041-1117 – Jumpspace

Jumpspace

I really didn’t do anything else yesterday. After dealing with Sir Gortor I really didn’t want to deal with the rest of the crew either. Just hung out in the crew lounge or in my cabin until I finally fell asleep.

This morning I took a quick tour of the ship. Everything seemed to be normal. Well, normal for the way things were now. Do’rex and Saahna were on the bridge, Jami was in engineering and Varan was up in the passenger lounge.

It was just him up there. Well, Dr. Korvusar was there as well, but I almost considered that her normal post these days. Fortunately the Gortors were staying in their cabin. I’ll admit that I was a bit let down that Shelly wasn’t there; after the way my crew was treating me it would have been nice for someone to at least pretend to be happy to see me.

“My friends,” I corrected myself. “Not, ‘my crew’.” They could be one or the other, but not both.

“Congrats on your Gunnery certification, by the way,” I said to Varan. “I keep forgetting to talk to you about it.”

“Oh?” He seemed surprised but appreciative. “Thanks, Derek. Captain.” He paused. “I guess Saahna told you?”

I nodded. “Yeah, she did. She didn’t tell you?”

He shook his head. “No. She’s…” He paused. “She’s been kinda quiet since you two last talked. I think you upset her.”

“We upset each other is more like it.”

He started to reply but I held up a hand, thinking. I needed input. And the only way to get that would be to get everything out in the open. Everything.

“When can you get about an hour away?”

He hesitated at that, looking around. “Well, now maybe? I know the Gortors will be in their cabin sulking for at least that long, and both Ms. Tharis and Minister Trakon seem to have plans for a while. And I think Dr. Korvusar has been with us long enough to know her way around.”

“I certainly do,” came her voice from behind me. “At least I know which wine to select now.”

“Yeah,” I said, not turning around. “But I want your input on this too. Besides, you owe me a discussion now that we’re in jumpspace, remember?”

“Certainly, Captain. I am looking forward to our conversation.”

Varan looked confused. “What are you…”

I held up a hand. “That’s the problem. You don’t know what I’m doing. Have been doing. Will be doing. Doing things.” I shook my head, I was babbling for no reason. Way too tense.

I opened the crew channel. “Quick crew meeting, everyone. Crew lounge. Now.”

“Something wrong, Captain?” That was Jami.

“Yes,” I said, “but not in the way you’re thinking.”

“Well, I’m doing some rewiring on the fusion igniters on the maneuver drive and…”

“And we won’t need that for a few days. Unless whatever you are doing you have scheduled so tightly that we don’t have any margin of error before we arrive at Kupakii. In which case we have two problems to talk about.”

“Oh no!” She sounded surprised. “No, it’s fine Captain. I’ll… see you in the lounge.”

I nodded to myself. “Good.” I cut off and looked to Varan. “Coming?”

His face was a mix of anger and confusion, but he nodded. “Yeah, sure.” He tapped something on his comp and headed towards the ladder.

I glanced over at Dr. Korvusar. “I’m serious. I want you there too.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Oh? What do you think I can contribute to your crew conference?”

“The details I’m still missing,” I said. “We work this out now or I’m dealing with finding an entire new crew and slate of passengers on Kupakii. And I’d just as soon not do that.”

Varan, on the ladder and still half in the lounge, turned to me wide-eyed as I said that but, after a pause, continued down.

I looked back at Dr. Korvusar. With a sigh, she stood up. “Well, if you insist, Captain.”

“I do,” I said. I gestured towards the ladder. She nodded and, taking her wine glass with her, easily slid down the ladder. I glanced around the lounge one last time then followed.

When I arrived, Varan was already talking to Saahna, still wearing her CES and carrying her gauss rifle. I frowned. That really wasn’t like her. Do’rex was standing near the iris to the bridge. Jami wasn’t here yet.

Saahna looked at me curiously and tilted her head towards Dr. Korvusar. I simply nodded and went to the dispenser, pulling a beer for myself. I started to open it then decided I might need it more later.

“Grab ’em if you want ’em,” I said, pointing to the dispenser. I looked to see Jami coming in from the cargo bay. I nodded, then pulled up the ship-wide comms.

“Attention passengers, this is Captain Kodai up on the bridge. We are currently running a crew safety and preparedness drill and we ask that all of you remain in your cabins at this time to avoid encountering possible changes in gravity and life support. Your cabin dispensers will continue to operate normally. Please contact us if you have any needs that cannot be satisfied by them or in the event of an emergency. We will notify you when the drill is complete and you will be again free to move about the ship. Thank you.”

I cut off without waiting for any response and tapped on my comp. immediately there were a pair of staccato buzzes and red lights appeared on every door panel. I had just put the ship into lock-down; every door was now sealed. Anyone on the crew could open them, of course, but they were all here with me.

“What the hell is going on, Captain?” Saahna was looking at me with anger.

“I’m about to tell you,” I said. “Tell you everything. But I need to make sure I’m only telling you.” I tapped my comm again, this time for the ship’s computer. “Gray?”

“Yes, Captain?”

“Internal scan. Is everyone in here or in their cabins?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Second, any transmission sources anywhere in the ship other than the ones we expect.”

There was a slight pause. “There is a transmission source in Engineering located aft of the jump drive.”

I started to say something but Jami waved her hand. “That’s, um… I did that.”

“What is it?” I asked, more irritated than I should have been.

“I told you about that!” she said, a bit irritated herself. “That monitor I was putting in so I can check Engineering even if I’m not there.”

I remembered finding her under the floor plates that time when she mentioned it. “Yeah, OK. Gray? Add that to your list of known transmissions.”

“Yes, Captain. There are no unknown transmissions on the ship.”

“Thanks.” I said, then turned to the others. “OK, grab a seat or something. This… may take a bit.”

“What is this all about, Captain?” asked Saahna, as she dropped into a chair, gauss rifle across her knees.

“Everything,” I said. “We’re going to talk about everything.”

She frowned at that but said nothing. Varan and Jami glanced at each other then sat at the table. Dr. Korvusar took another chair and Do’rex continued to lean against the iris to the bridge. I leaned against the wall where I could see all of them.

I stood there for a moment, thinking. What was I going to say to them? What did I want to say to them.

Varan coughed. “Captain… you said this was urgent…”

I shook my head. “Yeah. It is. Way past urgent.” I paused another moment, took a deep breath, and started.

“I always admired Captain Martin,” I said, staring fixedly at the air lock, not looking at anyone. “She was always so… sure of herself. She never asked advice. Not really. She expected you to do your job and tell her what she needed to know. Beyond that, she just told us what to do. And we did it, because she trusted us.”

“Now wait, Captain…” I heard Saahna starting to spin up. I knew where that would go. I quickly turned to look at you.

“No. That isn’t where this is going. Just… let me finish.”

“Captain, if you expect us…”

“I don’t!” I snapped at her. I took a deep breath. “I don’t,” I repeated, more quietly. “Listen. I know you’re upset. I know why you’re upset. I’m trying to apologize here. Again, I get it. Just let me… let me go through this my way.”

I held her gaze for a long moment. She didn’t say anything else but her expression never changed.

I looked away, staring idly at the control panel for the airlock again. A second later I looked back.

“Listen, I know things have changed. If this is what ends it, then I’ll accept it as my fault. But… for what we had… just let me finish.”

This time her expression did change; first looking down then turning away. She still didn’t say anything.

I turned my gaze back to the airlock panel. It was something to focus on.

I took a deep breath and started again. “She trusted us but… she wasn’t one of us. It was her and Jacobs. That was it. Oh sure, we were on her ship, but she never really interacted with us back here.” I gestured around the lounge. “I mean, I worked with her a lot; I was on the bridge as navigator and spent a lot of time with her learning brokerage from her so, you know, we spent a lot of time together. But there was nothing there other than me being her crew-member and her being my Captain. And I really never thought about that distinction.”

I paused again, still staring at nothing. “When I became Captain, pretty much just because I bought the ship, I thought I was doing things the way she would have. And I was… with one distinction.”

I sighed. “Remember when I said I wasn’t going stand on formality as much as she did? Back on Venad? Well, I hadn’t intended on doing it. But then… then I had someone come up to me on Fugitak. And they asked me to do something. Which was… fine. It was nothing that we hadn’t done before. Then… there was another request. And another. And I… kept trying to fill them, because I thought that’s what Captain Martin would have done.”

I looked around again. Do’rex was unreadable, as usual, Jami was looking confused, Varan was looking annoyed, and Saahna was looking anywhere but at me. Dr. Korvusar seemed bored.

I took another deep breath. “Now… I realize I was doing that wrong. Captain Martin got away with it because she was our Captain and we were her crew. That’s all we were. The crew. You? You were my friends. We were crew-mates. We still are… I hope.” I paused at that, hoping for a response, but didn’t get one.

I sighed again. “OK, look. I… may have screwed us up. I tried doing what seemed like the right thing at the time, but things kept getting more complicated. And I… didn’t think I had anyone else to turn to.” I looked around at them again. “I did but… I forgot that. I’m sorry. I can say that, but I know it’s just words. I can only ask that you give me the chance to show that they aren’t.”

There was a long silence. No one wanted to look directly at me. Finally, it was Varan who spoke.

“You just suddenly started keeping things from us,” he said. “It used to be that, you heard something from Captain Martin that you couldn’t wait to tell us. Then, suddenly, we’re going to places where you’re making secret deals and then you’re meeting secretly with people who are giving us passengers and cargo. We weren’t sure what was going on.”

I nodded. “Yeah. I… messed up.”

“You did.” That was Saahna, now looking at me again. “There were things that could have helped you, but you were so busy being Captain that you didn’t seem to think our input was important.”

“Yeah. And, like I said, I was wrong.” She continued to stare at me. “Look, I’m admitting… I screwed up. What do you want me to do? I can’t fix it; not even the Ancients had time travel. We’re where we are. You want to leave? Fine.”

She sighed angrily. “That’s always the first thought you have, isn’t it? It’s always about people leaving you.”

