Tales of the Knights Templar

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Chapter 2: Lost Legacy

“D’you see what this is?” Edgar Briandt, the Wandering I’s weapons officer commented.

“Let’s not be hasty.” Jacen Gerin, the captain of the I, advised, “We treat it like any other salvage run.”

“Cap’n, Ed’s right. Somethin’ hinky happened here.” Alicia Featherstone, his scan tech reported, “This ship’s riddled with holes.”

“Meteorites.” Gerin offered.

“Lasers and matter cannons.” Featherstone countered, “I’d tell you more but I’m not used to trying for forensic scans.”

“Then let’s call in someone who is.” Gerin mused.

“Like who?” his XO asked.

“Like T’Luthien.” Gerin laughed, “This is right up his alley and besides, the creep owes me.”

Michel T’Luthien floated down the umbilical uniting the Templar heavy cruiser, Loki, and the Androcan flagged free trader, Wandering I. There was a great deal of irony surrounding this meeting. The Wandering I was a known pirate vessel and the Knights Templar were the largest pirate hunting organization in Human space.

The attached “T” to his surname signified his membership in the Templars, T’Luthien belonged to the Templars Bureau of Intelligence. The Templars were founded on the simple concept of protecting humanity from harm. Since the single largest spaceborne threat was piracy, the Templars had long ago become the premier anti-piracy force. Apolitical, they’d been granted access to most of the worlds inhabiting Human space. This all changed when the Crusade Corporation decided to launch their own commercial convoy escort/piracy patrol vessels.

Working with his Special Operations Group T’Luthien had first found, and recruited, the crew of the Wandering I. Caught in the act, outgunned and outmaneuvered, the captain of the I had been given a simple choice: work as a Templar operative or be destroyed. The captain and crew had wisely chosen the former and that, as they say, was that.

The pirate ship was a raider modified to haul cargo. A converted scout, she too mounted offensive weaponry. This was mostly designed to intimidate hapless merchants into surrendering and parting with the best of their cargo. The Wandering I couldn’t match up against the Loki much less a ship of the line but she could manhandle a merchant freighter handled by a foolhardy captain.

T’Luthien caught the bar stretched out across the interior of the pressure hatch and swung his legs in front of him. As he swung, the I’s artificial gravity caught him and his momentum. He managed to set himself down without taking additional steps. It was a feat he felt proud of until he heard the clapping.

Standing in the corridor, wearing a mocking smile, the ship’s master, Jacen Gerin, clapped derisively, “A graceful entrance, as ever milord.”

Michel sighed, “Do we have to start? It’s annoying.”

“We can stop as soon as you can apologize.” Gerin countered.

“Apologize for what?” Michel asked wearily.

“For coercing my crew at gunpoint...” Jacen argued.

“Technically it was at missile range, we hadn’t closed to energy range.” Michel explained, referencing laser and plasma cannons.

“Don’t forget those matter cannons of yours as well.” Gerin said accusingly, “Those things aren’t even legal in our home nations.”

Technically Gerin was right. His native Androcan Empire and T’Luthien’s Cervrean Commonwealth had proscribed the use of such weapons after their last war with each other. The ability to discharge shards and debris at hypervelocities out of a magnetic cannon had proven to be too much of a navigational hazard. All that said, it didn’t excuse one little fact.

“I happened to notice that the I herself was sporting a few of those treacherously dangerous matter cannons.”

“Never you mind what the I is or isn’t sporting.” Gerin growled, “We do your dirty work so leave it at that.”

“Wish I could,” Michel admitted, “but you called this little gathering and I have to admit I’d like to know why.”

T’Luthien took a moment to measure the differences between the two men. The physical disparities were obvious. Michel stood at just over six feet tall, as measured by one archaic measurement system still favored by traditionalists in the Androcan Empire. Gerin came in at 5’10”. T’Luthien was fair skinned and fair-haired, sporting a mustache and goatee. Gerin bore a darker complexion, was dark haired, although it was rapidly thinning, and was clean shaven. T’Luthien was broad shouldered and solidly, if slenderly, built for his height. Jacen was rail thin, being wiry rather than muscular.

Gerin’s brown eyes locked with Michel’s blue-green ones as he announced, “We’ll get to that in a moment, but first I’d like to introduce my new 1st Officer.” Gerin said with such pride that T’Luthien almost fainted.

The woman that stepped forward to stand before him was almost Gerin’s height, and general build. She was a blond with the largest, bluest eye T’Luthien had ever seen. Seeing her standing beside Gerin bespoke “couple”. It was more than Gerin’s rep as an accomplished womanizer; there was an organic connection between them that was as undeniable as it was irresistible.

“As long as we’re making introductions,” Michel grinned as another figure dropped down between the umbilical attaching the two ships. Her landing hadn’t been quite as graceful as Michel’s but she’d kept her feet. There was a sharp intake of breath as Jacen got a good look at the recent arrival, followed by a sharp exhale as his XO elbowed him in the ribs.

Michel wore his most charming smile and took the pirate officer’s hand, “I do not believe I’ve had the pleasure...?”

“Larissa Brenei.” She beamed as Michel gently kissed her hand. As Michel relinquished her hand, she turned to Gerin, “From now on, that’s how you greet me.”

“Whatever.” Jacen replied dismissively and returned his attention to T’Luthien’s companion, “And this is?”

“Vanessa Clarke.” T’Luthien supplied her name, “She’s from my Special Operations Group.”

“Your mythical SOG, huh?” Gerin whistled, “So what’s her specialty?”

“Scan Tech.” Macen supplied

“Got one already.” Jacen dismissively replied.

“Not like her.” Michel insisted.

“What makes her so special?” Jacen demanded.

“She’s the one that tracked you through a rift jump and allowed usto defeat you.” Michel explained, “Your message alluded to your having difficulties getting high definition scans of a wreck or some other navigational hazard. She’s the one to solve your ills.”

The act of tracking a rift jump was still a technical miracle. Since craft navigating the rift were traveling between dimensional layers, there were no “real” astronomical markers to navigate by. The only guides were navigational buoys set in place in every star system to guide ships in. The track to tracking a rift jump was capturing the departure query a ship’s nav beacon would transmit as well as the reply containing the location and frequency of the desired system’s buoy. It took a hypervigilant scan tech at the top of her game to make such a grab but that’s how legends are born.

Gerin’s whistled appreciatively, “Can I keep her when you’re done with her?”

“No.” T’Luthien’s voice was devoid of any humor.

“Okay, okay.” Gerin relented, “No need to get so touchy. The more the merrier, even if you were the only one invited.

“I knew you’d make an exception.” Michel grinned.

Jacen was still eyeballing Vanessa so Larissa distracted him by shaking her hand, “Pleased to meet you.”

Vanessa’s body bobbed a bit with the handshake, causing the ponytail her hair was in to waft to and fro. She was shorter than Larissa, maybe 5’5” at best. She had an elfin appearance and a pixie face with blue eyes. Her hair was naturally a dark brown that had been highlighted with streaks running the gamut of blonde. Vanessa was not a social creature by nature yet she immediately seemed taken in by Brenei.

Maybe there’s hope for her after all, Michel thought affectionately of his younger charge.

Next came introductions to the crew. There was Edgar Briandt and Alicia Featherstone. Clarke assumed she’d be working with Featherstone rather closely. The thought of sitting closely to the hawk-faced woman intimidated her but she vowed to never let T’Luthien catch on to that fact. Paul Daniels was the astronavigator. Another Paul, this one surnamed Douglas, was the pilot. Charlie Taylor held the communications post. That left a rather mysterious woman referred to only as “Engines” that was, naturally, in charge of engineering.

Michel, Vanessa and Gerin made their way to the galley. Larissa remained behind on the bridge to supervise the detachment of the I from the Loki. They were ready to get underway, just as Gerin was ready to finally reveal the reason behind this rendezvous and skullduggery.

“So,” Michel began from across the table from Gerin, “who is she?”

“Who’s who?” Jacen replied evasively.

“Your new mechanic.” T’Luthien explained, “She’s new crew since my last visit.”

“You mean the one where I didn’t get paid?” the venom in Gerin’s voice was plain for all to hear.

“You got a ‘thank you’.” Michel grinned.

“That doesn’t keep this ship flying.” Gerin reminded him.

“So is that why you’ve taken on these extra jobs?” Michel asked innocuously.

“What jobs?” Jacen lied badly.

“Rumors are circulating that the Wandering I is now a ship for hire as well as a free trader. Whether it be robbery, blackmail, larceny, theft or smuggling, Jacen Gerin and the crew of the Wandering I are up to any and all challenges.”

“Gotta silence that leak.” Gerin muttered, knowing he was caught once again.

“So who’s the girl?” Michel reiterated.

“She’s a runaway gene-bred. Trained for engine work. She’s a regular genius in the engineering space.”

“You have a escaped Hadrani clone on board? Do you know how close we are to their borders?”

Gerin nodded and T’Luthien continued, “Do you know how frequently the Hadrani ignore their own borders and cross over to harass nearby shipping and scoutships? Do you also know what would happen if they found her aboard?”

“They’d kill everyone aboard...except you.” Jacen brightened, “They’d take you to Hadran for a show trial regarding ‘Templar incursions in their space’.” The Hadrani did have a standard capture and detention policy regarding the Templars that dated back three hundred years.

T’Luthien pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed, “What’s she getting out of this deal?”

“She’s traveling with us until she finds a world where she wants to get off.” Jacen supplied happily.

“Does she know what you do is illegal?” Michel wearily asked.

“It’s never come up.” Gerin happily chimed.

“For God’s sake, Jacen.” T’Luthien groaned, “There’s a reason there’s procedures regarding these things.”

The standard treatment for an escaped gene-bred was to be taken to the capital of a major stellar power such as the Terran League, the Androcan Empire, or the Cervrean Commonwealth. A period of debriefing would follow as well as a determination regarding the authenticity of the defection. From there, the clone would be slowly introduced to a job and facets of the adoptive society.

“I’ve heard about all that.” Gerin waved his hand dismissively, “Why turn the poor girl into some kind of lab rat while they try to determine whatever genetic soup she was blended from?”

“They’d study her a bit,” Michel conceded, “but it’s not like they’d dissect her!”

“May I make a suggestion?” Vanessa asked with her hand raised.

“Yes?” both Gerin and T’Luthien demanded, making Clarke wince, “Since she’s along for the ride anyway, why not let the matter drop until we rendezvous with the Loki and let her decide her own fate?”

There was a moment of silence then T’Luthien nodded, “All right. We should let the matter drop until then.”

“Okay.” A somewhat confused Gerin relented, “But it’s her decision.”

“No matter what.” Michel vowed.

“Now that that’s out of the way, maybe we can discuss why you’re here.” Gerin offered.

“I’m practically faint from anticipation.” Michel remarked.

“Watch it.” Jacen warned sharply, “You’re on my territory now. Accidents happen.”

T’Luthien drew his sleeve back to reveal a slender, silver bracelet, “And this is a dead man’s switch for the explosives my EVA crews were planting on your ship while we were umbilically linked.” Jacen drew his plasma pistol and aimed it at Michel.

