It felt strange to be in civilian clothes. Even stranger to be wearing Alliance fashions. The long sleeveless jacket flared a bit as he walked. Next to him, Anson was dressed similarly. Julian selected a ripe fruit from a vendor, then a second one. He tossed one casually to Anson before leaving a credit piece for the merchant and continuing on.
They paused in a shaded area to eat the fruit. The location gave them an excellent view of their target. “Doc?” Anson bit into his fruit.
“The odds of a score of medics all being physically fit and of military age seem rather low.” His eyes scanned the group heading into the quarantine zone. Captain Mateo was supposed to meet with the leader of some resistance agents. At least, he had been until Jerin had noted a news bulletin about a humanitarian aid group getting clearance to enter the zone. Given that Julian had personal experience with the Xinar group, Mateo had asked for his eyes on the scouting mission. Given this mission put the captain in danger, Julian hadn’t required a lot of convincing. “Though not unfathomable.”
“And I suppose it does make some sense for their vehicles to be armored…” Anson shrugged.
“They fit the parameters for a mobile health unit, yet I see no vehicles equipped as mobile laboratories.” Julian shrugged. “Also, all the vehicles appear to be maintained in excellent condition. At no point in galactic history has that ever occurred on a humanitarian expedition.” He bit into his own fruit. “Xinar field units count themselves lucky if life support functions at better than twelve percent.”
“Peacekeepers at four.” Anson gave his fruit an annoyed look. “And heading this way.” He smiled, then took a couple steps forward before holding his hand out toward Julian. The smile was inviting and flirtatious.
Julian answered it with a smile of his own before taking Anson’s hand and letting himself be pulled along. The Peacekeepers didn’t even glance their way as they continued strolling down the sidewalk, discussing their dinner options. As soon as they were out of earshot, Julian sighed. “This isn’t good.”
“No.” Anson shook his head. “Let’s head back and tell the Captain our mission has been compromised.”
Kyle barely managed to stop himself from glaring when he saw Jakob and Anson step out of the shuttle. Both were still dressed like Alliance noblemen, giving them an almost matching appearance. His eyes swept over his husband, and he had to say the garb looked damn good on him. Grudgingly, he had to admit the same of Anson, which just added to his irritation. He’d volunteered to be the one to accompany Jakob down to observe the movements of the humanitarian envoy, but Anson had insisted on going himself.
He headed in, close enough to overhear the conversation as the two met Captain Mateo. Mateo was shaking his head. “Are you sure?”
“There is no way to be completely certain, Captain, but I’d bet my last credit on it.” Anson folded his arms.
“Then it’s a trap.” Mateo ran a hand down his face. “I’ll signal Captain Thorne, let him know we need a new plan.”
Leon rolled his neck in frustration. While he didn’t mind being away from the front lines, he did mind that he wasn’t allowed to let his people have shore leave. They were orbiting a planet famed for its natural beauty, and his people were stuck waiting on the dithering of politicians. He turned toward Radko, and saw the man staring longingly at planet’s polar regions. “I hear the skiing here is good.”
Radko let out a sound that seemed suspiciously like a moan. “Second best in the galaxy, Captain. Second only to Legrin Prime, and that’s in Palindor space.” He glanced at Leon. “Couldn’t the engines develop a fault? Maybe a bug in the shields?”
“Radko, what did I tell you about sabotaging the ship to derelict your duty?” Leon raised one eyebrow.
“Not to tempt you, sir.” Radko sighed, then looked back out the viewport. “Sir, the zone here hasn’t had any issues in the past year.”
“I know.” Leon folded his arms. “Command has some intelligence that suggests that’s intentional, to let us grow complacent about this spot so the resistance can use it as a safe area. Word is some of Palindor intelligence has a meeting scheduled.”
“Think we can score a win here, Captain?” Radko turned away from the viewport.
“Not sure if we can gain a tactical advantage here, but we may be able to score a political one. Capture one or two important folks to send a message, maybe get some intelligence in the bargain.” He didn’t add that was probably why he and his father had both been tapped for the mission. It was straight up grandstanding. “It’s possible we aren’t completely wasting our time.”
“Well…” Radko shrugged. “That’s a relief.”
“I don’t like it, Captain.” Anson narrowed his eyes.
“They’ve moved the meeting to a new location.” Mateo shook his head. “Captain Thorne and I —”
“They clearly know something is up already, or they wouldn’t be moving Peacekeepers in.” Anson shook his head. “We have to consider the possibility they have inside intelligence.”
