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[personal profile] blackrook
My Mag7BigBang Story:

Title: Between Coindence and Destiny
Characters: Seven, Orrin Travis, Mary
Summary: For ages planet Ferzan of the Carribean System was the trade centre of the Galaxy - independent and strong, a safe heaven for everyone. But now there is a big conspiracy out there which could change everything, and not for the best. It's up to seven very different men (from computer whiz kid to disillusioned Starfleet Captain) to save the Governor and protect the planet. They might succeed or they might not, but in the process some fences will be mended, some friendships will be built and some long forgotten ties rediscovered.


Special thanks to winks7985 for the beta-reading!



Between Coincidence and Destiny

…As of now, occupied part of the Galaxy is divided between the Five States, each containing dozens of star systems, and independent Caribbean System. The Five States (Logrian Empire, Parsian Empire, Swetsian States, Jorian Republic, Triad Union) surround the Caribbean System as petals in a flower. The Caribbean System consists of planet Sherel (headquarters of Caribbean Starfleet, a.k.a the Starfleet), planet Ferzan (trade/financial/informational capital of the System and Galaxy in general), a number of smaller planets and larger asteroids (agrarian/industrial/mining) and a ring of man-made fortresses (frontier posts of the Starfleet). The Caribbean System is independent, neutral, and officially off limits in Galactic political games. Unofficially…

Prologue

Planet Sherel, Caribbean System

“I’m telling you, guys, history is made in taverns like this! Treaties are concluded, conspiracies are plotted, adventures started, all in god-forsaken taverns like here! I’m right, dude, ain’t I?” The local drunk, met with an icy glare, deflated immediately and, mumbling something, led his companions, equally not sober, elsewhere. Chris Larabee, Starfleet Captain (though he didn’t wear the uniform and his stripes were hardly distinguishable), grinned darkly and filled his glass anew. Stories never began in taverns like ‘Bloody Bill’s’; they ended here. Here, where heroes who should have died in flames but survived by some mistake, came to drown their sorrows.

What he didn’t know was that his own destiny and adventure had just entered the tavern – in the form of a tall blonde woman and a man with dark skin and the red circle of Sherel Medical Corps on his sleeve.

***
Mary Travis, the chief editor of ‘The Clarion’ – the most influential newspaper on Sherel – grimly surveyed the inside of ‘Bloody Bill’s’. A port tavern as it was, frequented by dockworkers and ships’ crew, traders, free agents, Starfleet drop outs or losers who didn’t make it into the Academy… She hadn’t been in a place like this since she was a criminal reporter, and it certainly wasn’t a place to seek help in such a mission shaping up to look like saving the world, but she was desperate.

“There he is,” her companion pointed with his eyes to a tall figure in black, occupying a table on the upper gallery. “Let’s go.” She nodded and followed him, recollecting everything she had learned about that man in black - Christopher Larabee.


‘Larabee’ actually wasn’t his born name - he entered the Academy as a Christopher Arboly, an offspring of some noble and rich family of the Parsian Empire. There was nothing unusual in that – lots of younger sons and bastards from powerful families all over the Galaxy came here. Of course, each one of five Galactic States had its own military Academies and Universities, but Sherel’s was undoubtedly the best. Some of the graduates came home, where a diploma from the Academy provided them a good career start, and some stayed and entered the Starfleet, which maintained the law and order in the Caribbean System and guarded its borders, independence and neutrality. For the Caribbean System was literally in the centre of the Galaxy, and each one of the Five States wanted a piece of it. So far, none were successful in acquiring that piece.

Christopher was one of those graduates who stayed; his career in the Fleet had been jump-started after a skirmish with local pirates – an old and somewhat eccentric admiral Michael Larabee had been so impressed with the young ensign, that he’d adopted him right on the spot. The young man had happily left his Parsian name behind. A couple of years later he had become the Commander of Izerlohn station – one of the man-made fortresses, which guarded the Caribbean borders. He was the youngest station commander in all history of the stations, but he’d been a good one, respected and liked by both his men and civilian staff of the station. He had married one of the local girls, had a son… and then one day tragedy had struck. While Larabee and most of the station fleet had been away on patrol, an accident had happened on one of the reactors, followed by explosions and fires. Of course, the ships had come back as soon as they could, and managed to evacuate about a half of the population before the whole station had been destroyed, but Larabee’s wife and son had been among the casualties.

That had been three years ago; after the catastrophe Larabee had disappeared for several months, then resurfaced as a free agent, captain-for-hire, sometimes walking very thin line, but still this side of the law. And this man, whose table they’d just reached, was Mary’s last hope.

***
Chris heard footsteps approaching and raised his head. A couple stood near his table – a black man, a medic apparently, and a pretty blonde woman. Chris definitely knew the man from somewhere, though couldn’t place him at the moment. The woman looked somewhat familiar as well.

“Captain Larabee?” the man asked.

Clearly he already knew the answer, but Chris answered anyway: “Yeah.”

“I’m not sure if you remember me, Captain, I’m Nathan Jackson, we met…”

“On Purgatorio two months ago,” Chris continued for him. “Yes, Dr. Jackson, I remember you. Have a seat,” he included the woman in the invitation with a gesture.

Purgatorio was one of the ‘mine planets’, numerous in the System; all of them had mines where people extracted what was there to extract (fuel, metals or minerals), bandit hideouts, shops where you could buy everything from hand blaster to small ship - no questions asked - and saloons where you could get cheap rotgut and even cheaper whores. Purgatorio, though, was large enough to also have a humanitarian mission. Chris had been delivering some supplies to them, and his liquid lunch in one of those saloons got interrupted by an attempt of lynching – some miners or bandits weren’t happy with a mission doctor who hadn’t saved their boss. Nobody around seemed to care, save for Chris himself and a bounty hunter from Ferzan, who’d happened to be nearby. Together they had stopped the circus, and then the two of them and Dr. Jackson spent the evening in that saloon. The next day, the doctor had returned to his patients, Tanner, the bounty hunter, had gone to look for his bounty in depths of Purgatorio, and Chris had left the planet. If Dr. Jackson had sought him out here and now, it hardly was for a social visit.

“So, Doctor, Ma’am, what can I do for you?”

“My name is Mary Travis,” the woman said. “And I need your help.”

“Travis? As in Orrin Travis, Governor of Ferzan?”

“Yes, Orrin is my father-in-law. There are people out there who plan his assassination, and I want you to stop it.”

Chris gave a whistle. “You don’t beat around the bush, lady. Why me?”

“Because I know you aren’t on the payroll of Stuart James or Triad Union. I can’t be sure about anyone else.”

Now that was bad. Of course Chris hadn’t followed the politics recently, but he understood what Mary implied, and he didn’t like it one bit. Along with Sherel, Ferzan was the capital of the Caribbeans, the trade center of the Galaxy, a place where all the flows of goods, technology and information met. Of course each one of the Five States had official representatives there, and unofficially tried to control it. It wasn’t easy, since Starfleet guarded planets near space, and Orrin Travis was a man hard to fool and impossible to buy. But if he was killed, than the main power would go to Stuart James, the head of the Ferzan Council, and if he was working for Triad Union, or any other State for that matter…

“If you’re sure James is planning an assassination, why don’t you just tell the Governor that?”

She smiled grimly “He might not believe it and he certainly won’t act without evidence. And I’m certain his inter-planet calls are monitored.”

Chris nodded, understanding what that meant. “Do you have that evidence?”

“Yes. Iron-clad evidence of James’s dealings with the Union and their plans. But a friend who tried to deliver it on Ferzan disappeared without a trace.”

“Not good. And why don’t you go to Starfleet command, if it’s that serious? They’ll listen to you.” Now he remembered who Mary Travis was - she was one of those pain-in-the-ass journalists, the type that authorities just couldn’t ignore.

“And what will they do? James is the citizen of Ferzan. And I’m afraid we don’t have much time.”

“You have a point,” Chris lighted his cheroot. “So you chose me.”

Mary shrugged. “Nathan recommended you, and I’ve run out of other people I trust. I don’t know how long a hand James has.”

“So you want me to deliver this iron clad proof,” he said sarcastically, “to Governor Travis, help him deal with James and keep him alive in the process.”

“Yes, Captain Larabee. Will you do this? Money is no object.”

“Money is no issue, lady. Though we’ll definitely need it to have enough equipment for that little excursion. And some men.”

“If you’re doing it, Captain, I’ll go with you,” Jackson stated.

“Good, but not enough.” Chris took a comm out of his breast pocket and pinched a number he hadn’t used for a long time. Couple of rings later he heard a familiar voice.

“What do you want?” the person on the other end answered snippily.

Judging by the sounds on the background, Chris interrupted something interesting; nothing new here, then.

“Pass my apologies to the lady, Buck, and bring you ass to Eastern dock in an hour. We have a job to do.”

***
“Son of a bitch!” Buck Wilmington, former Starfleet officer, threw the comm into the corner where in landed with a ‘thump’ (good thing it was in a protective holder). “Not a word in three years, and now he has guts to call me as if we’re partners!”

“Buck, darling, what happened?” Lisa asked, sitting up. Buck looked at her, and was sorely tempted to just forget about the call and come back to what they were doing. But… Chris did call him as if they were partners. Chris. Called. Him. And he sounded suspiciously like the old Chris. And what kind of trouble he managed to find this time?

“Sorry, babe. Have to run.”

Chapter 1

Planet Ferzan, Caribbean System

“Secure line is ready, sir.”

