Warning: THIS BOOK IS TOTALLY NOT FINISHED! I have only now shared it with my beta readers. They may well tell me there are huge problems. From there, I’ll do another round of revisions, and then it’ll go to my editor at Skyscape, who may well tell me it needs a bunch of work. We’ll see. And even when & if Skyscape is happy with it, I don’t know when it will actually be released. That’s up to them. So we may be a good ways off yet from any release dates or anything like that. In fact, you may well see another release from me before this one comes out!
…but I figure it’s close enough to being done to share the first chapter. I’m pretty solid on this one staying more or less as it is.
(And in other news: A director from Audible.com emailed me today to say that Good Intentions has cracked into their Top 100! Natural Consequences seems to be doing really well, too! Thank you all so much for your support!)
So here goes: Chapter One of PMF vol. 3: Dead Man’s Debt.
ENEMIES ON ALL SIDES
“We’re two years into this mess and nothing has improved. The CDC collapsed six months ago and the entire Union is still suffering from the fallout. NorthStar is still stuck in Archangel. Michael is still occupied. And right next door, Hashem’s king and his finest son are dead and the two eldest princes are still tearing the kingdom apart.
“None of the Union’s other systems have benefitted from any of this, either. We’ve got more piracy, more arms traffic, more unemployment, more debt, and destabilization everywhere, and we know the Kroks are watching on the borders! Now I know a lot of people would rather not say this, but at some point, someone has to ask: do we even have a Union anymore?”
–Mars Governor Reverend Harry Tidewater, February 2279
Colonel Husam Basara longed for the battlefield so much it hurt. He missed the thrill of danger and the rush of triumph over his enemies. He’d been born and raised to lead men in combat, not hide out on a space station in the middle of nowhere. Yet that was exactly where fate had landed him. Fate, or at least the irritating limitations of modern medicine.
Station 46 wasn’t even a military outpost by design. Its builders intended only to study the properties of the world below, but the researchers who inhabited the site hadn’t been here in almost two years. No one wanted to be stuck so far from civilized space after the Kingdom of Hashem fell into civil war. Indeed, the only vessel to enter the whole system for a week now lay off the station’s starboard annex, illuminated on the command center’s status screens.
“Freighter Muattal, you are cleared for shuttle launch,” announced the bridge watch commander at his desk. Colonel Basara observed, mostly out of boredom. The colonel worked to maintain a high standard of discipline, but in the end there was little activity. They simply needed to be present, watchful, and ready.
Command of Station 46 represented Prince Murtada’s deepest trust. The site held one of the keys to his final victory. Yet one could stand guard for only so long before monotony set in.
“Acknowledged, control,” replied the freighter captain on screen. “Shuttle launch in two minutes.”
“Commander,” spoke up Colonel Basara, “is Lieutenant Farooq on watch in the shuttle bay?”
“He is, sir.”
“Notify him that I am on my way. A casual visit. No inspections. I don’t want to startle him on my arrival.” Basara then headed below decks, wishing for something more exciting than the sight of a tramp freighter’s crew unloading plastic crates and barrels from a shuttle.
He would give almost anything for a good battle right about now.
Basara understood the horrors of war, of course. He carried memories of lost friends and comrades, and he knew firsthand the pain of wartime injury. Two years and several corrective procedures after that first day of the Scheherazade campaign, Basara’s knee still wasn’t quite right.
The medics on the scene had claimed his knee would be fine. The doctors on NorthStar’s assault carrier told him after his surgery that it would fully realign within the week. He limped back into the field to find the heaviest of the fighting already done. Basara turned to quelling any further resistance to Prince Murtada’s rule, much as he’d done on Qal’at Khalil after the pirate raid there, but unarmed demonstrators and amateurish insurgents offered little challenge. The limp remained until royal doctors performed even more corrections—invasive ones, requiring cloned tissue and long physical therapy.
So many chances for glory stolen with a single punch to the knee and a fall from his tank.
And then, for the last three months, this. Custodian of a treasure chest far from the front lines. Hand-picked for top-priority ennui. Promotion not as reward, but as a consolation prize.