“You’re bluffing.” Jacen hoped but saw the horror and pleading in Vanessa’s eyes. That convinced him even more swiftly than T’Luthien’s declarations.

“Try me and see what happens.” Michel replied with dead certainty.

“Blast you!” Jacen holstered his plasma gun, “So what happens if you have an unexpected heart attack and die?”

“Better find away to keep my heart pumping and my brainwaves normal.” He tapped at a jeweled stud in his left ear as he made this last declaration.

Damn you!” Jacen roared, “You couldn’t trust me?”

“Jacen,” Michel replied calmly, “you’re a pirate. That doesn’t exactly engender trust.”

“Whatever.” Gerin huffed, “So, d’you want to hear the info or not?”

“Yes, Jacen.” Michel tried not to sigh or sound impatient, “I want to hear the information.”

“Have you ever heard of the Celestial Star?” Jacen asked almost dreamily.

“Wasn’t she a prototype superliner that went missing with the finest from the Terran League, the Androcan Empire and the Commonwealth?” T’Luthien replied.

“Went missing in Imperial space.” Gerin added, “Very embarrassing for the ol’ home government, particularly since they were too busy gearing up for war with the Royals to do more than send a couple of ships out looking for her.”

Michel debated addressing Gerin usage of the appellation "Royals" regarding his native government. It was hardly like everyone was of noble birth. Now T’Luthien represented the Templars, whose apolitical aspirations granted T’Luthien the ability to rise above the intended insult. It paid to work for the Templars, where access to the Empire, the Commonwealth, the League and the Single Worlds all came with the job. Only the Hadrani Republic seemed permanently closed to the paramilitary Order.

No one outside the Order could remember what had begun the feud between the stellar power and the knights. Some said that the Order’s paramount rule of non-interference in the internal affairs of others came only after the dispute with the Hadrani. Others say the Order had made an exception to the rule and challenged the Hadrani on the treatment of their clone population. Still others simply said the Hadrani took a dislike to having the Templars operate in their systems without being able to monitor or control them and therefore banned them from their territory.

“Why the talk of the Celestial Star?” Michel asked, “She’s been lost for almost a century.”

“Not any more!” Jacen announced gleefully, “I found her!”

What followed Jacen’s statement was a lot of arguing that Vanessa simply ducked out on. She headed up to the bridge to assume her makeshift post. As the allotted scan “specialist”, she had the same duty rotation as the ship’s captain and her own commander. Vanessa didn’t mind that one bit. She had served under T’Luthien before his founding the SOG. She had followed him to the SOG, and she would follow him to any outfit he let her serve with.

Vanessa had been, and still was, grateful for the opportunity to join the SOG. She had joined the Imperial Navy in order to fulfill her conscription requirements after university. She had never expected to qualify for an officer’s commission.

Vanessa remained a puzzle to the Navy. The only reason that the Imperial Navy had tolerated her behavior for so long was that she was a miracle worker when she operated any sensor equipment. She had detected cloaked ships in the past. No one knew how she accomplished what she did. This was compounded by the fact that it was as great a mystery to her as it was to others. If anyone were to get the truth out of her, which was unlikely, they would discover that she had joined the military just to gain access to the sensors that starships possessed.

Vanessa doggedly endured the Navy, and the Navy endured her for six years. Her opportunity came when the Templars began searching for willing ex-officers for unusual assignments. Several of Vanessa’s former CO’s recommended her to the recruiters. They found her, made their offer, and she had readily accepted.

They offered her the chance to pursue her trade without being encumbered with military protocols. Her skills mattered, nothing else. She immediately consented. Vanessa had spent two years doing odd jobs for the Templars before Macen offered her the chance to join the SOG and later to accompany him to the Loki.

She had felt an immediate affinity for T’Luthien. He was another rogue. He pursued his goals with little regard as to what impression those same pursuits would make. Here was a commander she could easily understand and follow.

Vanessa stepped onto the bridge. She went straight to “her” console. She had personally modified it to her own special specifications. Alicia Featherstone had been specifically instructed not to disturb “her” board.

That suited her. Vanessa had no great desire to have to recalibrate the board every time she came on duty. The irony was that she did exactly that every time she came on duty no matter what vessel she was on. She would modify it to run a diagnostic and recalibrate itself in less than five minutes.

While the board ran it’s self-check, Vanessa used the time to steal a glance at the rest of the bridge. Neither Michel nor Jacen were on the bridge yet, so Larissa occupied the center seat. She saw Charlie Taylor stealing glances at the XO from his station. That drew a small smile of amusement from Vanessa. Taylor had struck Vanessa has being even more socially awkward than she.

Personally, Vanessa did not admit to holding any romantic aspirations towards her commander. She didn’t think he’d be interested. She felt protective towards Michel for simple reasons. He had left her alone to run the Scan section any way she wanted. He was not concerned over superficial titles or protocols. If she forgot to say “sir” he didn’t mind. Quite the opposite, actually.

Michel’s chief concern in any situation was the task at hand. His secondary concern was for his people. Vanessa understood and respected that. He had accomplished what no other commanding officer had done. He had won her respect and loyalty.

Michel and Gerin stepped onto the bridge at that moment. They seemed to have worked out their differences, on the surface at least. United front and all that. Clarke had noted long ago that T’Luthien liked to enter the bridge unannounced and watch the crew in action. Jacen went to the command console. Larissa evacuated it as he approached and went to her station instead.

Michel took a seat at an auxiliary station that had been reconfigured as a mission specialist board for him, “So, Jacen, how exactly did you find the Celestial Star?”

Gerin cleared his throat before replying, “I happened to be in the system looking for a remote moon or asteroid where I could…”

“Stash your stolen property?” T’Luthien supplied.

Jacen glowered at him, “It wasn’t like that. We were looking for somewhere uncharted, somewhere that could be transformed into a habitable location. D’you know what the claims to a place like that are worth?”

“So, you’re out prospecting and you find this legendary wreck.” Michel pondered aloud, “Why didn’t you contact the Imperial Navy?”

“I’m not a privateer, T’Luthien.” Jacen snapped, “Even in Androcan space, an unlicensed pirate still faces the death penalty.”

T’Luthien tasted the lie behind those words. Rift drives were rare outside of military circles, and only well funded military circles at that. The only pirates to have ever acquired one were either fabulously wealthy, a rarity in itself, or state sponsored. The single largest state sponsor of “commercial raiding” was Gerin’s native Androcan Empire.

The Empire neither confirmed nor denied its practice of equipping and licensing privateers. Officials merely pointed out the Empire’s all too real internal security and economic concerns and guided the inquisitors towards the conclusion that the Androcan state had neither the resources nor the inclination to support corsairs, tamed or not. Well informed parties, the Templars being the chief of which, knew better.

Despite Jacen’s protestations, the only logical reason that Gerin’s ship possessed a rift drive was that the Imperial Navy’s shipyards had refitted it. Jacen was a clever criminal with a well deserved reputation for success but his prizes were scarcely enough to legitimately, much less illegitimately, purchase a rift drive.

“But why me?” Michel continued unfazed, “It’s not as though we exactly like one another. And I know you resent me for pressing you into service.”

“True.” Jacen concurred, “But as much as I hate to admit it, you’re also the best one suited to discovering what happened to the Star.”

Michel broke into a lopsided grin, “With such high praise as that, I’ll have to be sure not to disappoint.”

“You’d better not.” Gerin replied, “I’ve finally managed to convince the crew that we can make our little ‘arrangement’ work. If our first cooperative joint venture fails, they’ll be less likely to go along with successive efforts.”

Michel pondered Jacen’s words, “You’re scary when you make sense.”

“And you’re just scary.” Gerin countered, “So we’re even.”

Michel opted to let that comment slide by. He was still rolling Jacen’s ostensible reasons for visiting the star system where he claimed to have found the Star. Even more puzzling was Jacen’s insistence on surveying the wreck. If he truly wanted to merely report the find and milk it for the finder’s fee, then Jacen wouldn’t require an extensive scan, or even an exploration of the wreck. Gerin was looking for something, something he hadn’t yet discussed with T’Luthien. Michel wondered if he ever would.

The Wandering I translated into rift space. The nature of the rift set ships traversing its mysteries outside the normal boundaries of linear time. Vast distances could be crossed with only seconds passing in normal space. The only limitation to the distances traveled within the rift was the amount of fuel carried by the sojourning vessel.

The I translated back into normal space one second later but she had traversed a span of over fifty-one star systems. Vanessa lit up her board and took her first look at the system they now occupied. It was fairly desolate as fart as star systems went. It possessed a K-type primary and seven gas giants, two were in the inner system, the rest comprised the outer. The inner system also possessed two iron-nickel planetoids. Three asteroid fields divided the system into three parts.

The first field divided the inner system into two parts. The second divided the inner and outer systems. The third bisected the outer system. An Ort cloud surrounded the outer system.

All of this was revealed by Vanessa’s preliminary scan. Next came a closer examination of the orbital track where the presumed Star was found. This scan was inconclusive. They were just too far out in the system, with too much natural debris floating about. The sensors weren’t sensitive enough for more detailed readings under these conditions.

The distance from the primary was owed to the star’s gravimetric field. The intense gravity well distorted rift space. Rift translations generally had to take place at least eight light hours beyond the primary. For the I, this meant she’d arrived in-system just “inside” the outermost asteroid belt.

“Helm, take us to the coordinates. Best possible speed.” Jacen ordered.

“Ummm…” Vanessa hemmed, “I’d suggest we move in on no more than half of max accel. We still haven’t ascertained what or who else is out here. Acceleration degrades your sensor performance. It really is a rudimentary set up.”

Seeing Gerin’s having taken umbrage at her choice of words, she quietly amended, “But it’ll be adequate for our needs.”

Jacen gave Michel a longsuffering look, “Why do all the women in your life make mine miserable?”

“Because I’m lucky?” T’Luthien offered cheerfully.

“Bite me.” Gerin muttered, “Paul, take us in at half accel. Satisfied Ms. Clarke?”

Vanessa opted to treat the question as rhetorical and focused on her equipment instead. Alicia kept her electromagnetic “eyes” open for traffic within the system while Clarke performed deeper scans intended to reveal any recent movement within the system and its origination and exit points. Tactically, this was a risky maneuver. Active emission scans versus passive receptive scans gave one’s position away to a lurking foe. The broadcast emissions always traveled further that the ship’s receptors could detect. This would allow another ship to detect the I well before the Scout Marauder would ascertain coherent data on the opposing ship.

It took the I almost four hours to traverse the outer system. As she passed through the asteroid belt separating the inner and outer systems, Jacen straightened up in his seat. The mood on the bridge elevated as they neared their destination. Even T’Luthien was caught up in the rising tide of enthusiasm.

Before enlisting in the Cerverean Navy and subsequently being recruited by the Knights Templar, he’d been educated and trained as a historian and social scientist. It was these skills that had first caused the Royal Navy to assign him as an Intelligence Officer. The Templars had been impressed enough with his performance there to seek him out for their own Bureau of Intelligence. His duties with the Templars soon expanded beyond analysis to include field ops.

