The Measure of Humanity - Chapter Seventeen

You ever have one of those days where everything went sideways?

Well, I don't know how she managed it, but every time the Chief went to Luna, somewhere along the way something would go spoing! and she'd find herself up to her neck in crap.

It's a testament to her abilities to pull herself out of the crapper that she didn't end up dead.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Artemis City

“Last stop!” called Tony to his gaggle of tourists.

Thank shite, Stone commed to Jordan. Since discovering that they were supposed to be working together, they’d actually found that they were enjoying the company of the other. Stone saw the eagerness in Jordan, despite her lack of experience, while Jordan looked at Stone with a new appreciation for her skills. As a result they’d become much more the friends that Jordan had pretended so well earlier.

Now their time on Luna was coming to an end, and the LTA always ended it at the same restaurant. Today, though, Tony had an additional reason for stopping there, beyond the not-quite-exorbitant prices they charged the tourists.

Totally, agreed Jordan.

I wonder who these people are? They’d been left out of the details of Tony’s operation, as they had their own parallel missions, but had the broad outlines laid out for them so they wouldn’t be surprised.

I haven’t been able to find out, admitted Jordan. “Hey, let’s get a table in the corner!”

“Sounds good,” agreed Stone, and they made their way inside and claimed an isolated table where they could have a good view of the interior.

Ah, crap. I should have thought of this earlier.

What?

Eh, I could’ve gotten my friend to get the info for us, Stone answered. She’s a bloody genius at extracting hidden data.

That would have been useful, agreed Jordan. “Everything looks so good!”

She pointed to the menu, apparently randomly. Stone just nodded.

Oi, Tony! When does this happen?

Tony didn’t reply via his ‘plant, but in a couple minutes he was over by their table, chattering brightly.

“Hey, ladies, enjoying your final day on Luna?”

“Absolutely,” said Stone.

“I can’t believe it’s almost all over,” added Jordan.

“Aren’t you going on to Mars?” asked Tony. “Not that LTA hasn’t loved having you along for this part of your Grand Tour, but you really can’t be thinking of going back to Earth so soon.”

“Oh, no, I’ll keep going, but I’ll miss all of you!”

“Well, you have a little bit longer with us,” he said. “At least to the end of lunch!” And he wandered off to another table of tourists.

I hate code.

I’m learning to hate it too.

Lunch was, well, lunch. They were both professional enough to order and eat as normal, keeping up the appearance of friends having a pleasant afternoon, but both were simultaneously on alert for anything odd.

Halfway through their meal they got their oddity. A server brought over two more drinks and meals and set them in front of the empty chairs without a word.

Here we go, surmised Stone. Ready?

Act natural, right?

Right.

When a man and woman, dressed in tacky tourist clothes and with nametags on that said ‘Ruben Colffer’ and ‘Amber Allan’ respectively, sat down and started eating, neither Stone nor Jordan reacted outwardly at first. After a few moments of chomping, though, Stone cleared her throat.

“Glad to be heading home?” she ventured.

"You have no idea,” said the woman, who looked to be in her early twenties. Her complexion and build suggested that she was an Earth native, though her color was fading.

“I’m not sure,” admitted the man. He looked older, maybe forty, and was definitely a Loonie. “Big changes, you know?”

Stone didn’t know how to respond to that so simply nodded.

Jordan filled in the silence. “Don’t worry, Tony’s a real pro. He’ll make everything so smooth, you won’t believe it.”

As if summoned, Tony appeared at tableside.

“Ruben, Amber, how are things going? Aren’t the staff here great?”

“Yes,” agreed ‘Ruben’. “Very professional. If we miss her, please give Mistress Karolina our complements for her kindness.”

“I will,” said Tony. “We’ll be leaving in about twenty minutes, so if you want anything else you ought to order it now.”

He disappeared again, still making his rounds.

I’m not a bloody secret agent, groused Stone.

Neither am I!

“So, Amber, what do you do? We haven’t seen much of you.”

With a quick glance to her companion the woman answered. “We’ve been busy for a while. I’m not really anything, just, you know, out of school and looking to find myself.”

