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Changes of Mind

This part originally appeared in the January/February 2016 issue.

Part 4

247th of 2029 (075-98): Kalu Marasiin Downport

The liner Aurea Portici slowly swung into orbit around the pure blue marble of Kalu Marasiin. Traffic control directed Captain Ragnall O’Donal to take the ship to the highport. An hour later a shuttle departed for the downport; it landed some fifteen minutes later. The passengers disembarked and got their first taste of the tainted air of the world as they stretched their legs on one of the handful of islands that rose out of the vast ocean that made up 99.9% of Kalu Masariin’s surface. Among the last to disembark were two men and one woman, travelling together from the Imperium, supposedly to seek a local distributor for an unknown brand of soft drinks.

247th of 2029 (075-98): Hotel Itle, Kalu Marasiin Startown

The clerk at the desk had thought the three Imperials who checked in were perhaps a little ‘odd’. Certainly something about them made him feel uncomfortable, the woman particularly so. However, Hotel Itle clientele were often a little ‘odd’ and making him uncomfortable was hardly unheard of. Plus at the Hotel Itle, it frequently did not pay to inquire too closely of the guests. So, he simply checked them, gave them their room keys and left them to their own devices. He idly noted that the three were now ensconced in the bar, huddled together in furtive conversation. He thought to himself ,“Yes, it pays not to ask questions.”

Charles was a little concerned. “According to you, there as six others travelling with him including, if your information is to believed, an experienced and highly decorated former member of the Verasasol and this doesn’t worry you?”

Colonel Petris Fant hissed, “If My Lady is not worried neither should you be.”

Charles was not mollified. “We have one ex-special forces, an experienced Protectorate veteran, whom I can guarantee is beyond tough. One Imperial veteran and one unknown. Plus probably another two Protectorate veterans who might be there. If ‘My Lady’ is untroubled by this then she is a fool. Numbers count!”

Fant balled his fist, his rage exploding from him and rose from his chair. Frifrue Niaz Teequow, who had until now watched the two men argue with bemusement, simply raised a finger and tsked. Fant shrank back, though his ire was obviously unabated. She first addressed her lover, her voice tender, reassuring, if superior. “It’s alright, Little One; I shall deal with this.” Her attention shifted to her other companion, her eyes flashed with authority. “Charles, there will be ample time to recruit suitable ‘help’ locally.”

Charles opened his mouth to speak, Niaz simply smiled and focused. He closed it soundlessly as an odd sense of peace and submission came over him.

249th of 2029 (077-98): On approach to Kalu Marasiin

My head still hurt a little, but it was only at the edge of my perception. Afira had piloted Raledenet into orbit with her usual precision. I could see Kalu Marasiin, a massive world some sixteen thousand kilometres in diameter as it grew on the viewscreen in my room. Home to some seventy million people and location of the nearest Imperial base. Fakri had come to join me as we approached. I was more or less recovered, well enough for my duties at least, but he still popped in to check on me and, well, I didn’t object.

“So, I’ll be leaving you here.” His voice matter of fact, almost nonchalant.

“Yes.” Mine as if I were far away at the end of a dark tunnel. “What will you do?” Probably a foolish question.

“Return to my post, I expect. There’ll be debriefing, quite a lot, I imagine. A fair amount of finger pointing and blame, too, more than likely.”

“Will you be alright?” Concern, genuine in my tone.

A snort of a snigger. “I don’t know. I doubt this will do my career any favours, for sure.” A reassuring smile. “But the worst would be it ending, so I will survive, if that was your concern.”

It had been a concern, if not the only one. “I will miss our games of Zamkii.”

His eyes joined his mouth in the smile. “Yes, me too.”

We sat silently awhile as the blue orb grew ever larger. “Well, I suppose I should go get ready; we’ll be on approach soon.”

“Yes.” I would miss far more than just the games of Zamkii.

We touched down a little over an hour later. I didn’t see him off; I think I would have cried.

250th of 2029 (078-98): Kalu Marasiin Downport.

