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Tales of the Knights Templar

By Travis Anderson All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Adventure

Chapter 1: Chance Encounter

Michel T’Luthien rubbed his chin as the shuttle came to a landing. He hadn’t had a chance to shave since he’d left Terran League space nearly three weeks before. His beard had grown in rather rapidly. He’d taken the opportunity during his two-day flight into Androcan territory to trim his beard into a goatee. They’d been the rage on his homeworld of Cervrea when he’d left two years before. Now that the fad had faded, he decided to try it for himself.

His image in the mirror didn’t bother him. What bothered him was that he was vastly unqualified to accept this mission. He’d been an analyst throughout his entire career and didn’t understand why the Knight Commander had forced this mission upon him. She’d chosen him to be her personal troubleshooter in this matter and the weight of that assignment threatened to overwhelm him.

“I will not fail.” He confidently said to the mirror and then muttered to himself, “Just keep repeating that mantra.”

“We’re on final approach.” the pilot’s voice came over the ship’s internal loudspeaker.

Michel shifted uncomfortably in his seat as he strapped himself in. This was his first visit inside Androcan borders since the last war between the Empire and the Cervrean Commonwealth. He suppressed the memories that arose at that reflection. He had no desire to revisit the nightmares that were spawned by his last experience.

For his last “visit” he’d come as an officer of the Cervrean Royal Navy, now he was here as a representative of the Restored Order of the Knights Templar. Since the Templars were apolitical, they had access to virtually every Human world in known space. The animosities that brought him here in the past were buried in the past. The Imperials would see him for his uniform and not hear his accent.

He felt the gravity shift as the ship’s internal grav generators cut out and natural gravity resumed. The force was nearly one standard g. Michel recalled that Androca had originally been colonized primarily due to its similar mass ratio to Earth not because of its hospitable environment. The planet was habitable only after centuries of intensive terraforming.

The engine’s whine died down and the nearly imperceptible vibration of the repulsorlift vanished. Michel unstrapped from the crash seat before the pilot switched off the safety light ordering passengers to buckle up. He stood and stretched. Joints cracked loudly as he moved bones and tendons that had remained immobile for several hours.

Michel’s lips twisted into a wry grin as he remembered a day when his body didn’t utter such protests at being used. He reached above his seat and opened the overhead luggage compartment and retrieved his gear. He only had the clothes on his back and this duffel.

He wore a simple black outfit with silver piping. Its simplicity could have marked it as the nondescript uniform of any number of corporations or governmental agencies, yet it unmistakably bore the signature of the Knights Templar. The most noticeable feature was the ordinance he wore upon his person. He wore a holster with a large phased plasma pistol. The gun had been designed for, and was used exclusively by, the Knights Templar.

He was armed for battle and knew it. The uneasy peace that had existed between the Empire and the Cervrean Commonwealth had remained unbroken for over seventy years. This did not mean that it stood unpunctuated by skirmishes. The two ancient foes still watched each other warily. While he expected to be free from any prejudices, he wasn’t about to take any chances

The Templars’ Intelligence Branch and their counterparts in the Office for State Security had made the greatest inroads between the Empire and any outward organization. The OSS, despite its bureaucratic sounding name, remained a purely military organ. Most of its ranks were filled with conscripts from across the Empire. They were generally assigned menial guard duties and clerical posts. The “professionals” were among the greatest intelligence agents ever fielded by mankind.

The passenger ramp of the shuttle lowered to the ground. A sunny environ stood waiting. It also revealed nearly half a dozen armed soldiers. Michel tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress a smirk.

“Never knew I was this important.” he quipped to the officer standing before the neat formation of OSS troops.

The chiseled blonde’s eyes narrowed as she spoke, “I have no information regarding your importance, or lack thereof, I only have orders to bring you to my superiors.”

If you only knew, Michel thought, I’ve had a bounty of a half-billion Androcan credits on my head for nearly a century now. Would that information change your attitude? T’Luthien knew that his relatively youthful thirtysomething appearance belied his true lifespan.

“Sorry.” he replied with a mock bow, “Let’s not keep one’s superiors waiting.”

The blonde’s eyes and lips both narrowed. Michel counted it as a small victory.

The trip was a short one. They entered a troop carrier just to travel to the other side of the shuttleport. Their destination was a duraconcrete bunker near the port’s navigational beacon array. Michel supposed this was the OSS’s private “office” at the facility.

Upon entering, he discovered that he was correct. The small, square building was packed full of surveillance equipment. Holo displays throughout the room mapped out virtually every corner of the port grounds. Many of the activities displayed were recorded for various “official” purposes.

Michel was led to a small office in the rear of the facility. It apparently had been intended for the use of the site supervisor, but had been “borrowed” for this occasion. Michel supposed the sullen little man haranguing the personnel monitoring the holo displays was the displaced supervisor. Michel enjoyed displacing the little tyrant, but felt badly for his subordinates that he vented his indignation upon.

The blonde motioned for him to enter the office. The door swung shut behind him. Michel began his visual appraisal of the man who sat behind the line desk centered in the office. The man stood as Michel measured him.

The Androcan was huge. Michel would have taken him for a Hadrani gene-bred soldier if they’d met anywhere else. The man smiled. It didn’t look natural on him.

“Please, be seated, Sir Michelle T’Luthien.” The man’s accent was thick. He motioned towards one of the two chairs placed before the desk he occupied.

Michel stepped forward and thrust out his hand, “Pleasure to meet you, but I have to tell you a couple of things. First, my name is pronounced ‘Mike-el’ not Michelle. It’s an archaic spelling of the name and secondly, you’ve addressed me with a double honorific. I’m either addressed with the attached ‘T’ for Templar in my name or as ‘Sir’. You don’t use both. If you prefer, don’t use either. It’s easier that way.”

“I see. Then I guess I’ll dispense with the formalities. It is a genuine pleasure to meet you Mr. Luthien” Although the smile seemed unnatural, the man’s tone was one of genuine respect, “I am Colonel Joshua Gregarin.”

“Just call me Michel.” T’Luthien insisted.

“Yes, I will. You know, I was quite tempted to collect the reward on you.” Gregarin admitted.

“I’m surprised anyone still remembers that.” Michel waved the thought aside.

“You would be amazed the things that we remember here in the Empire.” Gregarin said with a sinister edge.

Michel shrugged, “Probably.”

“Please, take your seat.” Gregarin relaxed even more as they sat, “The call from your Knight Commander could not have come at a better time. We have recently intercepted several smugglers attempting to enter Republic space through our borders.”

The Templars had been founded on the premise of protecting colonial travelers from harm. Since the greatest threat posed today was interstellar raiding and piracy, the Templars had pledged themselves to stamping out the age-old problem. The Order’s refusal to involve itself with the internal affairs, or wars, of stellar nations gave it credibility and unprecedented access to interstellar space regardless of borders. It was these aspects of the Templars’ mission that had brought T’Luthien here today.

“May I ask what their cargo was?” Michel asked

Gregarin laughed, “Certainly. It was mostly data.”

“Regarding?”

“Disturbing things. Reports of things that lay beyond explored space.” Gregarin said ominously.

“And this is why you agreed to our request?”

“As you know, the Empire supports several Templar bases within our borders. We also give generously towards your annual operating budget.” Joshua shrugged, “And besides, we wished to know if the reports were true.”

“Are they?” Michel feigned ignorance.

“You wouldn’t be here if they weren’t.” Gregarin relished his small triumph.

Michel decided to concede the point. The truth of the matter was plainly obvious, “So, what now?”

“The smugglers were tracked and captured by an exceptional officer. We are assigning that same officer to you as your liaison. You will assume the identities of two of the smugglers and complete their mission.” Gregarin explained

“Won’t their capture be known?” Michel inquired.

“Possibly.” Gregarin admitted.

“What then?” Michel wondered.

Joshua shrugged, “Then you improvise.”

Michel smoldered at the veiled reference to his last mission to Androca.

“It is time to introduce you to your new partner.” Joshua said as he rose to his feet. Michel could hear the office door opening as he also rose. He turned to see whom he would be working with. What he saw surprised him.

The woman that entered was fairly tall. Her build made her appear thin while avoiding the emaciated appearance common to many taller women. Her dark chestnut hair was shot through with lighter highlights. She wore it short, giving her an impish appearance.

The rich brown eyes that peered at him through her bangs were lively and intelligent. Her nose was a nub. Her cheekbones were high and had a faint blush. Her lips were full and rounded.

Her lips rose into a full, warm smile, “Pleasure to meet you.” Her voice was a thick contralto. Her grip was firm and confident. She spoke with a distinctive drawling lilt.

“You’re from the Protectorate region?” Michel asked uncertainly.

His reward and answer were a laugh and infectious smile, “Yes. I’m from Sinherra.”

Joshua chose this moment to intervene, “Allow me to introduce Lt. Caitlin Shire.”

“Sir Luthien.” Caitlin nodded towards Michel.

“The pleasure is all mine.” Michel informed her earnestly. Why did she have to work for the sworn enemy of his homeworld?

“Caitlin is one of our finest conscripts.” Gregarin explained, “We are trying to persuade her to continue her service to the State.”

Michel detected a glimmer of disgust in Caitlin’s eyes as Joshua spoke. He began to examine her body language. She was standing before a superior officer, yet her posture was relaxed. Her chin was held high, almost defiantly. There was an air of victory about her.

Joshua motioned towards the chairs with a sweep of his hands, “Please, let’s sit.”

“You mentioned that Lt. Shire was responsible for the capture of the smugglers.” Michel said as he sat, noting the shudder of suppressed rage that seemed to pass through Caitlin’s body, “I’d like to hear more about that.”

Caitlin opened her mouth to speak, but Joshua interrupted her, “Yes. Lt. Shire was the first to identify discrepancies in the behavior of the suspects and utilized that to identify them.”

“How?”

“By employing the training and…” Joshua began to answer.

Michel cut him off with a glance; “I don’t recall asking you this question.”

Caitlin tried suppressing a smirk, with little success; “I noticed that they were overly conscience of the security forces around them.”

“That’s a tip-off?”

Caitlin granted him the kind of smile generally reserved for slow pupils, “When one’s identification labels one as being born within the Empire’s boundaries.”

Michel understood instantly but also saw Joshua’s sudden discomfort, “Why is that, exactly?”

Caitlin’s eyes flicked towards Joshua for the briefest moment. Her smile grew even wider as she recognized the game being played, “Every Androcan citizen is used to being monitored at virtually every moment. They’re used to the scrutiny. Foreigners aren’t, and their reaction usually identifies them.”

Joshua’s eyes were widening, as was his mouth but no sounds had left it yet.

“And every foreigner is suspected of being a smuggler?”

Caitlin’s laugh was warm with humor, “Of course. Aren’t you all subversives here to destroy our utopian collective?”

Michel shrugged, “We try our best.”

Joshua had recovered enough to sputter in protest; “I don’t see how this discussion is constructive towards our impending investigation.”

Michel and Caitlin exchanged glances and then broke into laughter. Joshua glared at first one and then the other. He bore the indignation of one that has missed the point of a joke, and suspected that it was about them. He waited silently as Michel and Caitlin tried to stop snickering.

“Are you finished?” Joshua asked impatiently.

“I think so.” Michel gasped.

“Good.” Joshua snarled, looking at Caitlin, “I don’t think we need any more mistakes or blemishes concerning this case.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Michel asked, instantly sober.

“It is an internal matter.” Joshua replied.

“No,” Michel retorted, “that is classified as a threat. I want to know exactly why it was made.”

Joshua met his question with silence. Michel felt outrage building within him. He was on the verge of rising out of his chair and trying to bash Joshua’s head against the desk when Caitlin took hold of his arm. He looked over to her and found her wearing a sardonic smile.

“It’s all right.” She assured him, “This is an old matter.” Her eyes met Michel’s; “I have been accused of ‘questionable loyalties’ in the past.” Her head turned back towards Joshua, “Apparently, those ghosts persist.”

“Your loyalty is without question.” Joshua assured her.

Caitlin’s eyebrow arched slightly. Her lips twisted into a wry expression of distaste. Her arms folded across her chest. Everything about her said, Oh, really?

“This is an extremely sensitive matter.” Joshua explained, “There are those that would object to your involvement.” He looked over towards Michel, “And especially to yours. We must look beyond these prejudices and strive for mutual success.”

“Or?” Michel asked cynically.

“Or, the chances of another collaborative effort such as this will be greatly diminished.”

It took another two tense hours to discuss the details, such as they were, of the proposed mission. The OSS had not dedicated much time towards planning this operation. Michel’s involvement was classified. The High Command did not want to admit to its citizenry that the Androcan government had relied upon Templar assistance in order to resolve a disturbing situation. The fact that the Templar agent was a Cervrean was worse. It was a matter of policy that Androcans and Cervreans couldn’t get along. Too much of their power was derived from the populace’s fear of the Commonwealth’s military strength.

Caitlin’s position did not appear to be much better. She was a conscript. She had to serve three years in the OSS regardless of her personal beliefs regarding the organization or face imprisonment. Michel had the feeling that she had been willing to face that alternative prior to this operation. The way she answered his inquiry regarding her place of origin led him to believe she was a Sinherran nationalist. A dangerous political philosophy considering that the Empire had seized control of her homeworld nearly twenty years ago. Her placement in the OSS was as much an attempt at inculturation as it was a result of her abilities. From what Michel could ascertain, the experiment was failing miserably.

Michel felt a visceral attraction towards her. He found this odd for disparate reasons: he hardly knew her, and he had been sent here despite his war record. Blowing up a moon wasn’t a crime that any government easily forgave, especially when it housed your military command structure. He’d spent decades trying to forget that awful day and now it kept getting thrown back in his face.

That still didn’t solve his other difficulty. He still hardly knew her. Even if he did get to know her, she was technically an Androcan citizen. The Commonwealth and the Empire had been waging a Cold War for over two hundred years now. Despite Michel’s apolitical position within the Order, he himself had faced Androcan forces in combat. That usually didn’t make for the foundations of a romance. Then again, if she truly were a Sinherran nationalist, then odds were that she was less of an Androcan patriot than he was.

Michel shook his head at himself. This was useless folly. He didn’t even know if the woman liked him and here he was trying to justify courting her. He decided to satisfy his impulse with mere conversation and a meal or two during the course of their partnership.

Michel was still inwardly laughing at himself when the briefing concluded. Joshua stood, signaling the close of the talks. The door behind Michel and Caitlin opened suddenly, revealing the chiseled blonde. Joshua nodded to her once.

“You will come with me.” She announced abruptly.

Caitlin and Michel exchanged the briefest glance. With an almost imperceptible shrug, Caitlin stepped forward to follow. Michel followed suit. The blonde officer led them to the lorry that had brought Michel here in the first place.

They boarded the cargo area and the blonde rapped on the lorry’s roof twice. The aircar lurched forward and then glided across the port’s open landing pads. Everyone remained silent. Michel studied his “comrades”. Caitlin fidgeted slightly in her seat. The blonde officer robotically stared straight ahead. The five OSS guards that followed the officer everywhere tried to pretend they heard and saw nothing that could get them in trouble later.

The aircar stopped in front of a battered scoutship parked away from most of the freighter traffic. It was at least a century old. Rust and dents covered its surface. Myriad paint schemes overlapped each other. Michel dreaded what the interior would look like, much less smell like.

“This is your ship.” The blonde spoke. Even her speech was mechanical.

“I was afraid of that.” Michel muttered.

“We have inspected the craft. It is spaceworthy. You have nothing to fear.” the blonde replied in staccato bursts.

Literal too. “Thanks,” Michel replied sardonically, “I feel better already.”

“Good. You must not allow anything to distract you from your mission.”

Whatever. Michel shrugged and hopped out of the lorry. He began to walk towards the ship. He stopped when he noticed Caitlin wasn’t with him. He turned to see the officer speaking to Caitlin as she handed over Shire’s luggage.

Caitlin turned and walked away from the OSS officer with a scowl on her face.

“Anything wrong?” Michel asked as she strode by.

“Nothing I can’t handle.” she called back as she ascended the boarding ramp.

Michel glanced back at the glacial blonde, noting her feral smile. Right, and I’m just a tourist. I’ll guess I’ll find out soon enough if she feels like sharing.

Michel was surprised and disappointed to discover how much he hoped she’d share.

Michel threw his gear in a compartment that looked fairly empty and made his way towards the cockpit. Caitlin was already there and strapped into the pilot’s seat.

“You rated for these things?” he asked.

“Yes.” she replied without hesitation, “Are you?”

The defensive tinge to the question surprised him, “Not really. I was hoping one of us would be.”

She smiled slightly. It was still tight and wary. Michel felt he knew why. He sat down at the copilot’s station and pulled a small square device out of his pocket.

“What’s…?” Caitlin began to ask, but was interrupted by Michel bringing his finger up to his lips.

He glanced over the comm board. He smiled as he found a computer jack that looked compatible. He inserted the small square’s plugs into the receiving set. He flipped a small switch on the back of the plug and sparks erupted from circuit boards across the ship.

“What is that?” Caitlin asked, concern lacing her voice as she glanced about the cockpit through the smoke of overloaded circuits.

Michel unplugged the device and inserted it back into his pocket, “That is the guarantor of our privacy.”

“What?”

“I just shorted out every eavesdropping device placed aboard ship before our departure.” Michel proudly explained.

Caitlin stared at him in shocked disbelief for a moment, and then she laughed, “Right, I’m sure you did.”

“Seriously.” Michel insisted, “Any circuit that wasn’t listed in the master computer logs as being an original EM or audio receiver wasn’t protected from the ion charge.”

“You’re serious.” Caitlin’s head canted forward slightly.

“Very.”

“You knew they’d bug the ship.”

“It’s SOP for the OSS.” Michel shrugged, “I would have been shocked if they hadn’t tried it.”

“So you brought that.” Caitlin pointed towards his pocket, “What is it?”

“A little secret your superiors don’t know about yet.”

“What if I tell them?”

Michel shrugged, “Then I’d be disappointed that I misjudged you, but it really wouldn’t compromise any security concerns.”

“Misjudged me, eh?” Caitlin smirked, “I don’t think you did.”

“Glad to hear it.” His face became serious, “What did Ms. Mechanical say to you before you came aboard?”

Caitlin’s face grew dark, “Nothing much.”

“That’s why it upsets you every time you think about it?”

Caitlin sighed and looked towards the flight controls, “She merely reminded me of my duties towards home.”

Michel studied her for a moment, then spoke softly, “In other words, obey us or people back on Sinherra will suffer for it.”

Caitlin closed her eyes and leaned her head back into her crash-seat’s headrest, “They will arrest my family as insurrectionists.”

“Are they?”

Caitlin laughed, “Yes. My father has never hidden his bitterness at the Androcans for invading us.”

“Why are you here?”

Another sigh, “They thought if they took the oldest child of every planetary leader to serve conscription terms, it would mold them into loyal Imperials.”

“Has it worked?”

Caitlin snorted, “Yes. They’ve also figured out how to stabilize the economy and guarantee peace for mankind.”

“Sounds like another rousing success for the High Command.” Michel replied, “Right up there with the Cervrean War.”

Caitlin laughed. The tension in her shoulders drained away. She turned towards Michel. Her eyes were filled with conflicting emotions.

“They know that I don’t support the Empire. They also know that I won’t do anything that will endanger my people or family.”

“I’m not here to ask you too.” Michel assured her, “I’m here to stop a smuggling operation that threatens the safety of all mankind.”

“Sounds like a tall order.”

“You have no idea.”

“Then I guess we’d better get going.”

“Yeah, especially before they send a team to repair those bugs I just blew up.”

“Just one thing first?”

“Certainly.”

“My friends call me Caitlin.”

“Even better.” he replied with a warm smile.

The flight towards the Hadrani-Androcan border would take several days and one re-fuelling stop. That time would be utilised in mastering their respective roles. They were travelling under assumed identities belonging to the captured smugglers. The smugglers had confessed, under OSS auspices, that no one on the other side of the Hadrani border had ever physically seen them.

Michel had no doubts regarding the OSS’ ability to extract information from prisoners. He did, however, doubt the veracity of such information. The tortured quite often “confessed” any information they thought the interrogator wanted to hear in order to end their torment. Michel feared that such had been the case regarding the information he and Caitlin were staking their lives upon.

The first day had been one of pure research. Both agents were pre-occupied with data files on their identities throughout the first day. Caitlin added whatever information she could in order to expand the flimsy data recorded on their criminal files. The visual records of both were far more useful, giving both Michel and Caitlin an impression of how the originals had moved and presented themselves.

Michel was now Alaric Honneker. Caitlin was now Elfgina Vandal. The two smugglers had begun collaborating seven years before, joined together through the death of a business associate. That associate had been Elfgina’s lover at the time and a rival of Alaric’s.

The two had become lovers themselves and set out on a new business venture. They had survived for years skimming through the various counter-cultures across human space. They eked out a living supplying such movements or fads with their myriad vices, generally of the illegal variety. They had recently perfected their services by entering a new arena, that of the data courier. They would transport data, usually obtained through illicit means, from one party to the other. Neither partner ever met them personally, therefore no party could reveal the identity of another party. It was very lucrative, and very dangerous. The original owner’s of the data were generally willing to kill to prevent its transfer.

Michel perused the data with some amusement, “That’s interesting.” He murmured.

