by Liz Sawyer
Ian woke to the smell of bacon, eggs and coffee, ambrosia after four days of evasion exercises in the woods. But the other scent brought the smile to his face. The scent of Ti, the sight, when he opened his eyes, of her standing next to the bed, smiling back.
“Heard you took out Security’s top team in record time.”
“Missing you’s all it took.” He reached out, took her hand and pulled her down onto him. A long, lazy kiss followed, hands drifted over bodies…
The comm buzzed.
Ian cursed, Ti sighed, then spoke. “Voice only. Yes, Commander?”
“My office, as soon as possible.”
“Yes, sir. Comm off.”
“I’m going nowhere ’til I shower and eat. Move, woman.”
Ti turned her head so she could look at his face. “Really want me to?” Her breath whispered across his bare chest.
Ian let a hand meander down her torso, her hip, linger on her thigh. “No. But I hate doing things in a hurry.”
Ti grinned. Then she was off the bed and moving to the table. “Better hurry or you’ll have cold eggs.”
Fifteen minutes later, they were walking across the compound to the office of the Commandant of Terran Security’s Field Training Camp. Their passage did not go unnoticed and it wasn’t solely because they weren’t in uniform. Few of the looks directed at them were friendly.
“Maybe I should’ve let them catch me.” An empath, Ian always kept his shields tight in public. He tightened them even more as he spoke to Ti.
“Wouldn’t’ve mattered. The Treaty might’ve put Oseeah under Terran Security, but to Outworlders it’s still separate, so guess who gets all the action? Besides, you had quite a rep before you got here.”
His reputation was something the Hero of Daveriddea, the only living holder of the Terran Medal of Honor, had learned to ignore when he could and use when he had to. But he was noticeable anyway, at 6’2″, an athletic 180 pounds, all balanced in movements shouting of a life spent as a Terran Fleet fighter pilot. Even those were secondary, though, for it was his face that made Captain Ian Makanda so recognizable. It was all sharp angles, jutting cheekbones, Roman nose, thin, compressed lips beneath a small mustache, a strong chin and jaw covered by a closely trimmed beard, all overhung by a widow’s peak of black hair just touched with gray at the temples. And, underneath thick black brows, deep blue brooding eyes. Compelling eyes, matching a face that, in public, rarely smiled.
Ti Stuart was his opposite. Curly shoulder-length auburn hair topped a face dusted with freckles across a pert nose and soft cheeks. Spring-grass-green eyes were often lit with laughter, as was her mouth, with what Ian called a summer smile. She was petite, only 5’4″, 120 pounds of cat-like grace. Her reflexes were almost as fast as Ian’s, her poise and air of command even more so, as befitted the Vice Commander of the Outworld Security and Intelligence Agency.
They were immediately admitted into the commandant’s office. The man standing behind the desk waited until the door into his office closed before speaking.
“I’ve received an urgent message from General Rotiya, to be delivered personally, in strictest confidence.” The words were snapped off. “You are to go to Detalas immediately. All necessary information has been sent to your ship.”
“Very well.” Ti was just as abrupt. “I assume our ship is being prepped.”
“It is. You’ve been cleared for immediate departure. A skimmer’s waiting.”
Ti and Ian returned to their room for a few personal items, then were taken to their ship. Ian started the exterior walk-around while Ti headed for the cockpit and the take-off check-list. They departed thirty minutes later, entering t-space as soon as they left the planetary atmosphere.
“Three days to Detalas,” Ian said, entering the lounge-galley.
He saw Ti just straightening up at her computer, knew she had waited until they entered the security of time-space to have the computer decrypt and open Rotiya’s message.
“What’s so urg—”
Shock, disbelief, and sorrow reverberated through their mental bond.
Ian strode over, embraced Ti as he read the words on the computer screen he had already read from her mind.
RL reported problems with recent shipments. Sent Torin. Two reports received. Then message he was killed in robbery. Police reports attached. Case now yours, as is appointment as replacement.
Ian’s thoughts were full of sympathy. He had only known Oseeah’s Commander two years; Ti had been recruited by Torin, partnered with him until they decided their telepathy was too similar to be compatible.