The boring mundane routine of our cover continued. There was cargo to find and load. No passengers this trip, so nothing for me to do. I wasn’t alone in that; Sakuya and Ariaryn where at loose ends, too. Only Jane, tinkering with her engines, and Siish, brokering for cargo, were really busy. Afira had completed the plotting, navigation and filing of flight plans. The four of us were in the common room, playing a game of Mmialaryn, jelly bean a point. Sakuya would not play for even token cash, against his beliefs to gamble for money, apparently. Possibly a good thing; the boy had amassed most of our jelly beans. Despite his success, Sakuya seemed to be tiring of the game.

“I wonder what this world is like?”

“Wet, more than likely, and soup for air like Verasryn, too, I’d think.” Ariaryn’s distaste for the atmosphere of that world was unabated.

Sakuya was not the socially perceptive of souls. “Yes, but don’t you want to see it? I mean, no point in travelling to a world if you don’t get out and see it.”

“We’re not here as tourists or even regular merchants. We’re here to do a clandestine special mission, dearheart.” Afira had found a pet name for him; I understood Luriani enough to know that meant she felt close to him, protective I think. A big sister maybe.

“Yes, but surely we need to preserve our cover, we’re supposed to be normal merchants. Shouldn’t we be behaving like them?” He was learning, however, and rather quickly.

Ariaryn laughed, “He’s got you there, Afira.”

“There’s an Imperial base here, Sakuya; it’s not safe for you, they want you back. They’ve already tried. I know you’d like to see the place, but it’s just not safe.”

“But Isabella, they can’t know I’m here, can they? And if you’re all with me I’d be safe, wouldn’t I?” I was a little surprised at that; normally, that would have ended his wanderlust.

“Isabella’s right, dearheart, it’s not safe for you.”

He looked dejected. “But a little trip, just to see a bit, so I can say I have. Couldn’t hurt, could it?”

“Well, if we all went with him and made a short trip.” Ariaryn had a heart so soft, and I think he was a little stir crazy, too.

Sakuya pounced on it. “See, Ariaryn agrees!”

I sighed; he wouldn’t be discouraged. “Okay, how about we all go for a short…” I stressed the word short. “…excursion in Startown.” Sakuya did have a point; it would be good to get out and he was right; the chances of anything going wrong were very slim.

Gami January was bored; he’d been watching the ship for three hours now. Sure, it easy money; sit and watch a ship, if anyone came off or on radio it back then follow them; but it was tedious. He was thinking about popping off and grabbing a bite to eat; nothing was happening. The hatch to the ship opened and four people exited, including the one he’d been told to keep an eye for. He tapped his communicator. “Four leaving, including the mark.”

A woman’s voice. “Excellent; tail them and keep me informed.”

250th of 2029 (078-98): Enli’s Family Bar, Kalu Marasiin Downport.

Things were heavy here, the surface gravity was a quarter again over the standard. However, it was good to out; had to admit that. We’d taken precautions of course; armed ourselves, discreetly, naturally, and lightweight armour under our fatigues, but we weren’t expecting any trouble. We’d found what seemed like a quiet, safe bar in Startown; well, as quiet and safe as a bar in a Startown can be. One old man serving and a waitress cleaning tables, collecting the empties. A handful of patrons scattered around, keeping themselves to themselves. Ariaryn was trying to teach Sakuya how to play puol12. Afira and I were having a drink and watching with amusement.

“You know, Issee, Sakuya is likely to be quite good at that, once he gets it.”

“Oh, why do you think that?”

She took a drink. “He’s a genius, works out DeBrett equations in his head, manages to make sense of Kamminlu; puol is just a matter of hitting a ball and working out angles. He’ll be good at it.”

I looked at him. “Yeah, I think you’re right.”

Afira nodded. “’Course I am, but either way, do him good to have a bit of fun. He’s been a bit stressed since Winchel.”

