Tales of the Knights Templar

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Chapter 3: Slaver

Michel T’Luthien sat at his desk and reread the message containing his latest orders. He sighed heavily and put the hardcopy down. He’d known this day would come. He’d dreaded it as well, but in truth he’d always known the confrontation was inevitable.

Jacen Gerin had been his pet project, a pirate suborned to the lawful side of business. Gerin had served as one of T’Luthien’s moles in the criminal cartels that comprised the world of piracy. He’d worked some during the recent Trinity War between the Hadran Republic and the rest of Human space but sporadically and with little information of real use.

Now, several reports had cropped up regarding Gerin’s ship, the Wandering I. The I had been spotted looting a crippled freighter, a freighter whose captain filed an affidavit claiming a pirate named Jacen Gerin was responsible for his losses. Gerin’s ship had also been spotted escorting cargo haulers out of Hadrani territory. The I had swiftly absconded rather than face the superior firepower of a heavy cruiser. The freighters, however, were boarded and revealed to be transporting cloned slaves.

Since the war’s conclusion, possession or operation of a Hadrani cloning cylinder carried the death penalty. The captured slavers crumbled under interrogation and readily divulged the whereabouts of their cohorts. A sizeable force was sent in to destroy the cloning facility and the mission was a success. In the tumult that ensued, one pirate got away. And now Michel was being ordered to track down his former associate and apprehend him if possible and kill him if necessary.

Michel had received his orders from the Restored Order of the Knights Templar. The “T” prefacing his surname denoted his affiliation in lieu of a title. The Templars had existed for more than three centuries. They’d arisen in the aftermath of the Systems Wars that ended Earth’s hegemony over humanity’s scattered colonies. Their mandate had been simple in its complexity: defend humanity.

The fall of Earth’s control over the various colonial outposts also saw an exponential jump in immigration. These colonists soon faced the harsh realities of space travel. The war had added to these hazards. Raiders now roamed about Human space virtually unchecked by any power.

Galvanized by a ruthless determination, the Templars responded to this threat by transforming themselves into the largest, most effective anti-piracy force in Human space. Coupled with a resolute stance to remain apolitical in all its dealings, the Templars found themselves welcomed in all but a few solar systems. That policy had shifted somewhat when the Templars declared the Hadrani to be a threat to humanity and actively engaged in hostilities with the Republic. Few doubted that the Templars had tipped the scales in the Trinity War but now the rest of humanity held its breath as they waited to see what the Order would do next.

Which is why this mission is so important, Michel mentally sighed, We can’t be seen as being soft on one of our “own”, even though Gerin was a freelance operative and not a Templar.

At least the orders left the complement of his operations team up to his discretion. He had several veterans of his Special Operations Group in mind. The documents also specified where he could pick up his transportation. The ship was classified as a Q-ship. A commercial freighter modified to carry weapons. The Ares sported the equivalent firepower of a light cruiser. The Wandering I was more than outmatched.

Michel sent several wires summoning his troops to meet him at the shuttleport. He then called for an aircar. He would pick up the last member of his team personally.

Alleria was primarily an agricultural world. It did not have an axial tilt so its seasons were uniform and mild. The planet possessed 14% more land volume than Earth and proportionately less ocean. The villa Michel came to was situated on the cliffs facing the aptly named “Great Ocean”. It was here, out on the balcony, seated in a lounger that T’Luthien found Caitlin Shire.

As always, Michel took a moment to admire Caitlin. She possessed shoulder length chestnut hair that was highlighted by the sun. Today she wore it under a wide brimmed hat. High cheekbones and a slightly upturned nose dominated her face. She had full, pouty lips that were currently turned up in a bemused smile. Her alabaster skin glowed under the Mediterranean conditions.

She wore loose, flowing clothes and had her feet curled up on the lounger. Upon hearing Michel enter, she sat down her book reader and slipped off her sunglasses.

“I knew you couldn’t stay away.” her smile beamed, “Come to ravish me?”

Michel gave her a melancholy smile, “I wish. It’s certainly more pleasant, and a whole lot more stimulating, than the real reason of why I’m here.”

Caitlin’s buried her face in her hands, “Noooo.”

“Yup.” Michel nodded and took a look at the view. He’d spent the last few days in the local Temple Lodge while Caitlin had remained behind here. It paid to know the Crown Prince of Alleria, who was also now the newly crowned Emperor of Man. Humanity had once again been united, with the Templars ensconced as its independent protectors.

“When?” Caitlin groaned.

“Now, if not sooner.” Michel said as he rocked back and forth on his heels.

“Now?” Shire came up out of the lounger and straight at T’Luthien, “Now this isn’t fair. Look at this place.” Her arm swung wide, encompassing the view, “How long will it be before I see something that beautiful again?”

Michel tended to forget that Caitlin’s homeworld of Sinherra was an ocean planet. Only 6% of its surface was landmass. The rocks, trees, deserts and mountains other humans found natural were completely foreign to her. The Sinherran settlers had imported all of their building supplies and designed great, floating cities.

Caitlin had fought for Sinherra’s liberation throughout the war, first alongside the Hadrani and then against them. It was then that she’d first coordinated with Michel’s SOG. The peace terms, as negotiated by her father, were reasonable but came at a great personal price. Caitlin was exiled from her birthworld. She had become too volatile an influence to remain unchecked.

Michel arranged for her to have a place in his SOG. She’d become his lieutenant and enjoyed the work thoroughly. That still did little to allay the loss of family and home. At least here, and at other ocean vistas, she felt marginally reunited with her kin.

Michel gently took by the shoulders and drew her in close, wrapping his arms around her. He kissed her forehead. She looked up at him and their eyes met. Michel recognized the hunger in hers and fiercely kissed her. She matched his ferocity and for several moments they were consumed by their passions.

In the end, Michel stepped back, “We don’t have time for this.”

“And I was just starting to not be mad at you. Caitlin folded her arms across her chest

“Cat.” Michel’s tone grew sterner.

“Oh, all right.” she threw hands up in the air, “Let me gather my crap up.” She started to head into the villa and stopped and turned around, “Just one question, what’s the op?”

“We’re hunting down Jacen Gerin.” came T’Luthien’s grim reply

“Omigod.” a wide-eyed Shire replied.

Gathering Caitlin’s things had only taken a few moments. Allowing her time to change into more appropriate attire for a mission had taken longer. Fortunately for both, she had her armaments kit with her. Even with all of that, they still arrived at the shuttleport within thirty minutes. Two women and a man were loitering in front of a hangar, surrounded by bags of equipment.

“You must want Jacen bad. You’re bringing out the varsity players.” Caitlin remarked.

Michel set the aircar down, “There’s more, we’re using the Ares.”

“We have a ship?” Caitlin asked hopefully, “Good. I was beginning to think we’d have to walk.”

Michel rolled his eyes and popped the hatch, “Maybe you should.”

“Are you saying I’m fat?” Caitlin teased.

“Oh Lord.” Michel groaned, “C’mon, let’s confer with the others and update them as to our mission profile.”

“You haven’t told them?”

“I told them the outlines, that we’re hunting a notorious pre-war pirate gone back into operation. I left the particulars to their imaginations.” Michel explained.

All of the assembled SOG personnel were Templar freelance contractors. Michel’s affiliation, and leadership of the group wasn’t surprising. He wasn’t an Operations man, versed in the art of combating pirates. He was an Intelligence officer, suited to covert operations and skullduggery.

He’d recruited three of his four SOG officers from the militaries of major stellar powers. Vanessa Clarke had been a Chief Scan Tech. Recruited to the SOG by way of the Androcan Imperial Navy, her skills were incomparable. Vanessa had been the very first, and so far solitary, person to track a rift jump.

Upon Michel’s first meeting of Caitlin Shire, they’d been assigned to an undercover mission infiltrating a data smuggling ring. Shire’s disguise had reminded T’Luthien of Vanessa, affectionately known as “Vee” by Michel. Clarke wore her dark hair short and spiky. Her vibrant blue eyes frequently sparkled. She possessed a heart shaped face that was highlighted by a snub nose and rose-colored lips. The overall effect granted her an elfin appearance.

Vanessa loved nothing more than to lose herself in her scan board. The other two officers present had little use for remote action, they were hands-on professionals. Edward Vittario and Natasha Timoshenko were former Terran and Androcan Marines. Vittario had served in the Terran League Marine Corps before joining the SOG. Timoshenko had been an officer in the Imperial Marine Cadre before her disillusionment with the Androcan Empire drove her to defect. Both had found a comfortable home in the Templar’s bosom. Michel’s SOG merely offered them the types of challenges they craved.

“What’s hapenin’, Boss?” Vittario asked. Normally a strict stickler for proper military protocol, Vittario’s informality signified his abiding trust in T’Luthien.

Michel appraised Vittario. If it was possible, the man had utilized his leave time adding to his undeniably spectacular musculature. The man already looked like he had enough bulk to equal that of a small planetoid. T’Luthien worked out but had never had the drive to bulge like that.

He then took a second to study Timoshenko. Natasha was all angles and planes. It was almost as though someone had extracted all the most striking features of the Slavic profile and constructed Timoshenko’s profile. She wasn’t a beautiful woman but she caught one’s eye and held it. Like Vittario, she radiated danger without openly advertising the fact.

“As you know from your comm messages, we’ve been assigned to track down and apprehend a dangerous criminal. What you don’t know is that he’s that dangerous because we made him that way.” Michel paused before delivering the hammer’s blow, “Our quarry is Jacen Gerin and this time bringing him in alive is optional.”

The assembled reply was stunned silence. All of them had worked alongside Jacen Gerin during his time as a Templar operative. Michel had covertly run Gerin unofficially as a private project in order to allow Jacen the opportunity to save a little face. Over the past few years, Gerin had proven himself vital to several SOG operations. His war record alone would have earned a medal in less rarified and secretive circles.

“If you don’t mind my asking, sir, but why?” Timoshenko ventured.

“Gerin’s been implicated in a slave trading operation.” Michel explained, “He was spotted escorting a slave ship. He was identified and implicated by the slavers captured aboard the slave ship. The cloning operation was destroyed and the slaves liberated but one pirate got away.”

“Gerin.” Vittario grunted with a touch of admiration.

“Correct. Four heavy missile cruisers, four battleships and eight frigates entered that system and not one of them even got a decent shot at the Wandering I. Apparently Paul Douglas has been honing his skills.”

There was some mild chuckling at T’Luthien’s reference to the I’s helmsman, “The reports do indicate that Jacen was a recent recruit into the operation and his sole task was to run escort for the cargo deliveries. Whether or not Gerin knew what that cargo was or where it derived from is a matter of conjecture. I, myself, have already had this debate with Temple Mount,” Michel evoked the name of the headquarters of the Order of the Knights Templar, “and I spoke to Aelynn T’Hollander herself.” his audience’s anticipation grew with the mentioning of the legendary Knight Commander of the Templars.