“What’s interesting?” Caitlin asked.

“How seriously do we want to take our roles?”

A smirk played across her lips, she kept her gaze on her instruments, “Why? How serious are you thinking about getting?”

Michel shrugged uncomfortably, “I don’t know. These two seemed to be very…”

“Intimate?” Caitlin offered.

Michel scowled at her, “Yeah, that’s it.”

“And you were wondering if we should…?”

“I don’t exactly know what I was asking.” Michel replied defensively, “I was just wondering how they acted in public.”

Caitlin laughed, “Nothing to fear there. They were surprisingly professional.”

“Good.” Michel sighed.

Caitlin shot him an irked glance, “Why is that such a relief?”

Michel sat up straight in his chair, “Well, I hardly know you, and I don’t think that I…we…that we…us…could, should…”

Caitlin laughed again, “Relax. It’d be weird for me too.”

Michel sat back relieved and disappointed all at the same time.

Caitlin paused for a moment, “So, how closely do you think you resemble Alaric?”

“Not very.” Michel admitted.

“Not at all?” she asked wearily.

“No.” he confirmed.

“Same for me and Elfgina.” She sighed.

Caitlin and Michel solved their dilemma by ignoring it. Data runners were notorious for cosmetic alterations. They couldn’t look like Alaric or Elfgina, but they could step away from themselves. That could be accomplished with a few modifications.

Caitlin disappeared into the storage unit of the scout for a couple of hours while Michel monitored the cockpit. She bounded into the cockpit quite cheerily when she finished her endeavors. Michel was astonished by the change.

Caitlin had shed her bland, olive drab flightsuit for black leather pants and a tank top. Her pale skin was contrasted greatly by the dark, glossy hide stretched across her like a second skin. She wore crisscrossed holsters, one upon each hip. Her hair was also changed; the longer hair atop her head was now spiked. Her cosmetics had changed as well. Her lips were now a brilliant green, as well as her eye shadow.

Michel gaped.

“What?” she asked defiantly, “You don’t like it?”

“I never said that.” Michel retorted, “You just look like a completely different person.”

“That’s the point.” she replied sarcastically.

“I know that’s the point.” Michel replied with more than a little irritation, “I’m just surprised at how well it worked.”

“Do you like it?” she asked.

“It reminds me of someone I know.” an image leapt unbidden into his head.

“How well?”

“What difference does that make?”

“Just curious.”

“Stay curious. It doesn’t have anything to do with what we’re doing here.”

“You say that rather defensively. Are you sure it doesn’t have anything to do with our mission?”

“Yes.” exasperation and irritation laced Michel’s voice, “I’m sure.”

“I’m still curious.”

“Don’t be.” Michel’s voice took on an air of absolute authority, “There’s nothing to be curious about. It will just waste your time if you spend any time dwelling on it.”

“If you say so.”

“I already have.”

“Okay.”

Michel sighed and left for Alaric’s cabin.

Michel returned within minutes. He had changed into a black long-sleeved mock turtleneck. He wore black cargo pants and black leather boots with that. He wore a double tactical holster. In addition to the rest, he wore a tactical harness/shoulder holster.

“Interesting.” Caitlin commented while appraising his efforts. Her eyes scoured every part of him.

“That short, unruly hair and goatee thing works.” she muttered as she walked around him, “But it needs something else.”

Michel pulled a gold hoop out of his pocket, “Will this help?” he asked.

Caitlin nodded, and broke into an approving smile as he inserted the hoop into the hole in his left ear.

As they sat out the completion of their last rift jump towards Hadrani territory, the conversation became more personal.

“So who exactly are the Knights Templar?” Caitlin asked.

Michel looked up from his datapad and faced her. His eyes were serious and earnest as he searched her face for her motives.

“The Templars are an Order sworn to protect humanity from any threat be it of human or alien origin.”

“Wow.” Caitlin’s eyes widened, “I thought you guys were just pirate hunters or something.”

Michel’s eyes narrowed at the scorn in her voice, “When the Order was first reformed, its mission was primarily to protect the initial human expansion into space. As time has worn on, that role has expanded.”

“To that of intergalactic saviors?”

Michel sighed impatiently before answering, “Not saviors. No Templar, sane ones at least, consider themselves a savior. We are simple soldiers, policemen, and even scholars that have been called upon to accept a greater responsibility in human affairs.”

“So you’re saying that the Templars really are an apolitical organization solely dedicated to their self-appointed mission?”

“Correct.”

“So whom do you answer to?”

“Each Templar answers to the Knight Commander, the Council of Lieutenants, and his or her own conscience.”

“Sounds dangerous.” she frowned, “That seems like a little too much independence.”

“It is,” Michel agreed, “but only at times.”

Caitlin grew quiet, reflecting upon what she had just discovered.

“How often?” she whispered.

“What?”

“How often is it dangerous?”

Michel paused for a moment then gave the truth, “Twice so far.”

“That’s not too bad.”

“It’s still too many.” Michel replied bitterly.

Caitlin brightened up, “As long as I’m asking questions, I’ve got another one.”

“Really? Why am I not surprised?”

“Shut up. This is going to sound stupid, but I’ve got to know.”

“You will, if you ever get around to asking the question.”

“I’m warning you.” Caitlin pointed a finger at Michel, “Spare the wisecracks and just answer the question.”

“Certainly, milady.”

“This isn’t funny.”

“Of course it isn’t. I shall stop immediately.”

“Why don’t I believe you?”

“Because you may have already realized that I am incapable of stopping?”

“Probably.”

“Then you also realize that you may be here for a very long time.”

“Just answer the stupid question.”

“You never asked it.”

Caitlin’s head sunk into her hands for a moment. When she raised her head, all humor had vanished from her face, “Please, just answer the question.”

“As soon as you ask it.”

Caitlin sighed, “Are you really Michel T’Luthien?”

“Of course I am.”

“No,” she waved her hand, “I mean, are you really Michel Luthien, the man who helped destroy Androca’s moon?”

Michel met her eyes, “Yes, I am.”

“That’s impossible! You’d be over a hundred years old now.”

“One hundred and thirteen, to be precise.” Michel said primly, “That’s objective time of course.”

“There’s no way you’re that old.”

“You’re very kind to say so, but in all truth, I am.”

“How?”

“The mission that destroyed Androca’s moon also tested another new piece of hardware.”

“That’s right! That’s when the first rift drive was used.”

Michel nodded, “There was a reaction to engaging the rift drive too close to the Accelerator blast. It created an unstable translation and hurled us far, far away.”

“A hundred years into the future?”

“You might say that.” Michel acknowledged, “Rather than travel between dimensional folds we skirted our third dimension. We experienced relativistic temporal dilations as a result. Subjectively, I’m only thirty-three.”

“Weird.”

“Tell me about it.”

“So,” Michel interjected, “now that you are sure of who I am, does that mean we aren’t friends any more?”

Caitlin gave him a withering glare, “Whoever said we were friends to begin with.”

Michel opened his mouth to protest, but it died in his throat. Had he taken a liberty in assuming that they had gotten on rather well? If so, how to make amends for it now?

Caitlin smiled suddenly, “Gotcha!” She began to laugh.

Michel glared at her.

“I’m sorry.” she stammered in between bursts of mirth, “But I had to get you back for all those smart remarks before.”

“Right, but you may as well admit that you aren’t.”

“Aren’t what?”

“Sorry.”

“You’re right.” With that she burst into a fresh bout of laughter.

“What about you?” Michel asked later, after Caitlin had gotten over her merriment.

“What about me?”

Michel rolled his eyes, “You wanted to know about me. Now it’s your turn.”

“So you think turnabout’s fair play, d’you?”

“Yes.” he answered emphatically.

“Fine. Like I said before, my family was fairly important in Sinherran politics before the Androcan occupation began.”

“How important?”

“My father was the governor of Arclight, one of the city-states that comprise the Sinherran League. My mother was a doctor at one of the planet’s most prestigious hospitals. My father advocated continued resistance even after the surrender. The Androcans knew this and have used it to their advantage ever since by forcing him into positions where he is forced to assist the Provisional Government.”

“What about you?”

Caitlin shrugged, “I despise the Androcans for how they gained control over our world, but I’ve also learned to view things from their perspective. I despise their motives, but I understand them.”

Michel smiled, “Good.”

Caitlin shot him a puzzled glance.

Michel opted to explain his comment, “You haven’t allowed yourself to be blinded by emotional vendettas. You recognize how your opponent thinks. You also see the larger picture, which is why you and your family are resisting passively, correct?”

Caitlin nodded, “Yes. It’s pretty plain to see that the Empire is doomed. Their economy is shattered. Dissident and protest groups are becoming more and more active. The military and the OSS are losing the loyalty of their own troops. The Empire is crumbling, and we need people in place to take advantage of it if our world is to escape the system’s death throws.”

“Excellent foresight.” Michel commented softly. Caitlin could hear the approval and admiration in his voice. That made her feel good for reasons beyond “professional” pride. She didn’t want to explore these other reasons. Her life was complicated enough.

“So why did the OSS pick you?” Michel interrupted her thoughts, “Your father’s a famous dissident. Your mother’s a leading physician. You’d have to have a skill they wanted. What is it?”

Caitlin’s lips twisted into a wry smile, “I’m an anthropological psychologist.”

“A what?”

Caitlin smiled ruefully, “An anthropological psychologist. I study the mentality, behaviors, and ideologies of social groups and analyze them.”

“Isn’t that what anthropology consists of?”

Caitlin’s smile changed into one of patient amusement, “Traditional anthropology does consist of studying how a society functions and how they interact. Psychological anthropology just concentrates on the mental aspects of the society under examination.”

“A society’s mentality can be examined through the documentary records left behind, as well as the popular culture as portrayed and/or saved through media sources.” Michel counter-pointed, “Such an examination does not require a separate field of study.”

“I beg to differ.” Caitlin argued, “Historical studies are all based upon perception. For example, a non-Androcan can learn a semblance of Androcan thinking with which to examine Androcan documents. They cannot, however, learn the cultural and psychological make-up that led to the document’s tone, flavor, and intended nuances.”

“And adding the word ‘psychologist’ to the examiner’s title grants them this ability?” Michel asked sarcastically, “Wouldn’t it be more effective to add ‘medium’ to the title?”

“I take it you object to psychologists?” Caitlin asked coldly.

“No.” Michel said more softly, “I’m uncomfortable with people making generalizations about other people and classifying their behaviors as a typology. That typology is then applied to anyone that engages in a similar behaviors, regardless of motive, which may be entirely different.”

“So motive is the typology tool you would employ?”

Michel shook his head, “I don’t believe there are any universal typologies that explain humans. I believe that generalizations are convenient tools for non-specific discussions or studies. Individuals are unique, no matter how similar they seem to another.”

Caitlin nodded slowly, “I see your point and largely agree with you. However, I feel that people are classifiable. I think it is possible to compare a society’s mentality to another society’s and demonstrate the psychological roots behind the similarities.”

“That’s a valid point.” Michel conceded.

“At least you can admit it.” Caitlin quipped smugly.

She ignored the venomous glare she received from Michel.

The data smugglers’ ship, the Mnemonic, translated smoothly into normal space. They arrived into the area of known space referred to as the Hinterlands. It was region triangulated by the Androcan Empire, the Hadrani Republic, and unexplored space. It did not contain enough raw resources to have ever been claimed by either the Empire or the Republic. It was left as an arena for illicit trade between the two governments and as a launching point for ventures beyond the Orion Arm.

There were only two habitable worlds within the Hinterlands. Habitable was considered too generous word by most. The two worlds were largely inhospitable chunks of rock that were dense enough to build upon. Both “worlds” were unable to support human life. Only the stations and pressure domes clustered across the crags and canyons of the worlds offered any hope of survival.

The local economy was built around exchanging goods and outfitting deep space explorations. All at outrageous profits, of course. The two worlds, imaginatively named Mudball I and Mudball II, were interconnected hives of warehouses and repair bays. These warehouses and bays served as warrens for the local profiteers that catered to the specialized clientele that traveled to either Mudball.

Anonymity was the bread of life here. The less anyone knew of you, or your business, the better off you were. The only law was what you brought or bought. Agents of various corporations and governments loitered here buying and selling secrets wholesale.

This was the cesspool that Michel and Caitlin were hurling themselves into. As they awaited confirmation of their landing clearances, purchased at outrageous prices, they reviewed their roles for a final time. Both breathed sighs of relief as they received landing instructions. Caitlin guided the ship in to its assigned birth.

The relatively light gravity of Mudball II allowed landing directly on the planet’s surface. They landed on a hexagonal patch of cerasteel adjacent to one of the tunnels leading to the main concourse. Caitlin patched into the station’s computer network and activated the docking coupler.

The pressure sleeve groped out towards the Mnemonic’s main hatch. It magnetically attached itself, then pressurized. A chime sounded in the ship to announce that atmospheric integrity was established. The mission was now underway.

Michel and Caitlin went to the equipment lockers and outfitted themselves. Caitlin put a plasma pistol in each of her tactical holsters. She added a needle gun to her ankle holster on her right boot. She slipped a combat knife into a wrist sheath on her left forearm. She put on a black trenchcoat to make it more discreet.

Michel did likewise with the plasma guns. He placed a needle gun in the horizontal holster on his back. A laser pistol went in his shoulder holster. He put a knife in a boot sheath. He opted for a black flight jacket of Terran derivation. He also took a pair of black sensor glasses and put them on. Caitlin glanced at him speculatively. He handed her a pair.

“Good thinking.” she commented.

Sensor glasses served as optical protection from radiation sources and bright light. They also served as night vision units and image enhancers. If modified, they worked with the targeting system on a pistol or rifle to indicate where the weapon was sighted. On top of all of this, they were durable enough to protect the eye from most projectiles.

Both legislative measures and prohibitive cost kept the glasses from widespread distribution.

“Ready, Elfgina?” Michel asked.

“Ready whenever you are, Alaric.” Caitlin answered with forced enthusiasm.

The hatch opened and they entered the pressure sleeve connecting the ship to the station-city. The air tasted sour and old. It was air that had been recycled too many times through scrubbers that had been patched back together too many times. The scents of sweat, grime, and feces wafted in the air.

Caitlin’s nose crinkled as the odor barraged her senses. Michel sympathized, but couldn’t empathize. He had smelled odors like this during his early childhood. They had clung to the places he had lived during his earliest years.

Michel led the way as they proceeded down the sleeve towards the concourse. The sleeve emptied out into a passageway grown over with mold and fungi of various shades and textures. The air was thick and damp with moisture. The scrubbers were unable to compensate for the extra humidity brought on by massed bodies.

They followed the passageway until it spilled out into a large complex. It had originally been intended as a storage warehouse. It now served as a shopping center. The modifications to deliver heating and life support were crude and haphazard. The modules protruded out of the ceiling, walls, and floor. Cables and hoses were split at various junction points and leaking or spraying their contents upon those unfortunates that failed to see the looming annoyances in time to avoid them.

Power cables also lined the ceiling and walls. Many of these were faulty as well. Sparks and discharges illuminated various parts of the cavernous complex at intervals. Cries of annoyance and pain uttered by those taken unawares could be heard periodically.

The lighting was spotty and unreliable. Many places were bathed in complete darkness. The sanitation services were also sub-standard to those of the larger colonial worlds. The place reeked of ruptured sewer lines and clogged drains.

“They still use plumbing.” Caitlin muttered in disgust, “Why can’t they use waste converters?”

“They probably use the waste as either heating fuel or as fertilizer for the hydroponics.” Michel replied.

“That’s disgusting.”

“That’s the way most of the earliest colonies operated.” Michel explained, “The practice of using converters to turn human by-products into household energy stores is a fairly recent innovation.”

“Is this a hobby of yours?” Caitlin retorted sarcastically, “How wonderful. I’m stuck on a worthless, smelly rock with someone who finds crap fascinating. Oh, joy.”

“I’m a trained researcher.” Michel replied calmly, “Pieces of information like that are the tools I use as an Intelligence officer.”

“Plumbing as a weapon?” Caitlin asked skeptically.

“Imagine what would happen if the entire system got plugged and backed up at once.”

“Oh.” Caitlin remarked in surprise, “I see your point.”

“At least you can admit it.” Michel replied through a smirk.

The pair maneuvered their way through the maze that comprised the main shopping area for Mudball II. They wove in and out of stalls and incoming human traffic. Peddlers yelled out to passers-by, hawking their wares. The passers-by came in all shapes and sizes. Every human settlement was represented, even those typically forgotten by the major powers.

Humanity in all shapes and sizes crossed Caitlin and Michel’s path. The effects of a hundred different worlds upon humanity were in clear evidence. The ancient territorial and tribal divisions of Earth were nothing compared to the genetic divisions wrought by the Systems Wars. The bloodlines of several colonies were plainly evident. The inhabitants of many planets possessed features that were now unique to their world.

Michel found it a great irony that two of the most closely related colonial powers had fought each other so many times over the last few hundred years. The North Americans that had cofounded the Androcan Empire were the descendants of the same ancestors that had spawned the founders of the Cervrean Commonwealth. The Commonwealth had once been scornfully referred to as the rebirth of both the British Empire and the Viking Age. This was assertion with a great deal of truth to it. It was also true, as had been likewise commented, that the Androcan Empire was a desperate attempt to recapture the power and prestige of the heydays of the American and Soviet power blocs through unification rather than animosity.

They stopped and asked for directions from a peddler trying to unload razorback steaks at an exorbitant price. Alaric and Elfgina had instructions to meet their contact at a local watering hole known as The Old Biddy. Michel and Caitlin needed to find out where that was. For a “minimal” fee, the peddler gave them directions.

“If that’s the minimum, heaven help us if anyone ever charges the maximum.” Caitlin whispered to Michel in stunned disbelief.

“In places like this, information is the most vital commodity.” Michel whispered back.

They continued weaving their way through the concourse until they reached The Old Biddy. It was little more than a metal shed. In several places, rust had literally eaten through the walls. What little that could be seen through these holes, the Biddy didn’t even rate the title disreputable. The best that could be said about it was that it was dilapidated.

Michel entered first. He warily surveyed the patrons as he eased himself in. Several people stopped what they were doing in order to return his scrutiny. After observing his cold impassivity regarding their activities, they returned to their dalliances.

Caitlin followed suit. They secured themselves a quiet booth with a commanding view of the entrance. Most of the booths were situated to allow their occupants to observe the entrance. The culture of paranoia caters to its own.

Michel made another glance around the room as the barmaid made her way to their table. The maid was a cyborg. Her left arm and eye were both synthetic. The arm was crude, consisting of a mechanical pincher. The eye was a large circular red orb. They were local products and far below any standards that either Michel or Caitlin were familiar with.

“Whad’ya be havin’?” she asked in a synthesized voice.

“What’s the local specialty?” Michel asked.

“Frenner’s Ale, from Androca.” the maid answered.

“I’ll take one.” he informed her.

“Make that two.” Caitlin added.

“Be back.” The maid announced and trundled off.

“What’s a Frenner’s?” Michel asked Caitlin.

She smiled, “It’s a stout brewed on New Halifax, It’s re-labeled on Androca and sold as Frenner’s.”

“Lovely the way the Empire makes a profit off the Confederacy.” Michel commented dryly.

“I don’t remember the last time someone referred to us as the Confederacy.” Caitlin murmured wistfully. She took a swipe at her right eye, “Stop that. I’m going to get all emotional. If we get our cover blown because I’m misty eyed, I’m gonna kill you.”

“Noted.” Michel acknowledged simply.

The maid returned at that moment with their drinks. They were black and frothy. The prices were in accordance with the local inflation. Michel consoled himself with the thought that at least the prices prevented drinking binges.

“Heads up.” Caitlin muttered.

Michel glanced towards the door. A man dressed in a business suit had entered the establishment and was now looking about the room. Michel retrieved a small metallic cube from his coat pocket and placed it in the edge of their table. The man saw the cube, smiled, and made his way directly towards their table.

The man sat down next to Caitlin and across from Michel. He smiled a toothy smile, full of perfectly sculptured teeth. His smile stretched the skin of his long face, giving him a cadaverous appearance. Smiling, he looked like a spasm wracked goat.

“Hello.” the man said casually, his voice a nasal wheeze, “My name is Stefan Pacula. I take it you are Alaric and Elfgina?”

“And if we are?” Michel asked.

“Then I would be quite relieved.” Stefan replied, “I have been awaiting their arrival with great anticipation. I heard that they narrowly avoided trouble in the Empire. I have been afraid that they may have…reconsidered meeting me here.”

“Maybe they have. If they were to meet you, what assurances towards their safety could they expect?” Michel asked.

“I could vouch for their safety.” Stefan assured him.

“What good is your word?” Michel retorted, “I don’t know you. How can I be sure you are the contact they are expecting?”

“I received the homing signal from that device you’ve been carrying in your pocket.” Stefan informed him, “I know that you two were contacted by Cedric the Hand. Your contract is to deliver a data crystal received from another courier to this location.”

“Where was the meet for the crystal?” Michel asked.

“At Gorbechev.” Stefan replied easily.

Michel leaned back into the booth’s couch, “Very well, Mr. Pacula. I believe we can do business.”

“My employers will be relieved. They have been quite anxious to receive this information as quickly as possible.”

“That’s understandable.” Michel replied.

Stefan paused, “Am I to understand that you have seen the data you are carrying?”

