Book: Breach of Peace



Breach of Peace





Breach of Peace


Breach of Faith Book One


Daniel Gibbs Gary T. Stevens



Contents


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Foreword

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Epilogue

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Acknowledgments



Breach of Peace by Daniel Gibbs and Gary T. Stevens

Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Gibbs

Visit Daniel Gibb’s website at www.danielgibbsauthor.net

Cover by Jeff Brown Graphics—www.jeffbrowngraphics.com

Additional Illustrations by Joel Steudler—www.joelsteudler.com

Editing by Beth at BZhercules.com

3D Art by Benoit Leonard

This book is a work of fiction, the characters, incidents and dialogues are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. For permissions please contact [email protected]


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Book 1 - Fight the Good Fight

Book 2 - Strong and Courageous

Book 3 - So Fight I

Book 4 - Gates of Hell

Book 5 - Keep the Faith

Book 6 - Run the Gauntlet

Breach of Faith

(With Gary T. Stevens)

Book 1 - Breach of Peace

Book 2 - Breach of Faith

Book 3 - Breach of Duty


Foreword

Greetings readers! I’m Daniel Gibbs, Military Science Fiction author. I want to take a few moments to introduce you to a friend of mine—Gary T. Stevens. I’ve known Gary for a couple of decades now, and when I started my writing journey a few years back, I invited him along for the ride. You’re about to read his debut novel, Breach of Peace, that we co-wrote together over the last year. If you like my work, I promise you, Breach of Peace won’t disappoint.

On the other hand, if you’ve never heard of either one of us, don’t despair! Inside of this novel you will find stirring characters that include reluctant heroes, villains, and everything in between. Above all, the Breach of Faith series focuses squarely on the cost of war. What it does to our souls, and how the system can grind down the best things within our being. Gary’s done a fantastic job showing this across the series, which will be released over the next few months.

Enjoy!

v/r

Daniel Gibbs

Author


Breach of Peace


Prologue


LS Marat

Unclaimed System, Neutral Space

3 August 2560

The sheer scope of space can drive a thinking being mad. It is fundamentally a void, an airless vacuum of emptiness save for the occasional specks of gases known as stars, many orbited by insignificant microscopic grains of matter – planets, moons, planetoids, asteroids—forged eons before in the furnaces of the very first stars. Even the time frames are vast, defying mortal comprehension. A planet, from its inception, will orbit a star an uncountable number of times before said star reaches the end of its fuel reserves.

It is exhilarating, humbling, terrifying. It makes a person feel like an insignificant microbe in a vast ocean. The very fact of this existence could hollow one out and breed the deepest fatalism, an inescapable nihilism.

Fortunately, for men like Admiral Alec Hartford, there were ways to cope with the soul-blasting emptiness.

Hartford was a severe man not given to frivolities. Every act, every breath, had to be justified. Justified for the cause, for the purpose that had united much of Mankind and would, in due time, he was satisfied, encompass their wayward cousins here in the Sagittarius Arm.

Decades and thousands of light-years ago, Hartford sat in a room in the community school as an adolescent, learning about the galaxy and of humanity's destiny. Under the benevolent leadership of the League of Sol, humanity and any socially compatible species it encountered would inherit the stars. The socially superior model of the League would be brought to those cultures and societies who did not yet enjoy the unity of purpose that governed the core of mankind since the rise of the World Society in the first century of the Enlightened Era, the century known to the unenlightened as the 21st Century of the Common or Christian Era. There would be no more hunger or suffering. No longer would superstition and fear rule. A galaxy united, that was the purpose of the Society. It was Hartford's sole purpose.

To gain Paradise… there were no means, no cost, that would be shirked.

The vidscreen in Hartford's stateroom shifted at the press of a key. A vessel appeared, a boxy, gray-hulled shape designed for function and not aesthetic. The boxy shape was fitting; it was nothing more than a box. A container for goods strapped to a plasma drive and environmental system to sustain the handful of crew that drove it through the void. Solid beams of pale light gripped the vessel, the recognizable component for the streams of gravitons holding the ship in formation with another. "Another vessel," murmured Hartford. His voice betrayed the accent of a New Anglian, essentially an accent of Southeastern England with a slight drawl. "Another step."

A tone came from his desk. Another tap of a key and the brown-bearded, pale countenance of Captain Nikos Zervakos appeared on the vidscreen. "Admiral." Zervakos was Earth-born, from the hills of Boeotia in Greece. The paleness of his skin was that found in a man who had not experienced unfiltered sunlight in decades. "Our Marines have successfully subdued the crew of the vessel. The capture is complete."

"Very good, Captain Zervakos. Your judgment proved superb. The risk paid off."

"Yes, sir." Zervakos showed little sign of appreciation for the compliment. The man was a professional about the entire thing, and that Hartford appreciated. "Engineering reports the drive will be ready to take us back to base in ten minutes. All scanners are clear, and we have confirmed the vessel did not successfully transmit a distress signal."

"Then the device is working as planned. Quite good. Take us back to Pluto Base when ready, Captain."

"Aye, sir." Zervakos disappeared.

Hartford considered his blank vidscreen for a moment before calling up one final image. A message from Fleet Admiral Pierre Seville, commander of the League's Expeditionary Forces Sagittarius Arm, the architect of the war by which the divisive reactionaries of the Terran Coalition would be ground into defeat. Seville was in charge of a grand plan, to turn their enemies' sentimentalism and war-weariness against them, and when successful—Hartford would not allow himself to use the qualifier "if"—it would significantly undermine their enemies.

But Seville was not a man to trust victory to just one act. Hartford's project would soon bear fruit as well. His old mentor was counting on that as part of his strategy to finally bring victory over the Terrans.

As always, we are just gears in the great machine of Society, Hartford considered. And that is why we will prevail in the end. The individual may fail, the gear may be stripped, but the machine will go on. A pity our enemies do not yet understand that.

Breach of Peace

Minutes remained before Miri Gaon met her doom.

The necessities imposed upon her by her past had prompted the meticulous planning the quiet woman was now enacting, even as her comrades on the Kensington Star remained docile for their conquerors. They were confined to their quarters by the guns of the League Marines and would not work up the nerve to pose any threat.

Perhaps they would fight harder if they knew for sure what awaited them. The League's "socialization" camps were a new take on the old totalitarian idea of the re-education camp, where an individual could be pounded down by psychological manipulation and physical control until they accepted what the State wished them to. Miri knew, first-hand, what they were like. She was not interested in a repeat experience—although if the League found her, it would be an improvement upon what her fate would be.

She stood now in the cramped little quarters she called her own, at one end of the Kensington Star's living spaces. Her skin was a slightly pale bronze tone, the paleness from a relative lack of exposure to UV rays inside the confines of the Kensington Star and similarly-shielded space habitats and stations. Her brown hair was cut neck-length, and an old scar from her past life marked her temple, just above her hairline. Her pale green jumpsuit, marked with the ship's name on the back, was a standard one for the crew of such a vessel, and like many of the same kind, it was made for everything from standard operations to providing a functional underlayer for an EVA suit.

She was also alone, which was by design. Technically, her crew rating would not afford her private quarters, but with these quarters right beside the waste circulators, the unpleasant smell and the constant noise of the machinery made them undesirable for everyone else, and her volunteering to take the quarters relieved her peers of the need to draw straws. None of them realized she had her reasons to take the room and keep some privacy.

After checking to make sure she'd packed away what few things here she needed to keep, Miri gave a last look to the smelly, dingy chamber and its uncomfortable cot before lowering herself through the floor plate she had so carefully loosened months ago for just this occasion. She dropped to a crouch inside the crawlspace that curved under the corner of her quarters. The stench was heavy here. Old Tomlin was right about the leak in the processor. But it couldn't be helped. She had to get to her destination now.

Miri followed the dark crawlspace toward the port access airlock, her mind imagining the layout of the decks and the route she needed to take while she counted the seconds down. The lack of light was, in some ways, good practice for what was to come. Her plan was a desperate one, certainly, but the moment the League ship pulled along the crippled merchant ship, it was one she knew was her only chance of escape.

She was not a slight woman, nor very brawny or big, making the crawlspace a challenge but not a severe one. Physical training and practice built her figure for speed and agility, and that was about to come in handy.

In the darkness, she reached what she knew to be the bulkhead on the port side access way running down the port side of the ship. The crawlspace was meant to terminate twenty meters further down, but that would take her to the engineering area, and they would likely be guarding that heavily. Instead, she gently felt around in the dark until she found the tool she'd left here months ago, an autospanner, which she put to work on the bolts holding the plate in. Her heart raced faster with each bolt. Her pre-loosening was, for obvious reasons, only superficial, requiring several seconds each before the whirring device finished removing each bolt she'd place it on.

After eight bolts in all, the plate came loose. She caught it with a free hand so it wouldn't clatter, and carefully moved it away, allowing the light of the access way to shine into the crawlspace. She checked for signs of League Marines and found none. She set the plate down and crawled out. The plate would stay where it was. By the time the League boarders realized what happened, they'd be in another system, and she would be—relatively-speaking—safe.

The airlock was ten meters astern of where she came out of the crawlspace. It was a well-used thing, with a storage locker of EVA suits beside it. Miri moved with practiced efficiency. First, she divested herself of the gear she would need to have on the outside of her suit. Then the blue-painted suit's turn came, and she slid into it and sealed it up, helmet included. She used both the HUD interface and the manual reader to check her breathing air. With it maxed out, she would have some time, but just in case, she attached a second tank to her belly beside the rest of the gear she was carrying.

As a last measure, Miri grabbed the fire extinguisher off the wall and opened the inner door of the airlock. She stepped in and let the airlock close behind her.

This was the moment of truth. When she opened the outer airlock hatch, it would trigger an alarm on the bridge. If she left too soon, the League would halt the jump and come for her, and would all too quickly find out who she was. If she went too late, she would be drawn into the wormhole their drives generated. Either they would bring her with them to their destination, or she would be in the wormhole's maw when it closed, killing her instantly. Suffice to say, neither outcome was desirable.

Miri drew in a quiet breath and willed her heart and breathing to slow. To maximize her chances, she needed to maintain a slow breathing rate. There were drugs that would have aided this process, but the circumstances forbade their application. She would have to do this unaided.

That thought distracted her until the crucial moment. She felt the ship's acceleration pick up. She was confident it was from the towing vessel accelerating for a wormhole jump. She yanked down the lever to release the airlock door and smashed the button beside it. The airlock door irised open. The vacuum of open space sucked the atmosphere inside the airlock out within a second. The decompression effect pulled her with it, as was her intent, giving her a burst of velocity to carry her away from the ships. What she'd expected but not desired was that the air escaping the airlock chamber pushed her into a spin. She tumbled in the airless void, rushing away from her captured ship. The spinning effect kept her from getting more than glimpses of the League cruiser and the captured Kensington Star as the former pulled the latter with it into a generated wormhole.

Once they were gone, Miri took hold of the fire extinguisher and started spraying its flame-retarding chemicals into the void around her. She did so carefully and, after a minute of calculated bursts, arrested the velocity of her spin so that she was no longer subjected to the disorientation of it. This task accomplished, she triggered the small transponder built into the suit and the more powerful transmitter she was carrying with her, raising the chance that a ship in the area would detect her and pick her up. She glanced at her air level and the suit's estimate of how long she had. With her back-up air tank, there’d be two days before she’d run out.

Two days alone in the vacuum of space. The prospect was daunting from a mental point of view. Minds did not do well when such an experience was forced upon them. To be alone in the infinite black of the void, with naught but the pinprick of light of a star millions of kilometers distant? It ruined minds. Snapped them under the strain of that constant reminder of just how vast space was, and how small and insignificant a single being was against that void. Even if rescued, Miri had to face the prospect that she might be mad by the time said rescue came.

The consideration raised her heart rate and her breathing with it. She focused to bring it back down. From within the recesses of her oldest recollections, she found the memory of songs her mother sang to her as a little girl. Miri sang quietly to herself in her isolation, waiting to see if she had saved herself or merely delayed death and made it a lonely one, at that.


1


ISV Shadow Wolf

New Hathwell System, League of Sol

3 August 2560

"Cutter's definitely coming for us."

At that report from his executive officer, James Henry could only sigh at the utter predictability of the League of Sol's bureaucracy. New Hathwell was just one small colony among many that the League had planted in its foothold in Sagittarius, but even here, the League kept all of the accouterments of power its system seemed to thrive on. You could set your watches by them. Which, Henry mused, was the point.

Light from the plotting holotank in front of his seat played over Henry's face, a grid of gold and crimson light over his dark skin. The blinking crimson dot that now lit up over his forehead drew closer to the center of the display. He didn't need to hear his piloting crew confirm the numbers he already crunched in his head; they would intercept the Shadow Wolf about five minutes before they were far enough from New Hathwell and its gravity well to initiate their Lawrence drive.

Seated to his right, at a control panel that monitored ship systems, Tia Nguyen gave Henry a concerned look. "I told you this would happen," she warned. Her skin had a bronze tint to the faint yellowish tone that reflected her ancestral origins in East Asia, just as Henry's tone testified to the ancestors who hailed from the continent of Africa. Gray eyes met his brown eyes with irritation and a degree of challenge. "And we don't have a legitimate export license."

"There's no such thing as a legitimate export license for what we're carrying. Not with the League," Henry reminded her. In the cargo hold of the Shadow Wolf were containers loaded with lithium ore mined from New Hathwell. While on a planetary level it was not always rare—on Earth, it was one of the less-rare elements—at the scope of an interstellar stage, with the voracious demands that an interstellar economy could have, lithium was much rarer. "But don't worry."

"Don't worry?" Tia frowned at him. "You're telling me not to worry about the League catching us with a load of export-restricted cargo? They'd send all of us to a gulag for that."

"And space poor Oskar," another voice added. The lilt of Cera McGinty rose from the pilot seat. The diminutive Irishwoman, from the independent world Connaught, kept her eyes on the controls. "Just say the word, Cap, and I'll show th' sassenach what my girl can do."

"The last thing I want to do is let the League know about the Wolf's fusion drives," Henry said. "And there's no point in running otherwise. Trigger deceleration. Signal we're standing by for customs inspection."

Cera's face betrayed her worry, but she obeyed.

"Time to intercept is now ten minutes," Tia said. "Do you mind telling us lesser mortals what you've got in mind, or should I get down on my knees and pray?"

Henry looked at her with amusement. "Says the agnostic."

"Retorts the lapsed Methodist," Tia replied.

"I wouldn't call myself lapsed, so to speak. Vidia thinks I'm just spiritually scarred." He stood up. "Let Oskar know to take Brigitte and put up the quarantine sign. Just in case."

"I'll inform the good doctor now," Tia said. There was still worry in her voice. "Jim…"

Henry looked back to her from the hatch leading out of the Shadow Wolf's control bridge. At his height of nearly two meters, he could be imposing, if a little on the lanky side. But there was nothing intimidating about the confident grin. "It's handled. Don't worry, and let's not give them a reason to be suspicious, eh?"

"Right," Tia breathed. "We're just a perfectly innocent cargo ship, nothing suspicious or wrong about us. Just the load of export-banned ore worth a fortune."

"That's the spirit." Henry left the bridge at that point. The hatch slid closed behind him.

Breach of Peace

The League customs cutter was not an impressive ship by any means. Thirty meters long and eight meters wide, with just two internal decks, the little vessel was shaped somewhat like a supersonic airliner without wings. The cutter was no match for a torpedo skiff, let alone any real warship. Even an armed merchantman stood a good chance of turning it into a cloud of debris, if the owner was willing to risk the wrath of the League.

It went without saying the vast majority were not.

The Shadow Wolf had a certain aesthetic charm of its own. At one hundred and thirty-three meters length and thirty-two meters width, it did have a rough, boxy shape, but the four landing struts gave it the look of having legs when lowered, and there was an almost lupine shape to the control bridge jutting from the front. It was painted with a shadowy dark gray hue. The top of the hull included the housing for the atmospheric stabilizers that helped the ship burn through the atmosphere for planetary landing, while the bottom of the ship had take-off thruster ports for getting the vessel out of a gravity well. Both port and starboard sides had the benefit of large airlock loading hatches and man-sized airlocks for docking with smaller craft.

It was the rear port hatch that the League cutter pulled up to. From this distance, anyone on the Shadow Wolf could look out a port-side transparent alloy viewing port and see the lithe shape of the cutter approach, its hull alabaster white in color, and the League's emblem in full color on the main body of the ship. The sun outline with a clenched fist was not the most pacific of symbols, but it did the job, conveying the League's determination, will, and readiness to act, even violently, to further the goals and purpose of Society.

When the airlock opened, Henry was waiting in the presence of one of his crew. Like Henry, Felix Rothbard hailed from the Terran Coalition, but there was no visible sign of that origin, nor would it have particularly mattered given the independent nature of their ship.

The Caucasian man was stockier than Henry, four centimeters shorter, and sporting a thin beard of wheat-colored hair that matched the hair on his head. Both were wearing crew jumpsuits typical for this kind of ship, dull gray outfits with cargo pockets on arms and legs as well as hips, all capable of being sealed by zipper. The jumpsuit's collar looked rigid, necessary for it to seal correctly with a helmet in case of an emergency. While it was no EVA suit, it could function as the layer of clothes underneath such a suit, and provide limited protection in case of atmosphere loss.

"You know what you're doing, right, Jim?" Felix asked.

"I've dealt with customs before," Henry answered. "I know how to talk to them."

"They say that Hell hath no fury like a League bureaucrat who's been crossed," Felix noted.

Henry blinked at him. "I thought it was 'a woman scorned'?"

"It used to be."

The light above the airlock door flashed from red to yellow. The Shadow Wolf's environmental systems were cycling breathable atmosphere into the chamber. After about thirty seconds, the light turned green. The panel beside the airlock lit up to inform them that someone had opened the outer door.

"Isn't it rude to open someone's outer door for them?" Felix asked.

"Not if you're a customs agent."

Seconds later, the inner door opened. A man in a dark gray jumpsuit appeared. Emblazoned over the heart was the seal of the League Secretariat of Trade and Resources' Trade Enforcement Bureau. It was essentially the same as the League emblem but with a stylized "T" and "R" to either side of the fist. He had a faint bronze complexion, the kind people used to associate with the Mediterranean, with a shaved face and close-cut brown hair.

Henry didn't let himself curse. Now he was worried. This wasn't just any League customs officer, it was a new customs officer. All kitted up, full of piss and vinegar and ready to prove they can boot-stomp merchants' faces with the best of 'em. Henry started to wonder if he shouldn't have had Cera gun the drives as she'd asked.

Too late to reconsider.

"I am Trade Inspector 3rd Class Orlando Montaine," the young man declared. Henry figured he hadn't sounded like that since he was a fresh lieutenant. "Your vessel is under inspection by order of the Trade Enforcement Bureau for suspicion of violating the Trade Secretariat's export restrictions."

"I see."

"I require access to your holds."

"Of course." Henry ignored the look he got from Felix. "This way."

From the airlock door, they traveled astern to a hatch. Henry noted the air-tight sealant looked loose along the right side. He’d have to get Brigitte on that later, if they had a later.

After a flight of metal stairs to the middle deck of the Shadow Wolf, they emerged into a corridor leading to more hatches. "Your vessel is a Holden-Nagata Mark VII Medium Cargo Hauler, is it not?" Montaine asked in an officious, clipped tone.

"It is," Henry said.

"So you have six standard holds. Yet you are passing by the stern ones. I consider this suspicious."

Henry sighed and led him back to a hatch they had just passed. He tapped a key at the panel and brought up the status screen. "We had a micro-asteroid strike a couple of months ago while hauling ore from the Alpha Trifid Belt Refinery," Henry explained. "Hulled our two stern holds. I haven't been able to get an atmospheric patch applied yet."

Montaine considered the screen. He pulled a handheld scanner out and held it up to the door. As Henry expected, it verified that there was no atmosphere in a hold that was empty. "Take me to the other one."

Henry sighed. The temptation to smack this twit revived itself. But he didn't feel like dodging League ships whenever he was moving around the Trifid Nebula region, so he complied.

Once Montaine was satisfied with the status of their two rear holds, they journeyed to the mid-port hold. Once inside, the crates of plastic were visible, unstacked, but filling the hold. He walked down the nearby metal steps to the ground floor.

Henry followed and waited for the inevitable.

One scan and Montaine smirked at him. "We have a problem, Captain. Or rather, you do." He tapped a key, and the top of the crate slid open, revealing raw ore. "This is lithium ore with a composite match from the New Hathwell Lithium Refinery. This is an export-restricted substance and is banned from export by the Secretariat of Trade." He looked back to Henry with an even wider grin. "I now have the authority to order your vessel impounded, and you and your crew arrested for violation of export laws."

"Before you do that, you might want to speak to your superior."

The triumphant look on the young officer's face shifted slightly. Triumph became leavened by confusion. "What do you mean?"

"I want to speak to your superior."

Montaine's confusion grew. "What could you possibly gain by that? My superior will merely confirm your guilt! Why should I bother him to burn his way out here for such a silly purpose?"

"Oh, please." Henry crossed his arms. "You're a Trade Inspector 3rd Class. Bureau rules stipulate that you be under the supervision of no less than a 1st Class Inspector until your promotion to 2nd Class. I know New Hathwell isn't the busiest office for the Bureau, so the only 1st Class inspector is the Chief of Inspections for New Hathwell. He's on your cutter, and I want to see him. Now."

"You have no right to order me…"

"And you can't order our arrest or impounding on your own; you need his approval," Henry retorted. "I will not surrender myself or my ship unless your chief orders it."

"Fine," snarled Montaine. "Be a fool. You'll learn your lesson in the socialization camp for wasting his time."

Breach of Peace

By the time they returned to the airlock, Felix was joined by another of the crew. Vidiadhar "Vidia" Andrews was a wide man, though not portly, with a ready, toothy smile. His dark hair was arranged in cornrows, and his beard was a big bunch of fuzz on his chin. His paled dark skin was from mixed African and Indian ancestry. He was in a jumpsuit as well. "Ah, Captain, I heard we had visitors," he said, his accent distinctly Anglo-Caribbean from New Antilla.

"That we do, Vidia," Henry answered him while Montaine stepped through the airlock.

"He found the ore?"

"He found the ore."

Even Vidia's smile thinned at that. He spoke with a low, conspiratorial tone. "Yanik has his toy ready. He wanted you to know that."

As entertaining as the thought was of letting the big Saurian greet Montaine's return through the airlock with a hail of plasma bolts from Yanik's treasured heavy plasma gun, Henry only answered with a nod.

When Montaine returned, still purple in the face and snarling, he was joined by a big fellow. This one was in the same uniform, had five centimeters on Henry, and was every bit as broad as Vidia. A bit of a paunch to his belly indicated he lived quite well for an official assigned to a distant, struggling colony. "Captain James Henry of the Shadow Wolf, correct?" His accent was North American, but not distinct to any region.

"Yes, sir. Chief Inspector Donner, I believe?"

"You remember." Donner nodded. "Good."

Montaine finally spoke, as if he could no longer restrain himself. "Sir, this man's ship is loaded with lithium ore from our mines. You may scan it for yourself if you wish, but my readings…"

"...are quite accurate, yes," said Donner. He never looked toward Montaine. "Captain, this is a grave matter. I hope you have a good explanation."

"If you will accompany me to my office, Chief Inspector, I believe everything will be made clear."

"Alright." Donner glanced toward his frustrated subordinate. "Wait here, Montaine."

"But, sir, are you sure…"

"I will be perfectly safe," Donner insisted. "the Captain here knows to lay a hand on me is to guarantee our fleet and agents will hound him for the rest of his miserable life. I will get this cleared up, and we will get on with it."



"If you say so, sir," muttered the disbelieving Montaine.

With that, Henry led them toward the bow of the ship. His office was built into the hull just astern of the bridge, across the corridor from his personal quarters. The door slid open at the touch of his thumb to the access panel. The inside was not too large, with only a meter or so of clearance space to either side of the plain plastic-manufacture desk. The wall nearest the door had an old, Saurian War-era pulse rifle mounted on it, a family weapon brought home by one of Henry's forebearers.

Donner glanced only briefly at the rifle before he followed Henry in.

The League bureaucrat waited patiently while Henry stepped around his desk and knelt behind it, facing the shelf. With quiet diligence, he opened his captain's safe with a metallic shunk.

When he stood to full height, he had with him a single box that smelled of a tangy, tropical scent with a fine synth-silk ribbon around it of crimson color and gold trim. He set the box into Donner's big hands. The League customs agent slid the fabric off and opened the box. Nestled in brilliant green felt backed by careful padding was a bottle with a dark red liquid inside. The bottle's label depicted a cluster of purple grapes, and the name "Cunhal Port" emblazoned around them.

"A gift from Minister Vitorino," Henry said. "He's always out to promote Lusitania's wines."

"They are truly exquisite. Cunhal Port? 2489 on the old calendar? A good year, or so I've heard." The last bit of the line was added with a twinkle in Donner's eye. "The good minister has been a valuable trading partner, I am told by the Secretariat. Our relations with Lusitania are quite vital."

"So you are told, I'm sure."

"Yes." Donner eyed the wine again and smiled widely. "Certainly a handsome gift, Captain."

"It is." Henry leaned against his desk. He met Donner's eye and matched his smile. "I'm sure the Minister would be flattered to hear you say that. And I'm sure he would love to handle this misunderstanding about the cargo he ordered from New Hathwell. Sadly, he isn't here. As things stand, it seems my ship is to be impounded, and I'm going to be arrested. While acting on the Minister's behalf." Henry let his words sink in for a moment. "That means everything aboard will be inventoried and cataloged and probably seized by the State." Henry tapped the wine bottle. "Including this magnificent wine. the Minister will be very displeased. I'm sure you'd hate to see that happen."

"Indeed not." Donner nodded. "I would be loath to report to the Trade Secretary that I had slighted a minister of the Lusitanian government. No less the Trade Minister himself." He quietly closed the box. "This is a terrible misunderstanding. Certainly, an exception was filed on behalf of Minister Vitorino that was lost by carelessness. I shall clear the matter up immediately, Captain."

"My thanks to you for your cooperation, Chief Inspector," Henry replied, nodding back. "And I'm sure the Minister will feel the same way when I tell him of your assistance with this issue."

"Cooperation with our fellow humans is the cornerstone of the League," Donner declared. "I am always ready to assist with these matters." With that, Donner stepped out of the office, the box with the wine secured firmly in his left arm.

Henry closed his safe, verified the lock, and left his office. Tia was standing there. "So are we going to the gulag?"

"Nope," he said. "Have Cera get ready to burn us out to the limit. Normal burn, no need for theatrics."

"This was cutting it way too close, Jim. You're going to give us ulcers."

To that, he shrugged, as if there was nothing he could do about it. "Just the cost of business, Tia."


2

The count read ten hours on Miri Gaon's EVA suit. Ten hours of being alone in the void. Her oxygen was down to fifty percent. She was consuming it a little more quickly than she'd imagined.

Her stomach gurgled, stimulating feelings of the last time it had felt empty in this way. Fifteen years in the past, in the League "re-socialization" camp on the occupied world Lowery.

Lowery, a member world of the Terran Coalition, fell to League forces that year. The League enacted its usual occupation plans, sending all of the residents into the camps while their homes and business were taken over by League authorities and military forces. Only after "successful socialization" were they to be released, to be then integrated into the Society's command economy and system.

Rationing in the camp was severe enough, but food was scarce after the planet's economy shut down from the process. The League used its soldiers on the farms, of course, and eventually camp labor, but between sabotage by owners and incompetence by authorities, it wasn't nearly enough. A world with food self-sufficiency was reduced to reliance on food imports from other League worlds, and the camps were the lowest priority. People went hungry. One thousand calories in a day was virtually a feast day. And the work? It had to continue. The Society would not tolerate inactivity. Its entire mission was that everyone must work for the betterment of Society. So even the starving had to put in the requisite eight hours of labor and six hours of socialization classes and lectures. Shirking meant demerits, which meant not getting the "socialized" status that meant freedom from the camps and restoration to a home and a regular job.

Demerits also meant punishments. Public shaming. Neighbors and friends forced to strike or mock each other to avoid their own demerits. Solitary confinement. And, for the genuinely defiant, exile back to the Orion Arm and the heart of League space.

Miri had a few demerits early on. They were necessary. Virtually everyone got them, and those that didn't stood out. And not in a pleasant way. The occupation and camp authorities were suspicious of those who didn't get demerits. They ended up getting picked up by the internal security forces. She knew better, because she’d been trained to know better.

So she got her demerits, endured the punishments, and presented the image she needed the League to see: an average Coalition citizen of Jewish descent, somewhat observant, and of moderate political opinion. Someone who, after a few demerits and a couple of months in-camp, would break down. Someone who would accept the Truth as told by the League, and be willing to become a loyal member of Society.

That meant better rations, including, as it turned out, some pretty good cuts of pork and bacon sandwiches in the morning. After all, a good member of Society doesn't waste food because of some ancient superstitious dietary law.

Which explained why, these days, Miri couldn't stomach pork.

"I don't want to remember those days," she murmured to herself. While everything she did paid off, she had to pay a price. A terrible one. And the things she did to get that far, to get where she needed to be…

No. She didn't want to think about it. If she did, she might start questioning if she deserved to be rescued.


3

Among the stars in the vicinity of the Trifid Nebula, TN-22198 was one of the least interesting. A B4-class star with only two planets—a distant small Uranus-class gas giant and a volcanic "hell planet" just inside the empty "Goldilocks" zone—and three distinct asteroid belts, indicating that the system might have had more planets if its development had been slightly different. The asteroid belts had some unusual minerals in them, of course, but so did the asteroid belts and moons of systems with actual habitable planets, where supporting and maintaining mining operations would be far easier to sustain.

For the moment, TN-22198 had an additional orbiting object, however, as the Shadow Wolf kept her lazy distant orbit of the blue star.

Aboard her, hooting laughter could be heard. The crew had gathered in the mess hall for a meal that had quickly turned into an explanation of their close call with the League of Sol's customs officers. Felix finished laughing, took a sip of the bottle of beer in his hand, and continued. "And I thought that little turd's eyes were going to pop from his head, he was so pissed!"

"Little pissant wanker," Brigitte Tam'si grumbled. She was one of two former citizens of the League aboard ship, descended from Congolese colonists of a world back in the Orion Arm who, in turn, had some of their number relocated to one of the new League colonies in the Sagittarius Arm. Her skin was a shade darker than Henry's, with her dark hair arranged in cornrows around a short, dyed mohawk of purple at the top of her head. It was an outward example of her rebelliousness against not just the League, but anyone who would place demands on her appearance. Her accent was more African than English, defying her choice of English swear words.

"I hear that," another voice declared. Pieter Hartzog's accent sounded Dutch to some ears, which was understandable; his first language of Afrikaans was descended from Dutch, marking him as a son of the Boer colony world of New Oranje. One of the independent colonies further Rimward, toward the Omega Nebula, New Oranje was a settlement of the broader Exodus from Earth in the 22nd Century. To this day, they maintained a fierce neutrality and an even more passionate suspicion of offworlders, one that often bordered on paranoia. That Hartzog was enjoying the company of the other crew betrayed him as having a more tolerant attitude compared to the vast majority of his countrymen. He was a lean man, clad in a green engineer's jumpsuit even here, with sandy blond hair that hadn't seen a comb in years and haughty blue eyes. "Captain, why did we let that… that little jerk come aboard in the first place? I had the drives ready. Cera could've out-burned them easy."

"Because Minister Vitorino is our best paying customer," Henry pointed out. "And he wouldn't be our customer anymore if we were permanently banned from League space."

"Especially since they know we work for him and would cut off his other ventures as well." This contribution was from Oskar Kiderlein. The oldest member of the crew, with dark brown hair graying at the temples, Oskar spoke with a faint German accent. Unlike the rest of them, even Brigitte, he hailed from Earth itself, the long-lost homeworld for those born among the Human-colonized worlds of Sagittarius. "And they would. Plus, they would hunt us clear across space."

"For a hold of lithium." Tia shook her head.

"It is not about the lithium. It would be for crossing the State and defying the duties of Society," Oskar clarified. "It is hard for Sagittarians like yourselves to understand how things work back in the Orion Arm, in the League…"

"There's not much to understand," said Felix. "They're a bunch of socialists. Socialism's been about controlling people for over six hundred years now. We even have them in the Coalition."

To that, Oskar barked out a laugh. "You do not know the meaning of the word 'control' if you compare those of your worlds who promote socialism to the League. If your Coalition's Christian Socialists, or Democratic-Socialists, ran the League, it would be a nicer place. I would’ve never left. There would be no war. Whatever their economic policies, they still see you as an individual sapient being with rights, privileges, agency. To the League, an individual is just part of the whole, a gear in a machine. Society is what matters. Society has rights, individuals only have duties, and it is the individual who must bow to the needs of Society… or whatever the Commissioners say are the needs of Society."

"Well, isn't there some truth to that?" Tia raised the question. "I mean, we all have some kind of obligation to society as a whole, right? Especially to our neighbors, since things we do can impact their lives as well. We can't just do what we want and ignore the consequences it might have for other people. That's why Earth got so screwed up in the 21st Century."

"There's a lot of reasons Earth got screwed up," Brigitte said. "The World Society was one of them."

"Maybe, but it was also a reaction to other problems." Tia picked at her food absentmindedly. Her eyes glanced toward Felix, who was saying nothing. "Problems, including the domination of the economy by an international oligarchy of corporations and banks. The Society was formed to fight that oligarchy."

"That's what the history books claim, but I don't believe a word of it," Brigitte hissed. "You're just buying League lies."

"To hell with the League!" Tia shouted. "I don't give a damn what they say. But it's not just the League that…"

Tia was interrupted by the sharp sound of a spoon smacking against a plastic glass. All eyes turned to Henry. "You all know the problem with talking politics," he reminded them.

"This isn't just about politics," Brigitte said. "It's about…" She stopped at Henry's sharp look.

"Right. I know. It's about more. It always is. And that's why we don't talk politics during the crew dinner." Henry dug his spoon into the pile of peas on his plate. "No politics…"

"...no religion," intoned most of the others, save Vidia and Felix.

"Thank you."

There was no further discussion for the rest of the meal.

Breach of Peace

After the meal, Henry walked to the control bridge at the front of the ship. Inside were the last two crew members, those whose turn it was to stand watch during the crew dinner. Nearest to him, in Tia's usual seat, was a young woman of bronze complexion in a blue all-purpose jumpsuit, her skin paled slightly as any long-term spacer's would be. Her brown hair was long, halfway down her back, and pulled into a braid. She was on the tall side, not quite one point eight meters, with a lean athletic build that took nothing away from gentle feminine curves. "Piper," he said.

Piper Lopez nodded. Her light brown eyes looked up to him on a face with a shape more ovular than round. "Captain," she said in a toned soprano and slightly Spanish-sounding accent. A crystal hung from a silver necklace around her neck, given to her by her grandmother from the Tohono O'odham side of her family.

"How's our course look?" he asked.

"Just two more jumps to Lusitania, so we'll be burning in by the end of next watch," Piper said, confident in her astrogation skills. "And no sign of any pursuit, if you were worried about it."

"He wasn't," a rough voice stated. Seated forward of Piper, at the actual ship piloting controls, was Yanik S'srish. The blue-toned Saurian was at nearly two meters in height, and broader than any Human would be. Unlike many Saurians, he still had the vestigial tail that members of his species were born with, as his religion didn't involve removing the tail as a sign of devotion. Between his size and the tail barely fit into the control station even while sitting further back than any of the others. "Were he worried otherwise, the Captain would never have stopped for the dinner until we arrived at Lusitania."

"You know me so well, Yanik."

"Your patterns are familiar to me," Yanik replied while his right yellow eyes blinked twice. "Which means they may be familiar to others as well. You may wish to adjust."

"I'll take it under advisement, Yanik. Felix and Brig should be up soon to relieve you. I'll be in my office for a while if anything happens."

"Understood."

Breach of Peace

There were many universal constants—gravity, electromagnetism, light, insincere politicians.

Paperwork.

Henry suspected the last two might have links.

Granted, this wasn't like his time in the Coalition Defense Forces, where any command position of any kind demanded daily reports, after-action reports, finalized after-action reports, requisition reports, and all other paperwork used by the bureaucratic machine to annoy the men and women out in the field. As an independent captain, Henry could set his own paperwork requirements on his ship, which he kept to a minimum.

But that didn't eliminate the need. The Shadow Wolf might be independent, but he still had to file all sorts of paperwork with the governments controlling those places his ship hauled cargo to and from. Some governments were better than others.

Lusitania… was roughly ordinary by his standard. Slightly less paperwork than the Coalition—granted, that was due to the wartime economic laws—far less than the League and other more authoritarian statist governments in Sagittarius, but more than if he visited New Oranje, H'taka or Galt. Having the Minister of Trade as his customer meant Henry was less likely to get in trouble for an error, but Lusitania's semi-authoritarian government ensured plenty of work for its bureaucrats. His manifest and invoice had to be accurate to ensure they collected their due in custom duties, which even a Minister of Trade could not waive. And then there would be the itemized requests to the service companies at the spaceport to ensure the proper refueling, re-airing, and re-victualing of the ship.

In the middle of calculating fuel costs for his invoice, Henry glanced up when his door's chime went off. Since the hatch and bulkhead were soundproofed, he couldn't call out for them to enter. Instead, he tapped a key on his desk. The door slid open, and Vidia entered. "Dinner was… interestin', wasn't it?" he asked.

Henry gave him a sarcastic look.

Vidia smiled gently. "Your rules make sense. Otherwise… I think it might take a new Manifestation to figure out how to keep the peace."

"That's what I get for combining a libertarian, a thwarted socialist revolutionary, and a militant former League rebel in one crew," Henry remarked. "And a New Oranjer."

"Don't forget the Saurian draft dodger and the League military deserter," Vidia added, still smiling. "And I'll point out the libertarian is your friend and not a hired hand."

"I know it rubs Tia the wrong way," Henry began. "But we needed the help, and Felix knows ship operations."

"She doesn't like bein' likened to the League, for obvious reasons. Truth be told, I think she hates them more than Brigitte or Felix."

"I would agree, and I'll even say she's earned it as much as we have." Henry set his pen down and directed his full attention to Vidia. "But you're not here to talk to me about dinner, are you?"

Vidia shook his head. "I can see it in you, Jim. Ever since that close call at New Hathwell. You're thinkin' bad thoughts again."

There was a thin edge to the resulting smile on Henry's face. "I can't help but wonder about Montaine. Two thoughts and the first is: is he a boy scout or power-hungry? I mean, he's got that bright look the young and idealistic always get, but he loved the idea of throwing us into a gulag, and that tells me he likes having the power."

"With the League, I think those two are one and the same. As Oskar said, to them, it's all about the whole, not the man."

"And that means taking joy in hammering any nails that pop up." Henry nodded. "Yeah. The other half of my thought about Montaine is… how long until he turns into Donner?"

"You mean his chief, the man you and Minister Vitorino bribed with a bottle of wine?"

"A bottle of fine Lusitanian port," Henry corrected jovially. At Vidia's nod, Henry chuckled. "Yeah. How long until it's Montaine letting the League's precious laws slide for his own benefit. How long until that loyal cog in the Society machine starts looking out for number one?"

"Only God knows."

"I don't think God has anything to do with it," Henry said. "It's basic human nature. When it comes down to it, most of us are going to look out for ourselves, and the ones who don't, well…"

"They're the ones who end up bein' cashiered from the Coalition Defense Forces while the real criminals walk away with the money," Vidia said. He ignored the pointed, almost angry glare from Henry. "And it comes around to it again, Jim. You won't forgive."

"Forgive who? The corrupt sons-of-bitches making money off of our blood?" Henry asked. Heat filled his voice. "The politicians and generals who decide that it's better for the service if the whole thing is hushed? Don't want to rattle the boat; there's a war on. We'll ruin the life of the one guy who tried to do the right thing." Henry leaned forward at his desk. "In the Coalition, we go out believing God's on our side. Doesn't matter if you're Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Bahá'í…"

Vidia nodded slightly, recognizing the listing of his religion among the larger ones. He wasn't new to this rant, but he still listened quietly.

"...that's what we're told, again and again. But it's not driven the League off our frontier. It's not winning the war. When you look into it, and you see the Coalition's got corruption just like the League. Hell, it's everywhere. That's what life out here has taught me. No matter where I've gone, it's all corruption and hypocrisy." Henry thumped his hand on his desk. "And here I am, running errands for Vitorino, who's just as corrupt as the bastards who threw me out of the CDF. So what's that make me?"

"A man tryin' to survive, like any of us." Vidia smiled wistfully. " I think God understands that."

A harsh little chuckle was Henry's answer. "It must be nice, having faith."

"You used to."

"Yeah. Then I realized something." Henry's voice had lost its heat. It had lost all but the barest hint of emotion. "I realized the truth about God."

"And you will enlighten me?" Vidia asked with genuine interest. This was new ground for them.

"If He's out there… he stopped caring about Humanity a long time ago." Henry leaned back in his seat. "And I don't blame him."

Vidia inclined his head. "Well," he said, "that is a breakthrough of a sort. But I still think you need to forgive if you're goin' to feel any better, Jim."

"And who do you think I should forgive?"

"Yourself."

And with that, Vidia departed, leaving Henry to his work and his thoughts.


4

For Miri Gaon, time was nearly out. Her second tank of air was down to twenty percent. Several hours of exhausted sleep may have given her an hour or two extra from the lower breathing rate, but that was all. In about four or five hours, give or take twenty minutes, the oxygen content of her breathing air would begin declining. More and more of it would be the waste gases of exhalation built up in the suit. She would get light-headed, have trouble breathing, and everything would stop.

It was not an entirely unpleasant way to die. There were worse. It was why she was out here in the first place.

As her hours ticked down, Miri considered the choices that led her to this stay in the void. After Lowery and the commendations, the medals, the debriefings… she might have stayed on. Not in the field, as the League knew who she was, but she might have gone into training. She could’ve taught and guided others to match her accomplishments. It was what her superiors expected. As if she would put another human being through the same hells she'd gone through.

She chose retirement instead. Because of the scope of her accomplishments, they were kind enough. She received the full pension by special dispensation instead of the half-pension her early retirement would have otherwise mandated.

But pensions can't buy security that easily. The League knew who she was. They had agents in Coalition space as much as the Coalition had agents in League space. Agents who could be given the orders to have her executed, just as they went after defectors. She would forever live with an eye open at night and a gun under her pillow.

But out here, in neutral space, going from planet to planet and hiring on with any spacecraft looking for an extra hand, out here, she was a moving target. And she got to see the galaxy. Worlds that still had peace. No rationing, no war reports dominating the news, no cheap politics with everyone accusing one another of defeatism.

Nothing to remind her of Lowery. Of what she had done.

Miri's eyes went back to the display. Five percent. The hours passed in the end. She was nearly out of time.

Maybe, maybe that was okay. Dying out here, alone in the dark, just herself and God, perhaps that was what was meant to be.

She prayed it was true in the moments before she fell asleep for what might be the final time.


5


Gamavilla

Lusitania, Independent System, Neutral Space

5 August 2560

The Parliament Building of the Republic of Lusitania was a work of art. People from across the planet, indeed from across the Trifid Nebula region, came to view the building of alabaster marble and granite from its place at the end of the Plaza of the Republic—known locally as Praça da República—while on its north end, it was bordered by the Rua da República that connected to the aforementioned Plaza, being one of the main roads of the capital city Gamavilla. The south entrance facing the Plaza was faced with marble sculptures of some of the most significant figures in the history of the founding states, with the fresco above the classical columns at the entrance depicting the signing of the Accords of Colonization between the leaders of the Portuguese, Moroccan, Galician, and Basque colonists who had settled the planet four centuries before.

Inside of the building, public tours were permitted limited access to see the works of art bequeathed to the Republic over its existence. Beautiful paintings and sculptures, calligraphic art in the Islamic style, and fine crafted items of Berber make were all found in the Rotunda to celebrate the peoples of the Republic.

At present, a group of schoolchildren was the largest group of visitors, tended by a teacher and four chaperones who were seeing to their charges. They were reviewing a painting of the landing of the Vasco de Gama, the colony ship that gave Gamavilla its name.

Without prompting, a man in an elegant dark suit spoke. "You are enjoying yourselves, I hope. Education is always served by enjoyment."

"I am," a particularly bold child announced from the group. One of the chaperones, and a teacher, gave the child a look, but he seemed unfazed by it.

"There is quite a story behind that painting," the man said. "It was made ten years after colonization by the first great painter of Lusitania, Miguel Hakkaoui. He was half-Moroccan himself and landed aboard the Idris ibn Abdallah."

"But I thought each nation stayed apart in those days?" another child asked. "In school, they said we had no unity."

"Not yet. But some of our people were working on that. We enjoy the result of those labors and efforts. Can anyone tell me why we came out to this planet?"

After several seconds of seeing no other response, the eager boy said, "To get away from Earth. We followed the Exodus Fleet to Sagittarius, although we did not join their Coalition."

"Why not?" another child asked.

The man answered before the boy could. "Because we wished to be our own peoples. We had cultures we wanted to preserve. This is of understandable importance to me, you understand, for I am the Minister of Culture—and Trade."

With that revelation, Duarte Vitorino enjoyed the shocked, almost horrified expressions on the faces of the teacher and chaperone. Another politician might be bothered that they had not immediately recognized him, especially not like they might recognize Caetano—but who wouldn't know Cristina Caetano, the She-Wolf of the Tagus Valley? He was just fine with his relative anonymity, though. There were other ways to get things done than to be the center of attention.

"I am quite sorry," he added, devoting his attention to the group. "I rarely get to go unrecognized, and it was a treat to see the children enjoying their trip. Thank you for your time. I must be off now."

"Thank you for your time, sir," the teacher said, still shaken. "We are honored. Are we not, children?"

The children agreed in a chorus that combined the genuinely enthusiastic with the utterly bored.

Vitorino smiled and nodded before moving on.

Breach of Peace

After a meeting with the Prime Minister and other senior legislators on his pending trade agreements, Vitorino left the Parliament Building to attend to his favorite café. It was a lovely place along the Plaza called Abdul's. Named for its Moroccan founder, it nevertheless served cuisine from across Lusitania, and Vitorino enjoyed the recipes used. He preferred sitting out on its streetside tables and seeing the life of Gamavilla's center, the people attending its café.

His lunch usually went peacefully. But today, he knew it would not. That expectation was proven correct when he looked up to pour another glass of Madeira and noticed the approaching figure.

Paulina Ascaro. She was, like him, a politician, and she'd been his colleague as the Commerce Minister. But she was with the Party for Democratic Unity and had lost her Cabinet Ministry after a snap election. Vitorino thought her solely to blame for this, as she'd tried—and failed—to break the governing coalition by voting against a new bill streamlining the rules by which the government could enact the State of Siege. While her voters in the city and region of Zalain within the Basque districts returned her to the Assembly in defiance of the government, her party failed to gain the extra votes that would thwart the government in signing the law.

Were Vitorino the more paranoid type, he'd be worried about being seen with her in public. She was, after all, a significant Opposition leader, and his coalition allies in Cristina Caetano's PdDN—Partido da Defesa Nacional, Party of National Defense—particularly hated her. They tend to hate everyone who disagrees with them, given their fascistic nationalist ideology. The accusation he was working with her might cause him trouble. But he was confident in his influence within his party, the National-Republicans, and in his standing in the government, so he let her approach without comment.

She was near him in age, and was in fact three years younger as far as he knew, but looked ten years older. Her nose seemed almost too small for even her pinched-in face. Brown hair cascaded over her shoulders, covered as they were by the austere dark business jacket she was wearing that helped hide her thin frame that made her look almost anorexic. Not that she was weak, of course. Vitorino thought her greatest vice was not weakness but her strength of will, which often translated into a stubborn behavior he considered mulish and counter-productive. He refrained from a sigh and set down his fork, waiting to hear her speak.



"Minister, good afternoon," she said, her Portuguese accented from her Basque upbringing.

"Good afternoon, Assemblywoman," he said amiably. "Would you like to sit? I bought a bottle of Madeira that I have yet to complete."

"That won't be necessary," she said. "I just wanted to confirm that those trade treaties you've supported have met final Cabinet approval."

He smiled. "Some of my colleagues should be careful. Caetano would be incensed to know you have ears in the Cabinet."

"I'm sure she would. It will make her attempts to complete a fascist takeover of our world more transparent."

Vitorino sighed. "Come now, Assemblywoman—"

"Don't tell me you believe her sated, Minister. You're too intelligent by half. The woman intends to consolidate power and remove the last vestiges of our rights. The behavior of her political thugs makes that clear."

Vitorino couldn't argue the point. The PdDN's behavior did often go too far, at least that of their street-level members. And members of the Party for Democratic Unity and other democratic parties were often their victims. "We have censured the conduct of her people more than once, and she does what she can to rein in their passions," he said, a hint of humor in his voice at how untrue the statement was.

"That’s the government's line, I know, and it's a sick joke," Ascaro replied. "You gave her the Defense and Home Ministries. She controls the military, the gendarme, the RSS, and the police. And she uses them on my supporters while her own get away with literal murder!" There was clear heat at the end. Ascaro's parliamentary calm was weakening.

"Her party is third in seats. No functioning government coalition can form without them," Vitorino pointed out calmly. " Caetano knows it. I'm afraid I can do nothing, not until we have another election."

"You're assuming we have another one. With the State of Siege laws…"

"I'm well aware of your concerns, Assemblywoman. But again, I can do nothing. I am Minister of Trade and Culture, not the Prime Minister. Perhaps the PdDN will weaken before the next election cycle."

"Even if they did, the violence the PdDN uses will warp the results. You and I both know they undermined the last election."

"The investigation was inconclusive."

Ascaro laughed bitterly. "The investigation under the police agencies you put their leader in charge of."

Vitorino leveled a look at her. "Just what do you want from me, Assemblywoman?"

"A sign that you understand what is going on," she replied. "A sign you're not as blind as the others. Lusitania is on the cusp of falling to fascism. The Estado Novo hasn't made our society more secure; it's made it more unstable than ever."

"That's as much your fault as anyone's," Vitorino pointed out. He watched Ascaro's face change from surprise to anger at the charge. "The democratic parties have their own militants. In your own Zalain, Basque regionalists burnt down a PdDN party office, didn't they?"

"After the mayor of Zalain was shot in the streets by a PdDN militant," Ascaro retorted.

"Still, it contributes," Vitorino answered evenly. "By taking violent means, you make it easier for Caetano and her people to justify their behavior. You make the Estado Novo more necessary, not less."

"It was one incident," she replied. "Our parties are usually the victims of civil violence!"

"It is regrettable. But it is the world we live in." Vitorino reached for his utensil. "Now, I don't wish to be rude, but I must finish my meal before my next appointment. I have important business to attend to."

"Yes, I'm sure you do," Ascaro said icily. She turned and walked off.

Vitorino smiled at her back and returned to his meal.


6

The stiffness was the first thing Miri noticed when she woke up. Her entire body felt like it was a board. Two days alone in the vacuum, mostly unmoving, left her body unready to begin movement.

The second thing was that she was breathing air. She was alive.

The third? The light around her. She was no longer in space, but aboard something. In something, maybe. A ship? A station?

As she twitched, movement showed on the periphery of her vision. She found herself looking up at a grizzled older man and a plump middle-aged woman. The former had a long, bushy, wiry beard of gray and black mixed in, the latter had wheat-colored hair graying across her head. When they spoke, it took Miri a moment to recognize the language, causing her to miss some of it.

Her focus gathered enough to make out the Russian of the speakers. "—want to know. She is from a protected ship."

"She needs rest. Look at her!"

"The Brothers are in charge, and they want to speak to her. She will stay here regardless, but they must know. Do not try their patience, Yevgenya."

The woman sighed and stormed off. The man, however, began examining her. "You are awake," he said in broken, halted English. "That is good."

Miri's voice was hoarse as she managed to ask, "Where am I?"

"Aboard ship Morozova. From Cyrilgrad."

"Cyrilgrad. You are—Old Believers." She kept herself from using the word "starovéry." For the moment, it was best if they didn't know she could speak and understand Russian.

"Yes." He gave her an urgent look. "You are not from League?"

"No. No."

Miri could guess her instinctive look of disgust at the idea was more convincing than her verbal reply. A glimpse of relief came to the man's face. "Good. Brothers would throw you out airlock. Their father and uncle killed by League."

Miri hid that she was already guessing this. Old Believer brothers with a vendetta against the League and a ship named Morozova? That could only mean…

The door to the ship infirmary opened, and Yevgenya returned, this time in the company of two men. They looked similar, with just a year or two in age difference, wearing blue spacer jumpsuits. One had a full beard and mustache, the other a thinner beard, and both had the same blue-gray eye color.

"Feodor, how is our guest?" asked the one with the full beard, speaking Russian as Miri expected.

"Recovering. She was on her last breaths of oxygen when you brought her aboard. It will take time for her to regain her strength."

The second asked, "And what ship is she from? The suit is from the Kensington Star, but you know how spacers are about keeping suits..."

"Ask her yourself, Piotr."

The second, the one with the smaller beard, turned his head to Miri. "You are from Kensington Star?" he asked, now speaking English with a strong accent.

"I am," she replied. "Karla Lupa." The alias was the one she used for the roster.

"What happened? Why did you abandon your ship?"

"We were attacked," she said. "By a League cruiser."

The two brothers shared looks. "Can we trust her, Pavel?" asked the other, again speaking Russian.

"Maybe, maybe not. We should check the roster of the ship, maybe we can confirm the name. Not that I think it is her real name. I do not believe she is a normal spacer; none would risk days in void, or slow death, even to escape the League. More likely to shoot themselves. She is different."

Miri kept her expression from changing. The apparent elder brother was too smart for her liking.

"I am Piotr Sergeevich Tokarev," the elder brother said, his English with an even thicker accent than his brother's. "This is my brother Pavel Sergeevich. You are on our ship Morozova."

Since it was to be expected, Miri gave them strong, shocked looks. "The Tokarev brothers," she rasped. "You… you're pirates."

"We are," said Piotr. "It puts food on our table. Fuel in our ship. Protects Cyrilgrad from League. But do not worry. Kensington Star owned by company that pays us protection. We not harm you."

The relieved expression Miri gave them wasn't staged. "Then, what will you do with me?"

"Maybe we should not tell her where we are going, Piotr," Pavel said, switching back to Russian. "She might panic, think wrong things."

"Then don't," the brother answered.

Miri kept her face neutral, but she did not like the sound of that.

"We go to neutral world," Pavel said to her. "There we contact your company, let you go. Is simple."

"I see." Miri blinked and swallowed. "And, thank you. For saving me."

The brothers shrugged almost at the same time. "Is no trouble," said Piotr. "We are spacers, da? Yes? Spacers do not leave spacers in void. God would punish."

"Feodor Stepanovich will see to your need," said Pavel. "We back to ship watch now. Will arrive at destination tomorrow. You eat, drink, get rest. Thank God for His mercy."

"I will," Miri assured the elder Tokarev.

Without another word, the two brothers departed. Miri said nothing more as the older man, Feodor, escorted her from the infirmary.


7

Henry sat quietly in his chair and enjoyed the view. The Shadow Wolf was making her pre-landing orbit of Lusitania. For the purpose of said landing, the control bridge was fully manned; Cera and Piper at the forward stations, Tia at her post, Yavik at the auxiliary console linking to engineering and system control. Everything was ready; all that remained was clearance from Orbital Traffic Control.

"We should get a good payout, right, Captain?" Cera asked, her lilt complementing her enthusiasm.

"Looking to hit the bars again?" he asked her with a bemused grin.

"Lusitania has some damn good whiskey," Cera answered defensively. "But that's not all I'm lookin' for."

From her seat, Tia rolled her eyes. "If you saved even a quarter of what you wasted on your shore leaves, McGinty, you could own the Shadow Wolf by now."

"But I don't want to own her," the pilot insisted. "Too much crap to deal with. the Captain's far better at dealin' with it."

"He is very good at it, yes," Piper agreed. "Although I have to admit that a flight to the Acevedo Islands and a few days at one of the resorts there would be a welcome change. All we ever visit on Lusitania is Gamavilla."

Henry didn't rise to the bait. Yanik provided his relief from the discussion. "We have our landing vector," the Saurian informed them.

"Transmit to helm." Henry nodded to Tia. "Sound landing alert."

"Yes, sir." Tia hit a switch on her chair. "Attention crew, this is First Mate Nguyen. We are preparing for landing now." Even on the bridge, her voice seemed to boom over the ship's intercom. "All hands, assume landing seats. You have thirty seconds until first de-orbit burn."

Time passed quickly. At the specific mark of thirty, Cera fired the engines and thrusters. The Shadow Wolf turned toward the planet as its altitude decreased, slowly at first but with growing speed as Cera followed the corkscrew course into the atmosphere. Gradually, the dark void of space gave way to an azure sky. The ship shook from turbulence, but just that. Under Cera McGinty's expert control, there was no danger, and at her guidance, the Shadow Wolf flew lower and lower. Clouds went by, and gradually, the city of Gamavilla, with its Iberian and Moroccan architecture, became visible.

Their destination was at the northern point of the city; the municipal spaceport, largest on the planet and one of the larger ones in the Trifid Nebula region, that gave Lusitania its primary link to interstellar trade. Henry observed the ease with which Cera set the Shadow Wolf down in her customary hangar, D8, and decided she had, indeed, earned the bonus from her share of the haul they were making off Minister Vitorino.

And speaking of the Trade Minister, Henry would have to arrange a car. Vitorino would want a face-to-face meeting to have Henry's report on the trip delivered to him personally.

"I'll go make sure the port office has all of our paperwork and re-supply orders in order," he said. "And I'll find out when we can expect the unloading."

"We'll be waiting, sir," Tia pledged.

Breach of Peace

Henry ultimately opted to get a taxi instead of a rented vehicle. His driver was an older, gray-haired Moroccan man who identified himself amiably as Muammar. Henry returned the greeting in what Arabic he knew from his education and directed Muammar to the Ministry of Trade building.

Built at the edge of Gamavilla's government district, along the Rua Marrakech across from several high-rise bank towers, the Ministry of Trade building seemed small. Only three stories high, the building was at least a sight for those looking for something more aesthetically pleasing than a tower of glass and steel. It was built in classical Iberian style that made it look like it might have been lifted from Lisbon or Coruna back on Earth. Glass doors opened to a grand foyer of granite and marble construction. Armed men and women in the uniforms of the Republic Security Service stood watch over the hall from both visible levels.