“Oh, I remember that time,” said Jordan. “It took me, like, a year to figure out what I wanted to do. Then I found my job with HLC, and the rest is history. What about you, Ruben?”

“I’m an engineer,” he answered shortly. “I’m between positions right now, but I’m sure I’ll find something pretty quick.”

A young woman with a server’s apron approached the table. Amber’s face lit seeing her, and even Ruben nearly smiled.

“Can I clear your places?” she asked, then was almost knocked off her feet by Amber’s enthusiastic hug.

“Nicole!” she squealed. “I didn’t think we’d see you again!” And she lifted the taller woman a half-meter off the deck.

Definitely from Earth, commed Stone.

“Put me down!” laughed the other woman.

Once her feet were back on the floor, she said, “I didn’t think so either, but mom asked me to come in and help for old times’ sake.” She looked around the restaurant. “I practically grew up here. I think I was ‘helping’, if that’s what you want to call it, from the time I was, oh, three? From then until I got the job at the Ministry, on and off.”

Stone and Jordan continued sitting quietly as the two women chatted enthusiastically.

“I’m being rude,” Nicole eventually said. “Hi, I’m Nicole.”

“Mikki, and this is my friend Alyssa.”

“Nice to meet you. Are you friends of Amber’s?”

Jordan’s face was a study, but Stone said, “There’s never enough time to get to know people as well as you’d like, eh?”

That seemed to be correct, as Nicole nodded. “I know what you mean. I just met Amber this morning, but it seems like I’ve known her forever.”

“Nicole!” The shout sounded throughout the interior, and she winced.

“Mom’s still got those lungs,” she said. “I’ve got to get back. Sometimes I think I’d rather deal with the Primus. Whoops! Forget I said that.”

Stone nodded, but she suddenly had much more interest in this part-time server.

“Wait!” said Amber as Nicole started to move off. “I need your comm code!”

“Oh, yeah. I forgot to give that to you this morning. Ready?” Amber nodded, and Nicole rattled off a string of numbers. Stone carefully recorded them with her ‘plant and captured an image.

Nicole!

“Gotta dash!”

“I think it’s time we headed back as well,” suggested Stone.

Suddenly, the restaurant grew silent. Stone looked around and saw a squad of MinSec guards were at the entrance, one pointing directly at Amber and Ruben and gesturing with her other hand.

“This is bad on toast,” said Stone. “You armed?” she asked Jordan.

“Just a couple things I picked up,” the other woman answered. “You?”

“This and that. Oi, Amber. I don’t know who you are, but I think you’re on someone’s shit list.”

Amber grew pale.

The troopers started to move, slowly approaching from both sides.

“Nicole. Nicole!” Stone hissed.

“Huh? What’s going on?”

“I don’t know, but is there a back way out of here?”

“Yes, through the kitchen, but… This has to be a mistake.” She gathered herself and seemed to wrap herself in authority. “What is the meaning of this?” she demanded, striding over to the apparent leader.

“None of your concern, citizen.”

“This is going to end badly,” Stone whispered, trying to edge towards the kitchen. The other three, though, were frozen in place.

Nicole seemed to gain another half-dozen centimeters. “It is my concern,” she said, voice allowing for no disagreement. “Tell me what you are doing!”

“I don’t answer to you,” said the leader, turning her attention to Nicole. “But those people are fugitives, and we’re returning them to detention. Unless you’d like to join them, I wouldn’t interfere.”

“My name is Nicole Crozier.”

“I don’t care.”

“I am the Minister of War, and I will by damn make you care!”

Stone’s head snapped around. Minister of War?

That got the MinSec leader’s attention too, but not the way Nicole had hoped. “Then you’re a traitor, if you’re defending fugitives!” She started to bring her weapon up.

Stone was already in motion. “Jordan, get them moving!” she said, and leapt at Nicole. Her Earth-adjusted muscles allowed her to cover the ten meters in a single leap, and she grabbed her around the waist as her momentum brought them both to the ground. Without seeming to slow, she pivoted on her hip and kicked the back of the MinSec’s knees.

