“I’m severely troubled by this information,” General Charles Avocet responds to Lieutenant Thrum in his answer to the latest report from the Zheng He. “I wish I had better news for you, but it appears that Rodrigo Levante abandoned his post after planting that device on the hull of your ship. Seems like he took a civilian shuttle from Citadel down to Earth, where he caught passage on a freighter called the Duncan Idaho bound for Quaquan. I’ve got a Consortium Intelligence spook asking that you deliver Ensign Armand Levante to Citadel for questioning.”

Thrum sighs at this reply, and then walks to the bridge. “I need a private channel with General Avocet, as soon as possible, regarding his last message. Put it through to my quarters,” he tells the now very overworked comms-person. Thrum then returns to his room and gets to work on other reports and things until his console beeps.

“General Avocet, sir.” The commo says, before the image of the General appears on Thrum’s screen.

“My apologies for this General, I just want to make sure we’re following things by the book. Shall I place Levante under arrest, or simply keep him confined to quarters? And, is returning him to the Citadel a top priority, or do we have permission to continue our work here until our next scheduled visit?”

The response arrives a minute or so later. Avocet frowns. “Given that he’s a material witness, potentially an accessory, to an act of espionage against the Vanguard – and seeing as how we may need as much leverage as we can muster against Rodrigo Levante – getting young Armand back to Sol *is* your mission. Assign a marine detail to guard him until the handoff. I wouldn’t say this is an arrest yet. Just…keep him comfy in his room. Avocet out.” He cuts the transmission.

“That is what I thought…good to have it on record though.” Thrum mutters to himself, before he turns on the intercom and says, “Corporal Vrex to the Captain’s Quarters.” And with that he gets back to that fuel report he had been working on.

The marine corporal arrives at Lt. Thrum’s quarters within minutes. “Captain,” the Zangali says once his ring is answered, coming to attention with a salute as he reports in.

“Put a guard on Ensign Levante. He is not under arrest persay, but he is to be confined to quarters for the duration of our voyage. Thank you, Corporal.” Thrum says, dismissing the soldier, before he keys his intercom to the Bridge, “Bridge, set course for Sol system. You may jump once the course is laid in.”

In his quarters, Armand Levante sits on his bunk, sulking. He thought he’d escaped his problems with this assignment to the Zheng He. Thought he’d left behind the mistakes of the past. He’d been ready for a fresh start. Now, his own brother had managed to drag him back into the quagmire. Did Roddy have a good reason for what he did? Would it matter? “Why, Roddy?” Armand asks the bulkhead. It doesn’t answer.

Light years away, Rodrigo Levante walks down the ramp of the Duncan Idaho onto the dusty landing pad in the town of Four Corners on Quaquan. He’s not sure how long he can run, and now it’s doubly bad: Consortium Intelligence, the Vanguard, *and* the minions of Lord Fagin are hunting him. He almost turned himself in to the Vanguard or the intelligence folks – they might keep him safe. But he’d heard rumors of a witness to an assassination plot getting killed by a mole just in the past few weeks. He couldn’t risk it.

He felt horrible leaving his little brother in the lurch. But Rodrigo didn’t see a choice. He’d get a new identity, erase the old one, and then worry about how to extricate Armand from trouble.

Just got to survive a little while longer, he thinks, and steps into the shadows of the spaceport.

Vrex finds his way to the junior officers’ quarters, posting two of his marines at the door before stepping in himself. Finding it empty with the exception of Ensign Levante, he makes his way over Armand’s bunk. “Sir,” he says with a nod, “I wanted to let you know that the skipper has ordered a protective detail for you. They will remain outside unless you need them. The captain also wishes you to remain here until we reach Sol. If you should need to leave for any reason before then, please allow my men to consult the captain, first.”

The ship shudders as it begins its journey back to Sol. Thrum writes up his report quickly, but delays in sending it for now. Rather, he opens up a small box in his desk drawer, and pulls out a bottle of something of rye. He pours himself a small glass, and then sits back to watch the stars fly by. A few minutes later, he starts writing up commendations for those who showed great perception in finding the tracking beacon and spotting the Martinette’s doppleganger while he nurses his drink.

“OK,” Armand replies to Vrex. He’s still sitting on his bunk. “I don’t want to leave. I made a mistake falling that far into debt with Lord Fagin. But I didn’t conspire with Roddy to spy on the Vanguard. I wish someone believed me.”

“With all due respect, sir,” Vrex replies, “It doesn’t matter to me. Sir.” He offers a quick salute, and clomps back out into the hall.

A handful of hours later, a voice comes over the intercom in Thrum’s stateroom, “We’ve arrived at Sol system, sir. Beginning approach to Citadel base.” The Lieutenant starts awake from where he was napping at his console. He rubs his eyes, keys the comm and replies, “I’ll be up in ten minutes,” and then stalks off to the shower. Once that is done, he makes his way to the bridge and says simply, “Hail Citadel Base, tell them to inform the General we have arrived.”

In the main docking hub of Citadel Base, General Charles Avocet awaits the delivery of Ensign Armand Levante by the crew of the Zheng He. His attache, a weary-looking young man with short-cropped dark hair, glances up from his PDA and says: “Our source in Four Corners reports that Rodrigo Levante may have been sighted after the Duncan Idaho landed.”

