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It wasn’t hard for Boro to imagine how things had probably gone down in the galley between when he left and when they received Dr. Sufai’s call. Meeron was born and raised on Bykol, a largely agricultural world near the borders of the Human Interstellar Dependency, and had only moved off-world a few years earlier. Meslina had cut her teeth out of the Academy almost twenty years earlier during the Unification Resistance, when some of Earth’s outermost colonies, particularly the self-sufficient ones including Bykol, rejected the authority of the newly formed ORC – Outer Rim Confederacy, which joined the Humans, Winti and Fusir into a single alliance. Unlikely that Meslina and Meeron ever actually saw any combat on opposite sides of each other, but the tension was still there. Someone looked at someone sideways. Someone probably dropped the word “rockhopper”, used by homeworlders to elicit an image of tiny insignificant rocks even though they were sometimes two or even three times larger than Earth itself. That’s probably when “milkweed” was tossed back. Normally these things could be laughed-out, a sort of competition as to who could take the worst insult without breaking a sweat, but this whole mission was beginning to take its toll.

The complete radio silence that was necessary to keep the ship ghosted had left everyone feeling more alone in the darkness of space than any of them were used to.

---

“That’s a lot of time to be flying ghosted,” Surch had said, his mouth hidden behind the brown hand that stroked his trimmed dark beard, when the Forseti’s senior officers were first presented with a flight plan at their mission briefing back on Earth. Admiral Sarita Fan stood by the display, hands clasped in front of her, waiting for the room to process her presentation. Captain Pueson sat at attention, while Meslina had her arms crossed and was leaning back in her chair like Surch.

Boro interlaced his fingers and pointed towards the map. “At least there’s the layover at Yshot Station.”

“I’m afraid it’s not that kind of layover,” Admiral Fan corrected. “The Station has been made to look mostly decommissioned, and there will be no disembarking. You’ll be flying there light to make good time and then stock up to the brim for the next leg of your journey.”

“Yeah, about that, Admiral,” Surch said. “From Yshot Station out beyond the Thorian frontier in what’s basically a straight line? No offence to all you good folks in Intelligence but unless you’ve got someone on the inside steering this, I don’t see how we can stay off the Thorians’ sensors, even when ghosted.”

The other woman with Admiral Fan, shorter by a head and with the kind of presence that made Boro forget that she was even in the room, stepped into the light of the wall projection. “Your concerns are perfectly valid, Lieutenant Guraty, but you will have all the help you’ll need.” The Intelligence officer, who thought that introductions were an unnecessary frivolity and therefore didn’t choose to share her name, looked down at her personal terminal.

“I have a feeling we’re not going to like this,” Surch said and shifted uneasily in his chair.

“Me too,” Meslina added.

The display switched to a photo of a now-familiar Thorian face. The three officers of the Forseti groaned, while Captain Pueson sat implacable but for the air escaping through his slightly pursed lips.

“If there’s anything you’d like to say,” Captain Pueson said without taking his eyes off the display, “now is likely the only time to do so.”

The officers cast each other brief glances, professionalism and outrage vying for control under the surface, but before anyone of them could formulate a coherent sentence, the Intelligence officer continued.

“We had been working for quite some time to identify a viable asset. Mikarik may not be the ideal candidate to take down the whole Empire,” the pause and expression on her face suggested that this had been an Intelligence idea of a joke, but the room didn’t budge from its stone-faced stare, “but his experience should serve to be useful on this mission. He spent two decades doing commercial freight including a stint with the Anthar Kai where he also served for a year aboard a pirate hunter. Nearly six years in the Thorian Navy.”

“The Navy?” Surch asked with a whistle but the interruption was ignored.

“Deserted several years ago during the Nabak Insurrection where he earned two Hard-to-Kill medals – an honour that only a Thorian mind would be twisted enough to cook up for enemy combatants.” That one actually did get a chuckle out of Surch and Meslina. “There’s no place for him left in the Empire, and he’s been doing for-hire work on the borderlands. He knows enough about both commercial and military ship movement across the Empire to be able to plot a course that would keep you ought of sight.”

Surch threw a sideways glance at Boro, who was starting to feel a bit unsettled under the Thorian’s digital gaze.

“I understand he’s got a colourful resume,” Boro started, “but he’s still a Thorian. Doesn’t their little collective hive mind prevent them for serving other interests?”

The Intelligence officer shifted a little and put on a smile. Boro was certain that it was not meant to be friendly. “A ‘hive-mind’ is not exactly how we would describe Thorian collective empathy, and individual Thorians have almost as much capacity to be self-serving as the species itself. That said, it had long been rumoured that there are those among them that are severed from this collective ability to feel the mood of the species. ‘Netkarthi’ is what they’re called in their general parlance, though mostly the concept is dismissed as a bogeyman, either a myth or a figment of foreign propaganda. But regardless of what the Thorians’ official line is, it is our understanding that they do exist, and that Mikarik is one of them. If there’s anyone to rely on for this mission, it’s him, and you can be assured of that.”

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About the author

MichaelSilverV

Bio: I'm a husband, father of three, lawyer, writer, author of The Bloodlet Sun, and am currently working on my first contemporary fiction novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail.

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