“Good.” Guy Royal, the head of one of the biggest communication companies on Ferzan, sat in front of the stationary comm and made a dismissive gesture with his right hand. “Don’t go too far, I might need you later.”

“Yes, sir.” JD Dunne, senior apprentice of Royal, bowed slightly and went to his own office, where he slid down his workchair and put on headphones. “Never built a firewall without leaving hole for yourself” – Master Royal said so himself, though he hardly imagined that his most loyal puppy would use that rule to eavesdrop on him. JD grinned evilly. Oh, he’d been loyal obedient puppy for years, almost worshipping Royal despite his friends’ warnings. But lately Master had started to trust him more, and only a blind idiot wouldn’t have noticed that Royal was up his eyeballs in something illegal. JD wasn’t blind; and, regardless of Royal’s teachings, he still remembered what his mother taught him. And he still remembered that his surrogate brothers had sent him to Royal to avoid anyone using his talents in something bad.

“Shit,” JD muttered, hearing with his own ears how Stuart James, the Head of the Council, no less, told Royal to get rid of the prisoner, because “we are too close and we can’t afford the risk.” Damn it, it meant something real big was going on, and something not good, not good at all. He had to tell the guys about that; and he had to help the prisoner. JD already felt guilty about his part in capturing that Sherel trader, he couldn’t let the man be killed. He just couldn’t. Besides, he really liked the guy… Well, no time for brooding, he had to move fast.

***
Buck paced in his cell, muttering angry under his breath. “Stupid! Just fucking stupid idiot!” This part of the plan was supposed to be simple…

…Of course, he met Chris at Eastern dock, and as soon as he heard what was all this about, he was in. Couple of hours later they came up with a plan. Buck, since he piloted a small trade ship anyway, would go straight on to Ferzan, and do some preliminary recon, probably finding out what happened with Virgil Potter, Mary’s friend who’d tried to deliver the documents before. Meanwhile, Chris and Dr. Jackson would head to Purgatorio – they definitely needed some serious equipment with so little manpower. Besides, Jackson knew a man there who could join them, a preacher or something. And Mary would contact some senior Starfleet officers. Alas, they couldn’t act without official request from Ferzan, but maybe Mary could persuade them to send some force to the planet and wait for that request close to Ferzan’s orbit.

So Buck had arrived on Ferzan several days ago, and even managed to find a couple of leads – and then had wound up here. Well, now he knew for sure that Royal worked for James and most likely was responsible for Potter disappearance, but how was he supposed to get this information to Chris? He’d sent an emergency signal once he realized things were going south, but he wasn’t sure it had even left the building, much less the planet.

“Damn!” And that kid he’d talked with seemed like a decent one, who would have thought he was one of Royal’s lackeys….

Suddenly Buck heard a sound from outside the door; somebody was coming. Buck stood still next to it, preparing to attack; yeah, he didn’t have a weapon and that somebody might not be alone, but he had to try something.

“If you’re planning to stun me once I’m in,” it was the voice of that kid, JD, “it’s a bad idea. There is a number of password protected doors out here anyway.”

“You have a better one?”

“Yes. I set up those passwords. May I come in?”

It was a good question from a jailer to prisoner, wasn’t it? “Be my guest,” Buck answered with a chuckle, stepping to the centre of the cell.

The door slid sideways and the kid entered, and in the next second he was shoving about half of Buck’s own weaponry into his hands.

“Follow me and keep quiet.”

Surprised, Buck holstered his knife and blaster, and did as he was told. They weren’t heading outside, but downstairs; most likely, JD was going to let them out through underground tunnels. That made sense.

Once they entered one of the tunnels, and there weren’t any doors and turns on every step, Buck had the time to pay attention to the kid’s appearance – he was armed, too, and though he didn’t have a bag of any sort, Buck knew that the type of clothes the kid wore could hold everything that was necessary for survival. It looked like JD wasn’t planning to come back after letting him out; good for him - the kid was too good for someone like Royal, but still…

“Why are you doing this, kid?”

JD answered without missing a beat. “I came to Royal to study communications, not murder. Careful, this one has low ceiling.”

Indeed, Buck had to bend almost in half, though JD didn’t even have to bow his head. Short height had its advantages sometimes.

“How soon till they know we’re gone?” Buck asked, once he was able to draw himself up. If they were followed, it would be up to him to protect himself and the kid; JD had a blaster, all right, but ‘communications, not murder’.

“They already do, but I’m sure they’ll be too busy to do anything about it!”

Buck didn’t like the grin that appeared on JD’s face. “What…” and then there was a dull, but strong sound. “What the hell?!”

The grin became broader. “That’s my distraction. Come on, we’re almost there.”

Indeed, soon there was a narrow staircase, and suddenly they were in some alley, next to a busy city street. Buck hadn’t recognized it in at first sight, so he looked around, trying to orient himself – and saw a column of smoke couple of miles north. A number of emergency vehicles were heading there, and Buck had a sudden suspicion it was Royal’s office.
“Guess I overdid it a little,” looking the same say, JD shrugged with something like embarrassment, then turned to face Buck. “You have a place to be right now?”

Buck shook his head. Meeting with Chris was set for tomorrow, and showing up in that tavern earlier might be a bad idea, especially until he learned what kind of consequences were brought by JD’s little ‘distraction’.

“No? Good, we need to cross couple of blocks here, keep behind me and try not to attract too much attention.”

They passed those blocks without trouble, and went underground again; half an hour later the journey ended in some well hidden apartment.

The front door, it seemed, was protected better than those cells at Royal’s. Buck noticed at least three different locks (one of them DNA protected), and most likely there were more. Inside, there was a small kitchen, tiny bathroom, and two rooms – one was closed, the other one had more tech equipment than Buck’s entire ship. JD locked the door behind them, marched to the kitchen, and poured himself a glass of a weird liquid from a really big jug.

“If you’re hungry, help yourself to what’s in the fridge.”

Buck followed the advice, but continued studying his surroundings. Among strange things he couldn’t guess the purpose for there were three round buttons on one of the kitchen walls – red, blue and brown. Having finished his glass, JD pushed the brown one. Buck decided to give in to his curiosity: “What’s this?”

The kid shrugged. “I’ve just let my friends know I’m here and want to talk with them. Though with that ruckus out there they’ve probably already guessed. Ez should be here in an hour at most, but I’m not sure Vin’s on the planet.”

So the other two buttons most likely belonged to those Vin and Ez, whoever they were, but Buck hadn’t had the time to ask that – JD already went to computer room, with another full glass in his hand. Finding himself a plate to put his sandwich on, Buck followed.

JD looked absolutely at home among all those keyboards and monitors; his fingers flew with a light speed, not slowing his chatter at all.

“Okay, kids, lets find out what big and bad thing James is up to… They are not good enough not to leave any traces, come on, baby…”

“Shit!” Buck exclaimed out loud, suddenly seeing a news flash on the right monitor. Of course it was dedicated to explosion in Royal’s office and of course it had pictures of both him and JD, him as ‘unknown suspect’ and JD as accomplice. On the one hand, it was good he wasn’t accused of the kid’s kidnapping, on the other…

“Wow!” JD finally noticed the newsflash. “Ez won’t like it.”

“You are absolutely right, Mr. Dunne, I won’t.” At the sound of the new voice Buck almost jumped, furious with himself that he hadn’t heard the footsteps. Carefully and slowly he turned around to see the newcomer – Ez, presumably. Meanwhile, the man continued speaking with what sounded like Swetsian accent. “I’m glad you finally decided to part your ways with Mr. Royal, but surely you could do it less dramatically?”

“Ez!”

JD flew out of his chair and was going to give his friend a handshake or even a hug when he got stopped by another polite phrase: “Maybe you introduce me to our guest?”

“Oh, yeah. Ez, this is Buck Wilmington, trader from Sherel. Buck, this is Ezra Standish.” He didn’t add an occupation, but it really wasn’t necessary; Standish’s outfit spoke clear enough. Professional gambler, which in Buck’s book equaled to conman and cheat. The kid sure kept interesting company.

“Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Wilmington. So, what was all that about?”

JD immediately began telling his part in this mess, animatedly and enthusiastically and about a hundred words per minute. Buck sure understood less than a half, but Standish must be used to kid’s speed.

“So James is planning something real big, but I haven’t found what yet,” JD finished.

“Well, maybe Mr. Wilmington knows the hidden motives, if Mr. James and Mr. Royal believed him to be a hindrance. Care to enlighten us, sir? Or everything that happened was just some tragic mistake?”

The sarcasm was unmistakable, and Buck snarled in return. “I know your lot, Standish, you’ll sell anything for the right price. How do I know you won’t sell us to James tomorrow?”

JD opened his mouth, eager to protect his friend, but Standish stopped him with a gesture.

“You are absolutely right about my character, Mr. Wilmington,” he said with a smile that ladies no doubt found charming. “But there are some things out there – very few, mind you, - that I just don’t sell. Mr. Dunne happens to be one of them, and after his little stunt,” he pointed at the monitor where that damned newsflash was playing again, “you are sort of tied together. Besides, our young friend already got interested in James’s dealings, and, knowing his curiosity, he won’t stop until he knows everything. It might be easier and safer for everyone to combine our efforts.”

Buck had to admit Standish had a point. With the way this apartment was secured and amount of equipment here, these guys sure weren’t helpless, and even possible Standish’s ties in darker parts of Ferzan might be useful in their quest. And Chris did ask him to look not only for information, but for potential allies as well. Reaching a decision, Buck nodded: “Okay.”