I looked at her in disbelief. “Afira, since Winchel he’s killed somebody, spent several weeks in Sesh Liryn, and trust me, that place was every bit as bad as the place the Imperials put you. Then had to come to terms with the fact that he won’t ever see his friends, family or home ever again. And to top it all off, an Imperial hit squad just tried to kidnap him. I think he’s coping remarkably well, all in all.”

She was obviously a little embarrassed at that. All she could manage as a reply, “Yeah, yeah, you’re right.” She changed the subject. “So, you and Vu, you spent a lot of time together during the last jump. Did you see to your… er, health?”

“No, Afira, I didn’t sleep with him. We just spent some time together.”

“You think you’ll see him again?”

I was about to answer when I felt it. Can’t describe exactly how or what, but I felt something, something very wrong. “We need to leave, right now!”

She just stared at me “Why? What’s up?”

“Can’t explain it but we need to get out of here right now.” I stood, ran to Ariaryn and whispered so Sakuya couldn’t hear, “We need to get out of here, now. Something’s wrong.”

He instinctively tensed and scanned around. “What?”

“I don’t know, just a feeling in my gut, something bad is coming.”

He hesitated, thinking. That’s when the window exploded.

Three hissing cylinders landed, tonk, tonk, tonk, on the floor and began to splutter, spewing out a cloud of white smoke. I automatically reached for the respirator on my belt; not only was that cloud almost certainly some kind of gas, probably tranquillising, the tainted atmosphere was now pouring into the room. I saw Ariaryn and Afira had done the same. Sakuya on the other hand had frozen. I grabbed his mask and thrust it onto his face as gently as I could. The door burst open, three figures entered and began to spray the room with automatic fire. Ariaryn and Afira already had their weapons out and were returning fire but it was hard to see through the thick white gas that was now filling the bar. Ariaryn grunted as he tipped the puol table on its side to provide better cover. “Okay, in the future I’ll trust your gut, but right now we need to get out of here.”

I had my own gun out now and fired off three shots aimlessly into the gloom. “You reckon?”

Afira had paused to reload her revolver. “I saw another door over behind the bar, probably leads to the kitchen.”

“Best bet. I’ll cover you, then you cover me.” Ariaryn stood and fired again, one of the figures went down but another three had entered.

Sakuya was huddled down, rocking slowly. I took his hand. “You need to run, stay close to Afira and me.”

We sprinted for the bar, keeping low. Afira turned and fired as I pushed Sakuya over, then scrambled across myself. There was somebody else here. Laying motionless. I checked for a pulse, none. Nothing I could do so I stood and covered Afira as she joined us. I saw another figure fall. Afira laughed, “Hey, you’re getting better.” She had just reloaded again.

I chuckled, “Just luck.” I’d just shot another human and I laughed about it, it disturbed me again.

“Don’t complain, two down is good.” She noticed the body. “Alive?” I shook my head. “Bugger” She moved on. “Right on three.” She counted, we stood and fired as Ariaryn ran then vaulted the counter to join us.

He sat, panting. “Right, Afira, where’s this door?”

She pointed. “Over there.”

“Okay. Isabella, you get Sakuya through, then we’ll follow.”

It was a store room, not a kitchen, but I saw another door; hopefully it led outside. Ariaryn and Afira joined us a few seconds later. “Okay, now what?”

Ariaryn was piling things against the door, trying to bar it. “We get the hell out of here. You head back to Raledenet, keep Sakuya safe. Afira and I will hold them up, then head back to join you.”

Niaz Teequow was quietly pleased; two of her ‘helpers’ were down, but that left five, more than enough. She did have a concern, the second man, the unknown still had not appeared. Still, she had seen him and would know him when he did appear. She smiled as her quarry bolted into a back room. She focused and scanned, a mental image of the room and beyond forming in her mind. Her smile turned to a frown. One of the women was hidden to her. She had to be the one, the one she wanted. She addressed her companions, her voice flat and emotionless. “There is a door that leads to the alley behind this place. Petris, take two and deal with that.” Her attention moved to her other companion “You will deal with the door. But first ensure there are no witnesses.”

250th of 2029 (078-98): An Alleyway. Kalu Marasiin Downport.

