They heard the stories. They ended in one of two ways: Slavers jettisoning their full cargo of slaves at the first sight of a government ship or some governments spacing the slavers after catching them with their cargo. Chattel slavery might be legal on Bothecarro (It was, both Giselle and Dede checked.), but transporting slaves carried exceedingly harsh consequences in nearly all of civilized space.

They talked through it. The options, the risks. None of them sounded appealing and all of them could leave the two in the brig, or worse.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” First Mate Spivakovsky asked from her seat in the tiny bridge.

“Have you ever known me to go running to the cops?” Captain Gili replied as she plotted their approach.

“There was that one ….”

“That doesn’t count.”

“You don’t even know what I was going to say.”

“That other time doesn’t count, either.”

“Still think Sub-Commander Kildare set us up?” Dede asked.

“That’s what the slavers told us,” Giselle answered. “But I’d like to get more proof.”

Dede confirmed their flight path, then squinted through the cockpit window to pick out a slightly brighter pinprick among the stars surrounding the green orb of Bothecarro. The Alliance Heavy CruiserResolute orbited the planet on a goodwill tour of the unclaimed territories. A loud sigh escaped the Mate’s lips. It wasn’t that they were just going to turn themselves over to the authorities. They were, quite literally, throwing themselves on the tender mercies of THE Man.

******

Ships smell a certain way. The interior passageways and rooms collect the odors from the crew and cargo and build up over the years. Captain Gili couldn’t nail down the specifics of the Gazelle’s scent, but after her years piloting the ship, it smelled like home.

Alliance ships all smelled the same: clean antiseptic, bright metal and harsh lighting. Giselle fidgeted in the all-too-comfortable chair of the conference room. She aspired to this, at one time in her life. Now, as her fingers fiddled with the ends of her hair, it felt as alien as a Muhwat in a hot tub.

The door slid open to let the captain into the room. Captain Gili had to admit the man looked solidly fit for his age. A tailored, blue uniform stretched across his wiry build.  His gray mustache drooped below the ridge of his narrow chin.

The captain of the Resolute set down the tablet he carried on the polished conference room table, and flipped through the contents. Giselle shifted from one cheek to another as she waited in her chair.

“Captain Gili.” His basso voice rumbled across the space between them. “Top of your class at the Naval Academy on Vothade. Spent four years in SAR before a dishonorable discharge. I recall there was some discussion of charges, but I see that didn’t make it into the official record.”

“Since leaving the service,” he flipped the screen, “Oh, yes… A record of ownership of a converted scout vessel, a number of arrests for various misdemeanors. I see one, no two, warrants out for your arrest issued by the Dutchy of Zeslietania, although the reasons are a little vague.”

Giselle opened her mouth to speak, saw the look on the captain’s face, and thought better of it.

“And now you turn yourself in to an Alliance ship, with a hold full of slaves, three men in fear for their lives, and a dead body.” The captain straightened as he lifted a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. After a sigh, his hands met each other in front of his chest.

“What do you have to say for yourself?”

Her thin lips pursed together before she answered. “Hello, Dad.”

******

The locks went on as soon as the Gazelle touched down on Bothecarro. No amount of thrust would lift the ship off-planet without tearing off her landing gear. Dede and Giselle watched the harbor authority take up positions around them through video monitors mounted outside the vessel.

“It’s almost like they were tipped off,” Dede murmured.

“Keep watching,” Captain Gili ordered as she stood. “Find our little snitch. I’m going down to the hatch to meet our guests and give them the full tour. A very full tour, I imagine.”

“Make sure you bring lube,” Dede called after her. “I hear they can be quite invasive.”

******

The last panel fell away. The customs officer counted the revealed boxes and made a final check on the manifest. She turned to her squad leader. “Everything’s here and correct, sir.”

The uniformed officer accepted the tablet to review the list. The wrinkles of his face pulled into a scowl.

“Let me be sure I’m getting this straight,” Captain Gili interjected. “I’m on lockdown because my papers are in order?”

The grimace deepened on the officer’s face. He turned to another of his minions. “The ship’s clean,” the young man reported. “One other crew member. Five registered passengers. No contraband.”

Giselle leaned closer to the senior officer, a grin spreading across her face. “If we knew you were coming, we could have baked you something; a cake, maybe.” The quip earned her a bruise as the squad leader angrily pressed the cargo manifest into her chest.

“Keep your nose clean, Captain,” he sneered. Giselle stepped out of the way as the officer gathered his men and left the ship.

The mess of open crates and packing materials strewn around the hold earned a long, deep breath from her. Captain Gili set down the manifest and began the slow process of cleaning up. It took the cheerful arrival of her first mate before she would even look up.

Giselle watched as Dede skipped into the hold, a tablet clutched to her breast. “Tell me you found him.” Mate Spivakovsky nodded her head rapidly, a smile splayed out across her lips. “Oh, yes.” She slid next to her captain and started replaying the video capture.