Henry approached the man currently on duty at the main desk. He knew this would be an issue when he didn't recognize him; clearly, he was new to the job. "James Henry, here for Minister Vitorino," he said in passable Portuguese.

"Appointment?" The look on the receptionist's face made clear how little he thought of Henry. Given Henry's brown spacer's jacket, pressed-but-plain polo shirt, and black trousers, he was not a government official or someone who merited the best treatment by the Ministry.

"None. But he was expecting my return today or tomorrow."

The look of the suited man told Henry he was going to have to wait. Indeed, that the man here saw him as some troublesome offworlder who thought himself above appointments and whom he, the guardian to the Ministry of Trade's officialdom, would do nothing for if he could help it.

Nevertheless, Henry took a seat and waited for the receptionist to clear him. During the next half hour, the man was utterly devoid of duties to perform for about eighteen minutes, during which he made no move whatsoever to contact the Minister's office. Finally, Henry got back up and asked him, "Have you gotten in touch with the Minister's office yet?"

A small sneer crossed his face. "I am afraid that without an appointment, it is difficult to work you into Minister Vitorino's tight schedule," he said innocently. "I can do nothing for you."

"Alright. Let me see if I can help." Henry ignored the contemptuous, bewildered look on the receptionist's face while he activated his commlink and linked it to Vitorino's office. He made sure to hit the speaker function before he was answered. "This is Minister Vitorino's office," a woman's voice said.

"Rita, this is Captain Henry." Henry rather enjoyed seeing the color seep from the receptionist's face. His haughty expression was frozen in place by disbelief and growing fear. "I'm having a few issues at the reception desk—"

"Let me speak to the receptionist."

"You're on speaker."

"Senora Serrano—" began the man, still clearly troubled at the way this was developing.

"Listen to me, you jumped-up little toad. Captain Henry is one of Minister Vitorino's most reliable couriers. You will let him come up whenever he arrives unless otherwise instructed by myself or the Minister. Send him up immediately, or I will personally inform Minister Vitorino of your treatment of the Captain. I assure you, he will make his displeasure known swiftly. Am I clear?"

"Yes. I understand." His frown hadn't disappeared, but the fear was new. He swiftly gave Henry's ID card the necessary accesses—temporary as they were by the security regulations—to reach the Minister's office. Henry gave the man his kindest smile before walking to the nearest lift. He scanned his ID card to gain access. The door opened to reveal a gravlift with beautiful wood paneling. Reading his ID card's permissions, the lift controls permitted him access to the third floor, the exclusive preserve of the Minister of Trade, and his highest subordinates.

From there, Henry walked quietly to the Minister's office. He received few looks, not that there were many people on the level to give any. Once he arrived at the Minister's office, he stepped up to the elegant desk of Rita Serrano, Minister Vitorino's assistant. She spoke Portuguese with the particular accent of a Galician-speaker, distinct but reflecting the close relation of the two languages. "Captain, the Minister will see you shortly."

"Obrigado." Henry took a seat and quietly took in the view. Works of art lined the walls and much of the surface area of the tables. Henry was not an art student to know who made what, but he wouldn't have been surprised to find out that any of the works were carried from Earth in the Exodus. Or even afterward, given Vitorino's connections.

After several minutes, the door to the office opened. A young man stepped out. Henry recognized him as Raoul, Vitorino's chief of staff. "He's ready for you, Captain," the man said in accented English.

"Thanks." Henry entered the office.

Raoul closed the door behind him. Evidently, he would not be part of their conversation.

Duarte Vitorino was seated at his desk, tapping away at the comp panel built into the surface. He seemed to come to an end of his work. He dismissed it with a swipe of his hand before looking up at Henry. A soft little smile crossed his face. When he spoke, he used English. "Ah, Captain, welcome back to Gamavilla. I hear you have a hold full of high-quality lithium ore from New Hathwell."

"We do. My crew should be offloading it now," answered Henry. "Chief Inspector Donner appreciated the wine."

The soft smile gained an edge, but a bemused one. "Oh, I am quite sure of that." Vitorino chuckled. "The League only permits the barest of staples out here in the Sagittarius Arm. I am told that, back in their home space, every League citizen gets a bottle of whatever fine drink they desire once a month, so long as they've met standards in their work."

"My ship's medic says otherwise."

"Does he? How would he… oh, yes." Vitorino chuckled again. "Doctor Kiderlein was League military and born on Earth, wasn't he? Yes, I suppose he should know. I will have to keep that in mind when considering further gifts to Chief Donner and his associates." Vitorino turned his comp back on and hit several keys. "System, transfer the approved amount to the account of the vessel Shadow Wolf."

"Processing."

Moments later, Henry's commlink let out a tone indicating it was receiving an update. He quietly lifted it and activated the screen. An account update from the Interstellar Bank of Rand on Galt confirmed the transfer of ten million Interstellar Bank credits worth of Lusitanian escudos into the operating account of the Shadow Wolf. It was an excellent addition to the account, more than sufficient for the time and costs of the contract. Henry put the link back in his pocket. "A pleasure doing business with you again, Minister," Henry said. "Did you have anything else?"

"A potential contract. This time for cargo to Harron."

Henry nodded and hid his discomfort. Harron was not one of the nicer worlds in the Trifid Nebula sectors.

But a contract was a contract, and Vitorino was a well-paying employer. "Well, let me know. We should be on planet for a few days, at least. Give everyone a chance to remember how a normal sun feels."

"Of course. And before you go…" Vitorino stood from his desk and walked to a nearby cabinet. He pulled out two wine glasses and a bottle of the same port they had employed in their bribery of the League's Chief Donner. "Would you honor me with a drink, Captain?"

Henry nodded. It was excellent customer relations to accept an offer like that, and a pleasure besides to enjoy the fruits of Vitorino's wealth. "I would be honored to do so, Minister," he said. "Your hospitality is welcome."

Vitorino smiled. "You do dangerous work, Captain, and I am appreciative of it."

Henry considered Vitorino's choice of words. "It can be, yes." He frowned. "You lost a ship?"

"Not myself. An associate of mine lost a ship he owned. The Star of Coruna under Captain Dominguez. It was due at New Aragon six days ago."

That made Henry sigh. He didn't know Dominguez personally, but he'd heard good things about him. "That's the tenth ship in two months," he said. He didn't add that going back six months, over three dozen ships had disappeared.

"Yes." Vitorino's expression darkened. "I've been told it's pirates."

"They're out there," agreed Henry. "And since there aren't many states with interstellar navies out here, there's plenty of undefended space for them to hide in."

"That's the nature of space, isn't it? We are but tiny specks in a vast void, where any sort of threat might hide." Vitorino sipped at his wine. "Please take care, Captain. Whatever is causing this escalation of disappearances—it worries me. I would hate to lose your services should you and your vessel be claimed."

"As much as I would hate getting spaced or whatever else they'd do," Henry replied. He took another drink of the wine and said nothing more on the subject.

Vitorino took the hint. He held up his glass, still over half-full. "A toast then, my dear Captain, to you and your fine ship and crew. You have made me quite a satisfied customer."

"Thank you, Minister," Henry answered. Their glasses touched. "I'm always happy to find satisfied customers."

Breach of Peace

With his meeting with Vitorino concluded, Henry departed the Ministry of Trade. He made it to the street before his commlink went off. He brought it up to his ear. "Henry here."

"Jim." Felix's voice sounded strained. "Can you come to the mission? It's my brother... he's been hurt."

Henry frowned at that. "On my way."


8

Another taxi—this one driven by an irritable Gamavillero who wouldn't give her name and responded in monosyllabic grunts—took Henry into the outer edge of the city. Some of the residential districts were fine-looking ones, the abodes of the upper and middle class of Gamavilla. But his destination was different; it was one of the barrios along the western edge of Gamavilla. These neighborhoods were the dark underbelly of a lovely city like Gamavilla and a reminder of Humanity's long history of issues with poverty. Multi-storied apartments, some better looking than others, housed the urban poor that worked all across the city, some resigned to their lot, and others still looking for the edge to elevate them to something better. Interspersed among them were small businesses, in strip malls or in the first floors of residential buildings, containing bodegas, stores, cheap eateries, and other shops catering to the local needs and desires, some of which were not so benign or even legal.

The Faith Outreach Mission catered to a different kind of need, a different form of desire. Instead of meeting material wants, it was there to provide spiritual nourishment along with the physical variety. To give hope that there was something better waiting for others. It was appropriately contained in an old church, the area's former Catholic parish church until the local bishop had acquired a better building in a better area that pleased the middle-class worshippers who attended. Walls of brown with white trim matched the neighborhood, preventing the mission from seeming out-of-place to the locals. Signs in the four languages of Lusitania proclaimed the name of the center.

Or they had. Once the taxi stopped, Henry noted the sign was defaced. Sprayed paint obscured the name, replacing it with a declaration in Portuguese of "Foreigners GO HOME!" "DEATH TO TRAITORS" was scrawled beside the door, which was busted half off of its hinges. He frowned as he entered the building. His hand went absent-mindedly to his holster as he stepped through the entryway.

Someone had gone after the pews with an ax, splitting open the seats. The Bibles and hymnals had taken the worst of the abuse, as if the vandals had been offended by their very existence.

Sitting at the steps to a splintered and wrecked altar was the director and lead pastor of the mission, the Rev. Julian "Jules" Rothbard. Felix was sitting beside his brother, treating a wound on Jules' forehead with a medical kit. Henry stepped up to them. "What the hell happened here?" Henry asked.

"PdDN thugs," Felix answered. "Coming from a rally." He ran a medicated towelette over Jules' wound. "Fascist bastards."

"Going to call the police?"

To that, Jules chuckled. "Jim, the police answer to the Home Ministry. Who do you think runs them?"

"Right." Henry nodded. He was familiar with the reputation and power of the "She-Wolf" Cristina Caetano. "And they hate you because you're from the Coalition? That's it?"

"The PdDN party paper accuses Faith Outreach of being a front for Coalition intelligence all of the time," Jules said. "We're part of a vast Coalition conspiracy to undermine the Estado Novo, obviously."

"I bet they don't do the same thing to the League's stooges in those 'Social Solidarity' groups," Felix muttered. He reached into the medkit for a bandage and gauze roll.

"Oh, they get it too. One of theirs got killed last month over in Nova Lisboa when the local PdDN enforcers torched their local office." Jules shook his head, drawing a glare from his brother for nearly ruining the bandage. "They're paranoid about both sides."

"I guess you won't be having services any time soon," Henry said, looking around at the damage.

"Oh, we have enough local supporters that I can get the help to clean everything up in time for the next service," Jules assured them. "And they didn't mess up the soup kitchen, so at least I can still give my daily meals."

"Still, you'll need new pews, books, a door…" Henry looked to Felix, who nodded in unspoken agreement. "Felix and I will chip in some credits."

"Your donations will be welcome, Jim. But I'll forego them if you'll come to a service."

Henry chuckled. "Not happening."

"You can't stay angry forever."

"It's not anger." Henry crossed his arms. "It's resignation. I suppose the Almighty and I are in agreement on that."

"This is the part where he tells us that God turned his back on Humanity, and you insist he's wrong," Felix said to Jules. "And there, all done." He pulled his hands away from his brother's new bandage.

"I know… thanks." Jules turned his head to face his brother. "And you, Felix? Can't I get my own brother to come to a service?"

"You know me, Jules. You were always the spiritual one in the family. I'm the apostate."

"More lapsed than an apostate." Jules patted his brother on the shoulder. "Besides, we're Methodists, not Catholics. It's not supposed to work that way."

"I thought Faith Outreach was non-denominational?" Henry asked.

"It is, but it doesn't ask us to give up on the churches we're connected to," Jules replied.

"Fair enough." Henry looked at his old friend with sadness. His simple suit was frayed and ripped from the attack. The white bandage around his head made Jules look like he'd been in a battle, which was not too inaccurate an observation. "There are other worlds where you could run a mission. I mean, worlds where they won't kick your ass and vandalize your church because you're from another planet."

"I know." Jules smiled and shook his head. "But this is where God wants me. I'm here to spread Christ's message to people who need to hear it, and these people need it."

"And Caetano and her thugs?"

"They're the ones who need to hear it the most," Jules said.

Felix shook his head and suppressed a laugh. "We won't talk him out of this, Jim. My brother's determined to stay, even if it makes him a martyr."

"Right." Henry sighed and looked around. "Well, let's at least get this stuff picked up. Then you just have to wait for the replacements."

"Your assistance is welcome," Jules said. "I have faith that I'll get you back to church one of these days."

Henry shook his head at that but said nothing. In the end, everyone needed hope to hold on to, even if it was one that would never come about.


9


PV Morozova

Harron System, Neutral Space

6 August 2560

Miri felt her strength coming back gradually. Breathing air that was only slightly stale—the life support system's scrubbers needed work—and eating bowls of borscht, and other typical Russian fare pleased a stomach that had been empty for far too long. The meal was certainly not kosher, but then again, it wasn't the first time she'd had to eat like that.

With enough time passed since the last jump, Miri was confident they'd arrived at their destination system, although the Morozova hadn't landed yet. She went to sleep wondering where, precisely, they were. There were several worlds in the region she'd prefer not being on, although with their reputation, she could at least be sure they weren’t on a League or League-friendly planet.

She was awoken by a gentle nudge from Feodor's nurse, the older woman named Yevgenya. "Come," she said. "We are on planet now."

Miri followed Yevgenya into the dark blue corridors of the Morozova. Their route took them through the crew spaces of the ship and eventually to a cargo bay. Boxes of materials—most stolen, she suspected—were being unloaded.

Piotr Tokarev was waiting at the bottom of the ramp. With him was an alien about a quarter of a meter taller. The alien's skin had a rubbery look to it. The two eyes on the being's head were set further apart on the face than on a Human. The clothing was of contrasting orange and green hue, with a series of patterns over the chest.

Miri now understood precisely why the Tokarev brothers hadn't wanted to tell her their destination.

The alien was a Harr'al, and this was almost certainly their homeworld, Harron.

The Harr'al were one of the less-advanced species of the galaxy. They were a disunited planet of kingdoms and principalities, a few theocracies, and some enclaves from other species established with the support of local potentates. Between the Harr'al attitudes and the nature of the offworlders who set up the enclaves, everything from gun-running to drug smuggling to sapient-trafficking was permitted, even encouraged. The Harr'al themselves usually practiced slavery as it was. With their position in the Trifid Nebula region being far from worlds with both the power and desire to do something about it, it wouldn't change anytime soon.

Miri didn't quite keep the fear from her face. It was an instinctive one but would at least secure her cover. Anyone in her position would have cause to fear being brought to Harron, where the non-existent law and the practices of the locals brought with it the genuine worry of being sold into slavery.

Piotr noticed her and shook his head. "No need for worry. I not sell you or anyone. Would be offense to God. Besides, protection was paid for your ship."

"I understand. Thank you." Miri wondered if he would be so friendly if he knew she was Jewish. The old prejudices didn't always die out here, even with aliens around to make the bigotry seem even more foolish.

Piotr gestured to the Harr'al. "This is Vasily. Christian name. He convert to Church, our agent here."

The Harr'al nodded. "My greetings." He pronounced English almost as poorly as Piotr. Miri watched him cross himself in the Eastern Orthodox style, using two fingers. "Christian. Christians are true religion."

Piotr beamed with pride at Vasily.

Miri had little knowledge of Harr'al religion herself. It was not unheard of for religious conversions to happen between species, if the religions had compatibility with a species' needs and psychology anyway. She briefly wondered what led this Harr'al to embrace a Human faith over his own world's choices, then promptly decided it was none of her business.

"Will take you to dwelling place," said Vasily. "Get you food."

"I would like access to communications as well," she said. "So I can report in to my employers about the Kensington Star."

"Have sent message already," Pavel said. "But is still good you send your own. There is place for spacers. Vasily will take you." He gestured away from the ship. "We launch soon. Keep eye out for League ships, spread word."

Miri answered with a nod, but not an enthusiastic one. She figured she would have a hard enough time explaining things to her employers. A lot of people would be inherently suspicious of any claim about the League's involvement. She had a video from her suit, but that might not be enough.

It will have to be, she pondered as she approached the open-topped Harr'al helicar. Vasily took the driver's seat, and her the other. She buckled the harness and said nothing while the Harr'al manipulated the controls. The vehicle lifted into the air and went out the hangar door.

This revealed the spaceport, a collection of circular structures built around landing pads and a big central terminal. The structures of the city proper beyond were boxy, looking like they were shaped by clay instead of brick or another material. Other vehicles flitted about in the air around them, going to and from other locales in the city. The streets below teemed with life of all varieties. "I am unfamiliar with the cities on your world," she said to her Harr'al escort. "Where am I?"

"Sektatsh. Eastern edge of Calnat country… nation. Enclave for off-worlders. Taking you to Alien Quarter, rooms there."

Miri recognized the name. Sektatsh was one of the seedier ports, certainly. "If you don't mind me asking, what caused you to convert?"

Vasily nodded, although she wasn't sure what that gesture might mean. "Calnin worship Tashin. Tashin not nice God, Tashin make slaves. Taken as slave myself. Freed by missionary, learn about true religion, and how Jesus came to free slaves!" The answer, enthusiastic as it was, was also punctuated by the broken English Vasily spoke.

"I hope you have found happiness, then," Miri said. "This city, are there any slavers?"

"Slavers everywhere on Harron. Everywhere. Not open here, but still here."

So I had best be careful. "Is there somewhere in the Alien Quarter where I will be safe?"

"Yes. Take you to spacer home."

Miri was glad to hear it, and soon she noticed the destination given the symbol of three round shapes arranged in a circle on a dark blue field, the insignia of the Interplanetary Spacers' Union. Like many others in the trade, she—or at least Karla Lupa—was a dues-paying member of the ISU, and for a good reason. Her case was one of the significant reasons the organization existed and continued to get membership: support in the event of surviving the loss of a ship, and advocates to argue with the transport carriers, corporate or private.

The roof was topped by the assemblage of discs and antennae of a quantum transceiver. The connection it had to the regional quantum entanglement network would allow her to connect via commlink to her accounts and pay for things, as well as let the owners of the Kensington Star know what happened.

Miri pondered if she should alert them at all. The League had agents in neutral space, agents that might pick up any message she sent. If they realized she was a witness to the attack, they'd come after her. Even if they didn't know that Karla Lupa was Miri Goan, hated spy and traitor. Perhaps she should disappear and become someone else and find another ship to get off Harron.

Then again, the Tokarev brothers had already told the owners about her. If Karla Lupa went missing, the wrong conclusions might be drawn. And if these League raids kept up, well, it was folly to think she'd get away again.

"Vasily, I need a gun," she said, her tone insistent.

"As you need breath," he answered.

A small smile came to Miri's face. Given the reputation of Harron and the enclaves on the planet, those two things were likely connected. "Do you know someone trustworthy?"

"Yes. Missionary. Can take you to them."

The fact that even missionaries on Harron had firearms was not surprising. "I'm going to be a bit, but I can give you a tip to wait for me. Extra money?" She added the last to ensure he understood. "Then we'll go see your missionary."

Vasily nodded in understanding.

Miri thanked him and left the helicar. Once inside the hostel, she found that it met the usual design of such places. The lobby not unlike a hotel lobby had several chairs and couches, mostly worn to some degree, and some occupied. An HV with vidlink capability was active, displaying a holovid series from another world for the enjoyment of a few Human spacers. A pair of big Saurians were at one table playing a lively game of rastek. The distinct smell of Tal'mayan sweet smoke wafted through Miri's nostrils, as did the distant scent of liquor. No spacer hostel or hotel worth its salt would be without a bar.

She approached the main desk. A young man of East Asian appearance was on duty, his head nearly shaved bald, and several star pattern tattoos mixed with Japanese characters inked on his head and neck. "Union ID number?" he asked her in a perfunctory tone.

"Two Nine Zero Four Eight Two Nine," she replied immediately. "Karla Lupa out of Laffler."

The concierge immediately typed the number in. An identification station on the lobby desk became active, lighting up blue. Miri applied the fingers of her right hand to one scanner and pressed her eye against another. The scanner machine checked her retina, fingerprints, and geneprint against the Union's database. After an electronic ping, the concierge checked his screen and nodded. "Miss Lupa. Welcome to the Sektatsh ISU Hostel and Hotel. Are you seeking a bed in the common area or…"

"A private room, please," she said. "With full commlink access."

The young man nodded. She noticed him pale a little. "You… you're from the Kensington Star?"

"Yes." Miri glanced around quickly. No one else was nearby, so they hadn't been overheard.

"She's on the missing list as of yesterday. They flagged you and every other member of the crew," he said. "Is she here?"

"No. I was adrift in space and picked up by other spacers." Miri wasn't about to admit "Karla" was saved by the Tokarevs. The ISU got twitchy about pirates for understandable reasons. "I escaped after our ship was taken. I… I didn't see by who." She made the lie work. The kid might talk, and if he did, it would draw even more attention than she was already getting. And her employers would likely be unhappy if she told some hotel clerk before them. "I need to report in."

"Um, alright, here." He took a blank keycard and ran it through the machine to encode it with her personal information and the room authorization code. "Room 288. Second floor."

"Thank you." With that done, Miri accepted the card and set off for her room. She'd make the call and get back to Vasily to get her weapon. She was already confident she'd be better off with one.


10

The last crate of lithium settled onto its place on the cargo truck. Tia gave a thumbs-up to the driver, who brought his engine to life and pulled out of the hangar. With the job done and the receipt already filed and waiting for Henry's final signature, she and the others were free to do as they pleased for the rest of the evening, as was custom for their first night back into port. She considered the message she received over the GalNet and already knew how she'd spend her evening. She looked forward to it, just as she was sure the others would want to do their own thing.

Indeed, Tia didn't even get the time to return to the hatch before Cera and Piper emerged, wearing unzipped spacers' jackets over their blouses. Cera had on knee-length shorts while Piper was in a set of faded blue jeans. "Everythin's secure," Cera said. "We're off t' the pub."

"You two behave," Tia said. "Don't think we've forgotten what happened on Hendry's Station."

"You take all the fun out o' it," Cera protested while Piper giggled.

"Hey, wait!"

Brigitte emerged from the hatch as well, wearing a gaudy pink suit jacket over a purple blouse with pink leggings and lime green shoes. "I'm coming with!"

"The more, the merrier!" Piper answered.

"I still cannot believe you go out into public like that," Tia sighed. As much as she appreciated their skills, the behavior of her three comrades when on leave could still frustrate her sometimes. "Keep your commlinks on, and don't get yourselves arrested!"

"Right, Mum!" Brigitte said sarcastically while falling into step with the other ladies.

Tia briefly rested her face in her right palm before turning away. She walked into the Shadow Wolf via the same hatch, leading into the port hold, which now stood empty.

Yanik was standing by the inner hatch. "I will never understand Humans," he said.

"I'm Human, and I don't understand us sometimes.”

"Captain Henry has already granted all pay and bonuses for the run," Yanik remarked. "I have already arranged my earnings. What about you?"

"I've got business in town to 'arrange my earnings,' as you put it," she replied, thinking of the message again. "Personal business."

"Of course." Yanik fell in with her, following Tia to the stairs leading to the upper door for the hold. "Pieter, Oskar, and I will remain to watch the ship, if you desire time in the city."

"I have a few things to finish up first, but thank you. I will take you up on that."

Breach of Peace

Pieter prided himself on his skill in dealing with the myriad repairs that even standard operations on the ship demanded of him. And he prided himself on avoiding the kinds of accidents that could bruise, cut, or generally harm men and women in his position.

It was thus quite the blow to his pride to walk into the Shadow Wolf's infirmary cradling his bleeding left hand, his face twisted into a grimace of pain and hurt pride. "Doctor, a little help?"

Oskar looked up from an open box of medicines. "Ah, Pieter. What can I do for you?"

"Bloody damned hinge is worn down on one of the port thruster access hatches, smashed my damn hand. Cut it pretty good too."

"Let me see it." Oskar beckoned him to one of the four exam beds arranged in the infirmary. He examined the left hand by eye for a moment before bringing out a scanning tool. It rendered it into a holographic image. He tapped a key, rotating between x-ray, magnetic resonance scan, and a couple of other images. "No breakage, at least. Damage to muscle and other tissue. Here." He went to his bandaging gear. Within moments, a clean white pad was affixed to the center of the wound, turning crimson where Pieter's blood stained it. Gauze from a roll was swiftly wrapped around Pieter's hand to hold the pad in place. "There. It should be better in a few days."

"Nothing to hasten it?"

Oskar laughed. "Nothing we can afford, I assure you. Perhaps if I was back, well, you know where, I could do something more. If my chief approved the treatment."

Pieter smirked at him. "You're telling me the precious bloody League, and all of its talk about caring for everyone is shit?"

"Shit indeed." Oskar shook his head. His expression darkened, and his eyes grew distant. Old memories seemed to be playing through his mind. "Society is not improved if resources are wasted on the careless and undeserving, after all. Back home… it is not so bad, since there are so many resources, but the moment you run even a little short…" He sighed. "It makes a little sense, I suppose, in a rationing situation. An engineer needing his hand fixed is more important than repairing the leg of a station-minder, since he or she sits for their work. But the League maintains such systems even when the rationing is not necessary. Individual austerity is the mandate. To consume unnecessarily is to emulate the failures of Humanity before the League."

"Huh. Sounds a bit like how things can get back home," Pieter said. "If you don't need something, why should you have it?"

"At least New Oranje can argue it has the finite resources of a society that has yet to fully use the resources of its own planet. It isn’t an interstellar society with many thousands of star systems within its borders." Oskar shook his head. "But I am getting political again."

"Were you like this back in the League?"

"Oh, heavens no! Getting political can make one a social danger, after all. Unless you're in a political post, and you have to be a dedicated Society man to get one of those." Oskar shook his head. "I was just a medical student, you understand. I graduated from Regensburg with a desire to become a doctor in my hometown. But the League Military Secretariat had other ideas. I was called up for service in the Social Defense Militia and shipped out to Sagittarius to serve in the occupied systems."

Pieter nodded. Getting Oskar to talk about his past was never easy, and he’d never had occasion to overhear him speak about it. But despite that, he knew where the story eventually went. Military hospital work, and then... "I guess seeing the camps made you political?"

Oskar closed his eyes. "You could say that," he admitted. "Yes. Seeing everything I was told, everything I believed, revealed as lies." He shook his head. "It’s the past. I am here now, and here I will stay. Captain Henry has been good to me."

Pieter said nothing. He remembered when Oskar and Brigitte made their way aboard, following a visit to a League colony, much like New Hathwell. Henry allowed them to stow away on the Shadow Wolf and covered their escape, for which they opted to work for him. "You gonna go out to see the city, Doctor?"

"No," he answered. "If a League man spots me and knows who I am…" The older man shuddered. "I am quite content to stay here and take inventory. Just as you would prefer to do the same for your equipment, yes?"

"Right." Pieter tested his bandaged hand. "Thanks, Doctor. You're good folk. Not like the other Uitlanders."

"I'm sure you mean a certain other word?" asked Oskar.

"No, I don't," Pieter answered harshly.

"Not for whites, anyway," Oskar added with a bemused smirk.

Pieter didn't answer that, although he knew it was right. It was one of the reasons he didn't miss home.

Okay, that was a lie. There were times Pieter did miss home. He missed the fields of grain, the warmth of the orange star that made New Oranje habitable, the sight of the native furred viervoetige herds—literally four-legged or four-pawed, the basic designation stuck—thundering their way down the Kruger Valley as they sought the open grasslands that the Boer farmers of said valley had not yet fenced off. He missed his mother's cooking and his sister's jokes. He missed playing "trekkers and savages" with his brothers Paul and Thomas and all of those cousins and local boys. He missed his Uncle Maarten's lessons on the family farming equipment.

But he didn't miss his father and the callused hands that had beaten him throughout his childhood. He didn't miss the small-minded ignorance of his neighbors, the bigotry and hatred shown to the "uitlander." The presumption that God had selected the Boers for salvation and already damned other peoples offended his very soul. Their sense of superiority for a society that still judged fellow Humans as inferior when they were in a galaxy that had already introduced them to other sapient species? It offended his soul and his mind.

His father had been particularly ready to throw his slaps and even punches when Pieter said things like that. "We once tried to live with the others, and do you know what they did? They tried to steal our land and wipe us out! We won't fall for that again! The only good uitlander is a dead one!" Pieter sometimes wished he had known then the history of his people, the full history, so he could have pointed out that they stole that land first. It would have merited a full beating, but the moral victory would have been sweet.

Pieter blinked. He realized he was still sitting in the infirmary, staring blankly ahead while Oskar watched quietly. "You and I have that in common," Oskar said.

"What?"

"We both have reasons to go home," he said, "but none as powerful as the reasons why we can't."

Pieter nodded in agreement. "We are a ship of exiles, it seems," he answered. "God, help us all."

"If there is anything like a divinity in this uncaring universe, I highly doubt they would care about us," Oskar answered. He smiled thinly. "But I am the Leaguer atheist of the crew, so I'm sure my opinion on the matter is obvious."

The reply from Pieter was a chuckle. The fact that his father would have slapped him for showing amusement at such blasphemy caused the chuckle to turn into a laugh.

Breach of Peace

Tia walked into the spacers' bar and enjoyed, for lack of a better term, the smells therein. Human and alien sweat, or whatever passed for such with regard to non-Humans, mingled with all of the other substances to be found. Smoke from tobacco, synthetic and natural, joined with the particularly tangy wisps of Tal'mayan sweet smoke and what Tia thought was Saurian kriska. As she neared the bar, the smells were joined by some of the drinks being offered. She flashed a five escudo note and called out, in Portuguese, for a Thanh's Special. The Thanh rice liquor, a product of her homeworld Hestia, had a good kick itself, but mixed with single malt Scotch straight from the brewers of Caledonia, it was just the kind of drink she preferred when dealing with old memories.

One such old memory took the stool beside her, the source of the message that brought her here. He was a tall man, solid but not big, his brown complexion similar to hers. She owed hers to ancestors from Vietnam and Malaya while Felipe Xiu's mostly came from the Philippines, and further back from China. Like Tia, he was in a spacer's jacket over a dark green shirt, and with black spacer's trousers. The growth of a beard on his face was something new. "Comrade Felipe," she said quietly.

"Comrade Tia." He already had a drink. A Thanh's like hers, but straight, no Scotch mixed in. He held up the shot glass, prompting her to do the same. "To fallen comrades."

"To fallen comrades," she agreed. She gulped down the contents of the glass. It was good, strong stuff, and it made itself known as it descended her throat and on to her stomach. It wouldn't be enough to take away sobriety by itself, but it would undoubtedly chip away at it. She signaled for another drink to keep it company. "How have you been?"

"Well enough," he said, his tone cautious. His gray eyes seemed distant. "I sometimes wonder if it is time to take up the government on the amnesty."

Tia narrowed her eyes. "Oh?"

"It's been fourteen years now, Tia. Fourteen years since our revolution failed. I miss being at home."

"Bullshit," Tia growled. "You were never one to give a damn about home. What home did you have, did we have? Being helots to the off-world corporations paying us as little as they could to gather our world's wealth for them? You used to say you'd rather die in exile than bare your neck for their boots." A suspicion crossed her mind. She took her next drink first, a jolt of liquid courage to voice it. "Or are you going back to join the Social Solidarity movement?"

"If there is to be any future for the working class of Hestia, it will be in solidarity with the League of Sol," Felipe insisted. "The failure of our revolution—"

"—was because of the League!" Tia shouted. Her voice carried over the bar, but there was no notice from the others. This was a spacer's bar, after all, and every spacer had something that would set them off. "After all of this time, you can't see that?! They propped us up, gave us arms, gave us hope, encouraged us to strike, and then they betrayed us to the government! Face it, Felipe, they never wanted us to win in the first place."

"Of course they did," Felipe insisted. "But the League has to consider the needs of all oppressed peoples, not just Hestia. Victory for the Hestian working class then might have only led to defeat in the end, if the Coalition took advantage."

Tia rolled her eyes at him but said nothing. It was the old argument again, the same one their League contacts had used after the killing was over, when she woke up on the evacuation ship, half-dead from her wounds and mostly dead from the blow to her spirit. To hear Felipe repeat those lies after all of these years was infuriating, and her face betrayed that feeling.

"This is exactly why the League turned from us," Felipe said bitterly. "Because you and the others would not listen."

"Oh, I listened," Tia remarked bitterly. "I heard the speeches about the needs of Society being greater than our cause. But let's face the facts, Felipe. The League was more interested in keeping Hestia neutral so they could trade with the megacorps too." She almost spat the word "megacorps," signifying the tremendously powerful corporations in Neutral Space that grew so wealthy and large, they could dominate planetary governments. Indeed, they nearly become states in of themselves. Memories of the conditions they kept her and her family in rankled, made bitter by the failure that drove her from her homeworld.

Felipe smacked his hand on the bar. "So, they could defeat the Coalition and bring revolution to all of Sagittarius!"

She didn't like the look in his eyes. His enthusiasm. Not given what she knew of the League now. "I've learned what the League's idea of revolution and the post-capitalist society is, Felipe, and they are no better than capitalists. Worse in most respects."

Felipe nursed his drink instead of replying. Tia used the time to enjoy another. "So this is how it is, then? You will not relent."

"Not to them. Never." Tia shook her head. "I will not drive the megacorps off of Hestia just to be enslaved by the League's precious 'Society'."

"I see. I wish I could persuade you otherwise." Felipe let out a sigh. A sad look came to his face. "Do you remember Quan?"

A small smile came to Tia's face. "I do, fondly." She left the abrupt change of topic unremarked on. It was always the best way to deal with a dispute between old friends. Old memories and, for this evening, a lot of Thanh Specials.

"I remember that time, before the revolution, when we were in the safehouse in Thyssenbourg…"


11

When Miri returned to her rented room, she did so with added and welcome weight. Aside from the bag of food, mostly fruits and vegetables, and some self-heating dinners, she was carrying a Burleigh & Armstrong pulse pistol in a small-of-back holster and a pair of small Makarov flechette pistols in ankle holsters. It was, perhaps, a bit much, but Miri intended to survive whatever happened. The guns gave her options.

She found a call had come from the Kensington Star's owners, Patterson and Yarborough Transport of New Cornwall, usually called P&Y for short. She sent out a response and soon was face to face with a young, dark-skinned woman with a New Cornish accent. "Ms. Lupa. I am Patricia Okon, Company Security. Thank you for getting back to me." Her tone sounded impatient. Miri had kept her waiting.

"I needed to get food," Miri explained. "I came back as quickly as I could."

"Your report makes for interesting reading," Okon said, her tone tense. "You're positive the attacker was a League ship?"

"I've seen them before, ma'am. It was." Miri considered Okon's body language. Skepticism, a healthy skepticism, was apparent. But no sign yet that she wasn’t trustworthy.

"And you spaced yourself to get away?"

"I did."

Now Okon's suspicions were more noticeable. "Why?" she asked pointedly.

"The crew wasn't resisting, and I had no intention of being taken prisoner," Miri added. "I have a record with the League. They'd have spaced me anyway. Without an EVA suit." After the drugs and beatings and whatever other cruelties State Security came up with to punish me for Lowery.

Okon didn't seem surprised. If she was competent, Miri suspected Okon was already certain Karla Lupa was a legend. But Miri wouldn't be the first spacer to go under an assumed name, especially in neutral space with all of the Coalition (and less frequent League) deserters, ex-pirates, and others with a sordid past. The scrutiny would be on Miri's activities now, not her past. "You're lucky the Tokarev brothers were in the area. Otherwise, you'd be dead."

"I'm well aware of that, Ms. Okon."

"So why didn't we get a distress call?" Okon asked. "Kensington Star had a QET."

"I'm not sure, Ms. Okon. I wasn't on watch when the attack came." Miri thought back to the same attack. "We lost main power, and the ship's drives went down. Captain Lewis called a warning that we were being boarded but told us to stay in quarters. From what I gather, he surrendered almost immediately."

"I suppose there was little more Captain Lewis could do in the circumstances," Okon said. "I am curious as to how you escaped."

"Through maintenance access spaces adjacent to my quarters, after the League sealed us in."

Okon jotted down a note. "Alright. I'll commence an investigation. Please keep yourself available for further interviews, Ms. Lupa. We'll arrange for a ship to come out to Harron for you immediately."

"Thank you, ma'am."

Miri had nothing more to say and allowed Okon to terminate the call. She turned away from the monitor and considered her next action. Her instincts told her to minimize how much she went out. She had enough supplies to do so for several days.

But she'd already been seen by many people. P&Y was going to put her under more scrutiny, and that might attract other attention. The League had its operatives in the neutral worlds, after all, and she had no illusions they hadn't been briefed on Miri Gaon. If they had someone in a position to connect Miri Gaon to the existence of Karla Lupa…

That was not a possibility she was willing to risk.

Thankfully, the Coalition had its own intelligence assets in the Trifid Nebula region, and the rest of neutral space. They also had a vested interest in keeping Miri Gaon alive and out of League hands, regardless of her official resignation.

Miri picked an orange from her bag of fruit and retrieved a bowl and a knife from the small efficiency kitchen in her room. She returned to the monitor and activated its connection to the extranet, then went to work peeling the orange while considering the wording of the message she'd send to her CIS contact.

Breach of Peace

Patricia Okon finished her preliminary report on the suspected loss of the Kensington Star. She upgraded it from "Possible loss" to "Certain." It would not make her employers happy, or at least those responsible for handling the inevitable claims from the families of lost crewmen. Aside from the cost of the ship and cargo, the insurance premiums were going to be a financial hit P&Y could well do without.

Not that this was Okon's job to worry about, and she didn't bother. Her job was to find out what happened.

She wasn't sure of Karla Lupa. The only survivor, and one who had some prior involvement with the League that her record didn't indicate. She just happened to be picked up by the Tokarev brothers, who had their own history with the League?

Okon considered the alternate possibility briefly. Perhaps Karla Lupa worked for the Tokarevs, and this was a false flag operation by the Cyrilgrad pirates, intentionally trying to pin the recent ship disappearances on the League. It might even be more than that. A Coalition Intelligence operation?

Too many possibilities. Not enough solid data.

Either way, Okon submitted the report she had so far, including the interview with Karla Lupa. Then she quit for the night, content she was doing her job.

She might not have been so content if she knew her company's systems were one of many compromised by a third party.

Breach of Peace

Through the liquid crystal 2D monitors built into his officer's wall, Admiral Hartford was treated to a view as if he were looking out a window. Pluto Base's work continued apace, and they were quickly reaching the point when the operation would commence. Its progress was marked by all the ships showing on his monitor, while the Trifid Nebula was a splendid backdrop to the sight. A quiet, pleased thrill went through Hartford at that prospect.

There was a tone at his door that prompted the Admiral to turn back from the view. "Enter," he called out.

Through the door came Commander Yvette Aristide. The tan-skinned woman from the world of Juares was his liaison with State Security External Operations, that is, the agents of the State that operated outside of the League's current control. "Admiral, there is a complication."

Hartford kept a sigh from forming in his throat. There were complications in any endeavor, he reminded himself. "Describe it."

"Intelligence sources indicate that a crewmember of the Kensington Star escaped our capture of the ship," Aristide said, her accent distinctly Francophone Caribbean. "Our role in the ship's capture has been indicated by the escapee, and an investigation by the owner is underway, with the support of government authorities on New Cornwall and Hatfield."

Hartford frowned at that. "Our Marines were thorough. No life pods were launched from the ship, nor its shuttle. How could someone have escaped?"

"We are still analyzing the situation," said Aristide. "As things stand, my guess would be that we will find the ship short one EVA suit."

Incredulity was Hartford's initial response. "You believe they ejected themselves into space?"

"That is the most likely method, yes. State Security will be investigating to ensure there is no treason among the troops observing the captured crews."

The idea was astonishing. What kind of person would be so desperate to escape that they would take such a risk? Hartford felt impressed. "Have you checked the list of captives against the known roster of the ship?"

"I have someone already on that," she said. "I felt it necessary to speak to you immediately, however."

"Yes, for good cause." Hartford returned to his seat and slipped deep into thought. There must be a way to turn this to his advantage. "At this juncture, discovery would mean disaster. We’ve put too many resources into this operation to scrub it. We’ll have to adjust." He folded his hands together and set his index fingers against his chin. "It appears we may need to arrange to eliminate the survivor."

"Would that not raise suspicions?" Aristide asked, her curiosity evident.

"Potentially, but perhaps not," said Hartford. "The important thing is to discredit the escapee. Make their escape seem collusion, not fortune. The disappearance can be made to look like a guilty pirate slipping away." He thought of something. "Do we know who rescued the survivor?"

"Our best assets attribute it to the Tokarevs of Cyrilgrad."

Hartford chuckled. "Ah, excellent. Their anti-Social attitudes are well known to this sector. It shouldn't be hard to make it look like this is an endeavor to discredit us. There are worlds that would prefer that to the truth."

"I'll make the arrangements with Commander Li."

"Excellent. And interview the Kensington Star crew to find out what you can about the escapee. I’ll authorize permission for them to be given extra rations for cooperation. I must know more about this person. They sound quite formidable."

"Yes, sir. Permission to be dismissed?"

"Granted."

She left, leaving Hartford to his thoughts. It was, all things told, an unwelcome complication, but one he would adjust to. His plan was still intact, and his chance of success nearly assured.

Just before he was ready to depart his office, a message came in from Aristide. It was in two parts, marked high priority.

The first was an additional tidbit from the investigation by the owning company: their internal security division had just authorized a corporate craft to depart New Cornwall for the planet Harron. Hartford was familiar with the detestable place. He also knew it was reasonably close to the system where they intercepted the Kensington Star. He would have to speak to his intelligence assets and ensure they investigated.

He held that thought upon review of the second part: a crew personnel file from Kensington Star. "Karla Lupa" was a cargo hand with a background that, the more he looked at it, the more he was certain was a legend. A cover identity.

Curious. Very curious indeed. Someone using a legend with such a fear of capture by the League that she was willing to risk dying alone in the void? That made identifying her all the more important. Hartford relayed her geneprint to the database for State Security.

When he got the result, his curiosity was gone—replaced by determination, even need.

There would be no half measures. Hartford would insist that External Security throw everything into this to make sure they captured the survivor.

It is like the universe itself is teasing me, he pondered, looking at the geneprint match in the database and the attached profile. Another operation put in jeopardy by that woman. This time… this time I will have her. I will not let her ruin my plans a second time!


12

Henry was having his morning coffee at the hangar access door when Piper, Brigitte, and Cera came tottering back to the ship. "A fun night, ladies?" he asked, his voice a little louder than usual.

They gave him a much-deserved death glare.

"We're not due anywhere, so you'll have a chance to sleep it off."

"Wanker's enjoyin' this," Cera grumbled under her breath as they went by at the speed and gait of a particularly lethargic zombie.

Henry had expected the three to be out all night, getting up to the kind of thing spacers usually did when in port. He was more surprised to see Tia come in, looking like death warmed over. "You didn't join them, did you?" he asked, truly curious at the prospect. Tia usually didn't go for the port call girls' night out that Cera typically organized.

"An old friend met me. We had things to catch up on," she answered and rubbed at her eyes. "I lost count of how much Thanh with Scotch I had."

Henry made an understanding "Ahhh" sound. "Yeah, that stuff can catch up on you. Have any actual blood left in your bloodstream, or are you combustible now?"

"Hell if I know," Tia grumbled.

Henry almost asked if she was okay. It was clear she had other things on her mind than the hangover from too much alcohol. "Well, go get rehydrated. We don't have any calls for pickups yet, so there's no need to rush out."

"Planned on it."

She went on. Content everyone was back, Henry headed toward the ship. He finished the last of the coffee and felt the remaining mental cobwebs of sleep finally clear from his mind. Aside from the prospect of Vitorino having another cargo for them, Pieter wanted the rest of the day to complete an inspection of their Lawrence drive, and Henry had no reason to deny him. He instead considered getting with Felix and Yanik to inspect the Shadow Wolf's weapon systems.

He'd just about gotten to the ramp for the mid starboard cargo hold when Felix came rushing from the other starboard ramp, a frightened look on his face.

"Felix! Felix, what is it?" Henry called out, having to run to catch up before Felix got to the door. "What's wrong?"

"Jules," he said. "They're arresting Jules."

Breach of Peace

The taxi dropped the two off down the road from the mission. The driver refused to go the whole way the moment he saw the black helicars in front of the old church. Henry and Felix rushed up as quickly as they could. The vehicles were mostly unmarked, except for one emblazoned with the seal of the Republic Security Service.

Most of the vandalism was gone, cleaned up by hard work the previous day, but now the mission was crawling with people in dark uniforms searching every corner, every nook, and cranny. Each had a police insignia on them. Two of them were standing around Jules, now handcuffed and sitting quietly in a pew.

One of the uniformed men at the door stopped the two from advancing further. "You must leave," he said. "This institution is being searched for anti-constitutional materials."

"The only things you'll find here are hymnals and Bibles," Felix said. "What's going on?"

"We ask the questions," another of the dark-suited men said. He approached and flashed a holographic ID, identifying him as Inspector João Travada of the Security Service. "What is your connection to this place?"

Henry now suspected coming here was going to get them into trouble, too, but he couldn't abandon Jules, and Felix certainly wouldn't. "Reverend Rothbard is my brother," Felix said.

"I see. Then we will have to take you in for interrogation as well."

"He's a member of my crew, and we work for Minister Vitorino," Henry said, hoping that might give pause.

It didn't. The only response was a small smile. "I see. This does little to help you. We do not answer to that corrupt man. We answer to Minister Caetano, and she personally ordered this raid. We have actionable intelligence that Faith Outreach Mission is part of an anti-constitution organization in league with the Coalition Intelligence Service."

"That's bullcrap!" Felix shouted. "You're just picking on him because—"

Henry grabbed him. "Felix, not another word," he barked.

Felix gave him a fierce, frightened glance but said nothing. More and more of the uniformed people were starting to gather around them. A number had pulled their firearms from holsters.

"You are careful," Travada observed. "And working for Vitorino, I assume you are James Henry of the Shadow Wolf?"

Henry was not gratified at the idea that the Lusitanian Security Service had any interest in him, even if it was a distinct possibility given his link to Vitorino. Since there was no point in denying it, he nodded. "I am."

"We have questions for you, Captain," Travada said. "In connection with our investigations into the Minister's business dealings, and now, it seems, your personal connection to a possible enemy of the state." He made a gesture, and two suited men approached them from behind while others lifted firearms to ready positions. "We are now taking you into custody. Hand over your weapons, and you will receive them back, should we release you."

For a moment, Henry thought Felix might fight. He had little respect for any of the more authoritative governments in neutral space, and a fierce belief in natural rights. But after exchanging a glance, both pulled their weapons carefully from their holsters—Henry's from the hip, Felix's at the small of the back—and gripped the barrels to offer them to their captors.

"Wise men." Travada nodded and smiled. "I assure you, if you are innocent, we have no intention of holding you. The same goes for your brother. Now, if you will please follow me."

Breach of Peace

The individual sleeping quarters for the mission were sparsely furnished, given how many were empty for want of permanent personnel. Henry was separated from Felix and assigned to one under guard. Their commlinks were taken as well, to be held by their guards.

Something about the situation didn't feel right. Granted, a lot didn't, but beyond the fact that Lusitania's semi-authoritarian government now had them in custody—their behavior was off. By reputation, Henry imagined the RSS would have at least carted them away wordlessly, not held them in place. On top of that, they were far more polite than usual toward suspected "enemies of the state" or "foreign operatives."

What is going on? Henry stared out the window at the barrio when he heard the door open. He turned and watched two armed, suited men enter. They flanked the entrance and waited.

The third figure to come in was a woman of striking appearance, some would even say beauty, with a slight brown complexion and dark hair. Her blue eyes glistened, fierce, cold, and utterly impersonal. She wore a business suit with trousers, the color being a deep green that matched the green on the Lusitanian tricolor flag pins she wore on her lapels.

Behind her was a man in a similar business dress with the same pins on his lapels, right about his thirties in age, carrying a digital tablet of his own.

Henry almost did a double-take. It was Minister Cristina Caetano herself.

"James Alfred Henry," she said, her Portuguese accent thick and rich. "Formerly Lieutenant Colonel James Henry, Coalition Defense Force. You know who I am. This is my chief of staff, João Carvalho." She motioned to the man accompanying her.

Henry nodded in recognition of the greeting. "Hello, and the rank is major," he corrected quietly.

"Only due to the terms of your discharge," she said. "Which, let us be honest, Colonel, was not deserved." She pulled up one of the table chairs and sat in it. Her hand motioned toward another. "We have something to discuss."

Henry sighed quietly as he considered the gesture, and decided accepting it was safer. He went to another chair and sat, feeling very much like a man lowered into a shark tank inside of a cage that was more rust than metal. "I pled guilty," he reminded her. "I'm responsible for the testing failure on the Laffey."

"You did. There are many reasons why a man in your position would have." Caetano folded her hands together. Her blue eyes bore down on him with the intensity of a laser, scrutinizing Henry extensively. "Threats against friends and comrades. Perhaps another form of blackmail. Or appeal to patriotism, I suppose, to protect the honor of the Coalition Defense Force at the expense of your own."

All of the above. Henry shifted in the chair. "I'm afraid I can't talk about it," he said aloud, knowing his expression was giving something away. "And I have to admit, there's not much left in me in terms of patriotism, really."

"I would expect not. Patriotism must be earned. The State must provide for the Nation to prove itself worthy of their loyalty. It must defend them, their honor, their lives. The Coalition failed you as it has failed so many others."

"Can't deny that," Henry said. "But still good people in it. Good people everywhere."

"So there are," Caetano conceded. "Do you see yourself as one of them, Colonel?"

"That's 'Captain,' not Colonel, Madame Minister," Henry corrected. When Caetano didn't react with hostility, he shook his head. "And no, not really. If I were good, well, I wouldn't be where I am today, I can say that." An unkind thought came to him. I'd be imprisoned on Lambert's Lament, spending thirty-hour days mining ore.

"I see. Interesting. You regret whatever your arrangement with your superiors was. You do see yourself as dishonored and degraded." Caetano nodded at him in understanding. "I myself see value in occasional pragmatism, but I admit, I can sympathize with such. Compromise can so often lead to letting others undermine what is right. What is needed." Caetano smiled at him. "I wish you were a Lusitanian, Captain."

"I'm not, and honestly, I'm not sure I like judging people by where they came from."

"Given the files on your crew, I would think not." Caetano brought up a digital pad. "Your First Mate is a failed Socialist revolutionary. Your Second Mate, a Saurian draft dodger. A couple of League defectors and your friend Felix Rothbard is a fellow cashiered CDF officer… yes, you have quite the crew, don't you? Including some who still have prices on their heads." Caetano gave him a thoughtful look. "Indeed, I could attain quite a lot of favor in Thyssenbourg and Rand if I were to turn Tia Nguyen over to the Hestian government—"

Despite everything, Henry reacted with anger, jumping from his seat. "They're good people, and they don't deserve that!"

Henry's outburst prompted Caetano's guards to pull weapons. Even Carvalho stood, as if ready to defend Caetano from physical attack. She held a hand up, still smiling and thoughtful. "You are loyal to your people, Captain. Very loyal."

"They're all my crew. Hand-picked." Henry glared into those cold blue eyes and remained standing, not allowing Caetano's guards to intimidate him. "Damn right, I'm loyal, and they deserve better than they got."

"Just as you deserved better," Caetano observed. "Well, I cannot help but respect your protection of those under your charge, Captain Henry. But I must also do what I must to protect my people. My entire world."

"Does that include letting your followers ransack a church?" Henry asked heatedly.

Caetano shrugged. "An excess of patriotic passion. It cannot be controlled. Merely channeled." She leaned forward. "Now sit down and let us get to business, yes? I have decided I can work with you."

However much he didn't want to work with her, Henry had a feeling he wouldn't be allowed to say no. Usually, you didn't say no to people who had a gun to your best friend's head or threatened to sell your second-in-command to people who would humiliate and kill her. He obeyed the request to sit and said, "I can't imagine I have a choice."

"Of course you do," Caetano said. "Just as I have a choice on whether or not to charge your childhood friend and his brother with sedition and anti-constitutional activity."

"Exactly my point." Henry forced any ill grace from his voice. Felix and Jules were counting on him. "So, what do you have in mind?"

There was just a tiny bit of satisfaction on Caetano's face. It was the satisfaction one had toward judging a situation right. "You are aware of the loss of many ships over the last several months?"

"I am."

"One of the most recent ships to disappear is the Kensington Star from New Cornwall," she explained. "Owned by Patterson & Yarborough. You've heard of them?"

"I have. Roughly. Another of the interstellar transport firms that operate throughout Spinward Sagittarius."

"The word is they have a witness from the ship. One that escaped following its capture." Caetano's stare was growing fierce now. "These disappearances have done damage to our economy. They must be stopped. I must know if there is truly a survivor from the Kensington Star, and meet with them to determine the source of these attacks."

"And you want me to pick up the alleged survivor?"

"I do." Caetano folded her hands together. "Her name is Karla Lupa. According to the report, she is in Sektatsh on Harron."

Things fell into place for Henry. "Vitorino has business interests there. You think I'll be taking a cargo there to cover for the trip?"

"I am aware of the nature of his businesses, so yes, you will. I suspect he will give you the order now to get you offworld, since it seems I am interested in you and he will want time to take measures to protect you." She held her hands together in her lap. "I want you to find this survivor. I am prepared to pay you handsomely for the chance to speak directly to her, should you judge her authentic, or for you to provide proof that she is a fraud. Either way, I must know." Caetano raised her hand to cut off Henry before he could speak, as if already sure of what he would say. "Additionally, I will ensure the party newspaper retracts the claims against the Faith Mission Outreach and provide full official protection for your friend's church." She gestured to Carvalho.

He wordlessly offered Henry the digital reader he was holding. Henry took it and read the display. It was an official order clearing Jules and Felix. It also clarified the extent of his financial compensation if he brought an authentic Kensington Star survivor to Lusitania for her to interview or the proof there was none. It was quite a lot of money for possible passenger transport.

Caetano smiled thinly. "Of course, you must say nothing of this to Minister Vitorino."

"Very kind of you," Henry said. It was, to the extent that she was putting him in her debt, and he didn't like that. "Although Vitorino's going to be suspicious."

"I will keep up appearances of an investigation," she said. "As things stand, he is already calling my people and insisting on your release, so I will play the magnanimous comrade to my fellow Cabinet Minister with forced grace, as he would expect. Our deal will be off, by the way, should you alert him as to your mission on my behalf."

Henry acknowledged the point—and the threat—with a nod. He still didn't like getting caught up with Caetano, not to mention possibly being caught between her and Vitorino, but he knew he had no choice if he wanted to protect Felix and Jules.

And Tia and the others, when it came down to it. He fully believed Caetano would be just as thorough and vicious with them as she would be with the Rothbard brothers.

With some remaining trepidation, he offered his hand. "Minister Caetano, you have a deal."

Caetano took his hand and shook it. "Excellent." She looked up to her men and started speaking in clipped Portuguese. "Inform the inspector to release the prisoners and withdraw all personnel from the premises. The Mission will remain under observation only."

"Yes, Madame Minister," one said, stepping out to do so.

"I look forward to your success, Captain," Caetano said, switching back to English. "And should you succeed, you may find that in the coming future, my gratitude will be far more valuable than Duarte Vitorino's."

"Yeah," Henry said, considering how things were going on Lusitania. "I think it will be."

And I'm going to hate it even more.


13

The last of Caetano's people left shortly after she did. Carvalho quietly passed a data disk to Henry before leaving, murmuring, "From the Minister," as he did.

Jules saw them out through the newly-repaired front door and turned back. The mess wasn't quite as bad as it'd been after the ransacking, but it was clear he was looking at another cleanup job.

"You go ahead and stay," Henry said to Felix. He held up his commlink. "Vitorino wants to see me ASAP."

"As late as it is, probably not at his office."

"No. At the spaceport. He's got a cargo for us."

"He did help us with Caetano, at least? He got us released?" When Felix saw Henry's resigned expression, he sighed. "He didn't."

"I'll explain when we're back on the Shadow Wolf, Felix." Henry gestured around the church. "It's… well," He gave Felix a pleading look to not carry on.

Felix narrowed his eyes and shook his head. He turned to his brother. "Jules, whatever's going on, I don't suppose I can talk you into laying low?"

"I have a service in two days," Jules said, "and the soup kitchen hasn't been open all day."

"Right. Although I don't suppose you've got any staff to help?"

"Probably fewer than I had yesterday." Jules shrugged. "I don't blame them. The PdDN are scary people, as are the security services. They appreciate what I do, but they have families to think of."

"I'd stay and help—"

"Go on, big brother," Jules insisted, grinning with that benevolent, annoying grin he had. "I'll survive. And my people may come back when they see I haven't been taken."

Felix gave Henry a pointed look. All Henry could do was shake his head and chuckle. "That Rothbard stubbornness always wins," Henry said. "Even against itself. We should get going, Minister Vitorino's got limits to his patience."

"Right." Felix was right on Henry's heels as they departed the mission.

Before the door shut, Jules bowed his head. "Godspeed," he said, just loudly enough that they heard him.

Breach of Peace

They returned to the spaceport in another taxi. The driver, a local girl named Zia, left both reasonably convinced they wouldn't live to see their ship again, but since her driving was from Henry's explicit instructions to get them to the spaceport immediately, he felt obligated to give the full tip he'd intended, even if he was still getting the color back in his cheeks.

Hangar D8 had a couple of cargo trucks up to the dock loading platform. Vidia and Brigitte were going back and forth with their anti-grav pallet jacks, ferrying cargo into the holds of the Shadow Wolf. Yanik was observing. "Minister Vitorino is taking a private call in the hangar office. He awaits your presence," he informed Henry and Felix on their approach. "And another potential client is in the ship galley waiting to see you."

A headache threatened to strike Henry. Balancing Caetano and Vitorino was bad enough, but a third client? He was already determined to say "no," regardless of the financial reward offered. Knowing my luck, it's Lou wanting another run like the Yan'katar job.

Without asking, Felix said, "I'll go get a jack too. The sooner we get this loaded, the sooner we get this over with."

The hangar office wasn’t meant for a single user, but whoever happened to be renting the hangar. It thus lacked the kind of personal touch Henry's office on the ship had, with basic furnishings, a simple public commlink connection, and workspace. Vitorino was on his commlink when Henry approached. "...and I am not to be pushed around on this," he was saying, his voice heated. "I am a member of the Cabinet too, and my party has the most seats." Whatever the response on the other end, his reaction was a cruel little chuckle. "Your read on the political situation is astute, but do not think you are immune to attack, Minister. Keep your tread with the rest of the government, or you may find that you have more than enough enemies to block you. Now I have business to attend to, so good night." He tapped the commlink to kill the call and turned to Henry. "There you are, Captain. State Security did not mistreat you?"

