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This part originally appeared in the April 2014 issue.

Part 3

149th of 2029 (340-97): Arrival in Winchel

Winchel, front line during the war, headquarters for the Imperial 70th Fleet Command, home to simmering anti-Imperial unrest and our destination. We dropped out of jump near the main gas giant. We’d refuel then head to Winchel itself. Things started to go wrong almost at once.

“Siish we’ve got incoming, the INS Xosjah, stand to and prepare for inspection.” Isabella had taken over comms and computers since Mur Mura.

“What is she?”

“Give me a minute or two.” Isabella was a top notch dokhtor, but she was no computer officer. “Destroyer, Hega class.”

“Well, I guess we stand to and get ready, then. Pull the chip Isabella.” We had a full Protectorate Navy database, not illegal but a little ‘unusual’ for a free trader, so we pulled the datachip for inspections. No point drawing attention to yourself. I brought the ship to a halt and went to get ready.

I was at the ship’s locker getting my sidearm, an Armstrong MkIV27. I checked the cylinder, two rounds tranq and four HEAP. Isabella had come with me to hide the data chip. “Expecting trouble?”

“No, but you never know, you should get ready too.” I handed her a p628.

“And what, exactly, am I supposed to do with this?” She held it arms length with two fingers.

“Bad guys this side, safety off, pull trigger, it go bang.”

“I haven’t fired a gun since basic training. And even then I never hit anything.”

“Just put it on and try to look menacing.”

She laughed, “That’s what the range master said I was with a gun, a menace.”

I chuckled back, “Funny, mine said the same thing about me.”

“Ah, sergeants, pretty much the same on both sides of the border.”

“Do you miss it? The Imperium.”

She sounded far away, “Yes, sometimes.”

“Why don’t you go home?”

It was a sad laugh this time, “Nothing to go home to. My family’s disowned me, the Imperium wants me as a deserter, and my friends call me a turncoat. My life’s here, now.”

She was struggling to fix her holster. “Here, let me help.” I started to fasten it to her belt. “So, why did you stay?”

Another laugh, a huge one, “A man, of course.”

I grinned in reply “There's always a man.”

“Augustine Sherin.”

“As in Sherin Femrel’s nephew, Augustine?29” I was stunned.

“Yep, we met at one of the Manish’s parties, saw each other for about five months. When the armistice came, he asked me to marry him. I said yes and stayed.”

“So why are you on this tub and not lounging around the Sherin estates?”

“His family didn’t approve. It’s fine to fool around with the ‘enemy’ but you can’t marry them, you know. And, of course, Augustine toed the family line.”

I’d finished fixing her holster. “And they weren’t the only ones, rather hard to find a lot of friends when you’re an ex-Imperial officer. The Manish’s were good to me though. They would have found me a good position, but Siish needed a medic and I needed to get away.”

I hugged her “I’ll see if I can find some pictures of Augustine. I’m sure we can get you better with that pistol.” She grinned.

When Isabella and I reached the airlock, the others were all already there. There was the heavy metallic thud as the boat’s docking umbilical mated with the hull. Siish entered the code to unlock the airlock. Ariaryn was peering through the port to see who was coming through “Looks like marines, four of them.” Siish unlocked the inner door, and we waited as the team of marines came through. They were wearing full combat armour and carrying gauss rifles. A motley bunch of traders could hardly represent that much of a threat, so they were either on to us or trying to intimidate us. I hoped it was the latter.

The lieutenant in charge stayed helmeted, giving no clue as to sex—the name badge simply said Lieutenant Zagduguur. The harsh, equally sexless electronic voice demanded “Papers.” Siish calmly handed over a datachip; the marine inserted it in the reader and spent several minutes inspecting the data. Intimidation, looking for anything to be wrong. The electronic voice again “Your passengers: Lord Trace, Neilsson and Takawa—Imperial citizens?”

Siish, calm as ever, “Yes.”

“Why are they travelling on your ship?”

“I don't know; you’d have to ask them.”

