When Rico Montel had first donned the blue and green uniform of the Varilyn Hierarchy’s armed forces, it had been a moment of inexpressible pride.

The burly mouse didn’t think he was unusual in that. He’d come from a humble background, a few steps from the streets, and still been given a chance to succeed; should he not be proud of his nation? And he’d trained and studied for years to pass the bar for a slot at officer’s college, and not only been accepted, but been at the head of his class; should he not be proud of himself?

He’d committed to enlisting in the wake of what had since become known as the Sterley uprising – a gaggle of pirates who’d had the notion to turn conquistador and caused five bloody years of fighting before their base of operations was finally tracked down at the outer limits of the Sterley system. He’d been much too junior to actually take part in the strike on that base – hadn’t even won an ensign’s stripe, still on his midshipman’s cruise, most junior of a wing helping to police the home systems – but he’d been in uniform long enough to feel some common ground with the soldiers who had gone to fight. He’d mourned their losses, cheered their triumph, and been once again proud to wear the same uniform as them.

That had been six years ago. Since then he’d finished his cruise and become an ensign, gone on to distinguish himself in a peacekeeping operation on Grelthor, received decorations and promotions, if not with blinding speed, certainly faster than was typical in a peacetime force. He’d been given chances to lead a few elements, then, when things suddenly went bad in Kellis, found himself the senior officer of an entire flight, and brought the rest of his people home alive, mission accomplished. He’d won a silver star for that; its ribbon glimmered at the end of its row, the newest decoration vying for space on his breast.

He’d done plenty to be proud of. Yet now he regarded his green-trimmed blue tunic with trepidation.

Had he changed, or had his homeland? Had policy shifted, or had he only become more aware of reality? Oh, it had seemed reasonable enough, in the heady months after Sterley, for the Hierarchs to say that they were better off without obligations to the Saurok Empire. Imperial forces hadn’t been a major part of the Sterley operation – a few recon elements, no more; even the policing efforts at home had been handled by a combination of domestic security and the Armed Forces, both of them grown to levels unprecedented in the Hierarchy’s history. But while the police, faced with that surplus once things settled down, had given many of its new hires public thanks and generous pensions and let them go, the military had retained its numbers.

Some of its commanders, Rico was fairly certain, had come to like fighting – specifically, they’d come to like winning. A dozen smaller campaigns against nearby pirate bands had followed. Then the governors of one such system’s beleaguered civilian population had petitioned to join the Hierarchy as a client state.

Well, that had certainly marked a shift. It was all very well to put down some vile, lawless pirates, but to expand the Hierarchy’s sphere of influence – and its tax revenue – in the process? The pilots had suddenly enjoyed a new wave of popular support. And expansion.

Five more worlds had joined the Hierarchy since. Which all sounded very well, but… Rico had been part of the latest such campaign. He’d seen the drills held conspicuously in view of Darnon’s civilian stations, rather than off in some unoccupied corner of the system as his notions of operational security would normally have suggested. Seen the capital ships parked just as conspicuously in orbit while the plebiscite was held among Darnon’s population. And he’d found it entirely too convenient that the most vocal of Darnon’s opponents to joining the Hierarchy had died in a groundcar crash in the weeks before the vote. To be sure, updating Darnon’s geriatric traffic-control system had been one promised benefit of joining, and forensics crews had found no evidence of foul play in the crash…

None that they’d reported, at least.

Rico hadn’t dared speak out about his misgivings. If he was wrong, he’d be shaming himself and his nation for nothing; if he was right, well, people that ruthless could doubtless find a way to deal with other inconvenient people, too. All they needed to do was send him into a dangerous situation with a little bit less strength than it warranted, and the problem, in their eyes, would likely take care of itself. He and his flight might even make for convenient martyrs, as that governor had.

But he hadn’t been able to bear it completely alone. There was one person he’d come to trust over the years, a weasel, Cinnabar Dantrig. She’d been in the class ahead of his, and as well as he’d done in his own class, he’d had some chances to drill with them before they graduated; they’d come together again in the years since, and been serving from the same carrier for four years running. She knew how to keep a confidence.

Of course, he rather suspected there was more to her than there appeared. Some of the things he’d shared with her had technically violated operational security, and as the operations in question had gone off without special difficulty, he hadn’t thought much of it then; but in recent months, as Imperial installations had become targets, he’d noted – and kept to himself – something curious.

When he dropped hints to Cinnabar of particularly worrisome missions, things liable to have a high death toll on the other side, sometimes those missions wound up being a bit easier than he’d expected – the targets more lightly defended, more willing to evacuate the moment his flight showed up. There had still been deaths, including some among his own people, but less than he would have expected – especially if he considered the possibility that the stations in question might have already been reduced to skeleton crews to begin with.

Oh, she said the right things – told him to trust in their commanders and their civilian leaders. But she had been among those numerous officers who’d had misgivings about treating the Empire as an enemy in earnest, and he rather thought it was because, deep down, she agreed with the Emperor more than the Hierarchs.

If it ever came to light that Rico was deliberately funnelling information to someone he suspected of being a spy, rather than reporting her, he was dead. But somehow, that thought didn’t bother him so much as it once might have. Not with the things he’d been ordered to do in recent years – things which hadn’t technically been criminal orders, but things which still hadn’t sat well with his conscience.

He sighed, grateful for the private, if cramped, quarters that came with an underlieutenant’s docket, and shrugged into his tunic. They were well in transit now, and he had a briefing to attend on their upcoming operation.

Some hours later, he was back in his quarters, with company.

An outside observer, seeing how much time they spent in each other’s company – especially in private – might be forgiven for thinking that he and Cinnabar were lovers. Both of them were good physical specimens, and well they might find another attractive for that alone – he a singularly imposing specimen of a mouse, over two meters and a powerfully-built hundred kilos, she a head shorter, with emerald eyes and fine, immaculate fur the colour of cinnamon. They both loved their nation and made no secret of it, but neither did they make an excessive show of patriotism; they both openly favoured peacekeeping operations over territorial offensives, but followed their orders without public complaint. They might have made a good match. In point of fact, she had offered; it was no reflection on her that his eye was drawn to other men. But his affairs had been, if anything, even more careful and discreet than these conversations he had with her. She knew about them, because military operations were far from the only thing he confided in her, but both of them had figured that it hurt neither of them to let people think they were an item. If he was right about her – which he had never dared ask and probably never would – she probably saw it as a useful cover for getting these little tidbits out of him; that was, in point of fact, why he valued the story, even though his unofficially “official” reason for it was simply to cover up his actual romantic tastes. Her stated reason was simply that she valued his company more than that of some would-be suitors, and having them be thought an item gave her a ready excuse to brush them off – even if she never actually said she and Rico were romantically involved rather than simply being friends and comrades-in-arms.

In recent times, he’d been glad enough to set aside his tunic, but that was as far as it had ever gotten. Still, if he answered his door or his com in shirtsleeves, it did nothing to impair that little story.

It is an escalation,” she said now, in response to the latest tidbit he’d shared. He hadn’t been able to name a specific target even if he’d thought it wise to do so – ever conscious of the idea that she might just be giving him enough rope to hang himself – because they didn’t have a specific target yet, but he knew what the recon flights were going to be looking for. “But it’s not an atrocity, Rico. There are declared hostilities now, and a refuelling post is a valid military target. A push to the rear area like this could encourage the Empire to get the message and leave, without threatening civilian shipping.”

True,” he sighed, leaning back against the bulkhead. As his guest, he’d given Cinnabar the only chair; he sat on his bunk. “So long as it is a military post we find. The Empire’s interstellar police are as good as military, so finding them around a target doesn’t necessarily mean much.”

Have a little faith,” she soothed. “Our commanders do know the difference between SLA transponders and Navy and merchant marine, to say nothing of civilian. If there are civvie squawkers nearby, I’m sure they’ll stick to the plan and avoid that target.”

You’re probably right,” he granted. The Hierarchs wouldn’t look too kindly on anyone who blackened their name – there’d been enough trouble over the numbskull, pardon, overzealous patriot who’d seized that embassy on Cranstor, even if Rico rather suspected the problem had been more in leaving traceable documentation than in committing the attack.

They shared a few drinks – slightly off regulation, but Rico knew his limits and didn’t imbibe enough that he’d be incapacitated even if he did suddenly get scrambled – and then Cinnabar went back to her quarters. Or at least so she said.

