Marches of Empire


Bob Hutchinson


Disclaimer: Borrowed, sort of, with no intent to profit from Henson Co, the late Poul Anderson and Paul Shackley's blog, Poul Anderson Appreciation, especially the revised time line. Rating T. Time: One hundred weekens after Peacekeeper Wars and one thousand years after PKW. Spoilers: Not really, since you should know who J&A are by now, right?

Author's note: This is actually a crossover between the Farscape universe and that of Poul Anderson's Terran Empire. However, I couldn't figure out how to add a Terran Empire story to the FF dot net stories.

"I'm sorry I got you killed, babe." I said as I stroked my wife's cold cheek. "I'm so damned sorry." I reached down to stroke her cheek once more.

Aeryn slapped my hand away. "I'm not dead, so quit apologizing."

That was my wife, to a tee. "Sure. We're both still alive. But we're in a toddler Leviathan who's in a coma, drifting very slowly towards a star that'll revive her. She'll get there in eight or nine monens. In the meantime we'll either die from the cold, lack of food or lack of water. And there's something wrong with here. When we came out of the wormhole we didn't quite end up in the right place. Close, but not perfect."

Aeryn pulled her blanket around her more tightly. "And you think we're going to die just because of that? I thought you knew me better than that."

We were tucked into a ventral compartment of Sissy, Moya's little daughter. Sissy had shut down most of her systems, and her waste heat was exiting through our compartment. It wasn't much. "All I can say is I'm sorry, Aeryn. I really am."

Aeryn snorted. "Well, I'm going to prove you wrong by surviving. And, just so I can remind you of it later, I'm going to keep you alive as well."

I had to smile. "That's the spirit, Aer."

She turned to face me. "You don't think I will?"

Damn! She had that look in her eye, but I was a realist. "I can't see how."

"Care to bet, human? Perhaps a small wager?" She challenged.

I shrugged. "Sure. What shall we bet? Who gets dibs on the best wings and halo?"

"Three monens of kitchen duty when we get back to Moya."

"Aeryn, do you really think…"

"Afraid? How about six monens?"

I had to laugh. "Okay. I'll do six months of KP if we get back to Moya."

Aeryn rose gracefully to her feet. "Good. Then let's see what the fellow who's at the air lock wants."

"What?" I whirled around. Behind me, outside the airlock, was a space suited figure, trying to attract our attention. "You cheated! You saw him and you…you cheated, Aeryn Sun Crichton!"

Aeryn laughed. "Six monens of kitchen duty for you!"

I hauled our comms out our spacesuits and tried to contact the fellow outside. All I got was squeaks, yowls and static. Our radios weren't compatible. Finally he pushed his helmet against the viewport in the air lock.

He was probably yelling, but we could barely hear him. "Do you need help?"

Aeryn grabbed a helmet, pulled it over her head, put the helmet against the viewport and replied. "Yes. We have no power. Can you help us?"

"Do you have space suits?" Was the faint reply.

We nodded and began to clamber into our suits as fast as we could. "We're opening the air lock." Aeryn shouted.

Our savior moved away from the lock. When we exited Sissy I got a better look at him. Or her, or it, or them. Who could tell? The suit was blocky, armored and small. The person inside couldn't have been more than a motra in height. Okay, we'd been rescued by the Munchkins.

He gestured to handholds on his suit. We grabbed onto them and he moved away from Sissy towards a ship in the distance.

"John, that's a warship. I'm sure of it."

"Peacekeeper? Luxan? Scarran? Charrid?" None were good options. We weren't out of the woods yet. She was probably right. The ship outlined against the stars was lean and rakish, with fairly obvious weapons turrets and missile tubes.

"I don't recognize the type. But there's another ship to sunward of us, smaller than this one."

I cranked my head around, but I couldn't see anything. "I'll take your word for it."

We arrived at the ship and stopped by an airlock that had already cycled open. If our new friend was small, the airlock was larger. It could have taken a dozen humans, no problem.

The lock closed behind us and air started to fill the vacuum. "At least we're bigger than they are." I said as the inner door began to open.

Wrong again, John Boy. Waiting for us was a dragon. A centaur-like dragon that was a good four and a half motras long and two motras tall from his four cloven hoofs to the top of his head. I immediately noticed his mouth was full of fangs. His gigantic arms ended in four fingers with palms the size of pie plates. Dark green scales covered his upper body, fading to amber towards his legs. His scales had scars and dents in them. But oddly he had a pair of spectacles on a cord around his neck.

"Ho, Win Cho, we have guests." His voice boomed.

The other one had taken his helmet off. Again, I saw no race I had ever seen. This one had a cat-like white, furred face, with small fangs, pointed ears and a bluish mask across its face, like a raccoon. He spoke. "Strange guests they be, Axor. They appear to understand me, but all I get from them is gibberish. That may be intentional. Be careful."

Okay, we had one advantage. We had translator microbes and they didn't.

The dragon spoke. "Security scan indicates they're armed."

Win Cho drew a sidearm and covered us both. "No weapons. Ship's policy. Hand them over and be very, very careful about it."

We carefully undid our suits and handed over our weapons. Aeryn, for once, didn't try to hold back any weapons.

The dragon rumbled again. "The captain wishes to see you. This way, please."

We walked through the ship. The ship appeared crowded with crew. Most were Sebaceans wearing dark blue cover-alls. Some were not, but like the first two we met, I didn't recognize the races. Aeryn whispered to me. "I was right. This is a warship."

The dragon managed to squeeze through a doorway. When we got inside there were three beings sitting across a table from us. Two were Sebacean. One might have been an ex-Peacekeeper. She was young, perhaps in her twenties, tall and lean with long black hair held in place by a simple dark blue headband. Her skin was darker than Aeryn's, with a round face and high cheekbones. Her eyes, hazel beneath dark brows. She wore the same blue cover-all that we had seen on other crewfolk. There was no insignia or markings on it.

The other Sebacean was male, bulky, with most, but not all of the bulk being muscle. His face was round, topped with very short blond hair. His nose had been broken, probably more than once. His eyes were dark with lines around them. They didn't look like laugh lines. He wore a light blue double breasted coat. It also had no markings on it. There were darker patches of cloth where it looked like something had been removed.

The last was not vaguely Sebacean. He had a barrel chest and was covered in alternating black and orange stripes except for a patch of white at his throat. The mouth in his round head showed fangs, not teeth. His hands seemed to end in four clawed fingers and an opposable thumb. Heavy muscles covered his frame. No one you'd want to meet in a dark alley. His eyes were slanted and red. There was no nose, just a breathing slit below the eyes, and some tendrils above, perhaps eyebrows. His ears were scalloped, and moved about as he sat. Since he was behind the table, I couldn't tell if he had clothing. He did have an odd mesh around the back of his head. Jewelry?

The dragon curled up in a corner. The white furry one stripped his space suit off and sat. He wore no clothes except for a belt that held a holstered pistol. He had white fur all over and a large bushy tail, nearly as big as the rest of him. He sat down by the Sebacean male.

The tiger striped alien spoke. "I am Captain Targovi. If you can understand me, nod your head."

We nodded, but before anyone said anything else, a spare, elderly, grey haired woman walked in. "I trust you were going to tell me eventually we have newcomers, Captain?"

The captain waved at us. "The newcomers, doctor. They have been marooned on that odd ship over there. Please make sure they are not injured or sick."

The doctor spent two or three microns poking and prodding us, looking at some sort of readout and going "Hmm." She was just like doctors everywhere. She pulled something that looked like maybe a cell phone out of her pocket and fiddled with it. It obligingly made squeaks and beeps. "This is interesting." She finally said.

"Are they about to disintegrate before our eyes?" Mr. Kitty asked.

"Of course not. But their DNA is quite interesting. I shall need to study it further…"

"Is there any reason we can't continue while you do so in sick bay?" The captain asked pointedly.

"No, certainly not. I'll notify you if I find anything untoward." She left in a huff.

That didn't seem to bother the captain. "Uncle Baraja has advised us that he wishes to take part in our interrogation of these castaways. He asks that we wait for him."

"Since we can't understand them, it will be a short interrogation." That was the cat again.

The dragon rumbled from the floor. "Since the study of languages is part of my calling, Targovi, perhaps I can assist?" Without waiting for Targovi's nod, he turned to Aeryn and me and smiled. Not a soothing sight with those teeth. "Now, good sir, I have turned on the language analysis program of my computer. Will you tell me the name of organ by which you see?" He also pointed to his eye.

"Eye." I replied.

"Excellent. Now the organ of speech."


"Oh! Thank you." He rumbled cheerfully.

Show and tell went on for nearly half an arn. Suddenly the dragon's computer began flashing. "How odd. How decidedly odd."

Before he could explain why we were odd, there was a knock on the cabin door. "May I enter, Captain Targovi?"

Targovi shot to his feet. "Of course, Uncle Baraja." Once on his feet, I could see that Targovi wore nothing but a breechclout for clothing and a belt with a few pouches and a very wicked looking knife. It seemed to me that while he was as tall as I was, his legs were longer, and as muscular as the rest of him.

I couldn't tell you anything about Uncle Baraja except that he appeared to be a bit taller than me. He was covered from head to toe in a dark hooded robe. It turned color slightly, as he moved. Now black, then dark grey, then dark brown. Even looking at his face, all I could see was a vague blur. I suspected he had some sort of a distortion unit to make sure no one recognized him.

He sat at one end of the table and put a large basket down in the middle of it. "Greetings. I don't know if you two have eaten yet, so I had my butler prepare a light lunch for you. I have some ham and cheese sandwiches, a rather nice vegetable soup with two bowls, and a nice red wine. It's a Barazan Vineyard's '02. Please, enjoy."

Baraja's voice was oddly flat and toneless. I suspected he was disguising his voice, but…

Ham and cheese? I wondered if my translator microbes had translated properly. I dug in, followed by a suspicious Aeryn. It did taste like ham and cheese.

The dragon spoke again. "I believe I have isolated the language they are speaking. Observe." He handed another one of the cell phone like things to the kitty. They passed it around and I got some odd looks. Well, I was very used to that. .

"I have asked the computer to translate through these." He handed out something very small and round which everyone proceeded to put behind their ears. He turned to us. "Can you tell me your names, young man?" Asked the dragon.

"My name is John Crichton. This is my wife, Aeryn Sun Crichton."

"Your wife, you say. How nice." The dragon burbled in a basso voice. "And where are you from?"

"I'm from a planet called Earth. My wife was born in space, but her home world is called Sebacea."

They all looked at us and then at each other. "Please tell us your story from the beginning."

"My name is John Crichton, I'm an astronaut." I began. I went through my life from my lift off at Canaveral to the present, being careful to leave out any mention of wormhole weapons or any of the numberless people who'd pay good money to get their hands, tentacles or pseudopods on us.

"Then Moya met this young Leviathan fellow, Thorbin. Well, they did what young Leviathans in love do, and believe me you don't want to be on a Leviathan when they're making whoopee. Moya had a child by Thorbin, a girl, and since Aeryn had named Moya's first kid, I got to name the second. I chose Sissy. Anyway, Sissy is in the equivalent of the terrible twos, so to give Moya a break, Aeryn and I took Sissy out for a little stroll around a deserted solar system. Sure enough, a wormhole pops up and Sissy just has to go have a look. We tried to stop her, but the next thing you know, she shoots right inside it."

"I'm not sure what happened then. Sometimes I think Leviathans just get all wonky inside wormholes, or maybe Sissy hit the sides of the wormhole and injured herself. Anyway, we shoot out of the wormhole and Sissy is unconscious. We ate the last of our food yesterday and today you found us. That's all, folks."

"That's preposterous!" The male Sebacean growled.

Uncle Baraja held up one hand. Or paw, or tentacle. I couldn't tell, it was just a blur. "Preposterous, yes, but not totally impossible. We have the evidence of his language. As far as wormholes, there is the evidence of the Travelers." He stopped and stared at us. "I wonder…" He tapped the table in front of him. "Doctor Shallot, did you examine our two new passengers?"

"Yes, sir. Of course." Came the quick reply.

"Have you examined their DNA?"

"I have and I cannot explain what I've found. The male has apparently never had any DNA correction done. None whatsoever. He'd be subject to cancers, schizophrenia, and a whole host of diseases that my medical books hardly mention except as they relate to less civilized xenos. The woman has had some very unusual DNA changes. I can't say that I've ever seen their like. Her liver is completely non-standard…"

"Paraphoral nerve." Aeryn said, helpfully.

"Mr. Crichton," the captain growled, "you claim to have been born on Earth?"

"You've heard of Earth?" How could they?

"Of course we've heard of Earth, you dunder-brain!" The cat snapped. "Everyone for five hundred light years has heard of Earth."

Uncle Baraja spoke. "Your Earth's other planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars…"

"Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus and Pluto." I finished. "What the hell is going on here?"

The woman spoke to the dragon. "Father, he dates his departure from Earth in the year 1999. What would that be now?"

"Wait!" I cried. "He's your father?" This was getting freakier and freakier. The best I could hope for was to wake up from this nightmare soon.

The dragon chuckled. "No, not at all. That's my title. I am Father Francis Xavier Axor, of the Gallilean Order, Jerusalem Catholic Church. Pleased to meet you both." He held out a massive hand which I shook, barely realizing I was doing so. Aeryn just smiled at him.

"Catholic priests used to be all Irish." I said softly.

"Mr. Crichton, this is the year of Our Lord 3177 and the year 477 of the Terran Empire." Father Axor said softly. "You've come almost twelve hundred years into the future."

If I hadn't been sitting down, I would have fallen over. I almost did anyway. "What…Where…How..?" I looked at the woman and then the man. "You're humans."

"That we are." The woman said with a smile. "I've studied a bit o' history. I can cover a bit of the last millennium or so for you."

She did.

Humans had discovered faster than light travel in the twenty-second century. Mankind had gone out among the stars, exploring, colonizing and trading. Perhaps because the traders weren't interested in anything but making a buck, the companies and corporations spread faster and farther than any governments. Eventually, they organized themselves into the Polesotechnic League, sort of a self help organization for the super rich. After a couple of glittering centuries, the League grew into a set of ruthless cartels that put short range profit above all else. This included selling modern weaponry to all and sundry. Needless to say, the League made a lot of enemies and once well armed, the enemies struck back. During the Troubles, Earth had been comprehensively sacked by aliens on two occasions and raided innumerable times. Everyplace else was similarly affected.

Eventually, a man named Manuel Argos had taken over an alien warcraft and begun imposing order. He proclaimed himself the Emperor of the Terran Empire. Today the Empire was a rough sphere some four hundred light years across, containing perhaps four million suns and including around one hundred thousand inhabited planets. Most of those had been settled by humans, but others, such as Cynthia was the home to our cat-like friend, Win Cho. Father Axor was a native of a planet called Woden. Interestingly enough, Woden was part of something called Greater Terra.

"All's not well in the Empire these days." The woman concluded. "In spite of the Merseian civil war, the Empire is decadent, corrupt and in decline. There have been separatist movements, and attempted coups by military men. In fact, Gerhart, our current Emperor, is the son of Hans Molitor, who was merely the strongest military leader when the Wang Dynasty died out some years ago. The Molitor Dynasty rules because they are the strongest, and for no other reason."

Aeryn stared at the woman for a micron. "But yet you refer to this Gerhart as "our Emperor". If you find so little to like in the Terran Empire, why do you consider him to be your emperor?"

"The alternatives are worse." Targovi was quick to answer. "In spite of everything, there are still honorable men and women who serve the Empire. Over half a century ago, my race's home planet, Starkad, was destroyed by a sunless planet smashing into our sun. The Empire rescued millions of my people and settled us within the Empire. I was born on the planet Imhotep, which is quite suitable for my folk. It shares its solar system with Daedalus, which is more suitable for Diana's folk."

I didn't quite get that. "You look like you're quite comfortable here. Why two planets for two races?"

Targovi fingered the web around his head. "My home has gravity a third higher than Terran norms and our air pressure is some nine times greater. Without my oxygills I couldn't breathe in this atmosphere." Targovi suddenly glanced at the woman. "Ah! I have been remiss in not introducing us properly. This young lady is my executive officer and lifelong friend, Diana Crowfeather."

Diana nodded to us. "I was born on Imhotep as well. The plateau around Olga's Landing is high enough for the air pressure not to kill us humans. My mother worked for the Empire in helpin' to settle the vaz-Toborko, or Tigeries, as humans call 'em. She died when I was a sprat, so I lived with the Tigeries., more or less."

Targovi gestured to his right. "You have met Father Axor and Win Cho when you arrived."

I nodded. "Yeah, he pulled a gun on us."

Suddenly the Cynthian leapt onto the table. "He? You mistake me for a male, you oafish barbarian? I have killed for less. How could you possibly mistake me for a male? I should…"

The rest of her tirade was drowned out in Axor's laughter. "The same as anyone else who is not Cynthian, Win Cho. Who could tell a male Cynthian from a female?"

Targovi stared at Win Cho and she settled down. "Win Cho is our cargo master. The other officer here is Michael de Ruyter, engineering officer.

The bulky officer shot to his feet and executed a stiff bow. "Michael de Ruyter, late of the Frisian Navy, cashiered for being an honest man." He blurted out.

"As he never ceases to advise us," Win Cho added, "but never why the Frisians kick honest men out."

De Ruyter glared at the little Cynthian, but then relaxed. "I will not repeat the base calumnies my enemies spread about me. Not until I have my revenge."

I shook my head, trying to assimilate all of this information. "Look, Captain Targovi, if we're anywhere near Earth, we're a long way from our home, where I've made my home now, anyway. It's on the other side of the galaxy. And a long time in this past, or someone's past. Can you tow Sissy to the nearest star? And give us some food, water, air and maybe some kind of a heating system. We'll try to catch the next wormhole back home."

Targovi looked at de Ruyter. "Engineering?"

De Ruyter shook his head. "This Sissy is a living, sentient being, Mr. Crichton?" When I nodded, he shook his head again. "We could never get her inside the ship, and Uncle Baraja's ship is even smaller. As for some kind of tow…I can't imagine anything we could do that wouldn't kill her."

