Conrad scratched his deaf ear and twirled the pen between his fingers, staring at the image on the tablet before him. It was written roughly, carved into some kind of soft tan stone by Kazhadi claws. The image was the only transmission sent by the Kazhadi refugees. It was composed of only three things: Garrity’s personal comm number, a set of coordinates that took them to the outer reaches of the Luzon system, and his name.
His name–scrawled in English. It was rough, but unmistakable.
Deep in thought, Conrad leaned back in his chair and swung his feet up onto the desk. On the other side of the desk, Lieutenant Armas glowered at him with disapproval for a moment before schooling his expression to a neutral state.
Conrad glanced at his feet, and back at the lieutenant. Armas had served for years under Tarillion’s XO, Jeq. Tarillion’s crew was fiercely loyal and protective of their captain–and apparently that extended to the captain’s desk, too. Conrad slid his feet off onto the floor.
“Captain, what can you tell us about this mission?” Armas knew better than to ask to know everything.
Conrad handed him the image. “As you can see, that’s my name, lieutenant. The Kazhad sent it to Garrity and asked her to send me to them.”
“Why you, sir?” Armas looked unimpressed. Conrad wondered vaguely if he should feel insulted by the lieutenant’s obvious skepticism.
“That’s what I’m hoping we’ll find out when we meet them. They only spoke to Garrity once, and the translation was rough, but they said they’d been on a quest for the last six generations of their clan to reach these coordinates and meet me.”
Armas didn’t say anything in response, but Conrad could almost hear him thinking why you, sir again.
“The tricky thing is, I wasn’t alive when they set off to find me. How’d you think they knew my name, and how to reach Garrity? What do you think they want?”
Armas’s lip twitched. “I don’t have much experience with this particular species. Or any alien species, to be honest. Imperial soldiers are not permitted to fraternize with non-human sentients, unless you consider hunting them for sport to be a form of fraternization. Do the Kazhad have any…unique properties?”
It was Conrad’s turn to be thoughtful. “They smell real bad when they’re wet.”
“Is that all, sir?” Armas stood up. “Is there anything we need to do to prepare for this particular group of refugees?”
Conrad shook his head slightly. “They’re not refugees, lieutenant. They’re not fleeing anything. They’re coming to us of their own free will–and we need to know why.”
“You have a very unique way of asking for my attention,” said a man’s voice.
Jira licked her dry lips. It’d taken her three attempts and three visits to the medical center before they’d finally brought her here. If she was lucky, she hadn’t done any permanent damage to her head. “Who said I was trying to get your attention?” she said. She noticed that her voice was hoarse, like she hadn’t used it in a long time.
She was still restrained in a chair, her wrists affixed to armrests. She leaned forward as far as she could, her disheveled hair in her eyes. She knew she looked feral, and she was glad for it. It was nothing less than the truth.
The man before her was much older than she was–there were touches of white in his hair. He had an intent gleam in his eyes. Everyone in the Federation knew that face. Hells, everyone in the Empire knew that face.
“You employed a fascinating strategy. I must ask–if you had permanently injured yourself–killed yourself, even–what would that have accomplished?”
She grinned. “If I were dead right now, I’d have taken one more chess piece off your table.”
“I’m out of that cell. So I got what I wanted.” She looked past him. There was a viewport there–finally, finally–and through it she could see a gray horizon. Albion Secundus. Guess I’m planetside after all. She filed the fact away and shifted her gaze back to him.
“That’s all you wanted? To be out of the cell? There were less painful ways of getting out, you know.”
“Well, someone should’ve told me.” She showed her teeth. She hoped that it was a smile she was making with her facial features.
“I suppose you believe you can’t lose,” he said. There was a hint of humor in his tone.
She shrugged, opening and closing her hands. “That’s one way of thinking about it.” She struggled to keep her voice under control. To keep it casual. “What am I doing here, admiral? Were you planning to keep me in that cell until I went insane and blabbered everything I knew? Is that it?”
He looked thoughtful. “Wouldn’t do me much good to have you driven insane,” he said. “Not much use to me, and not much use to the Empire.”
“Well, don’t play coy.” She leaned back. “I’m here, and as sane as I’ll ever be. Which isn’t much, to be fair. Tell me what you want.”
He raised his hands. “I want everything, Jira Tai.”
Her hackles rose. It shouldn’t have been surprising that he knew her name. Her bloodprint was stored in the palace annals like any other concubine.
But to hear him say it…
“Let’s begin with Ioxis. What an interesting place to find an escaped Imperial concubine. With such a curious companion.”
Balt. She hadn’t seen the medic-mechanic since they’d been captured. She resisted the urge to demand to know where he was.
Maybe I don’t want to know.
“I know that soldiers desert their posts and go rogue…but you could have chosen better. For a woman of your breeding, anyway.” He flicked a bit of invisible dust off his hand. “A concubine of your status is meant to be the consort of lords and princes, no? How many women from subject worlds would not give everything to have what you had? How regrettable, that you abandoned such an important and respectable post in the heart of the Empire to associate with such…unfortunate individuals.”
