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Chapter 19 - Can't Trace Time by A.J. Hall

“Doctor Owen Harper, Director of the Valentin Henri Memorial Hospital, and Bel Thorne, milady.”

The Countess - a tall, striking woman with greying, red-roan hair piled elaborately on top of her head with jewelled combs - turned to greet them at the servant’s announcement. As she took them in, the expression in her grey eyes changed in an instant from amused, detached benevolence to sharp interest. Before she could say anything, Bel, its tone almost a verbal salute, said,

“Ma’am! There’s a report we need to make to you. Now.” It looked meaningfully round the crowded reception room. “Not here.”

The Countess raised her eyebrows, and nodded. She touched a hand to a jewelled pin at her shoulder; com-link, Owen realised, not decoration. “Drou? Could you take over in the principal reception area, please?”

She rose, leading them through the throng, ushering them into a small sitting room off the main hall. As the door swung to behind them the sounds of the party outside were abruptly cut off.

Good soundproofing.

She motioned to them to a low settee, took possession of the large arm-chair on the opposite side of the coffee-table like a judge settling into the judgment seat, then turned to Owen.

“You aren’t,” the Countess said, her tone superficially conversational but with an edge of naked steel, “the galactic we hired.”

Oh. Oops. She noticed, then.

“Ah - well - er - no, actually. I’m a sort of - ah - locum. The permanent guy’s in transit. I believe.”

He beamed up at her; if she was from Beta Colony what sort of planet was it, where all the women and the - well, whatevers - all seemed to be born so tall? She snorted, delicately, and turned to his companion. Bel, at least, could look her straight in the eye.

“Captain Thorne. I hadn’t expected to see you here.”

Bel’s voice had a bitter note. “I hadn’t expected you’d recognise me.”

The Countess raised her eyebrows. “Did it not occur to you that I would have called for every single one of the vid-recordings? In the circumstances?”

There was the briefest of pauses, shorter than two human heartbeats.

“Oh, and that suits you a lot better than space-armour, you know,” the Countess said, nodding towards Bel’s gown.

Bel smiled, a trifle grimly.

“I think my space-armour days are behind me.” It paused. “And it’s not ‘Captain’ Thorne any more. Miles asked for my resignation after - after.”

The Countess’s voice was cool. “It being impracticable for him to ask for Mark’s, I take it?” She added, conversationally, “My son really can be quite a prick at times, you know.”

Owen, winded by the unexpectedness of the comment, scarcely dared to look at Bel. Bel’s posture, however, had changed; it was open, relaxed; no longer looking as though flight or the use of lethal force were the only available options. “Which of them?”

The Countess’s lips quirked, acknowledging the nuance, before her face became serious again. “I take it, then, that the news you mentioned isn’t about -“

Bel broke in. “I didn’t know Miles was off-planet until I landed here.”

“I see.” The Countess grimaced. “Don’t deceive yourself things would have been simpler had you found him here. Trust me on that one. But then -?”

With hands that were not quite steady Bel pushed the data-packet across the coffee table to her. She put her hand over it, and rose.

“May I?” It nodded. There was a comconsole in the corner of the room. She played it through without comment, without either pausing or fast-forwarding, wrapped in a focussed bubble of concentration. Eventually, when she looked up, the expression in her face chilled Owen’s blood.

“How many?”

Her voice was almost a whisper.

Owen gulped. “I - haven’t pulled all the records yet. But - um - sixty or more. From the start. And there may be others patients who weren’t part of the main scheme - like Bel - but who got diverted by Hasek and by others, possibly. You see - once the system was going, it could be made almost self-sustaining. Channelling all the data through a single admin point - well, it meant that once that point was compromised - and it had to be compromised, to make the system work at all, to be honest - then there were no checks and balances left.”

“Dear God!” In the Countess’s mouth that wasn’t a blasphemy; simply a prayer for a peace which on current evidence was passing understanding. “Could any of them still be alive?”

Bel bit its lips. “Hopefully. But discovering that - would depend on access to planetary-wide datanets we simply can’t tap into. The sort of access my - ah - former employer might be uniquely placed to exploit.”

The Countess hesitated, her hand over the vid-plate, before shutting down the ugly show. “Yes,” she breathed. “But - you see my dilemma. If this news becomes public those who oppose the introduction of galactic medicine will say it proves all they had ever feared. And the slime will forever be associated with Valentin Henri. Dead in our service and then dishonoured by proxy three decades later.”

Bel looked steadily at her. “The dead, surely, know nothing or they know everything. Dr Henri will either understand or be eternally ignorant. But what of the living?”

She nodded, as though it had confirmed a thought which she had already half-formulated. “Yes. Those who have been disappeared - they trusted to us. In a sense we gave our name’s word on their safety, as well as poor Henri’s. You’re right. This is ImpSec’s pigeon.” She gestured at the comconsole. “I’ll forward that to Simon straight away.”

She leaned forwards towards Bel. “And in the spirit of giving helpful advice, and as a fellow Betan - you might want to get yourself back home before the investigation really gets into its stride. Home - or wherever else you can think of, provided it’s a long way from here and you’ve got friends there. You won’t be needed for the trial - Illyan would have kittens at the very thought of putting you under fast-penta, given what’s in your head - and whoever’s behind this is self-evidently rich, well-connected and unscrupulous. And will, at some time tomorrow, also be severely pissed with you. Whereas, from ImpSec’s point of view, if you aren’t a witness, and are no longer on the payroll -“

Bel sighed. “I get it. My continued health starts competing for budget with higher-priority items. Like new coffee makers.”

“And softer bog-roll.” Owen, who knew a thing or two about public sector budgeting, thought it was time he made a contribution.

That earned him the Countess’s attention in his own right. “The same goes for you, too. Whoever you are. And whoever you’re working for. I’m going to suggest to Simon that his boys concentrate on the data analysis before they go into the hospital with all guns blazing and tip off our bad guys that there’s something afoot. But by noon tomorrow you’d better both be on your way to the shuttleport.”

Owen shrugged. “Fair enough. I suppose. And until then?”

The Countess got to her feet. The skirts of her elaborate dress swirled about her. There was something challenging about her expression as she opened the door and let the sounds of the party come through to them again.

“Until then - I rather think it’s up to you.”

They would have stood back to let her sweep out before them, but she shook her head, gesturing for them to leave. Waiting to bring down the wrath of God on Vorgeraint, Hasek and their shadowy collaborators, Owen realised. As Bel passed,she touched its arm, very briefly.

“Captain Thorne. In my case, I’ve found the title outlives the rank. I think you’ll find that true for you, also. And - I’m sorry.” Her eyes glinted with sudden mischief. “It’s not just I’d have liked my grandchildren to have had a bit more Betan in them. I can’t help thinking at times it might have improved my son, too.”