I froze, then turned to stare at that control panel again. “Fine. Rub that in.”

There was a long silence. Finally, I heard a polite click. “Captain, while I somewhat uninvolved in the tensions between you and the rest of the crew, though I know they exist, perhaps if you told us what is going on and what you do know, then maybe we can make an informed decision?”

I looked up at that. That was about the longest speech I had heard from Do’rex in the years we had been together. He may have claimed to be unaware that something was wrong, but his words obviously indicated that he was.

I sighed. “OK. Just… let me dump what I have. Then you can tell me what an idiot I am.”

I started from the beginning, with the encounter with that unknown person on Fugitak. How I had shown the datastick to Saahna and to Dr. Korvusar (who looked up in surprise at the mention of her name). Then the delivery of the stick to Jestin and what I had heard from the bartender about him later. The encounter the next day with the mysterious person who gave me the scanner and my later discussion with Dr. Korvusar about it. (She became more interested at that.) My taking the tour the next day and meeting Kori Methasa. My later meeting with Jestin where I told him about the scanner and planted it. My later finding more of the same scanners on the Grayswandir. And then the arrival of Shelly on-board.

“I know she’s up to something,” I said. “I know I’ve got to be careful around her. I just… I don’t know how to get us out of this.”

There was silence for a long moment. Finally, Saahna spoke. “We could have helped you, you know. If you had trusted us. Why didn’t you?”

I looked at her irritated. “I’ve already said… OK, fine. I should have. You know that? I should have. I thought… I thought wrong. I can apologize again, if that’s what you want.”

She looked levelly at me. “Do you really think you were wrong? Or did you just realize that you had something to lose.”

I turned away to look at the airlock again. “I was wrong. Either way. I was wrong.”

I looked back at them. “So… how do we fix this?”

The crew looked at each other. It was Varan who finally spoke.

“OK, fine. Suppose we believe you. Well, actually…. I do. I can’t see why you would be making up this stuff. It’s almost… exciting!”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Saahna said, frowning. “I’d just as soon not be in full Vargr mode. You know your ‘friend’ Shelly may be after Minister Trakon. If what you are saying is true…” she held up a hand. “No, I believe what you’re saying… I know you well enough to know you couldn’t make up something like that.”

“Hey!”

She continued. “But it sounds like you’ve gotten us involved in some serious IBIS-level shit. Now, the question is, how do we get us out?”

Dr. Korvusar coughed and everyone looked at her. She was now looking at us intently, her disinterest gone. “Actually… this isn’t ‘IBIS shit’.”

I frowned at that. “Oh? You want to talk to me now?”

She sighed and stared at me. “You analyze things too much, do you know that? Most ship captains would have just taken the requests made of them for the credits involved, but you have to try to figure out what is going on.” She smiled. “That’s why I chose you.”

“What?” I asked. Varan and Saahna made similar outburst.

She held up a hand. “Well, since we’re being completely open with each other, I suppose I will as well.” She paused.

“I know you checked my credentials,” she said, looking towards Saahna. “But you most likely missed one key point, because it was only ever a verbal agreement. I accepted the Navy’s offer to re-enlist. I’m still active.”

“Oh?” asked Saahna. I noticed that she shifted her grip on her gauss rifle, and I’m sure Dr. Korvusar did as well even though she gave no indication that she had.

“Yes, I’m still active.” She turned to look directly at me. “I’m with Imperial Naval Intelligence. I’m an Agent.”

“Why us?” I asked, voice flat. I had guessed, but had no evidence.

It was her turn to sigh. “As you realized, I knew about Margaret’s acceptance of the Moot’s elevation to Empress before I joined you. I also knew that the Old Expanses fleet was being recalled to Capital to chase Dulinor, and that Margaret would attempt to activate the reserve fleets as her personal ones.”

She looked around, then back at me again. “We… have computer models. Computers that are beyond what you might even think that we have. Even the Darrians don’t have systems like these, if that helps you appreciate them.”

“All of them predicted the same thing. Civil war. And they predict something else beyond that. Another Long Night.”

There was a long silence. I wondered if everyone else’s stomach was feeling the same way. “Why us?” asked Saahna, echoing my earlier question.

Dr. Korvusar looked around the lounge at us. “What do you know of pre-history on Vland, or on Terra?”

No one said anything immediately. I couldn’t see where she was going with the question, but eventually I shrugged. “The Ancients took early humans from Terra and deposited them on Vland, and on another few dozen worlds. All of them developed independently until Terra and Vland, both discovered the jump drive. Vland got it a bit earlier since they had leftover Ancient tech to look at, but they were completely surprised when the Solomani showed up, before we figured out we all came from Terra anyway. The Sols took over the old Vilani Imperium, tried running things their own way for a while, then that fell apart and led to the Long Night. Eventually, the Imperium reformed and here we are.”

I frowned after saying that, thinking about what she had just told us. “That Long Night lasted centuries. I hope you’re wrong and we won’t have to go through another one.”

She shook her head. “Not pre-Imperium history. Pre-history. Before we had a real civilization on either planet.”

Saahna looked at her. “So… running from Ancient war machines?”

Korvusar sighed. “That was only on Vland.” She paused, thinking. “OK, tell me this…. what do you think the most important invention in sophant history was?”

“The Jump Drive!” Jami piped up. “We would still be on one or two planets without it.”

Dr. Korvusar shook her head. “No, a lot earlier than that.” She looked at me. “Captain?”

I shrugged. “The plow? Agriculture?”

She sighed again. “You know, I sometimes wonder why I attempt to use metaphors to explain anything since no one ever seems to get the reference.” She looked around. “Fire, maybe?”

“I was about to say that!” said Varan, fast enough that it was obvious he hadn’t been. Saahna and I just looked at him while Do’rex gave a slight click of amusement.

Dr. Korvusar lowered her head and rubbed her eyes. “All right, fine.” She looked back up.

“Early communities of every major race, and the minor ones as well, all learned the value of fire. But, at that time in their development, they were mostly still hunters, gatherers, or both. Either way, they had to move around a lot.”

“But fire is a difficult thing.” She stood up and started pacing the lounge. “When you’re just gaining sapience, you’re more likely to have to find one started by lightning or something than starting one on your own; rubbing two sticks together is a lot less successful than most survival-types will lead you to believe.” She smiled a bit at that.

“So what they would do would be to carry a few coals or embers from their last fire, wrapped in leaves or buried in dirt, and use that to start their next fire when they next made camp. Otherwise, they would be in the cold and dark until they found another source.”

She stopped her pacing and looked around. “We believed that you, this ship, had the potential to be an ’ember’, if you will, that will carry forward and, hopefully, let us turn an impending long night into a short dusk. That is why we need you. That is why you are here. That is why I nudged you towards helping Mr. Former on Boilingbrook. He is an ember also. We need to support people like him.”

We looked at each other, then Saahna started a slow clap. “Interesting story, if a bit formulaic. I never liked ‘chosen one’ narratives. So… why us again?”

Dr. Korvusar looked at her and raised an eyebrow. “I never said anything to imply that you were the only ship out there. There are dozens, if not hundreds, all over the Imperium. You are in a small group, but you are hardly a singular ‘chosen one’.”

Saahna frowned at that. “So… suppose we just dump you and everyone else on board off on Kupakii. Hells, suppose we all go our separate ways and let the Captain here deal with the mess he’s made. What happens to your ’ember’ then?”

She shrugged. “Then this one goes out. As I said, it is a small group, but you are not unique.”

Saahna crossed her arms. “Then tell me why we shouldn’t do just that. Leave. Why does this involve us?”

“Don’t you care about the Imperium?”

Saahna picked up the gauss rifle again. “I did my service to the Imperium. I got out. A lot of my friends didn’t.” She shrugged. “Don’t appeal to my patriotism; that’s gone. What’s in it for me?”

“Or any of us?” Varan added.

She nodded. “I see.” She sighed. “Well, Captain,” she said, turning to me, “It appears that I shall be leaving you at Kupakii. Thank you for allowing me to travel with you this far. I can find my own way from there.”

I nodded. “Yeah, that’s… maybe the best.” I looked around then back at her. “This is my ship, and my crew. My first responsibility is to them. I forgot that. I shouldn’t have.”

She tilted her head in acknowledgment. “I understand Captain.” She turned to the rest of the lounge. “Please, do not hold the actions I coerced Captain Kodai here into against him. He is a good man, and very loyal to you.” She looked at me with a slight smile. “We could use more sophants like him. I apologize for my intrusion.”

Saahna looked from her to me with a cold gaze. “He made his decisions. He can live with them.”

I sighed. “Yeah, fine. I’ll worry about my problems after Kupakii. But, until then, we’re all here. What do we do now?”

Saahna turned her stare back to me. “Oh, go shack up with your friend Ms. Tharis. I can tell she’s throwing herself at you. I watched you invite her into your cabin yesterday.”

I must have looked surprised because she laughed. “Yes, I’m still keeping an eye on her. And you.”

I frowned. “If you were, you must have noticed that I didn’t carry through with that.”

She laughed. “Yeah, and I know you to well. Leave them wanting more, right?”

I shook my head. “No. That wasn’t it. Not really, anyway. She didn’t want to go through with it. It’s an act.” I sighed. “I think she would have, if I had pushed it. But I didn’t. And I won’t.” I looked directly at Saahna as I said that.

Saahna held my gaze for a moment, then looked away. There was an awkward silence, broken when Varan spoke up.

“Yeah, she’s be laying in on pretty thick. She was asking all about you when we were upstairs; she specifically asked if you were involved with anyone.” He suddenly flushed red and looked from me to Saahna. “I… uh… said no. Sorry.”

I shrugged. “What is, is. Don’t feel you have to lie on my behalf.” I caught a brief glimpse of a frown from Saahna before she turned away.

Varan frowned as well. “So… what are you going to do?”

I sighed and raised my hands. “I honestly don’t know, really. I’m not going to go through with anything with her. I can tell she’s here because she was told to be, not because she wants to be. Maybe… maybe I’ll hang around with her and let drop that I got involved with some shit and don’t want to have anything to do with it anymore. Maybe that will be enough to get these people, whoever they are, to leave us alone.”

