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The Real Tiko

(POV: Frank, in the reactor room of the Pysadi Autodrone)

Pysadi's Autodrone is a research station, located in far orbit of Pysadi's star. It is an installation subsidized by the empire, embodying the goal of the Mother Church to increase Pysadi's tech level... and bring economic prosperity to Mother Pysadi's children.

It is the pride of the Pysadians - the hope of their future.

Professor Vlamin Mir is the chief researcher on the autodrone - an outsider, posted to the position by the Imperium, who recently acquired his Pysadian surname by converting to the Mother Church. He is a lauded Imperial scientist, knighted for past achievements, charged with gathering data on the planet that rotates below the station. This project is a preliminary effort directed at attracting large scale mining companies to the system, invigorating the Pysadian economy.

When MARCH HARRIER calls at the Pysadian downport, the crew is detained by Imperial Marines - soldiers dispatched from Aramis after the HARRIER illegally lifted out of Leedor Starport. It is a surprise when Frank and Gyr find that the marine detachment is lead by their old CO, Captain Chall Sturm.

An emergency communication disrupts the reunion, and the marines are beseeched by Pysadian authorities to investigate thousands of unidentified aliens attacking the autodrone.

The marine gunship makes way for the outstation. Frank and Gyr volunteer to join their old CO and his squad - with the rest of the HARRIER crew comprising a team of eleven individuals investigating a reported attack of thousands of unknown aliens - aliens that will come to be known as Kafers.

The autodrone is devoid of power, and a battle ensues in the zero-G conditions with the strange, unknown alien race. Victory resides in the hands of the HARRIER's crew, but it is not gained without cost. Four of the five marines are killed in the incident, including Captain Sturm. The only marine survivor is a man named Tiko Larell.

Now, an attempt is being made to restore power to the station - in order to bring the computer on-line and wrest information from the damaged electronics. This information is the same that Baron Vaan Praygor will later use to bargain for Marquis Leonard Bolden-Tukera's pardon of past criminal infractions.

The scene is the autodrone's reactor room. The crew has managed to repressurize the station's third deck and maintenance floor. The other decks remain in zero-G, but the main corridors are now being warmed by internal atmospheric heaters. Movement about the station is not easy.

Frank Fornne is alone in the reactor room, checking the electrical integrity of the reactor, attempting to prevent a power surge that would completely destroy the computer before the others get the system operational in the upstairs control room....

Frank jammed his foot up against the reactor housing to get some leverage. That damn access plate just wouldn't come off. With a tight grip on the handle of the multi-tool, he pushed with his leg, straining to get the nut to turn.

Wham! The multi-tool slipped, flew into the air, and popped into Frank's forehead.

"Shit!" Rubbing his forehead, he checked for blood. Yep, sure enough. The damn thing had broken skin. "You're about to piss me off, you fuckin' thing."

The blood from his wound started to flow more evenly, and this was all he could stand. Using all his might, he kicked the reactor as hard as he could. Pain shot up his leg, and he was sure he had, on top of everything else he had been through in the last 24 hours, bruised his heel.


Laughter erupted from the open hatch that led up to the command deck. Tiko had stopped his decent into the room, and he clung there, frozen on the ladder by the involuntary belly laugh. "What'd you think you would do, punch a hole through half a meter of shielding with your foot?"

Frank peered at the marine over the top of the reactor. "Laugh, laugh, laugh. Ha, ha."

Tiko couldn't take it, and one arm slipped to hold his gut. He looked weak - like the contractions from his laugh would make him fall. In between gaps of breath, he said, "You're... you're like the Kafers! That's how they thought they were going to get in here too!" He bounced up and down on the ladder, using his legs to swing with the laugh.

Frank put on his best blank face. "I'm glad you are having so much fun at my expense."

Tiko howled. "I've got to get down before you make me fall." Sliding to the deck, he popped his thumb towards the hatch in the ceiling. Innocent, he said, "So, you want me to go get Too to treat your wound?"

Frank's blank face turned to a smirk, and he prodded his forehead with his finger. "Laugh it up, marine. Ya know if I was still in command back on Aramis, you wouldn't think this is that funny."

Tiko's large smile tightened, but he couldn't help but grin. It struck Frank as strange, like Tiko's whole mood had just now abruptly swung. Searching the marine's features, the playful face was still there, but Frank could sense that something was different.

"I wouldn't be under your command we were still on Aramis." Tiko's tone was a little more serious than it had been before.