Gerin had sought him out for this same blend of skills. As much as the pirate and the pirate hunter ostensibly loathed one another, a modicum of respect had developed between them. Each was a master at their particular craft, even if those same arts were essentially opposed. Slowly, ever so slowly, Gerin was weaning himself off of criminal enterprises…a move that T’Luthien was wont to encourage. In order to facilitate this changing attitude, Michel supplied Jacen with as much work as he could at any given time.

As the I passed the orbital track of the first gas giant past the second asteroid belt, Vanessa was able to acquire some higher resolution scans of the third asteroid belt. Her preliminary results indicated that the belt was the result of a collision between a Mars-type world and a large Lunar-type moon. The resulting tectonic upheaval and gravitic fluctuations had literally torn the world and its satellite apart.

Hidden amidst the debris was an artificially shaped construct that could very well be a large ship

“I have something on my scan.” Vanessa’s words riveted the entire crew, especially Gerin.

“What d’you have for me babe?” Gerin quipped.

Vanessa tried to ignore the venomous glare Larissa Brenei was shooting towards Jacen as she made her report, “There’s a refined metal and ceramic object one hundred klicks inside of the asteroid belt. The structure’s shape, mass index, and internal volume indicate that she was a ship of some kind, quite possibly a starliner.”

“Could you upload those readings to my station, Vee?” Michel asked, utilizing his personal nickname for her.

“You got it.” she replied cheerily.

Jacen ignored the opportunity to lean in on the semi-private exchange between T’Luthien and his Scan Specialist. Instead, he rose from his console and moved over to Michel’s position at the Library Computer. T’Luthien had his own personal reader, uploaded with the Encyclopedia Humanica, datalinked into the I’s woefully outdated information files. Only the Jane’s catalog of ship types, variants and armaments was comprehensively updated.

“What have you got?” Jacen asked over Michel’s shoulder.

“A soon to be dead man breathing down my neck.” Michel growled as he watched the computer compare the various stats of the ship types against the constantly updated and refined scans being supplied by Vanessa.

“Don’t be so touchy.” Jacen warned, “I might decide to have you spaced.”

Michel spread his hands apart, “Boom!”

“Insufferable sonova...” Gerin muttered.

“Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.” T’Luthien replied with a wicked smile.

The computer chimed suddenly, cutting off Jacen’s red-faced retort. Michel scrutinized the results. The computer had made a positive match to a historical reference in the database. That same match seemed to corroborate Jacen’s claims.

“According to this, our bogey is a probable Redstar-class starliner.” Michel answered Jacen’s urgent, yet unspoken, query, “The Redstar-class produced one, and only one, hull. That hull was registered as one SS Celestial Star out of the Terran League.”

“My God.” Jacen breathed, “It’s true. It’s really true.” He stood transfixed by the sight of the Celestial Star in her glory.

“We’ll need to get closer to make a positive ID and to identify what happened to her.” T’Luthien warned Gerin.

“How much closer?”

“How much closer, Vee?” Michel called out.

Much closer.” Vanessa replied.

Michel shrugged, “There you have it.”

Jacen snorted, “We’ll see about that.”

The Raider-class variant was the most versatile of the Scout Marauder line. Originally intended as scouts, customs patrol craft, and fast attack vessels, the market potential for the diminutive starships literally exploded when pirates discovered the ships’ capabilities. The Marauder’s pinpoint maneuverability made it ideal for situations such as threading its way through the massive asteroid belt sheltering the presumed wreck of the Celestial Star. Paul Douglas delicately wove the I toward her target. Vanessa, meanwhile, was immersed in her scans.

She’d all but proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the drifting wreckage was indeed the legendary starliner. Only a positive transponder signal or a message from the ship could have proven it more conclusively. Vanessa had announced her results, expecting the mission to end and Gerin to report the location of the wreck and get rich off the finder’s fees. To her surprise, he wanted to know what had “killed” the massive ship and an estimate of the internal structural integrity.

Michel quirked an eyebrow in Gerin’s direction, “Are we planning a boarding party?”

“You’re the former historian,” Jacen retorted, “I thought you of all people would be dying to get inside and see for yourself what happened.”

Although he’d never admit it to Gerin, that was precisely what T’Luthien craved. Over the course of his duties, Michel had examined dozens of wrecks. None had ever possessed the Star’s allure or historical notoriety. It literally was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Michel merely shrugged, “It’s your ship. If you make the call to board, I’ll board with you.”

“So nice of you to finally acknowledge that this is my ship.” Jacen murmured.

T’Luthien allowed the critique to pass by unchallenged. His and Vanessa’s places aboard were guaranteed by their skills. Their relations with the crew depended largely on the perceptions the two groups had of each other. Their divisions stemmed from the same source.

It had never been easy for Jacen’s pirate crew to accept the authority the Templars imposed upon them. The chief obstacle to the successful integration of Gerin’s ship into the Templars was the subculture of piracy itself. Pirates, although tyrants aboard their vessels, were the embodiment of anarchy. The normal strictures of civilization stifled the pirate so therefore they sought refuge outside of the boundaries of society. They also bitterly resisted when those same societies sought to reassert control.

For over three hundred years, the Knights Templar had stood at the forefront of that struggle. It created a symbiotic relationship that inspired the pirate to fear and loathe the Templars. There was no rational examination into this reaction, it was simply accepted and perpetrated. In turn, a similar response mechanism was born within the Templars. They viewed the pirates as beneath contempt and rarely offered more than one opportunity to surrender.

All of these factors played themselves out on the bridge of the I. A subtle shift had occurred over the course of the last few hours. Michel’s continued cooperation with Jacen played a huge part in the transformation. Vanessa’s diligence and friendly demeanor with the crew had also played a significant role. Whatever combination of social elements had coalesced here, the crew’s attitude towards T’Luthien and Clarke was softening. It in no way resembled trust, but the active apprehension was dissipating.

All of these factors did little to alter the physics governing the situation. As the I crept closer to the derelict, the surrounding asteroids increasingly obscured her sensors. This situation made the other ship difficult to detect and impossible to see. Lurking in the orbit of the closest gas giant was a small ship of similar design and purpose as the I. She’d been there throughout the Scout Marauder’s transit through the system.

The other ship had avoided detection by strictly regulating her EM emissions. She’d effectively become a “hole” in space. This description was made all the more accurate by the fact that her hull was coated with the latest generation in cloaking materials. These substances absorbed the EM radiations of an active scan, reducing the ship’s scan profile. In this case, the combination had proved effective. Alicia Featherstone had failed to detect the mysterious ship and the I’s progress was still under observation.

The I came alongside the Celestial Star. Utilizing a schematic from the Encyclopedia, the raider had poised itself alongside the aft docking collar. The I’s docking umbilical stretched forth and mated itself to the collar. No atmosphere was pumped into the umbilical gangway since there would be none aboard. This had been a simple deduction after Vanessa gave her report as to the disposition of the ship.

“She’s been gutted.”

Michel and Jacen exchanged a bemused glance over her blunt report, “That much is obvious, Lieutenant.” T’Luthien remarked, “Any speculation as to how she came to be gutted?”

“Nossir.” Vanessa shook her head, “I know how this ship met her fate. Her primary FTL and sublight drives were taken out by photon missiles.”

“Photon missiles were pretty new back then.” Gerin whistled, “Cutting edge stuff.”

The photon missile was a reactionless drive projectile with a fusion bomb encapsulated by a photon emitter array. The nuclear pumped energies released by the bomb were harnessed by the emitter array. The tightly packed wavelengths of the resultant photons possessed both the cutting power of the most powerful laser and the kinetic potential of a comet. While they were the standard long-range shipboard weapons of today, a century ago when the technology was in its infancy, they were rather rare outside of military circles.

“The crippled Star was subsequently set upon with laser and matter cannon fire.” Vanessa continued coolly, “Several decks were hulled before a presumable cease fire was arranged through the ship’s surrender.”

“I’d theorize a boarding action followed.” Michel concluded for her.

“A bonny prize to be sure.” Gerin ignored the pained expression Michel gave him regarding his choice of metaphors, “But why attack her? Her disappearance launched a search mission that lasted months. Pirates survive by lying low. The notoriety of something like this should prove fatal.”

“Only it never did.” T’Luthien reminded him.

“Exactly!” Jacen clapped his hands together, “Why didn’t it in this case?”

“Because there’s more here than meets the eye.” Vanessa reasserted herself, “I may not be able to tell you who did this or why, but I can tell you one other vital aspect of this case. This ship did not die in this solar system.”

“What?!” Gerin exclaimed.

“First off, if the Star had been adrift in this asteroid field for the last century, she’d have scores of impacts across her hull. This ship has enough to account for maybe a six month stay.” Vanessa began explaining, “Second, there’s the solar wind saturation. The radiation and solar ejecta that permeated the Star’s hull derived from a G2 type star, not a K1 like this system possesses. The Celestial Star died in another solar system and stayed there for a century before being recently moved to this location.”

Jacen gave Michel a look of amazement. T’Luthien grinned like the proverbial Cheshire cat, “I told you. She’s the best.”

“But why?” Jacen struggled to grasp it all.

“To avoid detection.” Michel offered, “Whomever committed this crime hid it but passed on the knowledge of what had been done. I’m assuming by your enterprising efforts that the Empire is considering expanding into this region.”

Gerin nodded.

“Then whomever was behind this knew that as well. This system is unremarkable for anything except its high number of asteroid belts, asteroid belts ideal for hiding massive objects.”

Jacen rubbed his chin, “Makes sense. If I had a large piece of evidence tying me to a mass murder, I’d want to dispose of it as well. This system’s perfect.”

“And no one but you would have come here.” T’Luthien pointed out.

Gerin shrugged, “Had to see if those survey charts were accurate or not.” Jacen broke into a feral grin, “Want to go aboard and see if they left anything behind telling us where they were when they got attacked?”

Michel matched his grin, “Try and stop me.”

Five figures in vacuum suits floated across the umbilical. The first across was Charlie Taylor, the I’s Comm officer. Charlie’s area of expertise extended itself to a particular number of skill sets with computers, most of them illegal. He tried for several minutes but then gave up and signaled for his companion to start her attempt at the door lock. The woman known only as Engines plugged a portable generator into the airlock.

The lock now had power and Charlie resumed his efforts. Within moments, he had the door open. Engines disconnected the generator and the two of them switched on their lights. They stepped aside to allow Gerin and T’Luthien by. Both were armed with electromagnetic dart pistols. Vanessa Clarke trailed the two men. Together, the five of them entered the dark bowels of the derelict starliner.

The passageway they entered into led to a central corridor. Although the passageway had been deserted, the central corridor was littered with floating corpses.

Death in a vacuum was one of the more gruesome, and hideous, ways to die. The corpses were nightmarish, particularly amidst the twisting shadows created by the survey team’s lights. A sharp intake of breath broadcast over the vac suits’ comm systems brought home how appalling the scene before them was.

“Steady Vee.” Michel said softly, “They can’t harm you.”

“I know.” you could almost hear her swallow her gorge, “We watched training films regarding salvages in the Imperial Navy. It’s just different when it’s live and not a holovid recording. It’s more real, y’know?”