The thought drove another sigh from him as he stripped down and got into his bunk. He was really sick of this double life.

For the next few days, he poured himself into drills. The pilots in his flight were good patriotic people, who valued each other and their homeland; he had no compunctions about the sort of practice that would help as many of them as possible get home alive. It was all simulator exercises – they dared not detach for real-space, live-fire exercises as he’d otherwise prefer, not when they were in hostile territory – but it was enough to maintain their fighting polish, if perhaps it might not have been enough to achieve that polish in the first place.

It also meant that the whole exercise could be immediately cancelled when, on the third day, the pilots were called to a briefing.

They’d found the refuelling post they expected to, all right, and the space around it was only lightly picketed. Three of the flights were to make for reconnaissance platforms elsewhere in the system; Rico’s flight was headed for the main target, under strict emissions control.

At least, if the target turned out to be other than what their scouts had reported, he’d be on hand and could keep things from snowballing into atrocity. Some of the other flight leaders could be a little too hotheaded, too eager to charge into battle for their nation.

Already suited up for the simulator run, they went directly from the briefing room to the flight deck. He couldn’t hope to drop any hints to Cinnabar at this point, even if she was an Imperial agent and did have a way to relay that information to her hypothetical Imperial masters; to seek her out would be suicidally conspicuous, and there simply wasn’t the opportunity to drop the information in casual conversation; he’d have had to be blunt, and that would break the illusion he, for one, had spent so long cultivating, the fiction that let him pretend he wasn’t really doing anything wrong.

No, he had to hope that, however they got the information, their targets recognized what was coming in good enough time to not suffer too heavy a cost in lives. His duty now was to his fellows, to the pilots under his command and his own bomber’s flight crew. He would lead them forth and strike this target, as he had sworn to fight for his country nine years past, the day he’d learned that he had in fact passed the entrance tests and formally sworn himself to service, become Midshipman Rico Montel. He would put his misgivings aside and give this fight his all.

He crawled through the hatch and into the cockpit, sealing it behind him, and settled into his seat, bringing up readiness displays even as he buckled into the restraints. Most of the systems were already showing ready; the last few warnings of still-connected maintenance lines switched within moments to full readiness. He had a full tank of reactor mass, his racks were all loaded and magazines full, and preflight tests on warhead seekers and firing machinery all came back green. His copilot and tailgunner reported their checks complete with no problems.

The overhead crane came down, gripped his Glaive-class bomber, lifted it from the gantry, and brought it to the catapult. A series of soft, familiar clanks let him know the craft had settled into the rails, and the standby charge across his hull told him the sabots had nestled cleanly into their slots.

The catapult was essentially a giant railgun, with multiple sets of rails to mate with all the different classes of strike craft carried by the Intolerant-class carrier Lord Cannsley. Aside from selecting the right rails, the system was deceptively simple, capable of launching a new fighter every forty seconds, if they’d been laid out on the gantry in appropriate order in the first place. The carrier had four of them, and the moment Rico confirmed readiness to launch, they set about launching his flight into space.

The chamber was open to vacuum, but that wasn’t enough for keeping an unholy racket from transmitting right through his bomber’s hull as the sabots slid down the rails. Low-friction alloy though they might be, that was a very relative term when the rails imparted that much acceleration. It was a blessed relief when the frantic seconds of acceleration passed and his Glaive sailed into open space, a soft ping punctuating the detonation of the explosive bolts that discarded those sabots from his wingtips.

Once he’d cleared Lord Cannsley’s perimeter, he nudged his attitude thrusters, shifting slightly to the side and discarding a bit of his speed. The other pilots of his bomber element took up formation around him; then his recon element took up position ahead; three flights of four escorts each followed and took up station. That was about it; unlike a standard deployment, they were not going to accelerate strongly to their targets. That was why, despite being the last flight to reach their target today, they’d launched first. The other flights were going to be quite obvious, but theirs was to keep all emissions to a minimum, using little more than course-correction thrusters. That would still let them accelerate, but the low throttle settings ought to make it hard for their targets to know they were coming at all, much less to draw a bead on them as they approached.

The lighter craft were left to fly in silence, at least relative to one another; Rico was spared that by the fact that he had a flight crew he could talk with and not break emissions control in the process. It was all very terse and to the point, and nothing that he’d call socializing, but just knowing they were there with him, that he wasn’t just a hole in space, was still strangely comforting.

About an hour after launch, the other flights started encountering hostiles. By the sound of it, the battle was going as well as could be expected; they’d achieved some measure of strategic surprise, but the Imperial crews were professionals and suitably wary, couldn’t fail to notice the very obvious signatures of their inbound attackers, and they weren’t going down without a fight.

So far, the mission was on profile. That was always a hopeful sign, even if some deep-down part of him had hoped the Imperials might be tipped off.

I’m reading our target’s transponder,” his copilot, Under-lieutenant Ando Krell, reported. “We’re within expected drift. Point two four by point zero three eight.”

Point two four by point zero three eight,” Rico acknowledged. “Pulse the correction out by whisker, by the numbers.”

Encoded, sequenced…” A brief pause, then, “Sent.”

The odds that such a short burst transmission, sent by tightly focused communications laser to each other craft in succession, could be noticed were slim to none, but it still pleased Rico to know the sequence had gone off as quickly as it had, and that the whole wing shifted its course without deviating from formation. The less time the com laser was operating, the better – which went double for their thrusters – until they actually got close enough to be detected and emissions control became moot. Speaking of which – his threat detector beeped a warning; he was taking radar hits, though with the stealth materials built into his craft’s frame, he ought to be well below detection threshold as yet.

That would change. But for now, everything was going according to plan.

The depot was large enough that he could see it on gravidar, now. The array of craft around it he could only notice by their EM signatures – maybe the recon pilots would have more data, but his bomber’s gravitic sensors weren’t sensitive enough to localize such small targets at this distance. That too would change by the time they entered combat range – soon.

Soon indeed, his threat detector snarled a sterner warning; lidar hits – fire control – were painting his bomber. That tore it. He tapped a code into his computer, overriding the automated lockdown. “Gold Leader to Gold Flight, emissions control lifted. Assume combat posture and prepare to engage.”

One by one, his element leaders copied his instruction. Thrusters which had been barely operational now roared to life, bright plumes of plasma streaming behind them as they accelerated with all the force that had previously been denied them.

There was an awful lot of debris out there, Rico reflected as his own active sensors started probing the area. And there weren’t as many defenders as he’d expected to find. Had this place already been hit and softened up by some third party of raiders? It might make his job a little easier, but why hadn’t that been noticed by their own recon?

For that matter, why was the debris still clumped around the post? Why hadn’t they shoved it out of the way? Some of it looked awfully big, a match in mass for his own fighters, quite a hazard for anything actually wanting to refuel.

Something wasn’t right here.

Then he saw the emissions coming from the refuelling post, and his stomach dropped out of him. That was way more power than a refuelling post could possibly need – it was more power than his bomber could bring to bear.

Gold Flight, Gold Leader. Break, break, break! Dispersal pattern,” he thought for a frantic moment, and concluded, “Gamma Tau One-Eight! Break!”

His pilots couldn’t possibly have expected such an order, but they’d drilled for just these moments. The five elements suddenly veered through practised course changes, boosting off in pairs, each in a different vector and none of them going where they had been moments before.

It almost worked.

Power signatures lit up throughout the “debris field,” and so did transponders. The half-dozen Imperial recon craft were suddenly joined by no less than eighteen Shrike superiority fighters – burly craft made for the expressed purpose of engaging strike craft like Rico’s wing. Their first salvo tore through the space Rico’s flight had been just about to pass through.

That was the good news.

The hull of the “refuelling post” ruptured, burst from within by a stream of particles moving at a respectable portion of lightspeed. Rico’s wingmate, Gold Alpha Two, was neatly speared by it, sliced open from midships to stern, and vanished in a boil of brilliant light as its fusion plant ruptured – much too fast for its crew to have any chance to bail.

The “station” broke apart, scuttling charges sending hull panels flying loose, and the sleek form of an Imperial Condor-class interdiction corvette burned hard towards the other pair of bombers. Another particle beam went by Rico’s cockpit, entirely too close for comfort.

