2951-02-15 – Tales from the Service: The Desires of a Nuisance 

Svetlana Cremonesi met Raul Donovan and the trio of station constables at the hatch with a scowl. “Make this quick, boys. I have a schedule to keep.”

Donovan tried very hard not to wilt under her glare, clearing his throat and adjusting the green collar of his Survey uniform. The holographic Lieutenant’s pips over his shoulders flickered as he did so. “I do apologize for the inconvenience, Captain.” He gestured to the constables, then pointed inward. “Unfortunately, I must take this tip as credible.”

Without even a formal request to come aboard, the three men stomped past Svetlana and fanned out into her ship. She tried to glare at each of them, but they ignored her completely, even though they were now on her deck. The idea of those three goons pawing everything she owned all over the fantastic claims of a mere Nuisance made Svetlana’s bile rise, but there was nothing to be done about it except have it done quickly.

A diminutive, brown-cloaked figure ducked back behind Donovan’s legs as Svetlana turned back to the station’s Alien Sapience Welfare Officer. “You brought it with you, I see.”

Donovan shrugged, then stepped aside to reveal the very same Nuisance which had tried to wheedle itself onboard Svetlana’s ship earlier. “Yes. The Yixhari don’t often lie, especially not in easily falsifiable ways. This one at least thinks you a kidnapper.”

Svetlana discovered with satisfaction that her glare worked far better on the troublesome Nuisance than even on Donovan himself; as she stared it down, its quartet of ears quivered and then fell limp like the leaves of a plant sprayed with herbicide, and its whole body seemed to tremble on the verge of flight. “I don’t care what you want today. If you take one step onto my ship, you’re going in the trash compactor.”

The creature emitted a hissing squeak and padded several steps backward in the umbilical’s short tunnel. Donovan rolled his eyes and sighed heavily. “It really is most unkind to threaten-”

“Unkind, Donovan?” Svetlana whirled and leveled a finger at the Survey man. “That little wretch accused me of some pretty serious crimes. When those bobbies prove it’s a liar, I want slander charges, do you hear me? I will be demanding prosecution.”

Donovan, too, took a step backward. “Captain Cremonesi, do you really think that’s fair? To put a Yixhari in the dock over-”

“It’s your theory they’re our fellow sapients.” Svetlana turned her accusing finger at the cringing Nuisance. “Admit they aren’t and get them out of everyone’s hair, or let it stand trial. If the station authority declines to prosecute, I will invoke my rights under Kastner.”

Donovan visibly paled. “You cannot seriously-”

“I can, and gladly.” Svetlana knew her rights, generally speaking; anywhere in Confederated jurisdiction where local law enforcement declined to investigate or prosecute an offense, the victim could not be held liable for any crimes committed as part of any personal reprisal against the offender. The so-called Kastner Principle came from a centuries-old court case Svetlana knew little about, except that it was a popular defense in murder cases across the frontiers of the Reach. The popular version of its logic was that it was the ultimate answer to the corruption of lawmen and bureaucrats, especially when the two worked together. “If the Nuisance are beyond the law, they are beyond its defense.”

The Nuisance, doubtless understanding nothing of this exchange, took a step forward. “Aswo, I want-”

“It can wait, friend.” Donovan held up a hand, knowing that now was not the time for the creature to dig itself in deeper than it already was. He probably felt guilty for taking the claim seriously and exposing the Nuisance to consequences for its craven slander. Svetlana had no pity for the Nuisance, but she did feel a bit sorry for Donovan; after all, he had probably trained in xenosapience relations for years, and herding Nuisance in Sagittarius Gate had to feel like a punishment.

“No, no, no wait.” The Nuisance wrung its paws together, its beady eyes flicking between Donovan and Svetlana. “I want friend Captain Cremonesi.”

Donovan blinked and turned slowly toward the Nuisance. “It’s, uh. A bit late for that. Half an hour ago you wanted me to have her arrested. What do you think she wants because of that?”

The creature slowly turned its muzzle toward Svetlana. “Want put me in trash compactor. So said?”

“Hey, at least it was paying attention.” Svetlana flicked both of her thumbs toward the overheads.