"Not me," he said. "Outside of the wrongful arrest. Reverend Julian Rothbard does have to clean up his mission again, though."

A frustrated sigh came from Vitorino. "I sometimes wish to Heaven Caetano was just a brute. The woman's political instincts are sharp. She understands the frustrations of our people and how to direct them."

"That’s never a good combination," Henry said. He kept a straight face when he added, "Thank you for helping to spring us, by the way."

"It took some doing, but I think I can get Caetano to leave you alone. Your preacher friend, maybe not. But right now, the important thing is your cargo. We have a steady contract with a high-ranking nobleman on Harron to provide him with fine wines and liquors from Lusitania," Vitorino said. "He has a taste for our finer drink."

"Aren't the Harr'al even more susceptible to alcohol than Humans?"

"So I'm told. It is a status thing, mostly. And, a trade envoy told me, a way to test the loyalty of his household. For all I know, he may even execute people by drowning them in it." Vitorino shook his head before indicating the digital pad on the desk. "The contract is a lucrative one, regardless, and you'll get your usual commission."

"Fine enough." Henry sat at the desk and reached for the pad. The contract language was the standard, although he continued to read each line just for safety's sake. "So, the Calnin, which of the enclaves do they do their business through?"

"Sektatsh," answered Vitorino. "It is one of the nicer enclaves on that wretched planet. Although you may wish to be careful outside of the alien zone. Human slaves typically fetch high prices in Harr'al society." There was evident disgust on the Lusitanian man's face at expressing that fact. He practically spat the word "barbarians."

"Lots of those around."

"But few as wealthy. And the Harr'al rulers are quite capable of playing us against our neighbors to prevent anyone from conquering them as they richly deserve."

"Yeah. Bad people aren't always dumb, unfortunately." Henry gave the last lines of the transport contract a final read and signed his name. He presented the digital pad back to Vitorino. "There you go, Minister. A pleasure to do business with you as always."

"A pleasure indeed, Captain." Vitorino pocketed the device and stood. "And now that you have signed on for the run," he said, walking over to the door as he spoke in measured tones. He waited until he'd quietly shut the door before continuing. "I would like to discuss an off-the-books mission."

Henry fought to keep a neutral expression, even as suspicion filled him at Vitorino's real angle. "Oh?"

"I admit I have three motives in sending you to Harron." Vitorino folded his hands on the desk and leaned forward. "Obviously, my wines and liquors do need to be delivered. Secondly, I want to keep you off of Minister Caetano's scanners for a while, until I can make arrangements to keep her from acting against you again. And finally, have you heard about the loss of the Kensington Star?"

With his suspicion about Vitorino confirmed, Henry's fight to keep his expression neutral became hard-pressed. "Not about that ship," he lied, remember Caetano's terms. "Another missing ship already?"

"Not far from Harron," Vitorino confided. "I have friends on New Cornwall."

Henry nodded. Of course, you do.

"Including in their business community and government. They inform me that the owning company of the Kensington Star has initiated an investigation into the loss."

"Obviously, but I doubt they'll do any better."

"They might." Vitorino's voice softened to nearly a whisper, as if he were afraid that someone outside might still hear them. "Because they have a survivor."

It took every iota of control Henry had to feign surprise. "A survivor?" He drew in a breath, taking on a thoughtful look he hoped would fool Vitorino.

"A crewmember of the Kensington Star. Alleged, I hasten to add. Currently on Harron, in Sektatsh."

"You want me to look into it?"

"Discreetly. Report to me about what you find. If you can convince her to come with you, so much the better." Vitorino's expression was earnestly serious. "As Lusitania's Trade Minister, this situation is my direct concern. The escalation of the ship disappearances must be stopped. The increase costs to interstellar trade will harm our economy. The spending to raise an interstellar fleet capable of patrolling all of the spacelanes would not only strain our coffers, they might excite an arms race with our neighboring worlds. Which would bring undesired attention from the Coalition and the League."

"With bigger fleets, your participation in the war would be all the more valuable," Henry noted. "Alright, I'll look into it when I get there."

"Thank you, Captain. As always, you will be amply rewarded."

Knowing very much he wouldn't be, Henry smiled and nodded. "As always."

Breach of Peace

The loading was nearly complete when Vitorino departed. Henry waited until he was gone before boarding the ship and heading to the galley. He found Oskar and Cera present with their guest at one of the two tables. Neither looked very comfortable.

The visitor was dressed like any other Lusitanian and his skin tone was a light brown and his hair dark. To anyone looking at him, it would be presumed he was from the Moroccan portion of Lusitania.

Henry knew better. A true headache was coming on. "Major al-Lahim," he sighed.

"Captain." Major Abdul Rahman al-Lahim nodded and offered his hand. "You've had a busy day. I was afraid Caetano might arrest you."

Henry grudgingly took it. The major was the local intelligence officer for the Coalition, working out of the embassy in a covered job. On occasion, he paid for small transport jobs. Operatives going to other worlds and the like. When Henry needed the money, he took them. "She almost did," Henry finally said. "So you're the potential client. Sorry, Major, but I've already got a job right now."

"I noticed," al-Lahim said. "But you independent spacers can always use more cash, right? I'm offering you a pretty credit for it." He pointedly glanced at the others in the room.

Not in the mood for yet more conspiring and secrecy, Henry nevertheless relented. On the occasions al-Lahim gave them jobs, they paid quite well. Too well to dismiss him. "Follow me," he instructed.

Al-Lahim stood and did so, allowing Henry to lead him through the ship corridor to his office. Henry shut the soundproof door and started to walk around the desk, while al-Lahim found the other chair. "Where are you headed?" al-Lahim asked.

"Harron. Sektatsh."

"Ah." Al-Lahim smiled. "Well, how fortunate for me. That's where I want you to go."

"What do you want?"

"While you are present, I'd like you to make contact with someone in the city for me. She has signaled, indicating she is in potential danger." Al-Lahim pulled a digital reader from his jacket. "And if she asks, give her a ride back here so we can get her out of the region."

Henry didn’t believe in coincidences, especially not today. "Who is she?"

"One of yours, now," said al-Lahim. "A spacer. But she was one of ours once. She did an enormous service for the Coalition, one that has had a positive effect upon the war. She may be the person most responsible for the prospect of real peace talks, and bringing our people home."

Henry listened and nodded quietly. An end to the war—it seemed so unreal. But the word on the Galnet was that peace talks were soon to begin, and the League was even bringing back a whole bunch of prisoners taken over the decades. How many of them will be wrecks from being “socialized,” I don't want to imagine. At the same time, a feeling of intense skepticism came to him. He'd seen enough of the League to know they wouldn't give up the war easily. They saw their expansion to rule over the entire galaxy as something of a religious writ with scientific inevitability thrown in. But then again, they might decide that a century of peace to deal with problems back "home" is useful.

Either way, that wasn't the point. He wasn't sure al-Lahim was being completely forthright, since spies and their handlers never were, but if this ex-operative was responsible for something like that, then helping her seemed the right thing to him.

So potentially two passengers I'll have to keep secret from each other, and from everyone else. If only he didn't pay so well. Henry gave al-Lahim a nod in reply. "Alright. I'll do it."

There was relief from the intelligence officer at that. "Excellent. Here." He activated the reader and handed it to Henry.

Henry looked it over. A woman of faint brown complexion and dark, chocolate-brown eyes looked back at him. She looked Semitic to him, and the name "Miriam Gaon" at the top of the file identified her as Hebrew, probably Mizrahi or Sephardic. Her service record was entirely redacted.

"You'll find her at the ISU Hostel in Sektatsh," al-Lahim said, standing. "You'll get payment upon her informing me of the contact, or her arrival should she need extraction."

"Agreed," Henry said. "Understand I've got other work to see to, so I might not get results right away."

"I will, but I urge you to make contact with her quickly. The League has an active KC order out on her."

What am I getting myself into? Henry leaned back in his chair, seeking a more comfortable position. Oskar had the same thing from the League: "kill/capture." Regardless, having already committed, Henry went to the door to let al-Lahim out.

Yanik was waiting. "The cargo is secure, sir," he said. "We are overseeing final fuel and launch checks. Tia estimates we can launch within the hour."

"Alert me when we're ready, and escort Major al-Lahim off the ship."

"Yes, sir." Yanik nodded once, in that taciturn way he did, to al-Lahim. The intelligence officer inclined his head and took the first step.

Henry closed the door and returned to his desk. His headache was intense and he decided to numb it a bit with some of his favorite poison. After considering and rejecting using some of the remaining New Virginia bourbon from his family, he opted for the New Hebridean whiskey Felix gave him for his birthday. He poured himself a shot and gulped it down, dealing with the effects as he always did.

After taking a second drink, he decided he might as well check Caetano's data. He took the disc and inserted it into the computer terminal on his desk. The holovid screen activated, displaying the file on Karla Lupa. Including, as expected, her profile picture.

"Oh damn," Henry swore, examining the picture and the one on the digital reader al-Lahim left behind, thus confirming that Karla Lupa and Miriam Gaon were the same person.

His headache got worse. Much worse.


14

The dim night lights of Sektatsh would’ve been visible through the window of the room rented out to “Karla Lupa” had Miri not closed the blinds and curtains on all of them. She preferred her solitude, checking the vidlink channels before going to bed to get some much-desired sleep.

At first, there was only the gentle nothingness of slumber. But it gave way to the sensation of being somewhere. Miri found herself standing, wrists and ankles shackled, before a group of grim-faced League officers.

"Put the traitor in," one ordered, and powerful arms grabbed her and dragged her down the ranks of League officers.

Intense terror gripped her at the realization of what was about to happen, as ahead, the doors beyond led to the blackness of space. That was how the League punished treason, after all: spacing.

She struggled against the grips on her arms, but they were far too strong. Inhumanly so. She couldn't escape.

To either side of her, the figures changed. No longer was she flanked by League personnel. Now they were in prisoner outfits, the drab gray jumpsuits of a League resocialization camp. She realized she was clad in one too. Regardless, their hatred and disgust for her were more apparent than the League personnel had shown.

"Stop. Please, just stop," she pleaded, even though Miri knew it would do her no good. "Please…"

Angry shouts of "Traitor!" answered her pleas. Her captors opened the inner airlock door and threw her in.

She struggled to stand in her chains but could not before the door slid to a close. She pounded on the door with her shackled hands. "Please, don't do this!"

"It's what you deserve, traitor," a voice of the past said. She turned in the narrow confines of the airlock and faced two figures wearing camp jumpsuits, a man and a woman. Both were in their late twenties, early thirties about, in the prime of life, gaunt but determined. Just as she remembered them.

"Chris," she said, her voice thick with guilt. "Annette."

Their eyes, Chris's brown and Annette's blue, were cold and hostile. Their pale skin was the color of marble, save for the ring of angry purple and red around their necks and the dried blood trailing from their nostrils and lips. "You betrayed us, Miri," Annette said coldly, her Gascon-accented English from Lowery's New Girande continent. "We trusted you."

"We could have made it if not for you," Chris said. His accent was Lowerian English, a softer accent of Australian origin. He pointed an accusing finger to Miri, whose heart quivered with guilt at the sight of them, and then directed the same finger to the ring around his neck. "It took me sixteen minutes to die!"

"Twelve! Dangling from the gallows like an animal!"

"You betrayed us!" Chris spat. "You killed us!"

"No," Miri said, although it was more of a whimper. She knew, deep down, they were right. "No. You don't understand, I had to. I had to," she insisted.

"Why did you betray us?" demanded Annette.

"For the mission," Miri said. "I'm sorry, but my mission was to be accepted by the League, not to fight the occupation. I had to get into a place to learn their plans, their secrets. I… I had to make them think I was one of them."

"But you didn't have to betray us," charged Annette.

"It was the only safe thing to do," Miri insisted. "Whether or not your attempt failed, if they found out I knew and said nothing, they'd never let me anywhere important. I had to make them think I was loyal!"

Chris shook his head furiously. "You could have said you were ignorant of our plans! We wouldn't have betrayed you!"

"I couldn't know that! I… I had to be certain." Tears ran down Miri's eyes. "I had to be trustworthy to them!"

"How many of us had to die for your precious mission?”

Miri was weeping as she tried to count. How many others in the camp had she denounced? How many others afterward had she allowed to suffer, all to keep her place.

It was a terrible job, but she'd done it, and so had positioned herself to do considerable damage to the League. That was something to be proud of.

"You are a traitor to us, to all of the people of Lowery," said Chris' shade.

"I… I did it to save Lowery, to save us all!"

"And look how well you did that," he snarled back. "With all of the people you've hurt, what gives you the right to live?"

"I…" On an instinctive level, Miri wanted to live. But the question, Chris' question, was one that had plagued her over and over. After all the people she hurt to protect her cover.

"See?" Annette shook her head. "Even you know the truth."

In one joint motion, the two shades slammed their fists into a control panel. The outer airlock door opened with a roar as the vacuum of the void sucked the atmosphere from the airlock. The force of the decompression sucked Miri with it. She screamed, but there was little sound to it as the vacuum violently sucked the air from her lungs. Her skin grew cold, and her sight failed as the fluid in her eyes bubbled away.

That was when she woke up.

Miri immediately took her head into her hands and breathed deeply, greedily, as if to reassure her lungs that they were not in a vacuum, and they had access to breathable air. In her panic, she checked the room around her. Through the dim lighting, she made out the furnishings of the rented hotel room in the ISU center.

With time to calm from the feeling she'd been spaced, Miri laid back down. Her hand slipped under her pillow and felt the hard surface of her pulse pistol, which she drew her hand away from, reassured. Her heart still pounded from the nightmare while old guilt filled her. The blame that she always struggled with.

Christopher Tobay and Annette Zens, those poor souls. Poor, brave souls. They'd been clever, finding the weaknesses in the League's security at the socialization camp, and quietly built up the means for a mass escape. If they'd succeeded, and they had an even chance of it, they would have formed the backbone of a viable resistance movement.

Their main mistake had been bringing her into the plan.

The question would always haunt her. If she'd said nothing, if she'd let their plan go off and merely refused to leave, would that have been enough to keep her in the League's good graces? At the time, the risk seemed too high. The camp's overseer, Director Bendtsen, was not a trusting woman, and her subordinates barely more so, and given the punishment details Miri worked with Chris and Annette, she would’ve quickly fallen under suspicion. It was suspicion she couldn't afford to have. When she'd weighed the benefit to her mission for betraying them, well, the mission was everything.

She still remembered the warm spring day when the League executed the two. They went to the noose bravely, urging the people of Lowery to resist the occupation until an infuriated Director Bendtsen ordered them dropped.

By design, their necks did not snap, and they died slow, painful, terrible deaths, in full view of Miri and all of the others. "For those who defy Society, punishment can never be too harsh," Bendtsen informed the assembled. It had the desired effect, as no further escapes were planned.

They were only the first denouncements Miri made until she was declared properly socialized, putting her on the track to accomplishing her mission. They were also the most painful, and had the harshest consequences.

In the darkness of her room, Miri's guilt, now fully awakened by the nightmare, kept her awake. She kept thinking about them. About the dreams they'd had, cruelly ended by the League. About how brave they'd been. Torment filled her soul at the thought that she'd been wrong to betray them, regardless of the outcome to her mission.

It was easy to say that their deaths were not in vain, that by doing what she did, Miri guaranteed Lowery's eventual liberation. It would be a comfort to tell them, now, that their people were free because of what happened, and hear them speak and forgive her due to that outcome.

But that wasn't going to happen. All Miri had was the certain knowledge that she'd enabled the terrible deaths of two brave, good people, and she would carry the burden of that knowledge for the rest of her days.

Breach of Peace

Miri Gaon would have had another reason to not sleep, had she known about the call going on just a block or so away in one of the other Alien Quarter residences.

Allan Kepper was not a big man, but he was probably the most terrifying one most people came across. The vacant look in his sky blue eyes made him seem lifeless, or perhaps more accurately, soulless. There was rarely a trace of emotion on his face.

This was not true of what was within him. If emotion rarely showed on his face, it was because Kepper trained himself to keep them away from his expression, lest he warn those around him of the burning urges within. Urges he kept in check until he could fulfill them, and when he did, the removal of his self-repression drove him to acts even he was surprised by.

That he was a sociopath was undeniable. Some might instead use the term psychopath. Sadist, he accepted, although only his victims ever saw him go that far. He was, after all, a cautious person.

Now he sat in front of his vidlink, the call being routed through numerous proxy sites as always. On the other end of the call was Chantavit Li. Commander Chantavit Li of the Bureau of State and Social Safety, External Operations Department, the agency responsible for foreign intelligence and operations in the League of Sol. Li was of mixed Indian and Chinese descent, with a darker East Asian skin tone, while Kepper's was more of a swarthy light tone. When he spoke English, it was with a light Anglo-American accent. "You're paying an awful lot for one spacer."

"I'm paying for her condition," Li said. Like always, he spoke as if he were inherently superior to Kepper, and the expression on his face matched. As if he were an overtaxed teacher explaining something to a particularly stupid or unruly child.

Kepper sometimes considered how entertaining it would be to wipe that look off Li's face, but again his caution restrained him. The League paid well for his services, better than most, and he was starting to run short of funds again. Besides, having to keep killing the agents they sent to murder him would get tiresome. "Simple grab and bag, your people pick her up?"

"Yes. She must be intact. We need to debrief her and ensure she is capable of facing a proper punishment for her crimes against Society."

"Right." Kepper didn't roll his eyes. “Society,” to him, was overrated. "Alright, money's good. Got an image?"

Li tapped something off-screen. Kepper's digital reader confirmed he was receiving a file. He checked it. The image of a woman with pale bronze skin appeared. She looked Semitic, and with the name, Kepper guessed she was Hebrew. "Huh. Another deserter?"

"Worse. It's why we're not paying for termination but capture. She has a lot to answer for, Kepper."

"Right." Kepper smiled wryly at that. "Well, you're the employer. I'll get to work."

"See that you do, before she slips away. Li out."

Li's image disappeared. Kepper used his digital reader to transfer the file to the holo-viewer, giving him a better look at his quarry. She was an older woman, at the beginning of middle-age, he'd guess. No older than forty-five. She wouldn't necessarily stand out. But given the file, she was likely going to show up at the ISU center, if she hadn't already. He'd start hunting her there.

He idly wondered how much of a screamer she was, but he shut that thought down with practiced efficiency. It was a grab and bag, not a grab and cut, so no time for urges.

As always, the job came first.

Breach of Peace

Chantavit Li was no sooner done with Kepper than he got the automated message from his contact. He read the text on his secured reader, the light of the reader the only illumination in his living quarters in the League embassy in Gamavilla.

Subject has secured crew to find the target. Will bring target here. Will message when target is on planet.

Li shook his head. He supposed he shouldn't be surprised at his ally's willingness to show initiative, regardless of his expressly-given instructions. It was, indeed, quite difficult to get government officials to behave. But he would not risk the capture of Miri Gaon to whatever bumbling thugs his ally sent. She was too smart for that. Too capable. No, Kepper would do. He was a vicious beast, but he was a controlled one at least.

The entire thing made Li feel sick, and it reminded him of why he hated this work. He detested being involved with the Lusitanians, and the Galters, and the Hestians, and every other anti-Social planet in this blasted region. They were all fractious people in need of the unity of Society, and he looked forward to when they were saved from their own base impulses.

Li was, like many in his line of work, a true believer. He believed in the collective mission of Society, to bring peace and order and prosperity to Humanity and other sapient species through the enlightenment of Society. To end the calamitous effects of crass, selfish individualism, and ensure all had their place in the grand unified tapestry he'd grown up within. While Miri Gaon's capture, debriefing, and death would not necessarily bring forward the day of victory, at least not by itself, it would serve as a further deterrent toward those who would defy Society.

After all, they were little more than animals. That was what individual beings were. Scared, foolish animals, seeking base desires or empty superstitions to stave off the terror of mortality. Li, on the other hand, knew he was going to die one day, but he felt no fear at that. Society was what mattered.

Society was immortal where individuals were not.

It was with that thought that Li returned to his other duties. Admiral Hartford's plan was nearly ready, and he would have to play his role to bring it to fruition, to ensure the success of Society.


15

Henry waited until their first jump before he called everyone together. Cera and Yanik would be observing from the bridge while everyone else joined him in the galley. He broke the news to an audience of frowning faces.

Tia's frown was the worst. "Just what have you gotten us into, Jim?" she asked.

"I don't know yet," Henry answered. "This whole situation is a complete—"

"—a complete clusterf— cockup, if you ask me," Felix began, then corrected himself. "Christ, Jim, how could you make a deal with that fascist?"

"Because she had us by the balls," Henry replied frankly. "You and Jules were going to be arrested as enemies of the state. She threatened the others too." He glanced at Tia. "Especially you. She talked about handing you over to the Hestian government."

Tia paled and swallowed nervously.

"I suppose Brigitte and I would be handed over to the League as well," Oskar said quietly, knowing that meant death for him and possibly her. "I understand why you've done this, sir."

"But we might get made by the League anyway," Brigitte said. "You're telling me this spacer we're after is some former Coalition super-spy they're hunting?"

"Something like that," Henry said. "And from what I've seen of Ms. Karla Lupa's record, it looks like she might be a legend. The kind a retired spy would use."

"This just keeps getting better and better," Felix said.

"If we help someone they have a KC order on, doesn't that mean the League might declare us enemies too?" asked Piper.

"Distinctly possible," Henry said.

"Then,” She paused. “We'll never be safe." Piper glanced around at the others. "They'll never let us go. We'll have their agents after us everywhere."

"Jim, this is a bad job," Tia said. "I can feel it. If we go through with this, we're going to suffer for it."

"If we don't, my brother gets thrown in a hole and probably shot," Felix pointed out. He glared at Tia.

Tia glared back. "Your brother should wise up and get out of Lusitania, then! And if he wants to be a religious martyr so bad, well, let him! I didn't sign up to die for your religion!"

"At least my brother's got a real cause, one that makes lives better!" Felix's voice was growing heated. "The only cause you ever fought for was dictatorship!"

"Dictatorship?" Tia's cheeks reddened. She rose to her feet, her eyes full of anger. "You want dictatorship? Just look at what the corps do to my people! Including some of your precious 'freedom-loving' capitalists in the Coalition. We were fighting to free ourselves from oppression!"

Now Felix was on his feet too. "You’d end up oppressing yourselves anyway! You Socialists always form dictatorships; you can't help it! You always want to tell people how to—"

A loud whistle interrupted Felix. Henry pulled his fingers from his lips and bellowed, "Both of you, sit down and shut up!"

Still glaring fiercely at each other, they obeyed.

While they returned to their seats, Henry looked over his assembled crew. He could imagine the look on Cera's face as well, the worry and concern she would have. Once it was clear he had their full attention again, he said, "When we get to Sektatsh, you can choose to leave. I'll pay for your liner ticket and give you full references."

"But you won't let us come back," Piper noted.

"No." Henry shook his head. "I need people who trust me. Who'll stick through these jobs, thick and thin. You want to run, that's fine, but that means you don't trust me, and I can't have a crew that doesn't trust me."

There were glances around the galley. Some were uncomfortable. They'd been together for a long while now, gotten used to each other, and even faced danger together. But this, this was something else. Facing pirates and the like was one thing. Drawing the attention of the galaxy's most powerful totalitarian state, one with a reputation for developing vicious grudges and the army of devoted fanatics willing to act on them? That was another.

Henry tried to inject sympathy into his voice as he continued. "Listen, I know you're frightened. I'm scared to death myself. This is the kind of shit I try to stay out of. But people I care for are in danger, including all of you. If we cross Caetano, she's not going to stop at kicking us off Lusitania. She'll have people gunning for us too. It's a point of pride for her, not just pride but survival. She can't afford to look weak to anyone. So, yeah, I'm finishing this job."

"How are you going to satisfy Caetano, Vitorino, and Coalition Intelligence all at once?" asked Oskar.

"I'm not sure," Henry admitted. "I'm sorry, no guarantees there. All I can say is I'll make whatever deal best fits the situation. I'll do what I have to in order to get us out of this predicament, alright? Even if it means dropping Gaon off on Lusitania and taking right off for the Jewels."

There was a chuckle from Piper and a grin on Vidia's face. "The Jewels," aka "the Jewel Box," were a cluster of stars far to anti-Spinward of their region of Sagittarius-Centaurus, so named centuries before due to their appearance from Earth. It was the farthest known extent of Human exploration to the Anti-Spinward, a journey of months through the Coalition, Saurian, and Tash'vakal systems, and then a whole stretch of independent space. "And just what kind of work do you think we'll find out there?" Piper asked. "Crucians and Laconians don't take kindly to strangers."

"I'd hope to find something nearer," Henry said with a grin. "But like I said, whatever I have to for this crew."

That drew nods from the others.

"I'm with you, Jim, you know that," said Felix. While he initially faced Henry, his eyes drifted over to Tia, a challenge in them.

Tia returned the glance. "Like I said, this job's going to go bad," she said. "But it wouldn't be my first lost cause. I'm with you, Jim."

One by one, the others indicated their agreement. A brief crackle came over the intercom. "Cera and I are in concurrence, Captain. We will remain," Yanik announced, his words formed with a slight hiss.

Henry smiled. "Alright, then. Everyone who's due, get some rack time. It's five jumps to Harron, so we'll be there in about two days."

Everyone departed, save Felix. "Thanks, Jim," he said. "I know my brother's being a stubborn ass."

"As I said before, it runs in the family," Henry replied.

"He's got more faith than the two of us combined."

"He always has." Henry went to one of the refrigerators and pulled out a couple of cans. "Here." He tossed one of them.

Felix caught and stared at it. "Non-alcoholic beer, Jim? Really?"

"No alcohol on duty," Henry replied. "You and I are due on watch in an hour, remember?"

"Right." Felix sighed and opened his can with a hiss. "So, I guess I'm about to get chewed out for what happened with Tia?"

"She's my First Mate, Felix. Your boss, when I'm not here." Henry opened his beer while Felix took a drink. "You've got to work with her, and politics be damned."

"Listen, I know she means well. People like her always do. They always convince themselves they're the special ones who will make it work, and they never do."

"Maybe not, but…" Henry drew in a breath. "I've been to Hestia, Felix. Just after that revolution failed. It was bad. She's got every right to want to change things there."

"I've heard the stories," Felix said. "As bad as they sound?"

"Worse. The off-world megacorps, they built an oligarchy masquerading as a democracy, and they use it as justification to treat the Hestians like disposable tools more than people. They restrict agriculture to make the Hestians reliant on food imports. They arrest people for growing unauthorized food or hunting game. It lets them use starvation to control the population. They force them all to work in mines for crap wage and pay them in company scrip, so they have no choices."

"Bastards," Felix grumbled. "Yeah, I'd rebel too. But her friends went too far. The League should be all the example people need about what happens when you give the government too much power."

Henry shrugged. "From their perspective, a new government powerful enough to control or expel the megacorps is the only way to freedom. Otherwise, the megacorps will wave their money around and walk right back in." Henry took another drink, during which Felix said nothing. "I saw what they did to the rebels they caught, Felix. Public punishment details. They worked a lot of them to death, humiliated them publicly, as in literally putting them in stocks and the like to be shamed by their communities. Sometimes forced their neighbors, relatives, to help, while they cut food imports across the planet as punishment and fired native Hestians from all but the lowest managerial positions." Henry swallowed. "Honestly, they behaved like the bloody League. It wasn't like they had to fear another revolt; they'd just crushed a rising, and they had all the guns."

Felix said nothing, but the scowl forming on his face was enough.

"So yeah, when I met Tia, I signed her on," Henry continued. "She's never made me regret it."

"Sounds like it wouldn't have been easy. She's got no love for the Coalition."

"I didn't approach her as someone from the Coalition," Henry said. "I found her on Darien when I was getting the Shadow Wolf's registry renewed. Broken, hurt, angry." His look turned distant. "I wasn't much better at the time. If it hadn't been for Uncle Charlie, I mean, I'd have been just as bad as her."

Felix laughed softly, thinking of Charlie Henry with fondness. "So you decided to pass on the goodwill just as the good Lord intended, and be her Uncle Charlie?"

Henry chuckled in reply before taking a drink. After swallowing, he shook his head. "That was the plan. It didn't quite go that way, in the end. But in time, I ended up with the best XO I could ask for out here. And you've got to admit her contacts have come in handy."

"Yeah, they have. I guess she's earned some tolerance, given what her world's like." Felix shrugged. "I just could never turn away from a fight on that issue. You know that."

"Boy, do I ever," Henry said, chuckling again. "I still remember that big argument you and Mister Tanner got into back in our senior year."

"Man was the worst Economics teacher ever," Felix insisted.

"School board didn't think so."

"Statist pricks, the lot of them."

Henry kept laughing.

Breach of Peace

After being relieved from watch duties, Tia briefly considered rest before deciding she needed to wind down first. She grabbed a soda from the galley fridge and headed to the rec room. It was astern of the galley, the last room before you got to the aft engineering spaces. Built to the same size as the galley, with a floor space of about seventy square meters, the rec room had an old reconstructed jukebox Henry brought from Tylerville with a digital music database tied to the interstellar network when comms were available. Beside it was a pinball machine. One wall had several printed books and a server for a private database of literature for the crew with a pile of cheap digital readers linked to it. The third wall was taken up by a holoviewer, one of the excellent, high-fidelity models that the entire crew had pitched together to purchase. Currently, it showed a visual of an ongoing ship battle in space, with space fighters zooming around.

Piper was the only other occupant in the room, seated in one of the three recliners. She had a can of something, Tia couldn't make out what, and a plate with crumbs from a sandwich already consumed. For the moment, she was engrossed in the program, but that changed when Tia walked into her line of sight to approach the bookshelf. Piper paused the program and watched Tia pick a printed volume from the shelf, a well-worn one. As she walked by, the book in hand, Piper made out the title. "The Failings of Capitalism?" she asked. "What's that about?"

"It's from New Aragon, written by a trade unionist leader from two centuries ago," Tia said, sitting down with the book. "It was one of the first books I learned to read English from."

"Sounds a bit heavy for a little girl."

Tia shook her head. "I was thirteen. I was just about to get my first job. A cleaning job to help my family feed my younger siblings." Tia looked over the text within without quite seeming to read it. "My uncle Guillaume gave it to me as a gift. He had a management job at the ore refinery in Schneiderbourg." She let out a small chuckle. "He rose about as high as a Hestian could in those days. His bosses never knew he was with the movement." Seeing the uncertain look on Piper's face, Tia closed the book. "I didn't mean to interrupt you," she said.

"You're not," Piper replied. "I was just watching the latest episode of 'The War Patrol'."

"You mean the Coalition propaganda show?"

"Fun Coalition propaganda," Piper corrected playfully. "It's so funny to see the things they mess up."

Tia let out a small laugh at that. She glanced back at the book in her hands, and a worried expression came to her face.

"Hey." Piper focused on Tia. "What's wrong?"

"The entire galaxy, really," Tia said. "Why is it that we keep reliving the same cycle?"

"What do you mean?"

"For as long as Humanity has been around, we hurt and exploit one another," Tia said softly. "We did it before we had spaceflight. Industry. Even when we barely had agriculture. Why can't we live in peace with each other?"

It was a profound question. Given the sad history of her ancestors, Piper was not incapable of such herself, but she'd long ago decided such issues were not going to be answered, so she didn't worry about them. With Tia, she shrugged. "Could be any number of reasons. Maybe there are bad spirits in us. Or it's just bad parts in each of us, and some of us let them win." Piper folded her hands together in her lap. "What's brought this on? If you don't mind me asking?"

"Everything," Tia suggested, her voice uncertain. "No. Maybe not everything… my friend, then."

"The one you see for a drink whenever we're in Gamavilla?"

"Yes." Tia leaned back in the chair and looked to the ceiling. "He's talking about accepting the government amnesty. Being able to go home, but he has to support the people in charge and oppose resistance. At least, oppose the Hestian Workers' Party. The League's pet Social Solidarity Party is apparently not covered in the restriction."

"Would you want to go home?" Piper asked.

Tia hadn't seen her family in over a decade. Her parents, her siblings, her nieces and nephews. Communications were nearly impossible thanks to the government, and sending money nearly so, and there was so much she could do for them. There were the others she'd known growing up in the mining town. Friends still alive and family relations.

But she'd have to surrender. Sign the damn amnesty, claim she was in the wrong to oppose the so-called "Republic" of Hestia, joke that it was. Swear they were the "legitimate" government and accept the system that exploited her people. There was also the bit about “preserving and protecting” the same.

She couldn't do that without betraying all of her dead comrades, the men, and women who died trying to free the people of Hestia.

"My world was beautiful. Is beautiful," Piper said. "Sanctuary is lightly populated even by neutral world standards, but we prefer it that way. It gives each tribe a lot of land to live on as we desire." Her eyes grew distant as if she was lost in imagination. "A wide-open blue sky with a yellow star. Grasslands as far as I could see, distant mountains covered in lush forests. And the desert, I can't even describe how beautiful it is. Stark and silent."

"Sounds better than Hestia," Tia said. "Our world has too many mines, and the industries are as cheaply run as possible, so there are almost no measures taken to prevent environmental damage to the countryside."

"I'm sorry. I guess my people are lucky that Sanctuary's mineral wealth isn't so great."

"Why did you name your world something like that?"

"It was the first name all of the tribes agreed on."

Tia grinned. Her world had a similar name that sounded off: Hestia was named by initial surveyors for a Roman goddess. That most of her population would come from worlds settled by the initial wave of Southeast Asian settlers into Sagittarius was not anticipated by the survey team.

"You're not going to accept the amnesty, ever, are you?"

Tia shook her head. "I can't. I can't lie like that or debase myself. I'd rather die in exile."

"I understand," Piper said. "Sometimes, it’s better than surrender."

Tia nodded back in agreement and looked to her book again, enjoying the precious memories connected to it in her mind.


16

Kepper started his hunt the usual way. Given the cover of his quarry, she was likely to be staying at the ISU hotel and hostel in the Alien Quarter, so he focused his attention there.

The main difficulty was he wasn’t a spacer, nor had he ever been one, and he didn't have union membership. Loitering around the ISU building would draw attention that he couldn't easily deflect with a membership card. Nor could he simply hold out the picture of his quarry and ask passersby. In Sektatsh, that would make him look like a slave-hunter seeking a particular quarry on consignment. It would merely tip his hand.

Thankfully, there were other options.

Kepper slid into an alley off the side road, market buildings to each side. A group of small Harr'al children were arrayed around each other in clothing that, charitably, was well-worn. A klimat, a little four-legged reptilian creature, was writhing on the ground as one of them continued to prod the beast with the tip of a knife. It was the kind of petty, sadistic cruelty a particular type of child would engage in. Kepper was not impressed, given he had long ago moved on to greater heights in that department.

His intrusion was quickly noticed and brought attention to him. One child from the group spoke up, with broken English. "What you want?"

"Information, for pay." Kepper held up a wad of banknotes. "Look for Human woman."

The translator shared Kepper's offer with his compatriots. The Harr'al children were more curious than frightened. Not to mention the prospect of money appealed to them as one would expect it to. Perhaps too much, but he’d be on guard for lies and exaggerations meant to get cash for nothing.

The children each took a good look at the image. One of them chattered excitedly at the others. There was some interplay between them until the translator looked to Kepper. "Seen woman. Will show."

"Show and get paid," Kepper said in reply.

The children talked some more and started for the other end of the alley. Kepper followed, satisfied with the success of his approach.

Breach of Peace

With morning came breakfast and, for Miri, confirmation of a ship from her employer coming to pick her up. She was forewarned the New Cornish authorities had a lot of questions. Miri anticipated this, and was well trained in ensuring her answers would be the things they needed to hear without giving away her secrets.

Additionally, a message from her contact in CIS told Miri that a pickup was on the way from Lusitania, if she ended up needing extraction. The vessel was called the Shadow Wolf out of Darien. It brought a little relief to Miri to know she had an alternative if P&Y's ship didn't show.

With little else going on, she turned to the news on the interstellar Galnet. Given she might end up there, Miri checked Lusitanian news first. Most of it was regarding upcoming trade treaty votes, including one with the League, but there were also reports of ongoing political violence against dissenters against the Lusitanian government's policies. A disappointing thing, to be sure, and Miri decided she'd be staying away from the planet in the future. She'd had enough of dictatorial government in her life.

The main news story breaking was that peace talks between the Coalition and the League were imminent. Commentators from the Coalition and independent worlds both shared views that these seemed the most serious discussions ever proposed by the League, with the promise of the first-ever formal prisoner exchange and other concrete terms for an end to League attacks on Coalition worlds. Reading about it made Miri wonder. She found it hard to believe the Social and Public Safety Committee, that far-off body on Earth that governed the destinies of trillions of souls across two galactic arms, would ever agree to end the war. The League considered itself the only valid government of humanity, all others being illegitimate. Giving the Coalition legitimacy would probably get the entire council overthrown.

But it wasn't impossible. If the technocrats or the bureaucracy pushed it as a necessary peace to deal with structural problems, or another military threat, well, that might do it. The League's war effort in Sagittarius had always been a problematic affair for them, logistically speaking, and manpower issues plagued their administration and authority in this galactic arm. It was how she could accomplish what she did: the League needed apparently-genuine conversions to actually run their system here in any workable fashion.

Would peace come? Could it even mean she got to go home? To live a quiet life again, no more running around?

More importantly, did she deserve such an ending?

Breach of Peace

Guided by the kids, Kepper found himself looking at a barely-restored building that was formerly a mercantile exchange. Now a stylized cross was built into the face of the building above the front door, with three crossbeams instead of the usual single beam, and the lowest slanted so that the right side was higher. Below the cross text in English, Old Slavonic, Russian, and the Calnin language of the Harr'al read "Mission of the Orthodox Old-Rite Church of Cyrilgrad."

"This is where you saw her?"

After the translator and the witness exchanged comments, the reply came. "Yes. Was here with… with… traitor. I do not know better word in English." The boy openly frowned, both from his limited vocabulary and, Kepper thought, the very existence of this "traitor." The other children were already hissing things in their language. "Is Calnin, but traitor of Tashin. Worships human God now, is bad. He come with her."

Interspecies religious conversion always struck Kepper as being a bit weird. But then again, religion in general did as well, whether it was alien or Human. "So she's got a local friend." He presented the children with one note of money each, much to their delight. "Think you can show me where this 'traitor' Calnin is?"

The children conversed excitedly. They clearly enjoyed the reward. They wouldn't enjoy what Kepper would do to them if they were misleading him.

The translator looked back and nodded. "Yes."

Kepper flashed more money at them and grinned. "Then show me."

Breach of Peace

The embassies and consulates that other governments used as part of their day-to-day relations with Lusitania were scattered around the city. Many used buildings initially constructed for other uses, ranging from big townhouses to old office buildings.

The League of Sol built their own.

One might hear that and expect it to have been built on the outskirts of the city as a fenced compound to keep the chaotic Lusitanians from causing any trouble. Instead, the League built their embassy in São Miguel, one of Gamavilla's poorest neighborhoods. The central building was secured with a fence, security doors, and other measures, but the outlying buildings were repeatedly leased to the people of the neighborhood for social gatherings and events. Ambassador Taney Salinas frequently appeared at these gatherings, using the goodwill to play up the League as the friend of all oppressed and impoverished people. That it also allowed her and her subordinates to propagandize the local people was easily noted, with the Coalition as a particular target for the speeches.

There had been some altercations, of course, pitting the PdDN and its hatred of foreign influences against the pro-League residents of São Miguel, such that despite the Home Ministry's tendency to turn a blind eye to the misbehavior of their minister's followers, the police often had to break up fights to prevent them from spilling into the embassy and harming diplomatic workers.

To Chantavit Li, this merely reinforced his belief that this entire world, the whole galactic arm, would be better off once it was brought into the fold of Society. Everyone would have a place then, and any anti-social behavior could be swiftly and thoroughly corrected.

His quartering was in the central building, of course, where he was officially listed as chief of the embassy's security staff. It was a job he did tend to, in fact, but only in conjunction with his intelligence work.

That intelligence work included dealing with the witness from the Kensington Star. That was why Li had gone to the anti-Social beast Kepper. The mess had to be cleaned up, and preferably on Li's terms given their ally's meddling.

Indeed, their ally in the government was too independent for Li's liking, and this unknown crew sent to pick up Gaon on Harron was a wild card he didn't want in the situation. He'd made that clear in a message on the matter.

The reply was what he expected—dissimulation, defensiveness—but with useful facts to not frustrate Li. The Lusitanian government was taking a direct interest in the Kensington Star survivor story. This knowledge was useful. It would help sell the plan when it was ready.

Li transmitted a reply in text. I must have information about the crew you sent to Harron. Our people will be on-site as well.

The reply was a file. A vessel. Shadow Wolf, Holden-Nagata Mark VII Medium Cargo Holder, out of Darien. These facts did not worry Li.

That her captain was from the Coalition, and a former CDF officer? That… was somewhat worrying.

It was, at least, until he called up the file on James Henry from League intelligence files. The data on his military service was thin, as he was never known to have gained any prominence. Since then, as an independent ship captain, his career had gained more interest, including several visits to League-occupied or aligned worlds.

It also was reassuring. James Henry was just a washed-up Coalition officer. A wretch and a fool. He would pose no threat to the operation.

Li signaled such to Hartford, to relieve the concern about their ally's meddling. He knew that after what happened on Lowery and the Admiral's last offensive plan against the Coalition, Hartford would be quite glad to hear this.

Now, if only Li could get his ally in check, everything would be ready.

Breach of Peace

There was silent tension in the meeting room of the Lusitanian Cabinet as Prime Minister Raisuni called the government ministers to order. Vitorino and Caetano exchanged long, quiet looks that the others couldn't help but notice and feel curious over. Usually, the two had nothing to do with each other, but now it seemed like they were at odds.

"Minister Caetano, you asked for this meeting," said Raisuni. "What is the issue?"

"The disappearances," she said succinctly. "As we are all undoubtedly aware, for the last several months, there have been increasing disappearances of merchant vessels in the systems around the Trifid Nebula," Caetano said. Her remarks drew nods of understanding. "This has had a severe effect on trade in this area, and it harms our economy. For the good of our people, we must take more proactive steps."

"What steps can we take at this time, with all of our power focused upon system defense and maintaining domestic order?" Raisuni asked.

"For one matter, I do not consider these two things unrelated." Caetano's cold blue eyes swept the room. Vitorino thought she looked at him a moment longer than she should have. "These attacks have the potential to destabilize our world. As for steps, we should begin extra-solar fleet patrols, and urge our neighbors to do the same under the auspices of the Trifid Neutrality Patrol."

"This is an aggressive act you propose," Raisuni said evenly. "And a costly one. We will have to activate the fleet's emergency supply ships to enable such patrols. The costs will threaten our budget."

"True, but it is necessary." Caetano's voice was even as well. "The security of our world is at stake."

"She is correct," Vitorino said, nodding to Raisuni. "Our trade indicators are down across the board. Shipping prices are climbing steadily, especially in insurance costs. We’re getting to the point we must act or see our storehouses fill with goods we cannot sell to other worlds."

Raisuni considered the matter with a careful look. "Minister al-Idrisi, have you consulted with the other governments that are with the patrol?"

The Foreign Minister, Omar Al-Idrisi, nodded. Of primarily Moroccan ancestry, he was a member of Caetano's party, but lent the PdDN an intellectual, cultured air to leaven her stern demeanor. "I have not received replies by all, but several worlds on the Neutrality Commission are in agreement and will bring it to a vote alongside us when the committee re-commences in a month. I believe we only need a few more votes to get approval. It will not be easy, as the Galters are, as always, steadfast against further activity by neighboring navies."

"With the right arguments, then, we will have their approval. We may even have a target for them."

"Oh?" Raisuni seemed surprised.

"I have sources on New Cornwall myself, Prime Minister," Caetano said. "And I know Patterson & Yarborough believes it has a survivor of the presumed-lost Kensington Star waiting on another world. Harron, we think."

"A witness?" The question was from another minister. "Can she identify the attacker?"

"Possibly, but we have no news of confirmation yet. I will find out what I can. We will need that information to work with the others." Caetano smiled thinly. "Even those anarchist money-seekers on Galt will have to act if we find a single source for the attacks."

"I would hope so," Raisuni remarked. "Minister al-Idrisi, please keep the Cabinet apprised of all further developments on the issue, and I would like Minister Vitorino to do the same on any more news involving disappearances."

"This has gone on long enough, yes," Vitorino said. "Whether pirates or state actors, these attacks are intensifying. If we don't stop them, the League or the Coalition may move to do so."

"My thoughts exactly," Caetano agreed.

The look they shared wasn't one of agreement, though. They kept it until Raisuni adjourned the meeting. Everyone could see they were about to have a frank discussion and said nothing further before departing. It was politics, given their respective parties were the linchpins of the Raisuni Government.

"You want to talk." Caetano folded her arms. "Talk."

"You arrested one of my agents, Caetano," Vitorino said, his tone harsh. "And then threatened me. If this arrangement between our parties is to work, you should not be so quick to attack us."

"I must fulfill my duties as Defense and Home Minister, and that includes dealing with potential subversives and foreign agents," Caetano replied. "The Faith Outreach Mission is suspected. You should warn your man away if he doesn't want to be caught up in our work."

"I am well aware of that mission. It is harmless!"

"By its very existence, it is a threat to our nation," countered Caetano. "We have our own churches. Allowing the Coalition's Christians to proselytize among our people gives them the means to turn our citizens against the Estado Novo. I have reason to believe Coalition Intelligence uses it as a safe house."

Vitorino rolled his eyes. "Your paranoia is worse than Ascaro's. If this coalition fails, you will be the cause."

"Likely, and I will undoubtedly win the resulting election." Caetano's grin turned wolfish, justifying her nickname. "I wonder how many incidents of corruption your successor will find in the Trade Ministry?"

Vitorino paled with anger at that. "Do you have an accusation to make?"

"No need for one," Caetano said, almost laughing. A smile formed on her face. "Your corruption is well known, Vitorino." She leaned forward over the table. "Here, in private, let us not mince words. You are a corrupt, greedy man seeking wealth and riches. You’re a poor excuse for a Culture Minister whose knowledge of our national art begins and ends with Hakkaoui and the make of our wines, and your very existence offends me as a patriot of our world."

Vitorino listened to the calm diatribe and gave no reaction. "Then, honestly, I believe Ascaro and her democrats are right about you," he said. "You are a brute and a thug in a party built on brutality, and we are cursed that you can restrain those impulses enough to be an effective parliamentarian. Your election would be the downfall of the Republic."

Caetano showed no signs of caring about what he called her. "Then, we understand each other. I look forward to your trial, Minister."

"Perhaps it will be yours instead," he replied before standing from the chair. "Now, I have other work to get to that doesn't involve fomenting mobs against other Lusitanians. A pleasant day." The last was spoken with a cold formality that belied the sentiment supposedly expressed.

"The same to you."

They departed through opposite doors.


17

The Trifid Nebula's three lobes were a bright backdrop against the void when the Shadow Wolf completed its last jump. Piper was at the helm, and Tia seated behind her in the central chair. "Jump complete," Piper said. She turned and noted the displeased look on Tia's face. "Feels like the drive needs realignment again. Pieter's getting overworked."

"I think he enjoys it secretly," Tia said. "It gives him an ego boost to be able to say he's the only one running the ship's engines. But you are right about him being overworked." Lawrence drives were sophisticated pieces of equipment, an unsurprising fact given that they could punch holes through the fabric of space to permit instantaneous wormhole travel between solar systems. The maintenance required to maintain such machines could be extensive and time-consuming. Military vessels had the luxury of affording the necessary manpower to keep constant watches on the system and maintain it in the face of any problem. Commercially-owned ships didn't always have that same luxury. Independent ships rarely did.

Without waiting for orders, Piper ran her course calculations. She noted the various gravity fields from the planets between their ship and Harron, not to mention Harron's star itself. She ultimately chose to go "above" the system's elliptic and then "descend" on Harron. She used the maneuvering thrusters to orientate the ship and then fired the vessel's main sublight drives, a quartet of matched GXR-4500 plasma drives. When in operation, the old-fashioned electro-plasma engines gave the Shadow Wolf respectable (and expected) acceleration for her mass.

"It's a shame we can't play with the toys in the rear holds more often," Piper said while the ship gained acceleration. Inertial compensators quickly absorbed the relatively light G-forces the main drives caused. "Our runs would be much faster."

"We’d also get a lot more attention than we'd prefer," Tia noted. "And Linh made it clear that the more we use it, the more often we need to go to Trinidad Station for maintenance work."

"Well, Trinidad's not bad," Piper mused. "Not that I'd want to live there."

The door to the bridge slid open, and Vidia walked in. "I'm here t' relieve you, Ms. Lopez," he said respectfully.

"I've got our sublight course all loaded and ready," Piper said to him as she stood. Vidia knew his way around the helm. He wasn't often manning it these days, though, since he was fourth on the helm rotation since the addition of Felix to the crew.

"Understood," was the reply she received from him.

"Get some rack time," Tia said. "I have a feeling we'll need to be in top form when we reach Sektatsh."

"With this little extra mission? Yeah, we will," Piper agreed. She didn't like Harron, on reputation alone. Getting mixed up in Lusitanian politics and Coalition intelligence stuff made it worse. Not that she'd lost faith in Jim Henry to deal with it, though. The entire thing was the price she paid to have the freedom she'd craved since her grandfather had first taken her stargazing as a child.

She left Tia and Vidia. The corridor from the bridge first passed Henry's office, and his cabin on the right, while, on the left, were the quarters for Tia and Cera. Then came the first cross-corridor running the width of the ship, providing upper deck access to the forward holds and the first set of stairwells to go to the lower deck. Astern along the central corridor were the quarters for everyone else. Piper's quarters were on the starboard side. They weren't quite a live-in closet, but she'd seen horse stalls that were larger. She had a bed, a desk with a chair, and on the opposite wall, a dresser. A small shelf with viddiscs she'd collected over the years was present at the right-hand corner beside the entrance. A second shelf to the left of the door had some figurines and knick-knacks she'd bought from various worlds during her life in space. And finally, the far corner across from her bed had the portable holo-viewer she'd bought. Beyond was the small walkway which had the closet on the right-hand side and, on the left, her bathroom, with a commode and a small sink. Its far end had her shower stall.

It was not a luxury room on an interstellar liner, not even a coach room, but it was better than she'd seen on some ships. The designer of the vessel had bothered to assign enough space to each set of quarters for private facilities, after all. She didn't need to go to the common areas to shower or use the restroom. It was a useful perk.

After shedding her jumpsuit and taking a quick shower, Piper put on sleeping clothes and lay on her bed. To ease her way to sleep, she felt for the holoviewer controls and used them to activate it, then her particular program for it.

Like most people, Piper used holoviewers to watch holovids. But she'd acquired a program that used the holoviewer's networking capability and a link she'd set up with the Shadow Wolf computers to create a holoimage of stars as they would appear in her current location if she were in a planetary atmosphere. The ceiling and walls of her small quarters lit up, covered in tiny stars, while her front door had the three-lobed Trifid Nebula covering it.

Content with the view, she settled down on her bed. While it had a proper mattress, her mind reached into childhood memories and replaced it with a sleeping mat rolled out on a grass field. She was six again, and her grandfather Pete was lying beside her outside of his homestead in the Cherokee district. The smell of the grass and the soil returned, as did the memory of the weather-hardened face of her mother's father, the gentle look in his eyes, and the tone in his voice as he began pointing out stars. "That's our ancestral home, little Piper," he said once, pointing to a distant star. "Right by that star." And he would identify other stars in turn, what worlds were around them.

"Do people live on them?" asked little Piper.

"Yes. And they have great cities too, and quiet countrysides, and even little homesteads like mine."

With wonder, the little girl looked at those distant stars. "I want to go to them," she said. "Can I?"

"One day, little one, you shall," was the affectionate reply. A hand touched her shoulder. "Dream your dreams, Piper. Believe in them and reach for those stars."

Piper closed her eyes to keep the tears from forming at the old void in her heart now rekindled by the memory. "Love you, Grandpa Pete," she said softly, in the belief his spirit could hear her now. She turned in her bed and closed her eyes, seeking sleep in starlight much as when she was a child.

Breach of Peace

The planet Harron loomed large on the liquid crystal display built into the inside wall of the Shadow Wolf bridge. It was an impressive garden planet from orbit, thought Cera, with crystal blue oceans and continents covered in vibrant green and brown land. Majestic mountain ranges showed as white, given the snow-capped peaks they formed around.

"A lovely world," Henry murmured, loud enough for Tia to hear. "It's such a shame the locals are slaving bastards."

"Another injustice of the universe, really," Tia agreed.

Cera considered their remarks and found herself in agreement. She didn't say so because there was little need for it, and all of her attention was on orbital space. Harron had many satellites put up by the various kings and theocrats that ruled the planet, everything from communication satellites to orbital weapons. Hitting any of them would be bad for the Shadow Wolf and her crew, and Cera prided herself on her piloting skills, not to mention the years of training and experience that refined them.

Vidia spoke up from the auxiliary station. "It looks like our fees just went through, Captain. We're bein' granted landin' clearance to the Sektatsh Spaceport."

"Finally," said Henry. "Cera, take us in."

"Aye, sir." Cera triggered the maneuvering thrusters.

The change in positional attitude turned a stable orbit into an atmospheric entry course as provided by the traffic controllers below, while Tia gave the landing alert over the ship intercom.

The Shadow Wolf's trajectory shifted, bringing the vessel into the atmosphere. Cera's approach vector was more vertical than horizontal this time, obeying the particular restrictions the local rulers had on their airspace. For her, it was one of the trickier approaches. The thrusters would be under greater strain to resist the planet's gravity since she couldn't use the same to benefit a longer, flatter approach vector. She started to redline a couple of them and compromised with a spiral descent, letting her use the lateral thrusters and relax those that she was pushing too hard.

This also meant increased turbulence for the crew, since the course caused more strain to the inertial compensators from the higher G-forces present. It was a bumpy, uncomfortable ride down.

Gradually, the distant beige speck on green land and blue ocean turned into the outlines of a city on a sea coast, complete with a river bisecting it. Cera angled the ship toward the western side of the city, where a vast expanse of buildings and runways indicated the location of the spaceport.

Gradually, Cera evened out the spiral and brought them in from the southeastern corner of the airspace, using the final approach to finish cutting their velocity so that she had the Shadow Wolf hovering over her landing spot. She lowered the power on the thrusters and allowed Harron's gravity to bring them to a landing.

"Great landing, Cera," Henry said behind her. "Now, I know why they call it the Sektatsh Spiral."

"That you do, sir. Always wanted t' try it." Cera flashed him a grin before returning to her primary post-landing duty, cutting all power to the ship's various motive systems.

"Going bar-hopping again?" Tia asked jovially.

To that prospect, Cera laughed harshly. "I enjoy partyin', ma'am, but not that much. I'll not end up slaved t' some sassenach takin' advantage of a good drink."

"I'd rather no one left the loading area," Henry said. "I don't like this place or its reputation."

"And we may need to beat a hasty exit when this mess blows up in our face," Tia added, a wry tone to her voice.

"So no gettin' into my stash, either." Cera shrugged and finished her last task before standing. "It's all right. I want t' see about th' inertial compensators anyway. The spiral was tough, but not that tough. They may need a wee bit of realignment."

"Just don't drive Pieter up a wall" was the condition she received from Henry just before her departure from the bridge.

Breach of Peace

The landing was just the beginning of work for Henry, in more than the usual way. He left the bridge shortly after Cera, with Tia following. "That descent was a little rough, even for the course," she noted, echoing Cera's earlier sentiment. "The inertia compensators may need some work."

He answered with a nod. Henry would ensure Pieter looked into it and reminded himself he needed to hire an engineer's mate or two. Brigitte was fulfilling the mechanical role well enough, but she had a long way to go before she was a qualified engineer. He was also arguably short another hand beyond the engineers. It might be time to bring someone on.

But it could wait for later. Henry and Tia had other matters to attend to.

They met Yanik in the middle-port hold. The hold was already opened to the loading dock, where a mix of Harr'al and other species waited with pallet jacks. Among them was a stout little H'taram in something like a bathrobe designed by someone obsessed with rainbows. Only about a meter and a half in average height, the H'taram was as wide as most of his people, and in general, that matched their usual proportions. It gave the H'taram the look of a particularly wide and overweight dwarf, at least to Human eyes, but Henry knew that appearance could be deceiving.

It was the H'taram that spoke. "I am Teyanak, chamberlain to the Most Gracious Lord Pyta Sikna."

"Ah. His Lordship is not present, then?"

The reply was clipped and immediate. "Obviously not. Understand, human, that the Calnin nobility does not speak with those of lesser station that are not part of their immediate household. That is my role."

"Ah." Henry glanced toward Tia and briefly considered the idea of relegating her to be his voice, since he didn't like to deal with snooty alien nobles. But he couldn't do something like that to her. Nor would she let him, he figured. "Well, your boss's cargo is here, as promised by Minister Vitorino."

"So we are told. Before accepting the shipment, it must be inspected to His Most Gracious Lord's satisfaction."

"Who is not here?"

Teyanak indicated the necklace he was wearing. Now that Henry took a closer look at it, he realized it had a small dot in the middle of its central disc. A spy camera. His Lordship would, indeed, be observing.

Henry nodded in understanding. Better a nod than the sigh more true to his feelings. Better get this done as quickly as possible. I've got a retired spy turned spacer to find.

Breach of Peace

Stakeouts were a part of Allan Kepper's life. In his line of work, people didn't want to be found, and finding them demanded watching people. Friends, family, and lovers—surveillance was often crucial to finding a mark.

His target had none of those. The closest she had to a contact was the Harr'al Kepper's little scouts had identified. To get her, Kepper had to get him.

Doing so in Sektatsh was not easy. As a human, Kepper could only move through the Alien Quarter with ease. He counted himself lucky that "Vasily," as the target's contact was known, lived near the border of the Alien Quarter and one of the city's residential districts. Close enough that some of the denizens of these districts were non-Harr'al. Kepper didn't stand out.

Vasily lived in a small apartment in a building along a secondary avenue. Kepper found that a building across the street let out rooms daily. Sektatsh was, thankfully, the kind of city where people didn't ask questions when you did so, so there were no pointed ones when he showed up to pay a few days' worth of rent and hauled his equipment up to the desired room.