The shuttle had already settled by the time Basara arrived in the spacious landing bay. Technicians, inspectors and security personnel worked diligently around the shuttle’s crew. The latter did most of the grunt work in offloading cargo pallets and other containers. Unlike the tan vac suits worn by Basara’s people, the shuttle crew wore civilian garb, rugged and dirty and hardly military. The filtration masks that covered their mouths and noses seemed out of place.
Frowning and curious, Basara joined the watch officer. He noticed as his stride picked up that his knee hardly bothered him today. That, at least, was a good sign. “Lieutenant Farooq,” he said, pulling the man’s attention away from the opened cargo container and the station crewman training a chem sniffer on its contents.
“Sir,” answered Farooq, offering a salute.
Basara returned the motion. “As you were. Do not let me distract you.”
“No distraction, sir,” Farooq replied, nodding to his aides. Everyone except the crewman operating the sniffer unit moved off to other duties. “Everything seems to be in order.”
“Why the masks?” gestured Basara.
“A ventilation problem on the shuttle, sir. My people have verified it. Their circulation system blew a filter upon launch, but they chose to continue ferrying cargo rather than pausing for repair. The masks are for the stench on the shuttle.”
“I see,” Basara murmured. Now that he considered it, stale odor lingered even after the passing shuttle crewman moved on with his verified cargo. He watched disdainfully as another crewman and his anti-grav pallet approached Farooq for inspection. The masked man bowed his head as he pushed his load. “Rough living, apparently.”
“Yes, sir. I’m sure they wish their freighter could dock with us directly.”
“They may wish all they want,” said Basara. “We accept no more than one shuttle at a time. Good station security relies on limited access.”
“As you say, sir. Come on, over here!” Farooq snapped at the freighter crewman. “We haven’t got all day!”
Basara watched the crewman bring his pallet over. “That’s not entirely true, is it?” he murmured. “The war is light years away. We’ve nothing better to do here…”
His voice trailed off as he looked over the crewman now standing close beside him. The crewman’s filtration mask covered his jaw, mouth and nose, but the top half of his head remained perfectly visible. Basara saw short, dark hair, green eyes that tended to look away, deeply tanned skin…and a small, simple golden ball earring on the young man’s left earlobe.
He never forgot a face.
“You!” Basara blurted with immediate rage. His hand went to the sidearm on his hip, Lieutenant Farooq and his assistant frozen with surprise.
The crewman’s shoulders sagged. “Aw, Christ,” he groaned.
Basara’s hand flew to his pistol as the crewman’s heavy boot delivered a shockingly fast roundhouse kick to the colonel’s jaw. A popping sound filled Basara’s ears as he came off of his feet and fell to the deck, weapon clattering away.
He didn’t black out, but it was a near thing as Basara struggled to rise. The pain and disorientation were overwhelming. He saw Farooq draw a pistol. The freighter crewman wrapped his arm around the lieutenant’s wrist and pulled him off-balance, turning the fine young officer into a human shield.
Farooq jerked forward. The tip of a knife poked out through his back.
Basara tried to yell out a warning to the rest of his troops, but his mouth refused to form words. He scrambled backwards, taking cover behind the nearest machinery. Born and bred to command men in combat, Basara’s broken and dislocated jaw allowed him only to scream in wordless, impotent rage.
His knee, though, worked just fine.
* * *
Tanner jerked his knife free, releasing his victim unwillingly. The lieutenant he’d stabbed was pulled from his grasp by the nearby station crewman, who’d dropped the chem sniffer to come to his superior’s rescue. The crewman also landed a solid right hook that knocked the filtration mask clean off Tanner’s all-too-recognizable face.
Only then did the crewman go for his sidearm, but that left him open. Tanner slashed low with his blade, tearing wickedly across the man’s thigh, then came right back up to put a fatal cut through the crewman’s neck.