They only lost the one bomber – and all three of its crew – in that first pass, by some miracle, but that was all the good news they could possibly expect. They’d committed to attack run on what had looked like a helpless, lightly-defended target; now they found themselves outnumbered, outclassed – and the corvette alone outgunned half of Rico’s entire flight. They were too close, and had burned in too hard, to break off, so his pilots did they only thing they could: as they spun through mad evasive turns, they snapped off whatever shots they could, hoping against hope to break through the Imperial line with some of their force intact.

Bravo Four went down to a Shrike’s plasma cannon – not the high-charge, low-temperature-and-velocity shots that were employed to disable under standard SLA doctrine, but deadly intense shots of war. Bravo Three followed moments later, though it had enough time before it detonated that the cockpit’s ejection charges went off, spitting two rescue beacons into space and clear of the blast radius. Charlie Two raked another Shrike, inflicting damage, but the Shrike wasn’t out of the fight, and one of its compatriots made violent reprisal. Charlie Two’s copilot ejected safely; the pilot was less fortunate.

Cursing under his breath and into a dead com, Rico brought his nose around. Most of his payload was intended for a target that couldn’t dodge, but he wasn’t entirely helpless. Two of his torpedo seekers found the Condor’s signature, and he squeezed the firing stud, his bomber bucking slightly as it flung the weapons forward. He dared not try for a tighter lock with any other weapons, but spun through a hard skew turn, slewing out of the way of another particle beam.

The torpedoes he’d launched, however, were less deft; the corvette’s point defence picked them both off before they could even start their terminal approach. And in retaliation, something larger and nastier separated from the corvette and streaked towards the remnants of Rico’s outclassed flight.

The shielded missile shrugged off Rico’s own small point-defence lasers with contemptuous ease, streaking past him. And then it split apart, and a half-dozen smaller missiles went swarming through space on erratic, winding courses, each with a different fighter’s murder on its electronic mind.

Only the bombers had effective point defence, and only two of them were left – Rico hadn’t seen exactly when Alpha Four got shot out of space, but only its tail gunner had managed to eject. “Alpha Three, Gold Leader – Fire Plan Coranath! Engage!” He tapped a brisk series of commands to his own flight computer, feeding power from his main guns and his missile tubes into the quick-tracking laser clusters.

He splashed two of the random-walking swarmers, and Alpha Three nailed a third. The remaining three made their attack runs, and just like that, three more Hierarchy fighters – and the five men and women aboard them – ceased to be.

Then the two forces passed one another, the Imperials starting to swing around for another run.

And then an unfamiliar voice crackled over the com, on an open, unencrypted channel. “This is Commander Drevin Targe, SLA, to attacking forces. You are in violation of Imperial space. Surrender now, and you will be treated with the full courtesies due prisoners of war. Resist, and you will be destroyed.”

Rico’s heart skipped a beat.

He keyed his com to the all-flight frequency and barked, “Cease fire!” The forces were out of each other’s immediate engagement envelope anyway – missiles might make it across that gap, but Rico’s bombers still had enough firepower to splash whatever came their way when the range wasn’t so impossibly short, given how light the Imperials were in missiles and how heavy in direct-fire weaponry, and he’d already seen what their point defence could do – but that instruction was enough to make Delta One and Two abort their incipient turn back towards engagement range, settling back into an untidy formation with the rest of Rico’s remaining forces.

The mouse took a deep, ragged breath.

It was possible – barely – that they’d injured one of the Imperial crewmen in that pass, in Charlie Two’s final strike. Nobody else had come so close to inflicting harm, and none of the Imperial craft was out of commission.

If they fought, the odds would only get worse. If they ran – well, they were facing entirely the wrong way to get back to their carrier, and had far too much velocity to kill to change that anytime soon. The Imperials could run them down at leisure.

All he could do was hope that this Commander Targe was as honourable a man as he himself tried to be. It rankled, for the order he was about to give would be admitting defeat.

But the fact of it was that they had been defeated. Going down in flames wouldn’t change that.

Gold Flight, Gold Leader. On my mark, you will reverse, come to a halt relative to system primary, and cut shielding to station-keeping levels. You will comply with the instructions of the Imperial forces until such time as you are placed in custody. At that time, as is customary, you may consider it your duty to attempt to escape, so long as there is a credible chance of success and you do not achieve it by way of atrocity. I require acknowledgements from each of you – every officer, not only pilots of individual craft – for these instructions.”

One of the recon pilots began, “But Sir, I…”

Rico stabbed a button on his console, squelching her. “These orders are not discretionary, pilot,” he snapped. “This mission was a failure before we ever launched, and there is nothing we can hope to accomplish by resisting further – not even meaningful damage to their forces. You will comply, and you will, in standard order, acknowledge my instructions.” He let go of the button.

One by one, in order of flight assignment, his surviving pilots reported back – some shaken, some surly, some sounding already half-dead. But nobody else questioned him.

Execute,” Rico instructed, and brought his own Glaive’s nose around as he switched to the same open frequency on which his surrender had been demanded. “Commander Targe, this is Underlieutenant Rico Montel, VHAF.” He took a deep breath, though the courage he’d hoped to gather with it was slow in coming; he swallowed around the lump in his throat. “I am standing my units down and have instructed them to follow your commands. We surrender.”

Commander Targe turned out to be a ferret, albeit one of atypical build for his race – if not so much so as Rico himself. He was a bit taller than any other ferret he’d met, and much heavier set, though not so much so that anyone would describe him as anything but lean in absolute terms. His eyes were, considering the circumstances, strangely kind.

The same couldn’t be said of everyone else in the boat bay Rico and his surviving pilots had been directed to approach – not land on, for they’d been brought in by tractor beams after being sternly instructed to kill all power, rather than landing on their own. They’d been met by a squad of battle-armoured marines, faceless behind their polarized visors, whose coilguns, while not aimed at the arriving prisoners – yet – nevertheless promised swift and lethal retribution should they set so much as a toe out of line. By the way hands shifted on stocks, some of the marines rather hoped that necessity would arise. The officer – clad in heavier armour, it seemed, than Rico’s own fighter craft, if maybe not his bombers, and toting an even more menacing flechette gun – shifted slightly and made a quelling gesture with one hand, and the marines settled ever so slightly, though they stayed alert and plainly keyed up as SAR craft disgorged Rico’s ejected pilots, under slightly-less-armed escort.

It was hardly surprising, Rico reminded himself, that there might be some bad blood there. This was a local space station they’d been brought to, not an SLA carrier, and the Hierarchy forces had come to this system for violence. Had already visited violence upon the Empire elsewhere, in neighbouring systems, without even the strange but curiously meaningful courtesy of declaring war beforehand. Some of these soldiers had probably lost people, as Rico had, and he had to admit that their losses had had rather less provocation.

The rest of Targe’s flight group was not in evidence. The ferret had presumably come directly here – he’d arrived minutes after Rico had clambered out of his Glaive’s boarding hatch, while the rest of his flight was still being brought in – and was still in his flight suit, which offered no clues as to his record beyond the stripes of a full commander, equal, if Rico remembered correctly, to a captain as the Hierarchy organized things. Once the remnants of Gold Flight were all in place, he stepped forward.

Rico took refuge in procedure, coming to attention and saluting; the ferret returned it – not the same salute, perhaps, but recognizable for what it was. “Underlieutenant Montel,” he greeted. “I am sorry for your losses.”

He actually sounded like he meant it, too. Not that he was sorry for inflicting them, of course – he was a soldier, as Rico was, and both of them, he fancied, understood the realities of that life. But this was not a man who took pleasure in killing, anymore than he was. If they hadn’t been placed on opposite sides…

He shied away from that thought. Such speculation could only be painful.

He took a deep breath. “What’s to become of us?”

Once I’ve wrapped up some administrative details here, I will be returning to the SLAS Bond of Unity,” Targe replied. “As this will bring you to Imperial Intelligence and then a POW camp in less time than if transportation were to be otherwise arranged from here, and as I am the one who accepted your surrender, you will be transferred there as well. I expect ImpInt will want to interrogate you, of course, but you will be granted all the usual protections under the customary practices of war – properly fed, housed with dignity, and aside from the initial round of verbal interrogations, not compelled to do anything you don’t wish to do, save stay where we put you. So long as you comply with our basic requests to that effect, you will be treated well.” He paused. “I understand that as prisoners of war, it is your duty to attempt to escape and return to your home stars. I hope you understand in turn, though, that is the duty of your guards to use any force they deem necessary – up to and including lethal force – to prevent that.”

