“Will you stop doing that!” a voice beside me said exasperated. “Straighten up you are TCA now keep that in mind and maybe we can get through the next few hours.”
I glanced at Kelli standing beside me her uniform the same as mine. Except mine was a lie. I was a fake officer the Valkyrie had arrived a few hours ago this had been Captain Xenai’s idea. They hadn’t sent just a single ship they’d sent three, the largest of them dwarfed the Valorous Star the Alliance ship I was on. The Valkyrie warship was a huge slab sided ship brisling with armaments. It was part of the Valkyrie home fleet something that would have never been permitted in the Empire.
“I’ve got a right to worry. They’re going to see straight through this ruse. What was Xenai thinking?”
“No they won’t. We go in, salute like I’ve trained you to do, stand to attention like the TCA officers we are supposed to be. Ignore everyone except the captain she knows what she is doing.” Kelli was a T’Arni medic and part of the investigation team investigating Vanessa.
The woman who’d tried to kill me on a number of occasions. She had killed my friend Solstrid and sold Monica and Alicia to the Orsini. Solstrid had taken a long time to die but before she did she made me promise to take her bangle to her home world. I had done so but I hadn’t foreseen the complications of my actions hence the reason why the Valkyrie were here to return me back to Alfheimir their homeworld. I had trained with the Valkyrie there and they had sent me out to bring Vanessa to justice a task I failed miserably.
“I certainly hope so,” I replied uncertain that this was going to work.
“She has one advantage the Valkyrie don’t know that she’s a tepe.”
Kelli wasn’t right I knew she wasn’t, the Valkyrie did have telepaths or tepes as the Confederacy called them. It was just that they didn’t put them on display. I was sure that there were several telepaths with the Elders which they kept secret. The Alliance had to have three telepaths on board to counter the Rhosani. Even with those aliens gone there was a chance that they would return and the Alliance had to be ready. Xenai had proved herself when she helped Ljufu Weredale interrogate a number of traitors. So called loyal citizens of Saros willing to let millions die and blame the Alliance.
Kelli continued. “This will work have faith in the captain.”
I had to I’d let her wander through my mind when I had returned from the cavern. I had done so because Kelli wasn’t sure I was who I was. She had made up since then and we had become friends. Had it not been for her I would have fallen into deep despair over Jervic.
Her comms buzzed and she glanced at it. “That’s the captain remember the drill.”
I just nodded and followed her.
We marched into Xenai’s office our steps in sync like the good Alliance officer I was pretending to be. We stepped up to Xenai’s desk and saluted the weird hand to the eyebrow the Confederacy did. I tried hard to ignore the two Valkyrie officers in Confederacy grey skinnies. The skintight jumpsuits the Confederacy wore as fatigue uniforms and like all Valkyrie I’d encountered were blue eyed, blonde haired, pale faced giants. Both Valkyrie looked as if they had come for a fight both had their long blonde hair plaited and bundled on top of their heads in a tight bun.
“Good of you to come quickly lieutenants,” Xenai said to us. “This is Captain Olverja and Commander Runa Hrutdottir of the Home fleet ship Dorakara.”
I knew neither Valkyrie. I was sort of glad of that had it been Thirika or Gudbjorga I’d be in trouble.
Xenai turned her attention to the Valkyrie. “As you can see Lieutenant Hunter is part of our investigation team.”
Captain Olverja interrupted. “Where is your token?” she demanded looking directly at me.
“Lost it ma’am,” I replied sounding calm but inside I was shivering with fear, part for the battle in the ruins where I had my hand nearly blown to bits trying to remove the limpet mine attached to Jervic’s chest. Part because I had no idea if it was still there and part because I was worried about what the Valkyrie would do to me now I didn’t have it. It was the only thing preventing Mother Ronja of the Martin Clan claiming me because I had in the Valkyrie mind set ‘Martin’ blood.
“You can’t lose it!” She snapped at me. She would have taken a step towards me had Commander Hrutdottir not put a restraining hand on her arm.
“You can ma’am if half your hand is blown away.” I quaked inside at the thought.
“Where is it?”
Commander Hrutdottir gave Olverja an annoyed look. “She is correct she does not have it.” She turned her attention to me. I felt as if I was under a microscope. “How did it happen?”