Baraja spoke. "I've done some figuring, young fellow. It'll take nine or ten months to reach the nearest star, plus whatever time she'd need to recover from her injuries. Our two ships together don't have enough spare food, water and air to last two people for close to a year."

"So, what happens…" I began. This was not looking good.

"Oh, my son," Father Axor said, "don't look so glum. We are registered in the Empire and follow her laws. By law, we must rescue stranded spacefarers and take them to the nearest Imperial planet."

"Which won't get you back to your ship." Targovi added. "But I think we can do better than that. Our ship always needs extra hands. We can sign you on and pay you. Not a great deal, but enough to enjoy one's life when we reach our various ports. Then, in a bit, we can come back this way as easily as any other. Leave a message for your large friend and come with us."

"Does our work involve carrying heavy things around and making sure all toilet bowls are bright and shiny?" I asked.

Targovi laughed. "You've served on a warcraft before?"

"Not like this."

Aeryn cleared her throat. "Before we make any such decision, we need to know who and what you are."

Targovi nodded. "Quite reasonable. Allow me to explain. Some ten years ago both Diana and I were on Daedalus which is the main base for Imperial forces facing the Roidhunate of Merseia. I captained a small inter-planetary trader and Diana lived…as best she could."

"The commander of the Sector Fleet, Admiral Olaf Magnusson had rebelled and declared himself Emperor. Regrettably for him, loyalist agents discovered proof he was in fact an agent of Merseia and his rebellion began to fall apart. Diana and I were walking in a park in the city of Aurea. We heard blaster fire coming from a nearby estate, followed by a ship's boat taking off in a great rush. Being curious, we investigated. We found several dead naval personnel inside and a huge amount of cash and other valuables. Literally, there were rooms ankle deep in cash, securities, jewels, art works and other things. We later found that the estate was the property of an Admiral Treville who had been Magnusson's finance officer and would-be Imperial Treasurer. Whether he was one of those few who worked for Merseia with Magnusson, or whether he simply decided to run with as much cash as he could, I think no one will ever know. We quickly found two air cars and loaded them with as much as they would hold and left. Ten minutes after that, we saw a dozen or more military fliers descend on the estate."

Targovi chuckled at the memory. "There was so much there, we had barely made a dent in the stash. Diana and I had funds for our fondest dreams: To see the stars."

Diana took up the tale. "In the confusion we were able to load everything on Targovi's ship and head back to Imhotep. His mother, Dragoika, ran the sisterhood that had been the closest to the Imperials back on Starkad. Naturally, when the Empire moved people to Imhotep, they worked through her a lot. She's a powerful and wise woman."

"And she has friends." Uncle Baraja spoke now. "Me for one. The Empire is corrupt and incompetent in many ways and in many places. To navigate the bureaucracy, one needs a friend who understands the ways of the Imperial bureaucracy. Otherwise one would go from one clerk to the next, each of whom would relieve you of more money until you had none."

"You're a fixer." I said flatly.

"Close enough." Baraja answered.

"What did you fix?" Aeryn asked.

Baraja didn't speak for a few seconds, as if getting his story mentally straight. "There is a planet close to Terra. It is a very old, very wealthy and very industrialized world. They specialize in building ships, both civilian and military. The manager of one shipyard had discovered he could augment his salary by selling high quality Imperial weaponry to barbarians, warlords, or anyone else with enough coin. He began small, as do most of them. If five hundred long range missiles were to be used in a month to test new warships, he'd actually see that only four hundred and ninety were fired and sell the rest. Naturally, he got greedier. His firm gained a contract to build five hundred corvettes for the Imperial Navy. By cutting corners and making some judicious bribes, the manager built five hundred and five corvettes. The Navy got theirs, and the other five were sold to whichever barbarian warlord or pirate could best pay his price."

Uncle Baraja made a noise that might have been a chuckle. "As you have been told, the Molitor Dynasty depends on its control of the military, that is the Imperial Navy, to continue to rule. Hans, and more recently, Gerhart, have set their inspectors to work rooting out any corruption that affects the Navy. I was able to advise the manager that the inspectors were closing in on him. I was also able to advise him of the best way to disappear with his wealth intact. Naturally, I wished to be compensated for my efforts on his behalf."

Targovi spoke. "The compensation was this ship. It's a fleet destroyer-scout. Basically, it's a standard fleet destroyer with a slightly elongated hull to accept a larger engine. The engine is twice as expensive as most other destroyer engines, but gives us fifty percent more power. Add the best sensor suite available and excellent offensive and defensive weaponry and we can outfight or outrun anything in these Imperial marches. My mother arranged for the purchase and in her honor I named her Dragoika's Pride."

Diana Crowfeather broke in. "We had no wish to plod between one rich, boring inner Empire planet to the next, so we came out here to the Alpha Crucis sector. We base ourselves there, but trade outside the Empire mostly. Planets we visit range from those who are close to being up there with Technic civilizations to those that have barely learned how to smelt metals."

"What exactly do you do on these planets?" Aeryn asked carefully.

Targovi answered. "We carry passengers more safely than any ship operating out here, and also any low volume, high value cargo. Whatever pays an honest credit."

I looked at Aeryn. She shrugged slightly. "Okay, Cap'n. You have yourselves two new crewmembers." Not that we had any great choice.

Uncle took off in his own ship to go fix something, I suppose. Before he left, he sent over some Terran goodies for Aeryn and me, including chocolate and coffee. I decided I'd happily turn pirate or whatever if I was going to be rewarded like that.

We recorded a holographic message for Sissy to play when she came to, then a crewman took us to our new home.

"We don't have any married crew," he explained, opening the door to our quarters, "but we do have a passenger cabin that was modified for an oversized passenger. Here we go."

The cabin was tiny and overwhelmed by the bed inside. "It's fine." I said.

When we were alone, I dragged Aeryn into the bathroom and turned on the water.

"Do you think that'll keep us safe from any spy devices?" She asked.

"I have no idea, but it's better than nothing. What do you think of them?"

She shook her head. "You're the human around here. You tell me."

I thought for a microt. "I'd guess there really is a Terran Empire as advertised, and all the rest. It would be too hard to keep us totally ignorant if we're going from planet to planet. And I reckon that's what we'll be doing. I can't see any reason to lie to us if they're just going to kill us. They could have just shot us then and there."

"They could be planning to sell us." Aeryn always did look on the bright side.

"Okay, so we're going to be very careful."

"What did you think about the human woman and this Targovi and their story about how they came by the money to buy this ship?"

"I suppose extraordinary good luck can happen, but then again, if I was planning on becoming Emperor John the Great, it might be nice to have a friendly interplanetary merchant in my home solar system on my side. And an attractive young woman is always useful. I'd bet they were part of Magnusson's rebellion. Maybe they were supposed to get the admiral's loot off planet and took off with it instead."

"You think this Diana is attractive?" Aeryn asked.

"You think she isn't?" I countered and Aeryn smiled at me. "So what do you think?"

"I agree that their story is suspicious. But I think they may have been higher up in Magnusson's command than they let on. You could buy a ship like this, but without years of training and command experience, how would you recruit a crew? No intelligent spacer is going to sign on for what appears to be a dangerous job with a captain, and executive officer, who have no experience commanding a warship. I'd bet both Targovi and Crowfeather are both ex-Imperial Navy. He probably commanded this ship before Magnusson proclaimed himself emperor. They rebelled, failed and headed for the local version of the Uncharted Territories."

"So the Imperial authorities may be after them? That could be bad."

Aeryn shrugged and smiled. "It's not like we've never been chased."

"It's not like we ever enjoyed it."

"What do you think of Baraja?"

"I'm sure he's exactly what he says he is: a fixer. He could find lots of profitable work for a fast, well armed ship. The more so if the crew had a shady past."


"We do our work and keep our eyes and ears open."

And that we did for several weeks while we headed for, well, we were headed someplace. Need to know seemed to be alive and well on the good ship Dragoika's Pride. We did find out that if the crew were a bunch of cutthroat pirates, or slavers, or even felonious mopers, they hid it well. They seemed to be a friendly enough bunch, even if we could understand them and they could hardly understand us.

To take care of the latter, we spent a lot of our time learning Anglic, which seemed to be a long lost relative of English. Our teacher was Father Axor and we learned from him about our, hopefully, temporary home.

"How did you end up as the chaplain on this ship, Father?" I asked after one lesson.

Axor replied with a snuffling sound that I had learned was his giggle. "My son, I am not the ship's chaplain. I am a passenger, somewhat long term, performing a pilgrimage."

"A pilgrimage?" Aeryn asked. "I'm not familiar with the term."

"It's a journey, Aer. He's going to some sort of religious shrine, I think."

Father Axor shook his head. "No, my son, my journey is towards knowledge and enlightenment."

"How so?"

Axor thought for a moment before answering me. "The Universe is teeming with intelligent races, as you know. Only Earth has had a visit from Our Savior, however, at least by that name. There are many religions that seem to parallel Christianity, but no one knows if this is because a Savior was sent by the same benevolent God, or if it is mere happenstance. I sought originally to see if I could find evidence that God had visited other planets in the same manner as Earth. I soon found evidence of the Foredwellers, the Builders, as they are sometimes called, or even the Ancients."

At the mention of the word ancients, I glanced at Aeryn. She said nothing. We had decided that any mention of anything to do with wormholes was strictly forbidden. I had had enough of people asking me to kindly whip up a wormhole weapon or two.

Axor went on. "These beings lived in this part of the galaxy millions of years in the past, perhaps more. Some say that they were a race called the Cherions, but I think that unlikely. Even if it were so, the planet was bombarded from space and it lies in Merseian space anyway. I fear I could hardly go there and attempt to study the planet."

"Merseians are who again?" That was Aeryn. Even after all these years, she still thought about planetary bombardments and such first.

"The Empire's great enemy, but perhaps less of an enemy now. But I digress. There are Builder's ruins in our part of the galaxy, incredibly old and almost completely destroyed by the passage of time. However, others have studied these ruins and found the Builders to have been a powerful, advanced society, far more so than anything any other civilization. And then they suddenly disappeared."

"Conquered, perhaps?" Aeryn guessed.

Axor shook his huge head. "No, there is no evidence that the Foredwellers suffered any attack. Their mighty works were left intact and over the countless years, their works were ever so gradually worn away by time. Those on worlds with no atmosphere were worn down by the endless bombardment of meteorites. Those on tectonically active planets were destroyed by the endless movement of the planet beneath them, and so on and on."

"So what happened?" I wondered if the local ancients had gone and hidden in a wormhole someplace, but said nothing.

Axor shrugged expansively. "They left.'


He smiled at her. "No one knows. But I like to think that they ascended into Heaven. Perhaps they were not merely the first intelligent race in the Galaxy, or perhaps the Universe, but the first without original sin. Could they be angels?"

Our ancients weren't angels, at least by my understanding of the word. Never the less, I wanted to change the subject. "So how did you end up on Dragoika's Pride?"

"I was on Daedalus when Magnusson's rebellion began. Diana and Targovi were kind enough to look after me. As they were fortunate in the aftermath of the rebellion, so was I. I met a Terran noble who had been stuck there. He had an interest in the Foredwellers as well. In short, he allows me a small, but adequate, stipend to allow me to further my investigations. In return, I provide him with regular reports of my findings."

"Are there a lot of these ruins in this area? It seems like you've come a long way from where you started out. Imhotep and Daedalus are on the other side of the Empire, aren't they?" I was still curious as to how they had gotten this far from home.

"There aren't any more ruins here than anywhere else, but there are ruins on the planet Aeneas. In fact, they form part of the university there. They have a considerable body of scholarship concerning the Foredwellers which I have made use of. There are ruins in realms beyond the Empire. I'm going to examine one such on this trip."

I was hoping to get more out of the good father, but duty called in the form of an officious petty officer who needed a commode made all sparkly.

We had been travelling for about two weeks when the ship was called to general quarters. Since Targovi didn't feel we were qualified to do much as yet, we were told to find some place out of the way and stay there when general quarters sounded. We sat down near Lieutenant Braganza, the assistant navigator, tall dark fellow who looked like he hadn't had a decent meal in years. He had, of course, he just looked that way.

"Why general quarters?" I asked.

"We're about to drop out of hyperspace and go sub-light."

"Is that dangerous?"

He shook his head. "Not really. If we make a mistake and come out in the middle of a sun or something, it's over before you have time to worry about it. We go to general quarters on the off chance there might be someone unpleasant waiting for us at our destination."

"What is our destination?" Aeryn asked. We had never been told.

"Two hundred or so light years from the Empire's admittedly vague border, and in the approximate center of nowhere."

"Nowhere?" Aeryn raised an eyebrow.

"We're meeting one of our passengers here." A light flashed on Braganza's status board. "There we go. We're going sub-light. Ah! Take a look, that's the ship we're meeting." He turned on his viewscreen and Aeryn and I crowded around.

"What ship is it?" I asked.

"A yacht. A gold plated, unarmed and unarmored tub that couldn't outrun a Silurian garbage scow. No wonder the Simoor didn't want to risk a run into the Empire in that thing."

"The Simoor?" Aeryn asked.

"It means something like Great Warlord. Up until about two months ago, he had been running a star nation called Magenta. His fellow warlords finally rebelled and he had to run. We got a message torpedo asking us to pick him up. With the message was a very nice down payment from his bankers in the Empire."

"He's a warlord?" Back on Earth of my day, warlords were not nice people.

"Magenta is a barbarian state of about a half a dozen worlds. Maybe two hundred to three hundred raiding ships operate out of there. Oh, if they run into someone strong, they'll trade, but mostly they raid. As far as anyone knows, they haven't hit the Empire, but every year or so he send a couple of merchantmen, heavily escorted with warships, to the Empire to pick up luxury goods. He's been the Simoor for a bit over fifteen years, which is something of a record." Braganza increased the magnification. "He's coming over. Why don't you head down to boat bay two and take a look?"

He didn't need to ask us twice. Once there, we acted like we were working on one of the ship's boats. Aeryn had been learning about them and was determined to become a pilot. We were joined by one of the pilots, a tall skinny blonde from some place called Nyanza. Drawn up in front of the airlock were Targovi, Crowfeather, Win Cho and an officer I barely knew.

"Airlock's opening." Said the blonde. "If he's going to try something, it'll be now."

"Who?" I asked.

"Our passenger, of course." She replied snidely. "He just lost a half a dozen planets and wouldn't he love a nice shiny ship like this one?" She saw me grimace and laughed. "We have automated defenses set up. If he tries anything, he'll be dead before anyone notices."

The airlock opened and our passengers, plural, as it turned out, came in. I assumed the Simoor was the first one. His race was shorter than humans, but very heavily built. Golden skinned with a ruff of hair on his scalp like a Mohawk, his head was round, his mouth big and filled with blunt teeth, his eyes dark and large. He wore a blue tunic, heavily embroidered and covered with gems. Over that he had a sleeveless caftan of red, also embroidered and bejeweled. Around his waist was a gem encrusted belt holding an equally gem encrusted sword and scabbard. To his right were two smaller Magentans, dressed like the Simoor, including the swords. To his left was another Magentan dressed in an unadorned green robe. He leaned heavily on a stick which led me to believe he was old. Immediately behind them were four more Magentans dressed in grey coats and trousers. Some kind of uniform I bet myself. All the way in the back was a crowd dressed from head to toe in clouds of multicolored, wispy fabrics.

The blonde nudged me. "The one in front's the Simoor. The two to his right are his sons. To his left is his chief adviser, Belkennor. He has four guards which are all that's left of his forces. In the back are his wives and daughters. Women don't count for much in Magentan society."

Targovi bowed low to the Simoor. "Greetings. I am glad we are able to be of assistance to you."

The Simoor inclined his head slightly. "I am equally glad, Captain. You received your payment?"

Targovi grinned. "Would we be here if we had not? We received our initial payment, that is. Now if I may, about the armament of your party? Ships policy, you know."

The Simoor handed over an ornate pistol as did his sons. Belkennor opened his caftan to show he was unarmed. The guards handed over such a collection of weaponry, I thought they must have been taking lessons from Aeryn.

"If there is nothing else, there is one thing I need to do?" Said the Simoor

Targovi nodded. "And that is?"

"The matter of my ship." The Simoor pulled out a small box and pointed it at his old ship. I saw a flash of light from the ship."

"It does not appear that you have destroyed your ship, Simoor. Do you wish me to complete its destruction?"

The Simoor laughed. "Not at all. Remaining on the ship is the former head of my personal guards whose treason caused my fall. I have destroyed the hyperspace drive. He will have power for heat, light, life support and enough food to last one male for nearly one year. That will give him time to consider the perils of treason." The Simoor turned away from the ship. "May we now see our quarters?"

Targovi lead the Magentan party away.

"We do not want to piss off that one." I muttered under my breath.

The blonde laughed. "Surprisingly, he's considered an enlightened despot here abouts."


Aeryn nudged me. Diana hadn't stayed with Targovi, but was headed for us.

"Congratulations, you two. You've been promoted. You're now officers."

"Do we get more money?" I asked.

"As long as you remain officers." She replied. "The Simoor's Anglic isn't the best and our translator program for Magentan hasn't ever been tested for real. It occurred to us that your translator microbes might come in handy. Targovi is havin' the Simoor, his sons and his advisor for dinner later. Naturally, some of our officers will be there, includin' you two. Keep an ear out, and if anything seems to be goin' amiss, speak. Otherwise, you needn't let on you can understand them. Dinner is at 1900 sharp. Your coveralls will be fine, as long as they're clean."

We arrived at the wardroom a little beforehand. We were given a short briefing by Win Cho. "Try to behave yourselves tonight. Our passenger is paying us a lot of money to get him out of the mess he got himself into. While he probably won't be giving us any repeat business, this is the sort of thing that spreads good word of mouth. I don't know much about Magentan feeding habits, but if he bites the head off of a live animal and sprays you with the blood, then say "Thank you very much, sir", to him. Got that? Oh, and your wine has been watered to the point that you'd need to drink your body weight of it to even notice. Now get in there and don't cause a problem."

Dinner was very good. Since Cynthians, Tigeries and Magentans had different dietary requirements, I had no idea what the others had. Aeryn and I, as well as Diana Crowfeather, had good steaks, peas about the size of golf balls and what may have been a mutated potato. Apparently Magentans didn't go in for dinner time small talk since they stolidly chewed their way through dinner without a word.