Michel exchanged a dumbfounded glance towards Caitlin before answering Pacula, “No. I can assure you that neither my partner nor myself have seen the data, or have any knowledge regarding it. In our business, it’s healthier to know as little as possible concerning such matters.”

Stefan seemed reassured, “Thank you for your candor. I can see how you would take measures not to discover the nature of your cargo. I believe we can conduct our exchange now.”

“My partner is the financial wizard.” Michel deferred, “She’ll take over from here.”

“Very well.” Caitlin chimed up, “We will need to see verification of the appropriate credit transfers as well receipt of the hardware vouchers.” The real Alaric and Elfgina had negotiated a hefty sum of credit as well as a contract for several upgrades for their ship at the massive Terran League space station called Hub Station.

“Certainly.” Stefan agreed as he placed a small leather valise on the table.

Michel’s gaze returned to the entrance. Nothing was happening. No one was entering or leaving. He found that odd, since there had been a regular flow of traffic, even if the potential customer left after seeing the prices.

Michel’s senses went into overdrive. He intuitively knew something was wrong. His gaze swept across the bar. The sensor glasses magnified his perceptions. He detected several men at the other end of the bar activating sighting systems for their weapons.

Michel kicked over the cerasteel table as he sprang up from the booth.

“Down!” he yelled as he drew both plasma guns from their holsters and began firing at the men just as they began to rise and aim their weapons at their table.

Caitlin sprang into action as well. Her right hand pulled out a plasma pistol even as her left grabbed Stefan and threw him towards the floor where the table had been. She dropped to one knee and began laying down fire over the table’s “top”. Her left hand snatched up the credit voucher card Stefan had been holding.

She looked down to look at Stefan. She discovered empty, dark eyes staring back at her. He had taken a plasma burst in the throat as she had thrown him down behind the table. His throat was a charred mangle.

Michel dropped to one knee as well. He fired over the table edge with his left, around it with his right. He leaned out to the right in order to see the opposition better. The seven men shooting at them were using plasma weapons as well. That would prevent their weapons from penetrating the cerasteel table, at least until they switched to a laser or a slug-thrower.

“They’ve got us pinned.” Michel informed Caitlin.

“Any suggestions?” Caitlin inquired hopefully.

“Not really.” Michel admitted.

“Great.” Caitlin groused.

A clang sounded, followed by a crack. A hole appeared in the table between Michel and Caitlin. The opposition had switched weapons. They were employing slug-throwers now.

“Throw down your weapons and surrender!” an amplified voice demanded.

“These idiots are using armor piercing rounds.” Caitlin exclaimed, “Don’t they realize what could happen if they puncture the facility walls?”

“I don’t think they really care.” Michel replied dryly.

“What now?”

“I’m still making this up as I go.”

“Great. We’re gonna die.”

Michel was about to retort when an echoing boom ripped through the bar. The doors at the entrance of the bar flew off and four armored figures strode in. Each carried a Phased Plasma Rifle poised for action. The seven men pursuing Michel and Caitlin stopped shooting and stared at the mysterious new arrivals.

“Throw down your weapons and surrender.” Another amplified voice demanded.

“What is this?” Michel quipped, “The planetary anthem?”

“They’re ours!” the leader of the first group announced.

“By whose authority?” the leader of the second group inquired.

“Our own!”

“And we are assuming control over the prisoners by our own authority as well.”

“Sez who?”

“Do not presume to debate me.” The second leader warned, “I am not here for negotiation. I am here to collect my prisoners, their data, and whomever they contact.”

“Well, we already scragged one bloke, so there’s one less to worry about.”

“How fortunate for us.” the second leader commented dryly, “Now depart.”

“Make us.”

“We shall if you insist.”

“Why don’cha try?”

Michel jumped up and fired at both groups at once. He immediately dropped back down behind the table. Both sides returned fire reflexively. Caitlin stared at him incredulously.

“Why’d y’do that?” she hissed as plasma bolts heated their table and burned the remains of the booth around them.

“Just watch.” Michel replied.

“Cease fire!” the second leader shouted through her amplifier. Her troops immediately ceased fire. The other group continued shooting.

“Cease fire immediately!” she repeated her order.

“We don’t take orders from you, honey!” the male leader shouted back, “They’re ours!”

“If you do not stand down, I will be forced to fire upon you.” she declared.

“Do you worst!”

“Open fire!” she ordered. Her squad opened up on the others, killing three of them in the first salvo. The other four scrambled or cover and heartily returned fire. Now it was time for the second group to find cover as they continued the fight.

“Now, we get out of here.” Michel informed Caitlin.

“How?”

“We vault over this stupid booth and try to find a back door.”

“Sounds good to me. Separate or together?”

“I don’t think we’ll have a second chance, so together.”

“Sounds good. On three?”

“Sure.”

“One…two…three!”

The pair leaped over the scorched remains of their booth they had been seated at. Michel heard a shout as they cleared the seat back. Several bursts of plasma fire seared over the booth. Flaming tatters of cushion floated down.

“I think we made it.” Michel commented.

“Where’s the back door?” Caitlin shouted to be heard over the weapons fire.

“There.” Michel pointed towards an opening near the bar stand, “I think that’d be it.”

“You think?” she shouted back.

“Yeah. I think.”

“You’d better be right.”

“Tell me about it.” Michel muttered.

“You go first.” Michel shouted.

“No.” Caitlin protested, “You go.”

“I don’t have time for this.” Michel argued, “Just go, I’ll cover you.”

“All right.” she agreed sullenly. She spared him one final glance. It was full of mixed emotions that Michel couldn’t even begin to guess. She winked, and was off running for the doorway.

Michel came up firing. He moved sideways for the door as he shot in the general direction of those that came after them. Several of his first shots hit one of the armored figures. Unfortunately, that garnered the attention of his comrades.

Two of the armored figures turned their fire towards Michel. One of the three surviving original men also began shooting at him. Michel ran towards the door as he shot. He was halfway there when he realized that Caitlin didn’t have it open yet.

Michel yelled through gritted teeth. He said no words. It was a simple cry of frustration and fear. Somehow, Caitlin heard his approach and moved out of the way.

Michel hit the door with his shoulder with all of his might. The lock broke and the door swung open. Michel was caught off balance and fell. Caitlin stood in the doorway returning fire as he scrambled to his feet.

She cried out as he rose. She threw herself into the doorway. Her left shoulder was burnt. She clutched at it, trying to smother the flame.

Michel pulled her around so that she was behind him. He positioned himself so he could return fire. Caitlin tore into a pouch on her holster. It contained a neural suppresser. She pressed it to her wound with a wince and hit the activation stud. She let out a hiss of breath as it hummed momentarily, and then placed it back into its pouch.

“Are you all right?” Michel shouted.

“I’m functional.” she shouted in reply.

“Find out where this leads.” Michel ordered, “Signal me when you reach the other end.”

“Gotcha.” she acknowledged and ran down the narrow, dimly lit hallway.

Caitlin reached out for the door and winced. The neural suppresser dampened the pain, but did not remove it. She readied her gun hand and shoved the door open with her wounded shoulder. The pain almost clouded her vision, but only almost. Her eyes swept the alleyway that lay before her. No one was around.

She re-entered the hallway, “Come on!” she shouted, “It’s clear!”

Michel backed into the hallway, firing incessantly. He stopped firing, turned, and ran. Caitlin went back out through the door and stood ready for anyone that might try an ambush out there. Michel cleared the door and looked around.

“Anyone here?” he asked in gasps.

Caitlin shook her head in the negative. She didn’t trust her voice with all of the pain shooting through her body. Michel closed the door. He holstered one of the plasma pistols and drew the laser out of its shoulder holster. He fired on the door lock, welding it shut. He placed the laser back in its holster and turned towards Caitlin.

“How’re you doing?” he asked. She shook her head in reply. She was starting to feel light-headed. She was also losing color.

“We need to get out of here.” he said aloud, “But we can’t go to the ship. Whoever set these ambushes expected Alaric and Elfgina. We need to use our real identities.”

Caitlin shook her head again. Michel gently took her arm and began guiding her out of the alley.

“We also need to find lodgings so I can look after that wound.”

A wan smile was her only reply.

A gasp escaped Caitlin’s lips before she gritted her teeth in a grimace of pain. Michel met her eyes in an expression of concern and sympathy but quickly resumed his examination of her wound. He had removed her coat, including the pieces that had been fused to her flesh by the extreme heat of the plasma. That action had damaged the flesh surrounding the cauterized wound and prompted the wound into bleeding.

“How’s it look?” Caitlin asked through clenched teeth.

Michel’s gaze never left her shoulder as he reached for the first-aid kit he was using. “Not good. Without better equipment, there’s going to be scarring.”

“It’ll make for conversation someday.” Caitlin replied with forced levity.

“I’m sure it will.” Michel agreed levelly as he began using a portable cellular stimulator to coax the cells into accelerated healing. “You won’t lose any mobility or potential for use. The primary damage will be purely cosmetic. I don’t think it will be bad, but even if it’s worse than I estimate, re-constructive surgery later should blend it in fairly well.”

“Such concern.” Caitlin chided, “You’d think you’ve a personal stake in this.”

“I do.” Michel replied.

Caitlin started slightly when she heard that comment.

“Did I hurt you?” Michel asked, concerned.

She shook her head, not trusting herself to speak.

“Sure?”

She nodded. Michel returned to work. Caitlin watched him as he tended to her wound. She cursed herself for doing so.

Michel’s care in his ministrations had surprised her. His genuine concern had surprised her even more. His tenderness was escalating the confusion that had been spawned during their time together on board the ship. She was painfully aware of their physical proximity.

She closed her eyes and wished for the mission to be over. She hadn’t expected to like Michel T’Luthien. She had harbored a grudge against the Templars for not coming to the aid of her homeworld when they had begged for help. Michel had defied every preconception she had of Templars.

He genuinely felt anguish, and sorrow at the failure of his Order to help her people. It was clear that he was an idealist. It was also painfully obvious that he was as committed to his ideals as she was to hers. That was where it got sticky.

As much as she liked Michel, and she did like him, she didn’t know if they had conflicting goals. She couldn’t help liking him. It was an instinctive reaction. He had rough edges that she found annoying, but he meant well and was sincere. It was that brutal honesty of his that made him so appealing.

“Are you all right?” Michel asked again.

She opened her eyes to find his face near hers. He had finished attending to her wound and bandaging it. The fact she had been utterly oblivious to this fact had concerned him, and justly so. Her eyes met his.

Anticipation, fear, and desire tore through her as one as she replied, “I’m fine.”

Michel grinned and leaned back on his heels, “Glad to hear it.”

His lop-sided grin made his youthful face seem even more boyish. Caitlin found herself envious of the sense of childish zeal that Michel still displayed at times. She had seen this countered by brutal intensity that was foreboding, but that sense of innocence was still a wonder considering the man’s experiences. It made him very attractive suddenly.

“I’m just tired.” she said weakly. Lamely, in her own opinion.

“Right.” He said and stood, “I’ll let you rest then.”

“How much are these quarters costing?” she asked, glancing about the rented room.

“Don’t worry about it.” Michel informed her, “You concentrate on sleeping and getting that shoulder back into operation.”

Caitlin hesitated, and then asked anyway, “Where will you be?”

Michel pointed at the door leading to the single bedroom of the accommodations he’d secured, “I’ll be out there.”

She nodded, relief wrestling with pangs of disappointment.

“Don’t worry about anything.” Michel reassured her, “We’ll figure this mess out.”

Caitlin nodded assent as Michel left the room, closing the door behind him. She stripped out of her clothes, leaving only her undergarments on. She went to the san and washed her face. Her appearance was haggard and drawn.

Lovely, she thought, I’m certainly a beauty queen at the moment.

She scolded herself for being so petty at a time like this and returned to the bed. She lay down, drawing the covers around her. She reached out for the illumination controls. Before she deactivated the lights, she reflected on Michel’s parting comments.

We’ll figure it out all right, but will we still be alive when we do?

Caitlin woke with a sigh. She blinked her eyes a few times. Her head was still a bit muddled, halfway lost in the dream she’d been having. As her eyes focused, she discovered that she no longer remembered her dream. Her mouth puckered at that. She couldn’t remember the dream but she still felt the lingering contentment of a pleasant experience.

She looked about the room she inhabited. It was spartan, but far larger than her quarters aboard the Mnemonic. She recalled that Michel had obtained a room for them at one of the local flophouses. The bed she had slept in was large enough for four bodies her size.

Caitlin stretched, luxuriating in the sensation of such an expanse after five years of university cots and two years of military barrack’s living. A sudden stab of pain in her shoulder reminded her of why the room had become necessary. She sat up in order to get a better look at her wound.

The synthflesh patch covering the remains of the burn obscured her view. She tenderly rotated her shoulder. There was pain, but not as much as she expected. Michel had obviously coaxed more out of the slim pickings in the medipack than she would’ve expected. She would definitely wear a mark for this, but cosmetic surgery could remove most of that if she so opted later. Caitlin knew she probably wouldn’t. She wasn’t one to try to hide the mistakes of her past.

She looked over at the nightstand alongside the bed. A note sat atop it. It was from Michel. His penmanship was terrible, but she could decipher it… barely. It informed her that there was a robe for her in the dresser and a change of attire in the san.

She smiled despite herself. T’Luthien’s concern over her condition had touched her. She knew that it shouldn’t have, or at least she shouldn’t have let it. Her brow furrowed in frustrated concentration and her eyes grew darker. She’d survived crushes and infatuations before. She just had to ride this one out until he was gone and her desires would fade. She would’ve felt better if it hadn’t been for a tiny voice that told her she was lying to herself.

It was pointless to dwell on such things she told herself and rose to retrieve the robe from the dresser. Once she was sure she was adequately covered, she opened the bedroom door. The door led to a similarly sized room with a couch with a table. A simple desk contained a computer. A small table with four chairs sat before a small kitchenette. Michel was sprawled across the couch.

She took a step forward towards him. The floor made a small creak as her weight pressed down on her foot. Michel snapped upright. In his right hand, a pistol had materialized and was pointed directly at Caitlin’s chest.

Caitlin jumped back in a convulsive start. A yelp escaped her lips. The ever-rational remnant part of her brain posed a simple question, was that really me that let out that shriek? She pondered it in the space of a heartbeat and came to a resigned realization, Yup, that was me.

Michel took his finger off the trigger and lowered the pistol as he absorbed the situation. He gave Caitlin a half-hearted, embarrassed smile as she stood there. Caitlin’s stare was increasing in intensity into a full-blown glare as she waited to stop breathing so blasted hard.

“What were you thinking?” she managed to ask. Her voice was low, super-heated with molten fury waiting to erupt.

“I wasn’t thinking.” Michel replied, no trace of remorse or denial in his voice, “I was sleeping. I kept one weapon handy because we had just recently survived one ambush already.”

“I know we survived one ambush already. I’m intimately familiar with that fact. I was sleeping myself. I awoke and needed to use the san.” Caitlin replied calmly before shouting, “And how was I supposed to know that I would need to dodge plasma blasts on my way there?”

“Technically, I never fired.” Michel corrected her.

“I don’t care!” she snarled, “I just want to use the bloody toilet! I don’t want to have to battle my way there.”

“I believe the way is currently unimpeded.” Michel informed her, trying unsuccessfully to keep the amusement from his voice.

“Thank you.” she replied tartly and went on her way. Michel was glad that the door had pressure seals. They prevented the doors from being slammed. As it was, Caitlin closed the door with far more vigor than was required.

Michel scratched his chin in wry amusement. His face was bristling with whiskers. He rose from the couch and went to the mirror near the door to the san. He wasn’t used to seeing the goatee yet, but he had to admit he liked it. Now, he just had to get rid of the other whiskers that weren’t part of the effect.

He heard the san cycle and braced himself for another assault. It never came. The door opened slowly and Caitlin exited quietly. She was neither embarrassed, nor remorseful. She had apparently expressed her opinion on the matter and was willing to leave it at that.

That suited Michel. Caitlin returned to the bedroom without a word. Michel shrugged and entered the san. He reached underneath the sink and retrieved the small pouch with hygienic materials he had placed there during the night. After washing and shaving, he felt better.

He exited the bedroom to find Caitlin dressed in the dark navy flightsuit he’d acquired for her. She was staring at the computer. The screen was flashing. She noticed his approach and turned.

“Hey.” she greeted him, no lingering malice or irritation in her voice, “This just beeped at me and started flashing.”

“Good.” he replied, “That means the information I’ve been waiting for has arrived.”

“What information?” she asked, and then sniffed as he passed by, “You washed up? How’d you do that?”

“With a hygiene kit.” He absently replied as he sat down at the computer and began to enter and retrieve data.

“Is there another one?” she asked.

“Another what?”

“Another hygiene kit.” she answered with exasperated patience, “I’d kinda like to clean up myself, y’know?”

Michel shook his head and focused on what she was saying. He turned towards her, “Sorry ‘bout that. You have a kit in the san. It’s in the right-hand top drawer.”

“Thanks.” she replied with a grin.

As she sauntered of to the san, he shook his head again. He wondered if he’d ever understand women. He knew he wouldn’t, but that didn’t mean that they should always remain so confusing. Caitlin had impressed him thus far, but the episode earlier this morning had him worried.

He tried to quell his concerns by focusing on the information flooding in on the computer. He was still gazing fixedly on it when Caitlin left the san. She returned briefly to the bedroom. Her next activity was to stand in the doorway and watch him.

She remained silent for a while. Michel remained engrossed in what was displayed before him. Once in a while, he would grunt disparagingly or comment. Caitlin wore a bemused grin. She began to creep up on him.

“I wouldn’t do that.” he advised, still typing in information.

“How’d you know?” her consternation was plain.

“Reflection on the screen.” Michel replied, “I have it tilted so I can watch the main door. The bedroom door just happens to be in the general vicinity.”

“You think they’ll try again, don’t you?” she asked suddenly professional, “Even though we abandoned our false identities, you think they’ll find us.”

Michel nodded, eyes never leaving the screen, “Now that I know who they work for? Yes, I do.”

“How’d you find that out?” her eyes widened.

“I stayed up after you fell asleep.” Michel answered.

“Obviously.” she commented dryly, “I didn’t think that clothing and hygiene kits materialized out of thin air.”

“I also spent a great deal of time here on this machine making inquiries.”

Her brow furrowed, “I didn’t know you were a data slicer.”

Michel grinned, “I’m not. I just know what to ask, and more importantly, whom to ask.”

“Like?” she asked skeptically.

He shook his head, “I cannot divulge my sources. Suffice it to say, they are good.”

She threw her hands up in the air, “How’re we supposed to work together if you won’t trust me?”

Michel finally turned and faced her. The earnest expression on his face and especially in his eyes caught her breath in her throat, “Surprisingly enough, I do trust you. That’s not something I do often, or easily. I can’t tell you any names because that’ll threaten my working relationship with sources that I can’t afford to lose right now.”

Caitlin nodded soberly, “I understand.”

“Good.” He turned back towards the screen and pointed, “Now, according to everything that’s come in, the first group was employed by a syndicate trying to sell the data on the black market.”

“Any names?” she asked. She placed a hand on his shoulder and leaned closer. Michel was irritated to discover that he was very much aware of her proximity and that her face was nearly level with his. Perfectly positioned for an opportune kiss...

He mentally shook himself. He was tired and his impulse control was getting sloppy. He concentrated on answering her question.

“The Thoren Combine.”

Michel felt Caitlin’s grip on his shoulder tighten, “That’s not a syndicate, it’s a front.”

“For what?”

“The Underground.” she answered grimly.

Michel’s eyebrow’s rose. The Underground was an anarchist association spread across every human society, with the possible exception of the Hadrani Republic. It had begun as a philosophical movement and had evolved into an extremist group. They also had their fair share of fanatics.

“Lovely.” He replied dryly.

“What about the other group?” Caitlin asked wearily, “Any chance they’re light weights?”

Michel snorted, “With that caliber of equipment? You know they’re military as well as I do.”

“Yeah,” she sighed, “but I was hoping to be wrong.”

“Hope no more.” Michel replied, “They’re definitely military. Specifically, they belong to the Hadrani Republic. My guess is someone wants their data back.”

“Bad enough to kill for it?” Caitlin wondered as she shuddered. The Hadrani Republic was the most enigmatic of the human stellar governments. They relied upon genetically bred, force grown clones for their labor and military classes. No one knew how the rest of the Hadrani lived.

“Undoubtedly.” Michel replied morosely, “They probably wouldn’t have given up so easily if they’d known it was me and not Alaric.”

“You call that easy?” Caitlin asked snidely, then she paused, “Wait a minute. They wouldn’t have given up if they’d known it was you? What’s that mean?”

“The Hadrani doesn’t like the Order.” Michel replied grimly, “They’ve barred us from their space. There’s a bounty out on any knight found in their territory. If they’d known I was involved they would have killed me and tried to claim I was found in their jurisdiction.”

Caitlin’s head slumped, “Why isn’t it ever easy?” she asked sulkily.

“Don’t know.” replied Michel with a shrug.

She glared at him, “You’re not making this any easier.” She informed him accusingly.

“What?” he asked defensively.

“Did you Templars have to make so many enemies?”

Michel shrugged, “Comes with the territory. How many enemies does the OSS have?”

That earned him a glare, “So now what?”

