"Little Rock control this is Evening Bird, we are on final approach vector."

"We read, Evening Bird, your usual hangar is open and waiting. Welcome home Miss Alistair, Miss Meghan."

"Thanks, Zim, out."

Alistair Bracken switched off the link and refocused on her flying, Bellerophon's sky tended to be a might crowded around the floating colony what with security flitters, the limo-shuttles and sky hoppers of the residents, visiting aspirants' atmo yachts, and a constant traffic of supply and support transports. And then there were the estates themselves, huge islands in the sky, every one a carefully landscaped fantasy home for the ultra-riche.

Each estate had its own assigned co-ordinates, spaced well apart, but their size made them seem much closer together than they actually were. By day the aerial view wasn't exactly inspiring, mile after mile of looming gray shapes, but at night the estates glowed and sparkled like jeweled lamps beneath the stars. Normally the colony kept an altitude of about ten thousand feet above the glittering waters of the Great Sea but sometimes went up as high as thirty thousand to avoid dangerous weather. And all ten thousand odd floating estates made an annual migration from northern to southern hemispheres, following the sun.

Evening Bird traced a graceful parabolic arch over the main traffic plane, her plates and the polarized glass of the cockpit, salon dome and ports gleaming golden in the bright light of 'Little White' Bellerophon's sun. The seventy foot yacht was the best Hampton Enterprise's shipyards could produce; small but very fast with sleek aerodynamic lines making her highly maneuverable in atmo.

Little Rock was straight ahead but about three hundred feet down. "You're high." Meghan observed mildly, sitting quiet with hands folded in the co-pilot's chair.

"Not for long!" Alistair peeled the boat into a dive, side-slipping then pulling up sharply and expertly as they came level with the estate's docking bays.

"Show off." said her younger sister.

"Jealous!" Alistair shot back.

Meghan was only an adequate pilot, completely lacking Alistair and Seanna's touch, a fact which perturbed her not at all. "You wish!"

"Flashy, Miss Alistair, very flashy." said Little Rock Control good humoredly. "Taking over - now."

Alistair lifted her hands from the stick as the remote pilot lights came on and let Control guide them into the bay. Ground crew converged on the yacht and an auto-stair attached itself to the forward lock.

"Take care of my baby." Alistair said to the nearest mechanic as she set foot on deck.

He grinned broadly. "It'll be a pure pleasure, miss. What a little beauty!" Alistair beamed delightedly at the compliment.

The passages threading the underpinnings of the estate were narrow, metal walled and featureless. It would be very easy to get lost in the labyrinth if you didn't know it well. Meghan and Alistair did, their feet took them automatically through the bends and turns to a particular access lift that raised them twenty levels up to the service quarters of their own residence.

A housemaid, supervising laundry bots as they sorted and folded clean linens, greeted the young women with a smile.

"Hello, Emmy."

"Hi, Emms."

"Miss Meghan, Miss Alistair, nice to have you home." the woman replied.

"To make more work for you." Alistair reminded her, grinning.

Emmy laughed. "And our lives a lot more interesting."

"Thank you for putting it like that." said Meghan. "Miss Seanna home?"

"Swimming in the Grotto last I heard."

The estate was an exquisite recreation of Dianne Torres Hampton's home world. Painted Rock was a border moon that had gone back to black rock after a catastrophic planetquake. Dianne and her kid brothers had been among the few survivors found huddled in the terraforming stations by the rescue ships. Judging by the estate her husband had made for her Painted Rock had been a very beautiful world.

The living surface was all arroyos, mesas and spires of striated stone in all hues of ochre, red through gold with touches of violet. There were winding streams, falls and pools of crystal water, rock and cactus gardens in the heights and green flowering oases in the valleys. Residences and guest lodgings were excavated into the rock, all smooth and flowing as if sculpted by millenia of wind and water rather than the hand of man with windows and doors looking like cave opening and terraces balconies, and bridges looking like natural formations.

