Space Pioneer 2

The Titan Plot

by Dolores Esteban





Ion clenched his hand to a fist and looked around on the bridge of the ship. His two companions were carrying plasma guns. The captain and the crew of the Cleus spaceship were dead. A young woman was sitting in a seat, her body trembling and her eyes widened. Her mouth formed a silent cry. Chief in command Ion watched her, enraged.

"How could you be so careless, Lady Tiana?" he hissed.

The Titans raised their plasma guns, but Ion waved his hand.

"Wait. Take her down and lock her up in a room. Leave me alone. I must think," he said.

Ion’s companions dragged Tiana from her seat and shoved her from the bridge. Ion looked after them, then sat down in the captain’s seat and looked at the dead men hanging in their seats or lying on the floor. His eyes turned to the front window of the spaceship. They were in outer space, but not far from the Sirrah solar system. The system was on the ship’s route from the planet Cleus to the main planet of The Empire of Titania. The Sirrah system was a no-go zone because of various political and international disputes in the past. It was general knowledge, however, that the Alliance furtively controlled the system. For what reasons, no one knew exactly, but there were rumors, of course.

Ion was thinking. He rose to his feet, went to the main console and pushed the seat with the dead pilot aside. Ion bowed over the devices and gadgets. He knew the Empire of Titania would trace the lost ship. The Cleus ship had started from Cleus four days earlier and the systems had worked properly until Ion and his team had disabled the ship’s electronics. The investigators would trace the logs and ultimately locate the ship. Ion clenched his teeth. It was all Lady Tiana’s fault. No self-deceit, he scolded himself. He had to proceed rationally. After shooting the Cleus crew, the Titans had re-booted the ship’s systems. Ion had no doubt the Empire of Titania had started investigations as soon as they had lost contact with the ship. They probably knew already where the Cleus ship was located.

Their original plan had failed, but there was still a slim chance to get through with it. Ion pulled the dead pilot from the seat and sat down in the seat himself. He studied the console of the Cleus spaceship. He was familiar with the devices. Ion commanded the computer to bring up the flight plan of the sector. He limited the search to the Sirrah system. Naturally, no flights to and from the system came up. Any such flights were secret and not in the public domain. Ion studied the listed flights that passed by the Sirrah system. He straightened. A shiver of excitement was running down his spine when he found what he was looking for. A couple of cargo lines were operating in the area around Alpha And. Alpha And was a vast trade platform for companies operating in the Andromeda galaxy. It was close to the Sirrah system, yet in outer space. Ion knew that any legal trading platform was not only visited by registered spaceships, but was also the target of illegal operating ships and crews. Ion had long worked in the field. The chance of getting hold of a ship was slim, but not it was not zero. Ion leaned back and looked out of the window. The blackness of space deemed him a warning, but the blackness was not complete. Ion focused on the distant stars that were perforating the blackness. He was thinking and his mind was razor-sharp.

Ion’s companions entered the bridge, carrying a set of portable devices.

"I figured you want me to change the code of the ship," Shikoba said. "We ought to get away as soon as possible now that the plot has failed."

Ion measured the man. "I was thinking," he said. "We’ll send the ship into the Sirrah no-go zone and get away with the shuttle."

"Where shall we go with the shuttle? We’re in outer space. There’s nothing out here," Nuka said in disbelief.

"Alpha And," Ion replied. "It’s a platform for trading companies. We’ll get us a ship there."

"Alpha And?" Shikoba asked. "It’s far from here. We won’t make it there with the shuttle."

Ion silenced the man with a wave of his hand. "Check the specifics of the Cleus shuttle," he said.

He rose to his feet and Shikoba sat down in the seat and started checking on the ship’s inventory.

"The shuttle is a standard shuttle. It can fly for thirty hours before it must be re-fuelled. Sorry, Ion, we can’t get to Alpha And in the Cleus shuttle," Nuka said finally.

"We’ll perform a space jump with the main ship to Alpha And, get off with the shuttle, and send the main ship to the no-go zone on a pre-programmed course. A few odd maneuvers and a little zig-zagging will give them some thoughts when tracing the ship’s route," Ion said.

"How do you plan to land on Alpha And? How will you explain that we come in with a shuttle?" Nuka asked. "Don’t you think they’ll ask where the shuttle comes from?"
Ion looked at the front window. "We’ll do it like in the old pirate days. We’ll mag-lock the shuttle to a cargo ship," he said.

His companions looked at him and then started grinning.

"Well, I it might work out, if we find a ship vast enough to mag-lock the shuttle between the landing gear, that is," Nuka said.

"Is the Cleus ship equipped with a magnetic locking system?" Shikoba asked.
"Sure. It’s a modern ship," Ion said.

"I’ll better check on it," Nuka replied and resumed checking the ship’s inventory. "Yes," he said. "The shuttle is not the problem. The problem is the cargo ship that we need to find."

"It’s a busy area," Ion said. "I pulled up the flight schedule. Cargo vessels come and go regularly. Check out the schedule, Nuka."

"An Orean cargo ship is due in thirty-eight hours," Nuka said a few of minutes later. "Their ships are vast. There’s another minor problem, Ion. Even the biggest cargo ships are being operated with only few crew. Do you think we can slip through controls? Won’t they notice that we don’t belong to the ship’s crew?"

"Not a problem either," Shikoba said. "The Oreans resemble the Titans closely. I’ll re-program our finger chips. We just need to make sure we don’t pass controls together with the Orean crew. The crew would know that we don’t belong, but controls won’t have a problem with laggards."

"We’re set, I think. I would have preferred to hand over the Cleus ship to Quanah in the proximity of the Titan main planet, but this idiot," Ion said, nodding his head at the dead Cleus captain on the floor, "smelled the rat and contacted the Empire in order to inquire about me. That’s what he got from it. Luckily, we were monitoring the bridge and disabled electronics before he could get through to the Empire."
"They will send a Titan warship here," Nuka said.

"They won’t arrive any time soon," Ion replied. "It’s a four-days trip even for the fastest ships that operate in space jump mode."

"They could warn Alpha And and the Alliance," Shikoba said.

"The Empire of Titania and the Alliance are on bad terms. The Titans won’t ask their enemy for assistance," Ion said.

"What about Alpha And?" Shikoba asked.

"I don’t think they will contact the space hub," Ion replied. "But if they do, then I’m sure they will tell them to watch out for a Cleus ship taken over by a Titan terrorist group."

"Oreans usually go bald," Nuka said, brushing back his dark hair.

"Shaving my head or not is the least of my problems," Ion said. "Get to work now. We’ll wait another couple of hours, then jump to Alpha And and mag-lock to the Orean vessel. It’s all about timing. Nuka, calculate the trip and set up a course on which we send the Cleus ship." Ion walked to the exit. "I’ll go and talk with our prisoner, the honorable Lady Tiana," he said with a sneer. "I doubt her father will see her again."

"She’s not important to him anyway," Nuka said. "The first-born son will succeed Tian Mu."

"Not correct," Ion said. "If the first-born child is a daughter, then the daughter’s husband will succeed his father-in-law. Quanah would have married her on board of his ship. A marriage on Titan territory is one essential condition of two to make the marriage legitimate."

"What’s the other one?" Shikoba asked.

"Age of consent," Ion said. "The daughter must be twenty-two years of age and mentally and emotionally stable, the latter confirmed by an expert opinion."
"Quanah will be after us, too," Nuka said.

"Why?" Ion asked.

"Well, we’ll send his bride into the no-go zone," Nuka replied.

"We won’t," Ion said.

"No?" Nuka asked in confusion.

"We won’t give away our pawn," Ion replied. "Quanah wants her and her father wants her back, too. Either will pay a ransom for her, provided we maneuver us into a position to repeat our demands, but I trust we will. I’ll go and talk to her and convince her to play along. Co-operation is in her interest. She’ll either understand it right away or she will learn it the hard way."

***

The spaceport bar on Alpha And was crowded because departures of all flights were delayed. The crews had taken it lightly in the beginning, but the mood had changed meanwhile. The men were angry and complaining loudly.

"I wished we could finally get out of here," Lest said. "How many hours have we been sitting at this very same table?"

"Three hours and forty minutes," Doctor Midad replied. "But if we give up on the table, we won’t get another one. I prefer to stay seated, captain."

Lest leaned back impatiently. "Hell, what’s going on here? Why don’t they inform us? I hate their information policy."

The crew at the next table stood. Their chairs were instantly claimed by an Orean crew.

"Incredible," one of the Oreans said. "The hangar was empty when we got in an hour ago. Who would have thought that the bar was so crowded?"

Lest turned to the Oreans. "You came in an hour ago? All departures are delayed. What’s going on? Do you have an idea?"

"We were told that all incoming flights were directed to the old spaceport. Only the huge cargo ships are permitted to touch down in the new hangar. My ship is vast," the man said with a grin. "I’m Captain Ekain. Greetings to you. You look like a Daglon."

"I’m Daglon," Lest replied. "Greetings to you. I’m Captain Lest. We have been waiting here for more than three hours."

"Something’s going on here," Captain Ekain said. "We saw Alliance military ships in the new spaceport. The Sirrah system is in the sector. I suspect that whatever is going on here has to do with the no-go zone."

"Damn! Thanks for this bit of information," Lest said, turning back to his crew.
"Alliance ships? This doesn’t sound good," Doctor Midad said.

He pushed his chair closer to the table to let Jeff and Le’Ton pass by behind him. The two men placed glasses on the table and sat down.

"What?" the Orean shouted.

Lest turned to the man. "What’s up, Captain Ekain?" he asked.

"You won’t believe," Ekain said. "I was just informed that hangar security detected a shuttle mag-locked to my ship, hidden between the landing gear."

"Good luck explaining this to the authorities," Lest said. "What about the shuttle crew?"

"No one was on board of the shuttle. I guess we’re screwed up," Captain Ekain said, hitting his fist on the table. He motioned to his crew. "The party’s over. We’re called to contact hangar security. That’ll be fun, I guess."

"Go in and win," Lest said with an encouraging nod.

"Thanks, captain," Captain Ekain replied.

The Orean crew pushed through the crowd. Their seats were instantly claimed by others.

Lest sighed and shifted in his chair.

Corr made a gesture with his hand and focused on his neural implant. "Hulton, calling from the bridge," the pilot said.

"Don’t tell me they found something mag-locked to my ship," Lest said drily.
"The Horus is scheduled for take-off in three hours," Corr replied.

"Finally," Lest said. He seized his drink and downed it in one gulp, then pushed back his chair.

The Horus crew pushed through the crowd and left the bar. They crossed the spaceport hall and entered a corridor. A moving walkway took the men to the hangar where their ship was parked. Forty minutes after leaving the bar, the men finally entered the bridge of their ship.

Hulton looked up and wrinkled his nose. "You don’t smell good," he said.
"Shut up," Lest said, slumping in the captain’s seat.

"I think I did not miss a thing," Hulton replied, turning back to his devices.
The men settled in their seats and prepared the Daglon warship for departure. Finally, they were cleared to roll to the take-off hangar.

"What crap is this?" Lest asked. "Why can’t we take off from our parking hangar?"
"Spaceport traffic control said that all ships need to depart from the old spaceport because the new spaceport is closed," Corr said.

"The Orean said they touched down in the new hangar," Lest replied.

"Only the vast cargo ships land and take off there," Corr said. "All others are redirected to the old spaceport. The spaceports are connected with tunnels. We were assigned tunnel sigma 11. The entrance is at the end of the hangar, to the right, over there."

Lest stood and looked out of the front window. He shook his head and sat down again.

"How backward is this? Cyrus is more advanced than this batshit place," he said.
The Horus was rolling slowly towards the entrance of the tunnel. A battered looking ship was ahead of them. Another vessel followed the Daglon warship close behind. The queue of ships was moving slowly. More than an hour had passed when the ship in front of the Horus was finally cleared to roll into the take-off hangar. The Daglon ship rolled to the exit of the tunnel and was ordered to wait. Several cargo ships were rolling into the hangar from different tunnels. One ship after the other was cleared for take-off. Lest was pacing the bridge and the other men were shifting in their seats. A streamlined ship came into the hangar and slowly passed by. Lest stopped and looked out of the window with interest.

"Another warship," he said. "An Atkon gunship, I think. Warships really stand out in this place."

The Atkon gunship took off. The Horus was ordered to roll into the hangar. Lest sat down in his seat with relief. The ship taxied and finally reached the starting position. Space traffic control center gave clearance for take-off. The engines came on and the Daglon warship shot into space.

"Le’Ton, set course on Cyrus as soon as we have reached the end of the assigned flight corridor," Lest commanded. "Perez is waiting for the ore. Corr, get a message out and inform him of the delay."

An alarm went on. The men straightened in their seats.

"Object on collision course," Jeff shouted.

"Evasive maneuver," Lest commanded.

Le’Ton threw a lever and hit a button. The computer calculated the maneuver and sent the ship on a steep climb. The men were pressed into their seats. The ship finally leveled out and resumed its former course.

