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Betrayal is a Double-Edged Sword - TC 3.2 DiD
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Sabrina Bergin





Joined: 12 Apr 2008
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PostPosted: Sat, 3. Oct 15, 12:25    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

Song:

Well at least throw them that bone when you're done with it. It's good for sharpening their teeth you know.

Last thing I'd want is to be, `Gummed to death' because their fangs had fallen out. I mean... That would be embarrassing, and messy.


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Song Of Obsidian



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PostPosted: Mon, 16. Nov 15, 09:36    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

Month and a half. Bah. Bad Song.


Chapter 118 - Revelations


There had been a tiny lie in my instructions to the lieutenant of the carrier; after Nyota and I docked on the Magnetar, I checked the energy cell stock on both ships and made two jumps instead of one. The first was to Rolk's Fate, which I just picked at random. I wasn't really worried about anyone tracing jumps, but paranoia felt a little justified just then. Enough so that, before we made the second jump, I disabled several systems on both ships - namely weapons, navigation, and long-range communications.

The second jump brought us to the Unknown sector east of Mists of Elysium - the same one we had used for a staging area until a Split scout found it and Nyota ambushed the Heavy Dragon-led task force they sent to investigate. I didn't want to take them anywhere I might actually use long-term, not while I still had no idea who I was dealing with. And for some reason I still had satellites in Mists, so I should have ample warning if anyone decided to do some scouting. But in the off-chance that someone decided to use jumpdrives, I set the two capital ships on an eastward course to get out of scanner range, while we waited near the gate for one more ship.

"I miss this place."

I glanced over at the co-pilot's seat. Nyota didn't seem to be looking at anything in particular, and she had this wistful smile on her lips. I could guess what she was seeing: dozens of tiny distant shapes, with maybe one moving at any given time. Or two. She had flown upside down once right above my fighter, when I was particularly lost in thought and she had just finished her stint as a freighter pilot. And there were always multiple ships moving about after a successful boarding operation. Most of the time, however, there were only twenty-one people with the fleet. Twenty commandos, and Nyota. It was a much simpler time.

I wished I could take the time to indulge in some nostalgic reminiscences with her. But there was too much to do. With a heavy sigh, I put in a call to Aron.

"Commander," he said when his face came up, almost immediately.

"Aron, I need two teams aboard the Cerberus. Put Cio in charge of one, tasked with defense against possible incursion. You'll lead the other team, two squads to provide me with an escort. Use Gu t'Ktt, but no other Split. The people we will be meeting are Argon military defectors, to be presumed friendly but still regarded with caution. Take your two squads to the ship's hangar to await transport."

He absorbed the information without expression, as I had become accustomed to. I didn't have to explain anything to him beyond the essentials about the tasks he was to perform. He didn't even want to know more than that. In a way it made me feel guilty, but I do treasure efficiency.

When I finished, he nodded once. "It will be done. Give us ten minutes." I nodded in return, and then he was gone.

"Can I go with you?"

Noyta had ceased her contemplations of shadow images in the starscape, and wore this impish little smile. But I could see the earnest desire in her eyes. She had wanted, expected, to be fighting among Argon patriots from the beginning. And while I believed she had found some contentment since then, now that expectation might finally become a reality.

I didn't answer right away. I respected her enough to at least consider any request she made, but reasons to deny her started piling up. While I was perfectly willing to send her into combat in a fighter, or a frigate, she had neither the equipment nor the training for the kind of combat I hoped we wouldn't have to deal with here. But even if it went well, I had other reasons to worry. All I had to do was recall how easily she had been manipulated by Chianna to start getting nervous. That might not be fair, though. Nyota had learned quite a bit from that experience. But one fact definitely remained: if I had a weakness, Nyota was it.

And yet, I could think of two reasons to bring her along. First, was the simple fact that she truly believed in the Heirs. More than anyone else we had, save perhaps the former Marines. And they were still somewhat of an unknown entity to me. I didn't know what they thought of us, or me, but Nyota's perspective could be of benefit. I wanted what she wanted, in a way, but without her passion for it. Not that I was truly...cold. But this wasn't about me. It was about the contrasts between me and her.

And, about my responsibility to her. Because I was pointedly reminded of the other reason while my thoughts droned on, and the moments dragged, and the playfulness in her expression began to falter. I couldn't disappoint her. Still. Not after all she had gone through with me.

My weakness, indeed.

Defeated, I sighed theatrically and gave her a weary look. "Long as you promise not to skip through a warship with a potentially unfriendly crew."

The resurgence of her mischievous smile was a reward all its own. Worrisome too, because it didn't match the wide-eyed innocent look she tried to give me. At all. "I promise," she said sweetly. "You wouldn't be able to keep up with me anyway."

I let her know what I thought of her act in no uncertain terms by wiping that smile right of her lips. With my own.


-------------------------------------


Our flight suits were only a little ruffled when we walked down Sprite's cargo hatch around twenty minutes later. Ten people, armed and armored, were lined up before us, and even started toward the fighter...until I raised a hand to stop them.

I looked them over as they reformed their line. Aron had picked a diverse group. Five were from my original team: in addition to Aron and Gu, he had chosen Kaylen Gisler, Kile Colard, and Frenk Nedley. Solid fighters all, with very different personalities. I might have smiled at Kile, but he was in one of his rare serious moods that actually felt serious. He was working. Same mood I would probably be in, if not for Nyota.

Damned woman.

The other five, however, were a bit of a surprise. They shouldn't be, not really. I told them that I wanted them all to be veterans before anyone else joined us. Even so, I looked at them differently. Mikela Silsarna, Brent Jorwan, Jennaia Ohneiam, and Kriss and Niklas Gusta. I really did need to stop thinking of them as 'former Marines', despite how much easier it was to categorize them that way. Then again, I had to wonder how they saw themselves.

I decided that I really needed to find an answer to that, later. For the moment, they watched me as calmly and patiently as the other veterans. "I trust Aron has told you the details of this assignment." Aron alone nodded, which was enough for me. "Let me fill in a few blanks." I clasped my hands behind my back. Shuffled my feet together. Straightened my back. Lifted my chin a little. A couple people - Marines only - seemed to catch on, and Brent Jorwan even smiled a little.

I nodded to him and Jennaia, who had narrowed her eyes and seemed to be waiting for an explanation. "The people we are going to see will have an air about them. Strength, certainty, superiority. Arrogance. In some ways, they may have earned it. Or some of it. They should look much like several of you did a few weeks ago, when Judge 'welcomed' you to the Heirs." That got a couple more smiles, and Brent's remained. Hm. I fixed my gaze on him. "They might even be familiar. The two ships that have defected to us are, or were, the carrier and destroyer defending Montalaar."

Their reaction was not what I expected. Stunned disbelief was what I expected. Instead they exchanged knowing looks, and Brent even chuckled. What the hell.

He caught me staring at him. His smile never wavered. "Marines always lead the way, sir," he said by way of explanation.

I sighed, smiling a little, then made a couple hand gestures that I doubted anyone but Gu would recognize, warning him to be wary of these five. It was unlikely that this chain of events was planned as a very elaborate ambush, but I wanted to be somewhat prepared.

"And you'll lead the way here," I said to pick up where I had left off. I flicked my gaze over each of them and smiled a predatory smile. "They'll want to send us a message about their status. Show themselves to be above us. So I want you to send a message too."

We talked for a while. But the time I finished and we all boarded the Eclipse, everyone was smiling.


-------------------------------------


They were all armed.

That was the first thing I noticed after we passed through a magnetic field and into the carrier's docking bay. A crescent of Argon military personnel gave us a clear landing zone, and every single one of them had a weapon. Sidearms were holstered and rifles slung on shoulders, but they were present. With the formation and the show of force, it was clear that they were trying to assert some control. Unfortunately for them, I chose not to cooperate.

Sprite touched down smoothly, nose pointed rights into the center of that crescent and about twenty meters distant. The lieutenant I had spoken with earlier was in the middle. That she might be the highest ranking survivor was a disturbing prospect.

She stared at me with confidence. I held her gaze for only a few moments, then lowered the fighter's cargo hatch.

My warriors disembarked, double-file. Aron led one line, Gu the other, as they walked out and split to move toward the front of the fighter along either side. I looked over the others with the lieutenant, and idly wished yet again that I had taken the time to learn Argon rank insigna. None appeared to be combat-trained, as far as I could tell. More than likely, their Marine contingent had not been replaced.

They, on the other hand, were no longer looking at me. What had drawn their gazes, kept them. And I knew why.

