Forgotten in Kaggen

Forgotten in Kaggen

Earl T. Roske

The Hospitaller ship, Pryderi, bucked underneath Lieutenant Dewey Tyler’s feet. Down the corridor, several Hospitallers yelped as they collided with each other. They helped each other to their feet while Dewey gripped a handhold tighter with one hand. The Hospitallers who’d regained their feet came in his direction.

“Lieutenant Tyler,” said one of the Hospitallers, Corporal Merle Fleming. He had his fireteam with him. Private First Class Lela Ramirez was limping, favoring her left leg.

“You need to get to your escape pod,” Dewey said. He was watching a small window on an auxiliary data drive he’d plugged into an emergency access port. He turned to take a quick glance at Cpl Fleming’s fireteam before returning his attention to the data drive. “Move now.”

“Yes, Lieutenant,” said Cpl Fleming. “What about you? Do you need help?”

Dewey shook his head. “I’m good, Fleming. Get your people to safety.”

As if to encourage them, the ship tilted, staggering Cpl Fleming’s fireteam, causing PFC Ramirez to gasp in pain. Dewey, still gripping the handhold, reached out to steady one of the other Hospitallers.

“Move now, Corporal,” Dewey said. “You don’t have much time. I’ll be along in a moment.”

“On it,” said Cpl Fleming. He slipped PFC Ramirez’s right arm over his shoulder. “You heard the lieutenant. Section C. Let’s go.”

The ship screeched. Somewhere, an alarm for decompression went off and was quickly muffled by the slamming of an emergency hatch. Dewey could only hope that none of his people or those operating the ship were stuck on the other side.

Meanwhile, a green bar visible on the screen of the data drive was slowly growing longer. Numbers below it counted their way to one hundred percent. He was almost there.

“It’s not your ship to go down with, Lieutenant Tyler.”

Dewey didn’t have to look to recognize the voice. It was his platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Diane Castro.

“I’ve no plans on going down with this or any ship,” Dewey said. The green bar had almost reached its end. Ninety-four percent and climbing. “Hopefully, Major Toronto doesn’t plan on staying either.”

It might have been an ancient ritual that a captain stayed with his ship as it went under the waves. But these were modern times, and no one was expected to remain with a spaceship breaking up while in jump space.

“He’d like to leave,” said SSgt Castro. She laughed, as she often did when things were at their worst. “But he says he needs to at least be the last one off. You’re holding him up. He’s ordered me to drag you to the escape pod.”

Ninety-eight percent. Dewey tapped the screen. “Almost there.”

Deep in the ship, something exploded. The vibration shook the deck where Dewey and SSgt Castro stood. They both staggered but kept their feet. Another decompression alarm sounded and was quickly muffled by a closing emergency hatch.

Ninety-nine point four percent.

“Wasn’t there a closer access port?” asked SSgt Castro.

“No,” said Dewey. His hand hovered over the plug connecting the data drive to the emergency access port. The moment the growing, green bar touched the right side of the screen and the number flashed one hundred percent, he yanked the connecting plug free. He grabbed the drive and turned to SSgt Castro. “Ready?”

“Been ready, Lieutenant.” SSgt Castro turned and started running down the corridor.

Dewey was right behind her, the drive cradled in his right arm. The ship bucked several times as he and Castro made their way to a stairwell that would take them down one level. Castro used the handrails and slid down to the next deck. With the drive in one arm, Dewey had to settle for jumping when he was halfway down.

The ship chose that moment to buck, and the deck came up to meet him. His feet slammed hard against the deck. He bent his knees to absorb the shock, hitting himself in the chin. His mouth was awash with the taste of blood as he bit the side of his tongue.

“You okay, Lieutenant?” SSgt Castro helped Dewey up and got him moving.

“Been worse,” Dewey said. He allowed SSgt Castro to guide him along.

Not far behind them, a decompression alarm sounded. They immediately lunged for the next hatchway, colliding with each other and the deck. At their heels, the hatch swung shut.

Several hands suddenly pulled Dewey and SSgt Castro to their feet.

“Cutting it a little close, Lieutenant?”

“Don’t we always, Sergeant Maxwell?” Dewey clapped her on the shoulder and then pushed her toward the access hatch leading to their escape pod.

There was a row of escape pod access hatches. All save one was closed. The red lights over them indicated the escape pods had already ejected. Each red light was a relief to Dewey as it meant Hospitallers had gotten to safety. Of course, where they were safe at remained to be seen.

“Lieutenant?” SSgt Castro was standing near the hatch entry, her eyebrows raised in expectation. Dewey knew she was waiting for him to board.

“You know it doesn’t work that way, Castro,” said Dewey. “Get these people on board first. I have to comm Major Toronto first.”

SSgt Castro shook her head but turned to Cpl Lena Wong. “Wong? Get your people on board.”

Cpl Wong hesitated for a second, looking in Dewey’s direction.

“Go, Corporal,” said Dewey as he tapped his comm.

“Russell, let’s go,” said Cpl Wong. She grabbed Pvt Russell by the arm and guided him to the hatch. “Bryant. Webb. You’re next.”

“Lieutenant Tyler,” said a voice over Dewey’s comm. “You’re buttoning up your escape pod, I assume.”

“Loading now, Major.” Cpl Wong had disappeared inside the hatch. Sgt Maxwell was ready to step in.

“Unfortunately, there was a decompression in our corridor, and I had to get inside my own and shut the hatch. But I’m not leaving until you do.”

Dewey laughed. “Of course, Major Toronto. I’ll comm you right before we exit.”

“See that you do. I have no intention of blowing up with this ship.” The comm went silent.

Everyone was in the escape pod but Dewey and SSgt Castro. She had a stubborn look on her face that Dewey had to fight to keep from laughing at.

“Get in, Staff Sergeant. That’s an order.” He didn’t have to force her into the pod, but he could see on her face she didn’t like him going last, despite that being the tradition. However, as soon as she’d cleared the entry, Dewey was right behind her, slapping the button that started the hatch closing.

Inside the escape pod, Sgt Maxwell and the others were either buckled in or in the process. The two seats nearest the control panels were empty. SSgt Castro took one but didn’t touch her restraints until Dewey was sitting. This time Dewey did laugh.

After securing the restraints, Dewey did a visual check on everyone else in the pod. The seating arraignment was circular with the hatch and several cabinets on one end, the control panels for launch and navigation on the other. In the floor were several hatches that provided access to food, emergency EVA suits, adjustable-sized clothing, and weapons. There were more hatches overhead securing more supplies.

“Everyone ready?” Dewey asked. When he got a thumbs up from everyone, including SSgt Castro, Dewey tapped the comm to let Maj Toronto know they were exiting the ship.

Instead, the ship exploded, forcefully ejecting the escape pod into jump space.

 

Though he couldn’t feel it, Dewey knew the escape pod was tumbling as it sped away from the ship. They hadn’t heard it explode, but they felt the vibrations and the clatter and thunking of debris colliding with the pod. Dewey hadn’t the chance to speak with Maj Toronto. He could only hope that the major and whatever crew was with him had managed to escape the explosion as well. It would be a long time under the best circumstances before he knew. It might also be never.

That was the problem with an emergency ejection while in jump space. Those inside the pod had no control over where they would exit. The absolute worst case would be that their escape pod would be destroyed dropping out of jump. The second worst would be coming out of jump space between solar systems. Truly in the middle of nowhere.

However, as long as their pod’s systems were working when they reached their unknown destination, they would be able to send out a signal. Then, as long as someone reached them within ten days, they’d still be alive. After that, chances of survival diminished by the hour. So, all Dewey had to do was hold on until they fell out of jump, hope the systems were working, and that help wasn’t far enough away.

He’d been in worse situations.

“How’s everyone holding up?”

“Good here, Lieutenant Tyler,” said Sgt Maxwell. “Corporal Wong? Have your fireteam check in.”

Cpl Wong didn’t have to respond. PFC Webb, PFC Bryant, and Pvt Russell responded in the affirmative.

“What about you, Staff Sergeant Castro?” Dewey asked. “You holding up okay?”

It was rare for Dewey to not see a smile on SSgt Castro’s face. Typically, the more dire the situation, the broader the grin she wore. This time, despite the direness of their situation, Castro was not smiling.

“Our beacon’s busted.” SSgt Castro tapped the screen she’d been watching. “Something hit us hard enough to damage the internal antenna. Power’s glitching, too.”

“So, a normal day in the corps?” asked Sgt Maxwell.

Castro flashed a quick smile, but it was clear to Dewey that she was worried. Their survivability depended on ample power for lights, air scrubbing, heat, and the aforementioned beacon.

“What about comms?” asked Cpl Wong.

“Can’t tell,” SSgt Castro said. “Not until we’re out of jump.”

“Wait,” said Sgt Maxwell. “We’re still in jump space?”

Castro nodded. “Whatever hit us knocked us at the right angle. Or the wrong angle. So until we slow down, we’re stuck in here.”

That was a problem Dewey hadn’t anticipated. There were tales of ships being lost in jump space forever. Those were usually reserved for serial vids on Friday nights. But Dewey’s reading and his near-perfect recollection of everything he’d ever seen reminded him of fourteen times since the Radial War that it had happened.

“We don’t have propulsion powerful enough,” Dewey said. “We will slow down. It’s inevitable.”

“But where will we end up, Lieutenant?” asked Pvt Russell. He was looking too pale for Dewey’s liking. He didn’t need anyone losing control. “We don’t have a beacon.”

“We’ll know when we get there,” said SSgt Castro. “Hopefully, it’ll be someplace interesting.”

“I could read a book,” said Dewey. He reached for this tablet, secure in the pocket along his outer right thigh.

“Please, not that.” But Dewey could see the smile returning to SSgt Castro’s face.

Twice, Dewey had his reading interrupted by the discovery of a lost planet. Each time there’d been an adventure that involved attacks and ships exploding. SSgt Castro liked to blame the events on Dewey, but Dewey denied them. Well, most of them. He was going to make a retort in response to SSgt Castro’s comment, but a beeping noise filled the air.

“There we go,” said Sgt Maxwell. “We’re about to drop out of jump. That wasn’t so bad.”

“Don’t curse us,” muttered Cpl Wong.

It was the traditional military fear that pointing out the good fortune would ruin it.

No one responded to Cpl Wong’s admonishment as the pod began to vibrate and shiver. Dewey had never been in an escape pod in jump space. He was pretty sure not even SSgt Castro had, either. He could only hope that this was a normal response for a pod dropping out of jump.

“It’s the speed we’re going,” said SSgt Castro. “Ships usually exit at high speed at a chosen point. We’re tumbling along, rubbing against the tunnel created by the Pryderi before it exploded.”

The vibration increased. A whine spiraled high enough to hurt Dewey’s ears. He was considering that this would be the end of them all when the sound disappeared and the vibrations ceased just as abruptly. Now, the only noise was the heavy breathing of seven Hospitallers counting their lucky stars.

“Is this what being dead is like?” asked Cpl Wong after several moments of silence.

“I hope not,” said Pvt Russell. She looked at the others with a slanted grin on her face, adding, “No offense, but I don’t want to spend my death with just you all.”

“Likewise,” said SSgt Castro. “However, all that has happened is that we have fallen out of jump and are in normal space.”

“Where in normal space?” Dewey asked. Around him, the others turned to SSgt Castro, eager for her declaration.

“Let’s see, shall we?” Castro tapped at the virtual keyboard on the screen. Dewey could see the screen’s light and various windows opening on it, highlighting SSgt Castro’s face. Though she looked relaxed, he knew her well enough and long enough to know that the way she composed her face was telling him she was concerned.

Dewey’s concern escalated when Castro dramatically tapped the screen and the interior of the pod was engulfed in darkness.

“Not funny,” said Sgt Maxwell. Her voice had a nervous edge.

“You’re right,” said SSgt Castro. “It’s not funny. It’s very serious.

“What’s going on, Staff Sergeant?” Dewey asked.

“Everything. Nothing. We’ve lost all power.”

Chapter 02

It had been silent before SSgt Castro’s bad news. Dewey noticed that it had now gone even more silent as nearly every breath caught in their respective throats. The only positive in the dark moment was the gravity plates having their own uninterrupted power supply. Customarily intended to keep the pull consistent even during power fluctuations, the plates now provided some comfort from the disorienting feeling of being in zero gravity.

Less than fifteen seconds after the power left them in darkness, Dewey reached into a side pocket of his uniform and pulled out his tablet. He tapped it awake and set the screen to its brightest setting, bathing the silent space in a weak glow.

“Good idea,” said Cpl Wong. She repeated Dewey’s actions, adding a little more light with her tablet.

Seconds later, the interior of the pod was awash with pale light from seven tablets.

“Now what?” asked PFC Webb.

“Sergeant Maxwell,” said Dewey in response to Webb’s question. He spoke slowly and calmly. “I need you to open that floor hatch between you and PFC Bryant. You’ll find the emergency evac suits inside. Distribute them and get everyone suited, starting with Pvt Russell.”

“Will do, Lieutenant Tyler.” Maxwell’s words were followed by the sharp, metallic snap of her restraints being released. Once Dewey saw that she had the floor hatch open, he turned his attention back to SSgt Castro.

“Can we reboot the entire system?” Dewey asked. The forceful ejection from the ship, followed by a tumble through jump space, could have been too much for the systems to correct for and they’d shut down out of precaution.

“Doing it now,” said SSgt Castro. She looked over at the other Hospitallers. Dewey followed her gaze to where Sgt Maxwell was handing each of them an evac suit. When he looked back to Castro, she was already looking in his direction. She added in a whisper, “I don’t think that’s the problem.”

Dewey hadn’t thought so either. “We need to try everything, Castro,” he said. “So we start with the simplest and move on to the more difficult.”

“Of course,” said SSgt Castro. “On the bright side, we haven’t lost atmo, so the pod hasn’t been compromised.”

“There you go,” Dewey said. He cracked a smile before adding, “Let’s count that as a win.”

“I’ll try and get us another one.”

“I don’t doubt you one bit.”

SSgt Castro nodded and turned back to the console, a determined look on her face. Dewey had known from the first day that he’d joined the company with Castro as his Staff NCO that he’d gotten lucky. She’d always shined with a positive attitude, loved being a Hospitaller, and would wade through fire for her people.

“Lieutenant?”

Dewey turned at the sound of Sgt Maxwell’s voice. The sergeant was holding two emergency suits and two helmets.

“Thank you, Sergeant Maxwell.” He looked at the others, still partially into their emergency evac suits. “Get everyone sealed, helmets off for now, and adjusted. I’ll look after Staff Sergeant  Castro.”

“You got it, Lieutenant Tyler.”

Dewey took possession of the two suits. Sgt Maxwell returned to the others, helping PFC Webb adjust the leg length of his suit. The suits were a one size fits all affair. That being said, they were also adjustable so that people didn’t have suit legs encumbering their movement or loose material that could catch and tear.

“Castro. I need you to suit up.” Dewey held the suit out for SSgt Castro.

Without looking in his direction, Castro replied, “You go ahead, Lieutenant Tyler. I can wait.”

She continued to tap at several keys at her station. All that Dewey could see was the single, blinking cursor and nothing more. The reboot didn’t seem like it was working.

“It’s an order, Castro,” Dewey said. He gave her a crooked smile when she looked his way.

After a pause, she nodded and shifted over one seat, freeing up space in front of the terminal. As she took the suit, she said, “We need to try a hard reboot now. So that panel by your leg needs to be removed.”

“On it,” Dewey said.

While SSgt Castro unpacked the suit, Dewey knelt on the deck and started removing twist-locks that held the indicated panel in place. By the time he had the panel off, Castro had her emergency suit over both legs and up to her hips. She paused to join Dewey at the opening where the panel had been. The aroma of outgassing from long-stored supplies newly set free followed her.

“You need to open that back box. The orange one. Disconnect the green connectors and then connect them to the unpaired orange connectors.”

“And you need to finish suiting up, Staff Sergeant.”

Castro laughed softly and moved back. She began fishing for the suit’s armholes as she went.

To reach the box with the connectors, Dewey had to hunch down even further. Opening the box and handling the connectors was challenging to do one-handed. It was also hard to lean forward without support. He found, though, that he could rest his forehead against the cabinet wall above the opening to steady himself. That, though, also limited his point of view.

“Whoever designed this must have been in a bad mood on that day,” Dewey grumbled.

“I can help, Lieutenant.” Pvt Russell had joined Dewey on the deck. “I’m a bit smaller, so that might make a difference.”

Dewey sat back, feeling a pulse of pain on his forehead where he’d been leaning against the cabinet. “I’ll take you up on the help, Russell. I’ll get in my suit while you have a go at it. Disconnect the greens -.”

“Reconnect them to the orange connectors. Yes, Lieutenant Tyler.”

With a laugh of surprise, Dewey moved out of the way. Something nudged his arm. He looked to see Sgt Maxwell once again holding his suit. He nodded his appreciation before taking the suit and unsealing it.

As he unrolled the legs of the suit, Dewey watched Russell. She had sat cross-legged, no mean feat in an evac suit, and was leaning far enough forward that her arms and head were in the opening. By the time Dewey had his feet in the boots of the suit, he heard a hum in the ship. Seconds later, the emergency lights flicked on.

“Nice work, Russell,” said SSgt Castro. She sealed the front of her evac suit and scooted back over to the pod’s terminal.

Pvt Russell sat back, a smile on her face. Dewey had his suit up to his waist and one shoulder in when Castro gave him the news.

“We’re on life support, Lieutenant,” she said. “There’s no comm, no exterior cams or sensors, no propulsion.”

Dewey shoved his other arm into his suit. He noticed the others were watching the conversation intently. “What do we have?” he asked.

“What do we have?” Castro asked back, more to herself than to Dewey. He could see her gaze moving across the screen. “We have air. The scrubbers are operational. We have lights. Looks like the water recycler is available, too, in case anyone needs to use the head. We have back-up power for all of that for nine days.”

“And then?” asked Sgt Maxwell.

“Then it’s all suit power,” said Dewey. He started pressing the front of his own suit closed. “That’s good for another four days.”

“No need to ask what happens then,” said PFC Webb.

“That’s right,” SSgt Castro said. “No need.”

From where she sat on the deck, Pvt Russell asked, “I’m assuming we’re not going to just sit here and wait to die.”

“No, I don’t think so,” said Dewey. He tapped the collar of his suit closed after making sure the helmet’s gasket was aligned correctly. “We have time. I think we should put it to use.”

PFC Bryant raised her hand and asked, “What did you have in mind, Lieutenant Tyler?”

“On a list of things we should do, what would you suggest we work on first, Staff Sergeant?”

Castro nodded and paused to look at the screen even though Dewey knew the answer she wanted wasn’t there. “Exterior sensors might be helpful. But getting a message out would be my priority.”

“And mine,” Dewey said. “Also, it’s something we can address without having to use the airlock, which would waste oxygen and power we don’t want to expend unnecessarily.”

“We’d need the computers online to access the schematics for the comms,” said Cpl Wong. She looked confused when Sgt Maxwell coughed and the others looked at her with wide grins. It took her a second, then she rolled her eyes. “Right. My mistake. I forgot which officer we had with us.”

She earned the laugh she deserved for recognizing the vital fact that Dewey was with them. They didn’t need to access the computers to call up the schematics because he had read a book once about emergency pod construction, including all the schematics and the troubleshooting guides. It wasn’t instantaneous recall, which was why SSgt Castro had taken the time to tell Dewey how to do a hard restart of the ship’s systems. But with a few minutes to sift through related materials, he was able to pull up what they needed to know.

“That’s assuming you did read the right tech manuals,” said SSgt Castro. She punctuated her comment with a grin.

Dewey returned the grin and said, “First thing I do when on a new class of ship is to do a quick read of all relevant documents. Let’s unbolt those seats over there and we’ll get started.”

The seats Dewey had pointed to were beneath Sgt Maxwell’s and PFC Bryant’s backside. “We’ll need to pull the seats up and remove the plate behind them,” he said. “As we don’t have a lot of space here, Maxwell, I’d like you and Bryant to handle that.”

“On it, Lieutenant Tyler.” Sgt Maxwell stood and waved for Bryant to follow. Then, as a team, they started to disassemble the seats.

“What should the rest of us do?” asked Pvt Russell.

“Good question,” Dewey answered. He’d reopened his evac suit and removed his tablet and a connector, still in the plastic bag it had been issued in. He held both out for Pvt Russell. “I believe you’ll find a connection port for that cable. It should be just to the left of the box you’ve already opened. Cable to the ship. Then cable to the tablet before powering it up.”

“You got it, Lieutenant,” said Pvt Russell as she tore the plastic bag for the connector open.

SSgt Castro was watching the exchange between Dewey and Russell. Once Russell had the connector free and was looking for the port, Castro asked, “You think that’ll work?”

“Technically, it’s supposed to,” said Dewey. “I’ve only done it in training simulations and VR. But if we’re going to even have a hope of getting a message out, we’ll need it to work.”

“So, cross my fingers?”

“Toes, too, if you think that’ll help.”

The other Hospitallers laughed quietly at the exchange. Not every officer had the same relationship with their staff NCO. Some were very formal. Dewey had even heard some of the officers and their staff NCO interact on a first name basis. That would never fly with SSgt Castro, so Dewey didn’t bother. But he was also so used to referring to everyone by their rank and last name, he sometimes forgot they had first names. He’d even had to pause on occasion to remember his own.

“We’re in,” said Sgt Maxwell. “Everything looks okay. Should I run a local diagnostic?”

“You have the tools?”

“Sure do, Lieutenant.” Maxwell opened her suit and removed her own tablet and a small, hard case half the size of her hand. She waved it proudly.

“Let us know what you find,” said Dewey. He turned back to Pvt Russell, who was sitting back, the connector cable snaking its way out of the cabinet interior, the other end attached to Dewey’s tablet. “How’s it looking?”

Russell held the tablet out for Dewey. “Nothing yet, Lieutenant Tyler. It’s still booting up. If there’s something to access, you’ll know soon enough.”

“Thank you.” Dewey laid the tablet on his lap. The loading icon was still pulsing slowly. He took the time to watch the rest of the Hospitallers. Sgt Maxwell was running her diagnostic with PFC Bryant watching over her shoulder. Pvt Russell had turned her attention to PFC Webb. They were both checking in with each other, seeing how the other was holding up. Across from Dewey, SSgt Castro was doing the same thing. When their eyes met, Castro grinned.

“Doing okay there, Lieutenant?”

Dewey nodded and checked the tablet. It was still booting up, looking for some operational system in the pod to connect with. “Doing okay. You doing okay, Staff Sergeant?”

Castro’s eyes shifted to the others and then back to Dewey. “Okay,” she said. It lacked all the jovial energy Castro’s voice usually contained. “I know I keep saying I’m bored, and I’d like some adventure, but I didn’t think the universe was actually listening.”

“Or that it had a sense of humor more wicked than yours?”

SSgt Castro laughed. She sounded relieved to Dewey. “Certainly seems that way.”

Dewey lowered his voice, his tone serious. “I can’t promise you anything, Castro, but I’ll do all in my ability to get us out of here somehow.”

“I know you will,” Castro said. Her smile had squashed into a straight, hard line. “I promise to do the same.”

“Deal,” said Dewey. He looked down to see that the screen of the table was now scrolling lines of code. “Sergeant Maxwell?”

From her position facing into the hardware under the seat, she flashed a thumb’s up. “We have access to the comms, Lieutenant. Just not sure what we can do with them.”

Dewey could now see several comm control windows on his tablet’s screen. He tapped one to enlarge it, revealing the communications systems status. It didn’t look good.

“Well, we won’t be sending any messages,” said Dewey. “Some of the equipment is down. Likely damaged from the explosion.”

“Anything we can do, Lieutenant Tyler?” asked Pvt Russell.

“Can we pick up traffic?” SSgt Castro asked. “Maybe it’ll give us an idea where we are?”

Dewey nodded in agreement as he was tapping the screen, already looking for comm signals to tap into. “Excellent idea.”

Everyone seemed to hold their breath as Dewey tapped and slid his fingers across the screen. It went like this for several minutes. He continued to look even though the first pass through the data had already made it clear. Finally, he closed the program window and sat back.

“How bad?”

“Not a single signal, Castro. Not even a satellite ping.” Dewey wiped his hand across his face in frustration.

“So we’re all alone?” asked Cpl Wong.

“Seems that way,” said Dewey. “What makes it worse is that we don’t even know where we are.”

Chapter 03

Despite the lack of comms and the quiet agreement that they were alone in empty space, Dewey kept everyone busy. After a meal of emergency rations and packaged water, he broke the team into pairs, starting them on an inventory of everything in the pod. He put SSgt Castro and Sgt Maxwell together and had them look at the propulsion systems from the inside of the pod as best they could manage. Dewey kept busy on the tablet, continuing to access any system running on the emergency power.

The scanning system was online, but the actual scanners provided no data, implying that they too had been damaged during their evacuation. A hull integrity test that Dewey found hidden in a maintenance folder showed that the hull was intact and that there weren’t any mystery leaks to worry about. They would be quite comfortable up until the time they ran out of air and suffocated.

“Hey, Lieutenant.” SSgt Castro took a seat next to Dewey. Her voice was a whisper, though it wouldn’t stop anyone from overhearing in the small confines of the pod. “I’ve a thought.”

“Let’s hear it.” Dewey closed the window for outside cameras for the third time.

“I know it’ll use up air, but I was thinking maybe someone should go outside. Maybe there’s some repairs we can do on the comm, the scanners, maybe even propulsion?”

“You’re right. It would use up a lot of air,” agreed Dewey. “But at this point, I think all other options have been exhausted.”

“I also think I should go,” SSgt Castro said. “Partly because I have the most experience, beside you. But mostly to keep you from going.”

Castro had grinned at the last comment. Her smile was joined by the chuckles of the others who’d been listening more closely than Dewey had anticipated. They all knew that Dewey would never ask them to do something he wouldn’t do. And it was true that his reaction to the idea of sending someone outside was to do it himself rather than risk any other their lives unnecessarily.

Bowing to the unspoken consensus, Dewey said, “Okay. But no wandering off.”

Before Dewey had allowed SSgt Castrol to exit through the airlock, he’d made everyone secure their helmets in place and switch to suit systems. While he had reports from the ship’s systems that the hull’s integrity was ninety-nine percent, any one of the sensors could have been malfunctioning. It might then report the hull in its location to be good when it was actually ready to blow.

Plan for the worst, hope for the best.

Fortunately, the ship did not fall apart when SSgt Castro cycled through the airlock. She had to run the cycle semi-manually, relying on pressure meters rather than the ship’s computer systems. This wasn’t Castro’s first manual exit through an airlock, though. In fact, it wasn’t her tenth or twentieth, for that matter.

Once she was out, standing on the hull with her magnetized boots, Dewey allowed the others to turn off suit systems and remove their helmets.

“But keep them handy,” he said. “Just in case.”

While the others continued their inventories, Dewey monitored SSgt Castro’s brief trek across the escape pod’s surface.

“Lot of scarring,” said Castro. “Yeah, looks like something carved its way through all the sensors on the port side.”

“What about the scan probes?” Dewey asked. “They’re more south, underneath.”

“On my way, now.”

“Lieutenant Tyler,” said PFC Bryant. “We’ve surveyed all the medical supplies. Should I forward them to your tablet?”

“Do that, Bryant. Then start on the survival equipment. Just in case we have a planet or moon we can make our way towards.”

Dewey didn’t think it was likely, but he did want to keep people’s minds occupied.”

“Hey, Lieutenant? Is the scan probe supposed to look like an impact crater?”

Dewey laughed despite the seriousness of the question. “Nothing like an impact crater.”

“Right, thought so.” SSgt Castro laughed, too. “Which means we don’t have the ability to scan either.”

“Not surprised. Go ahead and head back and check the propulsion systems. Maybe a good kick will bring them online.”

“If only.”

As SSgt Castro moved to the aft end of the pod, where the airlock was also located, Dewey’s tablet pinged twice. Sgt Maxwell had sent an inventory, too. They were well supplied with weapons and ammo if they were to suddenly be attacked. Though, Dewey wondered, was there anyone anywhere near enough to attack them. That thought led him to wonder why would they attack? He followed the random thread of ideas and speculation until SSgt Castro commed him again.

“I’ve kicked them a couple times,” Castro said. “One of them is floating away now.”

Dewey blinked himself back to the moment and replied. “Is that your way of saying they’re not working?”

“Pretty much. What about those little engines for adjusting the ship’s position? Can’t use those?”

“They use compressed gasses. They’d get us moving, but we’d be long dead before they got us anywhere.”

Dewey waited for SSgt Castro to make a snappy comment in reply. When she didn’t, he waited a couple seconds longer. Then he started to worry when nearly a minute had passed.

“Castro?”

Sgt Maxwell and the others had stopped their inventory work and were now looking at Dewey.

“Castro!”

“Sorry, Lieutenant. Just had to make sure.”

“Make sure of what?” Dewey asked. They’d just been talking about engines. Did she doubt him? That seemed unlikely.

“I thought I saw something moving.”

It was Dewey’s turn to pause. He didn’t wait to be shouted at by SSgt Castro.

“What kind of moving?”

“A ship.”

The other Hospitallers sat taller, several of them leaning in Dewey’s direction as if to hear the information sooner.

“Is there a ship?” asked Dewey.

“Yes. And it’s heading our way.”

Dewey now had everyone’s attention, even if it wasn’t what he wanted. Most were curious, but PFC Bryant had a gleam of hope in her eyes that bothered Dewey. He was aware of how dashed hope could be bad for morale. Low morale led to mistakes, and they couldn’t afford any mistakes right now.

Worse, Dewey wasn’t able to scan the ship to determine its origins or intentions.

“Too far away to identify?” Dewey asked SSgt Castro. She was the only eyes they had on the outside.

“I’m on max magnification.” She was referring to the face shield’s ability to digitally zoom in on a scene. “I’m actually wondering if it’s a ship or just a ball of junk. Wait. No, thrusters are operating. It’s a ship. Barely.”

“What does that mean?” asked Sgt Maxwell. “‘Barely’?”

Dewey shrugged. “Can you share what you’re seeing?”

SSgt Castro laughed. “Right. Of course I can.”

Dewey donned his helmet just as the request icon started blinking. He reached out and virtually touched the icon. A new image filled his vision. It was a vision of deep space shattered by millions of stars and one irregular object, half in shadow, approaching their position.

Dewey understood SSgt Castro’s consternation. The ship was unrecognizable as a ship. It was irregular in its outline and looked more like something a child would draw if asked to draw a spaceship, and they’d never seen one before. But, it had several running lights and the faint glow where the pilot’s cabin would likely be.

“Want me to stay out here?” asked SSgt Castro.

It was a good question. One for which Dewey didn’t have a black and white answer. Castro was his only eyes outside. In retrospect, he should have had her bring a couple eyes to attach to the hull. But that asteroid had passed. Now Dewey had to deal with what he had.

“If you feel like you’ll be okay, then stay,” said Dewey. “If not, get in now.”

With his helmet on, Dewey could barely hear the others in the pod. Sgt Maxwell had said something, though, because she and the others had pulled on their helmets and started locking them in place.

“I’ll stay for now, Lieutenant,” said SSgt Castro.

“All right. The airlock is still cycled for you to enter if you change your mind.”

“Will do.”

Through the image of space, Dewey saw Sgt Maxwell flash him a thumb’s up. Everyone was properly suited and locked in. He considered the weapons in the back of the locker by the airlock and just as quickly decided against them. Even if the approaching ship was hostile, they could do little to it with the weapons they had. Maybe the shoulder-fired rocket could do some damage, but the ship would have to be really close and moving slow.

“Hey, Lieutenant Tyler?”

“Yes, Castro?” The ship had doubled in size, but it still looked like a mish-mash of parts.

“I’m getting a request on the general comm. It’s localized on a narrow band. Should I patch it to you?”

“Yes.” Dewey was even more curious than a second ago. There was no need to comm over a narrow local band. Not unless you didn’t want someone to know you were communicating.

“Coming through, now.”

“…identify yourself. I repeat. Unknown ship, please identify yourself.”

Dewey tapped his comm. “This is Lieutenant Dewey Tyler, Hospitallers. This is an emergency rescue pod. Our ship was destroyed in jump space.”

There was a long enough pause that Dewey started to get nervous. Then, “Understood. Have you sent out any Maydays or communications requests since entering the system?”

“We have not,” said Dewey. “Our systems are all down. We’re sitting here blind.”

It was an admission that Dewey was loath to make, but he wanted the people on the other end of the comm to know that they were harmless and therefore didn’t need to be fired upon. Especially with SSgt Castro standing on the outside of the hull.

Again, the long pause before the other ship replied. “So you haven’t tried to contact or heard from anyone at Kaggen?”

“I’m sorry,” said Dewey. He was moderately annoyed by the line of questioning. “I don’t even know what a Kaggen is.”

“Good to hear.” The response had been almost immediate. “In that case, I think we can render you assistance.”

“You think you can?” Dewey asked. It was required by intra-system laws that those in distress were to be given aid. Then again, Dewey reminded himself, he hadn’t established that they needed assistance.

“If you don’t mind, I’ll explain face-to-face. Pull your man back in, and we’ll dock with you.”

“On my way,” said SSgt Castro.

“See you soon,” said the voice from the other ship. Then the comm went silent.

“That’s interesting,” said Sgt Maxwell.

Dewey nodded. It was very interesting. Primarily because they hadn’t announced who they were nor made any comment about Hospitallers needing help. So, were the rescuers pirates? Miners? A local military? Dewey would like to know. He’d have preferred learning more before accepting their help. But considering that he and his team were sitting dead in open space, maybe even pirates were a good thing. Still, better to be ready for surprises.

“Maxwell. Wong. There are two boarding guns in the inventory. Prep them, pass one to me, and remove three ballistic shields, then stand by.”

“On it, Lieutenant Tyler,” said Sgt Maxwell, closely followed by Cpl Wong.

While the two NCOs opened the locker where the weapons were kept, Dewey monitored the airlock. It was almost through cycling the atmosphere in so that SSgt Castro could move inside. His attention wandered as the light faded from red to orange on its way to green. The other members of Wong’s fireteam were looking uncomfortable. Dewey couldn’t deny them that. He was feeling a bit uncomfortable himself.

Inside a ship, even a shuttle, there were several bulkheads to take cover behind if someone was boarding the ship against the occupant’s will. In an escape pod, there was nowhere to hide. The ballistic shields would provide some defense, but they didn’t keep a person’s position a mystery. There’d be no surprising the boarders.

Of course, if their intention was nefarious, they could have just as easily fired on the pod with a missile. It wasn’t like an emergency pod had any countermeasures. Dewey smiled to himself. He’d suggest that the next time he had the chance. If he got the chance.

“Something amusing you, Lieutenant?” asked SSgt Castro. She’d just pressed the button to close the airlock hatch and was removing her helmet.

“Me? Never,” Dewey said. “How close are they?”

“Less than a kilometer. I saw their reverse thrusters come online. Probably a couple of minutes and they’ll be here.”

“Long minutes,” said Sgt Maxwell. “The last minutes are always the longest.”

SSgt Castro snorted in agreement and sat down near Dewey. She motioned towards Sgt Maxwell with her chin. “Expecting trouble?”

“What kind of Hospitaller would I be if I wasn’t, Castro?”

“Fair point,” Castro said while the others laughed.

As they waited, SSgt Castro shared a story about one of her first times seeing action in the Itxamna system. They’d been dispatched to protect a small village of the Tikalin people. While they were waiting for the last of the village’s elders to load their pig-sized rabbits onto trailers, they got word that a fast-moving company of Palenque forces was coming their way. Worst of all, help wasn’t going to arrive on time.

They’d been told they had three hours. So Castro and the rest of her squad dropped trees across the road into town and dug out defensive positions. Then they waited. And waited some more. After five hours, Castro’s squad leader commed HQ, wondering about the opposition forces.

He was laughing when he got off the comm. It seemed that the Palenque forces, in their haste to slaughter the locals of the village, had taken the wrong road. They didn’t just miss the village, they rushed right into the perimeter of a military base occupied by Hospitallers and the Tikalin defensive militia the Hospitallers were supporting.

“So, it wasn’t really an action,” said Sgt Maxwell. She had a sideways smile on her face as she looked at the others.