“I understand.” Michel said consolingly.

“So do I.” Gerin piped in, “In fact, I know some really great relaxation techniques that I could show you when we get back aboard the I.”

“Jacen,” T’Luthien growled menacingly, “if you so much as look at her, I will kill you. Afterwards, I’ll give your corpse over to your 1st Officer of a girlfriend to desecrate as she pleases.”

Gerin began muttering to himself.

“What was that?” Michel asked.

“I said, ‘we’d better get moving’.”

“Lead on Captain Courageous, or is that Captain Corruption?”

“Do yourself a favor and shut your mouth for awhile, T’Luthien.”

Michel winked at Vanessa and grinned ear to ear. She offered him a wan smile in return but it was a vast improvement over her previous disposition. Charlie and Engines brought up the rear as Gerin began bulldozing his way through the milling corpses. Michel saw Vanessa stiffen at the sight at the now mobile bodies, and he took her hand in his and began leading her down the path Jacen was blazing.

Up ahead, at a central junction, Jacen was stopped studying a deck plan for the Celestial Star. As Michel reached his position, Gerin pointed at the diagram.

“We need to go up four levels and forward twenty sections to reach the bridge.”

“Jacen,” Michel said in a low tone, “have you noticed that not all these people died of explosive decompression? Some of these corpses are riddled with holes from projectile fire.”

Gerin took his first serious look at the bodies floating around them, “You’re right. But who would risk using projectile weapons in a sealed, atmospheric environment?”

“You wouldn’t.” Michel concluded, “Not unless you didn’t care if you lost your men in the advent of an atmospheric breach or they were equipped for it. Either way, it shows a callous disregard for human life that I find disturbing. Whoever took this ship knew all along they were going to kill everyone aboard.”

“Yep.” Gerin nodded, “I’d have to agree. This whole set up stinks. Any ideas on who might’ve been behind it, O Master of Templar Lore?”

“One or two.” T’Luthien revealed, “If we can find the data we want on the bridge or in the central computer, then I can confirm my suspicions.”

“So much for the vaunted omniscience of the Templars.” Gerin wisecracked then set out again.

At the center of the ship, they came upon the legendary Grand Staircase. This marble and gold edifice had been constructed of the first fruits of the mines of Haphesteus. This arid colony world’s treasure lay in its rich and abundant mineral wealth. Since its initial settlement over five hundred years ago, the planet had developed a thriving shipyard and computer development industry but at its core, mining remained the heart and soul of Haphesteuan prosperity.

The Staircase crisscrossed up and down ten decks of the ship. The five salvagers needed to ascend four decks and the Staircase presented itself as the easiest route. The lifts had long since died in place and now formed natural barriers. Unfortunately, the accumulation of bodies was worse at the Staircase. Hundreds from every level had crammed its expanses, desperately seeking an escape from the inevitable death that was stalking them.

They set out as before. Gerin took the lead, plowing a path through the mangled corpses. T’Luthien guided Vanessa along, using his quiet presence to quell her apprehension. Charlie Taylor came next, grimly determined to see the mission through. He’d worked salvages with Jacen before and was well used to the carnage by now. The enigmatic Engines brought up the rear.

No one knew what the former Hadrani slave was thinking. She rarely spoke more than a few words when directly addressed. She never willingly offered a comment or observation of her own. Having been created, grown, and trained as a menial laborer, it was likely she’d been indoctrinated to simply keep her mouth shut and do as she was told.

Most of all, no one was certain of how she’d react in a crisis. She was obviously intelligent, or she’d never have escaped the Republic. What was in question was her loyalties. How would she repay Gerin’s kindness towards her? Would she break and run at the first sign of trouble or would she stand by the crew through adversity?

Having risen four levels, Jacen pushed his way through to the landing before the stairs, “Let’s stick to the portside corridor. It’s been good to us.”

No one objected and the salvage team proceeded apace. As they neared the bridge, fewer and fewer bodies blocked their path. Soon, the passageway was clear.

“I wonder where the bodies went?” T’Luthien wondered aloud.

“I don’t care.” Gerin snorted, “I’m sick of wading through the things.”

“It’s suspicious.” Michel advised.

“Everything aboard this boat is suspicious, you most of all.”

Michel pursed his lips and sighed. The antagonism between he and Gerin was proving to be a distraction right now. This was a time when they needed to be alert and focused, not distracted by petty rivalries. The problem was, Michel didn’t know how much more he could give.

Strict interpretations of the Templar’s Mandate forbade even having a conversation with a pirate. Pirates were to be dictated to, and killed, if they failed to obey a single letter of those instructions. The opposite extreme suggested trying to reform pirates by showing them lucrative, but legal, outlets for their skills. T’Luthien was trying to find a balance between the two approaches. The majority of the Templars, the Knight Commander herself was of the former school. Although the second approach was too passive for Michel’s tastes, it still felt as though it had merits all its own. Thus was born the great experiment whereby Jacen Gerin had become a Templar operative.

T’Luthien got to engage in operations that those in the Templar Bureau of Intelligence could only dream about. This recovery effort was one of them. The Knights in the Bureau would never stoop to working alongside a criminal and therefore would likely lose the chance to ever be the first to survey this wreck. Michel was struggling to overcome this elitist attitude of the Templars and to assist others in escaping it as well.

The group reached a four-way junction. To the right lay an opened airlock. Straight ahead lay the entrance to the bridge. To the left…a mobile, tracked gun turret that was zeroing in on the three salvagers that stood before it.

“Look out!” Michel yelled as he shoved Jacen forward. He then leapt backwards, extending one arm to sweep Vanessa back with him.

The gunbot opened fire, its three spinning, magnetically coiled barrels spewing forth armor piercing darts. Gerin crawled into the passageway ahead and slowly rose. Michel recovered his feet while Vanessa checked his suit for damage. T’Luthien and Jacen made eye contact and nodded. They each removed their dart guns from their holsters and they crept to the edge of the corridor.

They turned their corners and fired in unison. For a moment, presented with two hostile targets, the `bot remained frozen in computational uncertainty. Finally, it decided that Jacen’s shots were more likely to do it harm so it swiveled its barrels his way and unleashed a massive volley of fire.

Jacen shrank back away from the corner as it disintegrated under the weight of the barrage hammering at it. With Gerin gone and Michel still firing, the `bot turned and spent its fury at him. Michel’s corner also evaporated into fragments. Michel shook his head as he ejected his pistol’s spent magazine and then rammed home a fresh clip.

“We’ve got to find a more effective means of combating this thing.” T’Luthien observed.

“Charlie!” Jacen yelled over the comm, “Hack that thing and shut it down.”

“What d’ya think I’ve been doing with this equipment?” Taylor yelled back, “Doing crosswords?”

“Ready?” Michel called out.

“Do I have to be?” Jacen winced.

“Pretty much.” Michel replied dully.

Gerin shrugged, “Yeah, then I guess I am.”

On the second attempt, Michel drew fire first. Gerin drew first blood. Blood being a lubricant of some kind. The `bot whirled on him and vented its wrath.

“C’mon Charlie!” Gerin shrieked as he retreated from the wall penetrating darts, “Shut this thing down!”

While Gerin was drawing fire, Engines stepped out and peeked around the wreckage of the corner. Her eyes widened and her mouth formed an “O”. She ran to Charlie’s side.

“I know what this is!” she exclaimed excitedly, “It’s a Helodyne Systems G7 Gunbot. It’s a remote platform designed for guarding specific locations.”

“So how d’we stop it?” Charlie asked.

“Transmit in the theta bands of the gravitic ranges.” Engines instructed, “Request access to the Delta 7 protocol. This is the only publicly accessible protocol that will enable us to alter its command functions.”

The excited engineer pointed at Charlie’s display, “There! See the two red screens? See the targeting icons on this screen? Click on that screen. When the prompt asks you to, accept the target icons into the ‘Safe’ category.”

Charlie complied and a new query popped up on the screen. Engines smiled victoriously, “Mark this zone as ‘Secure’ and the `bot will no longer monitor the portside corridor.”

Michel peered around the corner. The `bot had indeed swiveled around 180 degrees and was indeed monitoring the starboard corridor. Michel looked across the junction in time to see Gerin taking aim at the gunbot.

“No!” Michel yelled, “You’ll just start it going all over again.”

“I don’t care.” Gerin cried.

“I swear to God, I will shoot you before I allow you to open fire on that robot.” Michel vowed.

Knowing the modern Templars, like their historical predecessors, were founded as a religious order, Jacen knew to take any oath T’Luthien made seriously. The Templars had been founded under the auspices of the Reformed Catholic Church, which did not recognize the authority of the Roman Papacy, and operated independently under its banner. The Order recognized no authority other than its own. The Church acted as moral and spiritual advisors alone. Members of the Templars obeyed the Mandate that governed the Order.

Jacen relented with a feeble shrug. “The bridge is just ahead.” he said, “We’d best get there and see if we can get some answers.”

The doors to the bridge had been blown open, so entry onto the command deck wasn’t a problem. The area was in shambles. Consoles had been shot, others torn apart by human hand, presumably human since the Farruck had never ventured so far into Human space. A few corpses lingered here, still strapped into their crash seats at their stations. Everyone in the salvage team paused.

The unreality of wading through corpses and trading fire with remote gunpods was slowly transforming itself into a sick realization that these people had been systematically exterminated. Pirates left survivors behind to tell tales of their fearsome deeds. The passengers of the Celestial Star had been hunted, shot, and then starved of oxygen. It was a callous act of brutality that lent itself to one conclusion.

“Engines,” Michel broke the somber silence, “that gunbot was of Hadrani origin wasn’t it?”

“Yes.” Engines replied tentatively, “I worked on the series before I was upgraded to starship maintenance.”

“What’s the cursed point?” Gerin snapped suddenly.

“You asked me if I knew who did this.” Michel replied, “I’m not 100% sure, but I think the Hadrani perpetrated this crime.”

“The Hadrani?” Vanessa repeated.

“It all fits.” Michel explained, “The advanced munitions, the imperative to take no prisoners and leave no witnesses, the remote booby trap designed to kill anyone approaching the bridge, and both the ability and the will to transport this wreck from one solar system to another.”

“But why move it now?” Jacen wondered, “It’s been a century since she went missing for God’s sake.”

“You have to remember, they couldn’t use a rift drive to move this behemoth. They had to use a FTL drive, and depending on how far away they were, that takes time.”

Jacen had to mentally acknowledge that he’d failed to consider that factor. He had grown so accustomed to the ease his rift drive offered, that he’d forgotten to account for the limitations of the slower, more conventional folded space drive. By folding space and time, the FTL drive transformed a voyage of weeks into days, months into weeks, and years into months but it still required traveling through subjective time. The elimination of traversing temporal boundaries was the single greatest asset of the rift drive.

The greatest liability of the rift drive, unlike its FTL counterpart, was that crossing into interdimensional space took the human mind into a realm it was not equipped to deal with. Unshielded ships or ships with misaligned shielding suffered fatalities and madness. Gerin knew that T’Luthien had once traveled in one such ship, the very first ship to test a rift drive in fact. Half the crew died due to that first rift jump. The rest suffered from varying degrees of madness…or so they said.