“Who are you?” gasped Nicole.

“Come with me if you want to live,” grunted Stone, pulling them both to their feet. She took a quick look and saw that Jordan had gotten the others headed toward the kitchen, and the rest of the MinSec guards were now focused on her. Great.

Get them back to the rest of the group! she ‘shouted’ through the implant. She felt Jordan’s nod, then turned her attention back to their situation.

It wasn’t good.

Stone let go of Nicole, grabbed the kneeling, moaning commander, and flung her towards the nearest guard. In the immediate chaos she pulled Nicole along behind her as she hit the door at a full sprint.

Lunar systems weren’t designed for implants; it was a largely unknown technology. But Stone’s implant had been tinkered with by the best cyberneticists she knew: Mac and Harpo. If there was a system her ‘plant couldn’t get into, it wasn’t on the moon. She was able to call up a map of Artemis City with their location and the location of the shuttle port highlighted.

“Bollocks,” she said, slowing enough for Nicole to keep up. “Right. You said you’re Minister of War?”

“I think I may have just resigned,” Nicole answered wryly. “But yes.”

Still weaving and making random turns, Stone said, “Do you have a padd? A comm?”

“Yes, my personal comm.”

“We’ve got to get off this planet before those idiots recover, and I don’t think I’ll be able to catch my ride. Do you have any suggestions?”

Nicole instantly said, “Scipio City.”

“Great. What’s that?”

“It’s the headquarters for the Solarian Navy.”

“And that helps us how?”

“I can get us in there.”

“Again, that helps us how?”

“Hold it,” said Nicole, planting her feet and huffing. “Ministers don’t usually run this much.”

Stone tapped into the location for Scipio and blanched. “That’s fifty klicks away!”

“There’s a tube that runs the entire route, public transport…”

But Stone was shaking her head. “Not a chance. Two will get you ten that your MinSec buddies will have cameras all over any transport system. It’s only logical.”

“Right,” agreed Nicole. “Okay, then. The naval spaceport. That’s part of Artemis City, and it’s under my Ministry’s control, not MinSec.”

“And once they realize you’re no longer their Minister, we end up against the wall.”

Nicole waved that off and started walking. “It’s going to take MinSec at least an hour to ‘disappear’ the mess back there. Even then, Minister Pitt is going to think twice before she tries to convince the Primus I’m some sort of traitor. She might be more senior than me, but my Ministry’s loyal to me, and…” She stopped talking as a thought struck, and then she quickened her pace.

“Oi, where are you going?”

“I’ve got to get hold of my deputy!” She pulled out her comm and rapidly punched a code.

“On speaker!” said Stone urgently. She didn’t trust her, didn’t know her, and really wasn’t in the mood for her to try to get back into the Primus’ good graces by turning her in. Nicole shot her a look but complied.

“Hey, Nicole, how’s the weekend off going?”

“Shitty. Jake, what ship has the most loyal crew?”

“Huh?”

“Ship. Which crew is loyal to me, not to Artemis?”

“That’s a weird question.”

Nicole muttered something Stone didn’t catch, then said, “I don’t have time to explain. I need a ship that’s loyal to me, and I need them now.”

“Okay, okay. I’d say that the Roosa is your best bet. Lieutenant Gonzalez is the captain, and her career was headed right down the waste chute before you gave her the frigate.”

“I remember her,” she said. “She’d stood up to her commander when he tried to assault her, and she got demoted. Where is the Roosa?”

“She’s just about to rotate into the Guild run. Scheduled to lift off at sixteen.”

Stone checked the time. Nearly fourteen.

“Contact her and tell her I’m coming aboard for a surprise inspection with a member of the IG corps. We’ll be there in thirty minutes.”

“What inspection? Nicole, this doesn’t make any sense!”

“Just shut up and do it!” She broke the connection. “Come on. The naval starport isn’t far.”

“Not bad thinking,” said Stone. “Just one problem.”

“What?”

“I don’t know what an IG corps is, but I’m pretty sure they don’t dress like this, and you’re wearing a waitress’s apron.”