I appreciate your candour,” Rico said, and meant it. Here was a man who was too honest to sugar-coat the reality ahead of them. But by that same token, he could probably be believed when he said they’d otherwise be treated well.

What might happen when they were no longer in his custody, well… to go by the body language of the marines, maybe that didn’t really bear thinking about.

The station brig was not the least comfortable such place he’d ever seen. Which was just as well, because this was the first time he was seeing one from the inside for anything longer than an inspection tour.

Somewhat to his surprise, he and his officers had been offered, not standard prison smocks, but uniforms that differed from their own only in the lack of decorations or service markings beyond rank insignia. There wasn’t a bit of prisoner orange to be found – although the uniforms would stand out in a way that simple civilian clothes would not, so they hardly needed to be thus marked. It was more of their past than he’d expected to be permitted. One by one, they were taken – under armed escort, but by uniformed servicemen, not battle-armoured marines – to the quartermaster’s stores to go through the scanner, and their uniforms arrived that evening. With them came a medical crew, who gave them all a quick looking-over and asked if they had any dietary needs that would need consideration.

By the time their first meals arrived, it was very late in Rico’s day. Some of his fellows had already caught some sleep; knowing that matching Imperial time was pretty much inevitable, Rico forced himself to stay awake long enough to eat the plain but decent fare provided to him, wash up, and go through some quick exercises with such of his officers as were still awake to do so; then he stretched out on a bunk that wasn’t all that much harder than the one in the quarters he’d left behind, and was asleep in moments.

By the time their midday meal rolled around, Targe had apparently dealt with those administrative things he’d referred to, because they were all mustered together, three sleepers being gently but firmly woken up (not by the guards, but by their fellows at those guards’ instruction), and brought as a group to a docking hatch. The vessel they boarded was a pretty standard Imperial Service cutter, and could have lifted sixty people in its main compartment; Rico’s thirty-five survivors were placed well into the middle, webbed into their seats with a prisoner’s variant of standard safety restraints, and a dozen armed officers watched over them. Targe was not in evidence.

Shortly after taking off, the cutter dropped into underspace, with the usual sinking sensation that went along with it – especially on small craft. From there, the flight was long enough that Rico actually drifted off, sleeping right through the other end of the transit to be woken up when the flight crew announced their imminent arrival.

This time, when they were marched down the boarding ramp, the troops waiting for them were in dress uniform; and while Rico had no doubt that their coilguns and sidearms were quite functional, none of them were pointed at the Hierarchy soldiers. This was an honour guard, not just a security detail; that was made plain when the jaguar at its head actually greeted him with a parade-ground salute, introducing herself as Acting Sublieutenant Jacey Gann.

Rico returned both the salute and the introduction in his own fashion, and then he and his officers were brought to their quarters. He hadn’t had a chance to look at the carrier as they approached, but by the distance they covered, it was big – at least a small city in its own right. Which was perhaps why they’d spared the cubage for what was apparently a dedicated POW facility. The quarters they were installed in were made for groups of eight, with the actual sleeping rooms having double bunks; they were allowed the use of the corridor connecting the common areas of five such blocks (well, technically six, but one of them stayed locked), two of which had a sleeping room apiece sealed off, with Rico himself, as the ranking officer, being given a single berth. It was most definitely a prison, and he doubted there was any real privacy to be had, but they were at least granted the illusion of it, with the guards pledging to spend most of their time beyond the entrance to the block and not to enter without a few minutes’ notice save for emergencies, and the chance to live together as a unit.

The first full shipboard day they were given to themselves, to settle in; Targe did make an appearance late in the day, in full, generously-decorated dress blacks, confirming that they were well cared-for, and formally passed control of them onto the marine sublieutenant who had charge of this block.

Which probably meant they couldn’t expect to see much of him in the future. He had his own duties, now that his duty to them had been discharged.

The next day, an ermine in not SLA blacks, but Imperial Guard scarlet, with Imperial Intelligence tags on her collar and the name JAVURIN on her breast, made an appearance.

They were all piled into one of the common areas, into which most of the seating from the others had been moved; it was a bit cramped and wouldn’t allow for its usual other functions, but those were distributed among the other four, so it wasn’t going to be a hardship. After the ermine announced that she’d be debriefing them one by one starting shortly, she withdrew, and Rico looked around at the sea of apprehensive faces.

You all know the standard procedure,” he said. He didn’t feel he had the moral authority to command them to follow that procedure, to give nothing more than name and rank and service number, but he had to remind them all that it was there. If their consciences were less divided than his, they’d probably use it. For his own part, he still wasn’t sure.

Presently, the ermine returned. “Before we begin,” she announced, “there is a point of which I am required to be sure you are aware.

What I am about to say is in no way intended to slight you. I do not expect you to accept it, and your continued good treatment is not contingent upon it. So that you do not feel pressured during a private interview, I am going to say this once, here before you all, and then let the matter rest.

You were captured as prisoners of war, not as individuals. As such, while you were engaged in hostile acts against the Empire, it is assumed that this is in the process of following orders from your legal superiors, and will not in itself be held against you. Most immediately, this means that unless and until you commit an act that runs contrary to the customary practices of war, you will not be tried or punished in your own right, save that we cannot allow you to return to the power that gave those orders; but it also means that if any of you wish to emigrate to the Empire, you will be permitted to do so without particular prejudice. Certain avenues of employment would be closed to such a person until they can prove their good faith and earn major citizenship, but they would have opportunities to do just that. They would not be required to disclose any confidential material; it would be simple amnesty for deeds done at another sovereign power’s behest, not a plea deal.”

Rico sucked in his breath. No wonder she’d prefaced it as she had; even he, with all the misgivings he’d had about the war process, would’ve been incensed at the notion that he might just turn his back on his homeland the moment things looked a little dire.

But the ermine said nothing more on the subject, didn’t even wait for anybody to speak up; she named four people – Rico’s element leaders, as it happened – and bade them follow her into the corridor.

They returned a short time later, the Hierarchy officers with various degrees of stubbornness on their faces, the ermine coolly expressionless. This time, Rico himself was the only one brought out. Under the watchful eyes of the armed guards, he was ushered into the sixth cell block of the corridor, and thence into one of the bunk rooms, which had been set up as a small interrogation room – three seats and a small table filled the space that the bunks didn’t, and on the table was a vid recorder. In addition to Javurin, two other people vied for the limited space: one a tiger with marine tags on his half-armour, the other a stout wolf in civvies. The wolf stood by one of the seats, Javurin another – not the one beside him, but the one opposite those two; the marine crowded into a corner.

This is Arrin Krall, from the Office of the Advocate General, Underlieutenant,” Javurin introduced. “He is here in part to witness these proceedings, to ensure that your rights are not infringed, and to act as your legal counsel should the need arise.”

Underlieutenant,” Krall greeted, extending his hand; somewhat nonplussed, Rico took it. The man’s clasp was firm but not crushing, businesslike.

Senior Chief Anorik will see to the safety of everyone present,” the ermine went on; the tiger saluted, in the slight variation imposed by the bulk of his armour, and Rico returned the salute in his own fashion, not the right-fist-to-left-shoulder of the Empire or the fist-over-heart of the battle-armoured trooper, but with his hand flat, palm forward, thumb and last finger touching with his other fingers held together, fingertips up, wrist precisely at shoulder height.

The litany of what defined a proper salute ran through his mind. He might almost have laughed, that so banal a memory as his parade drill came back to him now, complete with the drill instructor’s long-suffering tones.

And I am Commander Javurin Aluna. You will be unsurprised, I imagine, to learn that I am the senior interrogator of my unit in Imperial Intelligence. I am, in fact, section chief for SLA Third Fleet Intelligence, and Admiral Sherron’s staff intelligence officer.”

The first part was unsurprising indeed; the latter was a bit more novel – he’d thought there was more separation between the varied divisions of Imperial service than that. “Commander,” Rico acknowledged, and this time he was first to salute, though she returned it crisply.

Then she waved him to the remaining chair. “Please be seated.”