Since their first encounter, Jacen had often wondered about T’Luthien’s absolute sense of certainty. He had the confidence known only to prophets and madmen. Upon every encounter, Gerin wondered if it would be the one where Michel finally led them into the abyss. So far he hadn’t, and Jacen and his people had profited mightily from it.

“Okay.” Jacen clapped his gloved hands together, “Engines, plug that little generator of yours in somewhere. Charlie, get cracking on retrieving the ship’s logs.”

“And sensor logs.” Vanessa piped up, “If I can see what they encountered, I might be able to tell you why this ship was attacked and by what or whom.”

“Sounds good to me.” Gerin remarked, “You heard the lady, Charlie. Get cracking.”

“I need the computers powered up first.” Charlie reminded Jacen.

“Oh. Right.” Gerin backpedaled, “Engines..!”

Michel took a moment to guide Vanessa to a “quiet” corner on the bridge. He keypadded his comm system to a private channel and motioned for Vanessa to do the same. She followed suit and waited to find out what was going on.

“How are you doing?” he asked.

“Okay, I guess.” she shrugged.

“You’re not a field agent, Vee and this is a pretty gory first operation. It’s okay if you’re feeling uncomfortable.”

She shook her head, “No, I’m over it. I’ll admit I about came out of my skin when we first came aboard. All those bodies…it just didn’t seem like it could really have happened. Now I know that it did and I’m angry. Whatever it takes, we have to get the people that did this.”

“They’re probably all dead, or at death’s door at some elderly care facility.” Michel pointed out.

“I don’t care.” Vanessa said angrily, “If the Hadrani did this, then they should be brought to account for it.”

“We can try.” Michel promised, “But I wouldn’t hold out too much hope. The Hadran Republic is the third largest star nation in Human space. It’s also the largest rogue state. They do what they please and to blazes with the consequences.”

“But that’s not right.” Vanessa protested.

“No.” Michel agreed, “It isn’t. But unless we want to convince one of the other major star nations to declare war and invade the Republic, that’s how it’s going to stay. Frankly, it probably would have happened by now if either the Androcans or the Cervereans could ally themselves or if they could get the Terran League off its butt. As it stands now, no single star nation will face down the Hadrani due to the Hadrani’s manpower advantage. They can simply force grow new troops while the rest of us have to do it the old fashion way.”

“This sucks.” Vanessa groused.

“It gets better. The Empire is so unstable that it probably couldn’t field a fighting force without losing control of half the Imperial worlds. Their only hope lies in solidifying the détente between the Empire and the Commonwealth into a real and lasting peace. Sadly, there are conservatives on both sides of the border still trying maintain an aggressive posture between Androca and Cerverea.” Michel continued, “The Terran League has the advantage of being twice as large as any other star nation and it has distance between itself and the Republic’s borders. They won’t get involved until their commercial interests are threatened and unfortunately, they do a thriving business supplying the Hadrani with goods. In the end, it’s the bordering Single Worlds, which can’t defend themselves, and the neighboring Empire that take the brunt of the Hadrani’s raids and schemes.”

“I get it already.” Vanessa threw her hands up in surrender, “No retribution against the Hadrani today. Still, we’ve got to do something about them.”

“At the rate that their increasing their covert operations against other nations, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Templars aren’t called in to check the Hadrani’s aggression in the near future.”

“Good.” Vanessa humphed.

“Hey you two!” Jacen called over the common channel, “Get your butts over here. We found something.”

Michel and Vanessa dialed their transceivers back to the common channel and then moved to join Gerin at his position at a computer terminal. The terminal, originally programmed for monitoring the engines, had been retasked by Charlie Taylor’s devilry. It now displayed the ship’s logs. The adjacent monitor had been reset to display the sensor recordings. Michel proceeded to the logs and Vanessa began perusing the sensor tracks.

“Here’s something.” Michel reported, “They’re final entry had them entering the Celeste system. The system is uninhabited and Celeste is a world that would require a minimum of terraforming to make it an Earth type world. Only the distance between Androca and Celeste prevented the Empire from developing Celeste.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Jacen demanded.

“When the Celestial Star entered the Celeste system, she detected development on Celeste and activity throughout the system.”

Gerin looked to Vanessa, “Is this true?”

“”Yup.” Vanessa’s head bobbed, “The sensor logs reveal the presence of three other ships in the inner system at the time of the Star. Two never closed the range to be adequately scanned by the Star’s somewhat limited sensors. The ship that was scanned, the ship that in fact attacked the doomed starliner, was a heavy cruiser.”

“The Star’s course took her in near Celeste orbit.” Vanessa continued, “Her scans indicate a build up on the surface. Facilities and infrastructure had been developed. Terraforming stations were in operation at the point of contact. The heavy intercepted the Star moments after she completed her initial scan of Celeste’s surface.”

“Are the two events related?” Gerin asked.

“What do you think?” Michel replied.

Jacen shrugged, “Had to ask. What make and model of cruiser was it?”

“Are you asking me to identify the heavy’s star nation of origin?” Vanessa sought clarification.

“Exactly.” Gerin answered with growing impatience.

“I can’t.” Vanessa informed him.

“What?” Jacen sputtered, “But the Star looked right down its throat. Surely they got a good enough scan for you to guess their point of origin.”

“The scans aren’t military grade but they’re sufficient to establish a ship’s ID.” Vanessa replied.

“Then what’s the problem?”

“The problem is the ship type itself.” Vanessa’s fists were firmly planted on her hips now ands she was leaning in towards Gerin, “It’s an unknown type. The closest analogue is a Hadrani cruiser type. That cruiser defected seventy-five years ago to the Terran League. The power signatures were closely related and the hull configuration between these two vessels was nearly identical. No other Hadrani vessels before or since have been observed up close, unless these scans prove to be of a Hadrani warship.”

“Well, that leaves just one last thing,” Gerin clapped his hands together, “who’s accessed the vault?”

“Gerin.” T’Luthien warned.

“Already on it, Boss.” Charlie reported, “No one’s accessed the vault while the computer was in operation. Someone may have blown it in the last hundred years, but this ship seems awfully well preserved for that. My guess is that this was a purely military op and they left chances to plunder alone.”

“I agree.” Jacen grinned, “Maybe we should test your theory.”

“Gerin!” Michel growled, “Under no circumstance will we be looting any safes. Our first, in fact our only, priority is to alert the Empire of this discovery and the events surrounding it. Afterwards, we’ll transmit our findings to the other major stellar powers.”

“When all that’s done, I’m sure you can negotiate an arrangement for salvage rights with the Androcan government.” T’Luthien assured Jacen.

“I suppose you’re going to be a bugger about this too.” Gerin bemoaned.

“`Fraid so.” T’Luthien nodded.

“You’re such a pain in the butt” Jacen groaned, “My life was so much easier before I met you. I was free to do what I wanted when I wanted.”

“But now I’m your employer, which means you answer to me. And don’t complain too loudly Jacen. I pay you well, well above what you made as a ‘free trader’.” Michel informed Gerin.

“Sad but true.” Jacen muttered.

“What was that?” Michel asked.

“I said, ‘Don’t play me for a fool’” Gerin lied, and then having received no reply to his statement, added, “All right. You’re just crazy enough to do something stupid if I don’t agree with you, so let’s get back to the I and burn for a more developed system where we can reveal our findings.”

T’Luthien grinned victoriously, “After you.”

The trip back to the I went faster since the path was known and most of the bodies were cleared out of the way. It still took just over an hour to retrace their steps. They traversed the umbilical covered expanse between ships and entered the I’s airlock. Once the lock was secured and the air cycled back in, the haggard members of the salvage team removed their helmets.

“God, it’s good to be home.” Jacen sighed.

“Got that straight, Boss.” Charlie agreed.

Engines remained silent, as did Michel and Vanessa. They didn’t have the emotional investment into the I as the two pirates so their feelings regarding their return to this ship were mixed at best. Michel and Vanessa both preferred to be aboard the Loki. Engines’ desires, like the woman herself, were unfathomable.

Ever since their encounter with the gunbot, the Hadrani gene bred had shown signs of increased stress and emotional anguish. The more this scenario pointed towards the Republic, the more likely an encounter, intentional or unintentional, with her former slavers became. It had taken untold depths of courage and fortitude for Engines to escape her captors. She likely didn’t know if she had more of those depths within her.

The red warning lights came on and the team prepared for decontamination. A mixture of ultraviolet fields and antiseptic gases flooded the airlock chamber. It ended almost as soon as it had begun. Space was such a harsh environment that it was not conducive to supporting life, not even microbial life. The decon was a matter of standard operation procedure when dealing with a boarding action, atmospheric integrity intact or not. There was no telling what sorts of mutated bugs could linger in a stray pocket of atmosphere on a wreck like the Celestial Star.

With the decontamination over, the doors of the airlock chamber opened. Gerin floated over to the open hatchway and swung himself out into the central corridor beyond. The others followed suit one by one. By the time the last of them had emerged from the airlock and had hit the button that sealed it, Gerin was walking down the corridor towards the equipment lockers with Larissa at his side. Michel pushed ahead to close the distance between them and to place himself within earshot. Vanessa just naturally followed T’Luthien’s example.

“…you mean there’s ‘something out there’?” Gerin was overheard saying.

“Alicia began picking up an intermittent track on an object in orbit around the closest gas giant. Since we’ve gone into this asteroid field our scanning ability has been effectively halved but she’s still got a probable lock on something slowly departing the system.”

“What do you mean ‘probable lock’?” Gerin demanded.

“It’s like a sensor ghost.” Larissa explained, “Only it’s too consistent. Even after it ‘blinks’ out of existence, it always comes back. Alicia says she’s positive it’s a cloaked ship of some kind.”

Gerin knew that the Wandering I’s sensors were a cut above the civilian norm. Her suite was nearly up to the standards of the Imperial Navy but it was an older, surplus model. Alicia was good but T’Luthien’s scan witch was better. She would have to take a look at the I’s recent sensor logs and at the scans themselves.

“I suppose you heard all that.” Gerin remarked darkly upon reaching the equipment lockers.

“I heard enough.” T’Luthien confirmed, “Sounds like the Hadrani left an observer to see who they’d spring the trap on.”

“Do you still think this is a diversion, or is my ship in trouble?”

“Best guess? This system is a diversion meant to draw attention away from the Celeste system.” Michel summarized, “Your ship and crew are safe.”

“They’d better be.”

“C’mon,” Michel put a reassuring hand on Jacen’s shoulder, “let’s have Vanessa take a look at this mystery ship and we can all rest easier.”

Gerin glared, first at T’Luthien’s hand then at T’Luthien himself, “This had better pan out.”

Michel removed his hand, “Things always work out Jacen. They just rarely work in the way we expected.”

The team removed their vac suits and donned their clothes. Engines proceeded to the ship’s power plant while the others went to the bridge. Larissa was awaiting them and eagerly directed Vanessa to the scan section. Alicia gave Clarke a grateful smile.

“Glad to see you made it back.” Alicia said as Vanessa took her seat in front of the scan terminal.

