingrid. She was stopped in the hallway before she arrived at Ingrid’s room, though, by one of the Rosenritter guards, Spaceman Leitner.
“Lieutenant Commander,” he said. “She has a guest right now.”
“You didn’t let an Earth Church person in, did you?” she asked, annoyed already.
“No, ma’m. It’s—“
Annerose didn’t have to find out from Leitner who was visiting Ingrid, because the door to her room swung open, and out stepped, of all people, the secretary of defense, Job Trunicht.
Annerose and Leitner both snapped to attention and saluted.
“Lieutenant Commander von Müsel!” Trunicht said, a slick smile on his face. “I was told you come around here, I’m glad to catch you.”
“Sir,” Annerose said. “I wasn’t aware that you were looking for me.”
“Well, looking would be a strong word for it. But it’s good to have a chance to speak with you.” He gestured for her to follow him, and she did, with a bit of reluctance, glancing back at Ingrid’s door.
“First of all,” Trunicht said, “I’d like to thank you for the excellent job you did bringing Ms. Roscher through Phezzan.”
“I think my brother is the one you should give most of the credit to,” Annerose said. “He was the one who—“
“Your brother is a fine young man, but you are still the one who deserves the credit here.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“You’ve done an excellent job protecting her. She thinks the world of you, you know.”
“I’m glad to hear it?” Annerose said, unable to keep the confusion out of her voice.
“Yes, it seems you’ve gone above and beyond in the line of duty.” They were walking out the doors of the medical center now, heading towards the street, where Trunicht’s car was parked (illegally, Annerose noted) on the side of the road.
“I’m just trying to treat her with the decency that every person deserves,” Annerose said. “She’s been through a lot.”
“Certainly, certainly. I understand exactly how you feel, and I think it’s an admirable trait.”
Annerose could hear the ‘but’ on the end of his sentence, so she stayed silent.
“I also think that you are in a wonderful position to help Ms. Rocher in the future,” Trunicht said.
“You see, Lieutenant Commander,” Trunicht said, “Ms. Roscher is in a very interesting position. I believe that, in the future, there may come a time when she can return to her homeland, and help restore peace to the galaxy.”
Annerose bit her lip. “Ms. Roscher considers Earth her home.”
Trunicht sighed. “Yes,” he said. “But I do not think that anyone believes that Ms. Roscher will be returning to Earth any time soon. It’s a wasteland, from what I’ve heard, anyway.”
“I wouldn’t know, sir.”
“Yes. Well, in any case, it seems as though there may come a time within the next few years when Ms. Roscher may be called upon to do us some service.”
“I understand,” Annerose said, though she didn’t like it. “But what are you telling me for?” She had her suspicions, but perhaps it was better to play slightly dumb with Trunicht. He seemed the type to underestimate her. Annerose could usually tell that, from the tone in people’s voices when they addressed her. She had heard it often enough, after all.
“Because, Lieutenant Commander, since Ms. Roscher seems to trust you, your gentle touch may be required to help direct her.”
“I see, sir.”
“And you’re willing to take on this duty?”
“Is it an official one, sir?”
He waved his hand. “Oh, no, no, nothing like that. You’re happy with your Rosenritter posting; I wouldn’t want to take that away from you. I just mean as Ms. Roscher’s personal friend. Her protector, as it were. What do you say to that?”
Annerose didn’t smile. She didn’t have much of a choice in what to say here, but she suspected that if the type of situation that Trunicht wanted actually came to pass, she would not hesitate to forget her promise to Trunicht immediately. “I’d be happy to, sir.”
They were lingering by his car now. “I’m glad I could be of help, sir,” Annerose said finally, since it seemed like he wanted a reply.
“Yes, yes,” he said. He was opening his car door. “And, of course, we’ll be happy to support you in whatever you need to keep Ms. Roscher happy.”
She nodded. “Can I ask one question, sir?”
He paused. “Of course.” His smile was sickening.
“The Earth Church,” she said. “Do you think they’re a danger to her?”
“A danger?” He continued to smile. “No, of course not. What in the world gave you that idea? Ms. Roscher should be free to practice her religion, of course. We are a free country, after all, and they helped us get her out of the Empire.”
“Of course, sir,” Annerose said. “Thank you for clearing that up.”
“Not a problem,” Trunicht said. “You let me know if there’s anything I can do for you, Ms. von Müsel.”
