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Three things jumped out at Tara upon entering the Senior Peacekeeper's office to explain why her typically level-headed, just-one-glass-on-the-holidays, crewman had been involved in a mid-afternoon bar fight. First, the date that shifted in bold script through the most common intergalactic calendars just inside the door read: June 3, 2674 when it reached Sol Standard. Next, Brennan's antique pearl rosary beads were wrapped around and tangled up in the tools half fallen from her backpack on the Peacekeeper's metal desk. Brenn wasn't the most devout of souls and only took them out on a few very specific occasions.

Tara winced, taking another step inside. The poor pack looked trampled on, like someone had shoved everything inside with little knowledge or care of the value—and much of it was quite valuable. It wasn't the state of the pack that gave her the final clue though, but the hologram frozen beside it. In a dimly lit pub of the sort where trade deals were agreed upon with a drink and a bow, Brenn, a petite woman by almost every definition of the word, had placed herself between an even smaller woman and an Aesir man nearly twice her size.

The woman had red hair.

God, Brenn's wedding anniversary. The moodiness last night. The silence at breakfast this morning. It all made sense now. How could she have forgotten? She should have—No, no sense in going down that path. The past had come and gone already and this was where they were now.

"Captain Ostara Eridani, I presume?" The Senior Peacekeeper said, rising from behind her desk. Tara looked up and nodded to the peacekeeper, a tall and golden-brown skinned woman with dark hair tied at the nape of her neck. Her eyes shifted back to the frozen image as she took another step forward, drawn to it.

While most Aesir strove to appear godlike as a rule, this boy was an Adonis chiseled from stone and come to life, at least if Adonis had stood 2.07 meters tall and sported the brow-ridge, mask-like coloring, and feathery striations of the Aesir. His were teal and purple, framing his face and traveling down his neck until they disappeared beneath his collar, set against flawless cream skin like the thick paper Tara's mother hand wrote letters on. The effect when paired with his narrow, black eyes and hooked nose gave the impression of a falcon circling its prey. Horus then, not Adonis.

She cleared her throat, having been quiet long enough for it to get awkward.

"Yes. I'm Captain Eridani."

"I'm Peacekeeper Atil." The Peacekeeper gave a bow. "Please come in and take a seat. We have a bit to discuss."

"I— Thank you." Tara said and met the Peacekeeper's eyes. They were warm. Disarming even. Still, Tara's skin grew tight against her bones and she struggled not to shift and stretch under the Peacekeeper's gaze as she closed the last few steps to the desk. No doubt the other woman had noticed Tara's own, much less pronounced brow ridge and the mask and striations that ranged in blue tones from lapis to aquamarine. While she'd inherited her father's sun-kissed skin and gravity defying curls, it was impossible to hide her mother's heritage. Or, in fact, her identity. While muted, Tara's Aesir features were almost identical, and her mother's face well known.

Brenn had once said Tara reminded her of a curious owl. She'd never heard of an owl before and had needed to look it up. There was some comparison to be made with the long-eared owls of her crewman's native Ireland, she had to admit. It'd been nice to be thought of as something beautiful by a woman who had every right to hate that part of her, but even if Brenn loved them, owls were still predators. So too were her mother's people. Killers, most of them. She balled her hands into fists to keep from touching the blue skin around her eyes.

The Peacekeeper was either Human or a Cousin. What did she think when she saw Tara before her?

Did it matter? She bowed to Peacekeeper Atil and settled herself into the padded chair in front of the desk and switched off her neural Interface as she did so as was polite when entering a serious conversation. The buzz of the Hestia's Hearth AI and this station's public AI quieted, leaving her alone with her thoughts and free from distractions.

What kind of peacekeepers did Prospero Hab employ? The kind who kept the peace or enforced it? The difference would decide how much of this day she could salvage.

"You'll have to forgive me, as the captain of a Relief Org vessel, this isn't a frequent occurrence. I'm sorry for any trouble my crewman might have caused, but I'd like to know exactly what happened. This is uncharacteristic, as I'm sure you can imagine."

Please let Peacekeeper Atil be the sort who allowed a captain to take care of her own instead of insisting on some sort of formal justice beyond damages. How did she explain without violating Brenn's privacy that Brenn wasn't herself today? That she would dole out a punishment for herself harsher than anyone else if she thought she'd let Tara down? That trauma and loss often bubbled up in unexpected ways?

That the woman had red hair?

Peacekeeper Atil seemed kind enough, but kinder faces had hidden harder souls.

