Adree spent nearly an hour with Rachelle Telcane, trying to keep her calm, but she knew Padrin wouldn’t last the day. With a heavy heart she left the medical unit before she could be late for the morning meeting, stopping at one of the machines in the corridor for a coffee on the way.

“Good morning, commander,” greeted Heston Robbes as she arrived at the conference room. “Here’s your schedule for the day, along with the construction progress bulletin.”

“Thanks,” Adree replied, tucking the reports under her arm. Robbes was her right-hand-man, who kept a steady flow of paperwork going in and out of her office, and handled minor business when she was away. He was quick and neat as a sparrow, very efficient and, despite the years they had known each other, had never called her anything but ‘commander’ since she had been promoted. Robbes was a slender, lean character – not unusual; the Evinthei were a military clan and if any member was overweight they faced a fine – and like her father, was better suited to talk than action.

“Can I ask…is it true, about Captain Telcane?”

“Yes.” The conference room was empty; she was early after all. Adree took a seat and sighed, rubbing at her eyes. She was exhausted and feeling both Padrin and Rachelle’s pain had taken a lot out of her. “I’m going to miss him.”

“I see.” Robbes put his hands behind his back and stood at ease, but his face was grave.

Adree didn’t notice. She was lost in thought now, turning her considerable intellect to the situation at hand. Written in her mind was the series of symbols that had been cut into Padrin’s face. Not every Evinthei could read Earthborn writing, but Adree had made a point of learning it from what they had in the Archive. The Taugen’s beliefs might be hard to fathom, but their message was clear. The signs read simply: ‘You will be purged and the blasphemy will cease.’

Lessinger sees all Earthborn as animals, beasts…the Taugen aren’t like that. They’re intelligent. They’re cunning, and they’re patient. Their base is near impenetrable and they murder our negotiators. So how to deal with them, Adree?

There was no clear answer, not now. She had to put it aside until she had time to do more thinking.

The door opened and several of the senior officers came in, talking in low voices. Behind them, Adree spotted her father, walking slowly and stiffly but with his back straight. When everyone was seated, Tobias Aeslin took his seat at the head of the conference table and called them to order.

The first words out of his mouth were: “Captain Padrin Telcane went in cardiac arrest and died ten minutes ago. Funeral services will be held this evening. Captain Lessinger has already agreed to officiate.”

No one said anything. Adree studied the faces of the older officers; they seemed stony, but she could sense their feelings were sad and resigned rather than angry. She might not condone it, but she thought Lessinger’s fury was a healthier reaction.

“Commander Aeslin,” her father continued, surprising her, “I’m therefore cancelling your R and R effective immediately. Morale has been low for weeks, and Padrin Telcane was an excellent officer. This latest action by the Taugen has upset a great number of our people.”

Before he finished the sentence she saw the shape of his idea in his mind and completed it for him. “You want me to resume my previous mission.”

“Yes. I can’t think of a better sight for our people than to see an infamous traitor and murderer strung up outside the Central Complex,” her father told her. “It’ll remove a thorn in our side, and show that we’re capable of cleaning up our own mess.” His voice was crisp and cold, distant, as if he was ordering her to run a clearance crew rather than organise a kidnap and subsequent execution. “Run the operation as you see fit, but given the surprise attack last time, I would suggest a circumspect approach.”

Adree slowly nodded. Without thinking, she was already beginning to work out a strategy. “I’ll prepare as soon as we finish here.”

“Don’t take any unnecessary risks. I don’t want to lose any more of our people. But I want justice served as quickly as possible.”

She heard herself say: “Yes, General.”

“Good.” Tobias settled back in his chair and turned to the man on his left. “Now, I want to hear our latest progress on the Well.”



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