“I say we turn the tide on them.” Michel suggested, “We try to apprehend them instead.”

“Try arresting them?” Caitlin asked, stunned, “They outnumber us and outgun us.”

“Yes.” Michel answered testily, “What did you think? It was just a thought.”

“No.” she protested. “This is a bad idea. A really baaad idea.”

“Okay.” he shrugged and stared at the screen in sullen silence.

“Michel, please.”

A look of irritation passed over his face, then one of mischief.

“Michel, talk to me.”

He glanced over at her, “What? I’m working on how to solve our problem.”

“How?”

“By giving this information to the Hadrani.” Michel grinned darkly, “Once they know their operations blown, they’ll probably deal with their troops themselves.”

“How?”

“They’ll probably try to kill their agents. The Republic isn’t big on failure.” he answered with a shrug.

“How?”

“They’ll put them in a genetic resequencer.” Michel explained, “No sense wasting any material that can be reverted to a protein base and reused later.”

“All right.” She protested, “I’ve got the picture. It’s digitized and stored.” She tapped her head, “Holo imprinted, okay?”

Caitlin shook her head and plopped down into the couch, “This is nuts. How do you deal with all this insanity?”

“By being crazier then they are.”

She didn’t doubt him.

“Are you done yet?” Caitlin asked impatiently as Michel typed instructions into the computer.

Michel glanced over his shoulder at her, “No. Are you done asking me that yet?”

Caitlin’s eyes narrowed, “No, I’m not.”

“Then it’s just going to take me that much longer due to answering your incessant inquiries.” Michel informed her archly.

“They are not incessant!” she protested.

“How many times have you asked if I was done?”

Caitlin looked away, “I don’t know, twice?”

“Try four.” Michel corrected, “In the last half hour. I’ve only been at this forty-five minutes.”

“Well, why is it taking so long?”

Michel’s right eyebrow arched then he returned his attention to the computer without further comment. Caitlin huffed in frustration and went into the bedroom. She sat on the bed for a moment and listened to the inconsistent clatter of the keyboard coming from the adjoining room. She rolled her eyes and collapsed onto her back.

Michel keyed the final instruction series and waited for the computer to acknowledge his last commands. It did so with as much speed as it had the previous commands. He shook his head at the slowness of the equipment. The computers, as with most of the station, were nearly a century old. He remembered when they were new.

That realization brought a rueful twist to the right corner of Michel’s mouth. Thoughts like that always served to make him feel, well, old. He had over a century’s worth of experience. He had experiences that few other humans could match or imagine. Almost every one of those individuals were Templars the same as he.

Michel was sobered by another realization. Outside of the Order he had no real personal life. He had left university and went directly into the Navy during the war. From there, he had been flung through space and time. Upon his return to the normally functioning space-time continuum, he had been drafted into one the most powerful organizations in human history. That same organization also faced one of the most daunting challenges that humanity had ever faced.

Do I have a life even within the Order? he was forced to ask himself. He was depressed when forced to admit he didn’t have an answer to that question. He shook his head angrily and ran a hand through his hair. He looked around the room.

Where’s Caitlin? he wondered as he rose from the chair he had been occupying. He was dismayed to discover that his knee ached from its extended immobility. That had been happening a lot lately and served to make Michel’s mood more sour. He headed for the bedroom door and peered into the room.

He found Caitlin sprawled across the bed, staring up at the ceiling.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Fine.” she replied flatly.

“Are you sure?”

“Fine.” Flatly again.

“Anything I can get you?”

“No.” Flat.

One more try. “Want to plan our next move?”

“Why don’t you just plan it? You’ve been doing everything else solo.” There was a bit of a sneering quality to the reply, but at least there was something.

“I need your help.” Michel told her, “I don’t want to make decisions that could prove fatal for both of us without your input.”

“You want my permission to get me killed? Fine. You have it. Now go away.”

“What’s going on here?” Michel asked in honest confusion.

“Why should I bother explaining? You’ll just ignore what I have to say.” the reply was bitter.

“Is this about you asking me if I was done?” he ventured.

She propped herself up on her elbows and stared at him fiercely, “Figured that out did ya? Maybe you really are the genius you seem to think you are?”

“Why is that bothering you now?” Michel asked.

Caitlin stared at him hotly for several more moments before her gaze softened, “You really don’t know, d’you?”

“No.” Michel admitted with an exaggerated sweep of his arms, “So why don’t you explain it to me.”

Caitlin debated on how much to say, then went for broke, “You were, are, different.”

Michel’s eyebrows rose and his face became a portrait of utter confusion, “Huh?”

Caitlin sat up and raised a hand, beckoning for a moment to gather her thoughts before replying. “In the Empire, it’s a social stigma if you’re from a conquered world. It’s worse if you’re a woman and from a conquered world. You’re worthless. None of your opinions or feelings matter.” her deep brown eyes focused on his, “You were different. You accepted me for who I am. You made me feel important, that I was wanted on this mission. When you brushed off my questions, it reminded me of the things back in the Empire.”

“I’m sorry.” Michel said through a constricted throat.

Caitlin gave him a wan, lop-sided smile, “I knew you would be. It’s not even your fault.” She held up a hand to deflect the protests she saw coming, “It wasn’t. It was mine. I felt ignored. I knew that things couldn’t go any faster, but I wanted to interact somehow. I wanted some of that intense focus I saw being lavished on the computer. Pretty selfish, huh?”

Michel stammered, searching for the right thing to say, “I had no idea.” he murmured.

“That’s pretty obvious.” Caitlin quipped, “You haven’t had much experience with women have you?”

Michel glared at her for a moment; “I’ve had sufficient experience.”

“I meant the interpersonal kind, not chains of command.” Caitlin clarified.

Michel continued to glare, then admitted, “No.”

“It shows.”

“Thanks.” he replied sarcastically.

“I meant it shows in the fact that you get confused about things that most guys just ignore.”

“So, now you think I’m confused?”

Caitlin shook her head, “No. It means I think you’re sweet. Most men your age would have brushed off my feelings and demanded that we continue with the mission. You notice details. That’s pretty rare for a man. I’m surprised you’re not taken.”

“It’s only come up once.” Michel replied, “She’s dead now. So I guess it’s a moot point.”

Caitlin’s face fell, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Michel replied with false cheer, “At least I have my job, eh?”

Michel and Caitlin casually strolled down an access tunnel. Earlier they had caught a commuter shuttle from Mudball II to Mudball I. They were now headed for the colony’s main markets. Each had changed their attire, and to a lesser degree, their appearance.

Caitlin was dressed in the navy blue flightsuit Michel had purchased for her, along with his flight jacket from his brief stint as Alaric Hoeneker. To finish of the disguise, she’d colored her hair. Her hair was no longer brown. She now sported blonde tresses.

Michel had not done anything near as drastic. He had changed into an olive-green flightsuit and wore a leather flight jacket. The golden hoop in his ear was gone.

“You should’ve changed your hair too.” Caitlin whispered accusingly.

“This isn’t the time or place.” Michel whispered back.

“You’re just too stubborn to admit your wrong.”

“Wrong about what? No one’s going to recognize me.”

“I’d recognize you.”

“You’ve also been with me for four days now.”

“I’d recognize you anyway.”

“You just have a vaster and keener intelligence than the average Hadrani assassin.”

“At least you aren’t too stubborn to admit that.”

Michel sighed and ushered Caitlin along.

The main marketplace on Mudball I wasn’t any more aesthetically, or olfactorily, pleasing than that of Mudball II. A clamorous racket filled the air as various merchants vied for attention, preferably from those with credits to spend. Again, they wove in and out of the myriad stalls. This time, they were looking to make contact with a pilot that could fly them out of the Hinterlands.

“How are we going to find a pilot to get us out of here?” Caitlin hissed.

“There are always smugglers and pirates willing to take on passengers in places like this.” he whispered back.

She stares at him in an open-mouthed state of shock. After a few seconds she found her voice, “You can’t be serious.”

Michel smirked, “It’d be the last place they’d look for an OSS agent.”

She shook her head adamantly, “I’d rather die.”

“I wouldn’t say that too strongly, since that’s the likely alternative.”

Her eyes grew larger than Michel had ever seen them. Her jaw clamped shut and she turned and silently walked beside him. Michel smirked to himself. He told himself he’d have to remember this for future reference.

Caitlin and Michel entered into a small shop specializing in food pastes. Caitlin surveyed the contents of the displays. Her nose crinkled in disgust as she finished her examination. Michel chuckled in amusement.

She wheeled on him, “What’s so funny?” she demanded to know.

Michel pointed at the display she’s just perused; “You come in here, and then turn up your nose at everything here.”

Her hands went to her hips, “So? Is that an unheard of behavior where you’re from?”

He put his hands in the air, “It’s just that you seemed so focused and intent on buying something, until you saw what they were selling.”

She turned with a final huff and ran straight into another patron of the shop.

“I’m so sorry.” she told the other man.

He looked up from brushing himself off, “It’s all right. Simply a…” his voice trailed off as he studied her face, “Don’t I know you?”

She shook her head; “I don’t think so.”

He began pointing his finger at her, “Yeah, I do. You look different. You’ve changed your hair or somethin’, but I know you.”

“I’m sure you’re just confusing me for someone else.” she assured him, backing away.

“No.” he protested, “I’m sure of it. I’ve seen you somewhere, but where was it?”

Caitlin continued to back away, heading for the shop’s entrance, “I wouldn’t know, but if you remember please be sure to tell me.”

Where, where, where…” he snapped his fingers, “I got it! I was on New Maine! I got busted for smuggling contraband and you…” His face turned feral and his voice became low and deadly, “You were a copper.”

Caitlin continued to back away. She glanced about, desperately trying to spot Michel. Where did he go? She held her hands up, palm out towards her antagonist.

“Please, I’m not who you think I am.” she stammered.

“Don’t matter none.” he leered, “Cus I only think you’re a dead woman.”

He began to lunge at Caitlin. To his abrupt surprise, a pistol butt whipped out from beside him and caught him in the face. The man went down, his nose a bloody pulp. Michel stepped out from between the aisles.

He grinned at Caitlin, “Nice act. You had me convinced you were scared.”

“Where were you?” she demanded.

“Setting this ambush.” his tone carried the unspoken, “Duh.”

“Let’s get out of here.” she said dismissively.

“Certainly.” he agreed, “As soon as you admit it.”

“Admit what?”

“You thought I’d be the one that everyone would recognize.”

“So?” she replied warily.

“Didn’t happen that way, did it?” he asked gleefully.

“Shut up.” She snapped and left the store. She went about two steps out of the shop before she bumped into someone else. She bit back the urge to swear as her eyes swept over her victim. She nearly choked when she realized that she recognized him. It was her previous assailant’s partner. The gleam in his eyes told her that he knew her as well.

Her hand swept by her holster, grabbing her pistol. She fired two shots into the man before he could react. The stench of burned flesh assailed her nostrils as she pivoted slightly to her left and began firing at the man’s companions. The closest to him went down, clutching a burning hole in his stomach. Three others scattered.

Michel came up behind her. He fired at one of the three that had turned to shoot back. The unexpected return fire changed the woman’s mind. Michel turned on his heel and fired at the shop’s entrance. The man with the smashed nose collapsed onto the ground. His chest transformed into a charred crater.

Michel and Caitlin kept their weapons poised as their eyes swept the narrow alleyways that formed the “streets” of the Market. Michel cast a sidelong look at Caitlin. She was breathing a little hard from the adrenal rush, but fairly composed otherwise.

She turned her head and noticed his attention.

“What now?” she asked.

“We try to get away from here and to somewhere a little more discreet.” he replied as he looked about again.

“Any suggestions?”

“I think we’d stand a better chance at that entertainment vendor’s that we passed when we first arrived.”

She nodded, “Yeah, that place had a pretty good view. It would be hard to approach unnoticed.”

“Exactly.” He affirmed.

“Lead the way.” She said.

They made their way as quietly as they could through the crowded confines of the Market. When they reached the entertainment stall, they stopped. The garish stand sold holovids, games, audios, and flatscreen texts. The genres ran the gambit but tended towards the lewd.

They acted as though they were perusing the items as they kept an eye out for pursuit. Michel smirked at Caitlin’s blush as she read the content of a holocube vid she held. She put it back on the rack and looked about in embarrassment. He glanced outside towards one of the access tunnel that led to docking facilities. He smiled in relief as he saw several figures emerge that he recognized.

His smile faded as his eye caught a small group striding for the entertainment shop. He recognized the woman in the lead as the one he’d shot at earlier. The color drained as he recognized the people with her. They were the Hadrani from the day before.

He drew his pistol and yelled out to Caitlin simultaneously, “Behind you!”

Caitlin spun, drawing her sidearm in a fluid motion as she turned. Her face lost all emotion as she brought her pistol up into a two-handed grip and began firing. Michel mirrored her position as he fired into the approaching group. Two of them went down immediately.

The others scattered. The woman and the Hadrani squad leader broke to the left, into a small café. They shattered the windows and began trying to lay down suppressive fire. One Hadrani went flat in the middle of the clearing and fired from that position. The other Hadrani and the smuggler went to the right, around the corner of a shop and fired intermittently.

Michel and Caitlin had little available cover. They withdrew deeper into the store. The place began to reek of burnt plastics as the media carriers were caught in plasma bursts and incinerated. Thick acrid smoke made breathing difficult and stung the eyes. Caitlin took refuge behind the register as Michel made it behind a metal storage locker.

“What now?” she shouted through the choking smoke.

He grabbed his comm link and dialed a frequency and began talking into it, “If you’re going to extract us, now’s a good time to start.”

Caitlin couldn’t hear the reply, but she could see and hear Michel’s infuriated response, “Yes, we’re in the firefight in the middle of the square! Do something about it.”

She struggled to hear as more plasma bursts seared through the air. Michel was nodding, “All right. I’ll wait for your signal.”

He turned to her, “Get ready to make a break for it.”

“How?” she coughed.

“Through the front door.” he replied, trying not to gag on the smoke.

“When?” An explosion echoed throughout the interior of the market area in response to her question.

“Now.” Michel replied calmly. The two both ran towards the front door of the shop. Small fires blocked it. They desperately jumped through. They landed safely on the other side. Their antagonists were now under fire from the group Michel had observed emerge from the tunnel.

The Hadrani in the middle of the square was dead. One of the men to the right was likewise expired. Michel waited for the other to step around the corner to fire at the newcomer’s and took a shot. The man’s chest erupted into a fireball. He collapsed finding his heart and lungs ashes within his chest.

The Hadrani leader saw that Caitlin and Michel were out of the shop and tried to angle for a shot. The other woman kept up a desperate barrage pouring down upon the newcomers. It wasn’t enough. One of the newcomers fired a spherical object into the café. It detonated seconds later, hurling fragments of both women across the square.

Michel and Caitlin picked themselves off the ground as the last of the debris rolled by. Shrapnel had cleared the square, as well has significantly adding to the casualties. They dusted themselves off and checked for injuries. A short, dark haired man approached them from the ranks of those that had assisted them.

He strode up confidently. His eyes raked Caitlin over. She could see lust in his gaze. He lecherously smiled as he thrust out his hand in introduction.

“Jacen Gerin, milady,” he said cockily, “at your service.”

Caitlin turned to Michel, who shrugged, “Meet one of those pirates that’s willing to take on passengers.”

She took Gerin’s hand and managed a grimace of a smile as he stroked her hand with his thumb while he shook it. He pulled her hand up and began lowering his head to meet it. She jerked her hand out of his grip.

“Thank you for your assistance.” She replied brusquely.

“And for the ride off this rock?” Jacen asked smugly.

“And for the ride.” She agreed with a hint of irritation.

Jacen smiled magnanimously, “I’m sure you’ll think of a better way to thank me later.”

She shuddered as he winked at her and focused his attention upon Michel. Michel’s expression was one of weary amusement.

“Some things never change, eh?” he asked Gerin

Jacen shrugged, “Some things should remain eternal.”

Michel leaned forward, and whispered to Jacen, “They should change in this case.”

“And why is this?” Jacen whispered back.

“She’s OSS.” Michel replied with a feral smile, “Her thanks for the ride will be not turning you over to the Androcan Navy.”

Jacen’s face became a frozen masque; “You’re a cruel bastard.”

Michel leaned back and spoke at a normal level, “As long as we both understand that.”

Michel and Caitlin were both assigned single quarters. They were tiny, cramped spaces but they were private. Privacy was a luxury aboard a ship as small as the Wandering I. They spent the two-day voyage back to the nearest Androcan outpost preparing their joint reports.

With only a few hours left until their mission formally concluded, they met in Caitlin’s quarters to discuss matters of a more personal nature.

“So why do you employ Gerin?” Caitlin had to ask.

“He’s useful as an undercover operative and as an information source.” Michel explained, “He may be a lech but he’s a fairly decent sort and honorable for a pirate.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you’d already arranged for a ride off Mudball I?”

Michel sighed, “I’d placed Gerin in the vicinity before the mission began. Our intelligence sources indicated that this mission would likely involve Hadrani information and that would lead to the Mudball stations. He was my back-up card in case we ran into the Hadrani again.”

“And you delayed our departure in order to encounter the Hadrani again.” It was a statement not a question.

She was silent for a moment then shook her head with a weary sigh, “What’s it matter? We survived and got away. That’s what counts I guess.”

“So, do you think you’ll ever be back this way?” Caitlin asked over her steaming mug of coffee.

Michel shrugged, “I don’t know.” He met her eyes; “I hope so.”

Her smile was reluctant, “I hope so too.” She sat her mug down, “I mean, I really enjoyed working with you.” She waved her hand in consternation, “No… what I mean to say is that we make a good team.” She sighed, “That didn’t come out right either.”

“Caitlin.”

“It’s just that… we were great together and I hate to see that end. No… that’s sounds wrong.”

“Caitlin.”

“I… its not often you meet someone as dedicated to their ideals as you seem to be. I respect that. I wish that…”

“Caitlin.” Michel’s voice was becoming more insistent.

“I’m making an idiot of myself. I just want to say…”

“Caitlin!” his voice was firm now, shutting her up, “I’m going to miss you too.”

She stared at him in stunned silence as he spoke, “I’ve enjoyed working with you and I wish that it could continue, but we both know that it can’t right now.” His eyes bored into hers, “Hopefully, someday that will change.” She swallowed a lump in her throat as he continued, “Until then, if you ever need to reach me, use this.”

He held out a small data crystal, “My personal comm links access codes are imprinted in there. You can leave a message or reach me anytime you want to talk.”

She laughed insecurely; “You say that now.”

“I’ll say that when you call as well.” he informed her sincerely.

She heard the conviction in his voice. It made her chest ache. She knew leaving wasn’t supposed to be this hard. She barely knew him after all.

“Thank you.” she said softly, forcing her voice to remain level.

She almost cracked when he took her hand, “I mean it. Call me anytime.”

“I will.” she said hoarsely. She forced herself to breathe levelly as he kissed her hand.

“I’ll hold you to that, milady.” he informed her with a smile.

“I’m sorry.” she said as levelly as she could, “But I really need to gather my things before I disembark.”

“I understand.” he stood to leave.

“Michel…” she started to speak, but couldn’t manage to get the words out.

His eyebrow rose, “Are you all right?”

She waved her hand weakly; “I’m fine.” she forced herself to say. She held out her hand. He took it.

“It has been an honor to meet you. Take care of yourself.”

“Take care of yourself as well. Let me know what I can do to help with Sinherran/Androcan relations.”

She gave his hand a final squeeze, “Good bye.”

She didn’t breathe again until the door closed behind him. Why is it so hard? I barely know him, and it feels like I’m leaving a part of myself behind. She reflected a moment, comparing herself to him. It feels that way because I am.

She sank back onto the bunk and forced herself to breathe normally. Michel was right. No one could predict what would happen. Perhaps they would work together again. One thing she knew, her life wouldn’t be quite the same again. She had a new perspective. Knowing that she had a kindred out there granted her new strength and determination. She couldn’t imagine Michel surrendering and that fueled her resolve.

When they put into orbit over The Androcan outpost of Yeltsin, Caitlin used her OSS authority to arrange for a shuttle to meet the ship in order for her to leave. She and Michel exchanged awkward farewells. She entered the airlock with a final wave. The airlock door closed and cycled, signaling the eminent departure of the shuttle.

“Sorry to see her go?” Gerin asked T’Luthien as the Wandering I got underway.

“Yes.” Michel unexpectantly confessed.

“It happens.” Gerin gave him a leering grin, “Trust me, I know.”

“Right.” Michel replied sarcastically, “I’ll be in my cabin.”

“Ah, in pursuit of quality time with oneself.” Gerin chuckled, “Don’t hurt yourself.”

T’Luthien stifled the urge to shoot the pirate as he made his way to his cabin. There had to be a way for him to see Caitlin Shire again. As she’d said, they were too good a team to remain parted. There was also the potential for romance. They’d both felt it even though there was nothing that could be done about it right now.

What if he could change that? The Order had knighted Androcans in the past. Maybe it was time to do so again. He’d submit her name as soon as he reached a Templar base. As a Templar, she’d be in a better position to influence the fate of her world. The Templars were apolitical now, but Michel could foresee the end of that practice. Soon the Templars would have to choose allies and confront their enemies. Caitlin could become a powerful advocate

Michel T’Luthien rubbed his chin as the shuttle came to a landing. He hadn’t had a chance to shave since he’d left Terran League space nearly three weeks before. His beard had grown in rather rapidly. He’d taken the opportunity during his two-day flight into Androcan territory to trim his beard into a goatee. They’d been the rage on his homeworld of Cervrea when he’d left two years before. Now that the fad had faded, he decided to try it for himself.