“He was standing on the edge of the landing pad, scanning the whole thing.”

“Well, this looks really exciting…” Giselle frowned.

“Wait for it,” Dede chided. “That customs lieutenant comes out to confront him just about… now.”

Gili winced as she watched the screen. “Oh, that’s going to require some dental work.” Her hand came to her mouth as the frames ticked off. “I don’t think that’s supposed to hang quite that…. Oh… Just… Ow.”

“At least it will be easy to identify him,” the Captain mused. “Only so many people can be at the local hospital with those specific injuries.”

Dede’s smile grew even larger. “I already identified him. Diplomatic personnel have to register with local authorities and their pictures are posted publicly. An image search matched them right up.”

“He’s a diplomat?” The first mate’s head bobbed up and down. “I’ll give you one guess.”

“You know,” the Captain said. “One day, I’m going to find the actual Duchess of Zeslietania and… and….”

“And?”

“Tell her she has terribly mean people working for her, like Alston Kildare and that,” she pointed to the screen, “that guy.” She puffed her hair off her forehead. “After a curtsy and doing all the things you’re supposed to do with royalty.” Giselle continued. “Let’s get these supplies to the med center and collect our meager shipping fee.”

“It was nice of your dad to give us a job, after he confiscated all of our cargo,” Dede reflected. “It would have also been nice if we could have collected a bounty on the slavers.”

“It could have been a lot worse,” Giselle replied. Dede nodded her head in agreement, more slowly, this time.

“We’re not done yet,” the Captain continued. “With any luck, we can be on our way back to Station 47 before our diplomat friend here regains consciousness and gets a message out. There’s still a score to settle and those customs agents gave me an idea.”

******

The  laugh bubbled out of her mouth like sparkling water dancing along a stone riverbed. The bartender stood there, watching as her new concoction frothed and foamed over the lip of its glass. She lifted a gloved hand to her forehead. “I think it might be alive.”

Dede hesitated, unsure if she should take the cocktail from the counter. The bartender’s antennae twitched in the First Mate’s direction. “If it is alive, intelligent,” her lips twisted into a look of thought, “could you ask it if it wants to be drunk before… you know… drinking it?”

Dede nodded her head and slowly reached for the glass.

“And if it’s alive,” the bartender continued. “Don’t let the waitress see it. She’ll hit it with a hammer. It’s just her way.”

“I’ll take good care of him… her… it,” Dede assured her as she walked away with her drinks in hand. Finding her captain, she slid the cocktail over. “Here. This one’s for you.” She watched cautiously as Giselle took a sip.

“What?” the Captain looked askance at her first mate. “Do I have something on my face?” Dede touched a finger to her upper lip, unsure if the foam across the table from her moved on its own. Giselle’s quick wipe may have just destroyed a new life form’s chance at a dynasty.

Dede pushed the thought out of her mind and joined her captain as the two watched the entrance. It only took another round of drinks before a certain dark haired sub-commander slithered into the bar. The crew of the Gazelle moved smoothly into position.

“Alston!” Giselle called as she settled a firm hand on his shoulder. Dede settled in behind him and pressed the short barrel of a revolver into the small of his back. “How’s life in service of the Duchy?”

To his credit, the agent didn’t blink, take a breath, pale, or look surprised in any way. “Captain Gili. I didn’t expect to see you here.”

Giselle tilted her head. “I can’t imagine. I am so very glad we ran into each other. I have some friends who wanted to meet you.” Shadows fell across their faces as five giants gathered round. The tall, blue female Calmora leaned over to sniff the sub-commander’s delicate coiffure.

“Smells delicious,” she grumbled, her horns trembling.

“They were part of the cargo you arranged for us to pick up. We offered them passage to Station 47. The introduction to you is a freebie we threw in.”  Captain Gili leaned close, her voice a whisper. “A ship hungry for legitimate business. I will admit, we made it easy for you. Tell me. Did you plant the job offer once you heard we were on the station, or did you reroute cargos after we accepted?”

“And you just had to watch,” Dede added. “That diplomat at the landing pad. He was linked to the Duchy, just like you.”

“Sloppy work, Kildare,” Giselle said. “Not enough for charges, but enough for…” Her eyebrow lifted as she scanned the faces towering above them.

Alston nodded in response. “You can’t hurt me here,” he told her. “Neutral ground.”

Giselle stepped back. “Take him to the outer docking ring, area 254. They’ve been having trouble with brigands in that section.”

Dede cleared out of the way and let the small crowd hustle Sub-Commander Kildare out the door. The two watched as the cluster of menace disappeared around a corner.

“Feeling better?” she asked.

Her captain grinned and led them both to back to their table.

“You know,” Dede offered. “That we turned over a load of slaves to the Alliance… that’s going to get around. We’re going to have problems getting shady gigs.”

Captain Gili settled back in her chair and took a long draft from her drink. “Dede, I think I’m OK with that.”

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