Book: The View from the Imperium

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Next: Chapter 14

Chapter 13

“So,” Margolies asked, peering at me intently. His eyes were growing somewhat red around the irises from the liquor. “You don’t really have a job at home, huh?”

I began to reply, but Rous interrupted me.

“Nah,” the Gecko said, with a grin. “Butterflies, Imperial nobles are. Not literally.” He snapped his bony jaws around a chunk of pinkish melon and grinned at my discomfiture. Having proved himself a superior athlete and discovered that he outranked me in military hierarchy, he was taking every opportunity to add further to my humiliation. Fortunately, I was a past master at self-deprecation, a skill that was necessary to survival in the Imperial court.

“He has me dead to rights,” I said, spreading my hands out plaintively. “I have no official duties beyond my service in the Imperial Navy. We all take our turn.”

“And what’ll you do in the future? Are you going to make a career out of it?”

I started to reply, but Rous let out a trill of his tongue that was the equivalent of a human raspberry. “Probably not should. Not too much of a success, he.”

“He grrkked off the admiral on his first day!” added Oskelev, with a hooting laugh. I was wounded to the core of my soul. I thought she liked me. I had not realized until liquor teased the truth out of my shipmates how little respect they had for me. I had a strong urge to resign my commission and stay here among the miners. They liked me without reservation.

But my great-uncle Perleas always told me to fight the battles I knew I could win. The hearts and minds of the militia of Smithereen, who were also my hosts, deserved my attention. I wiped disappointment off my face and focused all my attention upon my hostess.

“What is there to do for fun here?” I asked Captain Chan.

“We don’t have a lot of down time,” Chan replied frankly. “We are always looking for extra shifts. When there’s a break we grab a few drinks with friends, find a bed partner, or we sleep. Sleep’s precious.”

“But there’s music, culture, art and sport,” I said. “Don’t you have time for anything like that?”

Chan raised an eyebrow. “Might, if there was room for entertainment arenas on the mining ships. We go out for weeks at a time, y’know. Head out a few million miles, let the spectrometers find a good vein where the asteroids have a similar mineral content, strip it and fill up. The belt’s thousands of klicks wide in any direction. The mining ships are about half the size of Smithereen Prime. They stay in orbit. Only the empty loaders and the people-carriers transit down here to drop off cargo and personnel. The money’s good when the orders are coming in, so we work as much as we can. Canned entertainment’s not worth wasting time on when there’s a new vein to be cracked. I regularly pull double shifts when I can, all sixday round if I can.”

I could well believe it. Next to any of the people in the room I was a twig. Merely being in good shape athletically meant nothing here. These beings were strong and determined, self-reliant, so different from my kinfolk. Among the upper classes I think only Parsons struck me as similar to these in being real. How the servants must laugh at us, I reflected. I was ashamed. We did nothing. These were the beings who built the Imperium that the Emperor commanded.

“Then what do you do in this operation?” I asked.

“I run fifth starboard drillhead on the number three mining ship, the Smithwick. Me and the drill understand each other. It never breaks down when I’m on it.” Derisive calls and snorts met this from some of her fellow miners. “It’s true!” she declared, scowling at them. She aimed a finger around at her critics. “You check my records! I’ve got more million-kilo days than any other driller in the corps!”

“It sounds like very hard work,” I said, soothingly. “You all have my admiration. I’d break down after a couple of days.”

“Ah, it’s just a job,” Chan said, but she and her companions looked pleased. She snapped the end off a nic-tube and inhaled the vapors. “I can see how you move. You’re not in bad shape, for a softie. There’s some muscle in there.”

Softies were atmosphere-dwellers, as far as I could determine.

“I don’t do badly,” I said. “I play shadow-handball, tri-tennis, jai-alai, ride, fly speedships, that kind of thing.”

“O-oh,” Filzon said, with a knowing expression.