His image in the mirror didn’t bother him. What bothered him was that he was vastly unqualified to accept this mission. He’d been an analyst throughout his entire career and didn’t understand why the Knight Commander had forced this mission upon him. She’d chosen him to be her personal troubleshooter in this matter and the weight of that assignment threatened to overwhelm him.

“I will not fail.” He confidently said to the mirror and then muttered to himself, “Just keep repeating that mantra.”

“We’re on final approach.” the pilot’s voice came over the ship’s internal loudspeaker.

Michel shifted uncomfortably in his seat as he strapped himself in. This was his first visit inside Androcan borders since the last war between the Empire and the Cervrean Commonwealth. He suppressed the memories that arose at that reflection. He had no desire to revisit the nightmares that were spawned by his last experience.

For his last “visit” he’d come as an officer of the Cervrean Royal Navy, now he was here as a representative of the Restored Order of the Knights Templar. Since the Templars were apolitical, they had access to virtually every Human world in known space. The animosities that brought him here in the past were buried in the past. The Imperials would see him for his uniform and not hear his accent.

He felt the gravity shift as the ship’s internal grav generators cut out and natural gravity resumed. The force was nearly one standard g. Michel recalled that Androca had originally been colonized primarily due to its similar mass ratio to Earth not because of its hospitable environment. The planet was habitable only after centuries of intensive terraforming.

The engine’s whine died down and the nearly imperceptible vibration of the repulsorlift vanished. Michel unstrapped from the crash seat before the pilot switched off the safety light ordering passengers to buckle up. He stood and stretched. Joints cracked loudly as he moved bones and tendons that had remained immobile for several hours.

Michel’s lips twisted into a wry grin as he remembered a day when his body didn’t utter such protests at being used. He reached above his seat and opened the overhead luggage compartment and retrieved his gear. He only had the clothes on his back and this duffel.

He wore a simple black outfit with silver piping. Its simplicity could have marked it as the nondescript uniform of any number of corporations or governmental agencies, yet it unmistakably bore the signature of the Knights Templar. The most noticeable feature was the ordinance he wore upon his person. He wore a holster with a large phased plasma pistol. The gun had been designed for, and was used exclusively by, the Knights Templar.

He was armed for battle and knew it. The uneasy peace that had existed between the Empire and the Cervrean Commonwealth had remained unbroken for over seventy years. This did not mean that it stood unpunctuated by skirmishes. The two ancient foes still watched each other warily. While he expected to be free from any prejudices, he wasn’t about to take any chances

The Templars’ Intelligence Branch and their counterparts in the Office for State Security had made the greatest inroads between the Empire and any outward organization. The OSS, despite its bureaucratic sounding name, remained a purely military organ. Most of its ranks were filled with conscripts from across the Empire. They were generally assigned menial guard duties and clerical posts. The “professionals” were among the greatest intelligence agents ever fielded by mankind.

The passenger ramp of the shuttle lowered to the ground. A sunny environ stood waiting. It also revealed nearly half a dozen armed soldiers. Michel tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress a smirk.

“Never knew I was this important.” he quipped to the officer standing before the neat formation of OSS troops.

The chiseled blonde’s eyes narrowed as she spoke, “I have no information regarding your importance, or lack thereof, I only have orders to bring you to my superiors.”

If you only knew, Michel thought, I’ve had a bounty of a half-billion Androcan credits on my head for nearly a century now. Would that information change your attitude? T’Luthien knew that his relatively youthful thirtysomething appearance belied his true lifespan.

“Sorry.” he replied with a mock bow, “Let’s not keep one’s superiors waiting.”

The blonde’s eyes and lips both narrowed. Michel counted it as a small victory.

The trip was a short one. They entered a troop carrier just to travel to the other side of the shuttleport. Their destination was a duraconcrete bunker near the port’s navigational beacon array. Michel supposed this was the OSS’s private “office” at the facility.

Upon entering, he discovered that he was correct. The small, square building was packed full of surveillance equipment. Holo displays throughout the room mapped out virtually every corner of the port grounds. Many of the activities displayed were recorded for various “official” purposes.

Michel was led to a small office in the rear of the facility. It apparently had been intended for the use of the site supervisor, but had been “borrowed” for this occasion. Michel supposed the sullen little man haranguing the personnel monitoring the holo displays was the displaced supervisor. Michel enjoyed displacing the little tyrant, but felt badly for his subordinates that he vented his indignation upon.

The blonde motioned for him to enter the office. The door swung shut behind him. Michel began his visual appraisal of the man who sat behind the line desk centered in the office. The man stood as Michel measured him.

The Androcan was huge. Michel would have taken him for a Hadrani gene-bred soldier if they’d met anywhere else. The man smiled. It didn’t look natural on him.

“Please, be seated, Sir Michelle T’Luthien.” The man’s accent was thick. He motioned towards one of the two chairs placed before the desk he occupied.

Michel stepped forward and thrust out his hand, “Pleasure to meet you, but I have to tell you a couple of things. First, my name is pronounced ‘Mike-el’ not Michelle. It’s an archaic spelling of the name and secondly, you’ve addressed me with a double honorific. I’m either addressed with the attached ‘T’ for Templar in my name or as ‘Sir’. You don’t use both. If you prefer, don’t use either. It’s easier that way.”

“I see. Then I guess I’ll dispense with the formalities. It is a genuine pleasure to meet you Mr. Luthien” Although the smile seemed unnatural, the man’s tone was one of genuine respect, “I am Colonel Joshua Gregarin.”

“Just call me Michel.” T’Luthien insisted.

“Yes, I will. You know, I was quite tempted to collect the reward on you.” Gregarin admitted.

“I’m surprised anyone still remembers that.” Michel waved the thought aside.

“You would be amazed the things that we remember here in the Empire.” Gregarin said with a sinister edge.

Michel shrugged, “Probably.”

“Please, take your seat.” Gregarin relaxed even more as they sat, “The call from your Knight Commander could not have come at a better time. We have recently intercepted several smugglers attempting to enter Republic space through our borders.”

The Templars had been founded on the premise of protecting colonial travelers from harm. Since the greatest threat posed today was interstellar raiding and piracy, the Templars had pledged themselves to stamping out the age-old problem. The Order’s refusal to involve itself with the internal affairs, or wars, of stellar nations gave it credibility and unprecedented access to interstellar space regardless of borders. It was these aspects of the Templars’ mission that had brought T’Luthien here today.

“May I ask what their cargo was?” Michel asked

Gregarin laughed, “Certainly. It was mostly data.”

“Regarding?”

“Disturbing things. Reports of things that lay beyond explored space.” Gregarin said ominously.

“And this is why you agreed to our request?”

“As you know, the Empire supports several Templar bases within our borders. We also give generously towards your annual operating budget.” Joshua shrugged, “And besides, we wished to know if the reports were true.”

“Are they?” Michel feigned ignorance.

“You wouldn’t be here if they weren’t.” Gregarin relished his small triumph.

Michel decided to concede the point. The truth of the matter was plainly obvious, “So, what now?”

“The smugglers were tracked and captured by an exceptional officer. We are assigning that same officer to you as your liaison. You will assume the identities of two of the smugglers and complete their mission.” Gregarin explained

“Won’t their capture be known?” Michel inquired.

“Possibly.” Gregarin admitted.

“What then?” Michel wondered.

Joshua shrugged, “Then you improvise.”

Michel smoldered at the veiled reference to his last mission to Androca.

“It is time to introduce you to your new partner.” Joshua said as he rose to his feet. Michel could hear the office door opening as he also rose. He turned to see whom he would be working with. What he saw surprised him.

The woman that entered was fairly tall. Her build made her appear thin while avoiding the emaciated appearance common to many taller women. Her dark chestnut hair was shot through with lighter highlights. She wore it short, giving her an impish appearance.

The rich brown eyes that peered at him through her bangs were lively and intelligent. Her nose was a nub. Her cheekbones were high and had a faint blush. Her lips were full and rounded.

Her lips rose into a full, warm smile, “Pleasure to meet you.” Her voice was a thick contralto. Her grip was firm and confident. She spoke with a distinctive drawling lilt.

“You’re from the Protectorate region?” Michel asked uncertainly.

His reward and answer were a laugh and infectious smile, “Yes. I’m from Sinherra.”

Joshua chose this moment to intervene, “Allow me to introduce Lt. Caitlin Shire.”

“Sir Luthien.” Caitlin nodded towards Michel.

“The pleasure is all mine.” Michel informed her earnestly. Why did she have to work for the sworn enemy of his homeworld?

“Caitlin is one of our finest conscripts.” Gregarin explained, “We are trying to persuade her to continue her service to the State.”

Michel detected a glimmer of disgust in Caitlin’s eyes as Joshua spoke. He began to examine her body language. She was standing before a superior officer, yet her posture was relaxed. Her chin was held high, almost defiantly. There was an air of victory about her.

Joshua motioned towards the chairs with a sweep of his hands, “Please, let’s sit.”

“You mentioned that Lt. Shire was responsible for the capture of the smugglers.” Michel said as he sat, noting the shudder of suppressed rage that seemed to pass through Caitlin’s body, “I’d like to hear more about that.”

Caitlin opened her mouth to speak, but Joshua interrupted her, “Yes. Lt. Shire was the first to identify discrepancies in the behavior of the suspects and utilized that to identify them.”

“How?”

“By employing the training and…” Joshua began to answer.

Michel cut him off with a glance; “I don’t recall asking you this question.”

Caitlin tried suppressing a smirk, with little success; “I noticed that they were overly conscience of the security forces around them.”

“That’s a tip-off?”

Caitlin granted him the kind of smile generally reserved for slow pupils, “When one’s identification labels one as being born within the Empire’s boundaries.”

Michel understood instantly but also saw Joshua’s sudden discomfort, “Why is that, exactly?”

Caitlin’s eyes flicked towards Joshua for the briefest moment. Her smile grew even wider as she recognized the game being played, “Every Androcan citizen is used to being monitored at virtually every moment. They’re used to the scrutiny. Foreigners aren’t, and their reaction usually identifies them.”

Joshua’s eyes were widening, as was his mouth but no sounds had left it yet.

“And every foreigner is suspected of being a smuggler?”

Caitlin’s laugh was warm with humor, “Of course. Aren’t you all subversives here to destroy our utopian collective?”

Michel shrugged, “We try our best.”

Joshua had recovered enough to sputter in protest; “I don’t see how this discussion is constructive towards our impending investigation.”

Michel and Caitlin exchanged glances and then broke into laughter. Joshua glared at first one and then the other. He bore the indignation of one that has missed the point of a joke, and suspected that it was about them. He waited silently as Michel and Caitlin tried to stop snickering.

“Are you finished?” Joshua asked impatiently.

“I think so.” Michel gasped.

“Good.” Joshua snarled, looking at Caitlin, “I don’t think we need any more mistakes or blemishes concerning this case.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Michel asked, instantly sober.

“It is an internal matter.” Joshua replied.

“No,” Michel retorted, “that is classified as a threat. I want to know exactly why it was made.”

Joshua met his question with silence. Michel felt outrage building within him. He was on the verge of rising out of his chair and trying to bash Joshua’s head against the desk when Caitlin took hold of his arm. He looked over to her and found her wearing a sardonic smile.

“It’s all right.” She assured him, “This is an old matter.” Her eyes met Michel’s; “I have been accused of ‘questionable loyalties’ in the past.” Her head turned back towards Joshua, “Apparently, those ghosts persist.”

“Your loyalty is without question.” Joshua assured her.

Caitlin’s eyebrow arched slightly. Her lips twisted into a wry expression of distaste. Her arms folded across her chest. Everything about her said, Oh, really?

“This is an extremely sensitive matter.” Joshua explained, “There are those that would object to your involvement.” He looked over towards Michel, “And especially to yours. We must look beyond these prejudices and strive for mutual success.”

“Or?” Michel asked cynically.

“Or, the chances of another collaborative effort such as this will be greatly diminished.”

It took another two tense hours to discuss the details, such as they were, of the proposed mission. The OSS had not dedicated much time towards planning this operation. Michel’s involvement was classified. The High Command did not want to admit to its citizenry that the Androcan government had relied upon Templar assistance in order to resolve a disturbing situation. The fact that the Templar agent was a Cervrean was worse. It was a matter of policy that Androcans and Cervreans couldn’t get along. Too much of their power was derived from the populace’s fear of the Commonwealth’s military strength.

Caitlin’s position did not appear to be much better. She was a conscript. She had to serve three years in the OSS regardless of her personal beliefs regarding the organization or face imprisonment. Michel had the feeling that she had been willing to face that alternative prior to this operation. The way she answered his inquiry regarding her place of origin led him to believe she was a Sinherran nationalist. A dangerous political philosophy considering that the Empire had seized control of her homeworld nearly twenty years ago. Her placement in the OSS was as much an attempt at inculturation as it was a result of her abilities. From what Michel could ascertain, the experiment was failing miserably.

Michel felt a visceral attraction towards her. He found this odd for disparate reasons: he hardly knew her, and he had been sent here despite his war record. Blowing up a moon wasn’t a crime that any government easily forgave, especially when it housed your military command structure. He’d spent decades trying to forget that awful day and now it kept getting thrown back in his face.

That still didn’t solve his other difficulty. He still hardly knew her. Even if he did get to know her, she was technically an Androcan citizen. The Commonwealth and the Empire had been waging a Cold War for over two hundred years now. Despite Michel’s apolitical position within the Order, he himself had faced Androcan forces in combat. That usually didn’t make for the foundations of a romance. Then again, if she truly were a Sinherran nationalist, then odds were that she was less of an Androcan patriot than he was.

Michel shook his head at himself. This was useless folly. He didn’t even know if the woman liked him and here he was trying to justify courting her. He decided to satisfy his impulse with mere conversation and a meal or two during the course of their partnership.

Michel was still inwardly laughing at himself when the briefing concluded. Joshua stood, signaling the close of the talks. The door behind Michel and Caitlin opened suddenly, revealing the chiseled blonde. Joshua nodded to her once.

“You will come with me.” She announced abruptly.

Caitlin and Michel exchanged the briefest glance. With an almost imperceptible shrug, Caitlin stepped forward to follow. Michel followed suit. The blonde officer led them to the lorry that had brought Michel here in the first place.

They boarded the cargo area and the blonde rapped on the lorry’s roof twice. The aircar lurched forward and then glided across the port’s open landing pads. Everyone remained silent. Michel studied his “comrades”. Caitlin fidgeted slightly in her seat. The blonde officer robotically stared straight ahead. The five OSS guards that followed the officer everywhere tried to pretend they heard and saw nothing that could get them in trouble later.

The aircar stopped in front of a battered scoutship parked away from most of the freighter traffic. It was at least a century old. Rust and dents covered its surface. Myriad paint schemes overlapped each other. Michel dreaded what the interior would look like, much less smell like.

“This is your ship.” The blonde spoke. Even her speech was mechanical.

“I was afraid of that.” Michel muttered.

“We have inspected the craft. It is spaceworthy. You have nothing to fear.” the blonde replied in staccato bursts.

Literal too. “Thanks,” Michel replied sardonically, “I feel better already.”

“Good. You must not allow anything to distract you from your mission.”

Whatever. Michel shrugged and hopped out of the lorry. He began to walk towards the ship. He stopped when he noticed Caitlin wasn’t with him. He turned to see the officer speaking to Caitlin as she handed over Shire’s luggage.

Caitlin turned and walked away from the OSS officer with a scowl on her face.

“Anything wrong?” Michel asked as she strode by.

“Nothing I can’t handle.” she called back as she ascended the boarding ramp.

Michel glanced back at the glacial blonde, noting her feral smile. Right, and I’m just a tourist. I’ll guess I’ll find out soon enough if she feels like sharing.

Michel was surprised and disappointed to discover how much he hoped she’d share.

Michel threw his gear in a compartment that looked fairly empty and made his way towards the cockpit. Caitlin was already there and strapped into the pilot’s seat.

“You rated for these things?” he asked.

“Yes.” she replied without hesitation, “Are you?”

The defensive tinge to the question surprised him, “Not really. I was hoping one of us would be.”

She smiled slightly. It was still tight and wary. Michel felt he knew why. He sat down at the copilot’s station and pulled a small square device out of his pocket.

“What’s…?” Caitlin began to ask, but was interrupted by Michel bringing his finger up to his lips.

He glanced over the comm board. He smiled as he found a computer jack that looked compatible. He inserted the small square’s plugs into the receiving set. He flipped a small switch on the back of the plug and sparks erupted from circuit boards across the ship.

“What is that?” Caitlin asked, concern lacing her voice as she glanced about the cockpit through the smoke of overloaded circuits.

Michel unplugged the device and inserted it back into his pocket, “That is the guarantor of our privacy.”

“What?”

“I just shorted out every eavesdropping device placed aboard ship before our departure.” Michel proudly explained.

Caitlin stared at him in shocked disbelief for a moment, and then she laughed, “Right, I’m sure you did.”

“Seriously.” Michel insisted, “Any circuit that wasn’t listed in the master computer logs as being an original EM or audio receiver wasn’t protected from the ion charge.”

“You’re serious.” Caitlin’s head canted forward slightly.

“Very.”

“You knew they’d bug the ship.”

“It’s SOP for the OSS.” Michel shrugged, “I would have been shocked if they hadn’t tried it.”

“So you brought that.” Caitlin pointed towards his pocket, “What is it?”

“A little secret your superiors don’t know about yet.”

“What if I tell them?”

Michel shrugged, “Then I’d be disappointed that I misjudged you, but it really wouldn’t compromise any security concerns.”

“Misjudged me, eh?” Caitlin smirked, “I don’t think you did.”

“Glad to hear it.” His face became serious, “What did Ms. Mechanical say to you before you came aboard?”

Caitlin’s face grew dark, “Nothing much.”

“That’s why it upsets you every time you think about it?”

Caitlin sighed and looked towards the flight controls, “She merely reminded me of my duties towards home.”

Michel studied her for a moment, then spoke softly, “In other words, obey us or people back on Sinherra will suffer for it.”

Caitlin closed her eyes and leaned her head back into her crash-seat’s headrest, “They will arrest my family as insurrectionists.”

“Are they?”

Caitlin laughed, “Yes. My father has never hidden his bitterness at the Androcans for invading us.”

“Why are you here?”

Another sigh, “They thought if they took the oldest child of every planetary leader to serve conscription terms, it would mold them into loyal Imperials.”

“Has it worked?”

Caitlin snorted, “Yes. They’ve also figured out how to stabilize the economy and guarantee peace for mankind.”

“Sounds like another rousing success for the High Command.” Michel replied, “Right up there with the Cervrean War.”

Caitlin laughed. The tension in her shoulders drained away. She turned towards Michel. Her eyes were filled with conflicting emotions.

“They know that I don’t support the Empire. They also know that I won’t do anything that will endanger my people or family.”

“I’m not here to ask you too.” Michel assured her, “I’m here to stop a smuggling operation that threatens the safety of all mankind.”

“Sounds like a tall order.”

“You have no idea.”

“Then I guess we’d better get going.”

“Yeah, especially before they send a team to repair those bugs I just blew up.”

“Just one thing first?”

“Certainly.”

“My friends call me Caitlin.”

“Even better.” he replied with a warm smile.

The flight towards the Hadrani-Androcan border would take several days and one re-fuelling stop. That time would be utilised in mastering their respective roles. They were travelling under assumed identities belonging to the captured smugglers. The smugglers had confessed, under OSS auspices, that no one on the other side of the Hadrani border had ever physically seen them.

Michel had no doubts regarding the OSS’ ability to extract information from prisoners. He did, however, doubt the veracity of such information. The tortured quite often “confessed” any information they thought the interrogator wanted to hear in order to end their torment. Michel feared that such had been the case regarding the information he and Caitlin were staking their lives upon.

The first day had been one of pure research. Both agents were pre-occupied with data files on their identities throughout the first day. Caitlin added whatever information she could in order to expand the flimsy data recorded on their criminal files. The visual records of both were far more useful, giving both Michel and Caitlin an impression of how the originals had moved and presented themselves.

Michel was now Alaric Honneker. Caitlin was now Elfgina Vandal. The two smugglers had begun collaborating seven years before, joined together through the death of a business associate. That associate had been Elfgina’s lover at the time and a rival of Alaric’s.

The two had become lovers themselves and set out on a new business venture. They had survived for years skimming through the various counter-cultures across human space. They eked out a living supplying such movements or fads with their myriad vices, generally of the illegal variety. They had recently perfected their services by entering a new arena, that of the data courier. They would transport data, usually obtained through illicit means, from one party to the other. Neither partner ever met them personally, therefore no party could reveal the identity of another party. It was very lucrative, and very dangerous. The original owner’s of the data were generally willing to kill to prevent its transfer.

Michel perused the data with some amusement, “That’s interesting.” He murmured.

“What’s interesting?” Caitlin asked.

“How seriously do we want to take our roles?”

A smirk played across her lips, she kept her gaze on her instruments, “Why? How serious are you thinking about getting?”