“That conversation ended with permission to apprehend Jacen rather than this being a straight termination order.” Michel informed his team, “So I suggest we find Gerin and determine his level of involvement.”

“What incentive does he have to cooperate?” Vanessa piped up. Everyone stared at her and she shrugged, “Hey, I’d want to know why I should incriminate myself.”

“It’s the only viable alternative to dying.” Michel said calmly, “Aelynn is even willing to revisit the SOG’s original deal with Gerin but he has to be willing to abide by it.”

Vittario threw his hands in the air, “There goes that. That cocky little ponce won’t want to rein himself in again. Not now that he’s been off the reservation for awhile.”

“First things first.” T’Luthien reminded his bunch, “We start by meeting our ship. That starts with catching a shuttle and finally we top it off with figuring out where Jacen’s at.”

“That’ll take some doing.” Vittario replied.

“Not as much as you think.” T’Luthien informed them, “Gerin’s a creature of habit. He has certain boltholes where he runs to ground. We’ll simply check those out first.”

“So, next up is ‘where’s our shuttle’?” Caitlin asked, brushing her hair out of her face and tucking it behind an ear.

“Over there.” Michel pointed at an older, slightly dilapidated looking civilian model shuttle.

“You gotta be kidding.” Caitlin remarked.

“Be nice, Cat.” Michel advised, “It may be old but it’s reliable. We are going on a civilian craft, contracted to assist us as it has in the past.”

“I thought Captain Schrieber swore never to work for you again.” Timoshenko added to the discussion.

“We’ve opted to put our differences aside for one more mission.” Michel said tightly.

“Bet you paid her a butt load of credits.” Vanessa piped up.

“More than you want to know about.” Michel muttered just loud enough for Caitlin to make out.

Shire smiled but suppressed the snicker that was dying to come out. Korista Schrieber had good reason to be wary of the team of T’Luthien and Shire. Their last union had ended up with the Ares being reduced to a near hulk. Nearly 50% of the crew had died but the objective had been met.

The SOG had successfully destroyed or sabotaged enough Hadrani military cloning cylinders to cripple their ability to mass produce soldiers. The problem had been that they were deep within Republican borders and they were now a marked vessel. Only the intervention of a combined task force comprised of elements of the Templar fleet and the Royal Cerverean Navy had saved them.

Schrieber had hotly declared that she would “sooner burn in hell than work for the Templars again” while the Ares was being tractored to a safe harbor. It had taken some doing to convince Korista to relent to participating in another Templar operation. The hefty fee the Templars had negotiated with the Crusade Corporation, the Ares’ employer, had played a large part of the settlement. Schrieber had been offered triple her usual rate and threatened with being fired if she refused.

The presence of the Ares’ shuttle was proof enough of Korista’s ultimate decision. The shuttle itself was an intended insult. Based upon previous experience with the ship, the Operations team knew that the Ares had newer, more comfortable shuttles. They collectively shrugged their shoulders and packed their gear over to the shuttle.

They approached the boarding hatch and were suddenly blocked by a portly, middle-aged man. The pilot was an old hand aboard the Ares and was one of her best shuttle pilots. He assessed the assembled team and grunted.

“So, the deadly duo is back.” The pilot said, staring directly at Michel and Caitlin, “Never thought I’d see the day.”

“Hello, Eddie.” Michel calmly replied, “How’s the grandkids?”

Eddie smiled despite himself, “Talkin’ up a storm and getting into everythin’.”

Michel smiled, “Glad to hear it.”

“Might as well git aboard.” Eddie said and retreated back into the shuttle.

Caitlin boarded first and Eddie stopped her, “Stow yer things, young missy then join me in the cockpit. The Captain’s fit o’ temper left me without a co-pilot.”

Caitlin nodded her acknowledgement and went to work. Michel came next, followed by Vanessa, Vittario and Timoshenko. Caitlin closed the cargo container where she’d thrown her bags and eased her way through the others to reach the cockpit. She yelped as Michel smacked her butt as she passed by. She looked over her shoulder and stuck her tongue out at him as she continued on her way.

Eddie chuckled as she passed him to enter the cockpit, “Nice t’see some things never change.”

Five minutes later, Eddie started up the engines and activated the ten minute countdown in the passenger compartment. When the ten minutes were up, he activated a video feed from the compartment to make certain all the passengers were tucked away and strapped into their crash seats. He wound up the engines and called Allerian Traffic Control for departure clearance. Receiving it, he grinned over at Caitlin.

“Watch out. This mule still has quite a kick.”

Caitlin pondered that statement while Eddie threw the throttles back to “Full”. The next thing she knew, he spine was being compressed into her seat. While the shuttle possessed fairly new engines, it had a woefully outdated inertial compensator and artificial gravity system. Caitlin had been aboard Templar assault shuttles lifting off on full military power that were less strenuous than this.

As Caitlin struggled for breath and the ability to move her arms, Eddie pointed at her controls, “Watch the trim. This ol’ buzzard likes to fly off on its own accord.”

Shire wanted to know how he expected her to watch anything while all the blood in her brain was being pushed into her legs. The thought of a shuttle that liked to wander off on a whim somehow kept her focused. She was eternally grateful when they left the planet’s grav field and entered microgravity.

Her earlier assessment of the artificial grav system proved to be correct. It only produced about a ½ g. It was enough to work in, as long as you stayed strapped into your crash seat. As they left Alleria’s microgravity, the Ares loomed ahead. The ship had been fully restored to its former glory.

The Ares had sleek lines. It roughly resembled an insect. The forward module was tear shaped with two laser cannons protruding from either side. This “head” also contained several plasma cannon ports. The thin part of the tear formed a neck leading to the engineering and cargo sections. The entire outer hull of this section was laced with missile tubes, ten to a side.

As the drive section appeared at the aft of the rounded cargo section, it sprouted eight massive sublight plasma drivers. The rift drive was contained internally and did not require an external extension. Rift travel was near instantaneous but the plasma drivers made the Ares one of the fastest vessels in space.

The former freighter’s cargo capacity was severely limited and the ship was generally reserved for highly sensitive shipments. As it were, the visibility of the laser cannons gave the Q-ship the appearance of a pirate’s raider. It was a deception the crew had used to their advantage many times. It was a misperception that Michel was counting on.

The underside of the Ares was laden with cargo hatches, both for legitimate cargo and for replenishing missile magazines. Eddie swung the shuttle to the top of the Ares. There, in the middle of the cargo section, was circular hatch that was sliding open even as they approached. Eddie spoke with the Ares’ shuttlemaster and then released the flight controls. The Q-ship’s computers now had them.

As they descended into the bowels of the shuttlebay, Caitlin could see the freighter’s two other shuttles. They were both brand new and in pristine condition. Eddie saw what she was staring at and decided to counsel her.

“Don’t take personally, missy. The Cap’n has an awful temper when provoked and she’s slow to forget. Don’t give her any more reason to dislike you.”

“Thanks Chief.” Caitlin said, using the diminutive of his shipboard rank. Shire then shrugged out of her crash harness and exited the cockpit to check on the rest of her team. Only Vanessa seemed distressed. The two former Marines and the Templar were all fairly undisturbed by the trip. In fact, Michel looked so content that Caitlin wanted to belt him one.

“Well,” she said irritably, “we’re here.”

“So that’s why the roller coaster ride ended.” Michel quipped, “Was that your idea or Eddie’s?”

“It was the Chief’s.”

“Ah,” Michel mused, “getting a little payback of his own.”

“He advised me to keep things mellow. Apparently Korista can nurse a grudge for a long while.”

“I’m perfectly aware of Kori’s capabilities.” Michel advised her. This served to remind Caitlin that Michel had worked with Schrieber longer than he’d known her. There’d been allegations of a previous tryst between T’Luthien and Korista but it was all speculation. Still, it was speculation that Caitlin didn’t like.

“Shall we go out and meet our host?” Michel asked and Caitlin nodded. Vittario and Timoshenko were busily retrieving their gear from storage. Vanessa sat in her seat, still looking rather green. Caitlin gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder.

“C’mon Vee, let’s go.”

Vanessa gave her a baleful look but grudgingly vacated her seat.

Shown to their quarters by a ship’s steward, the team was now on its way to the bridge to meet with Captain Schrieber. As they entered, Korista’s yeoman murmured something to her and the Captain rose from her station at the ship’s master plot. She turned to face the SOG group and her gray eyes were relentless in their scrutiny. She wore her ash gray blonde hair in a functional bob and pretty but not beautiful.

She placed her fists akimbo on her hips and shook her head, “So we meet again. Vanessa, it’ll be a pleasure working with you again, the newbies in the Scan section of heard all about your legendary exploits. Vittario, Timoshenko, my Crusade Enforcers are looking forward to drilling with you.”

Korista stalked closer, “As far as you two go, I suppose I’m roasting in hell as we speak. Were the joint quarters acceptable? After all, I thought it would be more honest than all the sneaking around between quarters you two did on your last visit.” Michel and Caitlin looked at one another and broke into guilty grins.

“So what’s the op?” Korista asked.

“A straightforward job this time. We’re hunting a pirate.” Michel answered.

“Must be a regular piece of work to merit your happy bunch.”

“It’s Jacen Gerin.” Michel revealed.

Korista blinked in surprise.

“It isn’t safe here, Jacen.” Edgar Briandt, the Weapons officer of the Wandering I, complained as he sat in a local tavern with his captain.

“Relax.” Gerin recommended, taking a deep pull off his Frenner’s Ale, a beer native to Jacen’s Androcan homeworld. “No one is going to come looking for us on Angora. This planet is famous for only two things: wool and, among more rarified circles, providing a safe refuge for pirates. We’ll hear about it well in advance if anyone comes looking for us.”

“You’d better be right.” Alicia Featherstone, the I’s hawk faced Scan Tech, remarked. Jacen looked down the table and saw that Paul Daniels, the Astronavigator, and Paul Douglas, the Pilot, were nodding in agreement. Jacen was just glad that his Comm Tech, Charlie Taylor and his 1st Officer, Larissa Brenei weren’t here to gang up on him.

Larissa doubled as Jacen’s lover. She was also the only non-Androcan in the crew. There used to be another, but Engines had left due to Jacen’s dealings with slavers. An ex- Hadrani gene bred slave herself, she couldn’t condone Jacen’s actions, even if they had been unintentional.

And that was the plain truth of the matter. Gerin had accepted the role of gunship escorting a cargo vessel. He’d never asked what the cargo was because that’s not how business was done. All he knew was that it was illicit or he’d never have been approached to protect it.

During Jacen’s tenure with the Templar’s SOG, he fostered quite a reputation as a ship for hire on the side. Michel had overlooked Gerin’s activities in lieu of Jacen’s being his “pet” pirate and covert operative. Jacen had chafed under T’Luthien’s thumb and had rebelled during the war while the Templar spy was otherwise engaged.

Jacen took another deep drink of his ale when Charlie Taylor came running into the tavern, “Captain, someone’s looking for us!”