With all three immediate threats down, Tanner saw what he feared: every security trooper and armed crewman in the shuttle bay had drawn their guns. Some focused on the other “shuttle crewmen,” forcing them to raise their hands in surrender and step away from their loads. Most focused on Tanner, who no longer had any human cover complicating their lines of fire.
Obviously, the only way to salvage this mess was to make a distracting spectacle of himself.
Tanner dove to the right for cover as the shooting began. He almost made it to the open doors of some tall, empty containers before a slug hit him in the side. Though his coat and jumpsuit were all made of the same high-grade protective materials found in combat jackets, the impact still took him off his feet. He spun halfway around before collapsing into the open containers, wondering if he’d broken any ribs.
The firing ceased, replaced by shouting in Arabic that Tanner was too distracted to translate. A burly security trooper moved in on him, seizing Tanner’s wrist and twisting hard enough to force the knife from his hand. Tanner threw all his weight backward into the container, pulling the man after him. He delivered a brutal punch with his free hand, and then another. The blows helped him free his hand, but they didn’t get rid of the trooper.
More would be behind him, probably ready to light Tanner up rather than take him prisoner. He punched again, wondering what he could possibly do about that, and then saw the answer on the trooper’s belt. Tanner grabbed for the grenade with both hands, twisting the detonator but leaving the weapon on its clip. The move opened him to a couple of hits from his opponent, but he endured those to get the job done. Then he fell back onto his butt, raised both feet and kicked the trooper in the chest as hard as he could.
Two more foes stood ready to catch the trooper as he fell back. Tanner grabbed for the door of the open container to pull it shut behind him, but a rifle butt slamming into his shoulder prevented him. Suddenly two more men loomed over him, hammering down blows with their rifles. Tanner curled up to protect his head.
One rifle butt came down on his upper back. Another hit his shoulder again. Tanner’s clothing mitigated some of the impact, but it still hurt, especially when one of themtagged him in the same spot where he’d taken the bullet.
The grenade detonated only a couple of meters away, instantly killing its bearer, the two men beside him, and Tanner’s rifle-wielding attackers.
His first glance through the haze revealed a sudden shift in priorities all around him. Most people dove for cover out of reflex and common sense, not knowing if more grenades were incoming. Tanner saw more enemies behind storage bins and machinery up ahead. Tumbling out of the cargo container, he snatched a rifle from one of the fallen security troopers and turned it on his new targets to keep their heads down.
The weapon only offered a plaintive beep of refusal. Naturally, he thought. Much like the Archangel Navy, his enemies kept all their weapons keyed to magnetic signatures in their users’ gloves. “Shit!” Tanner growled bitterly, throwing away the weapon and scrambling from his now all-too-exposed position.
That left him running right back toward the shuttle. He heard and saw much more gunfire now, both the loud banging of bullets and the soft but distinct hum of lasers, along with the blaring of the station’s alarms. Thankfully, some of the gunfire offered him protection. His violent, scrambling antics provided enough of a distraction for his comrades from the shuttle crew to retrieve their guns from the cargo crates.
Not all the bodies lying around the shuttle were Hashemite personnel. His side of the fight had already suffered some casualties. Tanner made it to one of the cargo containers, which now served primarily as cover for his team leader—a big, burly man with dark stubble on his head and chin—blasting away with a laser carbine.
“God damn it, Malone,” snarled Ezekiel while still shooting, “I said it was a mistake to bring you!”
“Yeah? I said so, too!” Tanner snapped back, hiding behind the container beside the other man. “What did I say? What was the first thing I said? I said, ‘Hi, I’m Tanner Malone and this is a terrible fucking idea!’”
“You couldn’t even keep it together for two minutes?”
Tanner searched frantically for the latch for another secret compartment. “That guy recognized me with only half my face showing! What else did you want me to do?” He found the right spot: a panel on the container popped open to reveal a large foil packet full of sniffer-defeating goo. Tanner quickly set to tearing open the packet, which of course turned out to be much harder than necessary.
“You might have drawn less attention to yourself if you hadn’t kept ducking your head like you were trying to hide something! We came up with all that bullshit to wear the masks just to cover for your stupid ass being here. You could’ve at least tried to sell it!”
