Star of Wonder, page 20
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Amanda swallowed hard, entered the final digit of the code Responder Silver had given her, and pressed the button to send the request for a short-distance vid connection, sometimes called a shove link. Her tripad buzzed twice, then lit up with the gold-toned face of a girl in her mid-teens, a ready smile crinkling the corners of slant-set brown eyes. “An-jing Xiao speaking,” she said, regarding Amanda curiously. “Can I help you?”
“Yes, I—” Amanda had to swallow again, and clenched her sweating hands out of sight to keep them from trembling so hard that it would become visible. “Responder Silver asked me to get in touch with you. My name is—”
“Oh, you must be Amanda!” An-jing beamed at Amanda’s hesitant nod. “Yes, she told me you might be shoving me sometime today. I think we may be able to help you, but it’s always better to do business in person, don’t you think?” One finger rubbed her earlobe, half hidden in her long dark hair, then tapped beside her right eye. “Do you know where the Kappa Level food court is?”
“Yes.” Amanda nodded again, simultaneously cheered and disturbed by the intimation that someone might be watching and listening. Part of her, she realized, had wanted to take the easy road, to agree with everything her grandparents were saying, to give up her unequal battle and go meekly home and marry Captain Burgess. Fighting against what the world expected was difficult and disheartening, and until today she’d had no reason to believe her memories and desires had any relation to reality.
But now I know I’m not the only one who thinks this might be true, and in some ways that’s even harder than thinking I am.
“Excellent. Meet me there, at the tea shop, in about ten minutes.” An-jing tossed her a little salute. “See you then. Run as you please.”
“See you then,” Amanda managed to say before the shove link shut down, frowning in thought as the other girl’s final phrase struck a distant chord of memory.
There’s some group of people somewhere in the greater galaxy who say that, it’s like goodbye in their language, only I can’t think of who they are…
Pushing the distraction aside, Amanda went into the head to breathe deeply for a few moments, so as to calm her racing heart, then washed her face and combed out her hair into a more pleasing arrangement. It would take her most of the ten minutes An-jing had specified to get to Kappa Level, and she didn’t intend to show up for a business appointment looking shabby.
“Where are you going, darling?” her grandmother asked as Amanda came into the brightly decorated main room of the quarters the Princes were renting in the short-term residency section of Curie Alpha Mu Station. “I’d hoped we could have lunch together, to take your mind off things.”
“That does sound nice, but I’ve been feeling a little restless today.” Amanda plastered her vaguest smile across her face. “I thought I’d go out again and walk around a bit more, look at all the Christmas decorations I didn’t see this morning. They were so pretty on the upper levels, and I want to see if the lower levels can match them. I’ll make sure to get something to eat, and I’ll shove you if I’m going to be late for dinner. Goodbye, Grandmother.”
She tapped the pocket where her tripad resided, and hurried out into the corridor before her grandmother had time to say more than, “But, Amanda dear—”
The whoosh of the closing door cut off anything further that Julia Prince had to say, and Amanda sighed in relief. Tucking her hands into her pockets, she set off at a brisk saunter. Either running or dawdling would make her conspicuous, and the last thing she needed was more reason to attract attention.
Arriving on Kappa Level nine and a half minutes later, after a pleasant browse through several levels’ worth of decorations in the public areas of the station, Amanda located the tea shop and strolled towards it. An-jing, dressed in a festive green coverall with a red scarf around her waist, half-rose from a table near the corridor at her approach, indicating the two cups of tea already steaming on the table.
“Oh, thank you.” Amanda seated herself across from the younger girl. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“I know. That’s why I did it.” An-jing nodded briskly. “Now, we can talk here if you like, but if you’re willing to trust me, I think we might have better luck taking this back to my family’s ship. My father knows a great many people who know a great many things, or can find them out.”
“And if anyone was listening in on our shove link, they’ll only be able to trail us to this point.” Amanda glanced around at the mostly deserted food court area. “Do you really think someone was tapping in?”
“Someone has the capability to alter an awful lot of official databases, if what you remember is true,” An-jing pointed out. “Or they have the money to hire people who can, and that’s just as bad.”
“Yes, it is.” Amanda patted her palms dry on the legs of her coverall, then picked up her tea. “Can I ask you what’s probably a terrible question?”
“Go ahead.” An-jing disentangled the end of her scarf from the seat of her chair. “If it’s too terrible, I just won’t answer.”
“All right.” Amanda blew on the tea and took a sip of it, to give herself a moment to think. “Why are you helping me?” she asked when her mouth was clear again. “It can’t just be because Responder Silver asked you to.”
“It’s not.” An-jing rubbed the material of her scarf between finger and thumb. “Call it a family tradition, if you like. Helping people who need help, not because it will get us anything in return, but because it’s the right thing to do.” She smiled, sweeping her free hand towards the decorations of evergreen and lights hung all around them. “Then it’s what the season calls for, too, isn’t it? Everyone in all the worlds who has good will, who wants good things to come to everybody, deserves peace in their hearts and in their lives.” Her smile broadened. “And I know a thing or two about peace. Now come on, follow me, and we’ll see what my father can find out about your troubles.”