Jacen spewed beer all over Briandt, “What?”

Briandt angrily wiped himself off while Taylor explained, “There’s this guy, big guy, walking around town asking around about where he could find us.”

“Is he offering credits?” Jacen asked.

“That’s what I’ve heard.”

“Have you actually seen him?” Jacen asked snidely.

Taylor nodded, “Uh huh. This guy’s a monster and he’s armed for a small war.”

The weapons were less of a concern than the questions. Everybody on Angora was armed. The credits were the problem. Loyalties could easily waver if cash was involved.

“The worst is coming, Boss.” Taylor informed Jacen, “The guy’s talking to Engines right now!”

Jacen violently swore. Engines was angry with Gerin, perhaps angry enough to rat him out. After all he’d done for that genetically bred bitch! He’d already lost a competent engineer, why did why she have to turn traitor too?

“What are we going to do, Skipper?” Featherstone enquired.

“We’re going to get the hell out of Dodge.” Jacen replied as he rose from his seat, “Has he found Larissa or the I?”

“I don’t think so.” Taylor responded, “He seemed to pretty much stick to the town.”

“Good. Let’s go!” the crew went out a back door as Jacen pulled a comm from his jacket pocket, “Hon? Double-time it to the I. We’re blasting offa this rock.”

Mitchell “Mad Dog” Dunn strode into the Shepherd’s Moon and gazed around at the patrons. All of them were killers. They’d raped, plundered, and murdered countless souls. And none of them were the subjects he was looking for.

The largest bounty was on Gerin. It was enough to retire on if you watched your credits. The rest were loose change.

Mad Dog was a professional bounty hunter. This accounted for his callous disregard for those in this establishment. He’d taken down more pirates and raiders than were assembled here today, and the place was nearly full.

Gerin’s reputation for dirtside laxity was apparently undeserved while he was being hunted. He’d obviously had one of or more his crew watching the town for signs of pursuit. If only he’d run into the gene bred engineer earlier, he might have beaten the observers back here. As it was, he’d have to see if anyone in here would offer up any information regarding Gerin’s whereabouts.

“Attention people,” Mad Dog’s resonant bass resounded, “I’m looking for a man named Jacen Gerin. He owes me some money and I intend to collect on that debt. I’ll pay any man or woman willing to cough up any information regarding his whereabouts a hundred Terran League credits.”

Since the Terran League, the remnant of the old Earth hegemony, was the largest Human government its currency was considered the hard currency of Human space, negotiable on any world. One hundred credits was a healthy reward to be offered up but paled in comparison to the bounty on Jacen’s head. Of course, if Mad Dog failed to secure Jacen, then the expenditure would be out of his own coffers. Fortunately, Mad Dog was among the most successful bounty hunters so he had investment portfolios, bank accounts, and business enterprises in his name. A hundred credits wouldn’t be missed.

“Eat shit and die!” a pirate to the rear of the bar yelled. Next he was propelled backwards and the wallspace behind him was splintered wood. All eyes turned to Mad Dog as he worked the lever action of his fletchette rifle, chambering a new round. No one had seen him pull it from his leg holster and release a bundle of electromagnetically propelled razors into the man.

“You don’t need to die.” Mad Dog announced, “Tell me what I need to know and you’ll earn some coin. Disrespect me and you’ll share his fate.”

A deathly silence enveloped the room, finally broken by a lanky woman, “They went out the back.”

Mad Dog hurriedly paid the woman then ran out the back. He ran for where the Wandering I had settled down. His worst fears were confirmed when he arrived. The I was gone. He knew the ship possessed a rift drive, which meant she could be anywhere in explored space.

The rift drive had been a military innovation developed during the last war between the Androcan Empire and the Cerverean Commonwealth. The Cervereans invented the drive. It operated by translating a ship into a rift between dimensions. It was swiftly discovered that this netherspace would madden or slay an improperly shielded ship.

The other attribute that was discovered was that great distances could be traversed while no time elapsed in “real” space. The only amount of time gone was what it took to translate between realities. The distance covered was limited only by the amount of fuel the drive had. One could traverse Human space on a reaction chamber filled with fuel ore.

Michel T’Luthien had been aboard a ship that first tested a rift drive under combat conditions. Their shields had been damaged and most of the crew died. The survivors underwent varying degrees of dementia and madness. In T’Luthien’s case, he felt more attuned to the cosmos’ ultimate purpose and became devoted to its fulfillment. This trait made him a natural recruit for the Knights Templar. His naval commander became the Knight Commander of the Order. No one knew what form of dementia she’d manifested.

“We’re going after who?” Korista demanded.

“Jacen Gerin.” Michel repeated.

The Jacen Gerin,” Korista went on, “your personal pet pirate project?”

Michel nodded, “The same.”

“What’d he do to piss you off?”

“He’s off the reservation.”

Korista folded her arms, “C’mon Michel, he’s always been off the reservation.”

“He got involved with a slave ship transporting gene bred slaves with intent to sell.” Michel explained.

“What if he didn’t know what the cargo was?”

“That’s something I’d like to discuss with him.” Michel answered.

“So this isn’t necessarily a hit squad?”

“What if it was?” Caitlin threw her hands in the air, “What of it? You’re being paid to help us chase him down. His ultimate fate rests with us, not you. We all know Jacen’s a putz. Why worry about him?”

“Nice to see that you’re as compassionate as ever, Caitlin.” Korista’s eyes narrowed.

“Cat, Kori, let’s worry about finding Jacen first.” Michel intervened, “We can settle interpersonal issues later.”

“Okay,” Korista said sarcastically, “where do we look?”

“I’d start with Angora. It’s Jacen’s first bolthole.” Michel replied.

“And how do you know this?”

Michel sighed, “Kori, I handled Jacen for three years. I should know his habits by now.”

Korista considered that fact for a moment. Despite how, perhaps because of, antagonistic Michel and Jacen’s relationship had been, Michel would have had reason to observe Gerin’s habits. She nodded, bobbing her hair.

“All right. Give Mr. Foster Angora’s coordinates and then brief my Tactical department.” Korista instructed, referring to Harry Foster, her astronavigator. The Ares’ Tactical Department consisted of Kiernn Werner, the Weapons Officer; Mitch Fowler, the Chief Scan Tech; and Illyana Primakova, the Operations Officer.

“Mr. Baiula,” Korista called out to her XO, “you have the watch.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Paula Baiula called back.

“Tactical department heads, with me.” Korista ordered.

“Vee, stick with us.” Michel directed, “Edward, Natasha, you have the run of the ship.”

Vittario and Timoshenko smiled, “We’ll be in the gym.”

Michel shook his head; “Whatever keeps you happy.” The last thing Vittario and Timoshenko needed were more muscles. Vittario and Timoshenko left the bridge, discussing their plans for the Crusade Enforcers in the sparring ring.

Michel turned to Korista, “After you, Captain.”

“Just remember that.” Korista advised as she led the assembled officers to the staff briefing table at the rear of the bridge.

The Wandering I translated as close to the inner system as the primary’s gravimetric field would allow. Gravity was a constant throughout realities. The stronger the gravitic field the more interference with interdimensional translations. Generally, the translation barrier lay in the middle of the system.

The I’s destination lay just inside the barrier. It was an inhabited binary planetoid. Atmospheric pressure domes contained the necessary nitrogen/oxygen mix that coursed through the warren of tunnels drilled through each planetoid. The barren rocks were imaginatively named Mudball I and Mudball II.

The Mudballs existed to serve one purpose: the exchange of illicit goods from one hand to another. They were located in the barren region of the Androcan/Hadrani border. The bases had existed for over two hundred years and very little about the infrastructure had changed in that time.

Jacen paid the appropriately inflated docking fee and established an umbilical link with Mudball II. He allowed shore leave for all the crew. They’d sleep aboard ship rather than pay the exorbitant room rates. Fortunately for the crew, Jacen’s slaver employers had paid him half in advance. That fee allowed them to afford a stay at such a prohibitively expensive place as the Mudballs.

It had grown into evening at the Shepherds Moon. Most of the meals had been eaten and the dishes put away. Now came the storytelling and the serious drinking. For one woman in particular, there would be festivities.

The front doors suddenly exploded and pirates across the pub’s floor hit the deck. Two armored figures emerged out of the smoke the detonation had left behind. They were male and female judging by the curves of their protective gear.

Vittario carried an electromagnetic impact rifle. The rifle’s electromagnetic coils could spew forth 2mm armor piercing darts, 50 rounds a minute at close to 10,000 fps. Timoshenko carried a high power laser rifle. It had a back mounted powerpack and could slice through five inches of hardened steel.

Michel and Caitlin, dressed in black tactical gear, emerged from the rear entrance. They each wielded electromag impact pistols. They had their weapons poised and ready for use. They tracked the slightest movement with their weapons.

“We are not here to hurt you.” Michel announced, “We simply seek knowledge regarding the whereabouts of a desperate individual.”

“You mean Jacen Gerin?” The informant asked, “The other fella was willing to offer a hundred credits for information. What’s yer offer?”

Michel took aim at the lanky woman, “You get to live.”

“You said you weren’t here to hurt us.” she mockingly parroted back.

“You don’t hurt any more when you’re dead.” Michel replied coldly and began to squeeze the trigger.

“Wait!” a man to the woman’s left cried out, “Gerin was here but he ran off when this other man came looking for him.”

“What man?” Michel demanded.

“He never gave his name. Looked like a bounty hunter though. Big motherf…”

Michel held his hand up, “Thank you. We’ll leave you in peace.”

With that said, Michel and Caitlin backed out of the rear entrance while Vittario and Timoshenko covered them. When they’d disappeared, the two ex-Marines backed out of the ruins of the entrance. With the dust settled and the coast clear, the corsairs on the floor picked themselves up.

“You recognize that armor?” one whispered, “That was Templar issue.”

“Those black togs the other two were wearing, those were Templar too.” another chimed in.

“My God!” a third exclaimed, “They could have killed us all.”

“Normally they would have.” a grizzled old figure near the rear entrance pronounced, “They must want this Geri fella bad.”

“Well, I heard…” and with that, the stories began and drinks began to circulate once again.

One of the Ares’ three shuttles was a Terran League naval issue assault shuttle. Aboard it, Michel was in communication with the Ares’ bridge as the shuttle approached.

“Kori, have your astronavigator plot a rift jump to the Mudballs.” Michel instructed.

“No luck, I take it.” came the reply.

“He was here.” Michel revealed, “He was also being pursued by another agent, possibly a bounty hunter. Get on the HoloNet and see if a price has been put on Jacen’s head.”

“I’ll put Illyana on it and have her report the results to you when you arrive.” Korista assured him.

“Thanks. I couldn’t ask for more.” Michel terminated the connection and settled back into his seat.

Caitlin sat beside him, studying him, “So…is this how its going to play out?”

Michel was honestly perplexed, “What?”

“The endgame scenario with Jacen.” Caitlin clarified, “Is that scene back at the tavern a preview of how this is going to end?”