“If you lied about her being a kidnapper, she wants you arrested. And she’s kind of right, that would be fair.” Donovan held up his hands. “I’d say now’s the time to come clean, but it’s a bit late for that.”

“Not lie!” The Nuisance shook its head rapidly, and the whole body shook in sympathetic motion, like a dog shaking off water, only mostly bipedal. “Not lie. Not lie. Why lie?”

“Because you wanted to board my ship, and I wouldn’t let you.” Svetlana pointed behind herself, to where the constables were still searching. “Maybe because you thought I’d let you help them search.  What do you think they’ll find, anyway?”

“No what! Find who!” The Nuisance held up one paw. “Find Wsir-Virh. I want find Wsir-Virh.”

Svetlana shrugged. She knew in some vague sense that Nuisance had individual names, but she’d never bothered to learn any of them. “Whoever that is, they’re not on my ship. Any of you would’ve got the same reception you did if they’d tried.

The Nuisance froze for a long moment, then turned to Donovan. “Aswo, I want search trash compactor.”

Nojus here again. We’re still aboard Martikainen, and most of our vidcast equipment is still in stowage. The purpose of this delay isn’t clear; if we were waiting on a ship out on patrol, you’d think Fifth Fleet wouldn’t have started our transfer until that ship was back in-system. It’s all very inconvenient, really, and one imagines this has to do with some damnfool idea of Naval information security.

Svetlana Cremonesi’s account of interspecies relations in the besieged Sagittarius Gate system has provoked quite a bit of discussion on our datasphere hub. Apparently a lot of people weren’t aware that there were so many already-contacted sapient species in the Sagittarius Frontier. The density of sapients there does seem quite interesting, though I’m not sure what to make of these Yixhari, which Cremonesi and many other spacers seem to call the Nuisance. They don’t seem to mean any harm, but neither do Naval Intelligence spooks or government bureaucrats, and they make untold amounts of trouble anyway.

2951-02-08 – Tales from the Inbox: The Sagittarian Nuisance

Nojus here again. I know I promised you all some answers as to what ship we’d be transferring to. Turns out we don’t have them. We’re still aboard Martikainen, and most of our vidcast equipment is still in stowage.

The reason for this seems to be that the vessel we’re being assigned to is currently out of Maribel on an operation. Duncan speculates this means we’re bound for a posting on a cruiser, though we aren’t aware of any major fleet units of any class that are outside the Maribel defensive perimeter at the moment.

My theory is that it means we’re going to be shunted onto one of the light carriers that are performing picket-station duty in the outer line of Farthing’s Chain systems, which in turn means that Admiral Venturi wants us journalist-types out of the way before she does something bold and risky. Looks like there’s been a general shakeup of the embed teams from all media companies, which is what I would expect if I’m right, which of course I am.

Today’s account comes from a civilian spacer operating in Sagittarius Gate – apparently there are still quite a few, despite the system’s rather hot conditions as regards the war. Nate, though, isn’t the problem this spacer wanted to complain about.

“No way you’re getting on my ship. Not in any creative hell.” Svetlana Cremonesi scowled down at the little figure which she’d just stopped from sneaking through the umbilical. The creature might have been, in other circumstances, almost adorable, with its large black eyes, small mouth at the end of a stubby muzzle, and quartet of round fur-tufted ears that topped its head like a satin crown. If it were classified as a non-sapient creature, its kind might have been prized as pets by wealthy socialites throughout the Core Worlds, but alas, much to Svetlana’s current disadvantage, the critter was of a species classified by Naval Survey as sapient, and by most everyone else as a Nuisance.

“But…” The Nuisance emitted a series of rapid, squeaky chirps which probably meant something in its own language. “But I want-”

“I want to put you out the airlock for trying.” Svetlana shook her head. “Get out of here. Go complain to the Aswo about how I was mean to you.”

The little creature scuttled off, its long whip-tail ramrod-straight behind itself as it went.

Svetlana watched it until it was out of sight, then watched in that direction a little longer. It hadn’t gone far, of course; a Nuisance that wanted something never really gave up on it. Rather than waiting to see its eyes peeking around some corner it thought would be unexpected, she crossed the threshold and sealed the hatch, muttering a curse against whichever moron had brought Nuisance to the Sagittarius Gate waystation. Once they were aboard, they couldn’t possibly be convinced to return to whatever noisome warren they hailed from, because they didn’t want to go. Unless they did, in which case they skulked around the hangars and docks in ones and twos until they managed to sneak aboard some vessel or other.

