Mateo looked surprised to find Anson in his office. “Anson?” He frowned. “Something wrong?”
“I don’t know.” Anson exhaled. “Back on Triton, Doc offered to let me leave him and run, then when the tables turned he refused to do the same. He kept his head in a firefight, and kept his nerve during the escape.”
“Anson…?” Mateo raised an eyebrow.
“If he’d wanted to betray us, he could have. He could have left me to the Alliance and returned to the ship with Velik and Adan and you’d never have been the wiser. He didn’t, and…” He shrugged. “And I can’t quite figure that guy out.”
“Explain.” Mateo folded his arms.
“He clearly doesn’t want to be here, but he’s not making noise about leaving. He doesn’t do much mingling unless his husband or I drag him into it, yet he seems a friendly enough guy. He doesn’t like violence or confrontation, but when he decides to stand his ground he doesn’t budge an inch. He was scared shitless down there and he pushed it aside in a heartbeat when I got hit. He walked us through heavily armed PeaceKeepers without losing his cool and Captain…” Anson inhaled. “I don’t know if he had anything to lose by being caught.”
“Sir, either he is an ice-cold balls of steel liar with an exquisite gift for mimicry and physical deception…” Anson gave a slow shake of his head. “Or whoever he used to be, I doubt there is the slightest chance the PeaceKeepers would have dared to lay a hand after establishing his ID.”
“You think he’s an actual noble?” Mateo nodded, then played back the previous conversation he’d had with the doctor. The man was young for the amount of skill he showed in the infirmary. The upper crust got access to the best education and training. Anson’s conclusion fit, and… “He didn’t exactly deny that when I spoke to him.”
“Captain…” Anson rubbed the back of his neck. “There is a risk if we take him back with us and someone does run a proper ID on him, he’d be in more danger from our side than he was from those PeaceKeepers.”
“Yeah…” Mateo slowly nodded. And yet he still couldn’t afford to let the man go safely about his way. “Yea, I see your point. Can you fix that?”
“Yes.” Anson shrugged. “Sir, it would be easier if we made him part of the crew officially. That way anyone inclined to take a casual look would assume he’s already been vetted.”
“Let me think about it.” Mateo nodded.
“Hey, Doc.” Julian looked up to see Anson leaning into the infirmary.
“Yes, Commander?” He stood.
“Captain wants you in the briefing room.” Anson gestured for Julian to follow him.
He set his datapad down and tried to push down the rising sense of fear as he trailed after Anson. “May I inquire as to —”
“We picked up a distress call. Palindor.” Anson frowned. “We are heading in to take a look, but there’s always the possibility it’s a trap.” He glanced at Julian. “Easier to just bring you in at the beginning rather than have to get you up to speed later if we need a medical opinion.”
“Sensible.” Julian nodded as they went down the corridor. Now and then he saw cords and missing panels. Field repairs and jury-rigging, trying to keep a ship running when they had no options for docking and couldn’t get the parts they needed. It made for a more precarious situation than he liked. Several times he’d been called upon to treat minor crew injuries due to doing the repairing or troubles with the repairs themselves. The worst had been two engineers who’d given themselves a fairly severe scalding trying to fix a vent.
The stress of their situation was getting to the crew. He’d also had to treat several injuries caused by a fight breaking out. Kyle had offered the couple entertainment units he’d smuggled off the Silverfish to help with morale, which had served to make him very popular with the crew. The word ‘morale’ put him on edge every time he heard it.
It took only a few moments for him to determine it was a routine sort of briefing. Anson immediately slipped into the role of devil’s advocate, citing all the reasons the distress call was clearly a trap. Julian couldn’t help but smile. It was clear Anson wanted to rescue the endangered crew badly, but he stood his ground on the safety concerns anyway. “Captain, based on these readouts, several of the life signs on the ship appear to be in various stages of distress.”
“Life signs could be spoofed.” Anson met Julian’s eyes, but he nodded in encouragement.