Frank played it off. "Well, you know what I mean - me being your superior in rank and all. You know - me pay grade E-9 you pay grade E-4." Tiko gave an agreeing motion with his head and looked down. He didn't say anything in response. The conversation was dying. There was definitely something up.

Frank, bewildered and uncomfortable with the silence that just fell, tried to recover with a question. "...but, since I'm not a sergeant major anymore, you out rank me, don't you lance sergeant?"

Tiko looked up from his feet. His tone was serious. "That would be true if I were a lance sergeant."

"What do you mean?"

"Just what I said. Like you, I once was a marine, but no longer and not for a while."

Frank just stared. He couldn't think of anything to say, nor could he figure Tiko's angle.

Tiko picked up on the cue, and politely, he continued. "I really don't know how to put this. In my line of work, you never speak the truth - at least not directly. But you are a fellow marine."

Frank listened.

"I'm going to give it to you straight. I work for Eneri Giilaan."

Not a muscle moved on Frank's face. He didn't say anything in response either. Tiko searched for clues to tell him how Frank was taking this news, but Fornne looked like he was cast in granite. Frank could play the game with the best of them.

Tiko nodded his head in appraisal. "Now I know why they call you the Rock. You're a natural. Eneri picked you well."

"I don't work for Eneri Giilaan." Frank was careful not to give anything away that he didn't want given away. He had seen what kind of people Eneri had working for him. Thoughts of innocent people being murdered just because they forgot to call in sick the day Frank was on Natoko flashed through his head.

A quick glance to the floor told him where the multitool was. It was the closest weapon Frank had at hand. Then he darted his eyes back up to Tiko, searching to see if the ex-marine was on to him.

Tiko's face became warm with practiced ease. He pretended not to notice, but, yes, he knew. The man was a professional - one just like another Frank had met recently, Jod Sarkin.

Tiko went on like they were talking about the weather. "You might not think you are working for Eneri, but you are."

Frank stood ready, his body stiff. He had seen Tiko fight with a weapon, and he knew that the man in front of him was probably better with his bare hands. In this man's line of work, Frank was sure that loud guns were not used that often.

"Look, I know what you are thinking." Tiko kept the nonchalant tone. "It's that moment of indecision for you isn't it? Do I go for he multitool now, or do I wait for a better opportunity?"

The ex-marine seemed almost playful. "Or has the best time to make your move already passed?"

Tiko began, slowly, to bend down. It gave Frank a start. Automatically, his fists came up to defend himself.

Taking a step backwards, Tiko raised his hands, still bending at the waist, palms open. "Hold on there big shooter. I'm not here to hurt you." He lowered one arm, ever so slowly, and scooped up the multitool. Throughout the whole motion, he kept his head up, locking eyes with Frank.

Frank saw the multitool in Tiko's hand. His biceps strained as he clenched his fists tight, ready to fight for his life. The bastard had maneuvered himself closer to the weapon. He just bent down and grabbed it. Frank could try a kick, but given the distance, he was sure that Tiko would be able to act first.

Slowly bending back up, the multitool held by only a couple of fingers in his left hand, Tiko brought it towards Frank.

Frank remembered from the combat that Tiko was right handed, and now the multitool was offered to him, lying in Tiko's open left hand.

"Go ahead, take it."

Frank hesitated.

"No tricks, I promise you." Tiko moved and jerked the tool closer towards Frank.



Frank lowered his fists to his sides. "I'm done working on the reactor at this time."

The tense moment that seemed to overcome Tiko swiftly faded. His face relaxing in that practiced grin again, he tossed the tool to the floor.

Frank looked up to see if anybody heard the multitool strike the metal deck, but nobody came to the open ceiling hatch. It was strange, Frank thought, for such a small station, and for so many people aboard - all on one deck, he felt completely isolated. There was no where for him to turn.

Tiko's demeanor became even more casual. Frank knew not to trust this guy - not one millimeter.

There was an almost instantaneous movement contrasting itself from Tiko's smooth, even motions up until then. A short zip, a jerked arm, the sound of metal on leather, and all of a sudden Tiko stood there with a gleaming gauss pistol in his hand.

Frank noticed that it was his right hand. Back to the slow, casual movements, Tiko used his left to re-zip the front of his coverall.

"Shit." Frank was surprised he had said it.

This made Tiko chuckle. "What, this Frank?" He motioned to the weapon in his hands and shook his head. "You shouldn't be afraid of this."

Expertly, the ex-marine clicked the magazine release on the weapon, catching the falling clip in his left hand. He tilted it toward Frank. The high explosive round shined at the top of the clip from the light in the low ceiling.