Single-man stakeouts were technically impossible since you couldn't be awake and functional at all times. Technology made up for this. The software was among the best Kepper could find, an automated system that pinged him whenever his subject was spotted and recorded the subject's movements while they were visible.

Over the course of the first day, he figured out the subject's patterns. Rarely home, for one thing, an annoyance to be sure. But he could work with that.

The second day, he received a call from Li. "You should know that you must step your timetable up," the Leaguer said. "Another party has sent an extraction team. They could arrive as early as today."

Well damn. Kepper wanted another night to get a better read on the schedule his quarry held. "I'll step up my plans," he promised. "What can you tell me about them?"

"They're a bunch of independent spacers, and we have no indications they're a threat. All you need to worry about is securing the target before they get her offworld. Li out."

Arrogant League prick. He sighed and went to his notes on Vasily's schedule. It would be time soon to for him to come home, it appeared. Kepper would be waiting.

Breach of Peace

There was no rushing Teyanak. The diminutive alien spent two hours meticulously checking every crate, even individual bottles, presumably receiving instructions from his aristocrat boss over a private commlink. During this time, no unloading was done, nor could Henry justify getting away to begin his other job. He was ready to strangle the H'taram by the end of the inspection.

Finally, Teyanak closed and re-sealed the last crate. His head turned to Henry, and two dark violet-toned eyes focused on Henry's face. "On behalf of His Most Gracious Lord, I accept this shipment. Minister Vitorino's payment is being processed as we speak, and my people are ready to transfer the shipment to our transport." He eyed where Felix, Vidia, and Brigitte were standing by with pallet jacks. "That will not be necessary; our people will handle this." Teyanak smiled gently. "Without an unloading fee against your account, Captain."

"Fine by me, then," Henry said. He turned to the others and shook his head. "They're doing the loading. Felix, stay with Yanik to observe."

Felix nodded. The trio headed for the stairs to the upper level of the hold. He took up a spot on the catwalk while the other two headed on to the door. Yanik took his place by the ramp to observe the teams coming and going.

Henry waited while Teyanak got the work crews from the loading dock before he went up to join Felix. He noticed a scowl on his old friend's face. "What is it?"

"The labor," he said. "Look."

Henry turned back to look down at the hold, where four individuals were bringing pallet jacks in. Two were Harr'al, one was H'taram, and the third was Tal'mayan, a species with skin tones in the various shades of blue. They had a vaguely humanoid shape, much like the Harr'al, although their ears were slanted downward, and their skin was as coarse as sandpaper. He wondered what Felix was getting at for a moment before his eyes settled on the choker necklaces that, upon closer inspection, were not necklaces, but collars with tags.

Slaves. Vitorino's client was using slave labor to unload Henry's cargo.

Revulsion twisted his stomach. For a brief moment, Henry considered throwing them off the ship, to hell with the consequences and Vitorino. He noted the twinkle in Felix's eye and knew he’d gladly enforce the order.

But just as quickly, Henry rejected it. A treacherous voice in his head whispered, You've seen forced labor before, and you've seen it used by your clients. On Hestia and half a dozen worlds and space stations in the neutral systems where the powerful oppress the powerless and life, and labor, is cheap. There's nothing you can do to stop it. Acting out will only hurt the people you're responsible for.

Such a calculation was a far cry from the James Henry, who had once been an idealistic CDF officer, but it fit the necessities that James Henry who was an independent trader dealt with.

Felix noted the shift in Henry's look. "You're just going to let this happen?" he asked.

"I can't fix the galaxy, Felix," Henry said softly. "Best I can do is protect this crew."

"Right." Felix nodded. He let out a little sigh. Below, the Tal'mayan was getting yelled at for nearly knocking a crate over. He didn't know what was being said, exactly, but it didn't require much imagination to guess given the forlorn expression on the being's face.

Henry stepped away quietly and continued up to the catwalk and the door to the upper deck.

He found Tia in the rec room, going over something on a tablet. She glanced up. "I've got no contacts in Sektatsh, if that's what you're wondering," she said. "I checked."

"I'm not surprised," Henry said. "Especially with that amnesty available now." He noted the dark look that came over Tia's expression and resolved not to bring it up again. "Well, I've got no contacts either. So how do we do this?"

"The first thing we do is check the ISU chapter," Tia said. "They have a hostel and hotel in the Alien Quarter. Exclusive for union members, and your allegedly-former Coalition spy is supposed to be a member."

"And it gives her a place to lay low that'll have some security," noted Henry. "Alright. I think I can remember my union ID."

"Thirty-nine ninety-eight two fifty-four," Tia said cheerfully.

Henry smiled at her. "You would remember it, wouldn't you?"

"You joined the Union to avoid problems. I joined because I genuinely believe in supporting my fraternal comrades of the spaceways," Tia replied, cheer still in her tone. A slightly somber look came to her. "You should consider being more serious about it, Jim. You've suffered from corporate moneygrubbing as much as any other spacer. More than most, really. The ISU is a brotherhood for people like us."

"There's only one brotherhood I gave my loyalty to, Tia, and that was the Coalition Defense Force," he replied, pain in his voice. "Gave 'em heart and soul."

Tia lowered her eyes. "And they betrayed you in the end."

"Yeah. So pardon me if I'm not in a hurry to join another brotherhood. Either way, I'll go check my dues paperwork for my number, then we'll go rent a vehicle." Henry turned to the door. "The sooner we get to this lady, the sooner we get off-world, and I've already had enough of Harron."


18

Another day of waiting loomed ahead for Miri Gaon. Another day of checking news sites on the commlink to see if anything else came up about the Kensington Star or other attacks on ships, and to ponder how she would deal with the investigation. Karla Lupa's legend was already undermined by the measures she took to get away. Okon would put her record under a microscope. A new legend looked increasingly necessary. Along with a change of scenery. She could find passage on a liner or transport leaving Trifid Nebula for Omega Nebula, or something like that. Maybe she would even brave Coalition space itself.

With nothing left for the moment, she started checking schedules. The spaceport already had Shadow Wolf listed as landed. But there was no sign yet of the Astra Mater, the P&Y ship Okon said was on the way to Harron for her. New Cornwall being further away from Harron would account for that, of course, at least in part. But she darkly wondered if the League might be planning on seizing the ship. Especially if they knew its purpose.

I should not fret over things I cannot influence., She stared at the list of arrivals still showing on her screen. The company ship is my primary unless I want to ruin my credibility. I need to show patience. I'm good at patience.

Breach of Peace

Kepper was actually watching his monitors when Vasily came home this time. He grinned at his luck and the paying off of his patience. Given what Li said, he had to act now if he was going to get the mark. An annoying necessity, since it meant he didn't have time to plan things fully, but that was how life was.

A quick trip down a stairwell brought Kepper to the ground floor. He left his building and went out into the avenue. Traffic was heavy, wheeled, and the occasional anti-grav or helicar vehicle filling the streets, so he had to be agile in weaving through it, taking advantage of the frequent stops as he did. He entered Vasily's building behaving as if he had every right to be there, which was the usual approach one took to keep anyone from questioning your arrival. No one said anything to him as he rounded a corner and entered a stairwell. He went up the required number of stairs and found his way to his mark’s room. The door was locked. He knocked.

The door opened a crack and a cautious Harr'al eye showed. "What you want?" asked the figure in broken English.

"I am from Old-Rite Church," Kepper answered, effecting a Russian accent that his old accent coach would have appreciated. "They sent me to warn you. Nasty people after woman you help."

Vasily seemed to consider the warning for a moment. There was little trust in that alien eye. Kepper glanced around as if nervous, helping him sell the role while he made a genuine check for potential interlopers. "Make sign of cross."

Kepper did, using three fingers to gesture at his forehead first and then his right and left shoulders. Vasily's eye twitched. He knew then he'd done it wrong.

Oh well. He could never keep straight how the damn churches did their silly gesture anyway.

Just as Vasily tried to slam the door, Kepper brought his foot up and kicked at it, hard. Metal snapped, and the door flew all the way open, hitting the Harr'al resident as it did and sending him flying backward. He stomped in and drew the pistol from the small of his back. Vasily made a little panicked noise before a pulse blast hit him square in the chest. It was a weak shot that hurt more than it wounded, but the jolt it delivered had the side-effect of seizing the alien’s body up, stunning him. Kepper reached back and closed the door until it was cracked, waiting for the sounds of an alarm being raised. When there were none, he finished shutting it before turning back to his stunned quarry and reached for the tie straps in his jacket pocket.

By the time he had Vasily's wrists and ankles secure, the Harr'al was regaining the ability to speak. "You slaver?" he asked fearfully. It was the tone of a former slave terrified of being returned to that state, and Kepper felt a little surge of pleasure from causing it. He fought the urge down. "What you want?"

"I want your spacer friend," Kepper replied. "Cooperate, or I'll head straight to the Trader Quarter with you and find the most ruthless, vicious slave-driver looking for more laborers and sell you to him. Understand?"

"Understand," was the scared reply.

"Good." Kepper smiled thinly at him. He tilted his head to the apartment commlink. "I'd like you to call her."

For a moment, he thought the Harr'al would resist, but slowly, Vasily went over to his commlink and tapped at it. After several moments, a Hebrew-accented voice came over the line. "Yes, Vasily?"

"Me have more food for you. From Father Nikolai," Vasily said.

"Alright. Bring it by."

Kepper frowned, but only for a moment. Given the League wanted her for something, and wanted her bad, he was suspecting she wasn't just a spacer but a careful operator of some sort. After all, the ISU hostel was an environment where she could retain some control over access, which was already limited. A smart move, especially if she knew she was being hunted.

"Will give message when I there." Vasily ended the call and gave a forlorn, worried look to Kepper. "Why you hurt nice lady?"

An urge came, nearly unstoppable, to smash the alien's rubbery, inhuman face in. Kepper's control slammed down. The creature wasn't worth it, so there would be no enjoyment. "You've got a helicar," he said, making it clear it wasn't a question. "Give me the access code."

His captive made a mewling sound but ultimately obeyed. Kepper decided to put off dealing with the Harr'al for the moment and stuffed him away in a closet. He could come back and deal with Vasily when he was done with the target.

Breach of Peace

When the call from Vasily ended, Miri went back to checking on her messages, unable to banish a growing uncertain dread building within her. She'd received no further messages from P&Y on her incoming ride. While that alone wasn't surprising, some of the questions coming from Okon were quite impertinent. She could sense the corporate security officer's suspicions about her. She couldn't even entirely blame Okon for them, but right now, they were dangerous for Miri, and indeed for everyone else. Anything that gave the League cover for their attacks could help them prevail in the end. And she didn't need to know precisely what their plan was to realize it was not for the best.

And now… now Vasily called about food. Unprompted. Indeed, she needed none for at least several more days. Why would he get her more so soon? Maybe Father Nikolai had extra, and it might be perishable? The matter stewed in her mind. You have to be careful about that paranoia, Miri.

It was a problem for ex-operatives like her, especially if you knew for sure someone was still out to get you. You started to see threats everywhere, and reacting to it could expose you as much as people learning your past. Karla Lupa was already losing viability as a legend, but she needed to keep the pretense up a little longer. She would have to be cautious and keep her mind open.

Breach of Peace

The rented helicar glided into the approved transit lanes that weaved through the taller buildings of Sektatsh. In the driver's seat, Cera glanced over to whether Henry and Tia were looking out at the sights. "Not much to speak of," she said. "Reminds me of Dunbarton. Just add slaves and slavers, the bastards."

"Not much we can do about it," Henry said. "Just keep your eye on the skylane." While Cera did just that, Henry glanced around at Sektatsh and considered how many of the people below were in the same circumstances as those poor workers who were still unloading the last of the cargo. Fifteen years ago, Henry would have relished the chance to visit this planet with the fleet and a few divisions of Marines to end Harr'al slavery once and for all. But now, all he felt was a familiar sense of disappointment in an unjust galaxy. It reinforced his conviction that if the God he once believed in did exist, He turned his back on His flawed, disappointing creations long ago. Henry couldn't blame Him for such given his own sense of disappointment.

"Shouldn't let it get to me," he muttered under his breath. It's the way the world works. All I can do is look out for the people I'm responsible for.

"Looks like we've made it to the Alien Quarter," Tia said, noting the change in the layout and design of the buildings. "Cera, you should be able to see the ISU center soon."

"Right." Cera kept an eye on the buildings ahead while checking the helicar's traffic control systems that kept her in the approved flight paths. The system flagged her destination as approaching and directed her to a landing course to bring the helicar to street level.

The streets of the Alien Quarter were clean, mostly, and probably the safest in the city. Armed beings of several species walked predictable patrol patterns. "They look more like an occupying army than cops," Henry noted.

"I doubt they're cops," said Tia. "Probably a citizen militia to keep slavers out."

Cera turned the helicar down one road and then another before they were at the entrance to the ISU center. Henry noted the emblem of the Union was displayed proudly above the door. He saw Tia's little smile upon seeing it. "Always good to see a Spacer Union buildin'," Cera said. "Hostel's not bad, and the Union helped me find my last berth before you took me on."

"Glad to know they're worth it. Pull us up and find a place to wait for us, I don't know how long we'll be."

"Right, sir."

The helicar moved into the drop-off lane in front of the entrance. Henry and Tia stepped down from the helicar, feeling the repeated pulsing ripple of displaced air against their ankles and feet from the helicar's anti-grav engines being so close to the ground. The effect dissipated after the first steps to the door. "You've never been in one of these, have you?" Tia asked.

"I can't say I have," he said.

"That's the luxury of having your own ship. Not all spacers have a regular billet. They need somewhere to stay between jobs." Tia led him through the door. In one direction was a rec-room, another led to other places, and a third to the lobby counter. "Looks like they added a hotel unit." Tia shook her head. "Catering to the antisocial types. Or people like Felix, hardcore individualist types."

"Because they offer hotel rooms?"

"Hotel rooms are private, individual," Tia pointed out. "Hostels are communal. Spacers live, cook, eat, and sleep together."

"Like a crew."

"Right. Works for building solidarity."

"But annoying as hell if you want some alone time. That's not an individualist talking; it's the part of me that remembers barracks living when I was called up," Henry said.

Tia nodded in acknowledgment and said nothing more of the subject. She only spoke up when they arrived at the lobby desk. "Thirty-nine ninety-eight two fifty-four," she said to the young Asian man at the counter. He was bald, with star pattern tattoos joined by Japanese kanji characters.

"Four Zero Two Six Six Nine Eight," Henry added.

The desk attendant entered the numbers. "Tia… Nig-u-yen? James Henry. Welcome."

"Nguyen," Tia corrected, pronouncing it "Nwen."

"I'm sorry. What can I help you with?" he asked.

"We're here to check up on a fellow spacer," Tia said. "Karla Lupa."

The concierge's eyes widened slightly at the name. "The Kensington Star survivor?" he asked. "I'm afraid I can't help you there. I've got orders."

"I'm sure you do," Henry said. "We don't want to know where she is exactly, just that she's safe, and for you to give her a message."

After several moments of consideration, he nodded. "Alright. The message?"

"Tell her that I've been hired to give her a ride out of Harron if she needs it. She's got a mutual acquaintance that contracted to me to ensure her safe departure."

The concierge nodded. "I'll send the message off." As he spoke, his hands were moving behind the desk, presumably typing the message, and he gave them wary looks, as if expecting them to try and glance over the counter to watch what he was doing.

"We're not here to hurt her," Tia insisted. "Please, trust me on that as a fellow spacer."

"With all the ships disappearing… we can't be too careful, you know?" was the apologetic reply. "You can wait if you want."

Henry nodded. "Fine by me." He turned away from the desk and went for the lobby, where he found a chair facing the HV. Someone else had an episode of what he guessed was The War Patrol on. When Tia took a seat beside him, he said, "I wouldn't be surprised if she tells us to go away."

"If she's not sure who to trust, she might," Tia agreed. "Although wouldn't al-Lahim tell her about us?"

"He would have, but that doesn't mean she'll trust us. We don't even know how well she gets on with him, after all." Henry rested his hands on his knees. "Let's give it a while. If we don't hear back, I'll contact al-Lahim." Left unsaid, for obvious reasons, was whether or not he'd yet to figure out how to get Miri to Lusitania and balance the conflicting desires of their various employers. That could wait until they had Miri Gaon safely in hand.

Breach of Peace

Had Miri known the call from the concierge was coming, she might not have immediately reacted to the message she received just as Henry and Tia entered the ISU building. It was from Vasily's link, letting her know he was waiting outside.

Not an audio call. A text message.

Every instinct as an operative told Miri to stay away. To back off. Whether innocent or not, it was a bit too suspicious. She should stay away, keep her bugout pack ready, and wait for confirmation of a trip off-world.

What kept her from doing this was genuine worry for Vasily. If this was a trap, it meant he was being held by someone targeting her. Whatever her instincts said, she was long-past tired of people dying for her sake, or her missions.

After checking to ensure her firearms were all in place on her person, Miri left her room and headed downstairs. She went out the side entrance to avoid going through the lobby and possible surveillance. Once on the street, it was a quick trip over to the parking lot further down, where she knew Vasily would be waiting to meet her if it was him. The lot was nestled between two of the larger buildings and stretched across two blocks’ worth of adjacent buildings. A protective fence limited entrance and exit through lanes that would scan vehicles, allowing the lot owners to charge vehicle owners remotely. A smaller entrance allowed for foot traffic to enter and exit.

It was convenient, but the number of people coming through at this time was slow and combined with the limited access, it was a decent ambush spot.

She visually scanned the lot to find Vasily's Harr'al-built helicar and soon located it in one corner of the lot dedicated to that kind of vehicle.

When she saw no sign of Vasily in the seats, her suspicions increased. Again, a part of her screamed to get back into the ISU building and batten down the hatches. But Vasily deserved better than that. He earned her honest effort to check on his well-being.

As she continued to the vehicle, her hand slipped to the small of her back and pulled the Burleigh & Armstrong pulse pistol from its holster. She glanced around to see if anyone was watching her before bringing the gun up openly. She advanced the final meters to the vehicle and looked inside, weapon pointed.

There was no sign of a body or food. Only a—

Miri was already in a backward jump when her brain identified the stun grenade. She hit the ground back first and used the momentum to roll further backward. A moment later, there was a high-pitched buzz through the air and a burst of energy from the car.

The field generated by the burst faltered just shy of Miri. She'd acted just in time. Recognizing her situation as an ambush, she kept low and scanned the area visually.

A sapphire bolt struck her in the arm as she turned. It burned her flesh, and her arm muscles seized up while her hand spasmed, dropping her gun. Miri slipped around the helicar she was kneeling beside to get out of the firing angle of her attacker.

Breach of Peace

Kepper was impressed. He was confident the stun grenade would work, but his mark had excellent instincts in getting out of the area of effect. She took cover quickly enough that he considered it a lucky shot when his second shot winged her arm. He saw her gun hit the ground and aimed a second shot at it, damaging the weapon and knocking it further away from her.

All of it gave him the opening he needed. He moved from his vantage point across from the helicar spots toward his mark's location. She had only one route to take, and he kept it covered as he moved ahead. When she did poke her head toward the corner of her covering vehicle, he fired a shot into the air beside her, driving her back into cover so he could close the distance.

Kepper kept the gun pointed ahead and downward as he finally rounded the helicar. His mark was slouched down to her knees, her right arm dangling uselessly, eyes fixed on him with concentration and a bit of frustration, maybe some anger in them.

A part of him wished he saw fear. He would enjoy seeing fear, as he always did. It was the next best thing to pain.

"Hands up," he said aloud. "You're caught."

Breach of Peace

Miri glanced up at her attacker. Caucasian male, mid to late thirties, she estimated. A League operative, or someone in their employ. She swallowed, ignoring his sarcastic remark and expressing the question on her mind. "Where's Vasily?"

"Not your concern anymore." Kepper kept one hand on his gun and reached to his pocket. He pulled out a tie strap. "Put this on your—"

Miri's left hand moved up from where she'd had it by her left ankle and shin. Instead of being empty, however, it now had one of the Makarov-made flechette pistols. She pulled the trigger as soon as it was level with her would-be captor's legs. There was a loud, high-pitched sound, akin to rushing air, and the pistol expelled a tight spray of metal flechettes that ripped through fabric and flesh and muscle.

The force of the impact, and the pain to his gored limb, brought the leg out from Miri's attacker. He fired as he fell, but Miri was already in motion. The shot whizzed a few centimeters past her head, and she crashed into him a moment later. With his balance gone and his leg wounded, he couldn't keep the impact from knocking him onto his back. Miri kicked his hand, and the gun dropped from it. She used the other foot to kick the weapon further away.

Her attacker brought his other hand over and grabbed at her right ankle. It didn't quite grip the holdout pistol, a copy of the one in her hand, as he instead pulled hard to take her leg out from under her. Miri stumbled forward and hit the ground, knees first.

"Bitch," rasped the man. She turned, her flechette gun up to put another round into him. Her left shoulder exploded in pain a moment later from the slug that blew through it. Her foe had another gun out now, this one a slug-throwing mag-pistol, and he fired a second shot that ripped flesh from her left side. The first shot was the worst, however, as it caused Miri to drop the gun from her left hand and left both arms useless.

Despite his wounded leg, her attacker started to push himself back to his feet, one hand holding the mag-pistol and the other gripping the nearby helicar's bumper for balance. A fierce look covered his face. "If the League weren't paying me for you to be intact, I'd—"

That was when a helicar hit him.

Breach of Peace

After letting off Henry and Tia, Cera started a circuit of the area around the ISU building. Most of the nearby buildings were combinations of businesses and homes, with the former being on the lower floors and the latter on the upper. Traffic in the Sektatsh Alien Quarter was relatively active, and she had few openings to sit on the curb.

Not wanting to stray far, she finally opted to pull the helicar into the nearby public lot. She didn't plan on being there for long, so it wouldn't charge too much to their rental account. Signs directed her toward the spots reserved for helicars, right and then left.

Cera made the final turn as the first thundercrack split the air. It was not an explosion so much as akin to thunder, the sound of air being violently displaced by a force or object. The second coming a moment later told her it was not an innocent sound, and likely a weapon. A mag-pistol or rifle, she guessed. She lowered her right hand for the pulse pistol tucked in the helicar console without needing to look down, as she was too busy looking for the source of the shots.

She found them.

A spray of blood came from the shooting victim. Now Cera could make out the two figures beside one of the helicars. One was wounded in the leg and had trouble standing, the other was on her knees with neither arm moving. In shifting himself, the male with the hurt leg gave Cera a better look at the female. She recognized the woman immediately.

Crap. No time to get the Captain or the others.

She remembered the stakes Henry explained and what Caetano might do if they didn't get this witness. Felix could lose his brother, who was by all accounts a man of God and not someone to let down.

Well, somewhat. He was a Protestant, after all. But Cera couldn't hold that against him.

At that moment, as her foot slammed down on the accelerator of the helicar, Cera was grateful it wasn't an aircar. The gunman would've heard her by now, and she'd be getting shot at. Helicars were nice and quiet, or at least more silent than other modes of transportation.

Which meant her opponent never saw her coming.

The gunman was lucky in one respect. The distance didn't allow Cera to get the helicar up to a lethal velocity before she slammed into him. It still sent him flying down the lot driveway. He rolled to a stop and was still for a moment.

Cera wasn't going to assume he was dead. She grabbed her pulse pistol and jumped from the driver's seat. Once on the ground, she went across the front of the car, gun held ready in one hand, to approach Miri Gaon. Blood poured from Miri's shoulder and side, and her other arm was equally useless with a pulse burn visible on the exposed bicep. "C'mon there, miss," she said, reaching down to help Miri stand. A wince crossed the woman's face at her wounds being jostled. Cera brought her over to the helicar rear passenger side and opened the door for her.

"Who are you?" Miri asked, her tone one of disbelief.

"Ah, just a good Samaritan, ye might say," Cera replied, just in case the man she'd hit was listening in. "I can get ye t' a doctor."

Miri settled into the seat and tried to move her arms despite the horrific wounds.

Cera rushed over to the other side of the helicar and got back in the driver's seat.

Ahead, the gunman was starting to stir.

Cera's mind raced as she considered the space around her. Because of her position, she didn't quite have enough room to pull off a three-point turn, and with the bad guy beginning to move, she needed to get going. "I've always wanted t' try this," she said, hitting the key to activate the seat harnesses. The automated straps moved into position, holding both to their chairs. "Hang on back there!"

With one hand on the wheel and her feet on the pedals, Cera took the shift stick for the helicar's anti-grav motors and set them to full. The car lifted into the air. In the same motion, she twisted the wheel, causing the helicar's maneuvering anti-gravs to spin the vehicle in place. As soon as the turn was past the halfway point, Cera shifted the power back down. Instead of the anti-gravs slowly lowering the craft like usual, they reduced immediately, like a submarine performing a crash-dive. The car dropped until it was just above the ground, a jarring experience that drew a pained grunt from the back seat. Cera floored the accelerator and sent the helicar forward. One last glance in the rear-view mirror told her that the gunman was still recovering. "Ha!" she called out in triumph. "That'll show th' bloody bastard, ambushin' someone like that! Bet he was a bloody slaver too!"

Miri looked at her with a combination of gratitude and uncertainty. "Who are you?" she asked Cera.

"Cera McGinty, at yer service," Cera announced proudly.

At that moment, her link went off. "Cera, we've heard there's been shots," Henry said. "What's going on out there?"

"Well, Captain, funny you should mention that—"

Breach of Peace

Kepper was beside himself with rage as he watched the tail end of the helicar disappear around the corner of the lot aisle. He'd never had a mark slip away like that before. Had he missed an accomplice? This wouldn't have happened if that League jackass hadn't forced me to rush! Anger flooded his mind. Or if he'd told me how good they were!

That made him think about Li. He wouldn't be happy if Kepper failed. And while he was more than willing to kill anyone Li sent to liquidate him, it would get tiring having to look over his shoulder for League assassins. Besides, Allan Kepper never failed to snag a mark. That was his promise to clients. He always got his man, or woman for that matter.

With a snarl on his face, Kepper lifted himself to his feet and started hobbling back to the Harr'al's helicar. First things first, a visit to Doc Zuyev, to get his leg treated, and for the time he needed. That is, the time to run the plate numbers on the escape vehicle.


19

When the helicar pulled up with their potential passenger bleeding in the back seat, Henry found he was speechless for a moment. Mostly because he wasn't sure whether to praise Cera's initiative or yell at her for putting herself into danger without backup. Silence proved an acceptable mid-way point of the two. He climbed in the front passenger seat while Tia rushed around and climbed in behind Cera, allowing her to get to the stricken Miri Gaon. "Please, get me into the Center," Miri said hoarsely. "Please."

"They don't have a full medical staff on-site, and you need a doctor," Henry said. He nodded to Cera. "Get us back."

"Yes, sir."

Miri swallowed while Tia examined her wounds, grimacing. Blood from Miri’s wounds was already soaking the cheap cloth interior. Tia pulled her jacket off and pushed it against the shoulder wound, which was worse. Miri let out a short cry of agony.

"You're going to bleed to death if I don't," Tia warned. She noted the other wound, on Miri's side, was oozing blood as well. "Henry, I need something, she's bleeding from two wounds. It's not good."

Despite Cera beginning a skyward ascent into the sky traffic lanes, Henry briefly released his harness to shed his jacket. He handed it back to Tia, who took it with her left hand and applied it to the second wound while her right kept the shoulder wound under pressure.

"Get me to the center," Miri repeated, grimacing from the pain shooting through her arms.

"It's not safe for you there," Henry said. "Whoever is after you, they know where you are."

Tia flashed him a look. "The Union would fight for her."

"Maybe so, but there's more than one way to take someone from a place like that," Henry replied, trying not to sound like he was insulting the ISU's ability to protect its members. "And if this guy's willing to open fire, or has buddies who will, how many spacers could get killed?"

In the back, Miri started to slouch carefully, her hand gently moving toward the remaining pistol on her ankle.

Tia's arm reached over and grabbed her. "We're not here to hurt you," she said to Miri. "We're here to get you to safety."

Miri tried to fight, but with the pain in her left side and the damage to her right arm, she couldn't quite escape Tia despite the latter's awkward leverage. "Who are you people?"

"I'm Tia Nguyen, First Mate of the Shadow Wolf, an independent ship," Tia said. "We've been hired to extract you."

"James Henry," Henry said from the front seat. "Captain of the same ship. This is our helmswoman Cera McGinty."

Miri let out a small sigh of relief. "I… I see. Abdul sent you."

"If you mean Major al-Lahim, yes, he did," Henry said. "He said you were one of his once."

"More like he was one of mine," she said softly. "I helped train him for a brief time, before I retired."

"I'd say you made an impression, then."

Miri imagined she did, but she didn't say so. She felt wrong, sick, and she laid her head back as sweat poured down her face. Beside her, Tia gave her a worried look. "She might be going into shock," she warned Henry and Cera.

"Cera, get us to the spaceport as quickly as you can. Without breaking the traffic codes." Henry added the last to make sure. The Harr'al tolerated a lot of things, but violating air traffic laws for helicars was one thing he suspected they paid close attention to.

"Goin' as fast as I can, sir," she answered.

By that point, Henry was already bringing his commlink up. "Felix, get Oskar prepped. We've got wounded in need of medical attention."

"Roger that," Felix said.

Nothing more was said as the helicar sped its way on to the spaceport.

Breach of Peace

In the seedier blocks of the Alien Quarter, Doctor Zuyev maintained a personal practice that catered primarily to the dark economy of Sektatsh, namely wounded criminals and sick slaves. Kepper watched as one such slave, a Harr'al, was pushed out of an exam room by an irate master of the same species growling something in the local language. This allowed the male Tal'mayan nurse to give Kepper entry. "Doctor Zuyev will be with you shortly," the nurse promised before closing the door.

Kepper limped over to the bed and sat down on it. Frustration still roiled within him about the unexpected interruption, and how Li had failed to warn him of the effectiveness of the extraction team. The "independent spacers" claim felt stretched given how effectively that helicar driver had removed the mark.

Kepper was not in the mood to talk when his link activated. The code confirmed it was Li calling it, and Kepper only answered so he could lead off with, "Independent spacers my ass, Li!"

On the small holo-screen the commlink displayed, Li's expression turned immediately sour. "So, you failed."

"You didn't tell me they had someone who could drive a helicar like that! What else are you hiding about this crew of so-called 'independent traders'?!"

Li gave him a sarcastic look. "They're not operatives, Kepper. Maybe you're just overrated."

At that moment, Kepper longed to kill Li. He could taste the fear he'd bring to the arrogant Leaguer in his final moments. He gritted his teeth and bit down the impulse. "Even if they're not operatives, they're something more than mere independent spacers! Just who the hell are these people anyway?"

"That's privileged intelligence information. I'm afraid I can't share it," Li responded. "Should I be hiring someone else?"

Kepper snarled. "I'm not done yet, Li. I've got their helicar number, so I'm going to track them when I'm done. You'll get your mark."

"See that I do." With that, Li ended the call.

Kepper forced ice-cold control into himself to prevent his anger from leading to something foolish, like pitching his link into the wall. He took in a deep breath and blocked out the desire to do horrible things to Li until the urges went away. With control restored, he sent off the helicar number to his contact in the Sektatsh Traffic Control agency, with instructions to give him their location ASAP.

By that point, the door opened, and Doctor Zuyev entered, bringing with him a tray of equipment. "It is not often I see you here, Kepper," he said, his English tinged with a Russian accent. "Job going bad?"

"Unexpected complication," Kepper said, his voice stable and unemotional. "I need to get back to it."

"Of course, of course. I will have you out shortly. You always pay well."

That’s precisely why I pay so well.

Breach of Peace

Li looked up from his monitor for a moment and let his irritations seethe in his mind. He wondered what he'd misjudged. Kepper's competence? The man did have quite a reputation, but perhaps it was unearned. Or did intel miss something about the Shadow Wolf?

He looked it up. The Shadow Wolf's known crew listing, at least on League intelligence lists, was too small for the ship, so there were things about them that weren’t known. Could an operative of some sort be on the vessel?

Or maybe it was just dumb luck. That happened.

Either way, Li knew Admiral Hartford was not going to rest easy until Miri Gaon was in custody. Disappointing him would not do the cause any good. Li would have to make arrangements.

It was something he wasn't bad at. With a couple of button presses, he brought up the list of assets the League had in local pirate bands and security forces. Someone would be interested in a payday to seize the Shadow Wolf and secure Miri Gaon.

Breach of Peace

The helicar pulled into the Shadow Wolf hangar to find the unloading job completed. Henry felt relieved at that since it meant no dealing with that fussy chamberlain, especially on why he was returning with a bloodied vehicle and someone new. He darkly wondered if they'd suspect he'd "stolen" a slave away.

Oskar, Felix, and Brigitte were waiting with their one anti-grav stretcher for emergencies. Henry and Tia helped Miri from the back seat and, with their assistance, onto the stretcher itself. She was rather pale. "She's definitely in shock," Tia said, her voice strained.

"Indeed." Oskar checked his medscanner and nodded to the others. "To the infirmary, now." As they rushed away Oskar continued giving orders. "Brigitte, I'll need you to run a blood sample for the synthblood synthesizer."

"Captain." Cera's voice turned his attention to the vehicle. She was looking in the back seat, where two angry splotches of blood were showing on the cloth surface. "The rental agency's goin' t' freak at that, sir. Can we clean it?"

"We can, with some work," Tia said. There was no mistaking she was shaken. When she noticed the way Henry was looking at her, with worry and sympathy, her gray eyes flared with frustration. "Don't feel pity for me, Jim. You've got your old memories too, and you don't like being pitied over them either."

"True," he conceded. "I'll leave you two to the cleanup, and I'll send Vidia to help. I need to go send some messages and file our departure plan." He turned away. "It's time to get the hell off this planet."

Breach of Peace

Kepper walked out of Zuyev's office feeling restored, physically anyway. His ego still felt bruised, and Li's remarks stung more than he thought they would. His pride made that sting unavoidable, granted, but that pride was important. Professional pride was the shell he used to keep his urges in check.

Given he was still waiting for news from his contact, Kepper flew the helicar back to Vasily's building. He was pleased to see no sign that the apartment was disturbed in his absence. Upon entering, he went to the storage closet in the bedroom and tapped the key to trigger the sliding door. It opened, revealing a much bedraggled Harr'al bound and gagged. Given the mess he'd made of his things, it was obvious to Kepper that Vasily did what he could to try and escape, although now his captive was just silently kneeling, head bowed, and eyes closed.

Given the frustrations of the day, Kepper felt a greater readiness to satisfy his urges, just a little. Only a few deep cuts. Nothing too messy. He might have done so had he not felt the call intensify, enough that he doubted his control. There was a possible time crunch, and if he genuinely lost control, well, that would be too messy. Not to mention loud. No, not today. There would be no giving in to urges.

The part of him that wanted to satisfy himself, the proverbial devil on his shoulder, suggested a compromise. He might not enjoy the Harr'al's physical agony and prolonged death, but the emotional agony and terror of being dragged off to the Trader Quarter's slavers? That would be at least satiate the need. He would get to hear the wailing and begging, see the terror in that rubbery face, in those pale green eyes. It would be delicious.

But again, his damned pride stepped in. He'd told the Harr'al he'd only sell him to a slaver if he didn't cooperate, and Vasily had done just that. Some might scoff at the idea of honor among thieves—and kidnappers and assassins and slavers—but there had to be some expectation of a promise being fulfilled, or nothing would get done. That was how Kepper had been taught, and it was how he saw the world work. He wasn't about to sacrifice his pride for the pleasure of the Harr'al's terror at being returned to slavery.

Kepper considered his options. He supposed he could let Vasily go free, but that was sloppy. He could identify him and knew things about the situation that might yet hurt his efforts. No, that wouldn't do.

Vasily gave him a forlorn look. "You kill me now."

Kepper could see it wasn't a question. Vasily knew he wasn't walking away. Kepper was impressed. Then again, just because Vasily spoke English in that broken way didn't mean he was simple. And he'd had hours to realize the situation.

When Kepper didn't say anything right away, Vasily asked, "May I pray?"

He shrugged. "If you think anyone's listening, sure." As he spoke, his hand reached behind his back to pull out his pulse pistol. He put the muzzle against Vasily's bowed head. Vasily's voice began lowly speaking in what he figured was Russian or some other related language. He didn't bother turning on his auto-translator, not particularly caring for what was being said. Instead, he pulled out his commlink to see if there were any messages from his contact.

The speaking stopped. Kepper turned his head back to Vasily. The Harr’al’s pale green eyes were fixed on him. He’s ready for the end. Perhaps there would be enjoyment in letting the moment linger. Give him some hope and time to consider his end, to allow some terror of death to come back. Kepper did have time to kill after all. His commlink went off. Using his free hand, he checked it. His contact had a reply.

Kepper's finger tensed on the trigger. There was the hard-toned whiff of a pulse pistol shot and the thud of a lifeless body, once on its knees, falling over. He glanced down at Vasily's corpse and noted something akin to peace on the alien face, the rubbery skin relaxed in death.

That was one loose thread dealt with. Kepper had a ship, and a mark, to catch.


20

After filing a departure flight plan with the Sektatsh Spaceport, Henry sent off quick messages to the various parties interested in Miri, letting them know she was on the ship. He was still wondering just how the hell he was going to satisfy Vitorino, al-Lahim, and Caetano, all at once.

If that was impossible, well, then he was indeed between a rock and a hard place. Vitorino was his employer. Without his patronage, Lusitania, and other worlds where Vitorino's trade network had weight, would be tight spots to find work in. On the other hand, Caetano would certainly have Jules imprisoned and go after Henry and the rest of the crew. Al-Lahim couldn't be ignored either: Coalition Intelligence could make all sorts of trouble for him, given his status back home.

A knock at his door prompted Henry to look up. "Come in," he said. Felix walked through the door, concern showing on his face. "Is our passenger doing all right?"

"Yeah. She's stabilizing." Felix slid into one of the available chairs. "So we've got our package. What now?"

"We take her back to Lusitania and get your brother cleared," Henry replied.

"You've got some grand plan to appease Coalition Intel, Minister Vitorino, and Caetano?" Seeing Henry's irritated glance at that query, Felix sighed and shook his head. "You don't."

"I'm working on it. That's the best I can do," Henry said.

"I'm not sure how you can satisfy them all," said Felix. "But if you don't follow through with Caetano—"

"Jules is the priority." Henry adopted a tone he hoped would reassure his oldest friend about his too-stubborn, absolutely faith-filled brother. "I just have to hope we can do this in a way that appeases Vitorino and al-Lahim as well."

"Well, CIS only seems interested in keeping her safe. We get her safely to Lusitania, and we've done that. Vitorino's going to be the problem, I figure. I know he's playing up that he wants the truth out as the Trade Minister, but knowing his rep, he has another motive."

"Vitorino always has ulterior motives," Henry noted wryly.

Felix took a moment, perhaps to consider his next remarks. "And what about this disappearances thing? Do you think our new passenger is an actual witness?"

"Well, either she is, or it's a mighty big coincidence that League intelligence tracked her down to Harron from a lost ship. And you remember what they said about coincidences back at New Halsey, don't you?"

"'Coincidences usually aren't'," quoted Felix from memory. "Then that would imply the League's involved with what's going on, or at least knows who is and is working with them in some way."

"That's my read too. But we won't know for sure until Miri talks." Henry looked toward the stern of the ship, in the general direction of the ship infirmary. "We'd better hope Oskar keeps her stabilized."

"In the meantime, I'm going to join Yanik down in the holds. Get some things ready. Just in case."

Henry recognized what Felix meant. He nodded in agreement with the sentiment. "You do that," he said, eyeing the family rifle briefly. Felix caught the gesture and nodded, showing he understood what Henry was thinking. Without another word, he stood and departed.

Breach of Peace

After leaving Vasily's body in his apartment, Kepper finished his cleanup with haste. The helicar was dealt with by a scrubbing program that wiped the system blank. Arrangements were made for his stakeout gear to be cleared out—he didn't have time to do it himself—while he made his way to the spaceport.

With the information from his contact on hand, Kepper didn't have trouble finding the helicar rental agency. Once he arrived, he found the staff reasonably flexible—that is, willing to cooperate for a reasonable bribe—and got the information he needed.

A few minutes later, the data filled the digital display on his personal reader. The vehicle was rented out by an independent trading shipowner, James Henry, co-owner and captain of the Shadow Wolf out of Darien. Kepper didn't recognize the name of the captain or ship. After considering if someone might have practiced some datahack-enabled identity theft, he reasoned such a vessel and crew would make for a quick and dirty extraction team. Independent traders needed work since they lacked the steady contracts that many shipping companies enjoyed. Getting paid to move a single person from one world to another was probably an ideal payday to them.

With this information in mind, Kepper decided to reach out to another contact. He was in luck here; while his guy in traffic control was more of an equal in terms of mutual arrangement, he had dirt on one of the higher-level administrative officials of the spaceport. One Trafan Desik, a Harr'al from across the planet who ran a smuggling ring that the city and neighboring Calnin authorities had little love for. Kepper kept a functioning relationship with Desik by occasionally doing small jobs for him, but never failing to remind him that Desik's fate was in his hands.

As usual, Desik was not happy at his arrival. Having a human lord it over him, whatever small benefits Kepper's work did for him, did not sit well with the Harr'al's pride. He had that same rubbery skin texture as the rest of his species, but with a pinkish tint you didn't see among Calnin. His violet-toned eyes looked pensively at Kepper. "This isn't going to be easy," he warned. "This ship is here working for the Trade Minister of Lusitania. Lord Sikna paid for his cargo. I must have a strong reason to suspend the ship's departure with such personages involved."

That tidbit interested Kepper. The Trade Minister of Lusitania, Duarte Vitorino, had a growing reputation as a man with wealth, taste, and a position that let him enhance both. He was also known for getting things done and had his own network among various Trifid Nebula Region worlds, even private trade routes. Was he involved with the mark in some way? Or the League's interest? He filed that thought away for later.

What was more immediately important was that the Shadow Wolf's departure was about to be approved.

"You can't demand an inspection?" asked Kepper as he surveyed Desik's lavish office. "I just need time to move a team into place and take my target back out."

"My authority is limited on these matters. I can't stop a ship without cause."

He considered options. A small grin came to his face. "Lord Sikna can't complain if a man is keeping a servant from running, can he?"

Drisk scrunched his nose area up. "I think I see what you are suggesting. I can order the ship's launch suspended if we have reason to believe an escaped slave is aboard."

"Sounds good to me."

"But all I can do is order a brief suspension," Drisk warned. "Without an actual database-identified slave verified, I can't even get permission for a security team to respond. You might have an hour before my suspension will be revoked. Maybe less."

"You let me worry about that," said Kepper, already considering his available courses of action. "Just stop that ship."

"I'll send the suspension order, then. Just don't mess this up."

"I don't intend to."

Breach of Peace

Cera and Tia returned the helicar after a heavy-duty use of the ship's industrial cleaners bleached out the blood spots. The rental agency was quite unhappy, and Tia did not look forward to Henry seeing the bill when it came. They returned to the ship via a smart aircar taxi and went aboard, Cera to begin pre-flight checks and Tia to check on their patient.

The infirmary was on the upper deck and astern of the living quarters. The nearest of the three beds to the door was occupied by Miri Gaon, who didn't stir at the noise. Oskar and Brigitte stood to opposite sides of the bed, each holding a scanner. "She is still alive and continuing to stabilize," Oskar assured Tia. "You did the right thing in treating her. As if you have done so before."

Tia swallowed and nodded. Her gray eyes turned distant, as if seeing into the past. She remembered a young woman with the same complexion as herself, a missing limb, and so much blood, while the roar of heavy arms fire filled the air. "I have experience, yes," was what she managed to say.

"Ah. How silly of me." Oskar sighed. "I momentarily forgot your background. I am sorry for dredging up terrible memories, Tia."

"It's fine," she said, even though it wasn't, but that wasn’t Oskar’s fault. Felipe's words and attitude still rubbed raw against her emotions. "What is her condition, beyond stable?"

"Pulse shot to the upper right arm, and slugs to the left shoulder and side," Oskar recited, even as he took the scanner Brigitte was holding to look over the results. "The characteristics of the wound are consistent with magnetic firearms."

"A mag-pistol and a pulse pistol. This man was ready for a fight." Tia got close enough to look at the sleeping form of their passenger. Even resting, there was a tension in Miri's expression and body that told of demons in her past. "She's spent years running, according to al-Lahim. And now she’s caught up in this."

"The League will stop at nothing to capture her, if they have a KC order. I do not recognize her as a dissident, however."

"She's Coalition Intelligence, or former anyway. Maybe she did something to them?"

"I hope it bloody hurt," Brigitte said, never one to pass up a chance to lash out verbally at her former nation.

"It likely did. They are treating her like they would a defector or traitor," Oskar pointed out.

"You mean like you?" Tia asked.

"Yes. Like me. Brigitte, as well, although since she was a civilian without an official position, she would not face the same."

Brigitte crossed her arms and scowled. "No, I'd just be sent back to a damned re-socialization camp and broken down into a good little Society drone." After speaking, Brigitte's expression lightened slightly. "I wonder what the Captain’s going to do? He can’t have both Caetano and Vitorino take custody of her, can he? And Coalition Intel wants her on the run.”

“I think he’s still figuring it out,” Tia said. “But in the end, I think he’ll go with Caetano. Even if it costs us work, she’s in a position to make life for us a real hell, not just make jobs scarcer."

"Yeah." Brigitte frowned at the choices they were presented with. "A shame we had to be caught up in this crap. Like we haven't had enough happen."

"Given the state of the galaxy, we cannot always evade events," Oskar remarked. "We just have to trust in each other and Captain Henry."

"Always," Tia agreed.

Breach of Peace

Henry went to the bridge in anticipation of the launch clearance he was expecting any moment. Piper was present at the First Mate's station and Cera at the helm, running pre-launch checks. "Everything green?" he asked. The sooner this job is over, the better.

"As green as a New Connaught shamrock, sir," Cera promised. "Pieter's checkin' a line, but I'm showin' no problems on the system."

"As soon as we get clearance, I want to get out of here," Henry said, even though he was still wondering how to satisfy everyone back on Lusitania. Given the choice of more time to make a plan or getting off Harron, he'd pick the latter any time. This planet was too frustrating with its existence and the way it did things. "How did things go at the helicar agency?"

Cera winced, although Henry couldn't see it. "Oh, they took th' car back, sir. But I have a feelin' that you won't be likin' th' bill."

"That bad, huh?"

"Yeah, that bad, sir."

Henry sighed. Yet more expenses, and they could be so frustrating. But it couldn't be helped. "Well, that's how things go in these kinds of jobs. You did good, by the way. Got our passenger out of harm's way."

"Thank you, sir," Cera said, now beaming with pride. "I've always wanted t' try that kind o' spin in a helicar. He just gave me an excuse."

"The woman you recovered has reason to thank you, since she's on the League's hit list. Odds are you kept her from being spaced."

At that, the others shivered. "Such a terrible way to go," Piper lamented. "And they claim they're the superior, 'enlightened' ones."

"Dictatorships tend to bury those sorts of things in the fine print." Henry shared a brief chuckle with Piper at that.

Piper's chuckle was interrupted by a beep from the console. She tapped at it. "Shadow Wolf," here, she said aloud.

"Vessel Shadow Wolf, this is Spaceport Control. Your departure clearance is denied."

Henry heard that and scowled. "What? Why?"

"Your ship has been flagged as potentially harboring an escaped slave," the official replied. "We are examining the order now."

Right away Henry knew what was happening. "It looks like the guy you ran over wants another go," he said to Cera. "And he might be bringing friends."

"Give me th' word an' we're headin' for vacuum, sir," she said.

"Be on standby," Henry said, weighing his options. The locals, like any slavocracy, took a dim view of Underground Railroads, especially since they had almost no hope of reclaiming escapees. They'd potentially have the system defense fleets after them if they tried to run under that suspicion, and Henry didn't want to deal with those odds if he didn't have to. He tapped a key to re-open the channel to traffic control. "We acknowledge and protest strongly, Traffic Control. We have no escapees aboard, just Union-recognized spacers."

"Your protest is acknowledged, Captain. We will inform you of any further issues."

"Thank you." Henry cut the line and turned on the intercom. "Everyone, be ready for either a scramble or a firefight. Someone's up to fishy business."

Breach of Peace

An hour, maybe less. That was how long Drisk gave Kepper, and he knew better than to push it. If anything, it aggravated him that he couldn't employ this kind of gambit more thoroughly by actually forging an entry for the mark in the slavery database the local authorities kept. It wasn't impossible, but it was notoriously difficult and exceedingly dangerous, as the Harr'al were understandably sensitive with anyone messing with their slave database—after all, anyone who could add someone illicitly could also remove someone. It was, in short, incredibly expensive to make stick. More costly than his payment for the job made worthwhile.

But he would have taken the blow to his accounts had he known how the job would go. His mark was about to leave the planet, and he had no idea where they were taking her. Sektatsh only required flight plans filed for in-system travel, not ultimate extrasolar destinations. If he didn't want to fail, he needed to know where they were going.

Or even better, where they would be.

That was why he went straight to his helicar and flew to within a kilometer of the hangar where the Shadow Wolf was berthed. After grabbing his gear from the trunk, he rushed his way to the hangar on foot. An unguarded side entrance had no active life signs near it, so it seemed his best option. There was a security lock, of course, but it was a cheap one, and Kepper had the necessary means to bypass it. He didn't let the door open on its own but set it to manual mode. With that done, he widened the door only a tad, just enough to fish a fiber-optic cable through while remaining out of sight.

The Shadow Wolf was not a bad ship by independent standards. Rundown a bit, certainly, but she was maintained to an acceptable degree. He wasn't familiar with exact models of vessels, but he suspected it was one of the Holden-Nagata lines by the frame. From his angle, he was looking mostly at the ship's rear, where four big engine nozzles sat side-by-side. They looked irregular, modified in some way, although he wasn't sure how.

It wasn't the only modification. From where he could see, the ship had two quad pulse gun turrets mounted on the starboard side, and thus likely on the port as well. The housing for a tracking plasma cannon and three auto-turrets was also visible. Kepper approved of the practicality of the ship's captain, if not for what it meant for him. Independent trading could be dangerous, given piracy and privateer activity. Captain Henry expected some trouble.

That the Shadow Wolf was well-armed ruled out Kepper's plan of hiring mercenaries to chase the ship down and disable it. Had the vessel been only minimally armed with a few auto-turrets, a couple of heavy gunships would have been more than ample means to compel her obedience or cripple, but the quad mounts and plasma cannon would make short work of the mercs he had means to employ. No, he didn't have the funds to hire anyone with sufficient armament to defeat the Shadow Wolf, and he doubted Li would agree to advance him anything to that scale. There were drawbacks to working alone and at the level he usually did.

So as always, he adjusted. Kepper would give Li a shot at arranging a space intercept, since Li probably had the means he lacked, and even if it weren't a personal capture, his reputation would remain reasonably intact. If the League couldn't manage it, Kepper would follow and try again elsewhere.

To accomplish this plan, Kepper brought out a medium-barreled mag-rifle and a clip of unique, costly ammunition. The rounds within were not lethal rounds but micro-QETs: Quantum Entanglement Transmitters. He'd acquired them months prior as a side bonus to a demanding job and used them sparingly, knowing he would never likely afford more. They were tracking devices that, like all quantum entanglement technology, connected across interstellar distances. They'd last for a couple of weeks or so and allow him, or anyone he gave the QET signature, to track the ship across space.

As he finished loading the weapon, he heard a growing mechanical whine. The hangar roof was opening. The Shadow Wolf was about to depart, and he was out of time. He brought the weapon up and lined up the Shadow Wolf on the crosshairs. As the ship's launching thrusters began firing, he looked for a point where his micro-QETs wouldn't get roasted by plasma or thruster exhaust. Steady… steady… there!

He stroked the trigger and felt a slight kick as the rifle generated its firing field. Through the scope, he saw the micro-QET affix itself to the Shadow Wolf's hull, along the ship's stern below the engines. Kepper reached into his pack and found his QET receiver. He checked the signature of the round he'd fired. A smile formed on his face as he saw the return from the tracker. It was working.

A roar grew from the hangar while Kepper closed the door and reset the security lock. By the time he was done, the Shadow Wolf was disappearing into the twilight sky of Sektatsh. He watched it go for a moment before returning to his helicar. Once he stowed his gear, he activated the commlink and called Li.

After several moments, Li appeared. "What?"

"The mark just left Sektatsh aboard an independent trader. I've tagged them with a micro-QET," Kepper said, rushing the second line as a deep frown started to form on Li's face. "I'll send you the signature. I'm going to arrange the means to chase her myself, but if you want, you can make the grab. I'll reduce the fee for you."

"Very gracious of you, Kepper, to make amends for your failure," Li replied sourly. "I have indeed prepared my own means to intercept the ship. Provide the signature, and your services will no longer be required in this matter."

Kepper did so and hung up. He supposed he could have warned Li that the Shadow Wolf was not going to be an easy target, but the Leaguer’s attitude made him decide against it. The arrogant bastard probably already knew, and if he didn't?

Well, if he didn't, Kepper would enjoy his squirming when he inevitably asked for help.


21

The big liquid crystal display surface of the Shadow Wolf's bridge showed the planet Harron recede rapidly as the ship burned for the Lawrence limit. "Good riddance," Piper grumbled from her station. "I feel lucky we got out of there."

"Someone tried to stall us," Henry said, in full agreement.

"It was probably that bastard I ran over," said Cera. She didn't look back from her station. "Wouldn't be surprised if a man like that could bribe his way into a cloister."

"Sektatsh has that reputation." Felix provided that observation from Tia's usual place. Since she'd had to help clean the helicar, Henry had her off resting. The only reason Cera wasn't was because he wanted her at the helm if things went dicey before they left the system. He glanced toward Henry and asked, "So back to Lusitania?"

"That's the plan," Henry said. "I suppose it's a shame we don't have a cargo to run back. I always feel like I'm burning money when we make an empty-hold run."

"Like we did in that two-week run to Yan'katar last year?"

"Yeah. Even though Lou specifically paid enough for both ways," Henry admitted.

"There's still the matter of how we appease all of the people who want to see Gaon." Piper glanced toward her screens for a moment before continuing to speak. "You can't deliver her to Caetano and Vitorino at the same time."

"Knowing Caetano, she'll have people waiting at the hangar. Vitorino… maybe not." Henry allowed himself a wistful little smile as he looked over the holotank display showing nearby space. All of the markers for other ships were well away from the Shadow Wolf. "Although it'd be nice if they did. Caetano can't blame me for Vitorino hiring us too, can she?"

"She's a fascist dictator in the making, Jim. She'll do whatever she wants."

At Felix's remark, Henry nodded. "For the most part. But I do get the feeling that there's more to her than that."

"I never said she wasn't charming, Jim. She'd have to be." Felix's expression was hard. "But that doesn't change what she is. Or what she's doing to her world."

"You'll get no argument from me," Henry said. "None at all."

Breach of Peace

Chantavit Li was enjoying a meal with Ambassador Salinas, although "enjoying" was too strong a word for him. She was a vivacious woman of American background, Latin and Anglo, and Li had no doubts as to her loyalty to the Society, although he greatly opposed her pacifism. She was one of the deluded members of Society who believed in peaceful expansion only, forgetting that by their very existence, they would provoke war from the reactionaries that still plagued the galaxy. Nor did they care that they would be abandoning countless generations of people to the chaos that persisted outside of Society.

"I have high hopes for the peace talks," she said to him. "Once we have peace with the Coalition, we can focus our resources on consolidating our colonies and presenting the best of Society to these poor people."

"So you say," Li replied, little warmth in his voice.

"Did you hear back from the Committee? About those visas I requested?"

"I am afraid they were denied," Li replied. He noted her disappointment with satisfaction. "You must understand, Ambassador, that in these times we must be careful about allowing the unsocialized to enter the Society on visits. They could be enemy agents in disguise."

"Oh, don't be so foolish," Salinas insisted. "They are young people full of optimism and hope that the Society can be brought to their world. What better way to encourage them than to show them how life is in the Society? How their world will be improved? An end to the poverty that our neighbors endure because of the capitalist class?"

You have not been to New Hathwell. Or many other League colonies he'd seen in his life, where standards were little better. The League only had so many resources to go around, after all, and so some worlds required Social Austerity and discipline. But Salinas was not the first silly official Li ever dealt with, nor would she be the last, he imagined. He pondered that if he ever wound up on the Committee of Social and Public Safety, he would promote adding this silliness to the list of anti-Social behaviors. It would not be keeping in the spirit of said list, of course, since Salinas was an enthusiastic advocate for Society. But the thought still had its appeal to him.

"I have heard disturbing rumors, Commander," Salinas said suddenly. "My counterpart on New Cornwall has been told that we are going to be accused of these terrible attacks on local shipping?"

"A rumor, or Coalition agitprop, Ambassador," Li said dismissively. "That is all."

"Of course, I am simply concerned about the damage this might do to our standing. We must do everything we can to prove it nothing but falsehood. A mistake, or a vicious lie by the Coalition."

"Agreed. And rest assured, I am doing what I must on that matter, Ambassador." Li grinned at her. "It will be handled."

Breach of Peace

There were several pirate bands that operated in the vicinity of the Trifid Nebula. Each had different characteristics to it. The Tokarevs of Cyrilgrad, for instance, allowed merchants to pay protection and not only left them alone, they protected them while openly attacking the League whenever the opportunity presented itself. Harr'al pirates raided ships for slaves as much as cargo. The pirate ships that operated out of Trinidad Station had varying codes of honor, but all agreed not to target each other and not to kill spacers out of hand, since independent cargo ships were necessary to the station's economy. A vessel known on Trinidad Station was typically left alone as well, pirate or not. Pirates from the Aland system, on the other hand, used kidnapping and ransoms to supplement their income.

And then there were the Tash'vakal.

The Tash'vakal were a reptilian species like the Saurians. But while Saurians were bipeds, the Tash'vakal were a hexalimbed species with a segmented body that allowed them to use their limbs as hands or feet. The species was a divided one, with no central government, and clans and tribes were still central to Tash'vakal social organization. Some of these groups became space-dwelling lifeforms over the centuries, acclimated to living in low-G and zero-G conditions, and so they became nomadic, going to planets only to pick up the materials needed to maintain their sustenance. For many of these nomads, the line between trader and pirate blurred, as most were willing to steal what they needed if it could not be easily acquired.

The Mek'taman Clan was closer to the pirate side, and threw in the willingness to be mercenaries while they were at it. And in recent months, they'd grown desperate.