“Crew’s papers.” One by one, each of our identity cards was minutely examined, looking for any error, any excuse. To do what I wondered, just what were they going to do? Minutes seemed to stretch into hours, but eventually apparently we were all in order.

That grating artificial voice again. “Where are the passengers.” It was an order not a question.

Siish, calm as ever, “This way if you please.” He lead the way to the lounge where Sakuya and his minders were waiting.

The lieutenant finally removed his helmet, a young man with hard eyes and no smile. “Lord Trace, may I see your papers please.” Anna presented three cards, the lieutenant checked them briefly and asked “Your reason for travel on this vessel?”

Sakuya answered for them all, “There was no Imperial ship available.”

The lieutenant seemed to disapprove “Mmmm, perhaps you should have waited for one to be available. Very well, seems to be in order. I will check the cargo now. Captain, you will come with me, the rest will stay here with Corporal Maruma.”

Siish left with the lieutenant and two of the marines; the rest of us waited. We waited in silence, Jane made a coffee, Ariaryn nursed his rifle, never taking his eyes off the gleaming white marine standing by the door. Sakuya sat glumly behind his grinning chaperones; they were enjoying this, he wasn’t. Isabella looked nervous, Jane sat by her and smiled. Not a word was said until Siish returned with the lieutenant twenty minutes later. Zagduguur spoke “All in order, this time. You can go on your way, captain.”

Siish smiled in quiet victory, “Thank you, lieutenant. I’ll show you and your men off my ship.” But you could hear the irritation and disdain in his voice. The sooner we were out of here, the better.

150th of 2029 (341-97): On Winchel

We’d refuelled and made planetfall without much more trouble; local customs had been much easier. Never understood the Imperium allowing their own worlds having a navy30. Sakuya hunted me out before disembarking. “I thought I’d say goodbye, yasvati, and thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Sakuya, it’s been a pleasure to have met you.”

“They sure went over the ship, the marines, that is.”

I gave a snort, “Yep, we’re likely not too popular here. Mind you, I expect we do the same to their ships.”

He offered me his hand. I never quiet got the custom of shaking hands31, but the Verasti Dtareen do it too so I took it and shook. “Maybe I’ll see you again sometime, yasvati.”

“Maybe, you never know.”

The cargo was unloaded and we met in the lounge to work out the delivery of the ‘package.’ There was some argument over who should actually deliver it. Jane believed she should, Siish thought he, as kaptan, should be the one.

“Siish, you’ll be needed here to arrange a new load, we still need to appear to be innocent traders.”

“I’m the kaptan; it’s my responsibility. Besides, you’ll be needed to prep the drives. We’ve gone a month without a decent check. Last thing we need is to break down in Imperial space.”

“And if the Manish Vebmral gets caught smuggling gems, not only are we all gone, but it’s going to look very bad for the entire Protectorate.”

I took a breath “I’ll go, it should be me. You’re both needed here; I’m not.”

Siish was first to dismiss the idea. “Don’t be stupid, dinkir.”

“Why is it stupid?”

“Um, we need you to do the pre-flight.”

Jane joined in, sounding concerned, “Yeah, can’t be you, deary. Pre-flight, remember.”

I knew the reason; it had nothing to do with pre-flight, it was my once-pretty face. “Pre-flight takes maybe an hour, two tops, and Siish is more than capable. We need Siish to arrange cargo and Jane to prep the drives. Only one of each of you, but we have two pilots.”

“She’s got a point.” Isabella at least could see it.

“Too dangerous, dinkir.”

“I'll be with her.” Ariaryn, too.

“But two Luriani will stand out too much, deary.” What Jane meant was that I’d stand out too much.

“A bit of make-up can cover a lot of things, sweetie.”

Siish sighed, “Okay, but at the very first sign of trouble both of you get out.”

Ariaryn and I left an hour latter. I checked the case, fifty million keedits worth of gemstones, twenty five bags of them. It was surprisingly light as we made our way into startown, but it was starting to grow heavier. “We’ll need a vehicle, Ariaryn.”

He nodded “Yeah, one that can’t be traced back to us.”

“So, any suggestions?”

