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Per Ardua, Ad Astra

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Alex was dead. Taka had lost pilots before, of course he had. But ONE OK ROCK was the best. The most elite, the most feared fighter squadron in the galaxy. They still lost fighters sometimes. People got injured, some retired out, but they hadn't lost anyone since Taka had taken command. Somehow, in the back of Taka's head, he'd come to believe they were invincible. That belief had allowed him to let his emotional shielding down. He'd gotten closer to ONE OK ROCK squadron than he'd ever let himself get to any of his other commands.

Alex was dead, and it frapping hurt.

In a way, he didn't know why he hadn't activated his network years ago, the day he left Jimsho and defected to the Bizi Kei Alliance. If his network had been active, Alex wouldn't be dead. If his network had been active, they would have seen the extra comm chatter and known that the fleet stationed at Ilanda was twice the size they had been expecting. They might have realized that the base went far underground, that the probe they'd sent couldn't catch that on its scans. Any of that, if he'd realized any of that, if he'd caught it, Alex might still be alive, might still be flying with them. Taka wasn't going to make that mistake again.

It was the work of a few hours to activate the net he'd set in place all those years ago. Then he just had to wait for the information to trickle in.

***

Koyama acknowledged the docking coordinates and relayed them to the pilot console. Ryo was flying because Yamapi had taken the early shift and was sleeping. Ryo was proud of having two certified pilots on his ship. It made things easier on everyone, and if there were some kind of emergency, there was a better chance someone would be able to take his baby down safely. It was also lucky for Ryo that while Yamapi was very good at piloting—it had even been his ship originally, before Ryo had become partner and they'd renamed to One Piece—he wasn't really ambitious enough to want to captain. He was pretty content with being co-captain and co-pilot, and letting Ryo take care of any crew problems or cut-throat negotiations. Yamapi stepped in smoothly to handle parts negotiations, or anything that required a pretty face and a friendly demeanor. Ryo tended to lose his temper in those situations, which usually meant a lost deal.

Ryo steered the One Piece carefully around the space station, making sure to keep clear of other entry lines in the crowded space. There was his docking space; he was lucky to get berthspace on the main ring of the space station this time, instead of on one of the little spokes sticking up and down from the main ring like a crown of thorns. His was a mid-sized cargo ship, but on the small end of middle, and when space was tight, they'd sometimes get pushed to the smaller docking ports. They tended to be just a few sizes too large for the small ship berths, which made for tight squeezes and, if the neighboring ships' pilots weren't as good as he was (and seriously? few were), sometimes damage. The One Piece was enjoying a small patch of relative prosperity—enough that they could take a special job instead of one focused on getting food for bellies and pay for crew. Jimsho Confederacy credits were only worth a decent amount on about a quarter of the planets in the galaxy, and since that was what they were getting paid in, sometimes these kinds of jobs didn't even cover the cost of fuel—but that didn't mean Ryo wanted to waste money on repairs for damage that could have been avoided. Today he got real ring space, though. Ryo smiled; this pleased him. His crew would be among the first to say how hard Ryo was to please.

Frap! And then, just as quickly, his good mood evaporated. The ship docked in the space next to his was the Space Queen. The Space Queen was the same class ship as his, a Manta 52 freighter, but whereas first Yamapi and Ryo and then later Shige had modified his baby for improvements in engine speed, fuel efficiency and cargo space, lengthening and sharpening the tips of the already oblong craft, the crew of the Space Queen had welded stupid little wings to the side of their ship, poorly mimicking the lines of the class's manta namesake. That wasn't why Ryo hated the other ship though; he hated them for trying to move in on his merchandise: underbidding him a few times, and making his deals harder to seal by driving up prices a number more. He also hadn't forgiven them for the time that drug lord had lackeys chasing them for two days because they'd leaked information that his beautiful One Piece was their clunker of a cargo ship. Sure, Kame, the Space Queen's captain, had also arranged for a space patrol to pick up the cartel's enforcer ship, but they'd also held One Piece's crew for questioning for another two days. They hadn't had any dealings with the cartel so they came out of that tight squeeze all right—but the delay gave the Space Queen's crew enough time to sneak into Ryo's destination port and secure a deal for the shipment Ryo had been hoping to get before he was even in the right system. The Space Queen had frapped with him and his business. Ryo wasn't exactly the forgive and forget type.

Ultimately though, the Space Queen and its crew had nothing to do with this run, so until he ran into one of the idiots stationside, he wasn't going to let them get under his skin. Pushing them out of his mind, Ryo guided his baby gently in until the docking clamps extending from the skin of the space station settled around the hold's bay entrance. There was the familiar sound of really big hinges moving, and then the hiss of air as the docking tunnel filled with breathable air. Satisfied, Ryo powered his engines down, petted the console once to show the One Piece how much he loved her, and pushed himself up out of the chair. He was going to wake that idiot Yamapi up to take care of boarding permissions and go to bed.

***

Kame sighed and suppressed the urge to call Ueda for an update on loading progress. He hated running munitions. It was just a whole lot of stress and Jimsho credits were up and down so much in value it almost wasn't worth the trouble. It definitely wasn't worth the trouble if they got caught, but Kame was good, and his Queen was full of secret compartments and hidden holds, so prison or summary execution was not too high on the list of probable outcomes. He owed Takki a favor though, they all did, so there the Space Queen was, docked at Px952 with a combination of vittles, medical supplies, and munitions being loaded into the hold.

They were nearly done with loading, really, just a few more large crates to move inside. The outer ring of the station, and consequently their ship as long as the engines were powered down, was under half gravity to make just this kind of loading job easier. Junno was down in the hold with Ueda, helping direct some station moving crews now that they'd gotten the sensitive stuff hidden away in their holds. Koki and Nakamaru were sleeping in their berths, the soft green blips of life forms glowing on a console to Kame's right. Jin was out somewhere on the station doing God knows what, as usual. He did his job, always, but he wasn't always enthusiastic about it, and he had a tendency to do his own thing. They all did, if Kame were being fair. The crew of the Space Queen were an independent bunch; they'd been together a long time, and worked well together—after some initial tension and friction as they settled in with each other—but they also maintained strong senses of individualism and kept their own interests outside the ship pretty much to themselves. It probably wouldn't have worked for any other crew, but it suited the crew of the Space Queen just fine.

Kame perched in the communications' seat. He was antsy. Part of the reason he liked the spacer's life was that it satisfied his workaholic ways—it was always busy, there was always something to do, someplace to go, something to be taken care of, and that sense of business appealed to Kame. Waiting was hard, particularly when he knew there was loading to be done and books to be balanced. He didn't have a choice, though, because the call he was waiting for was an important part of this deal, and the caller wasn't the sort who was just going to leave a message for Kame to view later. He'd probably cite some top-secret bull and compromisable security, but either way, he was only going to tell them the rendezvous details personally, and it's difficult to make a shipping run if you don't actually know where you're supposed to be running your cargo.

A light blinked on the console in front of him: incoming video message. At last. Kame toggled it on; afterward he might be able to catch a few hours of sleep before they had to start thinking about exit prep. Takki's face stretched out across the small message console as the screen warmed up. Everything was a vaguely green color, and Kame made a mental note to ask Koki to tune it up before they left port. Kame's mechanical skills were fairly minimal—he could do emergency patches to critical parts of the engine, because any spacer who didn't know how to keep his ship in the air in a pinch was an idiot or dead—but he didn't know if they'd need any replacement parts for the console.

Takki's face broke into a grin as soon as he saw Kame. "How's it coming?" he asked, and Kame thought again that he was too open and friendly for his military uniform. Takki must be harder than he came off or he couldn't have risen to Sector Commander at such a young age; but then again, the Space Queen was in this because they owed Takki, and Takki had ever so diplomatically suggested this was a good way to pay him back. They had been making for port in one of the contested border systems, when a Bizi Kei Alliance cruiser had stopped them under suspicion of ties with the Jimsho Confederacy. They hadn't been on any Confederacy runs recently, but they had happened to have some contraband in the hold at the time, and it would have meant big trouble if it were found. Takki's then-command ship was in-system though, and seeing the potential for trouble for the Space Queen and her crew as the cruiser closed with her, he'd hailed them in wide-band broadcast demanding to question them under suspicion of ties with Bizi Kei. The Alliance cruiser had mostly been stopping them for the hell of it, getting in a little more practice hassling small ships or whatever it was they did in neutral systems, so that exchange had been enough to convince them they weren't involved with Jimsho. Even if the cruiser's command didn't actually believe the Space Queen had any loyalty to Bizi Kei, obviously they weren't aligned with Jimsho, so they'd let them go. Takki's maneuver had probably saved them a lot of time languishing on a prison moon somewhere, and now Takki was collecting on that debt.

"We're nearly done. I think we can leave for rendezvous in six hours if we have to, if we knew where rendezvous was," Kame answered.

"Splendid!" Takki crowed. He glanced off screen for a moment, someone out of the videoview's line of sight relaying something to Takki. He looked back at the screen after a moment and continued, "It'll be a couple of days before you leave though. We convinced another ship in your area to join; they got in system a few hours ago, so you'll have to wait for them to load. Then the two of you shall make your way to Nera to meet the rest of your merchant convoy. We'll be sending a small protection force with you from Nera; further coordinates will originate from the commander of that force."

"Another freighter, you said?" Kame didn't like the idea of waiting, but there wasn't much he could do about it. These military supply ops were never as well planned as their leaders thought they were. Two extra days in port meant two extra days of port fees for no return. Their delivery pay was the same either way; it wasn't going to go up just because they had to sit around waiting for some other ship to be ready. They still had some small-hold space open. Maybe they could take on some extra cargo to sell at the next port to offset some of these extra costs. He'd have to have Jin see what was available at good prices. They had the time for that now.

"It's another Manta 52, actually," Takki elaborated. "I'm told it's not unusual for two small merchant freighters to create temporary convoys." Now that was annoying. The Manta series were all mid-sized ships. Small, his erzot rump. "Lieutenant Tsubasa tells me you've had some dealings with them in the past, so I doubt anyone will be suspicious. Anything else?" Takki waited a beat, then, "I'll transfer specs to you for the One Piece; you can take care of departure arrangements with them directly. T&T out," Takki signed off using the fake trading identity Tsubasa had set up for them. Tsubasa was one of the Jimsho's most promising intelligence officers, though privately Kame didn't think he could be that good if even Kame knew that.

The One Piece. Last Kame had checked, Ryo was still holding a grudge for snagging that deal on Ilbad while the One Piece was caught up in customs three systems over under suspicion of involvement with drug trafficking. Kame thought Ryo was overreacting; deals weren't just going to sit around waiting for you to mosey on over. Erzot, this was going to be such a fun trip.

***

Ryo woke up when something heavy dropped onto his stomach and chest. Ryo flailed around a bit under the covers out of reflex as his brain woke up a bit. Apparently, Yamapi was back. "Wake up, monkey-man," said a voice on top of him. Ryo got flicked in the forehead when he tried to shove Jin off his chest and onto the floor.

"Ryo-chan~" Yamapi singsonged. He did it to be annoying, Ryo was sure, though Tegoshi always claimed it was cute. "We have company! Be nicer!" he chided. Ryo sighed theatrically and pushed Jin off him enough for him to sit up.

"I should have expected you to show up, fatso, since that flying piece of junk of yours is on station."

"The Queen is a beautiful ship," Jin retorted, offended. "Much better than this fraptastic excuse for a spaceship."

"Hey now!" It was Yamapi's turn to take offense. When it was between Jin or Ryo, Yamapi came out pretty fifty-fifty. When it came to his ship, his loyalty was clear.

"Sorry, sorry," Jin held his hands up pacifyingly. "I'm just saying it to get under Shorty's skin here. The Sayaendou is cute."

Mollified, Yamapi subsided. Ryo, meanwhile, sputtered in shocked fury. How dare Jin call the One Piece 'the Sayaendou'? Sure, it was kind of endearing when Massu or Koyama did it, but Jin was no member of One Piece's crew. He didn't get to call it by nicknames.

Yamapi hopped to his feet lightly. They were docked, so gravity was down. The inner ring spun around the station's central spoke like an old-fashioned wagon wheel to maintain gravity, but the station's outer ring was attached to the inner ring only by magnetic force—an inner line of electromagnets turned so their poles matched, pushing the two rings away from each other, and on either side of that line, two lines of electromagnets with opposite, attracting poles turned towards each other to keep the separate parts of the station from spinning off into space—to make loading and unloading easier. Stations had stayed one-ringed for centuries, unable to cope with different rotation rates and transitions between rings that centripetal forces wouldn't tear apart, until C. Moriarty invented an energy field that successfully kept atmosphere inside a small area. Technically just energy, the Moriarty field didn't interfere with the rotation of a station's disparate rings. It was, naturally, unbelievably expensive to produce and only worked to reliably cover very small areas. Stretched too thin, Moriarty fields occasionally developed temporary holes, but even a temporary outage would be deadly if atmosphere vented with a live human inside, so they could not be used for large areas. The millimeter-wide gap between the station's two spinning rings, though, was no problem for the energy field to cover, and allowed the rings to spin at different directions while keeping the atmosphere safely inside the station.

The transition from the outer ring, where most of the spacers and spacer-oriented business stayed, to the inner ring, where stationsiders lived and the station maintained more permanent offices and businesses, was generally abrupt. You'd key open a door, and on one side was half gravity, while on the other gravity was in full home-standard effect. More than just that difference in weight, the orientation was completely different, sideways suddenly becoming down, so while you could 'walk' through one side, you had to crawl up the other. You could always tell who the newbies were by the way they tripped and staggered making the transition, some actually falling back into half gravity when they didn't anticipate the orientation shift.

"Dude, your ship even looks like a giant peapod. What do you expect people to do?" Jin picked up where he'd left off.

"Come on," Yamapi chirped excitedly, seemingly oblivious to how well he was heading off disaster. He probably knew exactly what he was doing, but he made it look almost accidental. "Koyama and Massu have kitchen duty today. They always make something good!" he continued, and hauled Jin out of Ryo's quarters by the arm.

Ryo flopped back into bed, trying to get some more sleep mostly out of spite for Jin and Yamapi for disturbing him in the first place, but his indignance had woken him up too much. Ryo pulled the pillow over his head briefly, and held it down over his face with an arm to try and get the effect of being under full gravity. Nothing for it, might as well get up. Grumbling, Ryo hauled himself out of bed and changed into work clothes. He'd be hauling cargo around the hold later.

He had just gotten to the galley when Shige intercepted him. Shige looked cranky, but that was pretty normal. He and Ryo butted heads a lot because Ryo felt like it was his duty to the crew to cut Shige down a few notches whenever his ego expanded too much. They needed the hold space for the cargo, after all.

"Tegoshi says you've got a vid waiting," Shige reported. "He answered it, but says you should probably go talk to him yourself." Ryo nodded his acknowledgement and then turned around and started the other way to the bridge. Shige stepped around him into the galley, and his face lit up as Koyama called a friendly greeting. Ryo would just make Tegoshi bring him a roll or something when he got up to the bridge.

***

Ryo did not, in fact, make Tegoshi get him a roll when he got the bridge. Instead, Tego-nyan talked Ryo into bringing him breakfast once his call was over, and then got Ryo to promise to take him out to lunch on the station, before disappearing into the back of the ship. Ryo was left shaking his head bemusedly, because Tegoshi was going to the galley anyway, but he just couldn't find it in himself to find Tegoshi's behavior anything other than vaguely endearing.

Ryo flipped on the vidview from standby mode. "So, what can I do for-" Ryo's voiced faltered as he saw just who was waiting for him on screen. "-you."

"Long time no see," Kame greeted him.

"I was trying to keep it that way. I saw your ship at dock, but I wasn't expecting the pleasure of your call." Sarcasm was practically oozing out of the vidview on Kame's end, Ryo was sure. His end was so full of it there was nowhere else for it to go.

"We've got business; that's all."

"Oh, have we now. Funny, but as Captain of the One Piece, I pretty much get to decide who we do and don't have business with, and I say we don't have business with you." Ryo moved to end the call. He'd regret it later, when he'd had time to mull over possibilities, however unlikely, of what kind of business Kame thought he'd want in on more than he wanted the Space Queen to be lost in space, but right now he just wanted to do the vidview equivalent of storming out and slamming the door behind him.

"Tell Takki if you have problems with this," Kame said, sliding it into the conversation quickly, like a knife between ribs, before Ryo could hang up. Erzot. Ryo pulled his hand away from the end button.

He pursed his lips in annoyance. Takki meant the Space Queen and her crew were there for the same reason they were: supply mission. From what Ryo had heard, they were just going to be a small part of a large convoy. Moving that much in the way of supplies meant the Jimsho Confederacy was stepping up for a major operation. Ryo and Yamapi had promised Takki they'd do this run, since they were able; Yamapi had a special kind of relationship with Takki from way back. Takki had kind of taken Yamapi under his wing, made him the man he was today (up to and including his girly nickname), and sure, Yamapi hadn't ended up going down the same roads Takki did, but that didn't mean he wasn't going to help out when he was able. Yamapi probably would have signed them up for this one pro-bono if Takki hadn't offered to pay. So they were doing this job, no matter what. Ryo didn't have to like the Queen's crew, but it looked like he was going to have to work with them.

"Fine then. We've got a job. What did you call for?"

Kame pulled a face. Ryo could sympathize with that one, much as he told himself he wasn't willing to try; he'd worn it many a time himself. It was a very "I'm having to depend on favors" face. It was a face concerned with the bottom line, and not liking the numbers that were coming out of the feed. "To be honest, I know you just got in, but I was hoping you might have some sort of idea of how long it will be until you're ready. We've been in port for two days already, and we're almost all loaded up." Kame didn't say it, but Ryo understood: the other captain was worried about how much he'd have to spend on docking fees waiting for the One Piece to be ready. Disengaging and waiting in orbit around the station (or what passed for orbit with space stations. You didn't move; the station just kept turning in place, so from stationside you looked like you swung around it) wasn't a much better option, because that was time spent, and fuel spent, and food and oxygen spent that you'd have to refill somewhere later.

"I haven't talked to Pi yet, so I'm not sure how buying's going. He went out as soon as we hit, so optimistically we can be ready in a day and a half. Pessimistically, maybe three days."

Kame nodded acknowledgment, face softening a little in what might have been almost thanks. "Copy that," he said, this time making moves to sign off.

"Oh, you know your boy Jin's here, right? I'd appreciate if you kept your monkeys off my ship," Ryo said. It wasn't exactly a peace offering, but maybe it was a little bit of a truce offering. Just until they finished this run.

Kame scowled, and that was kind of funny. "Is that where he's gotten to? I should have known, with you in port. He was supposed to be back on board a couple of hours ago." Kame half shrugged. It never paid to worry if Jin was later than he said he'd be. "He wasn't on board when Takki called, so I didn't think he knew you'd arrived." Kame's face softened to mostly rueful. "Well, when you're sick of him, just kick him off the ship. Space Queen out."