Castro took off one of her EVA suit’s gloves and pushed back the sleeve. Along one side of her forearm was a thin, white scar. “See that?”

Maxwell leaned forward and took a long look. “Yep, I see that.”

“Biggest splinter you ever saw,” said Castro. She laughed and pulled down her sleeve. “Right to the bone. Got it felling a tree.”

The laughter that followed was stilled by the sound of metal scraping metal on the other side of the airlock.

Castro picked up her helmet. As she lowered it over her head, she said what they all knew. “Company’s here.”

Chapter 04

SSgt Castro took her seat. Dewey signaled Sgt Maxwell to proceed with the ballistic shields.

“Bryant. Russell,” said Maxwell while opening one shield. “Open ‘em up.”

PFC Bryant and Pvt Russell popped open two ballistic shields, linking them to each other. They knelt on the floor, creating a wall between the Hospitallers and the airlock. Sgt Maxwell stood between their shoulders, holding the third ballistic shield just above the other two. Next to Maxwell, bent at the knees to reduce her profile, Cpl Wong had one of the boarding guns pressed to her shoulder, the barrel pointing up until she needed it. If she needed it.

Hard, metallic clanks of transit tube locks setting into place vibrated through the hull of the pod.

“Castro.” Dewey held out the second boarding gun.

“Aw, thanks, Lieutenant,” said Castro as she took the weapon and gave it a quick once-over. “I’m afraid I didn’t get you anything.”

“You can owe me.”

The next sound, dulled by layers of pod hull, was a steady knock, three times.

“Should I answer that?” asked Sgt Maxwell.

“No, I got it.” Dewey stood and squeezed past PFC Bryant to reach the airlock control panel. He tapped the button to open the door and stepped back behind the ballistic shield wall.

The red light over the airlock hatch flashed green. This time, the sounds they heard were from their pod as it released the locks on the airlock and swung the door into the airlock’s space. In the airlock, sidestepping the door, were two people in orange coveralls that had the look of quilts with so many patches that even some of the patches had patches. In the coveralls, the two people sported buzzcuts and bemused smiles.

“I’m not sure what kind of company you’re used to,” said one of the people in the airlock, “but you need better friends if this is how you have to greet them.”

Castro looked at Dewey and grinned. “He’s funny.”

“Sorry,” Dewey said. He stood and stepped forward and to the side of Sgt Maxwell. He tapped her arm, and she lowered the shield she’d been holding. She kept it in both hands, clearly ready to raise it if the dynamics of the meeting changed. “We lost our exterior cams. We’ve been sitting blind and didn’t know who had come calling.”

“Just us.” The man held out his arms in a broad greeting. “Humble ice miners. I’m Sherwood Humphries. This is my wife, Savannah.”

“Pleasure to meet you,” said Dewey before introducing himself and the rest of the Hospitallers. “If you don’t mind my asking, what system is this?”

“System?” Sherwood turned and looked at his wife. When Savannah shrugged, the man turned and added, “We’re not sure what you mean. This is just the system where we live.”

Dewey watched his people exchange glances with each other. It was as odd for a person to not know what system they lived in as it was for a Hospitaller to not know what orphanage they came from.

“Listen, Lieutenant. Maybe we could have this conversation in more comfortable surrounds?”

“And a cup of tea,” added Savannah. “We have fresh ice water on the stove.”

Now it was a matter of trust. Dewey had a gut feeling that Sherwood was being honest and didn’t pose a threat. Still, he didn’t like taking chances. Especially when he didn’t know where they were in the galaxy. He also didn’t want to insult the ice miners by treating them with suspicion.

“We’re still trying to fix some of our equipment,” said Dewey. He edged his way around the wall of ballistic shields. “So if you don’t mind, I’ll come along and just bring Sgt Maxwell with me?”

Sherwood exchanged a glance with Savannah. They looked disappointed. But not the kind of disappointment where a subterfuge had failed, rather that they were being seen with suspicion.

“As soon as we have a better idea of what we’re dealing with in our pod’s electronics, I can have everyone else join us.”

“We’re almost done,” said SSgt Castro. Dewey knew she understood the situation as well as he did.

“All right,” Sherwood said. “I can leave someone at the other end of the tube to guide you to the dining hall when you’re ready.”

“That’d be great.” Dewey turned to Sgt Maxwell. “Shall we?”

Sgt Maxwell handed her shield off and stepped around the others. “I’d love a fresh cup of tea.”

“This way, then,” said Savannah. She waved Dewey on as she turned and started back through the tube connecting the two ships.

Sherwood stayed in place until Dewey and Sgt Maxwell drew closer. Then, he nodded at Dewey before also turning and leading the way back through the tube.

Dewey let Sgt Maxwell proceed. He turned back to SSgt Castro for a brief moment, saying, “I’ll beep you on the comm once I’m sure we’re all okay.”

“You’ll beep if you aren’t, too.”

“Yes,” Dewey said and laughed. As he stepped into the tube, he added, “Especially then.”

 

The tube led to the ice miner’s ship and then into a corridor of odd proportions. The area outside the airlock was wide, with plenty of room to move. To the left, through an open hatch, the corridor was narrower. To the right, they could walk two abreast, but they’d have to be aware of the odd step up that Dewey could see happen twice.

“What style of ship is this?” Dewey asked. He’d flipped through books on working ships several times as an adult and more frequently as a kid. There’d been a dozen different types of asteroid mining ships. Some could grab, crush, and store an entire asteroid. Others could latch onto the rocky surface and drill into it so that miners could search for specific metals. There’d been two types for chasing down ice. They grabbed, melted, and filtered the water from the rock debris. But those ships hadn’t shown dining halls or eccentric corridors.

“Style? It’s an ice ship,” said Sherwood. We hunt down ice asteroids and bring the water back to the station.”

“Right, so is your ship a Wasser class ice hunter or Niru class?” Dewey asked. “I’m only curious because it doesn’t look like any class of ship I’ve ever seen.”

“Oh, right, I understand,” said Sherwood. He grinned as he looked around. After pointing toward the narrow corridor beyond the hatch to the left of the airlock, he said, “That back there is from a Wasser B-100. There’s some Niru on the other side of the ship.”

“This is a scavenged ship,” Sgt Maxwell said.

“Yes,” said Savannah. “Come. We’ll explain over tea.”

She started walking down the wider corridor to the right. Sherwood waved Dewey to come along and walked next to him, leaving Sgt Maxwell to bring up the rear.

“Mind the steps,” said Sherwood. “Things don’t line up as perfectly as we might like.”

“You said B-100, yes?” asked Dewey. Dewey had seen images of the Wasser B-100 in a book, but it had been a history of spaceships book. Ships pre-Radial War, to be exact.

“Yep,” said Sherwood. “I think the engine room comes from one, as well. But that was before my time.”

“A long way before all our time,” said Dewey. He chuckled, mostly to himself. “Unless we jumped back in time. Which I doubt.”

“Seems unlikely,” agreed Sherwood. “We’ve done a lot of scavenging and cannibalizing of ship parts to keep our little fleet going.

“How big of a fleet?” asked Sgt Maxwell.

“Three ships. Used to be five, but times have been tough.” Sherwood held up a hand to stop Dewey and Maxwell from proceeding. Savannah was ahead of them, using grab rails to pull herself across a section of the corridor, her feet floating free of the deck. “Gravity plates here are malfunctioning. You’ll have to pull yourself across. The third plate has one-fifth gravity, so you’ll feel the pull.”

Dewey nodded and stepped forward. He grabbed the handrail just as he felt the odd twist in his stomach as he stepped into zero gravity. Hand over hand, he pulled himself toward where Savannah waited. As Sherwood said, Dewey felt the weak pull of one-fifth gravity over the third plate. If anything, it made the transition to full gravity where Savannah stood easier.

“Replacements are hard to come by these days,” said Savannah.

Dewey turned and watched as Sgt Maxwell and then Sherwood crossed the gap and joined them.

“That was fun,” said Sgt Maxwell. “Reminds me of several field trips I took as a kid.”

“It’s just part of everyday life here,” Sherwood said as he slipped past Dewey and Maxwell. “Dining hall is just around the corner. Come.”

The corner was a T that also continued along the same path they’d already been on. There was a large square hatch where they turned, like one might find leading into a loading bay. However, this one led into the dining area of which Savannah and Sherwood had spoken. Like the rest of the ship that Dewey had seen so far, this was also a patchwork.

The space was large enough to accommodate twenty people comfortably enough. Down the middle of the room extended a long table that appeared to be cobbled and welded together from four or five smaller tables. The surfaces had all been made level by the addition of extensions welded to some of the table legs. Dewey found it interesting that there was an odd number of legs supporting the table.

Surrounding the table was a hodge-podge collection of chairs, stools, and benches. All of them were locked into place with latches and tie-down straps.

“Be it ever so humble,” said Sherwood. He had his hands on his hips, gazing around the dining space with a look of pride on his face.

“Tea,” said Savannah before disappearing through a scullery door on the other side of the room.

“Please, sit.” Sherwood waved Dewey and Sgt Maxwell to the table. “Anywhere you’d like.”

Dewey nodded and then took a seat on a stool that gave him eyes on the hatch and scullery door. Sgt Maxwell took a seat on a bench several spaces away from Dewey. He knew that she was watching his back from that position.

“It’s an interesting ship,” said Sgt Maxwell, looking around the dining area as she spoke.

Dewey agreed. Even the walls seemed to be a patchwork of plastics and metals, cut to fit and tacked to the support beams in a random but pleasing pattern. Over them were a half dozen faded pictures of groups of people, then a seventh picture that was hand-drawn. Dewey thought that he could see Sherwood and Savannah in the picture.

“Thank you,” said Sherwood. He took a seat that put his back to the scullery door but faced the hatchway. “It’s a work in progress.”

“More like a piece of work.”

Dewey and Sgt Maxwell turned to see a younger man standing just outside the hatchway.

“Lieutenant,” said Sherwood. “This is Chauncey Lincoln. Ice miner and son-in-law.”

“And patcher of ship,” said Chauncey. “Don’t forget that.”

“We’re all patchers of ship, Chance.” Savannah had returned to the dining area with a tray. On the tray were four metal cups and a pot that trailed steam through its spout. “If you want tea, though, you’ll need your own cup.”

“Sounds great.” Chauncey started across to the scullery door and then stopped. “Oh, everyone else is looking for an excuse to come see if it’s all true.”

Once he disappeared past the door, Dewey turned his attention back to Sherwood. “If what is all true?”

Sherwood started to speak and then paused as Savannah passed out the cups and poured steaming tea into each cup. Dewey cautiously inhaled the steam. It might have been mint or ginger. He wasn’t quite sure. The aromas seemed slightly off. Any concern about drugs or poison was quickly put to rest as Sherwood took the first sip.

“Not a flavor I recognize,” said Sgt Maxwell as she finished mouthing and swallowing her first taste.

“It’s a root tea,” said Savannah, taking her own sip.

Chauncey returned just as Savannah sat. He poured his own cup and took two quick sips as he sat. He seemed pleased with the hot drink.

“You were asking a question,” said Sherwood.

“Yes. Chauncey said something about see if it was all true. I assume this has something to do with us?”

Chauncey laughed, then drank from his cup. Sherwood shook his head as he looked at the young man.

“Well,” said Sherwood, turning his attention back to Dewey. “To see if you all are real or if it was some sort of joke.”

“Strange joke,” said Sgt Maxwell.

“Perhaps,” Sherwood said. “But you might be suspicious, too, if you thought no one else was alive outside of our solar system.”

Dewey slowly lowered his cup to the tabletop. He had a dozen thoughts rattling around inside his head right at that moment. One of them put a half-smile on his face. SSgt Castro was going to blame this on him somehow.

“I’m not quite sure I understand what you’re saying,” said Dewey. He’d been to planets where the survivors knew that there was a galaxy of other humans. Even the Wenshens, who’d been bred to survive on their planet, knew there were other planets filled with humans.

“What pop is saying,” said Chauncey, “is that we’ve all grown up believing that we were the last humans alive in the galaxy.”

Chapter 05

It took Dewey a moment to remember that he had a cup of cooling tea in his hands. He pulled it to his lips and took a long thoughtful sip. It tasted of ginger and turmeric.

Since Wenshen and Juracan, Dewey had wondered how many more planets in the second radial arm of the galaxy remained to be rediscovered. And if there were, would the survivors remember their origins? Or would they assume their planet was the birthplace of humanity?

Of course, those thoughts had assumed a planet with people.

“You mentioned a space station,” said Dewey as he set the cup of tea on the stainless steel tabletop. “You didn’t mention a planet.”

“There’s no planet in our system that’s habitable,” said Savannah. “More tea?”

“Yes, please,” Sgt Maxwell said, sliding her cup toward Savannah.

“Just the space station, then,” Dewey said, his voice soft with thought. “Does it have a name?”

“It does,” answered Sherwood. “Kaggen.”

“Kaggen,” Dewey said under his breath. His mind was already sifting through the thousands of books he’d read or perused over his lifetime. He was helped by his innate talent of never forgetting anything that he had read or seen. Several times in his life, he had seen a list of space stations in the second radial arm. This included abandoned stations. There’d been another list, from a ledger just around the time the Radial War had heated up, drawing seven hundred twenty-nine systems into its fires. “I’ve never heard of Kaggen.”

“That’s what it’s called,” Chauncey said.

“Oh, the lieutenant doesn’t doubt you,” said Sgt Maxwell. She pulled her cup, now full of hot tea, back toward her. “He just means that he’s never seen or heard the name before.”

“Can’t remember everything,” said Sherwood.

Maxwell laughed. “Lieutenant Tyler can.”

“It might not have been on any of the lists I’ve seen,” Dewey said. It was possible. Unlikely, but possible. “And there’s never been a planet or system named Kaggen either.”

“Could be because it’s not one station,” said Chauncey. “Way I learned it, Kaggen is a bunch of stations cobbled together.”

“Like this ship?” asked Maxwell.

“I guess,” Chauncey said and shrugged. “But the way I heard it, each province that makes up the kingdom was actually an individual station that was added to the main station.”

Dewey looked at Chauncey and then Sherwood. “Did that station have a name?”

“Probably,” said Sherwood. “I just don’t know what it was called.”

“Someone might,” said Savannah. She moved the teapot and drew Dewey’s attention to it. He pushed his cup forward. As she filled it, she added, “Might be someone who remembers. One of the historians, perhaps.”

Chauncey snorted. “Good luck with that.”

Dewey raised his eyebrows as he looked at Sherwood.

“The king controls the historians.” He smiled ruefully. “They can only answer questions cleared by the king’s council.”

“I’m sorry,” said Sgt Maxwell. She leaned her elbows on the table, bending into the conversation. “First, you said provinces and kingdom, and now you’re saying king. Isn’t that fairy tale stuff?”

“Not here,” said Sherwood. “King Celestine, the Sixth.”

Something itched at Dewey’s mind. A thought. But it didn’t make sense. He ignored it and focused on something more important.

“Let me see if I understand this,” he said. “You’ve existed here for hundreds of years with no knowledge of the rest of the galaxy?”

“I guess it’s been hundreds of years,” said Sherwood. Savannah and Chauncey shrugged.

“You have parts from a Wasser B-100 in this ship,” said Dewey. “That’s pre-Radial War design. In fact, I haven’t seen anything here that doesn’t remind me of a ship that’s less than four hundred years old. So you’ve been isolated since the Radial War.”

“Okay,” said Sherwood. “And your point?”

“My point is that if you haven’t communicated with the rest of the galaxy since the war, it’s because you can’t.”

“I guess that’d be so.”

“Oh, stars,” muttered Sgt Maxwell.

Dewey nodded. It had just dawned on Sgt Maxwell. But Dewey had been considering it since they fell out of jump.  The idea had grown stronger since they first met the crew of the ice miner. “That means we can’t contact anyone either.”

“We’re stuck here?” Sgt Maxwell sounded doubtful and incredulous at the same time.

“What if you get your ship fixed?” asked Sherwood. He, like Sgt Maxwell, was now leaning on his elbows, bending into the conversation, an earnest look on his face.

“The escape pod?” Dewey shook his head. “They don’t have intra-system comms. The emergency beacon does. Well, did. It was damaged as we dropped out of jump.”

The room fell quiet as the three ice miners shared looks that Dewey couldn’t interpret.

“Your pod can’t jump?” asked Chauncey. He seemed reluctant to ask the question, as if knowing what the answer would be and that it wouldn’t be what he was hoping for.

“Engines aren’t powerful enough even if it could,” Sgt Maxwell said. “The idea is that they’re used in-system, not in jump. So all the communication you’d need to do would be right there in the same place. Worst case scenario, you sit for a few days until someone responds to the beacon.”

“Can’t fix the beacon?”

Dewey turned to Savannah to answer her question. “Not likely. If anything was torn off, even one wire, it’s likely in a different system or stranded in jump space.”

A beep that only Dewey could hear alerted him to his comm.

“All right if the rest of my team comes in for a cup of tea?”

“Cup of tea and bad news,” said Chauncey. He was slouched over his cup, looking into it but likely not seeing it.

“Who’s at the airlock, Chance?” asked Sherwood.

“Huh?” Chauncey looked up and looked around the room as if he’d just materialized there. “Oh, Tristan was on his way there when I was coming here.”

Savannah stood and then approached a panel on the wall closest to the entrance to the dining room. On it were a small mesh grill and six buttons in two columns of three. She pushed the top left and middle right buttons before leaning in to talk to the mesh screen.

“Tristan? Bring our guests to the dining room when they’re ready.” Savannah turned and nodded to Dewey.

Dewey tapped his comm. “Staff Sergeant Castro?”

In his ear, SSgt Castro replied. “Yes, Lieutenant?”

“One of the ship’s crew, Tristan, is at the other end of the airlock to guide you all to the dining hall. Come get a cup of tea.”

“And bad news,” muttered Chauncey.

“No Insta?” Dewey could hear the humor in Castro’s voice.

“Don’t think they’ve ever heard of Insta, Castro. See you in a few.”

“On our way.”

The comm went silent, joining the silence of the dining hall. Sgt Maxwell was busy accepting another refill on her tea with the help of Savannah. Chauncey continued to stare past the bottom of his cup. Sherwood was watching Dewey. Through the doorway, Dewey could hear the distant sound of conversation. Likely it was Castro and the ice ship’s crewmember.

“We’re used to adversity,” Dewey said. “Granted, we’ve never been stranded without a chance to communicate for help. But Chauncey seems to be taking it a lot harder than me or Sergeant Maxwell. I find that curious.”

Sherwood nodded as he sat back, pulling his cup with him. “You’re going to see a lot of disappointed faces, Lieutenant Tyler. You see, despite being told there was no one left in the galaxy, except those of us in Kaggen, many of us have had our doubts. Even if the war had been extreme and extensive, someone had to have survived. There were hundreds of planets already occupied by the time the war happened.”

“Why didn’t someone here call for help? Or take a ship and go for help?” asked Sgt Maxwell.

“We don’t have any ships with jump capability,” said Savannah. “It’s all legend now, but what we’ve been told is that before the last passenger ship left the system, the captain said they’d be back. But they never came.”

“And the comms?” asked Dewey.

“Depends on who you ask,” said Sherwood. “Some say that the system broke after a few decades. Others say communications were damaged during the infighting. And there are whispers of sabotage.”

Dewey wanted to ask about the infighting, but at that moment, SSgt Castro entered with a civilian that he assumed to be Tristan. Just behind them came the rest of the Hospitallers.

“We’re going to need more cups,” said Savannah.

“And more tea,” said Sgt Maxwell. “May I help?”

Savannah smiled and said, “That would be appreciated. Come along.”

Sgt Maxwell followed Savannah through the scullery door as SSgt Castro scanned the room.

“So, Lieutenant, did you find another missing planet?” she asked.

Chauncey’s stare ping-ponged between Castro and Dewey. “Missing planet?”

“Lieutenant Tyler has a knack for finding missing planets,” said SSgt Castro. She’d placed one hand to the side of her mouth as if sharing a secret with Chauncey.

“Not this time,” said Dewey.

Castro looked crestfallen. “No mysterious planet with two-headed people?”

“Nope.” Dewey smiled. “Sorry.”

“But he did find a missing space station,” said Sgt Maxwell as she backed into the room with a tray stacked with more metal cups.

“Technically, I didn’t find it,” Dewey said. “Everyone, have a seat.”

While the rest of the Hospitallers joined Sherwood and Chauncey at the table, Sgt Maxwell set the tray down and returned to the kitchen.

“Tristan, join us,” Sherwood said.

Tristan looked awestruck as he nodded and took a seat close to Sherwood.

“Technically, you didn’t find the missing planets, either,” Castro was saying as Tristan sat. “But yet, you did.”

“And there were two-headed people?” Chauncey’s eyes looked like they might pop out of his head.

“It’s an exaggeration,” said Cpl Wong. “But not much of one.”

“And the lieutenant blows up ships,” Castro said. Her grin grew with the stunned look on Chauncey’s face. Sherwood seemed to get that there was some play going on. He smiled softly as he shook his head. “That’s how we ended up here.”

“Okay, Castro,” said Dewey. His smile gave away his feelings. “That’ll be enough. We have bigger problems than your imagination.”

“Like what?”

“Like we may be stuck here,” said Dewey.

Cpl Wong held up her hand, drawing Dewey’s attention. “For how long?”

“If we can’t find a solution,” said Dewey, “then possibly forever.”

Dewey waited for SSgt Castro to come back with a joke or jest. But just like on the pod when they fell out of jump, she had a somber look on her face.

“Forever?” asked Pvt Russell.

“Well, until we die,” said the returning Sgt Maxwell. She and Savannah were carrying several pots of steaming tea.

While it was clear to Dewey that Maxwell’s intent was levity, the comment did the opposite, chilling the room. In typical bad scenarios, Hospitallers had the ability to find something positive or even humorous in their situation. But they’d never been stranded in such a way that there didn’t seem to be a solution to the problem. So it was very likely that some of the Hospitallers had taken Sgt Maxwell’s words to heart rather than as a normal Hospitaller jest.

“We haven’t given up yet,” said Dewey. He could see Pvt Russell, PFC Webb, and PFC Bryant pull their shoulders back. Dewey took that as a positive sign. They hadn’t given up yet. “Staff Sergeant Castro? The emergency beacon?”

“Gone but not forgotten, Lieutenant. Pieces of it anyway.”

“And comms?”

SSgt Castro looked down the table where Cpl Wong was sniffing at the tea in the cup before her. “Wong?”

“Comms,” said Cpl Wong. “There’s a couple relays burned out. There’s one board that’s ruined, but I think it’s common enough we could pull one from another system. But the relays are a problem. We fix all that we can, then determine if the transmitter is still good.”

Dewey turned back to Sherwood. “Is there someone on Kaggen that could help us with parts? There might be something we can adapt to fix our comms.”

“I thought your comms were only good for inside the solar system.”

“Yes,” said Dewey. He paused while he received a third cup of tea. Then he continued. “But if we get our comms up, we might be able to work with what’s left of the emergency beacon. Couple all that to a strong enough power source and we might be able to broadcast our location. It won’t be near-instantaneous. The time to reach someone could be a year or longer, but Hospitallers are never forgotten. Someone will be looking for a sign from us.”

Sherwood looked even more defeated than Dewey’s Hospitallers had a few seconds ago.

“That’ll be a problem,” he said. He flashed a quick look at Chauncey and Savannah. “Anything electronic and most of the mechanical is controlled by the king through the historians. You’d have to apply to the king for a dispensation.”

“So we talk to the king,” said SSgt Castro.

“The king won’t want to talk to you,” said Sherwood. His words were followed by a bitter laugh. “He’s not even going to want to know you exist. Which is probably for the best.”

“Why would that be for the best?” asked Cpl Wong.

“Because if he did know you existed,” said Chauncey, his cup of tea halfway to his mouth, “he’d have you killed.”

Chapter 06

Dewey watched as his people collectively forgot the tea either in front of them or in their hands. Their brows knitted in confusion. Checking each other for a response, they found they were not alone. It did seem like a harsh response to strangers suddenly appearing out of nowhere. Dewey had met a few communities that didn’t take well to strangers. But those people limited themselves to glares and rude words.

“Chauncey may be exaggerating,” said Savannah.

“‘May be’?” asked Cpl Wong.

“No one really knows what would happen if someone from the outside arrived here,” said Sherwood.

“Because it’s never happened,” added Tristan before giving attention to his tea.

SSgt Castro asked. “Why would he not be glad to see us?”

“Power,” said Sgt Maxwell.

Dewey agreed. He took a moment and explained the society based on what he’d been told so far. What he had to say wasn’t a lot. Like the other places he’d been recently, questions had sprouted faster than weeds after the rain.

“So you all have been isolated since the Radial War?” asked PFC Webb.

“Yes,” said Chauncey. “Or so we’ve been told.”

“Don’t start that rumor going,” said Sherwood. He turned to Dewey and explained. “There’s a rumor every generation that the king has been in contact with the outside universe. It’s never been proven, and it’s the same rumor every time.”

“Wishful thinking,” said Savannah.

Chauncey laughed, drawing everyone’s attention. He grinned then added, “Except now it’s true.”

“Not for the king,” said SSgt Castro. She grinned and then took a sip of her tea, which earned a shrug of appreciation. 

“Let’s assume the king might not appreciate our presence,” said Dewey. “There might be someone else who would be interested in helping us? Someone besides yourselves so that you don’t get into trouble?”

Dewey was assuming that the station was not a hundred percent harmonious. He’d been to few places that were. As he waited for an answer, he watched Sherwood and Savannah share a long look that ended in a nod by Savannah so subtle that Dewey almost missed it.

“There may be someone,” Sherwood said after the nearly imperceptible nod. “I have a distant cousin that might be able to offer advice. And if speaking to the king is possible, he’ll be the one to go through.”

“Sounds like your cousin has some serious pull in the kingdom,” said Cpl Wong.

“Oh, he does,” said Sherwood as he stood and leaned forward to grab one of the teapots. “He’s prince of the Vody Province.”

“And you’re related to him?” asked Sgt Maxwell.

Once more, Chauncey laughed. It seemed to be his default manner before making a snappy comment. “Everyone’s related to everyone in Kaggen.”

“Except Nelville Saymour is your father-in-law’s uncle’s son-in-law.” Savannah’s comment cut sharp with a chill for emphasis. “Which is why we still have three ships. Don’t forget that.”

“Of course not, Savannah,” Chauncey said. He found a scratch on the table surface and picked at it with a fingernail.

“Not sure how it is outside Kaggen,” Savannah said, “but here, the better your connection is, the better your life is. Like their father before them, Sherwood’s dad and uncle have tread carefully, patiently, and correctly to put us all in a good position for the next few generations at least. If we could have gotten one more family member married into the prince’s line, we’d have been set.”

“Sandy,” said Sherwood, “that’s the prince’s younger brother, would have been a lousy match for Jeanette. Still, we would have pushed for it. But then she met Chauncey.”

Chauncey threw up his hands. “How was I to know of your grand plans?”

“Relax, Chance,” Sherwood said. He laughed as he reached over to pat Chauncey on the arm. “You have more character than Sandy Saymour.”

Tristan looked momentarily frightened at the casual comment.

“Jeanetta also promised to throw herself out an airlock before she’d ever marry Sandy,” Savannah said in an aside to Dewey and the other Hospitallers, earning a laugh of amusement and appreciation.

“Okay, so speaking to Prince Neville may be useful,” Dewey said. He was trying to put the conversation on the right path for him and his people. He enjoyed hearing how other societies lived, but he also had to consider the wellbeing of the Hospitallers under his command.

“Yes. But that will take time.” Sherwood paused and drank the remainder of the tea from his cup before standing. “Until then, we’re going to have to keep you all out of the way.”

“You don’t mean staying in the escape pod, do you?” asked Pvt Russell.

“What? No,” Sherwood said. He set the cup down on the table where it made a metallic ringing sound. “I mean we’re going to have to find a way to keep anyone else from seeing you. At least until I can get a message to Neville.”

Chauncey was standing now, too. “Yeah, but first we have to get the ice to the station. Then dock the ship. How are we going to get them from the ship to the homestead?”

“Small engine malfunction,” said Sherwood. He turned to Dewey. “Would you like to see more of the ship?”

Dewey stood, too. “I’d like that very much. But first, what about our escape pod? Left adrift, someone else might discover it. Even if they can’t access it, the design will raise questions.”

“Good point,” Sherwood said.

“We could pin it to a rock,” said Tristan, who hadn’t gotten to his feet but instead was pouring himself more tea. “Slap a proximity beacon on it.”

Chauncey seemed impressed by Tristan’s idea. “That’d work. Sherwood?”

Sherwood nodded in agreement. “If there’s anything you need from your ship,” he said to Dewey?”

Dewey had now gotten to his feet, followed by SSgt Castro and the others. He waved them all to sit. “A couple of things,” he said. “I’ll take Cpl Wong as we won’t want to bring too much with us. The rest of you enjoy your tea.”

In a whisper, SSgt Castro said, “I think there’s Insta in the emergency rations.”

Per Castro’s suggestion, Dewey retrieved several screw-top containers of Insta. From there, he moved to the weapons locker, pulling out enough sidearms for everyone. Cpl Wong was supposed to be packing a medical kit, but something else caught her attention.

“What about this, too?” asked Wong.

Dewey looked up to see several green canvas bags, the straps wrapped around Wong’s fist. They were T-n-T bags filled with small toys and hard candies for any children they might encounter. Besides their multi-use weapons, it was the second most likely thing to find hanging on a Hospitaller.

“Not this time,” Dewey said. “Like the pod, Wong, none of that is going to be common on the station. Some sharp-eyed individual will notice. Then someone will start asking questions.”

“Fair point, Lieutenant.” Wong stowed the T-n-T bags. “Seems a shame, though.”

“Agreed. However, I could use one of the bags once you empty it.”

“Okay.” Cpl Wong seemed confused but did as Dewey asked, stuffing most of one T-n-T bag into the other, the rest she poured into the compartment she’d found the bags in. “Here you are, Lieutenant.”

“Thank you. Also, after you’ve packed the medkit, could you retrieve my tablet, Corporal?”

“Will do.”

It took another ten minutes for Dewey to stow the handguns and ammo packets in the T-n-T bag before they could secure the pod’s interior and move into the airlock. Dewey then secured the hatch with his passcode and palm print. While he didn’t think the people on the ice ship would scavenge through before securing the pod to an asteroid, it was always best to not take chances. Besides, what if someone else found the pod? There were still enough weapons and ammo in the arms locker to cause a lot of problems.

With the pod locked down, Dewey and Cpl Wong returned to the dining hall. Several more of the ice ship’s crew had stopped by and were sipping tea while staring at the Hospitallers. After a few introductions, Dewey left Castro in charge to discreetly arm the rest of the team while he joined Sherwood for a tour of the ship.

Similar to the sections of the ship Dewey had seen earlier, the rest of the ice ship, introduced to him as Beth, was an amalgamation of at least a dozen shops from the end of the first expansion and the beginning of the Radial War. While Dewey didn’t have enough information to name each type of vessel used, the stylization and metals employed provided clues. There was at least one luxury shuttle, a spaceport tug, and two in-system gunships that would have once been used by the military or local security forces.

The bridge of the ship was of two minds. The starboard side was from a tugboat that would have been used to move ships under construction or repair from one dock to another. The port side belonged to the luxury shuttle, though most of the filigree and shiny details had been worn away with time or intent.

Unlike a military ship, the bridge was on the top level and forward enough to see the four claw arms that were the business end of the vessel. From Sherwood’s description, Dewey knew the arms were used to catch, cut, and stow pieces of ice asteroids for delivery to Kaggen. Currently, the arms were curled inward as the ship made its way back to the station. As of yet, the station was still too far away to be seen with the naked eye.

As Dewey had been guided on his ship tour, he also learned some more about Kaggen. Like the ice ship, Kaggen was the overall name for the kingdom made from somewhere between six and ten old stations hewn together. This had begun shortly after the people forgotten in the system accepted that no one was coming back for them. The intrasystem war started around that time as station commanders began raiding other stations for resources. Some of those resources were the stations themselves, as a few of them were designed for very specific purposes.

“I think most of those reasons have been forgotten,” said Sherwood. He and Dewey had been standing by a porthole, examining the large chunks of ice in the hold. “Perhaps if you got a look at some of the remaining equipment you might be able to tell us what they were for.”

What Sherwood did know was that the Vody Province had equipment to melt, filter, store, and pump water to the rest of Kaggen. The equipment had always been there, so Dewey could already surmise that whatever station the province was carved from, it had initially been used for making water. With that came the possibilities that it had also originally been used to make breathable air, fertilizers for hydroponic systems, and fuel for in-system propulsion. Unfortunately, hundreds if not several thousand stations had been designed for a similar purpose prior to the Radial War. So that information wasn’t enough to tell Dewey which system they were stranded in.

The question Dewey had but didn’t ask was if the Vody Province could do all these other things, why were they only melting and filtering water? He wasn’t sure if time would provide the answer or not. What he did know was that he’d become used to not getting all the answers to all the questions he raised during a mission.

From the bridge and the ice hold, Sherwood showed Dewey the crew quarters, life systems, and engineering. He seemed most proud of the engines. Dewey could well understand why.

“Original engines,” he said with some awe.

“And from different ships,” said Sherwood. “So we had to account for different thrust, electronics, even how the fuel is delivered to each.”

“And there aren’t no manuals, either,” said an approaching woman wearing coveralls more patched than even Sherwood’s. She had a scrap of cloth with which she was wiping her hands. “It’s all learn-on-the-job, and learn it right. Or we all go boom.”

Dewey smiled and shook hands. She reminded Dewey of SSgt Castro in some ways. “In this instance, ‘boom’ is bad.”

“There’s an instance when a boom is good?” She had a feigned look of shock on her face. And her grip rivaled SSgt Castro’s.

“Lieutenant Tyler,” said Sherwood. “This is Master Engineer Malia Walden.”

“Pleasure, Lieutenant,” said Malia. She paused long enough to twirl the rag and then snap one end at Sherwood. “He forgot to mention I’m his sister-in-law.”

Dewey nodded, but his attention was more for the engines and the workstations to either side. He’d seen one service manual for pre-Radial War ship engines. However, it had been for a battlecruiser he’d had a temporary interest in as a young boy. The ship had appeared on a Friday night vid where it had been transported to the future through a wormhole that opened up in jump space. The engines for the battlecruiser were three and a quarter times as large as the largest one here in the ice ship. They were also of a far different design.

“There may be manuals still available on a computer system somewhere,” Dewey said. His words were spoken more as a thought than a comment. “We’ve lost a lot of data from before the war, but a lot has also been recovered.”

“We’ve done pretty good all these centuries without them,” said Malia as she turned to stand next to Dewey. They were now both looking at the engines. “But we’d probably do better if we had some manuals to answer questions we don’t remember how to ask anymore.”

Dewey turned to Malia. “If we ever get back, I’ll make sure you get those manuals.”

“I hope you make it back, then. We’re all kind of hoping it, to be fair. I think we’ve about run out of cable to unwind.” Malia nodded to Dewey and snapped the rag at Sherwood once more before returning to her duties, shouting at someone to use the right tool.

“I haven’t known any of you very long,” said Dewey. “But your sister-in-law seems of a different personality than Savannah.”

Sherwood laughed. “Oh, yes. Very different. Still, she’s the best engineer we’ve ever had.”

They exited engineering. Sherwood turned them in the direction of the bridge.

“What did Malia mean about running out of cable?”

“Oh, that.” Sherwood nodded and then turned onto a wider corridor that ran the ship’s length, though not in a perfectly straight line because of the mixed construction. “It means we are running out of time in a bad sort of way. Stuff’s breaking down more frequently. Repairs are harder to do as parts become more scarce. The historians make a big deal about this thing or that thing not being worthy of repair or some other obvious excuse. That’s why we’re down to three ships. But we’re better off than other ice crews. Several families had to be absorbed into other families when the last of their ships failed. Neville figures we have two or three generations left before things completely fall apart.”

Dewey recalled the failing gravity plate in the corridor near the airlock as they entered the bridge.

“Status?” Sherwood asked.

A young man turned in his seat before saying, “Almost there. Still braking.”