"Hell, what was that?" Lest asked. "The ship was coming right at us."

"The computer identified the type of the ship," Hulton said. "An Atkon gunship, type AK504."

"The ship we saw in the hangar?" Jeff asked. "It left a couple of minutes before we took off."

"It was following the same flight corridor. The Horus computer was monitoring it," Hulton said. "I’m analyzing the data."

A minute went by.

"Captain, the Atkon ship made a sharp turn and came back towards us. It dived while the Horus climbed, then it flew on a straight course a couple of minutes and ultimately made another turn away from the platform. The Horus computer has lost it," Hulton said.

"The pilot must have gone insane," Lest said.

"A Titan warship is coming in. It’s headed for Alpha And. The ship’s close. We’re having visual contact," Jeff said.

A big ship was flying in the adjoining flight corridor and passed the Horus by. The men saw it on the right side of the front window.

"What is Titan military doing here?" Lest asked. "The Empire of Titania is way off."
"It explains why the new Alpha And spaceport was closed," Le’Ton said. "They are waiting for the Titan warship."

"The Orean said he saw Alliance ships. The Empire and the Alliance are not on good terms," Lest said.

"Did we miss a thing?" Le’Ton asked. "We should check the news channels. A meeting of the Alliance and the Empire on Alpha And is in fact remarkable."
Jeff did a brief search but found nothing related to the events on Alpha And.
The Horus set course on Cyrus. The flight was uneventful.

***

Lest went to see Perez after the cargo had been unloaded.

“I heard there was quite a commotion on Alpha And,” Perez said, completing the payment on a payment device. He handed it to Lest to let him check on the paid amount for the transfer of the cargo.

Lest reported what they had seen. “Alliance ships were in the area,” he said. “Alliance played space police again, I suspect.”

“The Sirrah system is a no-go zone because of some disputes in the past,” Perez said. “The Alliance, the Titans and the Oreans claimed the system their own because of the ore on the planet Rand. They were hard on the brink of war.”

“I heard the titanium resources were only minor,” Lest said.

“The system is no longer of interest for mining since the discovery of the titanium asteroid belt in sector 269,” Perez replied. “The discovery settled the war before it began, but, of course, neither nation wants to leave the system to another. Alliance ships in the sector are not a surprise, but neither is the Titan warship you saw.”

“Why did they meet on Alpha And? Have you heard something, Perez?” Lest asked.

“Rumors spread quickly. Information is faster than light,” Perez replied with a chuckle. “I heard of the event a couple of days ago. Spaceship crews are discussing it in the bars, but their talk is mostly speculation.”

“But you got a few bits of true information?” Lest asked.

Perez smiled. “I have far-reaching connections,” he said. “I spoke with a source close to the investigations. A Cleus commercial ship went missing. It approached Alpha And, but did not contact space traffic control center. It made a few odd flight maneuvers, zig-zagged through space and finally went on a straight course into the no-go zone.”

“An accident? Some catastrophic onboard system failure?” Lest asked.

“Barely,” Perez replied. “My source told me they found the Cleus ship and towed it in. The Cleus crew was found dead on the ship. Shot. The perpetrators are gone.”

Lest gave a whistle. “A sophisticated plot, it seems,” he said.

“Do you think so? I consider it a desperate act of someone on the run. They laid a false trail to buy them time and get out of the area unseen,” Perez replied.

“True,” Lest said. “The perpetrators barely vanished in thin air. Do you think they landed on Alpha And with a shuttle?”

 “You’re a quick thinker, Lest,” Perez said. “Yes, there’s evidence for the theory. Spaceport security detected an empty shuttle. It was mag-locked to an Orean cargo ship.”

“I met the Orean captain in the spaceport bar,” Lest said. “A plot like in the old pirate days, it seems.  Haven’t we left those days behind?”

Perez smiled ambiguously. “The stunts maybe, but not the operations. Things have changed a great deal.”

Lest nodded thoughtfully “Do you have another job, Perez? I need to refill the ship’s account,” he said.

“Have you already spent the credits I paid you?” Perez asked with a laugh, but then turned serious again. He leaned over the counter and locked his eyes with Lest’s. “I’m currently negotiating with a private vendee. I need a ship that can fly in full stealth mode. If you’re interested, let me know. I can guarantee 150,000 credits, maybe more,” he said.

“That’s quite a sum,” Lest said. “You need a warship for a flight in stealth mode? Tell me more about the deal,” he said, leaning against the counter and looking around in the room.

Perez’s office was small and messy and did not give away the man’s successful broker career.

“Why don’t you move into more impressive rooms?” Lest asked.

“Who should I want to impress?” Perez asked back. “I need not fake anything. I have real power.”

Lest turned his head to Perez. Perez was smiling.

“What’s the destination of the trip?” Lest asked.

“Rho 59,” Perez replied. “A dwarf planet on the edge of the Empire of Titania.”

“Titan territory?” Lest asked, straightening. “I beg you, Perez, I’m not insane.”

“You have a warship, overhauled and equipped with the latest equipment. You bought the equipment from me,” Perez said. “Do you feel disappointed with the purchases?”

“No,” Lest replied. “But 150,000 credits are a lot of money. The sum gives away the plot, and the destination even more so. What did the private vendee order? The latest plasma guns?”

Perez smiled amiably. “Wrong, Captain Lest,” he said. “We speak of electronic devices for entertainment purposes.”

“It depends on perspective. Some people find war games entertaining,” Lest replied. “I’ll sign the deal on condition of unloading the cargo upon arrival on Rho 59 and immediate take-off after unloading.”

“This should not be a problem. And if anything unexpected should happen, you can always shoot your way out. You have a warship,” Perez said. He took a device from the counter and checked the display. “I will contact you, captain,” he said finally without raising his eyes to Lest.

“Have a nice day,” Lest replied and left the office.

He went down the corridor and entered a hallway. Lest pushed through the crowd and stopped in front of a store that sold guns for personal use. Lest entered the shop. The slyly smiling vendor showed Lest various plasma guns. Lest picked an Alliance gun that the vendor said was the latest model used by Alliance military forces. Lest tended to believe him as the man produced some evidence that supported his claims. The vendor asked Lest for a license that confirmed he was permitted to carry a gun for personal use.

“Sorry,” the man apologized. “The law is Alliance law and this is an Alliance gun. I just need to make sure I won’t get into difficulties.”

Lest cast him a doubting look and shrugged. Since he was wasn’t able to produce a license, the vendor, with a resigned sigh, finally retrieved one from a drawer, filled in the form, and stamped it. Lest watched him, not exactly shocked at the illegal act, but perplexed by the actual requirement of a hand-written form. The vendor finally handed him a wrapped parcel. Lest left the shop and walked on. He met up with his crew in a diner. The men looked curiously at the parcel. Lest placed it on an empty seat.

“Have you already wasted you personal credits?” Doctor Midad asked seriously, but then winked at Lest.

“A plasma gun for personal use,” Lest replied. “I saw it in a shop. It’s the latest Alliance model. It looked good and it felt good in my hands. I wanted it and so I bought it.”

“We were in the shops, too,” Midad said, pointing at several bags on the floor. “Shopping on Cyrus makes for a nice change.”

The waiter came to their table and the men ordered a multitude of fresh meals.

“I’m waiting for Perez to contact me,” Lest said after they had finished eating. “He’s currently negotiating a deal.”

Lest told the others what Perez had said.

“This operation is dangerous, captain,” Midad said.

“It’s not a gray market operation. It’s clearly illegal,” Jeff said. “We’re talking about the transport of weapons.”

“Quiet,” Lest said, looking left and right to see if anybody had overheard them.

The diner, however, was almost empty. It was already late in the morning, but still too early for most species to have lunch. Five men were eating in the far corner, a couple was standing by the counter, talking to the bartender. The waiter was nowhere to be seen.

“I can’t step away from the deal,” Lest said. “It’s illegal cargo, yes, but the credits would save us at least six trips to the Mohic Empire.”

“This clearly speaks in favor of the operation,” Corr said with a grin.

Le’Ton and Jeff nodded. Galven and Forrit, the engineers, also agreed. Hulton wasn’t around. He had volunteered to stay on the ship.

***

The group left and went back to the hangar where the Horus was parked. There was a commotion at the entrance to the next hangar. An Atkon gunship was being hovered out of the hall.

“A lot of Atkon gunships lately,” Lest said.

“Why are they hovering it out of the hangar? To take it elsewhere for repair?” Jeff asked.

“No,” a man said, turning to them. “I heard it was stolen. The owner has claimed it back.”

“Interesting,” Lest said.

“Do you think it’s the same ship we saw on Alpha And?” Jeff asked.

“I have no idea,” Lest replied. “One might think it is.”

The crew moved on and went to the ship. The Horus was currently being re-fuelled. Hulton stood next to the ship and supervised three men loading crates into the ship. He greeted the others.

“Fresh food has arrived,” he said. “I checked the software of the ship and found nothing wrong with it. Once Galven and Forrit have checked the hardware, we’re ready to go. Have you arranged a new deal, captain?”

“The deal is under way,” Lest replied. “Perez will contact me as soon as the terms of the deal are settled.”

“Where will we go?” Hulton asked, motioning to the men with the crates.

“Rho 59,” Le’Ton replied, walking up the ramp of the ship.

“A dwarf planet on the edge of the Empire of Titania,” Corr said, following Le’Ton up the ramp.

Hulton turned to the captain. “Rho 59? It’s an old mining station, long closed. Why are we going there?”

“A private vendee ordered cargo. Electronic devices for entertainment purposes,” Lest said.

Hulton raised an eyebrow. “No need to elaborate on it, captain. I can tell it smells,” he said.

Lest grinned, then moved up the ramp.

“Who’s the vendee?” Hulton asked. “Does the man even have a name?”

“Not yet,” Jeff replied. “Honestly, I don’t understand why the negotiations take so long and Perez has not yet contacted the captain.”

Doctor Midad interrupted them. “Have the medical supplies arrived?” he asked Hulton.

“About an hour ago,” Hulton replied. “Three big crates. They’re in the cargo bay.”

“I’ll go and check them out,” Midad said and entered the ship.

“Don’t you want to go to the malls, Hulton?” Jeff asked. “Cyrus is your home planet. Don’t you want to meet up with friends for a drink?”

“I don’t have any friends on Cyrus,” Hulton replied. “I have dwelled in this place far too long. What is so attractive about this shady planet with its multi-storey constructions? You’re always inside, never see the sky or the sun, and the air is stale and smells bad.”

“Is being confined to a spaceship for months on end any better?” Jeff asked.

“A spaceship is less crowded,” Hulton replied. “But you’re right, Jeff. I’ll go and get some new equipment. I know where to go and get what I want. I won’t be long. Send a message to my neural implant if you want me to get back on the ship.”

“Okay,” Jeff said. “I’ll handle the crates. Enjoy yourself, Hulton.”

Hulton gave a nod, then walked away and left the hangar. Jeff turned to the men with the crates.

“What’s the problem? Why does it take so long to get these crates on board of the ship?” he asked.

“The captain must confirm the delivery,” a man replied.

“Why didn’t you ask the captain when he was entering the ship?” Jeff asked in annoyance.

“We couldn’t decide on who is in charge. You look all the same in your leisure clothes. You don’t look exactly like the crew of a warship,” the man said.

Jeff eyed him in disbelief. “I suspect you have only recently started your work on Cyrus,” he said.

The man smiled insecurely. “Uhm, yes. I came here two weeks ago. A food company hired men. I worked on Alpha And previously.”

“We’ve just come back from Alpha And,” Jeff said.

“I guess you understand why I left the hub and accepted the job offer on Cyrus,” the man said drily.

“In fact, I do. That hub is antiquated, ” Jeff replied. “But now, please, get these crates on board of the ship. I’ll go and send the captain out.”

***

Lest had just confirmed the delivery when Perez sent a message to his neural implant and informed him that he deal was settled. Lest went to the broker’s office. Perez greeted him and motioned to a conference table.

“What’s wrong, Perez?” Lest asked, sitting down. “I thought the deal was settled.”

Perez sat down and propped his elbows on the table between. “Listen, Lest, I can double the amount. 300,000 credits for not only transferring the cargo, but transporting a few passengers as well.”

Lest gave Perez a sour look. “You should have told me earlier, Perez. My ship is not a passenger ship,” he said.

“It’s not a cargo ship either,” Perez replied. “Some transports require special ships and your ship is exactly what I’m looking for.”

“Why? Because it can fly in stealth mode and I can shoot my way out?” Lest asked.

Perez smiled amiably and motioned to a henchman standing by a back door. The man entered the back room upon the sign. Lest looked after him suspiciously. The man came back, carrying two glasses. He placed them in front of Perez and Lest. Lest could tell from the exotic smell that the glasses were filled with hot Serena tea, a rare and expensive brand from a planet at the edge of Alpha Centauri.

“Enjoy,” Perez said seizing his glass.

Lest seized his glass and took a sip.