I flushed. Any of them, from the skinniest Uctu upward, could have tied my body into a knot. I admired them, and, from their expressions, they respected me.

“That’s great,” Chan said. “I can’t contort myself into the kind of knots you need to be a good tennis player. Not built for it. Love to watch it, though. I bet you’re great.”

“No, no,” I said, modestly.

“You play in tournaments?”

“Yes,” I said, brightening. “I won one last year. The Smoothon Supplements Tour.”

“Hey, I saw that!” Hamadi said, his face becoming animated. “You were cracking astonishing! You saw that, right, Margolies?”

“That was you?” Margolies asked. “God, I wanted to jump through the viewtank and kiss you.” He gazed at me in wonder. “You’re a wonder, my lord.”

“It’s nothing,” I said, offering self-deprecation, but enjoying the adulation very much.

That awe clearly did not extend to my crew.

“Yeah,” I overheard Bailly say from another table, “he’s a noble. Not much use, or so I heard. He’s spent his whole time on the ship dawdling in the records department.”

I was stung. Nobles are useless. I didn’t care to hear that again. I had to drag my mind and my ego away from it. I intended to matter, even if that was only on a diplomatic basis. I was making this militia happy that I was here, and that counted for something—or, at least, I fervently hoped it did.

“How often does your militia train?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. About once a month?” Chan looked to the others for confirmation. “Whenever we can get most of us together. Doesn’t happen too often. Juhrman is my second.” She aimed a thumb at the big man. “If I’m out on an arc of the belt, he runs drills. We do okay.”

“Ever been called out?”

“Nah. Who’s attacking a mining colony?” she asked, her eyes brimming with laughter. “Wha’ for? ‘Gimme all your grade three nickel ore’?”

The others laughed. “Yeah, right,” Filzon said. “Only someone with a whole robot task force and a train of space barges is gonna walk in here and steal something. This wouldn’t be a high-speed pursuit for the videos, I can tell you that.”

I laughed, too. I caught my orbiting camera and held it up. “If you like high-speed pursuit, I have some space races that my cousins and I took right around the Core Worlds. Makes for some exciting viewing.”

The notion appeared to leave them cold. It simply added to the idea that we nobles did nothing of value.

“Maybe later, my lord,” Filzon said. “Do you still play competitively?”

I was content to talk about sports, if that made them happy. But some people could not let a subject go. Chee Rubin-Sign was one of them.

“All right, my lord,” she shouted, trying to make herself heard over the others. She poked a finger figuratively into her palm. “So, the Emperor can make you marry anyone he likes?”

“Not anyone he likes,” I said. I hated the topic. We members of the noble house had to take courses over the years in our rights and responsibilities to the Imperium. “He determines whether a certain gene combination is missing from the line, and he can correct it by use of his discretion.”

“Well, what if he ordered you to, say, marry a dog? Or a fiksnake?”

“He would never do that,” I assured them fervently. “The Imperium rests upon its stock of pure human DNA, or as pure as possible—no offense,” I added to the non-humans present.

Chertok waved away the apology. “Not needed. I would not be human. Why would you want to be Croctoid?”

“Well, exactly,” I said.

“So,” Rubin-Sign asked, her finger up, “can the Emperor terminate your marriage if he thinks you ought to get together with someone specific?”

“Yes, he can,” I said, a trifle unhappily. “Technically, he can order any subject to mate with whomever he considers needs to produce a genetic combination vital to the survival of the Imperium.”

“Anyone?” Rubin-Sign echoed. “Me? He’d have to catch me first.”

I smiled. As a defiant child, I had felt the same way. “It’s not likely. It hasn’t happened in centuries. It’s just one of the powers that the Emperor commands.”

“Well, I don’t like it!”

The conversation was getting very awkward. Desperate to change the subject, I brandished my camera. “As perhaps you can determine, I have lately become most enthusiastic about photography. Would you like to see some of my prized pictures? The ones I never show anyone?”