“Probably.” Michel confirmed, “Is that suddenly a problem?”

“Michel, you almost killed an innocent woman.” Caitlin protested, “You weren’t bluffing. You were going to shoot her.”

“If I’d done my duty as my oath requires it, I’d have killed them all.” Michel reminded her, “If we’re going to play the game of relevant innocence, that woman gave up any rights to a jury a long time ago.”

Caitlin gave him a dubious look and Michel’s jaw clenched while he spoke next, “Cat, I’m a knight of the Restored Order of the Knights Templar. Do you have any idea of what kind of significance that holds for me?”

“I think we’ve discussed it exhaustively.” Caitlin replied, “And as an operative of the Templars, I mostly agree with the Order’s policy towards piracy. Speaking as an ex-cop from the Empire, I have a problem with the preferred method of ‘Kill them all and let God sort them out’.”

“Is there any way to get past this without this becoming an argument?” Michel asked, “I said ‘if I were to do my duty’, I didn’t actually kill her.”

“That’s the point.” Caitlin said hotly, “You’ve never performed your duty by strict black and white guidelines. Take Jacen Gerin for instance…”

“And look where that’s led us.” Michel countered.

“He’s only recently become a problem. For three years, he’s been semi-legitimate. That’s a huge improvement over ‘none’. To top everything off, we don’t even know if Jacen knew that there were slaves aboard that ship.”

“That’s why we’re taking him alive.” Michel replied.

If possible.” Caitlin provided the unspoken caveat.

Michel shrugged, “Its all up to Jacen. What I do know is that he’s coming with us, one way or another.”

“Even if you hate yourself for doing what duty demands?” Caitlin pointedly enquired.

Michel’s eyes bore into hers, “Wouldn’t be the first time.”

Once the shuttle had docked and the team had disembarked, the ship’s Operations officer, Illyana Primakova, met them at the shuttlebay’s hatch. Michel took the hardcopy she offered, perused it and then swore. He handed the printout to Caitlin. Her eyes widened as she read it.

“Oh my God.” Caitlin breathed, “Where the hell did the Hadrani come up with one million Terran League credits?”

“What’s more disturbing is that they offered the bounty at all.” Michel grated, “They knew the Order was handling this matter.”

“Michel,” Caitlin adopted a lecturing tone of voice, “there’s three hundred years of bad blood between the Republic and the Order. On top of that, the Templars just broke a five hundred year old neutrality policy and chose a side when they entered the Trinity War. Worst of all, in their opinion, you didn’t choose their side. Take a hint, they’re holding a grudge. Besides, the new regime is trying hard to prove to all the emancipated slaves that they take slavery seriously.”

Michel nodded, “I think you nailed all the elements on the head.”

“Do I get a cookie?” she asked with mock excitement.

“Change the first letter and you’ll get it right.”

“Yum!” Caitlin responded with genuine enthusiasm.

“Have you authorized the contract?” the blank comm screen asked him. The imager was being blocked at the source.

“Just faxed it.” Mad Dog confirmed.

“They’re on Mudball II.” the faceless contact informed him. Mad Dog smiled with satisfaction. This tidbit had just set him back 1,000 credits but it was from a reliable source he’d cultivated for years. With the connection terminated, he set about programming the rift jump. Gerin and his crew would shortly be his.

The Ares translated out of the rift into the solar system containing the Mudballs. Since the system was officially uninhabited, the primary had never received any name other than its old 20th century stellar cartographical numerical designator. Having arrived several million kilometers away from the Mudballs, the Ares engaged its plasma drives and made way. Arriving at the planetoids, the freighter was authorized to assume a parking orbit and to begin shuttling crew over.

The single shuttle flight contained the SOG team. Michel and Caitlin retained their black tactical uniforms but Vittario and Timoshenko had shucked the Templar armor they’d been wearing earlier and simply wore the black tactical uniforms that had lain underneath. Timoshenko had also discarded the laser rifle.

Now, instead of slug throwers, the group was armed with plasma weapons. Michel and Caitlin each had a phased plasma pistol. Vittario and Timoshenko carried these as well as a back up for their plasma rifles. Now the group just had to find their quarry.

Walking down the tunnel from the docking umbilical to the main concourse, Caitlin carefully picked her way through a tangle of ancient corroded pipes and conduit.

“Nasty.” Caitlin complained as she sidled around a puddle of sewage, “Doesn’t this bring back memories?”

Michel smiled. He and Caitlin had met during a joint undercover mission authorized by the Order and the Androcan Office for State Security. They’d inserted posing as data smugglers in the OSS’ custody. The intended customers turned out to be Hadrani soldiers.

To complicate matters, the anarchist organization, the Underground, also tried to secure the data. Michel and Caitlin had only escaped due to the conflict between the Hadrani and the Underground operatives. Jacen Gerin had made a timely entrance and spirited T’Luthien and Shire away. The experience had created a bond that outlasted a war. Now they were a couple and on the hunt for the third person that had been there at the beginning.

“Omigod!” Caitlin exclaimed as something floated by.

Michel grinned, “I seem to recall you having a problem with the station’s plumbing last time too.”

“And as I told you then, civilized facilities use waste converters.” Caitlin huffed.

Michel put an arm around her, “So you did.”

The tunnel emptied out into a cavernous space that hollowed out nearly half of the planetoid. This was the facility’s main concourse. Here vendors, kiosks, storefronts, pubs and flophouses could be found. Information, as well as flesh or narcotics, could be purchased at every “street” corner. Prices varied, as did the quality of the information.

They’d arrived in between two lanes. The streets created by the vacancies between structures. Since there were no building codes, the “street” curved and narrowed at regular intervals. Michel and Caitlin headed down one lane. Vittario and Timoshenko proceeded down the other nearest boulevard.

“Everyone up?” Michel subvocalized into his mastoid implant.

Caitlin and Timoshenko both said “Yes” while Vittario answered with an “Ayup”. These replies vibrated through his bone into his ear canal. The implant was Templar technology. No other organization or force had access to it. It had actually taken some doing to get permission to implant it into agents not sworn into the service of the Order.

Satisfied, Michel turned to Caitlin, “After you, milady.”

Caitlin curtsied and gestured down the street, “No, after you.”

Michel shook his head and they set out side by side down the crowded lane.

In a pub called the Old Biddy, Jacen and his crew gathered for a meal.

“Ye Gods, Boss, this place is godawful expensive.” Featherstone complained.

“Yeah, but the entertainment is first rate and very comprehensive.” Jacen replied. Larissa had the grace not to blush at Jacen’s not so veiled reference to their attempts to recreate moments captured on sex holovids purchased at Mudball II’s entertainment kiosks. She’d merrily gone along with the activities until Jacen had hired a prostitute in order to create a threesome. All recreational events now had to receive her prior approval.

Jacen’s reputation as a womanizer was almost as great as his rep as a pirate and thief for hire. It had taken quite a woman to curb Jacen’s wandering eye. As it was, the only thing keeping them together was their mutual passion for creative gratification. Gerin’s appetites often overlooked Larissa’s technical competence.

“Its only for a while.” Jacen replied, “So quit whining.”

Featherstone took umbrage at Jacen’s remark and left the tables the crew occupied. Edgar Briandt and the Pauls vacated the table and joined Featherstone.

“What did I say?” Jacen snapped.

“Skipper,” Taylor said in confidential tones, “the crew’s pissed. This isn’t how they planned on spending their cut of the advance.”

“And how, pray tell, did they plan on spending it?” Jacen asked scornfully.

“Visiting Imperial core worlds, maybe going home.” Taylor replied.

“Where they’d be easy prey for every bounty in the quadrant.” Jacen sneered.

Taylor squirmed, wrestling with a topic. Finally, he fully committed, “Boss, I gotta tell you, the crew’s unhappy about something else.”

“What now?” Jacen irritably enquired.

“The crew, and this includes me, think splitting from the SOG was a bad mistake.”

“What?” Jacen shouted, “They hated working for that bastard T’Luthien.”

“We’ve come to realize that life was pretty good working for him. It was dangerous at times but financially rewarding. We earned far more coin than we’re receiving as a ship for hire. Hell, Captain, we earned more as cutthroats.” Taylor explained.

“So now you all want to work for the damned Templars again?” Jacen asked in disbelief.

“That pretty well sums it up.” Taylor’s head bobbed.

“What do you think of this, Larissa?”

“I think it’s a solid idea.” Larissa said with due gravity.

“Are you all fucking insane?” Jacen demanded.

“It’s a good idea Jacen.” Larissa insisted, “It would certainly clear up the mess we’re currently in.”

“Yeah,” Jacen growled, “we’d be in worse trouble.”

“I doubt it.” Larissa countered, “T’Luthien is actually very reasonable.”

“When he’s not trying to blow your damned head off, he’s just peachy.” Jacen grumbled.

“If you’d stop butting heads with him, he wouldn’t threaten you.” Larissa argued.

“What, and blow my image as a rogue?” Jacen asked.

“Darling, you’re image is so much bravado that its pathetic.” Larissa divulged, “You enjoyed working for T’Luthien. You got a vicarious thrill out of being a covert operative. You can still have that. Let’s just turn ourselves in to T’Luthien and see how things play out.”

“You’re nuts, all of you.” Jacen protested.

“Just consider it, okay? The crew loves you but their noses are seriously out of joint and Engines may have just been the first to abandon ship.”

“They wouldn’t dare!”

“Look over at that table, Hon, and tell me that.” Larissa challenged him.

Jacen studied the expressions and glances from the table across the room and suddenly realized she was right, “My God, I could really lose them.”

Larissa nodded, “Now you’re getting it.”

“That’s not going to happen.” Jacen vowed.

“Will you consider the Templar option?”

Jacen nodded, “I’ll throw it in with the other options.”

Larissa kissed him on the cheek, “Good boy.”

Jacen shook his head, “This is going to be painful. I can already tell.”

Larissa patted his hand, “Poor man. So many tough decisions to make and so little time.”

“Keep it up and I’ll have to give you a spanking.”

“Promise?” Larissa eagerly asked.

“Contact!” Mitch Fowler called from the Ares’ Scan section, “Approaching from dead astern.”

“I’ve got him.” Vanessa declared, “Scout Marauder Raider-class. The same as the Wandering I. This one has a ventral plasma cannon instead of missile racks. Two internal missile tubes in the forward prongs. On an approach for a hard dock with the Mudball facility.”

“Ship profile?” Korista asked.

“Could be a pirate, a smuggler or a bounty hunter. All three would mount this type of armament.” Vanessa reported.

“Ship ID?”

“The Manhunter. Terran League registry.”

“I think that narrows the field.” Korista observed dryly.

Vanessa blushed. It wasn’t like her to miss such an obvious clue. She was too distracted by the team’s absence. She hoped T’Luthien was safe.

Most Templars considered Vanessa a “tech weenie”. T’Luthien had been the first to treat her as anything but a social basket case. He’d placed his trust in her and treated her with respect, not as a geek. She’d rewarded his faith a hundred times over and gained a reputation as a miracle worker in the process.