“Robbery?” Disbelief filled Ti’s voice. “He wouldn’t’ve resisted.”
“Wasn’t Detalas his home planet? Maybe the robber didn’t know who he was robbing, came from behind, then recognized Torin, or Torin recognized him, killed to avoid discovery.”
“Maybe.” Ti touched the screen to list the remaining messages, then pulled out her chair and sat.
Ian perched on the arm of her chair, let his arm rest across her shoulders. He felt her stiffen as the computer finished listing the messages.
“Personal vid, copies of the two reports, the police report,” Ian kept his voice casual. “And two additional messages, doubly encrypted, not sent to Rotiya. And since there’s only one thing the Commander of Terran Security isn’t to know about…”
“Let’s not assume anything yet,” Ti said, then, “Computer, play Torin vid.”
Torin’s smiling face filled the screen. “Wish I could be around to hear how you wiped the floor with Security, but the day after you left, I got a message from Rotiya.” The smile disappeared. “There’re problems with the shipments Rayard Laser’s been receiving from Detalas, specifically from the Kingsford Mine. Don’t know if you recall, Ian, but RL’s design was chosen for the new laser system in the Cobras. Been one thing after another with that new fighter and you stopping the sabotage didn’t stop the problems. This is the latest. Diamonds, either substandard in quality or out and out flawed. They’ve had to reinspect each individual diamond, as well as go back, pull out and check the ones already installed. I’ll keep you posted.”
“The Cobras,” Ti stated as the screen went dark. “That was nearly a year ago and TATT’s been quiet since. I know, Anders wasn’t the brightest in that group, but I took it from his mind and he was convinced TATT was getting back into action. Going to turn The Treaty upside down, he said.”
“Anybody belonging to Terrans Against The Treaty is a fanatic and fanatics are never bright. It was a good idea, poorly executed.”
“Still doesn’t mean it couldn’t’ve been TATT. Nothing for nearly fifty years, most of the old leaders dead or in prison, take awhile to get back up to speed. It’s just, I felt something… Okay,” Ti laughed as Ian’s hand kneaded her shoulder. “I’ll save it ’til we know what’s in the two final messages. So, let’s see what Torin found. Comp, display messages, summaries first.”
Reports appeared on screen.
Arrival, meetings with President, Trade Minister, informed Kingsford’s Chief of Mine Security accompanied latest shipment to Earth, due back shortly. RL’s complaints attached.
Ti skipped to the second summary, which wasn’t much longer.
Tried to get appointment with mine owner, asked to wait ’til CMS gets back, he’ll have current info. Meantime, received full access to everything. Started with the port, reviewed security reports, procedures for transporting diamonds from the mines to the port, then to Earth, where RL takes over. Received the port’s original security vids for the past year. Going to mine tomorrow.
“Sounds boring as hell. Comp, clear screen and activate security program 476 Victor 238 on remaining messages.”
The screen flashed green, then went dark.
“Take awhile to decrypt, depending on how long the reports are and if he used the same ’crypt for both. Probably didn’t, but the first will have the code for the second.” She leaned back against Ian’s arm. “Comp will decrypt both. Even if something’s in the first report, nothing we can do now.”
“Plenty of other things we can do now.” As Ian rose, he scooped Ti out of her chair. Their mouths met as her arms twined around his neck.
The next morning Ti read aloud the first decrypted message’s summary as Ian finished the breakfast chores.
“Went out to the Kingsford Mine, met the Assistant Chief of Security. Toured the mine, examined security, got their original security vids, went back to his ship. And found a ‘Welcome To Detalas, Join Us For Supper’ invitation from the Golden Zebra. He did. Dessert was delivered by one of the ladies, who then joined him.” Ti leaned back in her chair, looked across the lounge-galley at Ian. “She told him he needed a glass of Glenlivet to really enjoy dessert. Got just cozy enough to make future meetings believable.”
“So you were right and The Network found a link to TATT.”
The Network was a seller of any information to anyone with the right price. It was operated by Stacey Brenna, also the owner of the universally renowned chain of Golden restaurant-bars, located next to every spaceport. The Goldens were fronts for The Network.