“They could, but it is unlikely. The stages of distress cross a considerable spectrum, and are not confined to any one area of the ship. I do not mean to impugn the reputation of any member of the Onager’s crew, Commander…” Julian glanced down at the readout. “Yet that seems a rather elaborate sort of trap to catch individuals of our caliber.” Our. He’d said our.
“Doc’s got a point.” Mateo folded his arms. “Anson, get a team together. Let’s go get our people.”
Kyle ran a hand down Jakob’s back before kissing his neck. “You look tired.”
Jakob smiled before turning to kiss him. “The surviving crew of the Nebular Skate had an array of injuries. Nothing major, but with only myself and Jenna in the infirmary it made for a time-consuming day.”
The Onager had taken on eight new crew and some supplies from the derelict ship. The command crew and most of the Onager’s solders had been killed. The survivors were a small group of engineers who’d managed to seal the area they were in off against the fire and subsequent vacuum that had consumed the rest of the ship. Palindor wasn’t doing well in the war, but they were still fighting.
He caressed Jakob’s face with the back of his hand before smiling. “Come on. Let me tuck you in.” Before Jakob could respond, Kyle swung him up into his arms and carried him toward the bed. He laid the other man down gently before pulling the covers around him, then sat down next to him. His thumb brushed against Jakob’s lips before he bent to place a kiss on them. “So, um, when I made the IDs, I uh…” He hesitated. “The crew kind of thinks your birthday is tomorrow.”
“Ah.” Jakob nodded. “I see.”
“Just thought I’d warn you.” He smiled.
“I appreciate that.”
“Get some sleep, love.” He kissed Jakob’s forehead before rising to turn out the light.
It was a good thing Kyle had warned him. It meant when he was at least partially prepared for half the crew coming up and patting his shoulders and back before wishing him a good year. His real birthday had been a week ago. It had somehow passed without him even noticing.
“Hey, Doc.” He looked up to see Anson.
“Commander.” Julian smiled.
Anson set a small bottle on his desk. “Tradition. Birthday rum.” He shrugged. “You’ve settled in.”
Julian nodded, then gestured at the desk. “Jenna brought me a plant up from life support. She said it would be cheerful.” And he couldn’t help but admit she was right. The small personal touch made the small office feel different. Like it was actually his, instead of just a place his disguise worked.
“I, uh…” Anson slid into the chair across from him. “Look I know we are in a crappy situation right now with comms and a whole war thing, but uh…” He shrugged. “If there is anyone you need to get a message to, let them know you’re okay at least, I can make sure it gets to them without compromising anything.”
He went still. Anson was not a stupid man. Even though he believed the offer was well-meant, any letter he did send would give the man information he couldn’t risk the CSO knowing. “I…”
“You…” Anson leaned back. “You don’t trust me, do you?”
“Oddly enough, Commander, I do.” Julian smiled. Strange how that did feel like a truthful statement. “I simply have no idea what I would say to…” He sighed. “Perhaps it is better if they believe me dead.”
“Not sure I believe that.” Anson shook his head. “There’s got to be people missing you. Guy like you…” He shrugged. “And I’m not just talking about the upper crust thing. You’re a good man, Doc. You had to have friends.”
“I’m not certain any of them would recognize me anymore.” Julian’s smile was sad. “I am not the same person I was when last I saw them.”
“Well…” Anson stood. “You’ve got friends here.” He extended a hand. “If you want them.”
“I…” He returned the grip of Anson’s hand. “I am pleased to know you, Commander Anson.”
“Happy birthday, Doc.”
Most of the command crew were already in the briefing room. Anson gestured to a chair before sitting down beside him. The captain waited until the chief engineer entered before speaking. “According to the distress call, it’s a scout ship. Normal crew complement of six.” Before Anson could speak up, Mateo held up a hand. “And as Anson’s about to point out, a little scout ship like this has no business being in this part of space. Unless it’s a trap…” He took a deep breath. “Or it’s running covert ops. And if it’s the latter…”
“Then it might be carrying intel.” Norah slowly nodded.
