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Chapter 2.5 Lyr Andraste

October 16, 2012

Lyr turned the data over in her head. The message. The encrypted information. A list of orbitals, salvage yards, mining installations, and a dozen other small assets. Hardly any had strategic value, but there were a handful of promising leads.

She sighed. Tikexik would certainly take the information, he took every lead that came his way. Hopefully, it would get Clarke out, but she doubted it.

Holding the decrypted chip in her hand, she headed back towards his too opulent cabin. “It’s a sign of my control, of my fame, my position,” he’d insisted. She’d hated it ever since.

She slid the chip and the reader over to him. He read quickly, his beak opening then closing. Finally, he looked up at her. “This is accurate?”

Lyr shrugged. She didn’t know. There was no way to verify any of the information until they were in system, and she hadn’t been able to check the net without running the risk of Tikexik discovering what she was up to.

“Orbitals, some shipping routes, not much of use here.” He slid the datapad back to her. “He gave you this?”

“It was that or die.”

“Do you think it’s true?”

“He knows the consequences for lying.”

“And he believes them?”

Lyr nodded.

“He doesn’t think he has any leverage?”

She paused at that question reviewing her time in captivity. “No,” she answered, “he doesn’t.”

He folded his tentacle arms. “Where should we go?”

Lyr sat across from him, it was a position she hadn’t occupied since she’d been back. She’d felt the sting of exclusion, but she’d borne it easily enough, so long as it had been temporary. She looked down at the list for the hundredth time. All the sites were good; the information was very nearly invaluable.

“The closest,” she pointed to a mining station just a few systems away.

Tikexik looked up at her. “You’re sure?”

She nodded. “Have I ever been wrong?”

The Vantage.” His words came fast hitting her like a slap across her face.

“We don’t know what happened there,” her reply was sharp.

“We don’t.”

They regarded each other for a long time. They hadn’t been alone since she’d been back. He’d kept her busy with duties and debriefs, in part to keep meetings like this form happening. But now, here she was, and he had to decide whether or not to trust her again. And not just her, but the information she was bringing him.

“I used to have a brother,” he finally said. “When we started, I flew and he found the contacts. We scraped by. Two new kids in town without a penny to our name and a ship that barely held together. I learned how to fix the ship on my own, we couldn’t hire a mechanic.

“It was rough, and we went hungry, but it was better than getting a job in the sectors. We had our own ship, and most days that was enough. But then the fuel began to add up, and so did a couple unexpected repairs. So, my brother took a job with a contact we didn’t know.

“We were desperate. We didn’t know what we were getting involved in. It was a scam. It was the first time I was supposed to get boarded. We didn’t get paid, and it cost us everything we had—including our ship to cover the difference.

“We thought we were even, but we weren’t. The Carchari crimelord Lixikek had contacted found us on the outskirts of Alatrea. We were scraping for work. We’d agreed to cart a herd of rews,” his voice managed the crack of a laugh, “we were so desperate.”

“But he caught up with us. It’s not difficult to incapacitate a Itrxix. It’s why we spend most of our times at the controls of a ship and not the controls of a gun. But you know that. The Carchari didn’t kill Lixikek quickly.

“He lingered for days, dying slowly, one tentacle at a time.  The Carchari didn’t ask any questions. He didn’t need any information, didn’t want any information. We didn’t have any money for him to take. It was a message, plain and simple. But a poor one since no one knew who we were.

“He made me watch. And when Lixikek finally died, the Carchari took my arm. He’d said it was, ‘my payment.’ I don’t remember what made me weep harder the pain from losing my brother or the pain from losing my arm knowing I’d never be the pilot I once was.

“I blacked out after that. When I came to everything was gone. My brother’s body, my arm, everything. Except you. Somehow you were there. You remind me of everything I was and everything I lost. More than my missing tentacle, you remind me that day.”

Lyr was silent. She’d never heard this story from Tikexik, no one had. Her earliest memories were being a deckhand on the ship. Some of the galley staff had put her to work cleaning pots and pans. She’d worked hard, cajoling the crew in bits and pieces to train her, slowly making her way through the ranks.