"This is a tech level 13 gauss pistol - standard marine issue. I'm sure you are familiar with them."

Frank watched as Tiko's hands slid delicately across the weapon like a 16 year old's hands across young, milky white tits. He slapped the clip back into the handle, pulled the slide back to chamber a round and activate the magnetic barrel, and clicked the safety off.

Frank noticed that his own brow had begun to sweat.

"It's a beautiful weapon, Frank. The Imperium sure knows what it is doing issuing these." Tiko measured the weight of the pistol. "It's well balanced, albeit a bit heavy for a handgun." He winked at Frank. "It's that battery that charges the frictionless barrel. Those little 4 gram needle-like puppies fly out of this thing at 1500 meters per second."

He studied the gun's profile and motioned towards Frank. "At this range, with this ammo, it will put a little hole in the front of a man but blow out his backside. Nasty business, those High Explosive rounds - and all that power in a little, light weight, 4mm round."

Tiko locked on to Frank's face. He didn't blink. The gun tossed into the air, end over end, and slapped back into Tiko's hand, who used only his peripheral vision when he caught the weapon.

Frank looked at Tiko's hand and saw that he was holding the gun by the barrel.

"The purpose of all this, Frank, is to cut through all the bullshit. I know you don't trust me, so I'm going to have to take a risk." He shoved the gun out towards Frank, handle first.

Frank glanced at the weapon, but did not take it.

"Go ahead, Frank. The gun's yours. You take it."

Frank stood there. He wasn't sure what to do.

Tiko took a step forward. Gently he touched Frank's wrist and put the weapon into Frank's hand. Nose to nose, he whispered, "Take the damn thing."

Frank gripped the weapon, and Tiko stepped back, slowly.

"Now, you've got the upper hand, Frank. I don't have any other weapons." Tiko raised his hands. "You can call your friends. You can kill me. Or, you can listen to what I have to say. What'll it be?"

Frank raised the weapon at Tiko. "There may only be one round in this thing, but it looked real enough to me."

Tiko kept his hands in the air, careful not to make any motions. "It fully loaded, I assure you."

Frank raised one hand to the communicator on his belt. His finger hovered over the transmit control. The gun he kept aimed at Tiko's chest, dead center, where the man's heart was. "Pull your arms out of your coverall and drop the garment to your knees."

Tiko cracked that grin again. "Smart cookie. Yep, Eneri did a good job in picking you." He glanced to the open hatch. "If somebody happens in, they're gonna think that we are butt monkeys."

Frank didn't smile. "Do it."

Tiko did as Fornne asked. First one arm came out, then the other, before the whole garment was wadded up around his ankles.

Tiko had a marine issue green tank on but nothing more than that other than a pair of skivvies and his shoulder holster.

"Are you satisfied?" Tiko asked. "You see, no other weapons. Can I pull my pants up now?"

"Yeah, I'm satisfied, and no you can't," Frank said. "I like the idea of your legs being hindered."

Frank's comm crackled to life. "Frank, Drake here. What's the progress on the reactor."

It was Baron Praygor's voice. He was travelling under a false ID - that of Luke Drake. For once, Tiko's practiced expression faded as he looked to Frank for his reply. Fornne studied the ex-marine, then made his decision. His finger pressed the transmit control. "Frank here, Captain. Everything's under control."

"Do you want me to send you down some help?" "Negative. It's a one man job here. The panel is too narrow for more than one to work. Besides, I'm almost done. I'll see you topside in a bit."

"Roger. Drake out."

A genuine smile crossed Tiko's face. It was one of admiration. "For a raw recruit, you sure are a natural. That was deftly handled. You keep things under control here by keeping the others out of the picture, but you put in a saving grace in case you get into trouble. If it is too long before somebody sees you, the Captain will come looking. Deftly handled, yes."

Frank ignored Tiko's praise. "Well, before that time runs out, you'd better start talking."

"All right. As I said, I work for Eneri Giilaan. As you can guess, I'm here to get the brooch."


"Because Eneri wants it. I don't usually ask those kinds of questions."

"Why does Eneri want the brooch?"

"I told you. I don't know. I just follow orders."

Frank was unhappy with that. He'd have to come back to it. "Go on."

"I'm Naval Intelligence." Tiko said. "You were wanted back on Aramis. It wasn't anything big - just the break in at the museum and the illegal run outsystem. The locals were dragging their feet with catching up with you. Eneri pulled some strings to get a Marine detachment after you. The plan was to capture you and the rest of your crewmates then cart you off back to Aramis."