Stacey was Ti’s most confidential informant.
She agreed to have her agents provide Oseeah agents with information, from wildest rumors to set-in-stone facts, about anything involving TATT. “A glass of Glenlivet,” a very rare Terran Scotch, was the code. Stacey’s only demand, non-negotiable, was that Security know nothing about it.
“What’s next?” Ian asked as he unlocked his chair from his own computer station opposite hers, swung it around and locked it in place next to her.
“Second message is a vid.” As Ian sat, Ti started it.
Torin’s face was somber, frowning.
“I knew something was wrong when I met with President Munsen. We grew up together and he’s never formal in private. This time, he simply lamented the circumstances and stated that he knew I’d get to the bottom of everything. There was someone else in the room with us, I assumed a bodyguard, but always before Phil sent them out. Not this time and something told me not only not to mention it, but not to try to read him. Now I know why. Larissa told me that John Gurdin had brought in new people for security and admin when he took over Kingsford Mine after his father died. She described all of them as tough, hard looking. Rarely came into town, but when they did, it was in a group and they stayed together. No trouble, mostly because people avoided them. She said there’d been grumbling about outsiders, changes that were being made. A lot of people were let go. Then there was a small cave-in, half a dozen miners died. The grumbling stopped. Larissa said that was when the people who worked at the mines stopped coming into town as much, the wives seemed jumpier, even the kids were quieter. The six who died were the most vocal about the changes.
“I asked about an inquiry and Larissa laughed. It’d been chaired by one of the independent mine owners. Findings were a horrible accident. The chairman’s son is now attending a prestigious medical school on Earth, all expenses paid. I asked why someone hadn’t sent a report to us. Larissa said that was when Phil got new bodyguards. I’m going to talk to Phil, but first I want to meet Joe Thomas. He’s Kingsford’s Chief of Mine Security, due back day after tomorrow.
“Larissa said he first arrived a few days before John’s father died. Old school friend, stayed on because John was devastated. Once John recovered, he replaced nearly all the security and admin people with Terrans, put Thomas in charge. Rumor has it he’s telepathic. I’ll be checking out how John’s father died.”
Torin’s voice reflected the anger on his face.
“So far I’ve not found anything in Thomas’ background to indicate any ties to TATT, but it just doesn’t add up. Something is very wrong. And a message I just received from Larissa may be it. She wanted to be sure I hadn’t forgotten our date for supper and a vid tonight. Which means she’s found something. I’ll send the info in the next message.”
The screen went black.
“Which he never wrote.”
Ti nodded. “Nothing from Stacey, which means Larissa found it herself. She’d have info’ed Stace, but since there’s no way of receiving transmissions in t-space and I doubt it was marked ‘urgent’, it probably hasn’t even been forwarded. We could drop out and check, but I don’t want to waste the time.”
“Agreed. Dropping out, just to snatch messages, without knowing if there are any—” Ian shook his head. “Might only take seconds, but those could mean hours or even days added when the t-space computer recalculated travel time and it doesn’t sound like we can spare it.”
He then moved his chair back to his own computer station and ordered the police report on-screen. “Last chance. I’ve done this before, you haven’t.”
“It’s part of the job.” Ti cleared her screen, unlatched her chair and scooted it next to Ian. “There has to be a first time.”
“It helps if you can think of him as Commander Simmons.”
Ti heard the understanding, felt the sympathy, knew the impartiality was what Ian used at Daveriddea. Knew it hadn’t worked then, either. Their hands met, clasped, as their attention went to the report on Tor—Commander Simmons’—death. Which was actually quite bland.
“It sounds so innocuous,” Ti said, following their reading of the initial and follow-up police reports. “Quiet Wednesday night. One of the new security personnel had just gotten engaged and his friends threw a party at the Zee. And who should show up but the girl and her friends with the same idea. No problem. Except there was already a retirement and a birthday party going on. Main parking lot full, overflows opened and, since it was raining, everyone parked as close to the entrance as possible. So, when Torin arrived, the closest he could get was five rows back in a side lot. Why didn’t he use valet parking? He and Larissa had supper in her suite, stayed two hours, then left. Why?” Irritation crept into Ti’s voice. “She’d invited him for supper and a vid. He could’ve stayed hours, the night. He could’ve sent a message from her comp, knowing Stace, it’s probably better protected than ours. So why the hell didn’t he? Run the security vid.”
