Written by: Amanda

“This was not your mission, not your orders!” The raised voice echoes from the walls, a judgement from above in a chamber empty save for a lone table and the platform beside it. The Brokerage Board hovers like gnarled trees that have little function but to block the light. It leaves Silvalinus in the shadow beneath them. “Was it not clear that your job, as captain, is to ensure that death does not occur on your watch unless we order it? And so many…”

The chair only barely large enough to accommodate his frame, it groans beneath him when he shifts. “Necessity,” Silvalinus answers, for the thousandth time, his eyes straying from the back to the cracked door along the wall where a tiny face gleams. Fnippith, always listening where she shouldn’t. Her best trait.

A board member coughs in the following silence. 

“Inadequate,” another asserts. “It’s time you elaborated, Captain. What happened on Heldar?”

Their words irritate like Terran flies. No one ever warns newcomers about the flies.

A story seems no more adequate than simple truth, but waiting eyes suggest it’s the only way for this wretched meeting to end—the best reason he can find to carve out the patience for more politics: “New Carthage’s magistrate came to me two weeks ago.”

The small Terran often moved rather like a bird that had forgotten it had wings or the capability of flight. A waddle that forced a path with swinging, awkward steps to make up for his threadbare frame. Odd…and wildly unthreatening.

Silvalinus refrained from a sigh at the sight of the city’s highest elected official, always here for another favor. He’d learned forcing a smile to placate the mood of Terrans often had the opposite effect between his four eyes and larger teeth. Instead, he greeted the magistrate with a nod. It was enough to launch the small man into his rambling speech.

“Ah, Captain, Captain, I’ve had a wonderful thought.” His little hand patted Silvalinus’s forearm, earning a slow glance down from the Aidlean. “Already spoken with the Board, and they’re thrilled.” The magistrate waited, earned no response, and continued to wait—admirable patience.

“How can I help New Carthage, Magistrate?” 

“This is exactly why we elected you, Captain, always so eager to help the city.” The magistrate beamed, gesturing for Silvalinus to walk with him through the broad streets, like a tour guide waiting at the docking stations to introduce new arrivals to the city.

With pressure from the Terran gravity forced on his limbs, Silvalinus dragged himself onward as the small man continued. 

“We’ve decided to extend a hand of peace to your people.” The magistrate nimbly stepped over a break in the cobblestone path, oblivious to Silvalinus’s struggle to keep pace. 

“New Carthaginians are my people.”

“Of course, of course, but your other people. You’re a practical man, Captain. Ah, Aidlean, I mean. You must understand the tactical advantage in making strides toward an arrangement with Aidlean forces.”

The weight on his chest too much to speak and walk, Silvalinus stopped. “A trade agreement? I’m afraid you may be overestimating their interest in—”

“A space lane, Captain!” the magistrate interrupted. “One created and controlled by New Carthage.” Gleeful eyes narrowed as he stepped in closer, lowering his voice but raising up on his toes to cast the whisper up to waiting ears. “You don’t have to tell me the Neo-European Empire and others would immediately invade. No respect for anyone else, really. But we have the azothite stores to create the lane…and the Aidleans…” He trailed off and exaggerated brows raised.

Silvalinus blinked, the action almost painfully slow, before it occurred to him the man wanted him to guess at the intention. For dramatic reasons, Silvalinus could only assume. “You’d like the Aidlean fleet to defend the lane.”

“Of course they will. They’ve got considerable fighting power in their ships.” He smiled. “It would be an unheard of achievement, Captain—a considerable notch in your belt. We would be the first truly Terran city to be a hub of intergalactic trade. Think of it…direct access to us, not being routed through gods only know where only for someone else to take a cut of our profits.”

“But to use raw azothite as a bargaining chip… The fleets of Aidlean ships operate under a different code, Magistrate.” Pirates, some called them… Silvalinus knew more than most, and the thought of New Carthage signing on for an alliance with an Aidlean fleet made his teeth grind. “They’ll create your lane and a thousand others to take them across—”

Again, the small man couldn’t contain his words long enough to listen: “Captain, I hear your concerns, but we have the perfect partner in sealing this deal.” Again, the small hand entered his space and rested on his arm. Silvalinus braced himself. “You are Aidlean,” the magistrate said, as if this was earth-shattering information. Again, missing the point. As always. “Maybe others would have trouble with this deal, but you, Captain, it will be simple for you to get them to agree to our terms. Purely a political mission. We can’t have anyone saying New Carthage attacks its would-be allies. We are the city of peace and unification.” He brandished his smile once more. “And soon, intergalactic trade.”

“Magistrate, I really must caution you.“

“Certainly,” the man said, “but the Brokerage Board has already connected us to the perfect Aidlean fleet.”

In his patience, a silence of almost a minute passed until Silvalinus relented in a murmur, “Who?”