“Glad to be back.” Vanessa replied, “So, what’s up?”

“I’ve got a probable bogey that likes to fade in and out. It always returns in the same general location and along the same vector.” Alicia reported, “I have a tentative departure vector bound for the outer system and the rift barrier.”

“Let’s look at what you’ve found.” Vanessa said and activated her equipment.

The Wandering I cleared the asteroid belt and made for the position of their presumed bogey. They proceeded at max sublight. The sensors would be degraded at these speeds but the acceleration was necessary to accomplish an intercept. They needed to overtake the ship before it could build up enough to speed to elude the I. Fortunately, the Raider-class Scout Marauder was among the fastest sublight ships in Human space.

Vanessa first studied the sensor logs then perused the active sensors, “We have a definite contact. The contact displays the characteristics of the latest generation of stealth materials.”

“This ship bears all the earmarks of a surveillance platform.” Michel observed.

“All right people!” Gerin barked, “Let’s find out who these people are and why they’ve been spying on us.”

“Navigation, set a least time interception.” Larissa began issuing orders, “Helm, make way at max accel. Weapons, release safeties on external racks.”

The two Pauls complied, as did Edgar Briandt. Briandt’s instructions released the safeties to the six photon missiles stored on external racks attached to hardpoints on the Wandering I’s hull. The purpose of the racks was to expand the I’s opening salvo capacity from the two internal tubes to eight tubes total. It was a capability granted the “tamed” corsairs by the Templars.

As the I closed the distance between the two ships, the mystery ship was gaining acceleration. Paul Daniels constantly recomputed the I’s vector in an effort to overtake the fleeing ship. Each passing moment extended the struggle between the two ships. The fleeing surveillance vessel desperately sought to cross the rift barrier, the gravitic boundary that prevented transdimensional translations. Typically, such an accomplishment would ensure the clean getaway of the vessel to translate first.

The nav beacons situated in rift space that aided navigation throughout the Rift also stored data packets of mail and holonews broadcasts. Generally, most vessels utilized the seconds it took to translate between normal space and rift space to download and upload their own information packets. There had been no messages or listings of ships transiting into the system since the original nav beacon placement. This indicated that either no rift traffic had proceeded the I by nearly a century or that traffic did not possess the Identify Friend or Foe transponder that had become commonplace amongst civilian and military vessels throughout the Terran League, Androcan Empire, and Cerverean Commonwealth.

“Weapons, are we in optimum weapons range?” Gerin enquired.

“Aye, Cap’n.” Briandt reported, “As slippery as this weasel is, I might try to close the distance a little more.”

“So noted.” Jacen mused, “Standby hot loads in tubes one and two. Begin target tracks for external racks one through six.”

“Jacen,” Michel’s voice cut through the surreal atmosphere inhabiting the bridge, “think about what you’re doing. Someone sent that ship to observe traffic in and out of this system. We need to know why this system is so important.”

“I thought you already had that figured out.” Gerin snapped.

“I have a theory.” T’Luthien retorted, “It still needs to be proven.”

“Well, we need to shoot now or these buggers are going to translate out of here.” Gerin protested.

“We can track them.” Michel declared confidently.

“We can?”

“Vanessa tracked you through the rift once before.” Michel explained, “I’m willing to bet she can do it again. Isn’t that right, Vee?”

Vanessa squirmed in her seat, “Ummm…”

“Even if she fails, we have the Celeste system to check out.” Michel ignored Clarke’s bug eyed, apprehensive glare at having her abilities questioned. Apparently it was okay for her to have her doubts but the same did not hold true for Michel.

“Interdimensional tear forming.” Alicia Featherstone announced, refocusing the crew.

“Now’s our last chance.” Briandt stressed, “Should I commit?”

T’Luthien shook his head and Gerin pursed his lips, “Stand by. Let’s give the scan witch her chance.”

Vanessa nestled into her crash seat and got to work. When an interdimensional tear formed, revealing the rift, it also uncovered the system’s nav beacon. The transitioning ship queried the beacon through a grav pulse, gravitic forces being one of the few constants in both the dimensional and extradimensional realms. The destination query would be met with an answering reply with the necessary gravimetric and beacon system navigational aids and the ship would then spirit away to its final destination.

These grav pulses did not employ an encryption algorithm, they relied instead on a universal communication protocol utilized throughout Human space. When the nav beacon replied to the transit request, it replied in the clear. The trick was to isolate the grav waves of the message from the static caused by the rending of the dimensional fabric of the local area.

As the spy ship slipped away into the embrace of the rift, Vanessa broke into a feral grin, “Navigation, stand by for coordinate transfer.”

Paul Daniels peered at his displays and drew in a sharp breath, “My God, she did it! She actually did it!”

“Pipe down and read off the coordinates.” Gerin suppressed a groan. If word of this technique got out, no brigand would be safe from that point on, “Michel, we seriously need to talk.”

Jacen didn’t like the pitying look in T’Luthien’s eyes when he replied, “It’s too late, Jacen. Only the Templars have the secret for now but it it’s only a matter of time before the information is disseminated.”

“Captain,” Daniels reported, “They jumped to the Celeste system.”

Without any prompts from Michel, Jacen nodded his acknowledgement, “Then so are we.”

Aboard the RN Eye of the Republic, Captain Bennito Nikos surveyed his bridge crew. He’d already secured his ship from general quarters. Circumstances rather than skill proved the most valuable on the field of honor today. The enemy scout vessel had first proven its mettle by merely detecting the Eye.

Her second success lay in her pursuit of the Hadrani spyship. The hostile scout had swiftly gained on them and was moments from overtaking them. Nikos strongly suspected that the other ship had long since passed by its maximum weapons range and was well into its optimal weapons range when the Eye passed beyond dimensional borders.

It was this strategy that bedeviled Nikos the most. It was a tactic he himself would employ if he’d gleaned a hint as to his opponent’s identity and wished to gather more information before the prey spirited away. How much had his elusive enemy gleaned of his capabilities and purpose before Nikos escaped scrutiny? The Eye represented the very latest generation of Hadrani stealth technology. Her active and passive sensors were second to none. She should have been a hole in space, observing the slightest EM hiccup around her.

Instead, she’d been “made” by what appeared to be a mere corsair. It was a source of consternation for Nikos and despite the assurances offered by his flight through the rift, he sat uneasy. Nikos studied his command board and the holoplot that dominated the center of the bridge. His board offered and oversight capability for every station on the bridge as well as an override.

Although the design was fairly universal throughout Human space, the Hadrani took the concept to a new extreme. Institutional paranoia was a necessity for a society built on slavery. Officers aboard naval ships and in the ranks of the Marines and Army were natural born citizens. Officially, the caste system that dominated the Republic did not exist within the confines of the military but its influence was felt even there. Merit had granted Nikos command of such a sophisticated and modern cutter as the Eye but his family’s lack of connections would inhibit him from rising much further.

The gene bred slaves were created and educated for specific purposes. Literacy was universal, a factor that sometimes proved troublesome for the slave owner. Despite the safeguards placed on the HoloNet, the gene breds found ways around the blocks and frequently sought information to help them escape the Republic.

The rest of the major stellar powers decried the Republic’s usage of genetic slaves but paid little more than lip service to stopping the practice. In the end, it was in the military that gene breds found a relative sanctuary. Each rating assigned to a ship or a Battalion was vital to the operation of that unit. The slaves were well treated and earned a modicum of respect. Selected gene breds could even rise through the ranks to supervise work details.

Nikos was about to settle back in his chair when his scan tech called out, “Rift point forming off the aft quarter.”

Who in the name of all the Unholy could be translating in right now? Nikos wondered to himself, aloud he said, “Helm keep us steady, angle our approach for the in-system burn.”

“Sir!” the scan tech was panicked now, “The second ship has translated into the system. She’s a hostile! She’s the scout from the Medvedev system!”

“We’ve successfully translated into normal space.” Paul Douglas reported.

“Good. Now where’s our little friend?” Gerin demanded.

“I have him.” Vanessa reported, “Aspect change to target, bearing has altered to mark ninety-six point seven.”

Gerin’s grin was born of pure evil, “Charlie, jam his comms. Ed, flush the racks at him and stand by hot loads in tubes one and two. We’ve got a broadside aspect on this bugger and I don’t intend to waste it!”

Michel looked pained but refrained from comment, “What?” Jacen demanded, “You don’t approve? Your holier than thou Knights Templar routinely destroy entire ships without a single call to surrender.”

“I just think it would be more prudent to question these people rather than unleash the wrath of God upon them.” Michel clarified

Gerin laughed scornfully, “This is coming Mr. Wrath of God himself. Like I’ve told you before, this is my ship. My orders will be obeyed.”

Michel shook his head, “This isn’t the place to argue the point.”

“Ed, status?” Jacen snapped.

“We’ll have a firing solution right…about…now!”

“Fire.” Jacen ordered calmly, almost nonchalantly.

The six photon missiles flushed off the racks and reached out towards the Hadrani ship.

“Six missiles away,” Briandt reported, “two more on ready alert.”

“Sir,” the scan tech had clamed somewhat, but she was still rattled.

Maybe they can strain the nervousness out of the next batch, Nikos thought before replying, “Yes, Scan?”

“The hostile has launched six photon missiles. They are set on an intercept course and should reach us in six light minutes.”

How could such a small craft field such a large salvo? Nikos was forced to wonder. His own cutter wielded four missile tubes whose magazines’ capacity had been halved in order to accommodate the extra launchers.

“Deploy countermeasures.” he ordered, “Standard evasive. Maybe we can shake these things off of us.”

“They’ve deployed countermeasures and are engaging in evasive maneuvers.” Vanessa informed Gerin.

“Eddie,” Jacen queried, “Is there any was of tightening up the targeting lock?”

“I could slave the birds to our active sensors but would mean broadcasting loud and in the clear.”

“No.” Jacen shook his head, “We’re about to announce our presence loudly enough, I think.”

It was during this exchange that Michel activated his mastoid transmitter and began communicating to Vanessa’s implant via subvocalizations, “Vee, can you hear me?”

“Loud and clear, but its still weird using this thing.” She grumbled.

“You almost get used to it over time.” he assured her.

“I’m assuming you need something?” she asked.

“Smart girl. Hand over observing the engagement between the I and the Hadrani ship and begin observing the system itself.” Michel instructed.

“Are you certain that ship’s Hadrani?” Vanessa wondered.

“Bring Engines up here and see how she reacts to it.” Michel suggested.

“Okay, just making sure. I’ll pass the baton off to Alicia and take a peek around. Just what am I looking for?”

“This is supposed to be a deserted system. If there’s traffic, of any kind, I want to know about it in time to get away.” Michel instructed.

“Gotcha. I’ll give a yell as soon as anything twitches on my board.” Vanessa promised.

“Thanks. You’re a wonder. I couldn’t do this without you.” Michel praised her.

“Keep going. A lady can never receive too many compliments.” Vanessa gushed.

“She can, however, get a swell head from the one’s she’s received and forget that she’s still on the clock.” Michel warned.

“Ouch.”