At the end of dinner, Targovi present his guests with a bottle of some oily looking yellow drink. The Simoor and his advisor thanked Targovi effusively, so I guess it was expensive back home. After a sip or two, the Simoor began to wax nostalgic.

"I used to drink this very drink, friend Targovi, on Magenta. I used to like to take my ship, the Landwaster , and fly through the atmosphere looking down on my domains while sipping this. I would fly over peasants tilling their fields, and they would stop their mesthas and hobble them, then bow down until I had passed."

"I used to love to fly over the Great Dread Steppe and observe the caravans plodding across the land carrying cargoes of spices, furs and slaves to the markets along the Stobor River. Once I spied a band of raiders about to attack a caravan, and I swooped in and opened fire on them. After all, the caravans paid taxes to me, and these thieves did not. I still remember the cries of the wounded wafting up to me. Such a joy."

"And the World Ocean! How I loved to sail over her, speeding faster than any ship below. On the surface of the sea were great trading vessels, sails all set, cutting through the waves, filled with treasures from across our fair planet. Occasionally, I'd hover over a fat merchantman and demand that the captain bring his ships papers to me. If his ship had items not on his cargo manifest, I'd throw the smuggler overboard, confiscate the ship and sell the crew into slavery. It is good that everyone knows their Simoor keeps his eye on everyone. Otherwise they would cheat me terribly."

The Simoor rambled on for another ten minutes or so, then got down to business.

"Friend Targovi, I wish you to know that I do not enter the Terran Empire as some beggar. Other ship's captains use their money to build palaces, fill them with beautiful slaves and roister the day through, but not I. I own estates within the Empire, factories and shipyards, even space ships. Although I never allow my own ships to go anywhere near the Frontier!" The Simoor laughed at his own joke, such as it was.

His laughter stopped and his face took on a much more serious expression. "I wish to recover my patrimony for my children and their children. I raised Magenta to heights unknown, and was overthrown by small minded males. This will not stand. I would seek the aid of the Empire to restore my line to its proper place. As I have said, I do not come to the Empire as a beggar."

The Simoor reached into his caftan and drew out a stack of data slabs, carefully putting them on the table between himself and Targovi. "For as long as my people have fared between the stars, we have kept records of the people we have met. When we take a ship, or a planet we seize its records." He shrugged. "Even when we only trade, we seek to acquire knowledge of our partners. Over the centuries we have gained much knowledge, we know of realms far beyond our own. These data slabs contain the records of all we know of an area that exceeds the size of the Empire itself, and contains hints of even more beyond. You have contacts within Imperial Navy intelligence. Would not they be interested?"

Targovi thought for a moment, then shook his head. "This is not the Empire of a century and more in the past. Today's Empire has little interest beyond its immediate frontiers and those beyond those frontiers that would raid the Empire. These will not get you Magenta back."

The Simoor looked at his advisor and smiled. "Belkennor said as much, and after listening to him, I agreed." He pushed the slabs towards Targovi. "Take them, friend Targovi, I have copies. A male in your position, may find some use in these. In fact, should the Empire, or yourself, be in difficulties, there may be a place for you among these stars." He tapped the slabs for emphasis. "Farther than Terra itself is from us now, along the edge of this spiral arm and towards the galactic center is another empire. Oh, not as grand as the Terran Empire, but a nation of some five thousand worlds, strong, rich and stable. As a young male, my uncle traded with one of their frontier worlds. One such as yourself, with a fast, well armed ship, could find refuge there, if needed. With a cargo of Terran luxury goods, you could be quite rich. There is in fact a small colony of Terrans there as well. Descendents of some who fled during the Troubles and determined to flee as far as they could." He laughed. "There are no Tigeries, Cynthians or Wodenites, there, however."

Targovi took the slabs. "I thank the Simoor. I shall study these with great interest and I shall remember your generosity."

The Simoor inclined his head slightly. "This is not all that I have that might interest the Empire. One of my officers was a human. I suspect he was behind the gang that overthrew me, may their bones rot. He was a very competent and knowledgeable officer was this Anton de Pleiss. He knew a very great deal about the Empire and its defenses and greatly did he wish to attack the Empire. I forbade it, of course. Naturally, I sent investigators into the Empire to find what I could of this man. I found, too late, that he is Edwin Cairncross."

Targovi and Diana both frowned. Win Cho may have frowned too, but I couldn't tell. "The name is familiar." Diana said.

"The former Grand Duke of Hermes." The Simoor said. "He who plotted to make himself Emperor. And for his troubles was chased out of the Empire. Now he makes trouble for the Empire beyond its borders. Would the Empire be interested in this?"

"I'm not sure Cairncross was such a problem." Diana said.

The Simoor shook his head. "Oh, Imperial propaganda made him seem foolish, to think he could overthrow the ruler of one hundred thousand planets when he ruled over but one. But I have heard that his plan was to audaciously head for Terra herself, kill Emperor Gerhart and proclaim himself Emperor. With a small, mobile, highly trained force, it could have worked. I think he was more of a threat than the Empire would have us believe."

Targovi stroked his jaw and thought. "Imperial intelligence would be interested, I think. What I don't think is that the Empire would be interested enough to send a task force as far out as Magenta to overthrow Cairncross. There's just too much closer to home they need their forces for."

The Simoor smiled. "But might they not provide support for a small, mobile, highly trained force that could speed to Magenta, kill Cairncross and install a ruler friendly to the Empire?"

Targovi slowly nodded. "I don't doubt there are factions in the Empire that might support you, Simoor. I'll certainly mention it when we get back to the Empire."

The Simoor laughed and took a long draught of his drink.

The dinner dragged on for a while, with just small talk around the table. When it was over, I spoke to Aeryn when we were alone in a passageway. "We should go see Axor, after that, I have some questions. He seems like our best bet to get straight answers."

"We don't really have that many choices." Aeryn said with a slight smile.

We walked over to Father Axor's cabin and knocked on his door. I would think a priest would be trustworthy, but we had only his word on that. He could be…

"Yes? Who is it?" A voice from inside rumbled.

"John and Aeryn, Father. Can we talk?"

The door opened and a blast of light and heat hit us. Father Axor stood in the doorway. "Wait just a moment. I had my room set for conditions on my home world. I fear you may find them a bit trying." He hit some buttons on the side of his doorway. Then the light wasn't so glaring. He held up his hand. "Just one moment…Ah, there. Please come in. I was just having a bit of dinner. I fear I have no food that humans would find palatable, but the ale I have is quite good." He went to a boxy structure that must have been the high tech equivalent of a refrigerator and began rummaging around.

I checked his quarters. They were quite spartan, as I suppose a priest's should be. In addition to the refridge, there was a sleeping mat, with a simple wooden cross above it. Along one wall was set of shelves that held books, data slabs, and two machines that I guessed were used to either read data or write it. Then again, maybe he used them to clip his nose hairs.

Axor handed us each a can with unreadable lettering on it. "Here you are. Tap the top smartly and it will chill the ale to a temperature most humans find acceptable. Tap the side and the spout will open."

Christ! It was like when I first got to Moya. I had to have opening a beer can explained to me.

"How may I help you, my son?"

Now that we were here, I wasn't sure how to begin. However, Aeryn spoke right up. "Father, we were at dinner tonight with Captain Targovi, Diana and Win Cho, as well as the Simoor and his advisor, Belkennor. The Simoor spoke of Targovi's contacts in Terran Imperial intelligence. We thought that this ship was a …trader, nothing more."

Axor chuckled. "Ho! You think our Captain is one of those folk beloved by the holovids, always fighting off hordes of Merseians and saving a beautiful female?" He shook his head and chuckled some more. "Do not worry. Targovi and Dragoika's Pride are as you were told. I can explain what these contacts are, however. You met the Simoor. What did you think of him?"

"He's no one I'd like to meet on a dark night." I answered.

"No one you'd like to meet…Ah! An apt simile, John." Axor chuckled some more. He was having fun even if neither of us were. "The areas beyond the Empire teem with beings like him: Pirates, slavers, raiders, destroyers of all. Oh, he does trade if he must, but only if he must. The Simoor does not raid the Empire, it is simply too far from his home. Others like him that are closer do raid us, and many others would like to if they thought they could. Luckily, for the time being, the Empire remains strong and the freebooters from beyond the frontier are divided. But they worry the Empire, so any captain who goes beyond the frontiers to trade, and there are many, are contacted by Imperial Navy intelligence and asked what they have seen in their trading voyages."

Aeryn frowned. "Wouldn't they be giving away information about their customers?"

Axor shrugged. "For ones like the Simoor who come to the Empire openly, that is not a problem. Other passengers are reported as Targovi thinks best. If one were thought to be a threat, he'd be reported. Naturally, our, um, tricks of the trade, so to speak, are not reported to the Empire, but those of our competitors are certainly reported. From all sources the Empire has a fair picture of the goings on beyond its borders. And remember, while the Empire may be decadent and declining, it remains enormously powerful. Friends within the Navy's intelligence branch are quite helpful."

I nodded. "Okay, I guess that makes sense. There's something else I heard tonight. The Simoor was talking about flying over his home world in an interstellar space ship looking down on peasants that plowed their fields with animal power, and ships that use wind power to move. When you talked about barbarians beyond the Empire, I thought you just were considering anyone who didn't live in the Empire as some sort of inferior barbarians. But these guys come across as the Vikings or the Vandals, I mean really uncivilized."

Axor laughed. This was getting repetitious. "You did not expect this?" I nodded and he went on. "I know a bit of the history of Magenta and I have talked a bit with Belkennor. Some seven centuries ago, in the days of the Polesotechnic League, League merchants ranged far beyond the borders of what is now the Terran Empire. They found on Magenta a plant that was an aphrodisiac for another race they dealt with. The original Simoor was merely a tribal leader with a few thousand warriors armed with edged weapons, but he controlled the source of this plant. He asked to be paid in weapons. He received a thousand or so thoroughly obsolete military rifles. With these he founded a country, and when he bought more weapons, he had an empire. In a few generations his successors had control of the valuable parts of the planet. Then the League had need of mercenaries for some purpose. Magenta was well suited for their needs and the Simoor's warriors were losing their fighting edge. In return for fighting the League's wars, Magenta got automated factories and shipyards, overseen by a powerful computer and a small number of that old Simoor's people got a modern education in science and engineering."

"Alas, the League fell, the Troubles began and the Empire rose, and Magenta continued to build ships and raid: Oh, not the best of ships, the League was not that foolish, but strong enough to subdue a merchant ship or raid a helpless planet. The Simoors over the years was able to maintain a small educated class, supplemented by hiring or kidnapping other races that could provide technical knowledge."

"For the others beyond the Empire…" Axor shrugged. "Many spacegoing races, the Ythri, those of Alfzar, which you know as Betelgeuse, the Merseians, and even the Empire have had need of inexpensive mercenaries or deniable raiders. And, if you have the resources of an entire planet, purchasing warships is not hard."

Axor smiled, "And consider this: Would not this Simoor be happier controlling a mass of uneducated peasants, with only a small educated elite to take care of?"

I had to agree with that. "Okay. I guess that answers our questions. Aeryn, do you have anything else. She didn't so we finished our ales and headed back to our quarters.

"Do Axor's answers make sense to you?" I asked.

"Yes. Certainly any competent intelligence service would check any ship's captains travelling in areas of interest to them. As far as the iron-age barbarians with spaceships…I seem to recall nations on Earth that had modern weapons and starving peasants."

And so we sped on to whatever our next destination was.


"You can see why it is so named, can't you?" Targovi growled.

I took another look at the viewscreen. Below us was a darkened planet. It was like there was no light, even though the sun should have been shining on part of what we could see. "How did it get that way?"

"The planet is in a very early stage of development. The surface is still very hot, but there is liquid water, the result is a planet wide rainstorm that has lasted for centuries. Your Earth was once like this."

While I was still thinking about that, Win Cho yelled at me. "Crichton? Are you going to stand there forever? We have work to do!" Win Cho headed off towards the boat bay. "At least your mate is competent." She grumbled.

Aeryn was still an officer and had been made a pilot of one of the ship's boats. It was nothing like her old Prowler, but she loved flying. Because of my translator microbes, I was now the assistant cargo master. Win Cho did all of the wheeling and dealing with buying and selling our cargos, all I was supposed to do was listen to what the other merchants said when they thought no one could understand them.

We piled into the boxy ship's boat and shot out of the Dragoika's Pride's bay.

"Why do we have to orbit so far out? We're more than a hundred thousand kilometers out." I asked.

"Do you listen, human? Do you see those big things orbiting around Dark?"

"Yeah, they're called moons where I come from."

Aeryn took over. "John, they were moved here from an asteroid belt hundreds of years ago and fortified. The Commission that runs Dark destroys any armed ship that comes closer than one hundred thousand kilometers. No exceptions."

Win Cho spoke up. "And they don't allow any weapons of any sort on the planet, except for the Commission's own people and certain long term guests who are prepared to pay well for that privilege. I hope neither of you are armed. If you're executed, I'll have to fly back on my own. I hate having to do my job and yours."

"Don't worry." Aeryn said coldly

"Why the hell would anyone want to fortify this dump?"

"No one knows." Win Cho shot back. "One of the old League companies did it. The records for it were lost during the Troubles. People have looked for centuries for something valuable enough to justify that kind of firepower, but no one's found a thing."

"How strong are those defenses?" Aeryn asked. Show her a pretty gun and she'd follow you anywhere.

Win Cho shrugged. "No one's sure. Who'd want to find out? Strong enough to require a good sized Imperial task force to take Dark. And the Empire has…"

"…enough troubles closer to home." I finished for her.

The Cynthian laughed. "You're learning. In the meantime, this has become a perfect place for people who want to buy or sell, with no questions asked."

"What are we doing here?" I t seemed like a reasonable question to me.

"Someone has a job for us." Win Cho replied unhelpfully.

We landed in a driving rainstorm. Apparently no one thought that keeping guests dry was a priority. We had to run through the rain for a couple of hundred meters to get inside. Inside was a large clear dome that looked like it could host a couple of Super Bowls simultaneously and still have room left over for a rock concert.

When we got inside, Win Cho was furious. She hated getting wet as much as the cats she so closely resembled. "You buffoons! How dare you let me get wet! Could you not have let us land next to the openings? Do you know who I am? I have friends here. Business dealings with a powerful being. Do you know what he'll do when he finds out about this?"

Win Cho's tirade wasn't directed at us, but at two heavily armed aliens standing guard just inside. The looked like gorillas with an extra set of arms and wore armored mail shirts with swords at their sides, but slung in front of them were heavy duty blasters, as directed energy weapons were called locally.

One of them looked down at Win Cho and moved his weapon to cover her. "Perhaps this would dry you out?" he snarled.

The dripping wet Cynthian stared at him for a second, then shook herself dry. "Come on."

"They didn't check us for weapons?" I said when we were far enough away from the guards.

"Idiots. I'm surrounded by idiots!" Win Cho snapped. "No one would trust those two shaggy morons to search us for weapons. It's all done with sensors embedded in the doors. One weapon, and you're dead."

Win Cho stomped off towards the interior of the dome. One problem. Except for another Cynthian and something that looked like a long-legged turtle, she was the smallest being around and was constantly being shoved aside by larger beings. Finally she got behind us and let us run interference for her. All the while she kept up a litany of foul mouthed complaints. "It's like having Rygel around again." I muttered.

As Win Cho directed us through the streets, I got a look around. The place was jammed with people: Two legged, three legged, four legged, six and eight legged and one that must have given a centipede a run for its money. The came in all colors and clothing ran from the absolutely psychedelic to none at all. Not one looked like anyone back home.

The architecture was equally odd. We passed a huge mansion, all pastel towers, tall, feathery trees and spacious orange lawns with an immaculately clean sidewalk in front. Across the street were shacks made up of any old junk. Three small green skinned, tailed, naked children played in a mud puddle in front of one shack. Stores holding the wealth of an empire stood cheek to jowl with street peddlers selling used clothing. We walked past an outdoor café that nearly overwhelmed me with the aromas of food issuing from it. A block away a group was sprawled on the sidewalk passing around a dirty mug with some oily liquid inside.

"There!" Win Cho broke in. "That's Theselio's Arena, the big round building to your right."

Arena? Well, it could have been. Well worn grey stone rose for about three stories enclosing an area about the size of something like a minor league baseball stadium. I doubted they played anything like baseball, however.

We got to the entrance and were stopped by three tall, skinny beings who looked like they were related to ants: Exoskeletons, a wasp-waisted body, compound eyes and skinny arms and legs. No surprise, they were armed as well.

"Win Cho, here to see Lord Theselio! Stand aside." The Cynthian barked. The three didn't move a muscle. Won Cho bottled her tail and took a deep breath, preparing to give hell to the three.

"Welcome, Win Cho. Come up, do come up." A voice blared over a loudspeaker. That was followed by a series of clicks that caused the guards to move and let us pass.

We walked to a grav shaft that took us to the top. When we stopped, we were at the entrance of a good sized suite. Three grey stone walls were covered with bright hangings showing various races. A second glance showed they were all having sex. Maybe. Hard to tell with aliens. The far side of the suite was open. I could hear the murmur of a crowd outside, so it seemed the arena was open for business. Underfoot was a deep carpet that changed color as we walked on it. The only piece of furniture was a huge bed that floated above the carpet.

The occupant of the bed looked like a super sized Pillsbury doughboy. Dead white skin stretched over an enormous obese body. He must have been seven feet tall, if he stood up, or if he could stand up, and probably weighed half a ton or better. He was humanoid, two legs, two arms, the usual. If he had any secondary sex characteristics, they were hidden under rolls of fat.

"Friend Win Cho! How good of you to come." He managed to crane his head around to look at Win Cho. "But what is this? You're all wet! Quickly, towels and cleaners for my friend. Hurry, hurry. And food and drink."

A half a dozen of the ant people rushed out from behind a tapestry and began to rub Win Cho down. Others pushed a small table loaded with what might have been fruits in front of her. After a few minutes of pampering, Theselio remembered we were there. Just barely. "Some food for Win Cho's servants as well." He said languidly. We did get something resembling lemonade and a nice sandwich each. Meanwhile Win Cho and Theselio exchanged pleasantries.