Svetlana wasn’t about to let her Tycho Spike become another victim of Nuisance. True, she generally only did two or three day-long supply runs out to the outer asteroid mining installations, after which she could enlist the mine crew to deal with the problem if she didn’t manage to catch and space it on her own, but the truth was, she didn’t want to have to put any of the little critters out the airlock. As troublesome as they were, they were theoretically capable of thoughts – however rarely they seemed to think – and they were, in the grand scheme of things, neither physically capable of hurting a human nor particularly interested in doing so. It was the unintended consequences of pursuing their wants that could be so dangerous.

As she made her way forward through Tycho Spike toward the cockpit, Svetlana’s comm pinged. With a glance at her wristcuff, she saw it was a channel request from Lieutenant Raul Donovan, the waystation’s Aswo. Few planetary colonies in the Reach needed a dedicated Alien Sapient Welfare Officer, and even fewer hab stations, but Sagittarius Gate wasn’t properly in the Reach, and it was something of a special case at any rate. At last count, survey had positively classified five new sapient species in the broad swath of the Sagittarius Frontier, and it surprised nobody that zero of them had good relations with the Incarnation. Excepting the Nuisance, Svetlana had seen a group of elfin, golden-skinned humanoids, some sort of colorful avian, and a trio of walking mountains that seemed entirely composed of scar tissue and bad attitude. Where their home-worlds were, she couldn’t say, and didn’t want to.

After letting Donovan’s channel request hang long enough for the chime to repeat twice more, Svetlana jammed her comms earpiece into her ear and accepted the request. “Kind of busy here. What do you need, Lieutenant?”

“It’s probably nothing, Miss Cremonesi, but I am being told that, ah…” Donovan sighed wearily, and in the emphatic misery of that sigh, Svetlana knew that the Nuisance she’d shooed away from her ship was there in his office at that very instant. Only a Nuisance could inspire that level of dismay. “Ah, you are a kidnapper, apparently.”

Svetlana chuckled. “Quite the reverse. No passengers on my ship, human or otherwise. Some critters just don’t take a damned hint.”

“And also that you threatened murder?”

Svetlana sighed. “Well yes, I did suggest that. And technically, it would be-”

“Entirely legal per the Law of the Spacelanes, Section 31, subsection 4, assuming the stowaway presented a danger to the ship or was unwilling to take orders from the skipper under way.” Donovan’s tone was tired and rote; he’d both heard and recited Section 31 dozens of times over the last few months. “And yet, I must formally discourage the use of this section with-”

“With sapients who are not well adjusted to our customs.” Svetlana finished his scripted warning. “How are those cultural assimilation classes going, by the way?”

“Oh, quite well.” Donovan didn’t bother to hide the gritted-teeth tone in his voice. No doubt trying to herd a few score Nuisance into a classroom when they all wanted to be elsewhere was the most entertaining part of his job for anyone privileged with access to the security monitors, and the most miserable part for Donovan himself.

“Good to hear from you, Lieutenant. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a departure window in ninety minutes. Can we cut this short?”

“Of course. If you could release the ah… person or persons confined? Perhaps you did not know that this person was aboard and accidentally locked them in a compartment?”

“Donovan, there’s nobody and certainly no Nuisance aboard my ship.” Svetlana had just accepted delivery of thirty-odd crates of high-strength drill components bound for MS-71 and a half-dozen refrigerated cases of pharmaceuticals for MS-112, and on both occasions she’d sealed the ship and swept the entire cargo bay and crew deck for unauthorized passengers, just in case. “Your little complainant there nearly wore out the hatch chime to get me to come open up. Everything was locked down.”

“Unfortunately, I must take this seriously. Until we are satisfied as to these allegations, your departure will not be permitted.”

“What? Donovan, I have a schedule-”

“I will be along with the station constabulary in five minutes, Miss Cremonesi. We’ll have to search the ship, and we’ll try to be done before your departure window.”