Ryo ended the call before Kame had a chance to. Time to talk to Yamapi. Ryo's stomach grumbled, reasserting its need for breakfast. Right. Time for breakfast, then time to talk to Yamapi. If he could pry him away from Jin long enough to get any work done.

***

Data started streaming in from Taka's network. Most of it was useless, low level communications, public information anyone could get by skimming the galaxynet. But a few small details running through the system together triggered an algorithm. A preliminary analysis favored the possibility of a troop build-up, which set other programs spinning into active mode. One spun out a net to gather information to support or contradict this preliminary analysis and predict the probability of its accuracy. Another wriggled a worm into the communications line the data that originally pushed the network into operation came from. It worked as a simple intercept and transmit. Whenever the line sent a local message, the worm also sent out a farbeam transmission of the data it had collected so far. All the data transmissions were scrambled and compressed, sent out in small enough packages they probably wouldn't be noticed as long as the system was only being monitored casually—just a little bleed, extra static on the line. If anyone was looking for it, the worm would be found, but it had had a self-destruct code built into it, and it should erase itself and whatever data it still had before anyone could get anything useful out of it.

***

Negotiations took slightly longer than Ryo was hoping they would. Yamapi's background with Takki gave him a special aptitude when it came to covering his tracks in sensitive situations. Ryo couldn't say he wasn't grateful for it; it also gave them an extra edge when it came to some of their less than legal cargoes, but it also meant Yamapi had walked away from several dealers without so much as a backwards glance, and they were on a time crunch. In the end, the extra time was probably worth it. They got the supplies on the list Tsubasa had provided them before they'd left the last system at a price that was a little less than Ryo was honestly expecting, and Yamapi assured him that they'd left no suspicious paper trails. Yamapi couldn't promise that none of their dealers would talk under pressure or suggestion in the form of several hundred credits, but he was reasonably sure that no one was going to turn around and sell them to anyone just for fun. He had practice making it look like their cargo and their destination simply weren't worth anything to that kind of buyer. Most of the time they weren't. This time they were, and extra attention could hurt a lot.

Shipments of cargo started being delivered overnight and they piled up in high stacks of boxes and crates in front of the closed holding bay around the ship as everyone caught some sleep. Ryo awoke to total chaos. There were sealed crates everywhere, labels reading the contents and the company of origin—or at least, the last place stationside to have them before they made their way here. Massu and Shige were working to organize the haphazard piles into a system more conducive to easy loading and unloading. The engines performed better if the cargo was balanced, and it would be easier to offload later if they knew where things were.

Kame called a few times during the loading process. Ryo took one late during the first day; Kame wanted to see when they thought loading would start. Koyama answered another early the next, when Ryo was sleeping. Kame offered the crew of the Space Queen to help with loading. Ryo might have rejected the offer on principle, or, more accurately, out of stubbornness, but Koyama had agreed cheerfully without a second thought. Massu and Nakamaru hit it off almost immediately, and settled into an easy rhythm clustering crates together on the loading dock, then moving them into the ship's hold. Inside, Koyama, Shige, and Tegoshi worked to arrange the crates in order to be as space-efficient as possible. The crates were of a fairly common make—all the major brands were designed to be able to stack one upon the other. A few companies had tried to monopolize the market using cargo containers that were incompatible with other brands, but the impossibility and total lack of price efficiency for either a shipping line or an independent freighter to use a single brand whilst buying supplies and market goods from a hodgepodge of vendors shot those ideas right out of space.

Crates were stacked floor to ceiling near the walls and strapped in place with large nets that attached to hooks set up and down the outer walls. The crew worked from the outside in towards the center, filling up the space in the hold quickly and carefully. Several smaller crates stacked up under the metal stairs that zig-zagged down from the portal to the rest of the ship. The stairs acted as a ceiling for those boxes, and another cargo net hung down from the bottom edge of the stairs and tied off on rungs set in the floor to keep them in place. Stacks in the center of the hold were arranged in neat rows, and cargo nets were draped over whole piles and tied down to similar rungs at regular intervals across the hold's floor. The nets kept the cargo in place in case of any sudden changes in direction or emergency maneuvers the ship might take, as well securing the cargo against any unexpected losses of gravity. Loss of gravity—or rather, the sudden restoration of gravity—could completely ruin any but the most durable of cargoes.

"Permission to board the Sayaendou?" Junno asked from the bottom of the deck, where the ship met the dock, with an easy mock salute.

"That's not its name," Ryo growled at the same time as Massu cheerfully called Junno up to the ship.

"It even looks like a pea pod, doesn't it!" Junno declared brightly, once he was at the top. "It's a very clever name."

Ryo stalked back to the cockpit. He had better things to do.

***

Yamapi sat on top of a crate at the top of the loading ramp. Technically the door to the ship's hold, it lowered to the ground—or the decking, as the case may be—and formed a kind of loading ramp as well as getting the door conveniently out of the way. Jin was late. Not really surprising, and not usually a problem, but they were on a tighter than usual deadline, and the pressure was starting to get to Yamapi a little. On some level he realized that they had all the time they needed to take—that the convoy wasn't going to leave without them—but Yamapi hated to disappoint.

Yamapi was still waiting when a familiar face rounded a stack of crates Massu hadn't yet gotten to, and paused at the bottom of the ramp. "Koki!" Yamapi called down to him in greeting. Koki had an eye patch over his left eye that he hadn't had the six or so years ago that was the last time Yamapi had seen him. By itself, an eye patch was pretty hard to miss, but just in case you'd overlooked it, Koki had had his emblazoned with a large skull and crossbones motif, picked out in silver glitter.

Koki flipped the eye patch up as he strolled up the ramp towards Yamapi. "Yo!"

"Been a while," Yamapi replied once Koki was closer. "Fashion eye patch?"

Koki laughed. "Yeah, why not? It suits my image," he said, flipping it back down and scowling at Yamapi in his best imitation of a hardened spacer.

"Fearsome!" Yamapi agreed, laughing.

"You should have been there when Taguchi came on board. I had him thinking it was real for weeks. Ueda ruined it one night in the galley by asking me to take a look at some antique radio thing he'd broken. I couldn't get a good look with only the one eye, so I'd flipped it up, and just then Taguchi walks in. Real shame, it was," Koki shook his head in remembered amusement. "Before that, Taguchi was half in awe of my extreme manliness—not that he shouldn't be in awe of my manliness. I am the picture of manliness—and half terrified of me. I think he thought I was going to eat him if we ever ran out of food on a run. But man, you should've seen his face when he realized it was a fake! Pure shock! I thought he was going to fall over!

"So I hear you lazy slackers need help packing everything in so we can get outta here." Koki changed the subject smoothly and gestured at the chaos surrounding them.

Yamapi pulled a face. "Gonna get worse as soon as Jin gets his tail here and we go finalize some more deals," he said. "You met Koyama?" Yamapi caught Koyama's attention and waved him over when Koki shook his head. "Koyama, another grunt from Queenie come over to lend a hand," Yamapi yelled once Koyama's close enough to hear him over the grind of the dock's crane lift. "Tell him what he can do."

***

War had been a reality for the galaxy for at least the last fifty years, though in some areas, it had gone on for much longer than that. People Kame's parents' age, like Kame himself, had known the war all their lives—had almost gotten used to it, really, and as long as you weren't in an area that was being affected by enemy engagements or an active battle zone, you ignored it to the extent that it was possible. There were always stories on the news, slanted one way or the other depending on which planet or station you were on and where that system's loyalties lay, but for the most part it was just a background that had become part and parcel of life. Some of the older generation would talk about before the war easily and with obvious wistfulness; others simply said that the galaxy had been a different place then, and dropped the subject.

It was a space war, really, when it came down to it. It was a war about systems and resources, people and power, and who controlled more of it. Bizi Kei controlled a larger swath of territory, but Jimsho's area had essential resources in higher concentrations; when it came down to people, they were probably split about evenly. Independent nations drifted along the outer edges of the two biggest governments in the galaxy, but they stuck to themselves mostly. The ones on the edges, mostly they got there because they wanted to be left alone and, lying on the outskirts of the known universe, it was easy to leave them to themselves. Hundreds of other small, independent nations grew up along the borders between the two large empires as well, ranging in size from government seats ruling over single moons to nations spanning five or six separate systems. Those middle spaces were the most volatile, a kind of international free-for-all. Both Bizi Kei and Jimsho ships patrolled the area under the pretense of 'keeping the peace,' along with any local government militaries—who probably did more in terms of actual peace-keeping. Bizi Kei and Jimsho had larger, stronger militaries, sure, but they were too busy looking suspiciously at each other to really do much of anything else.

The independent nations also provided a space for businesses like the Space Queen's to thrive. Technically neutral to the decades-long conflict, mostly upright transport businesses like theirs had a lot of leeway to operate in the border nations. They could take the occasional shady job without having to worry that one of the big guns was going to come down on their backs, and they didn't have to ever turn down legitimate business simply because the destination system was on the 'wrong' side of the war. Maybe it was a little mercenary, playing all sides like that, but it was hard enough keeping a business running without getting tangled up in the complications playing politics brought. In that regard, this particular run was a bit of an oddity. Kame, and really, all of them, tried to stay out of military supply runs just because close associations with any military was a good way to lose business with people on the other side. Civilian business was a different matter.

Still, Takki had called in his favor, and the crew of the Space Queen prided themselves on their ability to deliver top quality goods at top quality speed. One job either way wasn't going to make a big difference, and a definite upside of the tight security that seemed to be involved in this particular run meant it was unlikely that they'd get reputations for being Jimsho gunrunners anytime soon. Kame didn't give the One Piece much credit—particularly anywhere Ryo would be likely to hear him—but he knew they had pretty much the same attitude. Yamapi and Ryo came from a Jimsho planet originally, same as Jin, but the One Piece had always done a good job of staying out of it. That was one of the reasons the two ships played rival so often: lucrative, mostly legal, non-military jobs were few and far between. If you went after them, you got to know your competition real quick.

It was pure luck they'd ended up in the same system to pick up goods for Takki's job, but that coincidence stuck them together for the duration. Kame had passed on rendezvous information to the One Piece dutifully; they'd meet up with the rest of the convoy at Nera, and they'd probably end up together for the next leg of the journey as well, wherever that happened to be. The faster they got out of the system, the faster they could be to Nera and then go their separate ways. Kame was looking forward to the end of this run. It would be nice to be able to push the war back into the background where it belonged again. Besides, Jin was really too cheerful when Yamapi was around.

***

They knew something was wrong the moment they jumped in system. It was supposed to be a fairly large convoy waiting at Nera, and they estimated that the One Piece and the Space Queen would be some of the last ships to arrive, but there didn't seem to be another ship in the entire system. Nothing registered on their navigation systems, and while theoretically there were some moons nearby that could be blocking communications and navigation systems from picking up other ships, it seemed hard to believe that all of the ships supposedly taking part would be able to hide in their gravity shadows. It was just as unlikely that the convoy would have left without them. They were a pair of smaller ships, but they were decently sized when it came to freighters, and breaking up a merchant convoy was like inviting pirates to take advantage. Pirates were a serious hazard in these borderlands because it was easy to simply slip into another system under the control of another minor principality who were too busy protecting their borders from their neighbors to have time to deal with ships who had yet to bother their citizens. Many of the smaller single system governments had mutual protection pacts with other nearby planets to guard each other's space, but seldom were these agreements enforced.

Something pinged off the Space Queen's hull, and Kame stopped trying to figure things out by looking at his monitors and looked out the viewport instead. It took a few moments for the hunks of space junk to really register, but as they did, Kame's eyes widened. He glanced over to Jin in the pilot's chair first, and then back to Junno, who was strapped into one of the gallery seats in the back of the small cockpit. "Junno, get Nakamaru and go down to the guns." There was enough debris floating in the space between the two moons to fill up their ship five times over, and just as much to fill the One Piece as many times.

Suddenly, Kame had a very clear idea as to where the other ships were hiding. They weren't. They'd been destroyed. This was bad.

***

Koyama was calling moments later, but Yamapi usurped the screen nearly as soon as they got through. "This wasn't pirates," was the first thing Yamapi said. Kame just nodded. He knew. Pirates wouldn't just destroy everything. Pirates were after the cargoes; destroying the ships would destroy their profit margins as well. If they were a large force coming up on a large convoy—though few pirate groups were large enough to take on a convoy the size the floating debris indicated this one used to be—they might blast a few ships, but disabling was still the route pirates would be most likely to take. Kill the engines, or better, breach the hull near the cockpit and purge the atmosphere. Instant death for any crew members who happened to be near the breach, which made boarding and pillaging easier; even if other crew members were in their quarters or the engines, automatic safety bulkheads would lock down to preserve the atmosphere in those sections, effectively sealing them away from the hold. Disabling a few ships as an example was usually enough to get an unescorted convoy to run or surrender: give up your cargo and get to keep your ship. Some groups might hijack ships entirely, and more ruthless pirates might simply kill the crews or leave them to die after stealing their cargo and tow the ships themselves off to salvage.

Shipping was a dangerous business these days, and anyone in it knew the risks. But this carnage wasn't the work of pirates. Pirates stole first, and accumulated kills incidental to the stealing. This was a massacre, and the point was to destroy everything and everyone there.

"It doesn't look good," Kame said. "It might not be worth it to look for survivors."

"It'll be worth it to the survivors," Yamapi replied, looking grim. Kame nodded again. If there are any, Kame didn't say. They didn't know how long ago the attack had happened. Anyone thrown into space would qualify as just more space debris. Most of the ships looked pretty much demolished, hardly even recognizable as once being space ships, but there were some larger pieces further away that might house some breathable atmosphere.

Koyama took back his console, and the One Piece started moving towards the further moon as Yamapi reclaimed the ship's controls. Jin started piloted the Space Queen towards the other moon without a word. They scanned every section of hull they came across that was bigger than a human torso, anything that could possibly hold a person inside alive. Kame kept his eyes on his monitors; it wasn't pretty out there. It took a lot of firepower to pulverize a ship of any size so thoroughly.

"Didn't Takki say they were providing a military escort?" Koyama asked suddenly, and Kame's eyes jerked back to the vidview in surprise.

"Yes," Kame answered slowly, "As a matter of fact, he did." The size and firepower of the force necessary to take out the convoy just jumped up a few times over.

"Do you think they were here when this happened? Did something draw them away from the freighters, or did something get them all?" Koyama hypothesized. Kame shrugged. There was no way of knowing, not with the information they had now.

Jin toggled the comm unit to the gunnery stations on either side of the ship. "It doesn't look like anything's moving under its own power out there."

"Understood," Nakamaru answered. Stay sharp, Jin meant. This kind of wreckage was perfect for small fighters to lurk unnoticed. Kame knew both Nakamaru and Junno would be scanning the sky carefully for any hint of change in the inertia of the debris field. Kame went back to his monitors and scans. Edging further into the field, they were coming up on some larger pieces. Kame could only hope someone had survived.

***

Koyama noticed it first. The One Piece was just edging around the moon further from their entry point into the system. The wreckage grew increasingly larger the further into the debris field they had traveled, as though the attackers had less time to systematically shred the waiting freighters; maybe they had lost the element of surprise after the first few rounds were fired and the first few ships on the outer edge were destroyed. Koyama started with the biggest pieces first whenever they entered a new field of range, and as Yamapi maneuvered around into the moon's shadow, something about the near surface pinged at the back of Koyama's mind.

The only things keeping the moon from being an asteroid was its large size and relatively tight orbit around the main planet in the Nera system. It was almost totally without atmosphere, and the only light the dark side ever got came reflected up from the planet's surface. That was probably what got Koyama's attention: the dark side was totally dark right now, with the planet positioned between the moon and the system's only sun, but something on the surface of the moon was glowing, very, very faintly, and there was no natural source for the light. Koyama eyeballed the space around them for immediate threats, anything he would need to get Massu and Tegoshi information on quickly, but didn't come up with anything. They had independent, secondary sensors in the gunnery stations; that way they could track targets independently, as well as continue to defend the ship even if something happened to the main sensor array or the cockpit. Of course, at that point you didn't have much ship left, but Koyama saw that as a particular reason to want to defend what was left. Otherwise any of his friends in the crew would just be sitting ducks.

Koyama set his sensors to scan the surface of the moon near the faint glow. It was the kind of light that you couldn't see if you looked at it directly; you had to turn your head to the side and focus on something else, and then you could catch it out of the corner of your eye. His sensors registered a small, blocky dome, pitted and scarred on the outside. Inside, he registered low level working electronics and four, no, five, people as fuzzy green blobs against the empty black backdrop of the sensor screen. There didn't appear to be any weapon placements, or even a generator or engine of any kind. What power they had was auxiliary, bare bones life support maybe, or residual traces of power left over from something else.

"Yamapi," Koyama said, looking up at the ship's current pilot. "There's someone down there." Yamapi was up in an instant, crowding behind Koyama to peer over his shoulder. Koyama pointed to the display that held the life signs, then gestured to the moon's surface below. "Two kilometers west, and we'll be right over it." Another monitor started kicking out an analysis. "Looks like it used to part of a ship."

Koyama twisted to look at Yamapi over his shoulder. "What do you think? See if we can raise anything on video?"

Yamapi nodded affirmation. "No matter who they are, if we leave them down there, they'll either freeze or suffocate as they lose power. Try to get them on the line first. All things considered, better to not surprise them."

***

Koyama sent the Space Queen a brief vid-message before he tried hailing the wreckage embedded in the thin crust of the moon. It was important for them to know that they might have found something, and more important for them to keep an extra attentive eye out—first for anything that might come up on their trails through the debris field while the One Piece's attention was diverted; and second in case what Koyama had stumbled upon was hostile and took them down. Kame radioed back acknowledgment of the message with a quick double burst of static, spacer shorthand for 'I copy,' and then it was time for Koyama to see if the bodies on the moon were willing to talk back.

It took Koyama a few minutes to figure out how to phrase his message without giving away too much information. His first inclination was to ask if they had been involved with the other, now broken ships floating around them, but it would be bad, and potentially very dangerous, if he let something slip and it turned out they weren't involved in the convoy. "Hi, we're here to rescue you—are you the good guys or the bad guys?" seemed just a little too simplistic. Koyama was a born talker, though, and soon he was toggling controls on his console and tightbeaming a video to the battered metal bunker on the moon's surface.

