The woman called Caroline Sula knelt on the floor, a scrub brush held in both hands as she methodically erased every last trace of blood. The fumes of the cleaning fluid stung her nostrils. She'd scrubbed with a standard household cleaner the previous night, but in the hours since she'd done some research and acquired a liquid that would destroy human DNA. When she was done, there would be no evidence that Lamey had ever been in her Celestial Court apartment.
She'd searched through Fleet stores and found a mirrored pier glass to replace the one into which she'd put two bullets, plus a new carpet that would substitute for that in which she and Gareth Martinez had wrapped Lamey's body. The replacements now waited outside on a motorized cart.
Sula let go of the scrub brush and leaned back to view the floor. The floorboards were compressed dedger fiber sculpted to look like expensive wooden planks of pale gold, and their grain could easily hold trace evidence invisible to the naked eye. She leaned left and right to view the floor from different angles, to make sure she'd covered every bit of it with undiluted cleaning fluid.
As she examined the floor, she reached blindly behind her for the crystal wine goblet she knew was there. She found it, raised it to her lips, and drained it.
Aside from a few experiments as a teenager, Sula had always been a nondrinker. There had been alcoholics in her life when she was young and she wanted very much never to be like them, and the easiest way to do that was not to drink.
But now she was finishing her second bottle since the previous evening and finding that alcohol helped to soften the knowledge that with those two bullets she'd fired into her ex-lover, she'd wrecked her every happiness and every hope. Not because she'd killed Lamey, who after all had threatened and assaulted her, but because she'd done it practically in front of Gareth Martinez, who had walked into her apartment while the pistol was still hot in her hand and the blood pooled beneath Lamey's body.
The fact that he had helped her roll the body in a carpet and hide it in a Fleet storage facility, and given her advice on disposing the evidence, didn't change that he then left, presumably forever.
Despair's talons, blunted slightly by alcohol, clawed at her heart. If only she had managed to assemble an explanation of what had happened . . . but her imagination had failed her, and the truth had seemed unconvincing even to Sula.
'I did it for you'.
While accurate, the claim didn't sound credible.
Sula put the wine down, scrubbed a few places she'd missed, then rose with the brush in her hand and walked toward the dining room. She paused by the dining table, set for two, with the scattered remains of the supper she had planned to share with Martinez. She'd been picking at the food all night as she'd paced and ground her teeth and replayed the evening in her mind, bullet by bullet, drop by bloody drop. 'You think Terza won't fight you?' Lamey had snarled. 'And when Terza calls her husband to heel, what happens to Earthgirl's dreams then?'
The threat of Terza Chen had been enough to bring Sula's pistol out of its holster. And Earthgirl's dreams had died anyway.
Sula replaced the carpet and the mirror, then took the old pier glass to a disposal center and left it there. To prevent anyone from wondering why there were two bullet-sized holes in the glass, Sula smashed the mirror with the butt of her gun and left crystal shards strewn across the container floor.
Then she went back to Celestial Court and took a long shower, after which Sula put on her undress uniform and only then noticed that her sleeve display was quietly alerting her to the fact that a message awaited her.
From the Office of Fleet Commander Martinez.
Well, here it was. She felt an invisible hand close on her throat, and the hand that triggered the display trembled.
The message was in text, and was sent by Lalita Banerjee, one of Martinez's signals techs. Sula read the orders saying that she had been appointed commander of Division Nine of the Fourth Fleet.
"Ah. Hah," she said.
Yesterday there hadn't been a Division Nine. Martinez had wanted her off his ship so badly that he'd created a unit just for her, and done it overnight.
Further investigation showed that Division Nine wasn't much. 'Splendid' was an elderly heavy cruiser, though rebuilt in the Naxid War, and 'Mentor' was a fine modern frigate. But the rest of the division was a bewildering and heterogeneous array of civilian vessels, from launches to transports to huge immigration ships. Apparently, Martinez was handing her every stray vessel in the Zarafan system that could be crewed by Terrans.
Once she reread her orders it all made sense. Sula was to take her division in the direction of Laredo, where she would somewhere encounter six light cruisers built by Lord Martinez in his own Laredo dockyard. The cruisers would be crewed by a skeleton force, for Laredo had no facilities for training Fleet personnel and no corps of instructors to do it.