"But," Frank queried, "Eneri helped us get off Natoko - Jod Sarkin."

"Yes, I know. But think about it. He wasn't helping you. You were helping him get the brooch out and away from Aramis. You are a channel that nobody knows about. Eneri's plan was to get you off planet, with the brooch..."

"...and turn the brooch back over to him," Frank finished. "When I didn't try to contact him at Patinir, he got worried that I was going to disappear with the thing."

Tiko shook his head. "Correct. You were wanted by the Aramis authorities, so it should have been a simple matter of capturing you and shipping you back to Aramis. My orders were to get you back there safe and sound."

"Sans the brooch." Frank said.

"Right," Tiko agreed, "without the brooch. We were going to get it when we searched you. But, we never got around to that. This emergency is real."

"What about Captain Sturm?"

"The good Captain was a pain in the ass. Given Eneri's position in Imperial NI, it was real easy to get the Marine squad and the SD boat to go after you. Because of the recent personnel changes at the Aramis base - something I'm sure Gyr told you about, it was also easy to substitute my team, the four aces, in place of a real Marine detachment.

"Your old Captain gave us a problem, though. Eneri hadn't reckoned on just how tight your relationship was with the base commander, and Sturm pushed his weight around to get a seat on the SD boat. He even obtained command of the mission. Sturm was bound and determined to find out why you were wanted and what you were mixed up in.

"Eneri could have pushed to remove Sturm's command, but not without attracting too much attention. Instead, we were to ensure that the brooch was recovered whether or not you were extradited to Aramis.

"Eneri could care less about the charges back there. He only wants the brooch."

"So, Sturm knew nothing of your real mission?" Frank asked.

"Hell no. All he was concerned with was making sure that you were looked after. He always wanted to know why. He just couldn't believe that you could be mixed up in something without good reason."

Tiko was sincere. "You lost a good friend in Sturm. We could have taken you at Patinir, but Sturm fought my team leader and the boat commander when he decided to follow you to Pysadi. He was trying to figure out what you're mixed up in - he wanted to give you more time."

Now was not the time to be sentimental, Frank knew. He pushed on. "What's so damn important about this brooch?"

"I told you, I just don't know - on my honor." "You work for Eneri Giilaan. What do you know of honor?"

Tiko was silent for a moment. "I know a great deal about honor. Your friend wasn't the only good man that died this day. Three of my closest friends lie dead down there too. These were men that have saved my life - men whose lives I've saved. We were a team, and closer than most lovers or best friends will ever be.

"What do I know of honor? I know enough not to kill those who have fought beside me. I gave you a loaded gun, didn't I? And I'm talking to you about my mission - a mission that is classified top secret. Haven't you asked yourself why I haven't taken the brooch already and spaced the rest of you?" Frank looked at him hard. "I can only guess that you still need us." "Sure," said Tiko, "but why am I talking to you now? Why don't I just wait until we are close to orbit at Pysadi, kill the rest of you, and take the brooch? Why?"

"Tell me." Frank said.

Tiko was dead serious. "It's because I'm one of the good guys. I'm Imperial Naval Intelligence. I don't kill Imperial citizens without a good reason."

"Wasn't Jod Sarkin NI also?"

Tiko shook his head. "Yes, Jod is deep cover for NI inside Tukera on Natoko. I'm sure whatever he did, he did in the line of duty. Jod's a good man."

"That good man, as you call him," Frank snarled, "killed several Imperial citizens, men and women, whose only crime was to go to work on the wrong day."

Tiko moved his hands for the first time since Frank has had the gun on him. "I'm sure he had his reasons. I don't know. I wasn't there. But, I am here."

At Tiko's movement, Frank twitched the gun to let him know that it was still trained on him. Tiko seemed not to notice.

"Frank, I'm not sure you realize what's going on here. The brooch is important, yes. It was my primary mission."

Frank could see that Tiko had caught his interest in the buzz phrase.

"That's right, Frank. I said was. I really don't know what this brooch thing is all about, but I do know that we've stumbled onto preliminary staging for an attack of sort - maybe an invasion - maybe an invasion by the Zhodani and the start of another Frontier War.

"You've got to be putting this all together by now. I've been briefed on the Kafer. I've told you all I know about their combat capabilities, but I haven't told you everything I know about them. We have reason to believe that they are the puppets of the Zhodani Consulate."

Frank was letting this all sink in.

"Think about it." Tiko continued, "How could a race of semi-intelligent bugs have the technology that they possess?"