Nicole looked down, then whipped the apron off and dropped it. “We’ll need suits. I know where we can get some.”

As they made their way through the City, Stone reached out to Tony and Jordan.

You clear?

All clear, answered Tony. Where did you disappear to?

I’ve got Nicole. I suppose I should call her Minister Crozier, but she seems way too decent to be an Artemis Minister.

Minister Crozier? Tony’s ‘voice’ rang in her head. Minister of War?

That’s what she says.

Oh, damn, Stone, you’ve hit the jackpot! How are you getting her away?

We’re working on it, she answered. I don’t have any details because there aren’t any details yet.

Let me know if I can help.

Make sure my luggage gets back to Njord, she replied, then closed the connection. “Now that we’re not running for our lives. Who the hell are you?” Nicole was asking.

“Name’s Mikki Stone. I’m sort of the roving troubleshooter for the Terran Federation, I guess. Former SEAL.”

“Terran Federation? So you know the Cassidy women?”

“Yes, and they’re not ‘the Cassidy women,’ they’re Dr. and Admiral Cassidy.” Stone’s tone was frosty.

“Sorry.” Nicole was obviously contrite. “Most of what I know has come through official reports, or from hearing the Primus rant about them. I’ve never needed to see them as people. Um.”

She fell silent, and Stone thought she could tell that there was more unsaid. “Yes?” she prompted.

“Nothing,” lied Nicole. “At least, nothing that can’t wait.”

She wasn’t going to get any more, thought Stone, and they kept moving. The silence between them stretched out for several minutes before she eventually broke it. “We’re going to need those suits,” was all she said. Apparently the topic was shelved for now, and Nicole accepted it gladly.

“There’s a depot at the starport that can issue us suits on my authority.”

“They’re not custom-fitted?” said Stone, thinking of the skinsuits used aboard Njord and the starships.

“No,” Nicole said, with just a hint of question that Stone ignored.

A few more moments brought them to a pressure hatch. Authorized Personnel Only, read the sign across the front. Nicole ignored it and pressed her thumb against a scanner. The hatch slid open, revealing an unremarkable-looking corridor, and Nicole strode down without hesitation.

Bloody hell, she’s confident. I hope it doesn’t bite us.

They passed another similar pressure hatch without incident. The corridor after that was wider, with hatches off to either side. Stone commanded her ‘plant to record everything she could see. She was supposed to be doing recce, after all, though she’d never expected to see the inside of an Artemis naval base.

The attitude of the few personnel she saw surprised her; not one batted an eye at the two women in civilian clothes in a section which was obviously off-limits. Stone commented on this.

“The outer security is solid,” Nicole answered. “If you can get in, it’s assumed that you’re supposed to be here.”

Stone didn’t contradict her, but filed that information away.

The equipment depot was nearly as relaxed, at least until Nicole pressed her thumb to acknowledge receipt of the suits. The clerk actually did a double-take when her name popped up in the system, then jumped to attention.

“Minister Crozier!” she snapped.

“Relax, um…”

“Naval Rating Arezo Rahimi, Minister!”

“Rating Rahimi. At ease. This isn’t formal, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t inform your superiors until after we’ve departed.” Nicole leaned in conspiratorially. “We’re doing an inspection. Surprise inspection. Won’t be much of a surprise if the commandant is out there hustling us around, will it?”

“No, Minister.”

“Good.” Nicole checked the time, saw it was almost fifteen, and said, “You can inform him at sixteen thirty. We should be finished by then.”

“Yes, Minister!”

Nicole, now appearing every inch the Minister despite the youth and clothing, turned away from the awed rating and gathered Stone with her eyes. Together they stepped out and found a space to change into their suits.

“Impressive,” admitted Stone. “But won’t the system give your presence away?”

Nicole paused in pulling the legs up. “No. One of the things that Minister Whitmore instituted, and I kept, was operational security. None of the naval bases have direct connections between internal and external systems, so any information internally would have to be manually carried over to an external system.”

Stone nodded her approval, and the rest of the suiting-up was done quietly.

