Chapter One: Hakon

“I cannot imagine what the Emperor was thinking, sending someone like you on such a delicate mission.”

Ambassador Thalcorr sniffed and took a small, disapproving sip of his tea.

Everything he did was disapproving so I didn’t take it personally.

“It may not be our place to understand,” I answered mildly. “All you have to know is that we’ve both been assigned to go to this Station 112 and make contact. You’ll talk to the corporate envoy, and I’ll follow-up on the manufacturing order.” I grinned, happy to know the sight of my teeth made him nervous. “Speculating on more than that doesn’t do either of us any good.”

Of course, I’d done plenty of speculating on my own.

Quinn and Torik’s foray into the Areitis Sector hadn’t gone unnoticed by Vandalar.

As Emperor, he had other Imperial fish to fry, but I was certain that as soon as he had the time, he’d be redirecting his attention, and troops, towards reestablishing control in the sector.

“Why do we even need to make an order from a second rate corporate manufacturing facility?” Thalcorr demanded.

Again.

I fought back a sigh, instead taking a sip of my own drink.

It definitely wasn’t tea.

“It’s not so much that we need it,” I explained. Again. “Any of the Imperial manufacturing facilities could provide the same part. Think of it is a good-faith order. A test.”

And it worried me more than a bit that the ambassador couldn’t understand such a basic opening gambit.

I’d asked Quinn to do a little poking around. It didn’t look like Thalcorr had done much more than attend parties for the last few decades.

Maybe Vandalar was trying to reward him with an actual assignment.

Or, more likely, punish him for some political infraction I didn’t want to know about.

“I’m not here to get in your way. I’m just along to make sure everything is built to spec.”

And to ensure that Desyk Consolidated Systems was at least slightly legitimate.

Lorcan and Cintha’s little adventure into the world of coerced and kidnapped workers had us all on alert.

So when our friends from Heladae had sent out a message on the dark boards of Areitis, just to see who might be willing to open talks with the Empire, it was just our luck that the one nibble we had so far was from a corp that didn’t have the cleanest reputation.

Vandalar had limits.

Nice change from the usual political nonsense.

“I have served the Empire for my entire career,” Thalcorr started up again.

I didn’t doubt it. Every inch of Ambassador Rix Thalcorr looked like a patrician, Hub-born fop.

Silvered hair carefully swept back at the temples, smooth, perfectly regular features, tall but not too tall. Thin but not scrawny.

I’d lay good credits the man had never missed a meal in his life, or used his muscles in anything other than a sculpting pod.

I pushed away from the table and got to my feet, anxious to interrupt him before the spiel picked up speed.

“Look, we don’t have to like each other. To be honest, I doubt if we ever will.” A raised eyebrow confirmed his agreement on that point at least. “But you need to trust that Van knew what he was doing when he sent me on this mission.”

“That’s a level of faith that I’m struggling with,” Thalcorr muttered under his breath.

“And, whether I like it or not, I have to trust that he has some belief that you’re minimally competent. At least, I’m crossing my fingers.”

And with that I took my beverage and headed back to my room.

It actually been a pleasant hour in the lounge before Ambassador stick-up-his-ass had found me, complaining, for the six time in six days about the mission.

I swiped my hand over the palm lock of the door and went into my cabin, twirled the chair around and plopped down, pulling up our progress on my own tablet.

Two hours left and then I could actually get out of the ship and do my job.

I made another tally mark in a private document.

One more time I’d managed not to throw the arrogant prick out an airlock.

It was the little victories that counted, right?

***

We are approaching Station 112. Please prepare for docking.

 Finally.  No one who’d ever traveled on the Queen could say the Imperial ship Denora was cramped. But any more time cooped up with Thalcorr, even on something the size of a dozen residential hives was going to end up with Vandalar short one ambassador.

I pulled up the exterior cameras on my tablet, threw the visuals to the wall screen, and winced.

Station 112 had seen better days.

A long, bulbous spindle held most of the vital machinery, and a habwheel extended from the most central bulge.

The ‘foot’ of the spindle flared into another disk, with radiating ports for docking. Below the docks the station continued for another several meters of deck which finally curved into a dome.

Zooming in, the metal looked scarred and pitted, and far too many lights blinked erratically.

“What the hell have you gotten us into, your Imperial highness?” I grumbled.

But I shouldn’t complain. I’d volunteered to head out on this sideways scouting mission.

Getting Orem Station back into shape after Granny Z had taken it back had been a long, slow job.

Sure, securing our home base was important, especially after what had happened to the Daedalus…but it’d been too long since I’d been in the field.

And it had to be said — the company might suck, but the food on an Imperial ship couldn’t be beat.

A gentle shudder through the hull told me we’d docked. Time to see if this little gamble was worth the roll.

At the airlock, Thalcorr preened, chin raised, foot tapping impatiently waiting for the atmosphere to cycle.

I stayed back, just in case any last minute urges came over me.

Finally the door unsealed and irised open, the short shielded walkway leading into the station before us.

“After you,” I waved. If there was paperwork, he was welcome to it.

And there was always paperwork.  At least, if you came in through the front door.

This time, Void help us, there was an actual welcoming committee.

“Ambassador Thalcorr!” The portly young man actually bowed, still bouncing on his toes in excitement. “I can’t tell you how much your visit means to me, and to Desyk Consolidated Systems!”

Thalcorr shot me a smug smile before returning his attention to the official. “On behalf of his Imperial Majesty, let me say how pleased I am to make your acquaintance. Mr…”

The official kept grinning, curly brown hair in disarray around his round face. The older man behind him rolled his eyes, but stayed quiet.

Thalcorr coughed gently. “My tablet must have had an error. I don’t have your name, Mr…”

“Oh!” the poor man flushed but recovered his balance quickly. “Commander Serrup, leader of Station 112, at your service.” He fumbled in his pockets, and then handed each of us a plastic card. “You’ll need these.”

“How very nice, Commander Serrup,” Thalcorr oozed without bothering to ask what he’d just taken. “I’m so anxious to see your facility. Perhaps you could take me on a tour?”

“Of course, of course!” Serrup burbled. He glanced at me. “Aren’t you coming?”

“Actually, I’d like to see where our parts are being manufactured.”

His eyes widened. “But the order is almost completed.” He looked at the man behind him, and got a quick nod of confirmation. “There’s not much to see.”

“Still. That’s where I’ll start. I can find my own way.

“I suppose,” he said doubtfully, but before long he and Thalcorr headed towards the main axis of the station, ready to see whatever sights there were.

The second man stayed behind, watching me with cautious eyes, expression carefully blank.

“Please tell me you’re actually in charge here, and not that idiot,” I said.

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