“Something is up.” Captain Thorne leaned back in his chair, looking at the datapad. “Yet it might not have anything to do with us.” He looked up. “Both Admiral and Captain Vendral are here, with their respective vessels. There could be political shenanigans in the making.”
“He —” Mateo turned back toward Anson.
“Captain, what you are here to do qualifies as political shenanigans. Think about it, sir. The Prime Ministers own son and grandson capture the captain of the Onager?’ He folded his arms. “I’m not sure you understand just how big a political prize you might be, sir. You’re the captain of the ship that hit the black site and brought the core over. You…” He pointed at Mateo. “Are the one that broke the barricade.”
Mateo stared at him for several seconds. “Anson, have I ever told you how much I hate it when you are right?”
“At least twice a day, Captain.” Anson rolled his eyes. Half the problem was he believed Command had seen the same thing. They might be willing to take the chance in the belief that if it didn’t work out, they could spin the capture of a Palindor hero to motivate the fleet.
“The problem is that he is right, which is why you are the one that the resistance wants to talk to.” Captain Thorne sighed, then set the datapad down. “If we do get caught, let’s make sure it’s the Captain, not the Admiral. Leon Vendral isn’t an asshole.” He stood and paced for a few moments. “What if we brought the resistance leaders to us?”
“That just means if it is a trap…” Mateo started shaking his head. “They get our ships rather than just us.” He met Thorne’s eyes. “You and I are expendable.”
“Bullshit.” Anson glared at him.
“Commander.” Mateo’s voice sharpened. He held Anson’s eyes for several seconds. Anson looked away first. “You know damn well the only way we stand a chance at anything resembling a victory is to ally with the resistance. It is a risk I am willing to take.”
He exhaled. “Jerin and I are going to take another few looks. Maybe we can roust the spy or make a decoy somewhere.”
He waited until Anson had left before turning toward his fellow captain. “He’s right.”
“I know.” Thorne sighed. “We have our orders.” He put his hands on the back of a chair and leaned forward. “I knew Leon Vendral.”
Mateo blinked. “You did?”
“His brother was abducted, some three or so years back.” Thorne shook his head. “Until the war started, I was helping him look. Back channels, but…” Thorne shrugged. “I’ll admit that part of my motives was a hope that helping rescue the prince could soothe some relations.” He lifted his head. “Instead, I got to have the honor of being the one to break the news to him that the boy was dead.”
“I remember hearing about that. Pirates.” Mateo leaned back. “Well, let’s hope if Captain Vendral is the one to arrest us he’s not holding any sort of grudge.” He sighed. “Anson and Jerin are good at what they do.”
“It’s not your men that concern me, Josef.” Thorne sighed. “It’s that Command is starting to get desperate.”
“Yeah.” Mateo sat down. Command might well decide the chance of gaining this alliance was worth putting him and Thorne at risk. “Well, this isn’t going to be fun any way you look at it.” He leaned back in his chair. “We either get captured…” He looked up at Thorne. “Or we have to be diplomatic.”
“Yeah.” Thorne winced. “This is a bad plan.”
Julian raised an eyebrow at Anson, then looked down at the datapad. Jerin was glaring at his own. “If it is an inside man and not just intelligence work, setting a decoy will not be effective.”
“No offense…” Jerin glanced up at him before looking up at Anson. “But if it’s so obvious a goddamn doctor can see it why the fuck are…” He tossed the datapad down.
Norah leaned forward. “There are so many clandestine transmissions in and out of the quarantine zones I don’t even know where to begin.” She tapped the screen as she scrolled down it.
“Doc, you’ve crossed the zones.” Anson turned the chair around as he sat, resting his folded arms on the chair back.
That was right. His cover had done exactly that. “It is likely the Alliance has agents infiltrating Sapphire groups. If that is what we are dealing with here, there could be an inside man that does not even realize they are betraying information to an Alliance agent. Sapphires are idealists, Commander.” He shook his head. “It does not always occur to such to distrust each other.”
“I know I’ve asked you before, Doc, but this is the Captain we are talking about here.” Anson met his eyes. “Any chance you’ve got a contact you could reconnect with, get us anything?”
“Any contact I would have here would be either through the Xinar or Sapphire groups, Commander, and not experienced in espionage.” Julian felt a bit of surprise to realize he was seriously considering the notion. “It is likely they would do more harm than good, even if well intentioned.”
