Chapter Seven

The Vigilant’s return flight to Antares was uneventful. The crew spent the time working on the ship. Anything that could be was fine-tuned. Engineering found a way to gain an extra power. 4 light speed. Sensors found ways to increase the sensitivity and resolution. Gunnery ran simulations and qualified 70 percent of the gunners as expert. Some were even better than Kelly.

The galley was where great advances were made. Because they had stayed out longer than the 30 days they had scheduled, the galley was getting a little sparse. Cookie found ways to use the remaining rations and the replicator to come up with culinary delights. What could have been several days of dried rations and sandwiches became a feast as the galley crew used the replicator in ways its designers never envisioned. The good thing about the replicator was that mistakes could be fed back in and tried again. It was also faster than traditional cooking once the programming was complete. LCDR Timmons was their most finicky customer, and even he was pleased with the results. Next patrol would see a lot more replicator use.

The Antares system appeared on the long-range sensors, and the crew went into a hum of activity. Duty uniforms were brought out of the lockers and donned. Chief Watson had each section giving their areas the once over to make sure they were shipshape. Chief Willis actually looked hurt at the suggestion that his engineering space could be improved.

Antares control cleared them into the system and they made a normal approach into Antares Base Space Port. The ship landed at its assigned space and started shutting systems down. The Base ground crew personnel hooked them up to shore comms, power, water, and sewage. Chief Willis initiated shut down procedures on the engines. LCDR Timmons called Kelly into his quarters.

“Exec, I want you to look at these sensor records and log entries again to make sure that we haven’t left anything out.”

Kelly felt that he had already done this, but if the captain wanted it done again, he would. He knew that the record was important. Their monitoring of the Indigo Consortium and K’Rang meeting was significant. The files would be turned over to Fleet Intelligence and they would glean every last bit of information. The computers on the Vigilant were good, but could not match the speed and power of the systems available to a Fleet Base like Antares.

Kelly realized he had been at the task for over an hour when LCDR Timmons asked if he was through and suggested they get some lunch. Kelly closed down the terminal and followed the captain.

The ship was deserted. The crew had already left for chow. The ship’s galley had closed down in accordance with base regulations. Petty Officer Benitez was manning the quarterdeck at the gangplank.

The captain said, “Benitez, you have the conn. The exec and I will be going to lunch. Is there anything we can bring back for you?”

“No sir, Cookie made me a container of coffee before he shut down the galley. I’m good.”

“We’ll be back in about an hour.”

The captain headed down the gangplank and Kelly followed. Kelly came to a screeching halt when he saw the entire crew in formation and waiting. The captain looked back at him and said, “Fall in on my right side, mister.”

Kelly moved to the right side of the captain, even though the junior person generally walked on the left, and marched down the gangplank to the front of the formation where Chief Watson was standing at attention.

Chief Watson saluted the captain and said, “Crew all present or accounted for, sir.”

“Thank you, Chief. Post.”

Chief Watson did a sharp about face and marched to the rear of the formation.

The captain said quietly, so only Kelly could hear, “About Face.”

Kelly turned and saw a crowd of people seated in the shade under the ship. He saw his parents, Mrs. Craddock, Candy, Tammy, and several officers from Scout Force HQ. He also saw Admiral Craddock standing there next to Petty Officer Benitez. He couldn’t imagine how she beat them out of the ship. Admiral Craddock and Benitez marched over to their position and came to a halt in front of LCDR Timmons.

LCDR Timmons saluted and said, “GRS Vigilant present, sir. Officer to be promoted present.”

“Thank you, Captain. Petty Officer Benitez, post the order, please.”

Petty Officer Benitez began speaking. She must have been wearing a wireless microphone, because her voice boomed over the parking apron. “The President has reposed special trust and confidence in the patriotism, valor, fidelity, and abilities of Kelly Pierce Blake. In view of these qualities and his demonstrated potential for increased responsibility, he is therefore promoted to Lieutenant, Junior Grade with date of rank of 2321.07.01, signed George Montgomery, Captain, Fleet Secretary.”

Kelly waited for the rank to be pinned on, replacing his single gold bars with a single silver bar on each collar, but nothing happened.

Admiral Craddock turned to PO1 Benitez and said, “Post the second order.”

PO1 Benitez’s voice boomed out over the parking apron again. “In accordance with Fleet Regulation 1001.2.3, Kelly Pierce Blake is authorized to assume the title and wear the uniform of a Fleet Lieutenant. He is entitled to all the privileges of that grade except those restricted by law. Signed Thomas C. Craddock, Rear Admiral, Scout Force, Commanding.”

Kelly was dumbstruck. He was being promoted from the rank of Ensign to Lieutenant, Junior Grade and then frocked to full Lieutenant. He would still only be paid as a Lieutenant, Junior Grade, but other than that he would be a Lieutenant.

Frocking was an ancient practice, used where an officer was serving in a position above his rank. Promotions were limited by law, but positions were limited only by numbers of ships. The Vigilant’s executive officer position was authorized for a lieutenant, but there weren’t always enough qualified lieutenants to go around.

The admiral and LCDR Timmons reached up and removed Kelly’s gold bars from his collar, replacing them with the twin silver bars of a Lieutenant. LCDR Timmons finished first and shook his hand, “Congratulations LT Blake.”

The admiral finished and also shook his hand. “I told you I could promise you promotion in three months. Congratulations, LT Blake. You’ve done a great job as exec of the Vigilant and I expect great things from you in the future.”

“Thank you, sir. This is an unexpected honor.”

Admiral Craddock said, “Ladies and gentlemen, crew mates, I give you Lieutenant Kelly Blake.” The audience and crew broke out in applause.

LCDR Timmons dismissed the crew. Kelly spent the next few minutes shaking hands with dignitaries and the crew, being slapped on the back by fellow junior officers, congratulated, and saluted by Ensign Nielsen. Tammy congratulated him and asked Kelly if he would pin on her rank when she was promoted to LTJG next month. Of course, he agreed. Tammy excused herself, as she had a flight to the southern Hemisphere in a few hours.

Andrew and Moira Blake came up, congratulated him, and simply beamed with pride. Kelly hugged them both. His mom had tears in her eyes. She mentioned rather uncharitably that she wished General Bugarov could have been here to see this ceremony.

Candy and Mrs. Craddock came up and congratulated him. Candy gave him a peck on the cheek. Mrs. Craddock asked him and his parents over for dinner that evening, told them to dress casually, and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

As the crowd dwindled away, LCDR Timmons came over and told him he was released for the day. Kelly changed into casual clothes suitable for dinner that evening, and went with his parents to see their quarters. The Doctors Blake were quartered on Admirals’ Row. They had a house slightly larger than Admiral Craddock’s house. His parents were highly respected in Fleet.

The house was two-story and had respectable plantings, but nothing to compare with Mrs. Craddock’s. The house did have a nice outdoor room and a view of the mountains. The Blakes, being engineers and not housekeepers, brought one to keep the place up for them. His name was Arnold and he had been with Kelly’s parents since before Kelly had gone off to college. Kelly liked Arnold and especially his meals, Arnold being a gourmet cook. Kelly wasn’t sure, but he assumed Arnold had been a chef before he came to work for the Blakes. It was good to see him again.

“How are you, Arnold? I haven’t seen you in years.”

“I’m all right, Lieutenant Blake. Congratulations on your promotion. Do you have any preferences for dinner tonight?”