My people strode into view, two at a time with matching paces. They were fully armed and geared for boarding operations. They would have been an intimidating group anyway, but what made an impact on even me was, again, a contrast. The military crew were all in uniform, and even after being embroiled in combat, they were pressed and polished with perfect posture and pointed toes. The warriors approaching them, however, moved with an easy grace. There was a little swagger, but it was controlled, precise. A hunter's gait, focused on balance, anticipating the need for direction changes. These men and women were primed for action, not an inspection. And it was only slightly exaggerated too, I knew. The Marines weren't as good at it, but with Aron and Gu leading the way, any deficiencies behind them might not even be noticed.

It had the proper effect. Some of the crew tried to seem more imposing by thrusting out their chests, lifting their chins, clenching fists, glowering. Lieutenant Keppel's confidence lapsed into uncertainty, but at least she held her ground, unlike a couple others. But no one ran. They just...shuffled feet and looked to others for the strength they lacked on their own.

Gu drew a lot of attention by himself, and I wondered if he was grinning. He didn't do anything I could see to taunt them. He wasn't as passive as Nu, but not nearly as aggressive as Cio had seemed after our last Paranid ship capture. A nice compromise, and one that allowed our new crew to see that I wasn't the only Split in this organization. Neglecting to mention that this organization had thus far been suffering from a slight case of...um...being imaginary.

This meeting was going to be tricky.

My people formed another crescent, mirroring the first while those they faced looked on in moderate confusion. I started to look over my shoulder, and noticed a flashing symbol on the left side of the HUD. It was a message. I recalled that Nyota had sent one during the mutiny, and on a whim, decided to open it. Or started to, but a hand touched my shoulder. "Don't," Nyota said quietly behind me. "Read it later."

She didn't sound worried, but her tone was decisive enough that I didn't challenge her. "Alright. Ready?"

"Yes, sir."

I closed and sealed the cargo bay door before activating the transporter device.

The air around me shimmered, and then the scene changed with a little rush of displaced air. The lieutenant, now only a couple strides away, flinched. I could feel Nyota's presence on my left, and knew my warriors were arrayed at my back. "Cerise Keppel." I deliberately ommitted her rank, and doing so lit a fire in her eyes. That could be good, or dangerous. But if Brent Jorwan was coming around, I wanted to make sure he saw that I would be treating these crews exactly the same way we had treated him. "Is everyone ready to receive us?"

The woman bristled, but nodded curtly. "Of course, sir. Should I arrange quarters for your entourage?"

"That won't be necessary," I said with a quick shake of my head. "They will remain with us for the duration of our visit, but we're not here to stay. We are here to determine terms of service, nothing more."

"What he means," Nyota added without giving Keppel time to respond, "is that we don't mean to take your ship from you."

Keppel glanced back and forth between us. I had expected her, or someone, to try to assert some authority and separate me from my people. It hadn't occurred to me that they might think I was planning to take direct command of the ship, however. It made sense, really. It was a flagship. But I didn't need one for myself. Nyota must have anticipated that. It seemed bringing her along had already paid off, because the lieutenant came to a decision quickly. "Very well. If you'll follow me?" She turned without waiting for a response and walked away. The two on either side of her fell in behind, and I followed with Nyota. By listening to the sounds of footfalls, I determined that two of my people got in behind me...somehow.

No one spoke along the way, which suited me fine. I hadn't been aboard a Colossus before, so I paid attention to a lot of details and mentally mapped the route and intersecting corridors. It was obvious that Keppel steered us around any key areas of the ship. There shouldn't have been so many turns, and I know we went through crew quarters after glancing through one doorway where there no longer seemed to be a door. We barely saw anyone, but there were signs of battle here and there - such as the missing door. Scorch marks and minor debris, mostly. There must have been smoke too, but it had already been ventilated. Quick work. I started to feel cautiously optimistic, if only about their efficiency. And wondered what had been done with the bodies.

"How many of the crew were lost?" I asked.

Keppel stiffened. "Thirty-one, sir," she replied with a strained voice. "Admiral Keswen is a man you either love or hate."

I considered that for a moment, both the words and the way they were spoken. "And you, Ms. Keppel? Do you hate him?"

She didn't answer, and I didn't press.

After another minute or so I started to see other crew members loitering about. I looked each one in the eye. What did I see? Honest fear. Uncertainty. Some hostility. A mix of the three. But the one thing they all shared, was resolve. It definitely needed direction before it became a siege mentality, with the crew so fearful or resentful of outsiders who 'don't know what it's like' that they wouldn't follow orders.

Eventually Keppel stopped at a large sliding door and turned to face me. The procession stopped as well. I noted that one of her escorts stood near a console on the wall. "I have served with Admiral Keswen for six years," Keppel said, stealing my nearly-complete attention. "He's stern and unyielding and harsh. He was a just man, and he had my unwavering loyalty until yesterday." I kept still, except for a little flinch around my eyes. It was as close to an apology as I was going to come. She understood, however, and nodded her thanks before turning around again. Her escort typed something into the console and swiped a badge - apparently they restricted access to this room. The door slid open and I followed her inside.

The room we walked into reminded me of the presentation room on the Zeus. The one in which my people had demanded a blood price. The ceiling wasn't as high and the rows of seats were straight instead of curved, which could both be attributed to the size difference between Argon and Paranid. Paranid just take up a lot of space. The room was brighter too, though my memory might be playing tricks on me there.

There were a couple dozen people clustered in groups and engaged in subdued conversations that died when we entered. They stared. I browsed. Despite how different the individuals were in appearance, they all looked alike to me. Oh, their expressions didn't match up. The whole gamut of emotions was present, but even the ones who appeared weighted by guilt had this sense of...pride, that I could feel yet not describe. They were heroes, in their own minds. And they were certain I would try to talk down to them. I had to fight back laughter. If only they knew how common, and petty, that sentiment was.

I had to address them, and get through to them. I did feel prepared for that, if only because I had done this before, albeit not with Argon. The only thing of note was that none of them were armed, unlike our greeting party. With one exception. One near the front of the room wore gear that closely matched what my commandos used, except for the emblems on the shoulders. His eyes swept from one side of the room to the other, unceasing. It seemed that no one really dared to approach him, or the man at whose side he stood.

The other man may or may not have been an officer, but he possessed something no one else in the room had. Authority. He was evaluating me, and I couldn't read anything from his expression. That is, until his head turned sharply a couple degrees and I heard a sharp intake of breath at my side.

"Pael?"

Training alone kept my eyes on this man instead of turning to my lover. His control cracked. I saw surprise. Disbelief. Guilt. The shifts were subtle, and gone again almost immediately, but I saw it all in his eyes. I learned almost everything I needed to know about him in that brief span. No matter how commanding his presence, he had secrets. And who would a man in his position need to keep secrets from?

I finally turned to Nyota. She looked stricken. I leaned in and whispers, "Talk to me."

She flinched, then turned to whisper back near my shoulder. "Pael Keswen. The admiral's son." As she spoke, I realized she was hiding her face from him by using my head as a wall. "We knew each other a long time ago."

Knew each other. I could guess what that meand and didn't want to think about it. I did want to rip his arms off. An unhealthy attitude - for both of us - and I forcefully quelled it. At a guess, this Keswen was from the Titan and probably a senior officer. And the admiral's son to boot. Bloody hell.

At least I knew who he would be keeping secrets from.

"I need you to stay calm, Nyota." I wanted to touch her, to offer some comfort - and calm myself, I have to admit - but I couldn't here. Even using only her first name was less appropriate than I liked, but it was the only way I could touch her. This was not the time or place for her to fail into one of her emotional pits. "For me." I straightened to look her in the eye. She took a steeling breath and nodded. A brief smile was all I could offer her.

I cast a quick glance around before starting up the middle aisle. Cerise Keppel watched us with a group of half a dozen others. I got the feeling that she had something planned for this stage, but held back for one reason or another. Pael Keswen, maybe. People with only the illusion of authority can often be cowed by those with actual authority. It didn't help that her crew lacked solidarity. That was obvious from the way the groups barely acknowledged each other. Something did unify them, I felt fairly certain. I didn't get much sense of fear or anger between the groups, with the exception of one man who spent more time staring at Keppel than me. But they weren't trying to enforce distance. They just...kept apart, as if they didn't know each other. On a ship this massive, that wouldn't be hard to fathom. I didn't even know the full crew complement. I would soon.

