Hermione reached up and tucked some of her sweaty hair back into the regulation cap. The ventilation was on the fritz in this section of the station again, and it was ungodly hot. Sweat trickled down her neck with a teasing itch she wasn't allowed to wipe at. Her knees hurt from kneeling on the metal floor. Her back ached from bending over.
"Keep working," snapped a voice from above her. "Unless you want to skip your next water break to make up for the lost time."
It was Dolohov today. He was her least favorite among the DEs. More intelligent than most, and more brutal as well. "What does DE stand for?" she'd asked him her first day here. That had earned her a zap from his wand.
"It stands for don't inquire" he'd said with a laugh, then kicked her where she lay on the floor, curled around the misery of that zap. Everyone curled into a ball after a wand strike. It was as if they hoped making themselves as small as possible would make the suffering less.
Even with all the pain she'd been in, Hermione'd thought, you spell 'inquire' with an I. At least she'd had the presence of mind not to blurt that out. They were a sadistic lot, the DEs, and she'd certainly been warned. She hadn't quite believed it, though, despite all the files and vids and warnings. "I'm sure I can manage," she'd said confidently when Dumbledore asked one last time whether she could handle an undercover assignment.
It wasn't as if Voldemort Inc. used skilled labor. The labor was, in fact, so unskilled they generally had no idea they'd volunteered for space station work until they woke with a DE standing over them and welcoming them to their new home. "For the rest of your life," the one who'd zapped her into wakefulness said with a laugh. It hadn't taken a lot of acting to huddle away from him or begin to cry. Even now, two months into her three-month assignment, Hermione sometimes cried herself to sleep at night. It was the exhaustion, she told herself. Or maybe the frustration she learning a hell of a lot about second stage space station construction but not a damn thing about how Voldemort Inc. was laundering money. Grunt labor never got the chance to wander unsupervised through any of the corridors, much less through ones that lead to intel. She couldn't think of a lot of things she dreaded more than sitting back at Order headquarters and confessing she'd utterly failed.
Well, she could think of one thing. Not getting pulled out of this hell hole at all.
"But I don't want to have to go to school on the surface." Hermione recognized the petulant whine at once. Draco Malfoy, son of Lucius Malfoy, one of the chief stakeholders in Voldemort Inc. and supervisor for the construction of Wiltshire Station. None of the workers cared for young Draco.
Like Hermione, most of the kidnapping victims who ended up here were in their late teens. The Order speculated Voldemort was targeting that age because runaways were easier to snatch up and fewer people missed them but they were still strong enough to work. Seeing a boy who had everything sashay past them, complaining his data connection was too slow or that he hadn't like the cake at dinner filled the work gangs with a special kind of loathing.
Draco Malfoy seemed oblivious he was walking through a gang of people who'd happily beat him to a bloody pulp if not murder him outright.
"The gravity is too heavy there," his whining went on. "I don't see why I have to go. Why can't I just keep working with tutors the way I have been?"
"You cannot," came the cultured voice of his mother. Narcissa Malfoy, age forty-one, no known allergies, at least according to the preparation Hermione had done planetside. She'd been born to money and was as distant from the bent over children trying not to be noticed as a person could be.
Being noticed was bad. Being noticed brought the attention of the DEs and their wands. Wands brought nothing but pain.
As the pair of aristocrats strolled along the walkway, the workers around Hermione bent over and worked even more assiduously. I'm nothing but another cog in the wheel of your empire, their bent spines might as well have said. I'm working hard. I'm good. Don't see me.
But being noticed might get Hermione closer to something she could bring back with her. Something that would keep her from failure.
She lifted her head and sneered at the spoiled brat as he approached. He was pale and wispy the way most station dwellers were. No sun. Gravity a bit low. It made him seem fey and delicate, and her planetborn body thick and slow by comparison.
God, she hated these people.
"What are you looking at?" Draco demanded when he caught sight of her upturned face. "Stupid mudblood."
"Language, Draco," his mother admonished. She glanced down at Hermione, and her mouth moved into a moue of distaste. Under that cool appraisal, Hermione flushed. Labor was permitted one sonic shower per week, and it wasn't enough to keep you anything close to clean. Sometimes, at night, she fantasized about taking a long water shower when she got back. Narcissa Malfoy didn't look as if she were restricted to the sonics, and neither did her son. It was one more way she looked beneath them. Coarse. Heavy. Dirty,
"They're going to eat you alive on the surface," Hermione said. She didn't bother to hide the satisfaction in her voice. Looking at their contemptuous expressions, she reveled in the knowledge that station brats were almost universally despised planetside. She wanted Narcissa Malfoy to hear her speak, but combining that with her real opinion felt very satisfying, so she added one more word. "Spacer."