"I don't know enough about them." Frank answered.

"Did you see the size of that battleship they rode in on?"

Frank remained silent, remembering the mammoth vessel.

"Well, I'll answer that for you," Tiko said. "The Zhodani control them by giving them the technology. That's right. The Zhodani control Kafer technology."

Frank began to realize, "And, the Zhodani don't want to risk an incident before they are ready. All of the saber rattling and the news reports... they're true. That reporter that predicted another war between the Imperium and the Zhodani Consulate - he was right on the mark."

"That's right." Tiko agreed. "We've been on alert for some time in NI. I'm probably the first agent with real proof. I've got to get back to Aramis to report."

"But I don't understand," continued Frank. "What do the Kafer, or the Zhodani, want in this system?"

"It's pre-invasion planning," Tiko went on. "They're confirming their intelligence about Imperial space."

Frank protested, "But, we're eight parsecs into Imperial space. This system has no military value. It's undeveloped. If there was something important here, then the Imperium would already have a base here."

"That's where you are wrong, Frank. Sure, Pysadi is too far into the interior of Imperial space to be valuable for the first strike, but we're only two parsecs from Aramis, the subsector Capitol, and the Aramis Trace. Pysadi is also within striking distance of the Rhylanor subsector.  Pysadi's a staging area."

Frank shook his head. "They're planning on using Pysadi as a staging point to continue the war after the invasion? Why - when there are ship building facilities capable of supporting that type of war effort on Natoko and Aramis?" Frank asked. "There are also Imperial Naval bases at L' oeul d' Dieu, Aramis, and Natoko."

Tiko responded. "It's my guess that the Zho's are planning a lightning-strike invasion, swooping deep into Imperial territory, bypassing any major point of resistance. Once they get where they need to be, it's easy to cut supply lines and secure the whole subsector. Then, they will be in a much better position to deal with those bases and strike further into Imperial territory - maybe into the Rhylanor subsector next."

"But, Tiko, why pick Pysadi? I mean, I know that the system has no defenses to speak of, but the system is also undeveloped. It's low tech. There's simply nothing here to take. It seems that one of the other worlds in the Scatters would be a better choice - one where the Zho's could capture resources to support their front line."

"Yes, that would be true, Frank, but you are forgetting what this autodrone was given to Pysadi to do. "It's true that Pysadi has no defenses. That's a plus for an invasion. There's also large gas giant present in the system to provide unlimited fuel to run a fleet on. That's plus number two.

"But the biggest plus is in that information that Professor Mir has been so concerned about protecting."

"Yes." Frank interjected at Tiko's pause.

"Frank, the planet below is full of lanthanum. It's the motherload that the professor thought was here. It's exactly the type of load that can put Pysadi on the map. The Zho's have probably gotten wind of this. They've sent the Kafers forward, probably through Vargr space, sneaking from system to system, into Imperial space, with the supreme goal of confirming their intelligence."

"I see," Frank said. "The Kafers are here to get Professor Mir's data. If they're caught, it will be the unintelligible bug like race that we know nothing about. If they are successful, the Zho's confirm that Lanthanum is here, and Pysadi goes into their battle plans as a primary target when the invasion starts. Then, they build a base here from which to continue the invasion deeper into Imperial territory. There's no initial resistance, so the attack can be assured, and there is a gas giant here to fuel the fleet while the base facilities are being built."

Tiko nodded. "That's how I see it. Except the Zho's don't know at this point that we've put two and two together from our previous encounters with the Kafers. We know that they are controlled by the Zhodani."

"Why are you telling me all of this?"

Tiko held up two fingers. "Two reasons. First, somebody else has to know the importance of what is happening here and get that information back to Aramis. Right now, that's my job, but if something happens to me - we're not out of the danger yet - it will be up to you. If I'm taken out, you will need to get this information back to Eneri.

"The second reason is that I cannot find a way to complete my first mission in light of what has happened. Whether you and your friends know it or not, you may have just saved the Imperium from an invasion. You've definitely just helped to defend it. If it was easy to get the brooch, I'd take it with me, but that Vargr always has it around his neck. Besides that, up until a few hours ago, we were in vacc suits all the time. The only way to get the brooch, as far as I can see, is to kill him."

"I am not going to kill him." Frank interjected right there. "And, neither are you. If he dies, you die." Tiko's hands flew back up to the 'hands up' position. "Take it easy! That's what I've been trying to tell you. I've fought beside you people, and you've just done your emperor a great service. I'm not going to kill anyone. You've all earned my respect. That's why I'm talking to you now."