"I know you all have many tasks ahead to get your ships back to full functionality," I said once I neared the front of the room. Keswen's guard was no longer scanning; his gaze had locked onto me, as if he was just waiting for me to present a threat. I lifted my brows in curiosity that bordered on a challenge, and he picked up on it immediately. His weapon hand started to flex, but Pael Keswen shook his head minutely and moved toward a seat. That he noticed the exchange was a point in his favor. The guard followed with an easy smile for my benefit, and I read the message clearly. One day.

I held his gaze for a few moments, and felt rather pleased that he didn't seem the least bit intimidated, even by the height difference. Staring straight ahead, he might have looked at my chin. Oddly enough, this nameless Marine reminded me just how short Aron is.

But then I was past him, and had bigger problems. When I turned around at the front of the room, the last stragglers were just sitting down. My warriors had spread out along the back wall, and the armed members of our initial escort remained at the sides, eyeing either me or my warriors. As if they had a chance if anything happened.

Nyota had created her own little island, sitting alone in an aisle seat with legs crossed and hands folded on her lap. I might have smiled at her if she didn't keep glancing at the back of Keswen's head, which was right in the front row. The others were scattered about, still in small groups. Cerise Keppel sat at the head of one group - literally. Others sat behind her, with no one in front or to the sides. The man who had been staring at her was in the very center of his group. Male, same uniform and insigna as Keppel, and a fair amount of anger.

I took it all in within the span of a couple heartbeats. All in all, I was a little annoyed. I asked for their leaders, and I knew damned well that most of these people were just hangers-on. From the carrier, anyway. From the destroyer...

I looked at Pael Keswen. "Are you the only two from the destroyer?" He simply nodded, and I gave him an appreciative smile. As much as I wanted to eviscerate him, emasculate him, defenestrate him, or visit any number of other indignities upon him, he impressed me. More importantly, others started glancing around at each other self-consciously. Message received.
But I didn't want to antagonize these people. I just wanted to set some ground rules. So I looked at Keppel next. "Have you determined what to do with your dead?"

Her head twitched from side to side a few times before she actually shook her head. "We're looking into their wills, sir. Dealing with casualties is the executive officer's duty, but he was one of the casualties."

Unsurprising. "Let me know when something is decided. We will do whatever we can to honor them."

Any gracious sentiment that people might have felt was blown away by an explosive, and predictable, exclamation. "But we can't take them home! We'll be killed on sight!"

"Or set a record for simultaneous court martials," someone else grumbled.

I sighed. This was a performance now, and I had an audience to read...and influence. It would be a game of prod and pull, shove and tug, to get them where I needed them to be. "Last I heard, an entire carrier battle group had the singular task of hunting me down," I said drily. "Yet I fly through Argon space every day. So believe me when I tell you that if you decide they need to be taken somewhere, it will be done." I wasn't familiar with Argon rites, so what happened next would be up to them. I just had to find a way to do it. "It has to be done, to honor those you lost in order to serve your people. To honor those we have killed to get this far. And to honor those who have died, defenseless, while those who could have defended them did nothing."

Ending on that particular note might have been cruel, especially with Nyota sitting in the room. Her eyes were closed, but otherwise she hadn't moved. I remembered asking her some time ago if the shame from Elena's Fortune had been relieved. More or less. She said it was complicated, and that she would have regretted staying where she was before. Maybe having other Argon crews to fly with would help clean things up for her.

Amazing how important that was to me. I was personally invested in Nyota, no question. The others were just tools, for the most part. But that, too, was complicated. When I looked around, I barely saw their faces. I saw Kile Colard. I heard the soldiers in my fighter's cargo bay, the ones who reminded me of Kile with their banter until Nyota Braks had flown in front of me in a scout craft. I even heard Chianna, telling me that her station had been destroyed by a Paranid frigate, and saw her face while she systematically vaporized the ship responsible.

The things I felt in those memories, I saw on the faces of those gathered before me. Contentment. Pride. Anticipation of revenge. Were those things worth fighting for? Could they overcome the fears I also saw?

"A couple months ago," I said in the same tone I had used when I asked Cerise Keppel how many people died in their mutiny, "our organization captured its first Argon capital ship. It was a Minotaur missile frigate. Many lives were lost that day, and we have been trying to make it all worth the sacrifices since then." Not that I had given it a second thought at the time, but I wasn't about to tell them how late in the game my conscience had grown. "But those were not the first deaths in this conflict. There is much to account for, years and years of the Paranid presuming other races have less value than theirs. If they deign to acknowledge any value at all. Worse still, they act violently on those presumptions. And the fact of the matter is that your people have received the brunt of that disregard."

"We know our history. When are you gonna get outta the way and let us meet the folks in charge?"

A lot of heads turned toward the speaker, a man sitting toward the rear. It wasn't the interruption I had hoped for, though I did need to get these men and women engaged. This had to be our war, not theirs and not mine. Those few who didn't look at him, looked at me with contempt. The only notable exceptions were Pael Keswen, who just looked curious; his guard, who hadn't seemed to notice; and a very anxious Cerise Keppel.

The speaker sat at the center of a large cluster of crew members in the back left corner of the room...opposite of Keppel's group. Despite all the things that unified this crew, I was certain a confrontation brewed between those two. He was the same one I had noted earlier with the same rank as Keppel. He seemed rougher though, and his dialect confirmed it. "I command this organization's assets in battle," I said with iron in my voice. "That is all you need to know until you prove that you deserve a place here."

His face reddened. "We killed thirty-one of our own people to get-"

I cut him off. "People we don't know killed other people we don't know. And while you have our attention, we don't know the intentions or loyalties of your crews, nor of those who died. You want information? Then show respect for the living and the dead. Show that you will be able to further the aims of this organization. Show that you have the resolve required to make a positive mark on this conflict. Then you'll have shown, maybe, that you deserve the information you just tried to demand."

While I spoke, the red in his face deepened. At the end he jumped up to his feet, but ten rifles rose with him. Everyone froze at the sound of ten safeties flicking off, some with hands still reaching for weapons. That moment in time could have been carved in stone, because no one seemed willing to move. He continued to glare at me, and I gave him a disgusted look in return. He was likely more frustrated that his people weren't getting themselves killed for him. Reminded me of a damned Paranid. That may have been unfair...

"What do you need from us?"

More eyes than mine turned to Pael Keswen. Hmph. I asked for leaders and got a room full of spectators.

"Personnel records," I said to him. Grateful as I felt to him for steering the dialogue back to somewhere useful, I really didn't want to like him. "All information you have on every crew member, including their current disposition. That's the first priority. Then we need requisition orders for any required or desired supplies to make your ships combat-worthy. I can't guarantee that we'll have access to everything, but if we know what you want, we'll accommodate what we can and discuss alternatives for what we can't with specified leaders."

Keswen absorbed all I said in much the same way Aron did. I still didn't want to like him, but he was quickly earning my respect...which, of course, just made me more wary of him. I did recognize the resentment radiating his way from the other crew, but if he was at all perturbed it didn't show.

"I'll have the files to you within the hour," he said after I finished. "Will you be staying in the sector?"

I nodded. "I'll be aboard the Cerberus, about twenty kilometers nearer to the gate." I hadn't decided that until that moment, but I liked the idea. I wanted a certain atmosphere around me. Namely having people around who weren't paying attention to me. Aron's people rarely did. It would be almost as good as a spy's best friend: anonymity. And we would be in an inferior ship and out of weapons range, which might make the defectors feel a little more secure.

"Very good." He stood up, with his guard a heartbeat behind. "Will that be all?"

"No." He hesitated, and then stood at ease with hands clasped behind his back to wait. He was ready to leave. I didn't care. "Before we made the jump to this sector, I disabled several systems on both of these ships." Keswen must have noticed, because he didn't react at all. I raised a hand to forestall the outpouring of outrage from the carrier's crew. "Navigation, long-range communications and weapons will remain offline for the time being. Your jumpdrives are now also disabled. Once we are in a secure area, propulsion will be shut down, as well as transporter devices after Mr. Keswen returns to the Titan. These are precautions only, and meant to be temporary. You will not be in harm's way, and once we are sure that taking you in doesn't put us in harm's way, you will be given full control again. And not a moment before." I nodded to Keswen. "If that is understood, that will be all."

He nodded back before spinning smartly on his heel and striding out with just about every eye still on him. My personal amusement died when I noticed him exchanging looks with Nyota. I didn't have time to think about it, especially since I couldn't read her expression. Guessing at it would just complicate things.

Once he was gone, I looked at the officer who had challenged me earlier. He was still on his feet. "What is your name?"

He smiled smugly. "Lieutenant Iaron Bro."