He produced a small case from his knapsack. “This.” He crouched by the door of an old model air/raft. “You might want to keep watch.”

I chuckled, “Well, aren’t you a man of many talents, a lock cracker too. And just where did you pick up this useful skill?”

He beamed back, “Two years with the Verasosal32.”

“So, that would be how you know Kirsov, then.”

“Yep.” There was a click as the door slid open.

“I suppose you know how to override the security lock too?”

His turn to chuckle, “Naturally.” A few seconds later the air/raft’s turbine was winding up.

The drop site was about twenty minutes away, a disreputable industrial part of the city, a quiet place away from prying eyes. It should be easy enough. Meet with the courier and hand over the case. I watched as the dark cityscape slipped past us. Ariaryn looped once over the site, a twisting maze of alleys and shanties looking for somewhere to put down. “There, Ariaryn.” It was discreet and far enough away to be safe. He checked the site and landed. “Okay, lets get this over with.”

“How many we expecting?”

“Just the one, why?”

He moved around, sensing the currents. “Bad air, won’t be able to tell who’s there33.”

“I expect that’s on purpose, puts us on the back foot.”

“Maybe, but don’t like it.” Ariaryn unbuttoned his holster and flicked the safety off his pistol.

“Eyes and ears, just keep them open.” We walked carefully into a back alley, watching and listening. No one, we waited. “They’re late.” Ariaryn sounded concerned.

“Or being careful.” I heard something, I scanned the shadows, a single figure. “Unseasonably warm isn’t it?”

“A late summer perhaps.” The code phrase, seemed good so far. A young woman stepped out of the shadows. She was short, red hair, I thought she should be out with her beau tonight, planning for the next day at school, not skulking in the dark.

“You have it?”

I placed the case on the ground and opened it. She took a step forward, I saw the red dot on her forehead. There was a soft crack and she fell. We drew our guns and wheeled, but not fast enough. Another crack. I saw Ariaryn fall, a dark red stain, almost black, growing on his tunic. I saw two figures behind us. I fired, wide. Another crack, I felt a burning pain in my side and stumbled to the ground, my revolver falling beside me.

A voice I recognized, “Anna, what the hell are you doing?” Sakuya?

“Your little walrus whore is a Protectorate agent, my lord,” I could here the contempt in her voice. “A nice little scene for the police, a dead terrorist and two dead spies.”

“But she’s not dead?” Sometimes the boy could be so thick.

I looked at my gun, she saw. “Kick it away.” My foot sent the gun scuttling across the ground.

She sneered, “I had a brother on the Skanna. Yes, I know who you are. I’m going to enjoy this.” A malevolent grin covered her face as she took careful aim.

I heard the sound, I saw the spreading blood. Another, a sound of thunder, then a third. Anna fell heavily, Sakuya behind her, my revolver in his shaking hands. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry she called you that.” And he shifted aim to me.

“I’m sorry she called me that too, Sakuya.” Calm, careful, I could see Ariaryn’s pistol nearby, I started to slowly move towards it.

“She was right though, wasn’t she, you are a spy.” He was trembling.

“Yes Sakuya, I am.” Closer now.

“What have I done? She’s dead isn’t she?” I could hear the panic. Closer.

“Yes Sakuya, she’s dead.” Nearly there.

There where tears in his eyes “I killed her, didn’t I? What should I do?”

I was close enough now. I knew what I should do, but I didn’t. I just asked, “Help me, Sakuya.”

“Help you?”

“Yes, help me, Sakuya. Ariaryn is badly hurt and I’m wounded, I need help to get him to the air/raft.” He didn’t understand what I was asking of him, but I did. I told myself it was better for him, but it was easier for me.

He lowered my revolver and came over “He’s dead, he’s not breathing.”

“We don’t need to, not all the time. He’s alive.” I lied, I didn't know if he was or not. I checked Ariaryn’s pulse, slow, very slow34, but he was alive. “Help me with him, please, Sakuya.”

He hesitated, then bent to help me get Ariaryn up. “We’ve got to go, Sakuya; the gunfire will bring the police.” If it hadn’t, what I was going to do next would. I rummaged in Ariaryn’s knapsack and found it. An incendiary grenade. I set the timer and flipped the safety off.