“Ah,” said Sherwood, tapping Dewey on the shoulder. He pointed out the forward observation windows. Dewey looked and sucked air in surprise. Sherwood laughed and said, “Agreed, Lieutenant. Welcome to Kaggen.”

Chapter 07

When Dewey had come to the bridge the first time, Kaggen had been nothing more than one more star in the dark. Having returned from his tour, he discovered that they had crossed the distance between the asteroid field and Kaggen. The distant star at the system’s center was no longer a dot of light. And Kaggen now had volume and size and detail.

Still, Dewey found it hard to think of it as a space station. He’d only seen a station similar to this once before. It had been a colored drawing, in a frame, in the office of his dorm father. Dewey’s dorm father had drawn it when he’d been six years of age and had no clue what a space station was supposed to look like. It had been loops and discs all randomly intersecting each other with a smiling sun off in one corner.

The sunlight from the star highlighting Kaggen was far enough away that it looked about twice the size of Dewey’s thumb. On the opposite side of Kaggen was a bright hazy line that was the asteroid belt. Kaggen was highlighted along the sunward side and didn’t look nearly as chaotic as Dewey’s dorm father’s drawing. But it was close.

There was a central spike impaling four rings and discs. That, Dewey was assuming, was the original space station. Around it, though, connecting spokes made from other stations and what looked like cargo trunks and recycled ship parts, seven other layers of rings encased the primary station. There didn’t seem to be a pattern to the additions. LIkely because the acquisitions hadn’t been planned but more a matter of the intrasystem war Sherwood had described.

“That’s Vody,” said Sherwood. They were close enough to Kaggen that it was beginning to fill the forward windows. Sherwood was pointing to a series of rings to the right of their field of view. “Water operations are in the bottom ring. The commercial districts are in the middle. Most of us live in the top ring. Just inside the top ring and above are the control systems for the water redistribution and Neville’s palace.”

“How are you going to sneak us into your home?” asked Dewey. “You mentioned engine malfunction earlier.”

“Right,” Sherwood said. “We’ll have to move the ship after we unload the ice. Our docks on the second ring are right below our homestead. We have a minor malfunction and drift past the docking lock. Since we’re up there, we’ll unload most of the crew before proceeding back to the docks. We’ve done it before.”

“Scavenged parts?” Dewey asked. “There’s probably old equipment or junked ships and equipment out there, especially in the asteroid belt.”

Sherwood nodded and then chuckled. “Just that. We’d strip them at the docks, but they aren’t as private as the homestead. Neville wouldn’t mind so much, but historians are nosey and show up at the oddest times. They see us with anything found out there, and we haven’t reported it before getting back to the docks, well, let’s just say we wouldn’t have to worry about maintaining our ships anymore.”

“Because they wouldn’t be your ships anymore.”

“Just that, Lieutenant. Just that.”

“So you’ll move us with whatever crew you unload,” Dewey said. He paused and looked at the station, still growing in the observation windows. “How is the rest of your family going to take our appearance?”

Sherwood held up his hand to pause the conversation with Dewey. He conferred with several of his crew who were bringing the ship into the dock. Dewey took the time to study the station some more. The ring they were approaching was about twice as big as the ones above. That would allow for large industrial machines and storage of liquids and gasses. Along the outer edge of the water ring, other ships were docked. Dewey counted six within his view. One of them was backing away from the ring, slowly beginning its turn for an outward bound journey.

“That’s the Carl,” said Sherwood as he rejoined Dewey. “It’s part of the Anglin family. They’re down to two ships, soon to be one if they can’t find parts.”

“Is there a lot of rivalry among the families?” asked Dewey. “Considering the scarcity of parts?”

“You’d think. And for a time, when I was just a kid, things were like that. But you marry across family lines enough times, your enemy becomes your family and even your friend. Beyond all that, though, is the understanding that we all need each other to survive. Once we’re done with this run, Malia will head over to the Anglin’s homestead. She’s helping them reconfigure part of the engine that’s got their third ship tied to port. Between her and old man Erasmo, they’ll rig something.”

“And your other ships?”

Sherwood laughed and clapped Dewey on the shoulder. “Why do you think we’re down to three ships? We’ve been parting one of them out so the others can keep at least three ships running. It’s the minimum we all need. Like I said, we all need each other to survive.”

To Dewey, it reminded him of the ways that the Hospitallers grew up and lived. They were raised as teams, helping and depending on each other. Each could stand alone, but they were stronger together.

“As for my family,” Sherwood said, drawing the conversation back to where it had been interrupted. “We are mostly of the same mind. Those that aren’t will be shocked, but no one will speak of it outside the homestead. They all know the danger.”

Outside, the water ring dominated the view. Directly ahead, ringed by an odd number of green lights, was a large docking port. Dewey could see movement behind one of the small windows set into the port’s hatch.

“Any chance I can stay with your ship and shadow you?” Dewey asked. He patted his chest. “Though I may need a change of clothes.”

“Indeed you will. And, yes, you may.

It had taken some convincing for Sherwood to accept Dewey wearing his protective armor under the coveralls they’d supplied him with. Dewey might have had second thoughts if the coveralls hadn’t fit so loosely. As it was, even the handgun on his utility belt went unnoticed unless someone knew exactly what they were looking for.

“No one would even know to look for it,” said Malia. She’d been the one to bring the spare coveralls. “We know what they are, of course. See them in the vid-shows all the time. But we don’t have all the chemicals necessary.”

“King would love to have them,” said Chauncey, who was still hanging around the mess hall. “He’d really have all the power, then.”

“Now see,” said Savannah. “The problem with talk like that is that your tongue gets used to saying them. Then, when you least expect it, your mouth blows a seal and you’re in hot water with the historians.”

Chauncey nodded but seemed to bite off any other comment he might have made.

As most everyone else in the room was busy watching Dewey adjusting to the coveralls, Chauncey’s comment had otherwise gone unnoticed.

“You look good in them, Lieutenant Tyler,” said SSgt Castro. “Where’s mine?”

Dewey was about to comment that she didn’t need any when he was stopped by a bundle sailing past him and into Castro’s waiting arms.

“Thank you, Malia,” Castro said. She shook out the coveralls and then started opening her EVA suit.

“Wait. What?” Dewey was confused. “How did you even know to ask?”

“She didn’t,” said Malia. “But if you had a subordinate worth their salt, and salt is expensive in Kaggen, they’d insist on coming along with you. She’s worth more than salt.”

“Coffee,” said Castro. “I’m worth coffee here.”

“Heard of it,” said Sherwood. “Never had it.”

“It’ll have to wait,” said Savannah. “They’re ready to unload the ice.”

“Right.” Sherwood stood. After a quick look at his cup, he shook his head and started toward the door. “This way, Lieutenant.”

“Wait for me?” asked SSgt Castro.

“I’ll catch you up,” said Malia. She shooed Dewey and Sherwood. “Go on. I know my way better than you.”

A wave of laughter washed Dewey and Sherwood out of the dining hall. Sherwood had a smile on his face as they went.

“She wasn’t joking,” he said. “Malia could lose her eyesight and she’d still be able to walk these corridors unchanged. And it’s not an exaggeration, not really. She’s done repairs in complete dark and zero gravity. Though, I’d be okay never repeating that experience.”

Dewey agreed silently. He was noticing his boots, comparing them to Sherwood’s. His boots didn’t match and were patched, too, just like the coveralls. Dewey’s Hospitaller-made boots were bright and shiny by comparison. He’d have to see about scuffing them up and getting the rest of his team to do the same.

For now, though, they were still in friendly territory, so Dewey returned his attention to Sherwood, who’d come to a stop at a corridor dead-end.

“Can’t go into the storage bay. No atmo. So we’ll watch from here.”

In the short wall of the dead-end there were four large portholes. Stepping up to one of them, Dewey could see the large volume of the storage bay. Floating in the space were fifteen or more ice rocks. Most of them were roughly the size of a dropship. The rest were about as big as a rapid response vehicle.

At the far end of the bay, Movement drew Dewey’s attention away from his study of the ice rocks. The bay doors were slowly opening. They moved accordion-style, folding themselves against the side bulkheads, revealing a section of the ring’s interior. Inside spherical cages of metal tubes and propelled by small compressed-air rockets, several people slowly jetted into the bay.

“We used to have autonomous arms that would grab the ice chunks and put them in the melters,” said Sherwood. He emphasized his explanation with a finger jabbing in the direction of several mechanical arms folded in on themselves. “That was before my time. But I do remember my dad and uncle operating the arms with levers and buttons until those failed, too, and there were no more parts to scavenge.”

“And the cages?” Dewey asked. He watched several people using the cages and their air jets to herd the ice nearest the ring toward several open tubes big enough to hold the largest ice rocks.

“Thirty years, give or take. Didn’t have them at first, but at least once a year, someone would get caught between moving ice chunks. The cages protect the people and actually make it easier to move the ice into the melters at the back of the ring’s loading bay.”

“Interesting,” said Dewey. He and Sherwood watched in silence as the people in the cages made quick work of moving all the ice out of the ship’s bay and into the ring. Two of the ice herders made a last pass through the bay, grabbing up all the small pieces, propelling them into the ring’s bay before exiting themselves. Then the doors of the ring and the ship’s bay unfolded themselves, sealing off both spaces.

“All right,” said Sherwood. “Time to move to the docks.”

They turned to find Castro and Malia approaching.

“Aw, did I miss it?” asked Castro as she looked past Dewey.

“Sorry, Staff Sergeant. All done.”

“Would have been here sooner,” said Malia, “but the coveralls tore putting them on. Had to loan Diane one of my last pairs.”

Dewey’s brain hiccuped as he realized that Malia was referring to SSgt Castro. Diane was her first name and so seldom used or heard that, like his own first name, Dewey wasn’t used to hearing it.

“We’ll get you some more from supply,” said Sherwood. “For now, let’s get back to the bridge for docking.”

“Boring,” said Malia. “I’ll be in engineering. Have fun, Diane.”

“Thanks, Malia. See you soon.”

Malia turned and took a side corridor, quickly disappearing from view.

“Okay, let’s go,” said Sherwood and started moving as quickly as Malia had disappeared.

Dewey and SSgt Castro hurried to catch up with Sherwood, both laughing as they bumped into each other, taking the next corner, trying to keep up.

In the last section of corridor leading to the bridge, the ship vibrated raggedly. A klaxon sounded off, filling the corridors with its message of alarm. Dewey’s palms were suddenly damp with sweat as his mind flashed back to the last moments on the Hospitaller ship. When he looked at SSgt Castro, she had a startled look on her face, her eyes wide.

“Again?”

Chapter 08

“‘Again?’” asked Sherwood. Then, as if the sound was only now registering, he added, “That’s nothing.”

And as if his comment was a signal, the klaxon went silent.

Castro laughed nervously as they continued walking hurriedly after Sherwood. “That was unexpected.”

“Not if you do it often enough,” said Sherwood. “Happens every time we load into that bay. There’s a problem with a docking clamp there, so even though it’s disengaged, it doesn’t think it is. Thus the alarm.”

“Has Malia ever taken a look at it?” asked Castro, following Sherwood onto the bridge.

“Enough times that she gets frustrated just thinking about it.” Sherwood pointed to a section of bridge deck off to one side. “If you can stand out of the way there, thanks.”

At that point, Sherwood seemed to forget Dewey and Castro existed. He was bent over the shoulder of one of the pilots, having a quiet but intense conversation. Dewey stood where Sherwood had directed. Castro joined him.

“What do you make of it?” Castro asked. “I mean everything, all of it.”

“Isolated like this for centuries. I’m surprised they still speak standard like us. But I think I can explain that. As for the rest? I’m not sure, but something is nagging at me.”

“Maybe when you know where we are,” said Castro.

“Maybe. But then we have to figure out a way to contact H.Q.”

Castro leaned a little in Dewey’s direction. “You think they’re not being honest about the comms?”

Dewey shook his head. “No. I think they believe it and have no reason to think otherwise. If you think of some of the dictators and despots we’ve encountered, then you’ll remember the ways they’ve kept control of the people under them.”

“Fear.”

“Yes, fear.” Dewey smiled at Castro. “But also the flow of information.”

Castro was silent for a few seconds. Dewey spent the moment watching the station as the ship rose toward the next ring.

“Wait,” Castro said. “Are you suggesting that someone does have intersystem comms but is keeping it a secret?”

“It’s possible.” Dewey pressed a finger to his lips as Sherwood waved them to join him. “We’ll talk more about it later.”

When they stepped over to where Sherwood waited, he pointed at the station. Docking hatches were just starting to slide into view. They were half the size of the ones on the water ring. To the right, Dewey could see another ship secured to the ring.

“Any moment,” said Sherwood.

“For what?” asked Castro.

An alarm sounded. Dewey was grateful it wasn’t a klaxon, considering how the last one had affected him.

“For that.” Sherwood stepped over to the comm station where one of his crew handed him a headset. He put it on and, turning to face Dewey, said, “Docking control, this is the Beth. We’re having some trouble with one of our engines.”

He flashed a thumbs-up at Dewey while bending his head in the manner of someone listening.

“Yes, this has happened before,” Sherwood said. “It’ll probably happen again.”

Outside, the dock hatches of the commercial ring slipped past. Sherwood pointed at one of the two pilots who’d been watching him closely. With a nod, the pilot turned back to their station and began making adjustments before holding one hand in the air. After a pause, they made a fist and brought their hand down.

“Oh, great,” Sherwood said. “We have control of the engines again. Say, control, since we’re already up here, we’re just going to disembark some of the crew so they can get a shower and a decent meal.”

Sherwood paused to listen. Dewey could almost hear the person on the other end. It was a buzz of someone angry and annoyed.

“I’ve put in for a dispensation with the historians,” Sherwood said. He had both hands on the comm set, the ear cups pulled several centimeters from his ears. “But I’ve tried a dozen times. Maybe if I crash into the ring?”

More angry buzzing from the headphones.

“Of course I’m joking. I’ll let you know when I’m ready to reattempt docking. Beth out.”

Sherwood handed the headphones back to the crewmember at the comm station and joined Dewey and Castro.

“That sounded fun,” Dewey said.

Sherwood harrumphed. “None of those people in docking control has ever piloted a ship. I think most have never been off station. Still, they yak back like they’re the ones with experience. Anyway, welcome to Kaggen.”

The Beth had now turned port side to the station. It provided Dewey with a clear view of the next ship over that Sherwood had identified as the Bruce, which was scheduled to depart in twelve hours. The captain, Sherwood’s younger brother, would be joining Dewey and some others for dinner and a discussion.

For now, though, most of the crew of the Beth was exiting through the airlock. With them were Sgt Maxwell and Cpl Wong’s fireteam. They were under the guidance of Savannah and Chauncey.

“Still don’t feel comfortable leaving you and Staff Sergeant Castro on your own, Lieutenant,” said Sgt Maxwell over their comm. Dewey had insisted that they be allowed to keep this, too. As it was easy enough to conceal and secure, Savannah hadn’t seen the harm of it. Neither had Malia, which put a quick end to the debate.

“I’d have you all along if it was possible,” said Dewey. “But we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves if we can help it. We’ll see you soon.”

“Wong says if you can find something better tasting than tea to grab it.”

Dewey laughed and assured them he’d keep a lookout for an alternative. They did have the canisters of Insta from the pod, but it wouldn’t last long.

“There are other substances to drink,” said Sherwood when Dewey shared the comment about the tea. “Most of them are intoxicating. Several of them are addicting. I’d stay clear of them.”

“No problem there,” said SSgt Castro. “Hospitallers are too busy to bother with an addiction.”

Dewey knew she meant it sincerely, though it might have sounded like bravado. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always true. Even the most well-intentioned Hospitaller could make a mistake, and that mistake could derail their life for a while or forever.

“Well,” he said. “We got used to Insta. I think we’ll get used to the local tea in time.”

The conversation was interrupted by the vibration of the docking clamps releasing. The crew and Hospitallers were in the station. Dewey was pleased that this time there wasn’t a klaxon alarm. The ship drifted back from the station and then began powering its way down to the second ring.

Sherwood was busy with the bridge crew. Castro had gone silent, so Dewey allowed himself to study the view. It was still his hope that he’d see something that would match something in his memory. Then he’d know the station’s name and thus their location in the galaxy. However, by the time the Beth latched onto the station for the third time, Dewey still had no clue where they were, except the second ring of the Vody Province of Kaggen.

All but two of the bridge crew shut down their stations and exited with brief comments for the others and unsure waves for Dewey and Castro. Sherwood conversed softly with the remaining crew before joining Dewey and Castro. He hooked a thumb over his shoulder as he began talking.

“Claudia and Jayson will shut down the systems not needed while docked. Malia is doing the same in engineering. So why don’t I take you onto the Avenue so that we can get Malia and your crew some coveralls.”

Dewey started to nod and then paused. “Sherwood, I don’t think our credits will spend here. And I don’t even know what you use to pay for your purchases.”

“I worked that out already,” said Sherwood. He stepped past Dewey and Castro, waving them to follow. “As for us in Kaggen, it’s a bit of a barter system and a chit system commingling happily. You can owe me for now.”

“We could work to pay it off, too,” said Castro. She looked at Dewey as she added, “If we don’t have anything to do, we’ll get bored.”

“Could always find some work for you,” Sherwood said. The conversation held until they reached the bottom of a flight of stairs. “You’ll have to let me know what your people already know how to do.”

“You mean besides fight?” Castro winked at Dewey as she spoke.

Sherwood either didn’t understand it was a joke or was playing along as he said, “Might come in handy, too.”

Dewey didn’t like the idea of Hospitallers providing services like a mercenary. Though, in conversations with friends and a few people he’d been at odds with, there was the occasional philosophical debate about whether or not the Hospitallers acted like mercenaries in their duties. As Dewey reminded people, mercs did it for money while the Hospitallers didn’t make such demands. To which some had added that it wasn’t always about money.

Either way, Dewey maintained his silence as they crossed from the ship to the station. These were the docks controlled by the Humphries family. It had been segmented rather than leaving the space open across the five docking points that belonged to them. Considering the ages of the stations, it seemed like a good idea to Dewey. If anything broke or gave way, it wasn’t as likely to suck out all the atmosphere in the area, along with all of the workers.

They were met as soon as they stepped on the station deck by one of Sherwood’s people. They handed over a thick, awkward-looking tablet that had a power source strapped to the underside. As they gave the tablet over to Sherwood, they said something in a hushed voice that Dewey didn’t hear.

Whatever it was the other person said, it certainly gained Sherwood’s attention. He waved vigorously with his hand for Dewey and Castro to follow him to a hatch in a side bulkhead.

“This is Floretta,” he said as Floretta opened the hatch. “She’s going to give you a surprise tour of the next section. I’ll come for you when I’m done.”

Floretta had stepped through and now waited. Dewey waved Castro through before asking Sherwood, “Is there a problem?”

“When isn’t there,” said Sherwood. He smiled a tight-lipped smile. “There’s a historian in the front office.”

“Understood,” said Dewey. He stepped into the next section with Castro, helping Floretta pull the hatch shut, setting the handles to seal it.

“There’s not really much to see here,” said Floretta. She started walking across the large empty space. “We don’t use this dock much anymore. Not since we lost the Brit.”

Floretta seemed to be taking Dewey and SSgt Castro’s presence as casually as if a neighbor had stopped by. Dewey found that curious.

“Floretta,” Dewey said. “Do you know who we are?”

She stopped and turned to face him, a look of amusement on her face. “If you mean do I know you are from somewhere outside our solar system, then, yes, I know who you are.”

“Not a very well kept secret,” said Castro. “How long before this king person finds out?”

With the motion of one hand, Floretta seemed to dismiss the concern. “Not everyone in the Humphries business or family knows. Most of us can be trusted, but Uncle Sherwood is only sharing the information with people who need it. I work the front desk with my mom. She’s a worrier, so he didn’t tell her. And that’s why I am here with you. Come on, there’s a small office we can wait in that’s out of the way. I think there’s even a teapot still there.”

“Oh, tea. Wonderful,” Castro said. Floretta had turned just as Castro spoke, so Dewey was certain she missed the staff sergeant’s eye roll.

The office was unused enough that Floretta had to open a panel and reconnect the power. The room was chilly. Therefore, the tea was appreciated even by SSgt Castro. As they drank their tea, it occurred to Dewey that the office they were in was original to the station and not added after the station had been added to Kaggen. So rather than sit and enjoy the unique flavors of the Kaggen tea, he walked the perimeter of the room, opening the few cupboards and access hatches present and looking under the built-in table.

“Looking for something, Lieutenant?” asked SSgt Castro.

“Information,” Dewey said. “Something that might tell us what the original name of the station was.”

Floretta, who’d been sitting on the counter cross-legged, laughed. “You mean a name like the Beth? Or the Bruce?”

“Sort of,” said Dewey. He was reclaiming his cooling cup of tea after resetting a small hatch in the floor. There’d been some pipes and parts numbers but no station identifiers.

“The station never had a name,” said Floretta. She slid off the counter and set her cup down. “It had a designation, though.”

Dewey followed Floretta to a second door. She opened it to reveal the corridor on the other side. The only light came from the office, and small lights in the walls set ten meters apart. The staleness of the air and the dust on the deck indicated that it wasn’t an often used area, if ever. She waved Dewey to continue and lead him to a section of the corridor where a plaque was on the wall.

“This help?”

Dewey wanted to laugh. “Help? It’s perfect. Would you mind?”

Floretta took the proffered teacup from Dewey’s hand. He dug out his tablet and took a picture of the plaque. It not only had the station identifier, WFP-0104, it also had a map of each of the rings. After taking the picture, Dewey secured his tablet out of sight and studied the map and other data on the plaque while sipping cold tea. He read every word and followed every line of the map. Just a brief glance was enough to secure the image in his mind, but by giving it more time, he’d be able to pull more detail should he need it.

Castro was leaning against the door frame when Dewey returned with Floretta. “Learn anything?”

“Learned something,” said Dewey as he followed Castro back into the office. “This was a water and fuel production plant. Muscovy manufactured. They made two hundred eighty-seven of them before the Radial War. This is one of fifty unaccounted for.”

“So you know where we are?”

“Not yet, Castro. But it’s one step closer.”

“You don’t know what solar system this is?” asked Floretta. She looked surprised.

“Wait,” Dewey said. “Do you?”

“We just call it the Kaggen system. I figured that’s what it was always called.”

It was too much to hope for, and Dewey knew better than to get his hopes up. “There was never a system with that name,” he said to Floretta. “That’s why I need the names of all the stations that make up Kaggen. I get those. I can probably pinpoint our location in the galaxy.”

“Still won’t be able to make contact with H.Q.,” Castro said.

“Not yet.”

Chapter 09

They were on their second cup of tea when Sherwood appeared at the door that led in from the empty loading bay. The look on his face suggested amusement to Dewey.

“Everything work out with the historian?”

“About the usual,” said Sherwood. “Floretta, your mom is looking for you. We need to run numbers for the ice that we just brought in.”

“On my way.” Floretta offered a short, vigorous wave to Dewey and SSgt Castro before stepping around her uncle and jogging across the open space back to the other office.

“You can just drop those in the sink,” Sherwood said. “I’ll have Floretta collect them later. Let’s get out to the Avenue and home.”

Dewey collected Castro’s cup and put them in the sink next to Floretta’s. They stepped out of the office and waited while Sherwood disconnected the power to the room. “We get charged for power, and it’s a lot of chits to cover the expense. So we turn it off completely in places we don’t need to go. Fortunately, the heat from Avenue radiates through the inner walls and keeps places like this from turning to ice. This way.”

As they made their way back to the docking bay of the Beth, Dewey asked about the historian.

“Just the usual, ‘I happen to be in the neighborhood,’ kind of thing,” said Sherwood. “But they are always in the neighborhood. Apparently, we were out longer than expected. Which is a surprise as I didn’t know we were on a time schedule. Now I have to start taking that into consideration.”

“A lot of changes recently?” asked SSgt Castro. They’d left the empty docking bay and were now where the last of the Beth’s crew were disembarking.

“There’s always been new changes and new rules,” said Sherwood. “But, yeah, they’ve come more frequently this past decade at least. I think as the situation in Kaggen continues to deteriorate, the more control the historians and the king attempt to exert. As if tighter controls will keep Kaggen from eventually collapsing.”

They approached two doors. One of them was open, several of the crew already passing the threshold. Sherwood took them to the second door. It opened onto an office that was empty of people. It was furnished with several desks, a small conference table, and plenty of chairs. The room had two more doors. One lead to the left, the direction where the crew had been passing through, and the second was straight ahead. The second door required a physical key and a passcode.

“Rarely use it,” Sherwood said, patting the door for emphasis as he pulled it open. “Don’t usually need to hide stuff from the family or the crew. Not everyone is good at keeping secrets, though.”

“Like Floretta’s mom?” SSgt Castro asked. She had her mischievous grin on her face.

“Surprising how much Floretta can keep secret despite how much she gossips,” said Sherwood.

They were now in a busy corridor. Tens of people could be seen walking towards or past where Dewey and Castro waited for Sherwood to secure the office door. To the right, Dewey could see the main office door with the Humphries name across it in bright orange letters.

“This way,” Sherwood said after pocketing the key. “Remind me to pick up greens for dinner. Savannah says we’ll need more if we’re feeding all of you, too.”

“Will do,” Castro said in response. “It’ll be nice to not have to eat rations for a while.”

Sherwood laughed and led them away from the offices. He nodded to several people as they made their way down the corridor. They got several looks from people, but no one seemed interested enough to inquire. Only once did someone seem inclined to ask, but a subtle shake of the head by Sherwood stilled the question before it was asked.

They then arrived at a set of double doors in constant motion as people disappeared past them or appeared from them into the corridor Dewey and the others occupied. Each time the doors opened, there was a rush of sound. It was a mix of footsteps, people talking, the occasional clang of metal against metal, and a bit of music unknown to Dewey.

“The Avenue,” said Sherwood as he pulled open one of the doors and ushered Castro and Dewey through.

Dewey collided with SSgt Castro, who had come to an early stop rather than continuing to move.

“Wow.”

“Agreed,” said Dewey after several seconds.

Most stations had a concourse where foodstuffs, clothes, electronics, and local wares were sold. They all had a different energy to them. Some were sedate. Others were more festive depending on the time of year on the planet the station belonged to. Kaggen, or at least the Vody Province, was on the far end of the spectrum opposite sedate.

Just across from where Dewey had collided with Castro was a stand where clothes and textiles were neatly folded and displayed. Behind a table, an older man and a young woman were haggling with four different people at the same time. There seemed to be some order to it, but all Dewey heard was chaos.

Next to the clothes shop was a shop that looked like one for repairs of metal items. A woman, two children shadowing her, was shouting at the man on the other side of the counter as she banged a pot and pointed at an ugly patch along one side. In response, the man was tapping the patch with a long, narrow ball-peen hammer and growling his response. He sounded intimidating to Dewey. However, the woman appeared unimpressed by him and his handiwork as she continued to try to force the price down.

To the left and right, as the Avenue slowly bent out of sight, there seemed to be more of the same happening repeatedly.

“Is it always like this?” asked SSgt Castro? She looked bewildered and amused.

“Comes in cycles. Mid-day isn’t so bad. But the day’s about done. They all want to get home, so the energy is up a bit.” Sherwood turned right and started walking. “We’ll get clothes this way. I’ve got credit at Otto’s place. He does the best patchwork, in my opinion.”

Dewey and Castro followed Sherwood, avoiding collisions while looking at the variety of wares and services available.

“For an isolated system,” said Castro, “they seem to have a lot of stuff.”

“A lot of old stuff,” Dewey replied. “And most of it is patched together. I saw several tablets that were four times thicker than original. The insides are probably a designer’s nightmare, but the people of Kaggen seem to be able to keep them working.”

“Not all the clothes are old and patched, either.” Castro used her chin to point to a shop with large rectangles of cloth that hung in long strips from overhead lines. They had patterns woven into them and looked to be recently made.

“That’s a Tessuti Province shop,” said Sherwood after one quick glance in the direction Dewey was looking. “They make all the daily stuff. Clothes, boxes, teapots. They have several shops in each province to sell what they make. Everything else you see here is pre-Tessuti, or used Tessuti.”

“Except for in their shops,” said Dewey.

“Just so,” said Sherwood. “And here’s Otto’s.”

Otto’s may not have been filled with brand new textiles like the Tessuti shop, but it was bright and colorful. All of the used and repaired clothes looked like they’d been pressed and folded by a machine, such was their consistency on the tables and racks. Several people were being attended by what looked like twins. At the same time, an older man with bright, white hair watched over everything.

“Sherwood!”

“Evening, Otto.”

The white-haired man wobbled over to Sherwood and gave him a giant hug and several good thumps on the back.

“So good to see you, Sherwood.” Otto turned and eyed Dewey and Castro. “I don’t recognize your friends.”

“They’re over from Kastella Province. We’re trying to find them a part for one of their ice miners.”

Otto looked Dewey and then Castro up and down before saying, “I have relatives in Kastella. Never seen these two.”

Sherwood laughed. “Well, you can’t have seen everyone.”

“I remember every piece of clothing I’ve ever sold,” Otto said, turning his attention back to Sherwood. Dewey noticed that Otto wasn’t accusatory. “And I remember every face I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen these two. Where are they really from?”

“From Sklenka Province, Otto.”

Otto leaned back several centimeters. His eyes traveled rapidly from Dewey and Castro then back to Sherwood. He did this several times before he slowly nodded his head. “Sklenka, you say?”

“Just so.” Sherwood flashed a smile.

“Very good.” Otto clapped his hands together and rubbed the palms against each other. “Are they here for clothing?”

After a quick flash of a smile, Sherwood shook his head. “Not them. But I am. I need twelve pairs of good coveralls, about his size. And two about her size.”

“Twelve and two. Because Malia would probably like her clothes back, eh?”

Dewey looked at Castro. The coveralls looked very much the same as the ones he wore and the ones Sherwood wore.

SSgt Castro laughed, saying, “She very much would, Otto. And I like them a little loser in the waist if possible.”

“Of course.” He turned to Sherwood. “You collecting I.O.U.s on this?”

“I am,” Sherwood said.

Otto turned his attention to Dewey and Castro. “Sherwood makes sure I get a little extra water each day.” He waved a hand at the clothes in his shop. “A good steaming removes the wrinkles and makes everything look crisp and fresh. Even the merchants from Tessuti don’t do that. Come, let’s find you some good clothes.”

 

An hour later, Sherwood guided them back the way they’d come and along another eighth of the commerce ring. They were each carrying hard-sided totes with stacked coveralls, salad ingredients from a small, local greengrocer, and six long skewers of protein cubes from a corner stall. Dewey and Castro followed Sherwood as he took a turn down a short, wide corridor that ended at a spiral staircase.

“Homestead is this way,” Sherwood said, using his chin to point upward.

“That was a curious thing that happened between you and Otto,” said Dewey as he continued to follow Sherwood.

“What was curious?”

Dewey had kept his questions to a minimum amongst the shops and shoppers. He’d asked only about immediate things like the source of the protein cubes and the green onions from the grocer. The entire time, though, he’d been thinking about the conversation killer uttered by Sherwood.

“The province, Sklenka,” said Dewey. “That seemed to have had an effect on Otto and changed the course of the conversation.”

Sherwood came to a stop. Dewey did the same and was jostled by SSgt Castro, who hadn’t realized what had happened. She apologized and stepped down one step. As a group, they moved to the outside edge of the stairs, letting several people pass on the way down.

“Sklenka Province is a myth,” Sherwood said. “Or it’s not. Depends on who you ask.”

“What’s it to you, then?”

“I think there’s some truth to it. As are most myths, legends, and lies.”

“So, Sklenka isn’t a real place?” Castro asked. “Unless it is? I have to say that I like my stories simpler.”

“Many people believe it existed. That was back in the time of the first king, Celestene the First. A hundred years or so after the wars that unified the stations into one. When Celestene declared himself king, all the stations but one agreed to his rule.”

“Sklenka. What happened to it?”

“The story goes that when Celestene demanded they swear allegiance to him and his family, the people in Sklenka voted against it. So Celestene cut the water supply. When they still refused, he cut power. After that, when they still refused, according to the legend, mind you, he had all the connections between Sklenka and the rest of Kaggen severed. Then he had several ships push Sklenka away from the rest of us, setting them adrift.”

“And I thought the Allied Planets played dirty,” said SSgt Castro in a hushed voice.

“It’s conjectured that Sklenka had managed to survive, but they had no supplies and no external power. People believe that the first Celestene had set the trajectory of Sklenka so that it would eventually spiral into the system and into the sun.”

“Without food and water, it’s likely they never survived long enough to know that was going to happen,” Dewey said. “But why did you say we were from there?”

“It’s a saying we use,” Sherwood said as he picked up his crate of coveralls and food. “When anyone invokes the name of Sklenka, it’s a signal to anyone listening that the conversation goes no further. So when I told Otto you were from Sklenka, he knew that I didn’t want to discuss it anymore. Fortunately, he and I trust each other. Someone else had asked? I might have had to come up with a better answer.”

He started up the stairs once more.

“Which is also why you chose to deal with Otto,” said Dewey. He followed Sherwood up the spiral.

“Just so. Just so.”

Sklenka wasn’t a rare name in the universe. At least not before the Radial War. Dewey didn’t connect it to a specific space station but to a trading co-op. Hundreds of companies too small to do their own inter-system trading alone. But as part of the co-op, they were able to own and maintain dozens of trading stations along the more popular jump routes that were in use at that time.

If Dewey was correct, the name here implied that Sklenka had a station in this system. Of all the systems with a Sklenka trading station and a WFP station, Dewey could narrow the possibilities down to several dozen.

He was slowly getting closer to uncovering their location in the galaxy.

Chapter 10

The spiral staircase opened onto a corridor three meters wide. The foot traffic here was non-existent compared to the Avenue in the ring below. Several people passed by, greeting Sherwood and giving a quick glance for Dewey and Castro.

“There’s a hundred homesteads here,” Sherwood said. “Some families have taken over parts of the inner wall of the commercial ring as things have gotten crowded up here over the decades. Mostly, though, we’ve gotten used to not having a lot of space and not much in the way of privacy. Most generations, though, have always lived like this, so it’s normal for them.”

“What about your generation?” asked SSgt Castro.

They were walking towards a pair of double doors with a painted frame. Dewey noticed other paintings on the walls to either side, each framed with a painted border. Some were of what Dewey thought of as life inside Kaggen. Other paintings were of spaceships and distant planets.

“My generation? Things were already getting crowded by then. Still, I had my own room when I was a teenager. It was small, mind you, but I had it to myself. Teenagers now have to share with at least one other person in the same age group. If there are problems, we’ll shuffle them around until we find a level of harmony. Young adults share dorms. You’ll see. Savannah will have put your people in one.”

“So there’s still space to expand?”

Sherwood gave a vague shrug to Dewey’s question. “Maybe? Not much. There’s talk of converting more spaces in the commercial ring. We have all that warehouse space that could be used. But we’d need materials to make walls, plumbing, and wiring.”

Dewey understood. “Sounds complicated.”

“Just so.” Sherwood elbowed a button hidden in the designs framing the doors. The images here were of people’s faces, asteroids, ships, flowers. Someone had allowed their imagination to run wild.

A second after Sherwood had pushed the button, the door opened.

“Hey, Uncle Sherwood.” A young man, likely in his early teens based on Dewey’s assumption, stepped back, pulling the door with him. “You want me to take that for you?”

“Thanks, Rigo, but you’re still on door duty. I’ll be fine.”

“Okay, Unc. Anything you say.” Rigo seemed to just notice Dewey and Castro. “Oh, hey, more special guests. Hiya.”

Dewey and SSgt Castro returned the greeting. They quick-marched a few steps to catch up with Sherwood. He was already moving down the corridor away from the entry. Rigo had returned to a podium and stool where he resumed whatever he’d been doing on a bulky tablet before responding to the request to open the door.

The corridor branched several times. Down the offshoot corridors, Dewey saw tens of doors, mostly evenly spaced along the walls. Everything seemed quiet until they pushed through another set of double doors that didn’t require a button or a duty desk.