There was a drum roll outside and the hum of the crowd increased. Theselio's bed rose and headed for the opening. "The next event is about to start. Come watch."

Below us was a round arena, covered in sand, about two hundred or so feet in diameter. To our right, a door opened and twenty or so men walked in. No, not men, humanoids but not men. The skin had a bluish color, and the legs were too long in proportion to their bodies. Each wore a bronze helmet that covered their heads with what looked like a thick leather coat going down to mid-thigh. They were armed with spears a good twelve feet long and swords. Large rectangular shields, big enough to cover their bodies, completed their armament.

They arranged themselves in to a two deep line with their spears parallel to the ground and faced a door at the other end of the arena. They didn't have long to wait.

"A markassas!" Theselios said proudly as an animal rushed out, stopped and then looked at the men confronting it. It was as big as a damned rhino, but covered in long shaggy fur. It had twice as many legs as a rhino and its body ended in a long tail with a bony protrusion at the end.

The crowd cheered. I couldn't see anything directly below us, but otherwise the arena was jammed. Maybe ten or twelve thousand patrons?

The beast walked slowly towards the men. For a micron, nobody moved. Then the beast lunged to the right, apparently trying to get behind the men. The line of men swung around to keep facing the markassas, while those at the other end of the line moved towards the back of the beast. I saw a spear strike home and the animal howled and pulled back. I couldn't see anything that looked like blood nor any indication that the markassas had been badly hurt. The animal started edging to his right to outflank the line, but this time when the men on the other side moved, his tail shot out and impaled a spearman. The bony tail shot into his throat and the spearman was thrown to the other side of the arena. He didn't move.

The beast reared up and roared. As he did, one of the spearmen in the back threw his spear, piercing the animal's side. He roared in pain, and this time I saw bright orange blood pour from the wound. He charged the men and got stabbed in the face for his troubles. But when the men moved back, two of their number were on the ground. One tried to draw his sword, but was too slow. There was a sickening crack as the markassas crushed his body.

Suddenly, the left side of the line moved forward and three spears pushed deep into the animal's body. The markassas charged again and knocked two spearmen down. He savaged them with his fangs and claws, but their fellows drove their spears deep into the markassas. The markassas staggered out to the center of the arena and collapsed. Blood pouring from his side. Finally, a spearman approached and drove his spear point into the animal's brain. The fight was over. The survivors marched out to the beat of a drum, while more ant people rushed out to dispose of the bodies.

"Very interesting." Win Cho said, "But this makes me no money."

Theselio laughed. "That was a mere preliminary. I wanted you here for the main event."

I thought for a micron that the next person to walk through the door nearest to us couldn't possibly part of the main event. Small, human and female, she looked no more than twelve years old. She had on a faded, patched, beat up dress to cover her slender body. Her hair was long and dark, like Aeryn's, but her skin was darker. She looked up at us sitting in the owner's box with large violet eyes. "Christ." I muttered under my breath.

Aeryn put her hand in mine, as much to keep me from doing anything as to comfort me.

What came next was even worse. Her opponent was also human, a huge muscular man who strode out to the center of arena to the cheers of the crowd.

"Pasco is from a high gravity planet." Theselio said. "About twice Terran norm is usual for him, but we keep his quarters at two and a half standard gravities to keep him fit."

Pasco wasn't just huge and muscular. He wore a breastplate and a back plate as well as a helmet that covered most of his head. Huge biceps were bare, but his forearms were armored. Likewise his massive thighs had no armor, but he had armor on his calfs. "Greaves." I said, remembering some long ago history lesson.

"Pardon?" Theselio said.

"The armor on his lower legs are called greaves."

"How useful." Win Cho added acidly.

In addition to his armor, Pasco hefted a huge sword, double edged and a good yard and a half long. He raised his sword to the owner's box we stood in and dipped it in salute. Theselio waved languidly at him.

He headed for the girl, who took off running, but there was no place to run. The crowd screamed. From the cries, it appeared that they wanted Pasco to rape the girl before he killed her. From the bulge in Pasco's loincloth, he had much the same idea.

She stopped and rested against the wall as Pasco closed in. He reached out a massive hand to grab her, but she dodged under it and ran away.

Someone in the crowd yelled something about letting a little one get away. That seemed to enrage Pasco. He took off after the little girl and ran her down. Almost ran her down. At the last micron, she tumbled to her left, feinted to her right and slipped behind Pasco. As she passed him, she punched him behind the knee where he had no armor. The crowd howled with laughter and urged Pasco to catch her and do, well, do many obscene things to her before killing her slowly.

The girl ran to the center of the arena and stopped, panting and watching Pasco. The giant lumbered after her. Could Pasco be limping slightly? Certainly that little girl hadn't managed to hit him hard enough to do any actual damage to him.

The girl must have panicked since she took off straight towards a wall with Pasco in hot pursuit. When she reached the wall, she scrambled up it. For a moment I thought she might get out and into the crowd. But when she was halfway up, a blue glow started at the top of the wall.

"Security system." Theselio told us. "We can't have the fighters running away, can we?"

The girl hung on the wall for a split microt, then pushed herself off and landed behind Pasco, who had just barely missed slamming into the wall. She punched him in the back, just below his back plate, then ran off.

As Pasco lumbered after the girl, I could see he was limping. So could the crowd. The raucous, but obscene, calls from the crowd were starting to change. They were figuring out that this might not be the one sided slaughter they had counted on.

"Do people bet on the outcome of these things?" I asked.

Theselio laughed. "But of course. Why else would someone come here?"

Pasco was starting to seriously drag his injured leg and the crowd was getting louder and nastier. The girl dodged by Pasco, who took a swing at her and missed by a mile. As he was losing his balance, she whacked him in the right bicep. He went down, but managed to clamber back to his feet. He stood in the arena as the girl circled him. She moved faster and faster until he tripped and fell on his face. She leaped onto him and punched him in the neck, between his helmet and his back plate. As she got off him, she pulled his sword from his hand. She stepped back and looked up at Theselio. He nodded. The girl swung the sword at Pasco's neck, and his head flew off.

The crowd erupted in roars of rage and began tossing garbage into the arena. As the girl strode out of the arena, a dozen armed ant people walked out into the arena and leveled their weapons at the crowd.

That was apparently the end of the night's program. The surly crowd filed out.

No one had anything much to say after that. I was wondering why Theselio had wanted us to see the main event. If it was to prove that he was one cold blooded son-of-a-bitch, he had made his point.

We started to figure it out when the girl from the arena walked in. She had changed into a form fitting dress that covered her from neck to ankles. It was blood red in color, which seemed ominous. She bowed to Theselio. "Was I as expected, Lord?" She said with a chilling smile. I already did so not like this chick.

Theselio laughed. "Oh, Kali, you were perfect."

"Kali?" I said, shocked. "The Hindu goddess of love and death?"

She turned and gave me a smile that chilled my blood. "Why, Theselio, you have a scholar as a guest. No one knows the old religion these days. Where did you learn of Kali?"

Oh, smooth move, John. Open mouth, insert foot. I gave her my most sincere smile. I knew it looked fake. "I'm from a world far, far from here. We have lots of old books from way back when." Truthful, anyway.

Win Cho snorted. "And how much profit will I make from a nice discussion of dead religions? Why am I here?"

Theselio smiled. Yup. His was as fake as mine. He nodded to Kali. "This is the small package I need delivered. To Manchukuo. I assume that won't be a problem?"

"She appears to be quite dangerous." Win Cho said with a smile. Hers was much better. "We do have a slight problem carrying dangerous…packages."

Theselio shrugged. "Kali is descended from the survivors of a genetic modification. She has faster reactions than normal and she secretes various poisons from glands under her fingernails and toenails. However, I assure you she will be of no trouble to you. You have my word."

Yeah, and I have a nice orange bridge to sell you.

Win Cho frowned and closed her eyes. Then, "I suppose we can have her there in, say, two weeks? We will need a slightly larger than usual security fee, however. Nothing you can't afford. You have my word on it."

That led to a boring round of bargaining over the fee. That was settled, but then Theselio added a new wrinkle. "I will need a guaranty that no one will enter Kali's quarters during the trip."

Win Cho shook her head. "We're a warship traveling through a dangerous part of space. I cannot guarantee that we will never have a need to enter Freelady Kali's quarters. There are simply too many variables. However, we would never intrude on a passenger's privacy unless it was absolutely necessary."

Theselio and Kali exchanged a glance. Theselio nodded. "Acceptable."

"Manchukuo is an Imperial planet, but it is on the very edge of the Empire. It has irregular contact with the rest of the Empire, and I can't imagine that there's anything there to attract a person of Freelady Kali's…obvious talents. Suppose she can't make a connection to her destination?"

"Why is that a concern to you?" Kali asked coldly.

Win Cho smiled. "We are successful not only because we cater to our customer's needs, but because we anticipate those needs. We need to know if our services would be needed after we arrive at Manchukuo."

Theselio and Kali exchanged glances again. This time it was Kali that spoke. "Should the need arise, I'll make my own arrangements. You need not concern yourself."

Win Cho nodded, and we exchanged insincere pleasantries. Then we headed back to the ship. Kali joined us the next morning. I didn't see her board and I never saw her again. Good luck, for once.

Not that we didn't find more bad luck.

"General quarters! General quarters!" I disengaged my hand from Aeryn's hair. Damn! We had just gotten started, too.

"Why now?" I yelled.

"When else would it be?" Aeryn gave me a grin. "But that sounds a little more serious than the usual coming out of FTL call to general quarters."

Aeryn's station was in one of the ship's boats. I had decided that my general quarters' station was next to my wife. No one had said no.

Aeryn slid into the pilot's seat and I sat down beside her. She pulled up ship's communications.

"Warship coming right at us from in system." That was one of the bridge petty officers.

"Who the hell are they?" Targovi barked over the intercom. "Intel? Got anything? Anybody? I don't want to shoot…"

"There are more ships further in system." Someone broke in.

"Should we run?"

"Wait one. Wait…" There was a brief pause and then, "That's a convoy orbiting around the second planet. The planet's called…Saavedra. Inhabited. No spaceflight. Does trade with various races, including the Empire."

"ID on the ship approaching us. It's a Scothani destroyer. They're a client state of the Empire, so they should be friendly…"

"Should be could get us killed." Targovi snarled. "We can outrun anything the Scothani have…I think. Do we run?"

"Incoming comm from the Scothani." Someone new broke in.

"Targovi! Is that you and your lovely, well-armed ship? How nice of you to join us on our little expedition."

Targovi laughed. "Captain Smith, how nice to run into you out here. Just how much trouble are you in?"

"None now, thank you. We were jumped out by the largest gas giant by a half a dozen raiders. They damaged a merchant ship that strayed out of the convoy to try to get to Saavedra first. The crew evaced and we picked them up. The raiders are picking over the merchie now."

A voice comm cut in. "This is Lieutenant Blakeney, Imperial Terran Navy. I demand that you identify yourself."

Captain Smith motioned to one of his crewman behind him. "Advise the good lieutenant who we've found." Smith held up five fingers. Targovi nodded. "Switch to Tac Five."

There was a slight pause and Captain Smith came back on the screen again. "That's better, Targovi. Lieutenant Blakeney is a good officer, but he tends to feel he has to uphold the honor of the Empire by being in command, even though he has the least powerful warship. But it is good you can join us."

"Who said I was going to join you?" Targovi shot back. "Why should I tie myself to a convoy of uber slow merchies?"

Smith laughed. "Because these merchies belong to Lord Ruthven."

Targovi nodded, as did Diana Crowfeather, who was now right behind him. "And we do a very good business with Lord Ruthven and he's known to be a generous soul."

Smith shrugged. "I wouldn't say generous, but a good businessman. He knows it takes money to make money. I'm sure he'll have a nice job for you when we reach Scothia. From the vector you came in on, I assume you're headed there."

"We are, and we'll be happy to accompany you, and our friend Lord Ruthven's ships."

Smith nodded. "We'll be forming up in a bit. With your sensor suite, I'd suggest you take point."

Targovi nodded. "Point it is. Tell me when we're ready."

We were released from general quarters. We headed for the wardroom where we found Diana Crowfeather having coffee. I grabbed a cup. Aeryn never developed a taste for coffee, but she found they had hot chocolate. We sat across from Crowfeather. "What's this all about? Who's Smith, what's a Scothani and who's Lord Ruthven?" I asked.

"Decades ago the Scothani Confederation was the Scothani Empire. A typical barbarian empire, all about war and death. They planned a massive raid on the Empire. At the best, they would have damaged the Alpha Crucis sector badly, at worst, given the Empire's other problems, they night have conquered a great swathe of Imperial territory. Luckily, an Imperial intelligence officer was able to infiltrate the Scothani and set them at each other's throats. The Scothani Empire collapsed. The Terran officer called in the Imperial Navy and the Scothani became an Imperial client state."

"Lord Ruthven is a very, very wealthy Scothani. His family decided very early that being part of the Terran Empire was an opportunity. They became friendly with Imperial officers, began trading with the Empire and grew both rich, and very attached to the Empire. Lord Ruthven is the head of his family now. He was educated within the Empire. We do a great deal of work for him."

"As for Smith, he's an ex-Imperial officer. He was obviously drummed out of the Navy and offered his services to the Scothani. Why, we don't know. He could have been dishonest, or a rebel of some sort, or just unlucky. And, if you want to know more about the Scothani, check your computer terminal in your quarters."

We left her to do exactly that.

An arn on the computer was little help. "According to this most Scothani politics is based on who can knife whom in the back the quickest, although they do that more metaphorically these days. But economically, they seem to be tied pretty close to the Empire."

Aeryn hadn't paid much attention to that part. "The Scothani Fleet is what interests me. The Confederation covers some one hundred and twenty worlds, mostly very low tech, but Scothia itself has modern factories, space yards and modern educational institutions."

I looked over Aeryn's shoulder. "They have nearly as many ships as the local Imperial fleet, with a much smaller industrial base. The Alpha Crucis Sector has a hundred times the number of planets and is far more industrialized."

Aeryn snorted. I had made a mistake. As usual. "Look at the ship types, John. They have all sorts of ships suitable for raiding or protecting themselves from raiders, such as what they call destroyers and cruisers, but their battle fleet is smaller than the corresponding Imperial Sector Fleet. And I suspect the Empire has superior technology."

That's my Aeryn.

The run to Scothia was boring which suited me fine. When we got there, Win Cho called us to his office, a tiny thing suitable for someone his size. "We have another job for you. Lord Ruthven and some of friends are putting together a convoy to take well into Imperial space, all the way to Aeneas in fact. They'll have over a hundred merchant ships and an escort of some twenty warships. Best of all, two Scothian heavy cruisers will be going with us. Just one can smack aside any raider that comes near the convoy. But, Ruthven and friends have a lot of money tied up in this and want Dragoika's Pride to toddle along. Our sensors are better than anything the locals have."

"What do we do?" I asked.

"The usual. Keep your mouths closed and your ears open. A hundred good sized merchant ships in a convoy would naturally attract pirates. But a light cruiser and a handful of smaller escorts should be enough. Two heavy cruisers is definitely too much firepower. Something may be wrong. And Ruthven is way too anxious to include Dragoika's Pride. Scothia are a bunch of semi-barbarians which means that their technology is far ahead of the barbarians who'd be likely to raid them. They want a top of the line ship with top of the line sensors too badly for my taste. Although, the money is attractive. See if you can find out if anything is out of the ordinary. Possible rebellions. A military coup. A really big barbarian alliance. Anything."

We nodded and were dismissed.

We found Scothia to be Earthlike, or perhaps Sebacealike was a better word. The Scothians were damned near human like, though. Except for their paler skin, violet eyes and two tiny horns on their heads, they could have passed, I guess. Win Lo and his two happy assistants dealt with a Scothian named Saxfeld, who, we were told was of peasant stock, unusual in a civilization that still valued aristocratic connections. The two of them blathered on and on trying to get the best deal they could for their employers, so Aeryn and I wondered around. The building we were in was an office building, but many of the senior employees lived there as well.

We found what passed for a bar and ordered a couple of local drinks. They tasted like ice tea mixed with lighter fluid, but we drank them. And we overheard two barmaids chatting about their investments.

"I sold my percentage of the cargo going Empire-ward, Lexta, and you should, too. Save your funds until this is over."

Our ears perked up.

Lexta, presumably spoke. "Bah! Sometimes there's more pirates and such and sometimes there's less. The loss of a convoy means naught."

"A whole convoy, escorts and all, lost on the run between Wixstan and Corrigiom? That should be as safe as sitting on Lord Ruthven's lap."

The owner snarled at the barmaids to stop talking and get back to work. I looked at Aeryn and shrugged. "What now?"

"Wait a little. See if anyone else says anything useful."

And so we sat and listened to some bored soldier whine about how his sergeant hated him for no apparent reason. We got an earful of local fashion tips from two well dressed women. Apparently shimmersilk is divine and the latest Imperial fashions are superb. Neither of us cared. We moved on.

We found another bar and motioned for the barmaid to come over. Oddly, she was human, the first we'd seen on this planet. "You work here?" I asked.

She laughed. "Be serious, sport." She held up her wrist, showing some kind of silver bracelet. "The guy who runs this place owns me."

"You're a slave?"

She nodded. "Where the hell are you from, sport? Of course I'm a slave." She shrugged. "It's not too bad a life for me. Better than being sent to the mines or working in the fields. And Orath over there isn't sexually compatible with me, so that's no problem." She gestured to a rotund, bright pink being sitting on the far side of the bar.

"How'd you end up a slave?" Aeryn asked.

"My husband hit me one time too many and I snapped. The Empire finds it's easier to enslave criminals and make a profit selling them off than it is to take care of them for years."

"The Terran Empire did this?" I asked, shocked.

"You think there's another empire around, fella? Do you want a drink, or did you just come in to take up my time?"

We had a drink, but heard nothing further about missing convoys.

We met up with Win Cho in the shuttle that was taking us back to our ship. "Well?" She asked.

We told her about what we'd heard about the lost convoy.