Which was the only reason they'd accept a deal with Chantavit Li.

Ship-Lord Jastavi of the Pahknabi presented the offer to his fellows and to the Clan's Chief, the venerable female Lamat, Ship-Lord of the Vanarak. Lamat's reign had been long and fruitful, but recent setbacks were making it tenuous. The Mek'taman were likely to remove her if fortunes didn't change soon.

Which was precisely why Jastavi presented it to her first and won her support. He had every intention of succeeding her as Clan Chief and knew that her endorsement, and success with it, would go far in securing that title.

The Council meeting was aboard Vanarak, as was custom in the Mek'taman. The Ship-Lords, sixteen in all, were arranged around a circular table of green plastic construction, their segmented bodies resting on cushioned seats built to comfortably accommodate their forms. Their scaled skin tended to dark reds and browns, unlike planet-dwelling Tash'vakal who had lighter colors due to their frequent exposure to UV rays from stars. Each Ship-Lord had access to food and drink, provided as by custom by the Chief, with each Ship-Lord having a taster present to prevent poisonings—hosting Ship-Lords would be insulted to not see a taster, since it would imply a fellow Ship-Lord thought they were too stupid to think of poisoning food. The Vanarak's meat-vats provided fresh slabs of delicious, raw skamar, a mammalian food species from their homeworld, and even tastier slices of human-provided "bakhon." Aeroponically-grown tsham provided the vegetable nutrients to round out the scrumptious meal, and flavored sugar water would wash it down.

Opposition came from Ship-Lord Tresak of the Turavi. He was a distant cousin of Lamat, but there was no familial loyalty there. He was also a traditionalist. "We have remained outside of the human conflict so far," Tresak argued, his middle limbs bringing up a container of flavored sugar water for his upper right hand to grip. He drank from it, both to wet his throat and to provide the hydration he needed for the moment. "You would commit us to working with the outsider humans."

"They offer us new ships, Lord Tresak," Lamat said. "And resources. Pickings have been lean."

"Only because you insist on remaining in this area of space," Tresak countered. "We should move to the Pektak Nebula." By this, he meant what the humans called the Omega Nebula. "The hunting grounds there are fresh."

"And it is too near the Kal'gevak Clan," Jastavi countered. "They have more ships than us. We would be conquered or destroyed."

"The feud is old. They would lose too much in a fight."

"A compromise, honored Lords?" Now Ship-Lord Savakak of the Iltamak spoke up. She was a younger female, still capable of laying eggs, and Jastavi envied Ship-Lord Hektam of the Ses'shek for his marriage-alliance with her. "Our Chief is correct that the offer is most generous for the recovery of just one human. We can intercept and overwhelm this vessel Shadow Wolf with but a quarter of our ships. Then, upon payment, we depart for Pektak, with enough bounty to offer the Kal'gevak a peace-gift. Perhaps even this human ship will serve."

"The ship is too small to be of much use," noted another Ship-Lord. "They would be insulted. What would we do with it?"

"If they surrender the human we are being sent to claim, nothing," Jastavi proposed. "As you said, their ship is of little use. I doubt they have enough food to be worth the trouble of seizing it. And if not…" He grinned and let his tongue flicker, a pleased gleam in his black eyes. "It has been some time since I dined on human flesh. It is a delicacy to be savored, much like their bakhon." He held up a strip of the same.

"There would be too few humans to be worth the effort of slaughtering for food," Savakak hissed dismissively. "You know how they get about it!"

"They are as bad as Saurians," Hektam pitched in, agreeing with his wife-ally.

"Few species enjoy the full range of meat," Lamat agreed. Undoubtedly she felt her silence until now to be sagacious. Jastavi felt otherwise. "But regardless of how we deal with the Shadow Wolf itself, the deal is sound. I call upon the Ship-Lords to concur."

Jastavi beat Savakak to seconding the call. Tresak, predictably, voted no, as did five other Ship-Lords. That left ten votes in favor of.

"Ship-Lord Tresak, Ship-Lord Jastavi, Ship-Lord Keshav, you will join me for the attack," Lamat said. "The Human Li has provided us the quantum entanglement signature his agent's tracker uses. We will ambush them before they arrive at the Lusitania system."

"So the Clan wills," Tresak said, a glare in his glittering gray eyes as he looked to Jastavi. "I will prepare my ship for combat at once. Victory for the Clan!"

"Victory for the Clan!" the entire Council echoed.


22

Henry waited until they jumped out of Harron's system before he went to bed. Given the day, he was tired enough to fall asleep almost immediately.

That didn’t guarantee a restful sleep, unfortunately. Instead, he found himself in the familiar dream about Phi Philomena and the Laffey. He spent the nightmare screaming at himself to not push the drives and listening to the deaths of his crew while fusion-heated plasma surged from section to section of the ship, killing everyone bit by bit.

He woke up and tried to go back to sleep but couldn't. As it always did, the dream left him too agitated to sleep. It brought back too many terrible memories, and with them, the horrible feeling he'd let them down. The fact he'd failed to get justice for their needless deaths.

With sleep evading him, Henry decided on a small meal to ease the grumble in his stomach. He went to the galley and put together a sandwich from the food stores, roast beef with slices of golden-hued New Virginia cheddar. With the food and a glass of water, he sat down to partake.

The solution of what to do on Lusitania dominated his thoughts. Jules' fate continued to be his priority, so fulfilling Caetano’s orders was at the top of the list. But practical necessity made throwing away Vitorino as a client problematic, to say the least. Independent traders couldn't be selective about who they worked for. He highly doubted Caetano would be the type to bribe the League to export valuable ores and materials to Lusitania, whatever she said about replacing Vitorino as an employer.

The galley door slid open, and Brigitte walked in. She was out of her work jumpsuit and in a plain short-sleeved T-shirt and gray pants, implying she was soon to go to bed herself. "Everything good with the drives?" he asked as she approached the pantry and fridge.

"They're humming right along, sir," she answered, searching for what Henry assumed was going to be a late snack before she went to her quarters. "No problems."

"Good." Henry appreciated hearing it. He watched her retrieve food and, as a thought went through his mind, let out a small chuckle.

She heard that and looked his way. "What is it, sir?"

"That damn mohawk," he said, indicating her hair. "I still don't get the point."

Brigitte smiled at that. "Doesn't matter whether you do, the important thing is you let me have it," she answered.

"I'm more open than most employers. Half the shops in Tylerville would send you packing if you came in looking like that and wanting a job."

"Really?" she asked while pulling a lunch wrap from the refrigerator. "Because the Coalition's supposed to be about freedom, I thought? I know that's what Felix always insists."

"Felix is Felix. People have expectations of appearance. Standards. If you don't measure up, they don't like it." Henry took a small bite and chewed on it for a few moments. Brigitte was busy eating herself, so he resumed after swallowing. "The big difference is that the government doesn't mandate appearance. Short of 'don't be naked' anyway."

"I guess people just love to boss other people around sometimes." Brigitte lowered the wrap for a moment. A distant look came to her face. "That was what it was like growing up—being told what to do. How to act. How to work. How to eat. How to think. How to be the perfect member of Society." A frown showed on her face. "And to never contradict it. Never. Otherwise, you were antisocial, and then it was off to a resocialization camp." As she spoke, Henry saw old pain show on her face. She spoke from experience.

"That's how you met Oskar, if I remember correctly," he said softly.

Brigitte nodded. "He helped me escape. Well, we helped each other. He's a good man."

"He is." Henry drew in a breath. "I'm sorry that this job has us in the League's sights, possibly."

"I get it," she said. "I don't know him, but this Jules guy sounds like a good man too."

"He is, yes, and a truly holy pain in the rear," Henry answered, grinning at the turn of phrase.

"Then we can't leave him to Caetano's people. We're doing the right thing."

"And we're almost done. That's the important part." Having said that, Henry returned his focus to his half-eaten sandwich, and Brigitte did the same to her food.

Breach of Peace

The pain was mostly gone when Miri woke up. She drew in a breath and felt the familiar sensation of circulated air. She was in a starship running on life support, so they were in space. The air wasn't too stale either, which said a lot about how serious they took maintenance on the air scrubbers and other life support systems. I approve.

The previous day's memories were something of a jumble. She remembered the attack, getting shot, and the helicar that came to her aid. As the details flowed into her mind, she recognized that she was aboard the ship her contacts had sent to her. That was a good sign, at least.

Miri sat up and looked around. Now that she was fully conscious, she could see the lived-in, used layout of the infirmary she was being kept in. A man about her age, maybe a little older, was napping quietly on one of the other beds. Given his coat and the flashes of memory she had, he was the ship's surgeon. Thus he was the man who saved her life. She glanced down and realized she was wearing a patient’s gown, fully covering her above the waist, while below it, she was still wearing what she had when she left her room at the ISU center.

The ISU center. That led to thinking about P&Y, and she immediately frowned. The Astra Mater would not find her at Harron. As far as anyone could see, Karla Lupa vanished from the Harron ISU. That would mean questions. It would also mean doubt about her account of the League seizing the Kensington Star. This isn't how I wanted it!

Such considerations were pushed aside. Miri's training kicked in. She was reasonably sure she was safe here, but she needed to be ready in case of betrayal. Her firearms were missing for the moment, undoubtedly put away. There were emergency scalpels in sterilized packaging on one nearby tray. A useful weapon if she needed it. Unloaded aero-injectors lay on one counter at the end of the room, beside multiple sets of protective-cradle shelving for vials of medications. More were in a cooler. Probably an anesthetic there she could use to knock out an attacker, if it came to it.

Her sweep complete, and a mental inventory of all possible means of self-defense taken, Miri allowed her thoughts to go back to the situation. Her testimony about the fate of the Kensington Star was worthless if she didn't get to the Astra Mater. She slid off the bed and approached the sleeping man. She gently pushed his shoulder, then made it a stronger push when he didn't react immediately. His eyes opened and he looked up at her. "Ah. Miss Gaon," he said. She noticed the faint German in his accent. "How are you feeling?"

"I am all right, but I must see your captain. You need to get me to the Astra Mater."

"We do?" asked the surgeon. "Why?"

"It is important that I give my testimony about my ship. If they get to Harron and find that I disappeared, they may assume I'm responsible for its loss, and my account was a cover story. I must see them."

"I see." He stood. "I am Doctor Oskar Kiderlein, Miss Gaon, a pleasure to meet you, and I will take you to see if Captain Henry is awake. If not, one of his other officers might be able to help you."

"Please, do," she said. "There is a greater danger here, that I am sure of. I must persuade my employers of the truth!"

Breach of Peace

Henry was nearly asleep when Felix gave him the heads-up that Oskar and their passenger were waiting in the galley to see him.

When Henry arrived, Felix and Vidia were already present, as was a sleepy-eyed Tia. She stifled a yawn even as Henry took a seat across from Miri. "It's good to see you're still with us, ma'am."

"My thanks to you for the rescue," she said. "You saved me from a terrible death."

"I know how the League treats defectors, and from what I can tell, they're treating you like one."

"In their eyes, I am worse than one. I tricked them into trusting me, and then used that trust to break their campaign against us," Miri replied levelly. "But it is possible they would be after me, even if they didn't realize Karla Lupa was Miri Gaon."

"Oh?" That question came from Tia. "What do you mean?"

"They would want to silence me regardless," Miri explained. "Because I witnessed them seize the Kensington Star."

That news rippled through the room. "So the ship disappearances, it’s the League?" Felix asked, horror on his face.

Henry sympathized and figured that Felix, like himself, only anticipated a peripheral involvement.

"I cannot say for sure. I know they took Kensington Star. One of their cruisers, I am uncertain of the class. I only had a brief look before they jumped out."

"How did you get away?" Henry asked.

"Because of my past, I laid plans on how to evacuate without being seen," Miri answered. "I did so, and ejected myself into space with an EVA suit, a transmitter, and an extra air tank."

Everyone stared at her. "How did ya know you'd be rescued?" Vidia asked.

"I didn't." She could see from their faces that they were imagining the fate of repeating what she did, but not being rescued. Of being alone in the void of space for hours, days, before dying from lack of oxygen. To be all alone in the infinite night before the end, that was the terror of many a spacer. "From my perspective, either I could shoot myself from an airlock with an EVA suit, or the League would do it without one," she added. "And only after my debriefing, which would not be pleasurable in the slightest."

"No, it wouldn't," Felix agreed, sighing. "God Almighty, that took gumption, Miss Gaon. Guess it helped you with whatever op CIS had you pull off."

"It didn't," she answered honestly. "That required me to betray good people to the League, an infinitely harder experience. I am a little surprised HaShem allowed me to survive this long for all the deaths I caused."

"It's war," Felix said. "You had a duty. Simple as that."

Miri directed an intent look at him. "No, it is not," she replied, a little heat in her voice.

"To me, the important thing is what you saw," Tia said, interrupting the exchange. "So either the Kensington Star did something to piss off the League, if they were willing to send a cruiser into the neutral systems, or—"

"—or the League is behind the ship disappearances," Henry finished for her. "And has been for months."

"Again, I cannot say."

"Then, could the peace talks be a fraud?" Felix proposed. "Something to distract the Coalition from whatever they're doing out here?"

"They haven't been attacking Coalition ships, though, just independent vessels and those flagged on neutral worlds," Tia said, shaking her head. "What I don't get is why? The disappearances have almost nothing in common. Medium haulers, big ones, helium-3 and deuterium tankers, even a couple of liners. It can't be for the cargos."

"The ships themselves, maybe," Henry said. "I don't think any light haulers or short-range ships have gone missing." As he spoke, his mind still reeled at the implications. The League doing something like this directly? That was explosive, and it meant he and his crew were in severe danger.

"Now you see why we must rendezvous with the Astra Mater," Miri said. "If you bring me to them, I can persuade them you are good Samaritans trying to protect me from an attempt to silence me. My wounds prove that. But if they get to Harron and I'm not there, they may assume I have gone into hiding over guilt. That I betrayed my crew. My testimony will be tarnished then."

Henry frowned in frustration. He could see the point. He'd love to get rid of her and get out of this problem. But that ran contrary to his instructions from Vitorino and Caetano. Somehow he bet neither would find giving her to the company to be an acceptable outcome, while Jules and possibly everyone else would suffer for it.

"Al-Lahim will understand," Miri assured him. "He will not hold this against you."

"I'd be all right with that, if he were the only one I was answering to," Henry answered. "The fact is, people on Lusitania want to see you. Both Trade Minister Vitorino and Defense Minister Caetano. They've each asked me to bring you to Gamavilla if you were genuine, and you are."

Miri considered the revelation. "I would prefer working with P&Y, Captain, if it's all the same to you. Surely they will understand. The New Cornish authorities are sharing information."

"Cristina Caetano is not the understanding type, and she's a bit of a control freak," Tia remarked.

Felix went for the blunt reveal. "The fascist," he bit his tongue to avoid the swear, before continuing, "is holding my brother hostage until we get you back."

Miri eyed Felix and sighed. "I see."

"Not just his brother. She'll have Felix declared an enemy of the state as well, and she threatened to hurt the rest of my crew," Henry said.

"This does not reassure me," Miri said quietly. "Why would she go to such lengths to hear from me?"

"Lusitania's one of a lot of worlds being impacted by the disappearances," Henry answered. I wouldn't want to be hearing this either if I were her. "And like Tia said, Caetano's the controlling type. She'd prefer being the one to learn information and hand it out to everyone else, not have it handed to her instead." Seeing Miri's worry, Henry shook his head. "I don't think she's working with the League, though. She's a straight-up Lusitanian nationalist."

"I suppose I have little choice in the matter," Miri said, her eyes now locking on Henry's. "As trained as I am, I can't overwhelm your crew. I’m at your mercy."

Henry didn't bother answering, since no answer would work. "The important thing is your story getting out, and whatever the League is up to getting stopped."

Miri nodded stiffly. "To that, I agree." But it was clear she was unhappy with the decision. "I’ll have to construct a new legend then. Karla Lupa's was already losing viability."

"Sounds fun," Tia said. "Let me help."

When Miri gave her a curious look, Henry chuckled. "She has friends in various places, and this wouldn't be her first forged ID," he said.

Miri considered that. "She is Hestian… a revolutionary, then? Hestian Worker's Party?"

"ID number Zero Zero Ten Six Fifteen," Tia said proudly. Noticing the look on the faces of the others, she added, "I memorize things that are important to me," with a tone making clear she'd expect them to remember that about her.

"Explains so much about you that a damned number is part of your identity," Felix muttered. "Statism at its finest."

Oskar chuckled at that, and Tia, much to Henry's gratification, did not rise to the bait. "Alright, everyone, I want to get some more rack time. We're still a few jumps away from Lusitania. Stick to watches and make sure everyone gets their rest."

"If you need me to, I can help," Miri offered.

Henry fought to keep any sign of suspicion from his face. He wasn't about to have an ex-CIS operative who didn't want to go where he needed her to go helping run his ship. But he didn’t want her to feel like a prisoner. "There's not a lot to do since we don't have cargo, but if Tia can find you something, I've got no complaint."

"And you'll be paid proper spacer scale on this ship," Tia added happily.

"My pay isn't the important part. I want to pass the time," was the answer. Despite Henry's efforts, his concerns were not unnoticed to her. She stared at him.

He pursed his lips together, but said nothing more. He needed sleep, and right now.

Breach of Peace

Commander Aristide stepped into Admiral Hartford's office and stood quietly while the Admiral continued to read a report on a digital reader. She could see from the red on his face that the ordinarily unflappable man was furious. It was surprising.

Finally, he reacted to her presence by looking up. "Miriam Gaon." Aristide said the word with a neutral tone and saw the angry flash in Hartford's eye. "The Traitor of Lowery."

"The campaign against New Arabia would have dealt a critical blow to our enemies," Hartford said, his quiet voice a rumble from the anger seething within the tone. "The fall of one of the founding worlds of the reactionaries. It would’ve brought us a step closer to ultimate triumph."

Aristide saw no point in mentioning the outcome of the bold attack and the disaster it was for the League's fleet and armies. It would merely reinforce Hartford's clear sense of failure.

"Li's agent already failed on Harron," Hartford continued. "Now he plans an ambush in space. If only I knew where, I could send the ships to ensure our success."

"It would potentially jeopardize our plans," Aristide pointed out. "Some of the refit work is just now finishing."

"Yes. But I would rest easier knowing that traitor was on her way here, where I could be done with her and no longer worry about how she might ruin my plans." Hartford set his index fingers against his chin again, showing he was in thought. "I will give Li another chance. But I will not let her get away."

"She is irrelevant at this point, sir," Aristide pointed out. "We are too close to our operational date for an investigation to thwart it at this time."

"That’s not enough," Hartford said. "Not nearly enough."

Aristide chose to say nothing more. Not to the Admiral anyway.

Breach of Peace

With a surge of energy, the Shadow Wolf generated another wormhole and accelerated into it. A relatively empty solar system, with an M5-class star was waiting. On the bridge, Vidia was at the helm, since Cera was off-watch and Piper was resting, while Felix manned the conn with Yanik. Felix looked over the blank holotank and then the liquid crystal display showing the distant red star. Yanik noticed the expression on his face and commented, "You seem concerned, Rothbard."

"I am, S'srish," Felix said. As always, the two referred to each other with formality more than camaraderie, not that they weren't there to support each other if it was necessary, of course. "Empty systems make good ambush points. Less risk of Good Samaritans coming along, or someone getting a call out to patrols. Even worse out here where there aren't a lot of navies that go beyond their solar systems."

"True." Yanik blinked. "Do you believe this Miri Gaon is withholding information from us?"

"She could be," said Felix. "But she looks on the up and up."

"So, you believe she spaced herself to escape?"

"Given what the League would do to her? Damn right I do. I'd do the same in her position."

"Truly?" Yanik seemed interested in that admission. "The prospect of dying alone in the long night does not strike fear into your soul?"

"Well, I don't want to die, but going to sleep surrounded by void… not the worst end I can imagine." Even as he said it, Felix wondered if he was speaking honestly. He'd heard stories about castaways being plucked out of space after days alone. How it could drive people mad. He wondered if he’d go crazy.

"To be alone in the void with nothing but divinity to consider." Yanik's tongue flickered. "There are holy men on my world who would consider it the best end. No distractions in your final moments. Nothing but the Divine."

"There are other, better ways to speak to God."

"If so, I would think you and the Captain would do so more often."

After several moments, Felix found he had no reply to that. He thought about the state of his soul, or rather, how he felt. Jules was the faithful one. The war, and all of the terrible things he'd seen, he'd done, they’d drained away Felix's faith. The world, so to speak, seemed to be made to crush religious belief.

Any further consideration came to an end when the holotank lit up. Felix watched as one, then two, then two more signatures appeared. "Wormholes opening up around us," he said. "It looks like an ambush!" He hit the switch on the command chair that powered the ship's alert klaxons.

"I've got the drives ready," Vidia said. "Evasive power at command."

"Solid contacts," Yanik added. With a tap of a taloned finger, he put an image up on the display surface. A long ship with eight pylons extending from its central body, each terminating in one of the four pods nearly as long as the entire ship, appeared. "All ships match this silhouette."

Felix recognized them. "Tash'vakal nomads," he said, almost snarling. "Probably pirates."

The door behind them opened, and Henry stepped in. "What do we have?" he asked as his eyes went to the display. "Never mind. Nomad pirates."

"Tash'vakal. Vrekta." Yanik's use of one of the nastier Saurian curses showed his feelings. "I will prepare weapons."

Felix yielded his seat to Henry. "I'll go man a turret," he said.

"Good. Get Ms. Gaon on one too. Pieter will probably prefer Brigitte's help."

Tia came in, with Cera behind her. Vidia abandoned the helm for her, bound for another of the turrets.

"Ah, six-limbed lizard-pirates," Cera said, recognizing the ship. "I wonder which Clan?"

"They're all pretty ugly," Tia remarked.

Piper entered at that moment, replacing Yanik with a nod. "Bringing plasma cannons and auto-turrets online."

Tia's board lit up. "Signal coming in."

The image shifted to show an alien of mostly dark red scales. A mouth with wicked sharp teeth was visible, with eyes as black as coal. "I am Chief Lamat, Ship-Lord of the Vanarak and Chief of the Mek'taman. Human ship, we have you surrounded."

"So I noticed," Henry remarked. "What do you want?"

Lamat motioned a clawed hand off-screen. An image of Miri appeared beside her. "You carry this human aboard. Deliver her to us, and we will be on our way. Fail, and we will take her, and whatever else we please, from your broken ship. We give you one of your minutes to signal compliance. Attempt trickery, and I will have you served to my Clan's Ship-Lords as a victory meal." With that, the reptilian alien disappeared from the screen.

"Well," Cera sighed. "Aren't they th' cheery lot?"


23

From four different vectors, the Tash'vakal nomads closed the distance on the Shadow Wolf. Their formation was well-considered, given the range involved as the Shadow Wolf had no line of retreat that couldn’t be intercepted by at least one enemy vessel.

The most obvious tactic was to jump. Henry considered it, but held back before proposing it. "This is too coordinated," he said. "They knew where we were. How to arrange their formation optimally."

"That makes me worried." Now Piper spoke, even as she finished preparations to fire on the approaching vessels. "This isn't exactly a major waypoint system. There's a dozen others I could’ve calculated courses to. They couldn't have guessed this one."

"If they didn't, we’ve got a tracker onboard."

Everyone's mind went to the same source, but here Tia was the one to speak first. "No. It's not Gaon. Oskar would’ve found something."

"We didn't take cargo aboard," Henry stopped, mid-word. Their minute was just about up, and while he never considered handing Miri Gaon over, he had to be focused for the fight ahead. "See that ship, at bearing two-hundred mark positive eighty? Take us straight at them."

"We going to use th' toy in th' holds, sir?" Cera's question came as she adjusted the Shadow Wolf's heading and put the plasma drives to full burn. The ship's inertial compensators kept them from feeling the pull of the turn onto the new course or the acceleration.

Despite Cera's definite, enthusiastic hope for a yes, Henry shook his head. "Not yet," he said. "Let's see how they react first."

"Right."

"If Gaon didn't bring it aboard, and we didn't take on cargo, then somehow we've got a tracker attached to a ship," Tia remarked. "Jumping away won't help; they’ll get a signal within minutes and follow."

"That's why we give them something to think about before we try." Henry thumbed the intercom for engineering. "Pieter, what can we do for a double jump?"

"Give me some time, I might manage it, if the exotic particles don't kill us all by popping up in the wrong spot. But the drive'll need a complete overhaul when we finish, so make sure we're in an inhabited system!"

"How much time do you need?"

"At least half an hour."

Henry nodded. "Acknowledged."

"We're still three jumps from Lusitania," Piper said.

"I'm well aware of that, Miss Lopez," Henry said stiffly. "But we need to lose our tail first, or we won't live long enough to get there."

"Alright. Checking star charts."

Henry let her do so, although he already had an idea of one answer, and it was the one he was already interested in visiting.

"The Tash'vakal ships are launching fighters," Piper said. "All vectors."

Henry acknowledged that report with a nod. Given their ships were habitats as well as active spacecraft, using fighters to cripple their targets and avoid getting into direct battles made sense. "Stand by on turrets and for tight maneuvers."

Now came the worst part, the one he'd known since his CDF days: "hurry up and wait."

Breach of Peace

Jastavi took his usual curved seat in the middle of the Pahknabi with satisfaction. The command platform was the highest point in the chamber, allowing him to look down at the ship-minders' displays and work with little effort. A holotank screen showed the formation of fighters they'd just launched, now on course for the human ship.

The human ship that seemed to be challenging him directly by flying right at the Pahknabi.

Is this human captain a fool or a worthy foe? Jastavi hadn't expected this maneuver. He'd expected an attempt to jump out and had his ship's drives readied for the contingency, given the relatively low likelihood of just one extra jump causing an exotic particle-induced catastrophe. The foe charging for him before the others was not in his calculations. It gave him pause. But only somewhat. "Remember, the ship is to be taken," Jastavi insisted over the channel to his fighter wing pilots. "Do not engage to destroy without further authorization."

The response from Pilot-Lord Neshas was immediate. "Understood, my Lord. Victory for the Clan!" she pledged.

"Victory for the Clan." With that habitual exhortation done, Jastavi was free to again consider his opponents' action. Flying straight for the Pahknabi implied he did not fear the Pahknabi, an insulting thought to be sure, or at least did not fear it as much as he feared the others, which was also offensive.

Jastavi saw the idea then. The Shadow Wolf's captain was attempting to prolong the time in which he was only under threat from one foe. His course ensured that the others would not intercept until the Pahknabi had been engaged for some time. Clearly, he felt he had an advantage in such a circumstance.

But what Jastavi couldn't figure out was what the Human thought he could do. The Pahknabi could easily overwhelm his deflectors before being left behind, allowing for crippling shots. Just what was this Human thinking?

Breach of Peace

"So. The plan, Jim?"

Tia's question won Henry's attention. He glanced over from the holotank. "Hrm?"

"You have a plan," she said. "I know you have a plan, because you get this gleam in your eye that makes you look a little smug."

Henry smiled thinly. "I have a plan. It involves giving them a bloody nose."

"How big a bloody nose?" Cera asked.

"Enough to scare them. But I don't want to hurt them too badly. That'll make them mad and determined to kill us."

"Well, they've already threatened to eat us," Piper reminded them all in a droll voice.

"What do I have for options, Lopez?"

Piper sighed and returned her attention to her station and the starmap. "A lot of empty systems—"

"Most of space is empty anyway."

The sarcastic remark brought Piper to roll her eyes at her boss. "—and only a few workable destinations, if we double jump right away. Why are we doing that anyway? Exotic particles are usually bad for things like human bodies or reactive fuel. They make things go boom."

"Because they've already jumped once. If we do a single jump, they could potentially double-jump. If we double-jump, I'm betting they can't triple, not with the particle load threat or the state of their jump systems. And if we double-jump to the right system, somewhere they can't come safely—"

"—they won't even try," Tia finished for him.

"Especially if we've given them a bloody nose."

"Well, we'll be stinging them first," Piper said. "Enemy fighters entering weapons range."

"All gunners, weapons free," Henry said into the intercom.

Breach of Peace

Among the many things Miri expected to have happened in her new life as a spacer, manning a pulse gun turret had never factored in.

At Felix Rothbard's instruction, she was in the upper port turret. Getting into it had required a short ladder climb, leading into the half-sphere chamber for the gun. She secured herself into the turret seat and lowered the breathing mask over her head, ensuring she would get oxygen from the ship's air storage and protect her eyes from vacuum should the turret be exposed to space by enemy fire. A harness helped ensure a decompression couldn't suck her out either. With this done, she pushed the lever to move the seat forward half a meter, moving it up to the gun controls. They required both hands to use, with index finger triggers for the gun mount in question. There was a physical crosshair of metal built into the controls. It was a very basic, no-frills setup, nowhere near as sophisticated as the automated or semi-automated anti-fighter mount found on true military ships.

A holographic blue light formed on the periphery of a heads-up display. It increased in size as Miri guided the turret toward it. A Tash'vakal-built fighter came screaming in from that angle, looking like a shovel blade mounted with missiles and weapons and engines burning with yellow light. Ruby light lit up space before her from the fighter's attack, and the Shadow Wolf's deflectors absorbed it. Her fingers squeezed the triggers in response. Pulses of sapphire light erupted from the four barrels and streaked toward the fighter. A couple of the pulses hit before it twisted out of view. Miri doubted she'd done more than degrade the deflectors on the craft.

More lights were forming on the periphery of the holo-viewer as the ship's targeting systems determined the presence of more enemy fighters. Given the limitations on the budget of an independent trader, even that amount of connection to the ship's targeting systems was something of a luxury. Miri reached back through the decades to her early life, when she was barely an adult, for the training she'd had in using these kinds of weapons. She picked one of the growing lights and lifted the controls to "lower" the gun from her perspective, her left hand twisting to turn it as well. Even before the fighter became visible, her fingers found the firing triggers.

This maneuver served her well, as it put a stream of pulses dead on target. The full barrage caught the enemy in the rear, as it was finishing an attack run when it came into her sights, and blew through whatever deflectors the craft had. Her efforts were rewarded by the explosion of orange and red colors that consumed the heart of the fighter and blasted its exterior pieces in all directions. "Enemy fighter down," she reported into the ship intercom.

"Nice shooting, Ms. Gaon," replied Felix. "Got another one coming your way."

She saw it a moment later, coming from below the Shadow Wolf. Pulse fire from the turret below was following it as Miri tracked her gun mount to open up on it. The twin streams of pulses defeated the pilot's efforts to evade, and this fighter also exploded.

The brief rush of victory she felt was immediately dampened by the shuddering of the ship. A heavy impact, likely a missile or a mag-cannon round, was the culprit, straining the moorings of the ship's deflectors from the transferred kinetic energy. It was a good reminder that the ship was still in danger as she brought the pulse turret to bear again on another approaching enemy craft.

Breach of Peace

On the bridge, Piper checked the status display. "Direct missile hit, aft starboard quarter. Deflectors strained but intact. Two more missiles inbound… now none, auto-turrets got them."

That was good to know. The auto-turrets were the one weapon system that was basic to the ship, a purely defensive system for shooting down missiles and projectiles with magnetically-propelled interceptors. They could do some double-duty as anti-fighter weapons, but the quad turrets were far deadlier against enemy fighters, as they were proving even now as another small red dot disappeared from the holotank in front of and to the side of Henry.

He triggered the intercom. "Pieter, time to jump?"

"If you still want a double jump, I need another ten minutes!" Being rushed brought out Pieter's Afrikaans accent strongly, adding "ooo" sounds to "double" and "another." "I have to finish treating the drive for the heat spike. Remember that overhaul!"

"I will," Henry promised.

As soon as he finished speaking, the ship rocked hard. "Missile impact, port side. Deflectors are degrading." Piper shook her head. "The auto-turrets can't keep up with them."

"Distance to the ship ahead?"

"Still closing. Eight minutes to maximum cannon range."

Henry nodded while his attention was on the holotank. The fighters from the other Tash'vakal ships were closing rapidly. He guessed five minutes, maybe a little less before they were in combat range. We can't jump out before then, at least not if we want to be ready for a double jump. Taking that into account, Henry ordered, "Prep for fusion drive burn, time four minutes."

"Pieter's not going to be pleased," Tia noted as she implemented the order.

"That's why it's a good thing he's got Brigitte helping," Henry said. "And also why we automated the changeover so much."

Tia accepted the point and raised another. "If we make range with that Tash'vakal ship before we can jump, it's going to hammer us."

"That's why we're not giving them a chance."

Breach of Peace

The enemy ship continued its steady burn toward the Pahknabi. Ship-Lord Jastavi watched his display as his fighters continued their struggle against the Human ship. "The anti-fighter defense for a ship like that is most impressive," he admitted. He turned toward a male manning his ship's weapon station. "Weaponeer, time to weapons range?"

"Missiles are in range, but the enemy has demonstrated intercept capability," the weaponeer answered. "Magnetic cannon will gain accurate range in four tekams. Five tekams for particle cannon range."

"Very well." Jastavi's upper and middle limbs clasped under his chin. "If these Humans wish a challenge, they shall get one indeed."

Breach of Peace

As the four-minute mark approached, the Shadow Wolf shook again, more violently this time. "Starboard hit, deflectors are failing," Tia warned. Another shake. "Aft hit, deflectors still failing."

"Their second fighter wing is engaging," Piper said. "The auto-turrets are being overwhelmed."

While it was a bit earlier than he'd wanted, Henry recognized they had to start now. "Cera, full burn on fusion drives, now!"

"Aye!"

With several key presses, Cera brought the Shadow Wolf's hidden advantage to life. Within the two aft holds, usually kept without atmosphere and sealed off as if damaged, tanks of deuterium and helium-3 started pumping their contents into a conventional reactor vessel. The two elements, given the right conditions, started fusing together at the atomic level, producing energy and other byproducts. The plasma generated by the reactor was drawn by electromagnetic fields into reinforced lines linked to the ship's rear-engine nozzles.

The ultimate result of this process was thrust. regular

The Shadow Wolf's acceleration caught the attacking fighters by surprise. The shift in the hauler's delta-vee was such their targeting systems were completely thrown off, and with it, their fire. Many of the fighters altered their courses to avoid shooting at their own side or in a vain effort to adjust.

Aboard the ship, everyone felt the increased pressure as the vastly-increased thrust overwhelmed the hauler's inertial compensators. "We're at 2Gs now, compensators are still struggling," Tia said. "Make that 2.1Gs!"

"At this rate, we'll be in firing range in less than a minute," Piper added.

"Fire when you've got the range," Henry answered.

Breach of Peace

On the Pahknabi bridge, Ship-Lord Jastavi was surprised despite himself. He'd known, instinctively, that the human ship was hiding something. But he'd expected something like heavy guns, not a more powerful engine system.

"The fighters are beginning pursuit," his tactical expert commented. "But it will take them some time to get back into range."

"I can see that," Jastavi hissed in reply. The nimble fighters were indeed capable of high speed, but it would take time for the acceleration curve to overtake their foe's trajectory. The Pahknabi would be in engagement range long before that. "Put us on their course, astrogator. Weaponeer, shoot to disable! Their speed prevents them from breaking away from us!"

He was answered in the affirmative as the distance to the Shadow Wolf melted away.

Breach of Peace

Henry eyed the distance and considered the gamble he was taking. It was a necessity; the fighters would overwhelm them if they caught up, but the Tash'vakal ship had a position where flying around them without coming into effective weapons range was unlikely. Added to that was the likelihood they were tracking his vessel. He wanted to give them a reason to be wary of trying this again.

"Coming up on weapons range now," Piper said. "And I've got a good destination for our double jump as well."

"Send it to the helm."

"Doing so."

After Piper hit several keys, Cera spoke up. "Coordinates loaded into th' drive, Captain. We'll jump when Pieter gives th' word."

"Retracting cover plates," Piper added.

She was referring to the plates at the bottom of the ship, just forward of the bow-facing holds. They covered the end of the extended section of hull plating that ran the length of the Shadow Wolf, stern holds to bow. It was an obvious modification compared to the standard Holden-Nagata Mark VII, and most would presume it contained a cabling trunk of some sort.

When the cover plates finished retracting, they revealed the actual contents by uncovering the barrel of a cannon emplacement.

"Neutron and energy capacitors at full," Piper said. "Shooting."

A white-hot lance of blue energy stabbed out from the barrel. In the space of a second, the channeled, packed neutrons in the shot crossed through the void and slammed into the deflectors of the Tash'vakal pirate ship. The deflectors resisted the blast, mostly, but at the cost of straining themselves beyond endurance.

Piper followed up with a second shot. Slightly weaker than the first, this one was still strong enough to smash through the Tash'vakal deflectors and slice through the main hull of the ship. The beam worked its way up into the pylons attaching the upper starboard pod to the Tash'vakal ship, severing one and nearly severing the other.

Breach of Peace

The Pahknabi had never endured such a terrible strike, before or during Jastavi's reign on the vessel. The entire ship rocked as if it were a wounded beast. He could only stare in shock at the result of the enemy shot.

"Scanners confirm. The humans are using a neutron cannon, cruiser-grade," said the weaponeer. "Our deflectors cannot resist repeated shots."

"Reroute all power, blast you! Begin evasive maneuvers!"

"My Lord, the supply pod's connections are too severely weakened, even with inertial compensators, we might shear it off!" protested his engineer, while the helmsman obeyed the order anyway to avoid his commander's wrath.

"Then let it fail! We will reclaim it!"

The Pahknabi was maneuvering hard when the third shot came, the weakest yet. It still punctured the weakened deflectors with enough power left over to carve another gash across the Pahknabi's starboard side, just barely missing the lower starboard pod. Jastavi watched the damage indicators and felt fury at the human ship, indeed, their entire damned race. Chantavit Li had not warned him of this! His ship absorbing such severe damage would weaken Jastavi's political power, Lamat would never choose him now!

Still, there was pride. He was a Ship-Lord of the Mek'taman. His honor, the honor of the Pahknabi, and that of the Clan demanded he retaliate. "To the ethereal wastes with Li and all Humans. Weaponeer, hold fire until we have optimal range on them, then fire all available weapons on that ship! I do not care if it survives!"

"Gladly, my Lord!" the weaponeer replied, even as another shot from the humans carved another wound in the Pahknabi.

Jastavi hissed lowly as the next shot came. I will return the pain in kind, human. I will make you pay!

Breach of Peace

Henry watched with quiet satisfaction as a fifth, and final, shot from the neutron cannon finished dealing another blow to the Tash'vakal vessel. This shot did the least damage of all, as it had little power left after penetrating the compromised deflectors on the other ship.

"Capacitors are low," Piper said. "And heat buildup's at the redline. Do you want me to go for another shot?"

Henry was looking over the holotank intently, judging the position of the other Tash'vakal ships. Finally, he answered, "Not right away. Cera, alter course heading to three-three-five, degrees mark negative fourteen."

"Aye, sir."

"That should open up the range a little, just in case they try to return fire," Henry said. Looking at the distance on the holotank, he figured it wouldn't take them out of weapons range of the stricken ship, but it would keep them from coming under fire from other threats. We're committed to this run, have to see it through.

"So far, I've got nothing from their weapons." Piper shook her head. "We may have knocked out something vital."

"Reinforce deflectors to face them as we pass."

"Doing what I can, but they took some hits already…" Tia gave him a worried look. "Jim, even if we took out some of their weapons…"

"I know, but we're on the horns of a dilemma here, Tia," he replied. "Ambushes have a way of causing that."

As soon as he spoke, Henry realized he'd touched an old wound for Tia, and it wasn't hard to guess what it involved. He could see in her stormy gray eyes the memories of urban battle, a revolution betrayed.

"I see your point," she said.

As their range to the damaged Tash'vakal ship came as close as it would, Henry got on the intercom. "I'd enjoy a jump any time, Pieter."

"Stand by, Captain. Just a couple more minutes."

Piper sighed. "We really need to hire him a—" Her instruments lit up and diverted her attention. "They're locking weapons and shooting!"

"Evasive!"

Given their speed and acceleration, they were in an excellent position to evade a lot of incoming fire. But the Tash'vakal ship, despite being wounded, was equally capable of throwing a lot of it. Missiles streamed from launchers while particle lances lashed out through space, glittering cerulean beams of murderous energy that stabbed at the Shadow Wolf.

Some missed. Some hit. The Shadow Wolf's deflectors endured the impacts with decreasing capability until they started to cut through enough to scorch hull.

The missiles came roaring in behind the lances, hitting acceleration that quickly overtook the hauler even with her unique fusion drives pushing her along. The auto-turrets engaged them, as did the manned quad turrets, with the sapphire pulses and unseen strips of magnetically-accelerated metal ripping into the approaching missiles. Between the ship's speed and this defensive fire, most of the enemy missiles were eliminated.

Most.

One missile, on the verge of missing, fired thrusters to correct its course, bringing it back around to the port side of the Shadow Wolf. An auto-turret round failed to destroy the warhead of the missile, which impacted on the deflectors and exploded. Another came in from "below" before it hit the deflectors, then two from starboard. Bursts of energy, courtesy of high-energy reactions from the xaser-pumped warheads of the missiles, pounded the Shadow Wolf on all of these sides.

The abuse was too much. The deflectors failed.

With the distance growing, more and more of the particle lance fire from the Tash'vakal was missing, but the successful hits told on the Shadow Wolf's dark gray hull. Even glancing blows left scorched, half-melted hull material in its wake. One beam sliced through the mid-starboard hold into the mid-port hold, exposing both. Another carved a chunk out of the ship's aft section on the upper deck. One missile went off just before reaching the impact point, bathing the forward lower deck in enough energy to melt through and cause a hull breach.

For all of their bad luck in these hits, the Shadow Wolf was fortunate. Her engines, still straining to keep her ahead of the approaching mass of fighters, hadn’t taken serious damage. The lances did nothing more than a single glancing hit on the rear starboard hold, ensuring her fusion drive systems went undamaged.

This fortune was little comfort for the crew, however, as their ship shuddered under the repeated impacts. Alarms wailed, and Tia swallowed at seeing the red showing up on various sections of the damage control display. "We've taken multiple hits to bare hull, both middle holds are hulled completely, structural damage on both decks fore and aft." She glanced briefly at Henry.

Henry knew she was thinking about her previous warning not to get too close and didn't begrudge her those thoughts as he fought his frustration with everything. He regretted having anything do with Lusitania at this moment. But regrets wouldn't get them through. His finger found the intercom again. "Pieter, we're taking hits! We've got to jump, now."

"If you double jump, I can't guarantee the drive will hold, I need at least a minute to finish heat-proofing this component!"

The ship shuddered again. "Forward starboard hold hit and hulled," Tia said.

Piper gave another warning. "More missiles inbound; the auto-turrets can't get them all!"

"Pieter, I'm not sure we have thirty seconds!"

"Stand by!" Invective in Afrikaans came over the line.

"Maneuverin' as best as I can!" Cera said.

After a glance at the holotank, Henry decided to take a risk. "Don't worry about my prior heading order, Cera. Evade in any heading you can!" He gave the order, knowing that to break from the general direction would drastically cut the time to intercept for the approaching fighters.

"Aye, sir!"

Cera broke the Shadow Wolf into a twist "upward" and to port. The maneuver threw off several shots from the Tash'vakal ship and further opened up the range. She ended up turning a full hundred degrees, which in turn meant that their new heading reduced their distance from the approaching fighters. Henry looked at the range and knew he was cutting it close.

Breach of Peace

Jastavi was pleased to see the damage inflicted on the human ship. He was delighted to see the ship panic enough to change its heading enough that the fighters' intercept time shortened. This did have the effect of making the Pahknabi's fire completely inaccurate, but the fighters could finish them off. And if they jumped, well, that would just add time to the chase. He triggered the tactical comm line and said, "Pilot-Lord Neshas, the prey is yours."

"I thank you for this honor, my Lord," his lead pilot replied. "They will suffer for harming our home."

"I will give you first choice of meat when we cook their captain," Jastavi promised. Such honor did well to keep the loyalty of his subordinates, and he would need such given the damage the humans inflicted. Jump, fool. See what it does for you.

The thought made Jastavi wonder. Just why hasn't the human jumped yet? Indeed the fool suspects we're tracking their ship, but they have no hope of victory remaining here.

Breach of Peace

The fighters were looming ever closer on the holotank in Henry's eye. The vessel now behind them continued to fire, although now none of its shots were hitting, and its missiles were having trouble keeping up with their maneuvers.

"Captain, I can't maintain this acceleration for much longer," Cera warned. "I'm showin' stress indicators on th' fusion drive."

"Just a bit longer," he said. Then he called up Pieter again. "Pieter…"

"Damn you, I'm going as fast as I can!" The exasperation was evident in Pieter's voice. "Just let me finish this up."

"The fighters are almost to weapons range, Jim," Tia pointed out.

"I'm aware of that." Henry let out a breath, as hard as that could be given they were still pulling 2Gs from the effort of the fusion drive. His eyes went back to the holotank as the cloud of red dots came closer and closer to the center. His vision was clouded by sweat dripping down into his eyes from his brow. The seconds seemed to elongate as he wondered if he'd miscalculated somewhere, if this was how it would end for them. If he had let his crew down.

Ahead of him, Cera started speaking softly, her voice slightly choked. "Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee—"

"—blessed art thou amongst women," Piper added, eyes closed, and her face pale with fear and worry. "...and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus."

From her seat, Tia looked from them to Jim, while the holotank showed the fighters mere seconds from range, seconds that went by far too quickly.

The Tash'vakal fired a missile volley right at them.

"Jump!" Pieter's voice thundered over the intercom.

Cera's finger went to the control and punched it within a second.

The Shadow Wolf's Lawrence drive came to life, drawing power from both her regular reactors and her still-running fusion drive reactor. Energy flowed from the drive core invisibly, coalescing ahead of the ship until it punctured a hole through space-time. Color blossomed in the void of space to form the mouth of a short-lived wormhole.

The Shadow Wolf plunged into it just as the missiles drew closer.

In the system on the other side, the Shadow Wolf's acceleration carried it on. Behind it, the escape wormhole closed. Half of a missile came through before the universe finished sealing the gap, left to drift uselessly without its engine.

By that point, the next set of coordinates was fed into the projectors of the Shadow Wolf's Lawrence drive. Hot from the tremendous energy necessary to pierce the fabric of the universe, the drive became hotter still as energy yet again surged into it. Another wormhole blossomed open, and the ship rushed through it.

Once through the second wormhole, everyone nearly stopped breathing, as if waiting for something to go wrong. For something to explode from exotic particles, or the enemy ships to appear, any such problem. After ten seconds passed, Henry broke the silence by asking, "Any sign of pursuit?"

"None," Piper said.

At the helm, Cera crossed herself and let out a tense breath.

Henry was about to ask where they were, but he stopped at seeing the holotank display the incoming IFF information for a nearby station. "Trinidad Station," he said softly.

Piper nodded. Color hadn't quite yet returned to her face. "Figured we'd need somewhere we trust for repairs," she said. "Even if we're not coming with cargo for them this time."

"Even if we had been, we'd have lost it," Tia said. "Only one active hold still intact. It's going to take days to get the ship back in shape, and a lot of credits."

"I know." Henry let out a long sigh of relief and frustration. Regardless of whether Caetano or Vitorino paid him, or even both, he could see his accounts draining away at the repair expenses. "Take us in, Cera. On standard drives."

"Aye, sir," she said. "Plasma drives engaging."

The Shadow Wolf, wounded but intact, started her way back to one of the few ports that might properly be called her home.

Breach of Peace

Few times in his existence had ever seen Ship-Lord Jastavi's rage so hot. He looked at the holotank display showing the current location of their prey and felt the urge to encourage the Clan to attack anyway. Not that it would do him any good.

"Ship-Lord Tresak is offering to send us aid, as is Chief Lamat," his communications officer informed him. "They have noted our battle damage."

"Tell them our crews can handle—" Jastavi stopped himself. That was his pride talking, and only his pride. While pride was so crucial to a Ship-Lord, so was obligation. His Clan was weakened if the Pahknabi was not repaired in due time. He had to face that the Pahknabi's crew needed help due to the deaths and injuries they'd endured. "Tell them I am honored by their assistance," he said forcefully, knowing full well Tresak would never let him forget this. At the same time, his ambitions were certainly set back.

"Doing so now. What of our fighters?"

"Other Ship-Lords will recover them," Jastavi said. "Focus our efforts on repairs. The Pahknabi must be restored to strength."

"As you command, my Lord."

That meant little to Jastavi's rage. He didn't know whom he wished to slaughter more, the human captain who had just bested him or that damned Chantavit Li, who said nothing about the mettle of their foe. Bested by humans, tricked by humans… may the gods of the Void drag their souls to oblivion, and I will gladly free them from their bodies to provide the opportunity!


24

While Cera and Vidia minded the bridge, the rest of the crew met in the galley to take stock of their situation. Tia delivered the damage report with little emotion. Three hulled holds would have to be repaired so they could continue working. Several hull breaches, at least three of them major. The survey of the damage would take days of repair work and a lot of credits to properly repair.

Henry listened to the report while nursing a small shot glass of bourbon. He found the substance useful, given his feelings and nerves. Like always, he monitored himself carefully to ensure he wasn't becoming overly reliant on it. The last thing he wanted to do was become an actual alcoholic.

"I think I can sum this all up by saying we got away without quite getting our asses handed to us," Tia remarked. "We'll probably spend a week on Trinidad getting everything fixed. If not more."

"And don't forget the Lawrence drive," Pieter added. "We blew out half the bloody thing with that second jump."

"Our priorities will be major hull breaches, the drive, and the holds, in that order," Henry said.

"I think the drives can go last," Tia said. "We're at a safe harbor now, and we can afford to wait."

"Not everyone on Trinidad Station is trustworthy, as you well know." Henry gave her a knowing look. "We need to be able to leave if things get hot."

"Well, it's going to be a while," Pieter said. "I can only do so much. All of the coolant seals need inspecting, and most will probably need replacing."

"There are repair hands we can hire on once we make dock," Tia assured him. She looked almost as haggard as Henry felt.

"You'll want to talk to your friend too." Pieter turned his head to face her. Dark brownish smudges from the chemicals he'd employed in his work showed on his jumpsuit as it did on his skin, including his face. "We've never run the fusion drive that long or that intensely before. We may need to replace the plasma manifolds at the very least."

Tia acknowledged Pieter with a nod. "I'll speak to Khánh."

Throughout the meeting, Miri remained silent. To Henry, she seemed not so pleased to hear about their destination. "Trinidad Station is a pirate station, I thought?" she asked.

"Yes, and no," Tia answered. "It was put into orbit over a gas giant a hundred and fifty years ago to support a helium extraction operation for some corporation few people remember. But the company failed. And because it turned out to be a marginal operation, nobody bothered to buy the station out. The profit margins were too thin."

"Presumably, the residents decided to stay?"

Tia snorted. "Decide? Nobody asked them. The gas-miners, the support personnel, were let go from their jobs, and they didn't earn much when they had them, so hiring passage would've bankrupted the ones that could manage to pay. No, like any other group of workers, they did what they had to in order to survive. They mine water from wherever they can find it in-system and grow what they can in the station. Even the simplest food can be a luxury item here. But since the station wasn't founded in anyone's legal territory, and nobody wanted to annex, it's an independent port, so plenty of people find that useful and use Trinidad for trade."

"Including pirates," Henry said. He was well familiar with Tia's in-depth knowledge of the station's history, given some of the ways it mirrored Hestia's experience with the less-scrupulous businessmen of the known galaxy. "The station's sort of a guild-run oligarchy. The gas miners, the agriculturalists, the engineers; each group has a say, as do the transport specialists who import everything they need to keep the station running."

"And the pirates are how they can afford to keep the station operating?" Miri asked.

"The initial pirates were desperate station-folk who hit ships for the goods to trade for survival," Tia answered. "When none of the planetary governments bothered to come after them, other pirate ships started coming in, as did smugglers. They all follow the same code, which is basically to help keep the station going, don't rob from station residents or ships that import what the station needs, and don't do anything that would bring a fleet in."

"It's an interesting place," Piper added. "One of the better ports of call in the Trifid Region, if you're an independent trader. It guarantees the pirates will leave you alone."

"It's not a good place if you work for a corp," Miri pointed out. "All I ever heard about the place was that it was a pirate haven too difficult for the local powers to deal with, so Y&P and several other companies pay protection money to keep them off their ships. None of the transport and shipping companies recognize the station as a legitimate port of call because their insurers won't allow it. The station's not governed by interstellar trade treaties."

"That's the beauty of being independent," said Felix. "You don't have to listen to some self-important government bureaucrat."

"Still, we should be careful about you leaving the ship," Henry said to her. "There's enough desperate people on Trinidad that any money on your head can make you a target, whatever our links to the station community."

Miri narrowed her eyes, and Henry caught it. He couldn't blame her for being suspicious. She was in an isolated position, soon to be at a station where she had no immediate familiar contacts, and unable to trust alternate means of leaving. Her safest course was with them. It wasn't so hard to imagine that a former spy might consider those circumstances and think them intentional. She did not voice such, however, merely asking, "Are there any means for me to reach P&Y? If I explain what happened—"

The Shadow Wolf crew exchanged glances, some of them uncomfortable. Henry's was the most uncomfortable of them all. "Listen, I know you think your company is the best way to go public, but consider this. After you told them where you were, word spread all the way to the Lusitanian government, and whoever that guy was who tried to take you on Harron.''

"I’ve thought of this as well," she admitted.

"If someone in your company is leaking information, telling them you're here could lead to more trouble precisely when we don't need it." And we still have to find out how the Tash'vakal tracked us.

"However, by not speaking to them, Karla Lupa becomes a prime suspect in the loss of the Kensington Star. The League's involvement will not be recognized." Miri’s glance darted around from person to person.

"Nothing that can be done about that," Henry said, even as a part of him recoiled at letting the League get away with whatever they were up to. "This is about surviving, not being a hero."

Seeing that the conversation was talked out, he rose from his chair. "Okay, everyone, we're on damage control until we get to Trinidad. Cera, Piper, you get the first off-watch period. Everyone else is either on the bridge or attending to what damage control we can manage while in vacuum. We're still eight hours out from the station. Let's get to it," he said, ending the meeting with the remark.

Breach of Peace

Cera's plan to rest was dashed by how wound up she still was from one of the closest calls she'd ever had. Her mind kept going back to those minutes under 2Gs, trying to evade the incoming fire and failing, and the desperate wait for Pieter to approve the jump. Finally, she rose from the bed in her quarters and went to the rec-room, hoping watching something might help her get some rest.

She found Piper alone in the room reading a digital pad in one of the side chairs. "Hey."

Piper glanced up. "Hey, Cera, can't sleep?"

"Neither can you, I'm bettin'."

"Nope," Piper confirmed, setting the reader down. "Too much on my mind."

"Still wound up, then? I know I am." Cera settled into the nearest chair and turned it to face Piper. "That was a mighty fine close one."

"Closer than usual." Piper nodded. She ran a hand through her dark hair. She wore a latent frown. "It makes me think about what it'll be like at the end. I mean, when my life ends. How it'll end."

Cera considered that and what she remembered from the bridge. "You surprised me with finishing my Hail Mary," she said. "I didn't know you were in the Church."

"The Tohono O'odham half of my family is almost entirely Catholic," Piper said. "My Cherokee relatives aren't, but I grew up living with my father's family." Piper folded her hands over the reader. "I can't say I'm sure I count as one, though."

"Did ye ever confirm?"

Piper shook her head. "My parents talked to me about it, but it was left to my choice, and I didn't. I suppose I'm not sure the Church is right about things." She smiled sardonically. "Although I guess that didn't stop me from praying when I thought we might die."

"I think everyone prays when they think they're about t' die," Cera answered.

"It's probably a bit cultural. It doesn't require belief, just a bit of going through motions. Doing what's expected. An automatic reflex."

The idea caused Cera to shrug. "Or it's that part of you that's hopin' there's somethin' better. That wants God t' be real an' t' be just."

"What about you?" Piper asked. "How much do you believe?"

Cera's expression turned pensive. "Well, that's fair to ask." She put her hands together and leaned forward to rest her chin on them. "I believe there's a God, because the universe is too beautiful t' be random chance. That He sent a son t' guide us… I can accept that too."

"Not just to guide."

"True. T' sacrifice himself for our sins too. T' save us from damnation."

Piper shook her head. "That's one of the things I didn't like about Church dogma or about Christianity as a whole. This entire idea of Hell and eternal torture."

"Sin isn't allowed into Paradise. If you've got sin on your soul, you can't get in."

"But what sin is so horrible that it justifies an eternity of pain?"

"It's not about individual sins, it's that any sin stains your soul an' keeps you out o' Heaven, unless you've repented of it an' done penance. You've got t' go somewhere then." Cera shrugged. "I've heard talk that Hell's not about flaming pits an' th' like, that it's just separation from th' presence o' God, an' that's torture enough."

"So no fire and brimstone and sulfur, just—"

"Darkness. Nothing. No light, no warmth, just deathly cold."

"That sounds like torture to me." Piper shook her head. "And I'd rather get off this topic. It's morose."

"It is," Cera conceded. "An' it's reminded me that it's been too long since I last went t' confession."

"How long?"

Cera's forehead wrinkled as she considered the question. "Six months. I think. I may have been t' one when we were on Cantrim, but I spent most o' my time off-ship a bit drunk an' some of it's a blur."

The admission drew a giggle from Piper. "I love our girls' nights as much as you do, but you do push it sometimes."

"I know, an' it's a stereotype t' some people, but life's here t' live, know what I mean?" Cera laughed lowly. "It's too short not t' enjoy it, especially when there's a war on an' such."

The war. As always, it was in the background of their lives, as it had been since the beginning. Most of the crew had only been little children, if alive at all when the League revealed its arrival in Sagittarius by attacking Canaan. A bolt from the dark that was felt even in the neutral worlds like Sanctuary and New Connaught. Nobody knew if either side would expand the war one day, or what would befall the neutral worlds if one side finally broke.

Well, that wasn't entirely true. Piper suspected most knew, deep down, that the Coalition winning was in their best interest. A victorious League would quickly shed its "benevolence" toward neutral worlds and attempt to conquer them regardless of their stance during the war. While a defeated, broken Coalition, or one wholly occupied by the League, would make such a conquest inevitable.

The problem was that, for many of the independent worlds, the Coalition was the devil they knew too well, so to speak. It was always the apparent threat to independence, going back to before the Saurian Wars, whatever it said about freedom. The overtly religious attitudes grated on many, giving the Coalition the air of being moralistic, busybody, holier-than-thous always passing judgment on their neighbors.