Lieutenant Commander, Annerose thought, but Trunicht had already shut the car door in her face, and was starting the engine, a loud, roaring thing. She watched him drive away, then turned to go back in to talk to Ingrid, feeling disgusted and bitter with the world and herself.
Technically, Ingrid had her own apartment. Annerose brought her to it and they stood in it for a minute, the sink dripping a little in the kitchen, the sound echoing cavernously around the completely unfurnished rooms and bare walls. Ingrid looked around, shoulders slumping a little bit, and Annerose ran her finger over the dust accumulated on the windowsill, looking down about ten floors to the street outside.
Hesitantly, Annerose asked, “I know this is your house, Ingrid, but if you want, you’re welcome to stay with me for a while, until everything gets figured out.”
“Really?” Ingrid asked.
The fact that this had been sanctioned by everyone from her mother to Trunicht, so long as Annerose kept allowing Ingrid to be a tool, did make Annerose feel less pleasant about it, but she nodded. “Of course,” she said with a smile.
The look of relief on Ingrid’s face made it worth it.
Julian loved Ingrid immediately, of course. It didn’t even matter that they didn’t actually share a language in common, and therefore couldn’t communicate except for in hand gestures and facial expressions.
For her part, Ingrid looked at Julian with a rather wistful expression, and said to Annerose, very quietly one night, “I hope that Erwin is as sweet as your boy is.”
Annerose had no idea how to respond to that, except that it broke her heart a little.
She had always known just how lucky she was, to have her mother and brother who had given up everything that they had ever known to keep her safe. Annerose, for all that she had been on the brink of utter destruction, had escaped it, and had found a new life where she could be happy. Julian and Ingrid, though, had lost everything. It was unfair. It burned her.
Annerose had understood, on an intellectual level, Reinhard’s hatred of the Goldenbaums, and his desire to destroy them. She had thought his protectiveness of her was sweet, and she had wanted to support him because she loved him, and thought that he had the potential to do good in the world. But since the harm the Goldenbaum dynasty had done to their family had been directed at her, and she had been, perhaps not willing, but ready to accept it, she didn’t share his passion. Now, though, she felt that almost nothing would give her greater satisfaction than sweeping through the halls of Neue Sanssouci and stealing the young Erwin Josef away.
Reinhard’s few possessions that he kept in her house had been moved out of his room and into a closet so that Ingrid could have some space, but on the first night that she stayed at Annerose’s house, she woke Annerose in the middle of the night, making so much noise in the kitchen that Annerose had to get up to investigate.
Annerose stumbled out into the bright lights of the kitchen, finding that Ingrid had dropped a whole tray of ice all over the floor. She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes, then bent down to help Ingrid pick up all the scattered ice cubes, tossing them into the sink.
“You alright?” Annerose asked.
Ingrid’s face was sallow in the fluorescent lights, and her hair was frizzing out in a red cloud. She looked frail in the borrowed nightgown that Annerose had given her, though since they were the same size, this was probably more due to her posture than anything else. She stood with her arms wrapped around her stomach, shoulders hunched protectively. “Just couldn’t sleep,” she said. “It’s alright.”
“Is there anything I can do? Hot milk or something?” She thought maybe she had some allergy medicine in the cabinet that she could give her, but then decided that the last thing that would be appropriate would be to start giving Ingrid random drugs.
Ingrid shook her head a little. She picked up the glass of water that she had been trying to put ice in and drank from it.
“You’re okay with being here, right?” Annerose asked. “You don’t want to go back to your own place, do you?”
“No,” Ingrid said. “I’m glad you asked me to stay here.”
Annerose smiled, then rubbed Ingrid’s shoulder a little. “Good. I’m glad to have you.”
“Annerose…” Ingrid began.
“Can I stay with you?” Since Ingrid was already living in Annerose’s house, this question obviously meant something other than that, and Annerose knew what she meant. She hadn’t known if Ingrid would continue to want to stay in her bed, which they had done for the entire trip back from Phezzan. Annerose had thought maybe that was just the special circumstance of Ingrid being very sick.
And, furthermore, Annerose wasn’t sure if she should say yes. There was a part of her that liked being so close to Ingrid, but there was another part of her that said, very strongly, that it was not normal or appropriate. She may have shared Jessica’s bed once or twice when she visited her, but that was not the same. She knew it wasn’t the same, though the idea of putting words to why made her bite her lip.
Still, she looked at Ingrid, and thought that the expression that Ingrid would wear should she say no would be too painful to look at, so Annerose smiled and said, “Of course.”