A wave of laughter and elevated conversation volume washed across Dewey as he stepped into a relatively large space. The space was about ten meters deep and twenty meters broad. It was filled with tables and benches in the middle. There was one large rectangular window that looked out into space. On a patchwork of rugs, beneath the window, were children’s toys, children, and a fireteam’s worth of Hospitallers.

“Officer on deck!”

The Hospitallers all jumped to their feet at Sgt Maxwell’s warning. The laughter of the children was stilled by the shock of the Hospitallers’ sudden movement.

“As you were,” said Dewey.

Laughter returned as the fireteam resumed whatever activity they were in the middle of when Dewey had arrived. Where Sherwood stopped, Savannah and Sgt Maxwell converged.

“I wish the children would respond as quickly,” said Savannah.

“Start them young,” said Castro. She set her tote of coveralls and salad greens on the nearest table. “That’s what we did.”

“Probably too late then,” Savannah said. She looked over her shoulder in response to an exceptionally loud peal of laughter. Cpl Wong was giving one of the smaller children a spaceship ride through the air.

“Next generation,” suggested Sgt Maxwell. She had turned her attention to Dewey. She’d started to salute but stopped when he shook his head. “We’re all safe and accounted for, Lieutenant Tyler. They’ve assigned us a bunkroom. We’ve stored the EVA suits there for now.”

“Good work, Maxwell.” Dewey looked around, counting Hospitallers. “I don’t see PFC Webb.”

“The kitchen,” said Savannah. “He insisted. Seems he knows his way through a kitchen, and he’s been of great help getting the evening meal together.”

“We have stuff for salad,” Castro said, indicating the lettuces, green onions, and the protein cubes on the skewers. “If you’ll point me in the right direction.”

“Better than that,” Savannah said. “I’ll show you.”

She paused long enough to pull the other vegetables from Dewey’s and Sherwood’s containers, passing the skewers over to SSgt Castro. When she had removed everything edible, she waved for Castro to follow her. They weaved their way through the tables with several greetings to small groups of people they passed. Then they were out of sight beyond a swinging door with a porthole window.

“Come relax,” said Sherwood. “It’ll still be a while before the meal is ready.”

Dewey nodded and followed Sherwood. Sgt Maxwell shadowed Dewey. They were led to a table where Dewey recognized Chauncey and Tristan. They were not alone.

“You’ve met Chance and Triss,” said Sherwood, indicating the two men with a brief wave of his hand. “This is my daughter, Jeanetta, married to Chance.”

“Greetings,” said Jeanetta. Rising to her feet, she revealed that she was eight to nine months pregnant.

“Please, don’t get up for us,” Dewey said.

“This is Meril and Mericruz,” Sherwood added. “Sister and cousin to Jeanetta.”

The two women, younger than Jeanetta, waved. Dewey nodded in reply.

Sherwood had already taken a seat and pointed with his hand to a spot next to him. “Come, join the happy crew.”

“Pained crew,” said Jeanetta. She was rubbing her hand over her belly in small circles.

Dewey sat, asking Jeanetta. “Your first?”

She and the other women laughed. “No,” she said. “One other. Parker. He’s the one currently getting a shoulder ride.”

In the play area, filled with children and Hospitallers, Pvt Marlene Russell was giving a young boy of four or five years a shoulder ride while several other children trailed along behind, laughing and asking loudly for their turn.

“You sure your people are up to this?” Chauncey asked.

“They’ll never admit it if they aren’t,” said Dewey. “There’s a sort of natural affinity between Hospitallers and children.”

“I heard you are all orphans,” said Jeanetta’s sister, Meril. “That must have been sad.”

Sgt Maxwell laughed and then quickly shoved a fist against her mouth. Maxwell’s behavior caused Dewey to laugh in turn.

“Why was that funny?” asked a confused Meril.

“Go ahead, Sergeant,” Dewey said.

“Sorry,” Maxwell said. “I wasn’t laughing at you, Meril. It’s just that we are so often thought of as deprived or somehow taken advantage of. Yet to us, our lives were filled with love and camaraderie from as far back as we can remember.”

Meril and her cousin, Mericruz, looked embarrassed.

“It’s okay,” said Dewey. “As I look around here, it seems like the children have lots of adults looking after them. Your family is more than just parents and children if I’m right.”

“We are an extended family, sure,” said Sherwood. “While parents have primary responsibility, there’s always an adult somewhere looking out for the children’s safety and wellbeing.”

“Much the same for us. We grew up in dorms of nine to thirteen, depending on the size of the orphanage. We always had a dorm mother and dorm father with us.”

“And there were always other adults in the orphanage, too,” added Sgt Maxwell. “It was kind of like this.”

“You don’t feel like you were missing out on anything?” asked Chauncey. “You know, what with not having a real parent?”

“I’m not sure any of us can answer that fully,” Dewey said. “Most of us were infants when we came to the Hospitallers. A few of us remember our parents, but mostly we have the orphanage and those memories of happiness, support, and being loved.”

“Probably the way you all feel about yourselves,” said Sgt Maxwell. “And how your children feel.”

“Just with fewer options,” said Chauncey. Jeanetta gave him an elbow to the ribs, softened with a smile. “What? It’s true. They’re crossing the galaxy. We can’t even cross the entirety of Kaggen.”

Dewey found the comment interesting. “Your travel within the station is limited?”

“Not completely,” said Sherwood. “You have to get a permit. Though they are rarely denied, people are discouraged from making extended trips to other provinces.”

“Did Otto move here from the Kastella Province?” asked Dewey.

“He did. But that was a few decades ago. His family is spread across a few of the provinces. That benefits him because he can move his wares into different provinces to maximize his profits.”

Dewey looked across the dining hall where Pvt Russell was being chased by several children. They caught her handily when she tripped over something small and likely invisible. There were shouts of “Got you!” and laughs of surprise as the children clambered across Russell’s back. All of this was easier for children. If they were well fed, loved, and treated fair, they would adapt, thinking this was the natural way of things until they got older.

When Pvt Russell roared like a lion and pretended to gobble the children, Dewey turned his attention back to the table. Sgt Maxwell was leaning into a discussion with Jeanetta, Meril, and Mericruz. Chauncey was looking at the backs of his hands. Sherwood was shifting his attention from the children back to Dewey. He smiled a content smile that was lined with concern. Likely the concern was always there.

“How do you petition Prince Neville?”

“Go before the gates,” said Sherwood. “Really just a hatchway with a grill across it. The scribe will take down my request, along with a dozen others on most days, and then we wait for a summons.”

“How long will a summons take?”

Sherwood’s grimace did not fill Dewey with confidence. “Couple of days,” Sherwood said. “Unless there’s an emergency. Then it could be a week to ten days. But on average, I’ve received my summons in a couple of days.”

Dewey was about to ask what they would do to keep busy until then. Instead, his attention was pulled by a flurry of movement by the swinging door that led to the kitchen. Several women Dewey hadn’t seen before, PFC Webb, Savannah, and SSgt Castro, were entering the dining hall. They came single file, each laden with a tray.

One by one, they set a tray on each table. The trays held bowls of rolls, soup tureens, and metal bowls piled with salad that was dotted with cherry tomatoes and the protein cubes cut smaller. The older children jumped up from the floor where they’d been playing with the other Hospitallers and rushed to a sideboard stacked with plastic totes. They carried one large and one small tote to each table. Inside the larger totes was a variety of metal and plastic plates and bowls. The smaller totes had round canisters, and in the canisters were forks, knives, and spoons.

The smaller children pulled the rest of the Hospitallers to different tables where other adults sat. Dewey presumed these were family. PFC Bryant looked at Dewey, a question in her expression. Dewey nodded that it was okay. Likely, Bryant thought Dewey would want all of them together. However, he was sure that if they’d isolated themselves at a separate table it would make the civilians uncomfortable. Plus, listening to different people would make for good intel to share back later.

As the last tote and tray were set on the last table, the room fell silent. Sherwood stood and looked around the room. He smiled and gave a little wave to two children who’d been waving before. Then he gave a single, curt nod.

“Let’s eat,” he said.

The children laughed or shouted in response before snatching rolls from bowls while adults filled their plates and bowls. Sherwood did the same, but he also set a meal aside on the tray that had brought the food.

“Meril,” said Sherwood, his hand still on the tray. “Would you take this to Rigo?”

“Of course.”

As Meril picked up the tray and left, Sherwood turned to Dewey and Sgt Maxwell. “Please, eat.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” said Sgt Maxwell, and she reached across Dewey to snag a roll and promptly stuff it in her mouth.

Giggles of children at tables nearby were joined by chuckles and guffaws from other Hospitallers and finally by adults. The laughter rolled outward like ripples from a stone dropped in still water. Collectively, there seemed to be a relaxation among the adults, Hospitallers, and Kaggenites alike. Dewey had a feeling that the acceptance of the Hospitallers among Sherwood’s family had been solidified in this moment.

For his part, Sherwood appeared to have reached the same conclusion. He gave Dewey a nod. Then, with exaggerated actions for the children, he mimicked Sgt Maxwell and received laughter and applause.

From there, the meal relaxed into what Dewey presumed to be its normal routine. People talked about what had been accomplished that day and laid out what was to be done on the next day or beyond. Hospitallers fielded questions from curious children and equally curious adults who had shown restraint before. An hour passed in easy company and Dewey only slowly became aware of the dwindling numbers when Meril and Mericruz excused themselves from the table. They placed their used dishes and utensils on the tray as they stood. They each said their goodbyes, giving Floretta a kiss and Savannah a hug. Then they were gone.

SSgt Castro, a small child holding on to her neck, took Meril’s place at the table.

“Enjoy your meal, Lieutenant?” she asked.

Dewey looked down. His plate was empty except for the second half of a roll he’d been using to soak up the last of the soup. He picked up the bit of roll. Before slipping it into his mouth, he nodded and said, “A meal I could get used to.”

“Agreed,” said Sgt Maxwell. “I’m curious, though, about the logistics.”

“Logistics?” Savannah asked. Having seemed to have noticed Savannah’s presence, the child hanging on Castro was now trying to negotiate the space between the two women. Savannah accepted the child while she waited for Maxwell to answer.

“Clean up,” Maxwell said. “I don’t see a recycler slot or a place to put all the used dishes.”

“It’s a by-hand job,” said Sherwood. He’d reached over and gave the child now in Savannah’s arms a gentle pinch on the cheek. “A dozen of the kids will be along soon to clean up. Those that don’t have other responsibilities.”

Across from him, Dewey caught a questioning look from SSgt Castro. He nodded in response and then said, “Well, we don’t have any responsibilities right now. Why don’t you show us what to do, and we’ll make quick work of it.”

“Least we can do for now,” said Castro.

Chauncey stood, a half-smile on his face. “You’re going to make a bunch of teenagers very happy. Come, I’ll show you what to do.”

Chapter 11

Water wasn’t exactly scarce on the station, but the Kaggenites were still cautious with how it was used. Over the decades, they’d designed and redesigned nozzles and sprayers to maximize water use while still getting things like dishes clean.

Chauncy had cautioned them not to get their hands in the way of the water jets that scoured the dishes clean. He demonstrated with a small zucchini which was sliced quickly and cleanly in half the moment it made contact with a stream of water. Dried food didn’t stand a chance as the dishes were moved through the dishwashing system in the kitchen.

“That should make short work of this,” said Cpl Maxwell.

As was often the case, the Hospitallers made quick, efficient work of the washing up. They soon had everything clean, dry, and put away. When they came back from the kitchens, Dewey noted a lack of people in the dining hall. Where he’d been sitting when the Hospitallers took over kitchen duty, Sherwood remained, nodding as they approached.

“You made quick enough work of it.”

“I’d say don’t get used to it,” said Dewey, “but I don’t know how long we’ll be here.”

“We’ll put your people into the rotation if they want,” Sherwood said. “The younger people won’t mind.”

“And it’ll give us a first chance at contributing,” added SSgt Castro. She made a quick show of looking around the empty hall. “Everyone off to bed?”

“Yes.” Sherwood stood. “I stayed so you didn’t feel completely deserted. I believe that some of your people know where you’re staying?”

“We do,” said Sgt Maxwell.

“Excellent. I’ll see you all in the morning.” Sherwood offered a hand to Dewey. “Welcome to life on Kaggen.”

They shook hands before Dewey responded. “Nothing personal, but I’ll be trying to make it as short a stay as possible.”

“I’m rooting for you.” Sherwood gave a short wave to the other Hospitallers. “See you in the morning.”

As Sherwood turned and made his way back toward the main entrance, Dewey turned to Sgt Maxwell.

“Take us to our bunk, Sergeant?”

 

The Hospitaller’s bunkroom looked as if it was hastily arranged for their benefit. Dewey thought that the room was more fitting for an office or storeroom. However, there was access to a washroom and several shower units.

A quick, cautious test of the shower spray assured Dewey it wasn’t the same power that scoured food off dishes.

Sgt Maxwell and Cpl Wong’s squad had arranged the space so that Dewey had a little extra space set apart from the rest of the Hospitallers. Onboard a ship or at a base, Dewey would have an area to himself. The company commander had a little more, the battalion commander more than that, and so on up the chain of command.

This was different. This was a strange situation. A situation none of Dewey’s people had ever been in before. They needed to be cohesive and work together. Yes, he was their commander, but at the same time, he was just like them, lost in the universe.

So, instead of keeping himself separated from the others, Dewey dragged the bunk set aside for him closer to the others, opposite SSgt Castro. When he finished adjusting it, he turned to find that Sgt Maxwell was transferring credits from her card to Cpl Wong’s.

“Do I want to know what’s going on?” asked Dewey.

“It appears Wong knows you better than Maxwell,” said SSgt Castro.

“What can I say,” said Sgt Maxwell as she stowed her cred-card. “I’ve been at this longer, and I’m used to things being a certain way.”

“We warned you, Sarge,” said PFC Webb. It’s Lieutenant Tyler.”

Maxwell threw up her hands. “I know. I know.”

There was a round of laughter that included several thumps on Maxwell’s back. Dewey waited until everyone had settled down.

“All right, people,” he said, taking a seat on his bunk. Castro did the same, and the others took the hint, sitting in twos and threes on the bunks closest to Dewey’s. When he had their attention, he asked, “Impressions?”

“Of the people?” asked Pvt Russell.

“The people,” said Dewey. “The place. The situation they’re in. The one we’re in.”

“They might have been told they’re all that’s left of humans in the galaxy,” said Sgt Maxwell. “But I don’t think a lot of them actually believe it.”

“Not even after four hundred plus years?” SSgt Castro asked.

“Even after,” answered Sgt Maxwell.

“They have a lot of theories,” added Cpl Wong. “We’ve been here only a few hours. I bet there’s plenty more.”

“Enough theories to keep the Starship Gallant vid-series going for another decade,” PFC Bryant said.

“Another ten years? How long’s it been on?”

Dewey laughed. “Focus, Webb.”

“Sorry, Lieutenant.”

“Okay, so what do we have?” Dewey rested his elbows on his knees. “They really have been here, isolated for over four hundred years? They believe or don’t believe they’re alone in the second radial arm of the galaxy?”

“And they have a king?” asked Pvt Russell. “I thought that was Saturday morning vid stuff.”

“There’s still kings and queens in the galaxy,” said PFC Webb.

“Elected ones,” Cpl Wong said. “None of them are hereditary.”

SSgt Castro cleared her throat loud enough to make the point.

“Sorry,” said half the team before everyone laughed.

When they were done, Dewey admitted, “It is odd that they have a king. Stations would have been run by governors, executives, or directors. Even military officers, but no kings.”

“Not even on adventure vids,” said Pvt Russell.

Dewey could have interjected with information, but he’d lost them on several tangents already. When Dewey had been ten and a half, he’d gotten interested in a few long-running Saturday vids. He’d researched them and found a history of shows that went back almost to where the Radial War ended. And as he remembered everything he saw or read, he still knew all about them. There were a few vids with kings and royalty.

“So what do we do now, Lieutenant Tyler?” asked SSgt Castro. Dewey understood that she was trying to keep the conversation on track.

“Get some rest,” Dewey said with a smile. “And then keep your eyes and ears open. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t give too much in the way of answers. Not until we’re sure what we’re dealing with. Once I get a chance to talk to this Prince Saymour, I’ll have a better idea of what to do next. I hope.”

SSgt Castro stood, clapping her hands for attention. “You heard the lieutenant. Keep alert when you’re out there. But, for now, lights out in ten.”

 

Dewey had his share of nightmares as an orphan. Fortunately, there’d been his dorm parents and other adults in the orphanage to help with the nights. In addition, there’d been several psychologists to help during the day.

The one thing Dewey knew was that he hadn’t been the only one. Some of the other kids screamed in the night. Some of them sobbed. Others, like Pvt Russell now, woke and seemed to be afraid to go back to sleep and encounter once more whatever it was that woke them in the first place.

It was Pvt Russell gasping that roused Dewey. He turned to see Russell sitting on the edge of the bunk. She was bouncing her left leg on the ball of her foot, clearly agitated. Across the way, SSgt Castro had turned and looked to be ready to speak. When she looked in Dewey’s direction, he shook his head, indicating she shouldn’t interfere.

“Private Russell?” Dewey asked as he sat, too. “How you feeling?”

“Fine, Lieutenant,” answered Pvt Russell. “Well, maybe not. I’m not sure. I’m just….”

“Are you worried? About our situation?”

“I guess that’s it. Maybe? I’m just feeling very agitated. I was trying to sleep. I thought I was asleep. Then I dreamt I was floating in space without a suit, and I was all alone. Totally alone. Even the stars had left.”

Russell laughed nervously.

“You know you aren’t alone, right?” Dewey leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees. The deck, being all metal, was cool against his bare feet.

“I know.” She laughed. “But still couldn’t convince myself in the dream that it was all going to be okay.” For the first time in the conversation, she looked at Dewey. “Are we going to be okay? Lieutenant?”

Dewey nodded. “We’ll be okay no matter what. We have each other. Will we make it back to our people? To the rest of the Hospitaller organization? I don’t know. But I know that I’m not ever going to stop trying. And I don’t doubt that our people are out there looking for us, too.”

“You can’t really know that,” Russell said. She sounded bitter. “No disrespect, Lieutenant Tyler.”

“None, taken. But would you give up looking for friends if you knew they were lost?”

Pvt Russell’s pause was long. Then she sighed a shoulder-shaking sigh. “I would hope not.”

“We’ve been in some crazy situations the last couple of years,” Dewey said. He laughed at the flash of memories. “Shot down on a planet whose air we couldn’t breathe. Trapped on a radioactive planet.”

“Don’t forget that space station we had to hide in,” added SSgt Castro.

“And Lieutenant Tyler has always seen us safely through.” Dewey turned to look at Sgt Maxwell, who was propped up on one elbow. Then he realized that everyone was awake.

“Listen, everyone,” Dewey said. “I’m scared too. This place might be nice, but I want to get back to our family. And I’m not going to stop trying. You need to do the same thing. Don’t give up. Even if something were to happen to me, keep trying.”

“Is that an order?” asked SSgt Castro with a grin.

Dewey returned the smile. He knew Castro wouldn’t give up. He wasn’t sure if she even knew how. “It’s an order, yes. It’s also a request.”

“You got it, Lieutenant,” said Sgt Maxwell.

Her response was echoed by Cpl Wong and the others. Pvt Russell looked up, her eyes were glassy with unspent tears, but she nodded yes, too.

All of them had grown up in an environment that had fostered support, teamwork, and trust. All of those lessons were going to be put to the test here on Kaggen. But they’d be easier to face after a decent night’s sleep.

“Okay,” Dewey said. “Now, try and get some sleep. We’re going to need to be at our sharpest. Especially these next few days as we figure out more about this place and what we can do to get home.”

PFC Bryant reached over and clapped Pvt Russell on the shoulder, exchanging nods. Russell looked Dewey’s way and flashed a half-hearted smile, but at least the tears were gone. She laid down, turning her back to the room as she pulled the blanket up to her shoulders. She’d brood for a while. Dewey knew it because he’d done it before and would again. But then she’d sleep. And things always seemed brighter after some sleep.

Dewey laid down, too. He checked on SSgt Castro, who snapped a wink at him before rolling onto her back and closing her eyes. The others had all settled down as well. After a few minutes, Dewey overheard at least one person beginning to lightly snore.

It took Dewey longer to fall asleep than usual. He’d always been good at clearing his mind and letting sleep take over. But even after he fell asleep, his mind was troubled. He had bad dreams that had him repeatedly tossing through the night.

The worst was that the same dream kept recurring. It was simple yet carried a lot of dread despite the simplicity. In the dream, he knew that he could save everyone because he’d read the solution in a book. The only problem was he could no longer remember anything he’d read.

Despite the dream, Dewey was confident they were going to be okay. He’d make sure of it at any price.

 

When the alarm on Dewey’s tablet alerted him to the hour was already awake. After the last iteration of the dream, he stayed awake, searching through the many alleys of his memory, looking for something he’d read that would provide a solution. The only reason he’d made an effort was because of the dream. Maybe instead of the dream haunting him, it was meant to alert him. And so he’d searched.

But there was no book, and he still didn’t have an answer.

After rolling over and untangling himself from the covers, he sat and looked around. He was not the only one awake.

“Did anyone sleep?” he asked.

Sgt Maxwell grinned and pointed. There was only one person asleep. Now that he was paying attention, he could hear the gentle snores of Pvt Russell on her bunk. She was curled into a semi-fetal position, one arm over her head.

“She adapted fast,” said PFC Webb.

PFC Bryant and Cpl Wong both snickered in appreciation. Dewey smiled, but he also understood that depression affected different people differently. Some couldn’t sleep. Others, all they could do was sleep.

Dewey was about to remind everyone to let Russell sleep if that was what she needed. But the hollow clang of someone knocking on the metal door to the bunk room fixed that. Pvt Russell rolled out of her bunk, crashing to the floor before fighting her way free of the blanket to stand at attention, just like basic training.

This time, everyone laughed, including Pvt Russel, albeit a little sheepishly.

“Enter,” SSgt Castro barked over the laughter.

The door opened just far enough that Rigoberto Humphries could slide his head past. He gave everyone a nervous smile and then asked, “Anyone interested in breakfast?”

Chapter 12

When the Hospitallers filed into the dining hall, they were met with individual greetings for each of them. Dewey turned and looked at his people, who had waved back and even verbalized their own greetings.

“Did everyone make friends?” he asked, smiling.

“Even you, Lieutenant,” said SSgt Castro. She indicated with her chin toward a central table.

Sherwood had stood, waving his hand. “Lieutenant Tyler, if you’d like to join us?”

“Be right there,” said Dewey. He turned to his people, saying, “Fall out everyone. We’ll meet up after the meal.”

There was a chorus of “will do” and “yes, Lieutenant” as the Hospitallers dispersed. That left Dewey and SSgt Castro.

“You’ll be joining us?”

Castro laughed. “Sorry, Lieutenant Tyler. I believe Malia saved me a spot. Gonna talk shop.”

“Enjoy.” SSgt Castro weaved her way over to the table where Malia sat. Dewey made his own way to where Sherwood, his wife, Savannah, and several others that Dewey didn’t recognize were seated.

“Morning, Sherwood. Savannah,” said Dewey.

“Morning, Lieutenant,” said Savannah.

“A couple people you haven’t met,” Sherwood added. He started pointing at people. “This here’s my brother, Waldo. He captains our other working ship. His wife and pilot, Fernande. Fernande’s brother and lead ice catcher, Burl.”

“Well met, Lieutenant,” said Waldo. He’d risen from his seat, offering a hand.

“Thank you,” answered Dewey, returning the handshake. “But if we’re to fit in and not stand out, please, call me Dewey.”

“Dewey it is, then,” said Waldo.

Dewey turned to the others. “Fernande, Burl, pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise,” said Burl while Fernande smiled and nodded.

“Sit, Dewey, sit,” said Savannah. She was already shoveling food onto a plate, pushing it toward him as he sat.

Breakfast included fried tubers, scrambled protein with spices, and a juice that hinted at apples and grapes. And there was tea. Lots and lots of tea. Dewey listened to a resumed conversation as he sampled everything on his plate and took several sips of the tea. The night prior, the tea had been light and sweet. Now, the tea was darker and bolder in flavor. He might be able to get used to it with time. Though, he’d prefer never having that much time in Kaggen.

“So,” said Sherwood as the conversation of schedules and supplies ran its course. “What do you want to do today, Dewey?”

“Have we heard back from Prince Neville?”

“Bit too early for that,” said Burl. He chuckled at his own comment and earned a couple knowing grins from several others.

“The prince and his people run on a different schedule than the normal folk,” said Savannah by way of explanation. “Their evening meal tends to start later and run longer. They’ll be rising in a couple more hours.”

“Then they’ll need time to sort themselves out,” Fernande said. She had a look of disappointment on her face. It was something familiar to Dewey, having seen it on his own dorm mother’s face when he and the others of his squad had misbehaved.

“They’ll get to working around noonish,” added Waldo. “Whatever that work is.”

“I’m sure they’ve got lots that needs doing,” said Sherwood. “They do oversee the flow of water out and the flow of air and electrical in. Likely more complicated than running a single ship.”

Dewey had a feeling this was a well-worn conversation. It, too, was familiar in many ways, having heard it from many town and farm people across the second radial arm of the galaxy. Governments everywhere seemed to be out of touch. Kaggen seemed no different.

But this wasn’t the conversation Dewey wanted to have.

“So we have time until we hear from them,” he said. When Sherwood nodded, Dewey added, “I’ll need a way to keep my people busy until after we speak to your prince.”

“Yeah, they don’t look like the kind to stand still,” said Waldo. “I heard about you all making quick work of the kitchen work last night.”

Everyone else nodded. Word had quickly gotten around. Dewey had a moment of concern that too much word would get around before he had a chance to communicate with the prince and, hopefully, the king.

“Did you have something in mind?” Savannah asked Dewey.

“Perhaps. With your permission, I was thinking you could appoint people for mine to shadow, maybe even help. I hope that we aren’t stranded here, but if we are, we’ll need to make a living.”

“And you might as well start learning now,” said Burl. “Sounds sensible.”

“As it may well be,” said Sherwood, “it looks like your staff sergeant has already found her person to follow.”

Dewey turned to see that SSgt Castro and Malia were approaching. They were talking to each other as they approached.

“Lieutenant,” Castro said as she and Malia stopped at the table. “With your leave, I’d like to go with Malia and look at the engines on the ice miners.”

Dewey turned to Sherwood, who nodded. Then, to Castro, he said, “Carry on.”

“Wonderful,” said Malia. “Come along, Diane. Lots of work to be done.”

“Lieutenant,” Castro said before turning to follow Malia, already making her way toward one of the exits.

“Now, if they were all that easy,” said Dewey.

“They may well be,” said Sherwood. He stood and looked around. “Claudia!”

A woman sitting across from Sgt Maxwell stood. She made her way over to where Sherwood and the others were sitting.

“Uncle Sherwood?” asked Claudia as she reached the table.

“What plans today? And can you include Sgt Maxwell in them?”

Claudia looked over her shoulder and then back at Sherwood. “Christine? We were just talking about that. I need to run diagnostics on the Beth, and she offered to help. This makes it easier.”

“Please tell her she has my permission,” said Dewey.

“Will do,” said Claudia. “You all have an industrious day.”

“Two down,” said Savannah.

It turned out the only one without someone to shadow was Cpl Wong. Pvt Russell had teamed up with Jeanetta, Savannah’s daughter, to work on supply distribution. PFC Bryant had met Tristan the night before. They were now going to go and do some needed maintenance on the Beth. To Dewey’s surprise, PFC Webb had gotten along with the jaded Chauncey Lincoln. The latter appreciated the extra help on one of the ice grabbers that was glitching.

“Well, I’ve got a lot of personnel and procurements to work on,” offered Fernande. “If your Cpl Wong won’t be too bored, she’s welcome to keep me company.”

Dewey checked with Cpl Wong, and that suited her just fine.

During the arrangements, most of the people in the dining hall had finished their meals, deposited their dishes in the scullery window, and were off to do their day’s duty. That left Dewey, Sherwood, and the others who he presumed were the family leaders.

“I’m assuming you’ll be coming with me,” said Sherwood.

“As long as you don’t mind.”

“Not at all. Give you the grand tour of Vody province just as soon as we get a bit of paperwork out of the way.”

Dewey gulped the contents of his mug, forgetting that it wasn’t coffee or Insta. He had to fight back the surprise that would have left him choking. As it was, he still had to clear his throat.

“Tea not to your liking, Dewey?” asked Savannah. She had a sly grin on her face.

Dewey laughed. “No, Savannah. It’s a wonderful tea. Must have been a little hotter than I expected.”

“Really?” she asked with eyebrows raised.

Sherwood jumped up from his seat and started gathering dishes. “Come along, Dewey, escape while you can.”

Without questioning, Dewey gathered his plate, utensils, and cup, hurrying after Sherwood. They deposited their gathered dishes into the scullery slot. Dewey could hear teenagers laughing and calling to each other on the opposite side. He turned away to see Sherwood already making his escape through the door that let out to the front of the Humphries homestead. He could hear the people at the table laughing as the door shut behind him.

Dewey caught up with Sherwood at the door to the outer corridor.

“Was there something about the tea that I missed?”

Sherwood laughed. “That’s Savannah’s favorite blend. It’s well enough, but it’s only her that favors it. There’s a spicy one that most of us prefer.”

They waved to the young person staffing the front desk and stepped into the corridor. Dewey stayed close to the wall as tens of people hurried by. It was much more crowded compared to the night before.

“Anyway, if Savannah gets to the teapot before anyone else, that’s what we drink, and no one argues.”

“It wasn’t the tea that was the problem,” Dewey explained. “I’m more used to coffee and Insta.”

“Just so,” said Sherwood. He cut through the crowd with a couple greetings and onto the stairwell that took them down. “And as I’d figured it was something of the sort, it seemed best to get you away before you slipped up again and found yourself on the wrong side of Savannah. I’ve been married to her for forty-odd years. You don’t want to be on Savannah’s bad side.”

Sherwood introduced Dewey to a few people in the company offices as he checked on work being done and departure dates for both ships. Unsurprisingly, most of the people Dewey was introduced to already knew his name. Those that didn’t were aware that someone interesting was in the Humphries area. Then Sherwood took Dewey to the water stations.

A lot of what Dewey saw, he recognized from old books and old vid-shows. Most of that had been on a smaller scale. There’d been the sharecropping family growing mushrooms on an asteroid. The opening credits always showed the children helping by putting several large chunks of ice rock in a reclaimer that melted and filtered the water before dispensing it into jugs. Instead of a reclaimer, the Kaggens had large vats several meters tall and three meters wide. From Sherwood’s explanation, Dewey knew that a current was passed through the vats, heating them and melting the ice. From there, it was piped to a filtering system and through a pump station before going on to the rest of Kaggen.

The pump station was part of Prince Neville Saymour’s palace. Dewey wasn’t going to get a tour of that unless Neville gave permission. Sherwood had seen it once, under the very close supervision of the historians.

“For now,” said Sherwood, “you’ll have to settle for visiting the Anglin family’s yards. Here, grab this.”

Sherwood offered Dewey a plastic tote about a half-meter wide and a third-meter tall and deep. A well-patched cloth laid across the top, but the smell of oiled metal made its contents clear.

“Parts for their ship?”

“Just so,” said Sherwood. He hefted another tote and started walking toward a door on the inner side of the bay they had come through. “Malia’s doing. But it’s good to keep the Anglins with two boats.”

“Just in case one of yours breaks down?”

“As a province, we have to keep a certain amount of water flowing. If anyone ever managed to get the recyclers going, we’d be in a lot of trouble. As in out-of-work kind of trouble.”

They paused long enough for Sherwood to set down his tote and open the hatch. Dewey stepped through into the central corridor of the water ring. It was half the width of the Avenue but just as tall if not more so. As Sherwood stepped through with his tote in hand, Dewey took the initiative, setting his down and closing the hatch.

“Thank you,” said Sherwood. Again, he started walking without waiting. “This way.”

Dewey had to take a dozen long steps to catch up with Sherwood.

“There’s a few other families with ice ships,” Sherwood said as they walked. “They’re older, smaller, and more dangerous. I’ve offered to bring in a family. Done that before. But some people are just stubborn. Annika Willoughby, for one. She’s as stubborn as they come. Her ship is, too. I think the Helena is the oldest vessel in the province, but Annika keeps taking it out and keeps managing to make it back.”

“Some people like their independence.”

“Just so, Dewey. Just so.”

They walked a quarter way around the ring to the Anglin offices. Dewey was introduced to Tyrell Anglin, who looked to be about ten years older than Sherwood. The meeting was short. Tyrell appeared standoffish and aloof. The entire time, though, Sherwood was pleasant and amiable.

Once out of the Anglin offices, Sherwood turned left, continuing down the corridor, away from the Humpries’ territory.

“If you’re wondering, Tyrell is actually a very friendly person,” Sherwood said. “Like most of us, he dislikes depending on other families to keep his ships up.”

Dewey nodded. It made sense, to a point. “I thought everyone here was dependent upon each other for survival?”

“So much truth in that,” laughed Sherwood. “But that doesn’t mean that some people don’t resent it, mind you. And Tyrell owes the Humphries quite a lot right now.”

“You could manufacture reasons to need their help,” said Dewey. “Give them a chance to pay back favors.”

Sherwood nodded as he took a turn down a dimly lit corridor. “Done that a few times. Only so many things I can come up with without someone figuring it out. If Tyrell did, he’d be even more difficult to deal with.”

Dewey understood the reasoning well enough. They’d tried to bring local leaders on board with the Hospitallers’ work on various planets. It was clear that if the request for assistance wasn’t authentic and the leaders learned of it, it made them more stubborn. Still, as it was often effective, the Hospitallers continued to try, though being more judicious over the centuries.

While Dewey mulled over the problem of Tyrell, Sherwood had come to a stop. Dewey pulled up several steps behind Sherwood.

Just ahead of them was a wide doorway. Beyond it, Dewey could see what appeared to be the interior of a cargo trunk, like the ones used to move supplies from planet to planet or to space station. Moving past Sherwood, Dewey looked into the trunk. It was set on its side. The upward side was open and welded to another trunk.

Further up, Dewey could see openings on the sides of the higher trunk. He could also see another trunk welded to the second one. All of them had ladders bolted to the sides. The ladders reached all the way to what Dewey gauged to be at the top of the residential ring. It would have been a long climb if Dewey hadn’t noticed there wasn’t any gravity inside the trunks. His assumption was also verified by the sight of several people pulling themselves up and down the ladders.

He turned to Sherwood. “A gravity well?”

Chapter 13

Dewey had a lot of experience in zero gravity. Nearly every Hospitaller had experienced zero gravity at least once. Most of those had practiced at least once in the loading deck of a Hospitaller ship. With the deck clear, and the gravity plates disconnected, they practiced propelling themselves along an obstacle course or attempting to reach the far end of the deck without touching anything along the way. It wasn’t bragging for Dewey to say that he was skilled in zero gravity actions.

“There are four original stairwells from ring to ring,” said Sherwood. “But as the population increased, we needed more ways to move from one ring to another ring. There used to be a lot of these containers. They were either floating in the junkyard or attached to the commercial rings and sitting empty.”

“Of course, you didn’t have enough gravity plates for them all.”

Sherwood nodded. “Just so. And we’ve lost a few through the province over the years, so watch for warning signs posted around rings.”

“I’ll be sure to heed the advice. Are we going up?”

“Yes.” Sherwood stepped to the entry to the gravity well and pointed to an opening at the commercial ring. “Right there.”

“All right.” Dewey gauged the distance and angle before stepping into the well. This was the bottom, so he had a floor to work with. He used a ladder to hold him still as he squatted about twelve centimeters. Then, after someone else pulled themselves into the entry via a ladder, Dewey pushed off.

He hadn’t pushed hard. He didn’t have far to go. Back on one of the Hospitaller ships’ loading deck, he would have squatted until his backside touched his heels. But there, he had to cover a hundred meters. To reach the commercial ring, he only had to travel a little less than twenty meters. Too fast, and he’d shoot through the opening and collide with the wall or ceiling before dropping to the deck in the suddenly-present gravity. Too slow, and he risked coming to a stop somewhere in between, stuck there until someone came along to give him a push.