Just before they put on their helmets, Nicole said, “Follow my lead. I don’t want to use the comms; they can be picked up off-base. But leave the circuit open, just in case.”

“I thought I was the expert in this sort of shite,” said Stone, and Nicole smiled ruefully.

“My immediate predecessor, who had the job about two minutes, was thrown out an airlock when he didn’t have the answers the Primus wanted. His predecessor was ordered to take a walk on the surface without a suit when her attack on your habitat failed to succeed. I’ve known since I got the job that I might, no, almost certainly, need to leave quickly and discretely. This was unexpected timing, is all.”

“Ah. One question?”

“Just one?”

“You said a predecessor was ordered to take a walk without a suit? What was his name?”

“Her name, you mean. Davie Whitmore. Why?”

“I’ll tell you later.” Stone put her helmet on and sealed it, grinning for the first time today.

Getting from the depot to the Roosa’s landing pad was almost comically easy, until they reached the airlock.

“Jake! What the hell are you doing here?”

“Trying to save your ass, Nicole,” answered the tall, suited figure.

“Problem, Nicole?” asked Stone, stepping between them.

“No. He’s a friend.”

“And who’s she?”

“It’s best if you don’t know, Jake,” Nicole answered. “Just go back to work.”

“Go back to work? Nicole, you comm me and ask for a ship loyal to you, not Artemis, not the Primus. It doesn’t take much to figure out you’re in trouble, and if I can help, I will.”

“You’re a good friend, Jake, and you’ve done all you can and still stay safe. We’ve known that this was coming, we just didn’t know when. Or how. Mikki,” and she nodded at Stone. “She’s given me the best chance to get out of this job alive I’ve ever had. Now, I need to get on that ship.”

Jake’s shoulders slumped. “Since I can’t talk you out of this, I should go with you.”

Nicole’s head shook inside the helmet. “I need you to stay here and finish what we started. Watch over my people. Don’t waste them on stupid, doomed plans. They’re your people now.” She stood on tiptoes and gave him a hug, then released him.

“Go.” That single word held all the power and authority of her role she could pack into it, and that finally did it.

“Watch over her,” he said to Stone in parting. “She’s special.”

“So I gather.”

With a heavy sigh Nicole turned to the airlock and keyed in a code. “Ready?” she said as the hatch opened.

“Ready.”

“Let’s do this.”

Artemis ships usually landed on the surface. Umbilicals would be run out to resupply air, water, fuel, and to provide power while they were grounded, and a temporary passageway would be run from the surface airlock to the ship. All these would be retracted shortly before launch, and that’s where the Roosa was now. That left a hundred meters of hard-packed surface for Nicole and Stone to cross before reaching the open outer hatch.

Once there, Stone dogged it shut, triggering the automatic systems to pump atmosphere back into the chamber, and Nicole radioed.

“Captain Gonzalez, please report to starboard airlock.”

“Who in Oberon is this?”

“Someone you don’t want to keep waiting. Come alone, please, Captain. Authorization Whiskey Alpha Golf.”

That apparently did the trick, for in less than a minute the inner hatch was opened to reveal a pissed-off looking officer in a suit which, if not exactly like the Federation skinsuits, was the next best thing. The expression changed as soon as she saw who was standing in her airlock.

“Minister Crozier! Deputy Minister Taylor said you were coming aboard, but given the time I thought he was mistaken.” She straightened. “We’re ready for the IG inspection, Minister.”

“There is no inspection, Captain. We need to talk.”

Gonzalez’ face registered surprise, which was immediately wiped into a neutral expression. “Yes, Minister. Would my cabin suffice?”

“That should do very well.”

The explanation, once they were secure in the cabin, only took moments.

“How can I help, Minister?”

“We need to get off Luna.”

“I can see that Minister, but…” Gonzalez gestured around. “I have a responsibility to my crew. They didn’t ask for this; it would be cruel to separate them from their families.”

“I think I can help with that,” Stone said. She’d been considering this issue as well.

“Right, and you are…?”

“Someone I trust,” said Nicole. Gonzalez nodded.

“I’m listening.”