“Dirty snaps?” Chan asked, looking bored. “We get that stuff from all over the galaxy, my lord.”

“Oh, no!” I assured her, with a grin. I felt naughty, but it was all in a good cause. I lowered my voice. “If you will promise never to tell anyone that you saw these, they will be our little secret.” They nodded eagerly. I ran my finger along the ridged side of the tiny, silvered globe, and an image sprang into being in our midst. A man’s face appeared. His eyes were screwed up, his mouth was open, and globules of a pale brown liquid were caught as they were expelled from his mouth. “This is the Minister for Industrial Development, Lord Gahan Wilcox Mu.”

“I seen him in the news vids! He’s a pompous hunk of slag. How’d you get him like that?” Chan asked, gawking.

“Pepper extract in the coffee,” I said. “I must confess I was not alone in this particular prank; he had offended my cousin Xan, and it was not going to pass unavenged. That was the first spit-take I captured.” I lowered my eyelids suggestively. “Would you like to see more?”

“Yeah!” the miner militia chorused with glee.

“Hey, I can’t see!” Torkadir protested, from behind Chertok’s hefty back. “Size it up! Let the rest of us see.”

I looked about at the circle of avid grins. “How about it?” I asked Chan, slyly. “Should we let them in on it?”

“Why not?” Chan asked, her eyes twinkling.

I knew the controls on the Optique Callusion as if they were my own nerve endings. Among the settings for display was a search function, designed to locate the nearest open portal that was capable of receiving images. The Optique’s onboard processor would translate the file to whatever system the receiver used, at the greatest possible resolution. I thumbed the small touch square on my viewpad, and held the small globe up in the air.

The matte midnight wall above the room’s control panel suddenly bloomed with color. There, twenty meters high by fifteen wide, was the Minister for Industrial Development, choking out a mouthful of coffee. Each expelled droplet was larger than my head. I had not recalled what a brilliant red his complexion had turned, nor the strained tendons that stood out in his neck. The audience gasped with shock, then burst into hoots of hilarity.

“More!” Chan hooted, pounding on the table with her fist. “More! Who else you got?”

Happily, I clicked through my most precious images of coughs, sneezes and red-faced choking. My collection included many famous people who had come to the Imperium compound or whom I had met at charity events or in vacation spots.

“Did you spike all of their drinks?” Margolies asked, gawking at the image of a stunning actress whom I had caught sneezing vigorously at the head table at a banquet.

“No! Most of them are lucky shots. This lady had a bad cold. I knew if I waited long enough I’d get a wonderful picture.” I regarded the image with satisfaction. It was perfectly focused and centered, with the lighting absolutely ideal. I was getting rather good at picture-taking.

“Can’t you get in trouble for having those?”

“No,” I said. “Not one of these is taken during a confidential meeting, or contains compromising material. They are merely embarrassing.”

“Do you have one of the Emperor in there?” Hek-et-rahm asked.

“Wha-what?” I stammered. But it was only a guess on his part. I did have one of the Emperor, hidden in the buffer of the camera itself under an invisible coded name to keep anyone from locating it, especially Parsons, but no one else would ever see it. No one could possibly keep that secret. I was saved, when light suddenly blocked from landing lights above the ballroom.

“Now, that would be trouble,” Chan asked, slapping the back of the Wichu’s head with his palm. “He wouldn’t dare. Would you, my lord?”

Her expression was so adoring that I didn’t dare disabuse her. Nor did I dare admit the truth.

They were all falling in love with me, I realized. Round, moony eyes met my gaze everywhere I looked—except for my crew. They were not that impressed with my collection. Bailly was amused. Oskelev, the Wichu, looked as if she thought it was very bad manners to see someone spit food—which in her culture it was. But most of my audience was human, and I went for broke. I sifted through the less-than-perfect shots and found one the most up-to-date digitavid star, Cwindar Prosser, captured in the moment of expelling a distasteful mouthful, and got a good laugh.