"This is the Sayaendou," he said, choosing to use a fake name for the ship just in case. "Are you in distress? We are landing; please respond. Over," Koyama recorded, and sent it down. He programmed the message to repeat; if the wreckage on the moon had had built-in communications devices at one point at all, there was nothing to say it couldn't have been damaged since. If that were the case, the message might come through garbled or in patches; repetition would allow the inhabitants of the wreck to reassemble the message by parsing together the staticky strings of data that did get through. Koyama picked up some bursts of static from what was left of the ship, but nothing even resembling an audio or video line, and no way to know if the five survivors of the crash had received their message.

All they could do now was take the One Piece down—and wait.

***

There was no way to dock directly with the crumpled remainder of the ship, so Yamapi would have no choice but to set down near it and a few of the crew would have to don vacuum suits to reach the wreckage. The atmosphere was far too thin to be breathable, even assuming it was mostly oxygen in the first place.

"I sent the message, so I'll go," Koyama volunteered himself, standing up carefully as Yamapi maneuvered them down. "That way if they got it, there'll be a face they'll recognize." Koyama was good with people. If the people inside the crashed ship were anything but actively hostile, he'd make an excellent envoy. Koyama going also meant that if the boarders were injured, the ship wouldn't be missing anyone absolutely crucial to take-off. If they were out the pilot or the mechanic and something happened, they could get stranded on the moon just like the shell of a ship already furrowed in the moon's surface.

Yamapi slowly started dropping engine power to the main thrusters and redirected it to the hovercoils, breaking their descent. "Get Ryo to go with you," Yamapi suggested. Someone going needed to be able to handle a firearm just in case. Massu would have been a good choice if anyone other than Koyama were going, but Koyama had a softening effect on everyone and Massu was hardly a ruthless person on his own anyway. Massu would be able to take care of Koyama in a pinch, but Ryo would be able to take the trapped survivors out if they turned out to be more dangerous than they hoped.

Koyama murmured in agreement and made his way out of the cockpit hand over hand as the moon started pulling down into an angle a little out of alignment with the ship's gravity. It would even out again once they actually settled onto the moon's surface, but the descent could be confusing for passengers new to traveling between planets, particularly their stomachs, until they got used to the gravity shift. The Manta 52 was designed with cockpit and the hold on opposite ends of the ship. A long hallway stretched between those two endpoints, berthspace clustered around a narrow neck near the cockpit, then blossoming out into the canteen/kitchen area. From the kitchen, the hall branched into two, the shorter of the two leading 'down' relative to the orientation of the cockpit towards the engines, and the longer reaching 'up' relative to the cockpit and around to give access to the main cargo bay. The design had the engines snugged up against the lower walls of the main hold, while the hall opened onto the cargo bay from above, and stairs zigzagged back and forth along that wall to provide access to the hold floor. Ryo joined him in the hallway in the berth section in the middle of the ship—Yamapi must have toggled him on one of the private lines—and they continued back down into the belly of the ship.

Opposite the bulkhead connecting the cargo bay with the rest of the ship were the big hold doors, used for loading and unloading freight. Nestled at floor level to the left of the loading bay doors was a smaller, strictly human-sized entrance designed as an airlock. This door could be used to create an atmospheric barrier against the airlessness of space, a way to cycle out into the vacuum or back into the atmosphere of the ship without blowing the entire contents of the hold into space. It was handy in emergency repairs to the outside of the ship or in deep-space salvage operations. The airlock also served as a convenient sort of deadbolt in port—much smaller and easier to monitor than the big bay doors, surprise visitors and other intruders trying to gain access to the ship would have to force their way through two layers of airtight bulkheads designed to either seal air in or keep space out. The airlock could be operated from within, though, and along with several automated safety measures designed specifically to keep a blow-out from killing everyone on board, control of the doors could also be routed from the cockpit. It was to this airlock Koyama and Ryo headed.

There was a small closet inside the airlock, and Ryo and Koyama each pulled a vacuum suit out of the depths of that compartment. They weren't pretty, made out of orange and blue plaid material that didn't breathe at all—the point, after all, was to keep the vacuum out and the air in. The pattern served the potentially very important purpose of making anyone wearing a vacuum suit easy to spot—good news if you'd been knocked off the shell of a ship or the skin of a space station, or otherwise stranded in the vastness of space, because if you were easy to see, you were also easy to rescue.

The suits were also bulky, particularly under gravity, but once you struggled inside one, fairly easy to move around in. Once you reached the wrist, the material changed to a more supple, similarly airtight material that allowed you to manipulate tools with something approaching dexterity. The suits also had a faceplate made of the same transparent sheeting that was used in viewports across the galaxy. The back of the vacuum suit held a bulky backpack with emergency oxygen canisters and an O2/CO2 conversion filter inside. Models designed specifically for long-vacuum, zero-gravity jobs, such as ship or station construction, came with generators in the backpack as well. This allowed for long stints in vacuum using just the O2/CO2 conversion filter because there was nowhere to get outside air from, but the standard shipboard model took its main air supply from the ship itself through a retractable hose extending from the bottom of the backpack back to an airlock inside the ship from which atmosphere could be pumped to the suit. This design was particularly handy for vacuum environments—like this moon—that had a significant gravity well because the generators necessary to power zero-atmosphere vacuum suits weigh a lot, and severely limit mobility in gravity. All vacuum suits came with tether hooks that could be clipped to the waist of the suit and then attached to something stable, and these suits were no different. Once Ryo and Koyama had clambered inside their suits, they hooked themselves to the handles on either side of the closed airlock door that led to the vacuum of space. The tethers were retractable like the oxygen hoses, so they would play out behind them as they ventured from the ship. Then they attached their oxygen hoses to the nozzles designed for atmosphere transference inside the compartment and cycled through the system to test it. Finding everything in working order, they flipped the panel that controlled the airlock's inner door, sealing them inside.

Yamapi landed gently, hovercoils sending rolling waves of moon dust spiraling away from the One Piece. There were deep gouges in the moon's surface leading up to the wreck; it must have bounced a few times before eventually rolling itself to a stop. Yamapi landed on the opposite side of the wreckage from its crash trail. The moon had little in the way of atmosphere to burn up space debris on its approach, so the surface here was still pitted and uneven from thousands of years of impacts great and small, but it was more stable because it was less recently disturbed and had time for gravity to settle it into place. Yamapi kept the engines running. They wouldn't be able to take off until Ryo and Koyama had gotten back inside—not without cutting off their main air supply, de facto abandoning them on the moon, and opening up the ship to a lot of potential damage with the docking bay doors open like that, but they wouldn't have to wait like a sitting duck for the engines to warm up if there was trouble. Once Ryo and Koyama were back inside, they'd be able to cut and run.

The main engines settled into the dull hum of the hovercoils as the ship settled into place, and Ryo tripped the panel that controlled the bulkhead separating them from the outside of the ship. There was an emergency override handle in a compartment below the panel that would open the door immediately and blow the air from the airlock, but using the regular controls on the panel cycled the air out incrementally before the airlock door opened, saving the ship some costly oxygen. Already sealed inside their vacuum suits, the atmosphere draining away from inside the room had no effect on Ryo or Koyama; they simply had to wait until the cycle finished and the hatch opened. A light came on over the hatch just before its doors slid open; a similar light shone above the airlock's inner door, and another would be glowing on Yamapi's control panel in the cockpit, a warning that the outer hatch door was open.

The gravity on the moon was maybe one eighth of standard, so Ryo and Koyama lined themselves up carefully on the edge of the hatch so that they had a clear line of sight to the wrecked ship before them. Koyama checked his safety line and set it to release the line easily, then held up a hand to get Ryo's attention. Koyama pointed down at his waist, reminding Ryo to set his own line's release, and Ryo gave him a thumbs up in response. He'd done it already. At Ryo's nod, they both pushed away from the One Piece, approaching what was left of the other ship in leaps and bounds.

***

The wreck's airlock was ominously standing open when Ryo and Koyama reached the ship. Ryo tried to tell himself it was probably nothing—it might not even be able to close with the damage the ship took to bring it down, might not even have doors with the damage the ship took crash landing on this isolated hunk of rock. Of course, that made it a lot harder to potentially get anyone out alive, unless they happened to have vacuum suits actually in what parts of the ship were still habitable.

Koyama made it to the entrance just a little sooner than Ryo, longer legs propelling him further, and paused a little on the threshold. Ryo couldn't tell if he was waiting for him to catch up, or if Koyama was looking for a doorbell. Ryo didn't hesitate when he reached the door a few moments later, just barreled inside. No way to assess the situation from the outside, after all.

Koyama followed him inside and tapped the panel inside the door. The doors started sliding together from the top and bottom of the recessed hatch, but ground to a halt about halfway down. They made a few more half-hearted attempts to close completely, but jammed more than halfway open, and Koyama tapped the panel again. The doors slid open without problem. Ryo's relieved sigh echoed loudly inside his helmet. If the doors jammed shut, they'd be as trapped as whoever was already inside, and two extra bodies would use up whatever stores of food, and water and air were in the wreckage faster. Koyama and Ryo toggled their suits to internal air cycle and detached the hoses supplying them with air from the One Piece. The drop in air pressure would cause the hoses to seal themselves; unsealing them was an annoyingly complicated process, but there was no way they could seal the disabled airlock with hoses trailing from them to the other ship.

Ryo tied the ends of the hoses down outside the entrance. They could be retracted automatically from the ship, but if all went according to plan, it would be easier to collect them on their way out and bring them back themselves. Koyama, meanwhile, had pulled out a large white tarp. He spread it out while Ryo got back out of the door way, then positioned it carefully against the edges of the hatch. Ryo moved to help hold the two bottom corners in place, and then Koyama pressed the button on the top edge of the rectangle of white material.

They were in vacuum so there was no noise, but Ryo still imagined a soft sucking sound as the material adhered to the edges of the door and created a seal. It was a temporary patch, and it wouldn't last for more than thirty-six hours if you left it alone, but they shouldn't need nearly that amount of time. If they did, they'd have much larger problems to worry about.

The air cycling through the vacuum suit gets a touch more humid, O2/CO2 not quite able to filter out all of the extra moisture on Ryo's breath. It wouldn't get worse than that, but it was less comfortable than all the clean air that had been coming from the One Piece, and Ryo turned to focus on the inner bulkhead door.

Ryo bypassed the controls on this door entirely. The airlock might be airtight for the moment, but it was still a vacuum inside and the mechanics in the door wouldn't recognize the seal as safe. It was a built-in safety measure on all but the very oldest of ships still flying, because nothing was quite so abruptly fatal as sudden exposure to vacuum. Instead, Ryo crouched down and popped the front off a hidden panel towards the bottom of the wall. It took Ryo just long enough to start wishing he'd brought Shige for him to finally trip the override control and the door popped open with a whoosh of rushing air.

Ryo stood up to find five professional-grade guns being very carefully trained on them, their owner's hands steady as they knelt or stood behind protective, if makeshift, barriers. All five were dressed in dark, presumably military issue garb that covered their torsos with light body armor and masks that hid their faces. It wasn't heavy stuff, but it would be enough to stop or deflect a bullet, and neither he nor Koyama had time to get to their guns. He glanced back at Koyama, a pace behind him, and, as one, Ryo and Koyama slowly raised their hands.

***

The door popped a little sooner than Nino was expecting, in all honesty. None of them betrayed any surprise in their stances, though, and Nino couldn't help but feel a flash of pride for the rest of the bridge crew of the Arashi. Nino wasn't expecting anything less from them. They'd been together for years, ever since training back at the academy, and he knew he could count on them no matter what. They were closer than family at this point, and all very, very good at their jobs. No gun points wavered as the two humans in vacuum suits noticed them and slowly raised their hands in surrender.

Matsujun, standing behind a hastily upended table closest to the now open airlock gestured with his beretta for the two intruders to enter the ship. They complied, still moving slowly; it might just be a result of the slightly stronger gravity in the main area of what was left of the Arashi, but Nino thought it was probably motivated primarily by a healthy sense of caution. They didn't have enough auxiliary power to devote to creating full gravity on board, and the shorter one hadn't had too much trouble standing back up before he realized they were there waiting for them.

Sho had managed to piece together most of the short transmission. They'd sounded like civilian runners, but it never hurt to be careful. Nino resisted the temptation to think that if they'd been a little more careful earlier they could have avoided everything that had happened in the space above this useless hunk of rock. There was no way they could have avoided this, nothing they could have done differently or better to get any of the convoy out of what had happened. They'd been ambushed, a Bizi Kei force jumping in behind them so neatly on their tails that the first few freighters hit by the barrage had broken up before half the other ships in the convoy had realized what was going on. It wasn't a huge force that had attacked them, but they were just a freighter convoy—maybe one or two guns per merchant ship—and the military escort Jimsho had sent had been small. The supply mission had been top secret—the higher ups deeming it better the fewer people were involved—and it wasn't expected to be dangerous. One frigate, the Arashi, with half a squadron's worth of fighters would have been more than enough to handle a larger than usual pirate attack; if only it had been pirates that had attacked them. The force Bizi Kei had sent had annihilated them.

Matsujun holstered his beretta, and motioned for their two guests? saviors? to remove their helmets. There was no point in telling them what to do—vacuum suits, as part of being atmosphere tight, were also soundproof. Verbal instructions would be wasted breath.

The shorter one moved to remove his helmet first, keeping his movements slow and non-threatening, while the taller one copied his actions just a few beats behind. Across from him, Aiba broke into a grin barely visible behind his mask, and holstered his weapon; the rest of Arashi's bridge crew following suit. Matsujun pulled off his mask, and nodded at Ryo, who grinned back. "Na, Ryo. It's been a while. Think you still owe me dinner."

"Like Brahe, I do. What's the point of coming out of pilot school after you if you can't even be a good sempai?"

***

It wasn't as simple as just packing everyone into vacuum suits and leaving, not with the military. After a brief discussion with Ryo, in which they confirmed that there was still some hold space available on the One Piece and bartered some of those materials in exchange for use of that space, they let Ryo and Koyama crawl out of their suits, and then basically consigned them to a corner to sit and wait for them to pack up secret military information and equipment. Arashi's crew worked quickly and efficiently, and it only took them a few hours to box everything that might be useful or necessary, even draining enough of the atmosphere into small, portable tanks that it forced Ryo to have to take careful, deeper breaths or feel just a touch light-headed. Sho and Matsujun filled two small cargo nets with the materials they had salvaged from their ship and dragged them out into the airlock.

They came back into the hallway with vacuum suits for Arashi's bridge crew and dropped them in the middle of the now-cleared floor for their shipmates to take their pick. They were all solid colors, unlike the ones stocked on the One Piece, but they made up for it by being almost impossibly garish. Matsujun kept a bright purple suit for himself and started climbing inside. Ryo took that as his cue to suit back up and in a few moments the area was a mass of people struggling into brightly colored vacuum suits.

Once Aiba had finished climbing into his own eye-catchingly green vacuum suit, he disappeared back into the ship, moving out of sight away from the airlock. Ohno wandered into the airlock and clipped one of the bundled cargo nets to his belt. Sho attached the other to himself, and Matsujun grabbed part of the net to help haul it towards the entrance. Nino had a hand on Ohno's net, helping him keep it out of the way of the other net's line. Once they were out of the ship's gravity, all it would take was a little push, angled and timed correctly, and the nets would sail out behind them, mass giving them momentum.

Aiba was back just a few minutes later, palming the door shut behind him. "We've got twenty minutes," he told Ohno, before settling his helmet into place. They weren't hooked up to the Arashi, naturally, since the whole point was to leave it behind. Besides, they'd taken most of the atmosphere out already; there would be nothing to pump down the hoses even if they were hooked up.

Matsujun put a hand on Ryo's shoulder before he could seal his helmet on. "Twenty minutes. Think Yamapi can get us off this rock before then?" he smirked.

Ryo snorted. "Of course he can. Pi's the second best pilot this side of Freetown. We'd be away faster if I were flying, but someone had to come rescue your sorry tails."

The sound of Matsujun's laugh was cut off abruptly as his helmet sealed on and there was no way for the sound to carry. Koyama moved to the front of the group of people massed in the airlock. He looked around at the others, getting thumbs ups from each as they confirmed that they were sealed in and their O2/CO2 conversion systems were working properly, and then hit the tab on the emergency patch. The patch popped off immediately, crumpling up into a little ball from the force of unsealing. Koyama caught the ball as it disengaged from the edges of the airlock hatch, before the rush of atmosphere out of the airlock could drag the used patch out and away from them.

Ryo moved up and hooked his air hose and tether back to his vacuum shit, then did Koyama's for him so he didn't have to lose time messing with the patch in his gloved hands. Then, they pushed off from the Arashi, leaving it broken and truly abandoned, with its crew following behind them.

***

Ryo waited for the atmosphere to cycle back into the airlock on the One Piece, impatience fueled by anxiousness and a mental clock ticking down far too quickly. There was no atmosphere to send shock waves at them, but there was enough air left in the wreck to create a decent-sized fireball. Ryo didn't know how many explosives Aiba had set, exactly, but if it was enough to tear up what was left of the Arashi, it would be enough to send hunks of hull and chunks of moon flying at them. They needed to take off now, but Yamapi wouldn't know that until there was enough atmosphere in the airlock for him to take off his helmet.

Ryo counted to sixty again in his head. It took about six minutes for the air to make a complete cycle usually, so Ryo impatiently counted seconds away. Three minutes should be around high altitude-thin atmosphere, not fun to breathe, exactly, but not fatal, and not going to knock him out the moment he popped the seal. Ryo counted to sixty a third time, and then another thirty to be safe.

He took a deep breath, pulled his helmet off, and toggled the comm controls. "Pi, we're all in, you need to lift of now," Ryo shouted, and then his voice was drowned out by the sudden roar of engines working to break out of the pull of the moon's gravity.

The atmosphere finished cycling into the airlock before they were entirely away from the moon, and the inner door slid open smoothly. Ryo undid and climbed out of the rest of his vacuum suit; around him everyone else started doing the same. "You can leave the stow here; we'll deal with it later. Koyama, why don't you take them to the galley? I've got to go tell Yamapi what's up." Ryo left the rest of them still crawling out of their vacuum suits and disconnecting the cargo tethers and made for the stairs at the back of the hold. The engine quieted down as the One Piece climbed higher and had to strain less against the moon's tug, settling back into it's usual, ignorable background hum.

***

Ryo let Yamapi do the actual negotiating. Ryo wasn't very good at it—he was not patient or accommodating enough—and Arashi's crew had an advantage because they'd already rescued them—it was pretty unlikely that after all that they would chuck them out the nearest airlock after all. Ryo supposed they could, if they were that kind of crew, but then they would also have a bunch of Brahe only knows what kind of military secrets mixed in with the converter valves and galley pots and water they'd salvaged. Military secrets, even if you didn't know you had them, got you into trouble, and fast. Ryo wanted to make his run, get his pay, and get them off his ship. Old friends or not, they were military first now; those kinds of connections could be good for business, but such entanglements tended not to be good for survival. Ryo thought death was pretty bad for business.