Before she could make any response, Donovan ended the channel. Svetlana thumped one fist against the bulkhead in frustration, then turned on her heel and went to the boarding hatch to await the search party. No doubt the mine operators would be happy to dock her pay over this nonsense. “Damned Nuisance.”

2951-02-01 – Tales from the Service: The MacNeil Troglodyte

Nojus here. Duncan has been busy this week seeing to the packing of our effects for transfer to the destroyer Aurel Martikainen, which will take us to our next posting. We still do not know what ship we are being taken to, though we will likely know by next you are reading this text feed, since we should be aboard by then. As I write this introduction, we are in the closing days of January, and Maribel has still not been seriously invaded by the Incarnation.

This may seem to be a very obvious thing to observe, but many military observers here in Maribel have reported that the period of greatest danger for this invasion lasted until the end of January. This month, many of the ships occupying drydock berths here have been launched, permitting other damaged vessels to enter those same docks. Additionally, Fifth Fleet has been extensively reinforced in the last five weeks.

Though military secrecy prevents me from listing the classes or names of any ships recently returned to service or added to Fifth Fleet’s roster, I have seen some signs of tensions relaxing. Patrols in the outer system are no longer being run with token forces, and though there have been a few Tyrant raids, they have gotten nowhere near the inner system, and have been of no more than four cruisers each. True, these groups can do some economic damage if not countered quickly, but they are no threat to Fifth Fleet or the civilian population.

The past month has seen the Incarnation engage in some smaller-scale invasions, such as those on the small-population worlds of the Mazkiel system and the Mere Abram system. Though these invasions are human tragedies in their own right, none of these attacks have impacted a world with a population over fifteen thousand, and none have resulted in a major battle. About half the impacted populations of these worlds took offered evacuations; the other half decided to remain with their holdings and brave occupation.

I take this slow-down as good news; the longer “Nate” waits to attack Maribel or try to break into Farthing’s Chain, the stronger Confederated Navy forces will be to oppose them. From everything we know, there’s no way they can build warships fast enough and ship them across the Gap fast enough to compete with both the shipyards of the Core World and the flood of ships the Navy has pulled out of reserve.

That doesn’t mean this conflict is over, only that I think it’s time for the people of Maribel to breathe a sigh of relief.

Leonard Silver dove to the ground when two laser pulses painted smoking scorch-marks on the crumbling wall behind him. There was, in reality, no benefit to hitting the deck when one came under fire from soldiers armed with laser rifles, but it did at least give him a moment to verify that he had in fact not been hit. A Frontier Defense Army veteran he’d once met in a bar had told him that when you were hit by a laser, you didn’t always feel it right away, especially if it was a mortal wound; men could be drilled through the heart or the head and still dive for cover, often dying before their faces hit the dirt.

Fortunately for Leonard, he was still breathing when he buried his face in the rough dirt, and a quick check verified that he hadn’t had any parts of himself shot away. Rolling over, he stared up at the two scorch-marks and estimated how far the closer one had been from taking a chunk out of his upper arm before scuttling toward his spider-hole. If he could get back into the building’s still-intact basement before the Incarnation soldiers reached his position, they’d probably leave him alone.

Early in the occupation of MacNeil’s End, the Nate occupiers hadn’t been so willing to leave a trail; they’d followed tracks down into basements and caves with no apparent sense of danger. That hadn’t lasted more than a few weeks; the planet’s population had only partially evacuated, and even after a mass weapons-roundup operation, there were probably two to three times more weapons on the planet than there were disgruntled civilians to use them. Patrols had started vanishing, which both increased the number of unaccounted-for weapons and also taught the unwelcome invaders the value of caution.

Leonard, though, didn’t have a weapon of any kind. He wasn’t cut out to be a plucky resistance fighter skulking in the hills or leading patrols into basement ambushes. He had been a groundcar salesman in the planet’s only spaceport city, the closest thing to a metropolis one could find on a world like MacNeil’s End. He’d been out delivering two utility tracks to a farming town when the invasion had started, and watched the troopships ride blue fire down to Dobrilo Downs from barely a dozen kilometers away. Now, he was a troglodyte who emerged from the ruins of that shattered village only to scavenge for food and the necessities of life, and to avoid the patrols.

