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Anna Kim couldn’t decide whether the scenery outside was more or less beautiful for the coruscating cloud of debris. From here, she couldn’t even tell there was a war on. Of all the ways her past could have reared up, being trapped in the star fortress Undying Pyre was one of the more unpleasant. Aside from letters from her sister Maia, who was a soldier, Anna had done her best to stay away from the military. Too bad she hadn’t counted on being kidnapped.

It went without saying that Anna didn’t want to be here. She was a citizen of the Harmonious Stars. She had rights. But the Marshal had sent their thugs to drag her away from her attempt at a new start. Anna already missed her aquarium with its two cantankerous dragon-fish, one of them in the throes of metamorphosis. She’d barely had time to ask her colleagues to keep an eye on it, and was half-afraid that she’d return—if she returned—to a sad carcass floating upside down in the tank.

There was no one else in the room, which made her nervous. Along with the extravagant viewport, it featured a table too long for ten people and a commensurate number of uncomfortable chairs. (She’d tested one, which was why she remained standing.) Anna wondered why you would spend this much money building an orbital fortress and skimp on chairs.

They’d dragged her to the Undying Pyre with her senses partly deadened, an unpleasant journey for everyone involved. She’d had her senses slowly reactivated here, like a butterfly easing out of its chrysalis. If the room had a number or a name, she didn’t know it. Anna couldn’t have found her way out of it unassisted, any more than she could have sloughed off her skin and slipped away. The room had no visible doors.

She heard footsteps but couldn’t, to her discomfort, discern which direction they came from. A door materialized in one of the walls. Anna yelped and backed away from it.

A spindle-tall personage walked through the door. Anna recognized the newcomer. Even the most isolated citizen, let alone one with an older sister in the military, would have known that dark-skinned figure, with its sharp eyes and a nose that made them look like an ambitious hawk. Their uniform was velvety blue with a gradient of gold dusting along the upper arms, and a staggering array of medals glittered on their chest. They went by many names and just as many titles, but only one mattered: the Marshal of the Harmonious Stars, the supreme commander of its military forces.

“Should I salute?” Anna asked them, because she couldn’t think of anything but bravado.

The Marshal laughed, and Anna flinched. “You wouldn’t know how,” they said. “It would be a waste of your time, and mine, for me to show you how to do it without pissing off all the soldiers in this place. In any case, I apologize for the nature of this meeting, Academician Kim, but it was necessary.”

Anna swallowed, wishing the Marshal hadn’t used her old title. It dredged up unpleasant memories. “Yes, about that. I would have appreciated being asked.”

“I would not have taken no for an answer.”

So much for that. Anna gestured at the vista. “I’m assuming this is about the remnants of those three ships.”

The Marshal’s eyebrows flicked up alarmingly. “Someone’s been talking.”

Oh no, Anna thought. Had she gotten someone fired, or court-martialed, or whatever you did in the military? “Your people”—she did not dare say goons— “thought I was fully under. I wasn’t.” She knew what drugs they’d used; could have told them, if they’d asked, that she had an idiosyncratic response and needed an alternate medication regimen for the effects they wanted.

“All right,” the Marshal said. “There was only so much we could do to disguise the nature of the incidents.”

Anna fidgeted. She longed to return to her dragon-fish and her cozy workstation with computers named after different sea deities (her insistence, her coworkers’ indulgence). Her favorite poster, depicting a carp leaping up a waterfall until it arrived, exhausted and transfigured, as a dragon. She had always assumed that the old fable had inspired the genetic engineers who had created the dragon-fish, although she declined to look into the matter on the grounds that she didn’t want to have a pretty illusion shattered.

“You know why we brought you here?” the Marshal said.

Anna looked at them. She didn’t want to say it.

“Your research.”

Anna flinched again. An open wound, even four years after the authorities had run her out of her research program. Her research partner, Rabia, hadn’t survived. However, it wasn’t Rabia’s face that haunted Anna, but that of Rabia’s girlfriend. Anna had gone away, far away; had thought that a quiet penance, in obscurity, would be best. Circumstances had conspired against her.

The Marshal would know that the research lived on inside her head. “I don’t see,” Anna said carefully, “what my work has to do with sabotaged ships. The last experience I had with anything resembling explosives was that time my sister tried dissecting the battery from her spaceship model.”

The Marshal’s fine-boned

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