After turning on the recorder, she started with the most neutral of questions – confirming his name and rank, getting his service number. Just as Rico was wondering if he ought to dig in his heels and provide no more information than that, she went on with, “You are the senior officer among your group?”

He hesitated. That was harmless enough, wasn’t it? In fact, it sounded more like a courtesy orientation than giving away secrets. “Yes, Commander.”

Have you worked with this particular group for very long?”

It quickly became evident that she wasn’t asking for current details and secrets – she was seeking generalities, some sense of how things worked within the Hierarchy’s armed forces. The one time she strayed into uncomfortable territory – asking “What was your opinion on the start of the current conflict?” – the wolf interrupted before he could even frame a response, saying, “I don’t feel that question is appropriate, Commander.”

Ah, yes, quite. Please disregard that question, Underlieutenant.” She paused, considering. “Have you had any contact with the Hierarchy’s handling of prisoners of war?”

Not… really,” Rico confessed. He wanted to say that his superiors would have been as gracious with prisoners as the Empire had been, but he hadn’t had any experience with the matter. “Most of my service has been against pirates and would-be warlords.”

Hmm.” The ermine consulted her tablet for a moment. “Some of whom would, under Hierarchy law, be looking forward to a death penalty if caught?”

Rico nodded slowly. “Some of them went to some pains not to be taken alive,” he recalled. Though it would have been a cleaner death after trial than many of their victims had gone through. In a few grisly cases, from what he’d heard of the boarding teams’ comm chatter, cleaner than what they’d opted for themselves.

Hmm.” Again she looked over her notes, or whatever it was she had on screen. “How old were you when you joined the Armed Forces?”

Once again Rico hesitated. He was pretty sure a determined individual could find out his age and his length of service, and yet… “I’m… not willing to discuss the terms of my service,” he said at last.

There was a slight elevation of her eyebrows. “Very well.” A few moments as she tapped at the tablet; then, “What is the minimum age to enlist in the service?”

That felt a little safer, and it was nothing that wasn’t publicly available; it wouldn’t hurt him to confirm it for them.

A few more such generalities later, Javurin paused. “I have no further questions for you at this time,” she announced. “Do you have anything you wish to tell me?”

He wasn’t sure if she wanted him to volunteer information, or something similarly general as she’d just been asking; it could have been either, really. He stuck with something safe. “I… would like to thank you and yours for the courtesy, care, and respect my surviving pilots have been shown,” he managed, without stuttering to a halt at the thought of the thirteen who weren’t here to enjoy those things. “You have been making a difficult situation a little bit easier to swallow.”

A small smile graced her features for a moment. “The Empire takes issue with the Hierarchy’s decisions and actions as a state,” she responded. “That does not mean we wish its people ill.” The ermine stood; accordingly, so did the others. “Until next time, Underlieutenant.”

Threat, promise, or simple courtesy? Rico wasn’t sure. More than a little bemused, he let the marine escort him back to his fellows.

The Intelligence operatives – apparently there were four; he saw three others in Imperial Guard red, though he didn’t even get a clear look at their nametags, much less an introduction – were thorough; over the course of the next few day-cycles, each one of them was taken for interrogation exactly once. The general consensus was that they were unfailingly polite, never even bothering to press for information that couldn’t be found in one’s basic record or in the public news services. Nobody really knew what they were expecting to learn from such trivialities, though Rico wasn’t the only one with the impression that they were trying to get a feel for life in the Hierarchy as seen by its own people.

To some extent, that was confirmed explicitly when, after everyone else had been seen at least once, Javurin came the next day for Rico again. “I have a few colleagues who wish to meet you, to gain some insight into life in the Hierarchy,” she offered by way of explanation. “You will not be pressured for current operational information or other sensitive matters.”

He was somewhat surprised when a pair of troopers in blood-red battle-armour flanked him the moment he stepped into the corridor – two massive direwolves, each with the surname DAHL stencilled on his breast and a chief petty officer’s insignia on his shoulder; by what he could see of their features they might well have been brothers, maybe even twins. “The Chiefs will accompany you and ensure that you are kept safe,” Javurin explained.

Honour guard. Interesting. So did that mean…

It did; he was ushered right out of the cell block, through the security checkpoint at the entrance, and into an open corridor. A few turns later he was hopelessly lost, and they’d come to a larger corridor, seemingly running the length of the ship, and fitted with slidewalks. Uniformed personnel flattened against the wall as they passed, instantly making way at the sight of Imperial Guard red; for the most part these people said nothing, though one fox said to the cheetah next to him – softly, but not quite softly enough to pass unheard – “Wonder where they’re taking him. Isn’t the nearest airlock the other way?”

Before his gut could even clench at the contempt in that voice, Javurin’s upraised hand brought the guards to a halt, and perforce Rico as well, the troopers gently shifting him off the slidewalk, while the ermine strode briskly back. “Name and post, Serviceman,” she demanded.

There was a brief, muttered remark – Rico didn’t hear it clearly, but it sounded like the fox was attempting to excuse himself and just continue on his way without further disruption. Javurin was having none of it. “Name. And post. Serviceman,” she repeated, cold emphasis on each noun.

By this point the fox was wide-eyed, ears pinned back, fur on end – all over nervous. He swallowed and replied. There was enough distance between them already, and the reply was soft enough, that Rico didn’t hear more than the name “Jurgansen” clearly with his ears facing the wrong way, but Javurin was apparently satisfied, stylus skittering over her tablet. Returning both to their respective holders, she said, “As you were, Servicemen,” and turned back towards Rico and his honour guard, making long strides to catch up, then getting the little parade back in motion with a brisk gesture, leaving the flustered pair behind.

Only when they’d left the slidewalk for smaller, more conventional corridors did Javurin let out a sigh. “I apologize for that unseemly display, Underlieutenant.”

People are people,” Rico heard himself say. Yes, and people could be full of such incredible venom… apparently that was true regardless of political boundaries.

Maybe so, but the Service is supposed to embody the Empire at its best, and that sort of attitude… does not become someone in the Emperor’s uniform, be they admirals or newly enlisted.”

Rico shook his head. In his experience, high ideals were hard to come by as soon as one got past the recruiting vids.

Any reply he might have made was put on hold by their arrival at their destination. “My day cabin,” Javurin explained, as the two escorts took up position on either side of the hatch. “Normally a mere commander doesn’t have quite this much space, even aboard a large vessel like the Bond of Unity, but a commander’s post in the Guard is harder to come by than in the other branches of service, and a section chief often has call to consult with people to discuss things unfit for general circulation.”

Rico looked around the cabin. The main room was about as big as one of the four-person sleeping berths in the POW quarters – not exactly luxurious, but it was only one room of the lot; there was also a door leading to a private mess, and several more, closed doors, presumably for sleeping quarters and head at the very least. He didn’t think the cabin actually had an exterior wall, but one section of the far wall nevertheless displayed a glittering starscape; hologram sculptures were installed at the room’s corners, elaborate forms slowly turning, and an Imperial banner occupied another wall. For shipboard accommodations, it far surpassed his own, and rivalled what he fancied some flag officers might have back home. “Why bring me here, if I may ask? Why not hold this in the same place as the prior interviews?”

Javurin sucked in a deep breath. “Firstly, it… had been my intention to offer more courtesy than that space. To demonstrate that so long as you are cooperative, the Empire is willing to extend to you as much liberty and comfort as are reasonable. That… unfortunate encounter may have soured that somewhat…”

Rico waved it off, but the ermine was already going on, “Furthermore, I thought the distance might offer some additional chance at discretion, given who’s to be here.” She’d just set him next to a chair at the small table when a number of uniformed people emerged from the mess cabin. Gesturing to a silver-furred fox in Imperial Navy grey, she said, “This is Keldur Andursson, my counterpart in the Navy’s Second Fleet under Admiral Saurok Sarrel.” A russet squirrel, big for his kind if not to Rico’s own degree, and a white bear of a height with and a shade more slender than Rico himself were “Quarrin Darvey and Hago Bannerman, two of my analysts.” And there was one more.

A weasel, a head shorter than him, with fine fur the colour of cinnamon and eyes that were not green, but bright copper, her face was nonetheless quite recognizable. “Garnet Calliston,” the ermine introduced, “whom I believe you know – after a fashion.”

Oh,” Rico breathed. Suddenly feeling numb, he sank into the chair at Javurin’s gesture. The Authority officers took up seats on the other sides of the table.

