2950-08-30 – Tales from the Service: Filling An Officer’s Shoes

Though it seems the Navy is not yet willing to abandon forays into the Håkøya system entirely, this week it is being reported that several detachments of Fifth Fleet’s light cruisers and the more nimble heavy cruisers have returned to the outer Maribel system after simultaneous forays into the inner Nye Norge region. Other than Håkøya itself, most of the systems in this area are inhabited only by mining installations, and most of those outposts have probably been abandoned due to the risk of Incarnation raids.

The purpose of these forays was unclear, but probably it served mainly as a reconnaissance-in-force to gauge the level of Incarnation activity around Håkøya. Only the ill-fated mission to the Trond-Arud system has been publicized in any detail, and those details are grim: three light cruisers were lost, and the major ships that returned all suffered damage that will render them combat-incapable for some time. None of the four enemy cruisers present are thought to have been destroyed.

Coming so soon after the minor failure of the raid into Håkøya a few weeks ago, the action in Trond-Arud does suggest that the fleet’s cruisers are simply not equipped to fight their rough Incarnation equivalents.

[N.T.B. – There are three things of note which I’ve found in the reports from Trond-Arud.

Firstly, the cruisers seem to have been operating without their usual supporting; only a handful of the Navy’s fast fleet destroyers are reported to have been present. I can’t imagine why the remaining ships of each cruiser’s battle squadron were detached, but the action would certainly have gone better with them present. Were the ships dispatched to each of these systems similarly operating without support?

Secondly, the battle report suggests that the four Nate cruisers at Trond-Arud knew our ships were coming, including details of when and where. Their attack at the system outskirts couldn’t really be coordinated without that information. This is probably an indication that Incarnation spies are still operating here in Maribel.

Thirdly, the four light cruisers involved in this action were some of Fifth Fleet’s smallest; it’s hardly fair to put them in the same category as an Incarnation Tyrant-type. The heavy cruiser Badurad Page was the largest Fifth Fleet ship present, and it seems to have done better than the others. In terms of tonnage, Nate had a big advantage, even with fewer hulls.]

At the Colonel’s entrance, everyone in the barracks scrambled to line up and jump to attention. No command needed to be barked to the Marines; the glint of gold holographic insignias hovering over the newcomer’s shoulders was all they needed.

With an approving nod, Colonel Glass took a few steps down the long double line of Marines. There were thirty-six bunks on each side of the corridor, but only twenty-two of them had occupants on the left, and nineteen on the right. “I see you boys have settled in nicely.” He turned to his left. “Sergeant, have all of your troopers returned from shore leave?”

“No, sir.” Sergeant Hassan Russel shook his head without relaxing his stiff at-attention posture. He had just been promoted to Sergeant, and hoped he looked as intimidating with sergeant’s pips hovering over his shoulders as the man he had replaced. “Private Graner and Private Maslanka are due back on the next shuttle.”

“They’d better not miss their ride, then.” Glass turned around to face Sergeant Escarro, head of the opposite file. “And yours?”

“One in medbay, Colonel.” Escarro, far taller than Colonel Glass, stared straight ahead, not daring to look down to meet the officer’s gaze. “Reaction to local food.”

Glass nodded, folded his hands behind his back, then turned back towards the door. Hassan’s hope that the inspection would be perfunctory and brief died when the Colonel stopped well short of the threshold. “I just spoke with Lieutenant Yeung. They’re sending him back to the Core. He’s damned mad about it, but if the med-techs say that’s what he needs, then that’s what’s going to happen.”

In most units, talk of losing the commanding officer would have provoked a murmur, but the two files of Marines remained entirely silent, not having been given permission to stand at ease. Yeung had been their leader for longer than any of them except perhaps Sergeant Escarro had been in the unit. Losing him, even temporarily, was like being deprived of a parent.

“Most likely, Yeung will be back out here busting your asses in four to six months, but I can’t just leave you without a lieutenant for that long.”

At the Colonel’s words, huge Sergeant Escarro stood up somehow straighter. Hassan knew the man was anticipating a field promotion; there was no other candidate for the job.