The League quickly exploited that sentiment so people, even if they knew better, found it too easy to ignore the war, or try to profit from it, or consider the League a necessary evil to restrain the Coalition. Even her own people often felt that way, whatever ties of culture and belief remained with the peoples in the Terran Coalition.

"Sometimes I wonder if I should've accepted th' flight academy offer," Cera admitted. "Through Tyrone, I mean. They're our sister planet an' we get residency rights an' have since before they joined th' Coalition. Anyone from New Connaught can move there an' on into th' CDF."

"So you almost signed up for the CDF?" Piper asked, genuinely curious. As friendly as she was, Cera didn't always talk about the past, especially painful bits.

"I filled out th' paperwork an' everythin', would've gone t' flight school an' flown in th' CDF. I'd be fightin' th' good fight."

"You'd be in the war now." Piper considered how long ago that'd be. "Maybe even a squadron commander."

"Bollocks t' that, I'm no commander," Cera protested. "I'd probably still be a lieutenant, lots o' black marks on my record for fightin' an' boozin', they'd never trust me t' command or train. I'd still be flyin' as a regular pilot. Or already killed." Cera shook her head at that thought. "Or worse, given what Oskar's said about how th' sassenach Leaguers treat POWs. Today, I'm glad I took th' other path. But at th' time… well, it seemed right. Lots o' New Connaught folk enlisted through Tyrone. I almost sent in th' final admission notice. But then my da an' mam got upset an' guilt-tripped me into not signin' it. I figure I upset th' CDF recruiters somethin' fierce when I backed out." Cera chuckled softly. "Poor bastards, did all th' work an' I let my parents talk me out of it. Instead, they got me work flyin' in-system cargo ships t' tide me over, keep me home."

Piper knew that Cera was an orphan. Her parents were dead. She was therefore careful when she asked, "And after your parents…?"

The brief wince on Cera's face was joined by the gratitude in her eyes at Piper's delicate reference to her parents. "By then, I admit, I had second thoughts about servin'. An' I figured th' CDF recruiters wouldn't be t' pleased t' see my name again. So I moved on t' interstellar transports. Then I got hired on by Captain Henry an' had everythin' I ever wanted. A tall ship an' th' stars t' steer her by." Cera's eyes grew distant for a moment, as if she could see into that other history where her counterpart was fighting for her life against the League. It was clear she had no desire to switch places with that Cera McGinty.

"Captain's been good to us both," Piper agreed. "You fly, and I get to see the stars my grandpa showed me when I was a little girl. See them and fly by them."

"Aye." Cera drew in a breath. "Th' captain's got us in a bit o' a mess, he has, but I think he'll be gettin' us out."

"He'll certainly try." As Piper said it, she briefly recalled the terror of the fight with the Tash'vakal, and shuddered at the thought that more such fights might be coming. I want to get this ex-spy whatever-she-is to Lusitania and get past this entire damn job. We're not out here to be heroes.

While Cera couldn't read her mind, it wasn't hard to guess what Piper was thinking. "Aye, he'll get us out, an' we'll go on t' th' next job. Leave th' fightin' t' th' people gettin' paid for it."

That was a sentiment Piper wholly agreed with.

Breach of Peace

Henry did his part with the repair work, helping Felix patch a minor hull breach on the upper deck, and headed on to the office to begin the work he dreaded. Before they made dock, he had to ensure the station had a hangar rated for repair equipment, which would cost more than a simple dock for cargo transfer, and he had to purchase the materials to fix the ship. Even with Trinidad Station having more starship hull-grade metal than it had grain, that was not going to be cheap. Hiring on repair workers would add to the strain on the budget.

There was a knock on the door. "Come in," he called out, looking up as the door slid open. Tia stepped in, looking both worn and cross. Henry breathed out a sigh while she closed the door behind her. That’s never a good sign. "You don't have to say it."

"But, I will anyway." Tia shook her head. "I told you this job would go bad. I damned well told you."

"You did."

Evidently, that wasn't good enough because Tia kept going. "We survive out here by staying out of these kinds of messes. Now you've thrown us in. And nearly got us killed."

"I did nothing," Henry answered, a finger pointed nowhere in particular. "I didn't volunteer us for this job. I was shanghaied into it."

"There are other business contacts who work with us, and we don't need Vitorino or Lusitania. The smart thing to do would be to cut our losses, Jim, and back out of this whole thing."

"We might not have that luxury," Henry said. "The repair costs are going to bring us to the brink, and we won't get paid by anyone if we don't get Gaon back to Lusitania."

"We'll scrimp as we always have. But if we stay in this…" Tia let out an exasperated sigh. "We got lucky. We might not again."

Henry went silent. It wasn't that she was wrong. They'd indeed gotten lucky, and it was true they might not again, and this situation was bringing them to the brink of being dangerously over their heads. Cutting their losses was the safe play.

But he couldn't accept that. He couldn't sacrifice Jules Rothbard to Caetano's non-existent mercy. And, perhaps, there was some remaining scrap of the CDF officer he'd been who couldn't let the League win this one.

Tia shook her head. "You're not going to do it. I can tell."

"No, I'm not."

"We didn't sign on for this," Tia said. "We're spacers, not soldiers. It's not our war. It's not your war anymore, either."

"I didn't say it was. But I'm not abandoning Jules, or Miri Gaon for that matter. What do you think would happen to her if we left her on Trinidad?"

Tia pursed her lips together, pausing for a few moments. "Then let's hire her on. Whatever she was before, she's a spacer now. One of us."

Henry chuckled. "Wow. Okay, have you thought this through? Because, first off, you're assuming she'll say yes, when she's made it clear she wants to ensure the League gets exposed as behind the attack. Secondly, you want to talk about putting us in danger? The League wants this woman, they want her badly, and they'd come after us to get her."

"They're after Oskar and Brigitte too. That didn't stop us from bringing them on!"

"They're also not as dedicated to finding them as they are her," Henry pointed out. "Whatever she did, they want her for real. Have you ever known the League to hire Tash'vakal to do their work?"

"I'm not surprised by anything the League will do," Tia said. Her expression remained hard, and she felt like the conversation had gotten away from her.

"I'm not either, but that's a major MO change, and you know it. It means they've got a big reason to go after Gaon, bigger than Oskar or Brigitte, and they're not going to stop because we don't take her to Lusitania. If we leave her on Trinidad, even if they know we did, they might still come after us just because of what she told us or could have told us." Henry leaned forward. "I've thought this over, Tia, trust me. Our best way to safety is to get her to Lusitania. Then the job's over, we get paid by someone, and we're out of this."

Tia let out an inarticulate cry of frustration. "Damn you, Jim, you make it sound so reasonable, but we both know you're not objective about this. You want to save your friend's brother. You want to stick it to the League. And you're putting us at risk trying to accomplish all of it."

"Don't you think I know that?” Henry said with a raised voice. “Of course I do! But think about it, Tia. Cutting our losses sounds simple and easy, but it's not. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment. They want Gaon silenced, and that's going to extend to anyone they could believe she spoke to about what she saw. We're going to be on their list no matter what. It's too late to just 'cut our losses'. We have to make going after us a moot point, and that means Gaon gets to Lusitania." Henry spoke with conviction, hiding the small part of him that wanted to agree with her, that wanted to get the hell out of Trifid now. However, he’d done the calculations over and over again, he'd considered the scenarios. This was the only safe way to do this. Of that, he was utterly convinced.

Silence broke out in the office. Tia and Henry looked at each other intently, eye to eye, neither yielding. The silent tension remained between them for the entire time. It only subsided when Henry leaned back in his chair. "This is why I asked you to become First Mate when Muammar left," he said.

Tia nodded at the reference to her predecessor, New Arabia-born Muammar Qadir, a long-time spacer who retired a few years prior. "I still think you're wrong."

"I know."

"I'm going to check up on the repair progress. It's almost time for Yanik to be relieved, so…"

"I'll be on the bridge shortly," Henry promised. "Just let me finish up these calculations for our repair bills. Then I can see how screwed we are."

"Yeah." Tia sighed.. She turned to leave and got to the door before looking back. "Do you think Ms. Gaon's testimony will work, given all of this? She's right that her corp will consider her suspicious for leaving Harron without a word."

"It's out of our hands," was his reply.


25

ISV Shadow Wolf

Magella System, Neutral Space

10 August 2560

The wounded Shadow Wolf burned into orbit of the gas giant Trinidad, the biggest of the gas giants in the Magella star system. The gas giant's particular mix of elements in its atmosphere gave it a blue and brown hue that now showed on one side of the Shadow Wolf's bridge display. The holotank gave a more complex picture, showing all of the gas miner ships loitering in the atmosphere, using tethered collection arrays to draw up helium-3 and other useful elements from Trinidad.

Trinidad Station itself was in far orbit of the gas giant. It was an O'Neill cylinder of over ten kilometers in length and a little over two kilometers of diameter. Internally, it was a pair of cylinders rotating in opposite directions, eliminating gyroscopic effects that could alter the station's orientation relative to Magella and Trinidad. The exterior of the station was divided into six sections. Three were transparent, allowing for the giant mirrors arrayed from the end of the station to reflect sunlight into the interior during the station's scheduled daylight time. The other three provided the interior ground space. On the outside, they were colored navy blue, with running lights along the spine of each section. While one far end of the station provided the framework that supported the mirrors, the other end was tipped by the docking area for the station, which extended outward in eight arms that did not turn as the station's interior cylinders did.

"They don't make stations like that anymore," Miri remarked. With the permission of Henry, she was watching their approach. "Most stations use gravity generators exclusively now."

"In the Coalition, sure," Henry remarked. "But out here in neutral space, torus and cylinder stations that generate their own gravity with centrifugal force are still worth building. They're easier to provide power to without the need for big graviton generators and the fusion cores to run them."

"The design's a century and a half old too," Tia added. "The Coalition was probably building them back then too."

Henry heard a snappish tone in her voice. He knew she was still unhappy about his choices and their situation, and a chance to get in a dig at the Coalition on behalf of non-Coalition worlds like her own was not something she was going to avoid in this mood.

"Trinidad Traffic Control has cleared us," Cera said. "They're givin' us a repair dock on th' third arm."

"Khánh's arm," Tia said with relief. "Good. I didn't want to deal with her peers."

"Neither did I. A good thing we stay in with the harbor controllers here. Speaking of which…"

Felix, standing in a corner quietly watching Miri, nodded. "I've got that case of bourbon. I'm sure ol' Chief Hagerty'll love it."

"And keep us in good with the harbor controllers." Henry set his arms on the arms of his command chair. "Cera, take us in."

"Aye, sir. Conformin' t' traffic control instructions now."

Cera's piloting was skillful, as always. She applied just enough thrust as the Shadow Wolf needed to negotiate her course to the arm in question. Some of the docks were external, mainly made for big ships that couldn't fit inside an internal dock. The Shadow Wolf was just small enough to squeeze in, however. Cera used thrusters to bring the vessel in, port side facing the opening dock doors. A forcefield gently resisted their landing, but it was made for keeping atmosphere in, not keeping medium haulers out. Said resistance only slowed the process. Cera adjusted and finished bringing the ship through. With seemingly little effort, she set the Shadow Wolf down on her landing struts smack in the middle of the repair dock.

The moment the ship was down, gantries swung into place. They secured the vessel and provided the means for repair crews to move over the ship's hull and do their job. One gantry also worked to secure an umbilical tube to the waiting external support port for the Shadow Wolf's life support and power systems. The universal-fitting umbilical ends detected the ship type and conformed the ending appropriately, resulting in a physical link that would provide the Shadow Wolf with the atmosphere of Trinidad Station while topping off the ship's life support tanks. The attachment also provided electrical power to the vessel and a hard-line to Trinidad Station's GalNet uplinks and quantum entanglement transceivers.

"We're secure. Shuttin' down engines," Cera said.

Henry keyed the intercom. "Engineering, we're landed. Go ahead and shut everything down."

"Doing so now, Captain," answered Pieter.

Henry triggered the intercom for shipwide address. "Okay, everyone, we've made it to Trinidad. While we don't have cargo to move, we do have repairs to make, and all hands will be on deck for that. Yanik will give you shift assignments. Off-shift, all I ask is you come back sober enough to work."

"Like I'll be drinkin' any of that swill th' moonshiners make." Cera guffawed, wincing as she spoke.

Henry smiled back at her but ignored the remark. "I'll call a crew meeting before we get underway again, give you all a chance to get things off your chest. Henry out." He flipped the intercom off with a flick of the switch on his armrest. "Tia, if you'll join me?"

"Of course," she said.

The two left the bridge and made their way to the upper deck airlock, now adjacent to the gantry walkway. By the time they stepped out, a small group of figures clad in green jumpsuits was approaching the ship. One was a Tal'mayan, another a Matrinad—his suit joined by a conformal helmet that contained the high-moisture atmosphere his species' physiology demanded—and the rest were human.

The lead was a woman of Tia's coloration, although darker in skin tone, with brown eyes and short-cut dark hair. A toolbelt hung around her waist, and her right hand was conspicuously ungloved and dark gray in color. Its gleam in the light of the dock was the shine of metal and not skin. "So how'd you get it shot up this time?" she asked pointedly. With a hand motion, she sent the others onward to finish their examination of the ship.

"You act like I always show up with my ship shot up," Henry replied. Although he didn't grin, he hoped his tone showed he was taking the teasing barb as it was meant to be taken.

"It is his fault this time. Partially." Tia approached and took the lead woman in a hug. "Comrade Linh."

"Comrade Tia."

"I ran into Felipe in Gamavilla. He sends fraternal greetings."

"No, he doesn't, because the son of a bitch has gone Leaguer on us," Linh Khánh said hotly. "He came through here six months ago to ask me to sign the amnesty, go home, and join the Social Solidarity Party. I nearly threw him out the airlock."

Tia winced. "I hoped to spare you that. He did the same to me."

"You told him no?"

"Yes, and I changed the subject rather than throw my Thanh liquor in his face."

That caused Linh to chortle. "Who are you, and what have you done with my dear Comrade Tia, who spat a shot of Thanh into the face of the company security agent sent to arrest her?" she demanded jokingly.

Tia laughed herself. "Like I'm going to waste even a shot of good Thanh on Felipe's idiocy. Besides, I have learned some restraint." With that, she cast a look at Henry.

Not particularly caring about Hestian exile politics, Henry remained quiet through the exchange, even if it was becoming time-consuming. Given the look on Tia's face, he still grinned and nodded with a wordless reply. He didn't need to say anything.

After another giggle, Linh finally got to business. "So, who shot you up? If it was any of ours, I'll have their reproductive organs rendered into lubricant."

Tia shook her head. "We had a run-in with the Tash'vakal."

Linh frowned. "You did? What did they want?"

"A passenger we took on," Henry said. "It might be for the best if we don't go into detail, Khánh. It's a complicated thing."

Tia's expression turned neutral, and Henry had the feeling he'd only delayed the inevitable. Linh answered with a nod and let out a sigh as she beheld some of the damaged hull on the Shadow Wolf. "Well, you got your girl shot up, and we can fix her, but it's going to cost. Materials are scarcer these days, prices higher."

Henry nodded. He pulled a tablet from his pocket and handed it to Linh. "Here's our damage list, and what we'll need."

Linh looked it over. She shook her head. "Your estimate's about fifteen percent off," she said, sympathy in her voice. "Price hike just went through the guild. Thanks to shortages from all the missing ships killing trade."

Tia gave Henry a concerned look as numbers went through her mind based on what her friend said. The same went through his and with it the same conclusion: the repairs were going to actually bankrupt the Shadow Wolf's operating accounts.

It was clear Linh recognized what was wrong. "I know independents run on a tight budget, usually, and jobs aren't too easy to find."

"Tell me about it." Henry sighed. "I, well, I'll need time. If I can get her spaceworthy to get back to Lusitania…"

"Jim, the trouble's not over; we can't go back out if half our holds are hulled," Tia said. She gave a pleading look to her old friend. "Is there any way to shave something off?"

"You know the rules, Tia. The station can't afford welfare. Given your drives, you're stuck here anyway until some repairs are made. You won't be making many more jumps with holes in your ship."

"We'll have to make do, then," Henry said. "Focus on the jump drive and minimal structural repair. When we run out of money, well, we'll cross that bridge when we get there."

Linh bit into her lip at that. It was clear she sympathized with their plight. "Listen, let me make a call. I know you're a couple hands short for your engineering staff, and I've got someone who can help with repairs who's not formally on our crews, so you don't need my full team. I can give you a cheaper labor cost that way."

Tia gave her friend a worried look. "How will the dockworker guild take it?"

Linh answered initially with a sardonic look before speaking. "I'm not talking about sneaking you a scab, Tia. I've got an up and coming fetch tech who knows her stuff, I mean, really knows it. She’s more interested in becoming a spacer than working the docks."

Henry could see where this was going. Fetch techs were the station's children who were interested enough in spaceships that the dock repair teams and engineers, ever in need of more hands, "hired" on to help in small ways. They weren't paid in money or food, usually, but rather in knowledge, as they got to observe the actual repair teams do their jobs and learn them for themselves. Typically, the fetch techs were no older than seventeen and as young as ten, and some wound up in the dockworker guild in some capacity as a result of what they learned. "Well, as you said, we've got openings for Engineer's Mates," he said, showing his recognition of Linh's thinking. "If you think she'll work—"

"She will. Enthusiastically. Hartzog may have to pry her away from the fusion drives. She worked on my last installation, so she knows them a bit."

"Send her to me. Pieter and I will talk with her," Henry said.

"I will, after you come with me and we recalculate these figures," Linh answered.

"Yeah, I figured it was going to come to that." Henry grinned and followed Linh toward her office, leaving Tia to observe the examination crew as they continued to check the Shadow Wolf's wounds.

Breach of Peace

With the crew of the Shadow Wolf taking a break from repair work and letting the dock crew do their jobs, they found the time to see to their needs for sustenance or rest. Miri watched most of them in the galley, sharing a meal and talking amongst themselves. Only Felix and the ship's Boer engineer were missing from the gathering.

Impressive bunch, especially for independents. From what she'd overheard, this core group was unchanged over the prior two or so years, with the two Leaguers and Felix Rothbard being the newest members of the crew. They showed the cohesiveness Miri heard was common for independent crews, especially those who were used to relying on each other and scrambling to cover for everything. Perpetually understaffed, alone without a corporate support network, just the business, and trade contacts they enjoyed at legitimate and not-so-legitimate ports across the neutral systems. There was something viscerally exciting about it, without going to the extent of being involved with pirates.

At the same time, she was unsettled. Yes, Miri was confident that the ambush and this station being their destination in the escape was not pre-planned, but it did have the side effect of limiting her options. That left a part of her wondering if there was an intention involved here. They'd know that as a corporate-employed spacer she had nobody to trust on Trinidad Station, no means to ensure safe passage—the ISU was many things, but they were not a charter service. She’d remain reliant on the Shadow Wolf crew for her transport, and they still intended to take her to Lusitania, not New Cornwall.

The thought made her think about making a dash anyway. Trinidad Station reportedly had over a quarter of a million residents. She could slip into their numbers and go to ground. Use the skills she'd learned to find a way to communicate her situation to P&Y and see what she could do.

They won't send someone for you, Miri. As things stand, Okon is already suspicious of Karla Lupa. If you reveal you're suddenly on a pirate station, she's not going to believe your story about being attacked. She'll immediately presume this is a trap of some sort. You'll confirm you're a pirate, and your testimony will be ignored.

Miri's fist clenched. She owed it to her fellow crew on the Kensington Star to try and help them in some way. Whatever she disliked about them didn't matter anymore; they were fellow human beings, fellow spacers, going through the hell of a League socialization camp. If the League got away with whatever they wanted her old ship for, their suffering would be for nothing.

"I really wouldn't recommend making a run for it."

The male voice prompted Miri to turn. Felix Rothbard was standing outside the galley entry, staring at her with a quiet expression.

She returned it with a neutral expression. "What makes you think I am?"

"I was CDF, Gaon. I had occasion to work with CIS agents in my career," Felix replied. "Enough to know how you think. Right now, you're considering how to get yourself extracted from this situation. You still want to get to the Astra Mater or P&Y HQ."

Miri kept her expression blank. "If you say so," she said quietly.

A small, wry smile formed on his lips, "Oh, I more than say so," he answered. "I know so. Understand, I don't blame you. I want the League stopped too. But we're your smart play."

"Are you?" Miri folded her arms and didn't hide her skepticism. "Mister Rothbard, how do you think my employers will take it when they find out Karla Lupa disappeared from Harron? Or when Patricia Okon of Corporate Security investigates my legend enough to prove Karla Lupa isn't real?"

Felix tilted his head to one side. "Before the latter, they won't know what to think. Your disappearance indicates either guilt or that the attackers found you first. Now for this Okon lady, yeah, I can see her deciding you were a pirate agent."

"And then my testimony is useless. The League goes right on attacking ships until they're ready for whatever they're up to."

"That's what gets me." Felix crossed his arms in front of his chest. "Just what're they doing hunting down ships in neutral space? Especially since they're talking about making peace now. Something doesn't add up."

"The most obvious answer is that they have a large operation in mind for those ships. They captured Kensington Star," Miri pointed out. "They didn't destroy her. They want those vessels for something."

"Right. And that, well, that's pretty downright scary if you ask me." Felix's face twisted into a frown. "Just what the hell do you do with that many civilian trading ships? No way in hell you make a combat fleet out of them. Even a single-system space navy with hundred-year-old Coalition ships are going to have a fair chance of kicking their asses up between their ears. The bigger targets like Lusitania or New Cornwall have modern fleets that would pulverize them."

"The League would not risk discovery and turning the neutral worlds against them on a foolish mission," Miri insisted. "They have a plan, and if my testimony does not reveal their involvement, they’ll have a chance to implement it."

Miri watched Felix's expression. She could see he agreed, but only to a point. "Of course, you are not an objective observer here, from what I've heard."

"Yeah. My brother's life is on the line too." A pensive expression came to Felix's face. "Jewish, right?"

"Yes."

"Orthodox? Reform?"

"Orthodox. Once." As Miri spoke, she considered all the ways she'd violated the rules of her people in her life. Her rabbi uncle, Shlomo, would be horrified at how much pork and other unkosher foods she'd had, even if he would understand the circumstances. "Honestly, I don’t observe anymore. I know He is out there, but—"

Miri saw how the pensive look turned sympathetic and knew she'd met a kindred spirit. "—you did things that God says you shouldn't," he said. "You have, you had good reasons. Reasons that any preacher or rabbi would tell you were justified. But it gnaws anyway. Makes you feel unworthy."

Miri nodded. "Yes."

"I know that, God knows I do," Felix said. "Assuming He's listening."

"He is."

"Jim says otherwise, whenever we talk about it. My brother, though? He believes. He knows in his heart God's with him, that he's doing Christ's work, and he'll walk to a Lusitanian gallows with a smile if it comes to it."

Miri couldn't stop herself from wincing at the word "gallows." Visions of Lowery, the camp, Christopher Tobay, and Annette Zens, filled her. She remembered their slow, horrible deaths, and teared up as raw guilt crashed through her heavy heart.

"I'm sorry," Felix said. "Looks like I touched a nerve there." He swallowed. "Saw someone hung, didn't you?"

"Yes," she answered hoarsely. "Two courageous, kind people, who trusted a fellow sufferer with their plans for freedom."

"And?"

"They died slowly for their mistake."

Felix's mouth hung open. "Christ Almighty," he said. "You were playing for high stakes, weren't you?"

It was for the mission. For years, she'd repeated those five words over and over. When the League fled Lowery after their horrible defeat at New Arabia, the loss she enabled, it'd seemed to justify everything. That feeling lasted only a short time, though. Then the nightmares began, where the specters of those she'd condemned to death or deportation haunted her, reminding her of the suffering she'd caused them.

"I was. And I prevailed. But success… success does not cleanse the soul of guilt," Miri replied. She turned away.

"I've been there," Felix called out. "You're not the only one. I've killed too."

"In battle. What I did, what I did was much worse." She spoke those words and continued to the room she'd been given, suddenly feeling very, very tired.

Breach of Peace

Linh's work crew didn't disappoint Tia. They moved with practiced thoroughness, cataloging all of the damage from the Tash'vakal attack while she looked on.

As enjoyable as a sight it was, Tia couldn't stop her frustrated, irritated feelings over this situation. Henry, damn him, was right about the stakes. Getting Gaon to Lusitania was their best bet. But Tia felt like he wasn't as objective about it as he should be. Not with Jules Rothbard's fate on the line, and not with Gaon identifying the League as behind the attacks. Becoming an independent trader, even entering League space on contracts, had not diminished the traditional enmity he felt for them. Now she worried that the chance to save a childhood friend and stick it to the League was clouding his judgment.

The worst thing, the absolute worst thing, is that he's right, and I know he's right. The League's after us now because of Miri Gaon, and they won't accept "we dropped her off at Trinidad and hightailed it" if we run into them. Not if they want to silence her.

Thinking of the League made Tia's fists clench. They had a lot to answer for with her people. Engineering their revolution, then warning the megacorps about it, crushing the hopes of her abused, suffering people. The only thing good about it was that it'd opened Tia's eyes to the nature of the powerful. They cared only for themselves. The League, for all its rhetoric, was no different. Maybe even worse, given the scope of their lies. We should have known better. The oligarchs lied to us too.

"Someone's moody today." Hearing Linh's voice prompted Tia to turn her head. "Henry and I have made arrangements," she said. "And he's off to hire that fetch tech for your crew. He'll make her day."

"You think she'll be worth it, given what we can afford?"

"She's one of the good ones," Linh assured her. "So, want to get a drink tonight? I've got a box of Thanh we took off a ruined transport, proper salvage."

"Maybe. If anything, it'll remind me that not all of my old comrades are dead or surrendering to our oppressors."

Linh shook her head fervently and lifted her right arm. "They took my arm and my pride, Tia. I'd have died if you hadn't gotten the tourniquet on in time, and they'd have taken me if you hadn't carried me to the extraction point. I know how much you wanted to stay and fight…"

Again, the furious sounds of a vicious urban battle filled Tia's head, brought up by her dear comrade's words. "I didn't get you all the way there," she said. "The mortar blast..."

Linh nodded. "You're lucky you still have all of your meaty bits, Comrade." She thumped her organic left fist against her metal right arm.

"As I recall, I'm lucky to be alive."

"The sad thing is, you know who pulled us to the extraction point?"

"Felipe." Tia swallowed and nodded. "To think even he's surrendering now. And going over to the League, when he damn well knows they're the reason we failed. Justifying their betrayal, even."

"I threw him out before he tried that," Linh said. "I almost want to ask how…"

"Something about the League having to beat the Coalition and make the workers' revolution possible beyond Hestia." Tia snarled. "Even though they're worse than the Coalition. They oppress workers even more viciously than they are on Hestia. I've seen it."

Linh shook her head and let out a sigh. "Maybe we need to work through that Thanh to drown the memories. But right now, I'd better see to—"

"Chief!"

The voice was not human nor entirely natural. Linh's Matrinad crewmember came up. Through the faceplate of his atmosphere helmet, Tia could see the dark pink and red scales of his skin and the almost entirely black eyes, like that of a dolphin mixed with a human. He was gripping something in his right hand.

"Crenan, what is it?" Linh asked.

The Matrinad opened the hand. Inside was a stubby piece of metal. "I found it attached in the stern of the ship, near the engines," he said through his helmet vocoder, which made the English sound tinny and stilted. Tia figured the vocoder was translating from the Matrinad's speech. "It doesn't look like any shrapnel I’ve seen before."

"No, it doesn't." Linh took the object and looked it over.

Tia noticed her expression darken. "What is it? What's wrong?"

"This is a micro-QET," she said, pronouncing "QET" as "Kwet." "That is a quantum entanglement transceiver. Anyone with the right quantum signature and their own QET can read the location of this thing."

"A tracker," Tia said. "This is how the Tash'vakal found us."

"Oh, I'd bet my month's salary on it, Tia." Linh gave her a dark look. "Now whoever did it knows you're here, on Trinidad."

"And they'll be coming," Tia sighed. Things were definitely not going to get better.


26

After Jastavi's image disappeared from his desk's computer screen, Chantavit Li scowled and contemplated the unfairness of the universe.

They were on the cusp of a success that would shake the galaxy. Victory over the reactionaries, the throwbacks, the superstitious fools; it was at hand. The petty nations ruling over these rich worlds would be on track to absorption into Society, which would see to the proper use of the wealth they squandered. So far, their foes were utterly clueless as to their plans.

And yet, and yet—Miri Gaon and these impetuous antisocial miscreants might ruin it all. Li took in a breath and imposed control on himself. He was letting his frustrations get away with him.

As for Gaon and the Shadow Wolf—Li's on-world contact was already working to bring Gaon here. But could he risk this crew wouldn't decide to run, Gaon in tow, for the farthest star sector? That might diminish the risk to the operation, but letting the former operative get away would anger Admiral Hartford and impact Li's position.

More to the point, Li didn't want to risk her getting away, not after finding out she was the Traitor of Lowery. He wanted to see the two-faced religious zealot face justice for her crimes against Society.

For now, though, he had another matter to deal with. Something that needed to be cleaned up. He knew full well his next call would not be pleasant. He forced a neutral expression to his face and placed the call anyway.

Allan Kepper appeared on the screen. A small, knowing smile came to the man's face. "They got away from your ambush, didn't they?"

"They did," Li said. "You didn't tell me their ship was so heavily modified."

"You didn't ask."

You individualist scum. You knew, and you hid it. You hid it due to your pride. However did our species survive such foolishness before the Society was created? Aloud, Li said, "Well, I am through underestimating Captain Henry and his crew. How soon can you find them?"

"I know from the tracker they're at Trinidad Station. Say the word, and I'll have a ship out of Sektatsh by the end of the hour. I'll add it to the contract costs."

Li bristled at that. "The contract didn't have..."

"That was when I was taking one spacer from Sektatsh. Now I'm chasing an independent trader across several star systems to Trinidad Station and points beyond. You changed the job, now pay the extra costs." Kepper folded his arms. "Or I'm done."

"You didn't finish the job!"

"I gave you the means to track them off-world, following a complication you didn't adequately warn me of," Kepper shot back. "So, what'll it be, Li? You paying for the extra work, or is this call over?"

Li went silent for several seconds, as if making his choice. "I'll pay," he finally said. "For you and you alone, Kepper. This job has to be quick and clean to avoid more suspicions cropping up. We have a wider operation riding on Gaon not being able to testify about what she saw."

"Fine. I'll contract a ride to Trinidad immediately. I'm not very familiar with the station, so do you have anyone on-site to give me intel?" His grin was all business. "It'll save you money in the long run."

Typical individualist scum. He thinks I care about his scraps of paper and pointless bits of data. "We have intel on Trinidad. I'll have someone hand it over before you leave Harron."

"Fine. I'll wait for their call. Kepper out."

Once Kepper's face disappeared from the screen, Li sat back and considered his options. Harron, and Trinidad Station for that matter, were technically in the operating area of the League External Security office in the League Embassy on New Kerala, but he had seniority over Captain Ruslov and the more pressing need. With that thought in mind, he keyed the QET for the Embassy and called up the embassy to the Keralans. Ruslov appeared, a man of pale complexion with Siberian features. "Commander Li," he said with respect in his Russian-accented English. "What might I do for you?"

"I need one of your people on Harron," Li said. "For an op with Gamma Priority."

Ruslov nodded. As a captain, he only had Ultraviolet clearance, so he knew nothing about Hartford's plan. Li himself, despite his rank, was only X-Ray clearance, but had a need-to-know for the good of the operation. "I can give you a list. Most are just informants and sympathizers in the major cities."

"I need someone who can get their hands bloody and keep a straight face," Li said. "Anyone there that can do that?"

Ruslov's expression didn't change. "Yes."

"Then send me their information." Li smiled pleasantly. "I have important work for them."

"Right away." Ruslov's image disappeared. Several moments later, a personnel file appeared on Li's screen. His systems finished decrypting it and displayed the information within.

Li grinned at the information.

Breach of Peace

Hartford listened quietly to Li's report. After it was over, he appraised the intelligence officer coldly. "So you have failed yet again?"

"Our intelligence on the Shadow Wolf and her crew was incomplete," Li said. "Had I known they were so well-armed—"

"You should’ve anticipated it," Hartford said, interrupting Li's excuse. "You should not have underestimated them. Your contempt for them cost us this chance to claim Gaon."

The look on Li's face told Hartford that he was right about that. He was allowing his contempt for people like this Shadow Wolf crew to color his judgment. "They are unusually well-armed for a ship of that type."

"That means their captain is shrewd. He understands the dangers he faces and prepares for potentialities, not assumptions," Hartford said, not hiding his contempt for Li's behavior and related failure. "A shame you did not match his diligence."

Li visibly bristled at the insult. Hartford suspected he was more offended by being compared so unfavorably to an "individualist" trading captain than he was by the reminder of failure. But he cared little for Li's feelings. His focus was on the threat to his operation. "Where is she?"

"Trinidad Station."

"I see. I will have ships ready to intercept them when they leave Trinidad."

Li's eyes narrowed. "You could jeopardize everything. If the local worlds find out we have ships in the region—"

"I will leave it to your experienced Ambassador Salinas to explain, along with her colleagues." Hartford grinned. "After all, few of those worlds care for Trinidad Station as it is. Hartford out."

Upon pressing the key to cut the channel, he looked up to the seemingly-neutral expression on Commander Aristide's face. "You disapprove?" he asked, familiar with his liaison's expressions.

"I am concerned," she said. "Your desire to capture Gaon, while understandable from a social point of view given her treason, does come across as…" For a moment, she became flustered. "My apologies, Admiral, the thought is unbecoming."

Hartford put his hands together. "Allow me to hear it regardless, Commander."

"This seems to be a… vendetta, sir. An individualist vendetta." She spoke the word "individualist" with all of the vile that the term deserved, given what it meant to them.

"Ah." Hartford nodded. "I can understand that. Understand my desire for Gaon's punishment is a social one, Commander. She caused a terrible defeat and cost many thousands of our finest their lives and freedom. I shudder to think how many of them suffer in our enemy's camps, being subjected to their superstitions and polluted by their individualism."

"Yes. They will require much resocialization in the camps, especially for those held for much of the war," Aristide agreed. "But that does not address my concern, Admiral. If you send our ships to Trinidad, or even near to it, you risk exposing our presence. Even if the squadron overwhelmed any defending ships and destroyed the station, word will get out."

"Which is why I am not going to send our ships," he said. "At least, not our cruisers."

Aristide considered him for a moment. "A… test operation? But not against the station itself? It has some defenses, and pirate bands that use it as a base. They would inflict damage and losses."

"Agreed. We will be in a position to intercept the Shadow Wolf on her way to Lusitania," Hartford said. "Given we have outfitted the weapon to our ships for the operation, these traders will not see the threat until it is too late."

Aristide considered Hartford's plans with that same neutral, controlled expression. After several seconds, she nodded. "It is a good plan, yes. I can see it working."

"I imagined you would," he said. "Alert the captains to take their ships out. It will be a worthwhile exercise to prepare for our main plan."

"Very well." With the final order given, she departed.

Breach of Peace

In the star system TR-1898, past the Spinward edge of the Trifid Nebula, space split open again to admit a cargo vessel on its way to the Tal'mayan colony of Dretani. Remaining behind was the ship, which had just rendered assistance against Jalm'tar pirates operating at the Spinward: the Morozova out of Cyrilgrad. The fact that the Morozova was a pirate ship itself gave the situation some irony, but the Tokarev brothers were honest in that ships and companies who paid them protection received it.

With the action over and the crew returning to standby, the Tokarevs went to their shared office just astern of the command center to await after-action reports. Their desks faced one another. Each had holos of their slain father and uncle. It was hard for them to see those smiling faces of their closest male role models and not feel the voids in their hearts and souls. That pain soon gave way to renewed hate and a desire to kill Leaguers.

It would’ve been one thing if Sergei and Anatoly Mikhailovich Tokarev had been privateers or pirates. That life—their life—was a violent one. But they hadn't been. Their ship, the Titov, had been a mere transport. Their only "crime" was carrying missionaries from Cyrilgrad to a world the League had just asserted control over. Unfortunately, League authorities hated religion, and they especially hated missionaries, dismissing them as active agents of "anti-Social thinking and attitudes." The League of Sol put them all on trial and convicted them of "promoting anti-Social behavior and mental corruption." The elder Tokarev brothers, and three priests of the Old Rite Russian Church, were subjected to public execution by strangulation hanging. The crew of their ship was forced to watch and were thrown into a socialization camp before being released at the insistence of the Trifid Neutrality Committee.

The Committee had undoubtedly hoped to convince the Old Believers of Cyrilgrad to respect their action as upholding the neutrality of all worlds in the Trifid Nebula Region. Those hopes did not materialize. The persecution and execution of their people was a harsh reminder of their past, and the Old Rite Church quickly adopted a virulent anti-League posture. Still young adults at the time, Piotr and Pavel decided they would avenge their father and uncle one dead Leaguer at a time, and fifteen years later, the Morozova was notorious for its willingness to attack even superior military forces in their quest for vengeance. Their success was aided by interstellar politics and the unwillingness of the League to send armed warships into Neutral Space.

And yet, now the League had sent such ships in, according to Karla Lupa. The Brothers were still wondering how to handle that.

"The squadron should gather at Cyrilgrad," Piotr said. "If the League's going to use warships in our space, we must be ready for an attack."

"That will do no good. We need allies, brother."

"It will be up to the Elders back home," Piotr said. "All we can do is prepare for whatever they decide."

The discussion might have continued if not for a tone from Piotr's desk. Pavel looked up from the armory inventory. "What is that?"

"Interstellar message by QET, from Father Nikolai in Sektatsh."

"Ah."

Pavel returned to work, imagining the missionary was letting Piotr know how his mission was proceeding. Perhaps a donation is necessary.

Nikolai's voice came over the line. "It is dreadful, Piotr. God care for his poor soul!"

"Whose?" Piotr asked.

"Vasily's."

Piotr's face lost color and expression.

Pavel looked up at hearing the answer, astonished.

"What happened, Father?" Piotr asked in a barely restrained tone.

"They found his body in his home. He'd been tied down and shot, shot like a beast!" Nikolai declared.

"Do they know who yet?" Piotr's tone of voice made clear his interest. Vasily may have been an alien, but he had a kind soul; moreover, he was a brother in Christ, a true believer. His death would be punished.

"The authorities believe it a professional attack. Someone wanted him silenced. But they will not investigate further. You know how they are about our converts!" Nikolai's voice betrayed his pain. He was known to care deeply for those whose souls he tended to. "I have a secret convert in the police force. I asked him to continue, but he can't. They are ordered not to. He believes it was a Calnin lordling or perhaps one of the priests of Tashin who killed our poor Vasily."

Pavel knew his brother’s facial expressions as if they were a language unto their own. Right now, suspicion was painted across his face. "Perhaps, Father. Have you heard anything about the woman we asked Vasily to help?"

"No. I am afraid not."

"Please, Father, inquire about her with your sources. We'll do the same with ours," said Piotr. "And please, pray for my soul with Vasily's."

"Of course. Why are you worried, my son?"

"Because I may have helped cause his death, Father, and if so," Piotr showed tears as he shook his head. "I will atone. However I can."

There was a brief silence on the other end. "I see. You meant well, Piotr. God understands that."

Nikolai gave his standard farewell benediction, and the channel closed. Pavel drew in a breath and felt sick to his stomach. Vasily's heart was good and kind. Slavery hadn't broken it like so many others.

"Lupa. Something about her felt off," Piotr was saying.

"Or the League found out about her. They would have agents in place to hear things," Pavel pointed out. He gave his brother a sympathetic look. "Either way, we will find out what's going on."

"That we will, brother." Piotr reached for the intercom key. "Semyon, make our course for Harron, best speed."

"Yes, Captain!" came the response.


27

A lift brought Henry and a half dozen other people from the docking arms down into the station proper. He could feel the slight shift as they went from the graviton-generated artificial gravity of the docking arms to the centrifugal gravity of the O'Neill cylinder. The gravlift came to a stop at what passed for a customs station. Scanners checked him for dangerous firearms—weapons that could potentially pierce the hull—and cleared him to go through. His charged particle pistol was not so capable. It was why he'd bought the Danfield-Colt CP-2520 in the first place, given the number of space habitats and stations their work took them to.

Past the customs station, Henry followed the directions to head to the Quetta District. It was one of the mostly residential living areas on the station and where Linh's fetch tech lived. Going there required a transport car ride, with another open view of the station's interior. Magella's light filled the interior, a combination of gardens and farmland, and blocks of residential housing.

The first stop warned Humans not to get off without atmospheric helmets. They were in the Matrinad District, which sustained its internal atmosphere at Matrinad standard. It could nearly drown a Human being inside of five minutes. One female Matrinad stepped off the lift, and none arrived.

After a couple more stops in commercial areas, the car arrived in Quetta. Henry stepped out of the car and followed the path out of the station and into the district proper. If not for the sight of the interior of the station, the community looked as if it would fit in with the poor sections of half a dozen planets he'd been to. He consulted the information from Linh again and started walking down the street.

As he followed the way to his destination, Henry watched the residents of the district go about their lives. From what he'd heard, some were war refugees, others fugitives from one world or another. The majority were from worlds settled by those who'd left the Indian subcontinent back in the Exodus, mixed with peoples from Sumatra and Malaya. Many of the men were bearded, and the women tended to have head shawls, although only a few veiled their faces. Few of the locals paid him much mind. The brown jacket he wore and the rest of his clothing was the kind a lot of independent spacers tended to wear off-ship, after all. And spacers were nothing new for these people.

A residential block building six stories tall proved his destination. He went through the opening foyer, went past a lift that looked either broken or about to break, and took the stairs up three floors. Once there, a minute's trip through the halls found the door number he was looking for. He touched the door chime and waited patiently.

And then not so patiently.

Finally, after a few minutes, he was ready to hit the chime again. Just as he went to the door, it opened. A man with a brown complexion and thinning, whitening dark hair appeared at the door. He seemed to be favoring one leg. "It is prayer time," he scolded.

"My apologies, I didn't hear," Henry replied. "Linh Khánh sent me."

"Over my niece, I suppose. Are you new to the repair yards? I haven't seen you around."

Before he could finish asking the question, a young woman bounded up to the doorway. Henry guessed she was between sixteen and twenty years of age. She shared the man's complexion and hair color—but obviously with no gray or white in it—and had a clear family resemblance. She wore plain clothes of blue and white coloring while her hair went down to her neck. Given she was making no move to pull a hijab on, Henry assumed she was not the observant type. She seemed more curious than anything. "Who are you and what have you to… oh, wait!" She gave Henry a close look, and her eyes widened a little. "You're the Captain of the Shadow Wolf."

"James Henry, and yes," he said. "Chief Khánh called ahead about me?"

"Well, yes, but I remembered you anyway," said the girl. "Your ship was one of the first she installed a fusion drive on. I saw your picture while I was studying the installation."

The uncle made a disapproving sound. "Samina, you should introduce yourself and invite him in before pestering him with your hobbies."

For a moment, Henry thought the girl would fire back a retort, but she caught herself while glancing toward the older man. "Yes, Uncle, of course." She looked back at Henry. "My name is Samina Khan, and this is my uncle Ali. Please, come and have a seat."

"Thank you."

The two led him into their living quarters. Henry noted that Uncle Ali limped badly and trailed behind his niece. He briefly wondered what kind of injury it was, and if it was treatable.

The living area amounted to a big living area and kitchen space with two small bedrooms on opposite ends of the room. Their furnishings were second or even thirdhand. One was a recovered chair from a ship, given its structure. Samina took that while her uncle took a fairly comfortable-looking recliner. Another one, of fabric covering, was left for Henry to take.

"Tea?" Ali asked. "I still have a little chai left."

"Thank you, but no." Having heard more of their accent, Henry finally placed it. "You're from Jinnah?" he asked.

They nodded. "We were."

"I'm sorry," he said. "I was already out of the CDF when I heard about it. You were among the lucky ones to get out before the League's fleet cut off all escape?"

"I brought my ship in to evacuate my family and as many as I could," Ali said. His expression turned dour. "All we had left was the ship. My niece grew up on it." He gave her a knowing look. "Which explains her infatuation with machines."

Henry nodded. "A spacer family, then."

Pain showed in their eyes. Samina went silent, leaving it to her uncle to answer. "We were, for a time. Then a pirate attack caught us one jump away from here," Ali explained. "The ship was a wreck, but we managed a jump. Samina and I were the only survivors. Since then, we have lived here, doing what we must to survive."

Henry caught a tear forming in the girl's eyes before she wiped it away. He sighed. "Your family's been through a lot," he said. He didn't say what was on his mind, that they were living what might happen to any independent trader who lost their ship to accident or violence: trapped where they were rescued, unable to go anywhere else.

"Chief Khánh's message said you had an offer to make to me," Samina said.

"Yes. Well," He nodded. "My ship's not a loss, but we took some severe damage against Tash'vakal raiders, and it's going to drain my finances to fix it with station labor. Khánh thought you might be interested in signing on as an Engineer's Mate to help with the repairs and my costs."

Judging by the bright smile that leapt to her face, Samina liked hearing it, but she seemed to find a snag immediately. "I'm too young to join their crews, I know… wait, when you say 'Engineer's Mate,' do you mean… you want me to hire onto your crew?"

"I do," Henry said. "If we can work it out."

For a moment, he thought the young woman would burst. She fought back a squeal of joy.

Ali gave Henry a dark look. "You come to my home and try to take my niece away from me? To risk the last family I have left in the world?"

Henry wondered if the uncle was indeed that opposed. It might still swing her. "I came to give her the choice," he said.

"I… I want to talk to my Uncle first," Samina said. "To discuss it with him."

"Fair enough. I can wait outside if you'd like."

"If you are going to disturb my day, do more than that," Ali Khan said glumly. "Two buildings spinwise of my home is a café. They make excellent nihari."

Henry got the hint and stood. He held back the sigh until he was out of the apartment.

Breach of Peace

As soon as the spacer captain was gone, Ali turned to Samina. "I cannot stop you. Allah knows I would if I could."

"Would you, Uncle? I could finally earn money, real money. You could go back to living on a planet as you've wanted for so long."

"Not for this cost," Ali insisted. "Not at risking your life, Samina. Your parents would come back from Paradise to strangle me if I got you in trouble."

"I'm an adult now," she insisted. "I'll have to go somewhere dangerous, eventually. The dock teams' jobs are dangerous too."

"I know, and that is why I didn't want you taking that work either." Ali sighed. "But there is no other work. Nothing but charity from the district."

Samina leaned forward and took her uncle's hands. "I know you want what's best for me Uncle. If you truly believe I should tell Captain Henry no, I'll do so." As she spoke, it was clear she wouldn't be entirely happy about it, but she did mean it. She’d listen to him. "My parents would be angry at me if I disobeyed you like that, after all."

Ali gave her a knowing look. "Ah, look at what manipulations I have to put up with! From my brother's daughter even. God help me, I'm putty in your expert hands." He chuckled, and made it easy for her to giggle lowly. "Samina, I'm an old cripple who worries a lot for my brother's beloved daughter. But I won't lie to you and claim this may not end up in something better. Captain Henry… I have heard some of the captains I still know speak of him. He pays his crew well, listens to them, shows them loyalty, and what he asks for in return is no less than what I asked of my crew. As independent captains go, he is the best you can do. Certainly better than the pirates."

"Then I have your blessing, Uncle Ali?"

He nodded. "You do, child." He freed one hand from hers to put it to her shoulder. This quickly turned into a strong embrace. Each was the only thing the other had left in the world, in terms of family.

Indeed, Samina felt a brief surge of doubt. Could she leave her uncle behind and go into space without him? Without his guidance? There was so much she wanted to see, and so much to do. It was a chance to work with the machines that fascinated her so. The more she thought about it, the more she wanted to do it, which only made the feeling she was abandoning her uncle all the stronger.

"I will be fine, Samina," he assured her. "You’re not abandoning me. This is what Allah means for you."

"You believe that, Uncle?" she said while sniffling.

"I do," he assured her.

Hearing him say that lifted a burden from Samina's soul. "I'll call and write whenever I can," she promised.

”I will do the same."

With all of that said, Samina was able to push away the lingering doubt, the part of many people who saw change coming and feared it, whether or not it was voluntary. This was an opportunity she yearned for, and she wouldn't let that sentiment get in her way. Not with her uncle supporting her in it.

When Henry returned with the nihari and an assortment of curried dishes, he found Samina was already piling bags. "Captain, I hope you'll have me," she said.

She was satisfied with his smile and nod. "Welcome to the crew, Miss Khan."

Breach of Peace

Henry returned from the Quetta District to find the others waiting. Tia stepped forward and showed him a small gray cone. "Linh's teams found a tracking device," she said.

Henry looked it over and frowned. "It wasn't inside the ship, was it?"

She shook her head. "They found it near the rear. It didn't cause any breakage on the hull, so the sensors didn't notice."

"Looking at it, I'd say it was delivered by gun," Felix added. "The CDF issues this stuff to special teams. Rounds loaded with micro-QET trackers."

"I doubt this fellow was working for the CDF."

Felix nodded in agreement. "Well, I'm sure some of the super wealthy megacorps have them as well. The League might too."

Henry balled a fist around the tracker. "We're not safe here," he said. "They know we're at Trinidad. We'd better get the repairs done ASAP."

"Tia says you were off to hire me an Engineer's Mate," Pieter said. "Any luck?"

"Yes. She'll be along soon. Still has to finish getting her things in order," Henry said. "Her name is Samina Khan, and you're either going to love her or hate her."

Pieter chuckled at that. "As long as she knows how to use an autospanner and the difference between a plasma manifold and a thrust controller."

"That won't be a problem, I think." Henry glanced back down at the object in his hand. "Okay, I need to make a call." The worried look he gave Felix said everything about the contents of it. "Tia, Pieter, send them where you need 'em."

"Right away." Tia nodded to him before turning to face the crew. "Alright, Vidia, Piper, I want you to deal with…"

Henry didn't bother listening to Tia's repair duty assignments. He was too busy in his own head, figuring out what he was going to say to Caetano. He went into his office and brought the office's computer systems up. A few key presses connected him to the communications relays built into Trinidad Station's systems. He sent the call out to Lusitania.

Vitorino was the first to reply to him. He appeared on the display screen wearing black tie, an elegant suit that probably cost as much as the average Lusitanian worker made in a year. "Captain Henry. I had expected you to be back shortly. Is everything all right?"

"We were ambushed," Henry explained. "We're repairing now at a space station." He wasn't about to mention being at Trinidad. Even if their pursuers had to know, that was something he wanted to keep quiet for the time being.

A small frown leapt onto Vitorino’s face. "I trust the damage was not too severe?"

"It was severe enough," Henry said. "I've got structural repairs to complete before I can risk a gravity well landing."

"Then you will be delayed further. I understand, although I admit to disappointment."

"Well, these things happen when I've got the people behind the attack chasing the witness to silence her," Henry said with a hint of irritation. He still considered revealing Miri's accusation of the League being responsible, but his instincts were holding him back. He had to play things close to the chest. "Whoever they are, they've got serious hardware support, and the pull to sic the Tash'vakal on us."

Vitorino pursed his lips and nodded. "Yes. It was inconsiderate of me. You've done what you can, Captain. But I am very eager to consult with the witness in person. Please, get her to Lusitania as quickly as possible."

The call ended abruptly. Henry briefly wondered if Vitorino could read minds and knew he was thinking of asking for cash to help with his repair bills. He banished the thought and set up for another call.

After a couple of mid-level functionaries required waiting times, Henry found himself face to face with Cristina Caetano. She seemed rushed, somewhat, as if she were in a meeting or just out from one, and unlike Vitorino, she was wearing more functional business clothes. "Captain, I was expecting your return by now. What is your situation?"

Henry repeated the news of the ambush and the need to stop for repairs. To her credit, Caetano did not protest the occurrence. "It is good that you fought the raiders off," she said when he was done. "The Tash'vakal have long been a nuisance."

"I'm pretty sure they were hired by whoever is behind the attacks."

"Possibly. It does raise questions given recent reports."

Henry furrowed his brow. "What reports?"

"That is not your concern, Captain," Caetano said sternly. "Now, I would like to speak to the survivor. I cannot get an official statement until she is planetside, of course, but I would like to know where her statement will lead."

Given the leverage Caetano had, Henry decided not to be coy. Even if he didn't like her hiding things from him. "I'll call her in." He reached for the intercom control at the right end of his desk. "Ms. Lupa, please report to my office."

Caetano said nothing during the interim. Henry noticed she would sometimes glance away, and he suspected she was typing something. He said nothing as well and waited patiently.

After about a minute, the door slid open. Miri stepped in. "You asked to see me, Captain Henry?"

On the screen, Caetano returned her attention to him while Henry called her over. Once she could see the screen, and the recorders could see her and show her to Caetano, he said, "Karla Lupa, this is Cristina Caetano, Minister of Defense for the Republic of Lusitania."

"Madame Minister," Miri said and swallowed nervously.

"Ms. Lupa. I cannot take an official statement from you until you are on Lusitanian soil and can be given a proper deposition by my security forces, but I would like to know, unofficially, what you know. What happened to the Kensington Star?"

Henry gave Miri a glance. If she wanted to do her part to call out the League, here was her big chance. He listened as she spoke succinctly and without wavering. "She was attacked, ma'am. By the League of Sol."

Caetano's eyes narrowed. "Truly?"

"Yes, ma'am." Miri recognized skepticism, as did Henry, but she pressed on. "They disabled our drives and communications, I'm not sure how. I saw their Marines board and hid in my cabin until I could slip away."

"How did you get away?"

"I put on an EVA suit and spaced myself."

Henry noted the intent look that came to Caetano's face. Her blue eyes glistened with interest aimed at Miri. "How did you know you would be rescued?"

"I didn't."

Skepticism returned. "So you spaced yourself without anticipation of rescue? Why?"

"It was my only choice," Miri said. "I have a… history with the League, ma'am. They would have spaced me when they found out who I was."

Henry watched with interest to see if Caetano believed her. He could see Miri had the same interest. "Well," Caetano said. "Quite the explanation. I look forward to your legal statement when you arrive on Lusitania. Rest assured, Ms. Lupa, that you will be protected while a guest of the State, and if the evidence makes your charges clear, I will happily arrange for your further protection from the League. Now, Captain, please hurry your repairs along. Things are proceeding swiftly here on Lusitania, and I desire Ms. Lupa's official testimony to be available."

"We're already working on repairs," Henry assured her. "I'll keep you posted."

"Yes, you will." She cut the line.

"That woman is terrifying," Miri said. "I have seen her kind."

"I bet you have." Henry sighed. "And Felix's brother is still at her mercy."

Miri nodded. "I understand you wish to free him from her. But would you trade my life for this man? Because that’s what you might be doing. If she doesn't believe me…"

Henry swallowed and glanced away. "I'd rather that not happen."

"It might." Miri let out a sigh. "Well. At least she will more likely have me shot as a pirate if she doesn't believe me. Better to be shot than spaced."

"Yeah, I hear you."


28

In the offices of the Lusitanian Defense Ministry, Cristina Caetano sat at her desk and directed her attention to the image of her counterpart from New Cornwall, Alistair Maurier. "Then you have heard nothing further yet?"

"The Astra Mater is still in orbit over Harron," he replied. "They're awaiting further word from the investigators on Sektatsh. The ISU's hostel shows Lupa departed of her own free will and never returned."

"While leaving behind her personal effects?"

"She had little to leave behind." Maurier smirked, the expression coming across quite smug. "Given what we've been shown by Ms. Okon, the head of P&Y's security office, it's looking more and more like Lupa was a pirate herself. We're coming around to the view that she works with the Tokarevs. Their supposed rescue of hers is a little too convenient, if you ask me."

"Not for Ms. Lupa, if she is sincere," Caetano opined.

Maurier snorted. "Unlikely."

Caetano didn't match his bemused look. "I've heard the League may be the suspect she indicated to P&Y?"

"I can confirm it, and we're discounting it," Maurier said. "It makes little sense they'd provoke this while they were pursuing peace. Besides, it only strengthens the suspicion that the Tokarevs put her up to this. Their hatred and brutality toward the League is notorious. I wouldn't be surprised if they're behind all these disappearances. That entire colony of backward Russian fanatics has been trouble since they first founded Cyrilgrad."

"They are one of many nuisances, yes," Caetano remarked carefully. "I trust you will keep me informed regardless of the outcome?"

"Of that, you can be assured. The PM is quite keen on presenting a common front with Lusitania and other key worlds on this issue, and I have been given instructions to that effect."

"I have similar instructions from my Prime Minister, and I will provide you the same. Good day, Defense Minister." With a tap of a key, Caetano ended the call. She smiled to herself and let her contempt for Maurier and the administration of New Cornwall stew. The truth was they were desperate to exonerate the League since otherwise they'd be forced to take a stand against it or be shamed before all the other worlds. Given their anemic fleet and even more anemic foreign policy, she suspected they would choose shame, and probably get war anyway.

An incoming message from one of her subordinates in the PdDN appeared on her link. Upon reading the text, she smiled. Everything is going according to plan.

The smile faded when her secretary sent another message, text only, that Assemblywoman Ascaro had arrived to see her. Caetano signaled back to let the Basque democrat in and stood as the door opened.

Ascaro came in, fired up as always. "This is the last straw, Caetano!" she shouted. "I am going to President Vargas with this!"

"I beg your pardon?" Caetano raised her eyebrow. The invocation of Lusitania's Head of State, Emilio Vargas, was of interest, although of little threat since the Estado Novo's constitution had strictly limited his ability to restrain the government.

"Your party thugs are vandalizing my offices again!" Ascaro shouted. Her commlink came up to show the chaotic scene of a political party office that looked like a miniature tornado had run through it. A tornado capable of writing the Portuguese language, at that, with "Death to Traitors!" being painted on the wall. The image depicted a young man with a face beaten into a particular shade of purple. "You’re supposed to maintain law and order in our country. You call this order?"

"And yet your party is persistently hostile to the Estado Novo and the defense of Lusitania, including that same law and order," Caetano replied coolly. "You consistently oppose efforts to protect our people from threats. In these troubled times, you must be aware that such controversial stands will invite difficulties from the patriotic."

"Patriotic? Patriotic! This isn't patriotism; it is fascism!" raged Ascaro. "You are deliberately undermining what's left of Lusitanian democracy!"

"The same democracy that has been voting for my candidates more and more for over a decade," Caetano noted. "For all of your protests, you come into my office, surrounded by my party followers and subordinates. Are you not afraid I would have you assaulted, Assemblywoman?"