One of the DEs raised his wand and pointed it at her. "You mind your mouth when talking to your betters, girl," he said. He probably would have zapped her, but Narcissa Malfoy raised a hand to stop him.
"No one grabbed you out of the slums," she observed. Her eyes slid up and down Hermione's sweat-soaked body. "Not that one can tell by looking. Where are you from?"
"Why don't you check the records?" Hermione said with all the arrogance and contempt one would expect from the most privileged of teens. She half-expected an immediate zap for that and cringed a little in anticipation. The DEs didn't tolerate mouthiness. But her ploy worked, and hearing that second sampling of Hermione's cultured accent, Narcissa Malfoy began to smile. "Public school, was it?" she asked. "How did you end up here? Addiction? Family throw you out for a pregnancy?"
"I was hitching a ride to Paris," Hermione said. That was her cover. "And when my parents find out I'm here, they're going to shut this place down."
"Likely story," sneered Draco, but his mother looked, if anything, even more smug then she had a moment before.
"What a tragedy for you," she said. "What did you say your name was?"
It was working. Oh, dear God, it was working. After two months of hot, sweaty labor without a break in sight, she might finally have a chance to spy on these monsters before her fake but very wealthy parents lit up the Transcom with shocked demands for her return. "Hermione Groton–Rees."
"Get Miss Groton-Rees cleaned up," Narcissa Malfoy ordered Dolohov. "And with a real shower too. I don't want the grime removed from her, but the stink still in place."
"Of course," he said, doing everything but touching the brim of his uniform cap in Narcissa's direction. He eyed Hermione with a new touch of wariness in his mean blue eyes. If she were a rich girl, he might be in trouble. You couldn't exploit children of the wealthy the same way you could runaways and orphans. There were different rules for the sorts of people with hyphens in their names. Classist nonsense ran so deeply in his soul, he probably hadn't considered she might be a person the same way he was until this moment. Hermione curled her lip with genuine disgust.
"What are you doing, mother," Draco demanded.
"There will undoubtedly be a small amount of culture shock when you arrive at Hogwarts," Narcissa said calmly. "Miss Groton-Rees will do her best to fill you in on the differences between life on a station and life planetside, and that will make your transition easier. When she's done, I will, of course, send her back to her parents with our deepest apologies she was temporarily waylaid here."
"What if I don't want to help your little brat?" Hermione asked.
"Computer records disappear every day," Narcissa Malfoy said. "And I understand a lifetime of manual labor is good for the soul."
Real fear of that possibility froze Hermione. Narcissa saw the reaction and smiled. "Excellent," she said in a soft voice. "We understand one another." She swept away in a flurry of expensive, natural fabrics, Draco at her heels. He didn't look back, though Hermione glared at his pale head until it disappeared around a corner.
Then she stood up. She'd been kneeling at Narcissa Malfoy's feet for the entirety of their conversation, and that rankled more than a little. "Well," she said to Dolohov. "I want that shower." When he didn't move, she added, "Now."
The shower the DEs settled on taking her to was in their own locker room. It stank of stale sweat and not enough air, and the closest she got to any pretense as privacy was a frosted panel between her and the waiting guard. It would have to do. Something black was growing on one corner of the shower floor, and the water was tepid. But there was water and soap. Hermione washed her hair and her body and wished she could go back in time and say that, no, she couldn't handle this. Dumbledore should send someone else.
Pity the world didn't work like that. She'd made this bed, and now she'd have to sleep in it.
"Hurry it up," Dolohov snapped. "I don't have all day to wait for you."
Hermione wrapped the inadequate synthetic towel around herself and stepped back into the main locker area, careful not to put her feet anywhere near the black mold. Her dirty uniform lay in a pile on the floor where she'd left it. Taking the time to make sure she was showered, then shoving her back into her old clothes would leave her smelling almost as bad as she had before. Dolohov seemed to come to that conclusion too. It didn't make him happy. He pressed a thumb down onto the ident embedded in his embedded forearm, then swiped it near an access port in the wall. A panel slid open to reveal a stack of clean workout wear.