“Good. Well, I believe we’ll be more comfortable in the kitchen, where more than one person could actually sit. And it’s better to wait a little.”

JD lit up even more, though Buck thought it wasn’t possible. “Vin’s on Ferzan?”

“Yes, he arrived two days ago. He should be here soon.”

They had just put out four folding chairs, when a new man appeared in the kitchen – as soundlessly as Standish.

“Vin!” this time JD got his hug, and of course launched on another retelling of their adventure – Buck finally realized it was the first real ‘action’ for the kid, and that amplified his gratitude. Once JD let go of his friend, Buck was able to view him properly…damn. He thought the gambler was bad, but Vin wore the stripes of a bounty hunter! Ferzan had several rather shady Guilds, yeah, but bounty hunters were openly held in contempt among the Starfleet. Of course, criminals needed to be brought to justice, and both Sherel and Ferzan had their wanted lists, but most of the hunters didn’t discriminate against receiving their checks from any of the Five States – unofficially, because officially the Caribbean System was not only neutral, but a safe heaven for everyone. Any person who’d reached the Caribbeans was free as long as they obeyed local laws, and it was one of the principles the Starfleet stood up for. Especially since most of those whom the States called criminals were political refugees of some kind.

Meanwhile, JD finished with his tale and got to introductions. “Vin, this is Buck Wilmington. Buck, this is Vin Tanner.”

Tanner? Buck knew this name, and… yeah, the description matched. “Are you the same Tanner who had some fun with failed lynching on Purgatorio couple of months ago?” he asked.

Tanner’s look sharpened instantly, suddenly strongly reminding Buck of Chris. “Maybe,” he drawled. “Why ask?”

Buck shrugged. “James is indeed planning something nasty, and we want to stop him. ‘We’ meaning Chris Larabee and Co.”

Tanner’s eyes softened and he gave a small smile. “Good cause and indeed good company.” He sat, with a gesture inviting others to join him and Buck to start talking. Well, at least one guy in this strange team wasn’t a windbag.

Buck told them about Mary Travis’s suspicions and request, the idea of Chris’s initial plan and how he ended up in Royal’s hands, following the trail of Virgil Potter.
“I sent out an emergency signal, once I realized where the things were going, but I don’t know if it got through,” he finished.

JD shook his head. “Everything was blocked in the office, no chance.”

“Then the plan hasn’t changed, we’re meeting tomorrow morning.”

“Where?” Standish asked, and Buck hadn’t answered right away, again assaulted by doubt.

“You can’t stop James with four men, even if one of them is Larabee,” Tanner observed quietly. “You’ll need help.”

Well, they were right. “At ‘Golden Lemon’”.

To his surprise, Vin chuckled: “Told you, she has a thing for Starfleet.” Standish grimaced.

“You know Inez?” Buck asked, not exactly liking this idea. Inez Recilios, lovely owner of the Lemon, was one of the very few women Buck hadn’t won yet.

“It’s necessary in my line of business,” Standish clearly wanted to drop the subject. “So what’s the plan?” this was directed to Vin.

Tanner shrugged. “We need more info, that’s obvious. So the kid will do his tech magic, and you and I will ask some people some questions. Buck, you probably should just stay here, let all that fuss out there die out a little, tomorrow JD’ll lead you to ‘Golden Lemon’ the safest way…”.

Buck nodded, acknowledging the sense of that, and then Vin asked about the time of the meeting.

“9 a.m.”

“Okay. We’ll be there.” Having said that, Tanner left; JD went back to his computers, and Standish waited, so enough time would separate his and Vin’s leaving. These guys sure took caution seriously.

“Could you do me a favor, Mr. Wilmington?” Standish asked once he was ready to go. “Make sure Mr. Dunne won’t forget about eating and sleeping. He tends to be caught in his research.”

Almost shocked by such request, Buck nevertheless managed to nod, and the front door closed behind the gambler. Damn, just what ties united those three?

Chapter 2

An hour later, Buck got bored watching JD hitting the keys, and let his curiosity to get the better of him.
“Hey, kid, can I ask you a question, or you can’t be distracted?”

“Ask away, Buck, I can always search and talk in the same time!”

Well, that wasn’t surprising. “How did you hook up with Tanner and Standish? It’s not like you have much in common.”

JD shrugged. “We’re family.”

“Family?”

“Yeah. Brotherhood of the Rathouse.”

“Rathouse?” Buck felt like an idiot, repeating after JD, but so far things hadn’t gone clearer.

“Well, it’s an unofficial name, Ez thinks it’s stupid, but I like it. In police paperwork we are called the Runners, street gang from the cargo port.”

“Street gang?” he really should stop repeating. “You grew up on the streets?”

“Nah, I told you, in the port. I wouldn’t have lasted long on the streets, but I got lucky.”

“How?”

With another shrug, JD began his story, accompanied by the rustle of keys and occasional beeping of the monitors.

“Mom died when I was nine, something went wrong with her heart. I lived with an Uncle for a while, then he died too.” Something in JD’s voice told Buck he hadn’t mourned that Uncle all that much. “Thank Gods I’d already turned 12 by then, they couldn’t send me to orphanage.”

Buck nodded; he knew the Caribbean laws on the matter. Children after 12 without family among residents didn’t become the wards of the state, they were considered old enough to be on their own. In theory, there were enough jobs in the System where a teen could legally earn a living, especially on agrarian planets, and most of the Guilds took young apprentices, even the Academy had some programs for those who showed potential. Hell, Buck himself had lost his Mom, his only family, at 13, but by then he’d already been an apprentice with an engineer of Academy training fleet, one of the Mom’s regulars… The man had treated him okay, and even helped him enter the Academy once Buck was old enough, and then the Academy had its own idea of equality… The idea which meant Buck had caught as much flak about being a son of a port whore, as Chris about being a son of a Parsian noble. But not everyone was that lucky. In reality, even on Sherel there were enough kids on the streets, and on Ferzan there were plenty. But it was still hard to believe JD had been one of them…

“I was too small for simple jobs with manual labor, and they won’t give any job or apprenticeship requiring brains to a street kid with nobody to vouch for him. So… ”

JD sat on some bench in a quiet part of trade block, rubbing his hands, desperately trying to get warmer. He was cold, he was hungry, his bruises hurt all over and he had no idea what to do and where to go. He couldn’t find any way to earn food; there were several charity missions in the city, of course, but all of them were unofficially claimed by one gang or other. A kid like him, newcomer unable to defend himself…he often got a beating instead of food. The same went for dumpsters behind restaurants and food stores. He thought about stealing couple of times, but, first, Mom’s image was stopping him and, second, he had neither skill nor talent for it. Though sometimes getting caught seemed like a good idea – at least one hot meal and a night under the roof, courtesy of police, but just another beating was more likely. Suddenly, a gust of wind brought aroma of food from somewhere; JD’s stomach clenched, and this time he couldn’t hold back the tears. Mama…

“Something wrong, Mister?”

Startled by the voice, JD looked up. In front of him stood a teen not much taller than JD, he was clean and dressed rather well, at least to JD’s eye; maybe he belonged to one of the offices nearby and came to run JD off?

“Nothing, sir, I’m fine…” and then JD saw a large sandwich the teen held in his hand, it must be the source of the aroma, and he stopped noticing anything else.

“Oh, I see. Well, it happens so that I’m in dire need of company for lunch. Would you join me?”

“Duh?”

The teen suddenly shoved the sandwich in JD’s hands. “Eat,” he ordered. “But slow, don’t choke on it.”

It was the tastiest thing JD had ever eaten. Having finished the last crumbs, he looked back at his savior.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Never mind. You have anywhere to go, kid?”

JD shook his head,

“Damn… You know the eastern entrance of cargo port?

“Yeah.” JD finally noticed the stranger had an odd accent.

“Go there, right after the entrance there is an old broken shuttle, wait for me there. I’ll be there by nightfall. If anyone asks, say Gambler sent you.”

“Yes, sir!”


“And that was it. Gambler, I mean Ezra, vouched for me, and Nail, he was the head of the gang at the time, took me in. Though he was all grown up already, he left in a month after that, and Hunter, I mean Vin, became the leader. It wasn’t an ordinary home with parents, of course, but never again I was real hungry, cold or seriously beaten. As I said, I got lucky.”

Buck swallowed the lump in his throat, trying to banish the image of JD – alone, cold, hungry, and beaten – from his mind. Damn it, he’d known kid for less than a week, where the hell that surge of protectiveness was coming from?

“So, what was so unusual about the Runners?” he asked, trying to sound casual. They might have saved JD from hunger, but at what price was an open question so far.

JD was happy to talk about his one time home and family.

…The Rathouse was the nickname of an abandoned building in the old part of the port, the building the Runners lived in. The authorities of the port looked the other way, and the kids were under protection of dockworkers. They ran on various errands for them (that probably where their name had come from), helped with easier jobs, watched out so the port was free from petty thievery or big fights. Some of the Runners became dockworkers themselves, or found some other jobs in the port, some developed other skills. JD was sure that every one of Ferzan Guilds both sides of the law had at least one former Runner among its members.

Born Ferzans, like JD, were rare. Well, what else could be expected from a cargo port gang? Those who could afford real ticket arrived at passenger port on other side of the city; those who could not, who were on the run and sought refuge on Ferzan – those arrived hiding in overcrowded holds of cargo ships. Not everyone survived the journey, and so orphaned kids often found themselves in the port with nowhere to go. On the other hand, there were always a number of teen runaways, dreaming to build themselves a new life on Ferzan – and if you didn’t have friends, family or money, cargo port was as good a place to start as any.