By the time Ezekiel finished shouting, Tanner had his slime-covered weapon free and clear. He popped up over the top of the crate and joined in the shooting.
He found fewer targets than he’d feared. Fighting still raged, but Ezekiel’s team had done plenty of damage. Their foes didn’t look all that well-coordinated, either, though by now Tanner had forgotten the role he played in ensuring that. At this point, one armed target was just as dangerous as any other.
Movement drew Tanner’s attention to his left, past the nose of their shuttle and the one open landing spot beside it. The large bay doors were opening, with more security troopers already flooding inside.
“Aw, shit,” Tanner blurted, ducking behind the crate again while turning his weapon on the new arrivals. “Flankers!” He fired off a sustained burst in the hopes of suppressing them. “We’ve got flankers on the left!”
He tagged one of them and sent many others diving to the deck or scrambling for the nearest cover. Noise and tension built around him. He realized it fit with the sudden, large rush of motion in his peripheral vision as their shuttle lifted a single meter into the air. The grey craft lurched backward and swung around, almost pivoting at the point of its nose so that the rest of its body could sweep around in an arc.
Bodies and boxes flew as the shuttle knocked aside everything in its path. Few of the enemy had time to cry out. Then the shuttle’s magnetic landing struts slammed down onto the deck once more. Tanner watched with wide eyes as the craft’s afterburners fired. Even the lowest test level of power spat out enough flame and heat to incinerate anyone on the other side of the open bay doors.
The afterburners cut out as suddenly as they had activated. As if following a conductor’s lead, the guns all seemed to fall silent with the shuttle. Tanner dared to stand upright. He saw no more enemies drawing down on him and his allies with weapons. A trickle of broken pipes and overhead panels clattered to the deck, but otherwise the whole bay seemed shocked into silence.
The shuttle’s odd twist had brought the cockpit around to face Tanner directly. He looked through the canopy to see Boatswain’s Mate 3rd Class Sanjay Bhatia stand up in his seat at the helm, point right at Tanner, and then twirl his finger at his ear in the universal hand signal for insanity.
“Me?” Tanner blinked, then gestured at the wreckage. He shook his head, then snapped his weapon up at nearby movement. A pair of unarmed techs were dragging a third man to the nearest exit. Tanner recognized the injured one as the officer he’d kicked at the start of the fight. He lowered his gun.
“What the hell are you doing?” Ezekiel growled, stepping past Tanner and bringing up his carbine.
Tanner grabbed at the weapon and then gave Ezekiel a shove. “What the hell are you doing?”
Ezekiel threw an elbow in retaliation, tagging Tanner in the face and sending him stumbling back. Out of reflex if nothing else, Tanner spun around and delivered a kick to Ezekiel’s hip, once again preventing the team leader from firing.
“Woah, stop! What’s going on?” demanded several masked teammates, jumping between the two as the fleeing Hashemites escaped through a hatch.
“That’s a good question!” Ezekiel roared.
“You know the Rules of Engagement,” Tanner fired back. “Which one of those guys looked like a legitimate target to you? The two unarmed janitors, or the one who couldn’t even walk?”
“This is a covert op! You’re not here to play master-at-arms!”
Tanner shook his head. “Guess everyone should’ve thought of that before they put me on the team, huh?” he asked. Then he waited. “Is this where we have our staredown now? ‘Cause I don’t care which one of us wins that. You step off the ROE and you’ll have a bigger problem than Hashemites.”
Ezekiel looked ready to tear Tanner in half. Older and larger, the man seemed about as dangerous as anyone else he’d ever tangled with. Moreover, Tanner was far out of his element. Other than Sanjay and a couple personnel loaned out by the Navy for this op, everyone here was a veteran agent of the Ministry of Intelligence.
Still, Tanner refused to back down. He wasn’t allowed; this was the job he’d signed up for.
“’Mission critical’ my ass,” Ezekiel fumed, turning away. “Alpha team, on me. We head to Deck Seven right now. Malone, you stay at the back and try to remember whose side you’re on. Bravo, you and the shuttle boys secure this space and straighten the boat out so we can jet out of here right away. Move!”