I could hear several shots ring out from bar as I opened the door cautiously. It was dark, a dimly lit alley. I found myself smiling, how much like a cheap action holodrama my life had become. I took Sakuya’s hand as I edged out. “It’ll be okay, honey, I’ll keep you safe.” He was shaking and trembling, the terror in him obvious. I moved slowly and carefully, keeping to the shadows, scanning always for any sign of movement.

Sakuya’s grip was a vise on my hand. “I’m scared, Isabella.”

“I know; it’ll be okay, we’ll get back to the ship and it’ll be fine.”

There was crack then a burning pain in my left shoulder. My pistol clattered to the ground noisily from the hand on that arm as I was spun by the bullet’s impact and fell, dragging Sakuya with me.

He screamed, “Isabella!”

I couldn’t answer, I just groaned with the pain, fighting to retain consciousness. I heard heavy foot steps approaching, and saw three figures, two men one woman, all heavily built and armed, stubby automatic carbines in their hands.

One of them spoke, “Joan, take the man, I’ll ‘deal’ with the woman.” His voice malicious, a certain glee at the violence in it. The woman, Joan, took Sakuya roughly, dragging him to his feet, the look in his eyes, beyond terror. The man knelt beside me “You have something My Lady wants; where is it?”

I didn’t understand; I grunted through the agony “What are you talking about?”

“The box, the Uhuln! Where is it?” His voice angry, hissing.

It clicked, the box, the one I’d found on the Sesheryn ship; he wanted it. It was on Raledenet still. I tried to feign ignorance. “What?”

He placed his thumb in the notch of the V of my collarbone and began to push. I started to choke and splutter as he screamed, “Tell me now!”

There was a thundering boom; the woman holding Sakuya collapsed clutching her chest as the shotgun round hit her from behind. Another boom as the man choking me released the pressure and turned to see who was firing. The remaining man with him fell, twisting from the impact of the pellets. The one who had been choking me lifted his gun and fired, bullets cascading from his weapon, spraying across the alleyway. The shotgun fired again; I struggled to see who was firing it as my tormentor dove for cover, his sub-machine gun chattering aimlessly as he did. I turned to see Afira appear at the door, she was looking to see what was happening.

I rolled onto my right side, yelping with pain from my wound. “Over there!” I pointed as best I could. “He’s over there.”

Her eyes struggled to focus as she cursed someone, then she fired. A man screamed as the round found its target. The shotgun rang out at the same time, its payload of steel balls striking the alley wall where my tormentor had taken cover. Afira tensed as she looked for this new threat.

I grunted, struggling to talk. “No, I think it’s okay. Whoever it is, is on our side.” Or at least I think they were.

Afira paused. “If you’re with us, step out with your weapon above your head or I start shooting!”

A man stepped out, a shotgun above his head. He was smiling as he looked at first Afira, then me. “Manish Wa, may I be of assistance?”

I laughed; it hurt. “You already have, Fakri.”

Ariaryn slammed the door as he joined up and began to pile what he could find to bar it. “They’ll be through in a moment, at least four of them.” He turned and saw Fakri. “What in all the Gods?” He pointed his pistol.

I was growing used to the pain. “It’s okay; he’s with us.”

“I assure you, Mann Serganet, I’m here to help.”

Ariaryn surveyed the scene. “Yes, you are. Afira, get Sakuya up. You help Isabella; we need to be elsewhere.” Again, leadership fell naturally to him.

Fakri knelt on the ground beside me. He looked at the wound. “Nasty; you have your medkit?”

“Yes, of course!” Maybe not as good with the pain as I thought.

He opened it, took a tube of trauma spray.13 “This will sting.” A smile. “But you know that.”

He sprayed; I winced, but kept the scream inside. “Yes, a little.”

Fakri helped me to my feet; I was woozy and everything ached. Afira had taken Joan’s gun, Ariaryn the other. “What about the other, over there?” She indicated where my tormentor had been.

“No time, we've gotta go.” Ariaryn valued withdrawal far more than ‘cleaning up’.