JD didn’t know where Nail came from, but he’d heard gossip about both Vin and Ezra, and didn’t mind sharing it. Vin was a half-Kriovian, coming from one of a few tribes that still tried to live in harmony with nature. Buck vaguely remembered their story, from the course of Recent History in the Academy – their planet had been destroyed some decades ago during the latest conflict between Parsian and Logrian Empires. About half of the population had managed to escape, and, after several rounds of multilateral negotiations, they’d gone to some planet in Jorian Republic. Of course, Ferzan had served as a staging post. While Kriova had been staying on Ferzan, Vin’s mother got sick and died; and since he was a half-breed, he’d been left behind. He’d been five and so ended up in the orphanage, and managed to run away from there a couple of years later.

“He found the Rathouse himself,” JD said, staring at some numbers on one of the monitors, “and he didn’t have anyone to vouch for him, but Nail took him in nevertheless. And he laid down the law that any orphanage runaway should be taken in and couldn’t be run off during the first year, unless he breaks some major rule. The law still stands, though they burned down the old orphanage some years ago and the rumor is the new one isn’t that bad.”

Standish, on the other hand, was a runaway, reaching the Caribbeans on his own at his early teens. The rumor was that he was a heir to some rich family (in Swetsian States, apparently), and he’d run away because of an evil step-parent or something. Well, that explained his manners, though Buck highly doubted he was indeed a heir. Most likely a bastard, just less lucky than Chris, who’d got a first-class ticket and a place in paid division of the Academy when his father decided he didn’t need a bastard son anymore.

Meanwhile, JD returned to his own story.

“I was good with computers, did odd jobs with them around the port, but I got stupid once and showed off my skills at the wrong place. Vin and Ez were worried that some violent gang or another will snag me because of those skills, and they wanted to place me somewhere I can be protected, and Royal appeared just then, wishing to take me as his apprentice… The guys didn’t like him even then, but his company was big, powerful and legit, I wanted to learn from him, and we decided it was lesser of all evils. The same year I became his apprentice Vin and Ezra left the Rathouse, too. We stayed in touch, of course, and built this place for meeting and sometimes hiding…”

At that moment, one of the monitors suddenly started beeping louder and with alarming frequency.

“Shit!” JD’s typing skyrocketed, and Buck quietly went to the kitchen, to organize some food while kid was struggling through a firewall, and to think on what he’d heard.

Brotherhood of the Rathouse, indeed; must be as strong as brotherhood of the Starfleet. Maybe even stronger, because when Starfleet cadets were busy missing lectures in the Academy and having fun in local taverns, those boys already watched each other backs in a constant fight that was survival. No wonder Standish, Tanner and the kid trusted each other unconditionally and didn’t hesitate getting involved in each other problems. No wonder Larabee had felt a kindred spirit in Tanner, if that long-haired one had managed to lead such a gang for a few years. And it looked like Vin and Ezra right now were talking not only to their ‘business acquaintances’ out there. Buck could only imagine how vast the net of the former Runners was, how many people in different places still had their first loyalty to the Rathouse. Wilmington grinned, setting a pre-made dinner to the oven. He managed to fulfill his part of the plan, after all. He’d gone and found them some mighty fine, if interesting, allies, and he was sure - come tomorrow, they would have more than enough information.




Chapter 3

Chris looked at the big digital clock, adorning one of the walls in small upper room in Golden Lemon. 8:50 a.m. No reason to worry yet, as he’d told himself several times already.

…Inez had met them that morning half-scared half-pissed, talking a hundred words a minute, half of them Jorian. Finally she’d calmed down enough to tell Chris and his companions about yesterday’s happenings at Royal’s and that the police had been looking for Buck. The newsflash was still playing on street screens, and that was good in a way, because it meant that Buck hadn’t been killed or caught yet. And in a ten minutes he would be here, and Chris would be able to ask him personally what the hell he was thinking involving a kid. That John Dunne didn’t look a day older than 15 on those screens.

‘No reason to worry, Larabee!’ Damn, he didn’t drag Buck in this mission to get the man killed. He wanted them to be friends again – it’d been his fault they had drifted apart. Wilmington had kept him alive, literally and figuratively, after the tragedy, but Chris needed to learn how to handle his memories before he could handle being around Buck, and finally he’d managed to push the man away. He wanted to redeem that now. Izerlohn happiness was lost forever, but maybe they could rebuild something on the memory of the old Academy days, when they were just two teens with baggage, different as night and day, but still friends… But Buck had to be alive for that.

With an effort Chris turned his gaze from the clock to Jackson and Sanchez. The two men were playing holographic chess – the same set they’d began back on Purgatory, where they’d picked up Sanchez together with various weapons. The man had been working in that humanitarian mission, but Nathan had cited rumors that Josiah Sanchez had killed more that a fair share of bad guys in his time. Judging by the way the Preacher handled some of the weapons they had bought, those rumors were true. It had taken some effort to convince him to join them, but finally Sanchez agreed, mumbling something about crows.

At last, at 8:59 a.m. the door opened, and Buck showed, followed by John Dunne, which wasn’t a big surprise, and two more people. The first one was dressed as a Ferzan gambler, the second one… Chris smiled broadly, recognizing Vin Tanner. Somehow that wasn’t a big surprise either – you could call it destiny or coincidence, but this adventure began with that interrupted lynching on Purgatory. Introductions were made all around, followed by a couple of handshakes, and then it was Josiah who unexpectedly spoke first.

“So that’s you real name, Hunter. Suits you.”

Tanner tensed at that, threw Sanchez a pointed look, than relaxed and went to shake man’s hand. He got a brief hug in return, and even allowed it, though Chris thought he wouldn’t.

“Good to see you, Preacher. Wondered where you disappeared to.”

“You know each other?” The incredulous question was from Jackson.

“I ran a small temple in Ferzan cargo port some years ago. Vin here was one of the young souls I tried to guide.”

“Wow, that sort-of-wooden building near northern docks?!” Damn, the kid sure was loud. “Cool.”

“That one, brother Dunne.” Noticing Chris’s glare, Josiah added: “But we’d better leave the discussion of old times for later.”

Chris nodded, and invited the men to sit around the table.
“So, guys, what do we have?” he asked once everyone was seated.

Buck looked at Tanner and Standish, Tanner nodded to Dunne, and the kid put a small compact on the table. The screen appeared, with some names and numbers, and JD began talking.

“Royal’s company and some others, who are officially and unofficially part of James’s syndicate, had lots of contracts with Triad Union over the last couple of years, and the numbers don’t often match… But I guess we already knew whom they worked for. What’s interesting, though, it’s a number of ‘workers’ that arrived on Ferzan within those contracts, and their qualifications… Well, they clearly aren’t what they try to make it look like. And the only significant date I’ve managed to find from their mail is tomorrow. ”

Tanner nodded at that, and inserted a flash card in the compact. “Some well-known hitmen are indeed on Ferzan now, and at least couple of dozens simple hired muscle. And it seems they plan to assassinate the Governor tomorrow, on his way to Elf Charity Fund concert.”

The card was finally uploaded, and a map of Ferzan City appeared on the screen.

“The Captain of the Governor’s guard is obviously working for James, too,” Vin followed a route on the map with his finger, and it turned red. “Because the route planned for tomorrow is more than unsafe, it’s dangerous. And the men put for tomorrow’s shift are a little suspicious, too. The Lieutenant tried to voice his concerns, but was dismissed, and he’ll hardly manage to get to the Governor. The route itself has four possible places for a good ambush,” Vin pointed four locations on the route, and blue circles appeared.

“Damn!” Buck exclaimed. “No way could we cover all four. Do we have enough time for preliminary reckon?”

“No need, Mr. Wilmington.” Standish produced a stylus from somewhere and circled an area around one of the potential ambush places with it. “Locals say there is an unusual activity here, quite a number of dangerous people around. They are messing with the locals, and law looks the other way.”

“The source reliable?”

“It’s Nail’s territory, Vin. And he is really worried, was going to contact you or Mast this week.”

That clearly was enough for Tanner, but Chris needed a full picture, so he asked: “Who’s Nail?”

“The leader of the non-violent crime ring in the area, Captain Larabee. He knows what’s going on on his territory much better than anyone.”

“And he’s willing to help us protect the Governor? What’s in it for the likes of him?” The skepticism in Jackson’s voice was obvious, as was unvoiced continuation ‘and you’. That was a reasonable question, though it looked like not only JD and Vin, who clearly had some strong ties with Standish, but Buck and Josiah also knew the answer. Even if they were leaving it to Ezra to actually voice it.

“Do you know the difference between violent and non-violent crime, Dr. Jackson? Unlike bandits, we, cheats, thieves and frauds, need a stable and prospering community to work our trade. Governor Travis is a hard man, but he is good in his place. Stuart James, on the other hand, has such a reputation that not one self-respecting thief would consider working with him.”
That was delivered with a cat smile and in a deep Swetsian accent, the kind of which Chris hadn’t heard since he’d left home. The pause that followed was brief and ended by the laughter from Josiah.

“So Nail is the Shadow of Alpen district? Good to see the boy lived up to his dreams, I always said he was talented… And what’s Mast doing now?”

“He is a police Lieutenant in Worso district,” Tanner answered.

“Damn it, guys, how are you doing this?”

“Doing what exactly, Mr. Wilmington?”