Vanessa got busy and Michel turned to his own ongoing analysis. He’d been utilizing the sensor readings of the Hadrani cutter, and Michel was convinced it was a Hadrani cutter, to build a composite model of the ship on his displays. Added to the physical parameters were the performance ratings they’d observed thus far. Now all that remained was to see how good its defensive suite was.

The countermeasures have spoofed one of the missiles.” the weapons officer reported, “I’m activating the laser cannons and setting them on ‘auto fire’.”

Nikos regulated his breathing as the weapons officer continued her report, “Lasers have eliminated another missile…a second has been destroyed. The remaining three are breaching the inner defensive zone. Another has been destroyed.”

The weapons officer turned to face the Captain, “Two have made it through.”

Even before Nikos could warn his crew, explosions ripped through the hull. Fusion driven photons cut and hammered their way through the shields and armored plating. Shields used electromagnetic repulsors to repel objects and energy. A fully operational shield was said to possess one hundred “points”. Each loss of strength the shield suffered deducted points from its overall rating.

As the shield collapsed, unshielded areas were sliced through like tissue. The portside missile tubes were destroyed, along with most of the lasers and plasma cannons on that side. Propulsion was limited but the Eye was still capable of limping along. Now they merely need wait and see what their pursuer intended.

“Two birds flew to the roost.” Briandt said triumphantly.

Jacen shook his head, “We need to work on your metaphors. Scan, what’s their status?”

“They’re venting atmosphere and appear to have sustained heavy damage throughout their port side. Shields are offline and propulsion is down. They’re drifting.” Alicia described.

“Now we take prisoners and start asking questions.” Jacen announced gleefully.

“I’d advise against that.” Michel countered.

“What’s wrong with you?” Jacen demanded, “Are you never satisfied? Fifteen minutes ago, you wanted to capture them.”

“We’ve had more data come in since then.” Michel replied, “Our sensor scans have revealed massive sensor arrays mounted all across the hull of that ship. It has the sensor suite equivalent of a battleship’s capability. That screams ‘intelligence gathering platform ‘.”

“So does spying on us.” Gerin retorted, “So what?”

“Unknown vessel types operating near the Hadrani border have been engaged before. None have ever been taken alive. They always self-destruct before being boarded.” Michel explained.

“Then how come the records only mention encountering one Hadrani ship?”

“That’s the only confirmed Hadrani vessel that’s been across the border. The rest of these scuttled themselves before a positive ID could be made.” Michel revealed.

“Okay. We’ll be careful. Happy now?”

T’Luthien shook his head, “Jacen, no vessel that approached a ship of this description ever survived that ship’s inevitable suicide.”

Gerin rubbed the back of his head out of frustration, “So what are you suggesting, that we leave them alive and uninterrogated?”

“No, I have a slightly different plan.”

“Yeah? And what’s that?”

Michel told him. Gerin looked to Larissa, “What d’you think? Is it just crazy enough to work?”

She shrugged, “Whether or not it works, it’s safer than trying to board an unknown ship all the while praying that it won’t blow us up.”

Jacen flashed her a manic grin, “The greater the risk, the greater the reward.”

“Unless it’s your final pay off.” Larissa pointed out sagely.

“All right.” Gerin threw his hands in the air, “Someone tell Engines to get her butt up here and we’ll see if our all powerful, all knowing Templar has it all figured out.”

Nikos couldn’t help it. Although he knew his actions set a poor example and upset his officers and ratings, the young captain paced back and forth across the bridge. What are they doing? he fumed, We’ve baited the trap, now spring it.

The Eye’s fusion bottle was rigged to explode at the Captain’s command. Word had filtered to every deck of their standing orders and the Captain’s intention to fulfill those orders. Now every being held their collective breath and prepared to meet eternity. Spontaneous religious expressions arose on every deck amongst both natural born and gene bred. It was an interesting reflection on a society that professed a strict adherence to atheism.

Only, it was beginning to appear as though they wouldn’t have to self-destruct after all. Could they suspect? Nikos wondered. Despite his propulsion systems still being able to produce nearly half of max sublight, he’d ordered the Eye to drift as though crippled. Self doubt gnawed at him. He speculated on whether or not his ruse had tipped his enemy as to his true intentions.

Only time will tell, Nikos fretted, but it had better reveal its truths soon.

Hesitantly, Engines stepped onto the bridge. The Captain, the 1st Mate, and the Templar were all carefully watching her. The microscopic scrutiny dredged up unpleasant memories and Engines felt a nearly overwhelming desire to lash out. She forcefully swallowed her anger as the Captain beckoned for her to approach.

“Hullo Engines.” Jacen said amiably, “We’re having a slight problem and my friend T’Luthien here thinks you can provide a solution.”

Engines risked a quick sidelong glance towards Michel, “I’ll do what I can.”

Gerin stepped aside, revealing the holo-image of the Hadrani cutter suspended in the main holotank. There was a hissing sound as Engines sucked in her breath. Her eyes widened and her pupils dilated. Her entire body started to tremble.

“You have to destroy that…abomination!” Engines snarled.

“Actually, we were thinking of boarding her.” Gerin replied.

“No!” Engines shouted, “Her fusion bottle is rigged to begin an unregulated nuclear reaction. It would create a microstar for a few brief seconds, long enough to destroy both ships if they’re close enough together.”

“How do you know all this?” Gerin enquired.

“I was a military engineering tech.” Engines answered, “I was good enough that I was given positions of authority amongst my fellow gene breds. What the officers didn’t know is that I was able to parlay my familiarity with ships systems into an opportunity for escape. By tapping into the communications array I was able to contact the ASA.”

“The ASA?” Larissa asked.

“The Anti-Slavery Alliance.” T’Luthien answered to Engines’ obvious shock, “It’s a coalition of various forces united in the goal of liberating the Hadrani gene breds and ending their manufacture. It’s supported by patrons from across Human space. The volunteers largely come from the Androcan Empire and the Single Worlds.”

Michel turned to face a staring Engines, “The Templars provide the bulk of the transports utilized by the ASA. The ships are built in Templar shipyards and covertly donated to the ASA.”

Gerin wore a naughty grin, “And here I thought the Templars were apolitical.”

“The Templars are charged with protecting humanity. It has been decided that the Hadran Republic’s policy of manufacturing labor and enslaving clones combined with their increasingly hostile foreign policy may constitute a threat to the safety of human kind.”

“Are you sure this just isn’t a grudge match for the Order’s getting kicked out of Hadrani territory a century ago?” Jacen enquired.

Michel shook his head, “A century ago, the Hadrani found something out on the edge of known space and it revamped their entire society. They became secretive, militant and belligerent. The Templars, owing to their refusal to acknowledge any nation’s flag as their master, were cast out of the Republic. That prohibition stands to this day.”

“So what did the Hadrani find?” Gerin probed.

“Why don’t you ask the resident Hadrani?” T’Luthien deflected, “The secret of the Hadrani’s discovery has been passed down to key operatives of the Order. Even if I were to know the mystery, I wouldn’t be free to divulge it to you.”

Gerin’s face darkened but he remained silent. Engines silently moved towards the holotank, transfixed by the image displayed there. She studied it in mute fascination for several minutes while T’Luthien, Gerin and Brenei observed her. Engines’ reverie was broken by Brenei’s clearing of her throat.

“We actually called you to the bridge to see if you could help us with a real problem.” Larissa informed her.

Engines shook her head, as if to dispel the phantoms living there, “Of course. What’s the problem?”

“Back on the Celestial Star, you helped Charlie remotely access the gunbot.” Michel explained, “We were wondering if you could pull off the same trick again with that ship’s database.”

Engines blinked, “I…I suppose we could try. I had to manipulate the computers of the ships I was assigned to, so I suppose it could be done. The trick would be in establishing a datalink between the two ships’ systems.”

“What if you were to piggyback your data feed on another channel, like a holo signal?” T’Luthien enquired.

Engines nodded, “That should do it. How are we going to accomplish that?”

“Your captain is going to signal that cutter and negotiate terms of a surrender.”

Engines shook her head, “Never happen. It’s Hadrani military protocol. Never take prisoners and never be taken prisoner.”

“We don’t want prisoners, Engines.” Michel grinned, “We want their database.”

She nodded, “I see…sir.”

“You’d better help Charlie set up. Jacen is almost done rehearsing his speech.”

Engines smiled, “Yes sir!”

Nikos completed his twenty-second revolution around the bridge. He didn’t know why or when he’d started counting but he’d paced around the entire span of the confined quarters of the command center twenty-two times since he had. The captain cursed the nervousness that inspired such behaviors. So far, his opponent had defied every convention that Hadrani wisdom held for outlander rules of engagement. Military units would have attempted to board by now. Pirates, such as the type Nikos suspected had set upon him, should have made a move by now.

“Captain,” the Comm Officer reported, “we’re receiving a transmission from the hostile vessel.”

“Have they informed us as to the nature of this signal?”

“They wish to parlay terms of our surrender.” came the chilly response.

Nikos bristled but nodded to the man, “Put it on my display.”

“My name is Jacen Gerin, captain of the freetrader, Wandering I. We have beaten you. Surrender your vessel and prepare to be boarded.” Jacen spoke into the display pick up on the I’s bridge.

While Gerin was pursuing his charade with the Hadrani commander, Engines and Charlie Taylor huddled over the comm station, busy trying to hack their way into the Hadrani database. T’Luthien monitored their progress in case they succeeded.

The Hadrani displayed on Gerin’s holoimager was not happy, “I am Captain Bennito Nikos of the Republican Navy cutter, Eye of the Republic. You have violated Hadrani space and committed severe criminal acts against the Hadrani state and agents of that state.”

“Last time I checked my Navigation charts, we were still in Androcan territory.” Jacen replied.

Nikos smiled thinly, “Times change, Captain.”

“What remains the same is the fact that I have crippled your ship. Your communications are being jammed and you are alone. You have no reasonable recourse but to surrender.”

Engines quietly signaled T’Luthien, “We’re in. What do you want to know?”

“Gather any information you regarding this system. Traffic, communications logs, infrastructure and development, and deployments.” Michel made his wish list known.

“You do realize we only have limited access?” Engines asked acerbically.

“Do what you can and we’ll call it good.” Michel assured her.

Back at the command console, Nikos shrugged in resignation, “I must have assurances that no member of my crew will be harmed.”

“Easily done.” Jacen waved a hand through the air.

“No member of my crew may depart from my ship either, even if they request asylum.”

“I’m not with the ASA.” Gerin assured him, “I don’t have a cause. I’m in it for the money.”

“Not much of that aboard.” Nikos admitted.

“Hadrani wares are very valuable commodities owing to their rarity. I’m sure we’ll compensate ourselves for the expenditure of those missiles.”

Nikos grimaced, “I would like to know how you managed such a massive salvo for a ship of your size.”

Gerin gave Nikos his most insufferably cocky grin, “So would everyone else.”

With that, he ended the transmission.

“Curse the man!” Nikos shouted, “He is insufferable! May his progeny rot in the cesspools of their birthworlds.”

“Sir,” his XO asked, “are we really surrendering?”

Nikos stared at her as if she were stupid, “Of course not! That’s just a ruse to lure him into our trap.”

