“Beloved sister, it has been too long since our paths have met.” He reached out to her and for the first time in months, Kaen found himself smiling for a legitimate reason - not just putting on a show for dignitaries or various members of Tslao royalty.
“These are trying times, Commander Lhenan.” Akena leaned on his rank, two grades above her own, as she took his hand and pulled him into a hug. “You should know that best of all.”
“I fear I do, Captain.” He suddenly felt weary, the weight of the losses of the last few years recalled and heaped upon his shoulders. He sighed but it didn’t wash away his smile. “At least I now carry news that may help alleviate some suffering.”
“Is it so?” Her ears shifted up just a bit, curiosity piqued. She was a decade younger and still not old by any means, but the stresses of the last few years had aged her significantly. The fur at the base of her antennae and the corner of of her mouth had started to turn silver, standing out sharply against the rest of her deep red fur.
“It is. I have spoken extensively with Governor Tereha since the incident on Zshela and he has a few very... Progressive ideas.”
“You say that like you mean dangerous.” Akena admonished him with her eyes. She had never liked it when he was evasive.
“It may be, but I do not think the supply umbilicus is a good place to discuss the finer points of division between the two. Perhaps on my ship,” he teased her. The Verlen had been his ship before his promotion several years ago.
“He’s my ship now, old brother.” She grinned and jabbed him in the ribs before stepping back into the zero-g causeway and floating slowly away. How little they had changed since they were children. “I had engineering tidy up a storage locker for you. They have gotten most of the grease out.”
“That will be a step up from the last ship I was on.” He followed her across the narrow channel between the supply station and the Verlen. “I do not mind cramped quarters, but I do take exception to having the life support fail halfway through the journey. Thank you for picking me up, by the way.”
“It is no trouble, we were closest,” she lied and stepped down into the artificial gravity in the Verlen’s cargo bay. There had been four other ships docked when he arrived.
“I am sure.” All of those ships had left while he waited for her to arrive, sealing his complicity up tight. “The wait does not bother me, I am without assignment right now.”
“Good. Engineering is doing some maintenance on the reactor, we will not be traveling at full speed.” She walked away into the dorsal corridor, secure in the knowledge that Kaen would still know his way around.
He snorted and stepped into his old ship. It still smelled right, a piercing mix of synthetic grease, insulation and welding fumes. But something was off. Not the way it sounded, but the beat of its heart through his boots, the minute vibrations beneath his toes. He picked up his pace, calling out to her. “What have you done to my ship?”
“The Verlen’s need for maintenance is not exaggerated, brother. I wished to have time to enjoy your company and I need no ruse to ensure that.” She was already at the captain’s quarters, the hatch left open behind her.
The narrow passageway was comforting and familiar despite the strange thrum coming from engineering. It only took a few moments to catch up with her, the Verlen was not a large craft. He pulled the hatch closed behind him, locking it. “Very well. As you know, I have neglected my duties as elder of the family.”
“I have come to question how much the old ways apply anymore.” Akena sat in the chair at her desk, leaning on her elbow. “Our homeworld is uninhabitable, half of our people are vagrants and Humans seem to appear every time I shake out my boots. This is not how I envisioned my future.”
He snorted out a curt laugh and clicked his teeth in annoyance. “Zshela was where I went to retire. A quiet frontier planet with an established geoengineering project. You have seen how that ended.”
“You became a hero to our people, brother.” She needled him with a smug grin. “An auspicious way to begin your retirement.”
“There were few options available. I simply took the least poor choice, despite the cost to myself.” Kaen gestured to his right antennae, the thin appendage missing except for a stump as long as his hand. He set his pack on the ground with a grumble and laid out on the bunk. “It is convenient I should mention choices now that we are somewhere private.”
“Yes, brother. Tell me of the Governor’s progressive ideas.” Akena leaned in, eager to hear what he had to say.
“You are aware of the piracy problem in this sector?”
“How could I not be? Our primary directive here is the eradication of piracy.” She was almost annoyed by the obvious question.
“It has been unsuccessful, correct?”
Kaen sat up and rubbed his temples. “Governor Tereha has managed to make contact with the largest pirate clan and has begun negotiations.”
His sister sat in silence for a heartbeat, then burst out. “He has not informed us of this? If he is negotiating, why is there no cease fire? We still die to keep the shipping lanes cleared.”
“He does not negotiate on behalf of the Tslao Empire.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Then who does he negotiate for?”
“This sector. Given the instability of the Empire, he believes it would be safest to split off before there was any sort of central collapse.”
“I know what it is. Will you listen to me, Akena, or does our conversation end here?”
This revelation had certainly cooled her interest, but she dipped her head in assent. “No, brother. Proceed.”
“He does not wish to overthrow the Empress. He does not think ill of the Empire. He believes- I believe this could actually help save it. The military forces currently here would be split. The Empire would have less space to secure and with greater numbers.”
Akena nodded, following along. “Tereha’s sector would have its remaining forces bolstered by the pirates.”
“You are as quick as always. They would be given pardons and would have to work within certain guides but he believes there will be enough regular military to keep them in line while they are shaped into something more honorable.”