So, thought Vanessa, I engage in a little hero worship. Since the chosen object of her adoration was T’Luthien, she didn’t see the harm in it. She had no romantic allusions whatsoever. Michel’s heart belonged to Caitlin Shire and that was that.

Vanessa refocused on the Manhunter while Primakova searched the Terran League databases for a ship registered under that name. Vanessa had been embarrassed once, never again, “The ship is firing its retro and braking thrusters. Maneuvering thrusters firing…now. She’s docking in berth 122.”

“Illyana, what do you have for me?” Korista asked.

“The Manhunter is registered to one Mitchell Dunn. His vocation is listed as bounty hunter.” Primakova reported.

“Damn.” Korista said matter-of-factly, “Get on the horn with T’Luthien. Tell him what’s coming his way.”

Julia D’Arte, the Comm 2nd, lit up her transmitter and began broadcasting an urgent message for the SOG team.

“Thank you Ares, we stand advised.” T’Luthien transmitted back then placed the comm back in one of the utility pouches on his gunbelt. He turned to Caitlin, “Just what we needed, another complication.”

“We definitely need to find Jacen first if he’s going to stand a chance. Mitch Dunn’s alias is Mad Dog and its well earned. I encountered him while working for the OSS.” Caitlin revealed, “He’s a real piece of work. Androids display more emotion the he does while he’s working. He’ll kill without a second thought.”

“Your sure he’s not a Hadrani gene bred soldier?” Michel asked through a grimace.

“Terran League, born and bred.” Caitlin described, “Still sees any citizen living outside the League as a backwards colonial.”

Michel shook his head, “That’s a Terran League mentality all right.”

“So we keep looking, yah?” Caitlin enquired.

Michel nodded, “We should try the Old Biddy next.”

“Remember the last time we went there?”

“I’m still trying to forget.” Michel groaned.

“Hey,” Caitlin protested, “we were having a nice time before all the shooting started.”

“And then you got shot.” Michel reminded her, “That’s the part I’m still trying to forget.”

Caitlin took hold of his arm and leaned into him, “You big ol’ softie. Is it any wonder I love you?”

Michel looked on the verge of blushing, “Can we find Jacen before he gets himself killed?”

“Yeah,” Caitlin grudgingly conceded, “but when we’re off duty…”

“I’ll make you think we’re still on Alleria.” Michel promised.

“You’d better.” Caitlin warned.

“Trust me.” Michel grinned.

“That’s what gets me into trouble.” Caitlin sighed.

“C’mon.” Michel urged and pushed her forward by the waist.

“Okay, okay.” Caitlin surrendered, “Do you remember where the Old Biddy is?”

“Just around the next bend.”

“Omigod.” Caitlin said and froze. She pointed up at the sign hanging from the nearby access tunnel, “Docking berth 122 is right down there.”

“Let’s move.” Michel said and double-timed it.

Jacen and Larissa were laughing and carrying on. Jacen had announced to the crew that he would surrender to the Templars and try to renegotiate their original arrangement with the SOG. The crew was now relaxed and cavorting. That all ended when Michel and Caitlin appeared.

First Jacen saw the pair through the open windows of the bar. Next they stopped at the swinging half doors that covered the entrance. When Michel and Caitlin swung the doors open all hell broke loose.

Jacen dropped his fork and food spilled out of his gaping mouth. Larissa glanced at the doors, and then did a double take. Taylor summed up everyone’s emotions.

“Oh shit!” Taylor dove for the floor.

Jacen threw the table down to form a barrier and pulled his plasma pistol free. He ducked behind the table, dragging Larissa behind him. Taylor likewise drew his pistol. Looking out from around the table, Jacen could see the rest of the crew hunkering down behind two overturned tables.

Jacen bounced up and fired at the two Templar agents. They ducked behind the half walls to either side of the doors. Larissa pulled Jacen down as Taylor took over the shooting.

“What are you doing?” Larissa hissed, “You said you were going to surrender.”

“Not to him, I’m not. They wouldn’t have sent them unless they wanted us dead.” Jacen argued.

“Then why aren’t they shooting back?” Larissa asked pointedly.

Jacen bobbed his head above the edge of the table and came back to a squatting position, “That’s a damned fine question.”

“I’m gonna kill him.” Michel growled as plasma bolts sailed by.

“Easy.” Caitlin advised, “You wanted to talk to him, remember? We need him alive to do that.”

“It goes against every instinct.” Michel complained, “If someone tries to kill you, you’re supposed to kill them first.”

“Yes, dear,” Caitlin placated him, “unless you want to talk to them.”

Michel grunted, “Fine. I’ll try talking.” Edging as close to the doorframe as he could manage and not get burned, he began to shout into the tavern, “Hold your fire Jacen. We just want to talk to you.”

“Get stuffed!” Jacen yelled back, “I’m not buying it.”

“If you continue to raise a commotion, you’re going to get killed.” Michel warned.

“Not if I kill you first!” Jacen shouted and fired several more shots.

Michel shook his head and looked directly at Caitlin, “See what I’m up against?”

“See what I’m up against?” Jacen demanded, “He just admitted that he wants to kill me.”

“They still haven’t fired.” Larissa argued, “We’ve done all the shooting.”

“He’s a sneaky bastard.” Jacen replied, “He’s just trying to get us to lower our guard.”

Larissa let out an exasperated noise and buried her face in her hands, “You’re impossible.”

“But I’m still alive.” Jacen flashed her a manic grin and leapt up to fire. He started to gesture to Briandt and the Pauls to go through a window and flank the Templars when Jacen noticed a looming, heavily armed figure moving across the window area.

“Who the hell?” Jacen muttered and returned his concentration on Michel and Caitlin.

“Oh crap.” Michel said and stared off past Caitlin.

“Crap?” Caitlin asked and began inspecting her boots. Then she saw Michel’s frustrated glare and followed his line of sight over her shoulder. “Oh shit.” Caitlin swore, “We’re in for it now.”

Mad Dog took one look at the cowering pirates and then another at the figures in black seeking cover behind the hardened titanium walls of the pub. The subdued patches on the sleeves indicated they were Templars. In spite of the Templars’ fierce reputation this pair hadn’t even drawn their weapons despite taking fire. Mad Dog shook his head and decided to take action.

Michel rose to his full height and challenged Mad Dog, “You have no authority in this matter. This is a Templar operation and these people are in my custody.”

“Yeah,” Mad Dog scoffed, “it looks like it.”

Jacen fired off another bolt at T’Luthien and Michel yelled at him, “Hold your fire you idiot! I’m trying to save your life.”

“The warrant for their capture specifies ‘dead or alive’. They’re worth more alive but I’ll settle for dead if I have to.” Mad Dog warned and drew the heavy plasma blasters out of his shoulder holsters.

“Were you listening to that?” Larissa demanded, “T’Luthien isn’t here to kill you, you paranoid wanker.”

“Doesn’t mean a thing.” Jacen replied dismissively.

“You are such an ass.” Larissa complained.

“Maybe, but I’m your ass.” Jacen responded.

“Puh-lease.” Larissa replied derisively.

“Okay, if he lives through this, I’ll give him a chance to talk.” Jacen conceded.

“What d’you mean if he survives?” Larissa was indignant.

“Watch the big guy.” Jacen remarked, “He’s almost as fed up with T’Luthien as I am.”

“Back off Templar trash.” Mad Dog growled, “This scum is mine.”

Michel drew his pistol and aimed it at Mad Dog’s chest, “I can’t do that. I’m authorized to kill you if you interfere.”

“That’s it. I’m sick of this crap!” Mad Dog shouted and aimed his weapons at Michel.

Caitlin dove through the Old Biddy’s door. Michel followed her as Mad Dog began to fire. He first landed beside Caitlin, and then positioned himself atop her to act as a human shield. Jacen and his crew all leapt up to take aim at the fallen Templars. Mad Dog shifted targets and began firing at both groupings of Jacen’s crew.

Briandt and Taylor were both wounded in the initial exchange. Taylor was hit in the left shoulder and Briandt in the right leg. Jacen began firing back only to find himself under heavy fire. Larissa drew her weapon and began returning fire. Mad Dog shifted his fire and drove her back behind the table. The other pirates angled their table to block Mad Dog’s fire but they were effectively frozen in place.

Michel and Caitlin rose to a crouch and then sprinted to the half wall separating Gerin’s aisle from the other half of the bar. Then they dove behind the wall. Michel activated his implant’s transmitter.

“Vittario, Natasha, get over to the Old Biddy and give us a hand with a crazy bounty hunter.” Michel subvocalized.

“Already on our way.” Vittario replied.

“Ready?” Michel asked Caitlin.

“As ready as I’ll ever be.” Caitlin warily remarked.

“On three we’ll jump up and shoot Mad Dog.” Michel said.

“That’ll just piss him off.” Caitlin warned.

“I’ll take my chances.” Michel remarked dismissively, “One…two…”

“Wait a minute.” Caitlin interrupted, “This is stupid. Let’s just jump up and tag him right now.”

“All right.” Michel snapped off, “Let’s do it!”

Caitlin watched helplessly as Michel leapt to his feet and began expending plasma charges at Mad Dog. With a grunt, Caitlin bounded to her feet and added her firepower to his. Mad Dog staggered back and his chest glowed but otherwise he remained unscathed. Michel pushed Caitlin down by the head and ducked beside her as a volley of plasma fire slammed into and above the half wall they were crouching behind.

“He’s got a bloody thermal vest on.” Michel snarled, “We have to concentrate on his extremities. How’s a head shot sound to you?”

“At this point I’ll take it.” Caitlin remarked.

Suddenly, Mad Dog ceased his barrage and a melee could be heard breaking out outside the Old Biddy. Michel, Caitlin, Jacen, Larissa and Gerin’s entire crew positioned themselves so that they could afford a better view of the scuffle outside of the pub.

Mad Dog was firing at the spot where those damned Templars had shot up from. His patience with them was well and truly gone. If they happened to accidentally get shot, he couldn’t be held to blame could he? As Mad Dog’s lips twisted up in a cruel smile, he felt a finger tapped his shoulder,

“Beat it. I’m working.” Mad Dog said.

“So am I.” came a resonant bass. Next Mad Dog felt an impossibly strong hand grip his shoulder and spin him around. As he completed his turn, Mad Dog got his first glimpse of Edward Vittario. Vittario wore a thin smile as he delivered a left jab to Mad Dog’s nose.

Mad Dog felt his nose crunch and he stumbled back as he realized that his nose was broken. Mad Dog responded with a right cross which Vittario blocked and replied with another jab. Mad Dog’s head snapped back and he staggered as one knee began to buckle. He shook his head in order to clear it.

Mad Dog couldn’t believe what was happening to him. His formidable presence and bulk combined with his excellent fighting skills had always carried the day under different circumstances. For the first time, Mad Dog felt a nearly overwhelming sense of helplessness. This ignited a sense of rage within him and he pressed the attack.