“This!” Buck threw up his hands. “Half of you on one side of law, half on the other and some even trotting the line! I bet everyone is good enough in what they do and yet you’re still family! How?”

“Quite simple, Mr. Wilmington. It’s all in a correct way of distributing information.” Another cat smile. “We usually don’t burden those with clear law-abiding souls with unnecessary knowledge.”

That was greeted with chuckles all around, and Chris realized he was really curious about what Buck meant by ‘family’, but it could wait. “You’re sure the ambush is here?” he asked both Tanner and Standish, pointing at the mentioned circle.

“Yes.”

“Good. How many people are we talking about?”

“Fifty. At least.”

Buck gave a whistle. “Dammit, how can we protect Travis from them?”

“Maybe we shouldn’t protect him,” something in Vin’s voice made Chris’s hackles rise. “Maybe we should kidnap him first.”

“You know, Tanner, I like the way you think. But where will we hide him afterwards? Palace would be out of question.” Buck looked at Ezra, who shrugged.

“There are some good hideouts, of course, but if we want to have options it might be prudent to leave the planet immediately and wait out on the orbit in the shadow of Starfleet patrol cruisers. If you trust their crews, of course.”

Chris nodded - he knew both Captains.

“But if it’ll look like kidnapping, they would close all spaceports!”

“Don’t worry, kid, we’re parked on Starfleet base so it won’t be a problem.” Chris straightened up, laid his elbows on the table and leaned on them. The base’s commander, like patrol Captains, wouldn’t get involved without direct order from Starfleet command, but they would cover a Starfleet officer from local civil authorities, at least at first. And by the moment they might start asking questions, they would have enough time to familiarize Governor Travis with Mary’s folder, backed up by JD’s findings, and get that direct order. “So, what the best place for our ambush?”

***
It had taken them about two hours to come up with a thorough plan, and now they worked on the preliminary part of it. Buck was sitting at the table with a pencil in his hand and a printed city map in front of him – nothing unusual in the sight, Buck liked to say that “holographic images are all good, but you need old-fashioned paper for the detail”. And he always went through the plan with print out logistics, be it a battle in the space or a ground-based operation. And sometimes he did find some important details Chris had overlooked during initial planning.

The place they had chosen for their own ambush didn’t have any underground tunnels nearby, neither did Starfleet base, so they would need to get away using some surface transport. And so at the moment Standish was out there, producing two cars for them (one notable, one invisible) and several scooters. As long as the vehicles were untraceable, Chris didn’t care if they were being obtained legally or not. JD was sitting in the corner now, typing furiously on his laptop, creating the autopilot program for one of those cars, as well as some other software that would throw traffic cops off their trail tomorrow. The kid was completely engrossed in his work, though he probably was still steaming over the fact that he would miss all the action tomorrow, waiting in the other car. He’d tried to argue the point, appealing to Buck, and Chris had to admit JD had a rather impressive puppy dog look, but one word from Tanner, and he’d deflated. One got to respect that kind of authority…

During lunch, Buck had told him briefly about the background of those three, and some things had become clearer. Former Runners sure were a powerful group, and Chris was ready to bet no one of the local big players knew anything about it. Good thing neither Tanner nor Nail offered their loyalty lightly… Though after they’d see this mess through situation might change, if Governor Travis handled things right… Too early to think about that, anyway. Right now Tanner, together with Sanchez and Jackson, was going through their weaponry, making sure they had everything they needed to execute the plan. The Preacher also tried to use this opportunity to catch up with his former charge, but, as far as Chris could say, he wasn’t having much luck with it. Tanner, like Larabee himself, wasn’t a man to talk about personal matters, even with someone he obviously trusted.

“Okay, boys,” Chris unstuck from the wall he’d been leaning on. “I’m heading out.”
He was going to the base; the staff there was trustworthy, all right, but he was the captain of “Freedom”, he needed to check for himself that she was stationed right where they needed her, with full tanks and ready to launch any moment.

JD hadn’t heard, Buck mumbled something unintelligible, the other three nodded. “Behave yourself and don’t forget about the time.”

“We won’t, Brother. See you at ‘Blue Pumpkin’.” That really tasteful name belong to a tavern near the place they’d chosen, the owner owed Standish a couple of favors. The seven of them had agreed to meet there in five hours from now, to start setting the decorations for the first (and hopefully not the last) act in this drama.

“Watch your backside out there.”

“Tanner, I’m a big boy.”

“Don’t doubt it, Cowboy, but Ferzan City ain’t your turf.”

Chris grinned. That nickname Vin had saddled him with the first day they’d met should be annoying as hell, but for some reason it wasn’t. “I think I’ll manage, Hunter. See you.” And he left the room before it all turned to a round of friendly bantering. Not that he would mind, actually, but now wasn’t the time. Later.

Chapter 4

Spaceship‘Freedom’, Ferzan’s orbit

Orrin Travis, Governor of Ferzan and former Judge of the Caribbean System, woke up slowly. Wherever he was right now, it didn’t felt like his own bed; having opened his eyes, he confirmed it. He lay on a top of a narrow cot, fully dressed; the ceiling was unfamiliar. Travis sat up and looked around the small windowless room – apart from the cot, there was a desk with a chair in front of it, a hotbox on the desk and a big screen on one of the walls, the screen was turned off. The air had some distinct familiar smack, which meant he was either on some sealed base, or, more likely, on a spaceship. And he didn’t remember planning any off-planet trips… Okay, what did he remember?

There was that Elf Charity Fund concert in Rango Hall, his chief guard acting strangely, unusual route… an attack… and then blackness. Damn, who the hell had kidnapped him and why? A light knock on the door signaled he might obtain his answers soon, or at least some of them. As he stood up, the door slid sideways, and let in a tall blond in a Starfleet uniform. Now that was unexpected.

“Good day, sir,” the stranger said. “How are you feeling?”

Good question, by the way. Quick inventory showed that he was more or less fine, save for slight headache.

“Confused. Who are you, where are we and what do you want?”

The man gave a small grin. “My name is Christopher Larabee, sir, Captain of the Starfleet. We are on board my ship, currently staying on Ferzan’r orbit. Mary Travis hired my crew to deliver these documents to you, sir.” With that, Captain approached Travis and offered a standard reader in black leather holder.

Not sure he believed what he’d just heard, though the name itself sounded familiar, Travis nevertheless took the reader and asked:
“And you kidnapped me just to give me this?”

“There wasn’t any other way, sir. I think you should read this information first, and then we’ll answer all your questions. There are coffee and sandwiches in the hotbox, in case you want them, and that green button near the screen is connected with the bridge. Sir.” Having said this, Larabee left the room before Travis could react. Well, he might as well learn whatever Mary had sent him this unusual way – if that was from Mary at all, of course.

There was indeed a mug of steaming coffee inside the hotbox, and Larabee’s crew had had enough opportunities to inject him with anything they wanted to bother drugging it, so he took the mug and settled in the chair to read.

All members of Travis family had a number of personal codes, paroles and other ways to verify their identity in any electronic correspondence, so it soon became obvious that this collection of documents was indeed gathered by Mary. And knowing her, Travis didn’t doubt that the veracity of each piece of information was checked at least twice. And the picture coming into sight was far from pretty. Damn, he’d never liked James much, as a person, but this? A conspiracy with Triad Union, no less, planned assassination and actual coup on Ferzan? And he hadn’t noticed a thing? Just how many of his personal staff was involved, if Mary had to ask a man like Larabee to deliver all this? (Now Travis remembered where he’d heard the name; the former Commander of Izerlohn Fortress had quite a reputation.) And if Larabee had decided to kidnap him, just what stage were James’s plans in?

The Governor took a deep breath to calm down – emotions wouldn’t help any – then got up and pressed that button. Ten minutes later Larabee appeared in the doorway, and, needing to gain at least some control over the situation, Travis hurried to speak first.
“Was it really necessary to kidnap me, Captain Larabee?”

“I’m afraid it was, sir. We had enough reasons to believe the attack was planned for today, and there was an ambush in Alpen district.”

Damn, it was even worse. “So you decided to strike first.”

“Sort of, sir.”

“How many were hurt on the process?”

“Nobody seriously, sir, just scrapes and bruises on both sides. We were accurate.”

“And just who is in this ‘we’?”

“My crew, sir. Three men flew with me from Sherel, and three are our local allies.”

In all, seven. Well, at least it was a lucky number. “Do you know what’s going on Ferzan now?”

“Yes, sir. Follow me.”

The ship didn’t seem big, and it took them just a few minutes to reach the bridge. It was a large room with a table in the middle; the six men the Captain mentioned were seated there, half of them with comms or laptops. The actual control panels were on the other side of the room, and the screens were everywhere on the walls, each turned on. Some had navigational data on them, some transmitted the images from outer space, and one was linked to Ferzan main news channel. It was muted, but still the sight of James making an announcement didn’t improve Travis’s mood any.

Larabee introduced his men; Nathan Jackson of Sherel Medical Corps Travis knew, he was a friend of Mary; Wilmington didn’t wear a uniform, but obviously had served with Larabee at some point, and Sanchez was an enigma. The other three, ‘local allies’, were even stranger, though. A gambler, a bounty hunter and a kid, former apprentice of Royal. Not your average choice for a situation like this, besides, Travis was sure he’d seen Standish in some courtroom before, and not as a witness. But still, these men had most likely saved his life today, so he shouldn’t be squeamish.

“Gentlemen. Do we know what’s going on on the planet right now?”