"Mm. Mr. Bro, Ms. Keppel, I would like to speak with you both privately. The rest of you are dismissed."

It wasn't until then that the commandos lowered their weapons. Some of the crew started to leave, but others milled about. Cerise Keppel excused herself from her group and moved toward me. Iaron Bro hadn't moved. Nor had those around him.

While I was trying to decide how to deal with that, however, one of my people stepped away from the wall. Brent Jorwan still made me nervous at the best of times, but I didn't intervene when he approached Bro. I needed to know where I stood with Brent, and this seemed as good a time as any to find out. Or rather, I would find out when I questioned him later, since he spoke too quietly for me to hear the conversation.

I decided to at least pretend to trust him and turned my attention to Keppel. "Did you know Brent Jorwan? He was a major, I believe."

She glanced his way. "I did."

"What were your impressions?"

A smile flicked on and off. "He'd be a good guy if he wasn't so proud. He bragged constantly. As far as I know he's never fought in a real battle, so I can't comment on his skills."

I couldn't help but grin. "Whatever they were before, I can tell you that his skills are quite impressive now. And that he has been in combat." Not much combat, but he and the rest of his squad all survived. That's something.

"Oh." She chewed her lip, an odd gesture for someone so...proper. Then she took a quick breath before speaking again. "What about the others?"

I thought she was going to add more, but whatever it was, she held back. I suspected that she wanted to know the status of someone specific. "All alive and well and battle-tested."

She relaxed a little and even gave me a grateful smile. Suspicion confirmed. "Thank you, sir."

I merely nodded.

The room had cleared out by then...almost. Iaron Bro must have come to a decision, because Brent returned to his position and the lieutenant said something to 'his' people. At once they saluted, then turned away and left the room together. When he turned around and I saw his face again, his expression was thoughtful. Must have been an interesting conversation.

"I assume," I said once he joined us, "that you are the ranking officers on this ship at present."

"Yes sir," Keppel said. Bro didn't deign to respond.

"Alright. I wanted to talk briefly without the Titan's officer present." Keppel nodded. "Did any of the fighter pilots survive?"

"All but the wing leader, sir," she replied.

Of course. The admiral would have made sure one of his people was in that position. So calculated. Like a spy. Or a politician. "Make sure the pilots are aware they are not to fly until further notice. Also, be sure the fighters aren't neglected when doing the requisition orders. We need them at peak performance."

"Will we be able to get more fighters, sir?"

"We have a few. Unfortunately we can't count on finding more pilots for them. If we do, they'll be posted here. How many fighters can the Colossus carry?"

"Sixty, sir."

Damn. Considering how rarely I claimed Argon fighters even before I stopped attacking Argon ships, I couldn't imagine getting this carrier to full capacity. "Alright. We'll do what we can to make this the flagship it should be." Both of them, to my surprise, beamed with pride over that...though Keppel had enough sense to show some trepidation too. This ship didn't have the leadership it required to be that flagship. I just didn't expect another carrier to join us. "But I need to make something clear again." I flicked my gaze between the two of them, though the comment was directed mostly at Iaron Bro. "I command our ships in battle. If anyone aboard this ship balks at one of my orders, and if they survive the battle, they will be sent home to deal with the consequences of today's actions alone."

There was more I could have said, but the changes in their demeanors told me enough about them that I stopped there. Cerise Keppel nodded, looking both relieved and conflicted. At a guess, she felt responsible for those under her, moreso than the norm. She wanted the burden, but evidently didn't want to make decisions...which was why she didn't belong in command. I recalled the way she sat in front of her group, rather than as a part of it. Isolated. I imagined her as the type to form committees and actively seek input from others while trying to remain aloof. Iaron Bro, however, became guarded. His jaw tightened and expression closed. Could he take orders? Probably. Could he take them from me? A much harder question. And after his earlier displays, I doubted he was above doing favors for his underlings to keep them loyal. He might just be cut from the same cloth as the admiral he had helped depose.

I would try to confirm these guesses after I looked at their dossiers, but I was confident in my intuitions. Of course, I could give that confidence a good shake by remembering Chianna...

"I've said all I need to, for the time being. We'll speak again after we review your records."

I raised a hand and signaled my warriors and Nyota forward. Before any of them got close, however, Keppel spoke again. "Sir, we have another concern that can't wait."

I glanced at the pair of them, brows raised. After a few moments of silence, she went on. "Some of the crew have families. They haven't said anything, but we know they're worried about repercussions."

"I see." Bro appeared as concerned as Keppel, though of course his disdain for me was still firmly in place. "Where do they live?"

"Either their homeworlds or military housing in Montalaar."

Hm. Repercussions. I stared at some point between the two officers while contemplating their dilemma. Would the Federation act openly against civilians? Governments are always capable of terrible things, but there were some complications. They might use the families to try gaining leverage and 'encourage' a betrayal, but that would only work if the defectors learned of it. If there was no communication, they would never know and the risk would be for naught. And it would be a big risk. If they detained or harmed those families, there would be consequences. Very long term consequences.

On the other hand, there were less overt influences that could be brought to bear. The simplest of them would be to just cut off their pay, and thus rob the families of their income. I hated to think of it. I wasn't entirely against attacking uninvolved parties; I attacked a lot of freighters, after all, but they knew the risks every time they left port. Being a military spouse only sets one up for heartache, not danger.

I began to nod to myself. "There are ways to protect them," I said slowly, and more to myself than anyone else. After a few seconds more thought I focused on the pair of officers again. "We need to know if any of those families had even the slightest idea that this might happen. Talk to Mr. Keswen and get the same for his people. I want it included in the dossiers. Then after the requisition orders are completed..." I frowned, then shook my head. No, there would be an easier way. Less tense, at least. "Do your people have PDA's?" Both nodded. "Good. I'll send everyone a mass message explaining our next steps. Just tell them that we will make every possible effort to keep their families from being dragged into this, ok?"

It was my least guarded moment among them, and I think the sympathy in my tone surprised them. Keppel looked puzzled, and Bro stared at me like I'd grown another head. It would have been comical, but I was just as surprised. Wonder what that says about me.

Keppel recovered first. "Yes sir." She saluted smartly and then turned with the same precision Keswen had. Bro snapped a quick salute, looking startled - possibly by the fact that he saluted at all - and followed.

Huh.


-------------------------------------


"You weren't as accepting of them as I expected."

After we returned to Sprite via transporter devices - whether due to paranoia, the desire to save time, or pure laziness - and flying back to the Cerberus, I found a convenient place to hide: the captain's quarters. Nyota followed me, but held her tongue until we were alone.

The room had two chairs. I chose the plain swivel chair with no arms and minimal cushioning, because it was in front of the captain's terminal. The other chair, a monstrouss recliner, sat where the bunk would have been. The captain must have liked his luxuries. "Welcome to the world of espionage." The thought put me in a more pensive mood than I wanted. I was reminded of all the changes that had taken place in the past couple months, more the negative than positive. I didn't have time for that though.

It had been a trying time, but I did enjoy the meeting. Or rather, I felt pleasure from it once it concluded. At the time, most of my emotions were usually warning signs telling me to change course. The others, I had to suppress. Such as...

"Tell me about Mr. Keswen."

I didn't expect an immediate answer and didn't wait for one. What I did expect was a lot more hesitation. The only thing I accomplished before Nyota answered was powering on the terminal. "That's a very personal question."

"It doesn't have to be." Bracing for a sullen plea for privacy, I spun around in the chair...and found Nyota sitting in the recliner, legs crossed and looking more sassy than I had ever seen her. For a moment I was at a loss. I didn't know what to think until objectivity kicked in. She wouldn't antagonize me about her former lover. It wasn't her way. But she was making fun of me. Why?

She let me stew, smile widening if nothing else. Did her belly twitch? Was she laughing at me? Red crept into the edges of my vision, but quickly dissipated. The obvious truth slapped me in the face, and I slouched back into my seat and shook my head. "Saw right through me, did you?"

The laughter that bubbled out of her swept away the last vestiges of my anger. "It's cute," she said with a self-satisfied grin.

"You..." I growled out, "...have some explaining to do."

She laughed merrily, but apparently decided to take mercy on me. "He dated one of my wingmates at the academy." My jealousy and her humor both vanished after she said it. "I'll tell you about him," she said more somberly. "He proposed to her in our second year and she said yes. But then daddy found out." The scorn in her voice kicked my curiosity up a few notches. "Pael broke off the engagement two days after he proposed, and I put him in med bay the same night."