She still remembered convincing T’rigan to teach her how to snipe. She’d still been just a kid, but she’d just been awarded her first rifle, and she was ready for more. She still thought sniping was just a matter of hiding, waiting, and being patient. Turned out, it required a lot more: math, wind speed and direction, distance, and half a hundred other things. T’rigan assured her those things rarely came into play, except on a planet. She’d struggled to learn, but she’d never been truly patient enough to wait for just the right shot. T’rigan’s exasperation had been enough to convince her of that.

Still, he’d never held it against her when she received promotion after promotion. “I’m just wasting time here anyway,” he’d always say with his eyes firmly fixed on field stripping his rifle.

“You pulled me out of nothing. I’d be dead on Carchar now, or I’d be a real Carchari criminal, which is just as bad. You gave me a chance. You got me off this overheated shit hole the Sef call a world and I call home. You gave me a family, you gave me a purpose. I may remind you of everything you’ve lost, but you remind me of everything I’ve got,” she said.

This time he was quiet.

“Give orders to check out the nearest set of coordinates. I’ll coordinate the landing party with Brecon,” he said dismissing her.

She stood. “I’m sorry about your brother.”

“Me too.”

 

 

Chapter 2.4 Cain Valari

October 12, 2012

“Agent Valari,” the strangely pleasant female voice echoed in his head. He’d been wearing Lenora in his ear for the better part of a week. Alvarez had explained it was the latest tech available; she was state of the art. Lenora could monitor battlefield specs, increase accuracy, regenerate shields and a dozen other things all to help the soldier be more effective in a fight.

“Those damn Spooks kept outmaneuvering us. These little ladies fixed that right up.” Alvarez had said regarding the new rifle that held Lenora with the appreciation of a man who’d never fired one.

Alvarez had left unsaid that Lenora’s readings would be monitored and sent back to command, and that Lenora would see everything Cain did, and that Lenora would give command the ability to track Cain. There were half a hundred ways for command to spy on him with or without Lenora, and he didn’t like it. His memories may have vanished, but his instincts hadn’t.

They didn’t trust him.

Alvarez had told him to get to know Lenora since it would help him in the fray. Cain had grimaced; no one called a firefight a fray. But he’d dutifully stuck Lenora in his ear listening to her assess the tactical advantages of the mess hall more times than he could count.

Alvarez, and by extension the Sodality, had given him a ship. A small one, with a young crew, but it was better that nothing, and it meant he had an op again.

He drew the rifle; he was up in his quarters and alone. Lenora wouldn’t turn the safety off unless there were enemies. “A reduction in friendly fire,” she’d called it. He’d had other words, but he’d stopped asking.

“Just running through some exercises, Lenora,” he said interrupting her protests before she could begin.

He raised the gun, pulled the trigger three times successively aiming at three different locations. Even without firing a shot Lenora could track the intended trajectory of each shot. It was one of the more useful features of her programming, Cain had ultimately decided.

“Excellent work, Agent Valari.”

“Cain,” he growled for the hundredth time, “Just Cain.”

“As you wish, Agent Cain.”

He sighed. She’d be calling him Agent Valari again tomorrow. No, not she, he corrected himself. Lenora was a very finely voiced AI and that was all.

“My data shows no significant improvement in your accuracy in the course of a week. I can offer some improvements.”

Cain grunted a response.

“Your accuracy was already exceptional.”

“Thanks.”

“It is not flattery, Agent Cain. It is fact.”

“Are you reporting this back to Alvarez?”

“I am not authorized to say.”

Cain sighed. It was the response he’d expected even if it wasn’t the response he wanted. They were a long way from Command but never quite far enough.  In the wake of the increasing number of attacks on the salvage crews the Sodality had decided to send scouts before the salvage teams. It was extraordinarily inefficient, but Cain half-suspected it was an excuse to give him a proper field test.

He lay back against his bed, thumbing Lenora off and taking her out of his ear. Silence. The crew wasn’t going to knock on his door: he was new, in charge, and unknown. Those traits didn’t exactly spark optimism or loyalty.

He supposed his old self was used to being alone, and he wasn’t bothered now. He did, however, wish he knew a little more about their combat capabilities. He didn’t think each of them had their own Lenora, from what Alvarez had said the tech was not only new but almost prohibitively expensive. At least, for now.

“Lenora,” he said before realizing she wasn’t in his ear. He contemplated grabbing the ear piece and putting it in before deciding he would ask later. The silence was simply too rare to pass up. He closed his eyes, for once without Lenora monitoring his heart rate and sleep patterns.