Perez put his glass back on the table, then smiled at Lest. “I sold you updated hardware and software. I know the Horus is a warship with the latest equipment. You need not bother about the cargo and neither about the four passengers. They’re just in need of a safe trip. Unload the  cargo on Rho 59 and let the three men and the woman get off the ship. And off you go with the Horus. Here’s to you,” Perez said, raising his glass.

Lest measured the man. He was thinking. “Okay, Perez,” he said finally. “Half the sum in advance and the rest upon arrival on the dwarf planet.”

“One third in advance, one third upon unloading cargo and passengers, and the rest upon your return,” Perez said.

“One third in advance, and the rest upon unloading passengers and cargo,” Lest replied, leaning back in his chair.

“That’s fine with me,” Perez replied with a curt smile. He rose to his feet and  motioned to the man by the back door.

The man hurried to the front door and locked it, then retreated to the back room. Perez went to the counter and made a subtle sign to Lest to join him. The dealer produced a fountain pen and drew up the contract.

“Some things on Cyrus are like in the very old days,” Lest said, looking at the pen.

“Paper can burn and leave no trace,” Perez replied. “The old days were not as bad as some say they were.”

He pushed the paper over the counter. Lest read the contract and signed it. Perez signed as well and then copied the paper with a backward copy machine. He handed the copy to Lest, then seized a payment gadget and entered the number of Lest’s ship account.

“Transfer of credits is safe as always,” Perez said. “The electronic trace will lead into nowhere.”

Lest didn’t reply. He checked the credit amount on the display and nodded at Perez. Perez pressed a button and 100,000 credits were transferred to the Horus account.

“Speaking of tracing,” Lest said. “Any news on what happened to the Cleus ship that went into the Sirrah no-go zone?”

Perez looked up and measured Lest. “Why, captain? Just being curious?” he asked.

“Just interested in the fate of the doomed ship,” Lest replied.

Perez didn’t reply. He crossed the room instead, unlocked the front door and opened it. He smiled amiably at Lest.

Lest followed the man reluctantly and stopped by the door. “Okay, Perez,” he said. “I’ll let you know once passengers and cargo are off board.”

Perez gave a barely visible nod. “Cargo and passengers will get to your ship within the hour,” he said.

Lest turned to leave.

“Ah, captain, as to the Cleus ship,” Perez said.

Lest turned back to the man.

“I heard it took off from Cleus with four passengers on board, three men and a woman, Titans all. They were not on board of the ship when it was found in the no-go zone. The Empire of Titania is not happy with the developments. It is said Tiana, Tian Mu’s daughter, was on board of the Cleus ship and is since missing,” Perez said. “It is said the group landed on Alpha And with a shuttle and left the hub with a stolen Atkon gunship. It’s even said the group fled to Cyrus. A lot of speculation is going on. Most theories are far-fetched conspiracy theories, though. One thing is sure, however. The group can only escape under cover as the entire Empire of Titania is after them. Business with you is always my pleasure, captain. Good luck on your trip.” the dealer said with an amiable smile and closed the door before Lest could say a word.

“Son of a bitch,” Lest spat, glaring at the closed door.

He turned away and shot the people in the corridor dark looks. They eyed him warily and stepped out of his way.

“What’s wrong? Can I help you?” a tall and slim female, dressed in a catsuit, asked him. Her big violet eyes were resting on him.

“Actually not,” Lest replied, straightening. He took a deep breath. “I have a warship, you know. I can always shoot my way out,” he said.

“That’s nice to hear,” the alien female said, her look growing more intense and her light pink skin reddening. “I like men who know how to handle things, you know. They’re rare to find in space these days. How about you tell me more? I’d be interested to listen to you. How about we go to the SBH?”

SBH was short for stellar black hole. Lest was staring at the female. Her lips curled into a smile. Then it dawned on Lest. The SBH was a popular brothel on the sixth floor. Lest backed away.

“I don’t have much time,” he said apologetically, turned away and hurried down the corridor.

The female shouted something after him, but Lest blocked it out. He started to run.

Lest hurried back to the ship and went straight on the bridge. He didn’t greet his crew and sat down with a frown. The men exchanged puzzled looks.

Hulton entered the bridge, coming back from the malls. “All on board already? Are we ready to go?” he asked.

“Not yet, but cargo and passengers will arrive within the hour,” Lest said in a grumpy voice.

“What?” Hulton asked, sounding appalled. “More people on board of the ship? Why didn’t you tell us, captain? I don’t like it crowded.”

“Passengers?” Jeff asked. “How many and who?”

The men were staring at the captain. Lest shifted in his seat uncomfortably and then called Midad and the engineers on the bridge. He reported what Perez had told him. The men looked shocked.

“They killed the Cleus crew, escaped with the shuttle and mag-locked it to the Orean ship. They stole the Atkon gunship and fled to Cyrus,” Lest summarized the now apparent facts.

“This explains why the Atkon ship turned back and almost collided with the Horus,” Jeff said. “They saw the Titan warship and, acting on an impulse, fled.”

“Who are the men? Terrorists?” Le’Ton asked.

“Everything points to it,” Lest said sourly.

“The Titans won’t let them go. They won’t let Tian Mu’s daughter in the hands of the kidnappers,” Doctor Midad said.

“My thought,” Lest said curtly.

“Who is Tian Mu?” Jeff asked.

“The head of The Empire of Titania,” Lest replied.

“This means trouble. We’re in a mess,” Corr stated the obvious.

“Well, the Horus is a very advanced and fast ship, a Daglon warship that can fly in stealth mode. We can always shoot our way out. Perez words, not mine,” Lest replied.

“I must say this deal doesn’t exactly speak in favor of your circumspection, captain,” Hulton said. “Don’t get me wrong. No offense meant, but I always prefer stating the facts. Did the sum of 300,000 credits blind your good judgment?”

Lest grimaced and waved his hand. “You’re absolutely right, Hulton,” he said. “The problem is I can’t step back from the deal. I don’t know what would be more dangerous, Perez coming after me or the Empire of Titania.”

“We don’t have much of choice anyway,” Jeff said. “I’m not happy with the job. I know our jobs are often borderline, but I don’t want to end up like a common criminal. This job is clearly on the illegal side. It’s...”

“Yes,” Lest interrupted him. “We’ve entered a no-gone zone and I’m by no means happy with it,” he said. He focused on his neural implant, then rose to his feet. “The cargo’s delivered and the passengers have arrived in the hangar and are ready to board the ship.”

***

The men moved to the cargo bay. Lest opened the hatch, stepped out on the ramp and looked down. Perez’ henchman was standing next to the ship in company of three men and a woman. A transport vessel was parked next to ship.

Lest descended the ramp and mustered the passengers. The woman was dressed in a long bright-red dress. A scarf covered her hair and her face was veiled. The three men were dressed in black cargo pants and tight-fitting sweaters. The heads of two were shaved, the other man had full black hair. One look sufficed to see they were either well-trained soldiers or hired guns.

Lest reached the end of the ramp. He turned to Perez’ henchman. The man stepped forward.

“Perez arranged your ship can take off within the hour. The men will load the crates into your ship and secure them in the cargo bay,”  he said, making a sign to a couple of men waiting by the transport vessel.

Lest gave a nod. “The bay is prepared,” he said.

The men started carrying the crates into the Daglon warship.

Lest mustered the passengers. “Who are they?” he asked, turning to Perez’ henchman. “Why can’t they travel on a civilian ship?”

“A warship is faster,” the man replied. “Now let them board the ship. I need to confirm they have entered it.”

Lest smiled sourly, but stepped aside and made a sign with his hand. The group approached and went up the ramp. The black-haired man, obviously the leader of the group, looked sharply at Lest as the group passed by. Lest narrowed his eyes and crossed his arms in front of his chest.

“I see the crates are boarded as well. We’re set, I guess,” he said to Perez’ henchman.

The man smiled a sleazy smile. “I’ll stay here until your ship is cleared for take-off,” he said.

“Do what you want,” Lest grunted, turned around and went up the ramp. He hit a button and closed the hatch.

The passengers were standing in the cargo bay. The Horus crew stood around them. Forrit and Galven were watching from the background. The engineers were carrying plasma guns.

Lest forced a smile. “I guess from your looks that you’re Titan nationals. Welcome on board of my ship. We’ll take off within the hour. You’ll be assigned rooms in the quarters. For your comfort, each of you will be assigned a room of your own,” he said.

“As you command, captain,” the Titan leader replied. “Your ship is a Daglon warship. Rare to get on the official markets. Where did you seize it?” he asked.

“I seized the opportunity as it arose,” Lest replied. “I see you don’t have much luggage, apart from those portable devices that you’re carrying. I suggest we store them in a safe place on the ship.”

The Titan shot Lest a dark look, but then nodded at his companions. Lest motioned to Jeff and Corr. The Titans handed the devices over reluctantly.

“I trust you don’t attempt to break the locks of the devices,” the Titan leader said. “My name is Ion, by the way.” He gave Lest a questioning look.

“Captain Lest,” Lest replied. He turned his head. “The woman is carrying a plastic bag. What is inside?” he asked.

“Just a few clothes she bought in the malls,” Ion replied. “Show him,” he said, turning to the woman.

The veiled woman held out the plastic bag. Ion grabbed it from her hands. Lest motioned to Le’Ton. Le’Ton took the plastic bag, opened it and rifled through the contents. The woman complained, but Ion silenced her with a wave of his hand. Le’Ton handed the bag back, the woman seized it and pressed it against her chest.

“Just clothes of the female kind,” Le’Ton said, turning to the captain with reddened cheeks.

“Alright,” Lest said, clearing his throat, “Corr and Le’Ton, take the men to the three empty rooms on the lower deck. Jeff, clear out your room for the lady.”

Jeff looked unhappy, but then gave a nod. “Please, follow me,” he said to the woman.

She turned her head to Ion.

“Go,” the Titan leader said curtly.

Jeff and the woman left the hangar. Lest motioned to Corr and Le’Ton. The men led the three Titans from the cargo bay.

“Galven, Forrit, look over the crates and see if they are secured,” Lest said.

He left the cargo bay. Doctor Midad and Hulton followed him. The men went on the bridge.

Lest sat down in his seat. “Hulton, switch on the monitoring systems of the rooms. I want to have a look at the Titans during our trip. And lock the doors to their rooms. We know what happened to the Cleus crew,” he said.

“There’s a problem with one of the rooms,” Hulton said after a while.

“What kind of a problem?” Lest asked.

“I can’t switch on the system that is monitoring Jeff’s room,” Hulton said.

“Why?” Lest asked.

“The room is locked by a code that you entered yourself according to the log files, captain. I’m wondering what is going on in this room that nobody must see by chance,” Hulton said in a loud voice. He turned to Lest, raising an eyebrow.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Lest said grumpily, rising from his seat.

He went to the console and keyed the code in, then joined Doctor Midad by a side console. Midad was scanning the news.

“Anything new? Something we ought to know?” Lest asked.

Midad looked up. “Perez said the Titans left Cleus in a commercial Cleus ship. I was wondering what the Titans were doing on Cleus,” the doctor replied. “Cleus is famous for its medical centers. Cleus will officially be an Alliance member in a month. They have only recently signed the contract, after centuries of tedious negotiations. I was scanning the news for any connections between Cleus and the Empire of Titania, in particular with the daughter of Tian Mu.”

“What did you come up with?” Lest asked.

“Nothing so far. It’s more one of Hulton’s job anyway, I think,” Midad replied. He rose to his feet. “I’ll go to sickbay.”

Lest gave a nod and returned to his chair. Le’Ton, Corr, and Jeff entered the bridge and settled in their seats..

“Are the doors of the rooms locked, Hulton?” Lest asked.

“Doors are locked,” Hulton confirmed.

“Alright,” Lest said. “Corr, contact space traffic control center. The Horus is ready for take-off.”

***

The Daglon warship reached the edge of the solar system and Lest commanded the switch to space jump mode. The sound of the engines changed, the light on the bridge briefly flickered, and then the ship moved on, folding the space on its way. The course was set on Rho 59, a four-days trip from their current position in space.

“What are the Titans doing?” Lest asked, rising from his chair.

Hulton brought up the monitoring windows. The Titan men were each sitting on the bed and staring into the room.

“What about the woman?” Lest asked.

Hulton opened another window. The men on the bridge gathered behind Hulton and looked at the screen. The woman was standing in Jeff’s room.

“She’s wearing the outfit of the Titan upper class. The long dress, the veil, and the scarf,” Lest said.

The woman raised her hands and took off her veil. She was young, with almond shaped eyes, black hair and very pale skin. She undid her braids and brushed back her long hair.

“She’s beautiful,” Le’Ton said admiringly.

Corr patted his shoulder. “Forget it,” he said. “She’s confined to Jeff’s room.”

 “Where did you take your stuff to, by the way?” Lest asked, turning to Jeff.

“To your room,” Jeff replied.

“Not too bad,” Lest said with a smile.