Tiko sounded sincere. "I've resigned myself to going back without it. This news of the Kafers takes precedence. But, I can't pretend that I didn't have a primary mission. I'm transferring that mission to you. You can get it - if not now then sometime in the future, and forward it to Giilaan. When we get back to Pysadi, I'll need transport back to Aramis. I'll take the boat if it survived the run in with the Kafer battleship."

Tiko shrugged. "Of course, I sincerely doubt that it did. I'll get passage on a ship, if there's one in port. If not, I'll have to commandeer the Harrier. The information reaching Aramis is paramount."

"Why didn't you just keep all this to yourself, and then commandeer the ship back to Aramis?" Frank asked. "It seems that way you'd get the info back and return with the brooch."

Tiko looked at Frank. Frank was sure that he was seeing honesty in the man's face. "Like I said, Frank, there needed to be at least two of us who knew the importance of what is going on here." The ex-marine paused. "And I'd like to see no harm come to any of you. Any of you would have given your lives for the others. I said that I respect that. Trust me when I say that I don't have respect like this very often. I'd like to see the brooch returned to Eneri. If that can be done without hurting anyone, then I'll do it. If it can't, then it is up to you. You can get it at some opportune time in the future. Do you still have the locator card for Eneri on Junidy?"

"Yes." Frank spoke.

"Well, then. Get the brooch and get it to him on Junidy. I've got to get back to Aramis with this information."

Frank lowered the gun.

"I take it this means that you believe me." Tiko said.

"I believe you."

"Well, then," Tiko continued, "can I pull up my pants then?"

Frank motioned 'up' with the gun. Tiko laughed at the situation and pulled his coverall over his shoulders.

Before he could zip up, there was the sound of a boot on the metal rung of the ladder. Frank shot a glance that way to see Praygor stepping down from the higher deck. "Frank, I just thought I'd come check on you to see how yo..."

The Captain stopped in mid-sentence. Tiko stood there with an open coverall, but Frank could see that the gun in his hand is what caught the Captain's attention. "What's going on here, Frank?"

Frank stumbled for words, but Tiko, the professional that he is, took the line smooth as silk. "I was just showing Frank here my military issue pistol, Luke."

Tiko reached out to grip the gun in Frank's hand. Their eyes met, and Frank became nonchalant. "Yes, Captain," Frank agreed, "it's been a while since I held one of these." He released the weapon to Tiko and looked him straight in the eye as he finished addressing the Captain. "We were just talking about old times."

Praygor, paused halfway down the ladder where he had stopped when he saw the gun and the peculiar situation, said, "What do you think this is, man, show and tell hour? We've got work to do, and we've got to get out of here before that Kafer battleship shows back up. Are you too going vac-crazy on me?"

"No sir." This time it was Tiko. "We just took a short break."

"That's right." Frank agreed. "I'm almost done with the reactor."

Praygor looked down on them. "That's what you told me last time. We've got live Kafers trying to get out of the front bay. There's a battleship out there that could show up at any time and blow us to bits, and we haven't got the station fully functional yet. Are you two out of your minds?"

Frank walked over to the multi-tool, lying still on the deck. "I'll be done in a jiffy."

"You'd better." With that, Praygor plunked back up the hatch.

Frank addressed Tiko. "And what about that battleship?"

"Yes, that." Tiko said. "I don't think we'll see it again if we get this bucket moving."

Frank raised an eyebrow. "Why's that?"

"Because I know where the battleship is."

Frank couldn't help but scoff. "You wanna let me in on that?"

"Sure." Tiko agreed. "It's running outsystem."

"And how do you know that?"

"Well," Tiko said, "it took about three days for the commtorp to reach Pysadi when we picked up the distress call. I figure that was the first time the battleship appeared. Since it was a 40,000 ton ship, it's easy to spot. Pysadi is not any well traveled star course by any means, but it does see its share of tramp freighters like the Harrier. My guess is that the Kafer ship has orders for minimal contact and silent running to keep its secrecy. They reached the autodrone, dropped off a thousand or so Kafers - that they thought would do the trick - to attack the station and get the planetary data. Not wanting to stay around to minimize detection, especially while an attack was going on, the ship headed for deep space out system. The plan was to swing back and pick up the data." "But we've already figured out that their life support in their suits only lasts 15 standard hours." Frank declared. "How did they expect to get the data?"

"They probably have some sort of homing system. Maybe the leader types were instructed to do something with the data so that the ship could find the information."