Tanner glanced over his shoulder toward the shuttle. He saw Sanjay still there behind the canopy. Once again, the tall, young bos’un gave him the “loco” hand motion.
* * *
Ezekiel and the other agents stacked up on either side of the heavy, sealed doors. Tanner stuck to the back of the group as ordered.
With everyone in place, Ezekiel gave a nod. An agent at the control panel tapped in a specific entry code. Nothing happened at first. “You’d better be in there,” muttered Ezekiel. “That or this whole job is already a failure.”
A couple more heartbeats passed before the doors snapped open. No gunfire erupted as the team moved in. Tanner heard people call out the all-clear before he came around the corner.
He found a set-up not all that different from the brigs on Beowulf or Los Angeles, though it didn’t look like part of the station’s original construction. A research facility like this wouldn’t need sealed jail cells with opaque metal doors. Most research stations wouldn’t have dead security troopers lying in one corner, either. The familiar face behind the main control desk, alongside two somewhat nervous but cooperative station technicians, explained the the dead guards.
She smiled brightly as Tanner entered, casually bracing the butt of her pulse rifle against her hip and sporting scavenged bits of body armor over the same khaki jumpsuit worn by the technicians. Her long, black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, keeping it all out of her lovely, golden face.
“Tanner, hi!” Agent Vanessa Rios all but beamed as Tanner groaned.
“Oh, you gotta be kidding me.”
She looked at him with big, innocent doe eyes. He might even have fallen for them if he didn’t know better. “Aw, c’mon,” she said, “I was looking forward to seeing you! I went to all this trouble!”
“Are you why I’m here?”
“Vanessa,” grumbled Ezekiel.
“Yes, indeed,” she smiled at Tanner, and then glanced at Ezekiel with less warmth. “I’m on it. Relax. Gentlemen,” she said to the technicians beside her, “this is Ezekiel, and this is Tanner. I don’t know the others. Ezekiel, Tanner, this is Sergeant Ghalib, and this is Technical Specialist Hilel. They are men of good conscience. I don’t think I need to explain the risks they’ve taken to make all this happen. They’re coming with us.”
“Understood,” Ezekiel replied. He gestured to one of the women on his team. “Kimiko, you’re with them. Get ‘em armored up as best you can with whatever we can scrounge here. Vanessa, where’s the primary?”
“In the back. I’ll take Tanner there with me now. We can unlock the other cells from here.”
“Then let’s get on it, people.”
Tanner caught a beckoning wave from Vanessa and followed her back around one corner of the compartment. Behind them, Ezekiel and the rest of the team set to opening up the cell doors. “You mind telling me what’s going on?” Tanner asked. “Nobody would explain who we’re here to pick up.”
Vanessa threw an amused smirk over her shoulder as she walked. “Zeke gave you the ‘need to know’ bit, huh? I knew he would. Such a jackass. Hey, is Sanjay here?”
“Yeah,” Tanner blinked. “You asked to have him on the mission, too?”
“Sure. I knew who’d they’d put in charge of this op. Figured you should have someone solid at your back. Also, I like Sanjay. Thought it’d be good to say hi.”
“You’re here for a specific purpose. Yes, I’m the one who said you were needed. For a few reasons, really. Partly, I just wanted to talk. But mostly it’s for the primary objective.”
“What objective?” Tanner blinked. “What the hell’s going on?”
“It’s right around this way. So, like I said, how’ve you been? I haven’t read your mail in months.”
That stopped Tanner in his tracks. “You read my mail?”
“Not regularly, no. But I know the guy who does. Are you still dead set on getting out of the Navy when your enlistment is up?”
“Are you—is this really the time for small talk?”
Smiling proudly as if Tanner had just overcome algebra for the first time, Vanessa said, “Yes. Yes, it is. How often do we get the chance? Everyone else in the world engages in small talk at their jobs, and this is who we are. You should get used to this. Are your parents still doing okay on Arcadia?”