“Fleet Admiral Janus.”

No expression crossed his face; Silvalinus stared, unblinking, and nearly without breathing. A ship encroached like a shadow in his own mind, black as the surrounding sky closing in on him. Air gasped as the hangar lock disengaged. It fell back into empty space…and he fell with it.

“Captain?” a voice echoed from beside him. “Do you remember your old fleet admiral?”

A face locked in a sneer fades from his mind, and Silvalinus levies a stare at the hovering Board. The way they wait, as if ready to devour him for a wrong word said, sets a twitch to his trigger finger. Of course, his weapon was confiscated on entry. 

“I did what was necessary for New Carthage.”

In the echoing silence, he doubts they care.

___

Do they think they intimidate him? Farrah stands, refusing the offered seat. When he entered, they tried to insist, but now they brood grumpily on their own chairs—albeit they’re sitting pretty on a stage, neatly spotlighted with a ring of candles that hang from the wall behind them, a backlight that shadows their faces. Really, back in his performance days, he would’ve hired the architect of this disaster on the spot. They want to make him feel small. 

He straightens his shoulders and meets the stares he can’t see with an easy grin. “Lovely as ever, Your Honors. Really, the lights are a brilliant touch. New robes?” The worst kind of audience: a bored one. “Well, if there’s no questions, I suppose I’ll just begin…or is the silence meant to be a lesson?”

They haven’t spoken in minutes, but this was his captain’s orders, and for the sake of the past, perhaps Silvalinus is owed this. Talk to the Brokerage Board. Gods, Farrah would sooner talk to a wall. At least walls can be useful. All the board can do is hand out orders and play at being impartial, as if they don’t double deal in the dark and sell their services like everyone else.

This is their fault. Don’t they realize? He could make them burn for it, them and the magistrate…but it would mean burning his captain too. His shoulders stiffen on the spot. The Qhurothi had been right before, and perhaps this is it: the hard choice.

He clears his throat, and it bounces from the ceiling like a thrown voice; if they were trying for intimidation, they should have picked someone easily cowed. “Then from the start—“

“Lieutenant,” a board member says, “we think it best you submit your report in writing.”

“Ah, and Fnippith too?”

“Send the Otakke in after you.”

His lips tighten, fighting to find a humorless grin, while running a small device over his knuckles—no larger than a coin but intricately woven with metal, simple at first glance but something so much more. Poison is child’s play. This is true danger, and he finds it fitting to brandish it in plain sight, as if the act is rebellion when he can’t even decide if he should use what it contains. “Explain to me the difference between my account and hers.” He tilts his head and adds a jaded, “Your honors. No, no, of course, I understand, she’s brilliant.”

The device catches the candlelight. It lands evenly in his palm, and his hand cinches into a fist. The Brokerage Board has no interest in this. Oh, they would if they knew what it contained, but that is between Farrah and the waiting Qhurothi stranger. He’d met her only weeks ago.

The crowded hall fluttered with loose banners, muted golds and silvers, as if metal didn’t run every other piece of their life that it bore featuring in their decorations too. Farrah moved between small clusters of visiting dignitaries, brokers, and promoters, most of them giving casual words, asking after his team’s latest mission. 

Had he heard the song written? He came off rather well. Heroic, some might say. Oh, no, no, he’d never heard it. He certainly wasn’t the one who wrote it. 

He worked through the room, casually directing conversations around to the latest feats performed on the battlefield—only possible because of his own inventions: his mines. Interest was a funny flame to try and light, especially when asking for funding, but it went well enough in crowds like these. He baited a few possible donors before a Qhurothi stepped in his path.

“Apologies, miss, I must’ve gotten in your way.”

She stood in the swirling chaos of laughter, unaffected by those stumbling into them, like she existed somewhere else entirely. In fact, she smiled. The scars on her face gave him pause; what exactly did someone have to do to acquire scars like those? “One of the Cloak. I’m quite lucky.”

“Oh? You’ve heard songs recently, I take it?”

“Not quite. A proposal of yours crossed my desk. Unfortunately, it was a cast-off from the magistrate’s office.”

His eyes narrowed before he could smooth away his irritation. “Well, not everyone sees the value of technology that doesn’t require azothite…or any weapon that’s sole purpose isn’t to kill.” 

“It’s a shame. I would like to see New Carthage living up to its ideals.”

“Exactly!” The words broke like a drizzle turned into downpour. Around them, the bustle continued, and the Qhurothi’s smile never wavered. “I just mean, it’s a day I look forward to: New Carthage setting aside traditional combat for something more in line with who we are. The Cloak of Olaos should be a call to something better than the rest of the mercenary teams.”

With a low hum, she fixed the ends of her sleeves, drawing them down over more scarred skin. “That would take a magistrate who believes in unification.”

The brazen words struck Farrah silent. 