“Distress call was automated. Could mean their comm unit was down, could mean they lost power, could mean they didn’t have time for a message, and of course, it could mean everybody on the ship is already dead. But covert guys would know the odds of a Palindor ship being in this section of space is slim. If they were all dead, they wouldn’t have sent off a message that would be picked up by an Alliance ship. To great a chance they’d compromise something.” Anson leaned back in his chair. “So, they either are alive and think they can blow the ship before they get picked up…” He looked up at the captain. “Or more likely, trap.”
“An automated call should include number of life signs currently present on the ship, Captain.” Julian raised an eyebrow.
“For civilians, Doc. This is a military vessel.” Mateo sighed. “Unfortunately, no way to know if a trap until we are more or less in it, but if it is our people, we’re the only hope they’ve got.”
“Where is it now?” Chief Engineer Renaud glanced up at the charts.
“It’s crash landed. Tokavor 3. Colony there was abandoned when the terraforming failed.” Mateo pushed a datapad toward Julian. “Doc?”
He quickly scanned the information, then frowned. “It is technically…” He shook his head. “And I stress technically, a habitable planet, Captain.” He looked up at Mateo. “The primary danger appears to be wildlife, which includes spores. Most of the native species are venomous, poisonous, or otherwise incompatible with human life. Decontamination will be necessary upon return, and I recommend a level two environmental suit.”
“You heard the doc.” Mateo nodded to Anson.
Kyle couldn’t help but feel just a bit excited. With CSO Anson being a bit short handed on ground team members, he’d asked Kyle to join the current mission. He knew this was a test of sorts. The CSO wanted to see him in a live situation. If nothing happened, he’d have a chance to show he was a disciplined, capable soldier. And if something did happen, he’d have a chance to prove his skills.
And Jakob had been there to see them off, making adjustments to their environmental suits. It had been tempting to try stealing a kiss, but he knew the CSO was watching. This was a time to be professional, and not waste the chance Jakob had earned him. Jakob turned to the CSO. “I strongly suggest avoiding any animal encounters. Chief Renaud and I will prepare Bay 2 for the decontamination process, Commander.”
“Any clue how long that’s going to take, Doc?”
“Possibly hours. We are dealing with a microscopic life form.” Jakob shrugged.
“I will leave you a deck of cards.”
“And beer.” Anson gestured for the crew to enter the shuttle. “Better not forget the beer.”
“I suppose that depends on you taking care of my husband.” Jakob winked at him before heading out of the shuttle bay.
He smiled before going to buckle himself in.
Anson twisted to fire at the feline coming up behind them. Kyle grabbed the one that had pounced on Velik and flung it away before firing two shots into its body mass. It wasn’t enough to drop the thing, but it did get it to retreat. Velik grunted before going back to trying to get through the force field that had been erected around the shuttle.
The two life signs within were both faint. Based on what the doc had gotten from the readouts, the shuttle survivors were suffering from the effects of the spores. “Got it.” Velik shouted as the field went down.
“Kyle, break left. Get them a clear path.”
He found himself glad he’d decided to bring the big man along. The guy was almost an army by himself, and was frankly doing more good in melee against the feline things than all the rest of their firepower combined. Stun did nothing, and anything less than a direct hit to the sensory organs didn’t seem to so much as faze the creatures. “Doc, any clue where these things keep their vitals?”
“Based on my readouts, their critical systems appear to be redundant in nature. Severe blunt trauma may be the optimum solution.”
“Kyle?” Anson fired, aiming for what he hoped was the eyes. The man hurled a rock at the creature, hitting it in the side hard enough to knock it down. He followed by grabbed the rock again and smashing it into the thing’s head repeatedly until it stopped moving. “Blunt trauma confirmed to be effective.”
“Fifty thousand years of advances in warfare…” Ismael picked up a rock of his own. “And we are hitting things with rocks.”
“I seem to recall stating, quite distinctly, that the local wildlife should be avoided.” Julian put a medigel patch over Ismael’s arm. “That it was venomous, poisonous, and incompatible with human life.”