Vittario leapt backwards as Mad Dog snapped off a wheel kick. He used his motion to try a backspin kick. Vittario ducked under the second kick and advanced into Mad Dog’s inner defense zone.

Vittario delivered a jackhammer blow to Mad Dog’s groin with a powerful kick. As Mad Dog huddled forward, clutching his crotch, Vittario unleashed his own backspin kick to Mad Dog’s head. The bounty hunter’s head snapped around, carrying his body as it was propelled around. He collapsed on the floor too much cheering and clapping by the assembled bystanders and storeowners.

Jacen leapt up to see what the commotion was about. He was moving side to side, trying to get a good view through the crowd at the person that had dispatched Mad Dog. The rest of Jacen’s crew rose as well and craned their necks trying to get a better view. Jacen’s elation ended when he felt the barrel of a plasma pistol pressed against the back of his neck.

“Do I have your attention now?” Michel asked in menacing tones.

“You’ve had since you arrived.” Jacen answered, “So this is how it ends. I always knew you were an assassin.”

Michel shook his head as if to clear it. He knew this was a by-product of his role within the SOG. The Order’s Knight Commander, Aelynn T’Hollander, had assigned T’Luthien to the task of forming a covert operations group and Michel had complied. T’Luthien had been surprised when T’Hollander requested that he head up the organization.

In his designated role as the Templars’ quiet enforcer, he had created a mystique that was largely misconception coupled with some truth. Most of Human space did not even know of Michel’s existence. Those isolated people and organizations that did recognized his role and feared the worst. T’Luthien’s name was often spoken in hushed tones for fear of attracting unwanted attention.

“If I were here to kill you would I holster my weapon?” Michel asked and returned his pistol to its holster.

Jacen spun around and drew his own plasma gun and put it to Michel’s forehead, “I’ve waited a long time for this.”

Caitlin had her pistol trained on Jacen’s right eye, “Try it. See how long you live afterwards.”

Taylor had his pistol out and aimed at Caitlin’s head, “Seems we’re in a bind, Miss.”

“Your boss will still be dead.” Caitlin observed. She noticed that the rest of Jacen’s crew was no focused on the exchange and all had their sidearms drawn. Next, Vittario and Timoshenko had their plasma rifles trained on each cluster of pirates.

“Maybe, but you and your boyfriend will be dead as well.” Taylor replied with unusual resolve.

“Jacen, listen to me.” Michel spoke with conviction, “I was sent to kill you, but only if you weren’t willing to talk.”

“What’s there to talk about?” Jacen asked angrily.

“Whether or not you willingly hired on with slavers.” Michel explained, “I’m betting that you didn’t and I’ve called in a lot of favors to buy the time to prove I’m right. So what do you say? Are you innocent or are you guilty? If you’re guilty, you might as well shoot me now since you’ve already got a death penalty hanging over your head.”

Jacen released the safety of his pistol and Michel broke into a grin marked by desperation, “Are you sure you don’t want to talk about this some more?”

Larissa put a restraining hand on Jacen’s gun arm and pulled it away from Michel’s head, “Jacen, we were going to surrender to the Templars and have them contact T’Luthien anyway. So why are you resisting his offer to hear our side of the story?”

Jacen grimaced but it was Michel that spoke, “Actually, that would have been a mistake. The rest of the Order is hunting you. I’m the only Templar authorized to investigate the possibility that you’re innocent.”

“Son of a bitch.” Jacen muttered and holstered his weapon. The rest of his crew saw this and followed suit. Caitlin put her pistol down as Taylor did. Jacen rubbed his face and turned to face Michel.

“Okay, say we want to talk. What happens next?”

“You come aboard the Ares and we jump to someplace safe.” Michel answered.

“Ohhh no.” Jacen waved his hands as if to ward off an evil spirit, “I’m not leaving my ship behind. These buggers will sell her out from underneath me in order to pay their extortion rate docking fees.”

“All right then.” Michel replied, “My team will board the I with you and accompany you to our neutral location.”

“Okay.” Jacen conceded, “I don’t like it but its better than leaving my ship behind.”

“All right then, let me contact Captain Schrieber and finalize the details.” Michel said.

“Yah, yah. Do what you want but let’s do it on the move.” Jacen suggested.

“Certainly.” Michel allowed.

The group exited the Old Biddy and saw Mad Dog’s prone form lying at Vittario’s feet. The locals had stripped him of his weapons and any currency in his pockets. Vittario merely shrugged and wore a naughty grin. Jacen kicked the bounty hunter in the ribs as he passed.

“You might want to hold back Sonny.” Vittario said, “He’s been getting a lot of that already.”

“Like I care.” Jacen smarted off, “He tried to kill me and mine. He gets what he deserves.”

“That argument could be made about you.” Michel pointed out, “I’d be careful about casting blame about.”

Jacen seemed on the verge of exploding but he refrained from commenting. Meanwhile the Pauls supported Briandt so that he could gingerly walk through the increasingly busy streets. The kiosk owners that had taken fire during Jacen’s attempt to kill Michel stood by, silently glowering, intimidated by the group’s weaponry.

“Captain,” Vanessa cut through the bridge chatter, “the Wandering I is departing Mudball II.”

“Do we have a course vector?” Korista calmly asked.

“They are headed directly for us.” Vanessa reported.

“Weapons, lock all starboard plasma cannons on the Wandering I.” Korista ordered, “I want a full broadside.”

“Aye Ma’am.” Kiernn Werner, the Chief Weapons Officer replied.

“Captain, I’m receiving a message from Michel T’Luthien.” the Comm Officer reported.

“What’s the message?” Korista asked.

“’Don’t fire. The SOG team is aboard the I. Please prepare a rift jump to Alleria and accompany us there.’” the Comm 1st reported

“Send this reply,” Korista ordered, “we require a verification of your identity before we proceed.”

The Comm officer busied herself with her board for a moment and then, a moment later, she the earpiece that she wore and nodded several times.

“Sir Luthien’s reply is ‘Ursula’.” the comm tech reported.

“Korista frowned. That was the prearranged verification code word. Having the SOG team aboard the Wandering I hadn’t been part of the plan though. Bringing Gerin aboard the Ares and transporting him to the nearest Templar base had been the original plan. Obviously circumstances had changed all of that but a return to Alleria? That defied all logic.

“Signal the Wandering I. Inform her we will accompany her if she allows us to calculate her rift jump.” Korista countered.

The Comm 1st relayed the information and received a reply in short order, “Sir Luthien reports that Captain Gerin is unhappy with that arrangement but he agrees despite himself.”

A thin smile spread across Korista’s face, “Very well. Comm, establish a communications link between our respective Astronavigation sections.”

“Yes Ma’am!”

The Ares escorted the I beyond the rift barrier and then waited for the smaller vessel to translate into interdimensional space. Once the I flew into the tear in reality, the Ares followed her. A heartbeat later, they were in the Allerian solar system.

Transit through the system to Alleria itself was easily accomplished once Michel established his bona fides with the local authorities. The Ares was assigned a parking orbit amidst the various freighters awaiting produce. The I proceeded to the surface. It was allowed to land at the royal yacht port.

Several Templars and their agents arrived to provide medical assistance to Briandt and Taylor. The ship’s autodoc had performed to the best of its ability but the Templar physicians were experts in treating plasma burns. Jacen began to protest upon hearing that his men would require hospitalization.

“I’m not letting you haul my people off to jail.” Jacen declared, “I came with you so I could prove our innocence.”

“Jacen, if your men were in danger it would be because there’s a death warrant out for you right now. Your men wouldn’t go to jail, they’d summarily executed right here and now.” Michel explained.

“Okay then, what about proving I’m innocent?”

Michel’s lips pursed together then he spoke, “I may believe you’re innocent but I need proof in order to get the execution order permanently rescinded. The call I made to the Knight Commander only bought you a reprieve, a very limited reprieve at that. I wouldn’t give you more than 72 hours.”

“How kind of you.” Jacen remarked smartly.

“That was Aelynn’s determination, not mine so spare me your attitude.” Michel advised.

Jacen sighed, “I suppose you’re right. You seem to actually want to help me.”

“That’s because I do.” Michel replied, “We had a good thing going, despite your constant complaining and dallying about. It didn’t have to come down to this.”

“You’re probably right.” Jacen said in defeated tones, “It just seemed to be the right thing to do.”

“Your ‘right thing to do’ may cost you your life.” Macen emphasized, “Add that to your mental calculus.”

“All right, all right,” Jacen complained, “can we stop with the ‘beat up Jacen’ hit parade?”

“Certainly.” Michel conceded, “We need to transfer to our safe house anyway.”

“What safe house?” Jacen asked.

Jacen whistled, “I have to hand it to you, this is one helluva safe house.”

“Its actually the seaside home of Frederick IV, more popularly known as Desmond Underwood.” Caitlin explained.

“The Emperor of Man?” Jacen looked from Caitlin to Michel in disbelief, “You have got to be shitting me.”

“Nope.” Caitlin beamed.

“How do you rate?” Jacen enquired.

“I’ve known Desmond for some time.” Michel supplied, “Since before his crowning as the Emperor. Back when he was just the Crown Prince of Alleria.”

“The humble life of a Templar, huh?” Jacen accused, “You are such a hypocrite at times T’Luthien.”

“My oath forbids me from seeking personal wealth.” Michel grinned, “It doesn’t necessarily forbid from enjoying someone else’s good fortune.”

Jacen thought about that for a moment then broke into laughter, “That sounds like something I’d say.”

“We’re not all that different, Jacen.” Michel told him.

“No need to get insulting.” Jacen begged off.

“Think about it.” Michel urged, “My devotion to the Order and the SOG isn’t a far cry from your dedication to your crew.”

“Maybe.” Jacen grudgingly allowed, “But at least I don’t have a stick up my ass.”

“Give it time.” Michel chuckled, “Now, find a seat and get comfortable.”

“Why do I get the feeling I’m not gonna like what comes next?” Jacen grumbled, “And where’s my crew?”

“Vittario and Natasha took them to the guest house. They’re fine.” Michel assured him.

“At least I’m still with you.” Larissa chimed in.

Jacen wore a pensive expression, “There is that. How many bedrooms does this place have?”

“We won’t here long enough for you to get any ideas.” Michel warned.

“Too late.” Jacen grinned mischievously.

“Keep them to yourself.” Michel said wearily, “Now if you’ll get comfortable, we’ll get down to business.”

They were in the parlor of the great house. The bay windows overlooked the ocean below the cliffs. Jacen and Larissa plopped down on one sofa and Michel and Caitlin sat down on the opposing couch. There was a moment of silent tension.

“You said you needed proof of our innocence.” Jacen broke the silence, “What kind of proof do you need?”

“Interrogations of the captive slavers revealed that the masterminds behind the operation had not been present at their base of operations.” Michel revealed, “They had not, it was determined, ever been present at that location. Only two people in the operation had ever dealt with the big bosses. They both died in the assault that captured the base. That left no one who could identify the cartel bosses except, that is, for you.”