Dewey’s experience paid off as he reached the ladder next to the opening with just enough speed that he stepped onto the corridor deck as easily as stepping out of an elevator. As he turned, he found Sherwood stepping onto the deck, too, but without having to use the ladder.

“You’ve been doing this a while,” Dewey said with a grin.

“You looked like you’ve had your share of experience, too,” said Sherwood. “Some people spend a lifetime just trying to get to the next level without falling on their face. Some folks in the province would rather walk another fifty meters and take the stairs.”

“Zero gravity isn’t for everyone,” Dewey said. “So now where?”

“Lunch.” Sherwood clapped Dewey on the shoulder, using the action to guide Dewey away from the gravity well. Behind them, several younger people stumbled out of the well, using the wall to stop their momentum.

A short corridor brought them onto the Avenue. Sherwood had been right the night before. In the middle of the day, the place was bustling. Parents hurried past with children in tow, each of them carrying something. Small groups of young people inadvertently blocked sections of the Avenue as they said hello to each other. Individuals and groups of twos and threes strolled past, keeping out of the center of the Avenue where the pace was quicker.

Sherwood guided Dewey to the right, taking him on a counterclockwise journey through the Avenue. None of it looked familiar. This was new territory for Dewey. He noticed a repetition of shops as they walked along. They’d already passed several repair shops, a clothing resale shop, a bakery, and several greengrocers.

One shop, in particular, caught Dewey’s attention, and he stopped to examine the wares laid out on two makeshift tables. Most of what was presented were quilts. But rather than large squares, these were made of pieces as small as three centimeters on a side. Some of them were random collections, a riot of colors. Still, others were elaborate patterns of swirls and starbursts. But there was also a tray that had been the real reason Dewey had stopped.

The tray was in the middle of the second table. On it, piled haphazardly, were toy animals made of cloth and no larger than the palm of Dewey’s hand. He recognized the iconic bear. But there were also fish, lions, and other animals. Scattered amongst the wildlife, though, were rocket ships and people in colorful spacesuits, their smiles stitched on.

“See something you like?”

Dewey turned his head to look at Sherwood. “Quite a lot, actually.” He touched several of the toys. “This would be a big hit in our toys and treats bags that we carry with us.”

“Would you like one?” asked the proprietor of the shop. Dewey hadn’t seen her walk up. She picked up one of the rocket ships and pointed. Dewey realized there were stitched portholes with smiling faces stitched inside them.

“Hey, Cassy,” Sherwood said. “Friend from one of the other provinces. Guess they don’t have this quality of work where he’s from.”

“Well,” said Dewey. “Just not this style.”

Cassy pressed the rocket ship into Dewey’s hand. “Please, take it with you. Maybe next time you visit, you can buy some for the children where you live.”

“Oh, I couldn’t.

“But you will,” Sherwood said in a whisper. To Cassy, he said. “My friend thanks you. He’ll be sure to visit again. Even if I have to make him.”

Cassy smiled and nodded as she stepped back, almost seeming to disappear among the merchandise. Dewey felt Sherwood’s hand on his elbow, urging him into motion away from the shop. With a quick nod of appreciation, Dewey allowed himself to be escorted into the flow of people on the Avenue.

“Can she afford to just give away things?” Dewey asked. He held up the cloth and embroidery rocket ship. “Even as simple as this?”

“No, she can’t,” said Sherwood. He’d released Dewey’s elbow. The flow of people kept them moving and together. “When someone gives you something here in Kaggen, it’s a sign of trust.”

Sherwood paused and pointed to a shop about half as wide as those around it. There were no tables with wares on display. Instead, the presence of several narrow tables and chairs fashioned from round plastic barrels gave Dewey the impression that it was some sort of cafe. As they stopped in front of it, Dewey could see that he was right. In the back, there was a counter behind which an elderly couple stood. They were cleaning glasses with cloths. Next to them, on the counter, a large metal container leaked bright lines of steam.

Sherwood held up two fingers, receiving a nod from the man. With his other hand, Sherwood waved Dewey to sit.

“Cassy trusts you to keep your word and return one day to buy some of her wares.”

“I’ll have to earn some credits,” said Dewey. Then, correcting himself, said, “IOUs, I guess?”

“Perhaps.” Sherwood paused as the elderly gentleman arrived with a dented tray.

There was an often-repaired teapot and two metal cups wrapped with cloth to protect the hand. A small plate on the tray had a dozen balls that looked like some sort of food item. The man nodded to Sherwood and then to Dewey before withdrawing to his place behind the counter.  

Sherwood poured the tea into the cups for both of them. He then gave the plate a little shake, separating the balls into two sections. He popped one of them into his mouth and chewed slowly, raising an eyebrow at Dewey. 

Dewey accepted the challenge and picked up one of the balls, slipping it into his mouth. Chewing it released a chorus of flavors from salty to sweet. Some of them hinted at things he’d eaten before. Others remained a mystery. When Sherwood took a sip of tea, Dewey did the same. The tea seemed to release more flavors.

After finishing the ball and taking another sip of tea, Dewey asked quietly, “Have you ever heard of honey?”

Sherwood chuckled, nodding. “Yes. And yes, there’s honey in there with dates and peanuts and things that Les refuses to tell me about. Secret recipe, he says. I don’t argue. They’re my favorite treat when I’m out and about.”

“Is it synthetic honey?”

“No,” Sherwood said. He flashed a glance at Les and the woman. “Les’s brother works with the king’s gardeners. He’s the official beekeeper.”

“And he gets paid in honey.”

“Just so,” said Sherwood. “Now, enjoy it before the tea goes cold. It doesn’t taste as good when it’s cold.

For the next fifteen minutes, Dewey sat in companionable silence, eating honey date nutballs and drinking what he assumed to be rosehip tea. They had both silently agreed to shift their seats so they could observe the foot traffic as it passed. Occasionally visible through the passing crowd, Dewey could see a bakery doing a bustling business in rolls and something similar to a braided bread loaf.

Dewey was enjoying himself, sitting, relishing the quiet company. He could see living the rest of his life this way, just living in the moment, surviving day to day. Sipping tea and watching people pass. Then, like an elastic band pulled too far, the cozy thoughts snapped. If it was just him, maybe that would be a future to consider. However, he had his people to think of. They were his responsibility, first and foremost.

Movement on Sherwood’s side of the table pulled Dewey back to the moment. Sherwood was wiping the crumbs from his face with a clean but well-worn cloth napkin. Dewey quickly took a last sip of tea and used the napkin left for him.

“Where to now?”

“I thought I’d show you a few things.”

Sherwood made his way to the back of the cafe and talked to Les and the woman. They were bent over one of the modified tablets. This one seemed to have a cord connecting it to the counter or something underneath. After a few moments of quiet conversation, they shook hands, and Sherwood returned to the front of the shop.

“This way,” Sherwood said.

He led Dewey past a dozen more shops. One of them was a source of clanging noises as someone repaired a pan for a man waiting with hands on his hips. When a gap appeared to the right, Dewey almost missed Sherwood turning into it. Dewey bumped into several people, apologizing profusely as he hurried to reconnect with Sherwood.

The gap led to a corridor. The corridor crossed a second ring corridor before coming to an obstruction. There was a gate like one might see outside of a government building that didn’t want visitors. Behind it were ten or twelve crates stacked to obstruct the view. In front of it all, on the side where Dewey and Sherwood stood, was a construction barrier. Strapped to the barrier was a sign. The sign read: Closed.

“What’s on the other side?” Dewey asked.

“Prince Neville’s palace. Or, to be more precise, the control room to the pump station.” Sherwood seemed to study the barricade for a half minute. “It’s like this on each level. There used to be six spokes with access to the core, the pump station, the palace. The king ordered the numbers reduced. There also used to be three spokes providing access to the king’s province too. That’s been reduced to one. And you can’t get to the other provinces without going through the king’s.”

“Paranoid?” asked Dewey as Sherwood turned and started walking.

“LIkely. About ten years ago, Loft Province had a riot. The king was mad at Prince Daron Beebe, so he put Loft on water rations. The people were already dealing with a food shortage because of some contaminant in the fertilizer. They almost made it into the king’s province.”

“What happened?”

Sherwood stopped and took a deep breath. “The Gendarme and the historians sealed both ends of the spokes before blowing the atmosphere. Two hundred people. The rest of Loft Province was broken by the king’s actions. I don’t think they’ve ever recovered from what happened. It’s literally the most dismal province you could go to.”

“That sounds terrible.” There’d been a few despots on planets that Dewey had been glad to be a part of dethroning. King Celestene seemed like the kind of person Dewey wouldn’t mind seeing removed from power.

“Come, let me show you one of the open passages,” said Sherwood. He seemed to recover some of the easygoing mannerisms that Dewey had been used to. “This way.”

Once more, Sherwood took Dewey on a counterclockwise journey on the Avenue. Sherwood kept up a running commentary of the shops and the people. He seemed to be deeply immersed in his explanations.

Dewey had missed much of what Sherwood had said. He’d been observing the different shops, primarily the electronic repair shops. He’d also been watching the people. Every now and then, he’d get a double-take as someone passed him. Maybe that had ramped up Dewey’s paranoia. Or perhaps it was just a sense for trouble honed over years of conflict.

Ahead of them, Dewey had noticed the crowd not just thinning but parting as well. Dewey saw the five men approaching before Sherwood did. Based on everything that Sherwood had said over the last day and a half, Dewey was confident that the approaching men were three Gendarme and two of the historians.

Dewey slowed, letting Sherwood draw ahead. He didn’t think he was their focus, but it seemed like they were on a laser line toward Sherwood. There wasn’t time to say anything as it 

would draw attention to himself as well.

The Gendarme carried batons, the type used for crowd control. They held them in gloved hands. Dewey could see a cable coming from the butt of the batons and connecting to a pack each of the men carried. The historians appeared to be armed with chin-lifting arrogance.

Dewey altered his path, crossing the Avenue and stopping between what looked like a tea shop and an electronics repairs shop. Between them was a two-meter wide corridor leading to the outer edge of the ring. He turned and paused, watching Sherwood and the approaching Gendarme and historians.

One of the historians held up a hand and called Sherwood by name. Sherwood looked startled. He then looked around, possibly realizing that Dewey had disappeared before turning back to the approaching group. With a raised hand of his own, Sherwood said a name that elicited a nod from the Historian. They met, shook hands, and the crowd around them that had given them a wide berth seemed to relax and flow more naturally again.

“Hey stranger,” said a voice close to Dewey.

Just inside the repair shop, far from the front, a man in his twenties or thirties was seated at a work table. He had several gadgets on the table, including one of the readers with the bulky battery pack strapped to the back. There was an array of tools in a roll-up case made of cloth near his right hand. He had a relaxed smile on his face.

“I don’t think we’ve met,” said Dewey. The stranger had both hands visible on the table as if he wanted Dewey to know he wasn’t armed.

“We haven’t met,” said the stranger. “Tell me, how’s the rest of the galaxy holding up without us?”

Chapter 14

Dewey did a double-take between Sherwood and the younger man in the repair shop.

“I’m not with them if that’s what you’re wondering.” The young man laughed. “Well, not anymore.”

“Not anymore?” Dewey continued to switch his attention between the group around Sherwood and the seated man.

“Long story.” He picked up one of the tools, a pair of needle-nose pliers, and turned over what looked like a handheld comm device. “You never did answer the question, though. Does the rest of the galaxy know we’re even here?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Dewey said. “I’m from Kastella Province.”

The young man turned over the device he was repairing and began adjusting the positions of some wires as he laughed. “Might as well be from Sklenka the way you talk. But that’s not how I know you’re not from Kaggen.”

“What makes you think I’m not from Kaggen?” Dewey was spending less time watching Sherwood. He was trying to assess the kind of trouble he was in.

“The comm behind your ear.” The young man tapped his own ear with the pliers as he spoke. “The Historians have something similar but much bulkier. Difficult to hide and short battery life. Yours is too sleek. But don’t worry, people won’t notice it.”

“You did.”

“Well, that’s true,” the young man admitted. “But I was Gendarme, and I deal with electronics stuff. So I have an eye for it.”

“That’s the second time you’ve mentioned that you used to be Gendarme.”

“Was it? I’m not usually this chatty. Can I know your name, stranger?”

“Dewey. Yours?”

“Mason.” He held a hand up in greeting. “Pleased to meet you, Dewey. Military?”

“In a way,” Dewey said. “So, what’s your story, Mason?”

“My story.” Mason laughed. It was brief and rueful. “Five years ago, there was a food riot. Something went wrong with the filtration system in Uprawy province. That’s where the hydroponics and composting are done. There and Jedzeny, if Sherwood hasn’t given you all the details of the provinces. Anyway. We were supposed to push the citizens back away from the station core.

“During the push, some old guy fell. Probably some grandfather. He couldn’t move fast enough to get to his feet. My squad commander told me to beat the man if he wasn’t moving fast enough.”

Mason had shifted, his arms on the table, his head hanging.

“I still had one of my granddads living at that time. But I’d grown up with them both. Now they wanted me to beat an old man, old as my granddad, because he was hungry and couldn’t move fast enough? No, I couldn’t do that. So I refused.

“Well, that didn’t sit with my commander. So, he pushed me aside and raised his quarterstaff. The rest of us were armed with batons. He was going to hit the old man with the staff, which would likely have killed him. I stepped in between. And when Silas tried to hit me, I hit back. Instead of the old man taking a beating, I made Silas take it instead.”

Mason laughed, but it wasn’t one of pleasure.

“If the others hadn’t pulled me back, powered down my baton, I’d of likely killed Silas. Didn’t know I could get so angry. Anyway. I was banished from the Gendarme. My family disowned me rather than have my crimes attached to the family name. And the word was put out that anyone caught giving me aid or shelter would pay consequences.”

Dewey pointed at the table with the electronics. “Someone hired you to work.”

“On the side. Hard IOUs only. Redeemable in the Province where they were obtained. And if anyone ever even hinted to Thanh Fong that they knew I helped out here, he’d never let me back in again. Which would be bad for him.”

“Why would that be bad for him?” asked Dewey as he temporarily shifted his attention to Sherwood. Sherwood was still talking to the Historians. The conversation had become a little animated with arms rising and hands waving about.

“Everything’s fine out there,” said Mason. “As for Thanh, he needs me. Take this phone, for example. He’s had it for more than a week, waiting for me to come through. He can’t repair it despite what he claims. So he tells people he doesn’t let me work for him anymore, then sneaks me in during slow hours.”

“You’re that good with electronics?”

“Pretty much. It’s sort of innate. I just see how things go together. The code makes sense to me as much as a book of instructions. And I’ve had lots of practice since the Gendarme. Man’s got to eat.”

“What about more advanced electronics?” Dewey asked.

“Like your stuff?” Mason tapped his ear again. “It’s all the same, just likely smaller, different alloys, different coding. But if I can look at it long enough, I’d be able to figure it out. You have a job for me?”

It was Dewey’s turn to laugh. “Not yet. But I like to keep my options open.”

“Mason!” The voice was a stern whisper. “What are you doing? The Gendarme are outside.”

“I see them, Thanh,” Mason said.

“What of the phone? How much longer?”

“Couple hours,” Mason said. Dewey was surprised when Mason winked at him. “Be patient.”

“I can’t afford to get caught with you here.”

Mason turned his attention back to Dewey. In a quieter voice, he said, “I’ve been done for a couple hours already. But if I make it look easy, Thanh will pay me less. Plus, he feeds me to keep me hidden while I work.”

Dewey smiled. It was a bit like cheating, but if a person was persona non grata everywhere and at least providing service, it wasn’t Dewey’s place to say anything. He’d seen criminal organizations on several worlds. Those that were helpful to the Hospitallers were usually granted some leeway.

“Anyway,” Mason said. He picked up the pliers and pointed to the Avenue before fiddling with the already repaired phone. “It looks like the conversation is over.”

Back in the middle of the Avenue, the Gendarme and Historians were already moving away, their backs to Sherwood, who wore a hard look on his face.

“Thank you, Mason. And if I ever need to get in contact with you?”

“Thanh,” Mason said. “Just tell him you have a difficult repair, and you want the specialist. Give him a couple decent-sized IOUs, and he’ll find me or tell you how.”

“See you later, then.”

“Wait,” Mason said. Out in the Avenue, Sherwood was turning in circles, likely trying to find Dewey. “A piece of advice. Always keep two hands on the quarterstaff.”

The advice was confusing. The only quarterstaffs mentioned so far had been by Mason, and they were carried by Gendarme of a certain rank. But it still left a question. “Why?”

Mason shook his head. “Take one hand off, and you’ll quickly learn why. Sherwood’s coming.”

Dewey looked to the left. Sherwood was approaching. A hand in the air and a relieved look on his face.

“Later, Mason.” Dewey raised his own hand as he approached Sherwood. They met at the front of the two shops.

“You saw them coming?” Sherwood asked. He moved to stand next to Dewey as if they were both studying the passing crowd.

“It’s habit,” said Dewey. “When I saw them, I figured it was better if we didn’t have to explain my presence.”

“Just so,” Sherwood said. “As it was, they seemed to be implying that I was up to something. Again with the excess time in the belt. Then a reminder that all found artifacts are to be handed over to the Historians. Immediately. Wouldn’t want to lose the family business, was the threat. As if any other family here could take over. We’ve been at this for nearly four hundred years. Good luck.”

Sherwood looked to his left and seemed surprised.

“Tamekia’s,” Sherwood said. “That’s a good idea. Come, Dewey. I think you’ll like this.”

Tamekia Tapia was, according to her and backed by Sherwood, the best tea blender in Vody. Once Dewey had been introduced to Tamekia, she insisted he and Sherwood sit. At the same time, she plied them with samples of her newest blends. Sherwood seemed pleased by nearly all of them. Dewey found it hard to disagree with their pleasant taste.

It was also clear to Tamekia that Dewey was less than awed by her prowess.

“What flavor is it that you seek?” she asked. “Describe it. I will make it happen.”

Dewey did his best to describe what Insta tasted like. Apparently, it was an appalling flavor to Tamekia. But, being a business owner, she went to work, pulling ingredients from a dozen battered metal containers. She mixed and took occasional sniffs of the concoction before shaking her head and either adding or starting over.

Then, at one point, Tamekia disappeared behind an oft-patched curtain, returning with what Dewey recognized as a glass container. It was something he had only seen two other times in his walk around the Avenue. Tamekia pulled a dark lump from the jar and dropped it in a mortar before applying the pestle, grinding the contents into a powder so fine that it billowed anytime she breathed on it.

Finally, Tamekia added the dark powder to her latest blend and then slowly stirred it. When she seemed satisfied, she scooped a spoon of the mixture into a pot and added boiling water. Then, she grabbed a mechanical timer and set it for five minutes.

“I’ve also arranged for an increase in Tamekia’s water supply,” said Sherwood. “You can see why she needs it.”

While they waited, Tamekia described how she obtained many of her ingredients.

“My husband is the brother-in-law of one of the king’s gardeners. Most of the clippings are ground down and taken to composting. So, he fills a few flat tins for me and drops them off when he can. Marina, my sister-in-law, dries them for me if it’s going to be awhile.”

While the new tea steeped the rest of the way to five minutes, Tamekia filled some orders for Sherwood.

“If I don’t bring back the stuff for Savannah’s favorite tea, I’ll be getting an ear full.”

When the timer announced the end of five minutes, Tamekia poured Dewey a small cup of the new mixture. It was dark. Dewey could see some of the sediment from the brewing swirling in the liquid. When he sniffed the steam, he was surprised to find it smelled very much like Insta.

He took a tentative sip of the hot liquid. Then he took a second sip. It wasn’t quite like Insta, but it was very much not like any of the teas he’d had foisted upon him since their rescue. It would definitely do as a replacement and should keep the other Hospitallers from grumbling.

“I like it,” he said.

Tamekia poured a cup for herself and Sherwood. When she tasted her latest labor, Tamekia was intrigued.

“This tastes nothing like any tea I have made in all my years. I can do better. You want the flavor to be earthier?”

Dewey shrugged. He wasn’t exactly sure. “If you want to try it, I’d be glad to be your test subject.”

Sherwood was not as intrigued as Tamekia. “No offense to you and your habits, Dewey, but this tastes awful.”

Tamekia laughed, which made Dewey feel more comfortable. Sherwood had not insulted her or her efforts.

“Not everything is for everyone, Sherwood,” she said. “Think of what Savannah likes in her cup.”

“True,” said Sherwood, but he pushed the new drink away.

Tamekia put the rest of the mixture into a tin and handed it to Dewey. “On the house. Next time, you can pay. It’ll be worth it.”

“It already is,” said Dewey. But, having learned from earlier, he didn’t protest the gift.

Dewey had slipped off the stool. When he backed up, he was bumped by someone behind him.

“My apologies,” said the other person. They brushed past Dewey and approached the counter. “Tamekia. May I have two cups of the ginger mint blend?”

Dewey watched as Tamekia crossed her arms. “And what about my phone, Thanh? I haven’t spoken to Marina in over a week.”

Thanh held up his hands. “It hasn’t been easy. I had to locate a part. But I have it, and I’m almost done. End of the day.”

“End of the day.” Tamekia pointed at Thanh, adding, “Or your next tea will have something that’ll keep you on the toilet for half the night.”

“Tamekia! I promise.”

Tamekia didn’t look impressed, but she turned and started filling a pot with boiling water.

“Everything okay, Dewey?” Sherwood asked from behind.

“Yes, just an amusing exchange.” Dewey turned and started walking with Sherwood.

“Amusing?” Sherwood laughed. “I don’t know. Some people claim Tamekia can mix a blend to help you sleep or lose a little weight. So something to loosen the bowel? I don’t know, but I’m not going to cross her and find out.”

Sherwood continued the counterclockwise passage through the commercial district. He pointed out one of the open passages to the core of the station. Dewey realized that Sherwood had lost interest in showing him the passage. There were three Gendarme at the entrance. They didn’t look like the ones with the Historians. Still, Dewey could imagine that Sherwood had dealt with enough Gendarme for one day.

“Papa Sherwood! Papa Sherwood!”

The voice brought Sherwood to a stop, with Dewey doing likewise. They both turned, hearing the voice but not seeing the person calling after Sherwood. Dewey did notice people parting, making way for what seemed to be nothing. Then, after several heartbeats, he saw a hand held high. He followed the hand down the arm to see a young man.

“There,” Dewey said.

“Ah, Dylan.”

They stood in place until the boy broke through the crowd, stopping just in front of Sherwood. He was sweating and smiling.

“Message,” the boy said between deep breaths. “In the company system. From the prince.”

Sherwood turned to Dewey. He nodded. “Let’s see if we got that invitation.

Chapter 15

The rest of the Avenue stroll became a quick march worthy of Hospitaller basic training. Dewey kept up with Sherwood easily enough, but beside him, he could hear the young messenger, Dylan Humphries, break into the occasional trot to catch up. Several people along the way raised a hand and called Sherwood by name in attempts to engage him in conversation. In response, Sherwood would shout back an apology with an offer to stop by soon.

Fortunately, they’d already gone a long way around the ring. Getting to the stairwell down to the industrial ring didn’t take a lot of time. Sherwood dismissed young Dylan at the stairwell and told him to return to the homestead and get a snack. Dewey continued to follow Sherwood as they descended the stairs and turned into the narrower corridor of the lower ring.

Just before reaching the Humphries company door, Sherwood began to slow.

“Don’t want anyone to think I’m too excited to hear from the prince,” he said and laughed. “Might think I’m getting a big head and all. Then my brother or Savannah might take it upon themselves to knock me down a few pegs.”

Sherwood wiped sweat from his brow just before entering the offices. The outer office had two desks that did not match. One of them looked like it had been built into a wall somewhere and then reconfigured to stand on its own. Both desks had bulky monitors on them. There was a crack on one screen that made a quarter of the screen unusable. Only one desk was occupied. Dewey recognized the young lady who perked up as Sherwood entered the room.

“Grandpa Sherwood.” At the desk was Floretta Humphries. “Oh, hi, Mr. Tyler.”

Dewey nodded in response to the greeting.

“Where’s your mom, Floretta?” asked Sherwood. Dewey could see he was still trying to keep his demeanor relaxed.

“She went up to get us some late lunch.” Floretta grinned. “My idea. Figured you wouldn’t want to grease the gossip rails just yet.”

“Good thinking,” Sherwood said. “I’ll just access from my office. Assuming that the system is back up?”

“Rigo and I got it working this morning.”

“Good job, Floretta.” Sherwood started for the door in the right side wall. “Coming, Dewey?”

“Bye, Mr. Tyler.”

Dewey followed Sherwood into the bare-bones offices. It was nothing like some of those he’d seen occupied by governors or even small-town mayors. And none of those compared to the company office on Juracan.

“Seat’s there,” said Sherwood as he rounded the desk and plopped into his own chair. He tapped the monitor screen to wake it and pulled a keyboard close to the desk’s edge.

Dewey waited and watched as Sherwood scanned the screen. Occasionally he would tap it and then type with two fingers on the keyboard before poking the return key. After several minutes of this, Sherwood smiled and sat back.

“Good news?” Dewey asked.

“Good news,” Sherwood said. “We’ve been invited to dinner tomorrow night. Three of us. Who else did you want to come along?”

“I assumed you were one of the three, yes?”

“I don’t think you could get past the guards without me. So that’s two.”

Dewey didn’t hesitate. He knew who he needed in the meeting. The one person who he knew without a doubt would have his back. “Staff Sergeant Castro.”

“Thought you might say that. But you might want to get used to saying Diane’s first name. Or at least drop the rank.”

Dewey laughed. “I’ll work on that. But we’ve been communicating like this since we’ve been kids.”

“I don’t think any of my kids or grandkids call me anything but Sherwood.” Sherwood paused and grinned in thought. “I guess Grandpa Sherwood if they want to make me feel old.”

“Kids can do that to a person,” agreed Dewey. He paused. Sherwood seemed to notice it, raising his eyebrows in question. So, Dewey asked. “Is the Beth capable enough to bring our escape pod into the station?”

“And hide it inside one of the bays we don’t use anymore?”

Dewey nodded. “Something like that, yes.”

Sherwood’s lips pursed in thought. His gaze wandered the office. “I know the Beth is capable. I know there’s room in several of the empty bays. However, we still have to get past control, and they have windows that look out into the black. It’d be hard to explain what we had without having the entire Historian and Gendarme forces waiting for us.”

“Well, it was a thought,” Dewey said. 

The last thing Dewey wanted was to lose the pod as he had plans for it. Even if the station had a working comm, it certainly wouldn’t have the software and codes needed to reach Hospitaller headquarters. Then there was the added hazard of getting the Humphries in trouble for aiding them. They could lose their business, their livelihood. And from what Dewey had seen, the Humphries were generous. More than just their family would be hurt.

“Hang on,” Sherwood said and laughed. “I didn’t say it couldn’t be done. Or that we wouldn’t do it. I’m just saying it’ll take some thinking and some planning.”

“Just so long as you don’t endanger your family or your business.”

Sherwood’s face turned serious. “I like you, Dewey Tyler of the Orphan Corps. But not so much that I’d risk my family’s well-being.”

Dewey wouldn’t have it any other way. He chose to change the subject. “What time are we expected to appear at the palace?”

Sherwood looked back at the screen. “At the gate by 1920 hours.”

“All we have to do is keep busy until then.”

Sherwood grinned. “Just so.”

 

Sherwood had no problem keeping himself and Dewey busy. After replying to the message from Prince Neville, Sherwood took Dewey out to the Beth and did a walkthrough and systems check. Malia and SSgt Castro were in the engine room, having finished all the other things Malia had on her to-do list.

Sherwood thought Malia looked worried. Dewey decided it was because she was done faster than usual with her list of tasks. And having forgotten that Castro had been helping her, she’d done what most overachievers did, which was to assume that they’d forgotten something important.

Learning more about the ship and watching Malia fret over work she hadn’t forgotten but believed she had, kept them busy until just before dinner. After cleaning up, they arrived at the dining room. Dewey quickly identified all of his Hospitallers. Each of them seemed in good spirits, including Pvt Russell, who’d had a difficult night prior.

The meal was a stew, thick with vegetables and rolls for sopping up the remaining liquid at the bottom of the bowl. The rolls had a slightly off flavor to Dewey. He noticed his people’s reaction to them and how it was different from the others around them. Likely, the slight oddity in taste had something to do with the grain or whatever they used as a grain substitute. Dewey also found that by the end of the meal, with the last of the stew soaked into the bread, he barely noticed the odd flavor.

There was dessert; strawberries suspended in a sweet gelatinous substance. This time, the flavors fit into Dewey’s experiences. And though it wouldn’t have been his everyday choice for dessert, it was flavorful.

The tea was another experience. Dewey watched the other Hospitallers drink it hesitantly. His smile of amusement was tarnished by the concern that if they couldn’t get back to the rest of the galaxy, they’d all have to get used to the flavor. Unless Tamekia could find a blend that perfectly matched the flavors he and his people were accustomed to.

For his part, Dewey drank the tea and didn’t look at it in confusion. He even remembered to ask for a second cup, which pleased Savannah greatly. He’d be interested to see how the new tea he’d brought back from the day’s adventure went over with the rest of his team and the Humphries family in general.

The meal ended with Floretta and several of her cousins gathering up the dishes before taking them to the kitchens.

“Floretta volunteered herself and her cousins,” explained Savannah. “I think they felt guilty that you all did them yesterday.”

“And did such a good job,” added Sherwood with a smile.

From the kitchens, Dewey heard laughter and some attempts to get a song going. Around him, many of the other families were dispersing for the evening. They called out goodnights to Sherwood, Savannah, and others before disappearing through one of the doors around the room.

When Sherwood tried to stifle a yawn, Dewey stood.

“I think we’ll turn in,” he said and then drank the last of his tea. “Bit of poor sleep last night. Hopefully, tonight won’t be as bad.”

“Right, then,” said Sherwood. This time he didn’t attempt to hide his yawn. “Tomorrow then.”

Dewey signaled the rest of the Hospitallers. They said their goodnights and made their way to the door leading to the barracks they’d been assigned. Once inside, Dewey gave everyone time to use the facilities as needed. It took about an hour. He was beginning to worry that some would fall asleep before they had a chance to talk.

“How’d everyone’s day go?” he finally asked as he saw Cpl Wong’s eyes drooping.

“Informative,” said Sgt Maxwell. “They’re running with some pretty ancient software. I pointed out a couple of tweaks Claudia could make to the program she was running. She liked it but said they weren’t allowed. It has to be authorized by the Historians.”

“Might not want to mess with it then,” said SSgt Castro. “Malia says the Historians can get very particular about changes. All she can do is repair what’s there. She’s made some mods but then keeps the original to put back if there’s ever an inspection.”

“It’s like they’re frozen in time,” Cpl Wong said. Her explanation was stalled by a yawn. “Fernande showed me the systems they use to keep track of IOUs and water allotments. Sergeant Maxwell is right. There are so many little things they could change to make things more efficient and speed up their systems. I looked at the changelogs for the program she uses. It hasn’t been updated in one hundred and twenty-five years. She’s using workarounds that her grandmother taught her.”

“Excuse me, Lieutenant,” said Pvt Russell. “Would this mean that they really don’t have access to the rest of the galaxy?”

“It could,” Dewey said. “It could also mean the people aren’t being allowed access to the rest of the galaxy. They likely had some at the beginning of the Radial War, but it was either damaged during the in-system fighting or hidden from them.”

“Hidden?” PFC Bryant asked. “Like in a way that only some people could use it? Claim it’s broken and then never tell anyone? Seems crazy.”

“Not if you have power over the system.” Dewey looked around at the others. “We’ve seen versions of this. On Juracan, the company kept the rest of the galaxy from learning about what they were doing there. Wenshen, the people there didn’t even know what a world was until they escaped. And I can think of at least a half-dozen would-be dictators that have based their power on withholding or controlling information. This wouldn’t be any different.”

“If that’s what’s happening,” said SSgt Castro.

“And maybe we’ll get answers tomorrow,” Dewey said. “Staff Sergeant Castro and I will be joining Prince Neville tomorrow evening for dinner.”

“Maybe they have coffee,” Sgt Maxwell said ruefully.

Dewey laughed. “We still have Insta. We’ll break out some tomorrow. After you try a tea that was made today.”

Dewey launched into an explanation of his day’s adventures. Not just describing Tamekia’s tea shop, but the mysterious young man, Mason, who easily determined that Dewey was not from Kaggen.

“Sounds like we all need to be more careful with dealing with people we don’t know,” said SSgt Castro.

“Agreed,” said Dewey. “Let whoever you’re working with in the Humphries family take the lead if you encounter strangers. Hopefully, Prince Neville will be able to provide some answers.”

“What do we do until then?” asked Cpl Wong. She’d had her fist over her mouth, trying to tamp down a jaw-popping yawn.

“We’ll deal with tomorrow, tomorrow,” Dewey said. “For now, everyone try to get some sleep.”

Chapter 16

Breakfast the following day was similar to the day before. The protein had a different flavor. There was a porridge of some grain Dewey had never before tasted but enjoyed nonetheless. Tamekia’s new tea was met with suspicion by the Kaggenites who dared to try it and some nodding of approval by the Hospitallers. Quickly enough, though, Savannah had her favorite breakfast blend out on the tables.

Dewey had also explained to the people working in the kitchen how to prepare the Insta. He allowed for two pots. He would have to ration the rest to make it last even a month.

The Insta was sipped with satisfaction by the rest of the Hospitallers. The few members of the Humphries family who’d dared to try the Insta after the new tea blend felt different this time. While it was satisfying to see their opinion of the Insta swayed, it also worried Dewey that he would run out all that much sooner. He took a deep sip of his still-steaming Insta, figuring he might as well enjoy it while it lasted.

As for keeping busy until evening, that wasn’t as difficult as getting people to try the new tea. Everyone seemed willing to work with the same members of the Humphries clan. The only problem was that others wanted a chance to interact with the Hospitallers. From some of the conversations, it seemed that they were eager for new insights as to how they did their jobs.

If things were as frozen in time as Cpl Wong had suggested, and potential changes controlled by the historians, they’d probably learned not to question the methods they’d been taught. That would make suggestions from the Hospitallers seem like strokes of genius.

A compromise was eventually reached. Sgt Maxwell, Cpl Wong, and the fireteam would switch out and shadow different people after lunch. Malia and SSgt Castro were having too much fun digging into the engines for either Castro or Malia to be interested in switching. Likewise, Dewey had plans to stick by Sherwood for the day.

Dewey got the full tour of the industrial ring. He had a second encounter with Tyrell Anglin, who seemed to be in slightly better spirits this day. From Sherwood, Dewey learned that Malia and Castro had spent some time in the Anglin family’s second ship, the Carrie, and fixed a previously unfixable problem with the maneuvering thrusters. That meant Tyrell could get the Carrie back into the fields and hunting for ice rocks.

As Sherwood guided Dewey through more of the commercial ring, Dewey got to see a lot of machinery gathering dust. He could also see the exposed bolts where pieces had been cannibalized. Likely to keep some other machinery running for another hundred years.

“How much longer do you think you can all survive without outside help?”

“Not sure,” said Sherwood with a shrug. They’d been studying one of the original ice rock processing machines. “This was still running when I was a kid. Each decade, though, it seems like there’s one less processor, one less ship. If we had more processors working, we could nurse them all and get another century for sure. But the way we’re pushing them. I’m not sure what’s going to happen. Maybe it’s a good thing you’ve come along now. Another hundred years and you wouldn’t have gotten any help because there wouldn’t be anyone here to help.”

“Does that worry you?”

Sherwood laughed and clapped Dewey on the shoulder. “Not anymore. Come on. More to see.”

‘More to see’ turned out to be meeting the families with one ship. Though, as Dewey also learned, there were several families with no ships that were still struggling to get even a single ship working once more. The need for parts, it seemed, was the biggest and most common hurdle to get over.

Dewey met Annika Willoughby. Sherwood talked Annika into giving Dewey a brief tour of her remaining ship, the Helena. Several little white lies were parsed out, including suggesting that maybe there were parts over in the Kastella Province, but Dewey needed to see what was required here in Vody.