I guess she was playing good cop to Olverja’s bad one. I knew the formula by heart from my days in security on Earth which now seemed life time ago or several if you counted the times I’d cheated death. I glanced to Xenai she nodded to me indicating I should tell my story. My throat went dry and my heart thudded trying to escape my chest. Through the corner of my eye I saw Kelli’s worried expression. Slowly I told her of my encounter with Vanessa and the results.
“You should have let the male die!” Olverja stated heartlessly.
My fear turned to instant anger. “That may be ok for you!” I felt my hands clench into fists and took a combat stance. “I don’t let a teammate die no matter if he is male or not,” I growled my reply through gritted teeth.
“Lieutenant Hunter!” Xenai reprimanded me.
“Ma’am,” I said easing the anger inside me.
“Peace,” Runa said her hand tightening on Olverja’s arm. “Gwen of Clan Hunter has suffered a traumatic event and here we are judging her when it’s not our place.” She paused then continued. “Of course we’ll have to consult the Elders. They gave her, her token their will is ours.” She gave Olverja a significant look when she said that.
I could see Olverja was going to say something but the bleep on Xenai’s comms interrupted her.
“What is it?” Xenai said to her comms.
I heard the voice of a male human. “Thirteen ships have just shown up on long range sensors.”
“What I want an ID asap!” Xenai turned to the two Valkyrie. “Yours?”
“No, are they yours?” Olverja answered fire lighting her eyes.
“No,” Xenai replied as her comms bleeped.
“ID on those ships ma’am!” the voice on the comms said. “They’re Orsini?”
“Orsini?” I whispered to Kelli. I saw the Valkyrie stiffen their faces’ bleak.
“ETA!” Xenai said to her comms.
Xenai looked to the Valkyrie. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to cut this short.” She barked into her comms. “Go to red alert!” Her next words were to the Valkyrie. “Captain Olverja and Commander Hrutdottir best you return to your ship. Co-ordinate a defensive line with us.” She fixed her gaze on me. “Hunter, Kelli pick up Denassi and head for the planet, co-ordinate with Captain Weredale we’ll need those planetary defences online.”
“We could take Gwen Hunter with us?” Hrutdottir suggested.
“Negative I need her to work with Captain Weredale we need the back up from the PD. The captain will listen to her.”
Hrutdottir seemed to consider Xenai’s words. “Yes I see that it would be for the best.”
“Go you two I want a full report as soon as you can.”
“Yes ma’am.” I saluted and hurried out Kelli close on my heels.
I had to ask the question my mind on Vanessa. “Why Orsini here and now?” It was damned suspicious even more so with what I knew about Vanessa. It was a little too convenient that they showed up now.
Kelli gave me a look. “That I don’t know.” She commed Denassi. “Denassi get your butt to bay three like it’s yesterday.” She glanced at me. “We best haul ass!”
“I didn’t know you knew so many human expressions?” I asked her. By that I meant Imperial expressions I knew the humans in the Confederacy didn’t use them. But as Kelli had stated she was born on Paranova part of the Empire.
“Hidden depths Gwen, hidden depths,” she said cryptically.
We reached the shuttle bay in record time or it seemed that way to me. Denassi was waiting by the shuttle.
“Sitrep?” he asked Kelli. “I take it it’s to do with the red alert.”
All the way to the bay red lights had flashed at each junction and crew hurried to their tasks. I wanted to help but I knew I would be useless I had no knowledge in shipboard action.
“Orsini.” Was all she said to him.
My mind was on leaving Jervic behind trapped within the confines of a stitcher. “Will Jervic be ok?” I asked Kelli worriedly.
“He’ll be fine, in fact better than the rest of the crew the cell stitchers have their own power,” she tried to reassure me.
But I still worried as we boarded the shuttle.
It was a short flight down the ship was a lot closer to the planet since the ruins incident I shivered as my mind flicked back to the battle and how close we were to both losing our lives and yet Vanessa was still out there. One of Ljufu’s officers was waiting for us as we exited the shuttle.
“Ma’am!” The short T’Arni male in his black uniform saluted and extended his hand. In it was a black and yellow sash. “Compliments of Captain Weredale she asks you put this on.”
I did so reluctantly eyeing Kelli’s impassive face as I did so. I tied it around my waist Valkyrie style with the tasselled ends hanging down the side of my hip. There was no convention as to whether it was the right or left hip. I fastened it so it hung down my left.
The officer gestured. “Please follow me the captain is in Ops.”