It shouldn’t have struck him so hard. He’d already suspected that the woman he knew as Cinnabar Dantrig was an Imperial agent. And yet seeing her here, now, in Imperial Guard scarlet with a lieutenant commander’s stripes on her shoulder and the marks of twelve years of service on her sleeves, changed that somehow. While it was merely suspicion, he’d been able to tell himself he didn’t know he was violating Hierarchy security, not for certain. Now it was unequivocal: he most certainly had done.

You must wonder why I’ve bothered being so taciturn,” he said to the room at large.

Bannerman shook his head. “From Lieutenant Commander Calliston’s reports, there was much to admire in the Hierarchy,” the bear said. “If it had peacefully sought secession from the Empire, our diplomats would have tried to convince yours against it, of course, but we’d ultimately have let you go peaceably – and she might never have been activated, but left to live the life of a genuine Hierarchy officer.”

Underlieutenant… Rico….” The weasel drew a deep breath. “I know I can’t make up for the things I didn’t tell you, not now. But what I did tell you wasn’t a pack of lies. I didn’t come in as an agent infiltrating an enemy nation, but as an immigrant who saw a nation I could believe in. I joined the VHAF when relations were still cordial between the Hierarchy and the Empire – when I didn’t need to choose which nation’s orders to put first. For all my stripes, I wasn’t what the analysts call an active resource for all that long – I was only just beginning to see how bad things were getting, to start setting up channels to report things beyond the everyday, when we had our first talk.”

Rico made himself look up at her, and what he saw almost made him flinch. There was pain in those unfamiliar eyes, and loss, and grief. And heart-gnawing tension. So many things he’d felt firsthand, he saw echoed in her, now.

If it was all a sham, well, it all seemed closer to the real thing than was the country he’d sworn to serve, anymore. “Determined Today to Determine Tomorrow.” The motto tumbled easily off his tongue, but now it left a foul taste that it hadn’t early in his service. “There’s something I thought I could believe in, back when the recruitment vids still felt shiny and new.”

I thought you were a living example of that motto at work,” she countered. “You came from as hard a beginning as anyone in the Imperial Service, and you were doing plenty well for yourself. I thought you were on the fast track to command… until the war party started to gain ground.”

He grimaced. She’d put her finger right on the one thing he’d thought had really been coming true… and on the very thing that had made it all go wrong. But while he couldn’t discount the possibility that she was simply a peerless actress – she had kept a number of people fooled – he had to admit, at least to himself, that it somehow felt plausible. That maybe she’d kept people from figuring it all out because she was loyal to the Hierarchy… at least the old Hierarchy, the one they’d both sworn oaths to.

There were plenty of axioms about the fool who let himself be fooled a second time… and yet that possibility, the thought that maybe it had all been real, was strangely reassuring. He sat back in his chair, feeling, for the first time since his capture, not defeated but strangely pensive.

It was Bannerman who broke the silence. “It was something of a surprise, when we went to open a file on you after your preliminary… hmm, it probably wouldn’t be very honest to call it anything but ‘interrogation’… to discover that there already was a file. That doesn’t mean anything much in itself, but usually ImpInt doesn’t keep close tabs on an officer until they at least get into a command slot.”

Before Rico could try to puzzle through the ramifications of that remark, the squirrel, Darvey, cut in, “I think what my colleague is trying to say is that nothing about you gave the impression that you were anything but a loyal officer. Nor did anything in your file, for that matter. The SLA Fourth Fleet analysts, whose HQ handles intelligence in that sector, concurred with Lieutenant Commander Calliston’s preliminary assessment that the only reason you’d bent as far as you had was because of that loyalty – to the principles on which your nation was founded, but not, conspicuously enough, blindly to the nation as it was. They didn’t think you likely to do anything which would outright harm the Hierarchy; lower the death toll on both sides, perhaps, undermine the wrong sort of victory, but nothing likely to actually undermine the Hierarchy’s strategic position.”

So they didn’t think he was a traitor. Why were they telling him this? His eyes narrowed. “I’m not sure I follow where you’re going with that, Lieutenant.”

None of us wishes to be your enemy, Underlieutenant,” Javurin put in gently – whether by way of explanation or reproach, Rico wasn’t sure. “Lieutenant Darvey has postulated that we might do well to remind our officers that yours are not wicked, vile foes bent on the destruction of all we hold dear, but that at the heart of your officer corps is the same manner of character that we value in ours. If you and yours are willing, we might arrange for some of our people to meet you – not in an interrogation room, but in a more convivial setting such as, say, the officer’s mess.”

And would it only be your people you’d be trying to convince?” Rico challenged.

Of course not,” was Bannerman’s immediate reply. “You’re a good officer, and so are those who came with you. We’d be fools not to want people of your calibre in our own ranks. But because you are good officers, we don’t expect you to turn your coats just because things aren’t working out well for you and we’re offering some petty favours.”

You wouldn’t be good officers if it was that easy to change your minds,” the weasel who wasn’t Cinnabar added. “But if we’re ever going to end this conflict through anything but a total military victory – on whichever side, with all the corresponding damage and loss of life – we need to take some steps towards understanding each other.”

The passion in her voice made Rico feel more than a little guilty for bringing it up as he had; he winced. “I’m sorry. That wasn’t very charitable of me.”

Under the circumstances, reasonable people should make a few allowances for that sort of thing,” Javurin replied. “At any rate, I hope you will consider the offer in the spirit in which it is offered – not anything so crass as a bribe, but a move towards courtesy and understanding.” A strange look passed over her features. “Hopefully less marred than the journey here was… but then, it’s through measures such as this that we might be able to ease such prejudices. Or at least lay the groundwork towards quieting them.”

You did say my officers would benefit from this, too?” If he was the only one trotted off to these special courtesies, not only would he be uncomfortable, but he could hardly blame his fellow POWs if they became more than a little suspicious.

If they’re willing and able to be civil, we will do our best to introduce them to officers of our own about whom we can say the same,” said the ermine. “My understanding of the Hierarchy’s Code of Military Conduct, an outsider’s though it may be, is that while captured personnel are certainly encouraged to take reasonable efforts towards escape and repatriation, you are not prohibited from accepting favours of this kind…”

Mine as well,” Calliston replied. “Though it’s not something that’s seen much precedent in courts martial, one way or the other. There will always be some senior officers who find it easy to blame their personnel for not trying hard enough to escape, but I don’t think that would go over well with the public.

Oh. There were some nations that specifically forbade that sort of cooperation, weren’t there? “I’ll understand if you don’t let us wander unescorted into the small-craft hangars,” Rico said wryly. “But speaking for myself, at least, I’m willing to commit to good behaviour while I’m out of lockdown. All right, Commander. Speaking as senior officer of my flight, I have no objections to your plan.”

Javurin was as good as her word. Over the next few day-cycles, nine of Rico’s pilots were invited to dinners in shared company. One of them demurred, but the others, with varying degrees of trepidation, accepted – and they all came back a few hours later, well-fed and, if not content overall, at least without complaints about their treatment. Some were nonplussed, some outright surprised, but they all agreed that the Imperial officers had been civil; the worst report was from Midshipwoman Arya Darvel, Alpha Three’s tailgunner, who described the dinner as “tense” – but even she, on hearing the other reports, was willing to grant that things had probably just got off on the wrong foot, though she didn’t supply any details as to how.

By the time Rico’s own invitation arrived, he was actually feeling pretty good about the whole process. Not that he had any complaints about the food they’d been served – in fact he’d had worse from mess halls on his own side – but the chance to see somewhere that wasn’t the same set of walls was welcome.

The same direwolves showed up to escort him, clad this time not in battle armour but in scarlet dress uniforms. The trip was mercifully without incident, and came once again to Javurin’s quarters; apparently she was hosting this one herself. He wasn’t entirely surprised to find himself faced once again with Lieutenant Commander Garnet Calliston, and thinking of her by that name was already a little easier, a little less painful, than it had been. Other than that, though, the only Imperial officer there beyond Rico’s honour guard turned out to be none other than the ferret who’d called for and accepted his surrender.

I’m glad to meet you under circumstances a bit less strained than our first encounter,” Targe said with a ready grin after the exchange of salutes. “Maybe a bit awkward, all things considered, but I’m hoping we can get past that.”