“Sorry, Arnold, but Admiral Craddock’s wife invited us over for dinner tonight. She was very insistent and her husband is my boss. We’ll do this some other night.”

Kelly visited with his parents and, although Arnold was stymied on preparing dinner, he did come up with a marvelous high tea. He laid out a spread of mixed fruit scones, egg salad sandwiches, and stuffed pastries. The rare Russian Caravan tea was a special treat. He luxuriated in his parents’ company for the afternoon.

They wished Arnold a good evening and walked down to the Craddock’s house. Candy met them at the door and ushered them out onto the patio. Moira went into the kitchen to help Mrs. Craddock, while the admiral took Andrew off into his study. This left Candy alone with Kelly. She took his hand and led him into the garden. She was particularly attractive tonight, wearing a kelly green silk blouse and black silk lounging pants. Kelly wondered if the color was chosen to send a subliminal message. She stopped near a tree, leaned back against it, and said, “I missed you while you were gone. You are the only person around here that’s interesting. Most of the junior officers around here are boring and the senior officers are all too fat, too old, or too married. My law firm is full of a bunch of old fuds. I think they hired me for my breasts more than for my abilities. They treat me like a law clerk rather than a lawyer.”

Kelly looked at her. He could understand their interest in her breasts. They were spectacular, bordering on awe inspiring.

Candy continued, “I’m thinking of leaving the firm and taking a job here with the Judge Advocate General’s office. They have an opening for a civil law counsel here. Contract law is contract law. I would be working the other side of the cases that I should be working now. I’d just have a better class of client than I do now.”

Kelly laughed at her comment.

She grabbed his hand and pulled him deeper into the garden. They came to a ring of trees similar to the ones on the island where he and Tammy had spent the day. She walked them into the center of the ring. There was a bench in the center. They sat down and talked until it was time for dinner. When dinner was announced, she turned to him, gave him a kiss, and stood up. She gathered up his hand and walked him back to the house.

“Ah, here you two are,” said Andrew. “We were about to go hunting you. Dinner is almost ready. Admiral Craddock came out with a drink in his hand and said, “If you two would like a cocktail, you’d better go pour yourself something.”

Kelly and Candy went to the bar and poured a couple of glasses of the excellent local vidal blanc, then returned to the patio. Andrew Blake and the admiral were in a spirited conversation about the benefits of phase shifting over plasma coupling in FTL communications systems. Kelly, even with his degree in EE, had great difficulty keeping up with them. Andrew was fighting the good fight for plasma coupling, while Admiral Craddock was the champion of phase shifting. As neither was likely to fall off their position, they called it a draw.

Admiral Craddock spoke to Kelly, “LCDR Timmons gives you very high marks on your first patrol. He told me your management by walking around style was very effective. You always seemed to be where you needed to be at the right time. He also credits you with very good instincts. He said you had a habit of recommending actions to him just before he ordered you to do the same thing. I guess it’s the fighter pilot in you. Whatever…good job for your first patrol.”

“I credit LCDR Timmons with being a good teacher, sir.”

Mrs. Craddock emerged from the kitchen and said. “Come on, you four. Dinner is served. It’s buffet style. Come grab a plate and serve yourself. We’ll eat out here on the patio.”

Kelly followed Candy into the kitchen. They grabbed plates and silverware and loaded their plates with meats and vegetables, and filled a smaller plate with salad. Candy and Kelly went out to the patio by way of the bar, and refilled their wine glasses.

The combination of Craddocks and Blakes made for a broad range of conversation and repartee. Kelly had not had so much fun in a long time.

As it came time for them to leave, Kelly’s parents left to walk back to their quarters. Kelly kissed his mother goodnight and stayed behind, waiting for a shuttle to take him to his ship. Candy walked him out to the shuttle again.

He climbed into the shuttle and Candy stood outside. She said, “Kelly, why don’t you come visit me in the south? You must have some slack time now that your patrol is over. Why don’t you take a long weekend and come see me. I’ve got an enormous place. It would have to be roomier than your quarters on the ship. We could take in some shows, eat in some marvelous restaurants, and have a good time. Please say you will.”

“Well, I haven’t had time to find out what our schedule will be, but I will let you know. I would like to come down and see you.”

With that, she leaned down and gave him another very nice kiss. She closed the door and Kelly went back to his ship.

Imperial Protector M’Talli was lecturing shadow Leader M’Trang. The Protector, a barely mature K’Rang, stood pacing in front of the Shadow Leader carelessly using a claw to stab the air when he thought he was making a key point. He either did not realize or did not care how much of an insult that was. Shadow Warriors were taught never to expose fang or claw unless death would follow. M’Trang had killed other K’Rang for less than that.

The protector wore a heavily brocaded robe of gold and silver threads on a pale blue background, befitting his station. In this case it signified this petty noble’s dream of station. The lining was white, which showed his relationship to the ruling clan, no matter how tenuous. M’Trang imagined the many painful ways he could make this ineffective pussy suffer. It brought a smile to his face.

“Shadow Leader M’Trang, certainly you realize that this endeavor you initiated would have the full attention of the Ruling Family. My father Baron N’Gana has been instructed by the Council of Peers to ensure that a mission of this importance has proper oversight. My father has chosen me to provide this oversight. As such, I have decided to accompany the next courier mission. You will issue orders to your operatives to make proper accommodations for me on the courier ship.”

The Shadow Leader would have gladly strangled this pitiful excuse of K’Rang nobility, but however far down in the ranking of nobility and no matter how much of a fop he might be, he was still a noble. His father, Baron N’Gana, was Chief Secretary to the Council of Peers.

“Of course, Protector M’Talli, I will see to it at once. I must inform you that the ship was chosen for its nondescript appearance. It may not be able to accommodate you in a manner befitting your station. I’m afraid it will be a little spartan by your normal standards.”

“I am prepared to deal with whatever inconvenience is required. Fortunately, the mission duration will not be that long. See to it, Shadow Leader.”

The Protector strode purposefully out the door to whatever his next appointment might be. Shadow Leader M’Trang waited a few moments to let his rage cool, before he called in his three deputies.

As the three moved into his office and stood before his desk, he said, “Our next courier run will be joined by an observer from the ruling family, Warriors. The Council of Peers has decided we need oversight and they have sent a most worthy noble to accompany us.”

Sarcasm fairly dripped from his tongue.

“S’Dulla,” he said, pointing to the tallest of the three, “You will assign two of your senior, most competent Shadow Warriors to accompany Imperial Protector M’Talli on this mission. They are to ensure no harm comes to him, but not make it look like that is what they are doing. Let us give this noble the excitement of being on a mission, with none of the danger, and maybe he will leave us alone. Make sure that the captain does not make him too comfortable. See to it that normal rations are in the ships larders, nothing fancy. He should have the full experience. We don’t want him to be too comfortable. Do we?”

The three deputies all smiled and nodded their understanding and then carefully noted the additional special instructions M’Trang gave them for this mission.

Kelly, upon returning to the ship, made a quick inspection tour, retired to his quarters, and found a message from the captain waiting on his terminal. The message told him to report to debriefing at 0800 at building 603. Kelly set his alarm to be ready in plenty of time to accompany LCDR Timmons.

In the morning he had breakfast with the captain, then headed over to building 603. Building 603 was one of the many nondescript office buildings on Fleet Base 17. They headed up the stairs to the second floor and entered Room 2-34.