Hulton turned his head and gave them a meaningful look. Lest rolled his eyes and Jeff waved his hand at Hulton. The men turned back to the screen.

The Titan woman had gone to the mirror and was studying her face. She touched her cheekbones, then turned away from the mirror and went to the bed, took the plastic bag and emptied it. The contents were sprawled on the bed.

“Clothes of the female kind. I had a close look at them,” Le’Ton said.

“What do you mean? Panties and bras?” Lest asked.

Le’Ton’s cheeks reddened. Corr moved closer to the console and Hulton leaned forward. Jeff gave a laugh.

“Monitor off. Back to work all,” Lest commanded and returned to his seat.

Hulton closed the window. “She might be hungry,” he said.

“The Titans booked room service. I won’t let them enter the galley. Corr, switch on the intercom and ask them what they want. Two men will bring them their meals. One carries the food and the other a plasma gun,” Lest said.

“I volunteer,” Hulton said quickly.

“You? Don’t you always stress that you are more of the thinking kind and not so much a practical person?” Lest asked.

“Learning by doing is a path to gain knowledge,” Hulton replied. “I experiment with new software all the time.”

“The lady is not a software tool. Don’t think I cannot see through you,” Lest said.

“I volunteer, too,” Le’Ton said.

“Why doesn’t this surprise me?” Lest asked. He waved his hand. “Okay, go down. Keep focused, no distractions and no small talk with the lady. If I see any such thing happen, I’ll send Galven and Forrit next time. We’re monitoring the rooms.”

***

A short while later, the two men were on their way to the quarters. The Titan men had ordered water and a stew, whereas the lady had wanted vanilla soufflé and black current juice. When Lest had told her that his ship was not a gourmet restaurant, Lady Tiana had also ordered water and the typical Titan stew. Lest was glad the food processor was able to produce it.

Lest and Jeff watched the men on the monitoring screen and Jeff unlocked one door after the other from the bridge. Hulton held out a tray with food when the door opened. Ion’s companions quickly seized a mug, a bowl and a spoon and then retreated into the rooms, but Ion grimaced when the door opened and was apparently complaining.

“He doesn’t like being locked up, but he can complain until he’s blue in the face. This won’t change until the end of the flight,” Lest said.

“Attention. They’re coming to my room now,” Jeff said.

He unlocked the door. Tiana startled, but then hurried to the door and smiled at the man with the tray in his hands. Hulton was staring at the young woman, his eyes big and wide.

“He’s not an expert in the social field,” Lest said drily. “I don’t think he’ll volunteer again.”

Jeff laughed and pointed at the screen. “Neither is Le’Ton,” he said.

Le’Ton was standing in the doorway, a plasma gun in his hands and his eyes grimly fixed on the lady. Lady Tiana gave him a nod upon which Le’Ton relaxed. He leaned idly against the doorframe and smiled broadly at the woman.

“Daglon macho behavior,” Lest commented.

Tiana took the tray and placed it on the table. She looked back at the men, then covered her mouth with a hand and lowered her eyes. Hulton and Le’Ton stepped back. The automatic door closed and Jeff locked it from the bridge. Tiana raised her eyes, looked at the door, and then started to laugh. She was holding her belly.

“We see the not entirely unexpected effect of macho behavior,” Jeff said, reaching out and closing the window.

Lest made a dismissive gesture with his hand and went back to his seat. A short time later, Hulton and Le’Ton entered the bridge.

“Anything you can conclude from the closer look you had at our passengers?” Lest asked.

“Not exactly,” Le’Ton replied. “Did you watch us from the bridge?”

“We did,” Lest said. “It seemed the lady had a good time. She was laughing heartily after you’d left.”

Le’Ton turned to the console abruptly. Corr gave him a sideways glance and smirked.

Hulton shifted in his seat uncomfortably. “How about I check out the portable devices the Titans were carrying?” he asked.

“Good idea, Hulton,” Lest said, pointing at a side console. “Don’t break the locks, please.”

Hulton moved to the console and bowed over the devices.

“Le’Ton, check the Horus computer and find out about Rho 59. If necessary, connect to the Alliance database. I want to know more about our destination,” Lest said, rising to his feet. “I’m going to the galley. The sight of the stew made me feel hungry. Jeff, do you want to bear me company?”

Jeff nodded and the men left the bridge.

Corr turned to Le’Ton. “Is she as beautiful as she looked on the screen?” he asked.

“Very beautiful,” Le’Ton replied. “I wonder if they kidnapped her or if she went with them of her own accord.”

***

Doctor Midad entered the galley and went to the food processor. He ordered a cup of coffee and a chicken sandwich, then joined Lest and Jeff at their table.

“I was thinking,” he said. “Cleus is famous for its medical centers. People come from all over space for treatments on Cleus. I’m wondering if Lady Tiana was there for treatment, too. The Titans might have kidnapped her on Cleus.”

“I’m not so sure they kidnapped her,” Lest said, struggling with spaghetti. “Why did you use the food processor and don’t try the fresh food Hulton has ordered?” he asked.

“Fresh food?” Midad asked back.

Lest nodded at three crates that were aligned against the wall.

“Not exactly fresh food,” Jeff said. “Packages of pre-prepared meals. You just need to pick one and put it in the box over there. A microwave oven or sort of. Hulton bought it, too. I picked chicken ragout. It’s good.”

“Since when is Hulton an expert in the cooking field?” Midad asked, walking to the crates and inspecting them.

“It seems he’s widening his fields of expertise lately,” Lest said. “Now back to the Titans on board of our ship. I don’t think we’ll get anything out of the men, but how about we’ll talk with the lady.”

“Forget about Hulton and Le’Ton,” Jeff said. “Corr is not an option either. Galven and Forrit? I’m having doubts.”

“This leaves you and me and Doctor Midad,” Lest said, turning to Midad who was placing a meal into the microwave box.

Midad looked up. “What did you say, Lest?” he asked.

“What did you pick?” Lest asked back, pointing his fork at the microwave box.

“Vegetable gratin,” Midad replied. “The dish looked good in the picture.” He took the meal and went to the table.

“We’ll buy more of this stuff when we’re back,” Lest said. “Midad, I want you to talk with the lady. Inquire about her health. I want to know if they kidnapped her or if she went with them of her own accord.”

“I can try. Perhaps I will learn why she was on Cleus,” Midad said. “However, if she’s in the plot or is forced to keep silent, it will be difficult to make her talk. Maybe I should take a meal from the crate and surprise her with it. It might ease the tension of the situation.”

“Good idea,” Lest said. “She wanted vanilla soufflé. Look if you find something similar in the crates.”

“I actually saw a package titled vanilla soufflé,” Midad replied.

“Perfect,” Lest said. “I must thank Hulton for his circumspection.”

***

Midad left for sickbay. Lest and Jeff went back on the bridge.

“What did you find out about Rho 59, Le’Ton?” Lest asked.

“It’s an old Titan mining station, long deserted,” Le’Ton replied. “The space port is no longer being operated, but I think we can touch down in the main area without difficulties. The dwarf planet is at the edge of the Titan Empire and belongs to an asteroid belt. The Titans mined the asteroids in the past, but their mining interests have long shifted to places elsewhere.”

“A perfect place to unload illegal cargo. Are the Titans monitoring the area? I imagine they watch out for possible invaders into their territory,” Lest said.

“I suspect they left monitoring probes,” Le’Ton replied. “I’m certain that Titan ships are patrolling the area, but ship presence might be low in the sector.”

“We’re supposed to fly in full stealth mode. It seems Perez reckoned with ships,” Lest said. “Le’Ton, Corr, go down and grab a meal. Hulton has bought some pre-prepared dishes. You’ll find them in the crates in the galley. The meals are good.”

Corr and Le’Ton left the bridge.

“Thank you, captain,” Hulton said from the background. “I’m happy to hear you like the food.”

Lest turned to him. “Go down, too, Hulton,” he said. “You can resume checking on the devices later.”

“I think I’m already done with them,” Hulton replied. “These are communicating and hacking devices. The latest models in space. Very advanced gadgets. I actually bought a similar set on Cyrus.”

“Hacking devices? It doesn’t surprise me. Lock them away on the bridge,” Lest said. He shifted in his seat. “I wished this operation was already done, but unfortunately it has only begun,” he said, looking after Hulton who was leaving the bridge. “What do you think, Jeff? Are the Titans terrorists?”

“I suppose so,” Jeff said. “And the lady is their pawn.”

***

Midad visited Lady Tiana and then went to the lounge where the Horus crew had assembled.

“She told me little,” the doctor said, “but I can conclude a few things nonetheless. But first let me tell you about the Titans. I read up on the Empire of Titania before I went to see the lady.”

“The ruling Titan class is a warrior class with strong hierarchies and a patriarchic structure. The first recorded leader ruled roughly 38,000 years ago, but there were probably many sovereigns before him, although their names are not recorded. The first son succeeds the father unless the head of the empire has no children or only daughters. The latter marks the beginning of a new dynasty. It happened rarely in Titan history. The current dynasty is the fifth dynasty. If the head of the empire dies childless, his closest male relative will succeed the throne. If the man has only daughters, the husband of the eldest daughter will seize the reign. Since the latter permits a non-relative seizing power, a few requirements must be met. The daughter must be of the age of consent, which means she must be at least twenty-two years old and emotionally and mentally stable and healthy. Three independent experts must provide their expertise. As you can guess, this situation is not desirable as the various political parties will each produce a marriage candidate and the woman must make a choice. It happened only once in the past, about 8,000 years ago, when the only daughter of the Titan ruler married her father’s most trusted counselor. The head of the empire died childless in the other cases of dynasty change.”

Midad looked at the men.

“Tian Mu, the current head of the empire has only one child, a daughter named Tiana. She turned twenty-two three months ago. I think you can now understand the situation we’re in. It’s a highly explosive political situation. Lady Tiana’s husband will be the future head of the Empire of Titania and it will mark a dynasty change,” he said.

Lest gave a whistle. “It’s crystal clear to me now. I think the vendee who bought the cargo and organized the Titans’ trip on my ship plans to marry Tian Mu’s daughter, but is not an acknowledged marriage candidate,” he said. “The three Titans are his henchmen. They kidnapped the woman on Cleus.”

“If she was kidnapped, why did she not protest when she entered the ship?” Jeff asked. “She could have complained to us. Did she complain to you, Doctor Midad?”

Midad shook his head. “No, she did not,” he said. “It puzzled me, too, and I was wondering if she was in the plot and wanted to overturn her own father. I touched subtly on various topics, but she warmed up only to my questions regarding her health. Then again, this is not unusual for a Titan member of the upper class. They don’t discuss personal matters with strangers. They don’t talk about family affairs, their leisure activities, vacation trips and so on. They don’t speak with strangers about politics, mind you. So her silence on various matters doesn’t necessary mean she was keeping things from me. She was maybe just trying to be polite in the Titan understanding of a polite conversation. I tend to believe the latter, because her overall demeanor was very polite. She actually wanted to put on her scarf and veil, the automatic reaction of a Titan woman when suddenly confronted with a stranger, and she only refrained from covering her face because of the vanilla soufflé I had put on the table.”

“If she really was kidnapped, this was her chance to ask our assistance,” Jeff said.

“Not necessarily so,” Hulton tossed in. “She might consider us just another bunch of criminals. Unless she’s not completely stupid, she must think that the Daglon warship is stolen and operated by a captain and crew who are neither Daglon nor Alliance soldiers.”

“True,” Jeff said. “We locked her up in a room. This doesn’t speak much for us either. She might think she better keeps her mouth shut for fear of reprisal.”

“I don’t exactly understand why Perez was looking for a warship. Any cargo ship could have made the trip,” Corr said.

“He already knew of the Cleus ship. He knew the Titans shot the crew,” Lest said. “The Cleus ship was a commercial ship. I guess Perez hoped a warship would intimidate the Titans.”

“Intimidate is the wrong word,” Midad said. “Like I said, the Titans are a warrior caste. They hold warriors and their deeds in high respect. A captain who seized a warship and did not get caught must impress them greatly. Remember, Ion seized an Atkon gunship on Alpha And. A smaller and less striking ship would have served the purpose.”

“Yes,” Jeff said. “Why did they fly to Cyrus and not directly to Rho 59? Neither with the Cleus ship nor with the Atkon gunship?”

“A commercial ship of the Cleus type can’t fly in stealth mode,” Hulton said.

“The Atkon gunship could have travelled in stealth mode and covered the distance from Alpha And to Rho 59, if fully fuelled,” Le’Ton said. “I suspect the ship was not yet re-fuelled when the Titans seized it on Alpha And. Cyrus was the logical choice. Unfortunately for them, the righteous owner of the Atkon ship reported his ship missing and Cyrus security detected it despite the probably altered ship code.”

“I suspect the owner of the Atkon ship knew how to pull a few strings,” Lest said. “Anyway, now what do you think, Midad? Was Tiana kidnapped or does she play along?”