I blinked. And blinked again. Eventually my thoughts caught up with me, but she didn't give me time to ask the obvious questions. She knew. "He had a concussion and some...bruising." She blushed prettily, and I guessed well enough where that bruising was. "Daddy had him transferred to command school early. When he finished there, he was assigned to one of the admiral's ships."

Hm. To one of the admiral's ships...for protection, maybe. From a woman. Oh, that must have stung. But it wasn't enough. I could tell by the anger in her eyes now. And it didn't make sense. She hadn't displayed any of this when he was present. Surprise, maybe. "What about you? Any consequences for attacking an admiral's progeny?"

She smiled tightly. "They took wing lead away from me and denied me entry to command school. My commander apologized but said she couldn't fight it."

"Wing lead? That why you attacked him? Defending your own?"

"I couldn't defend her, but damned well did avenge her."

I nodded, starting to feel more and more curious. Head tilting, I gave her a faint smile. "Didn't know I'd fallen in with such a savage."

She gave me a smile with all the sweetness of a viper. "Give me some people to command and you'll learn."


-------------------------------------


Nyota grumbled playfully when I sent her off to Argon space to check the news feeds. I wanted to know how quickly the word of this mutiny would get out. Or if it would get out at all. But I also wanted time to adjust my opinions about the damned woman. My understanding of her motivations had sharpened. All I had to do was look at her involvement in the abandoned defense of Elena's Fortune in the same light as her attack on Pael Keswen. She knew then that she couldn't stop either attack. She had exacted retribution against Keswen as a leader. And she came to me looking for the same thing. Her shame in Elena's Fortune began the moment they received orders to retreat, and grew with each unanswered death. And then I avenged the dead without any help from her.

Huh.

I set that aside and got to work. First I disabled multiple systems on both capital ships and the carrier's eleven fighters. I had considered taking the fighters away, but I wanted them to be able to inventory them for me and kit them out to their own specifications. Even if they proved to be enemies, at least then I could learn something from them. The thought reminded me of the painful fact that I had no reason to trust any of them yet. Or so I told myself, in spite of my instincts regarding Cerise Keppel and Pael Keswen. When did paranoia start to feel so safe?

After finishing with ship systems, I began composing a message for all of the crew members.

    There are always consequences for every action.

    Your leaders have made me aware of some potential consequences for your families, and I am going to minimize them. This will require yet more sacrifices from all of you.

    To prevent your families from making their own sacrifices, you will be paid no less than your current wages. We will need to know how we can deliver payment to your families to avoid the funds being seized by the government.

    The more painful part, however, is that you will not be able to contact your families again until this conflict is resolved. To that end, I ask that everyone write a final message to be delivered home with your wages. It will be the last time they hear from you for some time. Also explain to them that you will be out of contact so they do not try to reach you. It is safer for them this way.

    I am sorry that this path must be walked, but I am proud to know brave men and women who are willing to walk it.

    - Commander of Gunne's Heirs


I sent the message as soon as I completed it, even though I didn't trust them. Sometimes you have to show a little faith to receive any.



Last edited by Song Of Obsidian on Sat, 21. May 16, 01:58; edited 1 time in total
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BlackArchon





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PostPosted: Wed, 2. Dec 15, 16:00    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

Yay, you continued your story! Smile
I really like your style, please don't ever stop writing. Wink


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Song Of Obsidian



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PostPosted: Fri, 3. Jun 16, 06:23    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

Six and a half months. Worse Song. But the story goes on, in part due to excellent advice from Scion and in part due to pushing, prodding and pressuring from anonymous parties.


Chapter 119 - Lessons in Humility


...served with distinction in three campaigns against the Yaki...

...active and instrumental member of the precautionary defense forces after contact with the Terrans...

...often questions authority, even in the heat of battle...

...earned several disciplinary actions for her treatment of other women...

...notable gain in weight three months after assignment to the
Pillar. Mandatory pregnancy test is in order...

...has received both more complaints and more letters of commendation than any serviceperson in Argon history...


I sat back and rubbed at my eyes. However many hours I had devoted to this singular task, I did not know or even want to know. Then again, the number of hours Keswen must have devoted to maintaining these records was humbling. Not only did he have service records for every crew member for both ships, he also did his own fitness evaluations, physical and psychological. I'm still unsure whether I learned more about the crews or Keswen himself while reading those files.

Placing my hands on the edge of the desk, I stared at the screen without really seeing it and tried to will myself to stand. I needed to sift through some details and make notes. I needed a break. I needed to talk to Keppel and Bro and Keswen. I needed to sleep.

I needed to get back to fighting this damned war.

I settled for moving my hands closer together and leaning over to rest my forehead on my fingers. Stretching my back and shoulders that way felt too good for words to describe. If I kept it up long enough, I could have fallen asleep. But my other burdens were more urgent. That didn't mean I had to move. I just needed to sort out my thoughts.

Something bothered me about those records. Or rather, about the dispositions of the people they referred to. There were definite patterns.

On the carrier, the Pillar that Admiral Keswen commanded, almost every crew member had been with the admiral for no less than four years. The list of the dead consisted of all of the most senior personnel. All of them, from the executive officer to the lead mechanic and the air boss. It did make sense, especially in light of Cerise Keppel's statement about her loyalties. Simply put, they had believed in something...until my broadwave and the news reports shattered their beliefs. Those beliefs were obviously centered around Admiral Liom Keswen, war hero and bane of the Yaki. Now they sought something else to believe in, and the seeking had apparently driven them to extreme measures. Not that they were all the same, and lumping them into a category could be very dangerous for me. Nevertheless, having a general idea about their motivations would help me steer them toward the most useful mindset, as well as make the anomalies among the crew more obvious.

The Titan-class destroyer's crew was an entirely different story. Most of those who opted to board life-pods were new to the ship. A fair number had less than a year in the military. Conversely, even the captain - named Pico Fisty, which struck me as tragic for some reason - remained aboard. It was impossible to tell whether Pael Keswen was the new captain, or if he merely represented the ship. I did know that the destroyer's captain had been far less meticulous with his records, compared to Admiral Keswen. There were notes here and there, but not as a standard. I might have suspected omissions, if not for the fact that I received the message less than an hour after Keswen left the meeting. He proved true to his word. The fact that most of the records did not reflect positively on the crew was impossible to ignore as well. Add Nyota's story about Pael to the mix and it had all the makings of a misfit crew.

I sifted through my thoughts to come up with a basic summary as I sat up and looked at the captain's bed-chair with undue longing. The carrier would be easy to deal with. Relatively. They needed direction and I had plenty to provide. The destroyer, however, was a puzzle, and one I actually looked forward to piecing together.

Part of that puzzle was the ship's name itself. Keswen thought it important enough to add a note about it with his message. He said that the ship's name was "preeminent in its significance" and they insist it does not get changed. I had not planned to anyway, but it did make me wonder. I couldn't even be certain that I could pronounce it correctly. The word 'Sisyphus' meant nothing to me.

I decided that the recliner looked too comfortable to be comfortable, and left it to its own delusions. My stomach felt empty, a situation requiring a remedy. Before I went on the hunt, however, I reopened Nyota's last message to me and read it one more time.

    You would worry about me, wouldn't you?

I had been contemplating a reply to that for hours. Maybe I could blame hunger for the short reply I typed in right then.

    Always do.

Weakness, indeed.

-------------------------------------

I hesitated just past the threshold of the mess hall. I rarely entered the room in which I had first interviewed Nyota Braks, then merely a threat to be evaluated. The thought made me smile, just a little. The room was unchanged, but sounds coming from the kitchen let me know that I was not alone.

I crossed to the far end and walked around the serving bar to enter the kitchen. There I found Ban Claasen stocking one of the cabinets from a crate. "I suppose a couple months without food poisoning has proven you trustworthy," I said, and chased it with a light yawn.

"When they learn the truth, it'll be too late," he said with the utmost sincerity. I watched him for a few moments, amused, until he flashed me the grin I knew was coming. He showed no sign of being surprised or startled by my presence. "You look tired, Commander."

I waved him off. "No time for sleep. We have anything I won't need to cook?"

He shot me a weird look. "You mean food? Thought you were allergic." I fixed him with a flat stare, but the insufferable man just grinned and pushed aside the crate. "Just the thing," he said as he reached behind the crate, then tossed a rectangular object at me. I caught it with one hand and looked at it just long enough to identify it. It was a brick of nutrients, more or less. A couple bites a day was enough to stay active. Not much fun, but sufficient, and therefore perfect for me. "Keep it. We have enough to spare."