As Leonard, still shaking from his brush with laser-administered death, slid into the half-buried window which let into his basement warren, he blinked rapidly to speed his eyes’ adjustment to the dark. He had a small generator and plenty of electric lights, but left it all off most of the time, especially when he wasn’t around. The less he could do to draw attention to himself, the better. The Nates didn’t really care about most of the population one way or the other; they’d only taken those with farming experience to their military-camp plantations, and those, despite working long hours, were at least rumored to enjoy clean water, two plentiful meals every day, and a few technological amenities that most of the population hadn’t had since the satellite net had gone down.

The cool barrel of some sort of weapon pressed into the side of Leonard’s head the moment he came to a stop at the bottom of the scree-ramp below his entrance. He let out a little yelp, but had the good sense not to move, and to keep his hands very still.

A beam of light flashed in front of his eyes, then vanished in an instant. “Local. No implant.” A gruff voice announced, and several other voiced muttered their relief. “Check him.”

Rough hands hauled Leonard to his knees and patted him down. He struggled against the restraints as they found his canteen and the handful of military-issue food bars he’d found in the old FDA base over the hill.

“Hey, relax.” This voice was calm and comforting, and the woman it belonged to stooped down in front of Leonard. She was carrying a long-barreled cartridge rifle, but the eyes in her dirt-smudged face were kind. She looked young, but so had the FDA boys to Leonard’s eyes when they’d marched into the fight. “We’ll leave your food alone. They’re just making sure you’re not armed.”

“I’m not.” Leonard shook his head. “I don’t want trouble. Not from Nate, not from partisans.”

One of the men tossed the food-bars down in front of Leonard’s knees. “This is FDA-issue. How did you get it?”

“Give him a break, Meyers.” The woman’s eyes flashed. “The military left their stuff all over.”

The other man holding Leonard down released his hold. “Not so much as a knife on him.”

“You’ve gotta get out of here.” Leonard scooped up his food-bars and stood up. “There was a patrol right behind me. If they find you here-”

“We’ll take care of them.” The man behind Leonard, Meyers, chuckled. “Relax.”

Leonard opened his mouth to protest further, but closed it again when he saw two more armed men sifting through the crates into which he’d placed the treasure which made this underground life somewhat livable. One of the homes in the now-smashed village had contained a library of hundreds of paper books, and he’d collected as many as he could find before the rain destroyed them, and carefully dried them out. Reading adventure novels by the light of a pen-light and eating scavenged rations was hardly a dignified way to ride out the planet’s occupation, but Leonard didn’t intend to go anywhere, at least until he ran out of reading material.

The woman took Leonard by the arm and led him over to an unoccupied corner. “What’s your name?”

“Silver.” Leonard swallowed and looked about for where the men had dropped his canteen. “Leonard Silver.”

“Well, Leonard. I’m Christina. I’d like to make you a deal.” The woman glanced around. “This place is perfect for us. Did you know from the roof you can see right down to the road from Nate’s main landing field to the plantation at Zientek’s Run?”

Leonard had indeed noticed the excellent view down to the old highway, and had noted the regular traffic on that route. “I didn’t know that’s where all those groundcars were going.”

“We want to watch them. And possibly be a little more active than just watching.” Christina winked. “But if you’re still here, that would be dangerous for you.”

Leonard sighed and looked down. “You’re going to turn me out. Make me find somewhere else.” He’d never manage to move all his crates of books all by himself, of course, and he could hardly do anything to oppose at least five armed partisans.

“Well, yes, if you agree.” Christina shrugged. “But here’s my part of the deal. If you agree to help us get set up here and show us how you’ve been moving around this area un-noticed, I can get you off MacNeil’s.”

“Off MacNeil’s?” Leonard frowned. “How? There are ships-”

Christina loosened her tattered overcoat, and Leonard saw that the jumpsuit she wore beneath it was almost clean and entirely new, as if it had been fabbed last week. “We just got here. The runner who’s coming to bring the rest of our kit the day after tomorrow has a spare berth or two in the back of his little ship. You show us around, and you can be on that ship when it leaves.”