"So when the ship reappeared when we got here," Frank continued, "they were not surprised to see all of their troops dead because the life support is only 15 hours? What kind of intelligent race sends a thousand of its own kind out to certain death just to obtain some information?"

"The kind that we are dealing with here."


"Yeah, that's right," Tiko agreed, "damn."

Frank calculated. "So, given that the ship showed up and dropped the first load of Kafers... that's three days transit time for the commtorp and about three days travel time for us to get here... then the ship reappeared to drop another load to get the info once they saw that the first group was unsuccessful and, apparently, the Imperium was not notified. That's six days in between drops."

"Right." Tiko nodded, "I'm thinking that the ship is taking six days to swing out system and return. We've been here a day, so the ship will probably be here in another five days. Given our repairs, we should be almost to Pysadi by then."

"What if the battleship attacks Pysadi looking for the data?"

"They won't do that," said Tiko. "It will tip their hand. This is a covert, information gathering, mission for them. They'll go back without it first, and if I can get back to Aramis in time, I might be able to set some Imperial cruisers on their trail. Maybe they can catch up with them before they leave Imperial space."

Frank thought about the Kafer and their tactics. "I just don't get them. They'd kill two thousand of their own kind for intelligence." "Intelligence is the key word here," Tiko answered. "From our previous contacts with them, that's how they operate. There is some sort of chemical imbalance in their brains. I'm not an expert on their brains so I don't know all the specifics, but I do know that the information transferring system in their brains is naturally hindered. From what I've been told, the theory is that their brain swells, much like most matter does in heat, and this constricts information transfer. This is their normal state. When they are in danger or otherwise aroused, however, nature takes over with a built in defense system. The brain shrinks, like it is cold or something, and the information transfer process is no longer hindered. In reality, they are just as intelligent as any other sentient race."

"We think," Tiko continued, "that the Kafer are not natural to their homeworld. There's reason to believe that they were transplanted from some other place sometime during their evolution - maybe by the Ancients, maybe by somebody else.

"Postulating, we believe that the Zhodani happened upon the Kafer - who had only a rudimentary stone age technology. They were probably not much more than semi-intelligent cattle, but the Zho's figured out that the race was intelligent. I'm sure Zhodani advanced psionics had something to do with this."

"Besides," Tiko said, "not all of the Kafer are effected equally by their brain processes. Notice that the ones that are used as leaders seem to have a higher intelligence than the others. We think that the planet they evolved on, where the Zho's found them, had something to do with their brain hindrance. Maybe it was the gravity. Maybe it was something they ate. Maybe it was something in the air. I don't know. The Zhodani found them and trained them. They capitalized on their tribal-like war-party tactics and gave them higher technology. This is what we've just been up against."

"Uh-hmm," Frank said. "So they hit something hard, with a bunch of might, and be damned with tactics. If they are going in the front door, they're just going to keep sending men in until the task is accomplished."

"Exactly," agreed Tiko. "The battleship dropped off about a thousand men. Given their low intelligence in this new situation, that is very confusing to them. The first group was not successful in gaining access to the station."

Tiko made a circling motion with his finger. "The battleship swung around on its trip outsystem, saw that the first group had not accomplished its goal, and dropped off another thousand or so - but this time, the Kafer have learned from the first's actions. This second group, the one we encountered, was even more deadly. But as you have seen, we have defeated them using our noggins."

Frank was quiet, thinking about the whole situation.

Tiko went on. "Every time we have come across them in space, the story is the same. From what we've seen, they have several large ships, and when they attack a target in space, they hit it with a large fleet of ships. We may be able to destroy them 5 to 1, but they hit us with 10 to 1 odds."

Frank blew a whistle. "Geez, man. There must be an incredible number of these Kafers at the disposal of the Zhodani."

"That's what we've been thinking. The Zho's have an incredible war resource in them. They're dumb, follow orders to the 'T', and exceptionally loyal. Danger actually increases their thinking. It's like a drug - the more you are successful in repelling them, the more dangerous they become."

"And, the Zho's have given modern day weapons to a race with a cave man mentality." Frank said.

"That's right," said Tiko.

"An unstoppable force that just keeps coming," Frank continued. "You kill one and nine more take his place - with their morale higher than before you killed him."

"Now you see the importance of getting this information back to Aramis?" Tiko asked. "This is why I've let you in on it. I need your help to ensure that the information reaches Eneri and the others at the Aramis Naval Base."

"I agree 100%," Frank answered. "What do you want me to do about the brooch?"

