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They came into Inago for news, and supplies, and other such items of interest that a way station might be expected to offer. Vepal had chosen this particular way station because it was in a more populated sector and enjoyed a level of traffic that the ports they usually chose did not.

Traffic, then, he had expected.

He had simply not expected so much traffic.

Nor that so much of it would be . . .martial . . .in nature.

Some might have leapt to the conclusion that Inago was under attack. Commander Vepal's trained eye immediately discerned the lack of lines, the lack of order in committed approaches. Oh, there was station order, this ship to such berth on that heading – but nothing like military discipline, or thinking, here.

But if not an attack, then – what brought so many soldiers and fighting ships to Inago Prime, surely among the least warlike location in this section of space?

His board pinged receipt of a communication originating at the station. Not, according to the wrapper, from station admin – they were too far out, yet, for the station master's attention. No, this message originated inside the station; sent from a private source.

Intrigued, Vepal opened the packet.

Perdition Enterprises is hiring soldiers, pilots, techs, and specialists for assignments starting immediately! All may apply – papers or paper-free; lone guns to entire units. Soldiers and specialists must have own kit. Working units will be retained intact, if possible. All contracts with Perdition Enterprises. PE provides transportation, target, mission goals, and timeline. Generous bonuses for early completion! NDA required. Come to Core Conference, station center, any hour, any day. Recruiters standing by.

The message began to repeat, and Vepal killed it.

"Are we looking for employment?" Pilot Erthax asked, and waited just a breath too long before adding, "Sir."

Vepal considered him.

"I've been going over the mission's funding. Temp Headquarters used to omit only one of our five stipends per Cycle. Of the last five due, we have received . . .three.

"This lack of funding decreases our efficiency and our scope," Vepal went on, talking quietly, gaze on his screen. "It might be . . .to the benefit of the mission to find what this Perdition Enterprises considers reasonable recompense for the skills of a pilot. If there is a signing bonus, as well . . ."

Though he kept his eyes scrupulously on his screen, Vepal's peripheral vision was good enough that he saw Erthax's hard, dark face flush, and his mouth tighten.

"Yes," he continued. "You make a good point, Pilot. We should definitely find what assignments are on offer, and of what duration. It seems to me that we have become soft in our small unit here. A stint in the field might be what is required."

He was. . .not joking. Jokes were made between comrades. No, he was deliberately egging Erthax on, out of temper and dislike.

Which, he thought, with some chagrin, proved his point. They had become soft of discipline. He had become soft, for it was true that the troop was the reflection of command. And a commander who would taunt one of his own soldiers . . .ought to offer himself to the High Command for a field tour at reduced rank.

Which, interestingly enough, was what Perdition Enterprises offered.

Vepal frowned at his screen. It was outside of his authority to enlist in a military action, even if Perdition Enterprises included Yxtrang among those it found acceptable. Papers or paper-free, was it? Legitimate, licensed soldiers fighting beside pirates, renegades – and Yxtrang?

Still, there was opportunity here. The point of his mission was to discover, per the continuing orders from Headquarters, the proper entity for those of the Troop who had survived the collapse of the old universe to offer their allegiance, and their skills.

It seemed. . .unlikely that Perdition Enterprises was that entity, but it was not. . .entirely unlikely that they might have information about such an entity.

For almost the first time since he had re-discovered their continuing orders, lost for hundreds of Cycles, Vepal felt a stirring of hope, that this was not entirely the mission of a fool.


The answer to his request for an interview with a recruiter upon their arrival on Inago, was – an application.

A form letter asked that he complete the application and send it ahead so that an appointment with an appropriate recruiter could be made. There was also a brief and uninformative blurb, from which he learned that Perdition Enterprises was in the business of brokering military and quasi-military assignments. There was no information about those in command, the owners or directors. The planet upon which Perdition Enterprises was registered was – not Waymart. Not quite Waymart.

It was, however, registered, licensed, and approved by the Better Business Bureau of Gilstommer, which, as Vepal understood it, was to corporate entities precisely what Waymart was to ships.

So, the application.

He applied as "Vepal Small Troop," listing their personnel as one senior officer with advanced piloting and command skills, one line pilot, and one line soldier, detailing the skills shared among the troop, save those specific to Explorers. In a section headed "Other Assets," he noted that the troop maintained its own vessel, lightly armed and armored, suitable for reconnaissance or courier. He admitted that their treasury was small, and added that each member carried a complete and well-maintained kit.