The grotto was a recreational complex between the Bracken sisters' residence and Wade and Dianne's. It had hot springs feeding cozy soaking tubs, exercise rooms, game rooms, a sauna and spa but its main feature was a vast 'underground' swimming lake beneath high domed vaults upheld by water sculpted pillars and lit by indirect sunlight falling down long chimneys.

Alistair and Meghan's youngest sister, Seanna Bracken, was splashing in a shallow part of the artificial lake with three or four other girls, bobbing in the water or resting on the sandy shore, she caught sight of them and shrieked in delight.

"Lis! Meg! You're back!" she clambered out of the water.

The other girls turned, but their eyes were on Seanna not the newcomers. "What're they wearing?" one demanded, her pinned up hair a tumble of curls in imitation of Meghan's trademark do.

Seanna stopped to survey her sisters critically. "Lis has got on a sleeveless silk crepe wrap blouse, buff gold, and tied in a bow on the side, with a chocolate brown divided skirt in raw silk and boots. Meg's wearing an a-line white linen halter dress with a wide green silk sash around the middle and silver-green sandals." little sister nodded her approval. "Not bad, not bad at all."

"So glad you're pleased." Alistair said dryly as Meghan pursed her lips in amusement.

The questioner and other girls sighed in satisfaction. "I want to talk to my sisters now." Seanna told them. "See you, tonight. End program." whereupon the four other girls vanished.

Alistair and Meghan didn't so much as blink. The colonists' privacy fetish and the super sophisticated communications equipment available to them through Hampton Enterprises' comm-tech division meant casual visiting was done entirely by holo. Each of Seanna's friends had been swimming or sunning herself on her own estate surrounded by the images of the others. And of course that's why they'd been unable to see Meghan and Alistair - the newcomers weren't part of the program.

Privacy and exclusivity were the keymarks of the floating colony, its reason for being. The ultra riche wanted to luxuriate in their private fantasy worlds but they also wanted to show them off to their social peers. Life was a constant whirl of luncheons, sporting meets, musicales, conversaziones, theatricals, receptions, dinners and dances but one never set foot on another's estate without a formal invitation.

Seanna pulled a terry robe over her fashionably tattered bathing suit before hugging her sisters, then wrapped a towel into a turban around her wet hair. They strolled through a wide, arched opening into a lush garden filled with the music of running water.

"So where is everybody?" Alistair asked.

Seanna assumed the sly grin with which she always imparted a particularly juicy bit of gossip. "Well Briony took off with Kirk last week and hasn't been heard from since."

"You're kidding." "At the start of Unification Days?" both sisters stared in surprise.

Seanna's grin broadened. "Yup. Just a reccie saying she'd be back for the Foundation Ball, no addy, no message code, nothing. Is Dianne ever mad!"

"I'll bet she is." Alistair said grimly. "Talk about thoughtless -"

"This is a hard time of year for Briony." Meghan reminded her quietly. "Lots of memories."

"What about us?" the eldest Bracken sister demanded angrily. "We lost a brother too, not to mention parents, land and our whole world!"

"But we didn't fight. That makes a difference."

Alistair was unappeased. "At least Briony was on the winning side."

Meghan shook her head somberly. "Nobody won the war. We're all still hurting from it, every one of us, in our various ways."

There was no answer to that, they all knew only too well it was true. Not just of their family but of all families, of the whole 'Verse. And everybody sought what comfort they could, which in Briony's case meant running away from it all with her lover.

"Anyway Dianne's sulking in her workroom." Seanna continued. "Jolie arrived this morning with Derrick, Oona and co. in tow and Wade flew over to talk business with her. We're slated for a family dinner tonight."

Meghan's eyebrows went up. "Including your playmates?"

Seanna shook her head. "That's after dinner. Jolie's having sixty or so of her closest friends over for an 'intimate little evening'.

"That should be interesting." Alistair said dryly. "Can't wait to see who qualifies as a 'close friend' this season."

Seanna's sly grin reappeared. "The Disgusting Object has come to spend Unification Days with his Ma."