He nodded. “Yeah. Hopefully that will work.”

There was another awkward silence. Do’rex finally spoke. “If I may ask,” he was looking at Dr. Korvusar, “Who are ‘these people’ anyway.”

She shrugged. “There are any number of factions in the Hinterworlds that dislike the influence the Imperium has in this sector. They are quite happy to see the Imperium pull back and allow it to pursue its own differences without our intrusion.”

Jami nodded at that. “Yeah, we have those. Like I said before, of the big political entities around us most of us prefer you guys, but there are enough of us that think we can make it completely on our own. Or who think the Sols would be a better choice.” She made an annoyed face at that. “No one can agree on anything.”

Dr. Korvusar nodded. “I would guess that the people who approached you, and by extension Ms. Tharis, are with the Ral Rantan Federation. They have been highly vocal about removing Imperial influence from this sector. Boilingbrook is a very important world here. If it remains independent or, worse from their point of view, starts its own polity, then their influence is diminished.”

I nodded. “Yeah, makes sense. So… how do we unwind ourselves from this?”

Saahna looked back at me. “Stay away from Ms. Tharis?”

I shrugged. “I’ll do the best I can, but…”

“But, what?” She stood up. “Gods, how gullible do you think I am? You’ll figure out an excuse to sleep with her.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Jealous? I thought we were done.”

She looked directly at me. “You can shut the fuck up.”

There was a sudden shifting in the room as everyone looked away from us. I coughed and looked away as well. “Sorry, that was out of line.”

There was a long silence. Finally she spoke again. “Yeah, sorry everyone.”

I sighed. “OK then, what are we…” I stopped. I had been staring at the airlock again, and something that had been bothering me suddenly became clear. I stood up and walked over, kneeling down to look at the underside of the controls.

“Captain?” Varan asked.

I didn’t respond. I saw what was wrong. There was something attached to the bottom of the console. I, with some difficulty, peeled it free. It was a disc that had changed its appearance to match that of the wall. A disc I had seen others of before. I had planted one.

I held it up. “Look what I found.”

There was a brief silence. “Is that…” Saahna began.

I cut her off. “Yeah. It’s one of those scanners. Like the ones I found here before. And like the one I planted.” I looked up. “Gray, is this thing transmitting anything?”

There was a brief pause. “No, Captain. There are no unauthorized transmissions anywhere within the ship.”

“Thanks, Gray.” I was about to relax, then suddenly stopped. “Any authorized transmissions from this room?”

There was another brief pause. “Yes, from the device you are holding. Authorized by you.”

“Shit!” I said, pulling out my comp. “Flag this transmission as unauthorized. And send me a list of every transmission I have authorized so that I can review them!”

“Certainly, Captain.” A few seconds later a list appeared. I quickly scanned it and immediately saw a few I had never seen before.

“Disallow these!” I said, quickly tapping. “And block them if you can.”

“Confirmed, Captain,” said Gray. “Transmissions are now blocked.”

“Thanks, Gray,” I said. I turned to the others. “If it isn’t obvious, we’ve been had.”

Saahna was glaring at me. “Still infatuated with your Ms. Tharis?”

I shook my head. “It wasn’t her. She was a decoy.” I held up the disc.

Saahna frowned. “She was obviously planting them when you gave her the tour.”

I shook my head. “No. We didn’t go near the airlock. I even mentioned it. But…” I paused. “But when we came back in from the cargo bay Jaya was standing near here.”

“So you think…”

I nodded. “Yeah. The Gortors are our infiltrators. Shelly was the distraction.”

“Even now, now that you think she’s innocent?”

I got angry. “Yes! No matter what you think of me now, you should know me better than that!”

She frowned, but eventually nodded. “Yeah. You aren’t that stupid.”

I frowned again, but Dr. Korvusar interrupted. “And you gave them a complete tour yesterday. And now have left them upstairs with Minister Trakon.”

“Shit!” I said again. “Gray, where is everyone?”

Again a slight pause. “The entire crew is in the crew lounge, as is Dr. Korvusar. Sir Gortor is in the passenger lounge. All other passengers are in their cabins.”

“Gods dammit! Gray, unlock the iris to the passenger lounge.”

“Certainly, Captain. The iris is unlocked.”

“Wait!” I heard Saahna yell behind me. I didn’t pause, continuing up the ladder.

I pulled myself into the passenger lounge and saw ‘Sir Gortor’ doing something to the console to Minister Trakon’s cabin. “Can I help you?” I asked.

He jumped and turned around, shoving something into his pocket as he did. “Oh! Captain Kodai. I…” There was a brief hesitation. “I was trying to talk to Ms. Tharis about staying away from my daughter while she is on board.”

I smiled tightly. “That isn’t Ms. Tharis’ cabin.”

“Oh?” He acted surprised, an act I saw through easily. “Sorry, I hope I didn’t disturb Minister Trakon then.”

“So you remembered that it is Minister Trakon’s cabin? Are you sure it isn’t Dr. Korvusar’s?”

He frowned at me. “What are you implying, Captain?”

“Nothing, really,” I said. I held up the disc I was still holding. “By the way, is this yours?”

He frowned at that. “What? No! I have no idea what that is.” He was obviously lying.

I shook my head. “Nice try. But getting your daughter involved? Shame.”

He frowned and his eyes narrowed. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”

I sighed. “We have every part of this ship, except the cabins, under constant surveillance. I could pull the records up now if you would like. We’ll see who did what.”

He frowned at that then, after a moment, stood up a bit straighter. “Look… Captain.” His tone and demeanor had changed. Now he was trying to be friendly. Too friendly. Almost obsequiously so. “All right. Yes. I asked Jaya to put that there; it seemed the easiest way to do it. You accepted our offer; this just seemed to be a good way to make sure you didn’t compromise us along the way.”

“Us?” I asked.

He sighed. “Everyone can see that the Imperium is falling apart. To save it we need strength! Force of arms! Boilingbrook has one of the most capable fleets in this end of the sector. We need them to declare that fleet for us! If we do, then the Ral Rantans and the Coalition and the Centaurs and the Starfish-heads and even those degenerates from Sol will have to realize that, despite all of our problems, we are the preeminent polity in the Hinterworlds. And they will leave us alone!”

“Which Imperium?” I asked again. “We’re a bit divided at the moment. I had hoped to avoid the entire thing, but people like you seemed to be determined to make me choose a side or something. I just want to fly my ship.”

He shook his head at that. “You think the Ral Rantans will let you operate the way you do? Or the Starfish?” He sighed. “You’re either with us, or you’re against us. Which is it?”

It was my turn to shake my head. “You haven’t said who ‘us’ is yet.”

“The Imperium!” He was getting angry again.

“Which Imperium?” I asked. “Margaret’s? Lucan’s? I’m pretty sure you aren’t with Dulinor, if only because you’re way out of his area of influence.”

He frowned. “The Imperium.” He laughed. “Surely you don’t think the Emperor, or Empress, has any real power.”

I shrugged. “It sure made a mess when the Emperor got himself assassinated. Hard to accept that someone else was really pulling the strings when things fell apart that fast afterwards.”

He tilted his head. “That doesn’t sound like you’re with us.”

“I’m with myself. I don’t care about anyone else as long as I get to run my ship.” I paused. “Which means no one is planting scanners in my crew lounge and no one is trying to break into other passenger’s cabins. You’ve kinda turned me off by doing both. Now, why don’t you just go back to your cabin, which you shouldn’t be out of during a crew drill anyway, and we’ll both pretend we never had this conversation?”

He sighed. “You disappoint me, Captain. I would have thought a free trader captain would have had more self-interest.”

I smiled. “You’ll find I’m always full of surprises.”

“I doubt that, Captain,” he said, raising his arm and tapping something on his comp.

“So, Captain,” he said, his voice suddenly becoming more officious. “Are you refusing a direct request from an Imperial Knight?”

I shook my head again. “What the hells are you talking about?”

“You are harboring an enemy of the Imperium! Turn him over to me now or there will be repercussions!”

I was now completely confused. “I wasn’t kidding. What the hells are you talking about?”

He gestured towards the door behind him. “You have an enemy of the Imperium on board. Minister Trakon here is planning to negotiate a treaty that is not in the interest of the Imperium. You can either turn him over to me, as a loyal citizen of the Imperium would, or you can suffer the same fate as him as a traitor!”

I raised an eyebrow at that. He was being way too melodramatic. “You’re new at this, aren’t you?”

That made him angry. “You will pay for this, Captain!” His hand went inside his tunic and emerged holding a body pistol.

I stepped back involuntarily. “The hells? How did you get that on board?”

He smiled. “I have friends, Captain. Too bad you don’t.” Then, more loudly, “You impede an Imperial knight in the pursuit of his duties? Then accept Imperial justice!” He aimed the body pistol at me and I poised to jump to the side, cursing the fact that I hadn’t activated the anti-hijack protocols before I came upstairs.

There was an almost sub-sonic thrum. A line of blood appeared across his chest and torso. He looked down, seemingly confused, then his eyes rolled up into his head and he toppled over onto the deck.

I looked behind me towards the ladder. I saw movement and Saahna appeared as she pulled the hood back on her Combat Environment Suit, the chameleon feature of which was matching the ladder and wall behind her. She lowered her gauss rifle. “Did you really expect that to work?” She asked, sounding annoyed.

I shrugged. “I knew you had to be back there somewhere. You may be mad at me but I can’t think that you’re so mad that you’d let me get killed.”

She climbed the rest of the way into the passenger lounge, shaking her head as she did. “You think too highly of yourself.”

“I wasn’t wrong, was I?”

She sighed. “No. You weren’t.” She walked past me and checked Gortor’s body, pulling free both the body pistol and an electronic device of some kind, then pulling off his comp. She looked at it, then back towards me. “He was recording all this. How are you going to explain us killing an Imperial knight in-flight?”

