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He had escaped, with his life, and a very small additional amount of information. Recruiting Agent ter'Menth had not bothered to pretend that what she gave him was in any way useful. On his side, he pretended that what she offered was something that the High Commanders might wish to consider.

What he did not say was that the High Commanders would not accept a contract. The Troop were not soldiers for hire; they were the Troop. Created to take the war to an unbeatable enemy. Created to stand rear guard so that the civilians the Troop, from its position of bred superiority, protected, might escape with their lives, and find safety . . .elsewhere.

Sadly, his innate superiority had not been sufficient to disentangle him completely from Perdition Enterprises. Recruiting Agent ter'Menth expected an answer. She expected, in fact, that he would return to his ship and forthwith send a courier-beam to High Command, laying before them the wonders of this contract, which included rich looting, and the opportunity for more, like, contracts.

He was – not quite – so foolish as to do anything like. But what he must do, and quickly, was to leave this port, with his small troop intact.

Despite that goal burning brightly in his mind, he did not immediately return to dock, ship, and troop. He was in no fit condition to return to his command. Even Ochin would see that there was something amiss. He needed time to settle himself, to make a plan for removing them safely from the reach of Perdition Enterprises.

So, he called the ship, amended his arrival time, and was now seated at a back table at an eating and drinking establishment called, according to the sign over the door, The Headless Yxtrang. It could hardly be more fitting. He ordered beer and a soy-cheese handwich. He wanted neither, but the order would secure the table for an hour.

And give him a chance to think.

The existence of the Yxtrang Ambassador to the Outworlds was known among a certain set of persons with a need to know – the Liaden Scouts, the Portmasters Guild, the Pilots Guild.

Perdition Enterprises, being a broker of war, would naturally make it their business to likewise know such things.

A team had been sent to him, but never arrived, so ter'Menth had said. Was that a fact? If so, what had happened to that team? Had it defected? Been captured? Been diverted to another assignment?

Had –

"Ambassador Vepal," a clear, memorable voice said, carrying inflections of both surprise and – pleasure? "You may remember me, sir, from Seebrit Station."

He raised his head to meet black eyes set in a strong, lean face.

"Commander Sanchez."

He stood, out of respect for her rank, and for the scar that adorned her right cheek. Many have known the caress of the war blade, though few survive it. That JinJee Sanchez was one of those few – pleased him in a way that he could not have explained. She was a warrior, and intelligent; an equal, which he had in neither Ochin nor Erthax.

"I remember you, Commander, and I am pleased to see you well."

There, that was polite and civilized.

Sanchez smiled like to the smile that passed between old comrades, chance-met off the field.

"I am glad to see you well – and to see you again. May I join you?"

Join him? Ah, she meant to sit at his table, and share time over the meal.

"I would welcome your presence," he told her truthfully.

She sat across from him, her shoulder to the room, while he resumed the seat that gave him the wider view. Among comrades, this would indicate that he was point in this place and time. It was gratifying, that she allowed him this honor.

Gratifying – and strangely troubling.

"I will have what this, my comrade, is having," Sanchez was telling the waiter. "All to go onto the Paladins account."

He blinked, was about to protest that he was able to feed himself – and subsided at the bare shake of her head.

"Allow me to discharge the remainder of my debt to your good nature," she said, gravely.

"If you feel such a debt exists," he told her; "I do not."

"Another display of good-nature!" she said, with a certain lightness to her voice.

Her handwich and beer appeared on the table before her. She nodded without taking her eyes from Vepal's face.

"I wonder to find you here," she said. "Did you come for the job fair?"

"I came to find information to assist me in my duty," he told her. "The . . .job fair was a surprise."

"Ah." She picked up her beer and had a swallow. "Then you have not been to the recruiting office."

"I've just come from the recruiting office," he said, following her lead. The beer was good, he noted with surprise.

"I went yesterday," she said, "on behalf of the Paladins. Will you tell me your impressions?"

He hesitated and she held up a hand.

"I don't ask you to violate the NDA, of course."

"I did not sign the form," he said.

Black eyebrows rose in interest.

"Oh, you didn't . . ." she said softly.