It was dark. Night. Even the lights were out. His headpiece vibrated as he heard the voice, “Alpha team in position.”

The pavement was wet, slippery. The reflectors were both helpful and dangerous.

“Bravo team, check.”

“Charlie team, check.”

His turn. “Delta team, check.”

He glanced behind at the dozen men on his six, gave them a quick nod that they returned, and set his rifle on his shoulder with the night vision on.

He ran through the schematics to the control tower in his head. Alpha and Bravo had the bay itself, Charlie had the civilians, and Delta had the controls.

These were the last. They were the only ones left. Everyone else had drifted out to the rendezvous slowly over the last few months. Those left were the essential personnel in the Confederacy, and consequently, those most necessary to the Sodality.

The war had taken its toll and a strategic retreat was finally possible, even for those rebels still ensconced in the Confederacy. Tonight it would all be over.

“Delta 4,” he called back, “Charges?”

“Affirmative.”

The plan was simple: keep the doors open, blow the controls, and make the last ship.

His watch beeped.

It was time.

He swiped the door, rifle ready as his men poured in behind him taking defensive points along the hall. Two took down guards with their garrotes.

He listened for an alarm.

Silence.

Cain motioned them forward. Their black fatigues, so useful on the streets, suddenly stood in stark contrast to the fluorescent hall lights.

They moved quickly through the halls. Cain’s handpicked team exceptional, as he knew they would be.

“Delta 6,” he said requesting Kate. She took her place at the keypad, while everyone else fanned out. The keypad had been the one necessary piece of information he hadn’t been able to secure. He cursed himself for running out of time and for having to hold his breath while she worked.

And the door was open.

“Alpha, we are in,” he said.

“ETA 2 minutes. Hold position.” The response from Alpha was short, even on secure lines nothing was certain.

His squad filled into the control room. Peter began laying charges. 10 minutes and they were out.

Sam was at the control panel clearing ships, unlocking them, opening doors. Sam looked up. “We’re going to have company.”

Cain nodded, they’d been expecting this. “Alright you heard him, move with a purpose people.”

Kate patched through to the radio. “They’re mobilizing. We’ve got five minutes tops.”

“Alpha, Bravo, Charlie we’ve got company. Four minutes,” Cain shouted into the radio.

Reluctant affirmatives echoed back over the radio. Cain didn’t envy Charlie squad.

“Peter, are those charges loaded?” Cain asked.

“Yessir.”

“Sam, can you keep them from overriding the controls?”

“I can slow them down.”

“Good enough. Everyone else, get ready to move out.”

Cain bolted upright. That was it.

A memory.

 

Chapter 2.3 – Lyr Andraste

October 10, 2012

The acrid air stung Lyr’s eyes, hitting her like a wall every time she came back.

“Good to be home?” asked Vandyr a smile almost playing at his lips.

She looked at the buildings black with soot and grime. The sky was a sickly, grayish brown, and smoke churned in dark swills out of gaping flues.  Carchar was the first of the Consortium prison worlds and, consequently, the most expansive. Millions of criminals from the main colonies had been transported to the inhospitable rocky crags of Carchar. The government, to keep the volatile population under control, had also made the planet into the largest refuse processing factory—a remarkably unprofitable, and fetid, business.

“No, not really.” She set off down the dusty port road and into the heart of Taran. Vandyr and Kiylu kept close on her heels, neither of them were Carchari, and Vandyr knew the risks. A hundred years ago, the Consortium had stopped sending their criminals to Carchar. The Sef alive now were largely innocent, at least of convictions on Consortium colonies, but were still excluded from the Sef government. The Carchari were chafing under the system.

“Does it always smell this bad?” Lyr heard Kiylu whisper.

Vandyr’s phori pinked, and he shook his head. “Not here.”

“I’d heard stories, but—“

“This rocky waste of a world was turned into a junkyard prison. I don’t think the Consortium was concerned with how the planet would smell,” said Lyr.

Now, it was Kiylu’s turn to pink.

“She’s Carchari,” Vandyr said under his breath.

“Oh.”