“Anyone could see his choices lack direction…and sense. He’s a simple man, and combat is a direct path. Smarter choices, sounder choices that will bring our city success aren’t always so clear…or easy.”

Her words were an echo of a thousand rants he’d forced Fnippith to listen to while she waited to have her turn to ramble about something he didn’t care about next. 

“Choices like…”

“Preventing a mistake that could ruin us,” she said. “The magistrate wants to partner with an Aidlean fleet, even giving them the power to create space lanes. Accelerating destruction, if you ask me, giving a fleet the power to travel swiftly wherever they like.” 

Farrah’s mouth opened. Twice, three times before he found his voice and laughed. “Even the magistrate would never make a deal with an Aidlean fleet. They’d sooner take over than partner with anyone.” He turned from her, the rest of the room waiting with coin purses ready to be opened for donation to his project. That was what mattered, not her. Really, he meant to leave, but he couldn’t resist a grin back over his shoulder. “I thought you were rational, but rumors? That’s what concerns you? I also heard rumors that a ghost ship is haunting the lanes just past New Carthaginian skies. Would you like me to find a priest and order an exorcism of the heavens?”

With a slow smile, the Qhurothi reached out, placing a steel and copper bonded coin in his hand. “It’s rudimentary, new technology, and totally devoid of azothite. I believe there is value in research like ours, Farrah, and I would be interested in funding yours.”

He should have realized sooner: she was a promoter. “But first, you want something.” The coin pinched between his index finger and thumb, he studied it from every angle. Fnippith would be sent into frenzied excitement at the thought of breaking this open and learning its secrets. “What does it do?”

“It captures a voice inside. I want you to use it to save New Carthage.” 

___

“And then he came to the left, right here, but at an angle so it made it hard to take him out at the knees—plus if he fell right then, he might’ve squashed necessary people.” The chair sits too tall, leaving the Otakke’s feet swinging while she talks, not bothering to even glance in the direction of the Brokerage Board. Half hidden by the assorted findings she liberated from the building that no longer needed it, Fnippith scrawls a near-perfect map across the wooden tabletop. 

A board member interrupts with a stuttering, “Fnippith, ah, that is—perhaps paper could be found—“ while another insists something about “Starting from the beginning.”

“Then everything shakes,” Fnippith continues, “like an earthquake focused only on one building.” Her hands clasp the table’s edge to give it a hard rattle. “Of course, mines start exploding, but then a flash!”

“Fnippith!” It’s a chorus of voices.

She stops, lifting her head finally. Hm. Way up there, they look less scary than how Farrah always makes them sound—just little bugs, talking at her with a hivemind voice: “The beginning.”

“Oh. Why didn’t you say so before?” So much wasted time, and now she has to talk about the boring part. With her palm, she taps the table, speaking slowly since they apparently can’t pay attention. “So, we were at Heldar with the Iron Spectre’s crew–”

“Further back,” a board member interrupts. “The smallest details may be the most important. Your captain’s logs were unclear about a number of things that went wrong.”

Pushing back her hood with a sigh, Fnippith eyes the shadowed figures. One, three…seven—and one she knows instantly. He’s off to the side, like he doesn’t want to be mistaken as a friend of anyone else, and even though he’s half-hidden by the glare of the lights behind them, it’d be hard to forget the peculiar cut of his clothes. They’re colorful, and he had refused to tell her where he got them, which was just rude.

“Broker Dereon came to me with the mission.”

“To you?” The woman closest to Dereon looks to him, a small shift in her posture changing the way the light falls and the only reason Fnippith can tell she’s moved at all. “That breaks standard procedure.”

The light dances over the table as all the board members turn. Dereon clears his throat, uneasy and not hiding it well. Poor Dereon. Wait, no…rude non-sharers get no sympathy. He has good taste in clothes, though.

“He asked me to get the board something on the mission,” Fnippith says, now doodling again on the table, the only empty space left on the upper right corner. Definitely worth standing in her chair to reach the space. It’s too long, still, so she stretches while talking. “Tech that multiplies objects when they’re exposed to it. He said it got stolen from you, and that it…” Her voice deepens while mimicking him, “‘Puts us all at risk.’”

Whispers break out among the board. Fnippith raises up higher, trying to catch a word or two. Useless, but the board grows louder the more they argue. 

“We agreed on the performer!”

“You said he wouldn’t manage it.”

“I said if it went badly, we wouldn’t answer to New Carthage over his dea—“

An abrupt quiet swallows up the room, as if the entire board remembers suddenly that Fnippith is seated in the room, staring up at them with a smile.

Dereon clears his throat again, as Terrans do when uncomfortable. She’d learned that ages ago. “And after you received this mission…?”

Fnippith’s hands tent out in an invisible explosion before she slashes an x on the map. “That happened,” she says, as if every question is now answered.

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