Yamapi called the three best pans Arashi had brought, and four fifths of the clean atmosphere. The pans were frosting, just because he wanted them. Ryo wasn't going to begrudge him that. The atmosphere, though, was a big break. Air was expensive in space. Sure, it was free planetside—assuming you weren't trying to bottle it and bring it aboard—and sure, every ship had a filtration system, larger, more sophisticated versions of the one-person model mounted on the back of every vacuum suit, but clean air was a commodity.

Air wasn't like other necessities. A body needed food and water and heat, but if you had to go without for a while you could manage. You could compensate, layering clothes until you got your ship somewhere warmer, or fixed the broken pieces, or were rescued. Sure, if you didn't manage to do those things, you would freeze to death, but you had some time. Run out of water, and you could last a few days, more if you were willing to junk some systems for the water they ran on; and food, you could go weeks without food in a pinch. You wouldn't come out well, and it wasn't something anyone would ever volunteer for, but you could survive and probably long enough to get out of it. But air, if your ship ran out of air, it was over. Even if just your filtration system went down, you had until you breathed everything already in the ship to fix it, and even long before all the oxygen was gone there would be pockets of gasses that would put you out, maybe for good. And blowing a leak was instant death. Yamapi scored a not-so-small fortune with the atmosphere tanks, either in profits or savings.

"We've got room in the hold for what you've brought, but we're tight on berthspace for you," Yamapi told Commander Ohno, shaking his head. "The One Piece is a freighter first, and it's designed as a freighter. There's not a lot of extra space for passengers." The commander didn't seem too terribly upset about it, though Matsujun was making horrified noises in the background at the prospect of sharing berths. Must be nice to be a lieutenant in the Jimsho, if it got you your own bunk. The quarters were going to be really tight though. Five extra bodies was a lot on a freighter this size, just one short of an entire second crew. They had one extra two-person berth, kept clear for the few times they ran paying customers as well as their cargo, but there would be a lot of tripling up.

"I'll talk to the Space Queen and see what they've got. I know their hold's full up because I helped fill it, but I'm pretty positive they've got an extra berth like we do, since they're also a six-person crew. I'm not sure if they usually keep it open or not, but they might have space for at least one of you, if they're willing to take you on."

It ended up not being very difficult to raise the Space Queen, who had been waiting for contact since the One Piece had climbed back into orbit. Kame listened through Koyama's rambly explanation, and then let out an exasperated sigh and said "Ok. Get Yamapi or Ryo over to the vidview to talk to Jin about docking options. I guess we're coming over." If they were taking anyone on board the Space Queen, they'd all have to be there to make that decision.

***

Jin and Matsujun—now a lieutenant in the Jimsho Confederacy's premier fleet, formerly of the Arashi—didn't get along, which was the entire reason Ryo tried to talk Kame into taking Matsujun on board. Jin and Matsujun never really had liked each other, and neither of them seemed intent on making up any time soon. They'd all been to flight school together, Ryo, Jin, and Yamapi, with Matsujun just a few years ahead of them. Jin and Matsujun had taken an instant disliking to each other for reasons unknown—probably they didn't actually have any. Life had been more peaceful once Matsujun had graduated, since they couldn't run into each other in the hallways and then come bitch to Ryo about how the other had been breathing his air, or had looked at him funny, or hadn't acknowledged his greeting, or whatever trivial slight it was that day. Life had also gotten a lot more boring after Matsujun had graduated, and Ryo would have enjoyed getting to watch the chaos it would inflict on the Space Queen to have them both in such close quarters. It might knock Kame's other screw loose, and Ryo had even money that Koki would lock Jin and Matsujun in a room together just to see who walked out alive.

Ryo's brilliant, sadistic plan was derailed when Matsujun walked into the room, saw Jin, and promptly walked back out again. A couple of them on the Space Queen would appreciate the humor inherent in the situation, but none of them would really want to live with it long term. Ryo couldn't quite blame them for that.

"All right, fine, you big diva. You can stay here," Ryo yelled through the doorway after Matsujun. Everyone always had to ruin his fun.

***

Eventually, Matsujun was coaxed back into the galley and talked into acting like an adult instead of a spoiled child. That's what Jin had called it, anyway, which hadn't really helped. In the end, it was arranged that Sho and Aiba would move to the Space Queen. Kame and Koki would have to clean out the extra room because they'd re-arranged the cargo hold for extra space by moving some staples into the room while it was empty. Now about to receive passengers, they'd have to do some re-arranging again. Kame and Ueda looked vaguely horrified at how cheerful Aiba seemed to be, particularly since they'd seen the Arashi blow. Average mid-level officers stationed to small frigate-class ships could be perky. Secret demolitions experts who were also mid-level officers stationed to small frigate-class ships shouldn't beam so disarmingly. It was kind of disturbing.

Lt. Commander Nino and Commander Ohno would stay on the One Piece along with Matsujun. A little more discussion there put them all in the same berth, preferring to be cramped together than be cramped with anyone else. That was the easy part, sleeping arrangements and knocking together payment for them. Yamapi had already gotten theirs covered; the Space Queen wanted some of the spare engine parts that had been pulled from the Arashi before Aiba had blown it. They had a buyer somewhere who would be interested, and willing to pay a pretty penny for first pick. There was a little bump when Sho wanted to confirm that this mysterious buyer of theirs wasn't going to turn around and sell the parts to the Bizi Kei Alliance. Giving parts away to the enemy wasn't something Jimsho was interested in doing. Nakamaru assured him the buyer was firmly in Jimsho territory, and that was the end of that concern.

Then Yamapi brought up the convoy.

They'd all been dancing around the topic, trying to ignore the debris hanging in space all around them by working out all the other details first—where to put their new cargo, where to put their passengers, how they'd pay for passage, and what, exactly, everything was worth to them—but there was only so long you could put something like that off. At the very least, the specs of this job had been bumped up from 'slightly secret, slightly shady military supply run' to 'could really get us killed because it sure took something out of everyone else.' Yamapi tried to avoid jobs like that whenever possible, not willing to risk his crew or his ship, and past experience with the Space Queen told him they did about the same. It was hard enough staying in the air and keeping the business running. Getting dead was a good way to go out of business.

The bridge crew of the Arashi glanced at each other before Sho cleared his throat. "They knew we were here."

"They were waiting in system?" Kame asked from down the table.

Sho shook his head. "No, they jumped in on our tails. We'd just about collected all our stragglers," and here he paused and gave them all a strange, unreadable look, "Everyone but you, actually—they came in hot and fast. A lot of them. We'd moved the Arashi further into the system, getting ready to take point on the way out. We had some fighters too. We barely got them deployed at all. We were totally blindsided."

The two freighters' crews listened grimly as Sho related how the small freighter convoy hadn't stood a chance, how even if they hadn't been ambushed it was unlikely many of them would have survived to limp out of the system because the force brought to bear on them was so much more than a single frigate and its fighters could handle. "It was like the force was specially designed to have just enough fire power to take us out and wipe all the freighters off the map. They didn't want anyone to get away. No survivors. But they weren't wasting any firepower either. They had more than enough to take us down if that had been their whole goal, but the way they took out every ship in system? That was almost systematic."

Seated to his right, Matsujun cut in. "Any one of you could have let the rendezvous point slip. Twenty-five separate cargo ships, crews ranging from four to ten, that's a lot of people not to have one slip up." Intentionally or unintentionally, he didn't say, but the accusation was there. Matsujun was military. He knew the pilots on these ships, so he was giving them the benefit of a doubt, but he didn't really trust independent spacers to know when to keep their mouths shut, and it showed. "Thing is, none of you knew how many other ships were going to be involved in this run. None of you knew what kinds of ships, how big. All you had was a time and place, and that information was relayed to you late, so you'd have less time sitting on the info in port somewhere. The only lines all of that information was traveling through were Jimsho lines, which means we have a leak somewhere, and somewhere big.

"Takki needs to know about this. He needs to know in person, because we can't trust that any other lines of communication we use won't have the same security breaches as the rendezvous information did. You need to take us there." There was a moment of total silence when Matsujun stopped talking, his words collectively processing.

Then Ryo was up on his feet, staring at Matsujun in incredulous shock, and didn't quite shout, "Like Tycho Brahe on an erzot cracker we are! Our job is to get your stupid frapping cargo to wherever the hell it was supposed to go. That's what we're getting paid for. That doesn't include taking you Brahe knows where on some kind of military sightseeing tour. " Matsujun was up in a spacer's second, outraged at being refused and maybe a little bit shocked too, because he was used to his orders being followed. He knew he was requesting instead of commanding, logically, but it hadn't really sunk in on some level that requesting meant the spacers could say no.

Jin was up when Matsujun was, dislike for the other man adding to his dislike for the idea. Koyama and Koki both jumped up then too, each looking more like they were getting ready to try to defuse the rapidly degenerating situation than inflate it. Honestly, Yamapi wasn't sure how much good it was going to do. Koki put a hand on Jin's shoulder, pulling back just a little, enough to say back down without putting enough order in it to raise Jin's hackles further. Koyama didn't touch Ryo yet, giving the shorter man some space still, but he slid close enough that he could get in the way if Ryo decided Matsujun would look better after he got a chance to rearrange his face. Matsujun glared back and forth between Ryo and Jin and the tension in the room ratcheted up even higher. "You don't understand," Matsujun started. Jin shrugged off Koki's hand.

"It's ok, Jun." His voice wasn't loud, but it was pitched to cut through the noise. "We can get transport from Kefera. Their job isn't to get us to Command," Ohno said. Matsujun turned to look at him, and Koki put his hand back on Jin's shoulder. He didn't shrug it off this time. Ryo relaxed a little and came back down onto his heels from the balls of his feet. "Let them do their jobs and get this cargo where it's supposed to be going. We need it there more now than ever."

***

After that, the trip to Kefera was pretty uneventful. Koki and Kame got the extra berth on the Space Queen clear of spare parts and extra food, and Sho and Aiba moved in without much trouble. Matsujun, Ohno and Nino bunked down in the One Piece as they'd agreed earlier. Tegoshi managed to scrounge up an extra fold-away set of bedding from somewhere, and Kame frankly didn't care how they slept over on the other ship.

They all spent some time conferring about the best route to take, particularly now that their military escort was short any actual defensive capabilities. It was not incredibly far from Nera to Kefera, but the shortest route was also straight through no-man's land, an empty string of systems that had an unfair share of space pirates, and a couple of radically militant planetary governments whose official diplomatic policy might actually have been 'Shoot first; ask questions later.' Other routes would add days of travel time to their course. After consultation with Shige and Koki, respectively, it was decided the freighters had enough fuel to make one of the longer routes without stopping to refuel—something none of them wanted to do.

The run itself went smoothly. Nothing broke, they had enough food and no one mangled it too badly in the making, no one started any fights, either about whether or not they should really make an extra stop wherever Takki and Tsubasa's operation headquarters were or about who really had the next shift doing dish duty. Everyone was a little tense, which for Kame translated to nearly compulsive make-work. He rechecked the cargo in the hold three times against the inventory roster—the first two he even talked Nakamaru and Junno into helping—before breaking out charts of all the systems near Kefera to see which port would be best to hit next. Sho had mentioned that it would be better for mission security if they weren't seen taking anything on too close to Kefera, and Nino had pointed out that they'd leave less of a trail themselves that way; since he didn't want to become one of the Jimsho Confederacy's regular runners, the less exposure the Space Queen got for the jobs she did take for them, the better.

All in all, even with the extra day and a half it took them to hit Kefera and unload, and the extra day they were going to take to get far enough away from the system to look like they were somewhere else, their down time in transit seemed to melt by. Kame was too much of a worrier to assume that just because nothing bad had happened meant nothing would, but he also didn't see any reason to jump at shadows that probably weren't there.

They were all relieved drop off their passengers and their cargo, and get paid. Lifting off from the fifth planet in the Kefera system, it felt like they were leaving behind more than the weight of the planet's gravity. Kame toggled the vidview over to the One Piece. "Later," he said, sketching a little mock salute to Ryo, who was at the communications console waiting to take his stint at flying once they were out system.

"Much," Ryo replied with a friendly smirk, and then the Space Queen and the One Piece headed for opposite sides of the system and parts unknown.

***

"Sir," the Bizi Kei officer said, getting his superior's attention. He was a young officer, straight out of training academy, and had the attentive focus of someone out to prove himself. Charlotte was an out of the way intelligence and data center, but it was also well away from the front lines and an ambitious deployment for a new tech officer's first tour of duty.

"Report." Kazuno moved to stand behind the young man's chair, looking over his shoulder as he gestured to his console.

"We've cleaned up the data Commander Taka sent as much as possible. They're still very fuzzy because the recorder they left in the Nera system appears to have been damaged by space debris." He realized he was rambling when Captain Kazuno cleared his throat slightly, letting him know to get on with his report. "Anyway, sir, we don't have much, but the energy emissions seem consistent with readings for two Manta 52 freighters, but we don't have anything concrete other than that. The visuals didn't come through well at all. Tohya is still working on them, but we don't expect much."

"Good work, Umi. Keep me updated." Umi practically glowed with the pride of a job well done. His superior officer would forward the information up the command chain. His work was helping the Bizi Kei Alliance win a decades' old war; countless lives might be saved because of the job he had done. He was going to tell his mother and father about this the next time he wrote home. They would be so proud of him.

***

The next few weeks were a little slow, the One Piece running standard bulk-good delivery jobs, mostly. They could have gotten more jobs closer to the hub of the galaxy this time of year, but Tegoshi had run a cost-benefit analysis and concluded that it would take more money in terms of food, air, and fuel to get there than anything they were likely to make once they'd arrived. Still, they turned a profit, and they worked their way slowly through the cut of systems on the border between the Jimsho Confederacy and the Bizi Kei Alliance, where they based their business.

They caught a week and a half as gimpa fruit transporters during the height of the season, signing on as independent contractors with the largest—and only—producer in the Fod System. The entire second planet was one giant agro-business and pretty inherently sketchy. Still, low-life scum or not, they were hiring and the run from Fod Produce, which was the officially registered name of the planet, and the actual inhabited planets—fourth and fifth from the small sun—in the system was short and easy. As far as the transport business went, it was fairly steady work. All they had to do was get the shipments to the customs space stations twirling lazily around each planet, and they could collect their paycheck for the job. You had to move gimpa fruit quickly or it went bad, and there wasn't much market outside the system for it, so it was short-term, but it kept them occupied.

Once the Fod Produce job was over, Ryo took the One Piece back to Wilson's Station in the Nojiri-Espisoto System. NEWS was a little free-standing station, not attached to any inhabited planets, in a system just over the Jimsho border from the Independent Territories. It might actually be the Independent Territories now; the border was always shifting in that part of the galaxy, and the only people to really take notice were putting together chartography textbooks for civics classes. Temporary inclusion or exclusion from a political power thousands of light years away didn't make much difference out here on the border, and the station had always defended itself from the dangers of space.

NEWS was where they went for downtime and repairs, refueling and negotiations. The One Piece kept a berth there permanently; it was as close to home as they had, outside the freighter itself. Jimsho Confederacy credits were high on the exchange scale compared to NEWS system currency, so when they made port and finally exchanged most of their Jimsho credits for NEWS system currency, they made another three percent over their payment for the Nera run. It was nice, having that unexpected cushion in the bank, and Ryo and Yamapi gave everyone a week off while they started planning what kinds of jobs would be most likely to turn a profit in the next few months.

***

Toma probably knew just about everyone in the businesses of transport and trade. Sometimes Kame thought he might actually know everyone, not just in transport and trade, but in that swath of the galaxy. He'd worked with everyone at some point or another, arranging routes, setting up suppliers, transporters and buyers, and completing deals for all kinds of exotic and mundane goods. Everyone he worked with, it seemed, took a particular liking to Toma, and added to his list of contacts. Toma was a good kind of guy—he threw business your way if it was the sort of business you wanted with a kind of easy charm, so you found yourself returning the favor when you could. If you were ever looking for something specific, he was your best first bet and probably your best last.

Kame hadn't stopped by for business though; he usually let Jin take care of negotiations because he had a natural flair for it. Kame, like several of the other visitors Toma had in the half hour he'd been there, had just dropped by to say hi since he was in-system, and if you were stationside anyway, not seeing Toma at all wasn't really an option. Most people didn't stay long, just enough for a 'Hey, how's business? We're doing good. Should probably get back to the ship, actually—need to crash. Just letting you know we're here.' Half promised to come by later, looking to resupply or for help closing a deal. Half left it like that, knowing Toma would know where to find them if he came across something they'd be interested in.

Toma wasn't technically in the shipping business, which might be one of the reasons everyone liked him so much—no direct competition. Toma was a supplier at heart, where spacers got their necessities. He carried everything from atmosphere to engine parts in small quantities, and of course, he knew where you could get just about anything, if you were willing to wait a few days. He kept his shop front in the business district, sandwiched in between a noodle place and strip club, opposite a used clothing store. It was a spacer kind of area, which made sense for a business neighborhood on a space station, whole station a port town of sorts, everything about it aimed at the transitory, services for people who hopefully wouldn't be staying long enough to make real trouble. Kame liked it because it somehow managed to have a relaxed, down-home feeling to it, even if it was, on the surface, just like any of a dozen similar districts on a dozen stations in fifty of the nearest systems.

Kame had come to make his usual 'greet, then sleep' visit to Toma—the other members of the crew would be by around later to do the same—but when he'd gotten there, Toma had asked him to stay a few minutes because "Pi had left a package for him." Kame had frowned. He couldn't see any reason why Yamapi would want to send him anything. He didn't owe Yamapi anything, the One Piece didn't have anything from the Space Queen, they weren't friends; they were, for better or worse, business rivals, and not very much more. Someone else, a kid really, that Toma had called Morimoto before asking after a slew of other individuals, had dropped by before Toma could dig out Kame's package though, and then another person, and then a pair of younger women who looked a little too adorable to be really dangerous except they gave Toma a set of tiger claws from Claus Nebula and promised to tell him the story later. And so, Kame was still waiting. The flurry of activity made sense because a lot of ships came in during station night but couldn't get their docking credentials processed until the morning. Customs would be open in twenty minutes—thirty from when Kame had first arrived at Toma's little store front—and the new arrivals would be flocking to the office so they could start conducting business. You could move around the station without checking in with customs as only planetside officials cared about the movement of people, but you couldn't get any real work done until you cleared your ship. The hubbub would die down eventually, and then maybe Kame could get his whatever it was from Toma, stop by customs himself, and then head back to the ship for a little bit of well deserved sleep.

"Right, sorry," Toma said, finally, after bidding the two women goodbye, dropping a small parcel wrapped in packing paper on the top of his counter.