“Damn.” Jacen muttered, “How did you find out?”

“You weren’t exactly subtle about your meeting with the operation’s managers when you rendezvoused with the slave ship.” Michel described, “The ship’s crew turned you over in a heartbeat in an effort to barter for their lives.”

“Did it work?” Jacen asked.

“In a way.” Michel replied, “They were consigned to a Hadrani prison.”

“You Templars don’t exactly inspire criminals to rat on other crooks.” Jacen observed knowing that Hadrani prisons were among the most barbaric of human jails.

“They lived.” Michel stated simply, “That’s what they wanted and its what they received.”

“It still sucks.” Jacen griped.

“Maybe, but you have to recall that before the war, the Order wouldn’t have negotiated at all.” Michel pointed out, “You also have to remember that my operation to rehabilitate you was considered a rogue project. Now I’m receiving support from the highest level of the Order’s hierarchy in bringing you in and returning you to the fold.”

“Putting the leash back on me, huh?” Jacen retorted bitterly.

“Jacen Gerin,” Larissa chided him, “You are an insufferable ass!”

Jacen grinned, “Haven’t we covered that already?”

“In the Old Biddy, you agreed that our fortunes had never flown higher than when we worked for the SOG. Now you want to rescind that opinion?” Larissa demanded

“Don’t you just love her?” Jacen remarked, “She knows the fancy words.”

“Just answer my question, you idiot.” Larissa growled.

Jacen uneasily looked over at Michel and Caitlin and then returned his gaze to Larissa, “Okay, I admit it. Life was more profitable and more interesting when we were the Templars’ lapdogs.” Jacen returned his focus to Michel, “It wasn’t easier though.”

Michel grinned, “I thought you liked a challenge. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have taken half the jobs you did. Any one of them was as risky as anything I ever asked you to do.”

“How do you supposedly know anything about my jobs?” Jacen angrily asked.

“Do you honestly believe you’re the only pirate that I suborned?” Michel asked in return.

“Jesus. You’ve recruited others?” Jacen was incredulous.

“A few times.” Michel confirmed, “The others were enlisted on a much more limited trial basis. A few had to be…dealt with.”

“Jesus.” Jacen repeated.

“Your early successes showed Aelynn and the Council of Lieutenants offering to employ pirates in lieu of executing them was an idea with merit, at least on a limited basis.”

“I had no idea.” Jacen breathed.

“You weren’t meant to. Just as you were a covert operative in the world of criminality, our other agents are hidden within the ranks of various villains.” Michel described.

“So what exactly do you want from me?” Jacen enquired.

“You know where to find the people that contracted you to run escort for the slave ship that ignited this chain of events.” Michel said, “We need you to show us where they are.”

“I can have Paul give you the coordinates.” Jacen replied breezily.

Michel looked over to Caitlin and she spoke, “You’re not getting it, Jacen. If the Ares or a Templar cruiser appeared in the crooks’ solar system, they’d scrub their records and start to flee. We’d have no guarantee of capturing them all.”

“So how do I fit in or should I be afraid to ask?” Jacen asked with trepidation.

“You’ll fly our SOG unit into the criminals’ base and help us capture the leaders of the slave ring.” Caitlin revealed.

“Not a chance in hell.” Jacen snapped, “What would happen to my rep if I did that? I’d certainly be useless to you as a covert operative.”

“Not necessarily.” Michel countered, “You’d acting out the role of an aggrieved employee seeking revenge. If your cover does happen to be blown, you’ll be taken care of by the Order.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.” Jacen muttered.

“You wouldn’t be executed.” Michel interjected, “You’d be offered a formal position within the SOG. You’ll probably be offered one regardless.”

Jacen smiled, “Letting the rogue loose in the whore house? I like the sound of that.”

“So you’ll do it?” Caitlin asked.

“Do I have a choice?” Jacen enquired cynically.

“There’s always execution.” Michel pronounced.

Jacen grimaced, “All right. We’ll do it.”

The Wandering I had left the Allerian system’s rift barrier and was preparing for a rift jump to a planet named Serenity. Despite its name, it was a haven for pirates, slavers, thieves and smugglers. Before departing the great house, Michel had contacted Temple Mount, the Order’s headquarters. He’d arranged for a squadron of Templar cruisers to interdict the system four hours after the I’s arrival.

“Ready?” Jacen asked. Michel nodded and stepped back to the rear of the bridge. Caitlin vacated the library station and joined him. Michel opened the hatch leading to the rest of the ship. Alone in the passenger section, they began to speak.

“Do you honestly think Jacen’s going to remain true?” Caitlin asked.

“Jacen has an incredibly honed survival sense.” Michel remarked, “He knows one or more of us will kill him at the first sign of betrayal. I honestly don’t think he’s that stupid.”

“He’s not.” a third voice interjected. Larissa exited the bridge’s hatch and continued walking until she was standing next to the Templar agents, “Something you should have figured out is that Jacen keeps his word when its been given.”

“He left the SOG.” Caitlin pointed out.

Larissa shrugged, “He never gave his word. He just agreed to cooperate long enough to avoid execution. After the war, when everybody was in turmoil, Jacen saw an out.”

“He’s still a liar and a thief.” Caitlin accused.

“And you’re a traitor that supported the Hadrani until they took over your world’s government.” Larissa returned, “Then you allied with the Templars and became a freedom fighter. Who’s the real hypocrite here?”

Caitlin started to lunge at Larissa but found herself blocked by T’Luthien, “Easy Cat. If you flatten her, Jacen will call off the mission.”

“If she could.” Larissa taunted.

Caitlin made another attempt at throttling Larissa but Michel was resolute in holding her back. Larissa laughed and returned to the bridge. Caitlin was livid.

“What’s the big idea?” she demanded, “You’re supposed to support me not block me when I try to do it myself.”

“She’s tougher than she looks.” Michel advised, “She’s a former Crusade Corporation security officer.”

“So you think I’d get hurt?” Caitlin snapped, “I don’t need your protection Michel!”

Michel grabbed her by her shoulders, “You don’t think I know that? You’d have won the fight but cost us the mission. I couldn’t allow that, no matter how satisfying it would have been.”

Caitlin to glare for several heartbeats, then she was mollified, “Okay. As long as you don’t think that bitch could have taken me.”

“Not a chance.” Michel lifted her chin and leaned in to kiss her. He smiled, “Should we rejoin the reprobates?”

“Yeah.” Caitlin sighed, “Vanessa’s probably feeling abandoned.”

The bridge was a flurry of activity. The rift jump to the G0 primary that Serenity orbited had been successful. Rift translations were now considered among the safest modes of travel. Accidents occurred but they were infrequent and rare.

The system’s rift barrier lay beyond the fourth planet, one orbit plane away from Serenity. The Wandering I engaged her plasma drive and drove onward towards Serenity. The voyage took thirty-five minutes at sublight. Serenity’s traffic control systems and orbital pickets commed the ship.

Charlie Taylor fielded the incoming questions. He secured landing rights upon verifying the ship and crew’s identity. Jacen asked for a connection with the slave lords that were on the planet below. As the ship began its descent, one of the crime lords responded.

“Jacen, what a surprise. We didn’t expect to hear from you again.” the cartel leader said.

“Wrote me off as Templar bait, or was it Hadrani target practice?” Jacen asked snidely.

“Well, we did hear about the Hadrani’s bounty on your head. They’re bankrupting the treasury in order to capture you.”

“Let’s cut the crap, Melvin.” Jacen said abruptly, “I want a meeting with you, Cyrus, and Mortimer.”

There was a pause and then Melvin replied, “Very well. We’re all in our offices. Meet us there in, say, forty-five minutes. You should have had time to land and flag a taxi in that amount of time.”

“I’ll see you there.” Jacen assured him. Jacen leaned back and watched as the city of Haven unfolded before them.

“See that tower there?” Jacen pointed out for Michel and Caitlin, “That’s Labor Industries corporate headquarters. The three operating officers I mentioned all have offices on the fifty-first floor.”

“Good.” Michel said, “They’ll be contained.”

“Contained for what?” Jacen asked, “What’s your plan? A frontal assault by you four is suicide.”

“Mr. Douglas,” Michel spoke, “please vector us for a slow fly-by of the Labor Industries tower. Please keep us level with the fifty-first floor.”

“What the hell are you doing?” Jacen demanded.

“Mr. Briandt,” Caitlin called out, “Please arm all weapons systems. Prepare to fire the external missile racks.”

“You can’t be serious.” Jacen shook his head at Michel. Michel impassively stared back at him. Caitlin made one final request.

“Mr. Taylor, please establish a datalink with the Labor Industries’ mainframe. I want you to extract any and all information regarding your contract with Labor Industries.”

“Captain?” Briandt sought guidance.

Michel’s eyes bored into Jacen’s and Jacen shrugged, “Oh, what the hell. Eddie, lock on to the tower’s fifty-first floor and prepare to fire. Keep internal tubes one and two on ready standby.”

“You got it.” Briandt replied dubiously.

“What happens if Charlie can’t get the data we need before we pass the tower?” Larissa asked.

Michel turned his head to address her, “Then you pray to whatever deities you hold to that I can persuade the Council of Lieutenants to spare your lives.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this was your plan?” Jacen hissed.

“Because you’d have fought with me sooner.” Michel explained, “Besides, I only finalized my plans after we arrived and you showed me the tower.”

“I thought we’d infiltrate the Labor Industries tower and retrieve the contract info from the inside.” Jacen argued.

“Too risky.” Michel shot down Jacen’s proposal, “This will eliminate the heads of the enterprise and remove many of their lieutenants as well.”

“How do you figure that?”

Michel gave Jacen a pitying look, “The nature of power. The junior officers always saddle up as close to the boss as possible hoping for some scrap of recognition and a much hoped for eventual promotion.”

“You’re a cynic, you know that? Jacen gibed.

Michel shook his head, “I’m just a student of human nature.”

“What’s our status, gentlemen?” Caitlin asked.

“Missiles locked.” Briandt reported.

“We’re about to commit to our fly-by.” Paul Douglas confirmed.

“I’m working, I’m working.” Taylor said with a panicky voice.

While Caitlin stepped over to the communications station Michel asked Jacen one final question, “We don’t have to do this. We could simply walk away. What’s your choice?”

Jacen visibly wrestled with the decision before he finally decided, “Let’s do it.” Jacen’s voice was grim, “I can’t get into anymore trouble than I already have.”

“Never true.” Michel warned, “But I appreciate the sentiment.”

With that decided, Michel joined Caitlin. Caitlin was in the middle of arguing with Taylor, “…just download the whole damn mess.”

“The whole mess includes their internal security feeds.” Taylor protested, “That could take hours to slice.”

“You have fifteen minutes.” Caitlin’s voice went cold, “You have that long to save yourself and your ‘beloved Captain”.

