“Caliban?” Philemon Baxter was surprised, and angry. “What the hell are they doing at Caliban? What the hell are they doing alive?”

“Can’t tell you, Boss,” Edward Fox answered his employer. “Chances are they’ll have left by the time we could get a message back there – our guy on Caliban says they were buying supplies like they intended to leave orbit any time.”

“Agh,” Baxter groaned. “They don’t have the rendezvous points, do they?”

“Can’t see how they could, Boss.”

Baxter thought intently for a moment, staring at the top of his polished desk as he did so. “All right – here’s what we do. Call over to the Cape Fortune; tell them to let us know immediately if the Shade Tree contacts them. Send another encrypted message to that Grugell Group Commander, tell him there will be another short delay due to a drive failure, or something – make something up.”

“Gotcha, Boss.”

“They’re not dead, and they’ve got our diamonds. We can’t report the diamonds as stolen – we’d have to explain where they came from in the first place. Son of a bitch,” Baxter complained. “This deal just gets worse and worse.”


The Adamstown mining colony

“No word from the Orlando, Boss,” Remy Brichot informed his employer. “It’s like they just vanished.”

“Vanished,” Adam Bolin repeated the word.

“Yeah, Boss.”

“With sixty million in diamonds on board.”

“Afraid so.”

“What the hell am I going to tell ‘Mr. K?’?”

“We’ll think of something, Boss.” Brichot adopted a serious expression, but inside, he was filled with vicious glee. I’ve already thought of something, Boss. Something that will see you gone and me running this station.


The Shade Tree

Jean Barrett walked onto her Bridge, feeling like herself for the first time in days. Only a slight residual aching in her joints betrayed the remnants of the virus.

“Report,” she ordered.

“Secured for space, Captain,” Indira Krishnavarna smiled from her station.

“Main drive is online, Captain,” Paolo Guerra reported. “Maneuvering thrusters at your command. We’re ready to leave orbit.”

“Secure for space,” Giorg Constantine reported from Astrogation. “Orbital departure vectors plotted.”

“Traffic lanes clear,” Ophelia Watts reported from Scanning.

“Caliban Ground has cleared us to leave orbit,” Vada Newman called from the Signals panel.

“Very well.” Barrett sat down in her Bridge chair. “Giorg, plot us a course for Tarbos.”

“Tarbos, Captain?”

“Tarbos. Direct course, no shenanigans, I want us at Tarbos as fast as possible.”

“Right away, Captain,” Helmsman Giorg Constantine answered, and bent over his panel.

Barrett looked over to meet the XO’s questioning look. “Need to talk to someone there, Indira,” she said, smiling. “You’ll see.”

“Course plotted, Captain,” Constantine reported after a moment.

“Helm, lay it in. Maneuvering thrusters ahead two-thirds, new course zero by fifteen, move us into the departure lane.”

“Zero by fifteen, aye,” Guerra responded. On the main viewscreen, the blue globe of Caliban rotated slowly away. “Maneuvering thrusters ahead two-thirds. Sixteen minutes to the space buoy.”

“Very well.”

The minutes ticked by slowly. Indira Krishnavarna got up, walked slowly over to stand behind the Captain’s chair.

“Tarbos, Captain?” she asked again, her voice low.

Barrett leaned back in the chair. “We’re in over our heads, Indira,” she breathed. “They’re supposed to be turning this stuff over to the Grugell – that’s treason, by any standard. Well, I’m not about to commit treason – but I’m not going to just hand these diamonds over to the Navy or the Confederate government, either, not without us getting something out of the deal. And I’m sure as hell not taking them back to that mining station.”

“What do you propose to do at Tarbos?”

“Remember the Giles Davies incident, during the war?”

The XO nodded. In the last year of the war, the Shade Tree had happened upon the wreck of that Confederate ship following an ambush by a Grugell task group, and conveyed vital information on Grugell movements from her dying Captain to the Confederate Navy.

“We made a pretty good impression on Fleet Admiral Gauss back then. I intend to see if he still does have that good impression, and maybe ask him for a favor.”

“There’s no guarantee that he’ll be in port,” Indira said. “As I hear it, he doesn’t like hanging around the Fleet dock – prefers to be out on a ship.”

“That’s as may be,” Barrett replied. “I have a few other markers to call in there if he isn’t around.”

“We’ve passed the space buoy,” Guerra reported. “Free to maneuver.”

“Secure maneuvering thrusters,” Barrett ordered. “Engage main drive, ahead full. Bring us on course for Tarbos.”

“Ahead full, on course for Tarbos,” Guerra acknowledged. Under their feet, the ship’s Gellar drive began to rumble. Moments later, the main viewscreen display blinked into the twisting, multicolored hash of subspace. “On course, Captain.”