LCDR Wilton of Fleet Intelligence met them. He led them into an inner office, offered them coffee, which they declined, and left the room for a few minutes. When he returned he brought two other officers, Commander Johnson and Lieutenant Andrews. They sat down and read from a large document in front of them.

CMDR Johnson led off, “LCDR Timmons, you were patrolling in the Scutum Sector when you detected the presence of a ship on the K’Rang side of the frontier.”

“Yes, sir, we were. The ship was first detected on long-range sensors. It was moving toward the frontier. We were on patrol looking for indications of a K’Rang pilotless scout ship that may have been active in GR space in that area. I parked my ship on an asteroid and watched as the K’Rang ship approached. It then crossed the K’Rang frontier into the neutral zone. The ship parked just outside the GR frontier and waited. We detected the Manchu Warrior come into the Scutum sector. A shuttle craft detached from the Manchu Warrior and rendezvoused with the K’Rang ship. We were approximately 2000 meters from the meeting point. We had a clear view of three people moving from the shuttle craft to the other ship. We also saw three people cross back into the shuttle. The two ships separated and the shuttle proceeded to the spaceport on New Alexandria. Two days later it docked with and left with the Manchu Warrior. The K’Rang ship retired immediately back across the frontier and deep into K’Rang space before we lost it on our long-range sensors.”

“Thank you, LCDR Timmons. LT Blake, do you have anything to add?”

“No, sir, it happened just like LCDR Timmons described it.”

“Thank you both. This data you brought back is very interesting.”

Kelly asked, “Sir, could you tell us how the boarding and inspection of the Manchu Warrior went?”

“Well, we didn’t get anything out of the inspection. Any evidence of the docking was wiped from the shuttle memory before our team got to it.”

“Sir, do we have anything further on the Indigo Consortium?”

“They’ve been flying below the radar screen up until now. We are running the shipping schedule for all their ships through the computers to see if anything pops up. We’re still looking, but nothing out of the ordinary has come up yet. We’re doing the same thing with the consortium directors.”

A Lieutenant came into the room and spoke into the Commander’s ear. The commander got up, left the room for a minute, and came back.

He conferred with the LT, then said, “LCDR Timmons, LT Blake, we have your next mission for you. We want you to follow the Gurkha when it makes its next run. It’s scheduled to head to the 6664 system and pick up a load of gold, too. We want you out there again to monitor the visit. You’ll get your official orders through Scout Force.”

“Commander Johnson, when are they expected to be at the 6664 system?”

“They are scheduled to arrive 2321.07.25. You will need to leave in three days or sooner to get there in time. When you get back to the Vigilant, the orders will be waiting for you. Thank you, Captain, that will be all. LCDR Wilton will see you out.”

LCDR Wilton led them out of the building and thanked them for their help.

They waited until they had walked a distance from building 603 before they spoke. LCDR Timmons spoke, “Get the stores list over to Base Supply when we get back. Are the special items I ordered last patrol still on board?”

“Yes Captain, they are still stowed in Engineering.”

“Let’s keep them. They might come in handy this time.”

Kelly had to send his regrets to Candy. Leave would not be possible until they got back. He promised to call her as soon as he returned.

It took them a day to load supplies on board. The next morning, they lifted ship and headed off to the Scutum sector, arriving four days later. They coasted in at sub-FTL speed to make most effective use of their long-range sensors, scanning to maximum range so that they could slip into the area undetected.

It took another complete day, but they moved to an asteroid some several thousand kilometers from the one on which they had hidden last time. The new asteroid had a peak with a shelf in front of it. It was the perfect observation post. They sat and waited for two days.

On the second day, they got initial indications of a ship approaching from the K’Rang side of the frontier. As it got closer, the sensor system resolved the approaching ship. It looked like their quarry from the previous patrol. They compared sensor readings with those in the records. It was the same ship.

As before, it moved through the K’Rang side of the frontier and waited in the neutral zone. Kelly called up the data on the Gurkha and looked up when it was expected in the system. It was several hours before the freighter was expected.

The captain took his seat and said, “Is our friend up to anything?”

“No, sir, he is just sitting there like before. We are running a number of different scans on him to determine how he might be armed. We can detect the signature of plasma generators and not much else. He’s leaking gamma radiation from his engines like you wouldn’t believe. They must have massive shielding to be able to survive in that thing. It can’t have a very big crew. Chief Miller thinks half the ship must be engines in that thing to have a radiation signature like it has. He also says they can’t be all that efficient, so this guy may not be the latest model.”

“It’s a shame we have orders to observe and not be detected. I think we could capture this guy. It wouldn’t take much to disable his engines. We could stand off outside his range and take out any guns. We could board this guy.”

“Sir, remember, I had a little experience with a K’Rang scout ship. The one we went after self-destructed rather than be captured. That was just a small two-man ship. I don’t know how this guy would react, but I’d hate to be leading a boarding party as this guy vaporizes himself.”

“I know we don’t know much about the K’Rang other than their military. Have you given any thought that this guy might just be some K’Rang smuggler? Maybe all we are witnessing is a shady transaction between the Indigo folks and some K’Rang entrepreneur.”

“Could be, Exec, that is one of the possibilities that the intel folks thought of. We also don’t know what the Indigo Consortium may be trading to get what they want from this guy. Intel doesn’t really know how much of a mercantile class the K’Rang have. I’m going back for coffee, I’ll bring you some. Keep your eye on him.”

Three hours and two cups of coffee later, the Gurkha arrived in the Scutum sector. The shuttle craft separated from the freighter. Unlike the previous time, the shuttle did not take a leisurely approach to the K’Rang ship. It made a beeline for the K’Rang ship at almost full speed. The K’Rang ship moved forward through the frontier into GR space. The two ships docked, as before, and three personnel moved across into the K’Rang ship. No cargo could be detected on the shuttle.

Three personnel returned to the shuttle after about 30 minutes on the K’Rang ship. The two ships separated. The shuttle turned away and proceeded at a much slower pace back to the 6664 system.

“Sensors to bridge, the K’Rang are charging plasma weapons.”

The captain hit the battle stations alarm and ordered, “Gunners, target the K’Rang ship’s weapons and engines. Fire when ready.”

Before the crew could react the K’Rang ship turned toward the shuttle and fired its plasma weapons. The shuttle took three hits broadside. The shuttle floated dead in space with atmosphere leaking out into vacuum.

The Vigilant’s top turret opened fire and took out the plasma guns on the nose of the K’Rang ship. The K’Rang ship turned and started to run for the frontier.

The captain said, “Helm, lift us up and get on the K’Rang ship’s tail. Comms, jam any transmissions from the K’Rang ship.”

The helm hit the bottom thrusters and brought the Vigilant up from the asteroid. He pushed the throttle forward to move the ship onto the path of the K’Rang ship. Kelly had to restrain himself to stay off the controls. The helmsman was being a little too cautious for his liking. Kelly brought up the targeting template on his terminal. The crosshairs lined up on the K’Rang ship as the helmsman increased power and turned the Vigilant in pursuit.

The lower turret gunners fired and took out the K’Rang ship’s engines. The K’Rang ship drifted in space just short of the frontier.

Kelly keyed his intercom and said, “Sensors, watch for any indications of a self-destruct mechanism being activated.”

The captain came up on the intercom and asked, “Sensors, what do you see happening on the K’Rang ship?”

“Bridge this is Sensors, we don’t see any activity. We can count 10–15 life signs on board. They seem to be congregated in the bow of the ship.”

“Comms, patch me through to the K’Rang ship.”

“Captain, you are patched through on standard hailing frequencies.”