I bent over the controls, hoping for my next triumph. Suddenly, the lighting upon which I depended was extinguished.

“Curse it.” I looked up through the transparent ceiling at the offending object. Suddenly, something struck my memory forcibly. I rose to my feet. “Plet? Plet?”

The urgency of my voice attracted her attention from where she was enjoying her dessert with a group of miners. Not surprisingly, her nose went up. “Ensign?” The term was delivered in a haughty tone.

Lieutenant Plet,” I corrected my address to her, but kept my tone calm and my eyes on the ceiling. “Please review the alerts that you gave to me on our departure from Wedjet.”

Her left eyebrow rose, but she took her viewpad from the pouch on her hip and began to spool off the information in a disinterested manner. “An ion storm will be one and one half light years off our route but moving towards us. It may be an issue upon our return to the Wedjet . . .”

“Past that,” I said impatiently. “Read me the data about the ships for which we are on the lookout.”

She gave me an odd glance, but complied.

“A cruiser stolen from Vijay Nine is believed to be a prank by university students on midyear break . . .”

“No,” I said.

She began again. “Suspected pirate craft with markings on body, tail and lateral fins of the Calsag Trading Corporation have been spotted. Calsag reported the vessels stolen by armed raiders during a delivery to Poctil colony. The craft have been reportedly used in a series of raids against small trading ships in the zone around this area.”

“That’s the one!” I exclaimed. “That’s one of the ships! It’s right above us on the landing pad!”

“Not right, my lord,” Margolies said, puzzled. “It belongs to the Harmony Exchange Foundation. See, it’s right there on the body. Pale blue field with joined hands across it.”

“No, look at the right rear fin,” I said. I pointed.

Through the transparent ceiling, they saw what I did. The ship was indeed of a pale azure hue over most of its structure, but the motif was incomplete. The fin, a sweeping triangle that must have extended ten meters from its narrowest point to a width of six meters off the stern of the stubby oblong, displayed a logo quite different from the sigil of peace-lovers and serene intermediaries of the HEF. Rather, I saw, on a harsh ochre background, a tight, black, textured knot throttling a number of commodities such as trees, metal beams, and even a discontented-looking herd beast into a sheaflike mass. No doubt the image was meant to evoke a comprehensive organization, but to me and my friends it had always looked like the commodities in question were being sucked into a central vortex. The Calsag device was only visible because of a large chip cracked from the enamel of the fin, possibly from an unhappy encounter with a meteorite, another ship, or landing on the surface of the planetoid. No doubt the pirates had made a hasty job of repainting the vessels in question, intending to pass their illicit gains off as legitimate. The original owner’s logo would have remained concealed from the eyes of anyone who was not underneath the low-slung fin, as we were.

“They have attempted to disguise the Calsag vessel, but part of the disguise has broken away,” I said. “We are the only ones who know it. We’ve got it!”

“We must report it,” Plet said at once. “We have to let the Wedjet know.”

“Report it?” I echoed. “We must stop it. We can’t let it leave here.” She gave me a sideways look, and my soaring ambition came crashing down with all the force of gravity. “You’re right. Notify the fleet at once.” I sent my camera flying upward to the ceiling. Monitoring its focus from my viewpad, I took a wide-angle snap of the entire vessel, then a close-up view of the broken enamel showing the design hidden underneath. I sent the file to Plet.

Plet ran a thumb down the side of the viewpad, and the small screen turned blue. The symbol of the Imperial Navy appeared. She tapped a code into the center of the symbol, and waited. Nothing happened. She set in another code. The screen should have cleared to display the visage of the communication officer of the day. Nothing.

“That shouldn’t happen,” she said.

She put in a short sequence of digits. The screen filled with blocks of color. Some of them were stodgy and slow moving like bar graphs, others that were long and narrow and multiply curved, writhed all over the screen like wild snakes. “I’m running diagnostics,” she said. “It’s not my viewpad. There’s something interfering with my transmission.”