Naiz Teequow was impatient as her ‘help’ forced the door. “Faster!” She’d felt her lover’s pain. The door finally gave; she let her thugs go first, then stepped out herself. The alley was silent; she could see two bodies laying there, neither of whom she cared about. She focused and scanned for her lover. She found him in an instant and noted only one of the bodies was a corpse. She drew her pistol and corrected that. She widened her search and found her quarry. Not far away; she guessed their heading from their position, it made sense. She moved to her lover; he was laying unconscious, a wound in his side. She turned to her other companion. “Take Gami and Peter. They’re heading for their ship. You should be able to get to the entrance before they do. Enlashi will remain with me.” She would need her assistance with her lover.

250th of 2029 (078-98): Enroute to Raledenet, Kalu Marasiin Downport.

We weren’t making good progress; I couldn’t move fast even with Fakri’s help. Ariaryn realised it, too. He called a pause. I appreciated it; I had to catch my breath. “We won’t make it; they’ll be able to get ahead and cut us off. We need another way in.”

I was slowing them down, putting them all at risk. “Just head for another entrance.”

Fakri looked at me. “You won’t make it, so not really an option.”

He was right; trauma spray doesn’t work if you don’t rest. Already I could feel blood seeping from my wound. “Leave me, then; get Sakuya to safety.”

Ariaryn just looked at me. “We don’t leave people behind.”

“Then what do you suggest?”

Afira had an idea. “They’ll try to ambush us; we need to flank them, or at least somebody does.”

Ariaryn turned to Fakri. “Fakri, do I have your word you’re with us?” It was the first time he’d ever used his first name; he clearly trusted him.

Fakri nodded. “Yes.”

“Then you need to be the flanker; Afira can take Isabella.”

He felt good, he was free again. Sure, he owed his freedom to a twisted psionic monster, but that was strictly temporary and what she’d promised was worth the inconvenience. His rank would be restored, well not fully, only to captain, but he would be back in good standing and reinstated with his regiment. He’d finish this mission, distasteful though it might be, and resume his career. He’d not tried to catch the fugitives, that would have been pointless, they could choose any one of a number of routes back but all of them lead through this point. He’d laid out his ‘assets’, if you could call two hired goons assets, with his usual precision, now he just had to wait.

Ariaryn had called another halt; we’d reached a natural choke point, he said; this would be where they’d try to take us. He’d called in to Siish, told him what was happening, but there wasn’t much he and Jane could do. Ariaryn, Fakri, and Afira were all scanning the area ahead, looking for a safe way through.

“There’s nothing for it, Oommin, we have to walk straight into it.” She was stating the obvious, but she was right.

“Yes, nothing for it.” He paused, considering. “Okay, Fakri, you think you can make your way round them?”

“I’m not special forces like you, but I should be able to.”

Me, now. “Isabella, how are you holding up?”

“I’m fine.” I lied; my tunic was stained with my blood and I was fighting to remain conscious.

He studied me and knew. “Right, let’s do this. You get going, Fakri, and be fast.”

Walking straight into an ambush is never easy. Ariaryn was ahead, Afira holding me up; I couldn’t walk unassisted now. We were going slowly, carefully, noting everything that could be used for cover. This was not a good place. Suddenly the stutter of three automatic weapons, bullets flying everywhere. Sakuya screamed in pain and toppled as one struck his leg, Ariaryn dived for cover and started returning fire, but he didn’t have much ammunition for the carbine.

Afira looked from me to Sakuya, hesitating. I made up her mind. “Him first.”

A brief nod; she let me fall, gently, well as gently as she could, grabbed Sakuya, and dragged him to cover. She was pulling me in when Ariaryn went down. She didn’t hesitate, just stood and fired before ducking back to reload.

“Only two clips, then it’s pistols.”

The firing stopped, a deep male voice, commanding, calm, rung out “Komada-Lekhtenant, it’s pointless. Just like in the camp. Give yourself up and you and the other walrus can go. You have my word.”

Afira shuddered and spoke through clenched teeth, “Diishu.”