“So, how are we doing?” Jacen asked as he approached the crowded Comm station.

“We’re getting the data.” Charlie reported even as he typed in new commands and requests, “Some of its piecemeal, but we’re getting a pretty accurate picture of the modern Celeste system.”

“And what do we think this data will be worth to the Imperial government?” Jacen enquired.

“If this information confirms, as I think it will, that there’s a strong Hadrani military presence in the Celeste system, then I suspect the Imperial coffers on Androca will open wide.” Michel replied, “They’ll be even wider with the accompanying news of the sanctity of the Celestial Star’s vaults and their legendary treasure trove. The Empire would be obligated to return the riches to the rightful heirs. Having you sell the spoils and collecting a percentage is much more appealing to the Androcan Admiralty.”

“Blast it!” Jacen threw his hands up, “It’s not safe having you around. When did you start thinking like me?”

“How do you think I catch pirates, Jacen?” Michel said evenly, “How do you think I caught you?”

“Had to bring that up again didn’t you?” Gerin muttered.

“Just illustrating my point.” Michel offered.

“Well, don’t.” Jacen requested, “It’s embarrassing. It’s been profitable but its still embarrassing. If any, and I mean any, of my so-called associates caught wind of the fact that I’m working for you, or the Templars, I’d be dead. I’d be hunted in every port, by lawman and criminal alike.”

“We’ll try and keep that from happening.” Michel assured him, “You’re too valuable to lose.”

Gerin blinked. The unexpected compliment left him momentarily stunned. Except for his various crews, Jacen had never belonged to anything. He might not appreciate being an informant for the Templars, and may even had to have been coerced into accepting the role, but now he belonged to something larger than himself.

It was a strange sensation for the perennial loner. Gerin had always prided himself on his independence and had initially viewed his involvement with T’Luthien as little more than slavery. Now he was getting another perspective. His efforts were appreciated and were valued.

Something to ponder, Gerin mused, “Don’t get mushy.”

Michel laughed, “Not on your best day.”

“Knight Lieutenant!” Vanessa called out using T’Luthien’s rank within the Templars, “You wanted me to sing if I picked up anything, well I’m picking up enough movement and fleet traffic to prepare for an incursion into the system.”

“Captain,” the Comm Officer called to Nikos, “one of my ratings has detected several programs and subroutines that seem to have activated of their own accord.”

“What?” that piece of news distracted the Hadrani skipper from his vigil over the destruct button.

“Elements of the library computer seem to running a search. Actually, it appears to be several searches.”

“Shut it down!” Nikos screamed, “Deactivate the entire library!”

The Comm Officer issued the orders and turned to face the Captain, “It’s done, sir.”

“Somehow those subversives tapped into our computers.” Nikos fumed, “Your incompetence let them slip in undetected and access god knows what. I should demote you and raise the gene bred that detected this disaster in your place.”

The Comm Officer bowed his head, “My life is yours.”

“Keep it.” Nikos grunted, “It appears our quarry is after greater treasure than mere plunder. That means they’ll also evade our noose.”

“What shall happen then?”

“If the fleet hasn’t responded by now, they soon will.” Nikos sighed, “Either way, we’re out of the fight.”

“What’ve you got, Vee?” T’Luthien moved to the scan section.

“I’ve got two battleship analogues, two heavy cruisers and three light cruisers in the advance formation. The second, slower formations are comprised of three dreadnoughts. The EM and grav pulse emissions indicate a probable groundside fleet HQ or a possible space station. Either way, someone’s directing these bad boys and homing them in on us.”

“Captain,” Charlie called out, “someone’s terminated our data feed. The link’s been severed.”

“Time to get out of here.” Gerin decided, “Navigation, “Plot us a course out of here. Helm, prepare for an immediate rift translation.”

“Captain!” Alicia cried,

“A heavy cruiser analogue just lit us up with their active sensors.” Vanessa warned.

“Must have drifted in ballistically on passives.” Gerin muttered darkly, “Step on it Navigation. I don’t care where we go as long as it’s away from here.”

Daniels hurried as Douglas reversed course and began to accelerate away from the incoming cruiser. T’Luthien busily gathered data on the encroaching cruiser. Engines hustled back to the ship’s power plant. While the crew toiled at various tasks, Larissa simply watched Jacen. Her eyes met his and were filled with absolute confidence in him.

“They’ve started a weapons track.” Briandt announced.

“Paul…” Jacen growled.

“I’m working!” Daniels protested.

“Missiles loose!” Briandt cried out, “Multiple bogeys in bound.”

“Launch countermeasures.” Jacen snapped, “And get me a count on those missiles.”

“Forty missiles currently in bound.” Vanessa reported.

Jacen slumped, “We’ll never survive that many.”

“Sir,” Nikos’ Scan Officer broke the still silence on the bridge, “One of our heavy cruisers is on scene and is engaging the enemy ship.”

Nikos broke into an evil smile, “I don’t care how many missiles he can launch, he’s dead.”

“Missiles are eight light minutes out.” Briandt updated Gerin, “They’re encountering the first wave of countermeasures.”

“Coordinates are set!” Douglas exclaimed, “Get us outta here!”

“You heard the man, Helm.” Gerin grinned, “Lean on the loud pedal and translate us out of here.”

In front of the Wandering I, and interdimensional tear formed. The ship passed through it into the null space that lingered between dimensions. The Hadrani missiles passed through the I’s previous position as the tear sealed behind the ship.

“I don’t believe it.” the Scan Officer muttered, “They escaped.”

Nikos shrugged, “They may have learned something about Celeste sooner than expected. It’s no great loss. This system is fortified. It is part of the Hadran Republic now and it shall remain so.”

“In the end,” Nikos grew philosophical, “we may have gained a kernel as well. When is a pirate not a pirate? The Admiralty will be made aware of this Jacen Gerin.”

“So how’d they take it?” Gerin asked as Michel entered the central lounge of the suite of rooms occupied by the crew of the Wandering I.

Michel shrugged as he took a seat, “How would you take it when you learn that an entire sector of your realm has been covertly invaded?”

“Personally, I’d be pissed.”

“Nailed it in one.” Michel said grimly, “Frankly this couldn’t have happened at a worse time, the Empire’s coming apart at the seams. They don’t have the manpower or the resolve to try and reclaim their territory. The Hadrani are entrenched with two squadrons of capital ships. That doesn’t take into account their fortifications on Celeste. It appears the Republic has gained a foothold into the Androcan Empire and I’m certain it’s one they’d like to expand.”

“That sucks.” Jacen fumed.

“To put it bluntly.” Michel concurred, “They did, however, pay you generously for the information. I don’t know where they dug up the hard currency but you’ve been paid in League credits.”

“Generous.” Jacen nodded in appreciation.

“The part they found odd was having a Templar advocate for a privateer.” Jacen began to protest but Michel silenced him, “Don’t bother denying it. They brought the matter up. Like the rest of your baggage, it doesn’t matter as long as it doesn’t interfere with your ability to do the job.”

“Do you even have a life?” Jacen sputtered, “All I ever get from you is God, honor and duty.”

“The life of a Templar is very exacting.” Michel tried to explain, “It’s not simply a vocation. When you take the oath, you commit your very soul to the Order’s Mandate. It’s a calling few can embrace.”

“What you need is a woman…or several.” Gerin opined, “Why not pursue that pretty young thing that came aboard with you?”

“Vanessa’s a colleague.”

“So’s Larissa but we indulge in things that are illegal throughout most of the civilized galaxy.” Gerin leered.

Michel sighed, “The concept of professional camaraderie is just completely out of your paradigm, isn’t it?”

“You wouldn’t even have to try.” Jacen urged, “She’d deny it, but she’s into you. God knows why.”

“Jacen,” Michel grew stern, “just drop it.”

Jacen’s eyes widened with dawning realization, “My God! I know what it is. You’re hung up on someone else! You’re letting that tasty morsel go to waste because you’re pining away for some other trollop.”

“I’m not pining away.” T’Luthien asserted, “I just happen to have a code of ethics. My moral code prevents me from just sleeping with anyone who spreads their legs.” Michel shook his head, “Vanessa is my student, a protégé if you will. That relationship engenders a degree of trust that I can’t in good conscience violate.”

“You’re a fool.” Jacen sneered.

“Maybe. At least I can live with myself.” Michel slapped his knee, “How about a happier topic? How’d your negotiations over the salvage of the Celestial Star go?”

“They offered the exact deal you described.” Jacen gave Michel a wry grin, “They settled on a fifteen percent cut. The covert story will be that looters got to the vaults. The League, the Empire, and the Commonwealth are pooling their resources and delivering a healthy finder’s fee and I already signed all sorts of media deals.”

“Just leave me out of the story when you sell the rights for the Movie of the Week.” Michel wore a sour expression.

“Don’t worry. We’ll spin a version where we end up looking all virtuous, intrepid and heroic.” Jacen grinned.

“As a final note, you’ll be getting triple your usual rate for this job.” Michel said as he rose from the chair he was seated in.

“Generosity.” Gerin’s eyebrows rose, “Earlier high praise and now generosity. Where have I strayed?”

“Your crew put themselves out there on this one. They earned the bonus.” Michel broke into a grin, “You, on the other hand…”

“Finish that sentence and I’ll have to kill you.” Jacen warned.

Michel derisively blew out a mouthful of air, “As if you haven’t tried already. I guarantee you’ll get the same results every time.”

“Never hurts to try.” Gerin’s grin was that of a hopeful child.

“We’ll see.” Michel said rather soberly, “I think our business is pretty much concluded. Vanessa and I have rooms.”

“You could share `em.”

“Stop.” Michel replied wearily, “The Loki is en route to pick us up. She should be here in a day or two. What did Engines decide?”

“She’s staying aboard for now.” Gerin answered, and then asked, “So your ship gets here in two days. What then?”

Michel shrugged, “There’s some trouble brewing on Alleria. We’ll be headed that way. The planetary monarch has hired the Crusade Enforcers to quell an insurrection. The Templars are putting us in the system to repel any raiders that try to capitalize on the confusion.”

“Sounds like a fine job for the troops.” Gerin observed. “Never thought I’d say this, but good luck.”

Michel nodded in acknowledgement, “Thanks. With any luck, it’s just a nasty neighbor with a grudge pulling the strings.”

Jacen rose and offered his hand, “I never thought I’d do this either but you managed to pry the stick at least halfway outta your butt.”

Michel accepted Jacen’s hand and shook it, “This is certainly a milestone.”

Jacen took his hand back, “Well, it doesn’t mean that we’re friends or that I’m going to name my first born after you.”

Michel chuckled, “Fair enough. See you around Gerin.”

“I’m sure you’ll be summoning me for some devious scheme soon enough.”

“Take care.” and with that, Michel left.

Jacen sat back down on the couch he’d been lounging in and picked up the drinks menu. While contemplating what interesting sounding concoction to order next, he idly wondered what task the Templars would call upon him for. His life was certainly more interesting now that he worked for them. He’d never admit it but he found a vicarious thrill out of being a covert operative. T’Luthien could never be allowed to even suspect that Jacen enjoyed his work. There would be no way of telling how he’d exploit that.


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