from the Enemy

“Do transfers usually get picked up here?” She wasn’t going to reveal she had no orders beyond taking commercial transport to this town on this moon.

“I wouldn’t know. Like I said, we don’t get military transfers through this office.”

A flash of green signaled completion. Apama managed to clamp down on a yelp of joy.

The scribe frowned as she popped the chip out of the cube. “Here’s your scrip, Lieutenant. You’ll need to clear it for entrance.”

Apama pressed the scrip against the node embedded behind her right ear. The scrip initiated contact with a stream of new code from the security cube; her node recognized the official seal entwined with her individual cipher, and the link flashed on the cube. The scribe unlocked the barrier to let her through.

After the barrier closed behind her she set down her kit bag to get her bearings and roll down her jacket sleeves. There was no waiting area here, just two empty desks facing glazed windows along the front, and a lavatory off to the right.

She turned back to see the scribe still watching her. “Is there a base nearby?”

The scribe raised her eyebrows. “They didn’t give you a map? There’s a post at the east end of the port. It’s one klick down the road.”

“Is there a mobile connecting them?”

“A mobile? Oh, you mean a tram or a moving walkway. We don’t have those here. My cousin runs a lift concession. Reliable and inexpensive.”

“I’ll walk.”

Apama offered the hand sign for thanks and farewell and went out through the front entrance into the harsh light of day. There, she halted under the eerie aura of the infected beacon and the blast of a hot sun. The landing pads and stevedore platforms spread to either side behind the arrivals center, punctuated by drab warehouses and a squat control tower painted so dull a beige it was insulting. A hardworking gantry crane refused even a splash of color was at work unloading the Fake Vestige, the freighter she’d come in on. She shaded her eyes against the sun’s glare and tried to pick out the freighter’s crew—Captain Ann and her clan had been a lively bunch who’d welcomed her into their shipboard routine—but the crane blocked her view. They couldn’t help her with this anyway.

She started walking along what appeared to be a repurposed runway, glad the moon was big and dense enough to have close to standard 1 gravity. The adaptive fibers in her uniform absorbed and rechanneled the heat, but the light was intense and the air was like breathing inside a furnace. Unfortunately the town was dreary and ugly, with blocky, pragmatic buildings covered in solar soaks and not a scrap of decoration to suggest glory days of any kind. The place didn’t even boast a cathedral spire to enliven its torpor. Not a single soul was out and about.

Despite what the scribe had said, in older days this resource-poor system had probably been little more than a nondescript rest and refueling stop for ships on their way to far more interesting places, ones easily reachable across the immense distances of space because of the beacon system. Now it was one of the ends of the line in the extended lattice of the Phene Empire, a lonely military outpost built on an outcast shore of the Gap.

Why had she been sent via commercial freighter to the moon rather than being given a place on a military transport that would have gone direct to the main military orbital habitat where she’d be stationed? It was odd to be dumped down here. It almost felt like being abandoned. Like one last piece of nasty hazing for being a shell-born who had the temerity to think she could qualify as a lancer.

She shook off the thought. It was too expensive to train a lancer pilot only to discard them. Nevertheless, she licked her dry lips nervously as she reached the entrance to the fenced-off area. It was definitely a post, not big enough to be a base. The technician first class on duty sat on a tall stool pulled up to a counter. Apparently she was dozing, eyes closed, her chin resting on her cupped upper hands and lowers folded in her lap.

Apama tapped on the guardhouse’s transparent shield.

The soldier startled upright as Apama’s insignia registered. “Lieutenant!”

A retinal scan and her scrip granted her access past a double set of barred gates. The soldier had straightened her uniform and waited beyond the shield and gates, standing with tense expectation.

“Sorry, Lieutenant. Usually nobody is out and about before planet-rise.”

“Do you not have many security concerns down here dirt-side, Technician…?” She checked the insignia. “Ir Bodard.”

“I don’t make a habit of sleeping on duty, believe me. It’s just hmm I have two small children, and they’re both sick right now.”

“That sounds rough. I have a passel of much younger cousins I spent a lot of time babysitting. But still…”

“It won’t happen again, Lieutenant.” The soldier’s bunched shoulders relaxed fractionally. “Anyway it is absolutely dead down here. There’s nothing on this rock to interest pirates. All the action is at the margins of the system.”

“Chasing smugglers?”

“That’s right! And long patrols too, out to neighboring systems.”

“Via knnu drive?”

Ir Bodard brightened as at happy memories. “Weeks and even months out in the Gap sometimes.”

“Ever tangle with Chaonian ships?”

“Out here? No. Military fleets use the beacon routes. We hunt outlaws and brigands along the old knnu transit lines. Long stretches of boredom alleviated by short sharp shocks.”

This was an unexpected development, a wrinkle no one at lancer training had ever bothered to hint at. Apama couldn’t decide whether to be excited about its potential to explore ancient pre-beacon trade arteries or horrified by the idea of months stuck in the belly of a ship.

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