I was a bit worried about that myself, but I shrugged. “Gray is monitoring, we have everything here on record. He pulled a gun, which he shouldn’t have had, on me. We reacted appropriately. What can anyone say? Hijacking is a capital offense after all.”

She frowned. “Kupakii is a client state. They may be more inclined to worry about actions against the nobility then what really happened.”

I hesitated. She was right, but we had the records; they would be hard to deny.

“We have no choice but to hope that they believe our version of events.” I shrugged. “What else can we do?”

She looked around helplessly, then looked down. “Nothing, I guess.”

“Thanks,” I said.

She hesitated. “You’re welcome.”

I tapped the ship-wide comms. “Attention everyone, we are now in emergency lock-down. There is no danger to the ship but we need all passengers to remain in their cabins until further notice. All crew to emergency positions.”

I heard beeps as Do’rex and Jami reported in from the Bridge and Engineering. Varan came up the ladder, followed by Dr. Korvusar. I saw we were getting comm attempts from all three occupied passenger cabins, but I ignored them.

“We aren’t talking to anyone until we get a better handle on what is going on,” I said.

Dr. Korvusar had gone to kneel beside Sir Gortor’s body. “Dead,” she said, standing back up. She saw us looking at her. “Sorry. Force of habit.” She looked at Saahna. “Well done.”

“How much of what happened up here did you hear?” I asked.

“I pulled up the feed as soon as you went up the ladder,” said Varan. “We saw pretty much all of it.”

“Going to argue with me about this decision too?”

He frowned at that. “He pulled a gun on you and Saahna shot him. I wouldn’t expect that to have gone any other way.”

I nodded then turned to Dr. Korvusar. “Didn’t sound like he was Ral Rantan.”

She nodded slowly in return. “Yes. It appears that my initial analysis may have been incorrect.” She frowned. “It is possible…” she trailed off.

“Yes?” asked Saahna.

She shook her head. “As I’m sure you know, there are any number of ‘black ops’ operations and groups within the Imperium. With the bureaucracy necessary to govern 11 trillion sophants how could there not be. My own group within Naval Intelligence is working somewhat independently here. We… consider ourselves to be serving the Imperium instead of whoever is actually running it.”

“Oh great,” sighed Saahna. “Not only have we gotten involved in a conspiracy, we’ve gotten involved in an illegal conspiracy.”

“OK,” I said. “So if that is what is going on, then who is he?” I pointed at the body. “Does the spinward arm not know what the trailing arm is doing?”

I saw a disturbed look cross her face, the first time I had ever noticed her anything other than completely composed. “It now occurs to me that by being in an ‘illegal conspiracy’, as your Lieutenant Denan calls it, we did not completely take into account the actions of other such conspiracies. Or that they could differ from ours.” She frowned.

Varan laughed. “Oh, so we’re supposed to accept these computer models of yours that are calling for the collapse of the Imperium, but which somehow didn’t consider a rival to its own group? I really feel more confident in them now.”

“Good point,” I said. Dr. Korvusar turned partially away.

There was a brief silence.

“Actually…” Saahna spoke slowly. I turned in surprise to see her looking thoughtful. “It… kinda makes sense.” She looked around at us. “Remember, I’m not just the grunt with a gun; I’m our computer expert too.”

“I do,” I said, now frowning myself. “What does…?”

She interrupted, following her trail of thought. “When you are doing simulations, you tell it everything you know. Then you tell it everything you know you don’t know. But… you can’t tell it that you don’t know about something that you don’t know you don’t know about.” She frowned, parsing that sentence again before continuing.

“So, let’s assume what Dr. Korvusar is telling us is correct.” Both Dr. Korvusar and I looked at her in surprise but she just held up her hand. “Look, we’ve got more than enough evidence that we’re in something and what she is telling us matches everything we know. So yeah, I think we all know the score now.”

I nodded then glanced at my comm. Do’rex and Jami were both on the channel, normal for an emergency condition, but neither said anything.

“You are partially correct,” said Dr. Korvusar, nodding slowly. “We did realize there were things we could not know about, but it appears the simulation did not correctly model for them.”

“Or,” said Saahna, smiling and nodding to herself. “Your model assumed that any other group doing the same as you would reach the same conclusion you did. Whoever Gortor here was working for may have seen the same Long Night coming that you did but, instead of trying to keep the ‘spirit of the Imperium’ or whatever alive, it decided to try to hold as many bits of the Imperium together by force of arms as it could.” She smiled. “To use your analogy, instead of scattering embers around they decided to build a big bonfire and make sure everyone stays around it.”

Dr. Korvusar nodded slowly. “That was one possible suggestion, but it had a far lower probability of success. It would require much higher control over the governments of the local planets than the Imperium normally exerts, and doing so would cause increased unrest among the local populations. Keeping them under control would drain too many resources and prevent these ‘Pocket Imperiums’ from being able to defend themselves from outsiders.”

“But if their models were not the same as yours…” I started.

“They may have had other information too,” Saahna said. She turned to Dr. Korvusar. “Did you ever hear about something called ‘Operation Spoilsport’?”

Korvusar thought for a moment. “Yes, I think I remember that. That was a plan to keep a fleet or fleets out in dark-space for years, or even decades at a time –fusion plants on standby and the entire crew in low berths– so they could be called in if some catastrophe happened. It was never put into action because the cost of having a large enough fleet to be worth the effort would be prohibitive.” She frowned. “Are you suggesting…”

Saahna smiled, but still hesitated before continuing. “Not suggesting. I… was approached about it.”

“What!” I was surprised by that. Both Varan and Dr. Korvusar gave similar reactions. I even heard a startled click from Do’rex before he muted his comm.

“You never said anything about that!” I exclaimed. “You never even mentioned it!”

She shrugged. “I… When I turned the position down I was told that even knowing about the program was Aleph-class security clearance. If I mentioned it to anyone, I’d find myself on a prison planet before I knew what happened. Or I’d be drafted into the program anyway. I know how safe low berths aren’t; we don’t have them ourselves because passengers have a good chance of not waking up after a week. I don’t want to think about how many of that crew would be dead after a decade or more. And I was told the standard deployment would be a decade. They would wake them up at least that often to brief the crew on what had happened in the meantime, do maintenance on the ships, and… replace any crew necessary.”

“You don’t know anything else about them?” I asked. “How many there are? Or where?”

She looked away from me. “Not… exactly.”

I felt anger starting to rise. “You know something! You have a secret too, don’t you?”

“It didn’t involve us!” she spun back, anger in her eyes. “I wasn’t getting us involved in this! At least…” she hesitated for a moment, then closed her eyes, letting out a long breath. “At least I didn’t think I was.”

I sighed as well. “Well, I’m not in any position to complain about anyone doing anything right now. What do you know?”

She looked away for a few moments, then sighed. “OK, yeah. Right.” She took a deep breath.

“I was a bit irritated when I left the Downport last week. Something about your meeting with Jestin felt wrong and, frankly, I was already a bit unhappy with you over the way we left things at the docking bay.”

She looked around, then continued. “When I got back to my hotel I went down to the bar for a drink.” She looked quickly back at me. “Just a drink. Anyway, someone came up and sat down next to me. I was about to tell him to get lost when I recognized him.”

“Oh?” That was Dr. Korvusar. I had too many contradictory emotions to come up with something to say at that moment.

“Yeah,” Saahna replied. “It was an old squad mate of mine. Cavor Harkin. Looking exactly the same as I remembered him when I last saw him. Probably about 12 years ago.”

“Was he…” I started.

She nodded. “Yeah. He was one of the ones who volunteered for Operation Spoilsport.”

“What did he say?”

She looked away for a moment, then looked back.

“A lot of things he probably shouldn’t have. I guess he was remembering when we were in the unit together. After all, that was only a couple of months ago to him.” She sighed and looked away again.

“He asked how I was, was surprised I wasn’t Marine anymore, and kinda laughed at me being just the security officer on a Free Trader.” She frowned a bit at that. “Then he started telling me all about his assignment.”

“He was in the Project. Still is, apparently. He’s been in low sleep for most of the past decade or so, on an asteroid somewhere out in darkspace. They docked the ships to the asteroid rather than leaving them floating free.”

“Anyway, they woke them up a couple of years ago long enough to give them a briefing of the current state of the Galaxy and to upgrade them to and train them on the latest tech. And apparently they’ve got really high TL stuff.”

“They woke him and the rest of the unit up about two months ago, just after the news from Core got to them. They’ve been spreading out and monitoring since then. He’s currently on the Emerald Dawn, a 2kTon fast clipper; it wasn’t on the Downport because it can’t handle a ship that big.”

“They’re apparently at Boilingbrook on some hush-hush information gathering thing. After he told me that he apparently realized that he was saying too much and cut off.” She paused. “He did offer to tell me more if I went somewhere ‘more private’ with him, but I turned him down.”

“Oh?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

She gave me an annoyed look. “Don’t take any credit for yourself, Captain, it was…” Her expression changed to a frown and she stared into the distance. “We were bunkmates back in the Marines. Well, he was one of them. There’s only so much entertainment on the Marine deck of a naval cruiser and there’s a certain amount of stress when you know that your next drop could be your last. But yeah, we were… close then I guess.”

She turned to look back at me. “But… think about who you were and someone you were with ten years ago, then imagine you meet them again today. You’ve changed in those 10 years; you’ve experienced and learned a lot in that time. They… haven’t. They are exactly the way they were then. They don’t even have a different set of experiences from that time. They haven’t changed. Would you want to get back with them?”

It was my turn to look away. “I guess not.”

“You need to trust me, Derek.”

I looked back at her. “I do. I should have.”

We held each other’s gaze for a moment, then Varan coughed. “Captain, while I don’t want to interrupt you, we do need to do something about the passengers.” He held up his comm. “They’re getting pretty irritated in there.”

I nodded, sighing. “Yeah, we do. But do we even know what to tell them yet?”