She put her elbows on the table, and leaned closer.

"Now, I am very interested in whatever you choose to tell me," she said.

He considered her strong face; finding honor there. She was a warrior – yes; and a fighter.

But she was not a killer.

There were details which he could not share. But there were other matters on which, he thought, he must speak, comrade-to-comrade, if only to help order his own thoughts.

It crossed his mind that she might have been sent from the recruiting officers, to test him. It was possible, after all, that JinJee Sanchez had signed the non-disclosure agreement, and was thus on assignment.

He picked up the mug and swallowed beer in a leisurely manner, to give himself time to think.

Even if she was constrained by orders, he decided; there were certain matters he must share with her. To do otherwise would be to further besmirch his own tattered honor.

He put the mug back on the table, and raised his eyes to meet hers.

"I am . . .dismayed by the insistence that the non-disclosure agreement must be signed before any information is given out. It would seem easy enough to provide specific information regarding payments and bonuses, for instance, as an incentive to sign the agreement and learn more."

She was nodding.

"They are too careful. It makes one wonder why, does it not? As you say, the publication of even an average pay scale would speedily fix the interest of some. It might be argued that they have had poor advice in how to best go forward, but the solicitations they are sending out along the merc channels promise competitive and even merc scale recompense."

She help up one hand, hefting the her mug with the other.

"Mind you, merc scale is fair nonsense, as any merc can tell you. But it demonstrates a willingness to entice."

He considered her.

"Did you sign the NDA?" he asked bluntly.

"I have not," she said, and gave him a bland look. "I await my co-commander before proceeding, and had merely visited the recruiting office to ensure the Paladins a place in-queue."

She lifted her mug and drank, deeply.

"Another?" she asked, when she had put the empty on the table, she nodded at his mug, which he raised and drained likewise.

"Another –yes; though I will buy this round, so that we sit together as true comrades."

"Neither beholden to the other?" she asked.


She inclined her head.

"I agree."

He called for the drinks. When they arrived, he looked again to JinJee Sanchez.

"When will your co-commander arrive?" he asked.

She smiled.

"When he is needed. I hope that he will not be needed, if I may speak frankly between comrades."

"The Paladins have no need of employment?"

"Whenever was there a mercenary troop who did not need employment? In fact, we were on our way to a hiring hall when the advertisement for this job fair crossed our comm-lines. We thought to save ourselves some weeks of travel, with only a minor adjustment of course. And, it was not immediately obvious from the tenor of the advertisement that this was not a merc-sponsored event."

"Now that you have seen it –"

"Now that I have seen it, there is no question that the mercs do not endorse Perdition Enterprises, nor do our competitors, or our sisters."

"So, this would be a new organization, seeking to establish themselves?"

"New, they certainly are, but if they seek to establish themselves credibly, they have chosen an odd course."

She glanced down at her plate and picked up the handwich.

"Eat, Comrade! Who knows when we will have anything other than field rations again!"

He obeyed, admiring the neat efficiency she brought to the task.

"What is odd about their course?" he asked. "Besides a tendency toward secrecy?"

"In the normal way of things, this new enterprise would have among its founding membership some few from other, more established, organizations. They would take good care to advertise the names of these founders, so that those they seek to hire, or to bring into the new structure, will feel that it is built upon the strong shoulders and experience of known professionals."

She pointed at him with her half-eaten handwich.

"Perdition Enterprises does not advertise its founders, which ought to be its greatest strength, until they have excelled in the field for half-a-dozen missions, and proven their own merit."

"And their backers?" Vepal asked. "I searched, but it was by necessity shallow and quick . . ."

"No, do not expend another ounce of your energy looking for their backers!" she said earnestly. "We have searched, wide, deep, and long, as my staff researcher styles it. If there are backers, they very much wish to remain out of sight, and in this one thing, says Research Officer Aritz, who does not part with such praise lightly – they are masters."

Vepal frowned.

"No backers, no founders. It's as if they want to be in the shadows."

"That would seem to be their preference, but they must put themselves into the light in order to recruit the troops necessary for their mission."

"Which is also a secret."

She smiled.


Silence fell then as they finished their meal.