Ingrid laughed a little, a relieved sound. Annerose did not want to think about why Ingrid was relieved now, and would have been heartbroken if she had refused, so she just didn’t.
After all, it was very easy not to think of anything, when she was laying in the dark with Ingrid, her chin tucked against Ingrid’s shoulder, their knees crooked together, and Annerose’s arm held over Ingrid’s warm side.
Life returned to some kind of normal for a while. They fell into a new and easy routine, and Annerose was able to avoid thinking about whatever looming manipulations the Earth Church and he secretary of defense might want from her. She even tried to pretend not to care that her mother and Ingrid went together to Earth Church services at least once a week. Julian tagged along, taking his duty to both spy on Annerose’s mother and protect Ingrid very seriously. Perhaps because of Julian’s presence, nothing ever happened. Julian, though, was bored out of his mind. Annerose was grateful that he, at least, was not interested in joining the Earth Church.
It was on a peaceful Friday that Annerose stepped into Schenkopp’s office to discuss some minor point about duty schedules. Schenkopp was not doing anything productive when she arrived: he was attempting to balance a plastic water bottle on the tip of his knife. Annerose watched him perform this stupid activity for about thirty seconds before the water bottle wiggled off the knife and fell to the ground. While she waited for him to pick it up, she looked at the now slightly faded tapestry hung on the wall next to his desk— the one she had given him as a parting gift years ago. Every time she saw it, she was not only surprised that he had kept it, but that he had hung it up in such a place of honor.
“I’m waiting for you to shut the door, Müsel, you know,” Schenkopp said, water bottle back in hand.
Surprised, Annerose closed the door, and Schenkopp waved at her to take a seat.
“I have the new duty schedules—“ Annerose began, pulling out a memory stick from her pocket and handing it over to him. He took it, then dropped it into his drawer.
“How often do you talk to your brother?” Schenkopp asked.
“I write him once a week, usually. Why do you ask?”
“Does he ever talk about work?”
“No, of course not,” Annerose said. “He wouldn’t write anything in a letter.”
“Too bad,” Schenkopp said. “I was hoping he would have some information for me.”
Schenkopp turned his computer screen around so that she could see it. “Take a look at that.”
What was displayed there was a message from fleet command, informing Schenkopp that the Rosenritter should prepare for deployment to some star system Annerose had never heard of, and more specifically, a planet that didn’t even have a name, just the designation of its star system, Cahokia-3. There was no date given, but Annerose felt a thrill of excitement rising up in her regardless.
“Is this all the information you have?” she asked, scrolling through the message until she came upon the starmap detailing the planet’s location. It wasn’t ‘inside’ the Iserlohn corridor, not exactly. It was off to the side, as though the delicate threads of navigable space through the corridor had branched slightly, just inside the Alliance side “mouth” of the corridor. “Does this lead anywhere?”
“I have a little more information,” he said. “It connects back up with the corridor further in, here—“ he pointed at the map— “but it’s still before the fortress, so it’s useless in that respect.”
Annerose nodded. “Then what are we being sent there for?”
“Well,” Schenkopp said. “I think there’s a few reasons.”
Schenkopp grinned at her. “Come on, Müsel, let me draw out the suspense.”
She rolled her eyes. “Are we going to build a fortress of our own?”
“Hah, no. I don’t think so.” He scratched his chin thoughtfully. “At least, not now. I think having a base inside the mouth of the Iserlohn corridor is probably an eventual goal, but I get the feeling that no one wants to say that out loud.”
“Money,” Schenkopp said. “It’s expensive. Building a fortress even more so than putting a base on a planet.”
“Then what are we doing?”
“Well, everyone is looking for an excuse, something that they could use to say that they’re recouping their investment. As it turns out, this planet, Cahokia-3, has huge wolframite deposits, readily accessible ones.”
Annerose nodded. Tungsten, which was extracted from that mineral, was a vital component in shipbuilding, among other things.
“So, they want to put a mine there.”
“Depends on the ‘they’ you’re talking about. Fleet command isn’t typically in the business of building mines.”
“But we do on Kapche-Lanka—”
Schenkopp laughed. “No, not really, but it’s an apt comparison. The mines there are run and owned by corporate interests, but there’s an exclusive contract in place— Nevermind. It really doesn’t matter.”
“It seems like it does.”