The miners looked at one another.

“Magnetite,” Torkadir said. Or perhaps it was Premulo. “A big order got processed last month. The buyer must have shown up for the delivery. That stuff gets in the way of communications all the time. It’s a real pain in the bucket. You ought to be able to get a signal through sooner or later.”

“We must do something sooner,” I said, “or that ship might escape. I shall inform Parsons. He’ll know what to do.”

I brought my own viewpad into operation. I entered Parsons’s official command code, his personal code, and even attempted to worm my way through by the links on his Infogrid file on the local server.

“No success,” I said.

“Excuse me, sir,” Filzon said, pointing toward a discreet line of doors near the main entrance to the ballroom, in between the chambers of personal convenience. “We can use the hard line to call him. That’s always our fallback when this happens. Where did he go?”

I frowned. “I don’t know,” I said. My belly churned with decisions I did not feel up to making. We couldn’t let the pirate go! Parsons would know what to do. He always did. “He said only that he had an errand to run in town.”

“He’s probably got a girlfriend,” Chan chortled. “Or whatever. This settlement can cater for all tastes, no questions asked.”

Under any circumstances, such a remark called for a cold glare, but I was too concerned with the security warning. I stared up at the ship parked upon the ceiling. It was taunting me, daring me to make a decision. I took the challenge.

“We must seize that vessel,” I resolved. “How can we prevent it from lifting off?”

“Don’t worry,” Chan said. She waved a dismissive hand. “They’re not going anywhere if they’re not a legit ship. You have to have a license to buy fuel. Its transponder is tied into the Infogrid. The moment the fuel depot sees that, they’ll stop the sale. They have nowhere to go.”

I regarded her with disbelief. “Do you think a self-respecting pirate will balk at having a false license?” I demanded. “Re-enameling a hull is expensive, as I sadly have reason to know.” I cringed inwardly at recalling what it had taken to repair the fin of a very fine speedster that I had borrowed from a friend. Well, I hadn’t seen the comsat before I clipped it. “It means that the crew of that ship has already taken some steps to avoid detection. We have to assume that they have taken others. They will be indistinguishable from ordinary, legitimate customers. Please notify the station manager, Captain.”

Chan flushed. “I don’t have any official standing with him, sir. Except for running exercises and filling out the paperwork for the local militia, I’m nobody. I operate a drillhead. My rank only means I run the stupid idiots who volunteer to throw themselves into the gap to protect the Imperium. It don’t mean a thing on this station when I’m not bringing profit in.”

“I will speak to him,” I declared.

I marched into one of the discreet booths and activated the communications console inside. I entered the code Chan had given me. A bored-looking Wichu with scruffy fur dyed light purple answered the call.

“Yeah?” he asked.

“Are you the station manager?”

“Steeeeed!” the Wichu shouted over the top of the console. I heard many voices and the clanging of machinery. A muffled yell came after a moment. “Guy wants to talk to you.” He listened. He looked down at Thomas. “State your name and your business.”

“I am Ensign-Captain Lord Thomas Kinago, here on official Navy business,” I said, grandly. Well, it was no more than the truth. I was careful not to state what that business was, but the Wichu seemed to know anyhow.

“Oh, yeah, visiting the militia, taking up half of number one landing bay. Whaddaya want?”

“I require the immediate assistance of the station manager.” I explained my observation, and urged him to persuade the station manager to take action. “The pirates are reported to be very dangerous,” I said. “This is only one ship of the fleet that was taken. The admiral, I am sure, will want to question the crew as to the whereabouts of the rest of the ships and the goods that they stole. I am sure that the station manager will want to be involved in their capture. It is the duty of all citizens to prevent crime where it threatens.”

“Uh-huh,” the Wichu said. “Hold on. Steeeeed!”

The screen went blank. I tried Parsons again with my viewpad, but the interference had increased. I could not even connect to the local Infogrid. Where had he gone?