Michel shrugged uncomfortably, “I don’t know. These two seemed to be very…”

“Intimate?” Caitlin offered.

Michel scowled at her, “Yeah, that’s it.”

“And you were wondering if we should…?”

“I don’t exactly know what I was asking.” Michel replied defensively, “I was just wondering how they acted in public.”

Caitlin laughed, “Nothing to fear there. They were surprisingly professional.”

“Good.” Michel sighed.

Caitlin shot him an irked glance, “Why is that such a relief?”

Michel sat up straight in his chair, “Well, I hardly know you, and I don’t think that I…we…that we…us…could, should…”

Caitlin laughed again, “Relax. It’d be weird for me too.”

Michel sat back relieved and disappointed all at the same time.

Caitlin paused for a moment, “So, how closely do you think you resemble Alaric?”

“Not very.” Michel admitted.

“Not at all?” she asked wearily.

“No.” he confirmed.

“Same for me and Elfgina.” She sighed.

Caitlin and Michel solved their dilemma by ignoring it. Data runners were notorious for cosmetic alterations. They couldn’t look like Alaric or Elfgina, but they could step away from themselves. That could be accomplished with a few modifications.

Caitlin disappeared into the storage unit of the scout for a couple of hours while Michel monitored the cockpit. She bounded into the cockpit quite cheerily when she finished her endeavors. Michel was astonished by the change.

Caitlin had shed her bland, olive drab flightsuit for black leather pants and a tank top. Her pale skin was contrasted greatly by the dark, glossy hide stretched across her like a second skin. She wore crisscrossed holsters, one upon each hip. Her hair was also changed; the longer hair atop her head was now spiked. Her cosmetics had changed as well. Her lips were now a brilliant green, as well as her eye shadow.

Michel gaped.

“What?” she asked defiantly, “You don’t like it?”

“I never said that.” Michel retorted, “You just look like a completely different person.”

“That’s the point.” she replied sarcastically.

“I know that’s the point.” Michel replied with more than a little irritation, “I’m just surprised at how well it worked.”

“Do you like it?” she asked.

“It reminds me of someone I know.” an image leapt unbidden into his head.

“How well?”

“What difference does that make?”

“Just curious.”

“Stay curious. It doesn’t have anything to do with what we’re doing here.”

“You say that rather defensively. Are you sure it doesn’t have anything to do with our mission?”

“Yes.” exasperation and irritation laced Michel’s voice, “I’m sure.”

“I’m still curious.”

“Don’t be.” Michel’s voice took on an air of absolute authority, “There’s nothing to be curious about. It will just waste your time if you spend any time dwelling on it.”

“If you say so.”

“I already have.”

“Okay.”

Michel sighed and left for Alaric’s cabin.

Michel returned within minutes. He had changed into a black long-sleeved mock turtleneck. He wore black cargo pants and black leather boots with that. He wore a double tactical holster. In addition to the rest, he wore a tactical harness/shoulder holster.

“Interesting.” Caitlin commented while appraising his efforts. Her eyes scoured every part of him.

“That short, unruly hair and goatee thing works.” she muttered as she walked around him, “But it needs something else.”

Michel pulled a gold hoop out of his pocket, “Will this help?” he asked.

Caitlin nodded, and broke into an approving smile as he inserted the hoop into the hole in his left ear.

As they sat out the completion of their last rift jump towards Hadrani territory, the conversation became more personal.

“So who exactly are the Knights Templar?” Caitlin asked.

Michel looked up from his datapad and faced her. His eyes were serious and earnest as he searched her face for her motives.

“The Templars are an Order sworn to protect humanity from any threat be it of human or alien origin.”

“Wow.” Caitlin’s eyes widened, “I thought you guys were just pirate hunters or something.”

Michel’s eyes narrowed at the scorn in her voice, “When the Order was first reformed, its mission was primarily to protect the initial human expansion into space. As time has worn on, that role has expanded.”

“To that of intergalactic saviors?”

Michel sighed impatiently before answering, “Not saviors. No Templar, sane ones at least, consider themselves a savior. We are simple soldiers, policemen, and even scholars that have been called upon to accept a greater responsibility in human affairs.”

“So you’re saying that the Templars really are an apolitical organization solely dedicated to their self-appointed mission?”

“Correct.”

“So whom do you answer to?”

“Each Templar answers to the Knight Commander, the Council of Lieutenants, and his or her own conscience.”

“Sounds dangerous.” she frowned, “That seems like a little too much independence.”

“It is,” Michel agreed, “but only at times.”

Caitlin grew quiet, reflecting upon what she had just discovered.

“How often?” she whispered.

“What?”

“How often is it dangerous?”

Michel paused for a moment then gave the truth, “Twice so far.”

“That’s not too bad.”

“It’s still too many.” Michel replied bitterly.

Caitlin brightened up, “As long as I’m asking questions, I’ve got another one.”

“Really? Why am I not surprised?”

“Shut up. This is going to sound stupid, but I’ve got to know.”

“You will, if you ever get around to asking the question.”

“I’m warning you.” Caitlin pointed a finger at Michel, “Spare the wisecracks and just answer the question.”

“Certainly, milady.”

“This isn’t funny.”

“Of course it isn’t. I shall stop immediately.”

“Why don’t I believe you?”

“Because you may have already realized that I am incapable of stopping?”

“Probably.”

“Then you also realize that you may be here for a very long time.”

“Just answer the stupid question.”

“You never asked it.”

Caitlin’s head sunk into her hands for a moment. When she raised her head, all humor had vanished from her face, “Please, just answer the question.”

“As soon as you ask it.”

Caitlin sighed, “Are you really Michel T’Luthien?”

“Of course I am.”

“No,” she waved her hand, “I mean, are you really Michel Luthien, the man who helped destroy Androca’s moon?”

Michel met her eyes, “Yes, I am.”

“That’s impossible! You’d be over a hundred years old now.”

“One hundred and thirteen, to be precise.” Michel said primly, “That’s objective time of course.”

“There’s no way you’re that old.”

“You’re very kind to say so, but in all truth, I am.”

“How?”

“The mission that destroyed Androca’s moon also tested another new piece of hardware.”

“That’s right! That’s when the first rift drive was used.”

Michel nodded, “There was a reaction to engaging the rift drive too close to the Accelerator blast. It created an unstable translation and hurled us far, far away.”

“A hundred years into the future?”

“You might say that.” Michel acknowledged, “Rather than travel between dimensional folds we skirted our third dimension. We experienced relativistic temporal dilations as a result. Subjectively, I’m only thirty-three.”

“Weird.”

“Tell me about it.”

“So,” Michel interjected, “now that you are sure of who I am, does that mean we aren’t friends any more?”

Caitlin gave him a withering glare, “Whoever said we were friends to begin with.”

Michel opened his mouth to protest, but it died in his throat. Had he taken a liberty in assuming that they had gotten on rather well? If so, how to make amends for it now?

Caitlin smiled suddenly, “Gotcha!” She began to laugh.

Michel glared at her.

“I’m sorry.” she stammered in between bursts of mirth, “But I had to get you back for all those smart remarks before.”

“Right, but you may as well admit that you aren’t.”

“Aren’t what?”

“Sorry.”

“You’re right.” With that she burst into a fresh bout of laughter.

“What about you?” Michel asked later, after Caitlin had gotten over her merriment.

“What about me?”

Michel rolled his eyes, “You wanted to know about me. Now it’s your turn.”

“So you think turnabout’s fair play, d’you?”

“Yes.” he answered emphatically.

“Fine. Like I said before, my family was fairly important in Sinherran politics before the Androcan occupation began.”

“How important?”

“My father was the governor of Arclight, one of the city-states that comprise the Sinherran League. My mother was a doctor at one of the planet’s most prestigious hospitals. My father advocated continued resistance even after the surrender. The Androcans knew this and have used it to their advantage ever since by forcing him into positions where he is forced to assist the Provisional Government.”

“What about you?”

Caitlin shrugged, “I despise the Androcans for how they gained control over our world, but I’ve also learned to view things from their perspective. I despise their motives, but I understand them.”

Michel smiled, “Good.”

Caitlin shot him a puzzled glance.

Michel opted to explain his comment, “You haven’t allowed yourself to be blinded by emotional vendettas. You recognize how your opponent thinks. You also see the larger picture, which is why you and your family are resisting passively, correct?”

Caitlin nodded, “Yes. It’s pretty plain to see that the Empire is doomed. Their economy is shattered. Dissident and protest groups are becoming more and more active. The military and the OSS are losing the loyalty of their own troops. The Empire is crumbling, and we need people in place to take advantage of it if our world is to escape the system’s death throws.”

“Excellent foresight.” Michel commented softly. Caitlin could hear the approval and admiration in his voice. That made her feel good for reasons beyond “professional” pride. She didn’t want to explore these other reasons. Her life was complicated enough.

“So why did the OSS pick you?” Michel interrupted her thoughts, “Your father’s a famous dissident. Your mother’s a leading physician. You’d have to have a skill they wanted. What is it?”

Caitlin’s lips twisted into a wry smile, “I’m an anthropological psychologist.”

“A what?”

Caitlin smiled ruefully, “An anthropological psychologist. I study the mentality, behaviors, and ideologies of social groups and analyze them.”

“Isn’t that what anthropology consists of?”

Caitlin’s smile changed into one of patient amusement, “Traditional anthropology does consist of studying how a society functions and how they interact. Psychological anthropology just concentrates on the mental aspects of the society under examination.”

“A society’s mentality can be examined through the documentary records left behind, as well as the popular culture as portrayed and/or saved through media sources.” Michel counter-pointed, “Such an examination does not require a separate field of study.”

“I beg to differ.” Caitlin argued, “Historical studies are all based upon perception. For example, a non-Androcan can learn a semblance of Androcan thinking with which to examine Androcan documents. They cannot, however, learn the cultural and psychological make-up that led to the document’s tone, flavor, and intended nuances.”

“And adding the word ‘psychologist’ to the examiner’s title grants them this ability?” Michel asked sarcastically, “Wouldn’t it be more effective to add ‘medium’ to the title?”

“I take it you object to psychologists?” Caitlin asked coldly.

“No.” Michel said more softly, “I’m uncomfortable with people making generalizations about other people and classifying their behaviors as a typology. That typology is then applied to anyone that engages in a similar behaviors, regardless of motive, which may be entirely different.”

“So motive is the typology tool you would employ?”

Michel shook his head, “I don’t believe there are any universal typologies that explain humans. I believe that generalizations are convenient tools for non-specific discussions or studies. Individuals are unique, no matter how similar they seem to another.”

Caitlin nodded slowly, “I see your point and largely agree with you. However, I feel that people are classifiable. I think it is possible to compare a society’s mentality to another society’s and demonstrate the psychological roots behind the similarities.”

“That’s a valid point.” Michel conceded.

“At least you can admit it.” Caitlin quipped smugly.

She ignored the venomous glare she received from Michel.

The data smugglers’ ship, the Mnemonic, translated smoothly into normal space. They arrived into the area of known space referred to as the Hinterlands. It was region triangulated by the Androcan Empire, the Hadrani Republic, and unexplored space. It did not contain enough raw resources to have ever been claimed by either the Empire or the Republic. It was left as an arena for illicit trade between the two governments and as a launching point for ventures beyond the Orion Arm.

There were only two habitable worlds within the Hinterlands. Habitable was considered too generous word by most. The two worlds were largely inhospitable chunks of rock that were dense enough to build upon. Both “worlds” were unable to support human life. Only the stations and pressure domes clustered across the crags and canyons of the worlds offered any hope of survival.

The local economy was built around exchanging goods and outfitting deep space explorations. All at outrageous profits, of course. The two worlds, imaginatively named Mudball I and Mudball II, were interconnected hives of warehouses and repair bays. These warehouses and bays served as warrens for the local profiteers that catered to the specialized clientele that traveled to either Mudball.

Anonymity was the bread of life here. The less anyone knew of you, or your business, the better off you were. The only law was what you brought or bought. Agents of various corporations and governments loitered here buying and selling secrets wholesale.

This was the cesspool that Michel and Caitlin were hurling themselves into. As they awaited confirmation of their landing clearances, purchased at outrageous prices, they reviewed their roles for a final time. Both breathed sighs of relief as they received landing instructions. Caitlin guided the ship in to its assigned birth.

The relatively light gravity of Mudball II allowed landing directly on the planet’s surface. They landed on a hexagonal patch of cerasteel adjacent to one of the tunnels leading to the main concourse. Caitlin patched into the station’s computer network and activated the docking coupler.

The pressure sleeve groped out towards the Mnemonic’s main hatch. It magnetically attached itself, then pressurized. A chime sounded in the ship to announce that atmospheric integrity was established. The mission was now underway.

Michel and Caitlin went to the equipment lockers and outfitted themselves. Caitlin put a plasma pistol in each of her tactical holsters. She added a needle gun to her ankle holster on her right boot. She slipped a combat knife into a wrist sheath on her left forearm. She put on a black trenchcoat to make it more discreet.

Michel did likewise with the plasma guns. He placed a needle gun in the horizontal holster on his back. A laser pistol went in his shoulder holster. He put a knife in a boot sheath. He opted for a black flight jacket of Terran derivation. He also took a pair of black sensor glasses and put them on. Caitlin glanced at him speculatively. He handed her a pair.

“Good thinking.” she commented.

Sensor glasses served as optical protection from radiation sources and bright light. They also served as night vision units and image enhancers. If modified, they worked with the targeting system on a pistol or rifle to indicate where the weapon was sighted. On top of all of this, they were durable enough to protect the eye from most projectiles.

Both legislative measures and prohibitive cost kept the glasses from widespread distribution.

“Ready, Elfgina?” Michel asked.

“Ready whenever you are, Alaric.” Caitlin answered with forced enthusiasm.

The hatch opened and they entered the pressure sleeve connecting the ship to the station-city. The air tasted sour and old. It was air that had been recycled too many times through scrubbers that had been patched back together too many times. The scents of sweat, grime, and feces wafted in the air.

Caitlin’s nose crinkled as the odor barraged her senses. Michel sympathized, but couldn’t empathize. He had smelled odors like this during his early childhood. They had clung to the places he had lived during his earliest years.

Michel led the way as they proceeded down the sleeve towards the concourse. The sleeve emptied out into a passageway grown over with mold and fungi of various shades and textures. The air was thick and damp with moisture. The scrubbers were unable to compensate for the extra humidity brought on by massed bodies.

They followed the passageway until it spilled out into a large complex. It had originally been intended as a storage warehouse. It now served as a shopping center. The modifications to deliver heating and life support were crude and haphazard. The modules protruded out of the ceiling, walls, and floor. Cables and hoses were split at various junction points and leaking or spraying their contents upon those unfortunates that failed to see the looming annoyances in time to avoid them.

Power cables also lined the ceiling and walls. Many of these were faulty as well. Sparks and discharges illuminated various parts of the cavernous complex at intervals. Cries of annoyance and pain uttered by those taken unawares could be heard periodically.

The lighting was spotty and unreliable. Many places were bathed in complete darkness. The sanitation services were also sub-standard to those of the larger colonial worlds. The place reeked of ruptured sewer lines and clogged drains.

“They still use plumbing.” Caitlin muttered in disgust, “Why can’t they use waste converters?”

“They probably use the waste as either heating fuel or as fertilizer for the hydroponics.” Michel replied.

“That’s disgusting.”

“That’s the way most of the earliest colonies operated.” Michel explained, “The practice of using converters to turn human by-products into household energy stores is a fairly recent innovation.”

“Is this a hobby of yours?” Caitlin retorted sarcastically, “How wonderful. I’m stuck on a worthless, smelly rock with someone who finds crap fascinating. Oh, joy.”

“I’m a trained researcher.” Michel replied calmly, “Pieces of information like that are the tools I use as an Intelligence officer.”

“Plumbing as a weapon?” Caitlin asked skeptically.

“Imagine what would happen if the entire system got plugged and backed up at once.”

“Oh.” Caitlin remarked in surprise, “I see your point.”

“At least you can admit it.” Michel replied through a smirk.

The pair maneuvered their way through the maze that comprised the main shopping area for Mudball II. They wove in and out of stalls and incoming human traffic. Peddlers yelled out to passers-by, hawking their wares. The passers-by came in all shapes and sizes. Every human settlement was represented, even those typically forgotten by the major powers.

Humanity in all shapes and sizes crossed Caitlin and Michel’s path. The effects of a hundred different worlds upon humanity were in clear evidence. The ancient territorial and tribal divisions of Earth were nothing compared to the genetic divisions wrought by the Systems Wars. The bloodlines of several colonies were plainly evident. The inhabitants of many planets possessed features that were now unique to their world.

Michel found it a great irony that two of the most closely related colonial powers had fought each other so many times over the last few hundred years. The North Americans that had cofounded the Androcan Empire were the descendants of the same ancestors that had spawned the founders of the Cervrean Commonwealth. The Commonwealth had once been scornfully referred to as the rebirth of both the British Empire and the Viking Age. This was assertion with a great deal of truth to it. It was also true, as had been likewise commented, that the Androcan Empire was a desperate attempt to recapture the power and prestige of the heydays of the American and Soviet power blocs through unification rather than animosity.

They stopped and asked for directions from a peddler trying to unload razorback steaks at an exorbitant price. Alaric and Elfgina had instructions to meet their contact at a local watering hole known as The Old Biddy. Michel and Caitlin needed to find out where that was. For a “minimal” fee, the peddler gave them directions.

“If that’s the minimum, heaven help us if anyone ever charges the maximum.” Caitlin whispered to Michel in stunned disbelief.

“In places like this, information is the most vital commodity.” Michel whispered back.

They continued weaving their way through the concourse until they reached The Old Biddy. It was little more than a metal shed. In several places, rust had literally eaten through the walls. What little that could be seen through these holes, the Biddy didn’t even rate the title disreputable. The best that could be said about it was that it was dilapidated.

Michel entered first. He warily surveyed the patrons as he eased himself in. Several people stopped what they were doing in order to return his scrutiny. After observing his cold impassivity regarding their activities, they returned to their dalliances.

Caitlin followed suit. They secured themselves a quiet booth with a commanding view of the entrance. Most of the booths were situated to allow their occupants to observe the entrance. The culture of paranoia caters to its own.

Michel made another glance around the room as the barmaid made her way to their table. The maid was a cyborg. Her left arm and eye were both synthetic. The arm was crude, consisting of a mechanical pincher. The eye was a large circular red orb. They were local products and far below any standards that either Michel or Caitlin were familiar with.

“Whad’ya be havin’?” she asked in a synthesized voice.

“What’s the local specialty?” Michel asked.

“Frenner’s Ale, from Androca.” the maid answered.

“I’ll take one.” he informed her.

“Make that two.” Caitlin added.

“Be back.” The maid announced and trundled off.

“What’s a Frenner’s?” Michel asked Caitlin.

She smiled, “It’s a stout brewed on New Halifax, It’s re-labeled on Androca and sold as Frenner’s.”

“Lovely the way the Empire makes a profit off the Confederacy.” Michel commented dryly.

“I don’t remember the last time someone referred to us as the Confederacy.” Caitlin murmured wistfully. She took a swipe at her right eye, “Stop that. I’m going to get all emotional. If we get our cover blown because I’m misty eyed, I’m gonna kill you.”

“Noted.” Michel acknowledged simply.

The maid returned at that moment with their drinks. They were black and frothy. The prices were in accordance with the local inflation. Michel consoled himself with the thought that at least the prices prevented drinking binges.

“Heads up.” Caitlin muttered.

Michel glanced towards the door. A man dressed in a business suit had entered the establishment and was now looking about the room. Michel retrieved a small metallic cube from his coat pocket and placed it in the edge of their table. The man saw the cube, smiled, and made his way directly towards their table.

The man sat down next to Caitlin and across from Michel. He smiled a toothy smile, full of perfectly sculptured teeth. His smile stretched the skin of his long face, giving him a cadaverous appearance. Smiling, he looked like a spasm wracked goat.

“Hello.” the man said casually, his voice a nasal wheeze, “My name is Stefan Pacula. I take it you are Alaric and Elfgina?”

“And if we are?” Michel asked.

“Then I would be quite relieved.” Stefan replied, “I have been awaiting their arrival with great anticipation. I heard that they narrowly avoided trouble in the Empire. I have been afraid that they may have…reconsidered meeting me here.”

“Maybe they have. If they were to meet you, what assurances towards their safety could they expect?” Michel asked.

“I could vouch for their safety.” Stefan assured him.

“What good is your word?” Michel retorted, “I don’t know you. How can I be sure you are the contact they are expecting?”

“I received the homing signal from that device you’ve been carrying in your pocket.” Stefan informed him, “I know that you two were contacted by Cedric the Hand. Your contract is to deliver a data crystal received from another courier to this location.”

“Where was the meet for the crystal?” Michel asked.

“At Gorbechev.” Stefan replied easily.

Michel leaned back into the booth’s couch, “Very well, Mr. Pacula. I believe we can do business.”

“My employers will be relieved. They have been quite anxious to receive this information as quickly as possible.”

“That’s understandable.” Michel replied.

Stefan paused, “Am I to understand that you have seen the data you are carrying?”

Michel exchanged a dumbfounded glance towards Caitlin before answering Pacula, “No. I can assure you that neither my partner nor myself have seen the data, or have any knowledge regarding it. In our business, it’s healthier to know as little as possible concerning such matters.”