Larabee nodded to the kid, JD, and he began talking, looking mostly at his laptop.

“They decided not to hide your disappearance, sir. It was announced planet-wide that the Governor had been kidnapped by some unknown terrorists, who are now hiding somewhere far from Ferzan City, but hadn’t left the planet yet. They used it as an excuse to send most of the police out of the city.”

“Shit,” at least two of Larabee crew said aloud simultaneously, and Travis had to agree with the assessment.

“So they decided to take a risk and to go with the initial plan.”

“Looks like it, Captain Larabee.” JD continued. “James called a meeting of City Council for tomorrow, at 2 p.m. To discuss some ‘emergency measures’.”

“He will ask for emergency powers,” Travis mused aloud. “There are no rules how to act when a Governor is kidnapped, he’ll push them to equal the kidnapping to death.”

“Will the Council go for it?”

“No. James might persuade some members and buy some, but there are at least three of them who wouldn’t budge an inch until they’d know for sure what’s going on.”

“So he’ll kill them and try to overrun the city by force,” Tanner concluded and Travis had to agree with him.

“Can we warn them, the City Council?” Wilmington asked.

“No way, Buck, we, I mean Royal’s company, made personal comm equipment for all of them, and James isn’t as stupid as we want to believe.”

Alas, that was true; Wilmington swore and Larabee spoke up again: “JD, how many men does James have?”

“At least three hundred, Captain, maybe more.”

“Damn,” Travis said. “I need to request Starfleet assistance, before the Council will be forced to make any decisions, but without the official channel it might take weeks… ”

“It won’t, sir.” Larabee put out his own comm and started looking for something. “Sorry, I should have told this from the start, Mary managed to persuade the Command it was serious, so the fleet of Admiral Scarborough is on his way from Sherel. You need only to sign and send this, and their training session will turn into official mission.”

Chris pushed the orders to him, and Travis looked through the opened letter. He recognized Mary’s style, slightly different from his own, but it would do; he signed it with comm’s stylus, entered his official code and a scan of his fingerprint was the final confirmation of ID. The Governor returned the comm to the Captain, who stood up and went to control panels, to send the message.
“When will they be here?” Travis asked once Chris came back to the table.

“In three days.”

“Damn.” That was much better than a month, but still too late.

“We have two options, sir. We can wait here for Scarborough fleet and then restore an order on Ferzan, or we can try and stop James tomorrow.”

“With what, Captain? The seven of you against hundreds? I can’t give you an order like that.”

Larabee shrugged. “Starfleet Command had approved interference, sir. That means my ship, as well as patrol cruisers and garrison of the planet base, small as it is, are under your command now. It’s your decision, sir.”

“A lot could happen in three days,” Standish drawled quietly, not lifting his eyes from his comm. “And with all due respect to their skills, Sherel Medical Corps still haven’t learned to resurrect.”

“We can’t just sit here and let James kill half of the Council…” JD said.

Travis looked at the men at the table. Well, Dunne, Standish and Tanner had a personal stake in what was going on Ferzan, maybe even a personal grudge against James; Larabee’s reputation said he didn’t care much about the odds of the battles he’d rushed into, but the other three? And yet the Governor saw the same determination on each face. He nodded.

“Okay, we’ll need some help on the surface,” Larabee’s tone changed noticeably now that he had an action to plan. “Standish, what about Nail and his friends, will they get involved?”

“They are not fighters, Captain Larabee, though Nail himself knows how to handle a blaster. But they can be really useful in sabotage, in fact, they are already busy with it. Nail doesn’t like intruders.”

“Good. Vin?”

“There are a dozen or so policemen, mostly junior officers or patrolmen, who’ll disobey orders and come back to the City on my say so. There is also one security agency and one martial arts school whose owners would like an excuse to kick James’s ass. And I can alert chief bodyguard of Counselor Yang, if you think that’s wise.”

With that Tanner looked at Travis, and he nodded, saying “Yang would go anyway, but him being prepared might change the situation for the best.”

“The meeting is in Assembly House?” Sanchez suddenly decided to join the conversation.

“Yes.”

“There is a temple of Ashtie nearby, it has a large fortified cellar with access to city underground tunnels, and I know the priest. It’ll be a perfect place for the headquarters tomorrow.”

“Agreed. Anything else important before we go into details?”

“I still think we should try to let the people know what’s going on somehow.”

“Doctor Jackson is right, gentlemen, and I believe a video appeal from me would be the best. JD, son, is there any chance we can get into news channel or street screens?”

The kid hit a couple of keys before answering: “Not right now. All planet- and even city-wide resources with audio and video content are blocked or at least closely monitored.”

“How long will it take to go through their blocks?” It was interesting, wasn’t it, that Standish didn’t doubt JD’s ability to do this, only time was in question.

“I can write a script in a couple of hours, then it starts working by itself, by tomorrow midday it should be done, give or take another couple of hours.”

“Then start writing it now,” Larabee ordered. “We’ll tape the appeal later. Standish, I have another job for your friends down there.”

“Are we talking about rumor campaign, Captain Larabee?”

“Yes. Do we have enough time for that?”

“More than enough for a good rumor to hit every blog, chat, tavern and club out there. What do you want them to tell?”

“The truth, with one slight correction. I want the bad guys to think Starfleet troops arrive tomorrow.”

Standish grinned evilly, and for the first time Travis had actually believed that crazy mission had a chance.

“Wonderful idea, Captain. It will be prefect if Starfleet base has a number of spare uniforms and, even better, some insignia for ground vehicles.”

“But… It’s illegal to impersonate a Starfleet officer!” Dunne protested.

Travis had to suppress a chuckle. Was it a special ‘Dunne’ sort of naiveté, or the kid just had his own ideas about which laws should be obeyed and which shouldn’t?

Larabee gave a big smile at the remark. “I’m a Starfleet Captain, kid, I have enough power. So I’m reactivating Buck’s commission right now, and temporarily co-opting y’all and anyone else who can be useful.”


Chapter 5

The planning session lasted well into the night (on this side of the planet), but finally Larabee finished it and sent everyone to their respective cabins to get some sleep. Good thing cabins on Starfleet ships had oxygen control, it made possible to get some real rest from just a couple of hours. Early in the morning they would land quietly back on the base, move to the cellar of that temple Sanchez had mentioned and start doing the impossible.

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Travis really enjoyed watching these men planning the action. If he hadn’t known, he would never believed that half of them hadn’t met each other until yesterday. They already gave an impression of a good team… And the thought of facing a small army didn’t seem to faze any of them a bit, and part of their confidence rubbed off on Travis himself. But still, the odds…

“Don’t worry too much, sir,” Sanchez, who’d been walking Travis back to his cabin, said calmly. “Fates are on our side.”

“I’m afraid I even believe you, Mr. Sanchez. But I don’t like the idea of hiding in a safe cellar while others will risk their lives in what should be my battle.”

“It is your battle, sir, and stopping James tomorrow is only a part of it. We can’t risk leaving Ferzan without proper authority in the middle of such crisis, and you know it.”

Travis nodded. Yes, he knew it and he agreed with the point, but it didn’t mean he enjoyed it. Once they reached his cabin, Sanchez spoke aloud again: “Something else bothering you, sir?”

“No…yes. It’s just… what does it say about Ferzan, that its independence is protected mostly by thieves and mavericks?”

Sanchez chuckled. “Brother Ezra read us a real lecture yesterday, about thieves needing a stable country even more than respected businessmen. But don’t sell your people short, Governor. James didn’t buy everyone, and as soon as people know what’s going on, those respected businessmen, as well as their employees, would be on your side. And there is one more thing you might want to think on, sir.”

“Which one, Preacher?”

“Most of those who would fight against James tomorrow grew up on the streets, sir. They have every reason to hate the system in general. If they are willing to risk their lives to protect, among other things, your authority, then maybe you’ve been doing something right?”


***
Chris stood in front of the control panel, checking the parameters and timing for tomorrow’s landing. Tanner was behind him, watching in awe the image of Ferzan on the main screen. Of course, the hunter had traveled a lot through the System, but usually in holds of cargo ships, and, as Vin himself had mentioned earlier, it was his first time on a bridge. Personally, Chris didn’t think the images on the screens here differed much from those on TV documentaries, but then he’d lost the ability of being fascinated by anything a long time ago. Though the fact that Tanner’s presence didn’t irritate him, but rather had the opposite effect, was something to think on. Later, if they’d survive tomorrow.

With his peripheral vision Chris noticed Buck wandering back in the room, but he went to bother Standish (the gambler still sat at the table, checking something on his laptop), so Chris tuned him out, focusing back on the controls.

“What the hell are you playing at, Standish?!” Buck’s angry shout startled both Chris and Vin, and the next minute they were at the other side of the room.

“What’s going on?”

Instead of an answer, Buck turned Ezra’s laptop so Chris could see the screen (the other man didn’t try to stop him), Chris looked at it and saw a Starfleet document… Damn, it was his first promotion, also stating him changing his last name from Arboly to Larabee, all those years ago.

“Care to explain that?” he asked in icy tone.

Standish, with an absolutely blank expression on his face, stood up, and slowly got a small dark pouch from one of his pockets. He loosened the ties, and emptied the contents on the table. There were two parts of a broken toy, a hand-carved spaceship, made of artificial wood. Chris had carved dozens of them for Adam, and he opened his mouth to make another angry demand, when he realized suddenly – while it was indeed his own work, the wood was older then ten years, and the ship itself wasn’t a Starfleed cruiser, but a Parsian one!