“Captain, is your course set? I mean, do you have to follow a particular course, or do you have some discretion?”

“All Captains have discretion over their specific course; that’s one of the changes Minister Crozier put in place.”

“Then we’ll take advantage of that. Nicole, what’s the range of your ground-based scanners? How far can they distinguish and track something that’s, say, thirty meters long?”

“Um. Ground scan is shared between my Ministry and MinSec, along with MinInt. I think the range is about a half million kilometers. I know we can see everything around your habitat.”

“Captain, could your course pass behind Njord?”

Njord is…?”

“The habitat.”

“Certainly.”

“A hundred thousand kilometers?”

“Of course.”

“And make a rendezvous at speed?”

“Yesss…”

“Then, Captain, listen to this…”

At sixteen, as scheduled, Roosa departed Luna for her appointed rounds. The additional passengers went unremarked; if the Minister of War wished to ride on one of her frigates, who were the ratings to tell her no? The ship accelerated slowly on its chosen course. Gonzalez had, of course, informed command of her plans, and explained it as an opportunity to test the reaction of the Federation’s patrols, as well as getting a better look at the habitat, goals which the port Admiral heartily endorsed.

Stone knew her implant, with the Q-Net link, could easily communicate securely with Njord, but she waited until they were an hour into the flight and crossed the official boundary of Artemis space before opening the channel.

Njord, this is Chief Stone. I need to talk to the Commodore.

Go ahead, Chief, Knott said. What’s up?

As briefly as she could, Stone explained the problems and opportunities she’d encountered in the past few hours, along with her thought to have a Wolf rendezvous with Roosa and retrieve her and Crozier.

Can we do it? Knott asked Diana.

Yes, Commodore, the AI answered. When Roosa passes beyond the station, they will be eclipsed from any Lunar sensors.

Good. How do we want to coordinate this?

Send your bird, Stone said. When they’re in position, they can contact the Roosa directly. We may be at war with these people, but I know that we’ve had some communication ship-to-ship over the past year.

Knott checked the roster. I’d love to send Flashdance, since she’s the best pilot we have, but she’s on CAP. The next senior pilot not on rotation right now is CM Wilson, in the Charlemagne.

Whatever. That’s your bailiwick, Commodore. And one more thing…

Forty-five minutes later, Gonzalez cut the drive and they went ballistic. By then they had crossed Njord’s orbit and were oriented for the rendezvous in the habitat’s emission shadow, covering 125 KPS. Nicole and Stone were on the bridge, observing. The officers were studiously ignoring them, Gonzalez having passed a quiet word.

“Captain,” said the communication officer.

“Yes, Ms. Weatherby?”

“We have a message coming in from a Federation ship.” She couldn’t keep the surprise from her voice.

“Private channel, Ms. Weatherby.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The officer sent the communication directly to the Captain, bypassing the bridge speakers. Her crew, and Nicole, would only hear her side of the conversation. Since they were broadcasting over the Q-Net as per normal protocol, though, Stone could hear both sides.

“This is Captain Selene Gonzalez of the ANS Roosa.”

“Captain, this is CM Wilson, aboard the Charlemagne. Can you speak openly?”

“Not as such.”

“That’s trickier. Okay, then, yes and no. Will you be ready to transfer your guests in…” Stone could hear the pause as the CM retrieved the number. “Thirteen minutes, twenty seconds?”

“Yes.”

“Good. We’ll match speed and come alongside to your starboard airlock; we’re going to use our tractor beams to hold our position, but the closest we can manage is about two meters. Your passengers will have to cross that space; EM Blake will assist. She will also pass across debris from the ANS Collins, and that will be your excuse for the rendezvous.”

“Very well. We will accept the return of Artemis property.”

“Huh? Oh, right. Audience. I’ll comm again when we’re a minute from contact. Out.”

Gonzalez faced her crew, all looking at her with curious expressions. “The Feddies want to return debris from the Collins, viciously destroyed by them last year, and in the interests of interplanetary amity I have chosen to accept it. Helm.”

“Yes, Captain?”