We followed him I noticed he made no mention of either Kelli or Denassi in his little speech.
Ops was a large room with banks of holographic monitors and number of desks and terminals. Ljufu stood next to a desk one hand on her earpiece the other on the microphone on the collar of her tunic her face grim, it lightened slightly on seeing me.
“Denassi see what you can do to bolster their defence capabilities.” And I winced at that I shouldn’t be taking charge Kelli was the professional here not me.
“Good suggestion Gwen,” he said to me there was no sarcasm or anger in his voice.
As he hurried off Ljufu approached I saw her look at my sash and nodded. “You!” she pointed to one of her officers. “Go down to the armoury I’ll need three sidearms and equipment harnesses.”
“Yes ma’am,” the officer responded and hurried off.
I looked directly at Ljufu. “What do need us to do?”
“Lieutenant Kelli liase with our medics,” Ljufu told her.
“Yes ma’am,” she replied with a smart salute.
“And me?” I asked Ljufu.”
“With me as my second.”
I was surprised by that I might have had some experience as a security officer but that was only dealing with traffic offences. “You’re putting a lot of faith in my abilities?” I said to her.
Ljufu smiled briefly making her face less grim. “You as the humans say it are my lucky mascot besides that you are a survivor.”
“Ok clan sister.” I tried to make it light hearted but something niggled me I had to ask unsure of Ljufu’s reaction. “Anna and Juliet ok?”
“Safe in a shelter,” she stated hiding her concern. She hid it almost as good as I hid mine in that way hardly at all.
“All worlds in the Disputed Territories have shelters. Not that helped much on Anoxi.”
That I knew something about that it was as the old saying went a right royal clusterfuck. “Yeah even I’ve heard about that.”
“Fifteen thousand civilians and the negotiation team killed then a botched rescue mission that had an entire GF Division nearly decimated.”
I shivered at the thought. What happened on our colony worlds was worst. At least the Confederacy had some expectation of how things went with the Orsini. We on the other hand were totally unprepared all because some (even if he was under Rhosani influence) overly ambitious Emperor wanted to start a war with everyone in his way.
The sound of one of Ljufu’s officers drew my attention back to the present.
“Ma’am it’s started.”
I saw him glance at me in my fake uniform. Francine had run it up for me a partial apology for the dress along several more dresses in colours that were more to my liking.
Ljufu spoke her voice commanding. “Everyone focus on your tasks I don’t want any of those bastards coming within a thousand kilometres of this planet.” She surveyed her domain and added. “We have the PD and four warships in orbit but no one get complacent we can’t afford to let even one of those bastards get through!” She fixed her team with a glare. “It just takes one ship to breach our defences and cause havoc.”
The officer Ljufu had sent to the armoury returned with a pistol and a belt to strap it to. I buckled on the belt feeling the weight of the weapon on my hip. I turned to closest monitor to watch the battle. Contrary to what they showed on vids there was not much of the battle to be seen raging above our heads. Ships engaged each other at hundreds of kilometres not the tens as in those vids.
Fascinated I couldn’t tear my eyes of the screen watching the symbols on it. Blue for our forces, red for the Orsini. I saw some hangovers from Earth before the AI wars still existed. If I remembered it correctly there were always blue and red armies when the military had wargames. But this wasn’t some fictional battle this was real it dawned on me people, our people were dying in defence of this planet. I had no care about the Orsini they wouldn’t have any for me.
“Ma’am!” one of Ljufu’s officers shouted to her. “Three enemy ships have broken off from the battle and are heading directly towards us!”
“Go to alert three!” Ljufu said there was no emotion in her voice.
I applauded her aura of calmness had it been me in her position I’d be a nervous wreck.
“Alert three?” I asked her.
“Immanent invasion,” she said to me and raised her wrist comms to her face. “All units standby.”
“Ma’am PD online and active.”
I saw the three closest Orsini symbols wink out.
“Threat eliminated, all units hold position and await further orders,” Ljufu stated.
The officer who had called out about the planetary defences looked puzzled. “Ma’am the PD didn’t get them out of range?”
“What do you mean?” Ljufu snapped at him.
I saw her glance at me I just shrugged I was totally clueless about that.
“That’s just it one moment they were heading towards us then they just vanished?”
“There a malfunction in the system?” she growled.