Put thus, they looked a sad case, indeed, and he hesitated overlong, wondering if he ought to expand their worth. It was his purpose to gain an interview to learn about these immediate assignments, and to put particular questions of his own.

In the end, however, he sent in the nearly-truthful application.

And, to his very great surprise, a communication from Perdition Enterprises met them at the dock, naming an hour not too far distant for Commander Vepal to meet with Recruiter pen'Chouka, in the Core Conference Center, Room 9A.

Vepal considered the name, which suggested that the recruiting agent was . . .Liaden. It was well to consider beforehand, how a Liaden might react, confronted with an Yxtrang, even a certified and guaranteed safe Yxtrang.

Still – Perdition Enterprises encouraged all to apply – papers or paper-free, eh? Surely Recruiting Agent pen'Chouka had seen worse than a well-behaved Yxtrang commander, respectfully reporting for his interview in dress uniform, with only small arm and grace blade on the belt; his honor-marks old and faded, and grey showing in his hair.

He had been instructed to appear unaccompanied before Recruiting Agent pen'Chouka, which Ochin would not like. The central belief of the Rifle's life was that Commander Vepal ought always to be accompanied by an escort appropriate to his rank – an honor guard at least! – or by the escort available, which would be Ochin Rifle.

Vepal hesitated. He didn't like to disappoint his Rifle, who was a simple man, and loyal, as Erthax was not. Still, the request was not unreasonable; was, in fact, prudent, and efficient. Evaluate command first, as the face and mind of the troop. If the commander passed inspection, then he would be called back, with his troop, for a second evaluation, if the first interview proved not to be sufficient.

On the way in to the station, he had attempted further research on Perdition Enterprises, but beyond the information contained in the brief blurb provided by the company itself, and a great deal of chatter on the social nets regarding a large hire-on at Inago, with guaranteed good pay, he found nothing.

It was somewhat worrisome that there was nothing in the chatter from those who had been hired; maybe the non-disclosure agreement prevented such. Again, that would be . . .not unreasonable.

And the only way to discover anything more substantial, apparently, was to attend Recruiting Agent pen'Chouka. Commander Vepal glanced at the time display, and at the route to Room 9A in the Core Conference Area outlined on his screen.

Time to leave.

He inspected himself once more in the mirror, seeing that everything was soldierly. Satisfied, he picked up his hat and left their dock, stopping first to issue specific orders to Erthax and Ochin, and to state the time by which he ought to have returned, or contacted the ship with an amended hour of arrival.


"Commander Vepal, welcome."

Recruiting Agent pen'Chouka was, indeed, Liaden, dressed in what might be the off-duty uniform of a common Troop – leather vest over a close-necked shirt, with long, tight sleeves. Nothing to snag, nothing to flutter, nothing to call attention. As the recruiter rose to meet him, Vepal was also able to see the small arm on the right side of his belt, and the dagger on the left, before the day-pouch.

"Recruiting Agent, I thank you," Vepal said, wondering if the man would dare a proper salute.

He did not. Merely, he inclined very slightly from the waist, and on straightening, moved a hand to show Vepal the other person, similarly dressed, who had also risen.

"My associate, Agent ter'Menth, who has been asked to sit in on this interview."

It was not said who had made this request; quite possibly a senior officer, if Perdition Enterprises was, in fact, modeled on military organization. Certainly, had their places been reversed, Vepal would have produced at the least a soft show of strength for a soldier of an enemy race.

"Please," said Recruiting Agent pen'Chouka, "let us sit and discuss the matter before us. Commander, may I offer you refreshment?"

The room was small and bare, holding the recruiting agent's desk, with a large screen set to one side, angled so that he might see the information displayed there, but the applicant could not. A portable data pad sat near the recruiter's right hand – and that was all and everything, save the chairs they sat on – inside the boundaries of the room.

Refreshment would therefore need to be called in, adding to the time it would take him to find out what Perdition Enterprises was recruiting for, and also introducing the risk that the refreshment would be . . .impure.

"Thank you," he said, which even a Liaden would recognize as politely civilized, "but no."

"Certainly," said Recruiter pen'Chouka, equitably, "let us immediately to business."

He glanced at the large screen.