"I wish you would so that I might show our world the threat you pose!"

"Your family feels the same way?"

To that, Ascaro's expression went stone cold, and fury burned in her dark eyes. "You would dare?"

"I would never harm you, Assemblywoman, as you are a member of the Assembly and thus part of the State," Caetano said. "Your family are under the same umbrella. Should you be harmed, I would ensure your attackers were prosecuted to the full extent of Lusitanian law, even if they were the most patriotic members of my party. I am merely asking if you are that willing to put your family in the crosshairs of our political differences."

While Caetano's words were spoken with reserve, they did not do anything to quell Ascaro's anger. "So you would sacrifice your own followers to strike at me. That is what I hear you saying!"

"Then you have poor hearing," Caetano retorted. "You are the perfect example of why democracy is bad for our people in these times. You do not show judgment, you act on passion. You would drag our people into the war on those passions, or otherwise sign away our independence. That is why I oppose you. This is why I seek greater strength for the State."

"You want the power for yourself," Ascaro shot back. "And I must stop you."

"Now who is threatening whom, Assemblywoman?" Caetano asked.

"I am not a fascist. I am a democrat. I will win the democratic way!" With that, Ascaro turned and stormed from the room.

As she left, Caetano returned to her seat. "How interesting it would be if you were to succeed," she murmured to herself.

Breach of Peace

Samina Khan was used to taking the lifts up to the docking arms of Trinidad Station. What she wasn't used to was carrying bags of personal belongings with her. Despite her protests that her living space on a ship would be limited, Uncle Ali and some of the neighborhood women collecting the Zakat in Quetta insisted on loading her with clothing and comfort items. Their pestering about a good first impression also led to her using her most colorful hijab, a gift from her mother that had bright reds and blues and greens in repeating, contrasting lines. From what Samina had seen, by the time she left Quetta, the entire district knew that she was off to join a ship crew.

She almost stumbled given the weight of the bags slung on her back and over her arms. After adjusting to that weight, she found her footing and walked toward the dock Captain Henry specified. The dockworkers and spacers around her typically gave her some space but said nothing more.

As she approached the double sliding doors leading into Repair Dock 3-G, a figure stepped up beside her. "Let me help with that." A metal hand picked up one of the bags on her left shoulder and lifted it.

As the doors to 3-G opened, Samina looked over and slightly up to face Chief Khánh. The Hestian woman smiled at her. "Ready for a new life, fetcher?"

At the nickname given to the most appreciated fetch techs—in comparison to the more childish "fetchie" the others merited—Samina beamed with pride and nodded. "Thank you so much, Chief. I… I don't know how I can repay you."

"Samina, you're a regular prodigy, and you've done good work on my teams these past few years," Linh answered. "This is me repaying you." She made a face. "Mostly."

"Oh?"

She sighed. "The woman who saved my life in the Revolution is Captain Henry's second-in-command. He’s done a lot for her. He took her in when she needed an ally, well, an ally who wasn't a cripple." Linh gestured to her hand. "So when they need help to get repairs done without becoming paupers, well, I couldn't say no to that."

Samina swallowed. "So… this isn't just finding me a good ship and crew. You're looking out for them too."

Linh nodded. "I am." She gave Samina a sly look. "So yeah, it's a bit of pressure on your shoulders, fetcher, but I think you've got what it takes. I'm trusting them to look out for you just as much. Let's go introduce you and hope they've got room for all of this." She held up the bag. "Did your uncle demand you take your whole wardrobe?"

Samina blushed. "Only most. For when I go to other worlds and must protect my modesty."

"Well, Tia will help you there. If men bother you, just let her know. The girls on the Shadow Wolf will back you up."

As they approached, Samina noted the damage to the Shadow Wolf. It was not the worst she'd seen. The worst she'd seen was what was left of her Uncle Ali's ship when the salvagers got it back to Trinidad Station, with only her and Ali still alive among the crew. By that standard, the Shadow Wolf wasn't so badly off. "You fit the fusion drive assembly in the aft holds?' she asked Linh.

"Best place for 'em without having to cut out the entire stern," Linh replied. "They keep the aft holds in vacuum to fool customs inspectors. Independent traders typically get by on shoestring budgets, so inspectors usually don't think twice."

"That's clever," Samina said, still surveying the damage. The ship was spaceworthy but would require days of repair work. "They couldn't afford a full crew with the material costs?"

"Not with the recent price hike. You're their best shot at getting this thing moving in a reasonable amount of time."

Metal stairs brought them up to the walkway for the middle gantry. They led to the ship's port airlock, set between the front and middle holds. Nearby a repaired hull breach was being resurfaced by a man with darker skin than Samina's, with hair arranged in rows on his head. It was a style Samina was not familiar with. She watched the head turn so the man could face her with a pair of light brown eyes. "Sister," he said, with an accent she couldn't place. "Peace ta ya."

"Um, to you too. Are you one of the Faithful?" Samina asked, given his chin had a beard as well.

To that, he laughed. "All of us are Faithful, in one way or another. I’m a Bahá'í myself, an' we see the followers of Abraham, Christ, an' Muhammad as siblings, all seekin' the truth of God just as we."

"I see." She bowed her head to him. "Well, it is good to meet you. I am Samina Khan."

"Vidiadhar Andrews. From New Antilla, if you're wonderin'."

"I was born on Jinnah."

"Ah." His eyes fell. "Ya lost a lot ta the League then, sister?"

"My family's home. Pirates killed my parents and cousins." Samina's voice caught a little from emotion. Jinnah was becoming more of a dream than memory, but the wound from her parents' death, the hollow in her soul could still ache from that when she least expected it.

"God doesn't always ease the pain," he said to her. "Can't without takin' something away from us. But ya don't worry, y'all see them again."

"Do you know where Tia is?" Linh asked him, interrupting the conversation. Samina could see Linh wanted her to get to know her new shipmates, but Linh also had work to do.

Even as she spoke, the door was sliding open. Samina watched a woman emerge who had Linh's complexion, if lighter and closer to the brown tone of Samina's own skin. She had a similar facial structure to Linh as well but with stormy gray eyes. "I'm here," she said to Linh. Her eyes turned to Samina. "So this is our new Engineer's Mate?" A small grin crossed her face. "You know this isn't a pleasure ride, right, kid?"

"Sorry." Samina sighed, suitably embarrassed. "It's my uncle, he insisted. And the ladies from our district charity joined him."

Tia let out a small chuckle. "I heard your uncle was a spacer. Certainly, he should know better. Well, good news for you is that we're shorthanded enough that we don't double-bunk. As things stand, you'll get a room to yourself."

"I'll leave her to you, Tia," Linh said, setting the bag down she'd carried for Samina. "I've got a guild meeting in half an hour. See you tomorrow for the repair overview?"

"I'll be there."

Satisfied, Linh walked off.

"Looking good, Vidia," Tia said to the man, who nodded back before returning to work on the resurfacing. She glanced Samina's way again and, after a moment, reached down and took the same bag Linh carried for Samina. "This way, Miss Khan."

Samina dutifully followed the First Mate of her new ship into the hall inside the airlock. "This is a Holden-Nagata, right?" Samina asked. "Mark VI?"

"Mark VII, actually."

"Ah. Yeah, that makes more sense. But what about the bulge between the holds? Below the lower deck? That's not standard."

"Nor is our fusion drive," Tia pointed out. "We'll explain, once you're settled."

Together they went through the upper deck to the living quarters. Inside was an unfurnished room save for a mattress on a plastic bedframe. It was a little less space than Samina lived in with her uncle, which said more about that confined space than anything about the room on this model of ship. Samina set her things down and noticed a weird smell. "What is that?"

Tia sighed and shook her head. "We've never quite gotten the smell out. Several months ago, we tried out a Tal'mayan hand for a couple of trips. He couldn't lay off the sweet smoke. It permeates the walls now."

Samina's nose curled. "I still don't get why it's called sweet smoke."

"Because to them, it tastes sweet. Or something. Put some air fresheners in the room, and you can fight off the smell. Until then, let me give you the tour."

Tia showed Samina the rec-room and the galley next, then a trip to the infirmary. Captain Henry's office and the bridge came next. Finally, they journeyed to the back of the ship for the engineering spaces. Three medium-weight fusion cores powered most of the ship's systems and were arranged in a triangle in the rear section of engineering. Coolant and electrical cabling abounded, as did the framework toward the bow for the Lawrence drive. She knew from the ship model layout that the drive was accessible from both the upper and lower decks and noted it'd been opened up from the upper deck. A light-skinned man leaned over it, working something inside. Before Tia or Samina could say anything, he pulled himself from it and looked their way with a pair of blue eyes. His sandy blond hair was slick from oils. "Ah, there you are," he spoke with an accent Samina hadn’t heard before.

"Samina, this is Pieter Hartzog, your new boss," Tia said. "Pieter, this is Samina Khan."

"So you're the nice fetch tech the lady boss's friend recommended, eh?" The way he drawled out the "oo" sounds was strange to Samina's ears, and she struggled to think of the accent. He grinned at her. "You think I talk funny, do you?"

"No, sir," she said politely. "I just… I'm not familiar with it. Where are you from?"

"New Oranje, girl. Ah, that's right. I'm a nasty ol' Boer, gonna hate and abuse you 'cause your skin isn't white as pearl." Pieter gave her a sardonic look.

Tia rolled her eyes. "Don't mind him. Whatever idiocy they practice on his homeworld, he doesn't follow it."

"Yeah. I'm harmless. Unless you f— unless you foul up my engine. Then, yeah, I get mean. But Chief Khánh says good things about you, and she's got good judgment. Ready to show what you can do?"

Samina nodded. She could put up her things later. Getting right to work sounded right to her. She pulled the hijab from her head and said, "I am."

"Well, don't want to get your pretty dress ruined." Pieter motioned to a locker. "Get a spare jumpsuit and get over here. We've got a Lawrence drive to overhaul."

"Yes, sir!" Samina responded, not hiding enthusiasm. She knew Lawrence drives, and had worked on them even before she and Uncle Ali were stranded on Trinidad. She could do this! She breathed a silent prayer of thanks as she rushed to the jumpsuit locker.


29

"...say again, Morozova, do not approach, or we will assume hostile intent…"

Piotr listened to the hail from the Captain of the Astra Mater, a man named Cooper, and forced the best English he could manage as he said, "We are not hostile, Astra Mater. We only wish to know condition of spacer woman you come for."

"I am under strict orders not to share anything regarding the case," Cooper replied. "Not until the search for Ms. Lupa has been concluded."

"Search?" That English word was one Piotr, and his brother were both well aware of. "She was left with Spacer's Union by our friend! Our friend who has been murdered! Now you tell me you search for her?!"

The line was audio-only, so the brothers couldn't see the other man, but they could hear the exasperated sound that came before he resumed speaking. "I'm not sharing anything else. But you can consider this formal confirmation that P&Y is terminating our agreement with you and your people. If you approach any closer, we will assume hostile intent and request assistance from Harr'al authorities."

Piotr felt a desire to scream in rage at the man for being so unhelpful. Pain gnawed at him still over Vasily, and his feeling that he'd caused Vasily's death was growing deeper with this new information.

Pavel saw his brother's mood and took over. "We understand you, Astra Mater. We intend no hostility and are withdrawing. God go with you." With that, he nodded to Semyon.

Semyon Timofovich Kuybyshev lowered his red-bearded face to focus on enacting Pavel's order, cutting the communication line. Of all of the Morozova crew, he was the only one to hint at the distant Viking ancestry that was distilled into the Russian people in the era of the Kievan Rus. Pavel often called him the Varangian, referencing the Varangian Guard of the old Orthodox Roman Empire and showing the younger brother's knowledge of the old Earth histories.

"We’ve been fooled," Piotr grumbled. "The Lupa woman wasn't a victim. She works for the League."

"You don't know that," Pavel pointed out.

"Don't I? Vasily is dead, and she is gone. You heard them! They have cut our protection agreement. They would only do so if they believe we attacked the Kensington Star."

"Maybe they…" Pavel shrugged. "We still need more information, brother."

"Then get it," Piotr said. "In the meantime, put us on course for the jump zone, so we don't provoke Cooper."

Breach of Peace

For three days, the repair work on the Shadow Wolf proceeded at an excellent pace. The addition of an Engineer's Mate had been an unexpected part of the repair work, but given the financial issues at stake, Samina Khan's admission to the crew was welcome. The material costs alone were making Henry worried about his bottom line, not to mention labor.

Still, there was some work the experienced dockhands of Trinidad were best suited for, so Henry sighed and paid. Now he watched the result of that payment from his place on the gantry, observing as Khánh's Matrinad repair hand worked on the exterior hull with an expert touch. It seemed the best arrangement: let the dock hands do the work of fixing the hull up with the delicate process of cutting patches of the right size and composition while the crew handled the internal repairs.

Tia walked up to him, her eyes fixed on the Matrinad as well. "It appears the hull repairs are coming along."

"They are," he confirmed. "But we might have to go easy on the hold repairs. We can restore the structure, but the full repairs may have to wait."

She sighed. "Until we have the money we need to finish."

A thought came to Henry. "How's our guest doing?"

"She behaves. Felix has been keeping an eye on her."

"Like I asked." Henry sighed. "I'm not a damned jailer, but right now, I feel like one."

"I hate to admit it, but you're right about keeping her around. She's safest with us at the moment." Tia shook her head and sighed again. "I'm not sure we're safer with her, though. Running for Omega or the Jalm'tar frontier sounds pretty good right now. Or, hell, the Jewel Box."

Henry smirked. "Well, I did promise we'd go out that way if things went south here."

"They're certainly shifted in a southerly direction, you've got to admit."

"The damage to our hull is a good indication of that, I think," Henry remarked sarcastically, suppressing a laugh. "Another day or so, do you think? They know we're here, and it'd be nice to get out ASAP."

"Two at the minimum," Tia replied. She leaned against the gantry as if to study the wounded ship more closely. "Pieter's still replacing the blown-out parts of our Lawrence drive from the double jump."

Henry nodded. The next question was an obvious one. "How's Samina doing?"

"Experienced in the right ways, but still unlearning some built-in instincts. Half the time, she forgets she's not a fetch tech anymore. Pieter thinks once she's adjusted to handling the work herself, she'll do great."

"Good to hear. We've needed a good Engineer's Mate for a while."

Nothing passed between them for several moments. "Maybe it wouldn't be so bad to die out there," Tia finally said.

Henry glanced toward her, wondering about why she was bringing up such a macabre subject. "Death's never pretty," he said, with the weight of his voice showing all he knew of the issue.

"I know. I'm not…" Tia shifted her weight in the lean and shook her head before facing Henry directly. "I'm not talking about death being pretty. It's horrible, and I've seen more than enough of it. I'm just saying we all have to die. And some ways of it are better than others. From a personal point of view."

Henry watched the distant look in her gray eyes. "Thinking of the past?"

"Yeah. Something about this reminds me of it. How close I came to a bad end. I could've ended up being worked to death in a prison camp after being degraded and humiliated by the corps on Hestia." Tia crossed her arms as if to suppress a shiver. "Or hung publicly."

Henry nodded. He'd seen some of it himself and understood her sentiment. "Yeah, there are good deaths and bad ones," he agreed. "I get wanting to have a good one alongside the people that matter to you. But if you ask me, the best death's the one where you're old, ready to go, and your family's together at your bedside."

Tia smiled thinly. The smile was not a happy one, though, and he saw a tear form in her eye that told how much the thought of her family hurt. She hadn't seen them in over ten years. Even a GalNet call could put them in danger of arrest by the Hestian government. "One day, maybe I'll be able to think that could be my end," she said. "But for now, if it comes, it's coming out here."

"And on that note…"

"On that note, I'll finish my rounds for now. See you for a working dinner?"

"Yeah," he said, well aware they had finances to balance. "I'll see you later."

Breach of Peace

Pavel was waiting when the call came back from his source on New Cornwall, a government police agent whose son was rescued from Harr'al slavers by the Morozova. The report he got from the Cornish woman made him scowl. He returned to the bridge, where his brother was still waiting for him.

On the main display was the star TR-715, a K4 star of pale orange light. Its solar system was mostly empty save for an automated helium-3 refueling station over the sixth planet in the system, which provided the Lou Shipping-built station the source for that critical element. Semyon had selected the system on Piotr's orders as a place to loiter.

Piotr immediately turned in his chair to face Pavel. "Well?"

"Inspector Morse has confirmed the news," he said. "The New Cornish authorities believe Lupa works for us. That we’re attempting to frame the League for the disappearances. They've already asked the other systems to intercept our ship if we're spotted, and ordered Lupa's arrest."

Piotr snarled. "I knew it," he hissed. "That… bitch. She must have killed Vasily! Or ordered it! So she could escape without being detected!"

"Even if she didn't order it, it's related." Pavel shook his head. "Brother, I want to find her too. This time, we’ll question her more thoroughly. Something greater is going on here, something dangerous."

"Agreed. This sounds like a League plot, brother. Those Christ-hating monsters are behind all of it. Now we have to find out where she is."

"If she left Harron, she would have left through Sektatsh. It would be too much risk to try and travel to another of the enclave cities on Harron." Pavel took his seat and called up system access. "I'm going to connect to the Sektatsh Spaceport and see what ships departed recently."

Piotr waited patiently as Pavel did his search. He examined the ships that left, and details relating to them. It took time and patient examination. But not as much time as he feared. "Ah, I think I know now," he said.

"Do you?"

"Vessel Shadow Wolf out of Darien. She arrived carrying cargo from Lusitania on the day Vasily is believed to have been killed, left the same day. Rented a helicar and returned it the same day."

Piotr considered that. "That's not too strange. Who would want to stay on that world for too long? They may have had business in the city."

"But why rent a helicar for a single day just to attend to business? Why go to the expense when public transport would work just as well? A rented helicar would work to quietly slip someone to the ship. And the record shows they were temporarily halted on departure from the suspicion of sneaking a slave aboard." Pavel could see from his facial expression Piotr considered those facts more convincing.

"Alright. Something to possibly investigate," said Piotr. "Send to our contacts across the region. We are looking for the Shadow Wolf and wish to know her destination."

"Yes, brother," Pavel replied.

Breach of Peace

The working dinner amounted to Tia bringing food from one of the station's eating establishments back to the Shadow Wolf. It was Hestian cuisine, itself a fusion of various Southeast Asian and European influences with a focus on some spice in the flavoring. Henry tried it gingerly at first and noted the texturing of the meat was consistent with vat-grown samples.

Tia's bemused reaction brought a grin to Henry's face after he finished chewing and swallowed down the bite he'd taken, a chunk of roasted vat-meat—pork?—with a mild spice glaze over it. "You used to give me the stink eye," he pointed out.

"Well, that was back when you had that spoiled Coalition palate," she replied before taking a bite of her meal, a combination of rice and beef with vegetables in a spicy sauce. The rice was station-grown as well.

"I suppose a decade spent out here in neutral space did a lot to expand my horizons." He chuckled. "Without expanding my waistline."

Tia almost choked in her attempt to laugh.

Whatever further humor they might have shared was cut off by the tone coming from Henry's desktop computer. He checked it and noted it was an incoming call over the GalNet system and originated from Lusitania. That world was already taxing his patience lately, but with a sigh, he answered. Al-Lahim appeared, looking quite frustrated. "Captain Henry, I received your message, but things here have been hectic. Is everything okay?"

"Our guest is," Henry replied, his tone careful. "We had to put into Trinidad Station for repairs."

"It's not common for any of the Tash'vakal tribes to behave quite like that. I suspect they were paid off."

"Your guess is as good as mine." Henry set his hands on the table. "That's not the only reason you called, is it?"

Al-Lahim sighed. "No, it isn't. Your passenger's situation is… complicated now."

"In what way?" Henry noticed Tia was paying rapt attention now as well. That was typically wise when an intelligence officer talked about "complications."

"The New Cornish authorities are still running their investigation, but our sources have them suspecting a woman named Karla Lupa of being a pirate agent working for the Tokarevs. I've investigated and found that there are similarities in appearance. I'm afraid mistaken identity might come into play."

The phrasing was understandable. The line was not necessarily a secure one, and al-Lahim wasn't about to admit to Miri's true identity. Especially not with what he'd just revealed. Henry played along. "Well, we'll make sure to have her ID well in hand. There won't be any mistaken identity."

"That is advisable."

With that said, Henry decided to delve further into the matter. "So you're telling me that a witness shows up, and she's suddenly the suspect?"

"Yes." Al-Lahim sounded almost weary at that point of agreement. "Unfortunately, New Cornwall's been particularly adamant about staying out of the war. They'd rather assume she was a pirate trying a frameup than consider whether she's telling the truth."

"They're hardly the only planet to do so," Henry pointed out, well aware that half of his crew came from such neutral worlds. "Anyway, that's got nothing to do with us for the moment. I'll inform you when we're coming back in."

"Don't expect an immediate answer. We're having another security threat assessment in the wake of the increasing domestic strife here on Lusitania."

"More problems with the PdDN."

"There've been arrests and mob attacks on the Opposition, especially the Democratic parties," al-Lahim explained. "Some of them come to us, seeking shelter."

"Which only adds to the fuel for all of those nationalist groups accusing the democrats of being Coalition agents."

"It does, but these are innocent people. It's not easy to turn them away."

"It never is." Seeing Tia starting to eat again, Henry said, "I'll talk to you later. Shadow Wolf out." He let al-Lahim nod before cutting the channel.

"Crap," Tia muttered. "It sounds like Lusitania's becoming a dangerous spot. Should we hasten repairs? If we really push, we could be out by tomorrow. Then we can get this over with and get away before Caetano starts a crackdown or whatever she's going to do."

"No. Everyone got a scare in our escape from the Tash'vakal." Henry started gathering a bite of his cooling meal with his fork and spoon. "And if there's any trouble, we don't want everyone worn thin by repair work. We'll continue working at our established pace and leave in two days."

Tia swallowed one of her last bites and nodded. "Sounds reasonable to me. So, that leaves the repair bill."

Henry grimaced and nodded. "Yeah, let's get that finalized. Then we'll see how much trouble we're in financially."


30

Kepper arrived at the Sektatsh Spaceport with a light load. Most of his essential gear was already transferred to his ride, sparing him the need for more. All he had with him was a single suitcase of brown leather. He checked his commlink to verify the meeting place.

The meeting place was an out of the way terminal of the spaceport near one of the employee entrances. Without a ship coming or going from the dock at the moment, Kepper and his contact had the place to themselves.

The contact was a human man of pale complexion, grizzled in appearance. He was at least ten years older than Kepper by his estimation. Wiry, corded muscle showed on his bared lower arms. "Hey, you're Li's guy?" the man asked in a near-Cockney, British accent.

"Yep." Kepper didn't recognize the man or know his name. Nor did he care to. "My intel?"

"Everything you need on Trinidad Station. Contacts, schematics." The man extended a hand, the skin even paler than normal. Inside of the hand was a data disc. Kepper eyed the offered hand and disc closely. "I feel bloody sorry for your mark."

"Huh." Kepper looked at the disc and to the contact's face and grinned widely. "I'd think you'd have better things to feel sorry for."

"Oh?" The man chuckled. "Like what?"

Kepper's grin took an edge. "Yourself." His hands went into motion. One slapped the side of the contact's hand away, knocking the disc clear to the floor. The other hand pulled his pulse pistol out and leveled it toward the contact's head. The contact stopped moving, his face still full of surprise. "Drop it.”

The small particle pistol in the man's other hand dropped to the ground. Kepper brought his right foot over and kicked it out of reach.

The League contact's confusion became one of consternation and fear. "What's all this?" he asked in a low, insistent voice.

"I'll admit, you had me going," said Kepper. "Li sounded just desperate enough. But I know how the game's played. I made him look bad to his bosses. Why send me to hunt someone across space when the League's got contacts elsewhere?" He chuckled. "Honestly, he'd have been better off never talking to me again and just sending someone to blow up my rooms. He'd still have failed, but it wouldn't be nearly as insulting."

"Mate, I dunno—"

"You're pale, especially your hand. But that's not a natural paleness," Kepper said. "The light we're in hides it a little, so I wasn't sure until I saw your hand. But it's from something else. I'm guessing the fungicide for jeklan?" He noticed the look on the man's eyes and felt a surge of professional pride. He had this poisoner. "The fungicide is slightly toxic to human beings. It slows the heart and reduces blood flow. Makes you really pale. Terrible stuff, but it's a great preventative if you're coating something with jeklan. Stuff gives people a buzz, but it's the last one a human being would feel, am I right?"

The contact swallowed. "It was nothing personal, mate," he said in a low tone. "Business. Boss tells me to off someone, they get the jeklan, y'know?"

"Pays well?"

"Pay's piss," spat the man. "My family's back on Croydon. I do the right work, External Security'll let 'em emigrate out of the League."

Kepper nodded. Croydon was a former Coalition world that withdrew after the Saurian Wars over the costs of rebuilding Sauria. That hadn't been sufficient protection from the League, which took control of the planet in 2550 on the grounds of alleged Coalition use of the Croydon system. He gave the man a bemused look and said, "You know you're a sucker, then? The League'll never let them go."

Defiant despair showed on the poisoner's face. "Man's gotta hope. I got nothing else."

"Hope's overrated."

With that statement, Kepper lifted his gun and shot the Croydoner square in the middle of the forehead. The pulse blast scorched and blackened the pale skin there on its way through the skull and into the brain, which was flash-fried in the heat of the blast. His would-be killer fell wordlessly to the ground and did not move again.

The grin disappeared from Kepper's face. Fury filled him. Not just at Li's decision to kill him— that could be the way of business in this line of work—but how he went about it. The insult he'd offered by trying to trick him, and thus making it clear he thought Kepper was stupid enough to fall for it.

Before, his desire to kill Li had just been a fancy. Now? Now it was earned retribution.

Kepper felt a shudder of anticipation at getting to finally drop his defenses and fulfill his urges. Chantavit Li was going to die, and die slowly, and it was going to be fun.

Breach of Peace

Being both Trade Minister and Culture Minister meant perks for Vitorino. Perks he greatly enjoyed. They included contacts in the business world, the import and export trades so important to integrated interstellar economies like those of the Trifid Region's worlds, while the latter got him invited to all sorts of dinner parties and galas to celebrate the fine arts.

Tonight was a bit of both for him, as he enjoyed the company of the elite of Gamavilla in welcoming the Tal'mayan Director of Cultural Exchange from that species' homeworld and unified government. As aliens went, the Tal'mayan were at the sweet spot of humanoid shape with alien features, given their colorations and slanted ears and the usual facial shapes, plus broadly belonging to the same mammalian kingdom as Humanity did. The same was seen in their art. The school of art currently in vogue on Tal'pera had some aesthetic similarities to the 22nd Century Romanticists of Sagittarian humanity's first generation, including Vitorino's personal favorite, Miguel Hakkaoui. He enjoyed the shapes and colors of the Tal'mayan artists. Beside him, the cerulean-skinned Tal'mayan minister, Drol Seja, was standing with his wife Uwi. Her hair was a verdant green in tone while Drol's was almost pearl white, but richer in color than a human's natural white would be, given it was not a result of old age and the damages it wrought. "I truly enjoy seeing how our species' aesthetics can match," Drol said. "I hope the people of Lusitania enjoy these pieces as greatly as my people do."

"They will, Minister, I guarantee it," Vitorino promised. "Just as they enjoy the njita fruit you so graciously export."

"Well, we can hardly let people believe that sweet smoke is our only product!" the alien guffawed. His voice had a slight timbre to it that was inhuman, the product of physiological difference in Tal'mayan vocal cords. "We are fortunate our species have compatible gastronomical systems."

"Very fortunate," Vitorino said, pondering the elegant taste of njita brandy, or how well the fruit worked in a number of his favorite dessert dishes. "Did you enjoy the port?"

"Quite so!"

Their conversation continued amiably for a time before Vitorino eased himself away. He noticed Raoul approaching and moved to avoid any further conversation. "Yes?" he asked.

"I thought you should know that Speaker Acosta will be calling the session tomorrow."

"Ah. Good." Vitorino noticed the look on Raoul. "This worries you? It's just a new trade treaty with the League."

"The Democratic parties have already protested and are trying to convince some of our people to reject it,” Raoul said. “I don’t doubt they’ll disobey the Whip, but with how much Caetano’s been provoking them lately, I’m worried this might push them over the edge.”

“The Democratic parties protest everything,” Vitorino scoffed. “But they don’t do violence. They don’t have the stomach for it. They know it’ll just lead to them being rounded up by Caetano’s people.”

Raoul shuddered visibly. Under Caetano, the police and security services were having all restrictions removed, at least when it came to "preserving state security" and "anti-constitutional activities". "I've heard the hardest criminals get treated better in prison than democrats," he said.

"Ah, but criminals are just criminals, democrats are threats to the Estado Novo," Vitorino remarked sardonically, already hearing Caetano say the same in his head as a defense to the remark.

Raoul noted the wryness in his voice. "Either way, I sometimes worry about the future of our nation."

"The future will tend to itself, Raoul." Vitorino clapped his man on the back. "Come now, there are lovely young ladies of society here, and your mother wants grandchildren, eh? Let's go meet some of them and get your mind on something other than work."

Breach of Peace

In the offices of the Lusitanian Defense Ministry, Caetano sat at her desk reading quietly from a government-issued digital tablet. The daily reports from the security services and the military were always of high priority to her. Cravalho met her at the door with the secured digital tablet assigned to his use. "Admiral Fayed reports the fleet is ready for any trouble," he said. "Although the Beja remains docked for her computer issues."

"So long as the engineers are fixing it," she remarked. "It does us little good to have a capital battleship in the fleet if it is not available. We paid exorbitantly for it and we must get our money's worth."

"Agreed." Cravalho noted his pad. "The year's army call-ups are not matching census estimates."

"Draft dodgers." Caetano eased herself into the seat behind her desk. "Have the recruitment and intake offices coordinate with State Security. Draft dodging is a serious offense against the State, whether from cowardice or anti-constitutional ideology. I want examples made."

"Of course, Minister," he said. "I can coordinate with the Justice Ministry to ensure the sentences are firm."

"We'll also run a new public campaign on the need to respond to draft calls," Caetano continued. She picked up her secured pad from her desk. "Appeal to the patriotism of the population in honoring the draft and refusing aid to draft dodgers." Her eyes didn't meet Cravalho's as she spoke, as she was focused on the reports her pad was downloading from his.

"I'll send the orders out," he assured her. "But I'm sure there will be trouble. The democratic parties—"

"—are irrelevant, and they will be more so when the next elections are held," she finished contemptuously. A small smile came to her face. "Perhaps the people of Zalain will even vote for someone other than that intemperate zealot Ascaro."

Cravalho flashed a smile in return. "Speaking of, her speech last night had several incendiary remarks that our people flagged as potentially subversive. Director Travada wanted me to give you his assurance he stands ready to arrest every Assembly member from the Democratic parties upon your orders. We can easily charge them with anti-constitutional activity given their rhetoric."

For a moment, Caetano seemed to consider the thought. Ultimately, she shook her head. "No. Her remarks are little different from her usual in the message, simply stronger in language. To arrest her now would confirm to others the truth of her accusations. That could destabilize our position in the government. For now, we watch and observe."

"If the party faithful take matters into their own hands?"

That won him a glance. Cravalho had a barely perceptible grin on his face, anticipating the idea of having the rank and file attack their opponents again.

When Caetano spoke, it was with her usual control. "Demonstrations are welcome, obviously, to remind the populace that the PdDN is the best choice for their future. And we may be lenient in some cases of excessive zeal. But not all." Her words became harsh. "Such actions directed at government figures and their families, including Assembly members, will not be overlooked," she said sternly. "It would undermine the State."

Cravalho stroked his chin. He wouldn't say out loud that he'd relay the message, but he didn't need to. Whether he recognized Caetano's reasoning or not, he would obey. When he spoke up, it was on a different matter. "Speaker Acosta is calling the Cabinet to tomorrow's session for the final reading of the trade treaty Minister al-Idrisi signed with Ambassador Salinas last month."

"I will be there, of course," Caetano said, although she seemed to care little for the news. "Vitorino will undoubtedly be beside himself at yet more opportunities to enrich himself with his office."

Cravalho snorted at the remark. The corruption of the Trade Minister was nearly an open secret in the ministries. After catching himself from laughing more, he continued with another report. "The surveillance of the Faith Outreach Mission is continuing. Inspector Travada is requesting permission for another search. His people identified local Lusitanians suspected of anti-constitutional activity entering the premises."

"For now, they will continue to observe the Reverend Rothbard's mission," Caetano said. "He is to remain unmolested for now."

"Understood."

Caetano listened as Cravalho continued on to other matters, but her mind went to the question of the Reverend and his use to her. I grow impatient, Captain Henry. Your witness may be the key I've been waiting for, and I want her. For the sake of your friend, I hope you are not getting comfortable on Trinidad.


31

The numbers stared Henry in the face and brought a scowl to it. "Three million credits," he sighed.

"The best I could do," Khánh said apologetically. She sat behind her desk with a clear look of sympathy on her face. The desk itself was a plain white plastic board on four gray legs with a holoprojector along one side to display the number that made Henry livid. "The materials’ costs and parts, I couldn't shave off as much as I wanted. And the labor costs are fixed by the dockworker guild."

"I know." He cradled his hands in his head. This wasn't going to bankrupt the ship necessarily, but it left them at risk of bankruptcy if he didn't get paid once they arrived at Lusitania. At least he'd collect from Caetano, even if a part of him still balked at working with her over Vitorino or al-Lahim.

With a heavy sigh, Henry took out his digital pad and accessed his account through the station's GalNet connection. Khánh helpfully sent the official payment request to him, and he used the thumbprint and voiceprint authorization, with a typed PIN number, to approve the transaction. He watched the number showing his account balance steadily drop.

"Thank you, Jim," Khánh said. She smiled softly. "Just to help out, I cut my labor cost. My personal cost, I mean."

Henry realized Khánh was saying she didn't get paid for the hours of overseeing the critical hull repairs her people handled, or the several hours she'd spent triple-checking the fusion drive system to ensure they hadn't damaged anything with their intense use of it during the Tash'vakal ambush. Compared to materials costs, it didn't add up to much of the total, but the gesture was welcome. "Thank you," he said, forcing gratitude in his voice.

Khánh's smile turned melancholy. "I know I say this every so often, but I'll say it again: you saved Tia's life when you took her into your crew. If you hadn't, she'd have gotten herself killed by now. Or straight-up committed suicide."

"She's tough," Henry replied. "Don't sell her short."

"I don't. But I know her. And being tough doesn't save someone from a crushed spirit." Khánh stood. "Your repairs, as ordered, should be done tonight. Will you be leaving then?"

"Yeah. We've got a run to complete."

"I'll see if anyone's got a safe cargo heading for Lusitania," she said. "Maybe it'll get you a little something extra for the trip. To keep you flying."

"Maybe. Either way, thanks again." Henry gave her a parting smile before walking out of her office.

Leaving Khánh's office took him by a break room for the dockworkers and the path leading to their shower and changing room. Further on, the door swished open and let him into the Docking Arm 3 concourse. It wasn't as bustling as other space stations could be, since Trinidad was on the border of being a pirate station instead of a legitimate one and didn't get the same level of traffic. But there were still a fair number of examples of Humanity and other alien species milling about, going to and from the lifts to the central station. He followed the path away from the lifts and toward the repair dock where the Shadow Wolf was located.

The inside of the Shadow Wolf was looking better than when she'd left. Most of the visible hull breaches were closed up, and Khánh's people were working on the last few. The damaged holds were intact again. It was clear the ship had been hurt, but she was at least getting her wounds closed.

Yanik stood just inside of the port airlock, his massive form visible as Henry approached the hatch into the ship. His Saurian Second Mate was observing the repairs carefully. "We're due to finish tomorrow," Henry said. "How's Pieter and the new girl doing?"

"They have finished repairs to the Lawrence drive," Yanik replied. "I am told the sublight drives will be ready by tonight."

"Good." Henry stepped into the airlock. "Interior repairs?"

"Mostly done. We await the completion of the remaining breach repairs to continue our work."

"Good." Henry continued into the vessel while Yanik remained outside. He checked on the galley and rec room before heading to the empty quarters where their guest was located.

Miri sat alone, staring at the wall with a look Henry sometimes saw in his mirror. She quietly turned her head to face him. "Captain."

"Ms. Gaon." Since she was seated on the bed in the room, he took up the desk chair. "We need to talk. There's been a development."

"What kind?"

"New Cornish authorities want Karla Lupa arrested. Apparently, she's a pirate agent under an assumed name."

Surprise flashed across her face. Her expression turned thoughtful a moment later. She was considering the ramifications. "They're discrediting me," she finally said. "Because they don't like my testimony. Patricia Odon wouldn't need much to show I'm a legend. From there, it's easy to insist I'm a pirate agent and not a spacer looking for a new start."

"Apparently so," Henry said. "It's why I figure Caetano, and maybe Vitorino still want to talk to you; they don't find the case convincing," he said. "While al-Lahim just wants to ensure nobody thinks you're Karla Lupa."

"Once I'm in his care, he'll put me in a safehouse and get me a ship back to Canaan or New Israel," she said. "The CIS doesn't want me to fall into League hands any more than I do."

"You're okay with going home?"

She shrugged. "The danger's the same in either place. There are League agents back home too, after all."

"But you're less likely to get taken back by them," Henry pointed out. "Honestly, that's what's confused me the most about you, Miri. Why'd you bother coming out to neutral space? The League could grab you out here. Back home, the best they might manage is an assassination."

"Are you confused by this? Really?" Miri stared at him. "Your ship could have easily made its way working in Coalition space. You're still a Coalition citizen, after all. Instead, you came to neutral space, where half of the planets see our people as threats to their independence. As far as they're concerned, we're moralistic busybodies and religious zealots little better than the League."

"I'm not a heroic special agent who caused the League one of its most severe defeats, apparently," he replied. "I'm the disgraced commander who got people killed while testing a new engine. It's not as easy for me to find work in Coalition space as you think."

"I suppose not. But that's not why you left, is it?"

Their eyes met. Henry could see the calculation in her eyes. Miri Gaon, the expert infiltrator, was gauging him. Testing him for responses, for emotional weaknesses she could utilize. He didn't like that, as much as he understood her interest in it. "I had my reasons," he said. That was all he'd be saying.

"As did I," she replied. "Among other things, a moving target is harder to hit." A wry look came over her face. "HaShem has now reminded me that a moving target can blunder into the hands of her hunter without either knowing it."

"They say God works in mysterious ways."

"You say that with a tone of a man who doesn't believe in God."

Henry chuckled. "You might say I've become a bit agnostic. I asked for God's help, and I didn't get a response. So either there's no God or He's not listening or otherwise doesn't care. I admit I tend toward thinking the latter."

"Why?" Miri asked.

"You have to ask?" Henry feigned bemusement. "Look at the state of our species. Why would God want anything to do with us while we kill and torture each other over ideology? I mean, the League's not some spawn of Satan; it's born of Human arrogance and conceit, and the Coalition's got its bad side that's got a big stink. And the neutral worlds aren't any better. Crime and corruption and oppression, it's all out here." He sighed. "Vidia thinks I'm just carrying a spiritual wound, and when it heals, I'll rediscover my faith, but honestly, I've seen too much to have any delusions about a divine plan being carried out."

Miri nodded in agreement. "I understand you," she said. "I assume you were Christian?"

"Yes. Methodist."

"As a Jew, I was raised Orthodox," Miri said. "For a time, I became an atheist after my successful socialization. To keep my cover."

Henry nodded. "We hear stories about the camps. People being worked to death as slave labor, executed for being believers."

"In some cases, yes," Miri said, trying not to think of Christopher and Annette. "The slave labor isn't just for the labor. It's a… part of the method. They believe we need to learn to work as members of Society. To not expect an individual reward for individual effort, but to work solely for the joy of working for the good of all."

"Oskar and Brigitte have their own stories about being raised in that system," Henry said. "Oskar makes Earth sound like some socialist paradise. People get whatever they want or need regardless of the work they do. Despite everything, sometimes I think he misses it."

"It is. Earth and Mars get the first pick of resources in the League. And Earth itself mostly exists to support the League government. The planetary economy outside of government operation is mostly things like state-protected cottage industries for cultural value. Mars is… well, these days, its importance as a founding component of the League of Sol is vestigial mostly, but it's still the site of their most advanced military research bureau."

"They taught you history while you were undercover?"

"A sanitized version," Miri said. "I learned the more unofficial version as part of my mission."

"And after you were pulled out? Still an atheist?"

"No. I believe in HaShem." Miri shook her head. "I don't think I'm worthy of being one of his children anymore. The things I did in his name, in the name of the Coalition, they were…" She swallowed. "There's innocent blood on my hands and my soul, Captain Henry. How else should I feel?"

Henry shook his head. "I don't know. I—" He stopped. "I can't talk about it."

"It’s painful, isn't it?"

"It is. But not the only reason I can't talk about it."

He could see Miri considering his wording before understanding came. "Then I won't pry. A gesture, from one wounded soul to another."

"Thank you.” There was nothing else he thought it right to say.

Breach of Peace

Despite Linh's efforts, there was no load going to Lusitania, so it was with empty holds that the Shadow Wolf pulled away from Trinidad Station. Cera did the piloting, as usual, with Henry, Tia, and Yanik at their stations on the bridge.

Standing with them, at her own request, Samina Khan watched her home for these past few years gradually pull away on the liquid crystal display. She wore a gray engineer's jumpsuit with "Shadow Wolf" on the back in black lettering. The jumpsuit was a size too big for her and quite baggy.

But she paid it no mind. Her heartbeat with excitement and fear and anxiety and worry and happiness. She couldn't decide how she should feel about leaving Uncle Ali behind. About being on her own without her family for the first time in her life. She wanted to cheer at the freedom and cry at the feeling of loss. Tears formed in her eyes from the tension.

Henry's hand came up and touched her shoulder. "I've been there," he said. "I felt the same way when the shuttle taking me to Halsey Station left Tylerville."

"I don't know how to feel," Samina stammered. "I—"

"I didn't either."

"It shows you are on your path, laid out by divine will," Yanik said in his usual low voice. "Divine will is always frightening and gratifying."

"Inshallah," she breathed with a little uncertainty.

Yanik nodded. Samina was surprised he understood. Then her thoughts looped back to the feelings inside. She said nothing more as Trinidad Station slowly shrank on the viewer until it was a speck.

"You've got your first in-flight engine room watch in six hours," Tia reminded her. "You should see about rack time."

"Yeah. Rack time." Samina felt goosebumps at that prospect. A watch in the engine room by herself, on a ship in flight? That was a lot of responsibility. Even if Brigitte was also going to be around to help, she felt her stomach twist with nervousness at the thought. Her legs went a little rubbery as she turned to the exit door. "I'll be there, Miss Nguyen," Samina promised.

She left the bridge. Walking down the corridor to her quarters, her feelings continued to shift until one stood out amongst them: determination. She had to do this right. For Uncle Ali, for Chief Khánh, and her new crew. She had to be the best Engineer's Mate she could be.

"Allah help me," she muttered under her breath.

Breach of Peace

The Kensington Star loomed ahead through the shuttle cockpit viewer. Hartford looked it over with quiet satisfaction. While it retained the boxy shape he'd seen on its capture, the week since its arrival at Pluto Base had wrought the desired changes to the ship. Particle cannons were bolted and fitted onto that boxy shape now, giving it a definite warlike cast. A battery of captured Coalition neutron cannons were arrayed below the chin of the ship.

Above the ship's bow, the emitter array for their new weapon was still being assembled, but it was nearly ready.

Altogether, the refitted Kensington Star had the firepower to harm cruisers and the deflectors to resist them, although its hull was still a weak point. Armored plates had been rigged over vital areas, but once the ship's deflectors were down, it would have difficulty surviving.

Not that battle was its primary purpose, although if everything went according to plan, it'd be seeing combat eventually.

An eager young officer—a Commander—greeted Hartford and Aristide upon their landing on the ship's shuttle bay. "Commander Ivan Neworth, sir," he said in a chipper North American accent. "We've nearly completed the refit, sir. There's a few final pieces to install on the disabler array. When we're done, she's ready for action."

"Well done, Commander," Hartford said. "You and your crews have fulfilled their duty well."

"Thank you, sir. All did their part for Society. We had not a single incident of individual failing."

"I’ll see to it your crew will be commended."

With the exchange done, Hartford was led on a tour of the ship. For all the work done outside, internally, it was little changed—only where necessary. The crew went about their business with the kind of social spirit he approved of in personnel. Each was handpicked from the best in the League of Sol fleet. Most were veterans of the war with the Coalition and eager to strike the decisive blow to break the zealots.

They were partway through the inspection when Aristide stopped following. She held a hand to her ear, telling Hartford she was getting a report from Pluto Base. "Very well," she said aloud. "I will inform him at once."

By the time she turned her attention entirely to Hartford and Commander Neworth, Hartford was already asking, "Inform me of what?"

"An informant on Trinidad Station transmitted a report to our man on New Kerala," she said. "The Shadow Wolf has departed for Lusitania."

"Is the fleet ready?"

She nodded. "It is dispersed along the route, and we have probes spread around several systems. Additionally, League vessels in the area, as well as those we have contacts with, are all on the lookout, should they take a circuitous route."

"And if they go by interstellar space?"

Aristide smiled. Hartford wasn't sure he liked the look of it. "Given their behavior, I considered that possibility. Captain Zervakos and his squadron have dispersed themselves at central points with a probe net employed. It is quite a use of resources, sir, but I believe we can catch them."

Hartford narrowed his eyes slightly. Aristide's wording wasn't lost on him. She saw this as a waste of resources. She didn't see the danger that Miri Gaon would pose their operation, not as he did. She was thinking of things in the way one of the bloodless Social Resource Distribution Bureau officials would back on Earth, not realizing the effect on morale someone like Gaon could have if she gave her testimony to the right people. "It will be worth it," he quietly assured her. "And it will even give us another benefit."

"Oh?"

"Another ship, already conveniently armed for our purposes," Hartford pointed out. And with that point made, he nodded to Neworth, prompting the younger officer to continue their tour.

Breach of Peace

Pavel found Piotr as he was leaving the ship's chapel on the Morozova's habitation deck, where Father Dmitri was currently hearing confession. "Piotr, I've found them!"

"Where?" Piotr demanded, his full attention directed to his brother.

"They put in several days ago to Trinidad Station. Battle damage from an attack by the Tash'vakal."

"Devil's Lizards," Piotr grumbled. They were another scourge of the spaceways, vicious reptilians who ate other species and even each other. "Are they still there?"

"They were scheduled to depart today," answered Pavel. "No destination filed, but during their time on the station, they received several calls from Lusitania."

"Their cargo to Harron came from Lusitania," Piotr recalled. "Perhaps their employer is there."

"The League External Security Office maintains a major agent in Gamavilla," Pavel said. "Chantavit Li."

"Li," Piotr spat. "He would be the kind of man to arrange this slander." He gave his brother a fierce look. "They must be returning her to him. We must catch them!"

"I've given Semyon course information. It will be close brother, but with God's help, perhaps we can catch them before their last jump."

"God stands with those seeking justice," Piotr assured him. "Make sure the word is spread. We must be ready for action when the time comes!"


32

Another bright day came for the people of Gamavilla. It was the kind of day anyone would want to remember; clear sunny skies, pleasantly warm. Children of the capital's barrios loved conditions such as this for the purpose of playing outside, while lovers embraced in the parks.

After finishing her morning routines, Cristina Caetano stood out on the balcony of her third-floor apartment home. While other ministers might dwell in beautiful homes bought in the city limits, she contented herself with a secured apartment rented in the government district. From three stories up, she could make out the best buildings in the heart of the city, including the Parliament Building and the Presidential Mansion. With a turn of the head, the grand baroque architecture of the National University was visible. Turning her head the other way showed the Gamavilla Museum of History and Art and the magnificent spire of St. Michael's Cathedral, while a little further in the distance, the al-Tawriq Mosque's minarets spoke of architecture that would have won the approval of the Almohads.

The view was special. It was why she'd insisted upon this apartment. It reminded her of the proud past of Lusitania, the collective effort of the Portuguese, Moroccan, Basque, and Galician peoples who left behind the lands and bones of their forebearers to save the memory and spirit of their nations.

Today, they would be ratifying a new treaty with the people who chased their ancestors off Earth. It was a sort of cosmic joke. Members of her party were ambivalent about the whole thing, but the other lead government parties, the Nationalist-Republicans, and National Liberals, were quite insistent on it. As she could not yet act on Karla Lupa's statements about the League being responsible for the ship disappearances, she and the PdDN would go along with it. It was a necessary evil to keep their governing coalition intact.

There was noise behind Caetano, the dull thud of something hitting the ground. She turned to find that the housemaid hired by the owner of the building had accidentally knocked a table lamp off her dresser. The young woman, with bronze coloration a shade darker than Caetano's and a pretty round face, was already stooping to pick it up under the stern gaze of Caetano's armed bodyguards. Nervousness was apparent in her light brown eyes as she set the lamp back carefully, handling it with even more care than the auto-firing pulse guns being quietly leveled her way by Caetano's ever-watchful bodyguards. "Sorry, Minister," she said softly. Her Portuguese had a Galician accent.

"Beatriz, isn't it?" Caetano asked.

"Yes, ma'am." Beatriz glanced around quickly. The bodyguards were not lowering their guard, but their weapons were starting to dip a little. "I'm very sorry."

Caetano could see the young woman was upset, and not just at her mistake. "You are usually quite careful," Caetano observed. "Is something the matter?"

Beatriz sucked in a breath. For a moment, she seemed to reluctant to do anything and her body shook. Caetano could see when the tension in Beatriz eased; she'd made her decision. "My brother Julio," she said. "He's… he's a member of the League for Democratic Unity. He's protesting today."

"Ah. You worry for his safety." Caetano found the admission interesting. "Do you share his political beliefs?"

"I do not follow politics. I am too busy pursuing my degree in metallurgy at the National University," Beatriz admitted. Caetano found that fact intriguing. She didn't know her maid was a university student. "I...I know you hate them, but he's a good man. He's not a traitor. He wants our people to have more freedoms."

Caetano's face betrayed a hint of sadness. "I know what it is like to have someone you love, to have family who risk themselves for their convictions," she said quietly to the younger woman. "Rest assured, Beatriz, that unless the situation requires it, I will not raise a hand against Julio or those with his convictions."

Beatriz’s eyebrows shot up. "You… you won't?"

"No. I believe he and his people are wrong," Caetano began. "That our nation requires us to set our freedoms aside to protect the nation, the entire planet, from the war. And I can tell you some use his party as a cover to promote foreign interests that would not match ours. But I do not hate them all. I consider them misguided. And so long as the State is not threatened by their actions, I will not have them harmed."

"But, your party…"

Caetano laughed. "My party is not a hive mind, with me as the queen bee. Some of my people allow their patriotism to get the better of them. I rein them in when possible. But it is not always possible. Today, I suspect they will counter-protest as they always do, and my police are ready to intercede to protect the lives of Lusitanian citizens."

Beatriz nodded at that. She was still clearly surprised. "Thank you, Minister," she finally managed.

"You are quite welcome, Beatriz. I hope I have set your mind at ease. My room could use a little extra dusting today." Caetano grinned at her. "I wish you the best in your studies on metallurgy."

That resulted in another round of thanks before Caetano departed the room, her bodyguards following. As they exited the apartment proper, one said, "That was nice of you, Minister. A shame her brother's a traitor."

"The tricky thing about treason is that sometimes the traitor does not know he is one until it is too late," she replied. "We are due at Parliament, gentlemen. Lead on."

Breach of Peace

Given the wealth accumulated from his time in public service and private industry, Vitorino had the wealth to live in greater splendor than Caetano's modest apartment in the government district. His home was in the upper crust Lake Verde District, a two-level mansion of average size bought at a discount from the prior owner, an import/export company owner expressing gratitude for Vitorino's assistance. His bedroom, the master bedroom, was on the second floor, a finely carpeted and furnished chamber that by itself was the size of a barrio apartment for a family of four. The balcony there provided a view of the Parliament Building and other sites from a removed distance; visible, but part of the general surroundings.

Vitorino considered that view while eating a morning breakfast cooked by his professional kitchen staff. After seeing to some last-minute correspondence and dressing in his best suit, he was met by Raoul for the ride to the Parliament Building. "No surprises?" he asked.

"None," Raoul promised.

"Good, good." Vitorino grinned and sat back.

On their way to the Parliament Building, Vitorino noted the city seemed tense. There were political gatherings ready to become protests and counter-protests scattered around the city. The Gamavilla police force was out to deal with it, aided by the RSS and the National Police. Anyone foolish enough to start a violent demonstration would find themselves in the city's jails in short order.

They arrived and came in through the Cabinet's special entrance. Security was less intrusive if still quite thorough, given the intensity of the scans they were subject to in order to ensure they were clear of anything from planted bombs to listening devices. Once they were inside, Vitorino headed straight for the Assembly Chamber.

The room was a modern take on the parliamentary assembly rooms seen in many countries. The six hundred and twenty members of the Assembly itself was seated in a half-circle of multiple tiers in the southern half of the chamber, with galleries raised above their seats for visitors. The pit was for whoever took the floor to address the Speaker of the Assembly, who enjoyed the highest position on the north side of the room. The President of Lusitania, if in attendance, sat beside the Speaker, bound by Lusitanian law and custom to not speak unless requested to by the Assembly. But Vargas was not here today. The Prime Minister likewise had a seat beside the Speaker, but typically only spoke when asked or permitted by the Assembly.

Below the Speaker's podium and above the pit, a line of desks and attendant chairs was set for the attending members of the Cabinet. Vitorino found his seat near the middle. By circumstance, this put him beside Caetano, with Minister al-Idrisi beside her. On Vitorino's other side was the Finance Minister, a fellow National-Republican named Rosalía Ferreiro.

With most of the seats filled, the Speaker of the Assembly took his podium, signaling to all the session was due to begin. Saturnino Acosta was the oldest leading member of the Nationalist-Republicans and a former Prime Minister himself. With the rest of the Cabinet, Vitorino swiveled in his chair and looked up at the older man as he called the session to order.

This was not easy. There was real malice in the Assembly, even over something as relatively minor as a trade agreement. The democratic parties saw the League as an unconscionable threat to the dignity and freedom of humanity, and the Socialists—the second largest party in the Assembly—despised them as a twisted and totalitarian corruption of their ideology. The government parties, on the other hand, were much like Vitorino in their thinking; Lusitania's economy was enriched by foreign trade, and that meant getting as many trade partners as possible. Since the Coalition placed export controls on strategic goods and resources necessary for their war efforts, as well as on luxury and consumer goods containing technology with potential military applications, the League was a source for the same that couldn't be ignored.

With effort, Acosta took control of the session. At his bidding, the clerk confirmed the attendance roll and read the treaty. It was not the stuff of drama, especially since Vitorino felt that the Basque clerk's Portuguese accent was atrocious.

Once the reading was over, the first representative to get the Speaker's attention called for Vitorino, as Trade Minister, to answer questions. This request was affirmed by a vote, and Vitorino, with grace, stood from his seat, leaving Raoul behind to keep everything in order while he rounded the Cabinet desk and descended into the pit of the chamber. He stood at a podium facing the assembly and with a confident grin, invited the questions.

Some he considered reasonable. Most he thought were inane or petty. A few were even ridiculous. Nevertheless, he kept his smile on as they came. When it looked like they were done, Vitorino turned to the Speaker and asked, "May I have the floor, Mister Speaker? I wish to make a statement."

"The Assembly recognizes Minister Vitorino," Acosta remarked with solemnity.

"I thank the Assembly for its patience and time. I will not occupy more of it," Vitorino said. "I only wish to impress upon you the value and need of this agreement. The galaxy is dangerous these days, and trade is getting more difficult. If we wish to continue thriving, we need to work with other worlds, other systems, even governments like the League. Whatever we think of their domestic politics, and I have my own qualms about them, they are not going to disappear because we wish it. They're a fact of life, and we should be willing to extend the hand of friendship to them." As he spoke those words, his voice carried through the assembly, aided by both the microphone and the carefully-designed acoustics of the chamber. He was gratified to see that many were considering his words. It was clear to all he hoped to convince all of them to side with the new treaty.

He took a quick swig of water to wet his throat and glanced back toward his digital reader to continue his statement.

That was when the bombs went off.


33

The Shadow Wolf emerged from the third wormhole it'd generated since leaving Trinidad Station. It arrived in an uninhabited system, TR-778, with an A2 star. Piper had the watch with Brigitte and Felix. She looked over the holotank display of the course she'd plotted and noted with satisfaction that the next jump would bring them to Lusitania and relative safety.

She remembered herself and directed a look to the helm. "Well done, Brig," she said. "That was a textbook wormhole entry."

"Thanks, Piper," Brigitte replied, her tone chipper. She didn't fly the ship often, given the usual piloting rotation was Cera, Felix, and Piper herself, and Vidia was usually fourth. The chance to do so was both daunting and a little fun. "Think I'll work into the rotation?"

Piper smiled at that. "We'll see. We're pretty well covered on the helm, after all."

"Always good to have options," Felix added from the operations seat. "Just in case of emergencies."

"Speaking of the possibility…" Piper looked back to the holotank. "Anything we should be worried about?"

"Got a contact a few hours out," Felix said. "They'll cross our path in two hours at current course and speed. It looks like a passenger liner. Probably running the New Kerala-Lusitania route." Felix looked at Piper with a concerned look on his face. "Although given the circumstances, we can't be too careful."

"We'll adjust course slightly. But not too much; otherwise, we may scare them." Piper glanced at the holotank and ran the calculations through her mind for a moment. "Brigitte, alter heading by zero-zero-zero mark positive zero-zero-one." It was only a one-degree course change, but for Brigitte's education, Piper used the full term.

"One degree angle up. Right." Brigitte did so.

"At this distance and these speeds, that'll keep them a safe distance, and it'll look like we're just being courteous," Piper reasoned aloud.

"Works for me," said Felix.

They went silent for some time, each going over their thoughts while attending to the duties of their respective stations. The minutes became an hour. As they approached an hour and a half, Piper glanced to the holotank, which was showing the incoming contact. Something about the range didn't sit right with her. She checked, and it looked like the ship wasn't quite going to pass by, but it was closer than she'd intended.

Her first impulse was to assume she'd just miscalculated slightly. Her first full thought didn't dismiss that idea so much as consider what it meant if she hadn't. Perhaps the incoming liner had also altered course. That made her wonder why. Changing position in-system between jumps was common in these systems, if only to reduce the risk of being motionless in a pirate ambush, but she couldn't think of why the liner would reduce the distance between them.