Stefan seemed reassured, “Thank you for your candor. I can see how you would take measures not to discover the nature of your cargo. I believe we can conduct our exchange now.”

“My partner is the financial wizard.” Michel deferred, “She’ll take over from here.”

“Very well.” Caitlin chimed up, “We will need to see verification of the appropriate credit transfers as well receipt of the hardware vouchers.” The real Alaric and Elfgina had negotiated a hefty sum of credit as well as a contract for several upgrades for their ship at the massive Terran League space station called Hub Station.

“Certainly.” Stefan agreed as he placed a small leather valise on the table.

Michel’s gaze returned to the entrance. Nothing was happening. No one was entering or leaving. He found that odd, since there had been a regular flow of traffic, even if the potential customer left after seeing the prices.

Michel’s senses went into overdrive. He intuitively knew something was wrong. His gaze swept across the bar. The sensor glasses magnified his perceptions. He detected several men at the other end of the bar activating sighting systems for their weapons.

Michel kicked over the cerasteel table as he sprang up from the booth.

“Down!” he yelled as he drew both plasma guns from their holsters and began firing at the men just as they began to rise and aim their weapons at their table.

Caitlin sprang into action as well. Her right hand pulled out a plasma pistol even as her left grabbed Stefan and threw him towards the floor where the table had been. She dropped to one knee and began laying down fire over the table’s “top”. Her left hand snatched up the credit voucher card Stefan had been holding.

She looked down to look at Stefan. She discovered empty, dark eyes staring back at her. He had taken a plasma burst in the throat as she had thrown him down behind the table. His throat was a charred mangle.

Michel dropped to one knee as well. He fired over the table edge with his left, around it with his right. He leaned out to the right in order to see the opposition better. The seven men shooting at them were using plasma weapons as well. That would prevent their weapons from penetrating the cerasteel table, at least until they switched to a laser or a slug-thrower.

“They’ve got us pinned.” Michel informed Caitlin.

“Any suggestions?” Caitlin inquired hopefully.

“Not really.” Michel admitted.

“Great.” Caitlin groused.

A clang sounded, followed by a crack. A hole appeared in the table between Michel and Caitlin. The opposition had switched weapons. They were employing slug-throwers now.

“Throw down your weapons and surrender!” an amplified voice demanded.

“These idiots are using armor piercing rounds.” Caitlin exclaimed, “Don’t they realize what could happen if they puncture the facility walls?”

“I don’t think they really care.” Michel replied dryly.

“What now?”

“I’m still making this up as I go.”

“Great. We’re gonna die.”

Michel was about to retort when an echoing boom ripped through the bar. The doors at the entrance of the bar flew off and four armored figures strode in. Each carried a Phased Plasma Rifle poised for action. The seven men pursuing Michel and Caitlin stopped shooting and stared at the mysterious new arrivals.

“Throw down your weapons and surrender.” Another amplified voice demanded.

“What is this?” Michel quipped, “The planetary anthem?”

“They’re ours!” the leader of the first group announced.

“By whose authority?” the leader of the second group inquired.

“Our own!”

“And we are assuming control over the prisoners by our own authority as well.”

“Sez who?”

“Do not presume to debate me.” The second leader warned, “I am not here for negotiation. I am here to collect my prisoners, their data, and whomever they contact.”

“Well, we already scragged one bloke, so there’s one less to worry about.”

“How fortunate for us.” the second leader commented dryly, “Now depart.”

“Make us.”

“We shall if you insist.”

“Why don’cha try?”

Michel jumped up and fired at both groups at once. He immediately dropped back down behind the table. Both sides returned fire reflexively. Caitlin stared at him incredulously.

“Why’d y’do that?” she hissed as plasma bolts heated their table and burned the remains of the booth around them.

“Just watch.” Michel replied.

“Cease fire!” the second leader shouted through her amplifier. Her troops immediately ceased fire. The other group continued shooting.

“Cease fire immediately!” she repeated her order.

“We don’t take orders from you, honey!” the male leader shouted back, “They’re ours!”

“If you do not stand down, I will be forced to fire upon you.” she declared.

“Do you worst!”

“Open fire!” she ordered. Her squad opened up on the others, killing three of them in the first salvo. The other four scrambled or cover and heartily returned fire. Now it was time for the second group to find cover as they continued the fight.

“Now, we get out of here.” Michel informed Caitlin.

“How?”

“We vault over this stupid booth and try to find a back door.”

“Sounds good to me. Separate or together?”

“I don’t think we’ll have a second chance, so together.”

“Sounds good. On three?”

“Sure.”

“One…two…three!”

The pair leaped over the scorched remains of their booth they had been seated at. Michel heard a shout as they cleared the seat back. Several bursts of plasma fire seared over the booth. Flaming tatters of cushion floated down.

“I think we made it.” Michel commented.

“Where’s the back door?” Caitlin shouted to be heard over the weapons fire.

“There.” Michel pointed towards an opening near the bar stand, “I think that’d be it.”

“You think?” she shouted back.

“Yeah. I think.”

“You’d better be right.”

“Tell me about it.” Michel muttered.

“You go first.” Michel shouted.

“No.” Caitlin protested, “You go.”

“I don’t have time for this.” Michel argued, “Just go, I’ll cover you.”

“All right.” she agreed sullenly. She spared him one final glance. It was full of mixed emotions that Michel couldn’t even begin to guess. She winked, and was off running for the doorway.

Michel came up firing. He moved sideways for the door as he shot in the general direction of those that came after them. Several of his first shots hit one of the armored figures. Unfortunately, that garnered the attention of his comrades.

Two of the armored figures turned their fire towards Michel. One of the three surviving original men also began shooting at him. Michel ran towards the door as he shot. He was halfway there when he realized that Caitlin didn’t have it open yet.

Michel yelled through gritted teeth. He said no words. It was a simple cry of frustration and fear. Somehow, Caitlin heard his approach and moved out of the way.

Michel hit the door with his shoulder with all of his might. The lock broke and the door swung open. Michel was caught off balance and fell. Caitlin stood in the doorway returning fire as he scrambled to his feet.

She cried out as he rose. She threw herself into the doorway. Her left shoulder was burnt. She clutched at it, trying to smother the flame.

Michel pulled her around so that she was behind him. He positioned himself so he could return fire. Caitlin tore into a pouch on her holster. It contained a neural suppresser. She pressed it to her wound with a wince and hit the activation stud. She let out a hiss of breath as it hummed momentarily, and then placed it back into its pouch.

“Are you all right?” Michel shouted.

“I’m functional.” she shouted in reply.

“Find out where this leads.” Michel ordered, “Signal me when you reach the other end.”

“Gotcha.” she acknowledged and ran down the narrow, dimly lit hallway.

Caitlin reached out for the door and winced. The neural suppresser dampened the pain, but did not remove it. She readied her gun hand and shoved the door open with her wounded shoulder. The pain almost clouded her vision, but only almost. Her eyes swept the alleyway that lay before her. No one was around.

She re-entered the hallway, “Come on!” she shouted, “It’s clear!”

Michel backed into the hallway, firing incessantly. He stopped firing, turned, and ran. Caitlin went back out through the door and stood ready for anyone that might try an ambush out there. Michel cleared the door and looked around.

“Anyone here?” he asked in gasps.

Caitlin shook her head in the negative. She didn’t trust her voice with all of the pain shooting through her body. Michel closed the door. He holstered one of the plasma pistols and drew the laser out of its shoulder holster. He fired on the door lock, welding it shut. He placed the laser back in its holster and turned towards Caitlin.

“How’re you doing?” he asked. She shook her head in reply. She was starting to feel light-headed. She was also losing color.

“We need to get out of here.” he said aloud, “But we can’t go to the ship. Whoever set these ambushes expected Alaric and Elfgina. We need to use our real identities.”

Caitlin shook her head again. Michel gently took her arm and began guiding her out of the alley.

“We also need to find lodgings so I can look after that wound.”

A wan smile was her only reply.

A gasp escaped Caitlin’s lips before she gritted her teeth in a grimace of pain. Michel met her eyes in an expression of concern and sympathy but quickly resumed his examination of her wound. He had removed her coat, including the pieces that had been fused to her flesh by the extreme heat of the plasma. That action had damaged the flesh surrounding the cauterized wound and prompted the wound into bleeding.

“How’s it look?” Caitlin asked through clenched teeth.

Michel’s gaze never left her shoulder as he reached for the first-aid kit he was using. “Not good. Without better equipment, there’s going to be scarring.”

“It’ll make for conversation someday.” Caitlin replied with forced levity.

“I’m sure it will.” Michel agreed levelly as he began using a portable cellular stimulator to coax the cells into accelerated healing. “You won’t lose any mobility or potential for use. The primary damage will be purely cosmetic. I don’t think it will be bad, but even if it’s worse than I estimate, re-constructive surgery later should blend it in fairly well.”

“Such concern.” Caitlin chided, “You’d think you’ve a personal stake in this.”

“I do.” Michel replied.

Caitlin started slightly when she heard that comment.

“Did I hurt you?” Michel asked, concerned.

She shook her head, not trusting herself to speak.

“Sure?”

She nodded. Michel returned to work. Caitlin watched him as he tended to her wound. She cursed herself for doing so.

Michel’s care in his ministrations had surprised her. His genuine concern had surprised her even more. His tenderness was escalating the confusion that had been spawned during their time together on board the ship. She was painfully aware of their physical proximity.

She closed her eyes and wished for the mission to be over. She hadn’t expected to like Michel T’Luthien. She had harbored a grudge against the Templars for not coming to the aid of her homeworld when they had begged for help. Michel had defied every preconception she had of Templars.

He genuinely felt anguish, and sorrow at the failure of his Order to help her people. It was clear that he was an idealist. It was also painfully obvious that he was as committed to his ideals as she was to hers. That was where it got sticky.

As much as she liked Michel, and she did like him, she didn’t know if they had conflicting goals. She couldn’t help liking him. It was an instinctive reaction. He had rough edges that she found annoying, but he meant well and was sincere. It was that brutal honesty of his that made him so appealing.

“Are you all right?” Michel asked again.

She opened her eyes to find his face near hers. He had finished attending to her wound and bandaging it. The fact she had been utterly oblivious to this fact had concerned him, and justly so. Her eyes met his.

Anticipation, fear, and desire tore through her as one as she replied, “I’m fine.”

Michel grinned and leaned back on his heels, “Glad to hear it.”

His lop-sided grin made his youthful face seem even more boyish. Caitlin found herself envious of the sense of childish zeal that Michel still displayed at times. She had seen this countered by brutal intensity that was foreboding, but that sense of innocence was still a wonder considering the man’s experiences. It made him very attractive suddenly.

“I’m just tired.” she said weakly. Lamely, in her own opinion.

“Right.” He said and stood, “I’ll let you rest then.”

“How much are these quarters costing?” she asked, glancing about the rented room.

“Don’t worry about it.” Michel informed her, “You concentrate on sleeping and getting that shoulder back into operation.”

Caitlin hesitated, and then asked anyway, “Where will you be?”

Michel pointed at the door leading to the single bedroom of the accommodations he’d secured, “I’ll be out there.”

She nodded, relief wrestling with pangs of disappointment.

“Don’t worry about anything.” Michel reassured her, “We’ll figure this mess out.”

Caitlin nodded assent as Michel left the room, closing the door behind him. She stripped out of her clothes, leaving only her undergarments on. She went to the san and washed her face. Her appearance was haggard and drawn.

Lovely, she thought, I’m certainly a beauty queen at the moment.

She scolded herself for being so petty at a time like this and returned to the bed. She lay down, drawing the covers around her. She reached out for the illumination controls. Before she deactivated the lights, she reflected on Michel’s parting comments.

We’ll figure it out all right, but will we still be alive when we do?

Caitlin woke with a sigh. She blinked her eyes a few times. Her head was still a bit muddled, halfway lost in the dream she’d been having. As her eyes focused, she discovered that she no longer remembered her dream. Her mouth puckered at that. She couldn’t remember the dream but she still felt the lingering contentment of a pleasant experience.

She looked about the room she inhabited. It was spartan, but far larger than her quarters aboard the Mnemonic. She recalled that Michel had obtained a room for them at one of the local flophouses. The bed she had slept in was large enough for four bodies her size.

Caitlin stretched, luxuriating in the sensation of such an expanse after five years of university cots and two years of military barrack’s living. A sudden stab of pain in her shoulder reminded her of why the room had become necessary. She sat up in order to get a better look at her wound.

The synthflesh patch covering the remains of the burn obscured her view. She tenderly rotated her shoulder. There was pain, but not as much as she expected. Michel had obviously coaxed more out of the slim pickings in the medipack than she would’ve expected. She would definitely wear a mark for this, but cosmetic surgery could remove most of that if she so opted later. Caitlin knew she probably wouldn’t. She wasn’t one to try to hide the mistakes of her past.

She looked over at the nightstand alongside the bed. A note sat atop it. It was from Michel. His penmanship was terrible, but she could decipher it… barely. It informed her that there was a robe for her in the dresser and a change of attire in the san.

She smiled despite herself. T’Luthien’s concern over her condition had touched her. She knew that it shouldn’t have, or at least she shouldn’t have let it. Her brow furrowed in frustrated concentration and her eyes grew darker. She’d survived crushes and infatuations before. She just had to ride this one out until he was gone and her desires would fade. She would’ve felt better if it hadn’t been for a tiny voice that told her she was lying to herself.

It was pointless to dwell on such things she told herself and rose to retrieve the robe from the dresser. Once she was sure she was adequately covered, she opened the bedroom door. The door led to a similarly sized room with a couch with a table. A simple desk contained a computer. A small table with four chairs sat before a small kitchenette. Michel was sprawled across the couch.

She took a step forward towards him. The floor made a small creak as her weight pressed down on her foot. Michel snapped upright. In his right hand, a pistol had materialized and was pointed directly at Caitlin’s chest.

Caitlin jumped back in a convulsive start. A yelp escaped her lips. The ever-rational remnant part of her brain posed a simple question, was that really me that let out that shriek? She pondered it in the space of a heartbeat and came to a resigned realization, Yup, that was me.

Michel took his finger off the trigger and lowered the pistol as he absorbed the situation. He gave Caitlin a half-hearted, embarrassed smile as she stood there. Caitlin’s stare was increasing in intensity into a full-blown glare as she waited to stop breathing so blasted hard.

“What were you thinking?” she managed to ask. Her voice was low, super-heated with molten fury waiting to erupt.

“I wasn’t thinking.” Michel replied, no trace of remorse or denial in his voice, “I was sleeping. I kept one weapon handy because we had just recently survived one ambush already.”

“I know we survived one ambush already. I’m intimately familiar with that fact. I was sleeping myself. I awoke and needed to use the san.” Caitlin replied calmly before shouting, “And how was I supposed to know that I would need to dodge plasma blasts on my way there?”

“Technically, I never fired.” Michel corrected her.

“I don’t care!” she snarled, “I just want to use the bloody toilet! I don’t want to have to battle my way there.”

“I believe the way is currently unimpeded.” Michel informed her, trying unsuccessfully to keep the amusement from his voice.

“Thank you.” she replied tartly and went on her way. Michel was glad that the door had pressure seals. They prevented the doors from being slammed. As it was, Caitlin closed the door with far more vigor than was required.

Michel scratched his chin in wry amusement. His face was bristling with whiskers. He rose from the couch and went to the mirror near the door to the san. He wasn’t used to seeing the goatee yet, but he had to admit he liked it. Now, he just had to get rid of the other whiskers that weren’t part of the effect.

He heard the san cycle and braced himself for another assault. It never came. The door opened slowly and Caitlin exited quietly. She was neither embarrassed, nor remorseful. She had apparently expressed her opinion on the matter and was willing to leave it at that.

That suited Michel. Caitlin returned to the bedroom without a word. Michel shrugged and entered the san. He reached underneath the sink and retrieved the small pouch with hygienic materials he had placed there during the night. After washing and shaving, he felt better.

He exited the bedroom to find Caitlin dressed in the dark navy flightsuit he’d acquired for her. She was staring at the computer. The screen was flashing. She noticed his approach and turned.

“Hey.” she greeted him, no lingering malice or irritation in her voice, “This just beeped at me and started flashing.”

“Good.” he replied, “That means the information I’ve been waiting for has arrived.”

“What information?” she asked, and then sniffed as he passed by, “You washed up? How’d you do that?”

“With a hygiene kit.” He absently replied as he sat down at the computer and began to enter and retrieve data.

“Is there another one?” she asked.

“Another what?”

“Another hygiene kit.” she answered with exasperated patience, “I’d kinda like to clean up myself, y’know?”

Michel shook his head and focused on what she was saying. He turned towards her, “Sorry ‘bout that. You have a kit in the san. It’s in the right-hand top drawer.”

“Thanks.” she replied with a grin.

As she sauntered of to the san, he shook his head again. He wondered if he’d ever understand women. He knew he wouldn’t, but that didn’t mean that they should always remain so confusing. Caitlin had impressed him thus far, but the episode earlier this morning had him worried.

He tried to quell his concerns by focusing on the information flooding in on the computer. He was still gazing fixedly on it when Caitlin left the san. She returned briefly to the bedroom. Her next activity was to stand in the doorway and watch him.

She remained silent for a while. Michel remained engrossed in what was displayed before him. Once in a while, he would grunt disparagingly or comment. Caitlin wore a bemused grin. She began to creep up on him.

“I wouldn’t do that.” he advised, still typing in information.

“How’d you know?” her consternation was plain.

“Reflection on the screen.” Michel replied, “I have it tilted so I can watch the main door. The bedroom door just happens to be in the general vicinity.”

“You think they’ll try again, don’t you?” she asked suddenly professional, “Even though we abandoned our false identities, you think they’ll find us.”

Michel nodded, eyes never leaving the screen, “Now that I know who they work for? Yes, I do.”

“How’d you find that out?” her eyes widened.

“I stayed up after you fell asleep.” Michel answered.

“Obviously.” she commented dryly, “I didn’t think that clothing and hygiene kits materialized out of thin air.”

“I also spent a great deal of time here on this machine making inquiries.”

Her brow furrowed, “I didn’t know you were a data slicer.”

Michel grinned, “I’m not. I just know what to ask, and more importantly, whom to ask.”

“Like?” she asked skeptically.

He shook his head, “I cannot divulge my sources. Suffice it to say, they are good.”

She threw her hands up in the air, “How’re we supposed to work together if you won’t trust me?”

Michel finally turned and faced her. The earnest expression on his face and especially in his eyes caught her breath in her throat, “Surprisingly enough, I do trust you. That’s not something I do often, or easily. I can’t tell you any names because that’ll threaten my working relationship with sources that I can’t afford to lose right now.”

Caitlin nodded soberly, “I understand.”

“Good.” He turned back towards the screen and pointed, “Now, according to everything that’s come in, the first group was employed by a syndicate trying to sell the data on the black market.”

“Any names?” she asked. She placed a hand on his shoulder and leaned closer. Michel was irritated to discover that he was very much aware of her proximity and that her face was nearly level with his. Perfectly positioned for an opportune kiss...

He mentally shook himself. He was tired and his impulse control was getting sloppy. He concentrated on answering her question.

“The Thoren Combine.”

Michel felt Caitlin’s grip on his shoulder tighten, “That’s not a syndicate, it’s a front.”

“For what?”

“The Underground.” she answered grimly.

Michel’s eyebrow’s rose. The Underground was an anarchist association spread across every human society, with the possible exception of the Hadrani Republic. It had begun as a philosophical movement and had evolved into an extremist group. They also had their fair share of fanatics.

“Lovely.” He replied dryly.

“What about the other group?” Caitlin asked wearily, “Any chance they’re light weights?”

Michel snorted, “With that caliber of equipment? You know they’re military as well as I do.”

“Yeah,” she sighed, “but I was hoping to be wrong.”

“Hope no more.” Michel replied, “They’re definitely military. Specifically, they belong to the Hadrani Republic. My guess is someone wants their data back.”

“Bad enough to kill for it?” Caitlin wondered as she shuddered. The Hadrani Republic was the most enigmatic of the human stellar governments. They relied upon genetically bred, force grown clones for their labor and military classes. No one knew how the rest of the Hadrani lived.

“Undoubtedly.” Michel replied morosely, “They probably wouldn’t have given up so easily if they’d known it was me and not Alaric.”

“You call that easy?” Caitlin asked snidely, then she paused, “Wait a minute. They wouldn’t have given up if they’d known it was you? What’s that mean?”

“The Hadrani doesn’t like the Order.” Michel replied grimly, “They’ve barred us from their space. There’s a bounty out on any knight found in their territory. If they’d known I was involved they would have killed me and tried to claim I was found in their jurisdiction.”

Caitlin’s head slumped, “Why isn’t it ever easy?” she asked sulkily.

“Don’t know.” replied Michel with a shrug.

She glared at him, “You’re not making this any easier.” She informed him accusingly.

“What?” he asked defensively.

“Did you Templars have to make so many enemies?”

Michel shrugged, “Comes with the territory. How many enemies does the OSS have?”

That earned him a glare, “So now what?”

“I say we turn the tide on them.” Michel suggested, “We try to apprehend them instead.”

“Try arresting them?” Caitlin asked, stunned, “They outnumber us and outgun us.”