“I hardly consider spreading my legs for–”
He held up a hand. “Most unfortunate. Luckily for you, we found your ship before it broke apart. It would have been a great pity to lose you. There are so few Caderans left, after all, aside from the shipwrights and their families in permanent assignment above this planet. And such excellent genetic material, for a subject people.”
It was a barb and she knew it. She narrowed her eyes. “Yes. You seem to have us all.”
“You’re no shipwright, but you still have your uses, I think.”
“And those would be?”
He folded his arms and paced slowly back and forth. “Let’s see, my lady. You left the palace under strange and violent circumstances. Disappeared for a few years…and then when you reappear, it’s in the middle of an annexation battlefield. You seemed to be aiming for my ship. Perhaps I’m assuming too much…but through all this time, you’ve chosen to keep very interesting company indeed, your medic-mech excluded, of course.”
She tried to keep her face expressionless. He hadn’t yet mentioned Tarillion, or her alter-ego Amraali. He didn’t know everything. That was something–she clung to the hope that he didn’t know everything.
“As you said…let’s not play coy. Conrad Redeker. Where is he?”
She cocked her head. “I have no idea who that is,” she said coolly.
He smiled. “You’re young. I forget how young are. The young always assume that their elders are fools. And perhaps that’s true, given everything that’s happened in the last few months. But I must ask you to humor me. I think you know where the boy has gone. And what’s more, you know where he came from. And both of those things are very, very important to me.”
Her eyelid twitched. She hated how he spoke to her, as if she were an idiot child. As if she hadn’t killed hundreds of his soldiers, perhaps even thousands. As if she didn’t plan to do more of the same, and leave him bleeding out on the floor before she left.
“Do you plan to torture it out of me?” she asked, after a moment. “I hear you’re good at that kind of thing.”
“I’d never dare to damage the property of the Imperial household. Even if it is, well, a touch defective. I could return you to their custody.”
She bristled at this. “I’ll be dead before I go back there.”
He shrugged again, the gesture exaggerated. “Then I’m afraid you’ll have to keep me company.”
“I think I’d rather go back to my cell,” she croaked.
He leaned forward, his face inches from hers. “You wild little creature. How many endless cycles have you wasted in the dark up there, plotting against the Empire? Plotting against me? Flinging yourself against thousands of years of immovable tradition and victory?”
He was so close. She licked the hard edge of her teeth. She felt that animalistic urge again–the need to sink her canines into his neck and taste the sharp metallic tang of his blood. He seemed to sense her savagery but he did not draw away. Instead he leaned his head down a little closer to her own. She could feel his calm, measured breath on her hair. She repressed a shudder.
“You’re quite pretty, you know. I should expect no less for an Imperial concubine of–what was it?–the third rank. And the history of your exploits–you’re clearly very intelligent. That’s all very good, very impressive. The only flaw you possess, Jira Tai, is ignorance. I will remedy that imperfection. I plan not to hurt you or kill you–I plan to educate you.”
Tarillion felt nothing as he went through the portal. He had the nagging feeling that he should have felt something. Something like what he experienced at Ioxis, when Conrad brought the Lusus through to Sanctuary, crossing the galaxy in the span of seconds. At that moment, he had seen the unfathomable world within the portal. He knew that it was the key to everything–but he couldn’t quite grasp how to get back there.
Now, entering and exiting portals were as mundane as it ever was. It gnawed at him, but now was not the time to be thinking about portals. He turned his attention to the present moment.
It had been a trip of several weeks, but finally the Achilles had reached its destination. He looked through the viewport, and fell speechless at what he saw.
“It’s…a space station.”
What Tarillion meant to say–what he wanted to say–was that Bering Station was a piece of garbage.
Bering was a single-star system in deep space, with a single planet that was an inhospitable ball of gas. Bering Station was locked in orbit between the star and its planet, the light of the star leaving the sprawling, ugly station in perpetual day. Around the station and the gas giant both military and civilian ships gathered, flitting to and from the long filaments that served as its docks. Bering Station was the spider, and the docks were its web.
His companion, a petite white-haired woman, seemed to hear the truth beneath his words without him saying it. She sighed. “You don’t have to spare my feelings, captain. I’m a few decades too old to care about niceties and social graces.”
“This is where you prepare your deep space defenses?” he fought to keep his tone neutral, despite what Commodore Garrity said.
She nodded. “Bering is one of our three major outposts in deep space. The others are in systems closer to Sol. This one is where many of the more recent refugees have been coming through–you can see them coming here, and there, and there. Sometimes we know they’re coming, but more than half the time, it’s a total surprise.”