“He makes significant assumptions. How does he intend to bring military forces- Ah. I see.” She leaned back in her chair, ears and antennae pulled down tight against her head and crossed her arms, lips pressed into a thin grimace. “He needs a respected member of the military, a hero, to agree with him.”
“That is part of what brings me here. It is good for me to support him, but it would be better to have us do so.”
“I should turn you in myself.” Akena gritted her teeth, eyes narrow. “I do not understand how you could believe this is even worth consideration.”
“Any other time, I would not. I want the Empire to survive, to be strong again. If I must walk away from it to see that happen...” He trailed off, looked at his hands and shrugged. “Perhaps sacrifice has become part of life for me now.”
She reached out and took his hand, the shock of hearing him talk like that clear on her face. “There must be some other way.”
“Is there? The ranks of the pirates grow steadily while our forces dwindle. Humans can only offer us so much help and there are still many who look down upon that. I do not like the idea of them killing our kind for any reason.”
Akena nodded. She was privy to the same reports and intel that he was, she knew exactly how things were going. “Is what he suggests even feasible? There is little manufacturing and no shipbuilding capability here. There would be no monetary system in place. Even with shipments of aid from the Humans, the populace is on the knife’s edge for food and medical supplies.”
“There is shipbuilding capacity here. The pirates have a shipyard for small craft and have nearly finished one capable of manufacturing ships this large.” He patted the wall of the cabin with an affectionate smile. “It is not perfect, but it is a good start. He has thought long about this, sister, and I had the same questions you do.”
Akena considered that for a very long time and when she did speak, she was hopeful. “Will you show me?”
Kaen could easily show her his recollection of his conversations with Tereha with a neural link, but now was not the best time. “Of course. But if you would prefer, I could arrange a meeting with the governor immediately. He would best be able to answer your questions.”
“He is here? On the station?”
“Yes. The clans are not patient, we do not have much time to demonstrate that we can sway any of the Royal Navy to our side.”
Akena rubbed her eyes and sighed. “Yes. I will speak with him.”
Governor Tereha had come aboard almost immediately and stayed after they left the supply station. He had spoken to Akena extensively since they had been underway and shared many neural links to ensure that what she said matched how she felt. Only after he was sure she was trustworthy did he offer up a new set of coordinates. It only took two days cruise to reach them.
“You are sure they do not have an umbilicus built yet?” Kaen, his sister and the Governor waited in the port cargo bay as the Verlen was brought around to the northern pole of a rogue asteroid. Kaen was already annoyed at Tereha for monopolizing his last living relative for the past few days and the prospect of jumping out of the ship to a hidden airlock did not improve his mood.
“They have one, but they will not extend it until they have opened the hangar for the first time.” Tereha gave him a charismatic smile and spread his hands. What could you do? “It is their way.”
He grunted in reply and zipped up the back of his space suit then triggered the autofit. It was tolerable, but he wished he still had his combat armor.
Akena stood by the bay controls, clad in a scuffed and worn engineer’s suit. While it lacked a helmet, it did have shielding that allowed the user to function in a vacuum. “I have been thinking of something, Governor. This sector... it receives much of its financing from the Empire. How do you intend to replace it?”
“Primarily mining and ship sales.” He was less prepared than either of them, still trying to stuff his legs into his suit.
“Those are long term items. Unless the pirates have been doing mining surveys.” She keyed the sequence to open the bay doors, a containment field keeping the atmosphere safely inside. “I am not sure who would be buying ships and minerals from us, either.”
He chuckled, his foot finally slipping into place. “They have, recently. I expect that most of the commodities will be sold to the Tslao Empire. Perhaps we could interest some Humans in exotic ships as well.”
“That will take years. What is to be done until then?”
“I think we will be using our new friends extensively to take care of the short term.” He nodded at the dark asteroid abreast of the ship, a barely visible trio of lights marking the entrance.
“We will engage in piracy. Of the Empire?”
“A small amount, I am sure. But once the clan has had the opportunity to clone the Verlen’s stealth technology and fit more ships with it, we will turn our attention to Human space.” He wrestled with the top half of his space suit, his arm jammed part way into a sleeve that had twisted and folded on itself. “Their settlements have nearly encroached upon this sector already. They are like mud beetles. Having a spider to prey upon them will keep them in check.”
“Let me help you.” She looked at Kaen over the Governor’s shoulder, an eyebrow raised as she helped him into his suit, zipping it up.
“An excellent plan.” The plan was indescribably stupid. If sufficiently annoyed, Kaen had no doubt the Humans would just send out a battle group. With or without stealth capabilities, the force brought to bear would be overwhelming. He nodded back at Akena.
The captain stepped forward and slammed Tahena into the deck. She twisted an arm behind his back and knelt, a knee pressed into his neck.
Tehena gurgled in surprise, his face carved deep with anger when he could focus again. “What are you- release me!”
Akena unsheathed a short knife from her kit and stuck it in the rubbery deck plate, the opalescent white blade glimmering in the bay lights.
His eyes widened when he recognized the material, traditionally reserved for Royals and their agents.
“I want you to tell them something.” Kaen crouched in front of the Governor, screwing something on to a beam welder. He tightened it down and pulled the trigger, the metal of the Betrayer’s sigil glowing orange hot in a few seconds. “They will immediately surrender their shipyard if they desire to avoid a similar disgrace, in life or death.”