“This is not who I am!” snapped Tanner. “This is what I do because I’m stuck with it! This is five years of my life, or until this stupid war is over—whichever happens last,” he added sourly, “and then I’m gone. I’m out. No second term. No more uniforms, no more guns, no more hoping to God I can murder the other guy before he kills me first!”
Vanessa listened patiently. He realized then that he was shouting and dialed back his anger. “Yes,” he said, “I want out. I’m getting out. I’m gonna do my time and go to college and move on and be like all the other normal people out there again.”
“I can’t argue about the uniforms,” she conceded, “but I don’t buy the rest of it. You’re not normal people, Tanner. Normal people get caught up in events and try to ride them out. You see what’s going wrong and you figure out how to fix it. You accept the risks and you step up and take control because you know you can. That’s not something you can walk away from. And don’t try to tell me I’m wrong, because it takes one to know one.
“You can go become a survey specialist or a laboratory scientist and you’ll still be Tanner Malone. You’re going to see crises and chaos and fucked up situations all your life, and you’re going to have to step in and fix it because you know that you can.
“And that’s the other reason I called you in,” she said, poking his chest. “I don’t know if heroes are born or if they’re made, but either way, it’s who you are. You’re never gonna walk away from that. Stop fooling yourself into thinking you can even try. Learn to live with it. And learn to be happy with it, too. Humanity’s a mess. Always has been, always will be, whether your home planet is free or not. Doesn’t mean you have no right to be happy.”
His mouth tried to form words, and failed. Eventually: “You couldn’t just write me a letter?”
“Sure, and I could’ve gotten reprimanded for revealing that your mail gets watched by the Ministry. Here, we have nothing recording us. Besides, I needed you for this other thing. So…?” she prompted.
Tanner let out a sigh. “My parents are fine,” he said. “Sharon almost got run out of her job because of her ‘politically-charged’ comments about the war in her classroom, but the school administration backed down. They’re okay.”
“Good,” Vanessa smiled. “Dating anyone yet?”
“No. I wish.”
“See? Is small talk that hard? You can do this.”
“Okay, fine. Small talk.” Tanner glanced over his shoulder to make sure no one was coming to join them. “Aaron Hawkins. Did you know him?”
“Aaron—? Oh. No,” she frowned. “The Ministry of Intelligence is a big group, Tanner. We don’t all know each other.” To her credit, she only barely hesitated. MA school taught quite a bit about the body language and other signs of lying. Vanessa did not blink, did not repeat the question to give herself time to think or any number of other tells Tanner learned about. Her attempt to put the question into context seemed legit.
Then again, she had much more experience than he did. He took for granted that she was a better liar than he was an interviewer.
“See, I figured you both had Ministry assignments on starships,” Tanner pressed. “And unless all the public info on how the Ministry is organized is a big façade, you’re in the same category and likely had a lot of the same training, and—“
“—and I’m covert while he was public?”
“Posthumously,” Tanner pointed out. “After Argent made such a splash at Raphael, and they had to give something to the media. By then Hawkins was dead. Hawkins had ten years as a Navy officer and no command experience before joining the Ministry. There’s no way in hell he was the captain of a ship that large. They cooked that up for the media, didn’t they?”
“You’d know more about hero narratives than I would.”
“Was she really scrapped after the battle like they say?”
The agent shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. Not my department. Why are you asking me this? That fight was almost two years ago.” She tilted her head then as a memory seemed to click into place. “Are you still on about Argent almost killing us on Scheherazade?”
“Only if I can prove a motive,” Tanner replied gravely.
Vanessa made a face. “Hawkins was one of Kiribati’s loyalists,” she said with a low, level voice. “Like Ezekiel out there. I’m not in that club. I’m busy with this whole war going on. What’s on your mind?”
“Vanessa,” came a voice from back down the hallway. “How are we doing?”
“Almost good to go,” she called back.
“No time to explain now,” Tanner said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder toward Ezekiel’s voice. “I’m mostly just curious.”