"Don't be sorry." The peacekeeper's smile now held a sardonic note. "There'd have been trouble today with or without your Ms. Darcy.

Mrs. Darcy.

Instead she said, "Your deputy implied she started the fight."

"My deputy spoke out of turn and should not have. It's not so cut and dry as these things rarely are and I prefer to take a more holistic view. As far as I can see, she acted in both self defense and defense of another. It wasn't her fault tensions were already running high. I'll show you."

Pride swelled. Tara wouldn't crew with someone unwilling to go to blows for another if that's what the situation required. In their line of work it wasn't a preference, it was a job requirement. Still, violence was abhorrent and to be avoided at all costs. Tara's limbs filled with electricity as she shifted her gaze to the hologram again. They begged to move, to release their buzzing energy, but she held them still. Legs crossed. Hands folded on her lap.

Peacekeeper Atil waved a golden hand over the holo and it faded for a brief moment before reappearing. The same location. The same angle. Only now Brennan sat alone at a table, tucked somewhere in the middle of the busy pub. The din of voices and silverware made it impossible to isolate a single voice or conversation. A glass of what appeared to be iced tea rested between her hands. Brenn's fingers, which always danced in the air and played along surfaces, tapped the glass, causing the ice inside to vibrate like excited electrons.

Dark circles stretched beneath red-rimmed brown eyes and wisps of straight black hair—liberated from the plait she tempted to tame them with daily—were matted to her cheeks. She almost looked paler than her typical shade of ghost from here, but it was possible the pub's lighting had robbed her of her customary blush.

So she'd already been to the All Faith temple, then. Tara's heart squeezed. Brenn shouldn't have gone alone. If Tara had gone, maybe they'd both be back on Hestia's Hearth right now.

'We don't dwell on what could have happened,' her mother's voice spoke. No. No they didn't. Always forward.

Brenn's eyes drifted towards the door and then lazily back to her drink. She'd mentioned before they parted ways she'd planned to meet a business acquaintance about some filters for the algae lamps despite orders to take a day off. It wasn't a vital upgrade, but Tara didn't begrudge Brenn her tinkering. Everyone had hobbies.

The redheaded woman appeared, weaving through the tables with practiced ease. She was pretty in an unassuming way. Young—maybe in her early twenties with a bright smile and a smattering of freckles on pale, pink cheeks. She stopped at Brenn's table to drop off a steaming bowl of some sort of stew and received a strained but kind smile in return.

She had only taken a few steps from Brenn's table when an equally young and distracted Aesir man, far too interested in his attractive companion, crashed into her. Their young Horus. The large tray she carried teetered, then tilted, the food and drink sliding to the ground between them. The crash rang through the pub, silencing the patrons for a moment.

To say he towered over her was a colossal understatement. Fueled by the rage of one too young to have proven himself in the wider universe and unaccustomed to minor inconveniences, he puffed out his chest and grew several centimeters as if he were a child's stretch doll. There were kids like him all over the Aesir Empire. Little princes and princesses who enjoyed slumming in the Free Allied Territories as if bullying and terrorizing somehow proved their strength. Tara had a few things to say on the subject and none of them were appropriate in the present company.

Brenn, who was always hyper-aware of the moods and movements of the Aesir around her, leaped from her seat to crouch beside the girl who'd set to work picking up the mess, her eyes darting back and forth between the pile of broken glass and the small group of Aesir that now surrounded her. Brenn said something to the girl too quiet to understand and then looked up; David staring down Goliath.

The crowd awakened, their murmurs buzzing like a swarm of bugs, drowning out all but Horus' tone. Color returned to Brenn's cheeks now. Bright pink from her hairline to her neck. Her eyes flashed like hard bits of agate in the sun. She rose from her crouch and urged the girl to rise with her. Hands on her hips she stood, full height, before this man. The crowd's buzz grew more fervent; a hive disturbed and excited.

They drowned out Brenn's words too, but Tara could imagine. Feel the shape of them in the air, even without knowing the form. Pointed words. Sharp ones, meant to wound. It wasn't like she didn't know what to say to destroy an Aesir boy's ego. She'd had plenty of practice.

Horus tried to brush them off, turning to laugh with his flock; the attractive girl who'd taken so much of his attention earlier, and a shorter, darker young man with red and gray coloring. He sneered at Brenn and stepped forward and the redheaded girl instinctively stepped behind, bringing them to the moment Tara had seen frozen before.