“By all the Gods…” Crhis whispered. “You are Liam?”

“In the flesh, sir.” Ezra bowed his head slightly. “Ezra was my middle name, which you probably forgot, and Standish was my mother’s maiden name, which you had no way of knowing, since, like a true Swetsian, she went through at least three marriages before the final deal.”

“But… You are Arboly’s heir, you should be shining at Parsian court making contracts! What the hell are you doing here cheating folks in Ferzan’s casinos?”

“Captain Larabee, I’m sure you know the good Duke of Arboly better than anyone. You also caught a fair glimpse of my dear mother as well. Do you honestly believe they changed after you left? Or that things were different just because I was born within the wedlock? I ran from there as soon as I was old enough to reach the Caribbean System on my own. And I believe I’m bringing much less harm to people in general cheating in Ferzan casinos as Ezra Standish, than I would have done living the life of Liam Arboly. Good night, gentlemen.” With terse nod, Standish left the room before anyone could say anything.

Vin stepped forward and gently turned one of the fragments over and moved it closer to the other one, so that the initial form of the ship became obvious. “He almost got himself killed over it once, you know,” he drawled casually, stunning Chris and Buck even further.

“What? When?”

“How?”

Tanner shrugged. “The day I met him, in Shaddy Alley. It’s actually a neutral territory already, but we sort of patrolled it anyway. So one day we walked in on five of the Rogues gorillas picking on a smaller kid. He was talking his way out of a good beating, was doing well, until one of the Rogues decided he wanted the pouch. It came to blows real quick after that. We never cared much for 5-to-1 odds, so we got involved. After, Nail said that if the kid could use a home, we could use his talking skills.”

Vin quit bothering the toy and turned away from the table, facing one of the screens. “We got close, he told me what that was about. I didn’t take him all that seriously, I mean, half of the kids in the Rathouse had a story like that, though usually it was a dad in the Starfleet, not a big brother… But Ez was determined to find him – you – and I helped him some, though it seemed to have as much sense as me trying to contact Kriova…. One day he got access to some lists and somehow concluded from them that C. Arboly was killed in battle even before Ez left home… I was almost glad then, because, you know, the sooner you give up hopeless dreams and start working towards real ones, the better… Guess it hadn’t occurred to him until now that you might have changed your name just like he did. You must look like your old man, for him to start checking things, right?” Chris didn’t give an answer to that, and Vin continued. “Well, reckon I’ll go find that fool, looks like I owe him an apology after all…”

Vin left the bridge, but Buck wasn’t sure Chris even noticed that, he still hadn’t drawn his eyes from that wooden ship. Shit. Buck mentally kicked himself for starting this chain of epiphanies in the first place. Damn it, Buck knew Chris’s family history well enough to understand all the implications, hell, he probably knew it better that anyone else, including Sarah… He knew Chris’s step-mother, the one who stayed, was a Swetsian businesswoman, interested only on money; he knew Chris had a half-brother ten years his junior, the rightful heir of Arboly title and wealth. He knew Chris didn’t harbor any resentment towards the kid, because he’d never wanted that legacy anyway… And he knew what Ezra hinted at, knew what kind of atmosphere had reigned in Arboly household… He’d been the only one in the Academy who knew Chris’s temper and attitude didn’t come from spoiled brat arrogance, but were a defense mechanism for a child who’d grown up in Hell. Luxuriously furnished Hell, but Hell nevertheless. Damn.

“Chris…” he began tentatively.

“I forgot about his existence, Buck. I’m not sure I even saw him as a real kid back then, not just my ticket to freedom…I wanted him to be healthy and smart, not for his own sake, but so that the Duke would let me go… And when he finally agreed, I made this damn toy as a token of gratitude, or good-bye present, and put the kid out of my mind the minute I boarded the ship. Hell, he should have forgotten me in a month; he was five years old for pity’s sake! But he remembered, and he ran from home to find me, and he was surviving on the streets on his own while I…” Chris trailed off and turned away.

“Seems to me he turned out okay in the end. And it’s probably a good thing he didn’t find you.”

“What?” Chris turned back abruptly.

Buck took a deep breath. Damn, he didn’t think he would ever consciously remind his friend about Izerlohn tragedy, but Chris needed to see the perspective. “If he’d found you then, most likely he would have been killed on Izerlohn.” That wasn’t a certainty, of course, but a real possibility at least. And maybe the only thing that might stop Chris from beating himself to death over this.

“Buck,” he spoke through clenched teeth. “Leave me alone now, will you?”

Okay, maybe that was a good idea. And maybe he should go find Standish and/or Tanner and try straightening things out with them.

He found Ezra faster than he thought – the gambler was heading back to the bridge with a determined expression on his face. Good sign. Probably.

“Look, Standish…”

“Later, Mr. Wilmington. Let me pass, please.”

Buck stepped aside, silently wishing good luck to both former Arbolies.


Chris was staring at that toy, trying to recall at least one moment spent with his brother back then. There must have been something, if the kid remembered him for all these years? Chris was sure he’d become a forbidden subject at the Arboly house as soon as he walked through the front door for the last time, so he must have done something before to deserve Liam’s – Ezra’s – attention? Why hadn’t he sensed back then that little Liam was as uncomfortable there as he himself was? Not that the Duke had encouraged or even approved them spending time together, but that wasn’t an excuse, was it?

Chris heard footsteps approaching. He didn’t want to talk to anybody, but when he turned to say that he saw it was Standish, and, well, if the man had something more to say to him, he would listen.

Ezra came closer, stopped about a step away from Chris and began talking.

“Captain Larabee… Chris. If my earlier speech left you with an impression that I’m blaming you for something, I apologize, because that absolutely wasn’t my intention. I don’t.”

“Why? You have the reasons and the right to.”

“No, I don’t. I built an image, based on a hand-made toy, couple of vague memories and servant tales. You are in no way responsible for that image. But I’m still grateful for it, because it gave me reason to fight becoming the person the Duke and Maude wanted me to become and courage to run before they succeeded.”

“Then we’re even in a way. Though you are much braver than me.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I wanted to leave Arboly since I can remember, but I didn’t dare to run, waiting patiently to be let go.”

Ezra shrugged. “You had a chance of getting away legally, it was prudent to use it. I didn’t, since Mother absolutely refused to endure any more pregnancies.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“Not this, but I should have tried to stay in touch, should have checked on you… Should have known you’d need rescue from there.”

“Chris,” Ezra smiled, and his expression softened. “I knew a lot of our various cousins. Most of them since the tender age of seven were ready to kill anyone and sell anything, including their non-existent soul, to be in my place or even yours. You had no reason to believe I would turn out different, more so that I didn’t have the excuse of ‘those damn genes of his mother’”.

In spite of himself, Chris grinned at the quote, remembering that his father had indeed blamed everything he didn’t like in Chris on his mother’s legacy. She had died in childbirth, and Chris had no way of knowing if he indeed had inherited any of his character traits from her. In appearance he was pure Arboly, Vin had been right about that.

“I’m still sorry. It’s not right that you crossed the Galaxy only to find my name among the dead.”

“Maybe it’s not, but I’ve never regretted leaving Arboly and the Empire. Sometimes it wasn’t easy on Ferzan, but believe me, my adolescence was much happier than my childhood. In a way, I found what I was looking for in Rathouse and among the Runners. And while I regret not being part of your family on Izerlohn…’”

“It’s a good thing you weren’t there,” Chris said and then hurried to explain: “If you were, you’d be either killed in the accident, or I would have done or said something unforgivable in the aftermath.”

“Still… I’m sorry about what happened then, Chris.”

Somehow the words of sympathy didn’t piss Chris off like they usually had. “Thank you. So, what happens now?”

Another shrug. “You don’t owe me anything, Chris. If you want, we might as well forget this little scene.”

“I don’t want to. I want to know the man you’ve become.”

“You might not like what you’ll find, Captain Larabee.”

“I don’t think so. You see, we both rejected the wealth and the name of Arboly to find our own way and our own family. That alone unite us more than any DNA we share.” Chris outstretched his hand.

“Well, you have a point, sir.” Ezra took the offered hand, and they shook firmly.

“But first you have to survive tomorrow,” Chris began once they ended the handshake. “And I got the idea these were you luck charms?” he pointed at the ship.

“Indeed,” he answered, taking one of the parts and pocketing it. “But you need to survive tomorrow, too. And they are pretty good as luck charms.”

Understanding what was being said, Chris took the other part.

***

Buck was leaning on a wall near the door of the cabin Tanner and Standish were sharing tonight, waiting for Ezra to come back from the bridge. He’d already talked with Vin, and was glad to realize that earlier revelations didn’t change anything between them, or, more importantly, between Vin and Chris. Now he needed to work things out with Standish. Finally, the gambler appeared, and Buck quickly started speaking, before the man found an excuse to stop him.

“Standish, I wanted to apologize for jumping at you earlier. Shouldn’t have done it, and I’m sorry.”

“Apology accepted, Mr. Wilmington. Besides, it was for the best – it’s good to have all this in the open.”

“Oh. Look, Ezra, what’s between you and Chris is for you to sort out, and I’m sure you’ll be okay, but I wanted to tell you something. I’m… sort of glad you didn’t find him back then, not just because you might have been killed on Izerlohn, but because this way you could be there for JD when he needed it the most. I know it sounds silly, but I’m really grateful for it.”

“I understand completely, Mr. Wilmington. I’m sort of grateful for that, too.”

“It’s Buck, Ez. Since we’re ‘sort of’ family now.”