“Uh-huh. Well, if something’s up, let me know. Quietly.” Getting back to business, Vanessa turned to one of the all-metal cell doors to input a couple of codes. “Our primary here got captured by Murtada’s people a couple months ago. And by Murtada’s people, I mean Murtada’s and not NorthStar’s, or he wouldn’t be here. I wanted him to see someone he could trust. You’re the closest thing I could come up with. You’ve never met,” she added, “but he wrote you a couple letters once.”
She keyed the last command, causing the cell door to beep and then slide upward.
No furniture graced the small compartment other than a simple toilet, sink and a flat slab attached to one wall. The prisoner lay huddled in the cold cell, long unshaven and unwashed. His torn slacks and dress shirt bore old blood stains. He neither moved nor spoke as they entered, following them with his eyes.
Tanner moved closer, studying a man repeatedly confirmed by multiple sources to have been killed two months ago. “Prince Khalil,” Tanner breathed.
The prisoner blinked. “Meen,” he croaked out. “Hadah meen?”
Though he’d tried to brush up during the trip here, Tanner’s Arabic came up short. He opted for English: “I’m Tanner Malone, your highness.”
The name meant nothing to the prisoner at first—and then it did. His head tilted. His shoulders rose as he struggled to sit up on the bed.
“Sir, this is Agent Rios. She fought with me on Scheherazade. She got me here. You can trust her, and you can trust me. We’re here to get you all out. You and all the other prisoners.”
Though his hand shook, it found Tanner’s. His eyes held Tanner’s with a strength that didn’t match his malnourished and beaten body. His grip grew stronger with another breath, and then Prince Khalil said, “They tell me my brother, Murtada has won, that I must acknowledge him to end the war.”
Tanner shook his head. “No, sir. We’ve both still got wars to win.”
Footsteps outside the cell drew Tanner’s attention. Tanner looked over his shoulder to see Ezekiel, gun in hand and a stern expression on his face. “Station security is getting itself together again,” he warned. “We have to get moving.”
“I think we’re about ready to go,” Vanessa answered, glancing back to the prince.
“Your highness?” Ezekiel asked.
Khalil looked to Tanner. “This is Ezekiel,” he explained. “He’s the leader of the mission.”
The prince then gave Ezekiel a nod. “Thank you. I am weak, but I can move. How many others are with us?”
“We’ve recovered eight other prisoners, sir.”
Khalil winced. “We are not leaving anyone behind?”
“I can’t verify any other survivors of the group Murtada captured,” answered Vanessa. “I’m sorry, but the rest either didn’t make it or they aren’t here.”
“Then I am ready to go. With help.”
“I’ve got this,” Tanner said, moving in to take one of Khalil’s arms over his shoulder.
Khalil watched Ezekiel disappear as he rose with Tanner’s aid. “I can’t help but notice what you did not say about your leader,” he said.
“You said that I could trust Agent Rios.”
“You can trust Ezekiel to get you out of here safely,” explained Tanner. “I can’t imagine any reason he would hurt you or your people.”
Tanner caught sight of the grin on Vanessa’s face before she slipped out of the cell. “I don’t pretend to know his priorities.”
* * *
Tanner all but carried Khalil to the shuttle, and later to sick bay on the freighter, remaining at the prince’s side while the doctor started treatment. The prince demanded to he see his fellow prisoners before anything else. With every new person, the prince looked warily to Tanner for cues.
That look floored Tanner. Khalil was a prince. He’d governed worlds and led armies. Tanner dreaded even having to manage a handful of non-rates on a cleaning detail or a watch section. Those eyes spoke as much to Khalil’s suffering as his strength.
Tanner introduced Sanjay as someone Khalil could trust. Beyond that, he once again chose his words carefully.
“I have some questions for you, your highness,” put in Ezekiel as he stood at the foot of the bed. “The sooner, the better.”
“He needs rest,” repeated the doctor.
“We’ll be in FTL for over a week,” Tanner pointed out. “There’s nothing you can do with any of the prince’s intel before we get back to Archangel, anyway.”