While Sherwood seemed confident in his subterfuge, Dewey thought that Annika wasn’t buying any of it. He wasn’t sure, but he was reasonably convinced that Annika not only knew that Dewey wasn’t from Kastella but wasn’t from any province in Kaggen.

“If Sherwood says you’re good people,” Annika had said as Dewey and Sherwood prepared to depart, “that’s good enough for me. Let us know if you need any assistance. Sherwood knows the Willoughbys are good for it.”

A short time later, they were back on the commercial ring. As they stepped onto the Avenue, Dewey asked, “Where to now?”

Sherwood pointed with a thumb to his left, the clockwise direction. “We need to stop by to see Otto.”

Dewey remembered that Otto was the clothes dealer he’d met the first day they’d come to Kaggen. He wasn’t sure why they were revisiting him so soon. As far as Dewey understood, the patched coveralls they had could be washed and worn for many years, only needing the occasional patch or seam repair. As Dewey was still learning about Vody Province and Kaggen, he kept further questions until they reached Otto’s shop.

Otto appeared at the front of the shop as Sherwood and Dewey approached. Behind him, another customer was arguing quietly with a young woman over the stitching on a long hemmed shirt.

“Sherwood,” Otto said. He flashed a bright smile, holding his arms out in greeting. “What brings you here again so soon? I hope there wasn’t a problem with the coveralls. To be fair, I had a bad batch of thread. It’s been a bit of a bother, as you can see.”

When Otto turned, he waved a hand to where the other customer had calmed some but was still clearly frustrated with the garment in their hand. The young woman had produced a second shirt of a slightly different color. She was now tugging on the stitching as if to show its resilience.

“Tessuti thread?” asked Sherwood.

“No,” said Otto. He sounded as disappointed as the customer now exchanging the shirts. “Sometimes, I have to purchase from the King’s manufacturers. It’s not always a problem, but this time? I guess I’ll have to double the thread, but it’ll hurt my profits.”

“Which are thin as always,” said Sherwood.

Otto grinned. “Well, not as thin as the King’s thread.” He held a finger to his lips as he looked around furtively. “And now. We know you didn’t come here to listen to me complain. So what may I do for you?”

“We are having dinner with Prince Neville this evening.”

Otto’s eyes went wide. He looked at Dewey and then back at Sherwood. “How many of you?”

“Three,” interjected Dewey. “If you remember my companion from the other day?”

“Likes her garment a little loose in the shoulder, yes, I do remember.” Otto sized up Dewey and Sherwood. “I’ve got some I keep in the back. Just be a moment.”

Otto quickly disappeared. While he was gone, Dewey watched the other customer exit with their exchanged shirt. The young woman who’d been working with the other customer looked exhausted from the interaction. She shook herself as if shaking off the encounter before looking around.

The young woman froze for a moment when she traded looks with Dewey. Then, she smiled sheepishly. Dewey nodded, not hiding his grin. The young woman quickly found a stack of aprons to occupy herself with. Allowing himself a chuckle of amusement, Dewey turned to scan the other stacks of garments on display until Otto returned.

“Here we are,” Ottos said upon his return. He had a plastic tote with coveralls. He pulled the top pair out and unfolded them. They were of uniform darkness, even down to the thread. The few patches were hardly noticeable.

“You dyed them?” Dewey asked.

“Good eye,” said Otto. “Dye isn’t easy to come by, and it damages the water.”

“Filters don’t like the dyes,” Sherwood said. “We can distill the water, but it takes time and energy. Usually, we just jettison the dyed water. Also expensive.”

Otto looked moderately embarrassed. “Which is why you get such good deals on coveralls, Sherwood.”

“Easy on, Otto.” Sherwood gave Otto a companionable squeeze of one shoulder. “I was only making an observation. No condemnation implied. Or shouldn’t have.”

Sherwood’s comment seemed to be of some relief to Otto. He smiled once more and then withdrew two more sets of coveralls. He held one higher than the rest. “This one’s for your friend.”

“Thank you,” said Dewey. Then, “And how much do we owe you?”

“If you bring them back undamaged?” Otto looked to Sherwood. “A fraction of an I.O.U. each?”

“Sounds fair,” said Sherwood as he accepted the coveralls first presented. “We’ll get them back to you in good shape.”

“Wonderful. And do give my regards to Prince Neville.”

 

The remainder of the afternoon was spent meeting with the people Sherwood had to pass by yesterday on his way to check the message from Neville. Some of them eyed Dewey with curiosity. Others ignored him completely. When they passed Thanh’s repair shop, Dewey tried to spy out Mason, but the man appeared to be absent.

Perhaps his work with Thanh was done, and he was on to the next job, the next place to disappear into. Mason seemed like the right kind of person to cultivate in Kaggen. Unfortunately, they hadn’t had enough time to really begin. Perhaps after meeting with Neville, he could seek Mason out and have a lengthy conversation that didn’t include Gendarme interruptions.

As for the Humphries clan, they might have been good at keeping secrets from the rest of Kaggen. When it came to their own, even Floretta couldn’t stem the tide of talk. Somewhere around 1830 hours, Dewey and Sherwood passed through the dining hall. Several people asked when the meeting was. Almost absentmindedly, another person gave the exact time, looking up in surprise as they did.

“I’m honestly surprised they kept it under their helmet that long,” Sherwood said. “I’m off to clean up. Malia knows to have Diane back here at least a half-hour before we have to leave. See you in a bit.”

Dewey nodded and made his way to the Hospitallers’ quarters. He wasn’t in the least bit surprised to find Castro there, toweling off from her use of the shower.

“That for me?” she asked, pointing at the two pairs of coveralls in Dewey’s hands.

“Yep.” Dewey looked at the tags still present in the collar. They were old and faded, but he’d seen the one for SSgt Castro when Otto had passed it over. Like everything else he’d seen and read, he hadn’t forgotten and tossed the appropriate set of coveralls across to the staff sergeant.

“Wow, like new.”

“In a way,” Dewey said as he began to undress. He was going to hit the showers for a quick rinse. “Otto appears to save them for special occasions like visits with their prince.”

Castro had stepped into the coveralls and was zipping them up. She shrugged her shoulders. “Nice fit. I suppose we don’t get to keep them?”

Dewey laughed. “They’re rentals. Don’t ruin them.”

“You almost sound concerned,” Castro said before laughing. “I promise to go easy on them.”

“Good.” Dewey grabbed a towel and made his way around to the showers. “See you in a bit.”

 

When Dewey had first learned he’d been accepted into officer candidate school, he’d been the last aboard the ship to know. His unit had just returned from digging out a mudslide, uncovering what the local administration had called a jhuggi. The jhuggi, or slums, had actually been camouflage for an illegal weapons manufacturer.

The discovery of the arms factory set off a firefight that had Dewey, the company he was part of, and fifty-three civilians pinned down for several hours. During that time, they’d found an office. Dewey had scanned through all the documents until he’d found a hand-drawn floor plan for the factory.

Using that information, Dewey’s fireteam uncovered a tunnel through the hill that hadn’t been destroyed by the mudslide. The other end brought them out behind the militia operating the factory and which now had the rest of Dewey’s company trapped. Using weapons scavenged from the destroyed factory, Dewey’s fireteam brought the fight to their attackers. They’d done so with such ferocity that it had resulted in a surrender of the twenty fighters who were still alive. They’d been surprised and angry to see that they’d been bested by four Hospitallers.

After that, Dewey had been busy with the final cleanup and upgrade of the jhuggi. He hadn’t been to the ship in days. When he’d finally gotten back on the ship and cleaned up, he’d entered the barracks. There he found a cheering crowd composed of the enlisted Hospitallers in his company and half of those stationed on the ship.

They’d learned days ago of his new assignment but had been keeping it a secret until they could celebrate adequately and in clean clothes. Based on Dewey’s experiences, people liked big send-offs. Today turned out not to be an exception.

Besides a clean and trimmed Sherwood Humphries and SSgt Castro, all the other Hospitallers were present, as were several dozen members of the Humphries family.

Sherwood shrugged, his face twisted into a what-are-you-going-to-do look. “Not every day we get invited to Prince Neville’s palace,” he said.

“We just wanted to make sure Sherwood’s head would still fit through the doorway,” said Sherwood’s brother, Waldo.

The room laughed. Sherwood arched his eyebrows. “What did I tell you, Dewey?”

“That’s why I’m bringing Castro along,” Dewey said. Then, “Excuse me. I mean Diane. You ready, Staff Sergeant?”

“Diane is ready,” said SSgt Castro, speaking in the third person, which brought chuckles from the people around her.

“Sherwood?” Dewey wasn’t so eager to get to the palace, but he was looking forward to having a conversation with Neville. Hopefully, it would be fruitful.

Sherwood stood and gave his wife a kiss on the cheek. “We’ll be back in a few hours.”

Dewey turned to Sgt Maxwell. “You’re in charge until we return.”

“You got it, Lieutenant Tyler.”

“All right,” said Dewey, turning to Sherwood. “Time to go.”

“Just so,” Sherwood said as he joined Dewey and Diane. “Just so.”

Chapter 17

There were the usual connectors to the hub of the Vody Province from the residential ring as there were on the other two rings. But like those on the industrial ring, they were closed off entirely or had access limited only to those who worked or lived in what everyone called the Prince’s Palace.

The palace consisted of more than the living quarters of Prince Neville, his family, and their servants with families. It was where the pumps were housed that moved the water to the rest of Kaggen. It was also where the distribution of air and power were focused. Technically, the prince could cut power and air if he needed to. But from everything that Sherwood had said, Neville wasn’t the sort of leader to resort to extortion.

And the only way that Dewey, SSgt Castro, and Sherwood were going to gain access was on the commercial ring and only at the spoke that Sherwood referred to as Gate Three.

“These are Gendarme?” Castro asked as they approached the actual gate that controlled access to the hub.

“They are not,” Sherwood said. “They’re family guard. Quite literally, actually. The tall one, with the freckles? That’s Captain Jameson. He’s Neville’s cousin. They grew up together. The rest are either more cousins or families of the servants who live in the palace. And they all grew up there, as did their parents and their grandparents.”

“Not all,” said Dewey. He couldn’t imagine they would allow that level of inbreeding, even in such a limited gene pool.

Sherwood nodded. “No, not all. They do marry outside of the palace. But those spouses are co-opted into the palace system, for the most part. A few have left over the decades to live and work outside.”

“Anyone we know?” asked Castro.

“Maybe.” Sherwood flashed a wink before turning his attention to Captain Jameson, who was approaching the gate. “Evening, Jameson.”

“Evening Sherwood. Your friends know the rules?”

Sherwood nodded. As did Dewey and Castro. No weapons were allowed into the palace. That wasn’t just a Saymour family rule. It was a rule dictated by the king. Sherwood had said it was to do with the few uprisings and riots. The only weapons in Neville’s palace were non-electrified truncheons and a few swords.

It had also been impressed upon Dewey by Sherwood that they should leave all their tech behind, too. This included their comm devices. After having his interaction with Mason the day before, Dewey was in agreement. He and Castro were walking in unarmed and without the ability to contact Sgt Maxwell and the other Hospitallers.

Since joining the Orphan Corps, there had always been a comm in Dewey’s ear. He felt slightly off-balance without it. He noticed that Castro kept rubbing at her ear with a knuckle. She’d been resistant to the idea of going in without comms. Still, Dewey had been able to convince her of the necessity.

Captain Jameson was unlocking the gate. He used what looked to Dewey to be a magnetic lock. It was more elaborate than closing an electrical loop. Jameson had a key that looked like a paddle. He laid it across the lock on its flat side and then spun it one hundred eighty degrees. Dewey could hear the lock clank as it released. The door swung easily on well-maintained hinges.

“Welcome to Vody Palace,” said Captain Jameson. He held the door as Dewey and Castro followed Sherwood over the threshold. As SSgt Castro passed him, Captain Jameson shut and locked the gate. He then passed Dewey and others. “Follow me.”

Dewey had felt the eyes of the other guards on him as he entered the spoke, following Captain Jameson. Much of the corridor inside the spoke looked like tens of others he’d passed through so far in life. Except here, there were visible signs of repair meant to extend the life of the corridor spoke far beyond its intended lifespan. Even the oldest operating stations inside the second radial arm of the galaxy had their parts replaced with upgrades. So much so that, like the human body, nothing was original, all the cells having been replaced over time.

There were several caution signs that Captain Jameson pointed out along the way. These were warnings of shifts in gravity due to failing gravity plates. It was nice to be warned as it explained some of the unease in Dewey’s belly. The meeting shouldn’t have him overly concerned. He’d dealt with challenging politicians, duplicitous CEOs, and hostile military leaders. Yet, despite his unique experiences over the last couple of years, this one felt more complicated, even if he couldn’t specifically touch on the reason why.

Juaracan, the radioactive planet with surviving humans, had been out of contact for nearly as long as the Kaggen station. The people there were glad to see the arrival of the Hospitallers and were, for the most part, eager to connect with the rest of the human race. And though no one had said so, Dewey felt that it wasn’t going to be so easy here as it was on Juracan.

Maybe, Dewey had pondered on several recent occasions, it had something to do with the titles of ‘king,’ ‘prince,’ and ‘province.’ These were words often used in old stories and vid shows with a hint of fantasy in them. He could recall the names of at least a dozen popular shows where kings, even alien kings, resided over kingdoms with knights and fantastical beasts in need of slaying. A few even had units called ‘Gendarme.’ But none of the ones he recalled existed before the Radial War.

That didn’t prove the station had contact with the outside galaxy. A lot of information was lost or wiped during the war. The nets could have been flooded with vids shows and stories about kings and princes ruling over space stations for all Dewey knew. But he’d never seen the evidence, so he had to doubt until proven otherwise.

During Dewey’s current musings, Captain Jameson took them to a spiraling staircase that wrapped around the station’s core. In there, Dewey knew, were the pumps for water distribution and all the connections for air and power distribution. There were guards on several levels, and through hatch portholes, he could see hydroponic gardens.

“These levels are for growing herbs and spices as dictated by the king. The level below is greens,” explained Captain Jameson when Dewey asked. “Each prince is licensed to grow and sell specific organics. For example, Prince Rocco of the Kastella province is licensed to grow peas, green beans, and tomatoes. They trade with each other and then sell or gift what they wish to the people of their province.”

“You forgot the tithe to the king,” Sherwood said.

“Oh, I didn’t forget,” said Captain Jameson. Dewey felt there was a lot of reading between the lines of the captain’s statement. But what it did was chill the conversation. They continued up to Neville’s palace levels in silence.

The stairwell was blocked before the top had been reached by Dewey and the others, forcing them to exit onto one of the core’s upper levels. There were two guards on duty, standing to either side of the archway that led into a residential area. They nodded to Captain Jameson as he paused and stared hard at Dewey, Castro, and Sherwood as they followed into a corridor and to the right.

The outer wall of the corridor had regularly spaced doors. The inner wall had several open spaces that looked like walls had been removed to create them. In one of the spaces, Dewey saw several children playing. They were being monitored by several elderly people who only spared the briefest glances in the direction of the corridor as Dewey and the other three passed.

At a point that Dewey figured to be halfway around the small ring, there was another set of stairs. These did not look like an original staircase. It was Dewey’s assumption that they had been added to control the access to the upper levels. His deductions were bolstered by the two guards at the bottom of the staircase and the two guards at the top.

Besides the guards, they were met by another man, older than Sherwood. He seemed stern but friendly. He nodded in their direction and said, “Sherwood. A pleasure to see you again.”

“Freddy,” Sherwood said. He shook hands and started to introduce Dewey and SSgt Castro until Freddy held up a hand to stop him.

“Prince Neville said no names. For now anyway.”

“Oh, okay.” Sherwood seemed confused but also disinclined to question the directive from the prince.

“This way, please.” Freddy nodded to Captain Jameson, who returned the nod before descending the staircase, leaving Dewey, Castro, and Sherwood to follow Freddy.

They walked in silence for a quarter of the small ring. Dewey had exchanged a raised eyebrow expression with Castro but otherwise remained silent and observant. There were fewer doors here and less activity. The doors that were present were double-wide. Dewey could see the scars on the walls where doors had been removed and the openings covered with sheets of metal. It had probably taken a lot of renovation to turn an inner administration wing into a palace.

“You’ll be in the family dining room,” said Freddy as he stopped at a door in the outer wall and turned to face Dewey and the others. He pulled the door open. “If you’ll wait inside, Prince Neville will be along shortly.”

“Thank you, Freddy,” Sherwood said and entered the room.

Dewey nodded his thank you and followed Castro, who was just behind Sherwood. The door shut silently behind them. The room was twenty meters wide, ten meters deep. It had a pronounced curve to it that was the result of being in a small ring. There was a table in the middle that could easily hold twenty people but was currently set for four at one end. Of the four chairs, one was high-backed and been worked with metal and trim to make it more elaborate than the others. To one side of it, there were two of the plain chairs. To the other side, the last single chair.

“Freddy seems nice,” Castro said. She’d made her way to the end of the table where plates, cups, and cutlery had been set out. After a glance at something, Castro pointed at the lone, simple seat. “This one is yours, Sherwood.”

Sherwood nodded and joined Castro. “Freddy is Prince Neville’s majordomo. His dad had been the majordomo before that. His grandfather before that. And so on, back to the beginning. Freddy is loyal to Prince Neville, his wife, his children, and no one else. And I think in that order, too.”

“I’m a strong believer in loyalty,” Castro said with a nod to Dewey.

“This is the family dining room?” Dewey asked. The plate that Castro had pointed at had a small card with Sherwood’s name on it. He didn’t have to guess who the fancy chair was for. When he made his way to the other side of the table, he saw that the two plates there didn’t have a name card. He did wonder about that.

“There is a grand dining room,” said Sherwood. “It’s up on the next level. It has several large windows that look out onto the rest of Kaggen and the stars beyond. I’ve been there twice. Holds a couple hundred people easy.”

“So we’re just down here because of numbers,” said Castro. Dewey noted that the tone of her voice made it clear that she didn’t believe what she said. He was in agreement.

Before Sherwood could comment, another door opened. Freddy appeared, moving aside for another man, slightly shorter but well dressed. Well dressed, in Dewey’s assessment of Kaggen meant that there were no patches on the man’s clothes. Which likely identified him as the prince.

All of Dewey’s observations were conducted simultaneously as Freddy announced just loud enough for Dewey to hear, “Lady and Gentlemen, Prince Neville.”

Sherwood bowed at the waist. Neville didn’t seem expectant of such mannerisms as he looked past Sherwood to where Dewey and Castro stood, unbowed.

“You are the guests Sherwood spoke of.”

Dewey started to make introductions, but a casual lift of Neville’s hand silenced him.

Neville turned to Freddy. “That’ll be all for now. Knock when the food is ready.”

“You’re highness,” said Freddy. He seemed reluctant to leave.

“Everything is fine,” Neville said. He put a hand on Freddy’s arm. “Please go.”

Freddy hesitated for a fraction of a second more and then bowed his head. “Of course, my prince.”

He left the room, silently shutting the door as he went. Once he was gone, Neville turned to Dewey.

“Proceed,” he said.

“This is Staff Sergeant Diane Castro. My name is Lieutenant Dewey Tyler. We are part of the Hospitaller Orphan Corps.”

Neville nodded and waved at the seats. “I have no idea what that means, but please, have a seat, and then you can educate me.”

Dewey made his way back to the two plain seats without name cards. Even in democratic societies, Dewey knew that there were protocols that were often based in the culture. He also knew that when in doubt, follow someone who knew the workings of the culture and how to navigate them. So, when Sherwood pulled out his seat but stayed behind it, Dewey did the same thing. He could see Castro out of the corner of his eye. She was doing the same thing.

At the head of the table, Neville slid into the ornate chair and then nodded to Sherwood. Sherwood looked across to Dewey and Castro and gave them a nod before he took his own seat. When Dewey and Castro sat, Neville leaned in their direction.

“So it is true,” he said. “We aren’t alone in the galaxy after all.”

“Couple trillion people out there,” said SSgt Castro. “And to be honest, you aren’t the first group of missing people we’ve found. Lieutenant Tyler here is an expert at finding missing societies.”

“Is he?” Neville leaned back in his chair, focusing on Dewey with a tilt of curiosity to his head.

Dewey noticed that Sherwood was trying not to smile.

“Not quite true,” Dewey said. “Castro likes to exaggerate. We only discovered Kaggen because our ship was breaking up in jump space. When our escape pod was damaged, we dropped into your solar system.”

“We’re lucky like that,” said Castro.

Neville laughed, but he was also shaking his head. “It might be bad luck this time,” he said. “Our King, Celestene, believes we are the only ones who survived the great war. I don’t think he’s dishonest. Now, the historians might be a different matter.”

“If I might,” Dewey said. Neville nodded for Dewey to continue, but he was interrupted by a soft chime that filled the room.

Chapter 18

Sherwood appeared startled by the sound. His movements put Dewey on alert, and he scanned the room’s half-dozen doors. SSgt Castro seemed less concerned by the soft chime. Neville seemed the least concerned of all.

“A moment,” said Neville.

He placed a hand under the table and appeared to be pressing against it. Three seconds later, a door on the opposite end of the room opened. Two young people, dressed in the same colors as the guards, pushed a cart past the door. They brought the cart up next to Neville. They bowed before removing lids and covers, displaying the contents of the bowls and platters.

“Very good.”

“Thank you, Prince Neville,” said one of the servers. They then proceeded to set the platters and bowls on the table. They had started to serve out the contents when Neville cleared his throat. The servers stopped and stepped away from the table. Dewey could see that despite knowing the signal, they still looked confused.

“We’ll serve ourselves,” Neville said.

“Sire?” It was clear to Dewey they weren’t ready for this sudden change in decorum.

Neville smiled at the two servers. “It’s okay,” he said. “We’ve lots of private business to discuss and very little time for it. I’ll call you when we’re done.”

“Of course, Prince Neville,” said one of the servers. As a pair, they bowed and then quickly exited the room.

There was a further pause in conversation as Neville served himself and then waved for the others to help themselves. The fare was similar to what Dewey had eaten in the Humphries homestead, but the taste was fresher. There were also carrots and peppers in the salad, which was topped with a creamy dressing. The protein was a spiral loaf that had been sliced in advance. Surprisingly, there were also mashed potatoes with chives. Dewey wasn’t sure how they were growing potatoes as they didn’t take well to hydroponics.

After several minutes of silent eating, Neville put down his fork and dabbed at his lips with a cloth napkin.

“The cooks did well today,” he said. “I could keep eating, but we are in a time crunch.”

“Time crunch, Prince Neville?” Sherwood asked.

“My brother, Augustus. He’s on an errand. I’d like to have this meeting over with before his return.”

“Augustus is Prince Neville’s brother,” Sherwood said. “But I may have already mentioned that.”

“Likely, he mentioned his daughter threatening to walk out an airlock before she married Augustus.” Neville punctuated his comment with a laugh. “My brother can be intense at times and, unfortunately, also very devoted to King Celestene.”

“He doesn’t know we’re here?”

“No,” answered Neville. “And those who do, don’t know who you are. We’ve sort of left it to their imagination. There’s a bunch of speculation that you are from Kastella, that you need parts to fix some pumps. Some think you’re envoys from the king. Imagination can be a terrible thing sometimes.”

“Just so,” Sherwood said.

“Now, then. You’re Hospitallers, and you came here by accident.”

“And we’re stuck here,” Dewey added. “Unless we can get a message out. Which is why we’ve come to see you. It was our hope that you could speak to your king and see if he could provide us with the means to do so. Or, at the least, help us repair our escape pod so it can send a signal.”

Neville stabbed a strawberry with a long, thin fork. He chewed on the berry while looking thoughtful.

“You are aware that we haven’t had any communication with the outside since the great war started, correct?”

It was Dewey’s turn to pause. All of his mulling over his team’s situation and the situation of Kaggen had dredged up some thoughts. The thoughts had grown tendrils that had worked their way through everything Dewey had ever seen or read and found several homes in which to take up root.

“You haven’t always had a king,” he finally said. “And your family hasn’t always been referred to as princes.”

“That’s true,” said Neville. He stabbed and ate another strawberry. “The historians have taken and erased much of the early history. But not all. My ancestor had a different title. ‘Administrator,’ I think.”

“Right,” said Dewey. He spared a glance for SSgt Castro. She was slowly cutting into a slice of the protein. She looked focused on her food, but Dewey knew she was listening to everything. “And this place became the kingdom of Kaggen about when?”

Neville looked at Sherwood. Sherwood shrugged and said, “I’ve no idea, Prince Neville. Our family records show we’ve been doing mining since before the great war.”

“Again, I am not completely certain of our history,” Neville said. He’d set the fork aside and now had his hands resting in his lap. “Roughly, I would say about two hundred fifty years ago, King Celestene’s ancestor declared himself such. There’d been a mighty battle then, too. A lot of people were lost. Most of our forebears hadn’t been aware that the future king had slowly gathered control over many vital aspects of the combined provinces. They were still called stations back then.”

“And after the newly made king had taken control,” Dewey said, “he created the Gendarme?”

“Yes, I believe so. All the remaining military forces were combined under the king’s control, and he gave them the new name.”

“What about the batons and staffs?” Castro asked.

“Yes, those,” said Neville. “The staffs have been around almost as long as we’ve been a kingdom. But they weren’t used by the Gendarme. That and the introduction of the batons is about a hundred and sixty years ago.”

“There’d been projectile weapons before that,” said Sherwood. “But there wasn’t any way to make more of the projectiles they required.”

“So, shock rods,” Dewey said.

“If I may,” Neville said. “What does our history have to do with your acquiring communication with the outside world?”

“I’m testing ideas,” said Dewey. “Some of what you’re experiencing, I believe, was also part of several very prominent vid-shows in the early centuries of the second expansion.”

Neville had been in the process of stabbing another strawberry. He stopped, setting the fork onto his plate. “You think our lives are a vid-show?”

A quick glance at Castro showed Dewey that his staff sergeant also didn’t understand what he was implying.

“No,” he said. “I think the creation of the kingdom of Kaggen was influenced by a vid-show.”

“Which vid-show?” asked Sherwood. “Not that I would recognize it. I’m just curious.”

“We can get to that in a moment,” Neville said. “Before that, I want to understand how anyone could have seen these shows that appeared after our isolation. Are you proposing that King Clementene’s family did have communication with the rest of the galaxy but told no one?”

“That’s my proposal,” said Dewey.

“Why would they do that?” Sherwood asked. Before anyone answered, he waved the question away. “Forget I asked. It’s obvious.”

“Four hundred years is a long time to keep such a secret,” said Neville.

“Not if their lives depended on it,” said SSgt Castro. “If they didn’t have anyone to maintain or repair the comms, they’d eventually fail. And suppose they were ever discovered having kept such a secret from others, and now it was too late to act on it. In that case, you’d have an uprising that would make your occasional food riot look like a family disagreement.”

“They’d have had company,” said Neville, nodding. “Our family has never liked the idea of kingdoms and provinces. It was told to me that we agreed to protect the people and that the plan had been to return to a democracy when we got the chance. That chance never came. Perhaps now, though.”

Soft chimes filled the air. They were a different sound than last time.

“That does that one mean?” Dewey asked.

Neville rose. “That means my brother is back, earlier than expected. A second chime interrupted him. He started moving, waving the others to follow. “This way. Hurry. My brother is not alone.”

Dewey followed Sherwood and Neville to the far side of the room. Castro was close behind him as they passed the end of the long table. As they neared the wall, where Dewey assumed they’d exit where the servers had disappeared, Neville veered toward the outer wall.

There were several paintings on the wall. Neville touched the frame of one of the paintings. Dewey heard an audible click before noticing a section of the wall push out from the rest. It then swung into the room.

“Follow me,” said Neville. He hurried around the section of the wall that now stuck into the room and just as quickly backed up, knocking Sherwood sideways.

Castro stepped forward and caught Sherwood before he fell over. Dewey was watching Neville, who was suddenly facing one of the electrified batons. As Neville took several more steps back, he waved for Dewey and the others to move back, too.

From the opening in the wall, several Gendarme stepped, their batons at the ready. Behind them came two more men in garb that Dewey recognized from the Avenue as historians. One of them seemed particularly pleased with the situation.

“Augustus suggested you might attempt to sneak your guests out a back way,” said the historian. “Imagine my surprise when he showed us this special passage.”

“Historian Kondo,” said Neville.

Dewey observed the interaction, but he was also chewing on the information that the historian hadn’t known about the hidden passage. Which made him wonder if Mason knew about this passage and what other passages might be hidden from the historians.

“You’ve made yourself look very guilty,” said historian Kondo. “King Clementene will be very disappointed.”

A door opened behind them. While Neville and Sherwood turned to see who had entered, Dewey kept his eyes on the historian. For his part, the historian seemed uninterested in what was happening at the door. He was returning Dewey’s look.

“Augustus,” Dewey heard Neville say. “What have you done?”

“What have I done?” asked the new voice. Dewey finally turned to see Augustus at the door Dewey had initially come through. Behind Augustus were two more of the Gendarme. It was Augustus who’d answered a question with a question but now provided an answer. “You’re the traitor!”

Neville looked around. There was a sheen of worry on his face but a calm tone to his voice. “Traitor? To whom?”

“To King Clementene,” answered the historian. “For consorting with the enemy.”

Castro caught Dewey’s attention with a look. He had a gut feeling she wanted to intervene or for him to intervene. Dewey shook his head. They needed to wait until they had a better understanding of the situation. Granted, it was looking bad. However, there wasn’t any reason to make it worse by leaping before looking.

“Enemy?” Neville had been asking the room, switching his look from Augustus to the historian and back. “These are people from outside our system. We’re not the last humans.”

“They aren’t humans,” Augustus said. He glared at Dewey and Castro as he added, “They’re Gotu.”

“Gotu?”

The historian looked at Castro, who’d asked the question. Dewey hadn’t asked because an essential piece of the puzzle he’d been assembling in his mind had fallen into place.

“Shape-shifting aliens,” said the historian. “But you already know that.”

Castro looked more amused than concerned.

“That’s enough for now, Diane,” Dewey said. Castro’s first name felt awkward as he said it, but he needed her to stand down for now. Fortunately, she knew Dewey well enough to trust him with her life, and she gave a quick nod as she pressed her lips together.

“They most certainly are not Gotu,” said Neville.

“Agreed,” Sherwood said.

Of the four of them, Sherwood seemed the most worried. That made sense to Dewey as Sherwood had more to lose than Dewey and Castro, while Neville would likely come out of this unscathed. At least, that was how it always worked in the vid-shows. And as this place was much like a vid-show, Dewey would be surprised if they deviated.

“That isn’t for you to decide,” said Augustus as he stepped toward his brother. Spittle flecked his lips. “King Clementene will be the one to determine if you are innocent or not.”

As if serving as a signal, the two Gendarme behind Augustus moved forward. They were armed with staves.

“Prince Neville of Vody Province,” said one of the staff-armed Gendarme. “You and your three co-conspirators are under arrest for treason.”

Dewey turned back to the historian as he heard movement. The other Gendarme clipped their batons to wide belts and were making their way to Dewey and the others. They carried heavy-looking shackles in their hands.

The historian also watched, but he appeared to be amused. Dewey turned his attention back to Castro to assure himself that she wouldn’t give the Gendarme any trouble for now. She had a dark look on her face as the shackles were locked around her wrists. The action was completed for all four of them without trouble. Though Dewey didn’t like the situation, he had information that should come in useful if he had a chance to put it to use.

“Well, then,” the historian said as the Gendarme formed a guard around Dewey and the others. “Augustus will watch over the Vody Province. The rest of us have a date with the King.”

Chapter 19

After being shackled, Dewey and the others were led out the same passage the historians had used to enter. It should have been a discrete path back to the commercial ring of the Vody Province. Instead, it became a prisoners’ walk to where Dewey did not yet know.

The hidden door opened onto a narrow corridor through which they had to make a single file. Each of the captives was spaced between armed and ready Gendarme. Even if Dewey and SSgt Castro were inclined to fight their captors, they would quickly be hemmed in by Sherwood and Neville. Getting past them would open them up to an attack they’d be hard-pressed to defend against.

No, for now, Dewey knew it was best to comply. A time would present itself when they could fight. After all, they had to consider the safety of Sherwood and Neville, who’d taken a risk, helping and speaking to the Hospitallers.

The short corridor turned right, heading towards the core of the Vody spine. While they and Captain Jameson had taken stairs up the levels to the living quarters of Saymour family and attendants, Dewey doubted they would be returning the same way. He knew they had to return to the commercial ring because it was the only ring that connected to the other provinces and the king’s province, the heart of Kaggen.

After several more turns and a quick passage across an open corridor that was part of the palace, they arrived at a narrow door with a panel of buttons. A service elevator.

“We’ll be going in threes,” said the one historian who’d done all the talking. “The guards won’t hesitate to stun you if you get frisky. So I suggest you don’t.”

Castro looked over at Dewey. Again, he shook his head, no. Dewey didn’t doubt that Castro could overcome two guards and free herself. But there was no guarantee that other guards weren’t waiting below or that the present guards might hurt him and the others to force Castro’s surrender. Again, it was about time, and now was not the time.

So, one by one, the four were loaded into the service elevator and taken down to the commercial deck. The elevator opened onto a dimly lit and unused corridor. What containers and equipment that were present were coated with thick blankets of dust. Someone had tested the layers of dust, running several fingers along the front of an old kiosk display, leaving three streaks across the screen. Even the air smelled as if it was composed of nothing but dust.

Dewey was forced off to one side while they waited for the others to arrive. He had with him the other historian who had preceded everyone and the two Gendarme who had accompanied Dewey on the short trip down. The historian kept sneaking glances at Dewey, quickly looking away when Dewey looked in his direction.

There had only been one attempt by Dewey to engage the historian in conversation. It was terminated by a hiss from a Gendarme and a poke in the ribs by a baton. Fortunately, the baton wasn’t cycling electricity, so the poke was more annoying than anything else. Dewey got the hint and kept quiet as the others began to arrive.

Once all of them had arrived, the talkative historian led the way. They moved through several unused corridors until they stopped once more. Dewey had assumed they would be crossing the Avenue, which would attract a lot of attention. But apparently, the Gendarme or the historians, or both, were used to moving in secret. How was now being revealed.

The silent historian and one of the Gendarme lifted a deck plate to reveal a set of well-worn metal stairs that led downward. It was darker there than in the corridor where they stood. Dewey could see pipes, conduits, and more abandoned machinery and equipment below.

“Down, please,” said the other historian. The please in his words lacked kindness.

A Gendarme went first. Dewey, with a prod to the back, went second. He took the stairs cautiously. His shackled hands not only made it difficult to hold the handrail, if he fell, he’d be unable to catch himself. He had no plans of dying ignominiously here. Not when he still had a team to see safely back to the rest of the galaxy.

Again, Dewey waited for the others to descend. He looked around as he waited. The stairs brought them down to a T in a corridor. Two passages curved away as they followed the ring’s circumference. The other passage followed the radius. Of the three, the radial passage showed the least amount of collected dust. Even an Allied Marine could tell where they’d be going next.

When all but the silent historian were down the stairs, the overhead hatch was closed. They were now minus a historian. Dewey understood why. They had the hatch locked so that only they and the Gendarme could use the access point. But back in the station’s early days, they would have wanted to control access from above rather than from below. So that was where the lock was.

Maybe the historians hadn’t been able to replace the lock. Perhaps it was just easier to leave it as it was. The upshot of it all was that someone had to open it from above and stay behind to lock it. The duty fell to the lowest rank it seemed.

The radial passage brought them to an airlock. The airlock wasn’t original. Dewey could see the welding and sealant used to put the lock in position. Dewey was only guessing, but the lock was likely put in when the stations were joined together. The only question that needed answering was where did this airlock lead to? Did it lead to the king’s province? Or did it lead to another province?

Even after the airlock was opened, the answer wasn’t obvious. What was evident was that the passage they were entering was made from corridors scavenged from other areas of the stations. Either stations that made up Kaggen or from stations that never became a part of Kaggen. 

One of the Gendarme led the way into the connecting passage.

“Off you go, Gōtu,” said the historian as he grinned at Dewey.