“Nor do I want to fill Yeung’s shoes when he’s going to want them back.” Colonel Glass, with only the slightest glance toward Escarro, continued. “Until his return, my adjutant, Lieutenant Coughlan, will serve as your company commander. I trust I do not need to tell you how to obey her orders as if they were Lieutenant Yeung’s.”

At her name, the slight, lanky staff officer following Colonel Glass stepped into the barracks. Hassan didn’t even glance at her. Coughlan was well known among the ranks, mostly for being the biggest ego in the entire Twenty-First, and for having the absolute minimum combat experience possible to be a Marine officer. Coughlan, a staff officer, was rare among the already-uncommon women in the Marines for wearing makeup while on duty. She cared very much about her appearance, rarely got her feet muddy, and never got into a Rico suit if she could at all avoid it. When she did suit up, it was in one of the Twenty-First’s barely-armed, sensor-festooned electronic warfare suit, a machine that spent most of its time sitting behind the lines collecting data, jamming enemy signals, and generally doing anything except fighting the enemy.

Across from Hassan, Escarro’s face darkened, but his expression remained blank. No doubt, the senior sergeant had even more reason to be suspicious of Coghlan than Hassan did, and now he had one extra reason – she’d deprived him of advancement he probably thought he’d long since earned.

“This is, of course a temporary arrangement.” Glass, with a long glare at Escarro, walked down the line of Marines. “But reports of your behavior will be communicated to Yeung as soon as his recovery has advanced. Are there any questions?”

Of course, there were none, and Glass knew there wouldn’t be; he hadn’t waved them to ease yet. With a curt nod, the Colonel turned on his heel and marched out.

As soon as his retinue had followed, Lieutenant Coughlan palmed the control to close the door. Only when it had hissed shut did she wave the Marines to ease. “Let’s just make this as easy on each other as possible.” She folded her arms and leaned on the closed door. “I’m not Yeung, nor do I want to be. Sergeants, you know what this unit needs. My comms and my door are always open, but the less trouble you make for me, the less I need to be in your business. Are we all clear?”

Escarro snapped his right hand up into a sharp salute. Hassan followed suit, and soon the entire double row of Marines was doing the same. Coughlan’s position on the Colonel’s staff earned her a salute any time she crossed paths with the rank and file, Hassan felt like saluting her in Yeung’s place was somehow wrong.

“Good.” Coughlan returned the salute, and forty-one right arms fell away from the salute posture. “We’re on the training routine for the day after tomorrow. That means everyone lined up at dropship embarkation at zero four thirty. I’ll check on your sick man, Sergeant Escarro.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant.” Escarro managed to sound almost earnest.

With a suspicious, arched-eyebrow look at Escarro, then at Hassan himself, Lieutenant Coughlan made a quick exit.

As the door shut behind her, the men quietly returned to what they had been doing before the Colonel’s arrival. Hassan returned to his bunk and retrieved the reader slate he’d dropped. One by one, murmured conversations began to break out. Invariably, the Lieutenant’s name was involved in at least one of them.

“Oy, none of that!” Sergeant Escarro barked. “Another word against the Lieutenant, and I’ll put you in the medbay next to Haines.”

Hassan rolled his eyes, but the senior sergeant was right. Even if nobody liked Coughlan, she was their commanding officer now. It wouldn’t do for the men to be grumbling about their officers.

2950-08-23 – Tales from the Inbox: A Partnership Sundered

“I don’t understand, Ramie.” Livia, apparently cold even while wearing a smartfabric coat, hugged her arms close to her torso and leaned against the ship’s forward landing strut. “We’re still leaving him here, right?”

Ramiro nodded, grimacing. He couldn’t tell Livia about Mr. A.’s rotund friend. “I think things went the way he was hoping, more or less.”

“Then why do you want us to chase after him?” Livia frowned. “He paid you, didn’t he?”

Ramiro brightened. He wondered if Livia knew what he was doing, and had offered this lifeline to him. He hated everything about the situation, but he hated more what it would take to solve it. “He would, ah… not pay it to me. You’d better come and talk to him.”

“One of these days, we’re going to have to teach you to squeeze people properly.” Livia rolled her eyes. “Fine. Where’s he setting up camp?”