There was a click from the comms. “Heya all,” came Jami’s voice. “I’ve been listening to what you’ve been saying. Do we have people from more than one secret group on board? I mean, Captain, the guy you planted the scanner for apparently put Shelly on board, so who put Gortor here? Or what gave the Boilingbrookers the idea that we were safe to carry Minister Trakon?

“Oh, and yeah. I’ve found two of those things down here in Engineering. They’re definitely where Gortor or his daughter would have placed them, not where I showed Shelly around. So Gortor is who planted the things. But… does that mean Gortor and Shelly are in on it?”

I sighed loudly, rubbing my eyes. “Maybe we should just leave everyone locked up.”

“Well… can’t we at least trust Minister Trakon?” Varan sounded as tired as I was. “If we’re making enemies we probably should make sure at least one world in on our side.”

I nodded. “Yeah, let’s start there. Who knows, he may know more of his own political climate and have some insight.” The others nodded.

“Oh!” I said, turning to Saahna. “You have your pistol on you as well?” She raised an eyebrow but pulled her gauss pistol out of a leg holster and handed it to me wordlessly.

I tucked it in the loop in the back of my jumpsuit then went to Trakon’s door and activated the intercom. “Minister Trakon?”

“Captain Kodai! What the hells is going out there!” He was angry. “If you think that eliminating me will somehow stop this treaty…”

“No, I don’t,” I said, cutting him off. “But apparently at least one of our other passengers thought differently. He has been… taken care of, but we had to make sure the rest of the ship was secure before allowing anyone out of their cabins. I’m taking your cabin out of lockdown. Be warned, we’ve had some… problems out here.”

I tapped the clearance code, the light on the console turned green, and I stepped back into the lounge. After a long moment the door hissed open and Trakon stepped out, looking around.

His eyes fell on Gortor’s body. “Oh,” he said tightly. “I see. Perhaps you can tell me what has been happening?”

I looked around at the others, then back to Trakon. “We… I… should probably start at the beginning.”

Dr. Korvusar looked startled at that. “Captain…” she said, cautiously, “Do you think that is wise?”

I turned to her. “Doctor, I’ve gotten myself into enough trouble by withholding information from people who could have helped me. Minister Trakon is one of the highest-ranked sophants on Boilingbrook. Someone has tried to kill him; someone I may have inadvertently helped. I’m not keeping secrets anymore.”

I turned back to Minister Trakon, who was now looking at me with concern and slight anger. “Captain?”

I sighed. “This… may take a while.”

He frowned. “I do have patience. Limited patience.”

I nodded. “Understood.” I then launched, for the second time that day, into the story of everything that had happened and what I had done since picking up that datastick back on Fugitak. I then told him what I had since learned from Dr. Korvusar and Saahna about the two Imperial secret programs. I saw Dr. Korvusar frown as I did but she made no attempt to stop me. The others said nothing.

“So that’s where we are,” I finished. “I have no idea what Gortor was up to, or who he really is for that matter. But when he pulled a gun on me there was only one way it was ending. Ms. Tharis and the Gortors are still in their cabins, probably wondering what is going on as much as you were. I’m sure the Gortors have at least some idea. I don’t know how Ms. Tharis fits into all of this now.”

Minister Trakon’s expression had shifted from anger to concern to interest to thoughtfulness as I talked. When I finished he held up a hand and looked at the ceiling for a long moment.

I took the opportunity to finally open that beer I had stuck in my pocket what now seemed so long ago. It was warm, but I still drained half of it in one gulp.

“I know about Mr. Former,” he said finally, looking down and around at us. “He seems to share many of the same views as I and my supporters do, though he has no formal affiliation with us. We know he has a large number of resources. Actually,” he said with a laugh, “we thought he was an Imperial Agent.”

“I don’t know for sure,” said Dr. Korvusar. “But I had reason to believe that he was trustworthy. Based on my contacts on Boilingbrook anyway.”

“You could have mentioned that earlier,” said Saahna, sounding irritated.

“Your Captain may have some trouble with the concept of ‘operational security’. I don’t.”

“I don’t suppose you could share what your contacts told you?” asked Trakon, also sounding irritated. “Or who they are, for that matter.”

She shook her head. “If you want that sort of information, I suggest you contact the Imperial Consulate on Boilingbrook. It is on the Capital floater, I believe.”

He glared at her but she simply returned his gaze with a neutral expression. Eventually he sighed.

“All right, fine. We’ll discuss this later.” He turned back to me. “What do you think, Captain?”

I had been trying to figure that out myself. I sighed and finished my beer as I gathered my thoughts.

“OK, I think we got ourselves caught between two Imperial conspiracies. Let’s call them the Embers and the Spoilsports.” Dr. Korvusar started to say something but I held up a hand. She hesitated, then shrugged.

“The Embers are looking for individuals, or crews, that they think support their agenda, even if they don’t know what that agenda is or even that it exists. They picked us and the datastick was a test. Or, perhaps an indication to one of their agents, Jestin in this case, that this person is one of the ’embers’. That was the real reason for the datastick.”

“We get to Boilingbrook and deliver the stick. That puts us on the Ember’s sensors. But then the Spoilsports get involved.” I turned to Saahna. “When you were talking to your old bunkmate, did you mention me taking the stick to the Uptown Downport?”

I saw she was irritated by the question but her voice was neutral. “Yeah, probably. I was a bit annoyed at you hauling us all the way over there and Cavor picked up on it.” She tilted her head. “And I didn’t know I was supposed to be keeping secrets, remember? ’It was just a routine delivery’.”

I waved a hand. “No, I’m not blaming or accusing you of anything. I thought it was more weird than suspicious at that point myself. But, that explains how the Spoilsports learned about us.”

I looked around the room again. “Saahna’s old squad mate goes back to where ever the Spoilsport crew is staying and tells them about meeting her. He hasn’t been on Boilingbrook long, but some other members of that group probably have and so know who Jestin is. Or at least what the rumors of what he is are. Maybe they miss the bit about me delivering the datastick completely and just know we were at the Downport. So, they approach me the next day.”

“I eventually plant the scanner for them, but they don’t realize I told Jestin about it first. To them this indicates that I’m not involved with the Embers, because otherwise why would I scanner one of their bases of operation? So they think I’m just an ordinary Free Trader and give us the ticket they promised. We wind up with Ms. Tharis.”

“So she’s one of them,” said Minister Trakon.

“Actually, I don’t think so.”

“You would,” said Saahna in irritation.

I shook my head. “No. It makes sense. The Spoilsports think we’re uninvolved. So they would send us someone unconnected to them. She said she got her ticket from her on-net patrons. Someone just dumped the money for it. That way, if we are suspicious about something, we’re looking at her instead of someone else. Like the Gortors.”

Saahna kept looking at me, then sighed. “Yeah, that makes sense.”

“I agree,” said Jami over the comm. “She was completely wide-eyed at being on the ship and seeing everything. If she’s putting on an act, she’s really good at it.”

“She is putting on some kind of act,” I said. “But she’s not that good.”

“OK then,” asked Varan. “So who is Gortor then?”

I smiled. “That’s the problem with conspiracies. Keep too many secrets and one half doesn’t know what the other half is doing. When I told Jestin about the scanner I also pretty much told him I was on the same side as him. I didn’t know the Embers even existed, but I told him I basically had the same ideals as them. So, we get taken further into their conspiracy without us knowing it.”

“The Boilingbrook government needed a ship to secretly carry one of their officials to Kupakii. And a ship that a probable Imperial agent has just decided would support that official just happens to be going to Kupakii in a few days. So, someone makes the decision that the Grayswandir would be a good ship for their high minister to travel on.”

Saahna saw where I was going. “But there was a leak, somewhere. Someone, maybe not even the same people Cavor talked to, find out that Minister Trakon is going to be on our ship. At any rate, they missed connecting it to me or you.”

“Or they did,” I said, “and thought they could close another potential leak at the same time.”

Minister Trakon nodded slowly. “I must agree. Based on everything you have told me, that is the most likely situation. But, how was Gortor planning on getting off the ship at Kupakii?”

I shook my head at that. “I don’t know. Either he is expecting to be met by another ship there or he was going to somehow blame Ms. Tharis or one of us for killing you. Or maybe he was planning to make it look like an accident of some kind occurred. They had their scanners all over the ship and they somehow got enough of my access to make it look like I had authorized their transmissions. There are several options.”

Saahna nodded. “Yeah. I need to make a security sweep of the system, especially your access. And I guess I’ll man the turrets when we leave jump, just in case.” She turned to look at Varan. “Sorry, one more time in the gimbal.”

He raised his hands. “Hey, I’d rather my first time running it for real not be an actual combat.”

She turned to me. “And we need to figure out how he authorized those transmitters. And what else he authorized.”

I shook my head. “Gods! What a mess.” I looked up. “Gray, give full permissions to my access to Saahna, then lock me out until she restores it.”

There was a pause. “Done,” came her voice. “Lt. Denan, you now have full access to me and the ship.”

“Thanks Gray,” she said. “First, lock all records since we left dock on Boilingbrook in permanent archive. No one and nothing changes or deletes those unless all crew members agree. Same goes for any further records until told otherwise. Confirm.”

“Confirmed.”

She sighed. “OK, now we don’t have to worry about losing our evidence of what happened.”

“Assuming someone hasn’t wiped it already.”

She shrugged. “Things have been happening pretty fast, and Gortor didn’t have time to do anything after we caught him.”

“What about the rest of them?” asked Varan, gesturing towards the cabin doors.

“Systems in there are isolated from the rest of the ship,” I reminded him.

“Are we sure of that?”

“Not sure enough,” said Saahna with concern. She shrugged the gauss rifle off her shoulder and leveled it at the door. “Gray, open door to cabin 4.”

I pulled the gauss pistol out as well and saw Varan produce a snub pistol from somewhere as the door hissed open. I hadn’t known he had one. Dr. Korvusar and Minister Trakon both backed away.

Saahna was the only one of us who had a clear look in the cabin. I saw her eyes widen in shock and she fired almost immediately. I heard the pop of a body pistol firing and saw the impact on her CES as she dived to one side.