“Just like on Kapche-Lanka, they want fleet assets to protect the corporate investments in the mine. In this case, the mine doesn’t exist yet, so we’re going to provide some feet on the ground during construction.”
“Once it’s built?”
“They’ll probably send us home once they have something actually nice set up,” Schenkopp said with a smile. “You haven’t yet experienced the kind of hospitality we sometimes get. Anyway, I don’t mind that. Being stuck somewhere permanently is a drag.”
“Sure.” Annerose looked at the map again. “And what does this have to do with Reinhard?”
“You’ve said he pays attention to economics. And he’s on Phezzan.” Annerose nodded. “Like I said, this isn’t entirely a fleet venture. It’s got money behind it. Investments. Phezzan has its fingers in every major corporation on both sides of the galaxy.”
“That’s an exaggeration, I’m sure,” Annerose said.
“You’d have to ask your brother. But— look— if there’s money to be made, Phezzan is going to know about it sooner, rather than later. And if there’s money being made this close to Iserlohn fortress, looking half like a mining enterprise and half like an excuse to set up a forward base for attack, that’s dangerous. Even if all of this is kept under the strictest secrecy, ships travelling into the corridor without a convoy, one at a time so that they’re not detected, nobody saying anything about this— somebody is going to notice all this money changing hands. And when they do, I want to know who’s noticing.”
Annerose nodded slowly. “You think my brother would spot it?”
“I don’t know how closely he pays attention to the price of raw tungsten,” Schenkopp said. “It’s not exactly the thing I have an alert set up on my phone for. But he works in the High Commissioner’s office. This whole Roscher thing— he has ways of getting information on what the Empire is doing, I’m sure. I just want to see if there’s a way that he can be a watchdog for us.”
“Even if he finds something out, would he be able to do anything about it? Especially if we’re already there. A ground force without space support— that’s what we’ll be, right?”
“During construction, anyway, yes.”
“We’ll be sitting ducks.”
“They wouldn’t blast the planet to slag,” Schenkopp said. “We can be sure of that, at least. Just like on Kapche-Lanka, the Empire has just as much use for this stuff as we do, and they would be perfectly happy setting up their own forward base just that much further onto our side of the corridor.”
“True. But we’ll be out of contact with everyone.”
“Even if we had forewarning of anything, we won’t be able to do anything about it. But I want your brother to be on the lookout, so he can yell for help. People listen to information coming out of the High Commissioner’s office on Phezzan. He’s in a good spot.”
“If I tell him about this, he’ll be jealous that I’m about to be on the front lines.”
“Obviously, you can’t tell him,” Schenkopp said. “Not the specifics, anyway. You need to hint to him about it. Get him to pay attention.”
“Okay. I will.” Annerose drummed her fingers on Schenkopp’s desk for a moment and asked, “If we are attacked while we’re there, what kind of force will we be looking at facing?”
“Good question.” Schenkopp closed his eyes for a moment. “They’d want a ground force, in order to be able to take over the actual base we’ve built, save themselves some trouble. If we’re unlucky, they’ll send someone important to deal with us— I don’t think that one or two regiments and a construction crew will be enough for them to get their really big guns out, but I think…” He chuckled. “I think it depends entirely on which noble clan has the kaiser’s favor at the moment.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, just like we’ve granted these mining contracts to corporations, the Empire does the same thing, except it’s granting land rights to noble families. It’s a big thing. It would have to be someone relatively powerful, a family that already has mining experience that they could move, and probably one who has command of their own section of the imperial fleet, so that they would protect their assets.”
“Ah,” Annerose said. “I see.” The machinations of the imperial court were somewhat obscure to her. It was never anything she had paid attention to, even when she was living in the Empire; it was so far outside the normal scope of her daily life that it barely even registered.
“But we can hope it doesn’t get to that point. I don’t doubt they’ll find out eventually. We might be able to make it so that they only find out after there’s plenty of ships guarding the area, so that it’s less likely to be a ground conflict.”
“Any idea why we’ve been picked for this?” Annerose asked.
“I think they saw some of our usefulness for protecting stationary assets on Van-Fleet,” Schenkopp said. “Either that, or someone has just decided we’re too annoying sitting around on Heinessen, and they wanted to give us something to do.”
In the back of her head, Annerose had a tiny, sudden thought that perhaps the Rosenritter were being assigned to the very front of the front lines in order to specifically get her away from Ingrid. But that was too paranoid of a thought, even for her.