Lyr wrapped her slim fingers around the chip Clarke had passed to her before he’d been escorted to the cell down in the hold. She tried not to focus on Kiylu, she was just a kid from Sefanarbor, she’d probably never even heard of half the places she was seeing. Lyr hadn’t been able to find a reader for it on the ship, nothing there read Njeri tech, and even Kiylu hadn’t been able to make anything of it. She hoped Ilfre had something worthwhile.

The fibari owned a shop down in one of the wards. Lyr’d never asked how the amphibious biped ended up on Carchar, much less made it past the blockade, but she knew enough to imagine it was similar to how any of the off-worlders ended up on this backwater, black market haven: money.

Tikexik was checking on The Little Black leaving Lyr to babysit the expensive, if uneventful, trip to Ilfre’s; it was a move that made Lyr chafe. The Black was her ship, she’d spent more time on those systems than anyone else in the crew pushing the numbers for the extra half percent shields. It wasn’t her fault she’d been boarded.

She caught herself scanning the throngs of Sef for anyone from her past life. She watched for the thin yellow lines demarcating the Ilindago territory, and the dark red marks of the Eiders. She’d escaped the world, but she knew she’d never completely escape the life.

Ilfre’s shop was always cluttered. He had more black market tech than anyone else on Carchar and enough resources to keep himself safe. As the main provider for most of the privateering operations there was a mutual interest in keeping the little fibari safe. It was probably the only thing they all agreed on, Lyr though with some interest.

Kiylu’s eyes went big when she saw the mountains of tech lining the walls of Ilfre’d shop. Lyr smiled, she was green but she knew her stuff.

“Lyr Andraste, always a pleasure,” Ilfre burbled through his water tank. “I was worried we’d seen the last of you.”

Lyr had the grace to smile. “The list?” Lyr turned to Kiylu, as the reigning tech expert she’d been in charge of the list for Ilfre’s shop.  Lyr slid the list over the counter letting her other hand rest on her pistol. Gods, it felt good to have her gun back.

The fibari’s bulbous yellow eyes regarded the list casually before enveloping it in his webbed hand. His gills flared as he read over some of the more obscure items.

“Two hours,” he finally answered.

Lyr nodded discreetly slipping the chip over the counter before guiding Vandyr and Kiylu out of the shop.

The street was deceptively bright after Ilfre’s dim shop. Lyr led them to Tafarn, the always-open dive bar that was T’rigan’s favorite. She caught herself wishing he was here, even though she’d specifically sent him to keep an eye on The Black.

She caught Vandyr’s eyes linger over a few thinly dressed Sef, and judging from Kiylu’s bright green phori, she saw it too. Lyr allowed herself a brief, wry smile keeping Vandyr’s eyes from wandering was always a losing battle.  She wondered if Vandyr had discovered the young Sef’s apparent admiration before wondering how long it would take before he did.

Tafarn was crowded, as it always was, but Lyr found Brecon at his usual table. She couldn’t remember the last time they hadn’t run into him on Carchar.

He was one of the few Sef in Tafarn to be wearing his goggles, the light was kept dim for that purpose.  Lyr slipped hers off, the specialized ones had been lost when she’d been taken prisoner, and she’d been searching for a new pair ever since.

Brecon regarded her for a long moment taking in her heart rate, temperature, her weapons, and a dozen other things she could only imagine. “They didn’t do too much damage, I see,” he said finally, leaning back in his chair.

She stiffened instinctively.

Brecon motioned for her to sit; Kiylu and Vandyr following her lead.

“About time that ink blower got you out. I was worried I’d have to do it myself,” continued Brecon.

Lyr opened her mouth to speak but closed it again. She’d known Brecon for years, since he’d shown up on Carchar with a knack for finding those who didn’t want to be found.

“You coming with us?” she asked.

“I got some work in Njeri space, and I heard you need a boarding vessel.”

“Who told you that?” demanded Kiylu.

“He has his ways,” answered Vandyr. “Don’t bother asking, he’s not going to tell.”

The little Sef pinked for the second time in an afternoon. Lyr decided she was going to have to give the kid some training.

“New kid?” Brecon raised his glass in Kiylu’s direction.

“Yeah,” answered Lyr.

“She’ll work out fine. She’s loyal though. You,” he looked at Vandyr, “should watch out.” Brecon’s phori turned an impish orange, and Lyr had to take a drink to keep form laughing.

“How’s work finding the unfindable?” Lyr asked.