Taylor swallowed hard and returned to work. Michel ushered Caitlin to the rear of the bridge.

“That was a little harsh, don’t you think?” Michel whispered.

“I’ve seen you do worse.” Caitlin snapped back.

“Maybe, but we’re relying on these people.” Michel whispered back, “Their morale is low enough. They need to be galvanized not terrorized.”

“Fine.” Caitlin whispered irritably, “I’ll play nice.”

Michel kissed her forehead, “Thanks.”

“Humph!” Caitlin said to herself as Michel returned to the command station, “I rated at least a little tonsil hockey for that concession.”

“Never mind him, dear.” Larissa said from behind Caitlin, “He’s a man and they’re all essentially the same. Narcissistic Neanderthals the lot of them.”

“Jesus!” Caitlin said as she finished jumping, “Do you ever announce yourself?”

Larissa broke into a radiant smile, “Where’s the fun in that?”

“Riiiiight.” Caitlin remarked, “Remind me to always lock the door when you’re around.”

Larissa shrugged, “That’s never stopped me before.”

Caitlin opened her mouth to reply but was interrupted by Michel’s issuance of orders to the Wandering I’s crew, “Paul, keep us slow and level. Edgar, stand by. Charlie, how are you doing?”

“I’ve downloaded every file containing the names Jacen, Gerin, or the Wandering I.” Taylor reported, “I don’t if anything is useful but it’s all I can get. I had to crack the secure files to get this stuff.”

“So they knew someone might come looking for it.” Michel looked over at Jacen, “I’d say you were set up, Jacen.”

“What?” Jacen demanded, “How do you figure?”

“They hired you to escort a ship that translated into a system patrolled by the Order. Your chances of going unnoticed were slim to none.” Michel described, “From what we gathered from the slavers, the crew, the base and the slaves were all troublemakers. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t hand over the names of their employers. I think they were hoping for a rescue that never came. Now I don’t think it was meant to come.”

“But why?” Jacen almost whispered.

“We probably used you too much.” Michel said with a sigh, “They probably suspected you had ties to the Order. Too many close scrapes and all that.”

“Damn you.” Jacen angrily whispered, “What have you done?”

“Given you a chance at a new life.” Michel replied, “Now hold on and watch the fireworks.”

“Keep her steady Mr. Douglas.” Caitlin said as she took her place next to Michel. Larissa also moved forward and took up position next to Jacen.

“Mr. Briandt, time to optimum striking position?” Caitlin asked.

“We’re there. Anything closer and we stand a good chance of being caught in the photon release.”

“Very well. Flush the racks.” Michel ordered.

Briandt glanced over his shoulder and his eyes pleaded with Jacen. Jacen nodded, “Do it, Eddie.”

With a careworn sigh, Briandt pressed the ‘Commit’ button. The six photon missiles housed on the ship’s external racks rocketed away.

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. The effect upon a corporate skyscraper was devastating.

The fifty-first floor disappeared, as did the forty-fifth through fiftieth floor. Above the fifty-first floor, the three levels dedicated to the tower’s comm array and shuttle pad also became baseball sized pieces of debris. Photons erupted into the sky after blazing through the tower’s roof. Although somewhat diffused, they struck satellites and ships in orbit. Although they didn’t utterly destroy floors below the forty-fifth, photons cut through the descending levels until the teens. . Being the tallest edifice in Haven, photons leapt out of the sides of the building and darted out into the horizon.

The Wandering I, safely behind the missiles, silently sat by as the Labor Industries tower began to suffer catastrophic structural failure. Within minutes, the entire structure collapsed in on itself. Silence permeated the ship’s bridge.

“My God.” Jacen said in horrified awe, “What have we done.”

“What we had to.” Michel said without the slightest hint of emotion in his voice, “We performed our duty.”

Jacen leapt out of his chair and grabbed Michel by his uniforms lapels, “Your duty, not mine. Jesus, if I’d known…”

“You would’ve still followed my orders.” Michel replied coolly, “It was that or face execution.”

“You said you talk to the Council of Lieutenants.” Jacen accused.

“Jacen, the Council hates me almost as much as they despise you.” Michel admitted.

“Now what?” Jacen asked in defeat. The cloud of dust from the wreckage of the building was enveloping the ship.

“Now I suggest you try to get away.” Michel said.

The I began to climb into the sky. Paul Douglas accelerated as he rose. He left the surface at maximum sublight. The planet’s security force did not react. They were too busy dealing with the stricken ships that had been struck by errant photons. There was too much confusion on the surface for anyone to rally the orbital forces.

By the time traffic control alerted the security picket of the I’s suspicious flight path, the pirate ship was past the rift barrier and translating to safer territory. Gerin’s crew was spent. They were too emotionally overwrought to be of any use to Michel.

As the Scout Marauder landed on Alleria’s soil, Michel contacted the local authorities and had quarters arranged for Jacen’s crew. They were all placed in protective custody but had the run of the planet so long as the local police escorted them.

Michel avoided employing the local Templar base for fear of them taking Jacen into custody and acting upon the execution order. As it was, he’d have a lot of explaining to do once the I was found in Alleria’s main landing port. He needed to verify Jacen’s innocence swiftly.

Three days later, Jacen and Larissa were brought to the Emperor’s seaside house. Jacen was apprehensive but was relieved that his people hadn’t been arrested yet. Jacen was afraid that this meeting was to tell him that Charlie’s hack job had been futile and that he and his crew were headed to the executioner’s block.

Jacen and Larissa were led by one of the house staff to the parlor, where Michel and Caitlin awaited them. Jacen shook his head, “What’s the bad news?”

“The Labor Industries data backed up your story.” Michel grinned, “I’ve dispatched a courier boat to Temple Mount. You should be free to go in another three days or so.”

“Was it a set up?” Jacen asked.

Michel wore a grim expression, “I’m afraid it was. You’d had too many close calls with the Templars and walked away clean. They decided to put you to the test. If you escaped this time they’d now you were bent.”

“I did escape.” Jacen pointed out.

“And got a death warrant issued for your entire crew. The Hadrani posted an enormous bounty on your head. None of these things would have happened if you worked for us, or so the theory goes. In retrospect, it would have been wiser to issue the death warrant even if you had been working for us.”

Jacen grimaced, “So what happens now?”

Michel shrugged, “That’s up to you. The death warrant stands. If you work for us, we’ll reactivate your pulse beacon and Templar forces won’t destroy you. We’ll content ourselves to a few close misses to make it look good.”

If I work for you,” Jacen sneered, “what happens when I tell you to go screw yourself?”

“Then the warrant goes into full effect.” Michel said, “You’d have to go legit. Find a nice planet and settle down. You’d make a life for yourself and stay out of trouble.”

“How boring.” Jacen said with disgust, “But how would we work for you? Our career as pirates, even fake ones, is over.”

Michel shook his head, “Not according to our other contacts. You’re now a legend.”

“How the hell did that happen?” a bewildered Jacen asked.

“The crooks that fled Serenity before the Templar task force arrived are all talking about how you came back to avenge yourself against Labor Industries for setting you up.” Michel revealed.

“So, basically, I’m the last person to find out.” Jacen said in disgust, “How do they account for my departure before the Templar arrival?”

“Pure dumb luck.” Michel chuckled, “The Templar forces arrived late enough for dozens of assorted criminals to escape that no connection between you and the Templar ships was suggested.”

“So…I’m a hero?”

“Yup.” Caitlin chimed in.

“Son of a bitch.” Jacen said in complete disbelief.

“That accurately sums it up.” Michel remarked.

“Watch it.” Jacen warned, “I have a few for you too.”

“I tremble with fear and loathing.” Michel quipped.

Jacen gave Larissa a longsuffering look, “I don’t get any respect.”

“Don’t look at me.” Larissa advised, “I think you should just agree to work for them and get it over with.”

“What about settling down?” Jacen enquired.

Larissa rolled her eyes, “You don’t want to do it. That’s all that matters. As long as you offer the crew the chance for something different, I’ll be satisfied.”

“So you want to do it?” Jacen pressed.

“You don’t.” Larissa’s tone firmed up, “Let’s leave it at that.”

Jacen sat in silence then turned to face Michel and Caitlin, “Okay, I’ll do it. What happens of my crew deserts me?”

“Then we’ll find you a new crew.” Michel replied simply.

“Oh, okay.” Jacen scoffed.

“Relax.” Michel said, “I already know where to look. We have some ‘retired’ Androcan privateers. Any one of them would love to come aboard your ship.”

“Any engineers?” Jacen asked hopefully.

Michel laughed, “A few. Want me to set up some interviews?”

“Yeah.” Jacen rubbed his chin, “Yeah, I would.”

“Consider it done.” Michel said then he pulled several credit chits out of his tunic’s interior pocket, “Here’s your first paycheck, or severance pay depending on your crew’s answer.”

“That’s generous. When are you going to inform the Order that they need to reactivate my pulse beacon?” Jacen asked.

“All ready done.” Michel replied, “I assumed this would be your answer so I took the liberty of informing the local Templars’ base to reactivate your beacon.”

“What about our security systems?”

“Please, don’t insult our techs.” Michel advised.

Jacen looked on the verge of making a comment and then he subsided. Larissa spoke up in his stead, “We’ll go enjoy the sights. Will you have an assignment for us three days from now.”

“Count on it.” Michel assured you.

“See you then.” Larissa and Jacen both wore naughty smiles.

As the pirate couple exited the front door and rejoined their police escort, Caitlin turned to Michel, “You do realize that smile meant they’re gonna be shagging in every nook and cranny they can find.”

“Yeah.” Michel said then broke into a naughty grin of his own, “There’s still a few nooks and crannies of this place we haven’t…explored. Want to rectify that?”

“You’re on!” Caitlin said then ran away.

Michel ran after her. There were shrieks and peals of laughter as he closed the distance between them. She leapt over furniture and navigated her way through the end tables of the living room and darted off towards the bedrooms. She dove inside one of them.

“This is surprisingly conventional for you.” Michel said as he stretched out his arms across the doorway. Caitlin dove between his arm and his body and took off for the parlor room. When she arrived, she dove onto a couch. Michel darted into the room and warily approached her.

“Still rather conventional of you.” he remarked.

“Come here.” she said huskily.

Michel knelt beside the couch and she rolled atop him, straddling him.

“You have a lot of promises to live up to.” she reminded him and then with a broad smile, “And I can feel that you’re willing to.”

“Are you ready?” Michel asked with a glint in his eye.

Caitlin lifted her chin defiantly, “Always.”

Michel threw Caitlin to the side and then dove atop her. He clasped her wrists above her head. She looked at him with desire and he kissed her deeply.

“Better.” Caitlin purred then she looked between the couches towards the wall where two ottomans rested, “I’m willing to bet we could put those to use.”

Michel grinned, “Let’s find out.”

The servants heard the noises coming out of the parlor room and vacated the great house. There were distractions aplenty in the guesthouse. However, they did have to come back and drag the chambermaid off to the guesthouse.

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