“Very well. I’m going down to get something to eat. Vada,” Barrett said to the Signals tech, “would you page Gomp and McNeal, have them meet me in the dining area?”

“Right away, Captain.”

Holding a crew in peacetime when prize money was scarce meant adding some amenities to the Shade Tree. One of those amenities meant replacing the bulk dry storage of dehydrated ration packs with a real kitchen, operated by a husband-and-wife team; Solomon Chang and his wife Cordelia had come aboard during a stop at Zed three months previously, and now the crew enjoyed two hot meals a day.

Captain Barrett was already seated, sipping a cup of coffee, when Hector Gomp and Tim McNeal burst into the compartment.

“Hey, Solomon, what’s there to eat?” Gomp called across the room to where Solomon Chang was feeding vegetables into a processor.

“Too early for dinner,” Chang snapped. “You get mid-rats, Gomp. On the table.”

Gomp frowned at the table in the middle of the compartment, which held a loaf of wheat bread and a platter of sliced meats and cheeses – the “mid-watch” ration.

“So what is for dinner?”

“You come back in two hours,” Chang said. “Then you’ll find out.”

Gomp waved a hand at the irritable cook. “Cap’n,” he asked, “Mind if I eat while we talk? Almost dyin’ makes a man powerful hungry.”

“Go ahead,” Barrett gestured at the mid-rats.

McNeal grinned and sat down at the Captain’s table, watching as Gomp piled salami and cheese on bread, slapped mayonnaise on a second slice of bread, laid it on top of the unsteady pile. He was chewing as he stepped to the other table and sat down.

“So, Cap’n,” he said, spewing bread crumbs on the table, “Wha’s up?”

“Wipe off your chin.” Gomp plied a napkin as Barrett went on. “We’ve got those diamonds in the hold, still, right?”

“Yeah,” Gomp answered. “I double-checked right after we left orbit. We can’t sell ‘em just anywhere – if we try, we’ll be technically guilty of holding stolen property, ‘least if whatever miner owns ‘em complains.”

“Even if he doesn’t, we’d still have to explain where we got them,” McNeal pointed out. “We’re sure not a mining ship.”

“We don’t necessarily have to explain them,” Barrett said. “But that’s not my main concern. My main concern is what Baxter was up to.”

“Wait a minute,” Gomp said. “Baxter told you that the miners were selling diamonds to the Grugell, right? That’s why he thought we could snatch the shipment without any real trouble. Stands to reason, then, that he already has some way to dispose of them – probably for a fat wad of cash.”

“Of which we were supposed to get one-third,” Barrett agreed, “with the other third going to the Cape Fortune. I think you’re right, Gomp; and I also think that Baxter knew about the plague on the Orlando, and planned to sell us out for a two-way split instead of three.”

Gomp took another massive bite of his sandwich and chewed reflectively for a few moments. “Makes sense,” he said through a mouthful of masticated bread and salami. “He prob’ly figured we’d run like hell for Halifax to make the meet, if we even knew about the plague – we wouldn’t have, Cap’n, if you and I hadn’t gone to the med bay. He probably turned us in to the Navy as a suspected plague ship, so that when we got to Halifax…”

“… The ship would have been quarantined, and no doubt Baxter had a way to get on board and get the diamonds off with nobody the wiser – and since he figured we’d all be dead or dying, nobody would be talking.”

“But we’re not dead,” McNeal said. “And the ship’s clean. So are we. So what are we going to do with the diamonds?”

“First, we’re going to find out where the miners were making the sale to the Grugell,” Barrett said. Then we’re going to pull a bait-and-switch on them. After that, I think we’ll have a little chat with Baxter.”

Gomp chuckled. “Works for me, Cap’n.”

“First, though, we’re headed for Tarbos.”

“Tarbos?” Gomp’s eyebrows shot upward. “What for?”

“First, to get the Navy off our necks. We can show the ship and crew are clean now, which should put off any alert Baxter had put out for us at Halifax. Also, Baxter may be a security and intel expert, but he doesn’t know about space law; he doesn’t know about right of salvage for abandoned ships in open space. So, he doesn’t know that those diamonds are legally ours, since the Orlando’s crew was dead when we boarded – right?” Both men nodded, grinning. “I’ve done a little checking; the Orlando was privately held, no corporate ownership. The Captain held the ship in partnership with his XO, and they’re both dead. That ship was legal to salvage; in open space, not even their insurance company can squawk. That’s the law.”

“Nice fat prize money, then,” Gomp said. “Industrial diamonds are selling at a pretty good price right now.”

“I know,” Barrett continued, “They’re at a twelve-month high right now, in fact. Second, I want to pick up a little information before we head back to Halifax. Gomp, you remember why Kaelee Adams signed on to handle Signals on second watch?”