“K’Rang ship, this is the GRS Vigilant. You are in Galactic Republic space. You have fired on a Galactic Republic vessel without provocation. Prepare to be boarded.”

The comms channels were silent.

The captain keyed his intercom, “Chief Miller, come to the bridge.”

Chief Miller appeared almost instantaneously. He had to have run from the engine room. “What can I do for you Captain?”

“Chief, where would a self-destruct mechanism be on that K’Rang ship?”

“The simplest place would be in the engine room. Frankly, sir, that thing is practically self-destructing now. It’s leaking so much radiation that I wonder if the crew isn’t already radiation poisoned.”

“Is there any way to put the self-destruct out of commission from here?”

“We could target the engine room and try to destroy the engines before they can be overloaded, but it might just kill the crew if they don’t have good interior hatches.”

“Bridge, Sensors, we’re picking up a power surge over there.”

“Helm, back us out of here! Full reverse now! Forward shields on full.”

The Vigilant went into reverse. The K’Rang ship shrank in the monitors.

“All stop! Exec, if this guy is going to blow himself up, I’m not so worried about damaging him. Do you think you could cut the engines from the rest of his hull. I don’t care if he has good interior hatches or not.”

Kelly took over helm and aligned the turrets and fixed guns. He moved the ship forward, pointed the Vigilant at the K’Rang ship, and opened fire, attempting to use the plasma and particle cannons like a saw to cut the K’Rang ship in half. The nine cannons made short work of the K’Rang ship’s hull. In seconds the ruined engine compartment was drifting away in space.

“Bridge this is sensors, the power surge has ended. The engine area is without power. There are bodies floating free in space. The forward part of the K’Rang ship has lost all life support. We are detecting atmosphere vented into space. Captain, we read no life signs on the K’Rang ship.”

“Thank you, Sensors. Damn, Exec, I hoped to take some of them alive.”

“Don’t lose any sleep over these guys, Captain. If we hadn’t done anything they‘d all be vapor right now. We should see what we can glean from this ship and the shuttle.”

“ Let’s go for the shuttle first. Chief Miller, break out that gear stowed in Engineering. Exec, you, Chief Miller, and Chief Blankenship get suited up in those EVA suits. See what you can find. Make sure there aren’t any nasty surprises. Once you give me a thumbs up, we’ll bring the shuttle alongside and magnetically lock it to the hull. Then we’ll do the same with the K’Rang ship. We’ll haul them both back to Antares’ orbiting dock. That will give the tech intel boys something to salivate over.”

Kelly went back to Engineering, to be fitted into the EVA suit. After he was suited up, he and the two chiefs went to the airlock. Chief Miller keyed open the airlock and they all stepped in. Chief Miller had a portable work light and Chief Blankenship had a pulsar pistol. The door closed behind them. Kelly looked out the hatch at the shuttle. It had three large holes seared open by a volley of hot plasma. He felt the suit expand slightly as the atmosphere was pumped out of the airlock.

“Ready to open the airlock when you are, LT.”

“Let’s get out there, Chief.”

The airlock opened and the three lunged out into the blackness of space toward the silent shuttle. They reached the shuttle’s hull simultaneously. Once activated, their magnetic gloves attached themselves to the hull. They alternately activated and deactivated their gloves to crawl across the hull to the plasma blast holes.

Kelly came to the smallest hole first. He had Chief Blankenship use her pocket scanner to make a scan of the interior. Nothing hazardous was found. He poked his head in and used his helmet light to illuminate the interior. He couldn’t see much. The plasma had burned through the hull and charred everything in its path. All he could see was burnt wire and blackened panels.

Kelly moved to the next blast hole. This hole was much larger and appeared to hit an open area of the inner cabin. Kelly was able to pull himself in. He was half way into the hole when a burnt, naked corpse floated into his path. Kelly let out a yell.

“LT Blake, are you all right?” said Chief Blankenship with alarm in her voice. Chief Miller grabbed Kelly by the legs and braced himself to pull him out.

“I’m okay. One of the crew just came over to say hello. Scared me a bit, that’s all.”

Kelly pushed the body out of the way and keyed his mike. “Captain, you’d better send about six body bags over here. The whole crew was fried by the plasma.”

“We’ll put them in the airlock. Send one of your team over.”

Chief Blankenship spoke up. “I’ll go get them, Exec. If the crew is all dead, you don’t need me covering you.”

Kelly pulled himself all the way in. Chief Miller followed. Once they were both inside, Chief Miller turned on the portable light. The rear of the compartment where the plasma bursts hit was blackened and melted. The front of the compartment was relatively unharmed. Kelly activated his mag boots and was able to walk around. His first finding was that the ship’s log was intact. Kelly pulled the log file and put it in the pouch on his belt, then continued his search.

“Hey LT, I think I found something here.”

Kelly went over to where Chief Miller was standing. Chief Blankenship pushed a pack of body bags through the blast hole and followed it in.

“Chief B, start packaging the crew. We’ll take them out when we leave. What did you find, Chief M?”

“There’s a case here. It has K’Rang markings on it.”

“Let’s not open it just yet. Chief Blankenship, bring the scanner here.”

Chief Blankenship pulled out her pocket scanner and scanned the box. “I get a mineral reading only. No explosives or hazardous materials that the scanner can pick up. I say open it. Better here than on the Vigilant. This ship is already screwed.”

“Yeah, but we aren’t. Chief Miller, can you rig a line to that thing to open it from across the cabin?”

“Sure LT, just give me a minute.”

Chief Miller played out a length of line, secured the box to the bulkhead, rigged a line to the latch, and backed off.

“You want to do the honors, sir?”

“No, Chief, you rigged it, go ahead.”

Chief Miller gave a tug on the line. He must have been a little nervous, because he forgot to activate his mag boots. He managed to pull himself halfway across the cabin. He sheepishly pulled himself back to where they were behind a console, activated his boots, and gave the line another yank. The lid popped open and nothing happened.

As they walked over to check the contents, Chief Miller mumbled, “Not a word about that last thing, please.” Both Kelly and Chief Blankenship chuckled in their suits, with the mikes turned off.

The reached the box and found the inside suffused with a red glow.

Chief Blankenship spoke first, ”Flame stones! Hundreds of millions credits worth.”

Flame stones were very rare and very valuable. Kelly had never heard of more than a handful in any one place in all of the Galactic Republic. Here were ten liters or more in a box.

“Seal the box, Chief B, but first scan it to make sure there isn’t something more in there.”

Chief Blankenship used her pocket scanner on the case, confirmed it contained only flame stones, and sealed the case shut with suit repair tape.

“I think we have enough for now. We’ll seal up the blast holes so nothing floats out on the trip back. Let’s get the bodies and jewels over to the Vigilant. We have another ship to inspect.”

They took time to have some lunch, before they suited back up and went out to the K’Rang ship. The three made the short leap to the remains of the K’Rang crew compartment, and used their mag boots to walk to where the engines had been cut away. They reached the open end of the crew compartment and flipped around to the interior. Chief B had her pistol ready as she came around.

Chief Blankenship put her pistol away immediately upon seeing the inside of the crew compartment. The explosive decompression literally tore the bodies of the K’Rang apart. It looked like a particularly gruesome way to go.

Chief Miller set the light up, then they split up to search the compartment. Kelly looked at the control panel and tried to make sense of it. The K’Rang were feline bipeds without opposable thumbs, and he couldn’t figure out how the controls worked. There was a trackball in the middle of the control panel. Above that were three buttons, one red, one green, and one blue. Below the trackball was a slot about big enough to fit his hand minus the thumb. He didn’t know what anything did.