The Wichu came back on the line. “Steed said the ship’s fine. The license is legit. The owner’s an old customer, the landing bay operator told me. I spoke to her myself.”

“You’re being had, sir. Once they’re fueled up; they can escape. In the name of the Emperor . . .”

The Wichu’s mustache bristled, the equivalent of a human raising his eyebrows. “Do you have orders from the Emperor himself?”

“No, but, if you’d just look at this image . . .” I tied in the file of the two pictures I had taken. The Wichu’s eyes left mine as he glanced at them on the side of his screen, then reached out a thick forefinger. He must have deleted them.

“Don’t waste my time. You’re mistaken. We run scans on every ship visiting this facility every day.”

“But . . .”

“Out.” The screen went blank.

I strode back to the table, rules fighting with impulse, worry and annoyance in my mind.

“What did he say?” Oskelev asked.

“That I was mistaken. How could they ignore plain, photographic proof?” I demanded. “The idiots! That ship will fly off. They will miss the easy chance to take a criminal out of circulation.”

“What now?” Plet asked.

I smacked my fist into my palm. “We’ll have to take action ourselves.”

“Us?” Bailly asked. “What can we do? There’s only five of us.”

I looked around at the sea of concerned faces, and enlightenment bloomed within me.

“No, Bailly. Fifty-five,” I said. “Captain Chan!”

“Yessir!” The operator of number three drillhead jumped to her feet.

I met her eyes. “I require your assistance to take action against a dangerous enemy. Are you with me?”

A wide grin spread across her face. “You bet, sir! Miners?”

“We’re with you!” Filzon yelled, pumping a fist skyward. “Let’s hear it for the lord ensign! Yay!”

“Yay!” The assembled volunteers let out a ragged cheer. It was swallowed up by the immense chamber. I hoped the swift diminuition was not an omen for our enterprise. The humans were enthusiastic, the aliens less so but game nevertheless. I felt my heart lift.

“That’s the spirit that made this Imperium great,” I said. “Now, let’s plan our strategy. Captain!”

“Yessir!” Chan said. “Jurhman, come here. Let’s get to work.”

The bulky male with wisps of black hair around a nearly bald crown with a scar across it slid neatly into the seat beside Chan. I put my viewpad on the table. The rest of the militia crowded around.

“Now, who possesses a map of the colony? Is one handy?” I asked. Plet grudgingly obliged. “Where are we likely to find them?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” Chan said, taking her own communications unit out of her pocket. We united the two devices with a filament cable—primitive in this day and age but a necessity when physical elements interfered with connectivity. She identified the correct map. I instructed my viewpad to project it upon the wall for ease of examination. “They’re gonna look for a meal or a f— uh, date. The main strip. Hardly anyone goes farther than that unless they’re here for a long stay.”

“If they are who you think they are,” Juhrman said, “they’ll get out of here pretty snappish.”

“That’s what I believe,” I said. “It’s what I would do if I didn’t want to draw attention.”

“So, what’s your idea?”

“Surround and apprehend,” I said. “If we overwhelm them with superior force, they will see the wisest thing to do is surrender. Once we disarm them, your station manager can hold them until the fleet returns to this area to take them into custody. If we aren’t equal to this band of crooks, and I do not see how we can’t be, we can call for the local constabulary to swell our ranks.”

“Shouldn’t we call them first?” Bailly asked.

“The station manager has already dismissed our claims as false,” I pointed out. “The police force works for him. He can direct them to stand down, and that could be dangerous in the midst of an operation. We can call them in during our attack if we need assistance, but we shouldn’t need it. I think that we will have the elements of surprise and superior numbers. That ought to be sufficient to effect a simple capture.”

“Sounds simple enough,” Chan said.

“This is madness!” Plet protested. “You are oversimplifying a potentially explosive situation to a series of actions.”

“All good plans are simple, Lieutenant,” I said.