I saluted him with it, then peeled open one end. "Appreciated." I held it up and paused just short of taking a bite. "Do you know where I can find Mister Jorwan?"

"Aron just called him to the hangar. Mikela's in trouble again."

"Trouble?" This was new to me, and if it was a recurring problem, I wanted it dealt with. Definitively.

Ban shrugged. "You'll have to ask Aron."

"Fair enough. Thanks again." I was sure he noticed me leaving, but again, he showed no sign of that awareness. No matter how much I liked the man, that always disturbed me. Even before entering the Patriarch's Own, going unnoticed was a natural talent for me. Yet he always knew when I was around. Some people just possessed a level of sensitivity that nothing can overcome. Thankfully, it was the only thing about Ban Claasen that reminded me of my old handler.

Pu t'Tn never would have commented about my eating habits. Not unless he thought my effectiveness would be compromised. I couldn't say why Ban noticed, or if he even cared, but it took a completely different mindset. It also made me try to recall the last time I ate. The memory eluded me.

Sighing inwardly, I finally bit off a little more than a mouthful from the brick and went to hunt down intended and incidental targets.

-------------------------------------

The narrow corridors leading to the hangar echoed with sounds from raised voices. The words were still indistinguishable until the door slid open and I was blasted by a woman's shouting.

"-n't concern you! I was just playing around! Now back off!"

Mikela Silsarna and Aron Silsarna - no relation, I'm almost certain - were squared off by Sprite in the middle of the wide open space. Aron weathered all of the woman's wrath impassively. Brent Jorwan had his back to me, standing a little apart. He remained fully armed, and had likely been on a patrol when the call came. Our people were still on alert, even though we were too far from transporter range for either capital ship to pose a threat.

I was nearly to Jorwan's side when Aron replied, and I only just barely heard him. "You intentionally kicked a team member while we boarded the ship. One or both of you could have been injured. This is not the first time you have behaved this way, and it will stop."

Jorwan glanced over and nodded to me when I stopped next to him. That was all we had time for before Mikela's next outburst. "Nothing happened! Don't you dare threaten me over-"

A heavy thud next to me stopped the woman cold and brought my head around in time to see, and hear, a second stomping of Brent Jorwan's boot on the metal floor. Mikela flinched and dropped into a defensive crouch, eyes wide for a moment until she realized what caused the sound. Not that she relaxed. The look in her eyes just became flinty, and she remained ready, to dodge or pounce or whatever else. Jorwan approached her, but stopped well out of reach. "Your conduct is unacceptable. Take fifteen and cool off. Then we will TALK about this. Understood?"

Mikela's eyes narrowed, but after an uncomfortable moment she stood up straight. "Yes, sir," she said without moving her clenched jaw, then glanced at Aron, then me, before striding away.

But some unspoken consensus, the three of us who remained moved to form a triangle. We waited until the door hissed open and closed again. "Care to fill me in?" I asked.

Brent looked to Aron, who nodded. "She kicked Kile's foot when he stepped onto your fighter's ramp, before the mission," he explained.

"That kid's reflexes are humbling," Jorwan interjected. "Marshal is understating it. She just about swept his leg. He hopped and spun and kept right on walking." He smiled and cast a wary look at Aron. "He had this baffled expression I found hilarious, but it's out of hand."

"Out of hand. What else has she been doing?"

"Hiding his clothes," Aron said. I started to frown, but had to look at Brent when he spoke next.

"Hiding things in his clothes." The man gave me this conspiratorial grin. I did not have time to question him, because Aron picked up where he left off.

"Stealing his food."

"Locking him in the shower." The grin remained.

"Misplacing his gear."

"Decorating his gear."

I held up a hand to stop them, then pointedly rubbed my neck. "I'm going to have whiplash if you two keep this up. And you," I said with a wry smile, "are enjoying this too much, Mister Jorwan."

"We take joy where we can, sir."

I snorted. "Only Kile?" Both men nodded. "She's young, I take it."

"Barely old enough to know which end to hold."

I cringed a bit at that and chose not to ask for clarification. Aron seemed completely unaffected by the conversation. This, I knew, was not a matter he was qualified to handle. It would be hard for Kile, too. In fact, this could get worse than merely 'out of hand', if Mikela found out the reason for Kile's apparent disinterest. I knew the reason quite well. It was why I had never seen even the slightest display of affection from any of my pirate-trained warriors. Mikela would not take that well...either the pirate bit or the defeat.

"Aron, let me know if this continues to be a problem after today. Mister Jorwan and I will make an attempt to resolve it."

He nodded and thumped his chest before leaving Brent and I alone. I didn't even have to dismiss him. He just knew. It was a very satisfying state of affairs, not having to waste time on little annoyances such as 'hello', 'goodbye', 'how are you?', 'go away', or any number of other meaningless trivialities.

The pleasure was an ephemeral one; when I looked at Jorwan again I instantly felt sick with uncertainty. No matter what I did, this girl's infatuation could disrupt all of my commandos. And the crews of the two ships a short distance away, if she decided to be loud. She seemed inclined toward loudness.

"So when will we be on a first name basis?" Jorwan asked, the humor of moments earlier completely absent.

My brows rose. "That depends." We regarded each other for a few moments in silence. He was looking for something. I used the time to think. This conversation was important, and I had no idea how it would play out. "Tell me about your chat with Mister Bro."

One corner of his mouth twitched in a very brief half-smile. "You don't trust me yet?" He looked both disappointed and amused. Amused, in the way one feels when another is blind to some obvious fact.

"Do you want me to trust you?" I countered. Amusement gave way to quiet anger, but I didn't give him time to speak. "I have some questions for you. Answer honestly and we'll see what happens."

His gaze never left me, and the expected hesitation did not last as long as I expected. "Iaron wants the Heirs to be like the military without the red tape. I told him you'll make sure he gets in the right fight but he'll have to keep his head out of his arse. And I said it took us weeks to get our chance, and I have no regrets."

The last part felt like a challenge, just daring me to prove him wrong. I smiled faintly. "It really has been that long, hasn't it?" He looked pleased, as if anticipating that I was about to give the affirmation he sought. "Tell me. When Aron chose Sheron Poler to lead one of our boarding ops, did you talk to her before the op?"

He blanched. I waited, and again, not as long as expected. "I wanted her to fail," he said in an even tone. "I expected her to fail. Then six people came back wounded and it didn't feel like I thought it would." He took a breath, slow and deep. It was not a direct answer, and I was about to call him out on it when he continued. "I remember this class in command school. Most of the instructors were non-commissioned officers. Felt like a slap in the face, being taught by these glorified grunts." His tone did not match the words; I was under the impression that these were remembered feelings rather than current ones. "So this noncom tells us about enabling those under our command. You know, pushing and encouraging them to do better, to not accept where they are because 'there are no plateaus in space'." His smile returned, a bit bittersweet. "And I ignored it, just because of who was saying it. It tied in to a lot of the other things they were telling us. Making sure those under us knew how to do our jobs in case the worst happened, and about how we needed someone to replace us any time we got promoted." Jorwan chuckled, not even looking at me any more. "'In case some lard-slinging stylus-thumping numbnutted waster with more ribbons than sense thinks you'd do better behind a bigger desk so you get outta the way of working folk', I think she said." He shrugged, smile fading again and eyes once more finding focus and settling on me. "We all learn in different ways, right?"

"I take it you've been thinking about this a lot over the past couple weeks."

"Aye, sir. I had to recognize why you put Marshal and Judge over us to begin with. Realized I was disrespecting them as much as Sheron, thinking I was so much better at everything. Them and everyone else I served with. I put myself in their shoes and it really felt like a slap in the face."

I nodded, smiling wryly. "You're lucky it wasn't. One more question, then. What are you doing differently, now that you have a different perspective?"

"Summed up? I'm trying to BE better than them instead of just assuming I am." We grinned at each other; still had his pride, for better or worse. But he sobered again. "I had to apologize to Sheron after Marshal dressed me down in front of everyone after that op. Yeah, I knew I'd screwed up, but it took me a while to mull things over and figure out where I went wrong. I apologized to her again last week. Told her a lot of the same things I just told you, in fact."

"You must be going soft."

He sneered good-naturedly. "You wish...sir."

"Commander will be fine, Brent," I said with a quiet laugh. He threw me a salute that wasn't as mocking as it could have been. "But we have another matter to discuss."

"Mikela," he said with a nod.

"Mm. This one is complicated, but I'll try to simplify it. You talk to her. What she's doing isn't wrong, necessarily, but she needs to be made to understand when it's appropriate and when it's not."