Chief Miller called him over to the port side. “What do you think of this, LT?”

He pointed at a large rack mounted device that was affixed to the port bulkhead. It had several dials and what appeared to be a monitor screen. With no power, it wouldn’t be possible to figure out what it was.

Chief Blankenship made the big discovery. She called the two of them over to the starboard side of the cabin. She had searched one of the bodies and found a small data storage device of decidedly human design. Kelly took it and placed it in his belt pouch. They went back to their areas and continued searching. Kelly looked at the control panel some more and discovered a lever under the hand-sized slot he had seen before. He flipped the lever from left to right and a cassette popped out of the slot. Kelly supposed that he was holding the flight log in his hand. He put it in his pouch and also took a picture of the slot, so the engineers would know where it came from.

The bodies of the crew were almost unrecognizable, but they gathered what parts they could find and placed them in body bags. They tied the bags together and prepared to drag them across to the Vigilant. Kelly made one more turn around the cabin and joined the two chiefs at the open end of the cabin. Chief Miller took the light down and made ready to move across to the Vigilant.

Kelly was getting ready to swing around to the outside of the ship when he saw something in a bundle of twisted wiring. He shone his flashlight at the object and saw it was a hand and part of an arm. He reached up to untangle it and to place it in the nearest body bag. He looked closely and saw a ring on one of the fingers. He looked closely at the ring and saw that it had a planet with three moons. Two were on the same orbit and the third was on a separate orbit. He took a picture of the hand with the ring and placed it in a body bag.

He sent Chief B across with the other end of the line. Once she was anchored to the Vigilant, she pulled the body bags across. Kelly and Chief Miller kept the body bags from tangling or tearing on the wreckage. After the bags were stowed in the airlock, Chief Miller and Kelly leapt across.

LCDR Timmons was waiting for them as they came out of the airlock. Kelly pulled off his helmet and heard, “What did you find, Exec?”

Kelly pulled the GR data storage device and the K’Rang cassette out of his belt pouch. He handed over his camera and said, “That data device is human. The other thing is probably the K’Rang ship’s flight log. It came out of a slot in the middle of the control panel. Chief B found the GR data device in the pocket of one of the K’Rang bodies, or what was left of one. I think we should have Chief Miller double check all our seals. Explosive decompression is messy.”

“Get changed. We’ll send Chief Watson and a couple of others to seal the plasma holes in the shuttle and the end of the crew compartment. The bodies go in the cargo compartment. The jewels, the ship’s log, and the data device all go into one of the locking storage bins in Engineering. I need to get us back to Antares. I’ve probably got a lot of explaining to do to the admiral.”

Chief Watson and two engineering crewman made short work of closing off the holes in the shuttle and the gaping hole in the back of the K’Rang ship’s crew compartment. After some discussion, the captain decided not to take the rear half of the K’Rang ship back. The self-destruct sequence had been started and there was no guarantee that stray voltage or radiation might not set it off. The shuttle and the K’Rang ship were mag locked to the hull. The Vigilant moved a safe distance from the K’Rang ship’s engine section, and the gunnery section made short work of it. In seconds there were no pieces larger than a man’s hand.

The shields were extended around all three hulls and the Vigilant started the long trip back to Antares. Kelly and the captain spent much of the return voyage working on the patrol report. The admiral would want a full report with emphasis on the justification for firing on the K’Rang ship. The captain had no qualms. He knew he had done the right thing.

After five days, they arrived at the orbiting dock above Armstrong. They timed their approach so they could make a clean, unobserved approach to and into the dock. Once inside, dock personnel hooked tugs to the wrecks to tow them into the giant hangars along the dock edge. The craft were locked down and the hanger doors closed, making an airtight seal. The Vigilant moved up to a vacant docking tube and docked.

Captain Hasselrode was waiting for them when LCDR Timmons and Kelly exited the ship.

“Come on, you two. The admiral is waiting to see you.”

Timmons and Kelly accompanied Captain Hasselrode as he made his way through the dockyard administrative area. They came to a cypher-secured door. Captain Hasselrode punched in the code and pushed open the door. Kelly and the captain followed him through. They walked down a carpeted and paneled hallway and turned into a conference room on the right side. Admiral Craddock was seated at the conference table, reading from a terminal tablet. Kelly and LCDR Timmons stood at attention, waiting for him to acknowledge their presence.

Admiral Craddock looked up and said, “Sit down, you two. You aren’t in any trouble. How’s about some coffee?”

Both took seats at the table, amazed that they weren’t in hack. Both said they would like some coffee.

The admiral keyed his tablet. “Yeoman Brice, bring in that platter, a pot of coffee, and four mugs, please.”

A moment passed, while the admiral continued to read off his tablet. The Yeoman came in and set the platter of sandwiches and coffee out on the table. Kelly and LCDR Timmons helped themselves to coffee. Kelly put a sandwich and some sweet pickles on a small plate. He had learned at the Academy to always eat the meal in front of him.

Admiral Craddock finished his reading and looked up at both of them. “Good work, you two. Your patrol report looks very thorough. I’ll review your log files later. We’ll get the data you brought back to our tech intel guys to sort out. The most interesting thing is the flame stones. A conservative estimate is that they are worth 200 to 300 million credits. I can find lots of uses for them. Whatever the Indigo folks were selling was that important. That is bad for us. We’ll just have to break into the data devices and see what they were giving away. You’ll be interested to know that the Gurkha never reported its missing shuttle.”

“As far as shooting up the K’Rang ship, that was a good call. We’ll dispose of the K’Rang bodies in accordance with their customs. LT Blake, I see here your reference to a ring with a planet and three moons. Where exactly did you find that?”

“Sir, that was on the finger of a severed hand and arm. I found it tangled in a bundle of wiring at the edge of the crew compartment section. I took a photo of it.”

“We’ll need to find the body that came from. That ring signifies a resident of the K’Rang home world. Only the most trusted and privileged of the K’Rang are allowed to live on the home world. Even people born there have no guarantee that they will be allowed to stay. We’ll need to know more about that individual.”

Kelly ate his sandwich and munched on a pickle while the admiral continued.

“It’s a shame the K’Rang shot up the shuttle. We intended to follow them until they made the transfer of what they were bringing back. I wanted to collect evidence against whoever is running this operation before I brought it down. There’s a traitor out there, and I may not be able to catch him or her now. We’ll have to hope we can find incriminating evidence in the data or on the ships you brought back. Of course, I don’t need unimpeachable evidence to take action.”

“When the tech intel people give me a thumbs up that they have all they need from you, I want you to give me and my staff a ride back down to the planet.”

The captain was beaming. “We’d be honored, sir.”

LCDR Timmons stood up and got himself a sandwich and some chips. Kelly could tell the captain was relieved. He had been worried that he might face a board of inquiry for firing on the K’Rang ship. The two of them ate lunch while the admiral reviewed data coming in on his tablet. When the coffee ran low, Yeoman Brice brought more. LCDR Timmons asked to speak to his ship and gave orders to prepare for transporting the admiral and his staff to the planet’s surface.

The Vigilant left the orbiting dock with the admiral and his staff on board. The trip was uneventful. Each section chief made sure their people carried out their duties in an exemplary manner.