Special Agent Fakri Vu considered how his life had changed. Here he was, helping two wanted fugitives from Imperial justice escape. Only a few weeks ago, he’d been trying to bring those very fugitives in. He smiled, his mother would be proud. He could hear automatic fire, the trap had been sprung; time for him to do his part. It wasn’t easy, he didn’t know where he had to be. He’d climbed, gained height. He had PRIS goggles and a shotgun; he scanned, he could see the muzzle flashes, three on one side, one on the other. Down then round, he had his course.

I was trying to dress Sakuya’s wound, it wasn’t bad but he wasn’t going to be moving anywhere soon. Physically he’d be okay but he was nearly catatonic emotionally. This was bad, very bad.

“Afira, who is that man?”

She was slumped. “Diishu, Force Commander Charles Diishu. He was in charge of Interrogation Centre Seventeen.” She touched her scars. “He’s the one who did this to me.” There was hate, pure hatred, in her voice.

I groaned as I finished a simple dressing on Sakuya’s leg. “It’ll be okay Sakuya.” I tried as hard as I could to be comforting and reassuring but he wasn’t in a place where he could be. I turned to Afira. “You can’t let him get to you.” I was slipping into unconsciousness but I needed to hang on.

She gritted her teeth. “Have no intention of it.” She checked her weapon then yelled, “Hey Diishu, you still there?”

His voice came back, “Of course, Komada-Lekhtenant, I’ll always be there.”

She took a breath then yelled with utter determination, “You didn’t break me then, and you won’t break me now, you jkomovaa,” as she stood and fired off another burst.

Fakri saw as Ariaryn went down, then he heard a voice he remembered and smiled. He mumbled to himself, “Diishu; be good to see him again.” He started to mull over suitable dramatics for the moment.

Charles Diishu was feeling good, quietly satisfied with things. His major worry, the special forces sergeant, was down, two others wounded and the remaining fugitive pinned down and certainly low on ammunition. It was only a matter of time. He was about to move in for the kill. He had discounted all of Teequow’s talk of another as just that, talk. Diishu had never placed any faith in her kind of mystical psionic mumbo-jumbo. He turned to his ‘troops’; already he was imagining his return to a proper military command. “Peter, you’ll move forwards while Gami and I cover you, then you’ll cover us. You understand?”

There was booming thunder and Peter pirouetted to the ground from the impact of the shotgun blast. Diishu turned to see Special Agent Fakri Vu’s smiling face. “Hello Charlie; you might want to surrender.”

Diishu looked up in utter disbelief. “You!”

Gami January wasn’t very smart but he knew things had gone badly wrong. He also knew he was facing a death sentence if he was captured from this job. At least six people had died in that bar. He jerked his weapon up to fire. Special Agent Vu was faster though, he pivoted, the shotgun boomed and Gami January was thrown backwards. He no longer had to worry about his capital crimes as his life slipped away.

Former Imperial Marine Force Commander Charles Diishu knew an opening when he saw it. Vu’s attention was elsewhere momentarily; he weighed the odds. Vu there; that walrus Lieutenant-Commander behind him uninjured. The odds were not at all good. He rolled, fired inaccurately at Vu, sprung to his feet and sprinted.

Fakri Vu noticed the movement subconsciously as he fired, he twisted. Diishu’s sub-machine gun stuttered and spat bullets in his general direction. He dove for cover instinctively then rose and fired at Diishu’s fleeing figure. The range was not great but Diishu was weaving and he missed. He quickly considered then discounted pursuit. There were three injured who probably needed urgent attention. They were far more important.

I was failing, slipping away. I’d lost a lot of blood. Funny thing, medical training. I knew I’d be unconscious soon and death would follow shortly thereafter. All very matter of fact. I hugged Sakuya, trying to calm and reassure him. Afira had fired off the last clip for her automatic weapon. She had her revolver out, but one woman with a revolver was no match for them no matter how determined. It would be all over soon.

I smiled at her. “Thank you, you did your best.”