Dewey shrugged and followed the lead Gendarme. His first step was an awkward one. The grav plates here were running at a little more than one half a gravity unit. He stumbled as his foot didn’t touch down the way he’d expected and when he expected. Behind him, Dewey could hear the chuckling of the historian. At least someone was enjoying themselves.

The passage lacked windows. As they walked, Dewey tried visualizing where they were. He’d seen Kaggen as they’d arrived from the belt. Sherwood had pointed out some of the stations. While all the stations but Tessuti connected at least once with the king’s province, they also connected with two other provinces. Dewey was beginning to think that this was planned so that the historians could move about unseen when desired.

Vody Province was connected to Hauve, an air province, and Uprawy, a food province. Tessuti, without a direct connection to the king’s province, was linked to Uprawy and Kastella. The individual provinces weren’t all on the same plane, either. Some made contact higher up on the king’s province while others connected down lower, directly to the core. A few, like Vody, touched a small ring near the middle of the king’s province.

Dewey was only surmising, based on his brief views of the stations from space, but he was certain they were going the long way, crossing over to Hauve. The question after that was whether or not they’d be going to Jedzeny or would they now cross to the king’s province?

Time would tell.

Time dragged on. Once across the passage, they’d cycled through another airlock. This one had been original but also showed signs of repair and upkeep. In a corridor two people wide, they started walking counterclockwise. From some of the old signs on the walls, Dewey was positive that they were in Hauve and moving toward an access point to the king’s province. Hauve was slightly smaller than Vody in circumference on every level, but it had four rings instead of three. Dewey and the others moved up two rings, always keeping to back corridors of service tunnels underneath until they came to a stop at a circular staircase.

“Rest,” the historian said. “But no talking.”

While Dewey, Castro, and the others took a seat on the deck, the historian took the stairs. From Dewey’s position, he watched the historian push through a hatch overhead.

“Everyone okay?” asked Neville.

“Silence,” said one of the Gendarme armed with a staff. He threatened Neville with it as he glared down at everyone else. “There will be no talking.”

Sherwood nodded vigorously enough for everyone else. Neville seemed content to look dispassionately on the Gendarme who’d threatened him. Dewey had a feeling it would not be in the Gendarme’s best interests for Neville to reclaim his position as prince. Perhaps the lack of concern for Neville’s recovered rank by the Gendarme was a clue to how things would play out.

Dewey wasn’t sure what was going to happen. He’d been held captive before when he was still enlisted. They’d surrendered to protect several families that were with them. The militants they’d capitulated to had been surprisingly honorable, and the families were released unharmed. Negotiations for Dewey and his squad were short. It turned out that the militants were looking for leverage in a peace treaty that wouldn’t involve them going to prison or being executed. It had worked out for everyone in the end. However, it was an experience Dewey hadn’t liked then either.

Dewey would have continued to reflect on past events and the current one except that SSgt Castro had bumped his boot with her own. When he looked at her, she signaled for him to listen. Had he missed something during his musings? He looked up and got bumped again, seeing Castro tilt her head toward the passage they’d come down.

When Dewey focused his attention, he heard something. At first, it seemed to be just part of the normal background noise he’d expect to hear in the service areas of a space station. But then, a repetitive sound caught his attention. It sounded like two pipes tapping against each other. Something that would happen if a support had broken and the pipes had lateral movement. Except it was an odd pattern. One ping, three pings, five pings, and repeat.

Dewey signed to Castro, asking if she’d spotted someone. She signaled back in the negative.

“Hey,” barked one of the Gendarme. He had a baton which he smacked against the sole of Dewey’s boot. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Sitting,” Dewey said. “Resting.”

“And passing signals,” said the Gendarme. He waved the baton in front of Dewey’s face. “Do it again, and I’ll break your fingers.”

With a shrug, Dewey turned so that he wasn’t looking at the Gendarme or his baton.

“There a problem?” The historian had returned, pausing halfway down the stairs.

“No problem,” said the Gendarme as he turned away from Dewey. “And just making sure it stays that way.”

“Almost home,” the historian. He motioned with his hand. “Bring them up.”

Dewey and the others climbed to their feet. Then, with Dewey once more in the lead, they began the short trip up the stairs. What he expected at the top, Dewey couldn’t have said. He wouldn’t have been surprised to find another narrow corridor hidden from view. He certainly didn’t expect to find himself at an official crossing to the central province where Celestene resided.

As he was helped up by two new Gendarme, Dewey noticed the brightly painted walls with painted images of various men topped with crowns. Above each picture was a range of dates. Below them, names like Celesetene the Third, Leopold the First, and others. The ground the Gendarme set Dewey’s feet on was painted to look like cobblestones. In Dewey’s opinion, it needed some touching up.

With a bit of prodding, Dewey stepped out of the way so another Gendarme and Sherwood could step up. As Dewey looked around, he noticed that a gate and a curtain had been pulled across an opening that would lead to Uprawy Province. The other side, not blocked, was a passage built from several cargo trunks and then lined with tapestries. He decided that this must be the official entrance to the central province from Uprawy. The historian likely had it closed off and hidden so that citizens of Uprawy couldn’t see what was happening.

Neville came up the stairs, followed by a Gendarme and then SSgt Castro. When she traded looks with Dewey, she gave him a wink and signaled that they weren’t alone. Dewey wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but he hoped he would find out soon enough.

However, as the last Gendarme exited the stairs and the hatch was shut, they were urged toward the open passage by the increased number of Gendarme. The historian moved to the front of the troupe. He turned to look over his shoulder. His grin was not comforting.

“The king awaits.”

Chapter 20

If there was one thing problematic about space stations, it was that Dewey had difficulty determining the time of day when inside them. Most stations ran a traditional twenty-four-hour standard day, dimming the lights in public areas to signify evening. Of course, that meant nothing to people who’d just docked with a ship whose clock was set differently. Worse were the stations that never dimmed their lights so that it was always the same for every minute of every hour of every day.

Dewey was well known for his ability to recall anything he’d ever read or seen. What he was not known for was an impeccable internal clock. Very few people were. For instance, he knew they’d been having an evening meal with Neville in Vody before being taken captive. Then they’d spent a lot of time traversing the underlayers of the Vody and Uprawy before emerging outside of the King’s Province. But how much time it had taken, Dewey wasn’t sure. Saying it had taken hours was generalizing. How many hours?

He’d have liked to ask, but he was also tired of being poked with the batons every time he tried to speak.

The number of people going about their business inside the King’s Province wasn’t of any help either. Was this regular evening traffic? Was this early morning on the way to work traffic? Or were the passages being cleared of unessential people so the presence of Neville, Dewey, and the others remained as unnoticed as possible, thus giving a false count of the number of people in the king’s province?

But all of Dewey’s questions went unasked and therefore unanswered. He also wasn’t sure when he would have the opportunity to ask questions or if he would even be allowed the chance. Knowing that the odds might be against him, he made an effort to read every sign and placard he passed in case there was information that might be useful later. If only there’d been a map with all the levels on it. That and the time to study it so the details could easily be recalled later.

Behind him, Dewey could hear the footsteps and breathing of the others. Sherwood seemed to be the most winded. Of course, Dewey decided, it could just be panic setting in. He doubted that Sherwood had ever been in the kind of trouble that would get him hauled before the king while under the control of the Gendarme and historians. In fact, Dewey doubted Sherwood had ever been here.

By the time they finally came to a stop, they’d gone up several levels by stairs and lift. Based on Dewey’s observation from the Beth as they’d arrived at Kaggen and based on Dewey’s recall of stations seen in real life and in books, this province had very probably been a military outpost.

Rather than rings, the pre-Radial War military stations had been composed of disks. Depending on the size of the unit running the outpost, it would have ten to fifteen disks of various diameters. They’d always reminded Dewey of kabobs, a delight he’d had several opportunities to sample. But this would be a deadly kabob, with canon, missile, and torpedo batteries dotting the circumference of each ring. Then there’d be the in-system fighters, ready to launch to protect the system from pirates. Or, as the Radial War kicked off, from other stations and other governments.

But if what Dewey had been told was true, Kaggen no longer had the armaments they would have had four hundred years ago. Likely, they’d used it all during the system in-fighting as they battled for control of resources. Resources that continued to diminish and be stressed by a growing population and centuries in isolation.

The Hospitallers could help with all of it. But first, Dewey would have to get the chance to present his case to Celestene.

They’d entered a lift while Dewey had been reflecting on the situation. The lift box had two Gendarme already present inside. As Dewey entered and turned, he noticed eighteen buttons on the lift control. Two of the buttons were blocked by narrow strips of metal welded over them.

When the lift moved, it caught Dewey off guard, bringing him into the moment. His shoulder bumped against one of the Gendarme accompanying him and the others to see Celestene.

“Watch it,” said the Gendarme as he shouldered Dewey away. “Look what you did.”

Dewey did look. He doubted he’d knocked loose the cable connecting the baton to its powerpack. That seemed more to have occurred when the Gendarme pushed back.

“I got it,” said the lift’s guard. He stepped forward and deftly reconnected the cable.

The cable connection was a twist lock. Easily disconnected if not turned fully to lock it in place. Either way, it was also easy to unplug if someone knew what to do. Dewey now knew. When he looked at SSgt Castro, the nod she gave him indicated that she had noticed the same thing.

Hopefully, they wouldn’t have to depend on the information. Still, Dewey knew that Castro wouldn’t hesitate to use it for their advantage.

Then the lift staggered to a stop. Dewey resisted the idea of bumping the Gendarme to see if he could disconnect the cable on purpose. No need, he decided, to clue them in on what he was capable of. Not yet, anyway.

The door of the lift slid halfway open on its own accord. Then, the lift guards moved forward and pushed it open the rest of the way. Beyond the lift, a line of six more guards stood in two lines. Dewey hesitated long enough to get a baton pushed into his back. He wasn’t sure if he was seeing what he thought he was seeing.

While Dewey’s recall of books and maps and things seen was nearly perfect, it wasn’t always the same for people. What stuck in his mind was the scars, wrinkles, clothing patterns, and other details some might not recall. That meant he couldn’t swear to being absolutely sure, but he was strongly confident he was right. Some of the guards here had been at the entrance to the province when they first entered.

It was a detail with a lot of implications, but only if Dewey was right. He hoped he was.

“Move on,” said the Gendarme behind Dewey.

Dewey moved before more pressure from the baton could be applied. The corridor was short, ending in a T that curved sharply on both sides. The indication was that this was a small disc. If it was anything like the vid-show Dewey had been thinking of, it probably gave a commanding view of the rest of Kaggen. It not only allowed for a king to look upon their kingdom but for visitors to see that the king was always watching. True symbolism to reinforce the power structure. Like corporate execs with offices on the top of a building with expansive views of the world beyond. It was the exact opposite of what the Hospitallers and most militaries did. It made the target too easy.

Dewey was directed right at the T. The deck here was carpeted with what looked like new carpeting. But along the edges, Dewey could see another layer of carpet below, faded with time. The corridor was unadorned, except for the carpet and the fancy trim painted along the wall panels. It was also absent of any doors or hatches until they came to the end of the corridor.

The corridor’s end was marked by two wooden doors. Dewey thought that was strange as most doors and hatches on ships and stations were made of metals and plastics with seals to prevent air loss. The doors here were not only made of wood, they had metal straps holding them together, along with a large ring on each where a handle would typically be placed. All of it looked out of place on a space station. Unless someone had become enamored with a particular style of vid-show over the centuries of isolation.

As Dewey came to a stop at the wooden double doors, wondering what he was supposed to do next, the historian pushed past and rapped on the door with his knuckles. There was a momentary pause, and then the doors began to swing outward, forcing Dewey and the historian to step back several paces.

Beyond the doors, the corridor continued several meters before opening onto an open space to the right. The left side was the outer wall of the station disc and, as Dewey had imagined, it was primarily large windows that looked out onto the solar system and down onto the rest of Kaggen.

“Come on,” said the historian, clearly annoyed with Dewey’s hesitation. The historian waved Dewey forward until Dewey was in motion, and then he preceded Dewey into the open space.

With an effort, Dewey observed the open area without allowing a smile of amusement to creep onto his face. Except for vid-shows and the few reenactments he’d seen, Dewey had never actually been inside a true-to-life throne room.

But for a path of carpet similar and as fresh as that in the corridor, the rest of the deck was bare metal with worn area rugs spread about. The carpet path led along the outer wall before making a hard right taking anyone on it to the foot of a dais. The dais was three tiers high, with each level being twenty or thirty centimeters tall. At the top, a chair had been built out to look more like a throne than even the one Neville had sat upon.

Seated on the throne, leaning forward with his eyes on the approaching group of captives, sat a man that was slightly older than Dewey, based on Dewey’s best guess. Dewey assumed this to be Celestene. He had grayer hair than Dewey, with his pate gone bald. His coveralls, which seemed to be the standard of dress on Kaggen, were immaculate, free of patches, and piping with gold braid on every seam.

As the historian came to a stop at the foot of the dais, Dewey followed suit. But when the historian knelt, Dewey remained standing. At least that had been his intent until a low voltage shock was applied to the back of one knee. Dewey’s knee gave. He went down, grimacing at the impact.

Behind Dewey, one of the Gendarme whispered harshly. “Next time, kneel on your own, or I’ll up the voltage.”

Dewey didn’t look behind him, but he heard at least one grunt of pain. He assumed that Castro had received the same treatment. They often had to play along with warlords and dignitaries who thought highly of themselves. This occasionally included using specific honorifics when speaking to said leaders. It was considered a small compromise for a greater gain. But kneeling before anyone was considered a non-starter. Perhaps it was pride. Or maybe it was an unwillingness by Hospitallers to subjugate themselves to another person. In the Orphan Corps, even though officers and staff NCOs led and gave orders, they were still considered equals. A salute was out of respect. No one ever knelt before another out of respect. They knelt out of expectation by the person being knelt to.

“Who do we have here?” asked Celestene from his perch on the dais. “I recognize Prince Neville. Why is he in chains?”

“Harboring the enemy, my king,” said the historian, still kneeling ahead of Dewey.

“Enemy? What kind of enemy?”

“Gōtu, my lord.” Dewey heard the voice to his left. It was slightly higher in pitch but similar in diction to that of Celestene. When he looked, he saw a woman dressed like the other historians, slowly approaching. There was a soft, placating smile on her face similar to Celestene’s but more feminine.

Celestene had shrunk into his throne at the word ‘Gōtu.’ His eyes darting fearfully from Dewey to the woman who’d spoken.

“Gōtu?” Celestene asked, sounding more confused than afraid. “Where did you find them?”

 The historian with Dewey spoke up, saying, with a broad sweep of one arm. “We found them in Prince Neville’s palace, King Celestene. He was listening to their lies.”

“Entranced by them, no doubt, Alden,” said the woman. “Let us be fair.”

The historian, Alden, bowed low for the woman. “Of course, Master Isolde.”

“Gōtu,” said Celestene. He seemed to have regained some of his composure. “I want to see their true form.”

Dewey bit back a smile as he heard SSgt Castro snort in annoyance.

Celestene, in the meantime, rose from his throne and pointed at Dewey. “Show me your true form!”

“I’m sorry,” Dewey said. That was all he managed to say as a burst of electricity from a Gendarme baton locked his muscles temporarily.

Into the conversational gap, Master Isolde spoke. “They cannot show their true form, Celestene. My king. If you will recall, once a Gōtu shifts from their natural form, they can never shift back.”

“They can’t?” Celestene seemed surprised by the information despite Master Isolde’s implication that he’d once known. He also seemed disappointed. As he retook his seat, he muttered loud enough to be heard by all, “I so wanted to see them in their natural form.”

Master Isolde laughed lightly. “As would I, your highness, but the historical readings say they are so horrific in their natural form a human heart would seize in fright and cease to beat. Better that we capture them in a more acceptable form.”

“Of course. Of course.” Celestene turned his attention from Dewey to Neville. “How do we know Neville isn’t also a Gōtu?”

Again, Dewey started to speak, to ask how they could know that anyone in the room wasn’t a Gōtu. Again, a baton shock, slightly higher in charge, silenced Dewey.

“Our tests,” Mistress Isolde said. She waved a hand dismissively as if Celestene’s question was ridiculous. Again, it was an answer that seemed to surprise him. “What’s more important is whether or not Neville’s mind has been taken control of by the Gōtu.”

“I am my own man, King Celestene.” Dewey noticed that no one had jabbed Neville with one of the electrical batons.

At this point, Dewey had enough. Rather than risk speaking out and getting jabbed once more by the electrical prod, he turned to seek out Castro. The Gendarme next to him grabbed him by the shoulders. They pushed against him, forcing him to face Celestene and his throne. However, not before he made eye contact with his staff sergeant and gave her a brief nod.

Dewey was faced to the front. His last glimpse of Castro had shown a wicked smile on her face. He didn’t even have to look in her direction as Celestene nearly tripped over his throne, backing away. He pointed, wide-eyed in Castro’s direction.

Someone yelped in pain. A body slammed against the floor. The Gendarme holding Dewey in place released him as they moved away.

As Dewey staggered to his feet, he heard SSgt Castro grunt in pain and then someone else yelling about their arm. It wasn’t Castro, but he needed to hurry, or else it could be.

“I claim right by truth. Truth by contest!”

The room went silent as everyone, including Celestene and Master Isolde, turned in Dewey’s direction.

“What did you say?” asked Master Isolde.

Chapter 21

Though confusing to those around him, Dewey’s declaration did draw Celestene back around from behind his throne. Celestene ogled Dewey with several rapid glances at Master Isolde. Alden, the other historian, settled for glaring at Dewey as if his day had somehow been ruined.

Ignoring the Celestene and the historians, Dewey turned to check on SSgt Castro. He almost burst out laughing. Castro was sporting a split lip, and her smile was painted red with her blood. Behind her, two Gendarme lay unconscious. A third was nursing his right arm while standing with the assistance of a fourth. Castro was pinned to the ground. Two Gendarme sat on her while a third held a baton close to her face.

“All right, Castro?”

“Shut up!” snapped Master Isolde.

“All right, Lieutenant Tyler.”

“Enough!” Master Isolde’s bellow shocked the room as much as Castro’s brawl. Dewey gave Castro one final nod and turned back to Isolde.

“I claim﹘.”

“I know what you claim,” Master Isolde said. Her words were fast and hard, like hail. “But you are Gōtu. You cannot make such a claim.”

Master Isolde turned her hand, pointing at the Gendarme when she was interrupted.

“That’s not how I recall it,” Celestene said as he slipped back onto his throne.

“Then you remember wrong, your highness.” There was an edge to Master Isolde’s voice that momentarily cowed Celestene.

“No,” said Neville. Dewey turned to look. He’d forgotten Neville was even present. “King Celestene is right. I remember the teachings as well. Anyone can claim right by truth, truth by contest.”

Master Isolde’s anger was now being spread around the room. Even Alden, when Isolde’s stern gaze fell upon him, could only shrug his agreement. Dewey had a feeling that Alden was devoted more to the truth as a historian understood it than he was to Master Isolde’s person.

When Master Isolde turned to Sherwood, sitting on the ground alone, he chose to look elsewhere. Dewey didn’t blame Sherwood for not wanting to get involved. He’d already been involved enough, and Dewey hoped he could make it up to him when everything was over.

Assuming he was alive at that time.

“This is a mistake,” said Master Isolde. “To let the Gōtu claim right, we allow them to sow doubt among us. We need to round them all up and be through with them.”

“Wait,” said Celestene. “There are more Gōtu in Kaggen? How many?”

“Five others, King Celestene,” said Alden, bowing, but not as deeply as he did for Master Isolde.

“Have they all shifted?”

It took Dewey a second to realize that Celestene was talking to him. He would have liked to answer, but Master Isolde had moved to make herself a barrier between Dewey and the throne. Alden had taken one of the batons from an unconscious Gendarme and was now advancing on Dewey.

“They have all shifted, your highness,” said Master Isolde. “We believe they’ve taken on the visage of members of the Humphries family. Their homestead is locked down until we can be sure.”

While Dewey contemplated the information that his people hadn’t been located, Celestene slouched in his seat, clearly disappointed to once more be denied a chance to see a Gōtu in its natural form. That, too, was interesting. The Gōtu on the vid-show had been seen in their alien form on more than fifty episodes.

“Now,” Master Isolde said as she scanned the room, “do we still insist on allowing a Gōtu to claim the right of contest? Or can we be more expeditious in dealing with the aliens?”

“He claimed the right,” said Celestene, waving a flaccid hand in Dewey’s direction. “Or it? Do Gōtu have gender?”

“Unimportant.” Master Isolde turned to look at Dewey with a flash of annoyance. She then stepped over to where Castro was being hauled to her feet by three Gendarme. Dewey was glad to see her not resist. Isolde was angry enough that she might use any excuse to vent that anger.

Finally, after scowling at Sherwood and Neville, too, Master Isolde turned and marched back to the base of the dais.

“Right by contest is granted to the Gōtu. Gendarme? Take the four of them to the holding room until we are ready.”

“Even Neville?” asked Celestene.

Isolde’s response was slow and measured. “Yes. Even Prince Neville, your highness.”

Celestene shrugged. “Sorry, Neville.”

Neville flashed a half-hearted smile before one of the Gendarme took him by the arm, turning him away. Dewey was glad to see that Neville was handled with more consideration than he’d been handled. Certainly better than how Castro was being handled.

One Castro was on her feet, and the still unconscious Gendarme seen to, the journey began again. This time, they did not return to the carpeted corridor and the lift that brought them to the throne room. They were escorted to a lift, but this one was more utilitarian. It was also large enough to hold Dewey, the other captives, Alden, and six Gendarme. The Gendarme kept their eyes and the blunt ends of their batons on Castro. She seemed to be enjoying the attention.

The elevator ground its way slowly down what Dewey believed to be the core of Celestene’s province. Several times the elevator seemed to hiccup before proceeding. Dewey’s observation of Alden and the Gendarmes showed no signs of concern at the lift’s peculiarities. Undoubtedly, they were used to these things as they were likely how things always were.

Of all the people on the lift who should have looked concerned when the lift acted in a manner unusual, it was Dewey and SSgt Castro. Dewey had used his observation of the others to determine his level of concern. Castro had been too busy grinning at several of the Gendarme and giving them the occasional wink.

It kept her busy and amused Dewey during the ten-minute trip. Dewey assumed they were near the bottom of the core, at one of the lower discs. The opening of the lift door was anticlimactic as it only revealed a bare-walled corridor that quickly turned left and right.

Dewey and the others were escorted to the left. They passed through a doorway and crossed a wider corridor with an elevator on one end and a larger airlock door on the other end. The group of prisoners and escorts entered another narrow corridor. Finally, they stopped at a door with a small window near the top and a wide slot at the bottom. Dewey noticed several more doors of similar construction.

“Welcome to the brig, Staff Sergeant Castro.”

“Be quiet.” The command was followed by the prod of a baton. Fortunately, the electrical current was off. Dewey had had just about enough of that.

One of the Gendarme took out a ring of fobs and sifted through until he stopped at a narrow, rectangular one. He pushed the short end of the fob against a pad next to the door. Dewey heard the click as the lock retracted and the door slowly swung inward.

“You’ll stay here until the contest,” said Alden. He stepped aside as the Gendarme gave Dewey and the others a nudge with their batons.

“Historian,” said Neville once he was inside the cell. “Can you provide us with food and drink? And perhaps remove the restraints.”

“Not her,” said one of the Gendarme, pointing at SSgt Castro with his baton.

For her part, Castro blew him a kiss but made no move that might earn her an electrical shock.

Alden, for his part, seemed to be considering the things Neville requested. Finally, he nodded and gave the order. One at a time, Dewey and the others had their restraints removed. Castro went last, and she was watched closely by the six Gendarme until she stepped back from the doorway.

“I’ll see about the food, Prince Neville,” Alden said as the door swung shut and the lock clanked into place.

Dewey, Castro, Sherwood, and Neville sat in silence for several minutes, listening to the fading footsteps of Alden and the Gendarme. Only then did Neville give Dewey a meaningful look.

“How did you know about the contest of truth?”

“He probably read it in a book somewhere,” said SSgt Castro. She started running a finger along her gums. Dewey assumed she was checking for blood.

“Castro’s correct,” he agreed. “When I was still in the orphanage, I became curious about some of the old vid series that my dorm father had talked about. Then I learned there were more shows before that. I wound up going down a spiraling wormhole of curiosity. There have been thousands of shows for thousands of years. Some retained popularity long after they were no longer produced.”

“But that doesn’t explain the contest of truth,” Sherwood said.

“I think it might,” said Neville. “If you don’t forget what you read and you read a lot….”

“Which the lieutenant does,” interjected Castro with a smile less bloody than earlier.

“You’re bound to have come across many things that seem random until a connection is made. So how did you make this connection?”

“Good question. While there are hundreds of vid series with kings and princes, there aren’t that many that take place in space.”

“Why did it have to take place in space?” Castro asked. “I’ve seen a few that take place on moons and other worlds.”

“Granted,” Dewey said with a nod of acceptance. “But few of them had provinces. They had kingdoms and fiefdoms and the like.”

“So provinces narrowed it down,” Neville said. “What else narrowed it down?”

“Gendarme. There are a dozen prominent vid series that had Gendarme.”

“How many had Gōtu?” asked Sherwood.

Dewey grinned.

“I’d say that’s just one,” Castro said.

“Just one,” agreed Dewey. “‘The Jewel in the Sky’ ran for fifty years, beginning about seventy-three years after the end of the Radial War. So when I heard them mention the Gōtu and saw how the ruling system had been adapted from the vid series, I had a feeling that they would also include the Arena of Truth, which meant the challenge was just as likely.”

“Hang on,” Sherwood said. He’d risen to his feet and was pacing and stretching his back as he went. “You said the show begin long after the great war was over. Our ancestors lost communication with the rest of the galaxy long before that.”

“Are you sure?”

Neville laughed. “That’s what we were told. Told to us by people that had it told to them. And so you’re saying our culture is based on a popular video show that none of us have ever seen.”

“More importantly,” Dewey said, “it means that the station was still able to receive communications well after the claim that it wasn’t able to.”

“And if they could receive signal,” said Castro, “It’s very likely they could also send a signal.”

Dewey nodded his head. “Very likely.”

“But why?” Sherwood sounded angry. Dewey wasn’t all that surprised.

Fortunately, Neville answered the question. “Control,” he said. “The system, as it’s laid out, makes it so that the positions of power are inherited. That keeps the people in control in power for as long as they can keep the secret.”

“Oh, I have a question,” Castro said. She shrugged and added, “Or maybe an observation and a question. It’s about Celestene.”

“Is it about how he seemed to believe the Gōtu explanation without a single hesitation?” Dewey asked.

“Maybe the truth has been lost over time,” suggested Neville.

Dewey paused in his response as the sound of a door clanging shut drew everyone’s attention. They remained silent as two sets of feet could be heard coming down the hall. They stopped just outside the door. Dewey wondered if maybe their time was up. He had expected it to be longer. He started to rise and then stopped as several trays were shoved through the narrow slot at the bottom of the door. Four glass bottles of water were rolled in after the food.

Without any sort of comment or threat, the people outside the door returned the way they had come. Castro took up the waters and distributed them. Dewey helped Sherwood with the trays of food. They mainly were wilted vegetables and twice or three times cooked protein strips. Dewey had tasted better from an emergency survival pouch.

The conversation was put on further hold as everyone forced down some food and water. There was a low wall in one corner that blocked a toilet from view. Dewey doubted any of them were consuming enough excess water to require too many visits to it.

After Dewey had chewed his way through a third piece of what he now decided was a reconstituted protein strip, he pointed the fourth one at Neville.

“So, I don’t think the information about the vid show or the ability to receive and possibly send communications was lost to time. That’s too important of a secret to allow to be forgotten. Imagine if you’re the king and you discover the truth later on. It’s unlikely you’d know that it was the efforts of your great-great-grandfather who was part of making himself ruler of Kaggen. No, someone is still guarding the secret.”

“Is there anything here that isn’t part of the sky jewel vid show?” asked Castro.

Neville and Sherwood turned to Dewey. He thought they looked eager to learn how much of their world wasn’t part of a long-ago expired vid show. Castro was, Dewey decided, interested in the same thing he was, which was the holder of the secret.

“Jewel in the Sky didn’t have shock batons,” Dewey said. “They relied on swords and shields and lances which they used while riding mechanical horses. Well, they looked like horses, but they had wheels and went much faster. But that doesn’t answer the important part.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Castro said and then grinned. She saw it, just like Dewey did.

Then Neville nodded, a dark look on his face. He looked at Dewey and asked. “It’s the historians.”

Chapter 22

Dewey nodded. It had been the one thing that had made it difficult to understand what was going on around him. But the mention of the Gotu had nailed it down. The Jewel in the Sky didn’t have historians. Kaggen had historians.

However, not everything real became a vid show, so it stood to reason that not everything in a world adapted from a vid show would be exactly the same. Hospitaller orphanages were pretty identical in the house hierarchy, but the rules of one orphanage might differ depending on the world and the needs of that particular place.

So, someone decided to model Kaggen on a show, either because they liked it or saw its potential as a system of control. Then they adapted it to fit Kaggen’s needs, their needs. Some things, like horse-shaped transportation, were unrealistic, especially when the grand avenues of the vid show were much broader than one would find on a space station.

“What more can you tell us about this show?” Neville asked.

Dewey adjusted his position, using the wall for a rest. The metal was cool, drawing the heat from his back.

“Trytia,” said Dewey. “That was the name of the jewel. It was sort of like a space station. But, you know, being a vid show, they tend to break the rules of reality. It was like a giant dish with the city inside it and a plexi-steel dome over all of it. Tyrtia was tiered, like a fancy cake or a stepped pyramid. Agriculture was on the bottom levels, along the outer edge. Merchants and nobles near the top. The king’s palace at the apex of it all, looking down upon the rest of the city.”

“And it floated in space?” Sherwood asked. He’d put his back against the opposite wall. He also looked tired, worn out, in Dewey’s opinion.

“Yes. There were antennae and factories and space docks under the city. The machines that kept the city alive were in the center of the pyramid. There were small lakes that fed meandering streams and short waterfalls. It was all very dramatic and elegant.”

“Sounds like you’re a big fan of the show,” said Neville.

Dewey laughed, joined by Castro.

“Most of what I know,” said Dewey, “I know from reading about it.”

“Don’t forget,” Castro added, “Lieutenant Tyler never forgets anything he reads. That’s why it sounds like it’s something important to him. It’s stuck in his head. Along with a million other things.”

This time, Castro’s laugh brought Sherwood and Neville along. Dewey smiled appreciatively. It was true. He did have a million things in his head. That was the actual reason someone might think he was absent-minded or distracted. He had to sift through more memories than the average person.

“And since the historians don’t fit into the Jewel in the Sky narrative,” Dewey said, moving the conversation along, “I think that makes them good candidates for the ones keeping the communications abilities of Kaggen a secret.”

“You think that all of them know?” Asked Neville. He was watching Sherwood, who had now climbed to his feet, rubbing his knees. “Or just the top few like Master Isolde?”

“She’s interesting,” interjected Castro. “She looks and sounds a lot like your King, Celestene.”

Sherwood laughed. “That’s because she’s his sister.”

Dewey looked to Neville for confirmation and got a nod.

“To be more exact,” said Neville, “Master Isolde is King Celestene’s older sister. She was next in line to rule Kaggen. And all though we hadn’t had a queen in a century, no one was going to contest her elevation. Not even Celestene. “Then one day, we were all told she’d abdicated her future position to become a historian.”

“She came up the ranks, quick,” Sherwood said. He was walking the length of the cell, a slight limp to his left leg. “Then suddenly, she’s the Master Historian.”

“Suddenly?” Castro asked.

“You going to be okay,  Sherwood?” Neville asked.

“Just my knees, Prince. Just my knees. Warm them up a bit, and I’ll be just fine.”

“There’s medical technology that can make them better,” said Dewey. “Outside of Kaggen.”

“One more good reason to make contact, then,” Sherwood said. He’d taken up a position by the door, leaning on the wall while slowly bending one knee at a time.”

Dewey nodded and turned back to Neville. He was still curious about Isolde. “So her rise was uncommonly quick?”

“Very,” said Neville. Sherwood nodded in agreement. “She might not have ever gotten the top position if it hadn’t been for the scandal. One of the young historians caught the master historian, Master Pierre, attempting to rape Isolde in her rooms. Master Pierre denied it, of course, and demanded Truth by Contest. He was defeated in the arena. That was where he died, and Master Isolde took his position.”

“Died?” asked Castro. She looked alarmed at the information.

“Rape is punishable by death,” explained Neville. “I reason that Isaias knew he was dead either way and chose to take a chance in the arena.”

“You left out the best part, Prince Neville.”

The look Neville gave Sherwood said to Dewey that it wasn’t so much the best part as it was the critical part.

“The King can choose anyone to be his representative in the arena. Or the aggrieved can even volunteer.”

“Isolde.”

Sherwood nodded. “Many people saw it as justice that she should defeat the man who’d attempted rape her.”

“If you believed the story,” said Neville. “Most people refused to comment directly, but people still find a way of expressing themselves. Some thought Master Isolde had tricked the young historian into believing he’d seen the attempt by the old master. Others believe his loyalty had been purchased in advance by Master Isolde.”

“Who was this neophyte?” Dewey asked.

Sherwood laughed.

Neville answered. “You’ve met him,” he said. “Historian Alden. Also quickly elevated in position. Helpfully pulled along by Master Isolde, no doubt.”

“No doubt,” said SSgt Castro.

“That covers the politics of it all,” Dewey said. He shifted positions leaned to one side to give his left buttock a break from the cold, hard metal floor. “Let’s talk about the Arena of Truth.”

“What was it like in the vid show?” asked Neville. “This Jewel in the Sky.”

“Swords and quarterstaffs. Quarterstaffs for minor grievances. Swords for the more serious accusations.”

“No swords here,” said Sherwood. “Got staves, though. You’ve seen them.”

“Are they electrified?” asked Castro. She’d turned ninety degrees and was now stretched out along one wall, hands behind her head. “Like the batons?”

“Yes,” Neville said. “That’s how Master Isolde killed Master Pierre. The charge on the staff was set to maximum. Which is even dangerous for the person wielding the staff.”

Castro sighed loudly and sat. “I think I should stand in your place, Lieutenant Tyler.”

Dewey chuckled and shook his head. “Doesn’t work that way.”

“Why not?” Castro was on her feet, her fists on her hips as she looked down at Dewey and Neville.

“It’s the one firm rule,” said Neville. “The accused must face the contest personally. Only the king can pick a representative to stand for the crown.”

“Or his big sister can.” Castro sounded disgusted to Dewey. Her follow-up harumph confirmed it.

“On the bright side,” Sherwood said as he shifted to the other leg, “No one said this was to the death.”

“Likely, Master Isolde will suggest one of the Gendarme to stand for the crown,” said Neville.

“Maybe she’ll do her own dirty work,” Castro said. She still sounded disgusted to Dewey. “Once more.”

“She won’t risk it,” said Dewey. He paused as somewhere outside their cell, a door opened. Several people approached.

Sherwood moved away from the door, sliding along the wall to put himself in the far corner. As Dewey and Neville stood, Castro set herself in the middle of the room. Her shoulders were down, her hands open with fingers only slightly curled. She might look relaxed, but Dewey knew what she was capable of doing when she decided it was time to act.

“Stand down, Castro,” Dewey said in a soft tone.

“Oh, I’ll stand down all right.”

Dewey laughed. “Seriously, Castro. You’ll get your turn.”

“Again.”

“Yes,” Dewey said. “Again.”

SSgt Castro nodded and stepped back to join Dewey and Neville.

Dewey had no idea what to expect as the people in the corridor drew near. He couldn’t imagine that they would hold the contest now. Of course, that likely depended on how secure Isolde was feeling. If she considered Dewey and his people an immediate threat, maybe she could push confrontation forward to get it over.

However, the sounds outside the cell stopped. The peephole in the upper half of the door slid open, revealing nothing more than a pair of glowering eyes.

“Alden,” said Neville.

“Neville.” Alden’s eyes seemed to seek out the others in the room, pausing on each of them before returning back to Neville. “Contest is in the morning. Master Isolde sends you her best wishes in the contest and suggests you get some sleep.”

“Bedding?” Neville asked.

