Star of Wonder, page 18
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First Responder Imogene Silver sat back in her chair and regarded the black-haired young woman sitting on the other side of her desk. “And what can I do for you, Miss Prince?”
“It’s Mrs. Evans.” The young woman looked away for an instant, then back, her pale green eyes meeting Silver’s grey ones with an odd mingling of confusion, defiance, and fear. “I know it won’t say that in any of your databases, in any information you can find, but that’s who I am. Amanda Evans. And that’s my problem. My husband is missing. Only everyone around me is telling me he’s not missing, he’s dead, and he was never my husband at all, so either I’m losing my mind or there’s some kind of conspiracy against me. And I know how that sounds, believe me, and I wouldn’t be here asking for help if there was anything else besides praying I could do, but there’s not. I’ve tried.”
“Here.” Silver scooped up the box of tissues which sat within easy reach on her desk and tossed them lightly across to the younger woman. “It’s my job to keep an open mind, and this isn’t the strangest story I’ve heard. That would be the one about the pink robes that weren’t really pink, the three cinnamon lozenges, and…well, never mind. When was the last time you had anything to eat?”
“Eat?” Amanda blinked, as though the word were strange to her. “This morning, I suppose. I’m not sure.”
Silver sighed, and opened a message window on her workstation to the assistant shared by all the Responders in the office serving the World-Approximating Station Curie Alpha Mu, asking her to run down the corridor to the food court and get something for her current case to eat. Something simple, she added after another look at Amanda, whose fair skin had a distinctly grey undertone against the soft yellow of her shipside coverall. And grab me a coffee while you’re at it, would you? I may be here a while.
“Now,” she said, folding her own deep brown hands in her lap. “Give me the whole picture, as much of it as you’re comfortable sharing. Where do you come from, who’s this husband of yours, and how did you happen to meet?”
“We didn’t happen to meet.” Amanda pleated a tissue between her fingers, staring down at it as though she saw her past in its intricate folds. “We grew up together. I’m from Liverpool, you know, the shipping planet? That’s what I grew up learning about, shipping and trading, and so did Dai. That’s his name, Dai Evans—well, Dafydd really, but no one ever called him that, not even his mother, not unless she was really angry with him. I’m sorry, I’m babbling.”
“Not at all.” Silver shook her head. “You’re giving me a better idea of your situation. So you and Mr. Evans, Dai, you were childhood friends. Were your parents acquainted as well? Was there any opposition to the idea of a romantic connection between you?”
“Not from our parents. But my parents died, before I was quite eighteen, and my grandparents, on the Prince side—”
“Any relation to the Princes of Princes Shipping?” Silver interrupted.
“That’s them.” Amanda offered a thin, wan smile. “My father was the younger son, and my grandparents, my grandmother Julia especially, didn’t agree with the way he wanted to live his life. But because he was the younger son, they let him go his own way. So he married my mother and went to live in the country, and I grew up there. Only then they died, and so did my uncle, and suddenly I was my grandparents’ ward and the only heir to Princes, and everything changed so fast it made my head spin.”
“So I would imagine.” Silver tapped a new command into her workstation, calling up everything Curie Alpha Mu’s central computer had on the planet of Liverpool, especially its customs regarding young and unmarried women, and the firm of Princes Shipping, which ferried cargo throughout much of this section of the greater galaxy. “What your own parents had considered suitable for you, your grandparents likely wouldn’t, especially with such a vast change in your social status. I’m not defending them,” she added mildly as Amanda sat up straighter in her chair, her shoulders squaring with indignation. “Just stating facts. Your social status did change, didn’t it?”
“It did, of course it did, but I’ve never cared about that sort of thing, and I don’t see why my grandmother does—” Amanda jumped as the office door chimed, signaling someone on its other side.
“It’s a heavy question, why people do what they do.” Silver pressed the button to open the door, revealing Sharon, the assistant, on the other side with a well-loaded tray in her hands. “We’ll probably both be better for discussing it after we’ve had a little refreshment. Thank you,” she said to Sharon as a large, steaming cup was delivered to her desk, before Sharon handed the rest of the tray to Amanda with a smile and slipped back out of the room. “And before you start telling me you’re not hungry or you can’t possibly eat anything, just try a bite or two of that sugar toast. Festive-looking, isn’t it?”
“Just a bit. And very suitable to the season.” Amanda laughed weakly, holding up the slice of bread, which had been decorated with broad diagonal stripes in alternating green and red. “It feels so wrong, though. How can my sitting here eating Christmasy sugar toast and telling you the story of my life help you find out what’s going on?”
“You’d be surprised.” Silver skimmed the information now filling her screen, letting her eyes pick out the most important points. “So, by your homeworld’s law, you were your grandparents’ ward until you were twenty-one, unless you married before that time with their permission. And while your marrying without their permission isn’t quite forbidden, neither is it sanctioned. A bit of a gray area, isn’t it?”
“To say the least.” Amanda washed down a bite of the sugar toast with a sip of tea from the blue-and-silver-snowflake patterned mug sitting on the corner of her tray. “And they had very strong ideas on who they did and did not want me to marry. Dai wasn’t nearly important enough for them. His family wasn’t rich or powerful, and all he wanted to be was a pilot, maybe an entrepreneur in a small way once he’d saved enough money to start.”
“What sort of entrepreneur?” Silver inquired, opening a new query window on her workstation.
“Oh, shipping, of course.” Amanda gestured with the half-eaten piece of sugar toast. “Did you think a Liverpudlian would do anything else? But Dai had a new twist on it. He thought, as big as the greater galaxy is, there could be room for several smaller shipping services along with the larger ones, especially for the less-populated worlds where the lines like Princes may only run ships once or twice a year, because it wouldn’t pay their expenses to go any more often. A small company, with only one ship, or maybe two, could charge a reasonable amount for shipping items to customers on those smaller worlds and still make a profit out of it, because of their lower overhead.”