“I would not be of much use to you now, anyway, Agent,” agreed Khalil. “I am sorry.”
Ezekiel nodded. “Fair enough, your highness. My apologies. Malone, we should speak outside.”
Tanner looked to Khalil. “I am sure I will be fine now,” said the prince.
Vanessa followed Tanner outside to Ezekiel’s obvious annoyance, but he said nothing to her. “Malone, did someone put you in charge when I wasn’t looking?” Ezekiel asked.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” Tanner replied. “I’m here to look out for him, right? The doctor said he needs rest.”
“You’re here to back up your superiors, too, or didn’t they teach you anything about the chain of command in basic?”
“Well, you’re free to write up a bad performance eval—oh, wait, except you can’t document any of this with the Navy, can you? Covert op and all. Gosh. Not sure what to tell you. Hey, you don’t think this will mess up my chances at getting promoted, do you?”
Ezekiel glared, lingering briefly to give Vanessa a similarly dirty look before turning away and stalking down the passageway.
Tanner felt Vanessa’s hand on his shoulder. “You know you’re only proving my earlier points, right?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Tanner, though not angrily. “I’m just another good little soldier. Shut up and keep my head down and all that. This is above my pay grade.”
“Bullshit. You can operate on any level you want to. Sooner or later, even you have to accept that.”
“Like I said, it takes one to know one.” With that, Vanessa slipped away.
Looking through the sick bay window, Tanner saw Khalil asleep and the doctor entering notes on his holocom. Nothing more needed doing here now.
Tanner wandered to the galley. He’d already missed the evening meal thanks to the last few hours sitting in sick bay, but the freighter’s cooks allowed for a small degree of self-service.
Finding himself alone in front of a heating unit, waiting for a simple box of dinner to warm up, Tanner had plenty of space to think. Vanessa’s advice rolled around in his head. He wasn’t sure what to make of it all.
The clunking sound of the old-fashioned coffee maker nearby drew his attention. “Evening, Captain Madinah,” he said.
The bearded man smiled. He seemed at once hard-bitten and gentle. Tanner suspected Madinah had seen enough rough times that he no longer had anything to prove to anyone. “You know,” said the captain, “I’ve forgotten whatever false name I am supposed to call you.”
Tanner smiled and shrugged. “I’m told I shouldn’t speak to you at all. Or the crew.”
The captain nodded sagely. “It is the way of these things.” He glanced over his shoulder. “One might almost forget what it means to be the captain of one’s own ship. Almost.”
“You don’t strike me as the type to forget, sir.”
“I am not.” He pulled his cup from the machine, but did not walk away. “You came back with casualties, but things seemed to go well, otherwise.”
“Yes, sir. We did a good thing today.”
“I am aware. It is why I agree to do these things in the first place. They pay me, of course, but only a fool puts his life on the line merely for money. A fool, or a criminal. I believe you have dealt with more than your share of the latter.” He watched Tanner thoughtfully. “You have done good things, too, Mr. Malone. It may seem like long ago, given all that has happened since then. I remember what it was like to be your age. But I think you will find a great many people in my business who will not forget Yaomo, or Vengeance. Or the one who brought them low. NorthStar’s propaganda machine may try to make you out to be a vicious killer, but it is hard to cast those deeds as crimes.”
“Thank you, sir,” Tanner said, feeling humbled.
The captain put out his hand. “And I am honored to have you aboard.”
Shaking the captain’s strong hand, Tanner found himself glancing around the galley. As before, the two men were still alone. “Sir,” he ventured, “do you have a minute?”
“Things seem quiet. I believe I can spare a few.”
Tanner hesitated. He wondered if he might not be going too far already.
He wondered if he might prove Vanessa right, or if that would even be a bad thing.
“This ship was at the Battle of Raphael, correct?”
“Yes. Under a different registry and identification, of course. We are not an Archangel vessel, legally speaking. But we were there. All part of our peculiar line of work.”
In truth, Tanner had another ship in mind entirely, but he asked, “Can you tell me how a civilian freighter captain comes into this peculiar line of work?”