"Between Wixstan and Corrigiom you said?"

We nodded. "That's what we heard." I replied. "Is that bad?"

"It's right inside the Confederation. Odd for a convoy to get over run there. Most of those things happen well outside their own space."

"How bad is that?" Aeryn asked.

Win Cho looked at her. "I have no idea, but I'll certainly pass it along and keep it in mind. Don't discuss this anyone outside the crew. In fact, don't discuss this with anyone but the ship's officers."

"We wouldn't want to upset paying passengers by suggesting we might all die, would we?"

Win Cho glared at me. "We have no paying passengers this trip." The little cross between a cat and a raccoon suddenly smiled at us. "But we do have an interesting cargo. Meet me in cargo hold four port about a half an hour after we get back."

That was all she said and we settled back for the ride back to Dragoika's Pride.

Win Cho was a good hour getting to cargo bay four port, but that just confirmed what our status was as far as I was concerned. When Win Cho arrived, she opened up a sealed cargo container.

"Hey, aren't those supposed to be opened at the destination only?"

Win Cho have me the kind of look usually reserved for the terminally stupid. "So?"

"Just asking, boss. Just asking."

"Those translator microbes of yours let you read other languages, right?"

"Sort of. Aeryn is a lot better at it than I am. Why?"

Win Cho ignored and handled a bottle to Aeryn. "Can you read what it says?"

Aeryn studied it carefully. "It's something called Maklars vissey, made in some place called Cadornia. It appears to be alcohol of some sort."

"Could it be McKellar's Whiskey?" Win Cho asked.

Aeryn looked at me and held out the bottle for me to see. "I can't tell." I told Win Cho. "Why?"

"Do you remember the Simoor telling us about a strong, united, non-human empire some thousands of light years towards the galactic center? One with a small population of humans?"


"Cadornia, or Kathornia, or perhaps even Caferia, is the name of that empire. The exact pronunciation gets a bit mangled over time and distance. They do have wonderful luxury products. They're low volume and high value, easy to carry aboard a ship like ours. And, if things start to go bad in the Empire, perhaps a good place to escape to. But our knowledge of the place is limited. We have only a vague idea of where it is, and given the vastness of the galaxy, we could take forever to get there. So, any information is valuable."

Win Cho went off to pass along the good news.

I looked at Aeryn. "The crew of a well armed ship is considering leaving the Terran Empire for greener pastures. That worries me."

She shrugged. "They're not going right now. I wouldn't worry about it." Aeryn had a soldier's habit of not worrying about the future since it may never arrive.

We formed up our convoy and headed for the Terran Empire the next day. I was anxious to see what the future Earth had conjured up in the thousand plus years I'd been gone.

The first Imperial planet we got to wasn't impressive. It was a low tech agricultural world and the only town on it smelled badly of manure. However, it did have a small naval base and Targovi and Crowfeather went to talk to the Navy while Aeryn and I wandered around the little town, got bored, and finally headed back to the ship.

The next Imperial planet we hit was more interesting.

"Palawan?" I asked.

Crowfeather nodded. "Named after some part of Earth. But damned if I know where."

I thought about it, but couldn't place it.

"We're being hailed." Someone called.

Aeryn and I took our battle station. In this case, we were just hanging around the bridge trying to look like we belonged there.

"This is Palawan Militia Ship Roxas. Please identify yourself." The viewscreen showed a round faced man, who at least was smiling at us. However, nothing else could be seen.

Targovi leaned into the viewscreen. "This is the private armed ship Dragoika's Pride, Captain Targovi.

The man looked down, seemingly checking something. "Ah, yes, Captain. I see you've been here before. Please contact orbital control for a parking orbit when you are one hundred thousand kilometers from the planet. Have a good stay at Palawan."

"That's new." Crowfeather said. "The last time we were here all they had was a local police ship, strictly interplanetary. That was a naval frigate, with FTL drive. I wonder if the sultan is going back to his old ways?"

"Old ways?" Aeryn asked.

"Before this sector became part of the Empire, this planet was a base for raiders. When the first Imperial fleet came to incorporate the sector into the Empire, the Sultan gathered all of the raiders in the sector together to oppose the fleet. Then he took his own forces and surrendered to the Empire. Gave them complete intel on what they faced. In return, the Sultan stayed in control of his planet and he was granted the right to maintain a local space borne militia. While the Empire was strong, the Sultans didn't bother with warships, but now they're arming themselves."

Targovi spoke to one of his officers. "Do a sweep of the system. See what's about."

A few minutes later, after a hurried conference with several other people, the officer turned to Targovi. "Sir, I make it seventeen system defense boats that look like R class Imperial boats and there are probably more, hiding behind planets or moons. I counted five frigates like we just encountered, and two destroyers. One in orbit around Palawan and one out by the inner gas giant. There could be more FTL warships. I also got a look at the orbital shipyards. Three frigates and one destroyer almost completed. There's more activity in the yards, but I can't tell from what."

Targovi stroked his furry jaw, deep in thought. Crowfeather spoke. "He's built system defense boats first. He wants to protect his planet. The frigates and destroyers will be good for planetary defense and convoy escort."

Targovi nodded slowly. "Naturally, he'd want to protect his planet. But frigates and destroyers could be used for raiding as well as convoy escorts and whatever." Targovi's eyes settled on Aeryn and me. "We'll be here a few days. You two can go aplanet and keep your eyes open."

"We blew our last paycheck hanging around the bars on Scothia."I mentioned.

"Win Cho can provide you with ship's funds." Targovi replied offhandedly. I glanced at Win Cho whose tail had bottled, a sure sign she was angry.

"Ship's funds?" She said with as much respect as she could.'

"Two hundred credits ought to do it." Targovi said, checking something at his work station. "Apiece." He added.

Win Cho parted with the funds looking like she was giving up her first born. "Try not to spend it all uselessly."'

I just smiled at her.

I guess spaceport bars are all the same, no matter where you are. Probably bars back in the days of sail were much the same. But, I don't know.

The Roistering Captain was a nice enough place, I suppose. We were told that it catered to mostly ships' officers and the occasional merchant. We were greeted by a large, four armed hairy sort who gave us our first drink on the house. "Welcome to the Roistering Captain, shipmates, I'm Argoz and I own the place with my mate." He gestured to an equally hairy sort at the end of the bar. I had no idea what sex either of them were.

"What ship are you off of?" Argoz asked cheerfully.

"Dragoika's Pride." I answered.

That caught the attention of the fellow next to me, a human. "Captain Targovi? You've been out beyond the Empire? What's happening? We've heard rumors."

"All we know is rumors. We were at Scothia and were told a convoy and its escorts had disappeared between…." I looked at Aeryn having forgotten the names of the planets concerned.

"Wixstan and Corrigiom." She said.

"God's balls." The man swore. "A whole convoy that close to Scothia itself? And the escorts as well." He turned away from us. "Bruno, Georges, you must hear this."

We told a half a dozen ship's officers about what we had learned while in Scothia. In return, we got free drinks and a lot of vague rumors about raiders lurking just a bit away from the "civilized" star nations outside of the Empire. We hit a few more bars, getting free drinks at all of them. Apparently Captain Targovi and his ship were well known. As since the ship was basically a reconnaissance ship, whatever Targovi picked up in the way of intel was considered reliable. However, the only things the people we talked to could tell us were the same vague rumors of trouble brewing outside the Empire.

"There's always trouble brewing outside the Empire." Targovi growled once we were back on Dragoika's Pride.

"True." Win Cho said. "But this trouble took an entire convoy and its escorts. That's more than just the usual run of the mill raiders."

Targovi shrugged, "So? Should we go back to Terra and hide? We have a fast, well armed ship with an excellent sensor suite. We can run from anything out there and out shoot most of it."

"So far." Crowfeather muttered.

"You were at the Imperial Navy base here and at the Palawan Militia headquarters. Did you learn anything?" Aeryn asked.

Targovi shook his head. "The Imperial Navy is sending more scout ships out, but the universe if vast and scout ships aren't numerous. We did confirm that Palawan is building ships with Imperial help. And other wealthy, industrialized worlds are doing the same. Aeneas is supposed to be building a cruiser of some sort. Poorer Imperial worlds are trying to get an Imperial naval presence or attaching themselves to a wealthier world that can defend them. But, the Empire hasn't the ships to do so and the wealthier worlds are too busy building large enough fleets to protect themselves."

"This is a bad sign." Diana Crowfeather said.

"Did you learn anything about who the mysterious raiders might be?" Aeryn again.

Targovi shrugged. "No one knows. Perhaps a new coalition of barbarians. Perhaps a renegade Imperial task force. There are supporters of other warlords out there who never accepted the Molitor dynasty. Or perhaps another "civilized" empire out beyond anything we know." Targovi looked at Crowfeather who nodded. He went on. "The Empire keeps tabs on things perhaps a hundred and fifty light years beyond its somewhat amorphous borders. Sometimes they pick up intel about major events another fifty or a hundred light years out. But three hundred light years past the frontier? No one really knows. As I said, space is vast. A fair sized empire could exist, and could be headed our way."

Win Cho grumped. "Or the captains of the missing Scothian ships could have agreed to sneak off and sell everything to the highest bidder and gone off to live in luxury."

The next Imperial planet we came to was Aeneas. This was a wholly different planet than what we'd seen before. Aeneas was roughly Earth-like, but with a lower gravity and smaller oceans. It also had a population of over four hundred million people and was, for this sector, heavily industrialized.

We no sooner dropped out of FTL than a missile boat contacted us, interrogated the captain and scanned us. Deciding we were peaceful, we are allowed to continue. Crowfeather did point out that a destroyer was shadowing us from a fair distance.

Targovi frowned. "Things are a lot busier than the last time we were here. Let's see who's here. Let's use our passive sensors only. We don't want anyone to think we're unfriendly."

A petty officer I didn't know, sitting at the passive sensor console spoke. "That'll take longer than if we go active, sir."

"And it won't piss anyone off." Targovi replied.

"Passive it is, sir."

A half an hour later we had a good idea of what was in the Aeneas system. The petty officer gave us he rundown. "Merchies are so thick around the planet, you could walk on 'em. The biggest is a ten million ton ore carrier and we also have a seven million ton passenger liner."

"Why would a liner that big be out here?" Targovi asked. "They usually stay in more peaceful areas."

The petty officer shrugged her shoulders. "Dunno, sir. But there are two hundred and fifty eight of them. Mostly medium sized ships, about two million tons. I counted only three ships smaller than that. I'd make them armed merchants like us." She grinned. "Not as good as us, of course."

"Naval vessels?"

"There's and Imperial task force out beyond Aeneas's outer moon, sir. I make it two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, nine destroyers and almost thirty scouts. There's also an Imperial destroyer in orbit around the inner gas giant and one in orbit around Aeneas. The Aeneas Militia has seven destroyers, they appear to be local copies of the Imperial R class ships, a bit older than the class Dragoika's Pride is based on, but good ships. I count nineteen frigates, also based on Imperial classes. And over a hundred missile boats, not FTL, just in-system, but that's a hell of a lot of firepower. I think they've moved two fair sized planetoids into orbit over Aeneas. I'll bet they're full of sensors and missile batteries. The orbital shipyards are going full blast. I count six frigates and two destroyers and what looks like a light cruiser. They're just starting on another ship. From the size of the space dock they're using, it could be a heavy cruiser."

Targovi nodded slowly. "Do you think someone's expecting trouble?"

"Or ready to cause it. Aeneas has tried to rebel against the Empire before." Father Axor muttered. Then again, given his size, the good father's mutters could be heard all over the ship.

The rest was purely routine. We contacted the local space control and were assigned a parking orbit. You couldn't quite walk from one ship to the next but there were more ships here than I had ever seen around one planet. In addition to the FTL ships in orbit, there were intra-system ships, tiny by comparison, that carried passengers and cargo from one place to another.

We took a ship's boat to an orbiting satellite. We had out papers looked at by a bored looking Aeneas civilian and then by a much more alert Imperial Navy enlisted man. "Over there, please." he motioned to a waiting area where Targovi and Crowfeather were already waiting.

"Strictly routine." Targovi assured us. "Diana and I get interviewed by naval intelligence every time we come here. You're new to the crew, so they want to get you in their records. It'll be easier if you play dumb."

Aeryn smiled. "He plays dumb very well."

I, sensibly, didn't respond.

I was interviewed by a, probably, female member of a non-human race. She was tall and slender, with skin so black it was like the total absence of color. Her eyes were solid yellow and three times the size of mine. She had six slender fingers and a thick thumb on each hand. She went over me with some sort of wand, which I was told recorded my physical information; fingerprints, retinal prints, DNA, the works.

I was asked some questions about my political beliefs which made no sense to me. I did get a laugh from her when I said my home planet was called Earth, but it was vastly different from the one known to her.

If she got any useful information out of me, I couldn't have said what it was. But she stamped my crew card, which was the only ID I had and sent me on my merry way. Aeryn I found had had a similar experience with an older human.

We met up with Targovi and Diana Crowfeather outside of the Imperial Navy building. They gave us our pay and told us to enjoy ourselves. They also told us of a few places we could stay that wouldn't try to cheat or rob us. We found the nearest one and moved in.

"What should we do now?" I asked, eyeing the bed.

"That should be obvious. We head for the nearest information exchange and learn all we can about this universe."

That's Aeryn. Practical to a fault.

The nearest information exchange was the university library. I gathered they didn't get many "barbarian" space ship crews at the university, but one of the librarians was happy to show us how to access information on Imperial history and current news. We gave ourselves a half an arn to check. I took history and Aeryn took news.

"I'm done." I said.

Aeryn nodded. "Me, too. I suppose. You first."

"The Terran Empire is as advertised. A rough sphere of four million words or so, a hundred thousand or so are inhabited and owe some sort of fealty to the Empire. The Mersians are as advertised as are the other non-Imperial space going races; Betelgeuseans, Ymrites, the Ythri and so on and so forth. What did you find?"

"Mostly propaganda. The Molitor Dynasty is the greatest set of leaders in all of the Universe, the people of the Empire are all deliriously happy to be part of the Empire, which is the strongest Empire, militarily, politically, economically and socially in the Universe. Aside from that, I did find that this Merseian civil war is for real and Terra's greatest enemy is grinding itself to bits and pieces. It appears the two factions are evenly matched and seem to be set on a strategy of attrition that will leave the winners not much better off than the losers. I did find some mention of rebellions against the Empire which were generally described as foolish attempts by madmen to upset the perfect status quo. Except for Hans Molitor, of course." She shook her head in wonder. "An empire of a hundred thousand worlds, led by humans. Even in their weakened state they could crush the Peacekeepers, the Hynerian Empire, the Luxans, the Scarrens and every other race."

"Speaking as a human, that doesn't make me feel any better."

"Did you get anything on the shipbuilding or the Aeneasan fleet, or militia?"

Aeryn smiled at me. "Of course."

I smiled back. "Of course you did. What?"

"The Viceroy has authorized those planets that are legally allowed to maintain their own forces to start building ships. He's also allowed some of the more advanced worlds that don't legally have the right to their own forces to do the same. The Imperial Navy is providing technical help at the shipyards, training for the local crews and even loaning some officers. The Viceroy is trying to talk the locals into building nothing bigger than destroyers, or the occasional cruiser, and so far that's what's happening. But, that's because everybody is starting from itch."

"Scratch." I corrected her.

"Whatever. But sooner or later, when they feel they can protect their home worlds against barbarian raiders, and protect local convoys, they'll build more powerful warships."

"And that'll be a problem."

Aeryn nodded. "The locals are happier paying taxes for ships that'll be there to protect their own home world as opposed to paying taxes for an Imperial fleet that may be sent off to the other end of the Empire, as a great deal of the local fleet already has been. Sooner or later, people are going to think they don't need the Terran Empire."

I frowned. "Which may or not be the case."

"So far, everything looks good, John. The local Imperial fleet is still a powerful force and it's kept concentrated as the strategic reserve. The Viceroy has also set up a Viceregal fleet to support the local militias or space navies. It's not very big, but like the local Imperial fleet, it's not tied down defending one planet or one solar system. It can reinforce any locals in need of help."

"So things look pretty good?"

Aeryn shrugged. "There are plenty of less wealthy and less populous planets that could be severely damaged by an alliance of barbarians. But, if you're on Aeneas, I'd guess you're all right."

"Or on a fast, well armed warship?"

She nodded. "That too."

I looked around the library. "Anything else we need here?"

She smiled at me. God, but I loved her smile. "Yes and no. We could spend cycles and cycles here and not learn everything we might need to know."

"So, should we go get something to eat?"

We found something that maybe resembled a pub, or maybe a sports bar back home. There were people eating dinner and people having a couple of glasses of dinner. Most interesting was the conversation. As near as I could tell, about half the bar were Empire loyalists, for one reason or another. The other were some sort of Aenean nationalists. The loyalists pointed out that the Empire had provided centuries of stability, peace and prosperity. Even with the Empire's problems, the locals still had the protection of an Imperial fleet and could get reinforcements if worse came to worse. The Empire provided a wide market for Aenean goods. Independence would mean that each planet would have its tariffs and commercial regulations. Some arguments were purely emotional. People whose families had supported the Empire for generations weren't going to turn their backs on it now.

The opposition was equally vocal. They pointed out that the history was in the past. The Terran Empire of the present was a military dictatorship that had come to power after a civil war. In spite of what the Imperial propaganda said, there had been too many attempted coups and attempts at secession from the Empire. War and destruction was what the Empire stood for now. As for the Imperial Navy, it was off on the other side of the Empire watching the Merseians destroy themselves. The ships that had been pulled out of the Alpha Crucis sector were unlikely to come back. Some people wanted the sector to secede from the Empire. It was strong enough to build their own fleet and stand off any barbarian alliance. Others were simply Aenean nationalists. They felt their planet could do just fine without the rest of the galaxy.

"At least they seem to be arguing peaceably." I whispered to Aeryn.

"For now. Sooner or later they won't be just talking about their futures. Then the fighting will start."

We hung around the University for a couple of days, listening to the students argue about politics, sex, alcohol, sports and all the things that human students had argued about for millennia. We ran into Father Axor who took us to the best places to eat and drink cheaply. If you're a Wodenite and you want your gigantic belly filled up, you need cheap foods and drinks.