She pointed to a few fixed points, marked by glowing beacons, one of which was near the portal through which they’d traveled. “Some of these people barely remember Sol. They call Sanctuary Earth–their grandparents or great-grandparents left a long time ago. But they know it’s a safe place, so when things go wrong, they return to Sol like homing pigeons.”
Tarillion drummed his fingers on the console. “You put your deep space defenses and civilian ships in one place?”
Garrity shrugged. “What choice is there? Refugees don’t exactly come with funds or resources to pay for their way. Since Vehn attacks picked up a lot of them barely escaped with their lives. They come here with the clothes on their backs and their ships beneath their feet and that’s all they’ve got. Bering used to be quiet–but not anymore. It’s had to withstand two Vehn attacks in the last two months, and a few pirates have tried to pick off some of the refugee ships on the edge of the system. It’s an exciting place to be, I’ll tell you that.”
Tarillion’s experienced eye swept over the station and the loose cloud of ships surrounding it. “I’m sure you see the problem,” he said. “If you have a serious Vehn incursion–when you have a serious Vehn incursion–your defenses are going to be diluted by having to shepherd all these civilian and refugee ships. It would be better if this station was a purely military installation.”
“But of course that’s not possible,” Garrity continued for him. “We can’t stop the stream of refugees. We send out regular transmissions from Bering so they can ping back and let us know if they’re coming, but some of them have lost that tech or their tech has branched off to the point where they can’t receive it or respond to it.”
“You don’t have enough in the way of guardships or battleships, then,” he said. “Get more.”
“Ah, if only it were so easy,” she said with a rueful look. “You know–politics.”
He raised his eyebrows. “I’m afraid I don’t,” he said. “Imperial outposts are never undersupplied. Garrity made a soft hmph. At this, Tarillion spoke softly. “Commodore–there is a fundamental difference between my people and yours. The Satori have always understood themselves to be conquerors, and nothing else. Warriors. When we annex a world, our soldiers are permitted to hunt down any non-human sentients until that species is extinct. Our aggression is more than just…simple politics. It is the soul of who we are, you see. We conquer. We control. We rule. That is all.”
She glanced sideways at Bering Station. “So what you’re saying is, we could do with a few more ships here. And a few more guns, and maybe a paint job.”
He folded his arms. So this is where Redeker gets his attitude.
“At a minimum, you need to triple–no, quadruple the number of battle-ready ships here. And create a direct line out of this system for all civilian ships. Don’t let them linger–they’ll only hold you back when you least want them to.”
She patted his arm in a grandmotherly way. “You’re not wrong. Just…naive about the kinds of resources that we have.”
He sighed inwardly. Bering Station wasn’t so different from the dozens of Protectorate Corps installations and bases that he had visited in the past few months. Once Garrity had determined that he was trustworthy–mostly on Conrad Redeker’s word, it seemed–she’d drafted him into a survey of the Protectorate Corps, listening to his critical evaluations with great attention.
He still had no sense of what she was planning to do with all the information he’d given her. Garrity was a strange, secretive imp of a woman. One thing he was certain of: the Protectorate Corps was in no way prepared to fight off the Empire, if it ever came to that.
Tarillion thought of the fresh new portal that Conrad had punched through in the space above Sanctuary. He’d saved them from death or capture at Ioxis, only to create a new doorway to the heart of the Protectorate.
“It seems that we have two major enemies, captain,” she said, shaking him out of his reverie. “The Vehn, of course. And the other one appears to be you.”
He scratched at the neck of the uniform that the Corps had loaned him. It was nondescript, without any indication of rank beyond the fact that it was an officer’s uniform. He’d spent most of his life in an Imperial uniform. It was strange to be out of one, and stranger still to be lumped in with the Empire that he’d abandoned.
“For the moment, I think you only have to worry about the Vehn,” he said.
“For the moment,” she agreed. “But let me ask you: do you really think your people would be interested in Sanctuary? It seems that they own half the galaxy already. Why would they be interested in a system with only a few habitable planets?”
Tarillion pressed his lips into a thin line. “The Empire fancies itself the ultimate protector and guardian of the human species. Of course they’ll be interested in Sanctuary. And what’s more–” he lowered his voice. “They want that boy captain of yours.”
“A few years ago, I would’ve paid them to take him off my hands.” Garrity looked wistful.
“Do you know what he’s capable of?”
She gave him a look that indicated that they should wait until they were off the bridge to talk further. “Yes–to the degree that he’s shared that in his debriefings.”
Tarillion thought again of what Conrad had done at Ioxis. “It’s doubtful that even he’s aware of what he’s fully capable of.”
“He was just a lost little boy when I found him,” Garrity murmured, reflective. “I don’t think much has changed, really.”
Tarillion turned his attention back to Bering Station. “Why exactly am I here, commodore? You’ve brought me a very long way. I’ve given you all the information you’ve asked for. What else?”
“Ah,” she said, rubbing her hands together. “Of course. As I told you before…I want you to help us. I want you to teach us how to beat you.”