“I honestly can’t tell,” Midad replied. “I think she was on Cleus for the independent medical expertise on her emotional and mental health. She’s not yet married. She doesn’t wear the marriage tattoos on her cheekbones, but I think she expects to be married soon. She often touched her cheekbones during our talk and looked absently into the room.”

“We saw her standing in front of the mirror in my room and examining her cheekbones,” Jeff said.

“How did you see this?” Midad asked.

“The passenger rooms are being monitored. We watched her from the bridge,” Jeff said.

Midad gave a disgusted grunt. “Did you watch me in her room, too?” he asked.

“We had to monitor the meeting in order to study her body language,” Lest said.

Midad was shaking head. “And what did this study give away?” he asked.

“I thought she was nervous. Like you said, she often touched her face. She was shifting in her chair and staring into the room,” Jeff said. “Well, it might all have to do with her looking forward to her marriage.”

“Or fear of it,” Lest said, rising to his feet. “Three more days and then we’re done with the operation anyway. Why bother with it?”

He left the lounge and went back on the bridge. The others looked after him.

“I can smell a guilty conscience,” Corr said. “The captain is feeling bad about the situation.”

“No wonder with terrorists on board of our ship,” Le’Ton said. “Did you really get it? The lady’s marriage marks the beginning of a new Titan dynasty and we’re part of the operation that will lead up to it.”

“I wished I were not,” Jeff said, rising from his chair.

He left the lounge. Doctor Midad followed him.

“I’m having an idea as to how to get in touch with the lady and question her a bit,” Le’Ton said with a sly smile, turning to Corr and Hulton.

***

Hulton went back on the bridge. Lest was sitting at a side console, brushing through the news. He looked up briefly when Hulton entered the bridge, then turned back to the screen. Hulton sat down and opened two windows on the monitoring screen. He looked furtively at the captain, then focused on the windows. One showed Jeff’s room, the other the corridor that led up to it. Tiana was sitting on her bed and Le’Ton and Corr were coming down the corridor. Both men were dressed in training suits and Le’Ton was carrying a bundle of clothes. The men stopped in front of the room and Le’Ton held a thumb up. Hulton looked furtively at Lest again, then unlocked the door of the room.

Tiana startled when Corr and Le’Ton entered. She rose to her feet and looked between the men. Le’Ton held out the bundle of clothes and spoke to her. Tiana was shaking her head in response. She made a step back and seized her veil from the bed. Corr intervened. He gestured, apparently explaining something, then pointed at the clothes that Le’Ton was carrying. Tiana was hesitating, but finally dropped the veil. She approached the men, took the clothes from Le’Ton’s hands and went into the bathroom. The two men were grinning and Le’Ton held a thumb up. Tiana returned a short while later, dressed in sweatpants and a long shirt. She brushed back her hair nervously, looked indecisively at the veil on her bed, but then straightened and joined the men by the door. The group left. Hulton turned his head to Lest, then opened another window. It showed the gym room of the ship.

The group entered the room and Le’Ton pointed at three training bikes. He helped Tiana on one of them and Corr adjusted her bike. It didn’t take long and Tiana was cycling expertly. The two men mounted bikes and the three of them were cycling and had a lively talk.

Hulton looked at the scene with surprise. “Hell, it was really easy to get her talking,” he said.

“What’s going on, Hulton?” Lest asked.

Hulton winced, then turned around. The captain was standing behind of him.

“Are you spying on me, captain?” Hulton asked.

Lest narrowed his eyes at Hulton’s blunt words, but got distracted by the scene on the screen. He looked at it in disbelief.

“What’s this? Hulton, explain!” Lest shouted.

“No need to shout at me. The plan has worked out. They’ve got her talking,” Hulton said sulkily.

“This is a case of insubordination. You won’t get away with it,” Lest said, starting for the exit of the bridge.

Doctor Midad was entering. “What’s going on? Why are you running, Lest?” he asked.

“Come and look,” Lest said, moving back to the front console. He pointed at the screen.

Midad followed him. “Astounding,” he said. “I wouldn’t have expected this from the Titan lady. Maybe she’s not what she seems. I’m almost sure she’s not.”

“What do you mean, doctor?” Lest asked impatiently. “Don’t speak in riddles, Midad.”

“We must talk,” Midad replied. “Let’s go to sickbay. I want to show you something.”

“I can’t go now, Midad. I must handle this situation. This is a severe case of insubordination,” Lest said.

“I must tell you something. It can’t wait. It has to do with the lady,” Midad replied.

Lest turned to Hulton. “We will talk about this incident later. Have them take the lady back to her room,” he said.

Lest and Midad left the bridge. Hulton activated the intercom.

“Please come to the end of your training session. The captain awaits you back on the bridge,” he said.

Corr and Le’Ton stopped cycling at once and looked at each other. Tiana stopped also and awkwardly climbed off the bike. The men were watching her and exchanged a quick look. Tiana looked at them insecurely. Le’Ton didn’t move, but Corr pointed at the door. The group left. The men led Tiana back to her room and Hulton locked the door from the bridge. Corr and Le’Ton hurried to their quarters and a short while later entered the bridge, dressed in their ship overalls. Corr’s face was white and Le’Ton’s was dark red. The men stopped short and looked at the empty captain’s seat.

“He was stopped by Doctor Midad. They have gone to sickbay,” Hulton explained. “The tongue-lashing’s just delayed, though. The captain’s really enraged. I hope you found out something useful.”

Corr and Le’Ton sat down.

Hulton looked between them. “He won’t kill you. Stop worrying,” he said. “You look as if under shock. One is white in the face and the other red.”

“It’s not because of the captain,” Corr replied. “We found out something. It is shocking.”

“What?” Hulton asked. “Did she reveal something to you?”

“It revealed when she climbed off the bike,” Le’Ton said.

“I saw it, too,” Corr added.

“And what was so devastating about it?” Hulton asked, his confusion increasing.

“She pulled up the shirt when she climbed off the bike,” Le’Ton said. “I happened to notice  it.”

“Me, too,” Corr said. “I’ve never seen a female wearing sweatpants with a bulge.”

Hulton’s mouth opened slightly.

“No doubt about it,” Corr said. “The lady is a man.”

Hulton’s mouth was hanging open and Le’Ton’s face turned even redder.

***

“The lady is a man,” Doctor Midad finished his report on the genetic test that he had run on a saliva sample.

 “Are you certain about it, Midad?” Lest asked.

“Absolutely,” Midad replied. “I took the sample from the fork he used. The genetic profile is 100% Titan. The sample isn’t from the Horus crew and the dishes the other Titan men used are still in their rooms.”

“The lady is a man,” Lest said, pacing the room. He stopped and studied a display in the wall, then turned back to Midad. “Did they kill Tian Mu’s daughter? Did a double take a place? Why a man? Why not a Titan woman?”

“I don’t know,” Midad said with a shrug.

“Did you find images of Tian Mu’s daughter in the space net?” Lest asked.

“I read a couple of articles this afternoon, but none contained an image of Tian Mu’s family,” Midad replied. “I guess the entire plot got out of control.”

“What do you think?” Lest asked.

“I think the real daughter was on Cleus for whatever reason, perhaps indeed for getting the independent expertise on her mental and emotional health,” Midad said. “The Cleus ship was supposed to take her back to the Empire of Titania. I can’t tell what happened to her, but the wrong Tiana took her place and boarded the ship. I suspect the rich vendee, who bought the crates on board of our ship, plans to marry her. The marriage will make him Tian Mu’s successor.”

“Do they really think no one will see through their plot?” Lest asked.

“If it was planned carefully and in detail, they might get through with it,” Midad said. “The Titan upper class women go veiled from early childhood on. Outsiders would not be able to tell if the woman was Tian Mu’s daughter. I think that even persons close to the family would have difficulties identifying her. Tiana is an only child.  In my opinion, only her parents would be able to identify her 100 percent. Actually, only the mother, I think. I could imagine the head of the Empire of Titania only sees his daughter once in a while.”

“They don’t talk about personal matters in their conversations,” Lest said. “No one can stumble upon a lie or anything remotely suspicious. What about the mother? Is she still alive?” he asked.

“I think so,” Midad replied. “The death-days of leader and spouse are recorded, but I found nothing in the records.” He stopped short, went to a device, searched for a while and then produced an article on the screen. Midad brushed through it.

“Listen,” he said. “When a Titan woman marries, her family status changes by law. Parents and siblings are no longer her closest relatives. Her husband is considered closer to her by law. This means she can take off her veil in front of her husband but no longer in front of parents and siblings.”

Lest was thinking. “They just need to make sure that the marriage is solemnized before her parents can see her again,” he said. “On a spaceship perhaps? Is this even possible?” he asked.

Midad studied the article. “The marriage must take place on Titan territory in front of a civil chamber or two Titan judges. Bride and bridegroom must consent. Both must be twenty-two years of age. The woman must present a statement of consent signed by her father. It’s a general declaration of consent. The father declares his willingness to hand over his daughter to her husband, who, from the date of marriage on, must care for the woman,” he said. Midad looked up. “In Tiana’s case a further requirement must be met. The independent medical expertise on her mental and emotional health.”

“I guarantee they’ve got all the necessary documents, authentic or false,” Lest said. “And I can tell you exactly where this marriage is supposed to take place.”

“Where?” Midad asked.

“Rho 59, the dwarf planet on the edge of the Titan empire,” Lest replied.

Midad nodded. “You’re absolutely right, Lest,” he said. “But it leaves one question unanswered.”

“Which one?” Lest asked.

“Why did they replace Tian Mu’s daughter by a man?” Midad asked.

“The answer is actually very simple,” Lest replied. “The marriage candidate is into men.”

“This would in fact explain the plot,” Midad said, his eyes meeting Lest’s.

Lest smiled briefly, then left and went back on the bridge.

***

Corr and Le’Ton watched the captain warily as he walked to his seat and sat down.

“The operation was meant to retrieve information, captain,” Corr said.

“Which operation?” Lest asked in confusion.

“The gym room,” Le’Ton replied.

“Oh, this,” Lest said absently.

The men exchanged a puzzled look.

Jeff entered the bridge and sat down. He was looking around. “Is this a meeting?” he asked.

Corr cleared his throat. “We’ve found out a shocking fact,” he said.

“The lady is a man,” Lest said.

“How do you know?” Le’Ton blurted out.

“What?” Jeff asked. “What are you talking about?”

Lest told them what Midad had discovered and what they had learned from the space net articles.

“I understand the disguise, the long robe, the scarf and the veil, even the plastic bag with the underwear,” Jeff said. “It’s all meant to deceive us. But why the long hair? The scarf and the veil would have sufficed in my opinion.”

“There are monitoring systems everywhere, even in private rooms,” Hulton said. “I think the long hair is just to make sure no one will become suspicious. Maybe he’s wearing a wig.”

“He didn’t put on the scarf and veil in his room or in the gym room,” Corr said. “The disguise is somewhat useless with a careless behavior. “I wouldn’t have gone to the gym room in his place.”

“I guess this is what happened on the Cleus ship. The Cleus crew found out about the truth,” Lest said.

“And were killed for it. Bright prospects, indeed,” Hulton said.

“We need not confront the Titans with our findings,” Corr said.

“What did they do to the real Tiana?” Jeff asked.

“Better don’t ask this question,” Corr replied.

“She looked beautiful. I liked her,” Le’Ton said.

Corr patted his shoulder. “A mist arose and the fog has not yet lifted. In the dead of the night we stumble about in the dark. This is a poem written by Ches Aron, a Daglon poet,” he said.

“Never heard of,” Le’Ton replied curtly.

“How about this twist on the poem? A mist arose and the fog has not yet lifted. In the dead of the night we grope about in the dark,” Corr said, grinning.

Le’Ton blushed, rose from his seat and left the bridge.

“This was downright mean,” Lest said.

“It was meant as a joke,” Corr protested.

“I found it well to the point,” Hulton remarked.

“I didn’t know you were interested in poems, Corr,” Jeff said.

“I must balance Hulton’s new interest in cooking,” Corr said. “The purchase of the pre-prepared food was an excellent idea, by the way, Hulton.”

“Thanks,” Hulton replied. He turned back to his devices, a faint smile playing on his lips.

“We need to have an open mind about new developments,” Lest said. “We’re getting nowhere  without making progress and ultimately stop dead in our tracks. We must look ahead and not turn back.”

“A good one also. Ches Aron?” Corr asked.

“No. An original by Lest Edorta,” Lest said, rising to his feet. “I’ll go and seek Le’Ton.”

The men looked after Lest.

“He rarely uses his surname,” Corr said. “And I didn’t know he was interested in poems. Did you know, Jeff?”

“No, it’s new to me, too,” Jeff replied. “This trip is full of surprises. What next?”

***

Lest stopped in the galley, rummaged through the crates and took a box of peanuts. He moved on and found Le’Ton in the ship’s gaming room, sitting at a console and playing a spacecraft war game. Lest sat down next to him and placed the peanuts box on the table. Le’Ton cast him a sideways glance.

“Which level?” Lest asked.