We got Ariaryn to the air/raft and laid him on the rear seat. I ripped open his tunic and checked his wound. It was clean, straight through, but I think it’d hit a lung, both were collapsed. I ripped my blouse in half and made two pads. “Sakuya, sit in the back, pressure here and here. As much pressure as you can.” I looked at my own wound, entry but no exit and it was still bleeding.

Sakuya saw the blood. “What about you?” He’d calmed down somewhat now.

I laughed “Only one blouse.”

“Here.” he took off his shirt and used it to make a bandage. He wasn’t bad at it.

I heard the grenade go off and saw the flames “Time to go, Sakuya.”

I flew low and fast, darting in and out between buildings. “You know, you’re not making it easy to keep pressure on him.”

“Just do your best, Sakuya, I need to make sure we’re not tracked.”

I picked up my communicator and called Siish, “We’re on our way home, kaptan.” Another code, he’d know there was trouble.
“Should I make tea?” More code, you could hear concern in his voice.

“Ariaryn’s dying for a cup and I could use one myself.”

“I’ll have Isabella get one ready.” Concern had turned to worry.

“And keep the door open.” I switched off.

I kept flying, but I’d lost a fair amount of blood. We were only about a minute out now, but I was fading. Talk, keep focused, “So, Sakuya, what happened?”

“Uhh? Oh, why were we there?”

“Yes, seems a bit much for coincidence.”

“I guess it wasn’t. About a day before the end of the trip Anna asked me for a tracker, said there was something she wanted to show me after we arrived. So after we landed we waited. The tracker is short range and she needed me to follow it.”

“What, we checked for bugs before we left.” Both of us, thoroughly.

He sounded proud, “Yeah, it was one of my better. Anyway, we followed and found you. I didn’t know what she was planning, I swear it by the Maker.”

“What in Sesh’s name did you think she was planning?”

Now he sounded embarrassed “I thought it was a prank. We used to do that a lot at tech.”

“Tech?” It was getting harder to focus.

“Dirir Polytechnica, I spent eight years there getting my doctorate, mathematics, but I did some papers in engineering too.”

It clicked “So that’s how you made the bug.”

“Yes, like I said, one of my better.”

I could see Raledenet’s bay coming up. “We’re almost there Sakuya, just a few seconds more.”

“Good, I just want to go home.” He didn’t realise, he would probably never go home again.


Notes numbered 1-17 appeared with Part 1, and notes numbered 18-26 with Part 2.

  1. A heavy-frame 9mm revolver suitable for shipboard use. It can be loaded with full-charge ball rounds or low-recoil reduced-charge HEAP and tranq rounds for use aboard ship.
  2. A 20-shot 8.5mm autopistol, standard Protectorate issue for second line personnel.
  3. The Sherins were an influential and powerful family within the Protectorate with extensive holdings in industry and land.
  4. Unlike the Imperium, the Protectorate maintained a strict top level monopoly on military force. There were no separate local armies and navies within the Protectorate. All military forces were under the direct control of the Lord Protector’s Council. This even extended to the armament of civilian vessels, which was heavily restricted, requiring the ship to either be a registered naval auxiliary or obtain a special licence. These licences were expensive and only granted to traders spending at least 40% of their time outside the Protectorate. These policies presented a substantial barrier to non-Protectorate traders operating in Protectorate space. They did however, also have the effect of limiting piracy as any armed vessel would be routinely subject to boarding and inspection.
  5. The Luriani equivalent is to stroke the right check of the other person with the back of your left hand. As over 96% of racial Luriani are left handed, it is thought this demonstrates the person is unarmed. It is also a display of trust as it invites contact with the extremely sensitive nerve endings in the check.
  6. The Protectorate’s most elite special forces formation. Its recruits were drawn from all branches of the Protectorate military.
  7. A Luriani’s pressure sense makes it hard to sneak up on them.
  8. To conserve oxygen, a Luriani’s metabolic rate can slow dramatically if needed.