“In trouble with the law, wasn’t she? On Corinthia?”

“She hacked the main communications center of the Royal Palace,” Barrett grinned, “And released the details of Prince Harold’s broken engagement – remember that little scandal about the Prince and a male schoolmate?”

Gomp chuckled, spraying bread crumbs on the table as he did so. “I remember that the young Prince was packed off to a private military academy on Hecate in a big hurry.”

“Exactly,” Barrett said. “Apparently the King isn’t very open-minded about such things. So, anyway, Kaelee shipped with us to avoid being tossed in a Corinthian jail. Free speech on Corinthia has a lot to do with what the King thinks it is.”

“Yeah. I remember the deal now. So?” Gomp tucked the last of his sandwich in his mouth.

“So, I figure she can do the same to Baxter’s comms on the Halifax Fleet dock. In for a penny, in for a pound, my Daddy used to say.”

Gomp and McNeal traded a look, and both grinned. “I like it, Cap’n,” Gomp chuckled. “So, what do you want us to do?”

“We have to find out how to do it, first, and I want to set up a nasty little surprise for the clowns running that mining station that the Orlando was hauling out of. When we get to the station, I’ll go in the front door – I’m going to march right in to see Fleet Admiral Gauss. Gomp, you and Kaelee head for the library, use a terminal there to see if Kaelee can worm into the Navy’s files and find any schematics on the Halifax space dock.”

“I like this plan,” Gomp chuckled.

“I thought you would. Once that’s done – and hopefully we’ll put an end to that mining station’s little illegal cross-border trading deal in the process– then we’ll head for Halifax. While I have a little chat with that bastard Baxter, I want you two to find a way to get Kaelee into the main signals apparatus. If we can get into Baxter’s communications, maybe we can dig up something we can use; say, something like what he had planned to do with those diamonds. He’s not running any ships himself, so he sure as hell can’t say he took them as legal salvage.”

“We can sure get Kaelee in. All Fleet spacedocks have panels in their maintenance spaces; they use them to troubleshoot problems in the datanet. All we have to do is find a way in, preferably from outside.”

“Easy,” McNeal agreed.

“Good,” Barrett said as she stood up, “Because you’ve got about eight days until we get to Tarbos. Get your gear ready, and get planning.”

“Sounds like a hoot,” Gomp said. “We’ll be ready.”

“This reminds me of something,” McNeal added, as the three left the dining compartment. “When I was a kid, three friends and I got into the back of the company Mercantile once, and got into their main processing center, almost screwed up the whole sales record for the month. Kaelee could do something like that to Baxter, couldn’t she? While she’s in, leave an Easter egg in the system or something. It sure had a big effect when we tried it.”

Gomp chuckled. “When was this?”

“When I was a kid, back on Forest…”

Captain Barrett cut him off. “You’re from Forest? We picked you up on Tarbos.”

“Yes, Captain,” McNeal answered, his face a study in confusion. “I left Forest when I was nineteen. Nothing much goes on there…” His voice trailed off as he saw the Captain’s face darken.

Barrett stared at him for a moment, then spun on her heel and walked quickly away down the corridor towards her cabin.

“What’d I do?” McNeal asked plaintively. “Is there something wrong with Forest?”

“No, kid.” Hector Gomp clapped McNeal on the back. “You’re just from the same place as someone else, that’s all. Cap’n won’t hold it against you.”

“Same place as who?”

“You know how Mike Crider is, right?”

“Yeah, sure – the hero of the invasion. One of the Founders. Hell, everybody on Forest knows who old Mike Crider is.”

“That’s him, but it’s also his son, the Senator. Cap’n and the Senator had a thing going during the war. Mike Junior even shipped with us for about a year after he left the Senate.”

“What happened?”

“He left the ship, went back to Forest. Doesn’t work out so good for the Captain to have a relationship with one of the crew, for one thing; made things kind of tense. And, well…”

“Well, what?”

Gomp looked up the corridor where the Captain had disappeared. He smiled. “Cap’n ain’t ever loved anything or anybody as much as she loves this ship. The Senator never could understand that. He wanted a stable life, and the Cap’n never will. She won’t ever settle down anywhere. She’ll keep moving until she dies. Some folks are just like that.”

“What about you, Sarge? You like it too, don’t you?”

“I get paid, I get fed, and I even see a little action once in a while. Can’t ask for much more than that.” He grinned at the boy. “Come on, kid, I picked up a case of light ale back there on Caliban – let’s go have a couple of cold ones. I don’t know about you, but I think better with a cold brew in front of me.”

McNeal grinned. “Right behind you, Sarge.”


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