"Time for work and time for play, aye, Commander."

"Something like that. So find a way to imprint that philosophy into her skull, and I'll talk to Kile." He gave me a questioning look, and I doubted he had a clue why Kile needed to be talked to at all, but on this count I kept him in the dark. "If it goes well, the only thing we'll hear after this is laughter." I grimaced. "Her screaming carries out here."

"At least you weren't here for all of it."

-------------------------------------

I left Mister Jorwan - Brent - with another target in mind. Kile. The conversation I planned to have with him went against all of my training. I could just keep them on different ships, but there would be no guarantees except for delay. In fact, the best solution would be to arrange for Mikela to get killed - by Paranid - so she could not compromise the integrity of the unit or the organization, and also give me a little inspirational fodder. Everyone wins and there was no risk that she might find the 'on' switch for one of my pirate-trained warrior's emotions. If I let that happen, the repercussions could easily get out of control. Yet I intended to let it happen, and for the life of me I could not figure out why.

Thankfully, I did not have to actually hunt Kile down myself. I told Brent to send him to where I was going, and I found Kile Colard standing at attention outside the door to the captain's quarters. He saluted the same way Aron did, thumping his fist to his chest, but somehow made it look casual. That, I cannot explain.

"Kile," I said as the door opened and I beckoned him in, then to the bed-chair. "Have a seat."

I sat in the chair at the terminal and checked it, since I had my messages routed to it for the time being for convenience's sake. None awaited me, which was fine, since I hadn't been expecting any. I spun around to look at Kile. He was in the chair, fidgeting and looking distinctly uncomfortable. Now, I had seen him reclined and at ease in perfectly serviceable chairs. Put him in a chair meant for comfort, and it seemed to be swallowing him. I grunted a laugh. "No, you can't stand. Don't worry, I won't keep you long."

He gave up trying to find figure the chair out and sat still, looking unhappy. "What do you need, Commander?"

"I need to talk to you about Mikela." And I thought the chair made him look uncomfortable. Ha. "These little pranks she keeps pulling on you. Do you know why she does them?"

He shook his head. "I usually ignore them, Commander, but some of them are annoying. Like when she locked me in the shower. I don't understand why she wants to waste so much of my time."

I almost laughed. Almost. He seemed genuinely sincere in his confusion. "You've seen how Nyota and I behave together, right?"

"Of course, Commander. It's good to have a double. We all had one at some point."

I blinked. "A double?"

His brows knitted inward. "Yeah. Someone you do everything with? We always had one during training."

Confusion seemed to have become contagious. "Define 'everything'."

"Um. Everything. Speed runs, target practice, knife and unarmed combat, zero grav gas drills, equipment troubleshooting, you name it. Got to the point, I knew what he'd do before he did it and he knew what I'd do before I did it. Couldn't move into squad training until we did."

"I see." It took me a moment to wrap my head around that. It made sense, certainly. I wondered how much the drugs they were given were used to enhance that partnership. "Who is your double?"

Kile shrugged. "I don't have one, Commander. Most of us don't because you didn't hire any of them, except Aron and Marissa, and Flot and Kaylen. Oh, and Nil's double was one of the Paranid you hired."

I winced at that. Hired and burned. Not that I wanted any Paranid around me anyway, with the notable exception of Elmanckardet, but still. Hm. Aron and Marissa? "And these doubles, they sleep together?"

"Kind of, Commander. We were on bunk beds, and switched beds every night. I was on top one night, bottom the next."

These questions were not helping. "Uh huh. What about intimacy?"

The question was met with a blank stare. "Commander?"

Ugh. "Remember when Nyota kissed my cheek with that red lipstick on? When you made the comment about the Heirs having a crest and making it red? Kissing is, and playfulness can be, part of intimacy."

"Oh. That. Yeah, I remember. But no, we never did that." He tilted his head, giving me this utterly perplexed look.

"Ah. Well, that's what Mikela wants with you."

His expression did not change. He just asked a question that would have made me rip my own hair out, if I had any. "Why, Commander?"

I could only shrug. "You never can know the mind of a woman."

"But Aron knows Marissa's mind, Commander. That's why he tries to have her on every op, especially the ones he doesn't lead. Sometimes she leads even if he's there."

Ugh. I came to educate Kile and he was educating me instead. "Right. But this is different, Kile. Have you ever seen Aron and Marissa touch each other?"

He frowned, looking away from me and presumably searching through his memory for any such thing. Suddenly I had this premonition that the conversation was about to become a lot more awkward than it already had. "I don't think so, Commander. I've never really paid attention."

I groaned inwardly and closed my eyes. When I spoke again, even I could barely hear myself. "It doesn't always start that way. Sometimes you just...want to be around someone. You want to talk to them, want to see them. And you'll know it, because it's powerful. It's a feeling you can't shake, and often you can't stop thinking about. Then you want more. Talking about fighting and gambling won't be enough. You want to touch them, and smell them. You want to know what they're thinking, how they see the world that has nothing to do with which way they'll dodge a knife thrust, and everything to do with who they are. And you'll want other things that probably wouldn't make sense to you no matter how much detail I might go into, so I'm going to stop there." I opened my eyes and smiled wryly at Kile. I don't think I'd ever seen him at such a loss before. "So when Mikela does these things, think about how it makes you feel. If you don't feel anything but annoyance, don't tell her. Tell me or Brent Jorwan and we'll deal with it. But if you feel things that you don't understand...try spending some time with her when you're not fighting. You never know what might happen."

He nodded slowly, blinking faster than his nods. "Of course, Commander. Any other orders?"

Laughter erupted from me and I pointed at the door. "Go back to work, Kile."

"Yes, Commander." He slid out of the chair with obvious relief - whether from ending the conversation or getting out of that chair, I couldn't tell - and left, probably even more clueless than when he had walked in here. Obviously I was the wrong person to have this conversation with him.

It was all Nyota's fault, I reasoned as I turned around to face the terminal again. First for kissing me in the first place. I had been just as oblivious as Kile until that moment. Second, for making it feel so...right. Odd that I haven't really questioned the relationship. So very odd.

Ugh. Enough time had been wasted already.

I woke the sleeping terminal and started skimming through military records again.

-------------------------------------

The process went much quicker the second time around. I did more than just read; in many ways, this was just like hiring my warriors. I sorted the files based on certain criteria. In place of a single 'Interested' category, however, I had several. Inactive for the dead and evicted, 'Threat' for those I considered dangerous, 'Safe' for those I deemed exactly that, and 'Caution' for those who had a red flag or two but didn't especially worry me.

I kept the first category just for reference, namely to see if there was anyone with close ties to them still with us. The list of probable threats was short. Several I could keep under control by managing inventory, communications and navigation. All of them would require oversight. Unfortunately, two of the three self-appointed leaders were on that list. I had reasons to hope that they could be trusted - Nyota's insights about Pael Keswen and Brent's influence on Iaron Bro - but I was not yet sold on either of them. I had to meet with them anyway, so maybe this would be resolved without much delay.

I decided that I wanted to meet with Pael Keswen first. After appropriate messages to both ships, I chose two escorts and waited for replies.

-------------------------------------

The transport coordinates provided by Keswen brought me to the bridge of the Titan. I instantly felt the attention of a number of people focus on me. Keswen himself stood in front of the captain's seat with hands clasped behind his back. After acknowledging him with my eyes, I looked around to observe both the people present and the condition of the room and its equipment.

Much like the crew of the carrier, the uniforms worn here were immaculate. The equipment was also in pristine condition, unlike the dusty mess on all of my ships. Several workstations were unoccupied, I noticed. The attitudes of the crew members stood out to me more than anything, however. Every time I looked someone in the eye, they nodded to me and went back to work. No defiance, no aggression, no resentment of the pair of commandos I brought with me, and if they took pride in anything, it was their own efficiency. That, I could appreciate.

Keswen waited patiently until I looked to him again. "Welcome aboard the Sisyphus' Endurance. If you'll follow me," he said with a little more dignity than Cerise Keppel when she spoke those exact same words. He led me off the bridge and into the ready room. None of the crew followed us. At a gesture from me, Aron and Marissa stationed themselves outside that door. While I did not expect trouble, having two people who might be able to read each other's thoughts seemed like a good idea, as long as I was limiting my guard detail.

The room had a small desk, likely meant for the captain, and a longer table surrounded by chairs. Keswen seated himself on one side of the table, toward the center, and set a datapad on its surface. I sat opposite him and folded my hands on the table, where he could see them. He did the same. We studied each other for a few moments, and I noticed something odd: the rank insignia on his shoulders had been removed. Nothing had replaced them. "I am curious. How did you take control of the ship without violence?"