"Must need money." Alistair said flatly.

"Oh, Lis," Little Sister cried in mock dismay, "maybe he just got an urge to be with family over the holidays."

Meghan, usually the most charitable of the sisters shook her head. "No. He needs money. Poor Aunt Paige."

"Here's to hoping she has better luck with the quints." said Alistair. She eyed Seanna suspiciously. "What else? You got canary feathers in your teeth."

"Yolanda Haymer's back." both elder girls stopped and stared and Seanna grinned broadly, well pleased by their reaction.

"When? How?"

"And where the hell has she been all this time!"

"Two weeks ago. And nobody knows. She and Durran just picked up where they left off and neither is saying a word about it."

"Good for them." said Meghan, recovering from her first shock. Then it was her turn to grin evilly. "Gossip circuit must be red hot - and overheating with frustration."

Seanna laughed. "Oh it is. You should hear the rumors fly!"

Alistair shook her head dubiously. "I dunno. If you ask me Durran's better off without that whore."

"He loves her." Meghan said quietly.

"More the fool he. She'll just stomp his heart again having none of her own."

Seanna lost her grin and looked thoughtful. "Maybe not. I've seen them both and he's happy but not besotted this time around. And she...her attitude is downright weird. All that swarmy charm is gone. She's snippy and edgy - and yet for all that deep down she's happy. It's like...like she's being forced to do something she really wants but can't admit to even to herself."

Alistair dismissed this complex analysis with a shrug. "Never understood why she left in the first place. Durran Haymer was a whore's dream, totally besotted and able to give her everything."

"Maybe more than she could handle." Meghan said softly. "What happens to a whore when she falls in love?"

Alistair opened her mouth, then closed it and looked thoughtful herself. "She gets scared. Maybe scared enough to run away from her perfect mark."

"And comes back in the end because she can't stay away?" Seanna wondered. "Durran had to have a reason for taking her back. And he can't have any illusions about her, not after what he found out while looking."

Alistair shrugged. "Well, it's his lookout. Durran Haymer's a big boy he can take care of himself."

"Sounds like Yolanda's found him more than a match for her." Meghan observed.

Alistair went up to her suite, walked through the sitting area to the bedroom. Three large captures were inset into the wall to the right of the bed: A view of the ranch from look-out point. Mama and Daddy smiling on the porch of the house, arms around each other. Big brother all spit and polish and so proud in his brand new Independents uniform. Those images, and the charm bracelet that never left her wrist, was all that was left of that life.

She touched her parents' faces gently, and then her brother's. So long ago now, eight years since the destruction of Shadow. Eight and a half since they'd said their last good-byes to Mama and Daddy and the Hands. Almost ten since Mal's last leave, the one before he got himself killed on Athens. A very long time when you were only twenty-one.

Inevitably the memories had faded. Sometimes she went for days, weeks even, without thinking of her life that was. She wasn't sure how she felt about that but no point in worrying about what you couldn't change. If you went on living - and she had no intention of stopping - the past inevitably receded farther and farther and old memories were crowded out by new.

She turned her attention to another capture, set a little way from the others. Wade and Dianne in the solarium, her talking and him not listening - typical. Alistair grinned fondly. Of course they hadn't taken Mama and Daddy's place, they knew and the girls knew nobody ever could, but the Hamptons had made themselves a place of their own in their wards' hearts and lives.

Good people for all their money, Mama and Daddy would have liked them, and looking down from heaven had to be glad their girls had fallen into such hands. Granted the beautiful estate, the clothes, the parties wouldn't have cut much ice with Maria Reynolds Bracken and Sam Bracken but they'd have valued the fine education their daughters were getting. Mama'd always been a big one for learning and even Daddy'd seen the use of it.

Alistair herself was fully alive to the advantages her second family had to offer; Hampton money and Hampton influence meant the Bracken girls could do exactly as they liked, including twisting Alliance law and Alliance government around their little fingers. The Independence cause wasn't lost yet. War hadn't worked but what was politics but war by other, less bloody, means?