Brecon shrugged. “They’re never unfindable. Some just leave less of a trace than others. You lose your goggles?” He looked at the ones sitting on the top of her head.

Lyr nodded, now it was her turn to pink.

“Make sure Ilfre gets you new ones. He has them.” Brecon always knew when to let something slide. And her goggles were one of those things. She’d had them specially ordered, and she never parted with them—until she’d been unconscious on a Njeri prison. The loss of her goggles hurt almost as much as the loss of her ship.

Lyr had long since ceased to be amazed at his information. It was his job, and he was good at it. Better than anyone else, in fact. She was glad he was coming with them, even if it was just for a bit. The ship always ran a little smoother with a new face, and, as much as she might loathe relinquishing command of the boarding party, she trusted Brecon more than almost anyone.

They finished their drinks in silence: Vandyr watching the women,  Kiylu watching Vandyr, and Brecon watching it all. Lyr grinned—this trip would be interesting.

Her comm rang in her ear. Ilfre. She rose, “See you on the ship.”

“Make sure you get those goggles.” He pulled her close, “And that chip.”

Chapter 2.2 Cain Valari

October 4, 2012

“Excellent work out there.” The major stood at crisp attention in his freshly pressed uniform.

Cain nodded. Six dead marines. Four civilians with serious injuries, one still in critical condition. He grit his teeth, none of that felt like good work.

The major held Cain’s unclassified dossier, the one on the datapad, and was thumbing through it. Cain shifted, he hadn’t been dismissed by the officer, but he wasn’t under his command either. “You have previous service. We could use someone like you. We are fighting a war.” The major didn’t look up.

“Yessir.” Judging from the officer’s tone his amnesia was considered classified.

“We could use someone with your abilities. Why were you in salvage detail?”

“Temporary duty assignment.”

“I see. I’ll contact your CO about your transfer. You’d be a considerable asset.” The major turned away still holding Cain’s file.

Cain let his hands fall behind his back, stepping audibly into at-ease.

“Dismissed.” The major didn’t turn to face him, he was already giving orders to a young LT. “And, Mr. Valari, my door is always open,” he looked up at Cain nodding briefly.

Cain cast a last, long look about the bridge. Despite the extraordinary number of people, the bridge was remarkably quiet. Everyone was huddled over their desks, rigorously studying their data feeds. Everything on The Persephone had the mark of the military about it; it was natural when the entire fleet had been converted to a war effort. But sometimes, Cain thought, you could almost imagine the war hadn’t touched the shops or the cafes or the barracks. The way it had become such a steady reality, permeating the faces of everyone almost made it disappear. And then, he would step onto the bridge or run into a NCO, and it would come back just like it came back to everyone else. The desperation to forget was constantly fighting the insurmountable reality.

He exhaled deeply as he punched the lift down to the main decks of The Persephone running through the events on the orbital for the hundredth time. The way his fingers had wrapped so casually around the rifle’s grip, how easy it had been to aim, how he knew where to strike, when to wait. He’d known he was supposed to know these things, he knew it was supposed to be instinctual; he just never really thought it would be so easy.

The debrief had been thorough, if not enlightening.  No one knew how the Sef had found them, and they hadn’t left any leads behind. Cain hadn’t had much to contribute, there had been a distinct lack of conversation when he was fighting on the orbital. But that was for the intelligence officers to figure out, not him.

The lift opened onto the main deck, and Cain thought the corridors were emptier even though he knew they weren’t. Not really. The men on his mission hadn’t been the only ones to die that day, he knew that, nor had they been attacked the worst. But none of that made it any easier.

Normally, he found the buzz of people on the main decks comforting, as though there was a bit of humanity that never slept and never stopped. There was something soothing in the similarity of their drab, uniform jumpsuits in the midst of colorful conversations. He relished the odd juxtaposition. But today, the voices were quieter, the expressions less varied, and the comfort diminished.

He traced the familiar path to the medbay, the mint green of the walls still caused a lurch in the pit of his stomach. He could almost hear the screams from quarantine and the steps of the doctors to take him back. He shuddered; he’d forced one of the field docs to stitch his arm on the flight back to The Persephone. But now, he was here again.

She was still attached to innumerable wires and tubes, but she’d woken up. He’d gotten that call sometime in the middle of the night. Waking up was good, it meant she was more stable. Not completely stable yet, not out of danger, but getting there.

