An excerpt from

A Star Called Home

by Marina Landry

     A blush rose up her fine-boned cheeks, and her pink mouth twitched, but she didn't respond. Instead, she turned her head and made soothing noises to the waif quietly sobbing in her arms. She lifted her bag from the floor, aimed her cool, emerald eyes toward Marc, and said, "If you'll direct me to their--"

     "Through there," he interrupted again, pointing to the closed portal in the left part of the rear wall. He resumed his seat, turning his back on her and reaching for the console. "Cabins're all the same -- take your pick. Wait. One. Minute," he demanded, pivoting in his seat to frown at her. "You said you'd be bringing nine companions. This looks like more than nine to me."

     "Yes," she admitted easily. "There are twelve children in all, but they're used to living in close quarters. We'll manage."

     He stood and took an angry step off the bridge. "This starship is designed to accommodate ten passengers only. Space regs forbid me to--"

     "I understood you would get us to Orum without concern for regulations, without passports, and without questions. However, if you insist -- which three would you like to tell to go back?" She stared him squarely in the eye, holding that genderless child on her hip, with two more clutching her legs.

     He scowled down at the sea of dirty faces and unnerving stares, and he disliked this woman with her expensive clothes and cold eyes more than he'd ever disliked a total stranger before in his life. He forced himself to meet her haughty stare. "It will take me about ten minutes to get a clear window," he ground out. "So get them in the beds vite."

     He stepped back up to his command console, then added, "I'll rewash the bedsilks later."

     He studied the control screen, scanning frequencies, airspace, and ground perimeter for anyone too interested in why the Southern Belle had stopped there in the middle of the night.

     She was still standing by the portal at the rear wall. What the hell was she waiting for? "Eight minutes!" he called out.

     "Well, you will just have to wait!" she snapped, spinning to face him.

     He stood and glowered down at her.

     Her back was rigid and her jaw clenched as she continued in a trembling voice, "No matter how much you try to bully me, there is no way I can get twelve children ready for lift in eight minutes. And if you lift too soon and one of these children is injured, I'll make you wish you'd never taken this job."

     He studied her in barely-restrained anger, and not a small measure of admiration. Her ability to stand firm while he bullied her -- as she called it -- surprised him, though he could see her fingers shaking on the child's back. He stroked his wiry moustache with one finger and drawled, "I been wishin' dat ever since you boarded, chère."

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     Ana opened her eyes in alarm when she heard strange male voices calling out. They had entered the prison grounds. She pushed against James Hart's chest with a small cry. He continued to walk determinedly, answering only a few of the remarks directed at him by the other men, refusing to stop or put her down. Reluctant to challenge him in front of these men who respected him, she stopped her protests.

     As they entered the long, narrow building Ana knew to be the prisoner hospital, her anxiety grew until she was stiff in his arms. Assaulted by the pungent smell of sickness and medicines alien to her, eyes widening in distress, Ana glanced at the men yelling and whistling at her from their beds. At a sharp word from James Hart, the taunting stopped.

     He carried her down the narrow aisle separating the two crowded rows of cots, and stopped before a tall, white-haired man sitting at a small table of medical paraphernalia. As he looked up, Ana recognized him as the prison doctor. His eyes widened in surprise, and he asked a question laced with sarcasm.

     Carefully, James Hart put her down in a chair next to the table. For a fleeting moment, she felt as if all the heat in the universe had cooled as James Hart moved his warm body a step away from her. He was talking to the white-haired man, calling him Doc. Ana assumed it was a familiar form of doctor; it must be pronounced the same in both languages. She wondered if he was truly a physician or merely the best-qualified layman among the prisoners. He was young despite his shaggy, white hair, probably near her own age. Her speculation about the doctor was interrupted by a most pleasant surprise.

     "I can see you are in pain," he told her.

     He can speak Earther.

     "We'll have to get that boot off before it swells any more."

     In a daze of excitement, Ana nodded. Then remembering she did not have to continue the unnatural silence she had endured with James Hart, she added, "Of course."