The crew was usually fairly informal on landings, but this time they sat their positions almost at attention. In spite of their obvious discomfort, they made a textbook perfect approach and landing. Chief Watson had six crewmen standing as side boys for the admiral’s exit down the gangway.

Admiral Craddock came over to LCDR Timmons at the top of the gangway. “Commander, my congratulations on a very successful patrol. You and your crew are to be commended for your actions. I’m granting you and your crew a week-long stand down. We’ll use some of that week to conduct debriefings, but there should be time for some leave in there.”

“Thank you, sir, it has been an honor to be your flagship for a short time.”

Admiral Craddock saluted and stepped down off the Vigilant. His staff followed him off and into waiting vehicles to take them to HQ.

LCDR Timmons relayed to the crew the admiral’s largesse of a week off from patrolling. A loud cheer erupted from the crew. Kelly retired to his quarters to work on the maintenance and resupply orders. He also took time to send Candy a short message that he was back and asked if her offer still stood. She replied almost immediately. Her video came up. She was obviously sitting at her desk at work.

“Kelly, of course the invite still holds. When did you get back? When can you come down?”

“We just landed a few minutes ago. I’m going to be tied up for a few days. It will be later this week before I can make it down. I’ll have to let you know once I’m more certain.”

“Let me know when you have more certainty. I’ll take a couple of days off and show you around. I’ve found some great restaurants, some plays, and some nightclubs to go to. I’m really looking forward to your visit.”

“I’ve got to get back to work, Candy. I’ll let you know when I can come down. Bye now.”

Kelly sent the maintenance, supply, and provisioning lists to the port logistics sections. He took some time to check for other messages. His mother had left a message. His bank statement came in. He checked to see if his LTJG pay had shown up. It had. There was a message from Angie, as well. Kelly opened it up and saw Angie, John Kanakis, and CPT Willis gathered around the video cam.

“Hey, guy, how are you doing out there sneaking and peeking? Or are you snooping and pooping? Send us a message. Let us know what you’re up to. The Bolivar will be in the Antares system on 2321.07.22. We want to see your sorry butt when we get there. We all will have something to celebrate. General Bugarov will be departing at Antares Station into retirement. We’re all going to get so drunk. Make sure the club has enough booze laid on. We’ll have a powerful thirst after seven months on deployment. Hey, we got to go now. Take care and try and be there when we get in, you hear?” The video file ended with all three of them laughing.

The next message was from Tammy. She told him that her flight detachment was being upgraded to the S-660 shuttle from their current S-500s. She would be off planet at the Shuttle manufacturer going through transition training for the next month. That simplified things for his spending a few days in the southern hemisphere with Candy. He had wondered how he was going to get south without having a potentially uncomfortable flight on Tammy’s shuttle.

Kelly got back to work. Fleet paperwork multiplied like rabbits. It was several hours before he was done.

After two days of debriefings, Kelly was allowed three days leave. He contacted Candy to ensure that his visit was still okay. She was overjoyed at him visiting.

He booked passage on the planetary shuttle and packed. He arranged with Chief Watson to assume his duties during his absence. He met with the captain to close out some last minute items and went out to have dinner with his parents.

The following morning he caught transport to the shuttle terminal. He signed in and went into the waiting room for the flight to be called. When the flight was called, he lined up in rank order to board. Kelly felt a hand on his shoulder.

“You seem to be out of rank order there, Ensign.”

Kelly turned around and came face-to-face with LT Casimirski. Kelly said, “Oh, it’s you. What are you talking about? You can get your hand off my shoulder now, Cas.”

“You are approaching insubordination, Mister.”

“Look at my shoulder closer, Lieutenant.”

Cas moved his hand off the rank insignia on Kelly’s shirt and his jaw dropped. “What kind of joke is this? I can’t believe you would be so stupid as to wear LT’s rank just to get a better seat.”

Kelly pulled out his ID card and handed it to LT Casimirski. “I’m not the one being stupid. Now get your hand off me.”

LT Casimirski stared at Kelly’s ID card, handed it back, and stomped off mumbling. Kelly moved onboard and took his seat at the front of the shuttle. The passengers settled in and the doors closed. The flight to the southern spaceport was uneventful. Kelly even had time for a short nap.

Kelly collected his bag and headed from the military gate into the main terminal. Candy was waiting for him. She gave him a kiss and took his hand to lead him to her ground car.

“I’m so happy to see you. I thought you kept running away on patrol to get away from me.”

“Not on your life, Candy. It was only my finely honed sense of duty that kept me away. That and the certainty of court-martial.”

Candy laughed, put her arm through his and kept walking. They arrived at her ground car. Kelly put his bag in the back and took a seat. She programmed her address and sat back for the ride to her house.

“So, Kelly, what have you been up to? Is it anything you can tell me about?”

“Nope, not at all. We just went out on a short patrol. Nothing really exciting.”

“Oh, well, I didn’t think you could say anything. I have spent a great deal of time around my dad.”

They chatted on for a bit about matters other than Scout Force, until Candy announced, “Well, here we are, my humble abode.”

Kelly did not think her house was humble at all. It was magnificent. It was a large, two-story house, built out of some local quarried stone that was very similar to limestone. The front elevation was three side-by-side arches. The central arch was the front door surmounted by a window. The two side arches contained large double height windows.

Kelly followed Candy inside. The inside mimicked the outside. Her house was decorated in a style reminiscent of Moorish Spain. Large cushions on Persian carpets took the place of chairs and couches. Curtains instead of doors closed off rooms. The breeze through the open windows rippled the doorway curtains slightly. Beaten brass platters and sconces hung on the walls.

“So, what do you think of my little place?”

“It’s very nice. Did you decorate it yourself or bring in a professional?”

“Actually, it came fully furnished. I loved the look when I first saw it. It’s so unusual that I just kept it like it was.”

“I like it, too. It’s exotic.”

“Come with me and let me show you something.”

Kelly followed her to the rear of the house. The rear matched the front with its three arches. The three arches were set out from the living area and enclosed a glassed-in porch, which overlooked a small swimming pool and garden.

“Wow, what a lovely backyard. Has your mother helped you with the garden?”

“No, that was all there when I moved in. Why don’t you follow me upstairs? I’ll show you where to clean up and change. You probably want to get out of your uniform.”

Kelly walked up the stairs with her. She pulled aside a curtain on the right side of the hall.

“This is the guest room. Drop your stuff in here. The guest bath is next on the right. Why don’t you get comfortable? We’ll eat lunch in a bit and then discuss what we’ll do tonight. I’m going to get comfortable myself. I’ll bring you a beer when I’ve changed.”

Kelly grabbed a shirt and shorts and went to take advantage of her guest bath. Kelly hadn’t had a “Hollywood” or unmetered shower since he moved out of the BOQ. A long hot shower would feel great.

Kelly stripped down and climbed into the shower stall. He had soaped up and was preparing to rinse when a hand holding a beer was thrust into the shower. Kelly took the beer and thanked Candy. He took a sip and got back to cleaning himself up. The unlimited hot water felt so good. Kelly luxuriated in the warm water. As he quickly finished the beer he also finished his shower. He reached out of the stall for a towel and it met his hand. He looked out and Candy was standing there with a towel in her hand. He took the towel and dried himself off. Candy called out, “Hand me the towel and I’ll dry your back.”

Kelly stepped out onto a furry rug and handed the towel to Candy. She took it and dried his back. He looked at her in the mirror and she had a large smile on her face. He slipped on a pair of shorts and a shirt, took the towel back from her and hung it on the rack.