"Popular guy," Kame jibed, pulling the package towards him. Toma grinned and shrugged self-deprecatingly, as if he had no idea why everyone seemed to like him so much. "Any idea what's in it?"

Toma shrugged again, a little less sly this time, and said, "No idea. Pi was here about a week ago and came by to shoot the breeze. He came and dropped that off for your ship before they left the station."

"Well, thanks," Kame said, holding up the parcel before sticking it in the front of his coat. "Gotta drop by the customs office. If this thing gets me arrested, I'm fingering you for it." Kame grinned, and Toma's cheerful laughter followed him out the door.

***

It was a data disk, wrapped up in a little emergency blanket, the kind that were stocked in every ship by the dozens in case you ever lost heat. The disk had been tucked into the blanket carefully, presumably to serve as a little extra protection for the disk. Surprisingly, Ryo's face spread across the screen when Kame popped the disk in the reader, and he looked even less happy to 'see' Kame than usual.

Ryo's image on screen cleared his throat. "We might have a problem."

***

Yamapi had stopped by Toma's late in the day. It was an off hour, and just about every other shop on the street was closed. Toma's was closed too, technically, little cheap plastic sign flipped to 'closed' hanging up in the doorway of Johnny's Junior, but Toma's place was never really closed as long as he was inside it. Toma had opened the door to Yamapi's grinning face, then shut it again quickly to undo the chain, before pulling it wide for Yamapi to slide inside past him.

"Pi! Finally back in my neck of the woods, I see!" Toma greeted him enthusiastically.

"Seems so," Yamapi grinned back. "Brought you a present," he said, dropping two slightly past ripe gimpa fruit on the edge of the counter as he walked past it, then hoped up to sit on the surface from the inside. "Promised your mama I'd take care of you when you moved way out here."

"I'm pretty sure the conversation went the other way, with me and your mom," Toma laughed, then pulled a face when he saw the fruit. "Ew, those things are disgusting. Dunno how anyone eats them."

Yamapi laughed. "But I brought them all the way from Fod just for you! Don't be ungrateful! I'll tell your mama, just you watch me."

"When you go to tell her, why don't you bring her those," Toma jerked a thumb at the fruit sitting on his counter. "She'll tell you I did the right thing. So how long you in for?" Toma asked, switching subjects.

Yamapi kicked his legs gently against the cabinets below him. "Few days, maybe less. Ryo's got us something lined up in SR88, so we're looking for work that will swing us out that way, try and make enough to offset the run out that way. Know of anything good on station right now? Need to move something worth the fuel it takes to haul it."

"Oh hey!" Toma blurted out, suddenly remembering something. "You're in a Manta 52, aren't you? Bizi Kei's been looking for a couple of Manta 52s lately, started putting out feelers about, oh, mid last week. Bet it was you they're looking for. Knock off a couple Bizi Kei officers or something? Double cross them out by the Nera System lately?" Toma laughs, clearly joking. No one knew the One Piece had been in the Nera System, no one except the crew of the Space Queen, and the officers from the Arashi they'd rescued from one of the moons there. Yamapi laughed back, but his blood ran cold. Frap. Bizi Kei was looking for them. Maybe Bizi Kei didn't know it was them yet, but eventually they would. They were in trouble.

***

"More than a problem, I'd say!"

Koki was ranting. He paced back and forth on one side of the galley, behind a row of chairs that had been neatly pushed under the galley table in the middle of the room. Mostly he muttered to himself angrily, though sometimes the volume picked up a little, and occasionally he'd flail his arms around in half-aborted, angry gestures. Koki wasn't reacting well to the fact that they were probably all going to die.

Kame couldn't really say he blamed him. Beside him, Shige fidgeted uncomfortably. The crew of the One Piece was just as unsettled by the rumors they'd heard about Bizi Kei's hunt for two Manta 52s.

"It's really not that bad, though," Koyama interjected into Koki's tirade. Koki didn't stop pacing, but he did stop talking in order to listen. "I mean, there are lots of Manta 52s in the galaxy. If 'Manta 52' is all they're going by, there's no reason for them to think it's us." Koyama had a point. The Manta series was popular particularly among individuals or small business owners because ships much bigger started getting prohibitively expensive to finance unless you had access to government funds or a multiplanetary corporation's checkbook. Even for deeper pockets, smaller freighters could get in places bigger ones simply didn't fit, so even large, expensive cargo fleets tended to sport a few in the Manta series. 52s in particular had proven to be reliable ships so the make was especially popular, and would continue to be—if only because they lasted longer in the first place.

Freighters, even ones that weren't under the same ownership, often traveled in groups of two or three. Some jobs were one-ship jobs, sure—if your job was a special order or dealt in curios, you didn't even really need the whole hold, much less another ship, and could use the other space for side jobs or fill it with extra goods you knew you'd be able to offload easily somewhere—but, most jobs had more than enough potential cargo for a single ship to handle. If you owned more than one ship you could handle the whole job yourself, but if you didn't, chances were good that your buyers were also hiring someone else to take what you couldn't. Traveling together was safer, so unless you had a particular reason to dislike your cargo buddies, you might as well fly the route together and keep an eye out on each other's tails. Finding a specific set of two Manta 52 freighters without any further details would be next to impossible; you had better odds with the proverbial needle in the haystack. Space was limitless—at least the haystack ended eventually.

Also reassuring was the fact that they hadn't seen any official warrants yet either, and they might not be forthcoming. If 'Manta 52' was all the Bizi Kei Alliance had to go on, that wasn't too surprising—a tenth of all mid-sized freighters fell into one of the Manta lines—but it might also speak of a desire to keep things under wraps as long as possible on Bizi Kei's end of things. As long as that lasted, at least, it was a good situation for them. As long as there weren't any open prices on their heads, it would keep the two ships from falling victim to less-than-upright acquaintances turned eager bounty hunters handing them over for a few bucks. It wasn't hopeless. It wasn't hopeless—provided Bizi Kei didn't actually know who they were.

It started getting complicated when it came to records of their whereabouts in the past few weeks. There wasn't anything to tie them to the Nera system in either ship or their recent ports of stay, not directly. Not unless Bizi Kei had more information up their sleeves than they were letting on. Not unless they got more information from somewhere else, because maybe there were no civilian records of where they'd been those few days, but there was almost certainly something somewhere in Jimsho command that could place them there. Order records, Takki's data transmission, a receipt for the pay they got for the haul innocently sitting on some accountant's desk somewhere, anything like that got to Bizi Kei and they were so much space junk. They weren't in the clear either.

And Bizi Kei was relentless. That was how they'd engineered control of the largest chunk of galaxy in history. Frankly, that wasn't a chance Kame really wanted to take.

***

"No," Ryo slammed his hand down on the table. "No, absolutely not. That's idiotic." He had a point. If Bizi Kei didn't know who they are, if they had no real way of figuring that out, it would be one of the stupider moves they could make. Going back to Kefera, talking the crew from the Arashi into getting them to Takki, getting further tangled up with Jimsho military when those ties were the last thing they needed. Kind of like painting a really big target on their backs and dancing a jig in front of Bizi Kei command while singing an upbeat dance number titled 'Here I am, shoot me.' On the other hand, if Bizi Kei didn't know who they were yet but they could find out, this was the best thing they had. Otherwise they'd just be running, running for the rest of their lives, taking small jobs, keeping a low profile and wondering if five years down the line Bizi Kei wouldn't put the right set of dots together and realize that the One Piece and the Space Queen were sitting right there, hoping no one would notice.

"We're in the shipping business, not the getting shot at business," Shige joked, driving his point home. "This thing is kind of out of our league." Ryo didn't want to hear any of it though, and smacked him down with a smarting comment that seemed to be aimed more at past personal interactions than the issue at hand. It was not the best way to win an argument, but Kame—like most of the rest of the group gathered in the galley—already had his opinions on the issue.

If what it was going to come down to was just a matter of time, then Kame would much rather be proactive about their inevitable encounter than wait for Bizi Kei to surprise him. He wasn't stupid. He knew any kind of situation where the Space Queen and its crew went up against one of the two largest militaries in the world, it was not going to go well for them—particularly if Bizi Kei were the ones who were ready for it. Yamapi was with him for once, though he'd been quiet since his initial siding with Kame. Shige agreed with him too, but Koki was nodding along with everything Ryo said about how it was the fastest way he'd ever heard to get them all killed when they could live long, happy lives with Bizi Kei none the wiser.

They were pretty evenly split, all told: six for, five against, and Ueda holding out as undecided.

***

Ueda prevented the seemingly imminent tie by refusing to come down on either side, leaving the vote at six to five in favor for making Jimsho clean up what they unanimously agreed was Jimsho's mess. Ryo grumbled about not being willing to let everyone get a vote if they were going to vote against him, and it was such a petulant complaint that Kame had to laugh. That broke the tension still swirling around the galley from the earlier flaring tempers.

"Takki or that crew we rescued at Nera?" Yamapi asked into the lull, and there was a little flurry of much more friendly debate about who would be more able or willing to help them. In the end, it came down to the simple fact that they knew where they'd dropped off the crew of the Arashi, and Takki was at some secret Jimsho military base Brahe only knew where. "Call them when we're closer," Yamapi told Koyama. "Guess we're setting a course for Kefera."

Pikanchi had been a remote surveillance outpost under Jimsho control for several years—up until the last six months it had been almost completely unimportant, and so defense capabilities hadn't been an issue. No one was going to attack Pikanchi Base because there was almost literally nothing there, the outer space equivalent of a planetside weather tower. The planet itself was habitable and temperate, but low on natural resources profitable enough to bother developing and a little too far from anything of import to make upgrading the station or planet really worthwhile.

In recent months, the garrison stationed at Pikanchi had more than tripled in preparation for a number of operations that would take place all across that sector, including minor forays past the Bizi Kei border. The base itself had been expanded extensively to house all the new personnel, and while the surface-to-space rocket launchers hadn't been upgraded, the new buildings and bunkers were constructed to be able to withstand a brutal beating; the old ones had been reinforced enough to take nearly as much damage while still protecting the fragile human lives housed inside. The base had still had that new construction feel when they'd dropped the crew from the Arashi off there before, but now, only a few weeks later, it already looked like it was settling into its new skin.

"Well," Matsujun smirked up from the floor of the docking bay, "Didn't expect to see you again." Kame knocked his shoulder against Jin's, so while Jin scowled at the Jimsho officer, he didn't rise to the bait.

"I know we got permission to land, but permission to disembark?" Kame asked, still from the authority of the lowered cargo door of the Space Queen. Matsujun waved Kame down, the other members of the crew following behind him, and escorted them to a briefing room to wait while the One Piece landed. Another twenty minutes, and the other crew had been escorted to the same conference room. Matsujun left them there, briefly, after asking them not to leave the room, to go talk to his "superiors." Kame really hoped Ohno was in command of this base. It would probably make things easier. In a pinch they could probably have Yamapi appeal to Takki, but first they had to get him on a line somewhere. Yamapi had left him a veiled message at T&T Supplies, but they hadn't gotten anything back before they'd started for Kefera. They'd done their best to drop off the map a little before starting the run at the system to make it harder to track their movements back to them, so it was entirely possible that Takki—through Tsubasa, his intelligence officer—simply didn't know exactly where they were at the moment.

Koki settled against the wall to wait. He didn't look happy to be there, but he wasn't protesting any longer. Once they'd started in on this location, they were pretty much locked into this course of action anyway. He wasn't stupid. If it came down to a choice between getting shot at in a two-gun freighter in vacuum, or getting shot at in a reinforced bunker on a planet with atmosphere, Koki was going to pick the planet.

It wasn't long before most of Pikanchi command—the former bridge crew of the Arashi as it turned out, now settled into reassignment at a planetary base—filed into the room. Pretty big brass to meet some lowly freighter drivers. Saving a life seemed to be worth something after all. "So," Commander Ohno said, looking around the room. "What can we do for you?"

Kame glanced briefly at the others before explaining the rumors they'd been hearing, how Bizi Kei was looking to finish the job they'd started at Nera by wiping them off the charts too. The Jimsho officers listened patiently, Aiba with open curiosity, and Matsujun with a pinched look on his face that was probably Jin's fault for existing.

"Take the Love So Sweet up to get Takki," Ohno ordered Matsujun, who, for the first time, stopped looking prissy in order to follow his leader's orders. "The Love So Sweet is the Storm-class cruiser attached to this command," he explained to the freighter crews. He seemed completely oblivious to the twelve almost identical looks of shock and horror that his information inspired. Trust these guys to have named one of the most kill-efficient battle ships in the galaxy the Love So Sweet.
"We need to corroborate this information, of course," Nino cut in smoothly when it looked like Ohno was done, and then they were gone, leaving the spacers to themselves in the conference room again to wait.

***

"Pull back! All forces pull back." It crackled through the comm, emphatic, but no hint of panic in the ensign's voice, thanks to Bizi Kei's superior training. Taka knew enough now to realize that his father's stint in Emiromisaki's Independent Protection Force had been full of heart, but light on resources for actual training. They taught you how to fly and how to shoot, and if you lived past your first few engagements, you were considered trained. Bizi Kei was nothing like that. "Repeat, all forces pull back," buzzed through the comm again, and as Taka hit the fighter he'd been dogging, he fought his way to the edge of the fray.

Ilana. Taka realized it as he pulled away from the swarming cloud of fighters. As space opened up in front of him, some space cleared in his mind and he knew. Alex.

He knew, but he turned around in his pilot's seat anyway, back twisting, neck straining to look into the chaos of battle behind him, just like he'd done in real life then, but now with the added dread of knowing what was about to happen. There was the dogfight, where he'd just been, and 'above' it relative to Taka's line of flight, the capital ships lobbed barrage after barrage into each other. Skating along the edge of the capital ships, far closer to the Ilana base Jimsho forces than they should have been, were two small fighter craft—Alex and Toru, flying close to the skin of one of the larger vessels, trying to pick off gun emplacements. They got the order to retreat the same moment they all had, and Taka watched the exact moment they began to disengage, then the moment they began pull away from the fight.

They were nearly out, sliding agily between the much, much bigger, much less maneuverable capital ships, Toru in the lead, and Alex flying wing. Suddenly Alex's fighter began to dip and shake, changing course suddenly to a vector off into nowhere. The controls were dead—the controls or the pilot. Taka couldn't see the actual spray of bullets that must have hit Alex's ship—he was too far away, but he'd seen the sparks flashing from the nearest capital—a relatively small frigate, "Arashi" painted large on the side. Later Toru, much closer when it happened, would confirm this. The Arashi had killed Alex's fighter—had killed Alex.

Then, right before Taka's eyes, Alex's fighter broke up entirely, pieces spinning off the cockpit, exposing the pilot to the unforgiving vacuum, wings torn away with the engines that couldn't be shut down. A bright splash of color floated free of the center of the debris—it had to be Alex, whole or dead already. In normal circumstances, they'd have sent a medishuttle to pick him up, rescue him, alive or dead. If he were still alive, they could start treatment on the shuttle itself as he was transported to a full medical facility. If he weren't, they'd at least be able to lay him to rest properly.

But they weren't under normal circumstances—they weren't even under typical battle conditions. They were in the middle of a full-scale retreat, and the line of flight that Alex's fighter when he—when the controls went dead—had taken, sent him back towards the Jimsho capital ships. There was no way they'd be able to get a medishuttle in there. Trying would be suicide.

It had all really happened in the space of half a minute, but Taka had replayed every moment over in his head so many times since then, searching for something they could have done differently, anything that might have saved Alex. A handful of seconds stretching out into an eternity, but at the end of it Alex was dead.

Taka woke with a start, sweat cold and clammy clinging to him under his shirt. He threw off the covers, suddenly smothering him, and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. Leaning forward, he scrubbed his hands over his face as though trying to scrub away the nightmare. He'd had it countless times since Ilana, watching Alex die again and again, and knowing there was nothing he could do about it.

He'd killed the Arashi in Nera. The gunner who'd gotten the frapping lucky shot that had hit Alex was almost certainly dead, most of the frigate venting atmosphere before what was left crashed into the moon, breaking up as it bounced across the surface. He'd probably never even made it to the moon's surface.

Someone had gotten out though—those two freighters had been in system far too long to just be surveying the damage, and no reports of mass destruction had been reported to the judiciary who, on paper anyway, controlled Nera. Someone on the Arashi had survived, been rescued, had it hushed up. Taka needed to find out where they were. He owed it to Alex to finish the job.

***

"You were right," Nino said when he came back to the room they were keeping the freighter crews in. They owed them for their lives, perhaps, but Pikanchi, the base on Kefera, was still a military installation. Civilians didn't get to wander around it at will. "Bizi Kei does have feelers out for a couple of Manta 52s, based on proximity to the Nera system during a two week time frame—"

"Let me guess," Ryo interrupted, "With the day we were there smack dab in the middle of it?"

Nino turned to face Ryo directly. "That's right. They are just feelers though, and really light on actual info. Usually they've got more of a dossier together before they put something out, but these don't look like they're coming through official channels. I don't think they've got any more info on you than that right now, and judging from the rumors that are circulating, I don't even think they're really looking for you. It's more like they know someone was there, they know what kind of ships you were flying, and they know you got out again, but since they don't have enough to narrow it down yet, they're just going to start floating the nets out. Probably they won't catch anything yet, but if they get just a little more information, and then next time, they get just a little more information, and keep at it, eventually they might start after you in earnest. They don't even have digital images, as far as we can tell, and it's still all back door chatter."

"If they don't have digital, how do they even know what you were flying?" Aiba asked then. He had more on the ground expertise than intelligence background, and his technical prowess lay very firmly in the area of explosives.

Shige spoke up to answer. "Engine emissions, probably." Koki nodded from where he was leaning against the wall by the door. "Ship manufacturers use them all the time. They're designed to be pretty portable, so they're not big. If you didn't want to transmit the information anywhere, you could just use the standard industrial model, hook it up to a data recorder, and still be able to fit the whole thing into a shoulder bag."

Koki nodded again, picking up the explanation. "Wouldn't be too hard to swing back to the system once you thought it was clear and pick up your surveillance device. Manta 52, any ship really, you'd be able to tell what it was by the engine specs. It's how you know if your ship's running properly. A 57 might fall into standard 52 specs sometimes, if it was really in bad shape, but a 57 with an engine working like that, you probably couldn't get it out of the system anyway," he added.

Jin cleared his throat. "So. They don't know it's us, but they'll probably figure it out eventually if we give them enough time." Looking around at everyone else, Jin received a few half-hearted nods. It was depressing stuff. Even if everyone realized that was most likely how things were going to play out, acknowledging it was still difficult. "Now what?"

There was a pause when Nino looked at Aiba, who frowned back. "We should get Sho," Aiba finally said, reluctantly.

"And then we should get in contact with Tsubasa," Nino added. "We'll need him."