"Felix, what do you make of this?" she asked.

Felix looked up from his short-range sensors, more concerned with sudden arriving wormholes, and checked the holotank. "They're a bit closer than they ought to be," he said. "What's up with that?"

"I don't know. Think I should raise them and ask if anything's wrong?"

"If they're looking for us, it'd just give away they've found us," Felix said. "Let's see how interested they are."

"Right. Brigitte, adjust course, three-five-seven mark three-five-nine."

"Right." Brigitte put her hands on the control wheel, opting for manual course correction over inputting it into the thruster systems. The turn and push of the wheel shifted the Shadow Wolf's course three degrees to port and one "downward" on the bow. "Course changed."

"Time to jump?" Piper asked, even though she knew the answer: at least three more hours, given the delicate nature of their drives since the double-jump into Trinidad.

"Pieter's counter shows two hundred minutes," was the reply from Brigitte.

"Right." Piper checked the course and speed of both ships. As things stood, the liner would come closest to them in thirty-three minutes at its current course and speed, being just outside of the engagement range of the plasma cannons. Close enough for missiles, but at that range, our auto-turrets can shoot them down, she thought. "Maybe I'm just being paranoid," she admitted to the others.

"It's not paranoia if you know someone's out to get you," Felix pointed out.

"Right."

Time continued, and the tracks of the ships didn't change. Piper calculated the moment to being near each other over and over, with the time falling below half an hour to a quarter of one. There was no sign of a further course alteration by the other ship.

"Power spike," Felix said, his voice tight and alert.

"They're increasing speed?" Piper's heart went from the solid, strong pounding of before to a more frenetic pace.

"Yes." Felix was intent on his instruments. "Acceleration profile is picking up and… wormhole forming. They're jumping."

Just like that, the tension left the bridge. They were alone in the star system again. Piper let out a breath and urged her heart to slow to a more normal rate. "This sucks," she said.

"Like being back on a war patrol." Felix turned to her and grinned. "I felt like I was back in my days as a TAO on the Epaminondas."

His board beeped.

A chill spread through Piper while Felix's head snapped back around. "Another wormhole signature," he said. "Two hundred thousand kilometers."

That was somewhat close, engagement range, but not "on top of us" close. Piper tapped a button on the command chair that would automatically trigger the liquid crystal display built into the forward wall of the bridge, directing it to show the magnified camera feed from that direction.

The swirling wormhole was still open, and a ship emerged. It was a liner like the other, painted green and blue from the livery of a liner company. Piper identified it tentatively as a Holden-Nagata model like the Shadow Wolf, a larger Mark V passenger liner body.

After a few seconds, a warning flagged in her mind. The profile wasn't quite right. The surface wasn't as smooth as the model was meant to have. The profile was lumpy, ugly, as if things had been bolted to the hull. On the bow, a long two-pronged device that made her think of the jaws of an antlion was starting to point their way.

Piper's eyes widened. "Evasive action! Brigitte, evasive…"

Cerulean lightning crackled from the prongs and crossed the distance. The lightning seemed to fill the screen, lighting up the bridge.

Then it was gone, and the three were plunged into pitch blackness.

Breach of Peace

On the bridge of the repurposed Hathaway Clipper, Commander An Rong Zhung watched through intent eyes as the electromagnetic pulse rippled over the hauler on the converted liner's internal screen. It crackled like lightning as it traveled the length of the ship. The running lights went out, and, at the end, the engines on the target vessel died as well.

At a station beside her, Lieutenant Hakao Saratov looked up. "Target vessel disabled, Commander," he said, his English accented with a hint of an accent from the Russo-Japanese colony world of Toyohara.

"Excellent work," she said. She directed that mostly to the ship's astrogator and helmsman, who'd used the incoming data from the probe they'd left in-system to jump into firing range of the EMP cannon. "Bring us into range. Ready the grapplers."

"Aye aye, ma'am."

Another officer, this one European in look and with a Scandinavian accent, spoke up from beside her. "The Marines are ready to go over at your command, Commander."

"When we're in range," she replied. A small smile came to her. "No need to waste fuel when they can't run."

Breach of Peace

Henry was woken up by the banging on his door. The first sign that something was wrong came when the light didn't come on at his command. The second sign was that he was lying on nothingness. He was half a meter above his bed, in fact, showing that the gravity was down. He immediately reached down and grabbed the surface of the bed, gently pulling to bring himself back into contact with it.

In the dark, he scrambled instinctively for two things: his Danfield-Colt pistol and his commlink, which proved his only source of light. Zero-G training kicked in, and he used a basic kick-off to push himself to his door, where a grip on the side allowed him to prevent himself from floating away. The door didn't respond to his pressing the open key beside it, telling him the ship was suffering a severe power loss. He reached for the automatic release on the door's privacy lock, essentially turning it into a sliding door that a moment's effort moved out of the way. As he'd expected and dreaded, the main corridor of the ship was pitch black as well.

A light shined in his face. He turned to it and saw Felix's face, barely visible at the edge of the light. "It's bad, Jim," he said. Henry could see Felix was gripping the bar along the upper wall of the corridor for zero-G use.

"What happened?"

"A ship jumped two hundred thousand kilometers out. Before we could do anything, it fired some type of EMP gun. The whole ship went dark." Felix's voice was deceptively calm. He knew full well the stakes they were facing.

"That's what the League did to the Kensington Star," Henry said. "Dammit. Do we know what's going on in engineering?"

"Brigitte's heading there now," Felix said. "Piper's getting her gun and she'll send Cera back to the bridge." He took Henry's hand and pressed a flashlight into it. "I'm doing flashlight and softsuit patrol."

"Keep it up. Get everyone armed too." Even as he said that, Henry didn't see what it mattered. Without internal comms, the League could blow its way into any of the airlocks, or even breach through the hull, and they wouldn't know where until they heard the blast. Holding the ship against League Marines would be the fight of their lives in ordinary circumstances. Doing it like this, with no communication across the ship, was a hopeless cause.

No. Don't let the fear take you, Henry admonished himself even as he made his way to his office. Make them earn it. The layout there was so familiar to him, he didn't need the flashlight to get the family rifle from the wall. He checked it and was relieved to see the EMP, whatever it was, hadn't disabled the rifle. The same was true for his pistol, which he slipped into the holster on his hip, thankful that he'd lain down dressed and ready.

Once back in the corridor, he nearly bumped into Cera as she glided by him. She squinted as the beam of his flashlight played over her face. "Ah, Cap'n, please don't blind me. I'm awake, for Christ's sake."

"Sorry." He lowered it. "Didn't see you coming."

"Aye, that's the problem, isn't it?" With her lilt going full force, "isn't it" sounded like "iddinit." "If Pieter an' th' new girl can get power back, I'll be ready t' burn everythin' we've got."

"Good." He pulled himself to the side and let her head to the bridge. With flashlight in hand, he journeyed down the hall. Moving through zero-G was always tricky. It was something you had to train for, adapt to. Henry mused that the earliest generations of space-going humans would have laughed at him over needing to deliberately think through the movements they could do in their sleep.

The next figure to cross his flashlight beam was Miri as she pulled herself from her quarters. "It's them," she said.

"Yeah."

Miri nodded. "I'd offer myself, but… they'll take all of you anyway. They probably have a camp ready."

"We're not going," Henry said, his tone grim.

"Right." She nodded. "Better to die fighting. Although I'm going to die anyway."

Henry almost told her that might not happen, but he needed to get to engineering. He heard Miri fall in behind him for the rest of the trip. Inside engineering, only a couple of light beams were visible, both at a supply locker. "Pieter, Samina?"

"We're here," Samina replied. Henry heard a familiar shakiness in her voice and realized she had it coming from both directions; this was her first time facing such a crisis as a full crew member of any ship, but she'd seen her family's ship wrecked by pirates as a younger girl. "Just… just trying to figure out what happened."

"It's a weapon," Miri said from behind Henry. "They used it on the Kensington Star. We lost all systems; they only got the lights working again after they took our ship."

"It was an EMP burst. It overloaded all of our active electronics, blew some of the fuses." Pieter's accent was thickening again, his usual sign of stress. "I've got replacements for vital systems, but we'll need to land."

"We've got what's probably a League-held ship two hundred thousand klicks away," Henry said. "How long until we've got thrust and the Lawrence drive up?"

"Shit," Pieter cursed. "The Lawrence drive will take half an hour to get going, and that's after I spend an hour getting the fuses replaced and the fusion cores going again."

"We could bring the emergency batteries online," Samina suggested.

"It's not going to do any good with the fuses burnt out from the EMP," Pieter said.

Henry was already considering how much time they had left. Two hundred thousand kilometers was not a lot of space to cover when you had a modern sublight drive. Even if the League ship wasn't burning hard to conserve fuel, the Shadow Wolf didn't have long before they were taken. "We need power back. We need to get moving."

"I bloody know that!" Pieter shouted back, frustration ringing in every syllable, particularly the drawn out "oo" in bloody. "But I've got to visually inspect—"

"Wait!" Samina's eyes widened. "Mister Hertzog, what about the fusion drive?"

He gave her an exasperated look. "What about it…" Now his eyes widened. "Oh! Yes!"

Henry felt a brief surge of hope at the looks on their faces. "What about the fusion drive?"

"She was shut down when the EMP hit!" Pieter exclaimed. "There shouldn't be any damage, not at all! Just need to fire her up, she'll get us electricity and thrust!"

"Enough to jump?" Miri asked.

"It may take a while for the drive to charge the Lawrence drive to full power," Samina said. "But it should give us time to get the main systems back online. It'll even give us lights and maybe gravity!"

"Tricky thing is I still need to replace a couple of fuses and modify the systems to accept power from the fusion drive reactor," Pieter said. "Brigitte can handle fitting the new power cords, but I've got to do the fuses and run the line." He looked to Samina. "You've worked the drive system before, right?"

"I helped with some of the installations, yes," Samina replied.

"Good!" Pieter scrambled across the dark engineering bay with little heed to the conditions. Moments later, the sound of metal hammering metal came from that direction, immediately joined by a loud curse in Afrikaans, all while Pieter's flashlight bobbed around. They followed more cautiously while he opened a storage locker and pulled out a long cylinder of yellow color with a contact end. "Here, a portable battery. It should be enough to power the deuterium and helium-3 tanks."

Samina nodded. "The reactor has the start-up emergency battery, right?"

"Of course it does," Pieter scoffed. "Chief Khánh's no fool."

"I just wanted to make sure!" Samina adjusted her jumpsuit and fitted the flashlight to a loop on her shoulder. Ordinarily, the battery would be a heavy burden for her, but in zero-G, it was light as a feather.

"You! Miri or whatever your name is!" Pieter's flashlight focused on Miri. "You're a spacer now, right?"

"I am," she confirmed.

"Then get over here and help me," he said. "Or do you want the League to throw you out an airlock?"

Miri smiled wanly at that before nodding in acknowledgment. "I do not. I'm at your disposal, Engineer Hartzog."

Henry left Pieter and Miri to the job in engineering so he could follow Samina. She knew her way around the ship well enough that she quickly found the stairs leading to the lower deck. He followed and marveled at her speed in zero-G. It occurred to him that her work on Trinidad Station undoubtedly included repairs in the zero-G bays of the station's arms.

Yanik was already downstairs but said nothing as Samina floated past, already huffing with exertion from her rapid maneuvering. "An emergency battery," he noted. His plasma gun, which was more of a heavy assault weapon by human standards, was in the Saurian's arms, and his tail was hooked around the nearest bar. "There is a plan?"

"There is. Let's hope we have time to complete it."

"A little help?" Samina called out.

The two men followed her voice to the hatch for the port stern hold. Samina was straining to open the door. "I already hit the emergency release, but there's something wrong," she said, her fingers trying to find purchase.

"Wouldn't be the first time one of those things broke down," noted Henry. He and Yanik each took a side of the sliding door and pulled. It finally started to separate.

A whistle filled the air. Samina yelped and pulled away from the door. "Vacuum!" she shouted. "There's vacuum in there!"

Henry nodded at that. "It's intended. But with life support not working, the atmosphere in the rest of the ship should fill it." He had to speak louder to get over the growing whistle.

Seconds passed. The whistle didn't go away.

"This seems wrong, Captain," Yanik remarked. "The vacuum should already be weakening."

Yanik's point was a good one. Could they have missed damage back on Trinidad? If the stern holds were exposed to space, they couldn't get the fusion engine going in time.

A fierce look crossed Samina's face. She set the battery down. "I'll be right back," she said before she kicked off the door and headed in another direction.

Henry nodded. As she ran off, he glanced at Yanik. "Pretty enthusiastic, isn't she?"

"I would be concerned if she were not, given our predicament," Yanik replied.

Breach of Peace

The brave face Samina used when leaving Henry and Yanik vanished quickly. Fear seeped in to replace any bravado she'd felt. It was almost like God was mocking her for leaving Trinidad Station by threatening to throw her into the clutches of the people who stole the homeworld she barely remembered. The deep shadows of the powerless ship around her reinforced this terrible feeling by the way it struck at the most primordial fears in Human instinct. Despite everything, a part of her felt like a monster was going to jump out of the dark at any moment.

"Take care of them." "Spacers look after their own." The words of Chief Khánh and her Uncle Ali inspired her to fight off that fear. Her new crew needed her to act, and act quickly.

Samina's mind dwelled on the task she had in mind. She was used to moving through spaceships, even in zero-G, and she'd been in a Holden-Nagata model ship before. Whatever changes there were between various models, and their sizes, the company tended to have a standard practice for certain things. The location of power output jackets, ladders, stairways, even down to how the hatches worked and, of course, the vacuum suit lockers.

Thanks to the tours of the ship she'd taken between repair shifts, Samina knew where the nearest locker was. It was a journey of a minute to get to it. The design made it easy to open despite no power. Inside were three softsuits and one hardsuit, all of blue coloring. Since she wasn't going EVA and wouldn't be exposed to radiation, she went for one of the soft suits. It unfolded quickly enough in the zero-G. First she inserted her legs into the suit's bottom half, one after the other. For a brief moment, her right foot caught at the end. The impulse to keep pushing until she pushed her foot through came and went, since that would only delay her. She forced herself to pull her leg back up a little, allowing her to shift her foot just enough to slip through into the magboot at the end. Afterward, she reached out and hooked her feet to the bar along the wall, effectively standing "sidewise" in the corridor. Now that her legs were in the suit, the rest was more straightforward. She removed her tool belt and pulled the suit over her arms. The last step was to move the zippers on the neck and chest to seal the softsuit.

Now that the suit was sealed, she reached down to the attached portable life support unit and turned it on. The plastic faceplate had a digital display surface built into it, bringing up the air quantity remaining to her in the corner. The suit had a full set of breathable air, enough to last her a few hours if needed.

This work done, she quickly retrieved her floating toolbelt, put it on her waist, and fitted the other tools into pockets on the softsuit. With this step completed, she unhooked her feet from the bar and placed them against the floor of the corridor. A tap of a button on the chest control module activated the magboots. There was a soft thunk as they came on and fixed her feet to the floor with a weak magnetic field.

The advantage of the soft suit, besides the ease of putting it on, was that it didn't impede her mobility in any way and enabled her magboots to let her run in a zero-G environment. She ran through the weightless ship back to the stern hold entrance, where Yanik and Henry were waiting to open the door. "I'm ready,” she said, her voice resolute and sure.

The two men pulled the door open again. Then the whistling sound came. There was a breach in the hull somewhere, and the longer the hold remained open, the more the ship’s remaining atmosphere would be lost. The moment the door was open enough, Samina squeezed through. The pull she felt through the thin, receding atmosphere of the hold told her the breach was likely along the upper sections just below the upper deck. After giving that a moment’s thought, she turned to bring the battery through. Instead, she found it already moving toward her, Yanik's tail wrapped around it. The tail uncoiled once it was partway through the door, allowing her to take hold of it and pull it through.

"Good luck!" Henry called out before he and the big Saurian shut the door again. The whistling stopped, as did the slight pull. She was alone in the vacuum of the stern hold.

The holds all had connecting passageways to each other, so the two stern holds were linked normally by a corridor. Khánh's rebuild of the ship for the fusion drive system led her to expand them, turning it into the location of the housing for the fusion drive's reactor. Each hold had one of the two fuel tanks, with the machinery to pump the reactant material into the drive to be used. This was the starboard stern hold, so it had the helium-3 tank. The port stern hold held the deuterium tank.

For a moment, Samina thought it showed brilliance on her mentor's part. This mixture of reactants didn't require the sheer heat that a pure helium-3 reactor would need, and the radiation byproduct was relatively less than other, dirtier mixtures. Radiation-resistant materials and filters would make up for what radiation was produced.

No time for geeking out about how awesome Chief Khánh is. Get this job done! Or you'll never see Uncle Ali again!

Breach of Peace

Outside of the hold, Henry waited by himself. He'd sent Yanik to retrieve softsuits for the both of them. With life support down and some of the remaining oxygen lost from opening the hold, they needed a fresh supply of air.

To his surprise, his commlink lit up. It was Tia's device, calling him. He answered, "How is this working?"

"Piper set my unit up to use its own transceiver system," Tia explained. "It'll drain the battery fast, but for now, I can reach any commlink on the ship. What's our status?"

"Samina's trying to get the fusion drive going. Have Cera on standby."

"What about the inertial compensators?"

"The drive reactor can power some of our systems. We'll give compensators top priority, along with control systems. Everything else is gravy."

"Roger that. I'm up here at manual astrogation. Nothing so far. I've sent the others to the stern astrogation module and the gun turrets. They can call me with updates."

"Keep me informed." Henry shut down the call to preserve Tia's battery. I'm down here with Samina and Yanik. Pieter's got Miri and Brigitte helping him. Tia, Cera, and Piper up front. That leaves Felix, Vidia, and Oskar to be lookouts. If they board, we'll be too scattered to fight back. He pondered what to do next. They may not even board. We've got no power, and they think we're helpless. They could just tractor us along.

He shook his head. Either way, they needed their systems back. Henry resisted the urge to call for Samina to hurry up, even as he mentally counted the seconds down to the likely intercept.

Breach of Peace

On the Hathaway Clipper, Commander Zhung noted the distance drop below a hundred thousand kilometers. Soon they'd be in range for the shuttles to burn ahead and seize the vessel. Her orders in that regard were strict and straight from Admiral Hartford: take control of the Shadow Wolf as quickly as possible, separate Miri Gaon from the crew, and only then take the ship under tow for return to Pluto Base.

"The deployment is proceeding well," her First Officer, Lieutenant Commander Deveaux, noted. "It looks good for our intended operations, doesn't it?"

"It does," she responded. "I look forward to the end of the war."

"I've put in my fifteen years for when peacetime begins," Deveaux said. "I'm looking forward to returning to Jauresbourg to see my wife and daughter."

"How are they?"

"Well enough," Deveaux said. "The SRDB cut the weekly ration by ten percent due to the famine on Gomulka. But they're still healthy."

"Once the war is over, the fleet can redeploy," Zhung noted. "We can demobilize soldiers and crew and deal with the resource shortfalls more easily. The ration cuts will finally end."

Deveaux nodded and remained silent.

Not that Zhung expected him to give an opinion on what would happen. Sometimes she wondered if the SRDB would follow through on the promises of the Social and Public Safety Committee in terms of the war, that after the defeat of the Coalition and their restoration to Society, the resource shortfalls would be over. There would be no more need for further sacrifices, and all would enjoy the fruits of social plenty. But there are always the other threats. The Kelltan and the Oroj are on our borders too. There are rumors about the Jalm'tar Empire to Spinward. Will victory bring us peace? As Deveaux looked to her, Zhung forced the thoughts from her mind and kept her expression straight. Such skepticism had the tinge of anti-social sentiment, and she'd come too far in her career to let any thoughts hold her back.

"Time to target?" she asked aloud, looking for work to clear her mind.

"We're entering the requested shuttle intercept range, tractor range in ten."

"Excellent." She shifted in her chair and waited to bring this operation to its proper conclusion. "Launch the Marines."


34

The empty void was the only thing Tia could see out of manual astrogation. For her, the hardest thing was to keep looking at it. Staring into pitch-black nothingness when her ship was reduced to the same was getting on her nerves. An automatic part of her brain wanted to panic at the entire experience. She fought to keep everything on an even keel down.

She wanted to be angry with Jim for this. For putting them all on the line to save Felix's suicidally-faithful brother from Caetano. But every time the sentiment started to build, she thought of the comrades she'd left behind on Hestia and their horrible fates. She thought of what she wished she could have done to save them from public degradation, the beatings, and humiliations, as well as the deaths of many of them. When she considered it, she found she couldn't blame Jim.

It helped it was easy to blame both their predicament and those memories on the same target—the League of Sol.

Her commlink beeped from an incoming message. As she hit the key to accept, she noted the battery life was down to seventy percent already. At this rate, she'd lose power in an hour, maybe an hour and a half. Having the commlink run its own network was too draining. Once her finger touched the key, she spoke, "Tia here."

"Tia, I think I see something." The voice was Oskar's. He was at the stern astrogation station. "I'm using my microscope back here, and it looks like a ion drive trail."

"From what direction?"

"Front. They're heading right towards us."

Of course they are. "Okay, keep me—"

"Wait. I'm seeing something… it's not easy to make out, but I think it's smaller drive flares. Like fireflies around a lamp."

"Keep me informed." Tia cut the line and called Henry. "If Oskar's right, Jim, they've launched shuttles."

"Damn," he replied. "Spread the word."

"Right." Tia cut the line to do so and felt for her pulse pistol. She knew the League would do to her what it tried to do to Brigitte, what it'd done to Miri, and it'd be no different than what her comrades suffered after their defeat. She resolved she wasn't going to go through that. The last charge is for me, she vowed.

Breach of Peace

Samina's commlink lit up as she worked. "Kid, they're coming. Shuttles," Tia said. "How's the work going?"

"It's coming along," Samina answered. She knelt at the battery, tying the backup power cables on the helium-3 tank's pumping system into one of the four output jacks on the battery. She made sure to secure it with a wrench, tightening the connector into place.

She moved into the other hold now and found the big, boxy tank for the deuterium. It was nearly a mirror of the helium-3 tank, including the same pumping system and the same power cables. She grabbed them and ran them back to the battery, her softsuit's magboots going thunk thunk thunk on the hold's metal floor. The beam from her flashlight, still shifting around on her shoulder, gradually showed the battery ahead.

A sudden sharp yank kept her from continuing. She looked back and tried to pull harder, but nothing gave. Exasperated, she followed the cables back to their source, thunk thunk thunk—and immediately recognized her problem.

The cables were shorter than the ones on the helium-3 pump. They wouldn't be able to reach the battery.

Well aware they were running low on time, Samina rushed back to the battery and started pulling it closer to the deuterium tank. After several seconds, the cables to the helium-3 pump grew taut. They were at their limit. She retrieved the other wires and found that they were, again, half a meter short.

"Improvise," she muttered to herself, thinking of her work as a fetch tech. Dockworkers, repair engineers, they faced this all the time. There were ways to deal with it. She'd have to find a way to lengthen these cables. Replace them? No, they're built into the pumps. It'd be a major job. What about a second battery? Is there one that can run these? Or will Pieter need them to bring some of the other systems online? Think, think, what should I

"Give me an update, kid," Tia's voice broke through.

"I'm having an issue," Samina admitted. "The backup power cabling for the deuterium tanks isn't long enough to plug it into the battery. I either need another battery or another way to get power to the deuterium."

"Make it work, Samina, because they're burning in. We'll have League Marines aboard in a few minutes."

"Right." She drew in a breath in a failed attempt to steady her pounding heart. The helium-3 could fuse by itself… no, the reactor vessel's not built to take that kind of heat. C'mon, Samina, think how would you do this back on the station. The cable's not long enough.

"So make a longer one," she said aloud.

Breach of Peace

Oskar's warning of the first shuttle approaching the port midship airlock brought Yanik running. He stood in the darkness and ignored the discomfort of the limited mobility his tail had from the limitations of the softsuit he was in. His weapon was presented to the airlock and held steady, waiting for what might come in. To keep the boarders from realizing he had a gun sighted on them, his tactical flashlight was shut off. He wouldn't need it anyway, he reasoned. He'd smell the invaders when they came, and hear their armor clink against the hull. Visual senses were a human fixation his people didn't share.

There were times Yanik thought the universe ran on divine humor. God had an affection for irony, certainly. By dodging the draft for reasons of conscious, he led a life that was far more dangerous and violent than he'd have seen had he decided not to follow his principles. It was as if God was mocking the idea of Yanik's critics back on Sauria, that only cowards refused the military service all Saurians were called to perform.

A sense of near-euphoria came over Yanik as he waited for the coming attack. It was the physiological response of a Saurian body to the stress of imminent or active combat, to help with their natural predatory instinct. Humans were exhaustion hunters by practice, meant for outlasting their prey. Saurians were built to do the exact opposite, overwhelming their victim’s at the commencement of the contest. Having the brain active and ready for the action was a boon he had over others.

A thunking sound emanated from the airlock, the same one that just a couple weeks before was used by the League inspectors at New Hathwell. Now Leaguer Marines were coming through, and not to inspect lithium.

The airlock door slid open, and Yanik fired without warning. Yellow pulses shot through the dark corridors and into the airlock. The Leaguer in the door went down immediately. Those behind cried out and sought cover. Yanik lowered his rifle and squeezed the trigger again, bringing more cries. The enemy soldiers took cover inside their shuttle.

Bullets shot back at him, precise fire from chemical-propellant firearms, the preference of several militaries for ease of logistics, and use. Yanik's softsuit offered no protection from the wounds, which poked holes in it. Some struck at his body, tearing flesh and drawing blood. He ignored the pain, and the growing heat in his weapon, and kept firing. It was necessary to buy time, since without the impediment, the Leaguers in the enemy shuttle could easily overwhelm everyone.

Granted, it would be for nothing if other shuttles managed to latch to the other airlocks, or if they failed to get out of there.

Breach of Peace

"Their first shuttle's already here, Khan, and another one's getting close. Get moving!"

The warning from Tia rang in Samina's ears as her tool squeezed into place the clamp connecting the extended power cable to its connector. She immediately pulled it over enough to fit to the battery. The connector slid into place just as it was meant to.

She immediately got to work on the other cable. Her cutter severed the end of the wire just below the connector port. She took the extension she'd set aside and pressed it against the open, coiled wiring within. While one hand held the pieces in place, she fitted another clamp around it, one that would push the wiring together and complete the circuit. The clamp fitter came on next, and even with zero-G, she put a lot of elbow grease into it to ensure it was secure.

Once she was certain the connection would hold, she repeated the action to put the connector back on the now-lengthened cable. Her hands felt as if they were cramping given the effort she was forcing from them to squeeze the clamp into place. She ignored the pain. This has to work. Allah, please let this work.

The clamp would not close any tighter. Samina pushed the connector into the battery. She got to her feet and ran—thunk thunk thunk—to the nearby manual control for the fusion drive's reactor. The emergency lever she found would trigger the backup starter battery to life. If she did it right, the reactor hardware would order the fuel tank pumps to start, the battery would power them in doing so, and the helium-3 and deuterium would enter the reactor vessel and start fusing.

If she did it wrong, none of this would happen, and the startup battery's charge might grow too low to be used again.

"Inshallah," she breathed quietly before pulling the lever.

For a moment, there was nothing, and with it, the terror of having failed.

Then, machinery came to life, a low thrum filling the holds. The nearby monitor on the fusion drive reactor came to life, showing readouts from the reactor itself. The fuel entered, and the fusion process was already underway. Plasma byproduct fed into the thrust system, and the resulting energy was flowing into the rest of the ship.

Samina laughed in excitement. She'd done it! Chief Khánh would be so proud.

Then the G-force slammed into her and knocked her into the reactor housing, hard. Pain shot through her ribs and belly. She let out a cry of pain and struggled to push herself away, with little success.

Despite it all, she was still smiling.

Breach of Peace

Light poured through the dark bridge as the control displays lit up. Cera noted the fusion drive was already on and triggered the release on the outlet for the plasma. "We're burnin' out of here!" she crowed.

Tia and Piper had just enough time to steady themselves before the G-forces hit, the Shadow Wolf's secret drive now alive and pushing them at high burn away from the incoming League ship. "Well done, kid," Tia murmured to herself while she felt her bones start to turn into jelly.

"2.5Gs and climbing!" Piper noted. "The inertial compensators don't have full power!"

"Doesn't matter! Cera, burn us until you're about to black out, then throttle back!"

"Aye, ma'am!" Cera shouted. From experience, she knew her G tolerances were higher than the others. Odds were she'd be the last one conscious.

Breach of Peace

The sudden G-forces arrived, just as Yanik's gun stopped firing. The timing was perfect for him, even as it drove him into the wall.

Because it did the same to the League boarding team.

One moment they were trying to return fire from the airlock they were pinned within, the next they were being hit by over 2Gs of acceleration. The sudden shock left them debilitated for a crucial moment.

Breach of Peace

From his place in the upper port gun turret, Vidia was in the best place to take the sudden G-forces, as the turret seat was built with crash couch functionality. It was still a wrenching experience, and it took him a couple of seconds to recover himself.

A couple of seconds in which power flowed into the gun turret.

The indicators told him the weapon wasn't at full power. The shots would only be at twenty percent standard power, far too low to penetrate a starfighter's deflectors.

But more than enough to blow up an unshielded shuttle.

Vidia used the controls to turn the ball turret to face the shuttle. He prayed silently for forgiveness from God for the lives he was about to snuff out before his finger tensed on the trigger. The sapphire pulses, weaker than usual, zipped across the handful of meters and ripped through the League ship without mercy. The shuttle didn't explode so much as fall apart, all but a small piece of it still moored to the airlock.

God save your poor souls.

Breach of Peace

The destruction of the shuttle did nothing to harm Yanik. The sudden exposure of the deck to vacuum, however, led to the usual problem such posed to a ship with an internal atmosphere: violent decompression. A sudden force gripped him and ripped him from the bar he was holding. The same pulled the League boarders, living and dead, through the airlock and into space.

Yanik had only a couple seconds to react. Instead of fighting the pull, he let it bring him to the airlock door. At the last moment, his tail, defying the limitations of the suit he was in, whipped out and wrapped around the nearby zero-G guidebar. It was a painful experience to say the least, such that he expected to find out he'd dislocated his tail. But it saved him from being sucked into space, and his grip on his favored weapon kept it from being lost to the void.

With one arm holding the cannon, the other lashed out toward the airlock controls. Yanik's hand smashed against the panel with such force, he worried he'd broken it.

There was a bit of a whining whirr, the inner airlock door slid closed. The vacuum ceased to pull on him, and Yanik was able to find his footing.

His tail still hurt, though.

Breach of Peace

The moment the rear engines of the Shadow Wolf lit up, Commander Zhung knew something was not going according to plan. She barely had enough time to ask for a report before the flashes of light led to the clear loss of the first boarding shuttle to make it.

The second, just twenty or so seconds away from latching on to the starboard side when this began, suddenly found itself burning toward the rear of the cargo ship. The pilot adjusted, confused, and more concerned with avoiding a collision, but it meant nothing, as the sudden acceleration of the Shadow Wolf meant it was soon pulling away from the shuttle.

"Shuttle Alpha destroyed," Saratov reported. "There's decompression; it's pulled out some of our people."

"Task Shuttle Beta to pick them up," Zhung ordered. "Engines to full burn! Tactical, fire the EMP gun again!"

"Charging for another shot!"

Deveaux's expression was grim. "Their drives are too fast. We'd need someone from Zervakos' squadron to catch up to them."

"We won't need that if we disable them again. Their second drive will go down this time. Saratov, as soon as you can…"

"Firing in ten seconds!" he promised.

"You may hit our shuttles," Deveaux warned. "If they collide with each other in their formation, even with their engines dead…"

"...then we will remember their sacrifices in the name of Society," Zhung answered coldly. She would not be diverted from the foe Admiral Hartford sent her to take. "Fire when ready!"

Breach of Peace

Pieter was ready when the fusion drive reactor came to life. He had everything set up to restore power to the control systems, communications, maneuvering thrusters, sensors, and the ship's lighting, as well as what power could be spared for the inertial compensators and, given the enemy shuttle hooked to the ship, the anti-fighter guns.

He also reserved quite a bit of power to help kick-start the fusion reactions in the main cores, and most importantly, enough to bring the deflectors online. Since this meant inferior performance in the inertial compensators, he was already braced for the G-forces that resulted from the fusion drive's operation.

Brigitte, also forewarned, clung on to one of the bars for zero-G movement. "The fuse replacement on the deflectors is good!" she shouted.

From her place, Miri glanced up. The G-forces were effectively pinning her against the Lawrence drive. Of the three, she was in the least comfortable position. "I'm not done here yet," she admitted.

"I didn't expect you to be." Despite the intense G-forces, Pieter managed to trigger his commlink. Given the situation, however, he missed the direct line key and hit the open call one, effectively transmitting to everyone on the ship. "Bridge, we have deflector power if we need it!"

"Understood!"

"And we'll need it," Oskar said. "It looks like they're charging a weapon for another shot."

Breach of Peace

Tia heard that. "Cera, evasive maneuvers! Piper, deflectors!"

"Aye!" both women shouted.

They both went to work, and not a moment too soon, as a crackling burst of electromagnetic energy erupted from their foe and raced across the void for the Shadow Wolf.


35

The electromagnetic pulse crackled through space like a deadly bolt of lightning. And it was deadly, in its own way, deadly to electronics and power systems.

Such was what the League shuttles between the Hathaway Clipper and the Shadow Wolf learned. The pulse rippled through all but one of them and, like that, they were helplessly crippled, dead engines and lights, their crews unable to even call for help as they moved on through the void from the speed they'd already attained.

The pulse played over the Shadow Wolf's stern as it maneuvered "downward" relative to the shot, and was held back by the blue tinge of a deflector shield.

On the bridge of her stolen ship, Commander Zhung watched, heart plunging into her stomach, as the powerful drives of the independent ship continued to burn and gradually increase the distance from her vessel. She snarled in fury. "Fire again!"

"Fifteen seconds until recharge complete," Saratov said, his tone apologetic. "The device wasn't made for rapid firing—"

"Then fire when it is ready!" she demanded, her heart pounding now. Success in the mission was so close, so close, and these damned individualist spacers were not going to get away from her!

Breach of Peace

For a moment, Tia was afraid they were doomed, as the lights dimmed and the controls blipped on and off. Then the effect dissipated, and everything seemed to be working.

"It looks like the deflectors absorbed it," Piper said. ”I think we took a glancing blow."

Tia swallowed. "So, if it's a direct hit…?"

Piper shook her head. "I don't think the deflectors will stop it. They're not getting enough power for full effectiveness."

"Right. Cera…"

"Ye don't need t' ask, Tia," Cera said. "I'll give th' sassenachs a fancy show, let 'em try t' hit us."

Tia nodded and settled into the chair. The ship was moving, but they still needed to get away before the Leaguers called for help.

After another ten seconds, Piper cried out, "They're firing again!"

Cera said nothing. Her hands as they manipulated the controls did all of the necessary talking for her. This time, there wasn't even a flicker. "Ha!" Cera shouted, her tone defiant. "Gettin' soft, Leaguers, shootin' up innocent spacers is nae as fun when they've got a fusion drive!"

"How long until we're out of that thing's range?" Tia asked, her voice strained.

Piper didn't dare turn her head from her screen for fear of never getting it back into position. "Going by relative acceleration rates and current distant, I'd say another minute at least. At their firing rate, they'll get at least three more shots at us, maybe four."

Henry's voice boomed over the commlink. "Status?"

"They're shooting their EMP weapon at us, but the deflectors managed to absorb a glancing hit." Tia shook her head. "We're dead if they get a direct hit."

"Then let's make sure they don't. What about the boarders?"

"Vidia took care of their shuttle," Piper said. "And Yanik's sealed the airlock. I'm still showing what's left of their shuttle attached to us. The extra mass is negligible."

"We'll clear it later."

Pieter's voice cut in a moment later. "Just to remind you ladies, I can't resume working on things until you bring the damn G-forces back down to something reasonable!"

"We're still trying to get out of their range. Stand by."

"Incoming!"

The next shot missed as well, much to Tia's relief. Three more to go…

Breach of Peace

Zhung watched the distance to the Shadow Wolf grow and felt deep, yawning despair in her. Battle after battle with the Coalition, and she'd come out alive through determination and adherence to proper Social discipline. She'd earned her place in this operation. But she could lose it all if she had to report failure like this to Admiral Hartford. "I want full power on the drives!" she shouted.

"We're already at a hundred percent," Deveaux said.

"Then make it more!"

"It may not be possible. These civilian models…"

Zhung ignored him and keyed her intercom. "Attention engineering, I want the drives pushed past one hundred percent. Do whatever you must. Anything less is a failure of social discipline and will be punished accordingly!"

Saratov fired again several seconds later. This shot came closer than the others, again grazing the civilian hauler's deflectors, but to no avail.

"Drives up to one hundred five percent. One hundred ten percent." Lieutenant Lewis shook his head. "Commander, they're still out-accelerating us."

Zhung cursed the day the Coalition came up with the damn fusion drive. "Lieutenant Saratov, hit them."

"I'm doing my best, but their pilot is quite skilled," Saratov protested.

When he fired again, the shot was a near-hit, not quite managing to touch the other ship's deflectors. "I calculate that we only have a chance for two more shots before they are out of effective range," Saratov said.

With cold fury in her voice, Zhung said, "Lieutenant, if you miss, I will have you arrested as a saboteur and denounced to the Security Directorate, do you understand?"

Saratov nodded grimly. Zhung's threat didn't just mean his execution, but the forced separation and re-socialization of his family—parents, siblings, spouse, children—under the logic that he tainted them with anti-Social attitudes.

"Commander, I've contacted Captain Zervakos," said Deveaux. "A vessel is going to jump to our position, ETA five minutes. We're ordered to maintain contact."

Zhung nodded quietly at that. She watched in utter frustration as another shot crossed the distance and completely missed, this time due to the last-minute maneuver by the Shadow Wolf that pulled away from the shot's track.

"They're approaching maximum effective range on the EMP cannon," Lewis warned. "Engines are holding at one hundred twenty percent, but we're not gaining."

In the following seconds, An Rong Zhung existed in a state of hope and fear that came from knowing her future was entirely out of her hands. There was nothing she could do to influence the outcome in her favor. No trick left, no scheme, no idea. Saratov would either hit or he would miss. That would be that for her. Her career would be saved, or she would be ruined. Years of effort, lost, without any hope of recovery.

She was utterly, completely helpless, and like all people in her position, she watched and hoped for the best.

"Shooting!"

Saratov triggered the weapon. The device triggered the EMP burst. For Zhung, time seemed to slow to a crawl, enough for her to make out the subtle waves of the EMP pulse as it raced across the distance near to the speed of light. The Shadow Wolf seemed to bank on the screen, pulling away to starboard as the shoot looked to spear it right across the center.

There was an impact. Blue light flared. Hope filled Zhung in that split second, hope that the pulse struck strongly enough to overwhelm the deflectors of the other ship, to cripple it again, to make this entire effort worthwhile. Her eyes focused on the drives of the other ship, and she watched in growing horror as they didn't die out.

Several seconds of silence passed. Saratov shook his head. "Commander, I'm sorry. The target just moved beyond two hundred and fifty thousand kilometers. They're no longer in effective range."

Zhung said nothing. She quietly slumped into her chair, knowing it was lost. Even if Zervakos' frigate made the intercept, she would be considered a failure. Slowly, quietly, she started to laugh at it all. Her mind buckled and failed under the knowledge that all of her work could be lost due to the fortune of others. That she had no control over her fate, no matter how hard she fought, no matter how well she did. Decades of selfless service to Society for nothing. She would be dismissed as a failure and possible saboteur merely on the grounds of one failure. That was what it was like when you lacked the connections to protect you from failure.

Her laughter grew until it was, by the standards of others, crazed. She would continue to laugh for some time afterward, in fact, even after Deveaux had her forcefully taken to the brig.

Breach of Peace

"They've stopped firing," Piper said when twenty seconds passed since the last shot. "I guess we're out of range."

"Cera, reduce burn until we're at 1.5Gs," Tia said. Cera obeyed immediately, and the strain on everyone died down. "Engineering, do what you can. Get the Lawrence drive back up immediately."

"Doing so now."

Henry came over the comms. "Everything's all right down here, although, Oskar, you'll need to look over our new Engineer's Mate. I'm betting she's got some bruises from those Gs."

"As soon as I can, Captain," Oskar promised.

Over the next few minutes, silence reigned. It was good, as silence was needed to settle their thoughts and nerves. Even compared to the Tash'vakal, this was a close call to beat all close calls. We can't keep living like this, Tia pondered between button presses. Nobody can. It's too much fear. It reminded her of being young and living as a revolutionary on Hestia, one eligible for arrest and forced labor just for having a party card. Half of the joy for the revolution, when it was attempted, was doing something concrete about that fear. It was a harsh lesson in how fears aren't always deceptions but a healthy understanding of the risks in a situation.

Piper looked up from her board. "Wormhole, we've got a wormhole forming, seventy-five thousand kilometers zero-seven-seven mark positive two-zero-four.”

Great, more bad news. Tia gripped the chair arms and asked, "Do we have ID?"

"One moment." As Piper examined her station, Tia could already imagine the answer. A League warship, fast enough to chase them down and catch them for they could jump out. All of that tension and work for nothing.

"It looks like a modified destroyer, combat-capable, definitely not regular military or League," Piper said. "We're getting an incoming signal."

"Put them on."

The voice that spoke was thickly accented. "Vessel Shadow Wolf, I am Piotr Sergeevich Tokarev of the Morozova. You are carrying a woman who called herself Karla Lupa. You will hand her over to us."

Tia recognized the name. Pirates, as if the situation wasn't already bad enough. "Why?" she asked.

"Because she is an agent of the League who framed us!" came the aggrieved reply. "We've been looking for her for days to find out more about her masters' plot! Now turn her over, or we will come and take her!"


36

At first, Deveaux thought the other arriving wormhole was the incoming League destroyer, and he felt relief. It was only when he realized the form on his viewer was a non-League ship that he reacted. "Send to the squadron, cancel jump!" he shouted. This is a disaster. If a local vessel sees a League warship in the Trifid systems and reports it, the entire operation could be endangered!

"Sending signal." The officer shook his head and looked up. "Sir, I'm not getting—"

"Second wormhole forming," Saratov said. "It's the Peltast."

Deveaux could already imagine Hartford's heated reaction to this disaster. If word of a League Cobra-class destroyer moving around the area of Lusitania got out, it could jeopardize everything. "Warn them to eliminate all ships," he barked. "And maintain thrust; we must help where we can!"

Breach of Peace

At this point, Tia didn't dare think about how the day could get worse, given what it'd already brought. The holotank plot showed the arrival of the League ship in glaring detail. Just a hundred and fifty thousand kilometers, bearing two-two-four mark positive two-zero-zero. Piper was quick to identify it. "Destroyer, Cobra-class, going by the silhouette," she said, nervousness in her voice. Even without their ship still being two-thirds disabled by the EMP weapon, a destroyer would blow them out of space unless they got really lucky with their main cannon. It was the kind of luck they weren't enjoying. "They're hailing."

"This is Captain Giammalva of the Peltast," a man with a broadly Italian accent said. "Vessel Shadow Wolf, you are ordered to surrender immediately and prepare to be boarded."

This time, Tia had a ready response. "Bite me, Leaguer scum," she spat defiantly. She nodded to Piper, who cut the call from the Peltast. Her communication with the Morozova was still open. "Captain Tokarev, are you still there?"

"Do you think this song and dance will trick us, Hestian?" was the skeptical reply. "You pretend to be opposed to League, but we are not fooled! Karla Lupa is League agent, sent to trick authorities into blaming us for ship disappearances!"

Tia sighed. "Right now, I wish I'd never heard that name in my life," she admitted, with full honesty. "But they're really after her, and have been since Harron. If you hate the League as much as the rumors say, well," She smiled thinly. "Then you might hate them as much as I do. That means we're on the same side."

After a moment of no response, Piper shook her head. "They cut the signal. From the look of things, the Morozova is moving to intercept the Peltast."

"They're the bigger threat," Tia noted. "Knowing their rep, they might even take them."

"Assuming they're not hit by th' EMP weapon," Cera pointed out.

"Either way, Cera, prepare for evasive maneuvers, and get ready to go as high as you can on the drives again," Tia said.

"Against a military destroyer, the fusion drive's not going to be enough of an advantage," Piper pointed out. "They might even be able to overrun us."

"They'll be too busy fighting the Tokarevs."

The hatch to the bridge opened. Henry stepped in, worn down from the high-G burn earlier and visibly struggling, given they were still at 1.5Gs. He glanced at the holotank and asked, "What's going on?"

"We've got pirates on one side and the League on the other," Tia said.

Given the situation, Henry went for Tia's vacant chair. He used a grip on the arm of the chair to pull himself the rest of the way. He settled into the seat with visible relief. "Which pirates?"

"The Tokarevs. They think Miri's a League agent."

Henry sighed and glanced over at Piper. "Put me on to the Morozova."

"They cut the channel, but I'll try an open line," Piper said. "There, they'll hear you."

"Piotr and Pavel Tokarev, this is Jim Henry of the Shadow Wolf. We'll talk about Lupa later. The League's EMP weapon already disabled my ship once, so we're getting out of here. I'd recommend you watch yourself around them."

"That witch Lupa got a good man killed!" came a Russian-accented protest. "We will hunt you to the ends of the galaxy once we finish with your allies!"

"We'll see you then. Shadow Wolf out." Henry waited until Piper nodded before tapping at Tia's control for the ship's intercom. "Engineering. Where's my Lawrence drive? We've got League and pirate company, and I want out of here."

"Fuse replacement's complicated when we've got to do them all, Captain," Pieter protested. "I'd say we have another ten minutes."

"Want me to send more help?"

"Would be pointless. Not enough room. They can start work on other systems, though."

"Then I'm sending them your way." Henry flipped to a shipwide address with a touch of the switch. "All available hands, report to Engineering. We have a ship to get back into normal operation."

"League ship charging EMP weapon!" Piper shouted.

"Evasives!"

Cera began as tight a maneuver as she dared, but she needn't have bothered. The Peltast fired at the Morozova instead. The rippling blast struck the Old Believers' pirate ship square in the amidship section, where the pulse met a blue deflector shield.

"Looks like their deflectors absorbed it," Piper said. "I'm not showing any major shield loss at all for the Morozova."

Henry grinned. "Those things don't work too well on deflectors. Explains why they've not used them before."

"And how they've been disabling ships without warning getting out. Look how fast they hit us," Piper noted.

Henry pursed his lips together. "Keep us on a course away from the fight," he said as the exchange of fire between the Morozova and Peltast picked up. "Jump to Lusitania as soon as we can."

Given how things had gone so far, everyone expected another League ship to show up. To their relief and fortune, none did before the indicator on Cera's controls went green. With the stroke of a key, she jumped them out of the system and to safety.

Breach of Peace

The Hathaway Clipper's engineering crew did everything they could to burn the ship into intercept range. But Deveaux was confident they'd fail long before the Shadow Wolf disappeared from the screens.

This left the Tokarevs, a particular nuisance for peaceful League trade in the Trifid Nebula region. Their position allowed them to come about and burn for that fight instead. The Peltast's crew had the upper hand on the enemy pirate ship, and his ship would tilt the battle entirely against the Tokarevs.

Before they could get into weapons range, Saratov informed him of an incoming call. Deveaux swallowed, already sure who it was. He was only slightly relieved to see the cold, expressionless face of Commander Aristide instead of Admiral Hartford.

"We've heard there are," Aristide stopped, a suspicious glint in her eye. "Where is Commander Zhung?"

"She had a failure of social discipline," Deveaux replied levelly. It was a particularly cruel way of saying Zhung was a psychiatric casualty, but her bald threats against her crew meant no one would question Deveaux's choice of answer. "I had to assume command."

"I see. We have heard there were issues in the seizing of the Shadow Wolf."

With the knowledge his future would be determined by how he replied, Deveaux cleared his throat. "They restored power to a fusion drive system just before our boarding parties could get aboard. We were unable to disable them again before they left the range of our EMP cannon. The Peltast attempted an intercept, but the pirate ship Morozova intervened. We are currently burning to aid the Peltast."

Aristide's eyes narrowed. "Do not. Jump immediately and return to Pluto Base."

"Some of our boarding shuttles were disabled when we fired the pulse gun on the Shadow Wolf. Can we go pick them up first?"

"No. Every second you remain risks the exposure of the operation." Aristide frowned. "Who caused the loss of our shuttles and boarding parties?"

"Commander Zhung gave the order," Deveaux said. I hope it’s enough.

"I see. We will deal with her when you return." Aristide nodded. Just as it seemed she was about to cut the line, she looked back up. "Since the gunner followed that order, he is guilty of sabotage as well. Arrest him." Her image disappeared.

All of the color left Lieutenant Saratov's face. He looked to Deveaux imploringly. "Commander?"

Deveaux sighed. There was nothing he could do. He nodded to the security detachment still on the bridge.

Saratov, to his credit, didn't cry or resist. He let them take him from the bridge, broken by the sure knowledge of his coming fate.

"Engage wormhole drive," Deveaux said. "Get us out of here."

Breach of Peace

It was to a great surprise to the Tokarevs and their crew when the Peltast broke away from the fight and jumped. They'd been in trouble, there was no denying it, and couldn't imagine why the League wouldn't try to finish them off.

Piotr, in his command chair, let out a curse. His younger brother looked up from his station as second in command. "Post battle damage is light, Piotr Sergeevich," he said.

"Semyon Timofovich, do we have anything on sensors?"

"Scanning now, sir."

While Semyon scanned, Piotr scratched at his long beard. His raw grief and anger were still visible, but he was not so blind to what was in front of him that he could ignore what they saw.

"That EMP blast they hit us with, I have never seen such a weapon," Pavel agreed. "It may be how they disabled the disappeared ships."

"I will have the data sent back to Cyrilgrad for analysis. Doctor Zhikova should be able to figure it out."

Semyon looked up from his station. "I have League shuttles on sensors. Very faint trace, no power signature. They are completely disabled. Likely from their own EMP weapon."

"Are there life signs?"

"Yes, Pavel Sergeevich."

The brothers shared knowing grins. "Take us to them. We will learn what we can from them." Piotr said this, already looking forward to spacing the godless bastards once they were through with them.

"Brother, the Lupa woman." Pavel gave him a knowing glance. "Are you still sure she is on their side? None of this would make sense if it were a diversion."

"Maybe she was a dupe too. Perhaps she betrayed them too. I don't know," Piotr admitted. "But I do know we’ll find out, and if she is guilty, I will return her to the void we saved her from."


Epilogue

The Shadow Wolf arrived in Lusitania's system space right on point. Immediately, Cera killed the engine and let them coast, their standard procedure to hide the fusion drive. Even if they kept it dialed down, the drive byproduct was too different from their officially-mounted plasma drives. "Engines out," she confirmed for Henry.

"Now, we wait for Pieter to get the plasma drives going again, and we can make planetfall." Henry unlatched himself from Tia's seat and floated free. Artificial gravity was one of the low priorities at the moment. He was already looking forward to hailing Caetano and, then it hit him. There was something wrong on the holotank. Specifically, the abysmal level of traffic moving to and from the Lawrence limit.

"System Traffic Control is signaling," Piper said. "Putting them on."

"Vessel Shadow Wolf, the system is currently under security lockdown due to terrorist attack," the voice said in accented English. "You are hereby ordered to dock at Cardoso Station for immediate investigation."

"Traffic control, whatever's happened, we're on an urgent mission for the government," Henry said, mind racing as he wondered whether he should admit to working for Caetano or go with his known affiliation with Vitorino. He decided to hedge bets. "I'm sure the Defense and Trade Ministries both have us on file."

While they waited for a reply, tension filled the bridge. Whatever happened wasn't just some riot in Gamavilla between political factions, not if the authorities had locked the entire solar system down. Henry felt a chill inside of him at the thought of this situation causing harm to Jules as well.

"Identity confirmed, Captain Henry. You will land at Gamavilla Spaceport, Hangar 10D. Follow the assigned flight plan exactly. Any variation, and you will be shot down."

Tia's eyes widened in surprise. Henry licked at his lips. "Understood, Traffic Control. We'll need a few minutes to get our plasma drives back under operation, we suffered a short during wormhole transit. Please acknowledge."

"Acknowledged, Shadow Wolf. Traffic Control out."

"What the hell happened down there?" Tia asked aloud as soon as the channel cut.

"Oh shit."

Piper's words won her the amazed attention of the bridge. "What happened?" Henry asked, his tone nearly a demand.

"Someone bombed the National Assembly during a full session," she answered. "Most of the Lusitanian government is dead."

Breach of Peace

Paulina Ascaro woke with a splitting headache. Her thoughts were sluggish and undirected as her body reported lingering pain, her right hand being held, and a strange sensation in the left. She opened her eyes and looked down. She was in a hospital room, in a hospital gown, with an IV hooked up to her left arm. A left arm that ended in a bandaged stub halfway down the forearm.

Her eyes traveled around the room. Her husband, Martzel Aiza, was seated beside her, and their teenage son Xabier stared at a digital reader. She tried to speak, but between the headache and other pain she felt, it came out as a low groan. Martzel, already noticing she was awake, brought a hand up to touch her face. "Paula," he said. "You're okay."

She blinked. Why was she here again? Her mind refused to remember anything. She only had a few images and recollections of attending the Assembly. "What happened?"

"There was a bombing," Martzel said. "The Assembly." He swallowed. "Paula, it was terrible. Most of the others…"

Ascaro stared at him in shock. A bombing in the Assembly? That was a disaster for the planet, for their people, and for the democrats. It was the perfect excuse for State Security to seize power. "Who is… who is left?"

"I'm not sure. The RSS is refusing to confirm who else survived. They fear more attacks." He raised his eyes, and Ascaro followed them. Two dark-uniformed figures were visible outside of the door. The RSS was guarding her, or more likely, watching her. "The system is under lockdown, beloved. No ships are allowed to leave. The military is patrolling the streets."

Despair started to fill her. Now even flight was beyond their options. This incident would empower the fascists above everything else. Everything she believed in, a free and prosperous Lusitania, it was likely to be crushed by Caetano's party and their enablers in State Security.

The positive side of the despair was that it cut through the slowness in her mind. Even the headache started to fade a little as her mind focused. In turn, she felt defiance build within, pushing away the despair. No. If democracy and liberty die in Lusitania, it will die well, and leave a memory to inspire our descendants to reclaim it!

This won her a look from Martzel. "Paula, you must recover. Now is not the time for speeches."

"I will regain my strength, but tomorrow, I get back to work," she said. "Someone is trying to destroy our people, Martzel. They want to subjugate us. But with God as my witness, I'll do whatever I must to stop them."

Breach of Peace

The report from Commander Aristide left Hartford in a deep, pensive mood. Gaon had escaped, again, and the crew of the Shadow Wolf was more skilled than External Security anticipated. The threat over his plans persisted.

An incoming signal claimed his attention. A press of a key brought to his screen the visage of Admiral Seville himself. His eyes, one organic and the other an artificial replacement, focused on Hartford's face from across a thousand light-years. "Admiral Hartford, we are approaching the final moment. What is your status?"

"Our plan proceeds. Our Lusitanian ally has come through again. The bombing, as expected, leaves their government shaken and vulnerable. As soon as we complete final modifications to our most recent acquisitions, the fleet will set out for Lusitania." Hartford did everything he could to hide his concerns about Gaon from his expression. Seville would only see quiet confidence. "The timing is precise, and our captains know it. We will meet your expectations."

"Excellent." Seville gave him a significant look. "And there are no… complications?"

Hartford kept his expression, but he already knew what had happened. Aristide had reported the situation with Gaon. "A minor one, but too late to impact our planning. Odds are our resources on Lusitania will deal with them, permanently."

"I should hope so, Admiral, for all of our sakes," Seville said. There was no threat or menace in his tone, but Hartford knew that results were Expected, and if he failed, he would not enjoy the consequences. "I must be off. Minister Jenner requires my presence."

"Understood, Admiral. Hartford out." He shut down the comm line and turned to face the window. The last of the ships they'd seized, a helium-3 tanker, was being outfitted with another piece of salvaged Coalition weaponry. His fleet was at the desired size.

Doubt still gnawed at him. Miri Gaon was alive and free, and the ship aiding her had a competent crew that had already evaded two efforts to seize her. As much as he tried to push his fears away, he couldn't. His confidence in success felt more and more hollow, the more he considered these facts.

But regardless, Social duty still had to be performed. They'd come too far and worked too hard to be stopped now. Especially not by vermin like these independent spacers.

Hartford returned to the bureaucratic labors his position demanded, reassuring himself that it would all work out. The great machine of Society could not be stopped by this ship Shadow Wolf and its crew any more than they could stop a supernova.

That was the nature of things. Cogs, individuals, could fail: the whole machine would not. They would succeed.

They had to succeed.

THE END

Breach of Faith: Book 2 - Breach of Faith:

Can Captain James Henry and the Shadow Wolf stop the League and stay alive? Find out now in Book 2.

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Also Available from Daniel Gibbs

Echoes of War

Book 1 - Fight the Good Fight

Book 2 - Strong and Courageous

Book 3 - So Fight I

Book 4 - Gates of Hell

Book 5 - Keep the Faith

Book 6 - Run the Gauntlet

Breach of Faith

(With Gary T. Stevens)

Book 1 - Breach of Peace

Book 2 - Breach of Faith

Book 3 - Breach of Duty


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Acknowledgments

From Daniel Gibbs -

I want to thank first and foremost, Gary – for dealing with me the last year as we worked through four novels worth of ideas and characters in the Breach of Faith series.

As always, there’s a small cast of folks out there that have helped me along the way – especially David VanDyke and his constant support and encouragement. To everyone else – you know who you are; thank you.

Finally, to the men and women of the US Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Army, thank you for your service. It remains the highest privilege of my life to support you.

From Gary T. Stevens -

My thanks again to Dan Gibbs for the opportunity to create characters, worlds, and stories in his universe. We don't always see eye to eye but he's been very gracious on these matters… and on the word count thing. Definitely on the word count thing.

To Uncle Tim, who continues to patiently await the day a book appears with my real name on it. A day this work has brought closer to fruition.

And finally, I'm grateful to the close friends who've tolerated my prolonged distractions while producing this work and the books to follow, and to all of those who've expressed their support for my efforts.


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