“Did they seize the freighter?” the general inquires.

“Tried to,” the aide replies. “Out of Consortium jurisdiction, though. Local authorities wouldn’t act without more evidence.”

“Did someone at least put a tail on Levante?”

“Briefly,” the aide answers.

“They lost him,” Avocet concludes.

“They lost him,” the aide confirms.

“I’m having a bad day, Milton,” the general says, clasping his hands behind his back. “You know what that means?”

“I’m having a worse day,” Milton ventures.

The general nods. He goes back to waiting in seething silence.

“Corporal Vrex, make sure Ensign Levante has all of his personal effects. I have a feeling he will not be returning to the ship.” Thrum says on the internal comms to the Marine Corporal. “Then, meet me with the Ensign at the hatch when we dock. You might want to dress up a bit, as I think we will be seeing the General.” He then turns his attention to the docking procedure, and lets the bridge crew carry that out under his watchful gaze. A routine dock, no problems, no surprises. The Lieutenant nods once, turns, and then walks off the bridge, saying to his XO in passing, “Begin re-fueling procedures, and see if we can’t top off our stores. Not sure what the General might have in store for us, but I doubt it’s a three day leave.”

The Zangali corporal shows up at the junior officers’ quarters in service dress rather than his usual utility uniform, having sent a marine ahead to inform Ensign Levante of Thrum’s orders. “Are you ready, sir?” he asks.

“No,” Levante replies, somewhat contemptuously. But his duffel is packed and tucked between his knees. He gets to his feet. Slings the sack over his shoulder.

“I know,” the Zangali replies, almost sounding sympathetic, “But it’s time anyway.” He gestures towards the door. “After you, sir.”

At the docking hatch Thrum is standing, looking down at his datapad. When he gets the beep from the Bridge that docking is completed, he gives the handle of the door a hard pull, and opens the airlock with a hiss of compressed air. The Lieutenant then steps through the hatch and starts down the gangway to the deck. He walks with a purpose and when he gets to within a couple of yards of the General he stops and salutes, “Lieutenant Thrum turning over Ensign Levante to Citadel Base Command,” he says crisply.

Avocet returns the salute. “Lieutenant, thank you. Welcome back to Citadel. Glad you didn’t have any major problems at Beta Ophiuchi. Scary place, seems like.” He peers at Levante as he emerges from the airlock with the Marine detachment. “And I wager Ensign Levante wouldn’t mind being back at Beta Ophiuchi right about now.”

Thrum nods once and says, “We’d not be here without the hard work and quick thinking of my crew. Ensign Levante included. I will only add that he was very forthcoming with the information we requested, and cooperated fully with my investigation, sir.” He then looks over his shoulder at the Ensign being led forward.

Corporal Vrex and two other marines lead the Ensign out of the Zheng He. Offering a salute to the two senior officers, he stands aside to allow them to conduct their business.

Levante gives a curt salute to the general as he arrives with his military escort. “Ensign Armand Levante, reporting as ordered, sir.”

Avocet returns the salute, then says: “Milton will take you from here. There’s a fellow named Colclough from the CIS with a few questions. Keep cooperating, ensign. It’s in your best interests.” As the attache leads Levante away, the general returns his attention to Thrum. “And you’re going back to Beta Ophiuchi. Weapons division wants a sample of that material you encountered.”

Thrum watches the Ensign being escorted away. He then looks over to the General addressing him, “Yes sir. Do they happen to have any suggestions as to how we might pull that off without becoming…infected ourselves?” the Lieutenant asks. “It disabled our probes relatively quickly, and I have to suspect that there is a boundary around the planet that the material is able to exist in space, but I am not confident in our ability to keep it from assimilating our ship once we’ve come into contact with it.”

“It’s a good question, Lieutenant,” Avocet replies. “And I am confident the smart people on the Zheng He can put their noggins together and find a solution. I damn sure hope so. Because whoever put that tracking device on your ship knows you went out to Beta Ophiuchi. Fagin’s people, most likely. And if that rat bastard can get his hands on the tech, he’ll sell it to the highest bidder. We don’t want the Nall buying it at any price.”

The Zangali marine corporal waits in silence, though his eyes follow the conversation.

A grimace passes over Thrum’s face as he replies simply, “Yes sir.” He considers for a half a moment and then says, “If you happen to have any science-y types you might be able to let me borrow for a few days, that would be quite useful. Since we currently have an open bunk.” As he says this he turns to the Corporal and says, “Vrex, go inform the XO of our orders so he can begin plotting a course back to Beta Ophiuchi.”

The general nods to Thrum. “I’ll assign an egghead within the hour. Thank you, Lieutenant. Dismissed.” With that, he strolls away.

“Sir, General,” Vrex says with a salute to the two officers before heading off to fulfill his orders.

“Sounds good, sir. We will be back on station by the end of the day.” Thrum replies, before he salutes the General as the man leaves. Once he has been dismissed, he turns and heads back up the ramp to the ship. Once aboard he makes his way to the bridge to get an update on the fueling status, and then waits for the aforementioned ‘egghead’ to arrive so he can get on his way.

By Brody

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