“Plus any contact would be a couple years out of date.” Jerin looked up at Anson. “Lot can change in a man in that time.”
“I can tell you…” Julian trailed off as he saw the list of ships in the vicinity. He was in the same system as both his father and his brother. In the same system and on an enemy vessel. He stared at the datapad until he realized Anson was calling his name. “I’m sorry, Commander.” He swallowed, trying to recall what he’d been about to say. “Lorelai Vesk is an officer on the Xinar station. She is a brilliant biochemist and they are lucky to have someone of her skill…” He looked up. “However, when I knew her she had a considerable gambling problem she was struggling to keep hidden. It is possible she has been compromised in some fashion.”
“Good to know.” Jerin sat up. “Very good to know. We could work with that.”
“It’s an option, anyway.” Anson leaned forward. “Let’s see what else we can pull out of our asses.”
Anson watched Norah and Jerin both head back to their quarters. The session had produced several ideas, but no true flashes of brilliance. He started to turn, only to realize Jakob was still present. The doctor gave him a concerned look. “How long since you last slept, Commander?”
“I don’t need a medical review, Doc.” Anson shook his head.
“Very well.” Jakob shrugged. “How long since you last slept, Anson?”
He narrowed his eyes, then sighed. “Too long.”
“Then as your friend, I recommend a stiff drink and a night of sleep.” Jakob walked over to pick up a bottle and began pouring a measure into a cup. “Then stop in to see your doctor in the morning.”
A low chuckle escaped him, and he shrugged before walking over and accepting the drink. He downed it and sighed. “I don’t like the idea of sending the captain into a trap.”
“You are concerned that he will be ordered to proceed anyway.” Jakob glanced at the bottle, then poured a second drink for Anson before pouring one for himself. “For political purposes.”
“You say those words like they are dirty.” Anson sighed. “Sorry about putting you on the spot earlier, I —”
“It’s the captain.” Jakob shook his head and refilled Anson’s drink. “He is your friend, and mine.” He turned to lean on the table. “Will you sleep, or should I give you a sedative?”
“You’re starting to sound like a doctor again.” Anson smiled at him before finishing the drink.
“I would have offered to smack you in the back of the head with a blunt object, yet my odds in such an encounter seem poor.” Jakob shrugged. “I will look over the list again. See if I recognize any other names. Perhaps we can create an additional exit route for the captain, ensure he has more options should trouble ensue.”
“You’re starting to sound like a security officer.” Anson grinned
“You are a bad influence.” Jakob chuckled. He refilled Anson’s drink again before putting the bottle away.
Maybe he did need sleep. The booze was starting to go to his head a little. “You should, uh…” Despite the trip to the planet giving them problems, he’d enjoyed the time on the surface. Play-flirting with Jakob had been fun. He finished the drink in his hand, then sighed. If the other man hadn’t been married, the flirting wouldn’t have been in play. Even with that, if he was honest with himself he’d have to admit not all of it had been. He started to straighten up, then stumbled just a little.
Jakob’s shoulder came up under his arm to provide support. “I think I may have overdosed you a little on the alcohol.”
“Maybe.” He straightened, but let the doctor help him across the room to the door. He patted Jakob’s cheek affectionately. “You’re good medicine, Doc.”
“I’ll authorize a painkiller in a few hours.” Jakob chuckled. “You may need it.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.” He smiled. He planted a kiss on Jakob’s cheek before stumbling into his quarters. “Goodnight, Doc.”
He paused before he reached the door to his quarters. Kyle would be waiting, and by now annoyed by the late night. Julian touched his cheek, then gave a small shake of his head. Anson had been drunk, and it would be a mistake to read anything into the gesture. A mistake on multiple fronts. He’d lived a lie for a long time. The truth could have repercussions among those he’d come to consider his friends, especially as he’d passed information.
Down on the planet’s surface had been almost surreal. There had been moments where he felt like his old self again, a person he’d thought buried beneath the uniform and name he now wore. Flirting with Anson as part of his cover had come so easily he’d could have mistaken it for real. He’d even considered kissing the man at one point, and stopped only because…
Only because the idea had frightened him. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d kissed someone for no reason other than he wanted to kiss them. Anson was a good man and a good friend. Julian swallowed. Then he squared his shoulders and opened the door to his quarters. All things considered, he probably deserved whatever Kyle intended for him tonight.