Alden slapped the peephole cover shut. The door clicked and opened a few seconds later. It opened just wide enough that four bundles could be pushed through. Instantly after the fourth bundle passed the threshold, the door slammed shut. The lock setting was almost lost in the sharp-toned echo of the door closing.

That was it. Alden and whoever was with him walked away. Castro retrieved the bundles.

“Should keep up comfortable for the ﹘.” Castro paused as the lights in the room went out. She laughed and said, “I don’t think they were even that rude in basic training.”

“They weren’t,” agreed Dewey. At least there they gave us a heads-up. But there’s some light coming through the tray slot. Give it a second.”

There was, as Dewey noted, a weak light source leaking into the cell. It was red and flickered weakly, but Dewey’s eyes adjusted to the change after a few minutes. He helped Castro lay out the bedrolls. Fortunately, there was a thin pad that would put a layer between their bodies and the floor. The night would be uncomfortable, but at least they wouldn’t die of hypothermia.

 

Dewey slept lightly enough to know that Castro wasn’t. Her gentle snore reverberated around the cell, comforting in its familiarity. Sherwood, too, seemed to either be comfortable enough or exhausted enough that he also slept soundly. It was Neville’s tossing and turning that woke Dewey several times through the night.

“I’m probably spoiled,” Neville remarked at one point. He’d sat up and was flipping around so that his head was facing the door when he looked at Dewey, who was awake and watching. “I’ve never slept on anything less than a thick, warm mattress and several quilts. My brother is likely enjoying it now.”

They’d both drifted off to sleep, and Dewey was confident they hadn’t been asleep long before light flooded the room.

“What? What?” Sherwood had flung back the blanket of his bedroll and was on his feet before he started blinking and looking around. “Well, space rocks, it wasn’t a dream after all.”

Echoing footsteps drew their attention to the door. Several trays clattered as they were dropped to the floor and then kicked through the slot, followed by a thermos. Neville put a hand out, stopping the thermos from banging up against his head.

“Thank you,” Neville said as he slowly shifted to a sitting position.

Dewey noticed the prince moved slowly and grimaced several times. The thin mat had really only been good for keeping the cell floor from sucking the heat of him and the others. There’d been no comfort to them. Even Dewey was feeling his body complain about how it was being treated. It made Dewey smile, realizing that his body had no idea what was coming or how bad that might feel.

Castro, on the other hand, looked rested and ready. She’d sprung up from her mat as the lights came on. Already, she had her mat and blanket 

rolled up around the dense cloth cylinder that had served as a pillow. She also fetched the trays, passing one to Sherwood, who looked almost as rested as her, before bringing the others to Dewey and Neville.

When Castro brought a tray to Dewey, she asked him in a hushed voice, “Are you sure you can do this, Lieutenant?”

Dewey smiled and accepted the tray. “Do we have a choice?”

“I don’t know,” Castro answered. “Did you have to declare this challenge?”

“I did.” Dewey paused while Castro brought a tray to Neville and returned to sit with Dewey, her own tray on her lap. “By declaring my right to contest, I let them know that I knew the story. Anyone else who knew where Kaggen’s story came from was alerted. Admittedly, I’d hoped that it wouldn’t actually come to me stepping into the Arena. I expected Isolde, once I realized she was in control, to speak to us.”

“Why wouldn’t she just toss us out an airlock and be done with us?” asked Castro. “This sweet bread is actually pretty good.”

Dewey had also tasted the bread. It was still warm in the center. The texture was almost like cotton candy but still needed chewing. It smelled heady with yeast and sugar. While it was filling, Dewey preferred the thick and spicy slab of protein and slightly sweetened root mash. There wasn’t any coffee or Insta, there was only the tea in the thermos, but it would have to do.

“If Isolde threw us straight out an airlock,” Dewey said after forcing down a swallow tea, “she’d never know if we had gotten off a message. She’d want to know if more outsiders were coming.”

“Or if they weren’t,” said Neville.

Dewey pointed a fork-impaled piece of protein at Neville. “Exactly.”

“If you die in the Arena of Truth,” Sherwood said, “she still won’t know.”

“Maybe she doesn’t care,” suggested Castro.

Dewey sighed slowly, “I’m beginning to think that might be the case.”

Chapter 23

Everyone had eaten everything on the trays. Dewey, despite his personal feelings, managed to drink his share of the tea. At least he hadn’t made as many faces as Castro. Though, he had a feeling some of them had been done just to amuse Sherwood and Neville.

The tea also went through them faster than Dewey recalled Insta or coffee ever doing. Everyone took their turn relieving themselves while the others sat with their backs to the low wall hiding the toilet. Dewey, who’d insisted on going last, had just finished up when a distant door banged open. People were coming down the corridor. Based on the amount of noise, it was more people than had brought them to the cell.

This time, Castro didn’t put herself between the door and the other three people in the cell. Dewey appreciated Castro’s action and gave her a nod as she joined him, Neville, and Sherwood as they watched the door.

There were voices as the people stopped just outside, but they were quiet, and the words were indistinguishable. After several minutes of hushed conversation that sounded heated to Dewey, the peephole hatch slid open. Eyes more curious than angry, and thus as far as Dewey could ascertain, not Alden, scanned the room. The hatch slid shut as the eyes turned away. A second later, the lock on the door clacked in retreat.

As Dewey watched, the door swung open, revealing a section of the hallway filled with Gendarme, their electric batons at the ready. The Gendarme framed a young woman dressed in the historian’s version of a uniform. She was smaller in stature than the Gendarme. Despite her size, she appeared to have their respect as they switched their gaze back and forth between Dewey and the others in the cell and the young historian.

The historian cleared her throat and said, “You will come with us. You have two choices how you do so.”

“Dead or alive?” Castro asked.

Dewey cleared his throat as a signal to Castro that she shouldn’t mess around. Her only response was to grin wider.

“No,” said the historian. Dewey didn’t fail to notice the flash of appreciation of Castro’s comment. “Bound or unbound. I can say that it doesn’t look good for anyone if you arrive at the Arena of Truth in shackles.”

“Oh, well, unbound, then,” said Dewey.

The historian’s attention shifted from Castro to Dewey. “I have your cooperation then?”

“You have mine,” said Sherwood.

“Of course, mine,” added Neville.

“I’ll cooperate.” Dewey waited, and when he didn’t hear an immediate response, he turned just enough to look in Castro’s direction.

“I’m thinking.”

The historian’s look of amusement lasted as long as it took one of the Gendarme to lean over and whisper in her ear. She held up a hand before he could finish whatever was on his mind. The Gendarme stood straight and backed into his earlier position, but he did not look pleased in Dewey’s opinion. It caused Dewey to wonder if he was one of those who’d tussled with Castro in the throne room.

“I really do need everyone’s cooperation,” said the historian. “Please.”

Castro laughed. “Well, since you put it that way. Yes, I will cooperate. For now.”

The historian’s amusement evolved to a quick flash of a smile. “As long as you do for as long as you’re my responsibility.”

“Deal,” Castro said with a sharp nod.

“If you’ll follow me, then.” The historian waved her hands to the Gendarme, who split into two groups, one to either side of the door. She then motioned for Dewey and the others in the cell to exit.

“Do you want me to go first?” Dewey asked Neville. As Neville was local nobility, even if he was in trouble, it seemed to Dewey that deferring to him would have some benefit. However, Dewey was also willing to go in advance if it would offer some protection to Neville. What he might need to be protected from, Dewey wasn’t sure. Still, better to be safe.

Neville, it seemed to have some similar thoughts. He nodded to Dewey and then started toward the doorway. Dewey looked at Castro. She gave him a brief smile and then stepped back to one side, putting Sherwood between them. That meant Dewey would go second. Castro would have rear guard.

Rather than returning the way they came, the historian directed them in the opposite direction once out of the cell. She walked just ahead of Neville, occasionally looking over her shoulder as if concerned they might wander off and get lost. The idea amused Dewey even though he knew that not only would they not allow that to happen, there also was nowhere to wander off to except another cell.

When they did come to a doorway blocking progress down the corridor, the historian slipped to the front and keyed open the lock. They crossed a wide corridor before passing through another door and entering another corridor like the one they’d left, except this one didn’t have cell doors.

Dewey noticed that both teams of Gendarme had shortened the gap between them and the prisoners. Maybe now they were concerned about someone wandering off. But, the doors here were closed and likely locked. He also noticed that the historian seemed less concerned about him and the others as they approached another four Gendarme ahead.

If they’d wanted to try and overpower the guards and make a run for it, it was too late now.

As it was, they were brought to a stop by a double door that didn’t look like it was part of the original construction. Neville gave Dewey a nod that he interpreted as meaning that this was where the Arena of Truth was located.

The historian knocked on the door in a pattern. After a pause long enough that Dewey wondered if it hadn’t been heard, one of the doors began to swing into the space beyond the corridor. The second door followed suit a second later.

“There is an airlock across the way,” said the historian. She waved a hand, inviting them to make their way. “You are to wait there.”

“An airlock?” asked Castro.

One of the Gendarme started to jam a baton into SSgt Castro’s back, but she turned at the last second. The Gendarme stumbled, running up against the historian and another Gendarme who caught the historian. The Gendarme who’d attempted to silence Castro jumped back to his feet, a growl in his throat. He did something to the baton that caused it to crackle with extra energy. Castro growled back and adapted a bracing stance.

Before the Gendarme could move, the historian put a hand on his forearm.

“Play nice,” she said. But she wasn’t looking at the Gendarme. She was looking at Castro as she spoke. “You can’t make your case if everyone is mad at you.”

“She’s right, Castro,” Dewey said.

“Of course.” Castro seemed unconcerned about the situation. It was as if she’d be happy with it working out either way, even if she didn’t have the use of her hands.

Neville, who’d turned and stepped out of the way during the commotion, looked to the historian and then Dewey. “Shall we?”

Dewey nodded and followed Neville as the prince walked over the threshold and through a short, low-ceilinged corridor. The corridor turned out to be a short passageway that brought Dewey and the others directly to the floor of the Arena of Truth.

Neville slowed as he entered, turning his head several degrees to either side. Dewey was less conspicuous, turning more than ninety degrees to either side. It wasn’t surprising to Dewey that the arena here wasn’t the same shape like the one from the Jewel in the Sky vid show. It hadn’t been built inside a disc of an old military outpost space station. The Arena of Truth on Trtyia had been built on the level just below the palace at the heart and apex of the city.

Trtyia’s Arena of Truth had been a circle with column-supported arches circling the contest floor. Seats had ringed the arena completely, except where the king’s box was located at the palace’s base.

In Kaggen, the Arena of Truth was a curved rectangle. Risers on the sides allowed for seating and were, as Dewey noted, utterly full of observers. In Jewel in the Sky, the prisoners were kept in rooms below the king’s box. The long side to where they were walking was metal and portholes and an open airlock. Dewey wasn’t going to kid himself; he was worried about that detail.

When Dewey risked turning around, he caught a glimpse of what served as the king’s box in Kaggen. Dewey noted that Celestene, Isolde, and fourteen others dressed in historian garb or finely wrought coveralls were already seated.

“Keep moving,” muttered one of the Gendarme. It didn’t escape Dewey that the Gendarme hadn’t resorted to the use of the baton.

At the airlock, the historian, who had caught up with them and then preceded them across the arena floor, turned. She smiled broadly and pointed with both hands.

“Inside, please.”

“You aren’t coming?” Castro asked as she followed Sherwood, Dewey, and Neville into the open airlock.

“I’m not the one in trouble.” She snapped her fingers. “Oh, Prince Neville? I’ll need you to come with me. The others will remain here.”

“Why?” Neville asked.

The historian shrugged. “They don’t tell me everything. If you’ll go with Vincent and Harlan, please?”

Neville turned to Dewey. “I’m very sorry,” he said.

“I’m the one who owes you an apology,” said Dewey. “I hope that I can make this up to you.”

After a pause, Neville nodded to Dewey and started out of the airlock with the two Gendarme. They guided him back toward the entrance of the arena, veering off to one side at the last second.

The historian turned and looked at Dewey and the others. Her eyes paused on Sherwood for a second, and then she smiled softly.

“Uncle Sherwood,” she said in a voice barely over a whisper before turning and walking away with two more of the Gendarme.

That left four to watch over Dewey, Castro, and Sherwood.

“Uncle?” Dewey asked.

Sherwood shrugged with a tilt of his head. “I told you back on the Beth, everyone’s related in some way or another.”

On the other side of the arena, Isolde had left the king’s box and reappeared on the contest floor. She stopped next to Neville as Celestene stood. The quiet murmur of a dozen conversations in the stands to both sides quickly fizzled to silence.

“Citizens of Kaggen,” said Celestene. “Our home has been invaded by the Gōtu once more.”

Dewey had expected to hear a buzz of fear or concern. He’d even have been unsurprised by some laughter. But the silence was not what he imagined happening. It was as if the people in the stands were afraid to react to the news. Perhaps the wrong reaction could get a person labeled as Gōtu, too.

“Hey, Sherwood,” Castro said. “Isn’t that Neville’s brother? Up by Celestene?”

Dewey looked at Sherwood and then followed his gaze to the king’s box. Just to the left of Celestene and one row back sat Sandy Seymour, a smug look on his face. He was dressed differently than when Dewey had last seen him.

“That’s him all right,” Sherwood said. “He’s even dressed in the Saymour royal clothes.”

And Dewey knew that ‘royal clothes’ meant coveralls with colored trim and no patches.

Celestene had continued with his proclamation of the presence of the Gōtu in Kaggen. This included relating the history of the aliens using descriptions that could have come directly from the Jewel in the Sky script. The Gōtu wanted to enslave the last remnants of the human race. They were the eternal bad guy on Jewel in the Sky. Despite their technological advances, their ability to shapeshift, they could never outwit the ever clever humans.

“These creatures you see across the way,” Celestene suddenly said, his hand pointing in Dewey and Castro’s direction, “claim they are not Gōtu. And they have declared truth by contest.” Now Celestene had turned his attention to Isolde. “Master historian Isolde has asked that she be allowed to choose who will defend our honor in the contest of truth. Master historian?”

Isolde strode into the middle of the arena with visible confidence, slightly marred by the sneer on her face.

“Thank you, your highness, for this great honor,” said Isolde. She turned slowly, her eyes tracking across the people in the king’s box, the stands on one side, skipping over the airlock, and then across the last of the citizens of Kaggen present on the other side. “The Gōtu whisper lies into ears that are eager to hear them. The lies are like quick-growing seeds, working their way into the brains of those whose eagerness serves as fertilizer, nourishing the lies.”

Isolde turned to look at Neville, who held her gaze.

“The words of the Gōtu are lies,” said Isolde. She turned her back on Neville. “The words of the Gōtu are invasive weeds that need to be removed. But we cannot just reach in and pull them free. They must be excised from the inside. The bearer of the weeds must be made to see what grows in them is false. They must want to pull the weeds of falsehood from their own minds, roots and all.”

Isolde took another complete turn allowing the tension of anticipation to swell.

“That is why our defender of truth shall be Prince Neville.”

Chapter 24

“Of course he is,” said Dewey.

His words were lost in the collective gasp and subsequent eruption of voices. Dewey noted that even Sandy wasn’t pleased with the idea of his brother facing off in the Arena of Truth. However, the moment Dewey heard Neville’s name pronounced, the logic of Isolde’s choice was clear.

“What is she thinking?” hissed Sherwood.

Out in the center of the arena, Isolde looked pleased with her plan and its reception.

“Lieutenant Tyler?” Castro asked.

“It’s clever,” Dewey said. He noticed that even the Gendarme seemed surprised by Isolde’s announcement. “She wins no matter what happens. To prove his loyalty, to save himself, Neville will be forced to defeat me and thus prove that we are Gōtu. Failure to do so doesn’t prove we aren’t Gōtu. That only proves that we’ve gained influence over Neville to the point that he loses so that we can continue to spread our words amongst the foolish of Kaggen.”

“Hey, I’m not foolish.”

“Sorry, Sherwood, that was meant to be expressed from Isolde’s point of view.”

“Oh, right. Sorry, I’m still just a little fuddled from the Master Historian’s announcement.”

“You sure I can’t go in your place?” asked Castro.

Dewey laughed. “I’m sure. I’m also sure I’m not going to let you lose just so we still have a chance of getting out of her.”

“Oh, I wasn’t planning on losing,” Castro said. There was no humor or mirth in her expression. She was deadly serious. “I do think you’ve taken a liking to Neville. I’m less connected to him or the others here. I won’t pull my punches.”

“Staff Sergeant Castro, when have I ever pulled my punches?”

Castro shrugged. “Always a first time.”

Out on the arena floor, Neville had stepped out to turn toward the king’s box. He had his hands up and out as he shouted something to Celestene. Unfortunately, the crowd was still making too much noise for Dewey to hear what Neville was saying. Isolde obviously could hear the conversation. She seemed greatly amused.

Finally, Celestene raised his hands, silencing the audience behind him and off to both sides. He looked long at Neville before turning his attention back to Isolde.

“Are you sure about this, Master Historian?”

Isolde answered with a smile and her arms out in the form of supplication. “Your Highness, do you not trust me?”

Celestene faltered in his answer just long enough that Dewey caught a scowl start to grow on Isolde’s face.

“Yes, yes,” Celestene finally replied, wiping the growing scowl from Isolde. “We all trust you.”

“Wonderful.” She turned toward the airlock and made a signal to the Gendarme. “Bring the Gōtu.”

Two of the Gendarme motioned to Dewey to exit the airlock. He found it interesting and disconcerting that they weren’t willing to step inside to physically retrieve him. It caused him to wonder if the airlock worked and, if it did, did it work for the specific purpose of ridding Kaggen of those that troubled the king. Or, to be more precise, those that trouble the master historian.

The Gendarme guided Dewey to Isolde.

“Give him your staff,” Isolde said to one of the Gendarme.

“Shall I explain to him how it works?” asked the Gendarme.

“He’ll figure it out. Won’t you, Gōtu?”

Dewey was beginning to dislike Isolde more and more.

“You sure you don’t want to face me in the arena?” asked Dewey as he studied the staff.

“I would love to,” said Isolde. Her answer surprised Dewey, causing him to look up and see a predator’s grin on her face. “But my killing you serves no purpose. Neville killing you would serve a purpose.”

“As would my killing him.” Though Dewey had no intention to kill Neville. Not if he could help it.

“Yes.” Isolde looked at Neville, who now had a staff of his own. She turned back to Dewey and winked. “Good luck with that.”

Isolde walked away, pausing long enough to say something to Neville before exiting the floor of the arena. The Gendarme retreated to the corners, leaving Dewey and Neville alone in the middle.

“You ever used one of these before?” Dewey asked.

Neville had a determined look on his face as he spoke. “I was Gendarme until my father passed and I assumed leadership of our province. I trained with the staff for eight years.”

“But are you any good with one?”

Dewey’s comment got an apologetic smile from Neville but little else. “I was the Gendarme champion for three years.”

So it was going to be a difficult contest.

Dewey continued to study the staff. It was thick and heavy. He could well imagine the arm and core strength it would take to not only fight with one but to carry it on a daily basis. On one end, there was a push-button switch. It was wide and flat. Barely protruding above the rest of the staff’s blunt end. On the opposite end was an inset dial. There weren’t any numbers, but turning it elicited a click every millimeter it moved.

“Dial is for power,” said Neville. He demonstrated by turning the dial. Dewey couldn’t see how far Neville turned it, but he heard five clicks. Then, Nevill took the staff in two hands, using opposing grips, before pounding the button against the ground. “That turns it on.”

“Got it.” Dewey twisted the knob to one side, counting the clicks as he went. Then, he turned the knob back halfway.

“The trick is knowing how much charge to set the staff for,” Neville said. He hefted the staff and moved it easily. “High setting will have more impact on contact, but it drains the batteries faster. A lower setting makes the battery last, but the electric shock won’t have as much kick.”

“What did you set yours on?”

“Enough to win.”

Dewey noticed the look in Neville’s eyes. He’d seen it before in the faces of people who were at the end of their proverbial rope. There’d been farmers and homesteaders who’d been beaten down by raiders, bandits, or local militia that had finally drawn a line in the sand. A line they would not only die on but would kill on. He’d seen the look in soldiers of the opposition who’d been beaten but weren’t going down without one last fight. It was a look of determined desperation.

Desperate people were dangerous.

“Out of curiosity,” Dewey said. “What would they do if we both just refused to fight?”

Neville started to circle Dewey. He held his hands close to each other at the center of the staff, flexing his wrist, causing the staff to spin a figure eight on both ends.

“If we don’t fight,” said Neville as he continued to spin the staff and side-step, “they’ll send someone else in here who will. And then my wife and I will be shoved into an airlock for treason.”

“So there’s no easy way out of this.”

“There’s only one way out of this.” Neville punctuated his statement with an ax swung that evolved into a lunge.

Dewey blocked the attack and stepped toward Neville, pushing the staves together as he closed the gap. Then he stepped to the side, bringing the lower end up to strike Neville along the side of the head. There was a loud gasp from both ends of the arena as Neville staggered under the blow. He took several steps backward, bringing his staff up to defend while he shook off the hit.

Around them, the audience muttered angrily. It was clear to Dewey that he didn’t have any crowd support in this contest.

“You forgot to turn the staff on,” Neville said. He was adjusting his grip on the staff, sliding his hands further apart.

“No, I didn’t,” said Dewey. He had no intention of losing, but he also didn’t want to severely hurt Neville. So, his plan was going to take some time, and it was probably going to hurt along the way.

Dewey’s thoughts were pushed aside as Neville came in with a windmill attack that required him to spin his entire body on approach. The assault forced Dewey back several steps until he had a good understanding of the move. On the third rotation by Neville, Dewey held his staff perpendicular to the floor and stepped in sideways. He braced himself as he intercepted Neville’s motion.

The hit was solid, rattling Dewey’s shoulders and wrists as he brought Neville to an immediate stop. Only at the last second did he realize that Neville had used the recoil of the collision to bring the other end of his staff around. Dewey spun away but was crazed along his side by Neville’s staff.

A jolt of electricity staggered Dewey, bringing him to one knee. He pushed up with the staff, recovering his footing in time to meet a series of alternating left and right blows from Neville’s staff. Again, Dewey stepped in and used his momentum to shove Neville away long enough to recover from the electrical shock.

Yes, this was going to hurt.

Four more times as the contest dragged on, Dewey allowed himself to take a partial charge. He was betting that Neville had the staff set high, but not its maximum power. The only thing he didn’t know was how many times he would have to take a hit to drain the batteries low enough that he could safely take a full blow. He also didn’t know if he could successfully move far enough to avoid a direct hit.

Around them, the audience had grown restless. When he could spare a glimpse, he saw worried looks on faces in the king’s box and curious faces to either side. Sandy looked a mix of sadness and fear. Celestene looked confused. Isolde looked annoyed and bored as the contest continued longer than she or anyone else likely thought it would.

The only smile Dewey saw was on Castro’s face. She flashed him a thumbs-up at one point, distracting Dewey for a fraction of a second. The charge from Neville’s staff caused the muscles in Dewey’s right leg to stiffen. He had to trip Neville and then hobble away to give his leg muscles time to recover.

“Sorry, Lieutenant Tyler,” Castro shouted over the growing noise of the increasingly agitated audience.

Despite the blow and the connected pain, Dewey was confident it hadn’t felt as powerful as it would have been at the beginning of the contest. But each shock and the fights in between were taking a toll on Dewey. The staff felt twice as heavy as when the contest started. Fortunately, Neville looked worn, too, even though he hadn’t been shocked nearly a dozen times by this point.

Perhaps now was the time to change that.

Dewey started a more aggressive attack on Neville. He used his experiences from actual combat and the years of training with pugil sticks at the orphanage and every year since. While neither he nor Neville had experience with the other’s style, Dewey had been exposed to more fighting varieties in his Orphan Corps years. It was giving him some advantage, but not much.

Dewey worked Neville around the arena, making contact with Neville’s legs and forearms every opportunity he had. He kept the attack constant and fast, taking away any chance for Neville to catch his breath or begin a counterattack. The grimace of pain on Neville’s face was almost constant by this time. Dewey was confident he could put an end to the contest.

Yes, he would still be considered at Gōtu in the eyes of Celestene and anyone else who believed the myth. And, yes, Neville’s loyalty would be in question. Dewey had considered all of that as he’d taken one electrical shock after another. However, as the victor, maybe he’d still get a chance to talk, and just possibly he’d finally be able to convince someone that they weren’t aliens. Convince someone that they just wanted to return to known space and get a decent cup of coffee.

Dewey parred a desperate lunge by Neville as his mind considered the cup of coffee. He spun with the block, bringing the other end of the staff low, sweeping both of Neville’s feet out in one move. Neville landed on his back hard enough that he was winded. But, he still maintained a two-handed grip on the staff.

The discipline was admirable to Dewey. He spun his own staff so that the button was pointed toward the ground. Then, he slammed it one-handed onto the floor of the arena.

Instantaneously, electricity surged through his body. He smelled hair burning, and his vision went dark. Vertigo seemed to set in until he felt the ground rush up and slap him in the back of the head. There was a roaring noise that could either have been his own blood in his ears or the crowd cheering his foolish mistake.

As everything receded to darkness, he could hear a distant voice speaking to him.

“Keep two hands on the quarterstaff.”

And then even that was eaten by the darkness.

Chapter 25

As Dewey regained consciousness, he was confident of two things. One was that he was still alive. He reasoned that otherwise, he wouldn’t be conscious. The other thing he was sure of was the pain his body was in. He’d been through intense physical training many times. He’d spent days in protracted battles with incoming artillery. And he’d been shot several times. None of that hurt like this.

When he tried moving, it hurt enough that he’d emitted an unintentional groan.

“You missed Reveille.”

Dewey recognized Castro’s voice. She was still with him. Dewey counted that as a positive.

“Did anyone get the I.D. of the dropship that landed on me?”

Castro laughed. Dewey could hear the strained relief that it masked. If anyone were to ask, Dewey would admit to being relieved, too. He opened his eyes, blinking away the sleep sand as he adjusted to the view.

He was on his back. Based on the solidness beneath him, he was sure he was on a floor. From that and the pattern of inset lights above, he reasoned he was in the same cell as before, or one very much like it.

Despite the pain that radiated with each move, Dewey turned his head to look in the direction Castro’s laugh had come from. She was sitting cross-legged, her back against one wall. It wasn’t the same cell, but very similar.

“What happened to you?” Dewey asked.

Castro was sporting a black eye, a swollen lip, and there was a dried, untreated cut on her forehead.

“Me?” she asked and then laughed. “You should see the other guys.”

Dewey laughed and then regretted. “Ow. Why do I hurt all over?”

“Apparently, you took one hand off the quarterstaff.”

The fight with Neville flashed across Dewey’s mind. He’d been in control until he’d taken his hand off the quarterstaff and tapped it against the ground to activate the electrical charge. Then there’d been pain and blackness. Then he was here, the pain tagging along for the ride.

He vaguely remembered realizing too late that he shouldn’t have let go of the staff. There’d been a warning, but Dewey had never connected the two incidents. Not until he was already spasming with the flow of electricity.

“Can you move?”

“Yes,” said Castro. “Why?”

“Because I’m not sure if I can. So, I might need some help.”

“Right.”

With Castro’s aid, Dewey made his way to the wall, where he leaned against it. The pain was still with him, but it was no longer sharp pulses, having faded to a dull ache.

“What did I miss?”

“Not much, really,” Castro said, as she took her place along the wall. “You dropped pretty fast. There were a couple of convulsions, too. The guards at the airlock were uncooperative, so I took matters into my own hands. It was Neville that stopped them from getting hurt more. Then they dragged us here and dumped us both.”

“How long?”

“Not completely sure. I don’t have my tablet with me. My guess is about ten hours. I slept for some of it.” She pointed to a tray by the door. “Food’s gone cold if you’re interested.”

Dewey shook his head. A headache pulsed around the crown of his skull. “Water?”

“Here.” Castro handed over a one-liter glass bottle. It was full of water.

“Did you drink any?” Dewey asked. It would be just like Castro to forgo water to make sure others had access.

In response, Castro held up a second bottle. It was a little less than half full. She took a long drink from it before setting it by her leg.

“Good.” Dewey drank from his bottle. He took several exploratory sips, making sure his body wouldn’t reject the water. When it was clear his body not only wouldn’t expel the water but needed it, he drank a third of the water in large, satisfying gulps. After wiping water off his chin with his hand, he asked, “Where’s Sherwood?”

“No idea. He tried to follow me out of the airlock, but that historian appeared out of nowhere and stopped him.”

“The relative? The niece. That one?”

“Yes. She didn’t stop me, though. In fact, I think she looked quite amused by my actions.”

Dewey chuckled, despite the pain. “I’m sure the Gendarme weren’t amused either.”

“Them and Isolde,” said Castro. “She looked agitated. Angry even. Especially when Neville refused to finish you off.”

“That was considerate of him,” Dewey said. It also explained why he was conscious now and not dead. Maybe. “She didn’t have someone else do it? Wasn’t that the threat?”

“It was. But Celestene spoke up. Apparently, he still has some power.”

“And what happened to Neville?”

It was Castro’s turn to chuckle. “I’m not entirely sure. Isolde was going to have him hauled away. Then Celestene intervened once more, and the Gendarme put him on a stretcher and carried him out of the arena. Mind you, I had a couple of them sitting on me, so it was hard to see everything.”

“And Sherwood, too?”

“Yes,” Castro said. She paused for a sip of water and to stretch her legs out. “The historian niece and two Gendarme escorted him out before the rest helped me to my feet.”

“And here we are.”

“Here we are.”

Dewey looked around the cell. It was much the same as the one the Gendarme had initially tossed them. They had stripped everything from the cell, too, except the toilet and the small wall that allowed for some privacy. He and Castro had left their comm equipment, weapons, and tablets back with the rest of the Hospitallers.

And what about them? If Isolde knew of their existence, would she have gathered them up by now?

A nudge from Castro drew Dewey from his thoughts. He looked at her and found her focused on the door to the cell. Someone, several of them, approached. Dewey joined Castro in watching the door.

The footsteps increased in volume as they approached before suddenly shuffling into silence. Dewey heard the filtered murmur of conversation before the lock in the door retracted. When the door swung open, revealing the people in the hallway, Dewey wasn’t in the least surprised. Along with the ever-present Gendarme was Isolde.

Isolde carried one of the batons. Hers looked slightly different, modified in color and size. It also looked like there wasn’t a cable attaching it to a battery pack. When Isolde waved the baton, one of the Gendarme entered and placed a stool on the floor, opposite Dewey and Castro, but closer to the door.

“Leave,” Isolde commanded as she entered.

The Gendarme who’d brought the stool in exited. Isolde shut the door completely before taking a seat on the stool. She rested the baton across her thighs with one hand still clutching the handle.

“Okay, who are you?”

Dewey turned to Castro, who shrugged. He then turned back to Isolde and answered.

“Gōtu, obviously. From the planet Skelm.”

Isolde pointed the baton at Dewey. Fortunately, she was several meters distant, and the power to the baton was off.

“You and I both know that’s nothing but vent waste you’re spewing.”

“Is it?” Dewey asked, before taking another sip of water.

“There are no Gōtu. There is no Skelm. You know too much for someone I’ve never seen in Kaggen. So you are from the outside. How did you get here?”

Dewey chewed on the question for a few seconds. He could have continued to play the game. Still, it only served to annoy Isolde and wasn’t improving his situation either. He also didn’t want to give too much information.

“Escape pod,” he finally said. He could hear Castro’s breath catch. She probably hadn’t expected him to go with the being-upfront ploy.

“Escape from where?” Isolde leaned forward, her hand still on the baton.

“Our ship was in jump space when it started to fall apart. Structural damage from a hostile encounter. The escape pod fell out of jump in your system.”

“‘Jump space’?” mused Isolde. “You radioed for help?”

“Yes,” Dewey said. He left out the part about the comms being down.

Isolde sat up, looking triumphant. “Then why didn’t you stay with your escape pod?”

“Damaged,” said Castro. Dewey glanced at her. She had adopted a look of surrender. “We were already in our emergency suits, but they weren’t going to last long enough.”

“Then the Humphries showed up in one of their ships,” Dewey added.

“And when are your people coming for you?”

“Soon.”

Isolde stood fast enough that the stool toppled over with a clang. A heartbeat later, the door flew open. The room filled with the presence of three Gendarme, their batons crackling with energy.

“You don’t know when they’re coming,” Isolde said as she waved the Gendarme back. She grinned wickedly and added, “Assuming they’re coming at all.”

Before Dewey could suggest otherwise, Isolde was gone, storming down the corridor. The Gendarme paused long enough to retrieve the fallen stool and glare menacingly at Dewey and Castro before they, too, left. The door slammed shut, and the lock set with an aggressive tone.

“Well, that was fun.”

“You have a strange definition of fun, Lieutenant Tyler.”

Dewey laughed and drank from the water bottle. “Do you remember the look you gave me in the passageways on the way to see Celestene?”

“I gave you a lot of looks. Most of them weren’t cheery.”

“The one that implied we weren’t alone.”

Castro nodded. “Yes, that one. I saw someone shadowing us in the corridors. They were very good at it, so I think I was meant to see them.”

“Did you recognize them?”

“No.” Castro stood and stretched. “Now, look away, Lieutenant. I have to relieve myself.”

 

Lacking a clock and a light cycle, Dewey was unsure of the time. Being unconscious for a time hadn’t helped, either. So when they were eating a recently brought meal of stale protein wedges, wilted vegetables, and tepid tea, Dewey was naturally confused.

“Am I that slow of an eater?” he asked while looking from his plate to Castro to the door.

“Not normally,” Castro said. She tapped her tray. “I don’t remember falling asleep while eating, either, despite how boring this food is.”

Dewey set the tray aside. “Then we have company.”

“You think Isolde’s going to toss us in an airlock and hit the emergency evac button?”

“I’m not sure she’s the type to sully her hands.” Dewey recalled the story about her fighting her accuser assaulter in the arena. “Well, not anymore.”

Climbing to his feet wasn’t as painful as it had been a few hours previous. Still, Dewey was slow to reach his feet. Castro had politely waited until he was almost standing before she leaped with an effortless grace to an upright position. She grinned and gave Dewey a wink.

In the corridor, the footsteps had moved past the door for a few meters. They stopped and then returned in the cell’s direction. Again, there was a pause. It was long enough that Castro could only shrug as she looked at Dewey. Perhaps they’d imagined it?

“Hello?” Dewey asked as the silence dragged on.

As if his words had given permission to the person beyond the door, Dewey heard several sounds followed by the clack of the lock retracting. The door swung open. Dewey wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but a lack of Gendarme wasn’t one of them. Neither was seeing Sherwood’s niece, the historian.

“Hello,” she said. “You’re on your feet. Good. That’ll make this easier.”

“Make what easier?” Dewey asked.

“Leaving? Unless you want to stay.”

“But our meal,” Castro said. She pointed at the tray for emphasis.

The historian laughed. “I could come back later if you’d like.”

“This is all very interesting,” Dewey said. “But where exactly are we leaving?”

After a brief glimpse down both sides of the corridor, the historian looked back into the cell.

“I’m just the messenger,” she said. “But I can assure you that we are going where Master Historian Isolde is not in control.”

“Sounds good to me, Lieutenant Tyler,” Castro said. Despite that being her opinion, she remained where she stood, next to Dewey.

“You’re Sherwood’s niece,” Dewey said. “Where do your loyalties lie?”

“Family, clan, is important in Kaggen,” the historian said. “But it’s not always everything. I became a historian because I tested well. That’s how many of us become historians. Some have no problem putting family aside. That’s not how my family raised me. Now, can we go?”

“One more question.”

“You got a lot of them.”

Castro laughed. Dewey smiled.

“I do, but this one’s easy. Who are you?”

“Lanie Mayberry. Carey’s my mom. Richie’s my dad.” She stepped back into the corridor. “And I’m supposed to be elsewhere right now. It would be good if I was there before your absence is noted.”

“Nice to meet you, Lanie.” Dewey moved toward the door with Castro as close as a shadow. He still wasn’t sure that this was anything more than a subterfuge. Still, outside of the cell at least gave him and Castro a fighting chance. “Lead the way.”