Ramiro pointed inland. “He’s in there.” Realizing the finality of that path, however, he dropped his arm. “But there’s no rush. Not like he’s going anywhere.”

Livia smirked and nodded, turning to look out over the ocean. As she did, a gust of wind swirled up from the water, carrying the strange yet eerily familiar scents of an alien ocean. Ramiro breathed deep, squared his shoulders, and stepped up beside her.

“You’re terrible at this game, Ramie dear.” Livia pointed along the coast to a shallow cove in the island shore not far away. “Come on. Let’s go have a look.”

Ramiro followed Livia silently as she picked her way down the crevasse-lined side of the rock formation on which his ship stood. As she stopped to look for a convenient way past a steep drop, he turned around to look back at Jen Daley. The ship’s high prow broadening to a squat, boxy hull stood out starkly against the reddish-brown hemisphere of Cinder filling the southern quarter of the sky, and another moon’s sharp crescent framed the ship’s main comms antenna array, which stuck up straight into the blue-green sky.

Livia nudged Ramiro, drawing his attention back down. “Just like you.” She raised one eyebrow. “Surrounded by paradise, but you can’t keep your mind off the ship and the sky.”

Ramiro shrugged as Livia slid down the rocks between a boulder and the main slope. “They say Madurai is the most beautiful planet humans ever found. I grew up hearing that, anyway. It was a relief to leave.” Taking advantage of his larger frame, Ramiro hopped down behind Livia, steadying himself with one hand on the lichen-crusted stone. “And it might be. But I always knew I’d leave.”

“A place can be paradise, but if it’s not your paradise, you’re not home.” Livia pointed to the pebbly strand below, where a flock of skittering creatures combed the surf. As Ramiro watched, the animals darted away from the human visitors, staying well out of reach. “This place is nice to look at, but it knows we don’t belong. It won’t remember us.”

“Then why do you want to come down here?” Ramiro offered a hand to help Livia hop across a crevasse.

“Just exploring.” With that, she stepped off the last shoulder of the towering rock formation and onto the pebbles of the beach. “Maybe there’s something here worth taking with us.”

Ramiro chuckled. “I hardly think this is a good place to dig for buried treasure.”

Livia stopped mid-stride, and Ramiro knew even though he couldn’t see that she was rolling her eyes. “That’s why you need me, Ramie. You’re positively blind to the economics of things.” Stooping, she picked up what Ramiro first thought was simply a stone, but when she held it up, he saw that it was a shell – or at least a shell-analogue – with three curving rays of sparkling pearly material projecting outward from a domed indigo central disk and spiraling around each other. “Pick up a hundred of these, and you could sell them back at Maribel for twenty credits each. Two hundred each if you lied about what planet they were from.”

Ramiro stepped forward and took the shell, turning it over in his hands. He’d certainly seen lesser curios sold for greater prices in spaceport oddity-shops. “I’m fairly certain collecting that many would break some law.”

Livia clapped a hand to her forehead. “See, that’s what I mean! Why would anyone know? Whose business is it unless you tell them?” Livia reached out and closed Ramiro’s fingers over the shell in his palm. “If you looked at things that way even a little bit, you’d have never needed my help.”

“And maybe if you’d looked at things like that less, you would have never needed mine.” Ramiro placed his other hand over Livia’s. She looked up at him curiously, her dark eyes steady. “Maybe it’s better things worked out the way they did.”

Livia nodded and flashed a lopsided grin. “Certainly keeps life interesting, anyway.” With that, she spun away and marched down the beach, her long hair flying crossways under the influence of the offshore wind.

Ramiro looked down at the shell one more time, tracing one of its curving rays with his thumb. “Livia, wait, there’s something-”

“Woah!” Livia’s startled shout drew Ramiro’s attention. He found her backing away from a short, portly figure who’d appeared in the underbrush above the beach. The little man’s genial smile did nothing to assuage her alarm. “Where in all hells did you come from?”

The little man pointed behind him. “About there.” He shrugged. “I did not mean to alarm or hurry you, but time has become… somewhat short. Unexpectedly so. Do conclude your goodbyes.”