Brenn stiffened. Her voice rose enough to be heard above the crowd.

"Don't come any closer." Each word stood alone, punctuated and clear. Hers was a voice that had once called forth an uprising across all of Earth. The crowd heard her. They hushed again, all eyes on this human who dared stand up. Shorty fidgeted beside Horus, his eyes shifting to the barkeep who looked on with narrowed eyes. This wasn't what he'd signed up for. The humans weren't supposed to bite back. The woman seemed to sense his misgivings and slapped his arm, apparently spoiling for a fight. Perhaps she was bored. Who knew with these kids.

At first, Horus didn't say anything, just stared. Brenn had taken him beyond the natural order of things, but after a beat or two he sneered and reached out to caress the small tattoo of Earth on Brenn's neck the way a lover might, his fingertips rubbing the scar where her Aesir society identification chip had been taken out three-and-a-half years ago. Like most of the Forgotten, she'd left the scar. His lips moved, voice so quiet the microphone couldn't pick it up. Tara didn't need it. She could read his lips.

"Drudge." Slave. The pejorative for humans trapped in Aesir controlled territories living as second class citizens.

Brenn's chest rose and fell as she took rapid breaths. Tara, safe in the Peacekeepers office, slowed her own breath—in and out, in and out. Her fingernails bit into her palms as Brenn's tiny, holographic brow pinched toward her nose, body frozen and tense. A string pulled taut, strumming in the air.

The tension released. She snapped her arm up under his and forced it away, then pushed him with all her strength, catching him off guard. He stumbled backward, but didn't fall.

Rage replaced his sneers and bravado. The explosion happened in an instant. He lunged and scooped her up beneath her armpits and tossed her hard onto her table as if she weighed nothing more than a child, knocking it over. Her open pack flew, scattering her tools and rosary beads. The ice from her drink skittered along the deck. By now others had stood and some rushed to aid Brenn while others tried to restrain the struggling Horus and his companions.

With another wave, Peacekeeper Atil paused the holo. A tall man with dark brown skin knelt beside Brenn and blocked her from view. The poor redheaded girl stared on in horror. Tara's cheeks burned like she'd stepped too close to a raging inferno and her skin had shrunk another two sizes.

Breathe in. Breathe out. From her head down she released the tension, rolling her shoulders, then uncurling her fists, and wiggling her toes. Peacekeeper Atil waited in silence, her hands folded on the desk and eyes down as if to give Tara a moment of privacy to compose herself.

How. Dare. He.

If only she'd had a chance to throw a few punches after he'd thrown her friend. Damn them all. The asshole could do with being put in his place by someone a little more his size and strength, to say nothing of status.

"I'm sure you're aware there's a military base on the other side of the Mesat Corridor?" It was such a subtle way for the Peacekeeper to say she recognized Tara's lineage. Despite her recognition there was no change in her demeanor. It said a great deal about the woman's character.

It would be surprising if anyone in Peacekeeper Atil's position didn't know of Helena Eridani. The woman was infamous, and most of the infamy was by design. A careful campaign of misinformation—a shield of fear she called it. Though her mother's reputation protected her from her extracurricular activities, it often made Tara's life harder.

Tara sighed. "I'm aware."

Prospero Hab owed its prosperity to its position at the junction of five natural space corridors. Prime positioning for multi-system commerce. It was unfortunate one of the corridors led to Aesir space.

"The kids come here on weekends and holidays to wreak havoc. They've grown more bold lately and there is very little we can do about it."

Because of politics. Always because of politics. In this case, the desire to prevent war. The assholes in charge of the campus knew it, too. Prospero connected three Human and one Cousin system to an Aesir system. No one wanted to lose the Prospero buffer by pressing the Aesir for restitution and having them retaliate, so why would the Aesir brass waste energy over what they deemed an inconvenient discipline issue when no one would bite back? Nothing worth making a fuss over.

At least, not until a student messed with the wrong human as had happened in other systems: the son of a sovereign leader; the high priestess of a Cousin species' worldwide religious order; a famed popstar with 1.7 billion fans on the network... Or, say, like today, the crewman of the Aesir military's highest ranking officer's half-Human daughter? Yeah, that might elevate things a bit. Indiscriminate bullies never learned; one day they were going to pick on the wrong person.

"I understand."

Prospero Hab wasn't the only place suffering. The Empire was huge—too large for them to control, really. In the outskirts like these, Aesir settlements were pushing the boundaries of the Peace Accords every day. Small children touching what they'd been told not to, daring the authorities to catch them.

