Dragon Pearl(7)

I stopped cleaning for a few minutes and listened intently. The adults gave no sign that they’d noticed the lull in my action. With any luck, they’d gotten caught up in their own concerns and wouldn’t notice if I slipped away.

I crept outside and peeked through one of the windows in the hydroponics dome. Bora had herded her brother and our other cousins inside. Good. I’d have a few minutes’ peace for thinking.

At any other time, I would have enjoyed gardening with them amid the luminous green columns of our crops. Outside of domes like this, plants struggled to grow on dusty Jinju. Only purple-tinged shrubs and low trees thrived. Right now, though, I couldn’t relax into the familiar work. Mom was mad at me, not without cause, and I had to figure out how to get myself—and the rest of us—out of this fix.

First, I needed to get the spilled food out of my hair. Our home had a single sonic shower for all of us. Usually I had to wait my turn, but now, with everyone else otherwise occupied, the stall was free. The shower frequently made a grating buzzing noise no matter how often I had tinkered with it. Luckily, it wasn’t too loud this time. No need for Mom to know I wasn’t still doing chores.

I’d just finished changing into a fresh tunic and pair of pants, when Bora pounded on the bathroom door. “Are you done yet? I need to wash my hands!”

Be nice to her, I reminded myself. She could probably smell my annoyance, just as I could smell hers. It was hard to lie to a fellow fox. I tucked a stray strand of hair behind my ear, then stepped out of the bathroom.

Bora wrinkled her nose. “Took you long enough to clean yourself up.”

“We’re not all as talented as you are,” I said dryly.

Bora scoffed. “You’re just jealous you can’t make your hair presentable without magicking it up.”

Pointedly, I turned my back on her. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?” I asked. I headed to the laundry room to drop off my soiled clothes. If only I’d been born half a month earlier, I would be the older one and wouldn’t have to put up with her attitude.

She followed me. “Too bad Jun messed things up for the rest of us.”

“There has to be more to the story,” I shot back. “The investigator probably left out details to see if he could catch us in a lie.”

She ignored my response, as usual. “And you’re just as bad as Jun! What were you thinking, attacking a guest?”

“I thought he was going for his gun! You would have done the same thing.”

Ordinarily Bora would have needled me further about my rashness, but she still had my brother on her mind. “All Jun’s big talk about rising through the ranks and finding allies who would help him make Jinju a better place, and what does he do? He runs off and disgraces the whole family.”

Bora and I had never gotten along, but she and Jun had often spent time together. For the first time, I wondered if she missed him as much as I did, despite all the gibes.

“I’m sure it’s just a misunderstanding,” I said.

It had to be. Jun and I used to sneak outside late at night and stare up into the sky with its jewel-spill of stars and moons. As we lay there, he would talk about how much he wanted to serve on a Space Forces battle cruiser and visit every one of the Thousand Worlds. Also, unlike me, he was obedient—he always played by the rules.

“The investigator seems convinced that Jun went after the Dragon Pearl,” I went on, thinking aloud. “But Jun is no renegade. He’d make a terrible smuggler or pirate.”

The corners of Bora’s mouth turned up in a suddenly sly expression. “I’ll make you a bet.”

Footsteps approached. By mutual silent agreement, we slipped into the next room and hid behind the door, waiting for them to pass us by.

After they had gone, Bora whispered, “If Jun comes back within a year, I’ll do all your chores for the next six months.”

Yeah, like that would ever happen. She’d weasel her way out of the agreement. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist a bet, especially since I knew—knew—my brother was being falsely accused. The satisfaction of proving her wrong would be enough for me.

“And if he doesn’t?” I asked, also whispering.

“You’ll do mine.”

I held my hand out. She laid hers atop it, palm to palm. “Done,” I said.

She tossed her head. “Get ready to clean the toilet often, Min.” Then she glided out of the room, not bothering to shut the door behind her.

Ha. Cleaning the toilet, while gross, wasn’t hard. Dealing with the hydroponics ecofilters, on the other hand, was a different matter. If they failed, we’d all starve. Or worse, we’d have to eat nasty outdated ration bars until a real ecotechnician could fix the system. The job always fell to me because I was the only one in the family who could coax the filters to behave. Mom said I’d picked up the knack from my technician father. When I was very small, he had encouraged me to work alongside him, and I’d enjoyed it. I was proud of my skill with machines, but on the occasions I caught Mom watching me use Dad’s tools, her expression was sad.

Even if I won Bora’s bet, I’d still end up having to do all the maintenance work. I certainly couldn’t rely on her to keep the ecofilters running. She’d probably had that in mind when she proposed the bet.

From down the hall, a snatch of conversation drifted to me, distracting me from my thoughts.

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