Commander Javurin seems to have grand hopes for these little dinners,” Rico mused. “But damned if I don’t find myself hoping she’s right. If we can sit down to a civil dinner, there just might be hope for all of us after all – on both sides.”

In a quiet moment as the other two arranged themselves in Javurin’s small but comfortable mess cabin, the ermine informed Rico that the gathering was so small for want of people with the appropriate clearance to allow for truly candid discussions; as Targe had already been involved in the planning stages of the Imperial defence that had caught Rico and his flight, he was already in the need-to-know pool.

It was somewhat ironic, discussing operational security with her when the main reason he was here was that he’d violated it himself, but Rico found it telling that he could actually be amused by that thought, rather than depressed.

There was a slight surprise in that his honour guard actually took seats at the table – between his prior visit here and the trip this time, he’d become more or less accustomed to the big wolves looming, but this was a step that took them out of the social near-invisibility of their role. But even if they were the only people present without an officer’s commission, nobody else seemed to have any issue with their presence at the table, so he resolved not to do so, either.

It occurred to him, in the wake of that thought, that Calliston’s was actually the most conspicuous presence. Or maybe it wasn’t her presence alone, but her place in his history, that had prompted the exclusiveness of this guest list. Rico couldn’t see why much of anything to do with him would be prompting concerns of operational security at this point – the reaction of that serviceman the other day demonstrated clearly that it was generally known that Rico and his people were aboard, and as prisoners rather than guests of some kind. The only thing that could be worth keeping secret was that he had ties to Imperial Intelligence.

You look pensive, R-” Calliston bit back the rest of his name, ears furling back. “I mean…”

It’s all right.” Rico waved off the impending formality. Oh, it had stung at first, having her use his given name as though nothing had changed between them. But by the end of that encounter he’d already begun to wonder if all that much had, and at this point, well, formality just felt so awkward. “Though I’m likely to get things confused if I try to be similarly familiar. Just trying to make sense of why this little dinner needs a need-to-know list.”

You sound as though you have some thoughts,” Javurin noted, taking her own seat at the table’s head.

At that Rico shrugged. “Maybe. Though if I’m right, it has more to do with her than for me.” He nodded across the table at the weasel.

I suppose it’s no great mystery to those who already know the story so far,” the ermine granted with a small smile. She barely even paused as her steward, an otter man very much in the breed’s usual slender, sleek mode, leaned past her shoulder to pour into her glass. “Still, it is an astute observation. The question of how we knew to be ready for an attack is… somewhat sensitive, still.”

How so?” Rico wondered. “Shut me up if you can’t tell me, of course, but I’d think it would be moot by now. Unless,” he looked back to the weasel, “you got out in a way that left your cover intact, I suppose.” He leaned out of the way as the otter filled his own glass – wine,

Calliston’s blink was telling. Javurin chuckled. “While I don’t get the impression that you’d enjoy the work for any great length of time, I think you might have done well in Intelligence.

At any rate, I did… sort of.” Calliston grimaced briefly. “Though it’d be undone quite quickly if I suddenly turned up alive.” With a crooked smile, she said, “There were two main reasons the surprise of finding you here was especially pleasant. First, it meant you’d survived, and in war that’s never certain, though I knew from Commander Targe’s file that he was no butcher. Second, it meant you wouldn’t have gone back to the Lord Cannsley and heard about my messy and quite fatal accident on the flight deck. As far as I know nobody was adctually killed,” she hastened to add, “but I’m no longer in that circuit so I never heard any confirmation one way or the other.”

That… would have been distressing, yes,” Rico confirmed. She’d obviously known that; it was reassuring, though, that the thought of it would have apparently distressed her, in turn. One more assurance that at least some of her life there had been genuine.

The wolf on his left – Arun, if he remembered right, though being out of their armour didn’t make the Dahls much easier to tell apart – drummed his fingertips on the table. “Friends are friends,” he observed in a deep and very pleasant bass. “I guess that holds true on any world.”

Rico looked from him to the other – Sevan, if he had them straight – at the foot of the table. “Forgive my curiosity. Are you two related?”

Identical twins,” Sevan confirmed with a smile. “And before you ask, it’s not been normal for us to be posted together. We didn’t even enlist at the same time – three years apart. But we got paired up for a bit of ceremonial duty a standard year back, and we had good enough efficiency reports for the duration that we’ve been left together since.”

Rico could well understand that pairing. The two of them in battle armour had been immensely imposing; in shirtsleeves, they were still that, if in a somewhat different way. A way that had certain parts of Rico’s mind wandering in entirely inappropriate directions… he pushed it out of his mind, saying only, “I can see at least part of why.”

Have you two been on recruiting posters often?” Targe put in.

The wolves chuckled. “Arun has,” said the one to Rico’s right, thankfully confirming that he’d kept them straight. “I just haven’t been in the right place when the vid crews went through.”

Only twice, though. I don’t think that really qualifies as ‘often,’” his twin said with a smile, and lifted a hand to point back at the ferret. “Haven’t I seen you on one recently?”

A laugh. “I suppose so. I’ve been in the fire a few times now – often enough to catch some media attention.” More soberly, he added, “Truth be told, I’d have been happy doing without. At that price…” His gaze turned down to the table, and not, Rico was sure, at the covered platter the steward had just laid in front of him.

It was more than friendship that crossed the borders of nations, Rico reflected. Even – or maybe that was especially – nations at war. “There’s something to toast,” he reflected, contemplating the glass of violet wine in front of him.

There is that,” Javurin agreed. “But first…” She looked across the table.

Sevan Dahl lifted his glass. “Ladies, gentlemen, and otherwise – the Emperor and the Empire.”

Rico wasn’t entirely sure how to respond, or if he should, but when he reached for his glass, he felt a hand on his left sleeve, gently restraining him; he let his hand fall still, and the Imperials present lifted their glasses. “The Emperor and the Empire,” they intoned, and sipped.

And then Rico found that Calliston was looking at him. Rather expectantly. And nobody in the cabin was making a move to uncover their plates.

He hadn’t been to a formal mess all that often, but the procedures weren’t a complete mystery to him. And apparently in the Empire as at home, the most junior person present led the toast – and he was either the most junior or the only Hierarchy officer present, depending on how one read things. Ears flushing and furling back, he took up his own glass – in his right hand, not the left as the Imperials had. “Officers – Servicemen,” he said, glad that he managed not to stammer and only hesitated a moment before including the latter category, “to peace and prosperity.”

To peace and prosperity,” echoed Calliston, who’d switched her glass to the right hand; along with him, she sipped.

It was definitely wine, but not of a sort Rico was familiar with. It was sweet – the sort of wine someone could get quite drunk on and not even realize it, if one wasn’t careful – but not saccharine, and left a pleasantly fruity taste in his mouth. “What’s the vintage?” he asked.

Kirloff rimeberry, ’44,” the otherwise-silent steward replied, lifting the cover off Rico’s platter. “Grown and brewed in Kirloff orbit. One of the planet’s few exports that isn’t utilitarian – and glad I am for it.”

Well, it does justice to any meaningful toast,” Rico mused, and with the formalities satisfied, lifted his glass again. “To the fallen – may the day come when their numbers never grow.”

To the fallen,” came the chorus around the table.

As the gloomy aura of that toast dispersed, the aromas rising to his nose from the thick, creamy soup demanded his attention. Not that he’d had any complaints about what he’d been served in the POW block – indeed, it was a fair bit better than most meals he’d been served in Hierarchy service – but it didn’t compare to this.

The next hour passed in relative quiet, the conversations staying to innocuous things and never above a low murmur. Javurin’s steward had a certain amount of smugness in his expression as he observed the enthusiasm with which his offerings were received – entirely justifiable, if he’d been the one to put it all together and not just procure it, but not unreasonable even if it had been the latter. It was hearty but not over-rich, the portions large enough to satisfy, yet small enough to leave room for what followed, and they were spaced out enough to encourage those quiet conversations. And to encourage lingering over the meal rather than gobbling it down. By the end of that meal, between the food itself and the frequent topping-up of his wineglass, Rico was drifting in a blissful haze of contentment.

I really hope the diplomats get this mess sorted out sooner,” Arun Dahl sighed as the last plates were whisked away. “Both of you seem like decent sorts – and even in your case,” he nodded to Garnet Calliston, “I don’t think the Empire can take sole credit for that.” To Rico he added, “It’d be good, I think, to meet you sometime when I’m not on duty and you’re not on parole.”