"Not everyone here is as brave—or foolish—as your Ms. Darcy." Peacekeeper Atil said. Couldn't argue with her there. "I have a great deal of respect for her, and you by extension."

If that were the case, and Brenn wasn't in any trouble, then why was she sitting here staring at Brenn's things instead of sitting next to Brenn? Tara's heart dropped into her stomach and her blood chilled. Goosebumps rose on her arms.

Peacekeeper Atil frowned, reading Tara's expression.

"Unfortunately, Ms. Darcy was injured and needed immediate medical attention from our infirmary."

The cold current traveled through Tara's veins into her fingertips and down to her toes. Her lungs burned the way they did when stepping out into an icy environment.

"Is she going to be all right?" It was hard to speak with her tongue so heavy. It was even harder to drown out the sounds of alarms shrieking, and explosions—of Brenn's voice cutting off mid-sentence. A ghost from the past she didn't need rising.

"She is. I'm authorized to tell you she has a broken rib and a moderate concussion. She was pretty confused when I tried to speak to her at the scene, but seemed far more put together just before I came to speak with you. The Doc thinks she'll be 100% in a week and significantly better after a good night's rest and a couple of days of light work. That's all the information I'm cleared to have, I'm afraid.

Right. Nothing to panic about. While unpleasant, a concussion was hardly dangerous so long as they had access to modern medical facilities and nanites. Not at all like the burns and scorched lungs Brenn had suffered last year when a fuel tank ruptured under the force of an Aesir attack. She almost hadn't made it.

Peacekeeper Atil continued. "I asked Ms. Darcy if she wanted to bring charges against her assailant, but she declined. You are also entitled to redress for difficulties incurred by yourself and your crew as well as the loss of man hours. I will warn you, though. Alexander Cornelius is well known around here and no one has ever been able to get charges to stick."

There was genuine disappointment in the Peacekeeper's voice. Tara looked down at the desks shiny surface so she wouldn't have to see it on her face, too. The Universe was lousy with injustices so great and so large this one barely registered, but it was one of the few the Peacekeeper had any power over. Tara understood the frustration. Perhaps there was something she could do to make both of them feel better. Her dad had always said revenge left you wanting. Her mom was a big fan. She was 53-years into this life and still undecided, but in this instance, she thought it might feel pretty good.

"You said his family name was Cornelius?"

"Yes, Alexander Cornelius."

It figured his name was Alexander, like every other Aesir child whose parents could only imagine greatness for their child on a battlefield, despite the fact there hadn't been a major war in more than a hundred years. Hopefully, Alexander had more creativity than his parents. He was going to need it.

"I think I'm going to have to decline pressing charges as well. I have other forms of redress I can take advantage of."

In Human society, nepotism was often frowned upon. In Aesir society, it was the expected norm. A spark of understanding passed between them. Peacekeeper Atil gave a half smile.

"I'm sure you do." With that, she stood and Tara followed suit. The Peacekeeper placed her hands on Brenn's things. "I'll turn these over to you. You and your crewman are free to leave or to continue your stay on Prospero Hab, but the doctor would like for Ms. Darcy to be escorted by someone for the next twenty-four hours, at least, just to be safe."

"Thank you," Tara said, and hoped the Peacekeeper could hear how much she meant it.

"You're welcome." Peacekeeper Atil bowed. "It was a pleasure to meet you, truly. I hope we can do so again under better circumstances. Please let me know if you need anything more."

Tara bowed in return. "Thank you. I will."

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A note from OwlishIntergalactic

Thank you for reading! I have edited this chapter to remove a scene with worldbuilding information I can shift to other chapters later on if anyone is reading this for a second time. I truly appreciate all of my readers, and I love to hear from you. Feel free to drop me a comment and let me know what you think!


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OwlishIntergalactic

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  • Owlish Intergalactic

Bio: 23 years ago an awkward 13-year-old with thick frames perched on her nose sat down at her brand new Tandy computer and wrote her first fanfiction; a Paris/Torres ship fic for Star Trek: Voyager. It was gloriously terrible and the start of an amazing journey.

Today I still tell human stories set against the backdrop of space--love, hurt, comfort, and all of the wonderful messiness between. The ways we stick together, and the things that tear us apart. How the stars, in their infinite vastness, give us the freedom to be who we are. And I tell some of the stories we don't see enough of, the stories where characters like me-a disabled, gay, mother over the age of thirty-get to be the heroes.

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