Her mom was with her and so was her sister. He waited outside the door, momentarily uncertain. He’d been to see her everyday since they’d made it back; he suspected it was guilt for leaving her alone in that room without making sure the rest of the station was clear.

Haven’s eyes drifted open revealing their brilliant shade of green. “The hero,” she said, voice weak if still bright. Her family turned to face Cain, he hadn’t met them yet, and he hesitated at the door, as they looked him over.

He gave a thin smile. “I’m glad to see you’re doing better.”

She looked at her Mother. “This is the man who saved us.”

Haven’s mother smiled warmly at him, “Thank you.” She took his hand, clasping it between both of hers.

He shrugged.

“Are you still on salvage detail?” Haven asked.

Cain shook his head. After what happened on the orbital he very much doubted he’d be on salvage duty again.

She frowned a little. “Oh. Didn’t think you would be.”

She hadn’t asked him yet about where he’d learned how to shoot, or why he was just on salvage detail in the first place, and for that he was grateful.

“They need more people like you on those salvage crews,” said Haven’s mother.

“Mom, we had marines.”

“Clearly, they didn’t do anything.” She turned on Cain. “You should say something to make sure you can stay with the details.”

“I think they have something a little more important for Cain to do now. We are at war.”

“ I know. That’s why they should make sure everyone is protected when they leave the fleet,” she continued with the staunch protectiveness that seemed to characterize all parents.

“We were protected, Mom.” Haven closed her eyes briefly. “I’m tired, I’d like to rest,” she said signaling the end of the conversation.

“I’ll be back tomorrow,” said Cain as he turned to leave.

He heard Haven’s mother still talking as he left, still demanding her daughter have more protection, arguing the marines should have more training. He sighed, doubting anyone thought those marines would be seeing action that day, but at least he had been there.

Alvarez caught him in the hallway just outside Haven’s room.

“You’ve been here everyday since you got back, it’s not a secret,” explained Alvarez.

Cain didn’t respond.

“You proved to us that you still have all your assets. We were concerned you wouldn’t.”

“This was a test? You knew they’d get hit?” Cain turned to face Alvarez blocking his path out of the medbay.

“Not exactly. We don’t exactly talk with the Sef. It is war. But they’d been hitting salvage operations recently. It was an educated guess that they would show up eventually on a crew you were on.”

“So, you put people in danger just to see what I could do?”

“No,” the answer was just a hair to quick, “that was just the silver lining.”

“Great,” Cain muttered under his breath.

“But we’ve reinstated your field status.”

He looked back at Haven—just a kid put in danger because they wanted to see if he could still handle himself under fire. His lips formed a thin line and he shook his head.

Of course you did, thought Cain, I passed my field test.

Chapter 2.1 Lyr Andraste

October 2, 2012

Lyr stood in front of the legendary Captain Tikexik, hands behind her back, and ready to endure whatever he’d decided was now in store for her.

“We have no way of ascertaining how much you told them.” The scar tissue on his shortened tentacle puckered an ugly white against his red increasingly red skin. The Cap’s emotions were only slightly more difficult to read than her own; between his clacking beak and fluctuating skin tone, he was as transparent as all the other Itrxix.

“Nothing,” she repeated staying stock-still.

His beak clicked open and closed. “Says you.”

She let out a long, low breath, her phori flared an impatient green. It was their song and dance, and she’d been through it more times than she could count. She’d deny that she’s shared any secrets, while he’d argue that she did. He knew she wouldn’t, just as she knew he wouldn’t hold this against her. They’d fought and flown together too long not to implicitly trust each other. This was a show for the crew, even though they knew it was a show just as much as she did. Tikexik wouldn’t have rescued her just to kill her.

She waited for him to speak staring at the overbearing opulence of the captain’s quarters. The set of rooms were always stiflingly humid, and Lyr had to restrain herself from tugging at her fatigues. At least, he’d given her those back, she thought wryly. His desk was in the front room, where he met with the crew, the back rooms were flooded, or so Lyr had heard she’d never seen them herself. He’d stuffed this room full of a hundred bits and pieces of junk for their years in the black. Some of it was valuable, but Lyr imagined most of it wasn’t. Still, it was sufficient to awe the new recruits all the same. She tried to recall each mission, each ship that the pieces had been taken from. She’d tagged less than a dozen by the time Tikexik spoke again.