He combed his military short hair with his hand and turned to get a good look at her. She was wearing a pearlescent, low cut, white caftan that left nothing to the imagination. The material was practically transparent. The view almost took his breath away. She grabbed his hand and led him back downstairs.

“Let me show you the kitchen, in case you get hungry or thirsty. I expect you to make yourself at home and help yourself to anything you want.”

She showed him hampers full of small loaves of bread, a fridge with cheese, meats, vegetables, and fruit. Beer and wine were kept in a small refrigerator under the counter. It was a well equipped kitchen.

“Kelly, would you grab a bottle of wine and come out on the sun porch?”

Candy pulled a cheese tray out of the fridge, got two wine glasses, and walked out to the sun porch. Kelly got the wine and followed Candy, enjoying the view.

Candy set the cheese tray and glasses on a low table. She took several pillows, threw them up against the wall, and sat down. Kelly sat the wine down, realized he hadn’t gotten a corkscrew and went back to the kitchen. He looked in the drawer nearest the small fridge and got lucky. He took the corkscrew back to the porch, opened the bottle, poured two glasses and handed one to Candy. She clinked glasses with him and said, “To a pleasant visit.”

Kelly asked, “Are you still going to take the job at JAG on base? If you do, aren’t you going to hate to leave this place?”

“I like this place, but I won’t miss it. My law firm still treats me like a law clerk. It’s not going to work out. They are so testosterone poisoned, I think they only hired me as decoration. I’ve got no future there.”

“Well, I hope everything works out for you.”

Candy and Kelly sipped their wine quietly, watching the clouds pass by. Time passed slowly. She leaned forward, placed her glass on the table and took some cheese and crackers. Kelly couldn’t help but notice her right breast fall out of her caftan. She noticed too, smiled, and pulled the neck of her caftan up to cover it. Kelly smiled back.

Candy got up, moved over to Kelly, pulled her caftan up to her thighs and sat down straddling Kelly’s lap. She wrapped her arms around his neck and gave him a long slow kiss. Her warm body pressed against his.

She broke the kiss and said, “I’m having a very tough time figuring out what I’m going to do with you, Kelly Blake. I like you a lot. I am very attracted to you. I just don’t know if I want a Fleet officer as a lover.”

Kelly knitted his brow, “What’s wrong with Fleet officers?”

“Well, they aren’t very reliable. They’re always running off on patrol and deployments and stuff with no advance notice. They have a very limited wardrobe. You can’t sleep over with them if they live on a ship.”

“Oh, that. I thought you were going to mention the girl in every port thing.”

“That, too.”

“Damn, I thought I’d found a loophole there.”

“You can’t use a loophole. I’m a lawyer.”

“I must have forgotten that. It’s probably got something to do with your breasts poking me in the chest.”

“Do they bother you? I could put them somewhere else.”

“No! No! It did for a little while, but I think I’m getting used to it.”

“Well, my legs are falling asleep. Would you like to go for a swim?”

“I’d love to go for a swim. I bet the water is so much cooler here in the south. The water up north is so warm. You get no relief from the heat swimming in it.”

Candy got up and helped Kelly to his feet. “Come on. The landscaping makes the pool very private. She shook the caftan off her shoulders and let it drop to the floor. She stood there for a heartbeat, achingly beautiful, and went out the door to the pool. Kelly took off the shirt and shorts and joined her.

After their swim, they wore towels and lounged about outside while having lunch. A cool breeze raised goose bumps on Kelly’s arms. The sweet fragrance of some local flowering plant wafted through the area.

Candy had prepared a fresh vegetable and fish salad. They ate it with a dressing made from some of the local wine. It made for a great afternoon.

Candy asked Kelly what he had brought to wear. What he brought would decide where they ate. Kelly had a couple of pairs of slacks, one dress pair and one casual pair. He had two shirts, one casual and one dress. He had even brought a tie. He only had a pair of casual shoes, but they were new enough that they would go with either the dress slacks or the casual slacks. Their restaurant choices were wide open.

“Kelly, I’m going to make reservations at the Triple Moon. It features Armstrong native grown vegetables, meats, and wines. I’ve got tickets for a musical. I’ll make our reservation for 1900 and we’ll have time for a leisurely dinner before the show at 2100. How about another bottle of wine?”

It sounded good to Kelly. The wine, the company, the restaurant, and the show were immensely enjoyable. They returned and had a nightcap on the porch watching the three moons of Armstrong transit the sky. Candy fell asleep in Kelly’s arms and they spent the night together on the porch.

In the morning Candy woke first, put coffee on, and put an egg casserole in the oven. She woke Kelly. They went up to her bath and scrubbed each other’s backs. When they were dry and dressed, breakfast was ready.

Kelly and Candy spent the day wandering around town. Candy helped him pick out some clothes. By the time he finished, he needed another suitcase. They got one to match his current bag. He stopped her insistence that he get a hard sided bag instead of a duffle, by pointing out that he had minimal storage in his quarters on the Vigilant. Neither was all that hungry, so they went into a bar for a snack and some drinks.

The bar had a nostalgia theme going on. There were monitors in all the corners of the room. The bar had three monitors above it. Each was on a different channel of the local news, sports, or entertainment feeds. The monitor above their head was on the Galactic News Network. They had a drink and talked for a time.

Kelly looked up at the monitor and stopped in mid-sentence. The monitor was reporting on a fire at the Indigo Consortium jewelry factory on Secundus in the Fomalhaut system. The reporter was standing in front of a burning office-manufacturing building. Kelly reached up and turned up the volume.

“The fire broke out before dawn this morning. At this point, the building is almost totally consumed in the fire. This building behind me, before today, contained the main offices of the Indigo Consortium. We have no reports on casualties. We only know that the security force here at the compound detected the fire at 0623 and called the local emergency forces.”

“Wait! Wait! I see the emergency forces wheeling a gurney out from a waiting ambulance. I’ll see if I can get closer and see what is going on. Jim, keep up with me here!”

The video shook as the cameraman kept up with the running reporter. The camera pointed at a senior emergency officer directing operations. “Sir, sir, could you tell me where that gurney is going? Has there been a casualty amongst the emergency workers?

The emergency officer turned away from the bright light shining in his eyes and said, “No, not any of my people. We found a body in the executive offices up on the top floor.”

The reporter turned back to the camera. “There you have it. At least one casualty on the top floor of the Indigo Consortium headquarters building. Back to you, Ed.”

Kelly wondered if there was any connection between his two patrols and the fire.

They finished their drinks and went back to her house to prepare for the evening.

“Kelly, why don’t you wear those new casual slacks we bought for you today? They look good on you. You don’t have to be too dressy tonight.”

Back at Antares Base, Admiral Craddock sat in his office and reviewed the GNN broadcast. He read the initial reporting from the Secundus authorities. Charles Delphant, Chairman and CEO of the Indigo Consortium, died in the early morning fire, which consumed all of the main headquarters and parts of the fabrication facility. None of the other officials of the consortium that were interviewed could explain why Mr. Delphant was at the building at that time in the morning.

“John, what do you make of this? We should get a Fleet Intel team onto Secundus to go over that fire site with a micrometer, if they aren’t already there. See if you can convince them, would you?”

“Yes sir, I’ll get right on it. My alarms are ringing loud on this one also. Our retrieval of the data from that K’Rang ship and the box of flame jewels from the Gurkha’s shuttle and this fire are too much of a coincidence. And I don’t believe in coincidences.”