“But you are behaving as though these putative felons will not react to your attempt to arrest them! It isn’t plausible!”

“We must try,” I said. “It is our duty.”

“Peril to all,” Rous agreed. “Pirates dangerous aren’t to us?”

Juhrman grinned at the Uctu. “We’re pretty tough. We’ve all won our share of brawls. We’re not afraid to get knocked around.”

“Is there any chance you’re wrong?” Torkadir asked me.

“No way!” Premulo chided him. “You see the damaged fin, same as the rest of us did. It’s them! We have to take them down.”

“Then we’re with you, sir,” Filzon said.

“We concentrate upon the main strip,” I said, returning to the map. “Locate them, isolate them if possible, and disarm them before they can endanger anyone.” I could feel the blood of my ancestors surging hot in my veins. So this was what it was like to command! I understood why my mother loved the fleet. I could feel skepticism radiating toward me, nearly obliterating the glory of the call to action, and identified its source. I looked up. “Plet, come sit down. Join us. We need your expertise. All of you,” I added, extending the invitation to the rest of my crew. They looked uncertain.

“It would be wrong to engage the enemy,” Plet said. “This is foolhardy. You cannot act without orders from a superior officer.”

I spun to give her my mien, set on full-on haughtiness. “And when that superior officer is unavailable, it is the duty of a junior officer to take charge, Lieutenant.”

She put her chin out. “Then as your superior officer, Ensign, my order is that we locate and inform Commander Parsons. His decision will be the one we act on. Captain Chan, your services are not required.”

“With all due respect, Lieutenant,” Chan said, her blunt nose upturned, “we don’t take orders from you. The lord ensign here is the one that the admiral sent here, right? Well, I’m in charge of this company, and I’m putting us under the orders of the lord ensign here. Right, guys?”

Another cheer burst out.

“Yeah, see?” Chan said. “Okay, everyone, arm up. Be back here in fifteen, or try and tell me why. Got it?”

“Yes, ma’am!” they shouted as one.

I felt my chest swell with pride and emotion. Plet, by comparison, seemed deflated. Even her crisp uniform had lost some of its starch. I could not let her feel humiliated by my efforts. Under normal circumstances, I would have been more than willing to follow the chain of command, but at the moment it was broken off from the remainder. Time was winging away, and with it our chances to stop these pirates from disappearing into the depths of space. It was our duty to capture the rogue crew. Consensus was the way forward. I was not an island unto myself. An army of one is not an army.

“We will continue to attempt to contact Parsons,” I said, offering conciliation without, I hoped, sounding patronizing. “And the fleet. Will someone guide one of my officers to the main shopping district and try to find Parsons? The security service up there will certainly have spotted a man in naval uniform marching about the place. Parsons does tend to stand out. He’ll be back here in two shakes, probably before we finish our plans. We will act only in the absence of advice from either the fleet or Commander Parsons. Will that do, Lieutenant Plet?”

“Well,” she began, still uncertain. “Very well.”

I beamed at her. “That’s the spirit! Now, do I have a volunteer?”

“I’ll go, sir,” Oskelev said.

“I’ll take her,” said Haludi, rising. “C’mon, we’ll catch the sidewalks toward the sun-side of the colony. They won’t be too crowded at this hour.” They departed at the run.

“Someone go up to the strip, too,” Chan said. “Ask around and see where that crew went to hang out. Filzon, you know all the brothels, you go.”

Ganny Filzon’s cheeks went red as I looked at him in astonishment. He simply did not seem the tireless pursuer of negotiable affection.

“My mom sells bedroom furniture,” he said, sheepishly.

“Good man,” I said, relieved that my faculty of assessment was not totally askew. “Inside information is always helpful. Contact us on the land line as soon as you have a sighting.”

“Aye, sir!” he bellowed,

“Come along, then, Plet,” I said, beckoning her over. “We need all good minds on this. We will have only once chance to get this right.”

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Next: Chapter 14