“Five,” Le’Ton replied. “I must take out twelve spaceships in six seconds.”

Lest looked at the screen. It was filled with white Alliance spacecrafts and black pirate ships. The ships were zig-zagging over the screen.

“Officer, fire. Countdown three seconds,” a stern voice commanded. It belonged to the Alliance commander who commanded a concerted action against the pirates.

The computer counted down and Le’Ton started firing. The screen went black and a message said: 10 pirate ships shot down. Pirates won. Try again?’

“It was close,” Lest said, seizing a few peanuts from the box. “Try again, Le’Ton.”

Le’Ton looked at the box and grabbed a few peanuts. “Roger, captain,” he said, chewing on the peanuts.

Le’Ton hit a button and the scene repeated. He started firing. The screen went black.

“Penalty points: 50. Pirates won,” the computer said. “Try again?”

“What? Penalty points?” Le’Ton shouted. “I won. I took out twelve ships. I counted them.”

“I think the last ship you shot down was an Alliance ship, the one that always comes out of nowhere. You’re Alliance in the game,” Lest said.

“Shit,” Le’Ton said. He leaned back in his chair and stuffed more peanuts into his mouth. “I had the genuine feeling she liked me,” he said.

“It could well be true, just that the she is a he,” Lest said.

“Yes,” Le’Ton said curtly.

The screen rebuilt and Le’Ton focused. He shot the twelve pirate ships down with amazing speed.

“Congratulations,” the computer said. “Alliance won. Proceed to next level?”

Le’Ton looked at Lest. “He told us he was more the runner type and had won a first prize in a running competition,” he said.

“A Titan woman taking part in a running competition. Didn’t this surprise you?” Lest asked.

“No,” Le’Ton said. “I don’t know much about the Titans. I didn’t care to read up on them.”

“What about his voice? Didn’t it sound male?” Lest asked.

“I didn’t pay much attention to his voice. I focused on the translation that came in via the neural implant,” Le’Ton said.

Lest nodded. He grabbed more peanuts.

“I thought he liked our activity in the gym room. He liked cycling. He was happy and sociable,” Le’Ton said. “This whole situation has gotten out of control. I wished things were simpler.”

“These things are barely ever simple,” Lest said. “Le’Ton, we must assume he’s involved in the plot. He might want to spy on the ship. I might be mistaken, but we must leave nothing to chance.”

“I have a genuine feeling this whole plot is not what we think it is,” Le’Ton said.

Lest studied Le’Ton and then seized more peanuts. “If he was kidnapped or forced to play along, he could have revealed it to you in the gym room. This was his chance to come forward,” he said.

Le’Ton shrugged. He turned back to the screen and resumed shooting down spacecrafts.

Lest was watching. “You don’t like the situation. Understandably,” he said. “If you had a more relaxed view of things, I’d ask you to talk with him again. We’re in a somewhat desperate need of information.”

Le’Ton stopped the game and turned to Lest. “I’d talk with him again. It’s not a problem for me. I just don’t want... .” His voice trailed off and he turned back to the screen.

Lest looked at Le’Ton in surprise. “What’s the point then?” he asked.

“I don’t want the others watching me on the monitoring screen and making fun of me. And I don’t want to hear Corr’s idiotic comments,” Le’Ton said. He turned his head to Lest.

Lest nodded. “I’ll arrange this,” he said, rising to his feet. He patted Le’Ton’s shoulder. “Good night, chin up, and take these pirates out,” he said.

“Roger, captain,” Le’Ton said with a half-smile.

Lest left the room and went back on the bridge. Hulton was sitting at the console. The other men had left the bridge.

“The others have gone to their rooms. It’s my shift,” Hulton said. “The ship is on autopilot. No problems. Everything’s quiet, captain.”

“What about the Titans?” Lest asked.

“I checked on them a few minutes ago. The four Titans are sleeping or pretending to sleep. They’re lying on their beds,” Hulton said.

“Okay, Hulton, go to your room. I’ll stay on the bridge and take over,” Lest said.

Hulton rose from his chair. “Okay. Good night, captain,” he said reluctantly.

Lest gave him a nod and Hulton left the bridge. Lest sat down in his seat, looked around and then leaned back and closed his eyes. The faint humming of the machines had a calming effect on his thoughts. Le’Ton was right. The situation was out of control, always had been. Perez had duped him. Lest took a breath. This was what was wrong about the situation. He was the captain and the Horus was his ship, but he had never been in control of this operation.

Lest heard a noise. Somebody had entered the bridge. Lest didn’t know how much time had passed since he had taken over the shift on the bridge. His muscles tensed. He was ready to jump at whoever approached him. Lest tore his eyes open.

***

“Here you are,” Jeff said, stopping in front of Lest’s seat.

Lest relaxed and leaned back in his chair. “I was thinking,” he said. “The universe is vast and we’re just a speck. A speck plowing through space. This speck can easily be erased. This wouldn’t change the grand scheme of things. Or would it? What do you think?” he asked.

Jeff was pondering. “I think it would,” he said. “It would change the grand scheme of things. Our actions have an influence and make an impression, however minor our actions are. They truly make our presence felt. It’s not just belief. There’s real evidence for it. Think of the time jumps, for instance. They can alter the time line and thus change the universe.”

Lest nodded thoughtfully.

“It’s all entwined, space and time,” Jeff said. “Every speck is a part of the universe and has its part in it.”

Lest looked at Jeff. “You’re absolutely right, Jeff. Good you came on the bridge. I was just starting to feel sorry for myself,” he said.

Jeff gave him a faint smile. Lest smiled back.

He rose from his chair, went to the console, checked several screens and displays, and opened the monitoring windows. The Titans were asleep.

“It’s late. Let’s go down,” Lest said. “Corr’s shift is about to begin in a couple of minutes.”

They waited until Corr entered the bridge.

The man looked between them in surprise. “Still up and working?” he asked, suppressing a yawn.

“I took over Hulton’s shift,” Lest said. “No specific incidents and special occurrences. The Titans are sleeping.”

“Okay, captain,” Corr said, sitting down and checking on his displays and screens.

“Good night,” Lest said, turning away from the console and walking to the exit of the bridge.

“See you later, Corr,” Jeff said.

“Good night,” Corr said with a nod. He opened a flight simulation program.

Lest and Jeff left the bridge.

***

They were lying in the dark on the narrow bed.

“We should replace the furniture,” Jeff said, turning on his side. “The bed is uncomfortable.”

“I’ll be thinking about it,” Lest said, wrapping his arm around Jeff. “You’re absolutely right. Our actions truly make our presence felt.”

Jeff shifted, but didn’t reply. He had fallen asleep. Lest looked into the darkness of the room and then closed his eyes.

***

The men met in the galley the following day. Hulton was placing mugs and plates on a tray. The Titans had placed their orders for breakfast, tea and round flat cakes with chickpeas. Lest looked at the gross mush on the cakes and shuddered.

“I was thinking,” he said. “Midad, I want you to carry the tray and go down to the Titans’ rooms. Ask about their health. They might tell you something useful. And get our special lady to sickbay for a health check. Make something up. If the Titan is eager to leave the room and see something different, he’ll readily comply. Try to make him talk. Le’Ton, you’ll accompany the doctor for his security. Take along a plasma gun.”

“Roger, captain,” Le’Ton replied.

Midad just nodded.

Lest turned to the others. “Corr, Jeff, and Hulton, I want you on the bridge. Galven and Forrit, go back to the engine room and check on the engines, just in case we need to force our way out upon arrival at Rho 59,” he said.

“A full system check will take hours. We did a full system and engine check on Cyrus,” Galven said.

“Do one more,” Lest replied and left for the bridge.

Jeff followed him.

“It seems the captain wants to see us occupied,” Galven said.

“He’s in command mode as a result of yesterday’s operation,” Hulton explained.

“What operation?” Galven asked. “The engine room was not involved in it.”

Hulton told the engineers what had happened. The men were shaking their heads. Hulton left for the bridge.

Corr and Jeff were sitting at the console. Lest was standing behind of them with his arms crossed. He cast Hulton a grumpy look. Hulton sat down quickly.

“Monitoring system on, please, Hulton,” Lest commanded.

Hulton opened a window. It showed Midad and Le’Ton walking down the corridor to the Titans’ rooms. They stopped in front of the first room.

“Unlock the door,” Lest commanded.

Hulton unlocked the door. The Titan moved to the door and seized a mug and plate.

“Lock the door,” Lest said and repeated his brief commands each time Midad and Le’Ton stopped in front of a door.

“Unlock the door,” Lest said.

“I know it by now,” Hulton said in annoyance.

Lest raised an eyebrow and cast him a meaningful look. Hulton quickly unlocked the door. Jeff and Corr exchanged a brief look.

Doctor Midad entered the room and placed the tray on the table. Le’Ton remained standing by the doorway. He looked stoically into the room. The Titan was wearing the sweatpants and the shirt Le’Ton had given to him. His hair was done in a ponytail.

“It seems the lady has disappeared into thin air,” Hulton said.

“I wasn’t asking for a comment on the scene on the screen,” Lest said.

“What’s wrong with him? Did he have a bad night?” Corr asked Jeff in a low voice.

“What?” Lest asked. “What did you just say, Corr?”

“I was asking Jeff for engine data,” Corr lied.

“Ah,” Lest said. “I thought it was another redundant comment of yours.”

Corr’s shoulders tensed. He turned back to the console and focused hard on a screen. Jeff cast Lest a questioning look, but turned his eyes away when Lest ignored him.

“Status update, please, Hulton,” Lest said.

“Doctor Midad was talking with the Titan. The man ate his breakfast, then left the room with the doctor. They’re on the way to sickbay,” Hulton said, opening a new window.

The group entered sickbay. Hulton reached out to open the window that showed the interior of the room.

“Enough,” Lest said sharply. “You will not monitor Doctor Midad’s room. Doctor Midad will hit the intercom button and contact the bridge if need be. Close the monitoring windows and keep them closed until I say otherwise. We can’t afford watching videos. I want you to check on the Horus computer, hardware and software. I want everything functioning and working properly. We need to prepare for a possible confrontation with the Titans on Rho 59.” He rubbed his hands, smiled contently, then headed for the exit of the bridge. “I’m doing an inspection round,” he said.

“What’s this? Full captain mode, bad humor or what?” Hulton asked when Lest had left.

Jeff shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t know what’s bugging him,” he said.

“It’s his act of reprisal for the gym room act,” Corr said. “He takes it out on everybody.”

“Some people make intellectual mistakes and others fail on the emotional side. Some have a hard time with both,” Hulton said with a sigh.

“Says the wise man,” Jeff said angrily. “A system check is not a mistake.”

“True,” Hulton replied. “But what exactly did you mean to say with your first sentence?”

“Get it started, guys, and spare me a philosophical discussion,” Corr interrupted them.

“Who started with poems?” Hulton asked with a taunting look..

“Shut up,” Corr snapped at him and forcefully hit a button on the console.

Hulton and Jeff fell silent and turned to their screens.

***

Lest entered sickbay. “How’s it going?” he asked Doctor Midad who was monitoring a display.

“His name is Chen,” Midad replied, turning to Lest. “He readily gave up on the masquerade, but I have not yet found out about the plot. Maybe Le’Ton will,” he said. “They’re in the adjoining room. Chen is exercising.”

Lest moved to a door with a transparent window and looked into the room. The Titan was running on a treadmill.

“I have applied a few monitoring plasters to his skin. They’re sending data to the computer. He’s on good health,” Midad said.

Lest turned away from the door. “Good work, Midad,” he said. “I’ll go and speak with the Titan leader. What’s his name? Ion, I think. It’s high time we learn more about them,” he said.

“Be careful, Lest,” Midad said.

Lest nodded. He left sickbay and went down to the quarters, stopped by his room and seized the plasma gun he had bought for personal use on Cyrus.

Lest contacted Hulton via his neural implant. “Monitoring system on, please, Hulton,” he said. “Monitor the Titan leader’s room. I’m entering the room to speak with the man. Intervene from the bridge if anything goes wrong. Decision yours. This is a command. Unlock the door. Lest, out.”

***

Lest entered the room. Ion was sitting on his bed, staring into the room, but immediately jumped to his feet at Lest’s sight. Lest stopped by the doorway. Ion was glaring at him.

“What’s this, captain?” he shouted. “You locked me up in this room. I understand it’s for security reasons. I’d be as suspicious as you are, mind you. But one meal a day?  It’s intolerable. Remember, you get paid for this trip and you acknowledged the deal.”

“If that’s your only concern,” Lest replied, raising his plasma gun and inspecting it. “The day has just started. You’ll get another meal, Ion.”

Ion straightened. “Alright. Did you come for a small talk, captain?” he asked.

Lest didn’t reply. He looked around in the room.

“What about the others? Is Lady Tiana doing fine?” Ion asked.

“Chen you mean,” Lest said. “He’s enjoying himself, yes.”

Ion made a step towards the captain, clenching his fists. Lest raised his gun.