I caught what she was thinking. Was there a possibility that the Black Stripes had done further damage to the system that just let the defences attack the unsuspecting Alliance ship in orbit? I had stopped that and Denassi had assured me he had purged the rogue algorithms from the system and had rigged up a code only Ljufu had access to. I had no doubt the little Ezaran had done as he had said more than likely they were his improvements that had destroyed the Orsini. There could be no other explanation well not any that were logical.
“Perhaps one of the ships destroyed them?” I had no idea of the capabilities of either the Valkyrie or Alliance ships.
“That is a possibility? Ljufu conceded. “I don’t know what your TCA ship is capable of?” She gave me a significant look.
“I can’t help you with that captain.” I was careful to follow protocol here in case it got back to the Valkyrie that I was faking it. There was still a strong probability that they would and then everything I’d did, I’d done for nothing. Then that might have been partly my fault I had never commed the Elders to find out why they had sent a warship for me. It was too late to ask but at the time I’d been too busy with my time split between Kelli’s training sessions and my time beside Jervic talking to the shiny metal coffin he was imprisoned in. “It’s Captain Xenai’s charge.”
Ljufu nodded thoughtfully. “Right!” she said to her officers. “Lets concentrate on what we are sure on.”
Slowly but surely the Alliance and Valkyrie ships destroyed the rest of the Orsini and like all Orsini none fled.
“Well done!” Ljufu said to her officers. I knew the praise was for their moral rather than they having done anything. “Stand down from full alert.”
A cheer arose from the officers.
Ljufu allowed herself a small smile. “Lieutenant Hunter with me.” She made a gesture and I followed her out.
Ljufu sat in her chair behind her desk and pointed to my uniform. “I was tempted to say something earlier but we were a bit busy so now I’ve got the chance this has a meaning?”
I brushed my fingers on the front of my tunic. “Only to give the Valkyrie pause for thought.” I winced at that I was talking to one even if she was an exile. “They would have taken me back to Alfheimir without a further thought. It was Xenai’s idea before you ask.”
“I see,” she said looking at me directly.
I had to be honest with her. “Look if it comes to a choice between me and Juliet choose her every time.” Juliet was her daughter conceived with the help of her partner Ana. Ana’s egg in her womb.
Ljufu took a deep breath a scowl forming on her face. “They haven’t said anything about her yet.”
That was the problem I’d defied the Valkyrie Elders when they demanded I turn over Juliet to them. The child was about two I wasn’t going to let them take her from her loving parents that didn’t seen right to me.
“But they will, you know them better than I?” Again I’d insulted Ljufu’s people. I was only Valkyrie according to them by having Martin blood. It was tenuous to the extreme but the Valkyrie considered I had enough of it to count. Then they had altered my DNA to bring me closer to them. I couldn’t say how or why but they had done it without consulting me. I was stuck with it only the Valkyrie knew how to reverse it and I seriously doubted that they would. “I am only vaihdokas.” That’s what they’d call me a changeling, they did that to me.
“No,” Ljufu’s words brought me out of my dark musing. “You are my clan sister. I really don’t care what is under your skin you are my clan in exile.”
That was Ljufu’s problem like Solstrid my dead friend she had fallen in love and had been exiled by her clan. Where as Solstrid had loved a man Ljufu had committed the worst sin in loving a woman. I wasn’t going to judge her for life style choices. My love life at the moment was in a cell stitcher and I doubted he was going to be forgiving when he came out I did nearly get him killed.
“I’m sorry if I cause you grief?” I said to her.
Ljufu looked puzzled for a minute. “Grief? Oh I see a Terran expression.”
That was another divide between us I was from the Terran Empire and she was from the Confederacy although I was technically a citizen of the Confederacy another of Xenai’s ideas to keep me on her investigation team.
“No I’m proud of you clan sister even if you do prematurely age me with your dangerous antics. Don’t worry we’ll see this through.”
My comms bleeped I looked at the holographic screen on my wrist and frowned. “I’ve been ordered back to the ship, Kelli and Denassi are on the way.”
“Listen to the advice of your sister Gwen of Clan Hunter, you are my clan never forget that.”
“I won’t.” I said genuinely.
“And one more thing be strong and take care of that man of yours.”
I was an odd thing for her to say with the way she felt about me only the thought of Ana and Juliet kept our friendship platonic. She wanted to take things further. That would have been wrong on so many levels. I just nodded thoughtfully and headed to the shuttle bay.