“Very good, Buck, and it’s Ez-ra. I’m sure you are adult enough to remember two syllables. Good night, and watch your back tomorrow.”

“You too, Ez.”

With a grimace, which nevertheless hid a smile, Ezra entered the cabin. Going away, Buck heard Vin asking:
“Everything okay?”

“Yes. No one is in need of a headslap, so sleep.”

Buck grinned, wondering if he should check on Chris, making sure the Captain got some sleep, too, but then dismissed that idea. Chris was a big boy, after all.

***
Chris checked the controls one more time, and then opened the panel which hid a small room – a hole, really – his ‘emergency’ bedroom. Though he didn’t remember when he had last used his ‘real’ cabin on ‘Freedom’, if ever. Having adjusted oxygen level, he fell onto the bed, thinking about what last weeks had brought him.

He was working with Buck again, and their friendship was well on the road to where it once had been. A stranger, who’d once backed him up in a fight, was becoming close friend real fast, and without any conscious effort from either of them. He’d found little brother he’d forgotten he had, and they’d even reached an understanding. He had three more men (okay, two men and one kid) under his command, all far from ordinary, all good enough to have on his team. And he had a battle waiting for him tomorrow, the craziest one he’d ever fought in. Damn, but he felt alive! With that thought, he let the sleep claim him.

Epilogue

Planet Ferzan, Caribbean System

Governor Travis stood in his office near the window and watched the life on streets of Ferzan City below. It looked like it was back to normal, though an odd vehicle with Starfleet insignia still flashed every now and then. Those seven mavericks had done the impossible.

They needed to buy as much time as they could, so they let James start the meeting of the Council, and were quietly disposing of the guards within the Assembly House while the man talked in circles, oblivious. After a while, as Travis had supposed, the arguments started, and then JD’s program finally did his job and overcame Royal’s blocks – a video with Travis’s appeal simultaneously appeared on every street screen, half of planet-wide channels and couple of independent video hosting places. Travis had hoped that, with everything in the open like that, James, his hired guns and his backers would forget about their conspiracy plans and focus on saving their own skin, but alas – for some reason they thought they could still win, and a real battle erupted. The Seven had to protect the House and the Council, and they lasted long enough for their various local allies to appear (and some of those inspired by the video joined the melee as well). The idea to create a panic among the enemy with Starfleet symbols also worked, and soon the roles were reversed, and it was the Seven and their small brigade chasing the bad guys. In the end, James, Royal and their remaining men were blocked in several different places of Ferzan City. Some poor souls actually tried to leave the planet on a small trade ship, but they had made the mistake of choosing the cargo port for that – in the passenger one they might have had a chance, but in the Runners territory? No way. They didn’t try to actually storm the hideouts – there wasn’t any point in risking more lives, so they just simply waited for Scarborough fleet to arrive as scheduled, and take care of the rest of the clean up. The fleet did, and the order was more or less restored. Surprisingly, the number of losses among those who mattered was minimal; and though three of the Seven were injured – Sanchez, Wilmington and Standish – it wasn’t serious. They were lucky.

Travis looked from the window to his desk, where a thin folder lay with preliminary results of the investigation he had started. James, Royal and their lackeys, who were captured during the mess, sat in jail awaiting trials; there wouldn’t be any problems with evidence. The official representatives of the Triad Union had, of course, denied any involvement, stating any James’s contacts were rouges on their own without any directions or supporting from the government. In fact, they had even thanked the Caribbean System for ‘helping in discovering some dangerous plotters’. Bastards. But Travis and Scarborough had pretended they bought it, and diplomatically the issue was settled. There wasn’t any point in starting an official scandal anyway. But the conspiracy itself had been big, and a lot of people on Ferzan had been involved. Some had been willing, like Royal, some had been used without their knowledge and some had been pressured into helping. It would take a lot of time to sort it all out, and as result power balances in most of the Guilds would shift. Was already shifting in some, but that wasn’t the Governor’s main worry.

The thing that had been bothering him ever since he’d opened that reader on the board of ‘Freedom’, was the fact that he hadn’t known about the conspiracy earlier, hadn’t even suspected it. Yes, it had been a big conspiracy, yes, it had involved some of his personal staff, but it hadn’t been that big! Mary had stumbled upon the initial facts by accident, but then it hadn’t taken her much time and effort to find lots of information, hell, even evidence. Young Mr. Dunne, once he knew what to look for, had needed less than a day to find enough suspicious coincidences and discrepancies to warrant a full-scale investigation. And that proved the following: proper agencies hadn’t had a clue about what was going on not because the conspiracy had been perfect (it clearly hadn’t been), but because those agencies had failed. And that was a very bad sign.

Some of Travis’s advisors optimistically assumed that the Five States would see the failed conspiracy as a lesson not to mess with Ferzan. Yeah, right. The Union might lay low for a while, but the other four? They wouldn’t focus on the fact that the conspiracy had failed, but on the fact that it might have succeed. It would have succeeded if not for seven men without a lick of common sense between them. Of course, the names and details were hidden from the press and public, but anyone smart enough would see – the Governor and Ferzan had been saved by a miracle. And therefore, a more thorough plan and better executors might lead to success. Travis could bet his favorite pipe that special services of both Empires were already going through possibilities, and Swetsians and Jorians wouldn’t be far behind. And it seemed Ferzan wasn’t ready for this.

Starfleet intended to increase its presence on Ferzan, both on the planet itself and its near space, but it was only a part of the solution. What Travis actually wanted was to create a new Agency, the whole purpose of which would be discovering those little and not so little plots of the States, and disrupting them. An Agency, capable of doing this work well without turning it into paranoid witch-hunt. And Travis knew seven men he wanted to be the core of that Agency. The same seven men who would arrive any minute for an unofficial thank-you dinner.

All official rewards had been already presented, and the list sure kept the secretaries curious. Besides usual medals and money it held promotions, tax benefits, job and career opportunities and even several pardons – for some of Nail’s people. Nail himself, as Tanner and Standish had predicted, had refused. And while Travis was indeed grateful, the main goal of today’s dinner would be recruiting, since he felt speaking with all of them at once would be more effective than trying to persuade each one of them separately.

The situation wasn’t hopeless. JD already worked for him – the kid currently kept all Royal’s equipment going, until the government decided what to do with the company. Sanchez was going to rebuild that old temple in cargo port he’d once run, and was renewing his ties with Ferzan priest community – and that was a good position for what Travis had in mind, assuming the Preacher agreed to join. Jackson… Travis had seen the man in action in his true calling during that mess, and it seemed a shame to distract him from medicine, but a team was a team. Still, Ferzan Healer’s Guild always welcomed with opened arms anyone from Sherel Medical Corps, and one of senior Guildsmen, who worked with Jackson on the injured, had already made the offer. Maybe Travis would manage to make that offer more attractive. But first of all he needed Larabee. Starfleet had offered the man a promotion, but he had refused, preferring to stay ‘captain-for-hire’ rather then come back to lead a space squadron or a station fleet. What Travis wanted from him was different, but he’d had to be very careful about the terms. Wilmington would most likely follow Larabee, and that just left Tanner and Standish. Of course, with JD already working for him, he could count on occasional help from them, and maybe even from other former Runners, but he’d prefer something more solid. It’s not like he expected them to abandon their current occupation – after all, gambler and bounty hunter were perfect covers for government agents. Now, if he only could persuade them…

“Your Excellency,” his butler said from the door. “The guests have arrived.”

***
“So, gentlemen, what do you think?” the Governor asked once he’d described what kind of Agency he wanted Chris and the others to run. They had already finished the dinner and were now sitting in a small drawing room drinking coffee. Chris took a swallow of his, generously laced with brandy, and watched reactions of his men (he hadn’t stopped thinking about them as such after the fight was over, and that was a sign itself).

JD was bouncing with enthusiasm; Sanchez muttered something along the lines that saving souls would keep a man busy, but some souls needed to be shown the errors of their ways first. So he was interested.

“I know how ‘peaceful’ your saving of souls can get, Josiah,” laughed Jackson. “And the rest of you are even worse. I’d better stick around to patch you up.”

Wilmington, as usual at times like this, made some crack about women, but Chris knew Buck would follow his choice; he met Tanner’s eyes and a tiny smile was Vin’s answer. Standish expression didn’t change once Chris looked at him, but he silently patted one of his breast pockets – the one he kept that toy in. Well…

Chris put his mug on a small table near the chair he was sitting in and took one of the cigars lying there.
“I have a feeling I'm going to regret this.”

The End

Notes:
A couple of words on where the inspiration came from:). The initial idea that jump-started the story (the Arboly plot line) came from another one of my never-written-down teenage originals. The space setting is a result of me watching ‘Legend of Galactic Heroes’ anime during the sign-ups (that, and the fact that it’s much easier to write a believable spaceship than a sailing one). Nail, the Rathouse and the Runners in general are stolen from, errr, inspired by ‘Handle of the Sword’ (‘Rukoyat’ Mecha’) – a wonderful fantasy novel by Eleonora Ratkevich (if you read in Russian, I recommend it greatly).

Thank you all for your attention, and as always, I’m sort of interested in your opinion:).


[personal profile] delphi made a wonderful fanmix for the story - see here.

Date: 2012-01-06 03:01 pm (UTC)
caitriona_3: (Default)
From: [personal profile] caitriona_3
Enjoyable! Very enjoyable...SciFi is one of my first loves, and you managed to blend them wonderfully.

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Black Rook

January 2012

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