“Goodbyes?” Livia turned to Ramiro. “You want us to leave? Fine. We’re leaving. Too cold here anyway.”

Ramiro shook his head. “Livia, you need to stay with him.” He fought a catch in his throat. “It’s the only way.”

“What do you mean?” Livia turned toward the little man. “Who is this guy anyway?”

“A friend.” The little man bowed smartly. “A friend who unfortunately has very little time.”

Ramiro stepped up to Livia’s side. “Do you trust me, Liv?”

“I…” Livia looked away. “You’ve never let me down. Not once.”

“I know what this is about, and I say, go with him.” Ramiro put his hands on her shoulders and turned her toward himself. “I won’t make you.”

Livia glanced over at the still-smiling figure, then back to Ramiro. “You’ll miss me, Ramie.”

Ramiro nodded. “Only until you come back. I’ll keep your things and berth ready for you on Jen Daley.”

Livia pulled Ramiro into a tight hug. “I’ll hold you to that.”

When Livia broke contact, she flashed Ramiro a smile, squared her shoulders, and turned back to the chubby man. “Hopefully you’ve got somewhere warm nearby.”

“Yes, yes.” The man bounded forward and held up a clear polymer card in front of Ramiro. “Take this.”

Frowning, Ramiro reached out and took the card. It looked like an ident-badge, but bore no markings around the sprawling gold chip embedded in its center, and the space left for an image of the identified person was printed was empty. “What is it?”

“Secure communications.” The little man gestured to Livia, marching a few steps back the way he’d come. “Do hurry, we should not be late.”

Livia turned back to Ramiro. From the subtle arch of her eyebrow, he knew she’d guessed what was happening. How much she could think about it before the circuitry took over, Ramiro didn’t want to speculate. “I’ll send messages if he lets me.”

“He’d better let you.” Ramiro glanced sidelong at the little man. He hadn’t forgotten what the man was, or what he was capable of. “Otherwise, there will be trouble.”

Livia nodded and turned to follow the little man. Just before she vanished under the shadows of the stooping trees, she glanced over her shoulder one last time. When she did, Ramiro thought he saw a tear glittering in the corner of her eye. Wincing, and wondering if he’d ever see Livia Farran again, he turned away and stared out over the crashing waves.

This concludes the account left for me by Ramiro, or at least by someone claiming to be him. I will not offer any interpretations beyond that this is, if true, the first confirmation of rumors that the Incarnation can corrupt the minds and bodies of people who fall into its orbit in very difficult to detect ways. That some arm of the Confederated military or intelligence apparatus has a program to undo this damage, even in part, is a heartening idea.

Naval Intelligence cleared this to be released, but would not comment on the veracity of the story, nor confirm to me whether such programs exist.

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

We’re getting some details about last week’s skirmish in the Håkøya outskirts. It seems to have been an aborted attempt to capture an Incarnation-controlled mining installation which Naval Intelligence thinks employs Confederated captives as forced labor. Incarnation cruisers met and repelled the force before it got there, resulting in the sharp action we reported last week. Fifth Fleet’s detachment fought well by all accounts and all its major ships returned to Maribel, but the failure of the mission to liberate our countrymen is still quite disappointing. 

Jen Daley, you are clear to begin atmospheric entry. Proceed to your landing coordinates along the provided descent course.”  

The bored Cyclone groundside controller’s voice startled Ramiro out of his agitated thoughts. He’d been worried about giving the local customs agency Mr. A’s false identity imprint, but apparently his worries had been overblown. Neither the passenger’s identity nor his intended landing site raised any concerns at the planet’s single spaceport. 

“Copy, control.” Ramiro transferred the course sent by the spaceport to the navigation system. “Beginning descent.” 

“Do remember to wish your passenger a good stay on Cyclone.” 

As the planet outside the cockpit viewpanels slowly rolled over from being nearly “above” Ramiro to being below him, he switched on the intercom. “We’re headed down. Liv, secure the lounge.” 

“On it.” 