“Am I going to die?” Ismael raised an eyebrow.
He ran the scanner over the crewman. “No.” He frowned at the readout. “Though the next few hours may be slightly…” He gave Ismael an apologetic look. “Unpleasant.” Julian straightened before turning to where the captain was standing. “Ismael and Kyle were both exposed to the spores, as were the two rescued soldiers. Until I can be certain of the full nature of the effects, I must confine them to the infirmary.”
“Kyle, Ismael, you boys going to cooperate or do I need to give Doc a security team?”
“Pretty sure Kyle is Doc’s security team.” Ismael chuckled. Kyle grinned.
Julian walked over to the two rescued soldiers. “Doc?” Mateo walked over. “They going to make it?”
“I would prefer not to make promises before I can ascertain the full nature of the effects.” He ran the scanner again. “The spores affected their nervous system. Both of them would have been in considerable pain until losing consciousness. I will be able to mitigate the effects for Ismael and Kyle, but these men…” He looked up at Mateo. “I cannot guess what their mental state may be.”
Mateo exhaled. “What about the rest of the team?”
“Bruised and battered, but their suits were not breached in the fighting.” He glanced over his shoulder at the other four men. “I will keep them here a few hours to be certain.”
“Alright.” Mateo nodded before walking toward Anson. “Commander, under the circumstances I am putting a security detail in the infirmary until Doc clears you.”
“Doc’s concerned about mental impairment?” Anson raised an eyebrow before nodding. “Fair enough.” He turned, and began giving the soldiers orders to disarm.
“Hey, Doc.” Velik handed over his sidearm. “Didn’t you promise us a deck of cards?”
“We’ve picked up the survivors of three ships, Captain.” Anson exhaled. “Help isn’t getting through that barricade.”
“I know. Which means we are the only effective ship on this side.” Mateo nodded. “And Command finally figured that out.”
“They want us to run missions?” Anson looked down at the datapad. “Captain, we…”
“We’re the only functioning ship on this side of the barricade.”
“Functioning is kind of a strong term.” Anson shook his head. “My best demolitions guy is still running an unshielded cybernetic unit.”
“We’ve got two special ops guys now. Find out what supplies we need, and give them Doc’s shuttle.” Mateo leaned on his desk. “We’re it, Anson. And I’m sure as hell not surrendering anything.”
“Noted.” Anson smiled. It faded a moment later. “Captain…” He shrugged. “Did you decide what to do about Doc?”
“Yeah.” Mateo nodded. “I did.”
“Chief Medical Officer?” Julian stared at the captain. The man had clearly lost his mind.
“You’re the only medic on the ship, Doc.” Mateo shrugged. “That’s kind of your default rank anyway.” He looked from Kyle back to Julian. “Anson fixed the holes in your idents, but the rank means nobody will give you shit in the first place. They’ll assume you’ve been vetted, and as far as I’m concerned you proved yourself back on Triton. We’re on our own out here. We need you.”
Chief Medical Officer on a Palindor warship. Somewhere, a vicious little deity was laughing its ass off. He could see Kyle nodding encouragement to him, and the thought of how the man would react if he turned the offer down was a frightening one. “Will that mean I can give orders?”
“More than you already do?” Mateo chuckled. “Anson and I can still theoretically order you around and off duty is between you and your husband, but yeah.”
“That is a lot of trust to place in a stranger, Captain.”
“My best friend and half my crew owe you their lives, Doc. From where I’m standing, you earned this.” Mateo smiled. “I’m not placing my trust in a stranger. I’m placing it in you, Jakob.”
Julian looked at the man’s outstretched hand as he heard himself called by a name that wasn’t his own. The situation was absurd, and he couldn’t help but feel that on some level the captain felt the same way. Offering a battlefield promotion to… To an enemy. He took the captain’s hand. “Then I accept, Captain.” He was not looking forward to explaining this to his brother, let alone to his father.
“Welcome to the crew, Doctor Narel.” Mateo shook his hand.