"Stick with it. Take it if you can. Get it back to Eneri on Junidy."

Frank asked, "What are you going to tell Eneri about it?"

"I don't know," Tiko said, "I'll think of something. I'll just tell him I couldn't get it and that you are keeping an eye on it. I'll tell him we've reverted to plan A."

"I'm not going to betray Gvoudzon," Frank told him again.

"I understand that," Tiko said. "I don't expect you to. Use your own discretion - tell him if you think it will help. Like it or not, you're working for Eneri now." Tiko paused to underscore the seriousness. "You're working for your emperor."

"I'll do it." Frank shook his head affirmative.

"Just keep up business as usual," Tiko directed. "We'll keep up with where the Harrier is. When the time comes, you'll be contacted. And, be careful. Tukera's on to you too."

"Tukera?" Frank said with a start, "What do they have to do with this?"

"We're not sure," Tiko answered. "But we do know that they are involved. That's part of Jod's job on Natoko - to find out what their involvement is. And they can be dangerous. Remember the people who attacked Gvoudzon wanting the brooch back on Aramis?"

"I thought that was you guys." Frank countered.

"Hell no," Tiko came back. "Eneri's confirmed that was the Vemene - Tukera's covert security agency. They're just as equipped as any of the Imperium's intelligence agencies, and they can be nasty customers."

Frank caught on. "The ones who Gvoudzon said was watching him at work - and watching his apartment?"

"Right." Tiko said. "They had tracked the brooch to Gvoudzon and Aramis. As far as we can tell, they had him under surveillance looking for a clue to the location of the brooch. When that didn't work, they decided to get a little more direct information, so they attacked him - figuring the brooch was on him somewhere. Luckily, he had already pawned it, and this was not yet discovered by the Vemene."

"That's when Too and I happened upon him outside the Happy Spacer in Startown." Frank saw some of the pieces falling into place.

"Yes, that's right. And besides that, this was the second time you and the Harrier crew had shown up in our investigation. Eneri had already taken notice of you when Glynn approached Roet Bannerji, who we had under surveillance. After contacting you, Eneri found out where the brooch was. This connected you a second time to Imperial intelligence. Instead of officially going to the museum at taking it, he saw an opportunity to use you to get it for him - keeping the agency out of it. We didn't want to tip off that we were on to the brooch. The situation, as it presented itself, was perfect for our purposes."

Frank's look turned hard. "Oh, it's crystal now. We're bait. Eneri is watching where the brooch will take him."

Tiko looked at his feet. "That's right. If there is an opportunity to get the brooch without tipping our hand to the other side, like we had when we were going to capture you and send you back to Aramis, we'll take it. But, we're not going to risk alerting the other side that we're on to the brooch. Of course, we're taking a risk not having the brooch in our actual possession. Hell, it could have been lost back on the OSIRIS base as you fought those androids, but given the current arrangement, I'm taking it upon myself to let it stay with you. If you can get it - great. If you can't, we'll be watching. At some point, we'll meet up at Junidy."

Tiko continued, "You realize that I'm going out on a limb here - bringing you into the fold."

Frank looked back at him.

"You're not a trained operative. You're not sworn to uphold the integrity of the Imperium, like I am."

"I'm a Marine." Frank was dead pan. That said it all.

Tiko agreed. "As was I. And, I'm a good judge of character. It's kinda a job requirement. You'll do what is right for your emperor. I know it."

Frank looked down at Tiko's outstretched hand.

"You may not trust me yet, Frank, but believe me, we're on the same side."

Frank clasped the man's hand. "We'll see."

Tiko couldn't help but laugh. "Yes, you're going to do fine. One of the other job requirements is to trust no one." He looked at Frank appraisingly. "Yes, my boss picked you well."

Frank released Tiko's hand. "So I'm supposed to keep an eye on the brooch, but go about business as usual. If I find an opportunity, I'll get the brooch, but if not, I'll hear from you."

"Probably somebody else." Tiko corrected.

"What if Drake poses a problem?"

Tiko dismissed that. "Don't worry about your Captain. We know all about him. If it comes time to let him in - that is, if we let Baron Vaan Praygor in on what is happening with the brooch or any other official secret, we've got a leash on him. If he poses too much of a problem, we'll make sure that the Jade-Londonists find out where he is."

Frank's eyes widened with the mention of the Captain's real name. These people seemed to have every angle fixed. He'd do well to stay on their good side.

"We'll not talk of this again."

"Understood," Frank said. "We'd better get this tub moving before that Kafer battleship comes back."