Though the autopilot could handle most atmospheric entries on its own, Ramiro rested his hands lightly on the yoke and scanned the controls as the gravitic drive fought against orbital velocity and the ship dove belly-first into the planet’s atmosphere. Though Jen Daley reduced its velocity relative to the ground with its engines rather than via atmospheric braking, tongues of orange and yellow plasma still licked up on all sides, and the ship vibrated intensely. 

Within half a minute, a low booming rocked the ship and the plasma vanished, replaced by streaming vortexes of white mist. Between these, Ramiro could see mountainous ranges of clouds far below, and between them, a graceful sweep of small islands spanned a glittering emerald sea. 

On the horizon far to his left, a looming bastion of grey lit by fitful violet lightning flashes marked the edge of the Cyclone which gave its name to the world itself – a massive permanent super-storm at the south pole which regularly calved off smaller storms to rampage northward toward the equator. Mr. A. wanted to land more than two hundred kilometers from its outer rim, but for Ramiro, for whom bad-weather landings had become something of an ill omen, this was still far too close. 

As the ship swooped lower and passed the billowing top of one of the cloudbanks, Ramiro checked the ship’s sensors for any indication he was being pursued. This was something he’d never before thought necessary during a landing, and after he had left Cyclone and Mr. A. behind, he hoped to ensure that it would never be necessary again. 

When at last the ship circled low and passed over its landing site, a rocky outcrop on the coast of one of the islands, Ramiro breathed a sigh of relief. The island, barely four square kilometers of scrubby xenoflora and wave-crenellated rock, showed no sign of any other visitors. Mr. A. had assured Ramiro that he had made his own arrangements, and had left it at that.  

The whole business left Ramiro uneasy, least of all because he was doing very illegal things. Were it not for Livia, Ramiro would have been happy to drop the man off and burn for orbit at emergency speed. Only vague suggestions by Mr. A. that the local atmosphere might be good for Livia prevented it. Surely, that had to mean something – but he didn't know quite what. 

“Final landing approach.” Ramiro broadcast on the intercom “Kindly be seated.” 

In the end, the warning was hardly necessary; the stiff wind blowing over the outcrop caused Jen Daley to slide laterally a little as its landing skids touched down, but otherwise the landing proved smooth and uneventful. After a routine external air-quality test came up clean, Ramiro opened the air intakes and dropped the ramp. “Welcome to a very quiet corner of Cyclone. External temperature reads as thirteen Celsius, so do bundle up if you’re going out there.” 

With that, Ramiro secured the controls, idled the engines, and headed aft to lower the cargo elevator, Mr. A.’s two small crates of belongings standing forlornly in its center. 

Ramiro rode the cargo elevator down to the ground, which was technically a violation of its manual of operation. He knew not to take such things seriously. The manuals, after all, were written by people in comfortable offices back in the Core Worlds with a severe allergy to the sorts of dangers to human life which actual spacers blithely tempted every day. Compared to most of those, the risk of being jostled by the cargo elevator didn’t even register.  

When he stepped off, he found Mr. A. standing by the forward landing skid, and Livia hugging herself to keep warm halfway up the boarding ramp, her dark hair blown into a comet’s tail by the wind. She was wearing only her usual snug, thin shipboard fatigues, which though flattering to her figure, provided little protection against the elements. 

“I told you to bundle up!” Ramiro hopped off the elevator and picked his way over the wave-dimpled stone on which he’d landed his ship. 

“Thirteen C sounded quite nice until I got out here.” Livia shook her head. “Just keeping an eye on him.” 

Ramiro held out a hand to help Livia down off the end of the ramp. “Help me move his crates, then go back in and get a jacket.” 

Their passenger stood staring over the sea while Ramiro and Livia wrestled his two parcels off the cargo elevator and set them a safe distance from the landing skids. As Livia retreated into the ship to find something warm to wear, Ramiro walked up to stand next to Mr. A. The view, he had to admit, was quite stunning – between the greenish sea flecked with creamy white foam whipped up by the wind and the fantastic shapes of the faintly rosy clouds piled high on the horizon, and the dark gray rocks far below catching the waves and throwing them into the air in glittering spray, the place seemed less than real, a master’s painting come to life. 

