2950-08-02 – Tales from the Inbox: A Turncoat’s Parley 

There was a skirmish in the Håkøya system outskirts this week, pitting a group of Fifth Fleet cruisers against an outrunner squadron of Tyrants. I’ll admit I haven’t the faintest idea why those cruisers were there, but it seems to have been a draw – all of our cruisers made it home, but some of them were pretty smashed up, and they report the total destruction of one of their opponents and possibly damage to two others. No word on whether our ships’ objective was completed, whatever it was. 

This being the first large-scale engagement since the change in command at Fifth Fleet headquarters, I will reach out to those involved to find out if there have been any changes to tactical doctrine, and whether those changes, if any, contributed to the result of the action. 

Ramiro got up, his thoughts whirling indiscriminately, and covered his agitation by heading toward the wall-mounted locker holding his clean shipboard uniforms. As the top drawer slid open, he became conscious that he was still holding his gun. Slowly, he set it on top of the neatly folded tunics. Knowing what was sleeping in the next compartment, he hated to part with it, but if the little man was what Livia had said, a handgun wouldn’t be nearly enough to take him down, and a confrontation would be counterproductive in any case. 

“Ramie, don’t-” 

“Don’t what?” Ramiro squared his shoulders and gripped the edges of the drawer until its sharp metal edges dug into his palms. “I’m going to talk to our passenger.” 

“Listen.” The bunk creaked as Livia stood up. “The thin line he is walking... You don’t understand. If you say the wrong thing, you’ll wind up dead before either of you know what’s happening.” 

“All the more reason for you to stay here, Liv.” Ramiro shook out a fresh tunic and ran his fingers over the Jen Daley shoulder patch. “The ship’s systems will let you make a distress call.” 

Though Ramiro expected her to protest, to try to stop him, Livia said nothing as he shrugged the tunic over his shoulders and pulled on the matching pants and boots. When he turned to the door, he found her leaning against the bulkhead next to it, still wearing only her sheer night-dress, one long leg crossed over the other. 

“What do you hope he’ll tell you?” Livia was looking down at the deck, and Ramiro thought it odd that she wouldn’t look him in the eyes. 

“I don’t know.” Ramiro shrugged, looking away from her to avoid the distraction she was openly presenting. “I won’t be long.” 

Livia nodded slowly, but made no further response. 

Ramiro, tugging his tunic into place, stepped up to the door and keyed it open. Though the corridor lighting outside was set to the same brightness as the shared crew cabin, the air beyond seemed shadowy and sinister, polluted by the presence of an Incarnation assassin. 

“Ramie...” Livia grabbed Ramiro’s wrist as he stepped through. “I’m sorry I got you into this.” 

Ramiro turned back to her. Glancing at the distress written on her face, he decided to assume that she was being genuine, or at least, that she was trying to be. “It probably had to be me.” He grimaced, disliking how true this was. If she really couldn’t say what had been done to her, then she probably didn’t know anyone else who could have puzzled out the truth. How long had she planned to arrange a situation to tip him off? Had it been her goal way back at Philadelphia, when she’d called him and offered to repair Jen Daley in exchange for helping with her latest scheme? 

Livia released his hand and stepped back. “Be careful.” 

As the door slid shut between them, Ramiro turned to look at her one more time. This time, he let his eyes wander a little bit, taking in a snapshot of her figure barely disguised by her deliberately chosen, provocative sleepwear. There was something in her stance and eyes in that instant that he hadn’t seen before – a wild, unashamed sorrow and worry which he was almost certain couldn’t be faked. It was a look that made him want to return quickly, just to put her at ease. 

Since the recently-remodeled main cabin was just across the corridor from their own, Ramiro was at the other door in seconds. He could have forced it open with a command override, but instead he tapped the door-chime panel. 

“Is there some emergency?” The thin, reedy voice of the mysterious Mr. A. responded almost instantly, as if he hadn’t been sleeping, or as if his various digital implants had purged his mind of all shreds of sleep at the sound. 

“Sorry to bother you at this hour. Care to join me in the lounge for a drink? I can’t sleep and I’ve something on my mind that might interest you.” 

The door slid open, and the almost frail-looking figure of the passenger loomed inside. He was already fully dressed, as if he’d expected the interruption. “Of course, Captain.” 

Though Ramiro was significantly taller and many kilos bulkier than Mr. A., he fought the urge to shrink back from the little man. After all, if he trusted Livia, the man was a disillusioned defector from the Incarnation’s zealotry, with no interest in shedding more blood on behalf of their supposedly glorious cause.  

Ramiro led the way forward to the lounge, where the dim night-period lighting brightened to standard illumination at his approach. Keying in the special code on his wrist computer, Ramiro caused the wall panels concealing the ship’s tiny liquor stash to open. With an entirely unnecessary flourish, he plucked a half-empty bottle from its cradle, tumbled it end over end between his hands, and lobbed it over his shoulder across the compartment toward his passenger. A satisfying smack told him that the little man had caught it. 

Plucking two of the break-proof glasses from the stash, Ramiro turned around and set both on one of the lounge’s tables. “Do you take your whiskey neat, or do you want me to mix something?” He gestured to the bottle Mr. A. was holding. “I remember a few recipes from my bartending days back on Madurai.” 

Mr. A. read the label on the bottle. “Real Earth whiskey? Surely out here this costs a small fortune. Neat will do.” Gingerly, he set it down next to the glasses and eased into one of the chairs.  

“It’s not too expensive if you know the right people.” Ramiro shrugged, picking up the bottle and pouring a generous amount into each. He’d acquired a half-dozen of them before departing Philadelphia months earlier, courtesy of a friend who dealt in exotic Earth goods. 

Mr. A. leaned down to pick up one of the glasses, swirling it gently. Ramiro noticed his unoccupied hand twitching faintly, as if ready to draw and use a concealed weapon. “What is it you wanted to talk about, Captain?” 

Ramiro put the bottle away, then picked up his own glass and took a seat, all too conscious that he’d left his gun behind. “My partner seems to have taken a great risk to meet your... transportation needs. We need not discuss why.” 

“Indeed not.” Mr. A. raised one eyebrow, his sharp eyes scrutinizing Ramiro’s face despite the deep bags that still shadowed them. “I am grateful beyond words for her assistance, and yours.” 

“We aim to please aboard this ship.” Ramiro sipped his whiskey gingerly, noticing that only after he’d done so that his passenger raised the glass to his own lips. “The freedom to travel the stars is something my partner and I take very seriously, both for ourselves and our customers.” 

Mr. A. nodded. “I can understand this outlook, and I don’t doubt you are quite protective of your freedom. And your partner’s. Miss Farran seems quite the free spirit.” 

Ramiro grunted his agreement. “She can be, when circumstances admit.” He took another sip, savoring the taste in case it was his last. “She’s been a bit quiet lately, and I think maybe it’s something you can help her with.” 

The little man tensed briefly, then relaxed, and downed his remaining whiskey in one great gulp. As he did, Ramiro breathed a sigh of relief. 

“Women problems are not my domain, Captain.” Mr. A. shrugged. “But perhaps if you remain on Allenden a day or two after we’ve landed, her spirits might improve. I hear it’s a very beautiful place.”