Eventually, Axor got a call from Targovi and Crowfeather asking him to come see them at some spaceport bar. When they found out we were with Axor, we were told to come too.

The Golden Argosy was a cut above the places we'd been to. Hell, it was probably several cuts above where we'd been on this trip. A waitress politely escorted us back to table in the rear where our Captain and First Officer sat with a rather bulky human. As we sat down, she was introduced as Ina. Nothing further was said about her. I decided that Ina was mostly bone and muscle and very little fat. I noticed she eyed both Aeryn and me. Whether as potential bedmates, as opponents or as dinner, I couldn't tell.

"What did you find out here?" Targovi barked at us.

We told him we'd heard discussions about remaining in the Empire, taking the sector out of the Empire and having Aeneas by itself leave the Empire. I said that so far it was just talk.

Targovi just grunted. "They've been talking for a generation or more. So far all we've heard is talk, as well."

"The Empire has finally sent some more ships this way. BatDiv Green 106." Crowfeather looked at our blank faces and added. "That's a battleship division, two battleships, three heavy cruisers, five light cruisers and a dozen or so destroyers. Plus some replenishment ships, scouts, and whatnot."

Targovi went on. "The Viceroy has been increasing the local Viceregal fleet and encouraging planets to build more warships and institute convoys."

"Any reason they're doing that now?" Aeryn asked.

"There have been more raids on the frontier. A planet called Cintra was raided. It's an Imperial planet, but with no Imperial naval presence and not much in the way of defense forces of their own. And word from beyond the frontier says that Barbarians are attacking some of the more civilized, pro-Imperial worlds."

"Every planet in the sector is screaming for more ships." Crowfeather added. "And, there are none to be had."

I looked over at Aeryn, but neither of us had any ideas.

Ina got up, bowed ever so slightly to Targovi. "We shall hear from you?"

Targovi nodded and the woman walked off.

"This goes no further, except to the crew." Targovi said to us. "The Viceroy is sending all the scouts he has out past the frontier to look around. The scouts he has aren't ships like Dragoika's Pride. They're smaller, crewed by no more than a dozen beings, very lightly armed but with good sensors and very fast. He's encouraging everyone else, Imperial or not, to do the same with whatever ships they have. He's also moving intelligence agents around out there."

"He sounds worried." Aeryn said, calmly.

Targovi shrugged. "He should be. A barbarian alliance attacked this sector maybe sixty or seventy years ago and were beaten. The Empire and the Imperial Navy was a lot stronger then. A new barbarian invasion could do enormous damage. Worst case scenario, enough to leave this sector too badly damaged for it to be of any use to the Empire, or of any use to the people who live here."

"And?" I asked.

Both our companions smiled. "And the Viceroy has asked us to take a look at a couple of places out beyond the frontier. He's offering not just money, but an upgrade of Dragoika's Pride in an Imperial Navy shipyard. And when we get back…"

Crowfeather interrupted. "If we get back."

Targovi just smiled. "When we get back, we'll get upgrades like we were an Imperial ship. Plus any ordnance we expend will be replaced free of charge."

"And the next Viceroy can kill the deal. Hell, Targovi, this Viceroy could weasel out of the deal. We're in business. We're not military."

"And if commerce is destroyed what are we going to do, Diana? The foreign star nations we trade with are all pro-Empire, one way or another. What do we do if they're all shot to hell? What do we do if Imperial worlds start raiding each other? Strong planets raiding the weak? What if a civil war breaks out in the Alpha Crucis Sector?"

Crowfeather looked glum. "I don't like it."

Targovi laughed. "I don't like it either, but we have to do something. We could run. Try some nice sector near to Terra where barbarians never venture. Plod back and forth from one civilized world to the next?"

Crowfeather glared at him by way of response. "I don't want to do that either. Besides, who'd pay to travel in a warship when you could travel in first class comfort at half the price?"

"All right, all right. We'll do it." The young woman said grumpily.

Targovi turned to us. "Have you two heard of anything that might impact on this decision?"

I told him Aeryn and I hadn't heard a word.

We were about to leave when a waiter came and handed Targovi a message. He read it and looked over at us. "Someone wants to meet you."

"Who?" I asked, not sure I wanted to meet anyone.

"The Travelers. One of their ships is in orbit off some damned gas giant or another. How they managed to hear about you, I have no idea. But they'd like to meet."

"Suppose we don't want to meet?"

"Your choice, but they're offering information to me. Very useful information about what's beyond the frontier. And for you two, some nice trade goods that you can turn into cash, or keep for when you get back home. I'll take you to see them and even go to the meet with you."

"I'd like to go, too." Crowfeather added. "And I'll bet Father Axor will want to come and Win Cho would kill for a chance to see a Traveller's ship."

Not wanting to be a party pooper, I decided we'd go. The fact that Aeryn had already agreed had nothing to do with my decision.

We scooted back to Dragoika's Pride and headed for the outer part of the system. I looked around for the ship when we got to the gas giant but saw none. "Where's the ship?"

Targovi smiled. "Right in front of you."

"You mean it's on that moon ahead?"

Everybody laughed. "It is the moon ahead." Crowfeather said. "It's a planetoid some twenty kilometers across, reworked to be a sphere and turned into a ship. Force fields hold in an atmosphere on most of the surface of the ship so they can grow food as well as work and play there. The rest of it is filled with tunnels containing living quarters, storage, factories and weapons. Considering its size, it's more heavily armed than any known ship."

We were guided to a landing grid and set down. A chute was run out for us to leave the ship. Once on the Traveller's ship, we were met by a young man who said he would guide us. I asked who he was guiding us to and he just smiled. I turned to Targovi to find my four friends smiling at me. "It's a surprise." Axor said.

We were taken to an elevator of some sort and eventually arrived at a rather large and luxurious cabin, deep within the ship. An old lady rose to greet us. She was dressed in a loose fitting green gown and had what looked to be a fortune in jewelry on her.

"Commander Crichton, Officer Sun. How good of you to come. I am Teodora al Deen, the ship's historian." She laughed. "For some reason the ship's historian is always someone who's seen a lot of history. But, I'm sure you're curious why you're here. It's because we wish to know more about the Uncharted Territories and the empires that border it. Please sit, would you like some coffee?"

I nodded and a robot popped out of the wall and handed me a cup of coffee and one for Aeryn who had developed a taste for it.

"You may ask my robot for anything you wish, lady and gentlebeings." al Deen said.

She turned to me. "Did anyone tell you who we are or why we want to talk to you?"

"Not a word."

"Good. There are so many rumors about us it becomes tiresome refuting them all. In the year 2316 by your reckoning, a colony ship left Earth for a new home. There were ten thousand colonists aboard, half men and half women. As they would be the first colonists there, they were all highly educated specialists. But they hit a wormhole and were thrown to the other end of the galaxy."

"You went to the Uncharted Territories? Hyneria? Delvia?"

She held up her hand for silence. "No. But our ancestors decided to search for a new home. After six years and many adventures, they found a planet much like Earth and the majority decided to settle there. However, some two thousand people wanted to continue to roam the galaxy. With only two thousand people aboard, they began to have children. They traveled for forty one years until they came to a large star nation. Oh, nothing so grand as the Terran Empire, but still it contained some five thousand inhabited planets. The ship was becoming very crowded and several thousand left the ship to settle. As the ship continued on its way, by now most of the people aboard her had been born there and knew nothing but the roving life. Eventually, the ship became overcrowded again, but this time the crew built another, larger ship. Eventually the two ships parted company. As each ship roved the galaxy, they would occasionally stop and build another larger ship and create another Traveller ship. On occasion, they'd run into another Traveller, but the Universe is vast. Eventually, our ancestors built this gigantic ship out of a planetoid. Then, a century ago, we met another ship that had found a society derived from humans."

"The Peacekeepers! You found the Peacekeepers?" Aeryn said.

"They did, but the Peacekeepers didn't want to share their history with our friends. They attacked them. However, those other Travellers had a ship like ours, carved from a planetoid, and heavily armed. They simply ran until they were so far from the Peacekeepers home that they stopped chasing that ship. But we have wondered for many years how a race based on humans came to be so far from Earth and so long before interstellar travel was discovered by humans. Can you tell us what happened?"

Aeryn and I explained how the Eidolons had taken humans from Earth tens of thousands of years ago and genetically modified them to become Peacekeepers. Eventually, the Peacekeepers forgot their original purpose when the Eidolons disappeared. Aeryn ran over the history of her part of the galaxy as well as she could, however, history for the Peacekeepers consisted mainly of bragging about past victories.

We gave Teodora al Deen as much information as we had on the Uncharted Territories as well as the empires that resided in that part of the galaxy. It took two days before they were done and even included an examination of our DNA so they could tell exactly how humans had been modified to become Peacekeepers. Historian al Deen made sure that we were all well fed and that we had relatively luxurious quarters.

When they were done, al Deen had a small diner for us. At the end of the dinner, she handed Targovi a data sphere. "You should be able to access the information within, with your technology, I should think, Captain."

Targovi nodded. "I have seen this kind of unit before and my ship has the ability to use it. What does it contain?"

"It is a record of all that we have discovered starting some three thousand light years from here. Should things not go well for you here, you might wish to find the Realm of Cadornia more to your taste. That is the distant empire that so many Terrans chatter about. It is nearly three thousand light years from here, and is as advertised. They are a sphere of some one hundred and fifty light years, but stars are more closely packed as you approach the galactic center. However, they rule over some twelve thousand worlds. Of course, we were there some one hundred years ago, but they seemed a vital and well organized empire. If you will note there are peaceful planets you can visit on the way to arrange for repairs, buy food and other items. And Terran Naval Intelligence will be interested in what we learned about what they call the marches of the Empire."

Targovie smiled wolfishly. For a being in his profession, he had hit the jackpot.

Al Deen turned to us. "We are quite happy with the information you have given us. We have some things for you." Teodora clapped her hands and four burly men brought in two very large metal crates. Teodora opened one and then the other. As soon as she did, I heard Win Cho gasp. Even Father Axor grunted.

"Computers from Askaria." Win Cho said, the greed clear in her voice. "They are masters at miniaturization. That computer holds more data and can work faster than our computer aboard Dragoika's Pride." She was pointing to something about the size of a Hershey's candy bar.

"Jewels from Nask-Boot'k. They are said to….Arouse erotic feelings in most races." Father Axor said. And then added. "Or so I've been informed." He rumbled.

They looked over the rest of our goods, nodding and making comments. I really had no idea what most of the stuff was, but it sure impressed everyone else.

Finally Win Cho spoke. "You could sell these in the inner Empire and live a life of luxury and ease on some safe, civilized world. Several lifetimes, in fact.

I looked over at Aeryn, but I already knew what our answer would be. "Sorry, but our family and friends are on the other side of the galaxy. We'll take it home with us and sell it there." Aeryn nodded and gave me a smile.

The meeting broke up and we headed back to the ship.

We spent the next two weeks aboard Dragoika's Pride while she was in an Imperial Navy space dock being upgraded. This consisted of Aeryn and me having to move every fifteen minutes while people did stuff we didn't understand around us.

Finally, we were off, although our first stop wasn't that exciting.

"A frelling brown dwarf?" Aeryn asked.

Crowfeather nodded. "It's a gas giant planet that almost was big enough to become a star, but not quite. And it doesn't go around a star like normal gas giants. It sits all by its lonesome out in space. Usually there are some rocks in orbit around them. No real planets, just big rocks. The Imperial Navy has a base for scout ships there. We'll pick up whatever intel they've found and hopefully that'll help us figure out where to look for…whatever."

Aeryn grunted and I knew she was thinking something about us humans and their odd ways.

Targovi had a conversation with the station commander, a nice feline looking female. Or at least I think she was female. She sent all of their intel across and gave us the condensed version. The scouts had found shot up ships and raided planets, but they had missed whoever had done the shooting and raiding. We had no more idea of where to look than before.

But, Targovi and Crowfeather put their heads together over whatever we had and planned a course for us. The first planet we came to was so backward that copper tools were cutting edge technology. Aeryn and I were put on a ship's boat and sent down to talk with the people in what appeared to be the largest city, a thriving metropolis of some ten thousand seven foot tall frogs.

The head frog, who I named Kermit, came out and talked to us. No strangers from the sky had come for as many years as he had been alive or his father had been alive. A quick instrument scan of the planet showed no signs of any use of modern weapons, so, we went on our merry way.

The next planet was more interesting. Sort of.

We dropped out of FTL at the edge of the solar system and went in as stealthily as we could. We picked up combat pretty quickly. Aeryn and I were hauled to the bridge from our bed, which pissed both of us off. However….

"We seem to have a good sized space battle going on." Targovi announced when we arrived.

"And?" Aeryn asked coldly.

"There are maybe fifty ships on each side." Crowfeather took over. "Definitely barbarians. Their ships are way slower than Imperial ships or even the more civilized non-Imperial star nations, their weapons are less lethal and their sensors are inferior."

"Do we know who they are?" That's my Aeryn. Give her good war and she'd forget all about sex. Okay, not all about sex. But she'd put it off for a while and she'd go back all recharged and ready to go.

"The locals are the Pahella. They come from the second planet from the sun. Amphibious beings, and not unknown to the Empire. They were part of the barbarian fleet that raided the Empire sixty or seventy years ago. They were used as cannon fodder by their more advanced allies. It looks like they've recovered."

"The others?"

"Unknowns. We were hoping you could tell us something about them."

The comm officer put the others comm feeds up and we listened for hours. The others were a lizardly race, who had rather a way with insults, but neglected to give the coordinates of their home planet to any listeners. We told Targovi, then sat and listened to more insults and commands from what seemed to be the flagship.

We sat in space for better than a day before the others gave up and head home. However, they left some nice wrecked ships behind. The Pahella were busy salvaging their own ships and one of the others was drifting off behind a nice gas giant in the outer system.

"If we can recover the ship's computer, we can learn about them." Some fool offered. A look from Aeryn told me that I was indeed the fool who had suggested it.

We were about five hundred kilometers from the shot up others ship. That was considered point blank range for space warfare. We'd sent a drone over to look them over.

"Christ! The thing looks like Swiss cheese, except it's more holes than anything." Everyone agreed with me.

"The ship is more streamlined than Imperial ships would be. That means they land on planets on their raids and fly through the atmosphere." Lt. Gill from Intelligence commented. "That looks like where the engine room is and these are communications and sensor nodes. "This was accompanied by him tapping on the view screen. "Damned if I can tell where the bridge or the computer would be."

A smaller drone ejected from our drone and disappeared inside the ship through one of the many holes. It took an hour, but we determined that their power and weapons were permanently out and there were no life signs aboard.

"Who goes over?" I asked, as if I didn't know.

"You and your wife. With your translator microbes you can read whatever there is there to be read and find the damned computer memory core.

Aeryn and I suited up and got into one of the smaller of the ships boats. I had nightmares the whole way over that there would be survivors in space suits, ready to ambush us. I held my blaster in one hand and wished I had another.

"Why do you have your weapon out?" Aeryn asked.

"Just in case."

She nodded and drew her blaster. "Good idea."

The boat clamped onto the others ship right by a very large hole and we got out. We dropped into pitch black darkness. We were in what might have been a large storage area. I had just relaxed when a form in a space suit came at me. I fired and fired again, but it didn't stop. Then it floated on past me and I saw that the back of the beings helmet was shattered and open to space. Whoever had been in it was long dead.

"Crichton? What happened?" That was the ship's boat pilot.

"A dead crewman. We made sure of him." Aeryn replied, saving me from some embarrassment.

We moved through the ship, passing wrecked machinery and dead crew. Aeryn motioned to me. "I think this is the bridge."

Maybe it was and maybe it wasn't, but we found what we were looking for. "Hey, Crichton to Targovi, we found the computer. Guess what? It's from the Empire. It has Anglic writing and everything."

"Can you get the memory out and bring it back?" Targovi growled.

"Sure. I think. Maybe."

"Wait. We'll send a tech over. Don't touch anything."

For our hard work in recovering the computer, Aeryn and I were rewarded by getting to help intelligence translate what was on the computer. There was a lot of pornography, (I think.) Information on literally thousands of planets, none of which was identified as being the others home world. And lots of intel on barbarian navies, both friendly and enemy. And it looked like friends and enemies changed places a lot.

We figured out who the most powerful enemies of the others were and where they were. Again, we headed off into the more or less unknown.

The planet called Torgau-Mellis was an armed camp. Asteroids had been brought in to orbit the planet. From the active sensor reading we were getting, they had fire control sensors which meant the asteroids were orbital forts. They also had system defense boats all over the place. These had no FTL drives, but used the space the FTL drives would have taken up for more weapons. And in the system were several hundred warships, mostly destroyer types, but including a couple of light cruisers.

Aeryyn and I got to have our say. I did the talking. "We count either six or seven races here based on the communications intercepts were heard. The reason we can't decide if it's six or seven races, is that two language might just be dialects of the same language. But, the communications security is quite good. What we did get is that they're waiting for a force a bit smaller than what's gathered here and they're waiting for "the word". What the word is, I don't know. I'd guess the word is to go raiding."

Gill from Intelligence took over. " The ships are only marginally better than the last two barbarian navies we ran into, but there are a hell of a lot of them. If they split up and hit the Empire with a hundred or so small task forces, they could really be trouble."

"But only the weaker planets. Those without either their own space militias or an Imperial or Viceregal naval presence." Targovi asked."

Gill nodded slowly. "That's a hell of a lot of planets that could get trashed. Plus convoys and isolated ships that could get taken. Do enough damage in the Alpha Crucis sector and the nationalists who want out of the Empire would be a lot stronger."

"And the sector and the Empire would be weaker. Just because a planet doesn't have the wherewithal to build or buy warships doesn't mean it's of no value." Crowfeather argued. "It certainly doesn't mean the people who live there deserve to be killed or enslaved."

"Nor does it mean there is anything we can do about it. Nor does it mean that anyone can do anything about it. The Empire is distracted by the Merseian civil war and has moved many major fleet units to the Merseian marches. And if the Merseian war spills over into the Empire, a lot more damage will be done to innocent people than an alliance of barbarians can do to the Alpha Crucis sector. You can wish for the Empire to be as strong and a determined as it was a century ago, but it isn't."