“That makes sense.” Silver keyed in several search terms and set her computer to work before returning her attention to Amanda. “And I’d imagine, raised in a shipping family as you were, you would have been a considerable help to him in that endeavor. He probably couldn’t have done it without you, or not for very long.”
“That’s true.” Amanda crumbled a bit of toast between her fingers. “It’s what I was raised to understand, housekeeping and bookkeeping. They’re very much alike, you know. Making sure everything stays tidy, and the numbers line up the way that they should. It’s all I ever wanted, and I wanted it with Dai.”
“But your grandparents objected.” Silver pitched the sentence midway between a statement and a question. “What did they do about it? Just forbid you to see him any longer, or something else?”
“Much worse than that.” Amanda’s eyes fired in pure rage. “They spread lies about him. Vicious lies, the sort that have just the littlest thread of truth running through them, so that you can’t completely deny them, you have to try to explain things. But no one wants things explained, they want a simple answer, and if you can’t give them a simple answer, especially on Liverpool, they don’t want you working for them. Dai couldn’t find work anywhere, except aboard the Yankee Clipper
“I know enough.” Silver added a few more terms to her search in progress. “Passenger shipping, where your grandparents’ business is mainly cargo. Quite an excellent company to do business with, if you happen to be a paying customer. Though I’ve heard that if they have to pay you instead, many of their captains feel the need to make sure they get their full money’s worth out of their workers.”
“They treat their passengers like gold and their crew like garbage,” said Amanda bluntly. “The head of the line, Captain Adam Burgess, he’s the worst of them all, and he sets the policies for the entire company. And that is the man my grandparents wanted me to marry. The man they told me I would marry, no matter what I had to say about it. They want to merge the companies, and Captain Burgess would only agree to that if they could give him something equally valuable in return. Something like me.”
“I see,” said Silver neutrally. “Did you have any way to tell your Dai about this?”
“No, we hadn’t had any communication in three years, not since he’d gone away. So since there wasn’t really anything I could do, I stopped objecting, and things went along their merry way until the night of the formal dinner where my betrothal was going to be announced.” Amanda twisted her hands, one inside the other. “And that’s where things get strange. Because I know what I think happened that night back in June, what I remember, what I’m almost certain is true, and what’s been true every day from then until right now in December. But my memories of that time keep getting hazier every day, and everything else I can find out says I’m wrong, and I don’t like either of the things that could mean.”
Silver nodded. “Start with what you remember,” she said. “We’ll look at the evidence later.”
“All right.” Amanda drew a deep breath. “I remember getting a vid call from Captain Burgess’s shuttle, the Daniel Boone, off his flagship, the Davy Crockett. Only it wasn’t Captain Burgess calling. It was his personal pilot, and his personal pilot was Dai. He’d earned that position in just three years, and saved enough from it to buy his own ship, and he’d come back for me like he promised. I packed up my things and slipped out the servants’ entrance, and met him at Saint Nicholas’s Church, and we were married and skipped out aboard his ship that same night. We’ve spent the last six months advertising Evans Shipping, no consignment too small. And we were happy,” she finished with a note of defiance in her voice. “We were.”
“I believe you.” Silver sipped her coffee. “And the official story, what I’d find out if I looked you up in the database?”
Amanda’s fingers tightened around her mug of tea. “The official story is that I had a ‘prolonged episode of altered consciousness’,” she quoted, her tone viciously precise. “That by an unhappy chance, the news that Dafydd Evans had been killed in a shuttle crash two months earlier reached me on the same night on which I was already overexcited by the arrival of my intended husband, and that it was too much for me. That I closed myself off from reality and acted out my fantasy of Dai coming back for me, to the point where I stowed away aboard a freighter bound offworld, believing I was going out to meet him. That my grandparents have been looking frantically for me ever since, and finally found me here on Curie Alpha Mu.”
“And, of course, having found you, they want only to take you home and help you get well, so that you can marry Captain Burgess and put this whole unhappy situation behind you.” Silver tapped her fingertips together at Amanda’s jerky nod. “You understand, of course, if you truly are of unsound mind, it’s my duty to restore you to your legal guardians. Also, you admit yourself that all the hard evidence you can find supports the story your grandparents have told you, and First Responders, by the nature of our work, can’t do anything unsupported by official data.”
“I understand.” Amanda looked away. “Thank you for listening to me, anyway. And for not laughing at me. I’ll just—”
“On a personal note,” Silver went on as though Amanda hadn’t spoken, “I think you might benefit from a conversation with a young friend of mine. She and her family happen to be on station at the moment, and they’ve had some experience with situations like yours. May I see your tripad?”
Warily, Amanda drew the palm-sized item from a pocket of her coverall, flipped back its cover, and murmured her passphrase into its microphone before handing it over. Silver pulled up the contacts list and entered a new name and code, then returned the tripad to its owner. “An-jing Xiao,” she said, indicating the name she’d input. “She’s quite friendly, a bit younger than you are, but I think you’ll get along. Let her know I sent you, and that you need to speak with her father.”
“I’ll do that.” Amanda tucked her tripad away and got to her feet. “Thank you, Responder Silver.”
“Not at all.” Silver also rose, and held out her hand to shake Amanda’s. “And Mrs. Evans?”
Amanda stiffened and looked up into Silver’s eyes, her own holding a sudden wild surmise.
Silver smiled very slightly. “Good luck,” she said softly, and squeezed Amanda’s hand before letting it go.