“You brought him back with you.”

“He’s useful. He has information.”

“Like what?” Tikexik viewed her out the corner of his eye. He seemed so unwieldy out of the pilot’s chair, Lyr sometimes forgot Itrxix weren’t made for walking.

She pursed her lips. She had no idea what Clarke might know. She was sure it was something, but she didn’t have an idea as to what that something might be. “Troop movements. Training. Tactical strengths. He can help us break the code.”

He regarded her for a long while weighing the potential risks against whether or not he believed her. “He’ll help us?”

This, Lyr knew, was the real question.

She cursed herself for being so difficult during her early sessions with Clarke, and that she’d had the chance to talk to him after holding him hostage and stealing his gun. Seven circles, there was no guarantee he’d cooperate. She hoped the fact that he’d tried to save her meant something, and that it wouldn’t be overshadowed by her behavior.

“I think he will.”

“You think?”

She flinched at the emphasis he placed on the last word. “Yessir,” she said undeterred.

He nodded briefly turning back to his rooms. Lyr didn’t move, this was the key. “Dismissed. For now,” he said finally. She relaxed her stance, the tension finally escaping her shoulders and into her limbs. She managed a sharp pivot out the door, not giving him the chance to change his mind.

T’rigan was pacing at the door, and he looked at her expectantly when she emerged. She stifled a smile, T’rigan’s presence was always comforting and loyal. And loyal was what she needed.

“He’s not going to space me, if that’s what you’re so concerned about.” She hesitated for the half moment it took for T’rigan’s long legs to match her pace.

“I was more concerned about him spacing me.”

She grinned. “You’re too big to get out the airlock. You should know that by now.”

“Where’re we headed?”

“Don’t know. I’m still on a short leash.”

T’rigan let out a deep, throaty laugh draping one of his long first arms over her. His set of seconds were tucked securely against his back. “Hungry?”

The mess was packed with the usual post mission deluge, and Lyr was glad to be in the midst of it. The mess slowly hushed as T’rigan cut a way through the crowd for her. Lyr kept her eyes straight ahead; she knew the crew was glad to have their XO back. Tikexik was a good, if unapproachable, captain, and there was always little substitute for a first officer.

“A Njeri?” Vandyr asked his phori taking on a suspiciously green tinge.

“I heard she wouldn’t let you shoot him,” Kiylu looked pointedly at T’rigan.

“She just got in the way of the shot.” T’rigan glared, crossing both sets of arms.

“And you are?” Lyr looked at the small framed, big-eyed Sef.

“Kiylu. Decryptions expert.”

“I thought we already had some of those.” Lyr looked around the room for Terrik.

“Not all of them made it back,” said Vandyr quietly.

Lyr’s lips formed a thin line. She didn’t realize she’d been the only one to make it back. She should have known, she hadn’t seen any of her men when she was held prisoner, but she knew that meant little.

They sat silently at the table for a few moments, no one making eye contact. And this is how it starts, Lyr thought as she sheepishly berated herself for being ridiculous. She’d been gone for almost a month; of course Tikexik had picked up more crewmembers. Where he’d managed to find one this earnest, she’d never know, but it hardly mattered. Tikexik’s eye for talent was rarely surpassed.

“Glad to have you,” answered Lyr eventually.

Kiylu nodded giving a sidelong glance at Vandyr.

“She’s been helping me adjust the scope on Lila. I’ve been getting an extra couple yards.” T’rigan looked approvingly at Kiylu.

“Good to know our decryptions expert has nothing better to do than feed the H’wlar’s obsession,” said Vandyr laughing.

“You’d keep your mind firmly on guns too if you knew what was waiting for you.” T’rigan’s tone was half-defensive, half-accusatory.

“Too many women and even more time?” Lyr asked as the rest of the table laughed.

“It’s all fun and games until I’m not there to watch your six.” The H’wlar stood pushing his chair back from the table more roughly than he intended. It clattered to the ground, and he stood awkwardly for a long moment before bending down to pick it up. “You back on command?” he asked Lyr.

She shrugged. “He’s all show. It couldn’t hurt to head up there.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“Honor guard or escort?” she looked up at the well-muscled H’wlar.

He grunted, and she knew it hadn’t been a fair question.

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