"Should Alpha Crucis leave the Empire then?" Crowfeather demanded.

Targovi shook his head. "If Alpha Crucis leaves the Empire, most of the Imperial Navy units here will leave, too. As will many Imperial civil servants."

"Most of the governing bureaucracies are staffed with locals." Crowfeather replied.

"But the more senior and more educated will leave. There is no good decision to be made here, Diana. Only the least worst."

Diana Crowfeather looked around the bridge, then left, looking very sad.

Targovi's eyes followed her until she was gone. Then he turned to us. "Where does your intel say we should go now?"

Actually, our intel didn't have a clue, but I picked out what looked to be a nice, powerful planet and told our captain we should head for there.

It was, I suppose, as good a choice as any. Nelanto was an Earth-like planet, the locals were vaguely humanoid and they had a powerful fleet around the homeworld. A few days of listening to the locals told Aeryn and me that these people weren't awaiting for "the word" to invade the Terran Empire, but they were afraid of being raided themselves. Why and by who, we couldn't tell.

But on the third day, we got a distress call.

"It's a very low power signature, coming from near the second gas giant." That was one of the communications officers.

"The green one?" Targovi asked.

"Yes, sir."

"We should be able to sneak in and get those people out, then we can talk to them."

"Then we can listen to them." I reminded our good captain. "We can't ask them anything."

"We could inject them with translator microbes." Aeryn suggested.

Targovi didn't like the idea of leaving people with translator microbes among barbarians that might be planning to invade the Empire. Too many things could go wrong. However, after talking to the medical staff, it was decided that once we had talked to them, we'd use antibiotics to kill the microbes and, hopefully, let them go one their merry way.

The local fleet didn't seem interested in leaving the vicinity of their home world, but we snuck up on the distressed ship as stealthily as we could.

"They really got themselves shot up." Someone on the bridge said when we got close enough for a visual look. The ship was a spindly looking contraption to begin with, but after it had been shot up, I was amazed it had held together at all.

"I don't see any weapons." Aeryn noticed.

"So it's not a raider. But, it could be hauling slaves, or running illegal drugs, or any kind of crap like that." That was Crowfeather, not making me feel better.

The distress call sounded like it was on a loop or something. It was the same plea for help, repeated over and over again.

"So, who goes this time?" I asked cheerfully. No prizes for guessing who got to go.

Aeryn and I got inside the ship, which was less damaged than it appeared from the outside. We walked down a corridor and looked through a glass panel set in a door. On the other side were five people of some sort. Maybe five feet tall, blue skinned, with black eyes maybe twice the size of mine, and dressed in a garish kilt, a vest that was all pockets, and sandals.

I pounded on the door and they all looked up. For a second they just sat there, wondering if we were hallucinations or something, then they jumped up and all began to yell at once. After they settled down a little bit, they grabbed their space suits and we got ready to leave.

We loaded them into a ship's boat and went back to Dragoika's Pride. Targovi was waiting at the exit of the air lock with a dozen armed crewmen and a medic. Once the five were searched for weapons, they were injected with translator microbes.

We began our interrogation. I hadn't expected that they'd admit to being the baddest dudes around and they didn't. They claimed to be friendly, peaceable traders called the Navaan, who got shot up. We got a very long winded and confusing explanation of the local military and political situation. The word was that there was a new big bad ass in the area who was getting the local barbarians all ready for a massive raid on the Empire. In the meantime, the locals were taking the opportunity to punish their various rivals. The Heshera, whose solar system we were in, were seriously disliked by a half a dozen local planets full of thugs. However, the local thugs had signed up early with the big, badass and had gotten permission to flatten the Heshera. This apparently was what passed for politics locally. It reminded me a lot of the Uncharted Territories.

The Navaan were happy to tell us that the head bad guys didn't stay in one place long, but moved around so everyone could see how badass they were. Targovi, Aeryn and Crowfeather and a couple of other officers tried to get some idea of just how big and bad the new players were. The answer was that they were very big and very powerful. Whether that meant they had ships two or three times the size and power of the local raiders or whether they had something closer to the Death Star, they couldn't tell us. Or wouldn't tell us. The new bad guys also came from far away. Whether that meant five solar systems away or the next galaxy over, the Navaan didn't seem to know.

We figured out where their home system was and agreed to drop them off. Aeryn and I got to talk with them for the trip, a couple of days, and learned how many ways the Navaan could say "big" and "powerful." I, for one, was happy to see them go. Silly me. They might have warned us.

The Navaan were able to tell us which planets had signed onto the great raid and which hadn't. We thought about contacting the outs, such as the soon to be besieged Heshera, but what could we offer? We were well over a hundred light years from anything vaguely resembling an Imperial outpost and Targovi and Crowfeather said there was no way the Empire was going to send a fleet this far away from home. It would be too easy for the raiders to slip past the Imperials and shoot up the Empire while the fleet was wandering around a hundred lightyears away.

We decided to look over the raiders and see if we could gather any useful intel. We charted a course that would take us through what appeared to be the most powerful barbarian worlds and then we'd make a dash for the Empire. What could possibly go wrong?

To answer my rhetorical question, the frelling FTL drive could go wrong. There's nothing like being a hundred light years from anyplace friendly and finding your ship's mojo has gone. We spent two days in the middle of nowhere watching engineers say "Um" and "Ah" and the occasional "Oh, I see." before we got Dragoika's Pride going. We ran it around for a day or two to make sure it would work. We decided to hit a few planets nearby and then head for the Empire ASAP and avoid anyone else until we were home and safe.

We dropped out of FTL in the Oort cloud of a solar system belonging to people called the Stanu'uva. Probably a nice place. It was a huge solar system with over forty planets, two of them habitable and one habitable moon. The Stanu'uva were more industrialized than most of the barbarian systems and had a good sized fleet, considering they only occupied one solar system.

We edged through the Oort cloud slowly, intending to take a quick look and then run. Didn't happen.

"Oh, shit." When someone says that, it's never good.

"What?" Targovi demanded.

"I know who the very bad guys from far, far away are." The sensor officer said.

"Well?" Targovi demanded.

"They're the Merseians and they've got a good sized task force here."

"Are you sure?"

"I spent most of my career on the Merseian frontier, sir. I know the damned gatortails when I see them. And that's them."

Aeryn and I perked up. "What are Merseians doing here?" She asked. "Aren't they on the other side of the Empire?"

"Merseia is on the other side." The sensor officer said. "But they're sure as hell here."

Targovi began giving orders. "We need to go as stealthy as we can get. No use of active sensors, only passive. Engineering, I want us ready to go, and go as fast as we can at a moment's notice. We'll hang around out here with comets and other junk out here and get as much intel as we can. Then we'll head for home, slowly at first, then we'll run."

I liked the idea of running, but not of hanging around. But whoever listens to Momma Crichton's little boy, John?

So we hung around the system, hiding behind a small planetoid about the size of the Death Star, but nowhere near as well armed. We got a good deal of information on the task force the Merseians had sent out here. There were two Llandalg class battleships which everyone agreed were the very best the Merseians have and much better than the battleships the Empire had deployed in the Alpha Crucis sector. They had a dozen cruisers that, yes, were newer and more powerful than the local Imperial ships and the same with thirty or more destroyers they had along.

They had a good strategy, too. The battleships and most of the cruisers and destroyers would attack the Empire openly. When the Empire sent their main fleet after the Merseians, the gatortails would lead them on a merry chase, avoiding battle with the Empire if they could, but leading them farther and farther away from the wealthy and powerful planets in the sector. Then, the barbarians with a stiffening of Merseian ships would attack. The Empire would be between a rock and a hard place. If they kept their fleet together, they couldn't possibly cover all of the planets being attacked, and if they broke the fleet up to guard all the planets, they could be defeated in detail by the Mersieans' main task force.

We also picked up some propaganda broadcasts. The Merseian civil war was glossed over as a mere disagreement among friends. Probably the locals didn't keep up on what was happening other than in their little part of the galaxy, so most of them bought it. The Merseians also told the locals that they were just the vanguard of a vast Merseian fleet that smash the Empire and give every barbarian ship's captain a nice planet of his own. The locals ate it up.

Finally, yes, finally, we pulled out of the system and headed for home. We went slowly at first, but soon we were at our maximum speed and we could see no evidence of pursuit.

We were headed for home with word that the Merseians were coming, just like Paul Revere. Sort of. The problem was, what were we going to do with that news? One way or another, it looked like the Empire would get hammered, and us too.

I had assumed that we'd head for Llynathawr, the sector capital, or Ifni, the naval headquarters planet, and scream for help. I had some experience with screaming for help. It usually did no good.

Or I thought we might stop at the first big, wealthy Imperial planet we found and tell them. They could send out ships to spread the news.

For some reason we did neither. We ended up stopping in a system with no habitable planets at all and nothing that I could see to recommend it.

"What the frell are we doing here?" Aeryn complained.

I told her I had no idea. I had asked both Targovi, Crowfeather, Win Cho and Father Axor. Targovi and Crowfeather said we'd find out when the time was right. Win Cho said it was none of our damned business and Father Axor scratched his oversized head and said he had no idea where we were at all. Sometimes I wonder why I even try at all. Then I remember Aeryn. That's why I try.

We were relaxing in our quarters when we got a call from Targovi. "Crichton, Sun. We're going. You're coming with us. Be in the docking bay in ten minutes."

We got dressed hurriedly and headed for the docking bay. I saw we already had a pilot, so Aeryn and I were strictly passengers for this trip. But where was this trip taking us?

"What we have is failure to communicate." I said brightly.

Both Targovi and Crowfeather looked at me oddly. Win Cho just ignored me. She was getting pretty good at that, actually.

"There's nothing here." I explained. "So were on a long strange trip to nowhere? Palookaville maybe?"

"We have a destination." Targovi said and then shut up.

I sat back in the boat and tried not to look like I was pouting. I failed.

However, Aeryn was paying attention. After a few minutes she nudged me. "There's a ship ahead and to our right. It's quite a ways away, but it looks like a warship."

I looked and thought I might have caught a glimpse of…a dot? Something. Then I decided to mope for a while.

"There is a ship ahead of us. A big one."

I looked and saw it. At first I thought that someone had bought a slightly used Death Star, then I remembered that the Empire's battleships were spherical. A sphere encloses the largest amount of volume for its surface area. I even thought I saw another ship in the distance.

We both watched as it grew closer. I could see missile tubes, energy gun mounts, antennas, and things I didn't recognize. A lot of them. It was hard to tell how big the ship was without something to compare it to, but it did look big.

We entered a boat bay that looked like it could have easily accepted Dragoika's Pride, if the bay hadn't been already full of boats.

"Meteor class missile boats." Aeryn whispered.

I vaguely remembered them to be a type of Imperial warship. Aeryn loved to learn about new weapons and I was happy to let her do so.

We got out and were met by someone and led through an enormous maze of passageways and elevators to what must have been deep in the ship. We came to a busy office, with a dozen or so naval officers and ratings doing things I probably wouldn't understand even if they were explained to me very slowly. I had had enough of that in my life.

A bulky African looking man looked up as we came in. "Go right in, he's expecting you."

I got a shock when we walked into the inner office. There, sitting behind a desk was our old friend, Uncle Baraja, weird robe and all.

"Commander Crichton, and Officer Sun. Have you had an interesting trip?"

It took me a second to realize his voice wasn't being electronically disguised. He sounded human.

"Ah. Perhaps I should introduce myself. He pulled the robe off to reveal an older, grey haired man, dressed in a blue uniform. I took a look at his shoulder boards and tried to figure out his rank.

"I'm Fleet Admiral Sir Dominic Flandry. I'm have a sort of a roving commission as an intelligence officer from our good Emperor Gerhart. Actually, he doesn't much care for me, but he does find me useful. He finds me to be more useful the further away I am."

"What does this roving commission mean?" Aeryn asked.

Flandry shrugged. "It means I get some resources and am allowed to wander around trying to stop trouble before it gets too bad. Such as here, by the way." Flandry tapped some sort of a comm screen on his desk. "Chives, can you bring in some snacks and a bottle of wine? This should be thirsty work."

That done Flandry smiled at us. "An entire different Universe with no Terran Empire and no Merseians, or anyone else well known and loved by me? How very odd, and interesting."

Before Flandry went any further, a short green being in a kilt came in and placed a tray on Flandry's desk. "Thank you, Chives." The green guy bowed and walked away, showing that he had a tail.

"Would you like something to eat? I have sandwiches, and Targovi will be glad to know I have some salted brakkna for him." From the way Targovi smiled, it must have been a rare treat for our good captain.

As we ate, Flandry explained some things. "To begin with, Diana is my daughter. I never saw her mother after the affair on Starkad was finished and I didn't learn of Diana's existence until several years ago. She and her friend Targovi were very helpful in putting down a Meresian inspired rebellion. I felt I owed the two of them something. Their great dream was to go out among the stars. So, I helped them. I arranged for them to acquire Dragoika's Pride and to find a trustworthy crew for her. I also arranged for them to get a crash course as both shiphandlers and intelligence agents. They had decided to follow my career in intelligence. This is a threatened part of the Empire, both internally and externally, so I suggested they come to the Alpha Crucis sector and they did. They've done quite well in keeping me up to date on what's happening out beyond the frontier. And now we have a serious problem out there. A Merseian task force and a horde of barbarians."

"We know where they are, Admiral." Targovi said with a fierce grin. "We can gather the Imperial forces and smash them. Smash them good."

"Except we can't." Flandry said sadly. "One, I have no authority over anything other than my own little task force. I can't give orders to the local fleet or other local forces. Secondly, we know where the Merseians were when you left them a couple of weeks ago, but where are they now? We can't go swanning around the border marches with no idea where the enemy is. And lastly, we need to protect the Alpha Crucis sector. We can't leave it unguarded. Even if we could smash the Merseians, the other barbarians would swarm into the sector and gut it."

"So we just sit here and do nothing?" Aeryn said angrily. There were so many times that I would have loved to have sat and done nothing, but I had a feeling that wasn't going to happen this time.

"Oh, far from it." Flandry smiled. I didn't like the smile one bit. When he explained what his plan was, I liked that even less. But, naturally everyone, including Aeryn just loved it.

We soon headed back to Dragoika's Pride to begin the first part of the plan. We were to check the major barbarian planets and see where the assembled navies were, then try to find the Merseian task force and pinpoint its location. We had help, luckily. The Imperial Navy had other intelligence gathering ships. They were much smaller than Dragoika's Pride, but had very good speed and very good sensors. The downside was that they were poorly armed and had a shorter range. About fifty of them broke off from Flandry's task force and headed out past the frontiers.

We hit the places we'd found before and a few more that Flandry had heard about. The first one we went to had a name that sounded like a bunch of mice squealing. Mice Squeal was one of the more advanced barbarian worlds and was home to fifty or sixty destroyer sized raiders. The ships weren't as fast or as powerful as an Imperial destroyer of similar size, but they had numbers. I remembered an old Earth saying, "Quantity has a quality all its own."

Instead of fifty or sixty raiders, there were closer to three hundred from various planets that had signed up for the Merseian led raid. All of the radio traffic in the system was just a series of clicks. We thought it might be a code, but the computer couldn't crack it, and our translator microbes got nothing. Of course, it could have been the local version of rock music. No one liked that idea of mine.

The next three planets we hit were duds. They should have had any number of raiders in orbit, but they were more or less unguarded.

"So, these are planets where the locals have gone off to gather in a fleet to strike the Empire." Targovi said, looking at the viewscreen. "Not that I know how that helps us. We need to know where the raiders are, not where they aren't.

We hit another half a dozen planets with pretty much the same results. Either they were wall to wall warships, or they were without any ships.

"There are a half a dozen great barbarian fleets." Crowfeather said sadly. "They can tear through the poorer and less defended worlds in the Alpha Crucis sector and wreak havoc. The Empire doesn't have the resources to repair that many damaged worlds, and the ones that are strong enough to keep themselves safe will despise the Empire for not keeping the sector safe. The desire to declare independence, either of the whole sector, or of individual planets will be impossible to contain."

Targovi, Father Axor and Win Cho nodded glumly.

Targovi broke the spell. "We have to see if the gatortails are where we left them."

We dropped out of FTL well away from Stanu'uva and cut our power and our active sensors. We listened. Pretty soon, we got an earful. Someone in Merseia had a really good grasp of propaganda. We got shots of what appeared to be Imperial warships blowing up left and right. And up and down for that matter. Nice shots of bloodied and frightened human officers surrendering to brave and well dressed barbarians.

"Where'd they get humans from?" I asked.

"Some fled to the Rhoidunate after our numerous civil wars and rebellions. In the old days, some people went a hell of a long way away from Terra to found colonies. Their descendants ended up being taken over by Merseia. "Crowfeather explained. "You can become a citizen of the Rhoidanate, although it's not as useful as being an Imperial citizen. But people adapt."

One thing that all of them showed were shots of different barbarians settling down on nice ex-Imperial planets as the overlords. Living a life of luxury and ease with all of the luxuries a decadent Empire had to offer.

"Do you think that'll actually happen? That the barbarians will be given planets to rule with the Merseians acting as sort of benevolent and distant overlord?" That was Aeryn, going to the heart of the matter. She always wanted to know how the loot would be given out.

"Sure." Targovi said. "And they'll be left here to fight whatever Imperial, or local forces, survive. There are sure to be some. I doubt there'll be much time for sitting around your palace and drinking fine wines served from cups made from the skulls of your enemies. One way or another, there'll be a lot of fighting in this sector."

"How many different races have been shown?"

"What does it matter, Crichton?" That was Win Cho.

"It'll tell us how many races are in the coalition and maybe someone can ID where their home planets are."

Targovi cursed and walked over to his intelligence officer, who was already working on it.

They sat on the edge of the solar system, getting more and more bored for three days. Then on the fourth day, things started happening.

"Whoa!" Cried one of the intelligence techs. "The gatortails are starting to move. This could be it."

But what the Merseians broadcast in all the languages of their barbarian coalition proved this wasn't it.