Leonard considered this for a long moment. Of course he would have left MacNeil’s in the evacuation if he hadn’t been caught so close to Nate’s landing site and trapped behind their lines. Was it really so easy? Could he really be off the world so soon after so many months of eking out this troglodyte life under occupation?

Shaking himself, he knew there could be only one answer. “Fair deal on one condition.” Some of his old salesman’s bravado reasserted itself.

Christina arched one eyebrow, inviting him to name his terms.

Leonard pointed to the back of his little warren. “I’ll need one crate of books for the journey.”

“Done.” Christina smiled and stuck out a hand to shake on the deal, which Leonard gladly grasped. “I’ll introduce you to everybody.”

2951-01-25 – Tales from the Service: Ramrio’s Raw Memory

This will be the last section of Ramiro W.’s account which we use here; the rest is fairly uneventful. I still have not been able to confirm if his description matches that of the xeno-sapients of the Grand Journey, the likeliest origin point for this trio of diplomats.

In more somber news, this embed team has been told to prepare to transfer to another vessel within the fleet. While we have enjoyed our time aboard Saint-Lô, and the hospitality of Captain Liao, it seems that there have been discussions between Cosmic Background and the Fifth Fleet press office about getting us closer to the action and capable of providing more direct reporting of smaller engagements, where such is reasonably safe.

I have no news as of yet what vessel we will be transferring to.

Ramiro didn’t see much of the alien passengers in the two remaining days it took to travel to the edge of the Maribel system grav shadow. The trio seemed to have no consistent circadian rhythym, retiring to their cabins for what seemed to be sleep for anywhere from two to twelve standard hours at a time, sometimes after having only just emerged a few hours prior.

Often, Ramiro noticed Larson waiting on them, ferrying food and drink into the cabins, fetching belongings from the hold, and so on, and he tended to notice their activity increasing when he was in the cockpit or in his own cabin. Though neither she nor they said anything, he began to suspect that he had offended the diplomats somehow by his brief conversation with Rhila. For the thousandth time, he wished Livia were aboard, if only because she knew far better how to heal any social divide than he did.

When a buzzing chime in the cockpit told Ramiro that the jump limit was just ahead, he closed the message he’d been writing to Livia on one of the side monitors and checked the security feeds. Larson and one of the diplomats – Ghalr, he thought – were in the lounge, and the other two were not anywhere on the feeds, meaning they were in the cabins.

Killing the chime with one hand and reaching for the intercom with the other, Ramiro cleared his throat. “Be advised, we will initiate Himura transit in ten standard minutes. I recommend retiring to your berths until transit is complete.”

There was, of course, absolutely nothing that moving all the passengers to their cabins would do to improve the safety of a star drive maneuver, but Ramiro knew the calming effect of what he’d deemed to be “sensible nonsense” on the minds of most passengers. The main effect would be to keep passengers away from any bow-facing viewpanels, where they might see coruscating energy arcs as the Himura unit burrowed a tunnel through several layers of folded space toward a point six and a half light-years distant. Invariably, passengers who demanded to watch the star drive in action always concluded that something was wrong. Ramiro couldn’t blame them; even after using Jen Daley’s Himura drive thousands of times, the visual effect of arcing energy and a yawning inferno of darkness one saw out the cockpit canopy still scared him a little bit.

Just to be safe, Ramiro flipped the switches that close the metal shutters over all the ship’s viewpanels save his own. He didn’t particularly want to watch the jump, but the shutters didn’t open quickly enough for him to see anything dead ahead immediately afterward. He hated flying blind, even in an interstellar void where theoretically, the chance of passing even within sensor distance of anything bigger than dust was quadrillions to one.

A moment later, as Ramiro was double-checking the values displayed in the navcomputer’s jump solution against the configuration of the Himura drive, Ramiro heard the deck plating in the gangway behind him rattle slightly. This wouldn’t be Captain Larson, who had an uncanny ability to walk up the loose plating of that inclined corridor without making any sound, so it could only be one of the trio from beyond the Gap. Of the three, Ramiro knew which he had money on. “Do you need something that can’t wait a few minutes, Miss Rhila?”