“I have read old Earth stories of men who fell in love with the sea.” Now that he stood on solid ground, amid such desolation, Mr. A. seemed refreshed, less small, shriveled, or exhausted than he had even a few hours before. “Until now, I thought it merely poetic license. Are Earth’s oceans like this?” 

“A bit.” Ramiro glanced sidelong at his passenger. “I’ve only been there once, myself. We need to-” 

“The greatest heartbreak of beauty like this place,” Mr. A. turned to face Ramiro at last, a sly look glinting in his dark eyes. “Is that to possess it, a man must go the better part of the way to destroying it. He must put in a quay there,” He pointed down to a spit of land a few hundred meters along the shore. “A lighter hangar, perhaps, there.” Again, he pointed. “And into this rock he must drive the piers on which to build his home. When he is done, how much of the beauty he first found would remain?” 

Ramiro hesitated. Somehow, he knew Mr. A. wasn’t just talking about the scenery. “Construction wouldn’t remove the sea, the waves, or that storm on the horizon. Speaking of that-” 

“I wonder whether he would miss what the island was, before he touched it.” Mr. A. turned inland and gestured. “Come with me.” 

Ramiro glanced up at the empty boarding ramp, then followed. Mr. A. picked a path down the sloping lee side of the outcrop, into the scrubby plant-growths that clung to the rest of the little island. Though they’d looked low and tough from the air, Ramiro found most of their branches arched far over his head. 

Eventually, Ramiro’s limited patience won out over his waning curiosity. “Where are we going?” 

“Evidently, you have arrived.” 

This voice, high and reedy, came from behind Ramiro. He spun on his heel and reached for his gun, but the chubby little man standing on the path behind him held up his hands and smiled. 

“My friend, I did not expect you to come in person!” Mr. A. smiled. “You need not have troubled-” 

“Nonsense.” The chubby man made an expansive gesture. “They couldn’t possibly keep me away. Though I must ask, why, er...” He nodded toward Ramiro. 

Mr. A. opened his mouth, but grimaced and closed it again. “Let him tell you. I will retrieve what I have brought.” With a prompting gesture, the Incarnation turncoat hurried back up toward Jen Daley. 

The rotund man turned a quizzical look on Ramiro. “Yes, indeed, tell. You are not touched by our war.” 

At the words “our war”, Ramiro shivered and took a step back. This, he knew now, was another Incarnation Immortal – another who had freed himself from their grasp, apparently. Squaring his shoulders, he stood his ground. “How freely can I speak?” 

“Ah, you know about the override coding. You needn’t fear.” The little man tapped a sausage-like finger to his temple. “I have been quite reprogrammed.” 

Somehow, this didn’t reassure Ramiro. Still, he pressed on. “My partner... The Incarnation got ahold of her. Corrupted her mind, like yours was corrupted. Can you undo what they did?” 

The little man winced, though in sympathy or at the use of the word “corrupted”, Ramiro could not decide. “What the cyberneticists do cannot be undone. To disconnect or remove the implants would be fatal, but with care they can be... reprogrammed.” 

“Reprogrammed? Free her from one master just to put her under another?” Ramiro shook his head. “That seems hardly better.” 

“She cannot be told of the option herself, as you likely know. You must decide if we should take her with us.” The little man shrugged. “I could similarly not tell this to my friend, but I am no rogue. Those who reprogrammed me have a degree of official sanction of your government.” 

Ramiro nodded and turned away. “Will she be able to live with herself after she’s been... reprogrammed?” 

“That is up to her. I promise she will be no worse off, and there is hope for much improvement. Certainly, the override coding will trouble her much less.” 

Ramiro balled his fists. He didn’t want to trust Livia to these rogue Immortals, whether or not they had switched sides and enjoyed Confederated Worlds backing. He remembered, however, the helpless look in her eyes when she’d run up against something she simply could not say.  

Ramiro turned back to the little man. “If I find out she came to harm, no amount of official protection will save you.” 

“I will take that as you intend it.” The little man smiled widely. Though he carried no obvious weapons, Ramiro became immediately certain that this was the deadliest individual he’d ever permitted within arm’s reach of himself. “As a demand that I treat your friend well, as toothless as your threat is in truth.” 

Ramiro nodded. “Then I’ll go get her.” 

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.”