Targovi and Win Cho laughed as the translation from Eriau. "They aren't headed for the Empire. It seems their barbarian alliance contains too many deadly enemies. After sitting around for months around some god-forsaken planet, two ancient enemies started to fight each other, drawing in a half a dozen other barbarian navies. No sooner had they gotten into one gigantic twelve way battle, than everyone started calling to their other allies and friends. The Merseian task force has had to leave to knock some sense into their allies. With any luck, the whole damned raid will fall apart."

But there was no luck. At least not at first. A Merseian cruiser, let alone a battleship, was capable of destroying any number of barbarian warcraft as well as reducing their home planets to radioactive slag. The Merseians knocked a few heads, restored order and set about re-planning their raid on the Empire.

That's when Targovi and company got lucky.

"Holy shit." Cried a communications tech. "They're sending out their whole revised battle plan in clear. Who goes where and when. And where the Merseian task force is heading."

Targovi and Crowfeather spent several hours going over the plan with their intelligence staff crowded all together, and including the two of us.

"We need to get this back to the Empire." Aeryn said, smiling. Aeryn loved to see her enemies get kicked in the face when they were expecting a kick in the butt.

We pulled out very slowly from the Oort cloud where we'd been hiding and eventually made it far enough away from the Merseians that our hyperdrive wakes couldn't be detected. Targovi put the pedal to the metal and we headed to where Admiral Flandry had told us he'd be waiting. Even if he'd had to move for some reason, he'd leave at least a message drone behind to tell us where he'd gone.

We were in luck. Flandry and his task force was there. Then we got the bad news. Flandry himself had taken off in a light cruiser with some of his closest aides. He hadn't told anyone where he was going or what he was doing. For some reason people do that a lot in my life. I briefly hoped he'd found a nice safe bolt hole on the other side of the Empire and would soon send for us, but I knew that wasn't going to happen.

We told the Imperials that the Merseians were set to go in twenty seven days and a few hours. And that after that, all hell would break lose. Everyone just looked serious and said that they had orders to wait until Admiral Flandry got back. Shit.

I spent two days wearing holes in the carpet in our quarters and thinking up one dumb plan after another to get us out of this fix. At least I was keeping Aeryn entertained.

"Commander Crichton? Officer Sun?" Said a voice through the ship's intercom. Lydia is entering the system."

"Lydia? Who the hell is she?"

I heard what I thought was a suppressed laugh. "Lydia is the light cruiser that Admiral Flandry is aboard. He says he'll be aboard Emperor Paul in an hour and he wants a full staff meeting ten minutes after that. The relevant officers of Dargoika's Pride are to attend, including you and Officer Sun. We'll send a rating to take you to the briefing room."

I realized I'd never caught the name of the ship I was on. I wondered who this Emperor Paul had been to deserve getting a battleship named after him.

Oddly enough, Flandry was all smiles when everyone got to the staff meeting.

"Where the hell have you been?" Asked some human who didn't appreciate the niceties that you observed when addressing a fleet admiral.

Flandry laughed. "It's good to see you as well, Commander Crichton. And, oh, by the way, both you and Officer Sun are now both Commanders in the Imperial Terran Space Navy. Captain Targovi, is of course, now a captain and his crew have appropriate ranks. I had a little chat with the local viceroy, so at least you'll all be getting paid by our good Emperor Gerhart for this little jaunt." As to where I've been….." Flandry languidly waved an arm and a holographic representation of the Alpha Crucis Sector and the surrounding territory appeared." We know, thanks to Dragoika's Pride, where the barbarian fleets are concentrated and which of their planets aren't defended since their fleets are off getting ready to raid the Empire. I've also been able to discover which semi-civilized and outright barbarian star nations are also the targets of the proposed invasion. Accordingly I've been out being….Um, diplomatic and convincing our barbarian friends that they should attack those undefended planets and throw a gigantic monkey wrench into the Merseian led invasion."

Someone spoke. Not me this time. "Sir, won't our barbarian allies want to keep their own fleets close to home with a huge raid coming their way? Not to mention a gator tail task force?"

Flandry nodded. "They will keep most of their fleets at home. But, if you have some fifty destroyer type ships, you can send five or six off to raid those enemy planets that are undefended now. Once word gats back to the gator tails barbarian friends that their own home worlds are under attack, the barbarian coalition will start to fall apart. Remember, the barbarians on both sides are violent people and will want to attack someone. That'll work in our favor."

Flandry turned back to the hologram and described which friendly barbarians would be attacking which enemy barbarians, with what kind of ships and when. The when part was interesting. According to Flandry the raids on the enemy worlds were already underway.

He looked out at his assembled officers and smiled. "So, you're asking yourselves, what are we doing in all of this?" He answered his own question. "We're attacking the Merseian task force."

I had to talk. "The last we heard, there were four new Merseian battleships out there, with the usual collection of cruisers, destroyers and other ships. Don't we just have one battleship?"

"You don't think that's enough, Commander Crichton?" Flandry said with a smile.

"Let's just say I admire your notion of a fair fight." As usual, no one recognized the quote.

Flandry nodded to me. "I'm not planning to commit suicide. I think, and I hope that once the Merseians see that their plan for a giant raid on the Alpha Crucis Sector is scuppered, they'll split up and try to do as much damage to the Empire as they can. And if they think that a bunch of Imperial task forces are looking for them, and not just one, they might get cautious. You're probably not aware of it, Commander Crichton, but the Emperor Paul is one of the newest battle ships in the Imperial Fleet. It should not be out here in some backwater. It should be on the Merseian frontier watching the Merseians. And the rest of our ships are also new and have hand-picked captains and crews. That should give our green friends reason to pause and wonder if maybe they're walking into a trap." Flandry laughed. "You can see just how badly our dear Emperor Gerhart wants to get me away from Terra."

There was some laughter, but not that much. Some people were wondering if Flandry was committing lese majesty.

I was happy to find out that Aeryn and I would be headed back to His Imperial Majesty's Ship Dragoika's Pride. We'd be using our superior sensor suites to make sure no one was sneaking up on the task force. And, I hoped, we wouldn't be slugging it out, toe to toe with some warship.

We left in a few hours headed back to and across the frontier. The first placed we stopped was already in the middle of being raided.

Aeryn and I sat in the bridge and looked on. We had snuck in first to find out what was what and then would relay that back to the Emperor Paul for Admiral Flandry. What we found was a grinding war of attrition going on. The locals had pulled their navy back to defend their home world. Colonies on other planets, asteroid mining facilities, and whatever had been abandoned and were being looted by the barbarians. The locals had some dozen destroyer sized ships and some orbital forts based on asteroids they'd moved into orbit around their home world. The attackers had a good thirty ships, including one that looked like a light cruiser. They were slowly picking the world's defenses apart.

We sat happily by a gas giant that apparently had nothing lootable on it and watched as a pair of Terran heavy cruisers and a half dozen destroyers came roaring in and started shooting up the barbarians. In the first several minutes a half a dozen enemy warships were destroyed and then the other's started running in all directions. Both the cruisers and the destroyers were faster than their enemies and ran riot among them. Better than half of the fleet was destroyed before the Imperials were recalled.

"Flandry's calling them back?" Someone muttered. "They could have caught the whole bunch."

Targovi laughed. "What the Admiral wants is a few panic stricken survivors running back home and telling everyone that some big, nasty Imperial warships are out hunting. That kind of panic will do more to break up the barbarian fleet than adding another half a dozen kills to our total."

Flandry brought the rest of the task force into the solar system, and talked to the locals, who looked slightly like ninja turtles. They had no intelligence on what was happening anyplace else. Flandry told them to stay put and defend their world, but to send a courier ship back to the nearest Imperial naval base and let them know what was happening.

We headed for the next planet on our list. We dropped out of faster than light in the Oort cloud and looked around.

"Bingo!" Said the sensor officer. "We got a good one."

"What the hell is it?" Demanded Targovi.

"The local planet is pretty well defended by orbital forts, missile boats and the local navy. So, they've sent in two Mersian heavy cruisers. They're doing quite well, and have all of their sensors oriented towards the planet. Well, maybe they have their passive sensors watching everywhere else, and the barbarians haven't got much more than the well known Mark One eyeball for sensors. Sir, we need to let the Admiral know."

We backed off and risked a jump to light speed and quickly found Flandry.

"A pair of Mersian heavy cruisers, you say. Send us the tactical data you acquired, then go back to the Oort cloud and look around. Let us know if anything larger shows up.

The only larger ship to show up was the Emperor Paul with her escorts. Flandy managed to come out of light speed behind a gas giant and kept the planet between the task force and the enemy. Then the Imperial ships roared past the gas giant like a bat out of hell, headed for the Mersians. The first thing the Merisans knew they were being attacked was when a heavy cruiser suddenly blew up. The remaining cruiser's captain had guts, I'll give him that. He headed straight for the Imperials to try to give his barbarian allies a chance to escape. He was overwhelmed in minutes and became just a floating cloud of incandescent, radioactive gas. The Imperials broke formation and began to hunt down the survivors.

Again, Flandry let a few raiders escape to hopefully panic the rest.

"Where do you think the first bunch of raiders we let get away went to?" Aeryn asked. That's my Aeryn. Always wondering where the enemies are. I didn't really care as long as they weren't on my ass.

Targovi scratched his long, furry chin. "Some of them would have headed home to warn their home worlds. But some would have headed for the Merseians and the safety of a powerful task force. But, since no one knows how big an Imperial fleet is out here, or where it is, everyone is going to be very nervous."

"Which also means that the orders for the raid that we intercepted before are outdated." Crowfeather added. "I'll bet the Merseians are trying to get their allies to all band together and attack the Imperial fleet. But the local barbarians aren't into attacking powerful, technologically advanced ships. They'd prefer to attack defenseless merchant ships or planets. These aren't regular navies were up against, each captain owns his own ship or runs it for some warlord back home. They don't want to lose their livelihood by getting their ship destroyed. Not to mention getting themselves killed."

Win Cho shook her head. "Close, Diana, but not one hundred per cent accurate. Some barbarians out here are from warrior cultures. Running from a fight just isn't in them. They'll take their rickety would-be destroyer up against an Imperial battleship any time and die gloriously."

"We'll be happy to help them die gloriously." Aeryn said.

Targovi and Crowfeather laughed. Father Axor tut tutted. "My children, please remember that these are sentient beings with souls. All life is sacred to Our Lord."

Targovi shook his head slightly. "Mine is just a bit more sacred to me, Father."

The next planet we picked was one of the home worlds of the raiders. When we got there, a half a dozen Imperial looking ships, including what looked a lot like a light cruiser was shooting up the solar system.

"What ship? What ship?" A panicky voice came over the comms to us.

"His Imperial Majesty's Ship Emperor Paul. " Was the reply from the flagship. "Identify yourselves.

We could hear the sigh of relief from the other side. "This is Task Force Vennic, Ardazirho Space Navy. Light cruiser Ambollin." We were getting a visual now. The first thing in my mind when I saw him was wolf. Then, I thought about it. Not a wolf, but descended from something much like a wolf. He, or was it she, had an upright stance and was bipedal, with a very short snout with fangs. Above the snout were grey oval eyes. What I could see of the body was covered in a reddish brown fur. Oddly, he seemed to be wearing what was very close to an Imperial Terran Navy uniform.

Flandry spoke. "Why is Admiral Gherrat there? Please put him on. This is Admiral Flandry."

There was some chatter on the other end and suddenly an older being, his fur showing a bit of grey, was staring at us. "Flandry! You old throat biter. So you got here after all. Here I thought we were going to have all the fun to ourselves."

Flandry smiled. "Doesn't look like much fun here. There are no defenses or warships here, are there?"

Admiral Gherrat said something that the translator microbes didn't translate, but I thought might be a curse. "Not much of a system. We've shot up everything they had in orbit, space stations and three merchant ships. We captured one merchant. The crew look like some kind of insectoids. Don't know where they're from. But they appear to be the victims of piracy. Could you take them back to the Empire?"

"Is their ship functional?"

Gherrat shook his head. "You mean my ship?"

Flandry sighed. "How many being and how big are they?"

"Seven and they're skinnier than humans. I'll send a boat over with them."

Flandry thought. "I'm sending a courier back to the Empire, I suppose I can fit them in. Where are you off to next?"

The Ardzirho admiral looked at some kind of chart behind him. "Some place called Phantrizia." He rattled of a string of numbers that I assumed were the spatial coordinates of the place. "My scouts tell me that there are a twenty or so barbarian warships there. I hope to get there and fight them before Admiral Tochoka can get there with his big, lumbering heavy cruiser and spoil all the fun." Admiral Gherrat got what I almost thought was a sly look on his face. "Flandry, old friend, you wouldn't do me a favor with that lovely battleship of yours, would you? There is an orbital gas mining plant based on one of the moons of the rather greenish looking gas giant a bit further out. For some reason, they have rather good defenses….Oh, nothing I couldn't handle, but it would take time. Could you do the honors for me?"

"I'd love to, my old friend. That way you can be on your way to the next target. By the by, I'll be headed for a star with no real planets next. Our Merseian friends, not trusting their local allies one bit, left a lot of spare weapons and other goodies there, figuring that no one would find it. They figured wrong. I'll have my comm officer send you out planned itinerary, although you know that wars play havoc with plans."

When we approached the gas giant we got a comm from someone. "Approaching Terran task force, this is Amigal Do Plethis, I govern this moon on behalf of the Triumvirate of Sedolia, We are neutral in any war involving the Terran Empire. You have no legal basis for attacking us."

The good governor looked a lot like Jabba the Hutt after a diet and was about as convincingly neutral.

"This is Fleet Admiral Sir Dominic Flandry, commanding this task force. My intelligence says that ships from Sedolia are allied with Merseia, so I do not agree with your please of neutrality. How many people are on your moon?"

"Admiral, I protest this unwarranted and…."

"How many people." We could see Flandry look at something out of the range of the comm viewer. "I estimate your station has about a thousand people, more or less. I see you have at least two ships that can carry that many people. I give you one hour to get off that noon, then I'll destroy everything but your one ship."

"Admiral! It will take three hours to load all of my people. I beg that you reconsider and allow…."

"Two hours, then." The comm from the flagship went dead.

In a bit less than two hours, a ship rose from the moon and headed out of the solar system. Shortly thereafter, the installation blew up.

"Flandry is sending the destroyer Van Dieman's Land to look over the moon. In another half an hour, we heard a comm from the destroyer to the flagship. "Clever boy, sir. There was a lot of fire and smoke from the explosion, but most of the installation is more or less intact."

There was a slight delay from the flagship. Then, "Send your intel to the cruiser Dalmatia. They'll pound the place to rubble."

We got to watch as a heavy cruiser, a long, lean shark-like vessel came in fairly close and reduced a couple of hundred cubic kilometers of the moon to molten lava.

Then we headed for out next mission.

The solar system was one huge star surrounded by what was basically space junk. Lots and lots of rocks that ranged from pebble sized to lump of perhaps a few hundred cubic kilometers. Oh, and a Merseian heavy cruiser.

"Admiral?" Called a voice from across the bridge. "I've counted eleven good sized rocks that have structures on them. Consumables for the Merseian task force."

Flandry thought for a moment. "Get the Merseian captain of that cruiser on comms, please."

It took some minutes, but I finally got a good look at a Merseian. He was green and dressed in a black uniform, just like the pictures I had seen. He smiled and spoke. "Do you wish to surrender to me?"

Flandry laughed. "No, I'm afraid not. Would you care to surrender to me? I could destroy you with my escorts alone without involving my battleship. You would be well treated as would your crew."

The Merseian looked at us for a second and then sadly shook his head. "I fear not. But please get a message to Merseia and tell that that Wydnock the Strong fought as a Merseian should and met his fate."

Flandry nodded and said something under his breath that I didn't catch.

The comm screen darkened.

There's no point in describing the battle. It was over, literally, in a matter of seconds and destroyed the enemy cruiser. Flandry then destroyed all of the supplies in the solar system and went off.

We went on to the other powerful planets in the barbarian conspiracy. They were either under siege by Imperial forces, allies of the Empire, or their own recent barbarian allies.

At the fourth planet, we received a message from a courier from within the Empire. Flandry told the whole task force about it.

"The great barbarian raid is over. Barbarian ships are headed for their own homeworlds, or are raiding their neighbors. It will be decades before any of the barbarians outside the Empire dare to attack us again. However, the Merseian commander has split his task force into four task forces, each based around a battleship. They've been ordered to fight to the death to do as much damage to the Empire as they can. We're headed back to the Empire to do as much as we can to stop them." Flandry took a deep breath. "Glory to the Emperor!"

The bridge crew and presumably the rest of the task force roared the words back at him.

Space is vast. You really have no idea how vast until you go looking for something as small as a battleship and its escorts in hundreds of cubic light years. We managed to get in on the kill of the last Merseian task force. By the time we arrived their battleship was a ruin, leaking air and bodies. And then it was over. The Merseians and their allies were gone.

We were going home as well.

We found Sissy where we had left her. She was delighted to see Aeryn and me.

We had one last meal one the Hooligan, Flandry's personal ship.

"What's going to happen to the Empire now?" Aeryn asked.

Flandry shrugged. "The Mersieans are unlikely to have much left when their civil war is over, and the Empire will continue to decline. It will eventually collapse under its own weight. I hope something better will replace it without an interstellar dark age intervening. I'm unlikely to live to see what happens."

"What about Diana Crowfoot, Targovi and the rest?" I asked.

"They're planning on looking for the other empire that's supposed to be some thousand or so light years out there. It might be a good place for them to flee if things go wrong."

"Will things go wrong?"

Flandry smiled. "The pro-Imperials are all saying that it was Imperial men and ships that defeated the invasion. Those who want out of the Empire say it was local forces who stepped in when Imperial forces were too far away to be much help. We shall see."

We went back to Sissy and went looking for a wormhole. When we came out, I knew we were home.

I really knew we were home when a sleek, black ship pulled up alongside of us and a familiar face filled the comm screen."

"Where has youse two been? Me an' Muggsy and Puggsy has been lookin' for youse for a while."

I pulled Aeryn close to me. "I have a tale to tell you and all of our friends. You won't believe it."

Buggsy laughed. "We allus believes Don John Crichton."

"As well you should." Aeryn said.

The End