“Will the fleet come to our defense if there is some sort of conflict?” Annerose asked, after a second. “Or will we we be trapped?”
“Good question,” Schenkopp said. “I recommend you write your will, Müsel.”
“Thanks,” she muttered, but he was smiling at her. “Do we know anything about what this planet is like?”
“Garbage,” Schenkopp said. “Atmosphere’s completely unbreathable., Half the gravity of Heinessen. Four hour day. Apparently the temperature’s miserable, too, but we’ll be in suits all the time, so it probably won’t affect us that much.”
“Miserable in what direction?”
“Hot,” Schenkopp said. “Not ‘kill you instantly’ hot, but ‘pushing the acceptable temperature range of a bunch of our equipment’ hot.”
“Come on, Müsel, sound happier that we’re going to get out and do things. I’m tired of sitting around here.”
“I am,” she said, which wasn’t a lie. “I’m just already going through what type of supplies I’m going to need to requisition.”
He laughed. “Glad to have you here,” he said.
They talked about the details for a while longer, though Schenkopp unfortunately didn’t have much in the way of information yet. They got lost in it, especially when Linz and Blumhart stuck their heads into the office to get the rundown. By the time that Annerose and Schenkopp finished talking, the sun had gone down, and Annerose glanced at the time and frowned. “I should have told Julian not to wait on me for dinner,” she said. “Rude of me to stay so late.”
“I’m sure he’ll understand,” Schenkopp said. “Though you might want to apologize to Ms. Roscher.”
Annerose waved her hand distractedly, gathering up some of the papers that she had been scribbling notes on. “She understands how work goes. Besides, Julian is the one who cooks.”
“I see,” Schenkopp said.
Annerose glanced up at him. Thinking his tone sounded weirdly disappointed, which surprised her, she said, “Would you like to join us for dinner?” she asked. “Julian always makes plenty extra so we can pack lunches.”
An unreadable expression flashed across his face, his cheek twitching in something that might have been a stifled smile, but his eyebrows furrowed a little. He hesitated before saying, “If Ms. Roscher and Julian don’t mind.”
“Of course they won’t mind,” Annerose said. She smiled a little. “I’ll call Julian and let him know that you’re coming.”
He nodded, and Annerose slipped out of his office.
They took separate cars back to Annerose’s house, and Schenkopp arrived a few minutes after Annerose did, giving her time to change out of her uniform and into casual clothes. She apologized again to Julian for her lateness and the presence of a guest.
“It’s no problem at all,” Julian said. “I am excited to meet Captain Schenkopp.”
“You’ll love him,” Annerose said. “Well, except we’ll probably have to talk in imperial, for Ingrid’s sake…” she muttered.
“It’s fine,” he said. “I’m getting better.”
Annerose tousled his hair, which made him blush and duck out from under her hand.
The doorbell rang. “Oh, there he is,” Annerose said. She checked her reflection in the mirror one last time, then headed back out to find Schenkopp.
She discovered the reason he was late. Although he was still in his uniform, he had apparently stopped somewhere to buy a little bouquet of flowers, which he presented to her with a grin. “For the lovely ladies of Lieutenant Commander von Müsel’s household.”
Annerose laughed. “Thank you, Captain Schenkopp. Please, come in.”
Ingrid was hovering in the door between the kitchen and the hallway. “Good evening, Ms. von Roscher,” Schenkopp said, giving her a funny little bow. “I hope my logistics officer has been treating you well.”
“Very well, Captain,” Ingrid said. “Thank you.”
“Glad to hear it,” Schenkopp said.
“Walter,” Annerose said, getting his attention. “This is my ward, Julian Minci. Julian, Captain Schenkopp.”
“The last thirteen year old boy that Lieutenant Commander Müsel introduced me to gave his best attempt to detach my neck from my shoulders with an axe. Do I need to be worried that you’ll do the same thing, Julian?”
“No, sir!” Julian said, eyes wide. “Er, Mr. Lieutenant Commander von Müsel did that?”
Schenkopp laughed. “Only a little, though I’m a little afraid that if I see him again, he’ll try for a second time, and be better at it, now that he’s not so young anymore. You’ve met him, right?”
“What do you think of him?”
Julian seemed conflicted, unwilling to praise Reinhard when Schenkopp, whom he clearly immediately respected, had his own opinions. “I think he’s done some very impressive things, sir,” Julian said, which made Schenkopp grin widely.
“Very true. The von Müsels are an impressive bunch. You could do with far worse for a guardian, I know that for sure.”