***

The problem was that Sho's idea was insane. Not just insane, suicidal. That was the problem with these military types, they were always trying to throw their lives away. Ryo was not too keen on the idea, less keen on his friends, both on the One Piece, and grudgingly now on the Space Queen, throwing their lives away, and particularly vehemently against the possibility of endangering his baby.

The other problem was that they didn't really have many options at this point. One, they could crawl back out of the base with their tails between their legs, pretending they had never heard of the Nera System, much less had actually been there, rescuing Jimsho frigate bridge crews from the jaws of death by suffocation or starvation or hypothermia. The main problem with the 'run and hide' approach was that it had to last forever, or at least until they all managed to die of something else first. They'd pretty much beaten that horse to death though, and it wasn't any more likely to succeed now than it was ten hours ago. Two, they could stay on Kefera, pull their heads into their metaphorical turtle shells and hope nothing too bad happened while they did it. That wasn't really a life though, particularly for a spacer. They weren't Jimsho military, and they weren't planning on becoming Jimsho military, so their movements would be highly restricted on the base. They couldn't rely on the Arashi's crew's gratitude forever, either, and eventually they'd accrue rent for their berths on base, or their ships would have to be moved elsewhere, two convenient Manta 52s in close proximity to a semi-secret military base. They'd have to give up their lives and their livelihoods, unable to take on jobs or make runs while they tried to outwait Bizi Kei interest in their involvement in an ambush-and-destroy mission when Bizi Kei was renowned for their long memories. Or three, they could go along with Sho's suicidal ideas, let Tsubasa shore them up with support and resources when they finally made contact with him, and pray for the best.

With choices like that, Ryo didn't really have a choice. He'd have to talk it over with everyone—this kind of decision you couldn't make for anyone else—but he was willing to bet most of them felt the same way. They were true blue spacers at heart. It was about the flying, and being able to keep moving, going wherever they wanted and their ship happened to take them. That was probably why they'd gotten into the freight business in the first place, the desire to be the ones deciding where they got to go. Hiding, on the base or out on their own, wasn't ever really an option, because hiding meant surrendering the ability to see where their luck took them. And he had to admit to himself that he had—they all had—pretty much committed to doing whatever it was the Command at Pikanchi Base, or Takki and Tsubasa, or whoever it was that bloody got them into this mess in the first place decided would be best to get them out again.

It wasn't a very complicated plan, at its heart, and there were things to be said for simple plans being the least likely to go awry. They would, in essence, be decoys—bait for Bizi Kei's hooks in Jimsho's systems. They'd concoct very rigid bits of information about the two ships, their crews, their whereabouts, and pump it through their own communications network on specific paths. Then they'd watch the Bizi Kei Alliance as they refined the data they had about the two Manta 52s they were searching for. Depending on the information they put out in their feelers for the ships, and when they got each piece of information relative to what they already had, they'd know where the main leaks were coming from. They'd be able to figure out if there were gaps in security, or if someone on an outpost somewhere was taking bribes and, in addition to that, the relative locations of the leaks in realspace.

The two freighters would have to do a little legwork themselves—which was where the danger came in—because unsubstantiated rumors flowing through Jimsho's communications systems might tip Bizi Kei off to the fact that Jimsho was looking for the holes their information was getting out and cause them to shut down operations until the hunt died down. That meant the Space Queen and the One Piece would have to do a little flying around, a little being seen—if Bizi Kei was looking—providing a little bit of truth to prove the unsubstantiated information coming in through Bizi Kei's network. Sho was vague about the exact details of Jimsho's systems, which was understandable. Temporarily working together they were, perhaps, but half the freighters' crews weren't even able to claim Jimsho citizenship. He was up front about the potential dangers the ships and their crews would face, as though they weren't already aware that Bizi Kei Alliance ships would get to them before Jimsho back-up could arrive, or of the very real possibility that Bizi Kei would shoot first and look for survivors only to ensure that there weren't any. That type of brutality wasn't common in this war—it simply wasn't sustainable. No one believed it was going to be short war any longer, and neither side could afford to kill neutral civilian parties wantonly—but the attack on the original convoy served as a grim reminder that the usual standards weren't applied to every situation.

Takki was a bit more mercenary when he gave the official go-ahead. "You have a problem, we have a problem. We can work together to solve both of them, and I think we can call it even then," he'd said while drafting orders and signing requisition forms: documents for their newly commissioned mission. Of course, he was right. They had a government that spanned half the galaxy out to get them for the simple misfortune of showing up late to a massacre, and Takki and Tsubasa, well, they had a very embarrassing leak in their communications and intelligence systems which, more than simply being an embarrassment, was actively dangerous to everything they were working for. Security was compromised, soldiers and civilians were killed, bases were infiltrated, all very problematic for Sector Command. Takki wasn't going to let a chance to turn that situation around go to waste. "We'll get you all set up."

***

Shige couldn't really say no to the alterations—additions, really—they wanted to make to the One Piece. Jimsho was offering to upgrade just about everything, from the engine to the gun fixtures to the hull strength. Some of the parts they were offering, for free, would have cost them five years' salary, not just Shige's, but every single member of the crew put together. The guns they wanted to install civilians couldn't even buy—not legally, at any rate. He just didn't want any strangers poking around in his baby. Ryo and Yamapi flew the One Piece, and like all pilots, had an overly strong sense of propriety over the ship, but any mechanic could tell you that the one with real ownership, real stake, in a ship was her mechanic. Shige's job was to take her apart and to put her together; he knew all of her little quirks; he kept her in the air. All the work they wanted to do to her, it could take his ship and make her into someone else that just happened to look a little like the One Piece on the outside.

Well, that and he'd promised Yamapi that he wouldn't let anyone find the smugglers' holds they had stashed a few places around the ship. It would be very difficult to keep Jimsho techs from finding secret compartments if they insisted on taking half her hull off.

"Look, don't do too much to the engine, all right? I know we need more horsepower to move the thicker hull, but the specs have to stay more or less the same or we're not going to look like the ships they're after." Not to mention that a Manta 52 souped up enough to be a military transport could get them in trouble with port authorities all across the galaxy. More mass in the hull would mean they'd need more power to travel the same distance. They might be weightless in space, but mass was mass, and it took energy to move. The thicker hull would let them take more bullets before they had to worry about venting critical atmosphere, but it would also either take enough extra fuel to run them out of business, or they'd have to upgrade the engine enough to compensate for the extra mass without drinking them dry of fuel every thirty minutes.

Shige left a couple of techs to work on the engine—heart of his ship though it was—because there wasn't too much they could do to it that he couldn't set straight, and there weren't any secrets he was supposed to be keeping in there for them to stumble over. He'd have Koki in with him to help him look at their work later. Koki was just a little bit paranoid, going over every inch of the equipment and parts the Jimsho techs wanted to install on the Space Queen. He didn't like strangers futzing with his ship like Shige, sure, but more than that, he didn't trust them—not to do a bad job and he'd have to deal with his ship falling apart seventy thousand feet up, but to add a few extra pieces, courtesy of military intelligence. You could trust other spacers to steal your deals, to cheat you for the price of parts, but you didn't have to worry about hidden tracking devices or slave circuitry, or kill switches. Shige thought Koki was a little extreme, but Koki had more reason to dislike the military than he did with the way Jimsho had recruited his little brother. A spacer's life was dangerous; there were any number of ways to die on a small ship, from freak engine accidents to pirate attacks, but it wasn't the same thing as eventually having trained soldiers shoot at you. There was no way Koki could protect his brother from everything he'd come up against in Jimsho's navy, and he didn't like how young they'd pulled his brother in. That extra motivation meant Koki was extra vigilant. He wasn't missing anything they did to either ship.

***

It took several days to make all the alterations to the two freighters that Pikanchi Command wanted to make, and another handful to test all the revamped systems. The engines had been rehauled—though not as entirely as some of the techs would have liked. They were good guys, who cared more about structural stability and engine efficiency than war zone loyalties and did a good job, even if they couldn't see why anyone wouldn't want to have an entirely new engine in some experimental design. Koki let them get away with less than Shige had, but they could both probably fly rings around every other Manta 52 in the galaxy at this point; the hull was thicker, and the cockpit and the gunnery ports had been treated with military-grade bullet-proofing—the viewports where designed to withstand minor impacts without shattering, but bullets traveled at higher velocities and could still pose a problem. To counteract this threat, spray-on resins had been developed that would harden after application and give viewports extra strength without obscuring sightlines through them.

The entire gunnery system had had to be pulled out and replaced: the new guns Jimsho had installed packed a stronger punch, but they fired a different caliber than the Manta 52 was designed to carry. Ammo feeders had had to be replaced, and the wiring to operate the new guns wasn't compatible with the wiring already on the little ships, and had had to be replaced as well. Tegoshi was excited about his new firepower; everyone else was terrified of Tegoshi's almost innocent cheerfulness and his delighted expression as he brutally tested the new SPAS-12 on the One Piece.

"Don't you have something else you can install instead?" Koyama had asked Sho anxiously after watching Tegoshi with his new gun.

"We'd have to rip everything out again, but we could put in a p90. I'm not sure you're cleared for anything else." Sho answered. Koyama just shuddered and said they were fine with the current guns after all. Tegoshi did not need regular access to a ship with a submachine gun.

The whole idea of the refits was to make the One Piece and the Space Queen tougher nuts to crack than Bizi Kei was anticipating, should they run into trouble before Jimsho could intervene. Any real warship could still take them down, but hopefully they wouldn't think to send a frigate or battle cruiser for a couple of dinky freighters. Even if they did come up against something stronger than they could take by themselves, the extra firepower should buy them a little more time—maybe enough time for Jimsho to swoop to the rescue.

The down time also gave Tsubasa time to set up his information network. Spreading information was basically the same as keeping it secret—ultimately it was all about managing what the enemy had access to, and Tsubasa was an expert when it came to that. He was focused and reserved, without his partner's easy air of command, but while Takki garnered loyalty with his personable demeanor, Tsubasa was arguably the more dangerous of the two.

"Normally you control how much and what kind of information your enemy knows by controlling points of access to information about your operations," Tsubasa explained. "We can't do that in this case because don't know where our leaks actually are—that's what we're aiming to find out with your assistance. Of course, you have to plan for leaks in every system, no matter how tight you keep your security. People are only human, after all, and every computer program has weaknesses that can be exploited; but you shouldn't have these kinds of holes just suddenly opening up in your security net without notice. The kinds of cyber attacks that can rip a hole like this, well, you can see them coming, or you see them happen. The idea is to overwhelm a system's defenses and snag as much information as you can before the system can patch the hole," Tsubasa broke down the logistics of the operation for the civilian crews present.

"What we have here, it's like the bottom draining away in a well. We don't know how or where they got in—there's absolutely no trace of an attack—and so we don't know where we need to fix. We do know there's some kind of hole in the communications route that was used to set up the Nera System. We also know that the private line Takki used to video message Kame on the Space Queen shortly before the attack at Nera did not seem to be compromised because the attacking ships didn't know to stick around for your arrival." Yamapi nodded at that. Bizi Kei had left passive monitoring devices, but from what Nino had explained before Takki and Tsubasa had arrived, that was fairly standard practice. Bizi Kei thought they'd killed the convoy at Nera, packed up, and left.

"We've been doing a test run of Pikanchi's comm systems, circulating your presence here through the base's computer network to see if Kefera's been compromised while you were working on your ships." Tsubasa held up a hand to forestall any outraged exclamations. "They already think you have Jimsho connections, and Pikanchi's got enough firepower to take out anything they could send our way on short notice. They don't seem to know you're here though, which implies that wherever our holes are, Pikanchi's network isn't suffering from them. Next we're going to circulate a little misinformation about your ships' appearances through the network we used to plan the Nera op. We're pretty sure they'll get it, but the data will have a little something extra coded into it, which will hopefully flag the collection method—light it up the holes in our system like glitter and sequins. That'll give us an idea of how they're doing it, and then we can use that information to test the rest of our communication systems.

"We'll go on from there with you in the air, giving you some orders about systems to show up in, supplies you can move for us, that sort of thing. If they bite, we'll know they're getting our information on the wider network and we need to do more patching; if they don't, at least we'll get some supply runs in." Tsubasa didn't discuss payment. It was implied that they were taking the upgrades done to the ships out in trade.

It wasn't a great plan from Ryo's point of view, but it wasn't going to get them automatically killed, and that was about all they could hope for. Ryo just hoped Jimsho figured out their leaks quickly—too many free jobs for Jimsho and the upgrades wouldn't be worth it.

***

Pikanchi's communications system and security net checked out—after a week and a half of no changes in Bizi Kei's Manta 52 profile even after both ships were fully operational, Tsubasa finally pronounced the network clean. Takki celebrated by sending them to Izanaizuki to pick up a shipment of medical supplies. Ryo wasn't thrilled about the idea because it was essentially money out of their pockets, but it turned out that Takki had already bought and paid for the supplies, so it was purely a pick up and deliver job. That smarted a lot less, and Ryo kept his grumbling to a minimum—or, well, at least under his breath.

It wasn't a hard run, but it was nerve-wracking, waiting for the possibility of attack, and the extra tension had Kame sniping at Ryo over the ships' tightbeam vidview, and Ryo snarking right back. They showed up in system right on schedule, the One Piece slightly port and aft of the Space Queen. Getting docking permission on the station was no more or less difficult than usual, though needing to ask for adjacent ports was unexpectedly jarring for both crews; they were used to working alone. Loading went smoothly, the vendors transporting crates of vaccinations and bundles of bandage tape to their loading docks after Ryo and someone from the Queen video messaged them to confirm they were the shippers T&T Supplies had sent to pick up the cargo. They were heading back out system in less than sixteen hours, with Yamapi flying and Ryo sleeping fitfully in his bunk, waiting for the first shaking impact of bullets on their hull.

Those bullets never came, and Ryo spent the entirety of the flight back to Kefera in his berth messing with the guitar he hadn't taken out of its case in far too long; otherwise he'd waste all his time pacing circles in the galley, driving everyone around him batty. They landed in the same covered docking spaces on Kefera they'd vacated only a few days before, and then let Pikanchi Base staff do the unloading.

***

Taka owed a lot to Bizi Kei, and he didn't begrudge Intelligence wanting to go over his information with a fine-toothed comb. He had to admit, it was a little out of the ordinary at the very least, if not downright suspicious, to suddenly have access to a network of genuine Jimsho information with no precedent—and it was Intelligence's job to be suspicious. He bristled a little at the implication that his code might not somehow be good enough to get them what it had, that there might be flaws in his programming, but he could understand the suspicion. Eventually his intel passed the vetting process, with several hawks up the chain of command remembering that he had actually been a tech monkey in Jimsho, that he'd gotten pilot training after defecting, and that he had skills other than loyalty to his people and a hot hand on a fighter's controls.

Intelligence accepted as reasonable the idea that he hadn't given his network to them gift wrapped as a defection present when he first came over because he couldn't say for sure that it would work, but that his systems would be guaranteed to suffer the heaviest scrutiny when they were brand new. They didn't appreciate it, exactly—Intelligence always liked to be the secret shakers and movers, always wanted to be the ones with their fingers on the hidden kill buttons, and be the ones controlling all the various flows of information in and out of their space—but they accepted it as reasonable. They even accepted as reasonable the idea that after several years of service as a fighter jockey instead of a tech monkey his carefully crafted network had slipped his mind. They bought, or at least pretended to buy, which was the important part, his story of being reminded of it in an old journal, of deciding to see how rusty his skills were by trying to activate it, his pleased surprise when it worked just like he'd hoped it would. Those were all more or less true, old journal entry read several weeks before the engagement at Ilana. He'd cut out Alex's death from his official story, because he was also cutting out one other very important detail—he was scrubbing the information first, then re-encoding before sending it along up the chain.

He had a little team of code crackers fresh from Vistlip Academy who were too young and fresh-faced to question orders working on every information packet they received, scouring it for information on the two freighters that had picked up survivors from the Arashi in the hopes that they'd be able to lead him to them. Then, transmissions neatly scrubbed of evidence of his searches, they repackaged the data and sent it on for him. The entire command at Charlotte thought their orders were official, but his own T&P skills weren't so rusty to keep him from hacking an official order or two. Taka knew he'd be in trouble with Command if he was ever caught—Intelligence would be livid; they'd want his head at the very least—but he also knew that Command would never sanction his little side project, even if it wouldn't interfere with the official line, and that Intelligence would like it best if he never saw any of the intel that came through his own network. He felt a little bad about the deception; he owed Bizi Kei for the chance to work as part of a team, the chance to lead, the chance to live up to his potential, but he also owed Alex's memory and Taka was loyal. He would never use the info to hurt Bizi Kei's pursuits, so he couldn't see what it would really hurt if he was a little underhanded in his pursuit of the crew of the Arashi.

His intel was good. Most of it was noncritical—letters sent to parents, siblings, lovers; orders for replacement parts; and brokered deals on in-season produce—some of it detailed troop movements, which was most obviously useful information, but even the little things could be useful in the aggregate. Get enough orders for replacement parts, and you start to notice patterns in what the other side is using and breaking and needs more of, which might speak to training exercises and preparation for upcoming operations. Intelligence was getting a lot out of Taka's system, almost an overload of potentially useful information. He was helping the cause, not working against them. As it was, they were far too busy analyzing to miss what they never knew they didn't have—and that little bit, two measly freighters, and the remnants of a ship's crew, that was Taka's, and critical to his own private mission.

***

They swung by Toma's place in the middle of one Jimsho run, about four weeks into their gig as professional bait. They were getting used to working as a team, which was almost as weird as anything else was all by itself. Neither group was really much for cross-company bonding. They had private sets of often overlapping networks of contacts, friends, acquaintances. They'd all been part of other small businesses in their younger days, building their way up to owning their own ships and shipping businesses—some temporary, and some they'd thought would be the group they'd partner into—but neither crew had ever really had a partner who wasn't part of their own business.

"Didn't think to see you two here together," Toma remarked cheerfully when Ryo and Kame showed up in his little shop together. It wasn't like Jin and Yamapi, who could be counted on to hang out any time they were both in the same port for more than half an hour. Kame glanced at Ryo and shrugged.

"We got in together," Ryo dismissed. "Thought we'd come by first, since it's been a while either of us were in system."

Toma laughed, but he had a serious look in his eyes. "I've heard some things about you—the both of you—and Jimsho lately. Neither of you ever were govrunners. I'm not saying you can't make the business decisions you wanna make, but just—knowing you guys the way I do—just be careful about how far in you get yourselves. If you don't want to get a reputation, you can't take Jimsho military jobs only."

This time Kame laughed, and he hoped it didn't sound as forced to everyone else as it did to his own ears. "We just owed some favors, that's all. We just haven't had a lot of time lately for other jobs now Jimsho's calling them in." It wasn't exactly untrue. Toma had a point though, a good one. When this was over, neither of them wanted to be stuck running military jobs because they'd let the rest of their contacts go.