“Lower this gun. It makes me nervous,” Ion snapped, looking around as if in search of a weapon. “You’ve found out about Chen.” he said. “What will you do? Contact the Empire? It would be a fatal mistake, captain.”

Lest raised a hand in a calming gesture. “I’ve not yet made up my mind. It’s time we talk, Ion. I know you killed the Cleus crew and escaped in a shuttle.”

“It’s not what it seems,” Ion said. “The Cleus ship was on its way to the Empire and we had to prevent it. The plot was to seize the ship and hand it over upon arrival on the main planet. Unfortunately, the captain of the ship got wind of the plot and contacted the Empire.”

“Just what I said,” Lest said. “You readily confess your nefarious deed? It somewhat surprises me. Don’t you fear I’ll contact the Titan Empire like the Cleus captain did?”

“Why? You’d gain nothing from it,” Ion said. “Perez arranged the deal. You’re in the plot, too.”

Lest decided to play along. He inspected his plasma gun. Ion was watching him.

“True,” Lest said finally. “Perez arranged the deal. It pays off. It’s a big haul,” he said.

“Perez has eyes and ears everywhere, probably to the end of the universe,” Ion said. “When we contacted him on Cyrus, he had already gotten wind of our arrival. I wanted a ship, but he offered to arrange the trip to Rho 59. It would cost me nothing, he said, which was good as we were low on credits after the initial plan had failed.”

“Ah, yes, the rich vendee,” Lest said. “Perez didn’t mention his name. It’s a big deal, isn’t it? We happened to be on Alpha And when the Orean cargo ship came in with your shuttle mag-locked to it. We saw a lot of Alliance spacecrafts and a huge Titan ship, too. An Atkon gunship fled from it. It almost collided with my ship.”

Ion winced, but didn’t take up on the Atkon ship. He was staring at Lest.

“What happened to Tian Mu’s daughter?” Lest asked.

“I don’t know,” Ion replied. “She has been in a care home on Cleus. She has psychological problems, but this was kept secret in the Empire. She’s been away for years, but nobody knew. A Titan woman lives a reclusive life and even more so Tian Mu’s daughter. I have no idea what happened to her. I suspect a different team dealt with her. She’ll never get a permission to marry. Hence, Tian Mu’s line will end.”

“A dynasty change,” Lest said.

“A dynasty change that the conservative parties don’t want to come about,” Ion said. “What do you know of Titan politics?”

“Next to nothing,” Lest replied. “I run my own business. I operate in space.”

Ion smiled. “I started my own business in space, too, years ago, purchasing and selling off cargo, you know, before I turned to the more profitable line of the business. People trafficking.”

Lest thought of the amount of credits Perez had readily paid for smuggling four individuals. He wondered how much Perez would have paid if he had negotiated a bit on the price.

“Indeed, a very profitable line of business,” Lest replied. “Cargo transports are for beginners.” He passed his plasma gun from one hand to the other and held it casually.

“The latest Alliance plasma gun?” Ion asked with a nod at the gun.

“Yes, I bought it on Cyrus,” Lest said.

“And the Daglon warship? Where did you seize it?  A warship is a priceless advantage in our line of business,” Ion said. His voice had a respectful undertone.

“I seized the opportunity as it arose,” Lest said with a brief smile. “The Daglon war put me in the position to seize the ship.”

“I see,” Ion replied. “We Titans don’t run from a war and we fight till the end. Our wars were honest and honorable in the past, but lately dirty wars became acceptable. Well, it always depends on what you’re fighting for and whose side you’re on. The Daglon war was a dishonorable war, a mere farce in the eyes of a Titan. You made a good choice when you seized the opportunity and the ship, captain. The Daglon war was thirteen years ago. I trust you had your ship overhauled and updated a couple of times.”

Lest didn’t reply. He changed the topic instead.

“You said Tian Mu’s line would end if he presented his daughter. His daughter won’t get the necessary health certificates for marriage. The closest male relative will succeed a childless leader, according to what I read,” Lest said. “I suppose this would be the proceedings in this case.”

Ion gave a nod, then crossed his arms in front of his chest.

“He didn’t want his relative to succeed him, right?” Lest asked.

“Correct,” Ion said. “His closest male relative alive is his cousin, a man with a tendency to wreck havoc.”

“The man won’t get a chance. Tian Mu has a daughter,” Lest said. “Future politics will depend on her husband, however. He’ll be the next leader of the Empire. Tian Mu would be wise to choose him himself. The daughter is the problem, but he found a way to solve it, right? He’ll present a healthy daughter. But why a disguised man?”

“Tian Mu doesn’t know of Chen. He’s expecting a Titan woman,” Ion said.

Lest nodded in understanding. “A plot in the plot,” he said. “Who devised the second one?”

“Quanac. He’ll marry the false daughter on Rho 59,” Ion said.

“Quanac?” Lest asked.

“Quanac,” Ion said.

Lest walked to the door.

“Captain, “ Ion said.

Lest turned back to him.

“Why are you so interested in the plot? Why don’t you just do the job Perez hired you for?” Ion asked.

“Well,” Lest said. “Perez said something that I can’t get out of my head. He repeated it several times. Lest, he said, you can always shoot your way out.”

“What do you mean?” Ion asked, but then stopped short and stared at Lest. “Rho 59? A trap? Is this what you think?” he asked.

“Like you said, Perez has eyes and ears everywhere. His words were a warning,” Lest said.

He focused on his neural implant and commanded Hulton to unlock the door. The door opened instantly.

“Two and a half days until arrival at Rho 59. I wish you a pleasant flight,” Lest said. “Things might change very soon.”

He left the room and the door closed behind him. Lest went back on the bridge.

***

“Who the hell is Quanac?” Jeff asked.

“The rich vendee, I guess. The man who bought the guns,” Lest said. “The Cleus ship was en route from Cleus to the Empire of Titania. The Titans planned to seize the Cleus ship upon arrival and hand it over to Quanac, but the Cleus crew found out about Chen and the captain contacted the Titan Empire. The Titans intervened, killed the Cleus crew and changed their plan. The original plan had failed.”

“They’ve changed the plan,” Corr said.

“Quanac changed his plan,” Lest said. “He gave up on the fake marriage and bought the latest weapons and guns on Cyrus. Jeff, research on Quanac. You might find something on the spacenet.”

“Why did Quanac buy plasma guns if he could have succeeded with a marriage?” Corr asked.

“The answer is a simple,” Hulton said. “He plans an armed intervention. Quanac arranged a trip to Rho 59 for Chen and the other Titans in order to get rid of them there. No need to chase them through space. They’ll come to him freely.”

“It’s a load of crap,” Lest said. “Hulton, Corr, complete the system check. Don’t forget about the defense systems.”

“Where’s Le’Ton?” Corr asked. “He could help us with the check.”

“He’s in sickbay,” Lest replied. “Doctor Midad is running a few tests on Chen.”

“Chen?” Corr asked. “Did the Titan come out to Midad?”

“Yes, he gave up on the masquerade but didn’t elaborate on the plot. I hope Le’Ton will make him talk,” Lest said.

“Hard to believe the Titan looks forward to a life in disguise,” Jeff said.

“Not the life I would prefer to live myself, but to each his own,” Lest said. He reached out and hit the intercom button. “Doctor Midad? How’s it going?” he asked.

“I’m finishing the analysis of the tests,” Midad replied.

“Is Chen still exercising?” Lest asked.

“They went to the gaming room,” Midad said.

“They went to the gaming you room?” Lest asked sharply.

“For treatment,” Midad answered quickly. “The computer detected a slight anomaly regarding various stress hormones. When Le’Ton brought up the gaming room, I thought it was a good idea to stop a possible beginning depression.”

“Fine,” Lest said curtly. “But you could have reported back to me, Midad.” He hit the button and closed the intercom line. “Hulton, how long until arrival at Rho 59?”

“Fifty  hours, twenty-nine minutes, three seconds,” Hulton replied.

“Hell, why does it take so long?” Lest said, unnerved.

***

Chen and Le’Ton were sitting in the gaming room. Chen was enthusiastically shooting the pirate ships down. He won the fifth level at first attempt. Grinning, he leaned back in his chair.

“The game is fun,” he said. “Thanks for taking me here. I’m enjoying the game. I’m enjoying your company in the first place.”

Le’Ton smiled, but shifted uneasily in his chair.

“What’s wrong?” Chen asked. “Am I annoying you?”

Le’Ton shook his head. “No, no,” he said. “Chen, why did you give up on the masquerade?”

“It didn’t make sense to me anymore. Not after what happened on the Cleus ship,” Chen said.

Le’Ton studied Chen’s features, the almond shaped eyes and the smooth pale skin.

“You don’t have much facial hair,” he said.

Chen gave him a baffled look, then smirked. “Permanent epilation. It’s because of my profession. I’m an actor,” he said.

“Well, this explains why they picked you to play the daughter,” Le’Ton said.

“What do you mean?” Chen asked.

“You replaced Tiana, Tian Mu’s real daughter,” Le’Ton said.

Chen crossed his arms and leaned back.

Le’Ton changed the topic. “Tell me more of your profession,” he said.

Chen relaxed. “Do you know about Titan theatre?” he asked.

Le’Ton shook his head.

“It’s a mixture of martial arts and opera,” Chen said. “I’m engaged a lot in fake fights on the stage. That’s why I must exercise. I’m running, but I do different kinds of sports, too. I have a lot of singing to do as well, all while acting on the stage.”

“But why the long hair?” Le’Ton asked.

“I’m acting the roles of females on the stage. Titan women mustn’t perform on the stage. They are rarely seen in public at all. The Titans are a warrior species with a male-dominated culture. This is a problem in these days,” Chen explained. “Tian Mu is a conservative man, extremely conservative. He abolished several laws that his predecessors had installed. He wants to go back to the old days. It’s a conflict with all the technology and the developments in space. Cleus, for instance, decided against the Empire of Titania because of the developments in the Empire and joined the Alliance instead.”

“I’ve heard of it,” Le’Ton said.

“The Empire and Cleus had maintained good relations for centuries,” Chen said. “Cleus was practically a Titan outpost, albeit independent because of its status as a medical center. We Titans hold doctors in high regard because they can decide on life and death just like a warrior can take his enemy’s life or spare it. Hence, Cleus’ decision is considered betrayal, an affront, a scandal in the eyes of the conservative Titans. Many parties, however, have seen it coming. They approve of it as it causes a stir and foments trouble. The Titans are ready for a change.”

“And here’s where you come into play,” Le’Ton said.

Chen nodded. “It was actually Tian Mu’s idea. His daughter has been on Cleus for years. She has psychological problems, but no one knows, except of her family and Tian Mu’s counselors, of course,” he said. “Tian Mu chose a Titan woman who was supposed to take his daughter’s place and marry a loyal man that Tian Mu has chosen. Thus Tian Mu will remain in control.”

“This is just sick,” Le’Ton said. “You said he chose a woman. How did you come into play?”

“The plan was changed,” Chen said reluctantly.

Le’Ton was staring at Chen. “Tian Mu chose a man? He chose you and you actually comply with it? You really want to live a life as a woman, married to the next leader of the Titan Empire?” he asked in disbelief.

Chen gave a laugh. “No,” he said. “Tian Mu has no idea that the plan has changed. I won’t marry the man Tian Mu has chosen. I’m going to marry Quanac. He has devised the plan and he arranged it all. He’ll be the next leader of the Titan Empire. It’s a dynasty change.”

“Won’t Tian Mu foil the plot? Won’t he present his real daughter to the public and the council?” Le’Ton asked in confusion.

“I don’t think he can,” Chen said, turning his eyes away.

“You mean his daughter is dead. And the woman who was supposed to replace her is probably dead, too,” Le’Ton said, leaning back in his chair. “Did you approve of this conspiracy to murder?” he asked.

Chen’s face paled. “I don’t know what happened to them. We didn’t meet Tiana and her bodyguards. Their finger chip codes were sent to us . We reprogrammed ours. It was easy to pass the security controls. The Cleus can’t distinguish one Titan from the other.”

Le’Ton’s look was hard and cold. Chen looked aside. His lower lip was trembling.

“I made a big mistake,” he said. “I met Quanac back stage a few months ago. I was enamored. He beguiled me. It was all a masquerade, though.”

“I think you’re naive,” Le’Ton said. “Do you really think Quanac will let you go if the plan fails for whatever reason?”

The young Titan slumped in his chair. A tear was running down his cheek.

Le’Ton placed his hand on Chen’s. “It’s not too late. I’m going to speak with the captain. He won’t hand you over to Quanac. He wasn’t happy with the trip anyway,” he said.

Chen seized Le’Ton’s hand and squeezed it. “It feels good,” he whispered.

Le’Ton inhaled deeply.

***

Jeff and Lest were in the galley.

“What did you find out about Quanac?” Lest asked.

“Quanac is a member of the Titan council. The council consists of twelve men who are directly subordinated to the head of the Empire,” Jeff said.