They watched as the police chief appeared, introduced himself and apologized for the bad copy. “Two of the security lights and both cameras covering the area where Torin parked were out. The only one working was on the opposite side of the lot. Here’s what it recorded.”
There wasn’t much to see. A dark, rainy night, two figures walking under an umbrella, then three people suddenly appeared, accosted the two, two fell and three ran. The three kept their backs to the working camera.
“Trap,” Ti cursed.
“And very well done,” Ian agreed. “I don’t like it. Killing the head of Oseeah; nobody could be that arrogant.”
Ti stood, squared her shoulders, raised her chin just a fraction as she looked down her nose at Ian. “Oh, yes, they could.”
Ian raised an eyebrow. “Not without backup.” His voice was firm. “Fourth Fleet can spare a destroyer. Marines are always complaining they never get used.”
Half an hour later, Ian brought their ship out of t-space long enough for the computer to send a message. And, since they were out anyway, it searched and snatched the only message on their frequency.
“From Stacey,” Ti told Ian. “Double encrypt. Bet it tells us what Larissa found.”
An hour later, the computer beeped and the written message appeared on screen. It wasn’t what they were expecting.
Day after Larissa first met Torin, she worked the Zee’s dining room. Overheard bits of conversion from a group of the new security personnel. “Getting back in the air’ll be worth the wait,” “We’re in on the start,” and what really caught her attention, “Old shells, new pilots, we gonna rock!”
Her father’d been a Fleet mechanic, busted out, offered a job a couple years later, she didn’t know the details, but he told her he wasn’t going to renovate shells for who knew who no matter how good the pay.
Soon as I heard, I ran a search. Shells are missing. So are a lot of other things. And people. At least six of the security personnel at Detalas are ex-Fleet pilots and I mean “ex” in the worst way. Larissa’s father? Killed in an unsolved hit-run a few days after he turned down the offer. It happened three years ago. Question: why’d she “overhear” this now? Starting a deeper search. Watch your backs.
“Obsolete fighter shells.” Ian answered the Shells? from Ti’s mind. “Gutted, sold to salvagers. Along with obsolete engines and parts.” Ian looked at Ti. “You can’t salvage laser-grade diamonds. They may not break, but even the best develop flaws with repeated use. Depending on the flaw, the Fleet has them cut, the flaw removed, then reinstalled in less vital areas. You can only cut them so far, though, before they’re too small for Fleet use. When that happens, they’re cut so small they can’t be used in any weapons, then sold.”
“RL complained about dozens of flawed diamonds. Computer, is Detalas the only provider of laser-grade diamonds to the Fleet?”
The answer printed on-screen in seconds: No, but theirs are the best.
“Finding the flaws means all the diamonds have to be checked, no matter when they were installed. Won’t be all done at once, but there’ll be fewer fighters available and deployment of the Cobras to the Fleets will be even more delayed. I wonder how closely Gurdin and Thomas are tied to TATT?”
That was a rhetorical question if Ian ever heard one.
On arrival at Detalas, the controller guided them to a landing pad next to Torin’s ship. By the time the shut-down procedures were completed, two skimmers had arrived.
Two men waited as Ti and Ian walked down the ramp. They recognized one as the police chief. The other spoke.
“Port Security Director Johnson, at your service. This is Chief of Police Garner. We’re pleased to meet you, although, considering the circumstances… I’m sure you want the latest information on the investigation into Torin’s death and—”
“Ian will take care of that,” Ti coolly interrupted, “after he checks out Torin’s ship. I will be continuing the investigation into the diamonds. I assume that Director Thomas has returned?”
Johnson nodded, but before he could speak, Ti ordered, “I’ll need a skimmer and driver.”
“My driver, my skimmer and myself are at your convenience,” Johnson smoothly stated.