"May I say, we were gratified to receive your application, Commander? Of course we will have room for such a small troop as you propose. We anticipate no difficulties."

Vepal trusted that his face remained soldierly. They had him travel half-way across the station to a private meeting only to accept his troop's application without discussion? A chill swept down his spine, not unlike the sensation he had when he sensed an ambush.

"I hadn't realized that our troop was so well-known among the wide field of fighters," he said carefully, watching the recruiter's face, which, Liaden-wise, told him nothing.

"Oh," he said, with what might have been a small smile at the corner of the mouth, "your reputation proceeds you, sir; I assure you."

"In that case," Vepal said, still treading carefully, "you will know that I cannot commit without having some information regarding the scope of the mission. Our group has other obligations . . ."

"Of course it does," said the recruiter soothingly. He picked up the data pad and offered it to Vepal.

"You will have all of the information you require, Commander. Simply sign the non-disclosure agreement, and –"

Vepal did not extend a hand to receive the screen. Instead, he directed a piercing glance at the recruiter's face, lips parted, and allowing a little tooth to be seen, while he considered the implications of non-disclosure agreements. He knew of such things, but it had been his impression that they were brought into the negotiations after a certain level of basic trust had been established. To offer the thing up to be signed immediately, before any attempt at trust-building . . .

"Some basic information would be welcome," he said, austerely. "I cannot commit resources simply because Perdition Enterprises finds our reputation admirable."

Recruiting Agent pen'Chouka placed the pad on the table by Vepal's folded hands, and inclined his head.

"Basic information – of course! Perdition Enterprises is a combat broker. In short, we bring grievances together with forces appropriate to resolving them. I will tell you, Commander Vepal, that we are presently recruiting for a large-scale event; very complex. I believe that you, as others before you, will find our compensation package to be very good, and the bonus structure generous. I hardly need say that, for such a troop as yours, there is room for negotiation."

"What is the projected duration of this event?" he asked, but Recruiting Agent pen'Chouka held up his hands, showing empty palms.

"Sign the agreement, Commander, and all the information I have is yours."

Vepal sat very still, considering his options.

"Commander, may I ask a question?" The other recruiter – ter'Menth – spoke for the first time; her voice light, and her Terran bearing not the slightest accent.

He looked to her, keeping her partner in peripheral vision.

"You may ask," he said, watching her eyes.

This one was a killer, he thought. Doubtless the other was, too, but this one made no effort to hide herself behind affable politeness, as if Vepal were Terran; easily soothed by smiles and soft words.

Recruiting Agent ter'Menth inclined her head.

"I thank you. I wonder – indeed, we had all wondered, immediately we saw your application, and your docking packet – is it possible that you speak for. . .a force larger than the small troop which travels with you? Perdition is prepared to be generous, even beyond our A-level contract, if you have a proposal in mind. You are, in fact, the answer to a conundrum we had not hoped to solve."

"I do not understand you," Vepal said, which was not entirely untruthful. "Please speak plainly, Recruiter."

She smiled, showing the teeth, as might a soldier who wished to establish precedence.

"Since you ask so gently," she began, and stopped in order to look at her partner, who had made a small noise, perhaps of denial.

"I take full responsibility," she said, and after a long moment, he bowed his head.

She turned back to Vepal.

"I will be plain," she said. "The scope of the project before us is such that we thought of contacting Yxtrang Command with an offer. We found no clear way to do so, and those sent to intercept your ambassadorial team failed, so far as we know, to arrive. Thus, we turned to our secondary plan, with reluctance. However, now that you have brought the ambassadorial team to us, perhaps you might assist us in approaching the High Command at . . .at Temp Headquarters with an offer."

He stared at her, and suddenly there was nothing more that he wanted from his life than to leave this room, alive.

"I may be able to assist," he said, slowly. "But in order to do so, I will need to know the details of your offer. I will tell you that the High Commanders are . . .unlikely to sign a non-disclosure agreement."

She smiled again, seeming genuinely amused.

"Of course we do not intend to deal with the High Command as we treat with mere mercenary soldiers and bully squads. What we propose is to offer the High Command a contract."

"A – contract," he repeated, the word sounding ominous in his head. "For what purpose?"

She leaned forward, her elbows on the table, and gazed up into his face.

"We wish to contract the services of a full Conquest Corps to destroy a target of our choosing."

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