“This explains a lot,” Lest said. “A counselor has inside information. Quanac is planning to stage a coup. That’s why he bought the plasma guns.”

“How does Chen fit in?” Jeff asked.

“He doesn’t fit in. Quanac has changed his plan,” Lest said. “How are chances that the fake marriage will work out in the end? I guess they’re low. The initial plan failed right in the beginning when the Cleus captain saw through their plot. If I were in Quanac’s place, I would rely on the guns and not on Ion’s amateur team and a poorly acting young man. The Horus is a warship. You can always shoot your way out. That’s what Perez said. His words make perfect sense to me now.”

“Quanac wants the cargo. We’re safe until discharge is complete,” Jeff said. “Will you hand the Titans over to him?”

Lest took a breath. “Quanac will kill them, but they killed the Cleus crew. Shall I spare their lives or leave them to their fate. I don’t know. I must think. I’m going to the engine room.”

“Is the engine room a good place for thought?” Jeff asked in a puzzled voice.

Lest didn’t reply. He left the galley. Jeff looked after him.

***

Jeff went back on the bridge. The men continued the system check.

Lest entered the bridge an hour later.

“Corr, run a calculation. I want the minimum time for take-off and climb to orbit from Rho 59,” he said. “Assume the ship is in standby mode on the ground. Hulton, check out Rho 59. Find a suitable landing place away from the spaceport. Jeff, plot a course from Rho 59 to Calisto Imper. It’s an old spaceport and stopover for ships. Plot three space jumps to lay a false trail. Run the flight on the simulator and refine the route.”

“Do you think we need to run?” Hulton asked.

“Not if Forrit and Galven get my plan under way,” Lest said. “But better leave nothing to chance.”

“A plan?” Jeff asked.

“They’ll tweak the engines to enhance the ship’s speed. We’ll arrive earlier at Rho 59 by approximately eighteen hours, almost one day. We’ll unload the cargo in standby mode and take off as soon as we can,” Lest explained.

“Quanac might already be there and waiting for us,” Jeff said.

“I don’t think so, but I won’t take a risk,” Lest said. “That’s why we won’t land in the spaceport. We’ll unload the cargo elsewhere. Quanac will find a way to seize his crates.”

“Take-off will be cumbersome,” Corr warned. “The tweaking of the engines might cause a few damages to the ship.”

“I know. Figure this in,” Lest replied. “That’s why we’ll make a stopover on Calisto Imper. We’ll check on the ship before continuing to Cyrus. It was Galven’s idea.”

“I can’t find Calisto Imper in the sector manual,” Jeff said.

Lest went to the console. “Try the other way round. Imper Calisto. It’s an old Alliance outpost.”

“I found it,” Jeff said. “It’s a stopover for ships en route to the main planet of the Empire of Titania. A newer spaceport on a platform is in close proximity. The new spaceport is mainly used now, but the old one on Imper Calisto is still being operated.”

“Perfect,” Lest said. “What about a possible landing place on Rho 59, Hulton?”

“The maps and images are outdated,” Hulton said. “I don’t know if we can rely on them. There’s a plain south of the spaceport that would allow a landing, I think.”

Lest walked over and looked at Hulton’s screen. “It’s very close to the spaceport. Not ideal,” he said.

“The planet is mountainous, the surface torn open everywhere. Rho 59 was mined intensively in the past,” Hulton said. “I guess the plain was the storage place. It’s the best place I can come up with.”

“Okay, we’ll deal with what we have. Plot a course to the plain and figure out an optimal landing maneuver,” Lest said.

The men on the bridge had just finished their jobs when Galven called from the engine room. The tweaking of the engines was done and Galven gave his go to enhance the ship’s speed.

Lest crossed his arms in front of his chest.

“Alright,” he said. “Corr, maximum speed.”

***

“I must go back on the bridge,” Le’Ton said.

They had been sitting in silence for a while.

“I guess you must,” Chen said. He drew his hand back.

“Why are things never simple?” Le’Ton asked, rising to his feet.

“Life is a challenge,” Chen replied with a smile, rising from his chair. “Take me back to my room. I must not distract you any longer.”

The two men left the gaming room.

***

The engines were doing fine. Twenty-four hours had passed.

“How long until arrival at Rho 59?” Lest asked.

“Six hours, thirteen minutes,” Hulton replied.

As if on cue, an alarm went off.

Galven called from the engine room. “Engines overheated,” he said.

“Can we go for another six hours?” Lest asked.

“Slow down one percent,” Galven advised.

Lest gave the command and Corr slowed down the Horus.

“How does it affect flight time?” Lest asked.

“Eight hours, twenty-three minutes until arrival at Rho 59,” Hulton replied.

“About sixteen hours ahead of time. Still good,” Lest said.

The alarm stopped ten minutes later and the Horus continued on its flight route. The alarm went off again one hour later and they had to decelerate the ship again. Corr accelerated the ship when the engines had cooled down and  decelerated it when the alarm went off. It was a back and forth for hours. The men were tired, but none of them left the bridge.

“How long until arrival?” Lest asked.

“Two hours, four minutes,” Hulton replied.

“Ten hours ahead of time. Still good, but not how we planned it,” Lest said.

An hour went by.

“Arrival at mesh out point in fifteen minutes,” Corr said.

The Horus dropped back into real space and the overheated space jump engines were set to cool down.

“External sensors made out Rho 59,” Jeff said. “I’m sending the images to the main screen.”

The main screen showed the dwarf planet. The pictures were coarse but were soon getting better. The dwarf planet was made of gray rock and looked scarred and torn.

“Le’Ton, scan the area,” Lest said. “Any activities on the planet or in space?”

“No activities detected,” Le’Ton said a minute later. “But the planet is still too far away to say for sure.”

The Horus finally reached the dwarf planet and went into orbit. The computer systems were scanning the surface. They detected no activities on the ground.

“They’re either not there or their ship is in full stealth mode. Whatever. I don’t care. We’re ready for landing. Corr, initiate the landing maneuver,” Lest said.

The Horus was descending. The ship entered the dwarf planet’s thin atmosphere

“What about the Titans?” Jeff asked. “Will you throw them out in the plain?”

“We have enough life supporting suits on board,” Lest said.

“Don’t do it, captain. Quanac will kill them. Spare at least Chen. He’s innocent,” Le’Ton begged.

“I can’t spare him, Le’Ton,” Lest said sternly. “I don’t want Quanac going after us. Life is cruel sometimes.”

Le’Ton opened his mouth to protest, but Lest silenced him with a wave of his hand. Le’Ton turned back to the console, his body tensed and his shoulders slumped. The others looked between Le’Ton and Lest, but then turned back to their screens.

A dreadful silence was hanging on the bridge. It was interrupted by another alarm going off.

“Ship approaching,” Corr shouted.

The men raised their eyes to the main screen. A huge spaceship came into view. It was entering orbit. The ship was a Titan warship, vast, black, and menacing. It was not in stealth mode.

“The computer is getting weapon signatures,” Hulton said. “28 missiles and six plasma bombs. Primed, ready to fire. A gigantic attack potential. They can blow up Rho 59 in a second.”

Lest straightened. “Corr, cancel descent at once. Immediate climb back to orbit. A higher altitude than the Titan ship. Follow the Titan warship,” he commanded.

Corr initiated a steep climb. The Horus climbed above and behind the Titan ship. Corr re-programmed the flight computer and the Daglon warship automatically followed its target.

“Identify the ship, Hulton,” Lest commanded.

“A Titan warship, class C7C combat vessel, the same type we saw near Alpha And. A Titan military vessel,” Hulton said.

“Any sign they’ve detected the Horus?” Lest asked.

“No,” Corr replied. “We’re in full stealth mode. All shields are on and functioning 100%.”

Lest was watching the Titan ship on the main screen. It was passing over the planet, but didn’t descend. Lest narrowed his eyes. “They’re looking for something. Scan the planet again, Le’Ton,” he said.

“Nothing,” Le’Ton said after a while. “Any ship down there is either dead or in full stealth mode.”

The maneuver came unexpected. The Titan warship turned sharply and descended towards the spaceport at tremendous speed. The Horus computer responded and re-calculated the course. The Daglon warship followed the Titan ship and adjusted the speed.

“I’m getting signals from the ground,” Hulton shouted. “Plasma missile fired from the ground,  targeted at the Titan warship.”

“Computer has located a ship on the ground in the spaceport area,” Le’Ton reported.

The missile was fast. The plasma load hit the Titan warship only seconds later. An orange glow enveloped the ship. The glow faded and dissolved quickly.

“Their shields absorbed the plasma load,” Corr said.

The Titan warship moved on, unaffected by the hit. Another plasma shot came from the ground. The Titan ship shot back instantly. A plasma bomb hit the old spaceport and blew it up. A huge ball of plasma fire was spreading in all directions.

“Sensors say 6,000 degrees Celsius,” Jeff said.

The fire went out soon due to the planet’s thin atmosphere. The spaceport had disappeared and the area was black and burnt. Charred and molten remains of steel construction completed the sight. The men were gazing at the main screen.

The Horus was shaking heavily. The event shook the men out of their trance. Lest lost balance and flung himself in his chair. The men strapped in automatically.

“Gravitational shock wave,” Corr said. “The Titan ship has activated space jump mode.”

The Titan combat vessel dropped out of real space and the Daglon warship was seized by the massive drag. The ship was swerving. The flight management system attempted to level the flight, but didn’t manage to balance the combined effect of the space jump shock wave and the dwarf planet’s gravitational pull. The ship left orbit and entered into a spiral descent towards the planet.

“Ship’s falling,” Hulton shouted.

The flight management gave another acoustic alarm, but the system failed to stop the ship’s fall. The falling ship was picking up speed. The surface of the planet came rapidly closer.

“Corr, level the ship,” Lest shouted at the man who was staring at the warning messages on his displays.

Corr winced at Lest’s shout. He bent forward and shut down the primary flight management system. Another alarm went off and the standby system came on. Corr was hastily keying in codes. The ship responded. The flight computer leveled the flight and  initiated a steep climb to orbit. Ten minutes later, the Horus was orbiting Rho 59 at a regular speed.

The men unstrapped.

Lest rose to his feet and went to the console. He patted Corr’s shoulder. “Good work, Corr,” he said.

Corr looked up. “Thanks, captain,” he said. Sweat was covering his face.

“I think our mission became obsolete, captain. Titan military found Quanac. The old spaceport and its surroundings have practically disappeared,” Hulton said.

“Correct, Hulton,” Lest replied. “Le’Ton, set course on Imper Calisto. It’s time we get out of here.”

Lest went to the console, hit the intercom button and informed Doctor Midad, the engineers and the Titans on their new course.

***

The Horus touched down on Imper Calisto. The crew had reprogrammed the ship’s code for security reasons, but spaceport staff was not interested in the men and the ship. The few men stationed on Imper Calisto were jaded and  bored and not even the arrival of the Daglon warship shook them out of the lethargy. The Horus crew did a couple of checks, then the ship took off and set course on Cyrus. Lest decided to take the Titans back to the planet. Ion and his companions were confined to their rooms, but Lest made an exception for Chen.

***

Le’Ton hit a button in the wall. The door opened and he stepped in. Chen was already waiting for him.

“How about a game in the gaming room?” Le’Ton asked.

“I’d love to play,” Chen replied with a smile.

They left the room and strolled down the corridor, then entered the gaming room. They sat down, but didn’t start the game.

“Life is a challenge,” Le’Ton said. “I was thinking, Chen.”

“Yes?” Chen asked.

“We’re flying from Cyrus to Daglon for a three-weeks vacation. I was wondering. Would you like to come along?” Le’Ton asked.

“I’d be glad to,” Chen replied, smiling.

***
  
The Horus touched down on Cyrus and Ion and his companions got off the ship.

“You spared our lives, captain. We’re in your debt. I give you my word as a Titan warrior. You can count on us whenever you need us, Captain Lest,” Ion said.

Lest gave a nod. “Things are often not what they seem. Sometimes we fail to see the grand scheme of things,” he said. “I was too much involved in this plot, else I would not have let you go."

“Quanac’s mission was doomed from the start, but the mission wasn’t meant to become nefarious. Quanac intended to bring about a positive change. The Empire will now turn back to outdated and antiquated views and attitudes. This will only stir more riots and revolts in the future,” Ion said. He paused. “Where are you going now, captain?” he asked.

“Home to Daglon for a vacation,” Lest said.

“At least you have a place you call home,” Ion said.

The Titans departed. Lest looked after them.

“The universe is vast and we’re just a speck. A speck plowing through space,” he said.

“However minor our actions, they have an influence and make an impression. They truly make our presence felt,” Jeff added.

“You’re absolutely right, Jeff,” Lest said, placing an arm around Jeff’s shoulders. “I wonder what is coming next.”

“I don’t think of the future,” Jeff replied. “But I look forward to our visit to Daglon.”

***



© 2015 Dolores Esteban

Contact

First published at GA Gay Authors - Gay Quality Fiction