For several long seconds there was silence. I yelled out. “Dame Gortor! There’s nowhere you can go! It’s over! Come out!” There was no reply.

“Jaya isn’t Jaya!” Saahna hissed at me. “We’ve got to stop her!”

I had no idea what she meant. “Gray! Shut down everything in cabin 4!” Nothing happened. Then I remembered I had locked myself out.

Saahna remembered too. “Gray! Shut down cabin 4.” She paused. “And kill passenger deck gravity!”

I immediately felt as if the floor had fallen away beneath me. I spun in place to see Saahna gently side-stroke the deck and drift into line with the door again. She fired, expertly bracing her movement with one knee as she did, though the recoil started her sliding backwards. I heard the pop of the body pistol again and saw the round splat against the far wall. There was a cry of surprise from the cabin; apparently Dame Gortor wasn’t familiar with zero gravity. Saahna shifted her aim slightly and the cry turned into a gurgle. She then resumed her firing at her original target continuing until her clip was empty and the recoil had pushed her to a stop against the opposite wall.

She quickly swapped clips then carefully floated up, looking in the cabin. “Gray,” she said, finally. “Restore gravity and cabin 4.”

I dropped to the deck a bit harder than I expected; I hadn’t been paying attention and had floated higher than I had realized. Still, I followed Saahna as she moved into the room. As I entered the doorway, I stopped and took an involuntary step backwards.

“What the hells?” I heard an equally shocked Varan behind me.

Dame Gortor was leaning against the far wall, leaning over in pain while blood leaked down her left shoulder and arm. But that wasn’t the thing that caught my attention.

Jaya stood, or slumped upright, in the middle of the bunk; chunks ripped out of her body from the sustained fire from the gauss rifle.

She wasn’t human. Or anything alive.

Beneath her skin was a smooth surface of synthetic over a composite fiber framework. Parts of it were opened and fiber optic cables spooled from it, connected to multiple places around the cabin where consoles had been removed to provide access to the internal circuitry. Fluids from internal hydraulics and fluid-state switches dripped from it onto the bunk.

Even with the damage the… robot kept trying to move. The head, half-torn off and hanging to one side, was still trying to form words but with no air pressure its lips just moved silently.

Recovering, I stepped forward, raising the gauss pistol and aiming it directly at the head.

“Don’t!” said Saahna, standing up with the body pistol and moving towards me. “If there’s enough left of the positronic, we might be able to find something out from it.” She pulled a blade from a leg sheath and swiped at the neck, severing the last of the connections and causing it to fall to the bunk.

The rest of the body stopped its movement but the lips on the head continued to move. I saw one eye, still functioning, turn to look at me. I ripped the sheet free and threw it over it.

“Damn robot!” said Varan, stalking into the room. He looked at the fiber optics stretched across the room. “Who knows what they were able to get into. Or how far they got.” He looked at the connections then tapped his comm. “Jami, you might want to look at this too. And bring my electronics kit up with you.”

“Sure thing!” she said. “I’m tired of missing all the fun down here.”

I laughed at that, suddenly realizing how tense I had gotten. “I’d just as soon miss this kind of fun.”

Saahna had turned her attention to Dame Gortor; still holding a hand to her ruined shoulder but now looking up at us.

“You won’t get away with this!” she hissed painfully. “Attacking an Imperial Knight and his family…”

Saahna cut her off. “Drop it. Hijacking is a capital offense everywhere. Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t just kill you now instead of letting them hang you on Kupakii. They’re a client state, and you know what the penalty for hijacking is. Hells, we could toss you out the airlock into Jumpspace right now and be completely within our rights.”

Despite the pain she must have been in, she sneered at us. “You have no idea how many enemies you’re making.”

“Yeah? Tell them to join the list.” She turned and glanced at me, then looked to the cabin entrance. Dr. Korvusar was standing just inside the door and I could see Minister Trakon looking in from behind with a worried look.

Jami appeared in the doorway. “OK, I got your kit and mine and… Vargr shit, what is that!”

“That’s what I need you to tell me,” I said, looking around. It was way too crowded in the cabin. “Doctor,” I said, moving back into the lounge. “Would you mind examining ‘Dame Gortor’ here? I don’t want her to be able to complain at her trial that we only let a robot examine her.” I paused. “Though she seemed to like having one as a daughter well enough.”

“Of course, Captain,” she said with a smile. She entered the cabin as I left.

“Varan,” I said, “wait out here until we get her out. Saahna, you keep an eye on her. Doctor, when you have her stable take her out here and we’ll let Varan and Jami find out what they can from that… thing.”

“That ‘thing’ is my daughter!” I heard Dame Gortor yell, anger overriding pain. “And you killed her!”

I turned back to her. “I turned off a machine that was interfering with the operation of my ship!” I said, my own anger starting to set it. “Now shut up or you can yell from the airlock.” I turned and crossed the lounge where I collapsed into a chair. The adrenaline surge was over and I was suddenly tired.

I pulled up my comm. “Do’rex? Still with us.”

“Yes Captain,” he replied. “Is everything under control now?”

“Mostly,” I said. “Can you handle the ship on manual for a while?”

I heard a click of surprise. “Yes, probably. There is little to actually do in jump. Why?”

“I don’t know how far the Gortors got into our systems. Or what surprises they left for us. I don’t want life support to suddenly shut off or something. Disconnect the computer. Everything should be fine on its own for a while, we’ll just have to watch it ourselves until Saahna does a complete sweep of the system.”

“Understood,” he clicked in acknowledgement. “But it would be easier if someone else was down here as well.”

“Yeah, I got it. I’ll come down as soon as I finish up here. We still have some loose ends to take care of.” He clicked again and cut off.

I sighed and leaned back. Varan appeared next to me, holding out a bottle.

“Thanks,” I said, popping the top. “Be sure to get one for yourself as well.”

“Ahead of you,” he replied, holding up one of his own. “I think we’re all due for one.”

“Or several,” I said. I stood up and turned to Minister Trakon. “Well, I don’t think you’ll be able to say you had a boring trip.”

He smiled politely at that. “No Captain, I can’t. More seriously, I will be sure to give a commendation to you and your crew. All of you handled this… situation quite professionally.”

I shook my head. “If you consider this ‘professional’, I’d hate to see what you think an amateur crew looks like.”

“I disagree,” he said. “If I may intrude slightly, I know there is a certain amount of stress between you and your crew. I had realized that even before you told me of the events of the past few weeks. But…” he held up a hand as I started to reply, “But the moment this crisis appeared all of you immediately came together to resolve it. No questioning. No hesitation. All of you worked together professionally.”

“Um… thanks?” I said.

He laughed and shook his head. “You underestimate yourself, Captain.” He looked around. “All of you do.”

“Yeah, I guess.” I looked around as well. “OK, now what.”

Varan cleared his throat. “Um…” he pointed towards Sherry’s cabin.

I palmed my forehead. “Shit. Forgot Sherry.” I went over to the door and opened the comm. “Ms. Tharis? Sherry?” There was no reply.

I looked. The comm was still closed. “What the..?”

Varan laughed. “You locked yourself out, remember?” He came over and opened the comm, then gestured towards it.

“Sherry?” I asked.

“Derek!” It was almost a shriek. “What is happening? What is going on! Is everything OK?”

“We’re fine,” I said. “Everything is fine but we have had a… situation. It’s under control now, but you may want to remain in your cabin for a while longer.”

“No!” she shouted. “I need to be out! What is going on?”

“It’s… complicated.”

“Then let me out and tell me!”

I sighed and looked at Varan. “OK,” I said finally. “But, be careful when you come out. Oh, and there is a body out here.”

“What?”

“Sir Gortor managed to get even more obnoxious. He pulled a gun.”

There was a long pause. “OK,” she said, finally. “I still want to come out.”

I nodded to Varan and stepped back, pulling the gauss pistol out again. After the events so far today paranoia was starting to set in. “Your cabin is open.”

The door slid open and Shelly stepped out cautiously, looking around the lounge. She gasped when she saw Gortor’s body and again when she saw the weapons both Varan and I were holding. She stepped further out, the flybot following her.

“What happened?” she asked, looking around.

Minister Trakon stepped over. “Captain Kodai here and his crew stopped a hijacking. Quite professionally, I might add.” He turned and smiled slightly at me. “Oh, and they may have stopped an assassination attempt as well.”

“What! Why Derek, that’s incredible!” She ran over and threw her arms around me. “I knew you were a hero.” She surprised me with a firmly planted kiss.

“Definitely a hero in his own mind,” said Saahna, exiting the Gortor’s cabin with the gauss rifle leveled and trained on Dame Gortor, who in turn was being assisted in walking by Dr. Korvusar. Dame Gortor’s face was still contorted in a mixture of pain and rage. They led her to a recliner and let her lie down.

“You will not get away with this Captain,” she said, coughing.

“That recliner is a lot more comfortable than the airlock,” I replied without turning. She said nothing more.

“Ms. Tharis,” Minister Trakon was saying. “I… We…” he gestured towards me, “need to talk to you about a few things.”

Her face clouded. “What? Why? Do you think…” She turned me, confusion changing to fear. “Derek! Do you think I’m a hijacker too! Are you… are you going to shoot me!”

She looked around nervously, starting to back towards her cabin again. I could tell she was about to fall into panic so I held up my hands and gave her my best “negotiations are going well” smile.

“No, we don’t think you are, or that you have anything to do with all this.” I gestured around the cabin. “But we… we think the person who bought the passage for you did. We want to know what you know about them.”

“You mean WhisperDayle?” She frowned. “But he… he’s been one of my followers for a long time. A big supporter. He… he couldn’t be involved!”

“That’s what we’re trying to find out,” said Minister Trakon. “Can you help us?”

“Minister Trakon?” said Saahna, walking our way while still watching Dame Gortor. “We can talk to Ms. Tharis. No need for you to get involved.”

“But I am, aren’t I,” he said, an edge in his voice as he turned towards her. “It appears that I was the target of this plan. I think that makes me involved.”