DE workout wear. When Hermione picked up a teeshirt, the Voldemort snake and skull logo loomed up from the front. Great. A smaller version of the same design was printed on the shorts. She didn't want to ask Antonin Dolohov about underwear, so she went without.
The flip flops, at least, didn't come with the company logo. Her feet would be free of branding. She wished she'd had them in the shower, but she'd take them now and find some iota of, well, not gratitude. She wouldn't allow herself to feel gratitude for being treated like a human being. She'd settle for relief. She was relieved not to put her feet back into her dirty, poorly fitting uniform shoes.
Dolohov grunted when she dropped her towel and crossed her arms. "Well?" she asked.
He led her off, out of the locker area, past half a dozen closed doors, and into a turbo lift. He had to press his thumb into his ident, then swipe it over the access pad before he could enter a destination. That wasn't the worst security Hermione had ever seen, but it wasn't the best either. One DE arm and she might have the run of the place.
The cool, genderless voice that responded after Dolohov typed in where he wanted to go squashed that hope.
"You are requesting access to a secured level," it said. "Voice confirmation place."
"Antonin Dolohov," he said. "Death Eater. Madam Malfoy has requested I bring her one of the mudblood grunts."
Well, that answered that question. Hermione couldn't say she liked the answer, but there it was. The lift door closed, the same cool voice said, "Ascending to executive residential levels," right as they began moving upward. It was a smooth ride. Clearly expensive. Not at all like the jerky machines meant for bulk freight and not people she and the other grunts were crowded into on their way from their dormitory to work.
When the lift door opened, Dolohov shoved her out and into a marble foyer with an actual chandelier overhead. "Have a nice time," he said, and before Hermione could lodge anything at all like a protest, the lift doors closed, and he disappeared.
Not that he was the sort she'd miss. It was just that he was a known evil. He was a bully, and a clever, cruel one, but nothing more. She had a feeling the Malfoys were another sort of evil altogether.
A young woman in a maid's costume right out of a theatre production came scurrying up to her. "You'll have to get changed, miss," she said. Her voice was all deference, but Hermione didn't have to listen very hard to hear the fear behind it. This girl with her crisp white cap and her ironed black dress was very afraid Hermione would refuse to do as she was told.
Hermione let herself be taken through a side corridor — no marble here — to what was clearly a servant's room. It had a narrow bed, a small toilet, and a minuscule wardrobe with three identical white dresses. They were all cotton, which made Hermione's eyes widen a bit as much as she tried to hide it. They were meek and demure and not precisely a maid's dress but hardly fashionable either. If she'd fallen into a historical romance, she'd have called them the sort of thing a poor relation wore while being a paid companion to a sickly but wealthy cousin. Neat, and clean, and high enough quality no one would mistake her for the help, but they'd never let her forget her place either.
Well, it was better than wearing clothes covered in the DE mark, though how Narcissa Malfoy had managed to have three dresses in just her size on hand was a question that would take a little exploration. The maid helped her button — button! Who used buttons? — the first one up.
"What's this?" Hermione touched a heavy metal cuff the girl wore on her wrist. It had a design similar to the embedded mark on the DEs. There was no escaping Voldemort, Inc. because the bastards put their logo on everything.
"You'll need one to get through most of the doors," the girl said. She pulled an identical one out of her pocket.
Hermione held her arm out. She was here to find things. Getting through doors sounded good to her. The cuff shut with a sharp click and, when Hermione ran a thumb over it, she couldn't feel any sort of release mechanism. "How do I get it off at night?" she asked.
The girl looked guilty. "You don't," she said.
"What?" Hermione asked. She tugged at the cuff, but it stayed firmly in place. It wasn't uncomfortable, and she was sure it would be useful, but she didn't like having to wear it all the time. Not being able to take it off make it a bit too much like a shackle. Like the Malfoys owned her.
A month, she told herself, willing herself to stay calm. It was just a piece of functional jewelry. It was better than the filthy dungarees she'd been forced to wear as a laborer, and in a month she'd be whisked back planetside, and this would all be a memory. Better, she'd used what she learned here to destroy these people, and the maid and everyone like her would be free from their clutches
Narcissa Malfoy's cold voice came from her wrist. "You've arrived. Astoria, bring Miss Croton-Rees to Draco's schoolroom."
Hermione braced her shoulders. Time to train a spoiled brat on how not to get beat up once he got planetside. Tonight, she'd go exploring.