His brother snickered. “It’s unusual enough that we’re being encouraged to be friendly with our charges, Arun. While I can appreciate at least some of where you’re coming from, you might want to tone it back before you stray into outright flirting.

Rico had been carefully avoiding thinking of any of his hosts in that light. That remark, though, made it… rather difficul not to. He was aware of his ears flushing and furling back; he earnestly hoped his eyes weren’t crossing, too. “Uh… n-not that it isn’t a flattering thought,” he managed.

There was something a little… something to Arun’s smile at that. Something he didn’t think anyone but him was supposed to see. “I suppose you’re right, Sevan,” he said. “But if I wait until he’s not in our charge, I might never get the opportunity to say anything, mmm? At least the Service knows how to get a message to me.

For the first time since the start of the meal, Rico was suddenly, intensely aware of his position. Of his loyalties… and how they were being torn between the nation he’d sworn to and the values he’d sworn for. He sighed in turn. “I could get to envying you that service,” he confessed. “Seems your higher-ups spend a great deal of energy making sure it doesn’t stray from its high values like… like mine has.”

And if there is one thing that has me dangerously close to hating the enemy,” Javurin mused, “it is seeing what those superiors have done to good and worthy officers such as yourself. More fools they, for giving you this sort of doubt. But if you truly find our service enviable…” She hesitated a moment, then went on, “I know I pledged not to harrass you on this matter, but I feel I should let you know that it would be yours for the asking.”

I thought that was amnesty,” Rico said. “Parole in exchange for not pursuing the conflict, but still living under a security screen and away from anything sensitive.”

For your officers at large, that is so. You specifically could expect rather better,” Javurin explained. “A few others have given us clear enough impressions of themselves – and favourable enough – that positions could be found for them in less-sensitive, but still significant branches of civil service, and they might win trust all the faster thereby. In your case, not only is all of that true, but it could also be stated, and not falsely, that you have been working with Imperial Intelligence for some time. We know the details, that you did so not in service of the Empire but in the interests of a lower death toll all around – but such details would be sealed in secure files that only the highest authority could unseal. Not even most fleet commanders have enough need to know the contents of an ImpInt File.”

And people would work with that?” In Rico’s experience, on both ends of the command chain, commanding officers didn’t much like having subordinates whose past they didn’t know, and it wasn’t very good for cohesion with one’s peers, either.

We would need to be circumspect with your direct superiors, it’s true. If nothing else, they would need to be made aware of the terms of your parole, that you are to be kept from any theater involving operations against the Hierarchy.” Rico blinked – she said it offhand, like it was self-evident fact, yet he hadn’t even been aware such a concession could be made – but the ermine was already going on. “I wish I could promise that everyone would be amenable to working with you given our endorsement and that of Service psychologists, but we all know it would be a lie. Nevertheless, there are some people who could be trusted to give you a chance, with varying degrees of grace.”

Just from what I’ve seen so far,” Targe grinned across the table, “I for one wouldn’t object to finding you… serving under me.”

The pause was slight enough that Rico wasn’t sure he’d actually heard it – until he met the ferret’s smouldering gaze. It was a look that wanted, a look that yearned – a look such as he hadn’t had directed at him in months. He coughed, swallowed hard. “I, uh… would that be… entirely appropriate?”

Garnet stifled a laugh, and had the decency to look guilty for letting even that much of it out. “The Imperial Services don’t have an equivalent to Article Sixty-three,” she explained. “I think the designers of the Code of Conduct figured that personnel with intimate ties were likely to be that much more loyal to each other. It was written by the ermine of Sasheron, and they’ve spent thousands of years cultivating automatic, mutual respect and lack of jealousy, but somehow, for the most part, it works for everyone else, too. There’s problems occasionally, but there’s always redress for it, never shame – no matter which way the power dynamic of a relationship ostensibly flows.”

I just get someone else to double-check my evaluations if it concerns someone I’ve been involved with,” Targe explained. “There’s no prejudice in asking for that kind of second opinion, and knowing someone else will be looking over my reports helps keep me honest.”

Sure sounds a lot better than needing to dance around the subject until you can transfer out of each other’s command chains,” Rico confessed with a sigh. “Or needing to cultivate what looks like a partner just to distract people from where your actual tastes lie.”

The ferret grimaced. “I can imagine how that one goes. Believe me, before I joined the Service, I was in a crowd that had some pretty particular notions of appropriate choice in lovers. It wasn’t pretty.”

So the Empire wasn’t without its troublesome places, its prejudices. That should have been confirmation for the part of his mind that insisted it couldn’t possibly be that grand and shining edifice that it styled itself as. And yet… the Service was plainly where the Empire tried to put its best and brightest, and for all the awkwardness that yet prevailed between himself and Garnet, all that he saw around him were remarkable people. The sort of people, he recalled, that would not tolerate crude prejudice even for a moment.

He did envy them that. His heart ached for it. And yet…

I don’t know,” he sighed. “I don’t have the slightest idea what I’d say to my people. And if I can’t give them a good explanation…”

I understand,” said the ermine. “If turning your back on them came easily to you, we wouldn’t value you so highly to begin with. Do as you must – but know that it has been a privilege.” She raised her glass one last time, half toast and half salute, and drained it.

With that, the gathering broke up. The direwolves rose, settling firmly back into their role as stern wardens, and Rico allowed himself to be ushered to the hatch, down the corridor, along the slidewalk, and ultimately back to his cell.

He had no idea what to say, how he could possibly even begin to broach the subject, but in the end that part of it, at least, was rendered moot. Ando Krell, his erstwhile copilot, came up and sat beside him on his bunk, where he was sitting as he tried to digest everything that had come along with the dinner. “Something’s gnawing at you, Rico,” the tiger observed.

There was no point in trying to deny it, not anymore. Rico sighed. “I think I could get to liking our captors a little too well, Ando,” he confessed.

Ando didn’t scoff, didn’t leave in disgust; he just shook his head. “I know what you mean. Feels like they’re doing all the things we swore to do, and staying truer to it, at that.” A silence fell, more contemplative and companionable than awkward, but at length, the tiger spoke up again. “You’re thinking about that amnesty deal their commander mentioned, aren’t you.”

Rico flinched. The other underlieutenant’s tone didn’t sound accusatory, but it certainly wasn’t a question, either. “Ando…”

It’s all right. You’d have to be blind not to. I think a good half of us are, by now.” He shook his head. “I can’t do it, myself. I have to keep trying, have to hold out hope. Have to give an example of what the Hierarchy can be, if I can ever get back there while there’s still a Hierarchy to go back to. But that’s me. With all that’s changed since we took oath, I couldn’t blame you for feeling like that trust has already been broken, and not by you.”

Even now, Rico didn’t dare tell him everything. Some things were best left as secrets. But for now… He looked up and over, meeting the tiger’s gaze. “Take care of them for me, Ando?”

Ando squeezed his shoulder. “As long as I live.”

Well, that was that; his mind was apparently made up, even if he wasn’t quite sure when it happened. Ando stood, leaving him in the darkened room, presumably to find his own bunk; Rico belatedly set to preparing for the night.

It wasn’t easy, to face them the next day, to say to them that the Hierarchy as he’d sworn to it was a thing of the past. But though he saw hurt in their faces, he didn’t see accusation, or the sting of betrayal; no, the hurt was that of people being reminded about an uncomfortable truth they’d known all along. He wished them the best, in whatever path they chose to walk from there, and prayed that those who could still bear to serve the Hierarchy of today might be able to return it to its high ideals; then he shrugged out of his tunic with the rank insignia he’d just forsaken, folded it over his arm, and turned to go.

In all the time they’d been kept here, none of the Hierarchy pilots and crew had approached their guards for anything; they’d always been the ones approached. So it was perhaps understandable that the security staff took a few moments to respond to his presence as he stood at the edge of the perimeter. “Yes, Underlieutenant?” said the sublieutenant who held the watch, peering curiously at his shirtsleeved appearance.

Rico shook his head. “Not anymore, I shouldn’t think,” he managed, and swallowed. “Commander Javurin said we were eligible for amnesty if we left our old home behind.” He took a deep breath, for courage. “I wish to take her, and the Empire, up on that.”