“Yes.” Michel answered testily, “What did you think? It was just a thought.”

“No.” she protested. “This is a bad idea. A really baaad idea.”

“Okay.” he shrugged and stared at the screen in sullen silence.

“Michel, please.”

A look of irritation passed over his face, then one of mischief.

“Michel, talk to me.”

He glanced over at her, “What? I’m working on how to solve our problem.”

“How?”

“By giving this information to the Hadrani.” Michel grinned darkly, “Once they know their operations blown, they’ll probably deal with their troops themselves.”

“How?”

“They’ll probably try to kill their agents. The Republic isn’t big on failure.” he answered with a shrug.

“How?”

“They’ll put them in a genetic resequencer.” Michel explained, “No sense wasting any material that can be reverted to a protein base and reused later.”

“All right.” She protested, “I’ve got the picture. It’s digitized and stored.” She tapped her head, “Holo imprinted, okay?”

Caitlin shook her head and plopped down into the couch, “This is nuts. How do you deal with all this insanity?”

“By being crazier then they are.”

She didn’t doubt him.

“Are you done yet?” Caitlin asked impatiently as Michel typed instructions into the computer.

Michel glanced over his shoulder at her, “No. Are you done asking me that yet?”

Caitlin’s eyes narrowed, “No, I’m not.”

“Then it’s just going to take me that much longer due to answering your incessant inquiries.” Michel informed her archly.

“They are not incessant!” she protested.

“How many times have you asked if I was done?”

Caitlin looked away, “I don’t know, twice?”

“Try four.” Michel corrected, “In the last half hour. I’ve only been at this forty-five minutes.”

“Well, why is it taking so long?”

Michel’s right eyebrow arched then he returned his attention to the computer without further comment. Caitlin huffed in frustration and went into the bedroom. She sat on the bed for a moment and listened to the inconsistent clatter of the keyboard coming from the adjoining room. She rolled her eyes and collapsed onto her back.

Michel keyed the final instruction series and waited for the computer to acknowledge his last commands. It did so with as much speed as it had the previous commands. He shook his head at the slowness of the equipment. The computers, as with most of the station, were nearly a century old. He remembered when they were new.

That realization brought a rueful twist to the right corner of Michel’s mouth. Thoughts like that always served to make him feel, well, old. He had over a century’s worth of experience. He had experiences that few other humans could match or imagine. Almost every one of those individuals were Templars the same as he.

Michel was sobered by another realization. Outside of the Order he had no real personal life. He had left university and went directly into the Navy during the war. From there, he had been flung through space and time. Upon his return to the normally functioning space-time continuum, he had been drafted into one the most powerful organizations in human history. That same organization also faced one of the most daunting challenges that humanity had ever faced.

Do I have a life even within the Order? he was forced to ask himself. He was depressed when forced to admit he didn’t have an answer to that question. He shook his head angrily and ran a hand through his hair. He looked around the room.

Where’s Caitlin? he wondered as he rose from the chair he had been occupying. He was dismayed to discover that his knee ached from its extended immobility. That had been happening a lot lately and served to make Michel’s mood more sour. He headed for the bedroom door and peered into the room.

He found Caitlin sprawled across the bed, staring up at the ceiling.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Fine.” she replied flatly.

“Are you sure?”

“Fine.” Flatly again.

“Anything I can get you?”

“No.” Flat.

One more try. “Want to plan our next move?”

“Why don’t you just plan it? You’ve been doing everything else solo.” There was a bit of a sneering quality to the reply, but at least there was something.

“I need your help.” Michel told her, “I don’t want to make decisions that could prove fatal for both of us without your input.”

“You want my permission to get me killed? Fine. You have it. Now go away.”

“What’s going on here?” Michel asked in honest confusion.

“Why should I bother explaining? You’ll just ignore what I have to say.” the reply was bitter.

“Is this about you asking me if I was done?” he ventured.

She propped herself up on her elbows and stared at him fiercely, “Figured that out did ya? Maybe you really are the genius you seem to think you are?”

“Why is that bothering you now?” Michel asked.

Caitlin stared at him hotly for several more moments before her gaze softened, “You really don’t know, d’you?”

“No.” Michel admitted with an exaggerated sweep of his arms, “So why don’t you explain it to me.”

Caitlin debated on how much to say, then went for broke, “You were, are, different.”

Michel’s eyebrows rose and his face became a portrait of utter confusion, “Huh?”

Caitlin sat up and raised a hand, beckoning for a moment to gather her thoughts before replying. “In the Empire, it’s a social stigma if you’re from a conquered world. It’s worse if you’re a woman and from a conquered world. You’re worthless. None of your opinions or feelings matter.” her deep brown eyes focused on his, “You were different. You accepted me for who I am. You made me feel important, that I was wanted on this mission. When you brushed off my questions, it reminded me of the things back in the Empire.”

“I’m sorry.” Michel said through a constricted throat.

Caitlin gave him a wan, lop-sided smile, “I knew you would be. It’s not even your fault.” She held up a hand to deflect the protests she saw coming, “It wasn’t. It was mine. I felt ignored. I knew that things couldn’t go any faster, but I wanted to interact somehow. I wanted some of that intense focus I saw being lavished on the computer. Pretty selfish, huh?”

Michel stammered, searching for the right thing to say, “I had no idea.” he murmured.

“That’s pretty obvious.” Caitlin quipped, “You haven’t had much experience with women have you?”

Michel glared at her for a moment; “I’ve had sufficient experience.”

“I meant the interpersonal kind, not chains of command.” Caitlin clarified.

Michel continued to glare, then admitted, “No.”

“It shows.”

“Thanks.” he replied sarcastically.

“I meant it shows in the fact that you get confused about things that most guys just ignore.”

“So, now you think I’m confused?”

Caitlin shook her head, “No. It means I think you’re sweet. Most men your age would have brushed off my feelings and demanded that we continue with the mission. You notice details. That’s pretty rare for a man. I’m surprised you’re not taken.”

“It’s only come up once.” Michel replied, “She’s dead now. So I guess it’s a moot point.”

Caitlin’s face fell, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Michel replied with false cheer, “At least I have my job, eh?”

Michel and Caitlin casually strolled down an access tunnel. Earlier they had caught a commuter shuttle from Mudball II to Mudball I. They were now headed for the colony’s main markets. Each had changed their attire, and to a lesser degree, their appearance.

Caitlin was dressed in the navy blue flightsuit Michel had purchased for her, along with his flight jacket from his brief stint as Alaric Hoeneker. To finish of the disguise, she’d colored her hair. Her hair was no longer brown. She now sported blonde tresses.

Michel had not done anything near as drastic. He had changed into an olive-green flightsuit and wore a leather flight jacket. The golden hoop in his ear was gone.

“You should’ve changed your hair too.” Caitlin whispered accusingly.

“This isn’t the time or place.” Michel whispered back.

“You’re just too stubborn to admit your wrong.”

“Wrong about what? No one’s going to recognize me.”

“I’d recognize you.”

“You’ve also been with me for four days now.”

“I’d recognize you anyway.”

“You just have a vaster and keener intelligence than the average Hadrani assassin.”

“At least you aren’t too stubborn to admit that.”

Michel sighed and ushered Caitlin along.

The main marketplace on Mudball I wasn’t any more aesthetically, or olfactorily, pleasing than that of Mudball II. A clamorous racket filled the air as various merchants vied for attention, preferably from those with credits to spend. Again, they wove in and out of the myriad stalls. This time, they were looking to make contact with a pilot that could fly them out of the Hinterlands.

“How are we going to find a pilot to get us out of here?” Caitlin hissed.

“There are always smugglers and pirates willing to take on passengers in places like this.” he whispered back.

She stares at him in an open-mouthed state of shock. After a few seconds she found her voice, “You can’t be serious.”

Michel smirked, “It’d be the last place they’d look for an OSS agent.”

She shook her head adamantly, “I’d rather die.”

“I wouldn’t say that too strongly, since that’s the likely alternative.”

Her eyes grew larger than Michel had ever seen them. Her jaw clamped shut and she turned and silently walked beside him. Michel smirked to himself. He told himself he’d have to remember this for future reference.

Caitlin and Michel entered into a small shop specializing in food pastes. Caitlin surveyed the contents of the displays. Her nose crinkled in disgust as she finished her examination. Michel chuckled in amusement.

She wheeled on him, “What’s so funny?” she demanded to know.

Michel pointed at the display she’s just perused; “You come in here, and then turn up your nose at everything here.”

Her hands went to her hips, “So? Is that an unheard of behavior where you’re from?”

He put his hands in the air, “It’s just that you seemed so focused and intent on buying something, until you saw what they were selling.”

She turned with a final huff and ran straight into another patron of the shop.

“I’m so sorry.” she told the other man.

He looked up from brushing himself off, “It’s all right. Simply a…” his voice trailed off as he studied her face, “Don’t I know you?”

She shook her head; “I don’t think so.”

He began pointing his finger at her, “Yeah, I do. You look different. You’ve changed your hair or somethin’, but I know you.”

“I’m sure you’re just confusing me for someone else.” she assured him, backing away.

“No.” he protested, “I’m sure of it. I’ve seen you somewhere, but where was it?”

Caitlin continued to back away, heading for the shop’s entrance, “I wouldn’t know, but if you remember please be sure to tell me.”

Where, where, where…” he snapped his fingers, “I got it! I was on New Maine! I got busted for smuggling contraband and you…” His face turned feral and his voice became low and deadly, “You were a copper.”

Caitlin continued to back away. She glanced about, desperately trying to spot Michel. Where did he go? She held her hands up, palm out towards her antagonist.

“Please, I’m not who you think I am.” she stammered.

“Don’t matter none.” he leered, “Cus I only think you’re a dead woman.”

He began to lunge at Caitlin. To his abrupt surprise, a pistol butt whipped out from beside him and caught him in the face. The man went down, his nose a bloody pulp. Michel stepped out from between the aisles.

He grinned at Caitlin, “Nice act. You had me convinced you were scared.”

“Where were you?” she demanded.

“Setting this ambush.” his tone carried the unspoken, “Duh.”

“Let’s get out of here.” she said dismissively.

“Certainly.” he agreed, “As soon as you admit it.”

“Admit what?”

“You thought I’d be the one that everyone would recognize.”

“So?” she replied warily.

“Didn’t happen that way, did it?” he asked gleefully.

“Shut up.” She snapped and left the store. She went about two steps out of the shop before she bumped into someone else. She bit back the urge to swear as her eyes swept over her victim. She nearly choked when she realized that she recognized him. It was her previous assailant’s partner. The gleam in his eyes told her that he knew her as well.

Her hand swept by her holster, grabbing her pistol. She fired two shots into the man before he could react. The stench of burned flesh assailed her nostrils as she pivoted slightly to her left and began firing at the man’s companions. The closest to him went down, clutching a burning hole in his stomach. Three others scattered.

Michel came up behind her. He fired at one of the three that had turned to shoot back. The unexpected return fire changed the woman’s mind. Michel turned on his heel and fired at the shop’s entrance. The man with the smashed nose collapsed onto the ground. His chest transformed into a charred crater.

Michel and Caitlin kept their weapons poised as their eyes swept the narrow alleyways that formed the “streets” of the Market. Michel cast a sidelong look at Caitlin. She was breathing a little hard from the adrenal rush, but fairly composed otherwise.

She turned her head and noticed his attention.

“What now?” she asked.

“We try to get away from here and to somewhere a little more discreet.” he replied as he looked about again.

“Any suggestions?”

“I think we’d stand a better chance at that entertainment vendor’s that we passed when we first arrived.”

She nodded, “Yeah, that place had a pretty good view. It would be hard to approach unnoticed.”

“Exactly.” He affirmed.

“Lead the way.” She said.

They made their way as quietly as they could through the crowded confines of the Market. When they reached the entertainment stall, they stopped. The garish stand sold holovids, games, audios, and flatscreen texts. The genres ran the gambit but tended towards the lewd.

They acted as though they were perusing the items as they kept an eye out for pursuit. Michel smirked at Caitlin’s blush as she read the content of a holocube vid she held. She put it back on the rack and looked about in embarrassment. He glanced outside towards one of the access tunnel that led to docking facilities. He smiled in relief as he saw several figures emerge that he recognized.

His smile faded as his eye caught a small group striding for the entertainment shop. He recognized the woman in the lead as the one he’d shot at earlier. The color drained as he recognized the people with her. They were the Hadrani from the day before.

He drew his pistol and yelled out to Caitlin simultaneously, “Behind you!”

Caitlin spun, drawing her sidearm in a fluid motion as she turned. Her face lost all emotion as she brought her pistol up into a two-handed grip and began firing. Michel mirrored her position as he fired into the approaching group. Two of them went down immediately.

The others scattered. The woman and the Hadrani squad leader broke to the left, into a small café. They shattered the windows and began trying to lay down suppressive fire. One Hadrani went flat in the middle of the clearing and fired from that position. The other Hadrani and the smuggler went to the right, around the corner of a shop and fired intermittently.

Michel and Caitlin had little available cover. They withdrew deeper into the store. The place began to reek of burnt plastics as the media carriers were caught in plasma bursts and incinerated. Thick acrid smoke made breathing difficult and stung the eyes. Caitlin took refuge behind the register as Michel made it behind a metal storage locker.

“What now?” she shouted through the choking smoke.

He grabbed his comm link and dialed a frequency and began talking into it, “If you’re going to extract us, now’s a good time to start.”

Caitlin couldn’t hear the reply, but she could see and hear Michel’s infuriated response, “Yes, we’re in the firefight in the middle of the square! Do something about it.”

She struggled to hear as more plasma bursts seared through the air. Michel was nodding, “All right. I’ll wait for your signal.”

He turned to her, “Get ready to make a break for it.”

“How?” she coughed.

“Through the front door.” he replied, trying not to gag on the smoke.

“When?” An explosion echoed throughout the interior of the market area in response to her question.

“Now.” Michel replied calmly. The two both ran towards the front door of the shop. Small fires blocked it. They desperately jumped through. They landed safely on the other side. Their antagonists were now under fire from the group Michel had observed emerge from the tunnel.

The Hadrani in the middle of the square was dead. One of the men to the right was likewise expired. Michel waited for the other to step around the corner to fire at the newcomer’s and took a shot. The man’s chest erupted into a fireball. He collapsed finding his heart and lungs ashes within his chest.

The Hadrani leader saw that Caitlin and Michel were out of the shop and tried to angle for a shot. The other woman kept up a desperate barrage pouring down upon the newcomers. It wasn’t enough. One of the newcomers fired a spherical object into the café. It detonated seconds later, hurling fragments of both women across the square.

Michel and Caitlin picked themselves off the ground as the last of the debris rolled by. Shrapnel had cleared the square, as well has significantly adding to the casualties. They dusted themselves off and checked for injuries. A short, dark haired man approached them from the ranks of those that had assisted them.

He strode up confidently. His eyes raked Caitlin over. She could see lust in his gaze. He lecherously smiled as he thrust out his hand in introduction.

“Jacen Gerin, milady,” he said cockily, “at your service.”

Caitlin turned to Michel, who shrugged, “Meet one of those pirates that’s willing to take on passengers.”

She took Gerin’s hand and managed a grimace of a smile as he stroked her hand with his thumb while he shook it. He pulled her hand up and began lowering his head to meet it. She jerked her hand out of his grip.

“Thank you for your assistance.” She replied brusquely.

“And for the ride off this rock?” Jacen asked smugly.

“And for the ride.” She agreed with a hint of irritation.

Jacen smiled magnanimously, “I’m sure you’ll think of a better way to thank me later.”

She shuddered as he winked at her and focused his attention upon Michel. Michel’s expression was one of weary amusement.

“Some things never change, eh?” he asked Gerin

Jacen shrugged, “Some things should remain eternal.”

Michel leaned forward, and whispered to Jacen, “They should change in this case.”

“And why is this?” Jacen whispered back.

“She’s OSS.” Michel replied with a feral smile, “Her thanks for the ride will be not turning you over to the Androcan Navy.”

Jacen’s face became a frozen masque; “You’re a cruel bastard.”

Michel leaned back and spoke at a normal level, “As long as we both understand that.”

Michel and Caitlin were both assigned single quarters. They were tiny, cramped spaces but they were private. Privacy was a luxury aboard a ship as small as the Wandering I. They spent the two-day voyage back to the nearest Androcan outpost preparing their joint reports.

With only a few hours left until their mission formally concluded, they met in Caitlin’s quarters to discuss matters of a more personal nature.

“So why do you employ Gerin?” Caitlin had to ask.

“He’s useful as an undercover operative and as an information source.” Michel explained, “He may be a lech but he’s a fairly decent sort and honorable for a pirate.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you’d already arranged for a ride off Mudball I?”

Michel sighed, “I’d placed Gerin in the vicinity before the mission began. Our intelligence sources indicated that this mission would likely involve Hadrani information and that would lead to the Mudball stations. He was my back-up card in case we ran into the Hadrani again.”

“And you delayed our departure in order to encounter the Hadrani again.” It was a statement not a question.

She was silent for a moment then shook her head with a weary sigh, “What’s it matter? We survived and got away. That’s what counts I guess.”

“So, do you think you’ll ever be back this way?” Caitlin asked over her steaming mug of coffee.

Michel shrugged, “I don’t know.” He met her eyes; “I hope so.”

Her smile was reluctant, “I hope so too.” She sat her mug down, “I mean, I really enjoyed working with you.” She waved her hand in consternation, “No… what I mean to say is that we make a good team.” She sighed, “That didn’t come out right either.”

“Caitlin.”

“It’s just that… we were great together and I hate to see that end. No… that’s sounds wrong.”

“Caitlin.”

“I… its not often you meet someone as dedicated to their ideals as you seem to be. I respect that. I wish that…”

“Caitlin.” Michel’s voice was becoming more insistent.

“I’m making an idiot of myself. I just want to say…”

“Caitlin!” his voice was firm now, shutting her up, “I’m going to miss you too.”

She stared at him in stunned silence as he spoke, “I’ve enjoyed working with you and I wish that it could continue, but we both know that it can’t right now.” His eyes bored into hers, “Hopefully, someday that will change.” She swallowed a lump in her throat as he continued, “Until then, if you ever need to reach me, use this.”

He held out a small data crystal, “My personal comm links access codes are imprinted in there. You can leave a message or reach me anytime you want to talk.”

She laughed insecurely; “You say that now.”

“I’ll say that when you call as well.” he informed her sincerely.

She heard the conviction in his voice. It made her chest ache. She knew leaving wasn’t supposed to be this hard. She barely knew him after all.

“Thank you.” she said softly, forcing her voice to remain level.

She almost cracked when he took her hand, “I mean it. Call me anytime.”

“I will.” she said hoarsely. She forced herself to breathe levelly as he kissed her hand.

“I’ll hold you to that, milady.” he informed her with a smile.

“I’m sorry.” she said as levelly as she could, “But I really need to gather my things before I disembark.”

“I understand.” he stood to leave.

“Michel…” she started to speak, but couldn’t manage to get the words out.

His eyebrow rose, “Are you all right?”

She waved her hand weakly; “I’m fine.” she forced herself to say. She held out her hand. He took it.

“It has been an honor to meet you. Take care of yourself.”

“Take care of yourself as well. Let me know what I can do to help with Sinherran/Androcan relations.”

She gave his hand a final squeeze, “Good bye.”

She didn’t breathe again until the door closed behind him. Why is it so hard? I barely know him, and it feels like I’m leaving a part of myself behind. She reflected a moment, comparing herself to him. It feels that way because I am.

She sank back onto the bunk and forced herself to breathe normally. Michel was right. No one could predict what would happen. Perhaps they would work together again. One thing she knew, her life wouldn’t be quite the same again. She had a new perspective. Knowing that she had a kindred out there granted her new strength and determination. She couldn’t imagine Michel surrendering and that fueled her resolve.

When they put into orbit over The Androcan outpost of Yeltsin, Caitlin used her OSS authority to arrange for a shuttle to meet the ship in order for her to leave. She and Michel exchanged awkward farewells. She entered the airlock with a final wave. The airlock door closed and cycled, signaling the eminent departure of the shuttle.

“Sorry to see her go?” Gerin asked T’Luthien as the Wandering I got underway.

“Yes.” Michel unexpectantly confessed.

“It happens.” Gerin gave him a leering grin, “Trust me, I know.”

“Right.” Michel replied sarcastically, “I’ll be in my cabin.”

“Ah, in pursuit of quality time with oneself.” Gerin chuckled, “Don’t hurt yourself.”

T’Luthien stifled the urge to shoot the pirate as he made his way to his cabin. There had to be a way for him to see Caitlin Shire again. As she’d said, they were too good a team to remain parted. There was also the potential for romance. They’d both felt it even though there was nothing that could be done about it right now.

What if he could change that? The Order had knighted Androcans in the past. Maybe it was time to do so again. He’d submit her name as soon as he reached a Templar base. As a Templar, she’d be in a better position to influence the fate of her world. The Templars were apolitical now, but Michel could foresee the end of that practice. Soon the Templars would have to choose allies and confront their enemies. Caitlin could become a powerful advocate for the Confederacy.

It was all hypothetical, but he had to try. Michel rarely found things worth fighting for but when he did, he fought for them with all his being. Caitlin was well worth it. He’d take up the gauntlet and pursue her with all that he had. He wouldn’t be able to live with himself otherwise.

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