"We're not your private golden retrievers, you know," Ryo told Matsujun after they got back. Commander Ohno and Takki were there too, and Kame thought that Ryo timed his comment specifically for this kind of opportunity, even if he was technically addressing Matsujun. Ryo felt more comfortable with Matsujun—you always knew where you stood with him. "You can't just tell us to 'fetch, fetch' all the time. We have businesses to run; reputations to keep. The One Piece never had military connections this tight, and I know for a fact that the Space Queen didn't either. At the very least, it's going to be suspicious if we're your pretty lapdogs all of a sudden, and we've practically dropped off the map when it comes to our usual contacts. That's going to cripple us in the long run."

"What are you trying to say?" Takki cut in, leaning towards Ryo, away from where he had been leaning over Ohno's shoulder to look at his console.

"I'm not trying to back out of this deal," Ryo said, holding his hands up, palms out, placating, at odds with his tone. "I'm just saying, we can't just run around doing nothing but the jobs you send us on and sit around waiting for your next assignment when you don't have anything." Ryo scowled. "We still have bills to pay."

A little late, Ohno took an interest in the proceedings. "What do you want to do then?" At least he seemed genuinely interested in the answer, if a little puzzled by why it wasn't an ideal set up.

"Look," Ryo suggested, "We'll still do your jobs. That's part of the deal after all, right? We run supplies for you free, and you get the erzot Bizi Kei military off our tails. But we gotta keep our own businesses going. Let us run our own jobs too, when you don't have anything deathly urgent."

Takki didn't agree immediately; he wanted to pull Tsubasa in first, get his professional opinion on how that would affect intel and security, but when Tsubasa opinioned that the extra exposure of having the two ships flying around the galaxy might get them results faster now that he was finally making some headway with the source code, Takki cleared them for 'mission activities.' Kame took that to mean they could do whatever the flying Brahe they wanted as long as they dropped everything when T&T Supplies called them. It was probably the best deal they were going to get in the situation, and Kame was grateful Ryo had pressed the issue. The Flying Peapod wasn't the only ship that had been itching to get back into the air.

Takki and Tsubasa stopped telling them which systems they were testing after that. It simply wasn't necessary. They called in secure instructions relayed through Sho or Nino on Pikanchi, or once by Matsujun on the Love So Sweet, and then they called in 'official' orders using whatever network they were sounding for holes. Half the time those messages were routed through a confusing enough series of different networks that Kame wasn't sure where they even originated, but he trusted Tsubasa would be able to glean whatever information he was hunting for from the results. Those video messages didn't matter anyway—prerecorded and full of misinformation—as long as he answered them so Bizi Kei wouldn't be able to read the lack of comm response by accurately surmising that the messages weren't genuine.

During the runs they weren't much different from any other pick up and delivery job the Space Queen had ever done, filled with the boredom of long hours in a small space and the ever-present, bone-deep thrum of the ship's engines.

***

Tsubasa was close. He'd found the data transmission protocol almost immediately—the transmissions weren't hard to see once you paid a system close attention, and his compartmentalized information flow plan, while slow at first, enabled Tsubasa to figure out which networks he should be paying attention to. The data packets were small, short bursts piggybacking on normal communications traffic, so there were no extraneous transmissions to give them away. If you really looked at it though, all of the outgoing 'messages'—the actual message, plus that little extra compressed data—were bigger sending than receiving, the little secret packet of compressed data beamed off to some other destination than the legitimate traffic. Technically, Tsubasa could have shut down the data transmissions almost as soon as he'd discovered them—have some tech monkeys slap together a code patch to block or screen out the extra data. It was encrypted using a particular set of signatures; it would have been simple enough to simply block data transmissions that fell within those signatures' specifications.

That wouldn't have solved Tsubasa's bigger problem, though: what data, exactly, was being leaked and how the systems were collecting information in the first place. So Tsubasa let the transmissions continue, slowly and surreptitiously ensuring that no really critical data flowed over those networks. He needed to find the root of the leak, not just the transmission process, because he had no way of knowing if there were alternate routes the program could enable to get the info out if its original method failed—alternate routes that might be harder to track.

Tsubasa's network of operatives and codecrackers were technically spread all across Jimsho space, but he had them all working on this project, its priority much higher than any of the development or routine hack-and-crack attacks against Bizi Kei of which their normal assignments consisted. They stripped away layer after layer of programming and kept going, still looking for the source of the leaks. They were working in older systems, reliable, nearly a decade of use now without anything but minor maintenance problems. Without Tsubasa's slow, calculated leak of information, no one would have ever thought to check them; why suspect old, reliable systems when you had other, newer systems implemented within the last year. By all rights, any one of those would be more likely to be their source compromise.

It wasn't until he looked at the source code, and the hidden programming written into it, that Tsubasa decided to do some digging. It was all clean, professional work, and the rogue code was literally built into the networks, there from the very beginning rather than built separately and patched on later. It wasn't a whim when he checked to see who the original programmer had been—the work was consistent across all the affected systems, enough so that Tsubasa was almost certain that the same programmer had to have created them all—but he wasn't expecting whoever it was to make it easy to figure out his or her identity. It was simpler than Tsubasa had thought. The programmer hadn't thought to cover his tracks in their records, no pseudonyms, no false trails or dead ends. Takahiro Moriuchi, former junior officer in Jimsho's T&P—tech and programming—division had built every single compromised system, designed all their code, and put their associated networks in place. It wasn't the sum total of his work in the Jimsho—which Tsubasa had looked over more thoroughly than half the politicals higher up knew was even possible—but it was the latest; the last work Takahiro—Taka now, according to his intelligence files—had done before defecting to the Bizi Kei Alliance military.

***

It wasn't even during a Jimsho run, which is what made it seem so unfair. Two small cricket-class Bizi Kei ships on anti-smuggler detail stopped them as they came in on their approach on the station. It wasn't technically Bizi Kei space, though they were close, so the ships didn't technically have jurisdiction. As such, ships asked to stop by Alliance warships could appeal to the system government and defense force to intervene. Actual smugglers tended to cut and run at that point rather than avail themselves to the local governments' services because the defense force would search the ship instead. It was useful for situations like this though, when the Bizi Kei Alliance was gunning for a ship that wasn't carrying contraband—either for personal reasons, that is, reasons that didn't involve this system government, or just to cause trouble—because big as Bizi Kei was, they avoided stepping on any independent nation's toes. While largely united in history and culture, they were still technically an Alliance, and if they sent the message that they were willing to run ramshod over the independents' authority, large administrative sections of the Alliance breaking off wasn't too ridiculous a possibility.

The cricket classes broadcast the usual 'stop for boarding' message everyone on smuggler detail used. It didn't actually say to stop for boarding, that kind of authoritarian language stepping on too many toes, particularly out here in independent—nation, and business—country, but it did politely request the ships in question stop for questioning pertaining to the trafficking of contraband materials between systems. The standard video message was broadcast on a general frequency, accessible for any communications array within a certain radius. There were stories about kids rigging old comm sets at home out of spare parts and getting it up and running at just the right time to catch one of these kinds of messages being broadcast from a ship that was a little closer to stationary habitation than usual; usually the story ended with the kid being so scared by the sudden message about contraband that they ended up doing something comical that their older relatives could laugh about for years to come. The general video message served as a general warning—for the ship under suspicion, for local defense forces, and for nearby ships in case the one being asked to stop tried to shoot its way out. Collateral damage was never pretty in vacuum.

In tightbeam, the Bizi Kei ships were broadcasting another message though. It was more of the same, really, 'stop for questioning and contraband search,' but it was also directed specifically at the Space Queen and the One Piece so they'd know they were the ships who were supposed to be stopping. That was pretty normal. The thing was, the Bizi Kei ships already knew their ships' names. A usual message described the ship's class and incoming vector, unless the ship was known as an outlaw's ship—or at least suspected to be an outlaw's ship. This wasn't a bad break, the freighters selected at random for a search. This was Bizi Kei guessing who they were and planning to come aboard.

Neither freighter slowed at all, though they did change course, angling away from the station to come up on the small cluster of system defense ships currently on duty instead. Koyama recorded a quick distress message and set it to loop, requesting Hoshiwo Mezashite Defense aid. They didn't have time to get to the local government's line, though, before a small force of nearby Jimsho ships broke away from their approach for the station and headed to intercept the Bizi Kei contingent. It was a military convoy, but traveling openly, the kind that only ever stopped at independent nations' ports for emergency refueling. The speed they were traveling towards the Bizi Kei ships, though, put the lie to the idea that they needed fuel desperately enough to stop, and Yamapi realized belatedly that Jimsho must have been keeping tabs on them even when they weren't on specifically Jimsho runs. Two frigates and a slew of fighters were already in the air, more boiling out of the fighter bays as the ships advanced, and the Bizi Kei anti-smuggling vessels backed down without Jimsho having to say anything to them at all.

The Jimsho ships continued out of the system, doing a flyby so close to the Bizi Kei Alliance ships that it made Yamapi wince in sympathy. They hadn't technically done anything, and the two sets of warring military ships never exchanged a single word or shot, but the message was clear to everyone except maybe the local defense force. Back off. It wasn't much, but it gave the two Manta class freighters a chance to get to the Hoshiwo Mezashite line. They searched them very thoroughly—thank Brahe they weren't carrying anything questionable this time—but Bizi Kei didn't make another move on them, just hovered ominously on the edges of the proceedings until the One Piece and the Space Queen had docked with the station.

It had been a close call, and it left both crews shaken.

***

Tsubasa caught the tail end of the hack, which is what surprised him. It had the same signatures as the coding done on the systems programmed with the malicious information collection algorithms, but wasn't executed with any of the finesse Tsubasa had come to associate with Moriuchi's work. Either way, the hacker had been searching for information on the two freighters Takki had taken a shine to, the One Piece and the Space Queen, and that was enough to give Tsubasa a good guess at the hacker's identity—or at least their boss's. Tsubasa had all the information he needed on the rogue system specs, was just about to shut the whole thing down, and he decided it was time to clean up some loose ends in Bizi Kei's camp as well. Might as well.

It was kind of spur of the moment, not the way Tsubasa usually operated, but he couldn't see any glaring problems with the idea. He thought about it carefully for a moment, and then started typing furiously, a combination of faulty code and accurate information, and then watched as Moriuchi's system pulled the location of the One Piece and the Space Queen away down the rabbit's hole, straight to wherever Moriuchi cached it.

***

The One Piece came in system a little behind the Space Queen, right on course—not that Ryo thought they wouldn't be—and Ryo felt good about this whole mess for the first time in a long time. Takki hadn't said anything definitely—to be honest, hadn't said anything to him at all; Yamapi took that conversation—but according to Yamapi, he had seemed to be hinting that they might be done with this whole 'business arrangement' and back to their normal lives and their normal, all-civilian, mostly-legal runs soon. At the other console, Koyama made a routine call to the Space Queen to make sure everything was checking out over there and got Kame. Ryo was in a good enough mood to ask Koyama to toggle the comm over to his console for a moment, just so he could insult Kame's ugly ship.

He didn't get the chance to though, because the moment the comm toggled over to his console, Kame jerked and said "Erzot!" head ducked low as he looked off to the side. The picture shook and fuzzed out for a second before coming back, then flickered madly for a moment and Ryo thought they were going to lose the connection altogether.

"What the frap is happening over there?" Ryo yelled into the comm anyway, and Kame turned back to look at his vidview. His lips moved, but only part of every third word came through. "...king......ele......ines," Ryo made out, before the One Piece shook a little, like they'd hit something small but stationary, and then the overhead lights flickered off, then back on. The electrical short was short enough that the emergency lights didn't have time to kick in, so there was just the moment of utter blackness filled with panic that hadn't had enough time to figure out what it was before the overhead lights were back up again. Another thunk, and a flash near the nose of the ship that got lost as the lights flickered again, this time only dimming, but Ryo thought he was starting to figure out what was going on.

Overhead lights were a non-critical system, emergency lights ready to cut in if they went down permanently, and because of that the circuitry wasn't heavily shielded. The One Piece was a working freighter, not some upscale passenger shuttle where the customers would panic and run amok if the lights didn't stay on. Ryo cut his speed though, easing the throttle back until he'd directed the engine thrust to push the other way long enough to stop them dead in space.

The comm had cut out as Ryo was maneuvering, and Ryo assumed that Koyama had transferred the vidview back to his own console so Ryo could concentrate on flying. "Tell them to stop!" Ryo yelled, but when he glanced out the front viewport at the other ship, the Space Queen had already stopped ahead of them. "Are they responding?" he asked as everything around them seemed to slow down, suspended in a strange lull as the immediate threat recedes a little.

Koyama looked at him, eyes wide and worried, "Nothing. We were cut off. Their comm isn't transmitting." Even as he said it though, Ryo's eyes were drawn back to his vidview screen, and he cut Koyama off with a joyous whoop. The feed was still being patched through Ryo's console, so they could both see Koki's scowling face and sparkly eye patch as he peered into the comm. The screen flickered and did the dancing line thing for a moment—presumably as Koki whacked the side of the vidview on the Space Queen with his hand.

"There, ok," Koki said, then, into the vidview, "You all alive over there?"

Koyama glanced down at the life-support system viewscreen and smiled. "Looks like," Ryo said back. "Gimmie Kame. He probably figured it out, but we nearly flew straight into a field of electro-mines." Electromagnetic pulse mines were used to disable ships who flew into them. About the size of a breadbox, each electro-mine was designed to send out a burst of electromagnetic energy upon impact with an object moving quickly enough, shorting out electrical systems within its sphere of energy. Technically, they could be used on any object that depended on electrical circuitry to work. The pulse had a very limited range—and heavy shielding could serve to ground the energy and keep electrical systems intact longer—but if you threw enough of them at one, they would be able to take even a space station down. Getting enough electro-mines to do that would be prohibitively expensive, even if you weren't getting them from black market shills, so Ryo was pretty sure no one had ever tried.

"I don't know about you, but the One Piece is not equipped to pick up those mines on scans. We're basically flying blind," Ryo said after Kame's face replaced Koki's on the vidview.

"We get a little blip of something right before impact, but by then it's basically too late. One hit our comm array directly. Koki did some tweaking and got it back up, but I'd prefer to avoid any other major damage."

Ryo thought about making a comment about how he just loved when his ship took damage, but held his tongue. "So, you're telling me we have no way to know for sure how big the mine field is. Back is probably our best bet out."

Kame nodded. "If we go slowly enough the mines shouldn't register the impact and detonate." He bit his lip, as though he didn't really want to consider whatever he was about to say enough to actually say it. "How long do you think we have until whoever planted these show up to pick up their prize?" Electro-mines worked to disable a ship without doing irreversible damage. Regular bullets cost a lot less, but a misplaced shot and you'd have to replace the whole engine—not the most cost-effective way to pirate a ship. You also had to be there to use regular bullets—you couldn't count on your prey to just wander into your line of fire.

Ryo shrugged. They had no way of knowing. "We don't even know how long this field's been here. Can't be too long though—this route's pretty heavily traveled." No other ships were hanging dead in space, victims of the same electro-mines, and there hadn't been any reports of a rash of ships going missing along the route, or even of ships traveling this route taking unusual damage.

Kame quirked a grin then, but it was a little cynical. "Or they're just efficient about coming to collect. Either way, let's get out of here." Kame paused, and his expression lightened considerably, from jaded to mischievous in the space of a moment. "You think we could scoop up some of these mines on the way out? We could make a bundle, even if we just got a handful."

Ryo laughed outright at that. "You want to send someone out on a tether in a vacuum suit when pirates could show up any minute to check their trap and haul our not-so-broken ships away. I bet whoever you volunteer for that duty will love you."

***

Taka had had to do a little hacking of Bizi Kei's system—or rather, he had had to do a little hacking of Bizi Kei's system to find out where to start hacking into Jimsho's system—to find out exactly where the survivors from the crew of the Arashi had been reassigned. It had been a kind of sloppy job, much less careful than he usually did, but he was running short on time and he had to know before the assignment. Forty-eight hours before any mission Bizi Kei had a radio silence policy—it was a good idea, reducing the possibility for security leaks, either accidental or on purpose, by reducing the opportunity for one to occur—so he had had to get everything done before then. Lieutenant Matsumoto Jun had been promoted to Captain, given command of a strike cruiser named the Love So Sweet. Lieutenant Aiba was stationed there with him as his second. The other three survivors were all stationed to the ground base, Pikanchi. Taka wouldn't be able to get to any of them—he'd have enough trouble taking on a strike cruiser in his fighter; ONE OK ROCK Squadron wasn't up to full strength yet since Alex had died—but judging from the other forces assigned to this mission—information he had gotten by hacking his own military's systems this time—they looked like they might be willing to take the base if the opportunity presented itself, so Taka could only hope they'd die when Bizi Kei's ships pounded the ground base from high atmosphere.

Now that he knew where the rest of the crew from the Arashi had gone, he didn't need to milk the information from the crews of the two freighters that had picked them up. Still, that chance encounter near Hoshiwo Mezashite demonstrated that Jimsho wanted to protect them, and they might be tricked into devoting valuable resources to that end, distracting Jimsho from the strike they didn't know was going to come to the base at Kefera.

The run up to the Jimsho base was tense, but not more than usual—ONE OK ROCK Squadron was alert, comm chatter kept to a minimum but generally light-hearted, the other pilots relaxed and ready for whatever Jimsho would throw at them. Taka kept a light hand on the fighter's controls; locking up would get him killed once the fight opened up. The strike force had stopped at the edge of the system to arrange themselves, a line of smaller, more maneuverable capital ships—mostly frigates like the Arashi had been—in front, followed by the fighters, which could speed up to cut in front of the capitals when the base scrambled fighters itself, and then finally the heavy battle cruisers at the back, holding the door open if they needed to get out of the Kefera system in a hurry. The big guns would move in to strike at the base's ground defenses after the major space fighting was over. Nestled safely between the two battle cruisers, and with its own contingent of four armored assault shuttles, was a small medical frigate and two medishuttles. Two of the assault shuttles would stay with the medical frigate, and each medishuttle would get an assault shuttle partner for the battle. Part of the Liu Shen Treaty included agreements not to fire on medical vessels, but it paid to be careful with your soldiers' lives.

Taka wondered just how far out the base's surveillance systems ran. Mission briefing had said they shouldn't have to worry about enemy hostiles until they were at least within a visual line of sight of the base, but Taka knew from bitter experience that mission briefings weren't always accurate. The fleet ghosted through space, though, without any sign that the Jimsho forces stationed on Kefera had any idea they were coming.

“Tighten it up,” Taka told the rest of his squadron through the comm. No accidents this time. He kept his eyes open, and his hand light on the stick, and the Bizi Kei Alliance strike force glided closer to their target, roar of engines lost in the vacuum of space.