When both were done, the plates set aside, and another round of beer ordered, Vepal looked again to his comrade.

"Despite all these things, will you commit to this mission?" he asked. "Without knowing what it is?"

He did not believe it of her, yet – this supposed co-commander, who might appear from among her troop at her word, so he was certain – what reason had she to remain here, especially when her troop sought work?

"No, I do not think that I will," she said, her eyes thoughtful. "At least, I hope it will not go that far. I am . . .squeamish of my honor, and I would prefer not to put it in peril. If there is no other way, though . . ."

Her voice trailed off, and she considered the tabletop intently.

Vepal stilled, watching her think – and seeing the moment she made her decision.

"I will tell you," she said, with a nod. "I remain here because, after I met with the recruiters to ensure the place of the Paladins in queue, I was troubled by these things you and I have just discussed. That being so, I contacted an old comrade who makes it her business to know the secrets of others, hoping that she knew all and everything about Perdition Enterprises, and would therefore put my fears to rest."

She shook her head.

"She was also stymied, and she asked me if I would assist her in gathering information, for the usual fees. I agreed."

"You wish to find out who they are?"

"That – yes. There are many mercs already tangled in this – whatever it is – they having signed the NDA and been recruited. I talked to two commanders who have done so, and I will tell you, Comrade – they are not easily frightened. But I spoke to frightened mercs. Frightened mercs who saw no way out of what they had done, and who would not utter one word of what they had agreed to, their pay, or their assignment.

"This made me even more curious, and increased my concern three-fold. What sort of hold does Perdition Enterprises have over its recruits? So – that I wish also to solve."

"But who are they building forces against?" Vepal asked. "Knowing the name of the target –"

"Yes!" she said, putting warm fingers briefly on his wrist. "Yes. The answer to that question, my friend, could not only unlock the mysteries we have discussed, but it might well make us rich!"


"How long?" Erthax asked. "Sir."

"We will accept the full station-week available to this docking," Vepal told him, and added, "Do you have more questions, Pilot?" in a tone that strongly suggested it would be best for Erthax's health if he failed of having any more questions for the remainder of his life.

For once, Erthax took the point.

"Sir. No, sir," he said, promptly.

He then produced a reasonably sharp salute, turned briskly on his heel and left the common room. Vepal did not sigh, but merely turned to Ochin, standing patiently by the bench where his evening meal sat untouched.

"Orders, Commander?"

"You are at liberty – eat, rest, amuse yourself. Visit the small bars, if you will, and find the temper of the station. Whatever you do, you will come to me at fifth hour, in my quarters. We will discuss schedules during our time at dock. Come prepared with a list of necessary tasks which you are qualified to perform."

There was a small pause, which one might expect, given that the orders required some initiative on the part of the Rifle.

Ochin saluted.

"Sir. Yes, sir."

Vepal returned the salute, and left the common area.

In his quarters, he sat at the theoretically shielded, private comm deck. Sanchez had agreed with his analysis, that the recruitment team would expect – would be waiting for him – to send a message. If he wished to learn more about those who thought that the Troop was for hire – if he wished, as he did, to assist Sanchez and her associate to whom all secrets, save this one, were open – there was no other course, but to send a message. Security wrap, absolutely. In fact, he thought, tapping the unit up, he might as well send two messages. It was time he knew for certain whether Firge remained in a position to aid him – or if she had, as he feared, been dispatched to Duty's Reward.

The first message, then, to the Finance Officer, citing the missing payments, and demanding that the shortfall be made up, immediately. He wrapped it in as many security codes as were available to him, and hit send with rather more enthusiasm than a sober message concerning an employment contract on offer might be expected to excite. The watchers at Perdition Enterprises needn't know that, of course.

The second message – not to Firge, no. If she still lived, he would not for his own life endanger her. No, the second message to the Records Officer, requesting an updated roster of High Commanders, and their seconds.

That, too, traveled in a thick security wrapping.

Vepal sat for a few minutes longer, weighing whether three messages might be seen as excessive, and to whom he might address another.

In the end, he judged the two he had sent sufficient, powered off the comm deck, and sought his bed.

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