Ti nodded sharply, turned her head, spoke over her shoulder to Ian. “Transfer everything, then follow-up as you see fit. Usual reporting procedures,” she stated for the benefit of the civilians. No one outside their families and a few very close friends knew they were telepaths, so verbal instructions were necessary. She looked back to Johnson, who stood for a moment before realizing what Ti’s silence meant.
“This way,” he belatedly spoke, gesturing towards the skimmers.
Ti strode past him.
As Ti and Johnson walked off, Chief Garner spoke. “I’ll return to my office, have the latest reports forwarded to your ship. And I’ll send a skimmer and driver back for your use.”
Ian bit back a “thank you” and gave a curt nod of acceptance. He walked to Torin’s ship and up the ramp to the closed hatch, but waited until the Chief left before using Ti’s override code.
It took longer than expected to open Torin’s computer and access the files, despite Ti’s override code. Not that Ian minded; it showed that Torin was very security conscious. And that he had reason to be.
Finally, though, Ian opened Torin’s files. It took seconds to pull up the data on the current investigation, seconds more to find and bring up Torin’s notes from that final meeting with Larissa. Ian began scanning so quickly that, when he found it, he was just a nanosecond too late to shield his thoughts.
Ian heard Ti’s gasp as what he read hit her mind.
Their mental link showed Ian the skimmer’s driver reaching under his seat, bringing up a pistol, shooting Johnson and turning the weapon on Ti, who was already lunging at him as he pulled the trigger.
The pain impaled Ian’s mind, doubling him over. He forced his mental shields up, blocked the pain as he ran to the hatch. He saw a police skimmer landing only yards away. He took a deep breath, straightened, ran to it. Yanking open the driver’s side door, he shoved the cop into the passenger seat as he snarled, “Call Dispatch! All available personnel follow me! Now!”
The skimmer shot into the sky, heading toward the faint touch of Ti’s mind that told Ian she was still alive.
Ian heard the cop alerting Dispatch, then concentrated on his own talent. Creating a minute hole in his shields, he sent strength to Ti through their mental bond.
He vaguely heard the cop telling him that every available cop in the area was converging on them, along with two ambulances. Also, a Fleet Destroyer had just entered the atmosphere, was being directed to their location. Ian let a grim smile cross his face as he pushed the skimmer beyond the engine’s redline.
Less than five minutes later, Ian saw the torn treetops and turned the skimmer’s nose down. Only a few already-broken branches were scraped during the descent. He landed, was out and racing toward the crumpled metal half buried in the ground in almost one motion. The strength he hadn’t stopped sending doubled as Ian reached through the shattered windshield and touched Ti.
“Marines’re happy. Actually had a couple firefights.”
Ti started to chuckle, grimaced. It was the day after the crash and the broken ribs were still regenerating.
“No trace of Thomas,” Ian continued, turning from the hospital window to face Ti in the bed. “If he really returned from Earth. The ship landed after dark, Johnson and his driver were the only ones who met the ship. There’s no record of anyone getting off, it was just assumed Thomas did. The ship left a couple hours later, which was not SOP. Usual practice, the crew was released until time for the next shipment. Johnson’s dead, so’s his driver, neck broken, either in the crash or when you—” He felt Ti’s confirmation, sent her a mental “Well done.”
“Problems here started after Etaff,” he continued. “Added all together, we’ve got delayed deployment of the new fighters to the Fleet, flawed laser quality diamonds, disappearing obsolete fighter shells and parts, ex-pilots talking about action and speaking of whom, guess who were on a shuttle that left here the day after Torin died? Somebody’s starting their own private air wing.”
“TATT. Has to be them, but why?” Frustration colored Ti’s voice. “The Treaty doesn’t come up for renewal for nearly ten years. ‘We’re in on the start.’ The start of what? What the hell is TATT up to?” Ti snapped. Then took a deep breath and looked at Ian. “We’ll brief the agents, have Stacey widen her search. Somebody, somewhere, knows what the hell’s going on and we’re going to find him and make him talk.”
Ian walked over, rested a hand on Ti’s shoulder. Strength, not as intense but just as powerful, flowed through the touch. “Should’ve left you in that alley.”
She reached up, covered his hand with her own. “And missed all the fun?”