The footsteps stopped, and there was a long silence. Ramiro didn’t bother turning around, but he did glance at the security feeds to verify his guess, and to see that everyone else had taken his advice and vanished into the cabins. Rhila was standing about three paces down the gangway, an obviously perplexed, and thus entirely feigned, expression on her golden face.

“I need nothing.” Rhila took another cautious step forward. “But I wish to ask something which our good minder cannot hear.”

Ramiro shrugged, but continued his checking. “Try to make me to work against the Confed, and diplomat or not, I might put you out the airlock.”

“Your tone is light, so you do not think that is what I have to request.” Rhila crept up until she was standing in that spot Livia had always liked to stand when she wanted to talk while he was working at the controls, the little space on the deck just behind his chair. “Nor do I have reason to fear your threat.”

Ramiro paused, scowling. He preferred to think this analysis was not quite true. He’d never put anyone out the airlock, of course, but he had taken life before to protect someone he cared about. Surely he could take life again to save far more than one woman with an over-optimistic view of her own persuasive powers.

Rhila’s broken-glass laughter suggested that once again, she’d read his thoughts from his microscopic behavior. How she’d done it from behind him, he didn’t even try to figure out. “You have taken a life, yes. I marked that on you before, as did Ghalr. He bade us avoid you. An ambassador should not be too acquainted with dealers of death.”

“That explains a few things.” Ramiro checked the last row of values and then finally spun his chair around. “But it doesn’t explain why you’re up here anyway.”

“I am perhaps less risk-averse than most.” Rhila’s ruby eyes narrowed. “You took a life in a situation you deem justified. A life you have not mourned, and for which you do not expect to pay any price, even if it is known. I must know what the circumstances of this were.”

Ramiro nodded slowly. The image of that Ladeonist insurgent falling in a black heap to the muddy dirt on Bettendorf had been there every time he’d closed his eyes for weeks after that near-fiasco. He’d put it mostly out of his mind when they’d come coreward to work freight and passengers out of Maribel, but after Livia’s departure, it had begun to bother him again.

“It yet fascinates that having what we see revealed to you, even this, is no great discomfort.” Rhila held out one hand with two forefingers extended, then slowly raised it to touch her forehead in a strangely benedictory manner. “Your company would be highly prized in our worlds. Few of any species, even our own, are so at ease around those with the art.”

“Knowing everything can get damned lonely, can’t it?” Ramiro smiled and shrugged. “I’m surprised you haven’t already figured out the date and the world it happened on.”

Rhila shook her head. “It is not these cold facts which hold value.”

Ramiro sighed. “I’ll keep the details to myself, then. It was when I was first working with Liv. She-”

“This ‘Liv’ is your missing mate?”

Ramiro nodded hesitantly. He didn’t particularly want to explain the concepts of courtship leading to marriage to this creature for whom relationships seemed to be a factual matter, started or ended with simple statements of intent. “She had this idea where we’d trick an insurgent group into paying us, then get them all captured and keep what they paid for. It didn’t go the way she planned, and there was shooting.” Ramiro winced, then corrected himself. “No, that’s not quite right. I started the shooting. I killed their leader to stop him from taking Liv, then our friends mopped up the rest.” Ramiro patted the gun in his hip holster, the same one he’d carried on Bettendorf.

Rhila nodded, neither benediction nor condemnation in her sparkling eyes. “You double crossed these combatants.”

“They were terrorists, really. Criminals styling themselves as soldiers. I still won’t sit here and tell you that what we did was right. I agreed to do something questionable, and I am still paying for that.”

“I thank you for your honesty.” Rhila bowed her head slightly. “I will trouble you no further.” With that, she turned to head back down the gangway.

“It’s really no trouble.” Ramiro had said this to his passengers many times, but this time he meant it. Rhila should have scared him, but she didn’t; there was, he decided, something about her that reminded him of Livia, despite all the more obvious differences.

Rhila half-turned, a polite smile splitting her face. For once, it was Ramiro who saw the little mannerisms – the slight creasing of the skin at the edges of her gemstone-bright eyes, the slight tensing of her limbs. It wasn’t his trouble, he saw now, which she had been worried about. “Perhaps in time I might learn to live so close to truth as you do.” She nodded. “But not today.”