“Yes,” said Saahna, trying to stay polite. “But that involvement could also be seen as a bias. We have a mess here that we’re going to have to explain when we get to Kupakii, so we need to make this as clean as possible. You may have been the target, but you are also one of our passengers; that means we are responsible for you.”

He held her gaze for a long moment, then nodded. “Yes. I do see your point.” He looked around. Varan and Jami had entered the Gortor’s cabin so Saahna and I were the only crew left in the lounge. “Very well, Captain.” He turned to look at me. “I would like to be informed of what you find, if that is all right?”

I nodded. “Certainly, Minister.”

He nodded in return. “Thank you, Captain.” He looked over at Saahna again. “Thank you all. Now, if you do not mind, I will return to my cabin so my presence will not affect what you find out.” With a final nod he left the lounge.

I turned to Saahna. “Do we need to annoy him too?”

She sighed, tilting her head at me. “He’s a good enough politician to know that his being part of any interrogation would be bad for everyone involved. He’s upset right now. Hells, we all are. But he’ll calm down. Trust me, I’ve played bodyguard to enough VIPs to know how they think.”

“I hope you’re right,” I said, then turned back to Shelly. “He is right though, we do need to know about your follower. WhisperDayle?”

She nodded slowly, “I… I suppose so.”

“OK,” I said. I looked around. Both Dr. Korvusar and Dame Gortor were looking in our direction.

“And it may be better if we avoid sharing too much information around. Let’s head down to the crew lounge.”

Saahna frowned. “I’d like to be there for that too, but I don’t want to leave Dr. Korvusar up here alone with her either. And what are we going to do with her anyway? We can’t just leave her up here.”

I shrugged. “Once Varan and Jami are done we’ll reconfigure for a single cabin and lock her in there. As for him,” I gestured towards Gortor’s body. “We’ll toss it and what’s left of the robot in a freezer compartment in cargo.” Saahna nodded agreement.

“And do not be concerned about me,” said Dr. Korvusar. “I am quite capable of handling my patient here. Especially if you allow me to use that somewhat formidable weapon you are holding.”

I frowned, then walked over and handed her the gauss pistol. “I thought you were a medic?”

She smiled. “That just means I know the most vital, or painful, points to aim at.”

I nodded. “Good enough.” Then, to the others, “Let’s go downstairs.”

A few minutes later Shelly, Saahna and I were in the crew lounge. I had grabbed another beer and handed one to Saahna. I looked at Shelly.

“Want one?”

She hesitated, then nodded. “I usually try not to drink when I’m on-camera, but I can edit this out.”

“You could just turn them off too.”

She hesitated again, opening the bottle I gave her as she thought. Then, with a sigh, she reached up and turned off her head-mount.

“Swoopy!” she said, addressing the flybot. “Go to standby.” It beeped and dropped to a few centimeters from the floor.

“Swoopy?” I asked.

“Yeah?” she replied, raising an eyebrow.

“Never mind. So, who bought you this ticket?”

“WhisperDayle, one of my followers. Look, I don’t even know what is going on! Sir Gortor tried to hijack the ship? And kill Minister Trakon? What does that have to do with me?”

I sighed, and launched into my explanation of things for the third time, Saahna jumping in from time to time with her information. Shelly’s expression slowly shifted from concern to interest to near enthusiasm by the time we finished.

“Wow!” she said when we finished. “That’s… like something from a net drama or something! I should have recorded that!”

I shook my head. “No, you probably don’t want to be telling too many people about this. Hells, there’s a good chance that we’ll all be targets now; whoever was behind Gortor probably won’t be happy that we messed up their plan.”

“They won’t be,” said Saahna. “We’re all going to have to be on our toes for a while.”

Shelly froze. “But… that… what?” Her enthusiasm was replaced by worry again. “But… when I go back home…” She shook her head. “I didn’t want to be involved in anything like this! I just wanted to listen to the sky!”

I frowned. “OK,” I said, trying to change the subject to distract her “I’ve heard you say that several times now, but I have no idea what you are talking about.”

She shook her head to clear her thoughts. “I’m not surprised,” she said, finally. “Most humans haven’t heard of it. Do you know who the Outcasts are?”

I frowned, thinking. “They’re a minor race rimward of here, right?”

She nodded. “Yeah. They call themselves the Outcasts of the Whispering Sky. They don’t have a sense of hearing; they communicate by flickering bioluminescence. Before they gained civilization they thought the flickering light from the stars was the sky trying to talk to them. So, they tried to assign meaning to the flickering of the stars to try to understand what the sky was telling them.”

I smiled. “I bet that was an embarrassment to them when they got space travel.”

She frowned. “Just because you were wrong doesn’t mean that you were wrong. We know that the Ancients transplanted pre-humans from Terra to a lot of other planets, but that didn’t mean every planet’s creation myths were wrong.”

I raised an eyebrow. “It didn’t?”

She laughed. “People believe things because it helps them. To some it brings peace. To others it gives them an excuse to feel better than others. And to some it is a call to knowledge.”

I didn’t get what she was driving at. “So…”

She sighed. “The Outcasts thought the stars were whispering to them and they tried to understand what they were saying. Of course they eventually figured out the stars were just other suns like their own, but by then they had internalized the idea that the universe held secrets that it wants to tell them about; they, and we, just need to learn how to listen.”

She waved around the lounge. “Every place on Boilingbrook is like this. Inside. Some of the floaters are huge, but they’re still enclosed.”

“There are balconies. You can go outside. At the altitude the floaters stay the temperatures and pressure are within human range. But you have to wear a breather; the atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide that high up. You can’t really look at the sky.”

“That’s where WhisperDayle comes it. My netcast is about learning and exploring. I actually went to university to become a teacher, but I started netcasting while I was there and decided I liked it. I’m still ‘teaching’, but to a much larger audience.” She smiled slightly. “I call it ‘listening to the sky’ because that’s the metaphor I use for learning. I teach that when we learn something new we’re ‘listening to the sky’. But… I’ve never really seen the sky.”

She frowned. “I’ve gone out on the balconies a few times without a breather. Really quick. Just to look up. But I wanted to really see it and said as much on my netcast.”

“WhisperDayle started this donation drive of ‘Let’s send Therry to see the sky!’. They had been slowly gaining credits then, earlier this week in fact, someone suddenly donated several thousand credits to get me here. And here we are.” She frowned. “I can’t believe WhisperDayle would be involved in something like this.”

Saahna frowned. “When did he start this collection drive?”

Shelly thought. “About two or three months ago?”

“That was way before any of this even started. Hells, that’s barely after news of the assassination got out here. Do you know who made that last big donation?”

“No. WhisperDayle would, maybe. He didn’t say.”

“It may have been the Gortors,” I said. “He knew about you, and his… ‘daughter’ was apparently one of your followers.”

She shrugged at that. “I guess? I told her I remembered her but…” She held out her hands helplessly. “I couldn’t tell someone I thought was a follower that I didn’t know who she was.” She shook her head. “Was she really a robot?”

“Yeah, fooled us too.” I thought a bit. “The Spoilsports needed something to offer me to get me to plant the scanner, so they send me a High Passenger. You show up, the robot immediately pretends to recognize you, and Gortor almost as immediately starts an argument with you. That puts the entire crew on alert, but we’re focusing on them and you. We aren’t paying attention to his interactions with Minister Trakon.”

Saahna nodded. “Yeah. And it also gave them an excuse to keep Jaya locked in their cabin so she could start interfacing with the ship’s systems. Dame Gortor was probably working on that too.”

I sighed. “They had this planned. We got lucky by checking the crew lounge just in time.”

“I hate depending on luck though,” she said. “We’ll have to be more careful going forward.”

“I thought all of you were leaving at Kupakii?”

She turned a level gaze on me. “OK then, you’ll have to be more careful going forward. Better?”

“Yeah,” I said, turning back to Shelly. “Is there anything else you can tell us?”

She shook her head slowly. “I really don’t know anything else. I didn’t know any of this was happening!” She closed her eyes. “And now people are after me too? What can I do?”

I sighed. “I don’t know. We’ll try to think of something.”

The iris overhead opened and Jami came down the ladder, looking upwards. Behind her came a utilitybot carrying Gortor’s body. She turned and saw us.

“It’s all disconnected, Captain. That thing was way deep into the circuits; some of those fibers ran a dozen meters or more. I’m pretty sure we got them all out though. What do you want us to do with the robot?”

“Keep the head,” said Saahna. “Toss the rest in the recycler.”

“Or toss it into Jumpspace,” I said. “I’m not sure I want that thing on the ship anymore.”

She shrugged. “That works too.”

“Do that,” I said. “Just eject it. Lock the head in a spare cargo crate with Gortor’s body. We’ll let someone on Kupakii deal with it.”

Saahna frowned. “Yeah, hopefully we’ve got enough evidence that we won’t get thrown into jail the second we land.”

“We need to land first,” I said. “We still don’t know how the Gortors planned to get off the ship.”

“Yeah. Or what they’ve done to the systems. In fact, I think I need to start looking into that.”

Jami nodded. “Once I get this taken care of I’m going to start checking engineering.” She motioned to the utilitybot. “Come on, let’s get the trash put on ice.” It followed her into the cargo bay.

“Can I…” started Shelly. “Can I go back up to my cabin?”

“If you want,” I said. “Unless you want to wait until everything is cleaned up upstairs.”

She shook her head. “No, I’d kinda like to be away from everything so I don’t have to deal with stuff like that.” She gestured after Jami.

I nodded. “Got it.”

She smiled weakly. “You’ll come check on me later, won’t you Captain? Derek?”

I smiled. “Sure. Right now though, I need to go help Do’rex up on the bridge.”

“No you don’t,” said Saahna. “You’ve got no access to anything, remember?”

I grimaced. “Someone needs to help Do’rex. Running on manual is really a two-person job.”

She shrugged. “Then I really need to check the computer system, don’t I? In the meantime, you can walk Ms. Tharis to her room.” She smirked at that last bit. I just sighed.

“OK,” I said, turning to Shelly. “I guess you get the Captain’s escort after all.”