***

Matsujun was the official Captain of Love So Sweet, but with Takki and Tsubasa ensconced in Pikanchi Base, Ohno—technically in command of Pikanchi Base—and the rest of the command crew from the Arashi found themselves drifting towards the ship as a temporary 'home' for the duration of Sector Commander Takki's stay. If it were anyone else, Matsujun might have pitched a fit, but his soft spot for "Leader" reared its head again and Matsujun had unofficially ceded command without a second thought or comment—particularly because his crew was not suicidal enough to make an issue of it. That was how they ended up on Love So Sweet when the alarm sounded.

The Love So Sweet was in orbit—Ohno, Nino, and Sho having come up together on a small shuttle, now either nestled somewhere safely in the large ship's hold, or already sent back down to Pikanchi Base with a load of cruiser personnel on shore leave. There wasn't time to take one of those shuttles back down to the main base, no time to get back to their stations, not with the ship's alarms all blaring battle warnings and a voice over the ship's intercom system ordering all hands to their stations.

Nino didn't have a battle station, not on the Love So Sweet. His was technically down on base, but there wasn't anything he could do about that at the moment. He was technically off duty now anyway, which wouldn't have mattered under normal battle conditions, but with Takki in command on base at least Nino didn't have to worry about the chain of command breaking down in his absence.

He rushed to the command center on the bridge anyway; he didn’t want anyone to have to be spared to come hunt for him if it turned out they needed him after all. Ohno and Sho were already there, along with Matsujun, wordlessly in charge again now that battle was imminent. They understood the chain of command; the crew didn’t need any distractions, couldn’t afford hesitation about whose orders to follow, and so Ohno was merely an observer for this battle unless something happened that would keep Matsujun from being able to act.

Sho flagged Nino over to the small knot of people clustered around the edge of Matsujun’s command console. Sho smiled when he got closer and gestured to a chair next to Ohno’s where he could sit. It was a comm console, used to monitor and direct the fighters that were launching themselves out of Love So Sweet’s fighter bays at that very moment. “Commander Ohno’s already relayed the situation to Sector Commander Takki in command. Our people know not to expect us. I figured that if we’re stuck here, we might as well make ourselves useful, and got Matsujun to assign us bridge positions,” Sho explained.

Nino grinned rakishly and dropped into his chair. He had two and three flights. Other than relaying orders from Love So Sweet command, mostly he’d be in charge of making sure their comm traffic was routed properly. It would be an almost painfully boring task if the battle went in their favor, but it could get tricky if the enemy were using jammers to interfere with communication. A little message popped up above his console: orders.

Nino scanned them quickly, then toggled his comm on and set it his fighters’ designated frequency. “Two flight, three flight, you have permission to engage the other fighters at will. Watch out and don’t get too close to the big guns. Four flight will be taking care of any fighters aiming for strafing runs on the cruiser, so you concentrate on the rest of them. Copy?”

“Two flight copies,” buzzed back through the comm, followed by three flight’s acknowledgement a few beats later. Nino turned his attention to his monitor—green blips for Jimsho ships, the other side picked out in orange—as the battle broke in the middle like pixilated waves across a beach.

***

Kame was pretty certain they were clear of the minefield when the frigate came in system directly in front of them. Jin pulled hard to port the moment it came into sight in the front view port, but Kame still had a moment where he knew in his gut they were going to crash into the bigger ship and die horrible, messy, hopefully quick deaths. Rationally, Kame knew the ship was minutes away even at full speed, and that thought sunk in slowly as the ship receded a little in the front view now that Jin had changed course.

He was so busy getting his breathing under control he almost didn't notice the two assault shuttles that had hopped in behind the frigate, gun and armor heavy on their small frames. He noticed when they adjusted course immediately, one for the Space Queen, and one toward where, presumably, the One Piece was. Jin adjusted course again, this time deliberate instead of pure reflex, trying to angle below the line of flight the frigate had taken into the system. The assault shuttle on them adjusted course too, and Jin's face settled into grim lines. "As soon as I get a chance, I'm making a run for it. We need to hold them off until I can get a vector out of the system," Jin told Kame.

Kame considered yelling back into the belly of the ship itself, but belatedly realized that the comm system would be more efficient. "Someone's coming in on us," he shouted, switching the ship's intercom on. "Get down to the guns and hold on!"

A light pinged on above the vidview, and Koyama's face stretched out from the center of the screen as it warmed up. "Those aren't pirate ships," Koyama said. "They're in way too good condition to be some freeloaders trying to score clueless merchant ships."

Kame nodded. "The minefield should have been our first clue. Probably pretty lucrative in the long run, but kind of costly to set up in the first place." Koyama nodded back. "Look, we're making a break for it first chance we get. You do the same. We're not getting out of this if we have to stick together like there's a cord strung between us. Meet up at Pikanchi after?"

"Got it. See you on the other side." Koyama ended the call and the screen flickered back to black. Jin swerved suddenly, evident more through the sudden swing of the stars in the viewport and the enemy ships sliding rapidly out of view, than through any sense of motion. The One Piece swung into view, bullets sparking off its reinforced hull. It didn't look like any penetrated, but it was too far away to tell for sure. One of the guns on the One Piece opened up enthusiastic return fire as the assault shuttles closed in—must have been Tegoshi. The percussive rattle of the Space Queen's own guns echoed up from the gunnery stations as Junno and Ueda followed suit.

Jin turned the ship again, aiming for a course out of the system, but the frigate started correcting course to intercept them. Their options were limited because of the mine field behind them. They were effectively cut off from most of the system and any way out except the one they'd come in, the one currently being blocked by a Bizi Kei Alliance frigate and a couple of assault shuttles.

The ship shook for a moment, lights flickering violently, and Kame grabbed the arm of his console chair for support. In the pilot's seat, Jin grimaced. "Must have let them back us up too far—hit a mine," he said. He maneuvered them forward again, but now the ship was shaking with skittering bullet impacts, and the louder reverberations of return fire from their own guns. His comm blipped, and Kame turned up the reception, but left his own screen blank. "Cease fire, power down your engines, and prepare to be boarded. No one needs to get hurt here," the pilot of the shuttle was saying.

Kame fingered the grip on the raging bull Koki had given him as a present—it matched Koki's and Nakamaru's own guns, but in a different color—and considered the possibility of letting them be boarded. It wasn't looking good. They had held out longer than, by rights, a Manta 52 should have been able to, thanks to the upgrades Jimsho had given them as part of their deal—they had almost certainly held out longer than the Bizi Kei ships thought they would. They'd probably been hoping to come in system and find a couple of disabled freighters in the middle of their little minefield. Still, even functional, and with that extra edge, they were more than outmatched in terms of firepower. If they didn't get a vector out system soon, they'd be in a lot of trouble. Kame called the One Piece.

"Seems like they want to cut a deal," Kame said after Koyama answered. On the vidview, Koyama opened his mouth to respond when half a squadron of Jimsho Confederacy fighters dropped into the system. They lit up one of the assault shuttles immediately, the one closer to the One Piece and the edge of the system. The frigate fired on them calmly, as though they'd been told to expect company, but the fighters were drastically more maneuverable than the frigate's guns, and if they took any damage at all it was minor.

Kame got a voice-only message from one of the pilots as the fighters broke into two groups—one creating a screen near the frigate like a swarm of gnats, and the other winging quickly towards the Space Queen's position and the assault shuttle making yet another run on them. "This is Venus Lead. We're here to rescue you. Space Queen, One Piece, are you good for flight? Over." As he watched, the assault shuttle juked straight into a cluster of mines—only visible as they shot sparks upon impact—and then stopped moving.

Kame toggled his comm, targeting the half squadron's frequency, and came on line just as Koyama was finishing confirming the One Piece's flight readiness. "This is the Space Queen. We are also good to go. Let's get out of here!"

***

The ground shook under Takki, dust knocked down from the ceiling, but no cracks had appeared yet in the reinforced steel and concrete that made up the command center. The front wall was taken up entirely by viewscreens—camera views, and sensor scans from the base and space, and feeds from every single ship currently under Takki's command. The Love So Sweet moved to engage with one of the two big battle cruisers Bizi Kei had brought; Takki ordered a cluster of three Jimsho frigates and a handful of mid-class ships to swarm the other. Bizi Kei's big capital ship could easily take out any one of the smaller ships moving to engage it if it could get in a few good volleys. They weren't designed to take the kind of damage a cruiser that size could dole out.

As long as they kept moving though, they had a decent shot of wearing it down slowly and keeping it occupied until the Love So Sweet was free to take it on. Takki had orders sent to all of the smaller ships dancing around the big Bizi Kei cruiser—the Renai, an ensign carrying a sheaf of print-outs of battle data informed him—to make sure to pull back if they took extensive damage, and to do it before they ended up dead in space and dead in the cross-hairs of the gunners of the big ship. He got a slew of acknowledgments back from the various officers tasked with communications with the fleet, but resolved to keep one of his own eyes on that part of the battle as well. Not all the captains up there were as experienced as Takki would have liked, and it was easy to get distracted by the shot you think will come your way in just a moment until it was too late for you to get out of danger yourself. Takki was too seasoned to think they'd come out of this unscathed, but he didn't want any more losses than necessary.

None of the enemy ships were close enough to the planet yet for Takki to use the surface-to-space rockets, but one of Bizi Kei's smaller cruisers seemed to be edging that way. He set the lieutenant in charge of the S2S to monitor that ship in particular, and to start working out firing solutions now. He had orders to launch the moment that cruiser came into range.

Takki was rewarded a few minutes later, and the whole base shook—more dust drifting down from the roof—with the force of the launch. A hole blossomed in the side of the Bizi Kei ship, spewing atmosphere and fire, and that half of the ship went dark, a cord somewhere severed, cutting it off from the energy the engines were producing. The room shook again a few minutes later, the S2S finally reloaded and firing again. This shot drilled into the hole the first rocket created in the small cruiser, and the ship on the viewscreen shivered, and then cracked in half. Escape pods jetted out from the less damaged side, and then the ship started flaking and breaking apart as it skimmed the planet's atmosphere.

Two more cruisers come into the S2S's range, but it was still being reloaded. The ground shook, and an ensign lost his footing as the cruisers started pummeling the base from space, dancing back out of range before the rocket launcher had a chance to fix on a firing solution. It wasn't a long barrage, but the base had taken some damage from it; one of the tunnels connecting the southern compound to the rest of the base had collapsed, and when this was over, they'd have to spend some time digging their way out.

The cruisers pulled back; someone up there must have used the death of the first cruiser to time the amount of time it took for Pikanchi's S2S to reload. Takki didn't think they'd be getting another shot at them, not for a while at least. Suddenly, a squadron of fighters pulled away from the main battle where the fighters had been swarming, and jetted towards the planet's surface. Takki watched, fascinated. He wasn't entirely sure what they thought they're doing, but he reckoned Pikanchi could withstand four fighters. Calmly, Takki helped the ensign back to his feet, and ordered the Jimsho frigates to concentrate their fire on the two cruisers that had gotten away.

***

It was unusual to ask fighters to make strafing runs on ground targets—a waste of their speed and maneuverability, really, but the Sid was still busy trading blows with the Love So Sweet, and the Renai was hanging dead in space. It wasn't still leaking atmosphere, as far as Taka knew, which on a ship that size meant that the hull breaches had been patched or contained, but all their systems seemed to be down, from engines to basic life support. The damage could be repaired if they got the ship out of there, but there was no way the Renai would be rejoining the battle.

The Otegami and the Ajisai were engaged with several smaller capital ships, keeping them off the two big cruisers, and Karasu Squadron—also technically under Taka's command for this battle—had been assigned to keep Pikanchi's fighters from taking down any more of their smaller ships. Ground defenses were still launching the occasional rocket up past the planet's atmosphere into the fray. The smaller capital ships made very sure to stay out of the rockets' range, and the frigates were generally maneuverable enough to get out of the way if they ventured too close to the planet, but without the Renai, the engagement was quickly turning into a stalemate—and a costly one at that. That was where Taka and his ONE OK ROCK Squadron came in.

They weren't equipped with heavy enough firepower to take out the rocket emplacement themselves—you couldn't get bullets of a high enough caliber to take out a surface-to-space tower on a fighter and still expect it to fly—but you could create an awful lot of chaos on the ground. Blow up enough nearby buildings, even unimportant ones, stir up enough smoke, keep enough people pinned or kill them outright, and they wouldn't be able to operate the defense emplacement efficiently enough for it to make trouble for their ships up above. And while a fighter, or even a whole squadron of fighters wouldn't be able to take the building out themselves, they were also way too fast for the rocket launcher's targeting system to hit. The only way the surface-to-space launcher could take one of them out was by pure accident—and really bad luck, on the fighter pilot's part, because those rockets were actually bigger than the fighters themselves.

"Break off into pairs and set up for strafing runs," Taka ordered the rest of ONE OK ROCK. "Go for whatever structures look like you can take out—non-critical buildings, latrines, fuel tankers if we're lucky; whatever, all go. Shoot anything that shoots back." ONE OK ROCK Squadron copied, and they streaked in from high in the atmosphere towards Pikanchi Base.

They made a few strafing runs, part suppression fire, and part targets of opportunity. The buildings were mostly reinforced concrete, and didn't take a lot of damage, but Toru caught a few barrels of fuel stacked neatly against one building's corner. They exploded, and the building next to them caught fire.

They didn't get much longer than that to work with. Taka was barely through the smoke billowing from that corner of the base when his comm lit up with a fleet-wide message. Retreat.

Taka growled in frustration. He knew, logically, that they weren't going to take Pikanchi at that point. They'd suffered too many losses to be able to hold it—they had just been buying time to try to get the Renai back to functional enough to limp her way out of the system. Taking the base had never been a main objective to anyone but Taka anyway—more a target of opportunity than anything; the intent of the strike was more to cripple the forces there, and leaving it under Jimsho command would then force the Confederacy to devote more troops to rebolstering its defenses. They'd hit Pikanchi Base hard, and Pikanchi had struck back, but ultimately retreat was the only and best option now—staying any longer would defeat the purpose of the attack.

Even knowing this, it grated on Taka's nerves, not knowing if his own personal mission had been accomplished or not, and not being able to find out, but there was nothing he could do about it here. Get out, first thing. He'd found them before, and if they'd lived, he could find them again. Ultimately, all it came down to was a matter of time, but he'd avenge Alex in the end. He couldn't do that if he died in a foolhardy solo attack in direct disobedience to his orders on Pikanchi.

"You heard them, fastest way out you can find," Taka reiterated to his squadron. "The Renai isn't in any condition to be hauling our tails out of here, so we'll have to leave the system ourselves. Does everyone have enough fuel to make it to the rendezvous point?"

There was a burst of comm chatter, a mixture of Ryouta and Tomoya confirming their fuel gauges between themselves, and Toru telling him he was good to go. "Ryouta and I have enough, but not much more than that," Tomoya confirmed a moment later.

"Alright then. Try not to get sidetracked mopping up any hostiles on the way out. If you run out of fuel we've got no way of coming back for you," Taka said, pointing his nose to the sky, and suddenly down became back and ONE OK ROCK Squadron shot off like arrows aimed for space.

That was when Taka hit a piece of falling debris. It was a piece of the ROSE BLOOD, the first ship Pikanchi's S2S rocket launcher had taken out, and the ship had been breaking up on the outer edge of the planet's atmosphere ever since. It wasn't large compared to the fighter—maybe the size of a man, and only a few centimeters thick. If Taka had been going more slowly, it would have done some damage, but nothing too dramatic. Moving at full speed, he hadn't even had a chance to see it before it crashed into his right wing, shearing it right off, and sending his fighter into a dizzying spin.

Taka smashed his head against the side of the cockpit, pain ripping through him as the centripetal force slammed him around inside his fighter, and forced the blood out of his head. There was an orange indicator light lit up above his head: life support was out. Taka tried to right his ship, pulling hard on the controls, but the right wing and engine were just gone, and he couldn't regain control. Nothing he could do, the thought sinking in even as Taka blacked out. He wouldn't be conscious for the crash.

***

"So that's it?" Kame asked, a little suspiciously. It was maybe the third time he'd asked it, a little more explicitly each time. Ryo couldn't really blame him; it was hard to believe that, just like that, Jimsho was calling the upgrades paid for, particularly with the mess Pikanchi Base was in now. Takki was all smiles though.

"Tsubasa says he's got all the bugs in our systems worked out. I'm not saying we wouldn't appreciate a little, um, help with supplies to repair the damage here, but our deal was for as long as it took to get Bizi Kei off your backs and firmly out of our network. So, Tsubasa says he's got everything fixed up there, I can't keep you any longer. You were pretty good at fetching though, gotta say."

"I'd say it was a pleasure doing business with you," Ryo sneered, "but I really hope this never happens again."

Getting ready for take off didn't take either freighter long after that. Yamapi had gotten a list of supplies they'd want from Commander Ohno, but Ryo had insisted they weren't promising to get anything. They'd pass it along to Toma, see if he knew anyone looking for that kind of job. Honestly, Ryo couldn't be happier to get out of there at last—the recycled air on the One Piece tasting inexplicably better knowing it was mixed with freedom. Off to new places, new runs, and the limitless bounds of space.

"Well, I'm certainly glad to be rid of your ugly face," Kame teased. Ryo swatted at him good-naturedly. After everything, he might actually miss the other crew. Somehow he didn't think they could go back to just being business rivals again.

Still. Ryo took a deep breath. Definitely tasted better. This was spacing again, just the way Ryo liked it.

***

Epilogue:

Taka came to slowly, woozy and groggy in a way that didn't seem related to the concussion he knew he'd gotten. In fact, Taka was remarkably free of actual pain, considering his last memories after having his head slammed into the side of the cockpit were of his fighter breaking up in atmosphere, and the surface of the planet rushing up at him at several hundred kilometers per hour. He remembered an orange light, glowing at him balefully—life support down, it was telling him, but there was nothing he could do, and besides, he was crashing anyway. That orange light had swum in and out of focus for a few pain-filled moments; but then a combination of inertia and gravity pulled the blood from his brain and even his tenuous focus had greyed out to darkness.

He could still see that orange glow behind his eyelids, and had to blink his eyes to clear it away. It was a light, shining into his eyes, white now that his eyelids weren't in the way. He was in a room, not his cockpit, and that didn't make any sense. The room still swam and dipped crazily, and it wasn't anywhere he recognized.

"So," said a slim man as he stepped forward to stand next to the head of the bed Taka was propped up in. Taka tried to brush his hair from his eyes, as though that was the reason the world around him wouldn't seem to stand still, and realized that his arms were restrained, cuffed to the rails on the bed. "I see you're awake. We have a lot to talk about."