He smiled thinly. "We had two advantages. We knew who the admiral's sympathizers were, and our only marine is on our side. Since he was assigned here to train us all in defensive tactics after the Pillar's marines deserted, everyone was already learning how to fight and disable other potential deserters. When Lieutenant Keppel contacted us, we began to plan. Upon your arrival in Montalaar, we set those plans into motion."

He paused, watching me. I could have laughed, and almost did. "I find it interesting that he both expected betrayal but also expected you all to be loyal enough to suppress it." Keswen nodded. He had likely already had the same thought, long before. Long enough that he had accepted it without any outrage. I doubted that I could be so accepting. My government would agree with me, when they figured out exactly what they started when they betrayed me.

I don't know how it happened. Perhaps my guard slipped and he saw too much in my eyes, but something clicked. I could see it in Keswen's demeanor. The way he suddenly relaxed, and how he stared at me as if he knew exactly what I was thinking. It would be fitting if he did, because I understood his thoughts with a clarity that I could never explain.

After decades of being punished by his father for being the man's son, and having his choices made or taken away, he finally made the one choice his father was powerless to influence. He may not have the relationship he once wanted, or the support of his government, but he was free to show his own worth out from beneath the shadow of another. He would get to fight in a war, just as his father had against the Yaki. But he was neither afraid of failure nor certain of success. He just needed to know the full extent of his own competence.

Defiance, revenge...and a personal test. His eyes told the entire story. And like Iaron Bro, he wanted me out of his way. Unlike Iaron Bro, it was not out of resentment or any sense of superiority. He held nothing against me personally. He just didn't want me to take his father's place.

"I expected to meet with Captain Fisty," I stated to get the conversation and my own thoughts back on track.

Pael nodded gravely, but appeared unconcerned. "This ship has a unique command structure. Veterans from other ships would call it appalling, but it works for us."

His confidence was both amusing and impressive. "Mm. I find it strange that the captain would not even want to meet the man who will be giving orders that might lead to the deaths of his crew," I said with the faintest of smiles.

"And we would have expected those orders to come from an Argon military officer, but it is not to be." His shoulders lifted in a marginal shrug before he continued. "The captain doesn't care about you or Gunne's Heirs. He cares about his ship and his crew. He will take care of them, while I take care of everything else."

The quiet determination I saw in his eyes was not something to toy with, so I left it alone and moved on to another topic. "I noticed that very few of your crew have spouses or children."

He took the change of conversation in stride. "Only those who started early or served elsewhere before being assigned to this ship," he said, confirming my suspicions. "Their families are all on Montalaar. Military housing is all they can afford."

"Even the captain's?" I asked, feeling skeptical.

He cracked an ironic smile. "His third wife. She has two lovers and takes a one-nighter every week. If you ask him where to send his salary, he will only laugh."

I smiled in returned. Camaraderie came easily with the younger Keswen. Not so easily that it might stop me from delivering a low blow as a final test, however. "And what of Menika?"

His smile slipped, but only for a moment. "If all goes well, she will use my actions to seek an annulment," he said, again, without any anger.

I searched his face and body language for it. Not a twitch, change in pallor, bead of sweat. Nothing. Either he was a fantastic actor or he truly wanted to rid himself of his father's shackles. Even those that come from an unwanted bride. Finally I shrugged and favored him with a wry grin. "Let me know if I can send her anything to encourage her toward that path."

Pael laughed quietly, a deep, rich sound that was more felt than heard. Or seen, for that matter, because the man barely even moved. "I thank you for the offer, but that situation should resolve itself." He sat back in his chair, hands splayed out with an odd sort of precision on the edge of the table. Perfect mirror images of each other, I had no doubt. "And we have more urgent matters to discuss." He tapped on his datapad's screen, then spun it around and slid it toward me with the same precision apparent in all his other motions. "I have created itemized lists of-"

-------------------------------------

I left the destroyer a good deal wiser and with the beginnings of a headache. Though lower in rank than the captain, there was no question about who controlled that ship. The captain seemed, in many respects, to be a noble man. A man who would sacrifice everything to see to the needs of his crew.

On the other hand, perhaps he simply didn't give a damn and was waiting to die.

Keswen also informed me that he had been in contact with the Pillar, and that arrangements had been made to exchange crew members in order to fill some essential roles left vacant in the course of the defection. He provided a list of the crew members they intended to relocate, once I enabled the transporter devices again.

I could have stepped in to manage this, but could not afford to be overbearing. Shifting personnel around presented a few minor risks that were overshadowed by the potential problems they could head off. I still considered either tracking the transports with modified code or discreet camera access. Doing anything to restrict transport activity would just cause more problems.

The headache worsened.

-------------------------------------

Standing in one of the carrier's docking bays without any immediate concerns helped me to realize just how small it felt. It could only hold three fighters at a time. I had always imagined these spaces to be of overwhelming size. The docking bays on the Raptor and the Zeus were both at least twice as large as that of the Colossus.

Three fighters had been arrayed in the docking bay, and their pilots stood at attention in front of them. I had a feeling that I was in for a long and tiresome display.

"You mentioned other fighters the Heirs already possess, sir," Cerise Keppel asked from her position behind my left shoulder. "Are they also Novas?"

"Other than the one Nyota Braks flies, no," I replied without looking back. I was staring at the ugly Nova Sentinel. Not only was it ugly, but that Nova variant was a larger target, even slower than Sprite with less than half the shielding, one less turret, and significantly weaker shield and laser generators. The Sentinel had nothing going for it and I wanted to replace them all, if I could. Not that it would matter, without more pilots. "We have captured a number of Paranid Perseus and Medusa fighters, and also have several of your Eclipses. I will have them brought to your ship later so your pilots can try them out."

Despite standing at attention with all military decorum, all three pilots reacted to my statement. Two expressions soured. The Sentinel pilot smiled. I gave him a fierce smile in return, which he flinched away from. Nyota did say my smiles were frightening. Guess she was right.

"Have you ever been aboard a Colossus before, sir?" Iaron Bro asked with evident pride in his voice.

I finally turned around to look at the pair of them. Bro's disdain for me was absent. Uncertainty had taken its place, which made him a perfect match for Keppel, except that his uncertainty was in regards to me, while hers was for herself. "I have not. I have seen Paranid and Split carriers, however. Both of them only have one docking bay, which is a vulnerability I am glad to see this ship does not share."

Both former lieutenants straightened, and Bro even allowed himself to smile. "You will be pleased with our fleet's flagship, sir. If you'll follow me, we have more to show you."

Long and tiresome display...

-------------------------------------

Most of the tour didn't interest me, but I was far from unobservant. As we toured the fighter hangar situated between the two docking bays and clusters of launch ports, the unremarkable shield reactor, and a cargo hold stuffed with supplies, spare parts and missiles, I noticed the placement of surveillance devices. A lot of surveillance devices. Many were obvious, but some were more subtle. Most of the crew probably never noticed the heat sensors and audio recorders. I couldn't figure out why heat would need to be monitored, but the presence of those sensors made me wonder if the cameras might have more settings than just standard visual. Admiral Keswen might just have me beat in the paranoia department.

The tour ended in what Keppel called a combat information center. I had seen a similar area on the Zeus. Rows of seats with computer terminals, all seemingly identical. The two officers explained how the crew monitored all aspects of a battle and provided support in any number of ways, from updating the commanding officer, to communicating with the carrier's fighters and allies and coordinating fleet movements and ship defense. And to think I flew a carrier with nine fighters for an escort without any of that. Of course, I flew unopposed.

"Has anyone been in the admiral's quarters?" I asked during the walk to a more private room, with Keppel ahead and Bro behind me.

"Only to retrieve some necessary documents," Bro replied. "We haven't had time to sort through his belongings."

"Mm. A low priority." For them, at least. I wanted to get into Keswen's computer. But I could do that from the outside. "In fact, I would rather leave his quarters alone, at least until after whatever proceedings he's going through right now." That should give me enough time to hack into his computer to see what I could find. It may very well be the hub for all that surveillance gear. If so, I wanted it. Badly.

Bro barked out an abrupt laugh. "You think he'll join us?"

I smiled wryly, though neither of them could see it. "No, but stranger things have happened."

"Aye, sir, that they have," Bro agreed in a calm voice. So calm that a chill spread down my spine.



Last edited by Song Of Obsidian on Fri, 3. Jun 16, 13:31; edited 1 time in total
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