The whole group settled in to eat dinner, which turned out to be lasagna. The atmosphere of the meal was quite light and friendly. Julian hung on to Schenkopp’s every word, clearly impressed by him. Ingrid even seemed to relax a little, and Schenkopp was nothing but absolutely polite to both her and Annerose. In fact, she wouldn’t have minded in the least if he had acted even the tiniest bit more interested in her. But, aside from the flowers, which he had said were for both her and Ingrid, there was absolutely nothing flirtatious about his manner, aside from his usual infuriating charm.
They couldn’t even talk more about the upcoming deployment, because it was very much a secret.
Even with these frustrations, it was a very pleasant meal. At the end of it, she was wondering if Schenkopp might linger, but he didn’t seem inclined to. While Ingrid and Julian cleaned up the meal, Annerose walked him outside.
He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lit one, offering another to her.
“No, thanks,” Annerose said. “I didn’t even know you smoked.”
“Occasional treat,” he said. “I’m aware it’s bad for me.”
“Won’t be allowed to smoke when we’re in somewhere with a kept atmosphere,” she said.
“I know.” He grinned. “That’s why I’m getting it in now. When are you going to tell them we’re going?”
She twirled a lock of her hair. “I don’t know. When we pin down an actual date for our deployment, I guess. There’s no need to make them worry about it before they need to.”
“I’m glad to see that you and Ms. Roscher are happy together.”
“Well, I hope she’s happy here on Heinessen. It will be a relief to have her be able to stay with Julian instead of needing my mom to come here. Though I suppose I don’t know if she wants that kind of responsibility.” Annerose laughed a little. “Rear Admiral Cazerne should not have given me a kid— I’m just passing him off to everybody around me.”
Shenkopp shook his head. “No, you’re good for him.”
They both were leaning on the railing of her little patio. The smoke from Schenkopp’s cigarette drifted away in the warm, late summer breeze.
“Are you excited to go out?” Annerose asked after a moment of silence.
“Of course,” he said. “Beats sitting around here.”
“Yeah.” She hesitated. “Walter—“
He turned to look at her, the lit tip of his cigarette dancing in between his fingers. “Yeah?”
“I’m glad to be going with you. That’s all.”
He nudged her with his elbow. “I’m glad to have you.” She decided to be a little bold and lean against him. He chuckled. “You’d better be careful, or Ms. Roscher will get jealous.”
He shrugged. “Well, it’s not my business.”
“What if I want it to be your business?”
Schenkopp raised both of his eyebrows. “That would be very interesting indeed.” He flicked some ash off the end of his cigarette. “But that’s a different thing altogether.”
“If you say so.”
He looked down at her. “Can I ask, exactly, what is going on here?”
“What do you mean?”
“You seem very close with her. I’m just trying to figure out the nature of it.”
Annerose leaned on the railing and looked out over her yard, at the streetlights and the house lights, and the stars barely visible above. “I don’t know,” she said. “Is it strange, that I look at her, and I have this, I don’t know, need to protect her? It’s not even like she’s fragile. She’s been through more than I ever have. But she feels like my responsibility.”
This clearly didn’t answer the question that Schenkopp was trying to ask. “Is it just responsibility?”
“As opposed to what?”
“It’s clearly gone beyond the professional if you’re living together.”
“I just didn’t want anybody else to— you know what I mean. She’s vulnerable.”
“Sure.” He was quiet for a second, taking a drag from his cigarette. “You know I don’t care, right? I’m not going to report you for indecent behavior.”
Annerose stiffened. “You think this is—“
He raised both hands, backing off at her tone. “Like I said, not my business, if you don’t want to talk about it.”
“I’m not a homosexual.”
“I never said you were.”
“You implied it.”
“No,” he said. “I was just wondering. I don’t know if one dalliance a homosexual makes, anyway.” He shrugged.
“What does make one, then?” Annerose asked, voice strained.
“Oh, I don’t know.” He stubbed his cigarette out on the railing. “I’ll take you at your word, though.”
“Good,” Annerose said. “I wouldn’t want you to think…”
He tilted his head to look at her, “Think what?”
She bit her lip. “Something unkind about me.”
“It wounds me that you think I’m capable of thinking something unkind about you,” Schenkopp said with a smile.
“Oh,” she said. Again, she felt like she had no idea where she stood with him, and it frustrated her.
He smiled. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then, Annerose.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Tomorrow.”