Her face with set with grim resignation “Not over yet; I’ve got another six rounds still.”

My eyelids fluttered and the world started to fade away. I heard something like distant thunder. I wondered at that as I finally slipped away.

251st of 2029 (079-98): Raledenet, breaking orbit from Kalu Marasiin.

My eyes opened, the light was blinding. I wondered if this was heaven, or perhaps hell. Well, right up until I saw Fakri’s face appear. I blinked, again. Still there. I tried to move, I managed to lift my head perhaps ten centimetres before the world started spinning. I slumped back.

“You need to take it easy, Isabella; the wound was bad, you lost a lot of blood and frankly you’re pumped full of painkillers”

He was right. “How?” was all I could manage to say.

He grinned. “Well, after I single-handedly dealt with Diishu and his goons, your friend Afira and I got you, Ariaryn, and young Lord Trace back here. Was a bit of an effort, not to mention the bribing starport guards to turn the other way while we brought three badly wounded people through. I must say, your brother can be quite persuasive, not to mention free with cash. But we managed. Then I treated you and the others. That’s how.”

“Where’s here?”

“The sick bay on your ship. I believe we’re breaking orbit and moving out to the jump point.”

I blinked again. I thought my head was starting to clear but I must have been wrong. “What?”

He repeated, slowly, “On your ship moving out to jump.”

I squinted my eye, trying to understand. “Why are you here?”

“Because somebody had to treat the wounded.”

“Yes, but why? Siish doesn’t like you.”

He beamed at me. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that. He certainly doesn’t trust me, yet at least, but we get on okay.”

Head still spinning. “Okay, but what about…” I caught myself and closed my mouth.

“Your secret mission for the Protectorate? He hasn’t mentioned it, but I assume you’re on one. The Imperium is well aware you’re not just merchants, has been since Winchel. I have no idea what it is though. Like I said, your brother doesn’t trust me.”

The haze was slowly clearing. “Yes, but…” I was stumped. “…why are you here?”

He took a long breath in through his nose. “I’m defecting.”

I looked at him, wide eyed. “What?!”

“I’m defecting.”

Okay, this was all getting far too confusing. “Why? You have a career, a life in the Imperium. Why are you giving that up?”

He sighed, “Whoever got Diishu released has to have immense pull, both official and unofficial. His actions had to be sanctioned.” His eyes fell downwards. “Diishu got away. Doubtless my superiors will know about my actions shortly. My career there is over, possibly my life, too.”

“Why did you let him get away? You must have known what it would mean?”

Another sigh. “Yes, but it seemed more important to get you and the others to safety.”

I looked at him and understood. He’d made the same choice I had. “Thank you.”

“You are more than welcome.”

My head was definitely clearing now. I sat up a little more. “Okay, what I don’t understand, though, is, how did you come to be there, with a shotgun, in that alleyway?”

He looked sheepish. “Ummm… I hadn’t reported back in to the ministry. I was putting it off a few days. So I was laying low in a startown hotel. I found one relatively ‘safe’, well for startown. I heard gunshots, I took my shotgun and went to investigate. You know the rest.”

My eyes narrowed; he was leaving something out. “And why weren’t you reporting in?”

He chuckled. “I was a little concerned that my arrival might tip the Imperium off to your presence here. I was giving you a little time to ‘conduct your business’, so to speak.”

I tried to laugh, but it hurt again and ended up as a splutter. “Well, regardless, I am very glad you’re here.”

He just grinned. “So am I.”

I’m not sure what came over me next, maybe the mixture of painkillers. “I believe it is the custom of your people that a kiss is appropriate now?”

He looked awkward. “Not necessary.”

My turn to grin. “But I insist.”

He sighed, bent down and kissed me lightly on the forehead. “There you go.”

“No, not quite.” I reached up, took his face between my hands and pulled him down till his lips met mine.


Notes numbered 1-11 appeared with earlier parts of this story.

12. A game similar to the pre-spaceflight Terran pool.

13. Combined anaesthetic, broad-spectrum antibiotic, antiviral, and wound sealant.