“Ms. Hendrickson, they will match our course and speed. No errors, please.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Ms. Weatherby, they will be contacting us again. Send it directly to me.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Mr. Ballentine.”

The tactical officer didn’t expect to be called upon. “Captain?”

“Use this as a live-fire practice run. Full active scanners. I want a firing solution on that shuttle from fifty thousand klicks in, but do not, repeat, do not activate weapons or targeting. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, Captain. Scanner lock only.”

“Good. Perhaps you would like to assist me, ladies?” Gonzalez added, addressing Nicole and Stone.

“It would be our pleasure.”

“Mr. Ballentine, the bridge is yours.”

The time simultaneously crawled and flew past. In the cramped corridor, no conversation was exchanged.

“Captain, the Charlemagne is calling again.” Weatherby’s voice sounded overloud in the tight space, and then the comm was fed to Gonzalez.

“Go ahead, Charlemagne.”

“We’re on final approach. We’ve matched attitude and speed and are closing on your position. Please have your guests ready.”

“Very good.” She nodded to Nicole. “Your ride is here, Minister.”

“Thank you,” Nicole replied with great sincerity. “Hopefully your part in this will never be known. How long are you cruising?”

“Standard mission is two lunars, but I think I’m going to stretch that with a little discretionary shore leave on Ceres.”

“Sounds like an excellent plan.” Without another word Nicole and Stone sealed their helmets and stepped into the airlock.

“You know, she could just pop us into space,” Stone commented.

Nicole made a face. “I thought of that too. Let’s hope she doesn’t.”

Stone could hear the next exchange.

“Ten meters. Six. Four. Three. Two and holding. Tractors engaged, we have lock. Any time you’re ready, Captain. We have about sixty seconds of our umbrella left.”

“Evacuating airlock.” Stone felt her suit stiffen as the pressure dropped to zero, then the outer hatch showed green. “Ready to transfer.”

Nicole reached for the latch and released it, the hatch retracting utterly silently in the vacuum. To Stone’s immense relief the open airlock of the Charlemagne, a figure in the familiar skinsuit of the Federation waiting for them.

“It’s just one step,” she assured Nicole with a confidence she didn’t feel.

“One really big fucking step,” she answered, nerves finally showing. “Here goes.”

Belying the gravity of the moment, Nicole stepped firmly out of the Roosa, drifted across, and was pulled the last half-meter into the Charlemagne. Then it was Stone’s turn.

Just like jumping out of a plane, she thought. Minus the parachute and the boot up the ass to encourage me.

She stepped off the lip, nearly reaching the outstretched hand before her feet left the airlock. She grasped it and next found herself collapsing into the MOV’s passenger compartment. The Roosa’s hatch closed; in seconds, they saw Gonzalez step in and cycle the lock again before reopening the hatch.

“One moment,” the EM announced, pushing a block of metal parts across. “Can’t forget our end.”

Gonzalez caught it smoothly, but before she did Burke was back inside the Charlemagne and dogging the hatch shut. The compartment quickly repressurized and, as Stone watched, the MOV swung away from the frigate and laid on the acceleration.

Burke undid her helmet first, followed by Stone and Nicole.

“Welcome aboard, Chief. Ma’am.” She nodded to Nicole, having not been told who she was.

“Thank you, EM,” said Stone.

“Blaster,” said the EM. “The CM’s MotherLove.”

“I heard that!” came a voice from the cockpit.

“Excuse me,” said Blaster. “I have to help get us back home in one piece.”

Only after she left did Nicole look around the compartment and notice the other figure, still suited but rising from her seat. They reached for their helmet, still opaque.

“Ah. Minister Crozier, I believe you know this person,” said Stone mischievously as the helmet was fully removed. “But in case you forgot. Minister Nicole Crozier, meet former Minister Davie Whitmore.”

“But you’re dead!” insisted Nicole.

“I’m afraid the reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated,” said Whitmore with a smile. “It’s nice to see you again, Nicole. I hope you took good care of my people.”

“Yes, Minister. I did the best I could for them.”

Then, and only then, did Nicole faint.