     "I can give you something to ease the pain. It might make you a bit sleepy, and it is not organic. Will you take it?"

     Touched by his consideration of their differing cultures, she nodded. "I would be very grateful. Thank you."

     The doctor measured a bit of white powder into a metal cup of water. "Everyone here calls me Doc. In fact, I am a licensed doctor, so don't worry I'm going to poison you."

     "I'm not worried." She was surprised, as she said the quiet words, it was the truth. His relaxed, steady expression was calming her.

     "Well, good. I'm assuming this is the first time you've ever taken synthetic drugs?" Seeing her nod of agreement, he frowned. "I've cut the dose in half, just to be careful. The worst that can happen is you'll fall asleep in the chair, but I don't think that's likely. Here, drink this."

     Ana took the cup from him and forced a nervous smile to her lips. "Thank you. My... my name is Ana. Ana Silvan."

     "Well, Ana, I imagine you are a bit confused about what is happening here."

     She nodded, and sipped the bitter liquid.

     "Most people find it's easier drinking it in one large swallow. Good. Well, as you surely know, Commandol Valdor and most of his elite squad of vermin have gone to meet the next starshipment of prisoners. I'm afraid we have... incapacitated the others. We noticed none of the Earth sentries were at their posts. I'm sure you know the reason for that better than we do. Anyway, we thought we might take a little vacation from this place." Doc smiled at his small joke.

     His brows drew together, and he looked steadily into her eyes. "Now, Ana, no one here wants you to get hurt. Believe me. We're just not exactly sure what to do with you. I can't quite bring myself to consider you a prisoner of war and leave you here tied up with Resin and the other Guardians. However, my dear, I'm afraid you are going to have to choose sides. You'll be safe, no matter what you decide. Provided you don't try to stop us, of course. But we need to know how sympathetic you are to the Guardians and how... loyal... to Commandol Valdor. Think about that while I try to take off this boot without having to cut the leather. Yes, I can see from your face that ruining these boots would be a more serious matter than being held hostage by a bunch of crazed rebels." He smiled to accentuate the teasing in his voice.

     As the young doctor raised her throbbing leg to rest on his knee, Ana turned, hoping to find the comfort of James Hart's dimpled, uneven smile at Doc's joke. He was no longer standing behind her. She straightened and saw he was about to leave the hospital through the door they had entered.

     "James Hart! Please don't leave, yet," she called to him. She wasn't exactly sure why she wanted him to stay, and she was acutely aware he could not understand her. But the pleading was naked in her voice. "James Hart, please stay."

     Ana sighed in relief and embarrassment when he stopped and turned toward her. He rushed back to her, and she was startled to see undisguised bewilderment in his face. He leaned very close to her and demanded something in Standard.

     She sat back in alarm and turned to Doc. He, too, was looking at her rather strangely. "What is it? Tell me," she asked, as fear crept along her skin again.

     "He wants to know what you just called him," Doc explained evenly.

     "I... I just called him James Hart. Isn't that his name?"

     With raised silver eyebrows, Doc turned to Hart and spoke in Standard. Ana assumed he was translating her answer. She listened with growing impatience as the two men carried on a lengthy discussion, obviously about her.

     Finally, Doc turned to her. "No, dear lady, his name is not James Hart. It's Hart James."

     Ana gasped in dismay. "Oh, how stupid." She frowned at Hart and said, "I'm so sorry." Again she faced the doctor. "Please tell him I'm sorry for getting his name wrong."

     "There's a little more at stake here than just proper manners, Ana. Do you, by any chance, know something about some packages brought here for James Hart?"

     Oh, no, now what? After a pause to look around at the ten or so pairs of eyes now watching and waiting for her answer, Ana nodded. "Yes, I made them. I thought his name was James Hart. Isn't James a first name on Unity?" she asked, and raised her chin defensively.

     No one answered her. She bit her lip, glancing around anxiously, as the expectant gazes changed from surprised to excited to something even more intense.