She nodded, worried look still on her face. “Thank you, Derek.”

We went back up the ladder. The passenger lounge was almost back to normal; one of our repairbots was already working on the damaged consoles while a cleanerbot had almost gotten the blood of of the deck. Dr. Korvusar was in a chair, a glass of wine in one hand and the gauss pistol in the other. Dame Gortor seemed to be asleep.

I walked Shelly over to her cabin and the door hissed open. She turned, but didn’t quite make eye contact.

“I’m sorry Derek,” she said. “But I really do want to spend some time to myself. I need… I need some time to think about all of this.”

I nodded. “Sure, I understand. I wasn’t expecting anything more.”

I saw her imperceptibly relax. Then, still not looking directly at me, she gave me a quick hug then backed through her door. It slid shut and the “Privacy” light almost immediately went on.

I sighed and slumped slightly. I actually wasn’t sure what I had been expecting when I had come upstairs. I shrugged. A lot of us had a lot to think about after today.

I turned to see Dr. Korvusar looking at me.

“She’s handling this surprisingly well, I think.”

I shrugged. “All of us are doing the best we can.”

She nodded. “Yes, but all of us have been Travellers for some time. We know how things can be out here. Ms. Tharis? This is her first time off-world. And she’s less than a year out of university. There’s a lot we take for granted that she doesn’t yet.” She smiled. “She’ll be a good Traveller someday.”

“Yeah, if any of us live that long.” I dropped into a chair nearby. “Did you manage to hear anything she said?”

She nodded. “Yes, your Lieutenant Denan was broadcasting it over the comms. I guess all of you are taking this ‘no secrets’ directive of yours seriously.”

“Good,” I said. I pointed to Dame Gortor. “She say anything?”

“Just her threat that all of us are doomed!” she replied with mock seriousness. “Then she fell asleep. I might have accidentally given her too much of a sedative; I’m afraid she’ll be unconscious for the next several hours.”

“Accidentally?” Her only response was a raised eyebrow.

“Captain?” came Varan’s voice from the Gortor’s former stateroom. “Since you aren’t doing anything else out there, do you think you can give me a hand?”

“Sure.” I entered the cabin.

The fiber optic cables that had been connecting the robot body to the ship had been removed and were scattered across the deck, along with several dozen bits of circuits and machinery. The bunk and most other fixtures had been retracted and half the wall panels were disconnected and leaning against the outside bulkhead. Varan was in the process of detaching another with the aid of the other utilitybot.

I looked around. “Where did you put it?” I asked.

He left the panel to the bot and turned to me. “As soon as you gave the word I chucked it off the ship. It’ll never bother anyone again. Jami and I got good recordings of it before we did, so we’ve got all the info from it.”

“Good. What about the head?”

He pointed to a corner. There was a ball of wadded bedsheets there, moving slightly.

“Wrapped it up in everything we could find. I don’t know how long it’s going to keep going without power. Jami’s getting a strongbox to lock it in.”

“Probably a good idea. Anything else?”

“We checked their room luggage. Nothing in it of any importance. We kept their idents, comps, comms and anything like that, then tossed the rest out the disposal too.” He smiled. “I’m not too concerned about Damn Gortor’s comfort.”

“With luck Dr. Korvusar will just keep her sedated until we get to Kupakii.”

He nodded. “Yeah, sounds good. Now, you want to help me with this?”

“Sure.”

Our passenger cabins were modular, allowing us to shift their size and count depending on the number of middle and high passengers we were carrying. Extra panels and furnishings were stored in what was otherwise wasted space between the outer cabin wall and the sloping external bulkhead.

The Gortor’s cabin had already been double-sized for we allocated to middle passengers, and all of the cabins had more space than normal since we didn’t have a full passenger load. We wound up with two cabins; a larger-than-normal one and one that was as small as we could make it and still have the modules connect.

“She can be happy in here,” I said, looking around.

Varan nodded. “She won’t be.”

“If she complains, remind her that her other option is the airlock.”

He nodded grimly. “Don’t tempt me.”

I sighed. “Well, I guess I’ll find some place to hang out for a while, since I can’t do anything until Saahna gives me the all clear on my access.”

He nodded. “Yeah. It shouldn’t take her too long. She’s good at that.”

I nodded and smiled slightly. “She’s really good. At a lot of things.” I paused. “You are too.”

He smiled at that and looked away. “Yeah, thanks Captain. Derek.” He paused.

“Tell you what,” he said, heading back into the lounge. “I’ll set you up with passenger access so that you can at least get something to eat or drink. You can hang out here or in the new cabin. We’ll come grab you as soon as Saahna gives us the all clear.”

I shrugged a bit helplessly. “Yeah. It feels a bit weird not having any control on my own ship.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.” He paused and looked away again. “Oh, one other thing, Captain.”

I frowned. “Yes?”

“Don’t… be too hard on Saahna, OK? Yeah, she’s angry, but I think it’s because she’s worried. About you.”

I laughed, bitterly. “Yeah, right.”

He looked directly at me. “Neither of you give the other enough credit. Do you know that?”

I sighed. “Let’s get this latest mess cleaned up before we go back to the old ones, OK?”

He hesitated, then nodded. “Yeah, sure. We’ll let you know when things are clear.”

“Sounds good,” I said, trying to sound far more upbeat than I was. “In the meantime, I’m going to use this as an excuse for a nap.” With that, I retreated to the now-empty cabin and let the door slide shut behind me.

As soon as I was alone I locked the door and leaned back against it. “Oh gods, what have I done now,” I said to no one in particular. I sighed and looked around, finally sitting on the edge of the bunk.

That datastick had gotten us into a huge mess. I rubbed my eyes. If I had only told everyone else what was going on, then none of this would have happened. We wouldn’t have had Minister Trakon or the Gortors on board. I supposed we would have still had Shelly. Or maybe they would have sent her on whatever that other ship would have been and we would have gotten someone else.

I crossed the cabin and lay down on the bunk. On the other hand, what would I have done differently? The datastick itself was innocent; there was no reason for us to even be suspicious of it. Planting the scanner? I sighed. Yeah, that’s where I started digging us in. And I wasn’t going to do it until I found out a bit more.

Then I picked a side. And that’s where we are. But I inadvertently had picked a side for everyone else on board. That was the problem.

I lay there thinking for a long bit. Finally I decided I needed to shut down for a while. I got up long enough to pull a sleepy-stick from the dispenser and soon drifted off.

I was slowly awakened by the repeated sound of the door chime. I groaned, I had forgotten to set privacy mode. But hopefully it was Saahna coming to tell me my access was back. I groggily stood up and opened the door.

“So, what did you…” I cut off. It wasn’t Saahna. Shelly was standing there.

“Hi Derek,” she said, weakly. “Varan told me you were over here. Can I… come in?”

I looked around. The lounge was empty. I shrugged. “Sure.” I stepped aside and motioned her in.

Once the door closed she stepped to the console and activated the lock and privacy, then turned to me with a warm smile. “I’m been wanting to have some alone time with you for a long time, Derek. I’m glad we finally got an excuse.”

I pointed to her head-mount imager. “Alone?”

She pulled the imager off and turned it to her own face. “Well listeners, I think… we’re going to keep this bit private. OK?” She smiled, lips parted and cutting her eyes to me. “Wish me luck.” With a wink she turned the imager off.

Putting it down, she came over and put her arms around me. “And now we’re alone, Derek.” She moved forward for a kiss.

I stepped back, taking her hands in mine. She looked at me in a mixture of hurt and surprise. “Derek?”

“You don’t want to do this,” I said.

She frowned and shook her head slightly. “What? Why not?”

I sighed. “No. Not like that. This isn’t something you want to do. I can tell. You would, but I can tell you don’t want it.”

She pulled her hands away and turned to look at the door. “Was it that obvious?” she asked finally, her voice soft.

I shook my head even though her back was to me. “No,” I said. “Not very. Most people wouldn’t have caught it. I’m just… good at reading people.”

She sighed and turned to me. “I was… I mean… I would have… I wasn’t trying to trick you or anything.”

“I know,” I said. I gestured towards the lone chair in the room. She sat and I dropped onto the edge of the bunk. “So… what was this about?”

She glanced away in embarrassment. “I… kinda set myself up.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve told you about my net stream. When you’re doing one of these streams you kinda have to create a ‘persona’. An exaggerated version of yourself that gives viewers something to latch onto.”

She looked at me and I nodded. She sighed and leaned forward.

“I created ‘Therry’ as a fairly adventurous person. More adventurous than I usually am, actually. That’s why I did things like go on a balcony without a breather mask. And I’ve kinda given the impression that I’m more adventurous in… other ways as well.”

I frowned. “What does that have to do with you being here?”

She looked away again. “I’m not involved with anyone. Not because I can’t find anyone, it’s more because I’m… just really not that interested in sex. I mean, I can, and I have, but… it’s not something I go out looking for.”

“Of course, most people don’t think that way, so there have been any number of attempts by my viewers to ‘Get Therry Laid’. I used to joke that I would, but only if I could find a ship’s captain so he could take me away.”

I laughed at that. “Then you got a High Passage.”

She looked down. “Yeah. After I had told everyone I was looking for a ship’s captain. So… what could I do?”

“Lie?”

She pointed. “I wear a camera all the time.”

“It’s off now.”

“Yeah, but I would know I was lying!”

I shrugged. “Then don’t. You want to be honest and tell your viewers you slept with me?” I lay back down on the bunk. “I’m going back to sleep. Feel free to take a nap with me if you want.”

She looked at me dubiously. “OK, I…”

I had already closed my eyes and was still feeling the effect of that sleepy-stick. “I’m only planning on sleeping. Gods know we probably all need some time to relax. That’s all that’s going to happen.”

There was a long silence, then I felt the bunk shift as someone got in on the other side. I slid over a bit to give her room.

“Thank you, Derek,” I heard her say.

“You’re welcome. Just be sure to tell your viewers how good I was.”

She laughed at that. “Deal.”

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