“Yeah, neither do I. I think this situation has just moved from a possible smuggling operation to something more serious. Have the computer forensics guys come up with anything off the two data storage devices retrieved by the Vigilant?”

“Not so far, sir. They can’t seem to break the encryption on the data files. It is more sophisticated than anything they have ever seen. They’ve tasked the code breakers at Fleet HQ to try and speed up the process. They’re sure they’ll get through the code, but they can’t say when.”

“Keep on them. This fire and Delphant’s death tells me we’re missing something important here. We were ahead of it, whatever it is. Now we’re behind. If it’s important enough to kill over, it’s probably going to cause us trouble. Have the night watch put together some estimates of possibilities. What do our smart guys think this might be? I want those on my desk in the morning. If we aren’t sure what this is, let’s do some worst case, seat of the pants analysis on it and maybe we’ll get lucky.”

Candy and Kelly had a wonderful night out. They spent most of the night at a dinner theater, watching a comedy about an intrepid, but bumbling pair of early space explorers. The production was unusual in that the entire play was done with the cast floating about the stage weightless. Kelly guessed it was done with suspensors, but he couldn’t feel the static charge normally felt in their vicinity. Kelly and Candy laughed at their antics and the racy, not so subtle humor.

After the show, they spent some time at a night club, dancing to some of the latest hits. Candy felt soft and warm against his chest. She was a good dancer and a great conversationalist. The time slipped by quickly. They hardly noticed the club clearing out until the manager came over and asked them, politely, to leave so he could close up.

Kelly felt very comfortable around Candy. The weekend had been sensual, but not sexual. He liked her smile, her easy laugh, and her sense of humor. She was beautiful, smart, and fun to be with. What was he going to do?

He knew he had nothing to offer her. A Fleet Officer’s early career usually entailed deployment after deployment. They spent almost all of the first four to five years in space. Most Fleet officers tended to remain single during their early years and saved marriage for after they made Lieutenant Commander. Too many junior officers’ marriages ended in divorce. Even after LCDR, it was often hard to keep a marriage going.

Kelly and Candy went back to her house. Candy changed out of her evening clothes and into a blue version of the sheer caftan from the day before. Kelly took off his coat and tie, left them upstairs, and joined Candy on the sun porch. She already had a bottle of wine open and a poured glass waiting for him. He lay down on the mass of pillows next to her. She moved over and curled up beside him.

“Kelly, I’ve had a fabulous time with you these few days. I wish you didn’t have to go back tomorrow.”

“I’ve had a great time, too, Candy.”

She leaned over and kissed him. “I’d like you to come back and visit me again when you get more time off. My door will always be open for you. Even if I’m not here, you can come stay here. If you need some time away from the base, come on down. I can give you the door code and you can come right in. Just call or message me to let me know.”

“I’m still considering the job on base at the JAG office. Captain Hawkins, the JAG, is really trying to get me to take the job. I do have one concern about the job.”

“What’s that?”

“I wonder how that would affect us. I like the idea of having you around, but in small doses.”

Kelly got a quizzical look on his face and said, “Small doses? What is that supposed to mean?”

“Kelly, I’ve really enjoyed this time with you and I’d like to do so again, but I’m not looking for a steady boyfriend. We can be friends. We can be lovers. I find you very attractive and fun to be with. A number of years from now I may consider you as husband material, but I’ve been a Fleet brat too long to try and tie you down or be tied down. I sat at home too many nights with my mother while Dad was out on patrol, or away doing things we couldn’t know about. Would you mind terribly much just being my lover or friend, hopefully both?”

Kelly pulled her close, kissed her, and said, “I think I understand. I feel the same way myself. I never know what my patrol schedule is going to be or how long I’ll be out. It seems extremely unfair to expect a woman to wait around for me when and if I show up. I know it doesn’t make me much of a prize. I’m not ready for marriage yet, either, but I would like to see you again.”

“Oh, don’t worry, you will. You just helped me to make up my mind about that JAG job. I just wonder if I could find a house like this in the area outside the base.”

“I’ll help you look.”

Candy kissed him again and it led to an even more enjoyable evening and morning.

Scattered lights shown in the puddles of water on a quiet street in one of the many industrial sectors of Secundus. It was silent, except for the footsteps of two men in soiled work clothes, moving through the shadows. They approached a low industrial building with one weak light illuminating the loading dock. Night insects flew frantic circles around the bare bulb in the fixture above the door. A light shown through a glass panel on the wall. The two men came to the loading dock steps, looked around, and walked up. They opened the warehouse door and entered.

A voice came out of the darkness. “Gentlemen, please come in and sit down. I’ll be right with you.”

Two chairs and a dusty table sat under a single lamp hanging from the ceiling. A small bag, bottle and two glasses sat on the table.

“Please help yourself to a drink, gentlemen. I’ll be right with you as soon as I finish this call.”

The two men moved to the table, examined the bottle, nodded in approval of the brand, poured each a drink, and sat down to wait.

“The bag contains your payment. Please feel free to count it to make sure it’s all there.”

One of the men opened the bag, briefly surveyed its contents, and said, “That’s all right, we’ll trust you that it’s all here.”

Two large men in trench coats and hats moved just into the light of the hanging lamp between the men and the door. The two men finished their drinks and looked suspiciously at these two new men.

“Relax, gentlemen. My associates are here only in case the local authorities show an interest in our transaction.”

A third man in a long gray coat and hat entered the circle of light. “Gentlemen, I know I told you to make Mr. Delphant’s passing look like an accident, but did you have to burn the entire complex down?”

“How were we to know there were liter cans of flammable paint stacked in a storage closet next to where we set the firebomb? If not for that, only his office would have been torched.”

“How regrettable. Did you manage to retrieve the device I sent you for?”

“Yes, we did.”

The speaker reached in his pocket and pulled out a small data transfer device.”

“Place it on the table, take your payment, and leave, gentlemen. Our transaction is concluded. It’s been a pleasure dealing with you. If we need you again, we know how to get in touch with you. Men, escort our guests to the door.”

The two local men exchanged nervous glances, picked up the small bag, and walked out the door. The two large men showed them out, but did nothing to hamper their exit.

The third man moved to the open door and watched them leave. He pulled a small device out of his pocket and pushed a button.

The two shabbily dressed men were elated. They had just earned a small fortune for arranging the unfortunate passing of Charles Delphant. They couldn’t believe their luck. Almost simultaneously, the two men felt a stabbing pain in their stomachs. Millions of microbe-sized incendiary devices, ingested along with the alcohol, erupted into flame. The two men dropped to the ground, writhing in pain. There was a bright flash and the two men disappeared into twin piles of white ashes scattered on the ground. A gust of wind lifted the ashes and they were borne away.

“Hmmh, it appears as if our associates can’t hold their liquor.”

He closed the door and turned back to the other two men. As he removed his hat he exposed a feline face.

“Shadow Warriors, our mission here is completed. Let us return to the home world. We have one more data installment to retrieve.”

“As you command, Shadow Leader M’Trang.”

An hour later a small insect flying around the single hanging lamp in the warehouse broke away from the light and flew up to a break in an upper clerestory window. It passed through the break and settled on the roof of the warehouse. It stood on its forelegs, the wings transformed into an antenna, and it oriented skyward. In seconds an orbiting ship received the video and audio of the night’s activities. The pilot petted his cat and waited for the data transmission to end. Moments later that ship was in FTL on its way to Fleet Intel for analysis of the data.

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