Part I

The storage locker in the mountains was supposed to be a dead drop. That was the arrangement: both parties avoided direct contact to minimize risk of exposure. It was safer for everyone that way. Even so, Sivath took the precaution of scanning the area from the air. The shuttle Oben’s sensors detected no Echometan life signs for hundreds of miles, although of course this was no guarantee. This region was rocky and riddled with caves perfect for hiding all manner of secrets. That was, after all, the entire reason they were here.

Under cover of darkness, the cloaked shuttle set down in a secluded canyon between two high peaks. Sivath and the pilot, Hakail, quickly and silently loaded the cargo onto a hover cart. While Hakail kept watch at the landing zone, Sivath pushed the cart along the snaking, downward-sloping canyon floor toward the storage locker, a few hundred meters to the southwest. The locker itself was nestled under a rocky outcropping and covered with a snow camouflage tarp. It was a crude solution, suited to fool only the most incurious eye, but it contributed nothing to the locker’s electromagnetic sensor profile, and that was the most crucial thing. Sometimes the old tricks were still the best tricks, Sivath was coming to accept.

Hauling the tarp off the locker, Sivath keyed in the security code—which ultimately provided little security, but it had been a standard feature for the unit—and hauled the heavy door open. Inside he found neatly folded stacks of blankets, rugs, and textiles; stacks of carved wood figurines and woven baskets. A quick inventory of the locker’s contents confirmed the quantities and condition he had come to expect over the past year of this arrangement. Satisfied, Sivath unloaded the crates from his hover cart onto the canyon floor, taking care to balance the supplies so they would not topple down the slope. The mountain air was crisp and the wind whipped through the canyon, chilling him through his jacket, but the work warmed him. Soon all the goods from the locker were on the cart, and Sivath was in the process of stocking the locker with the crates from his shuttle when he heard the sound of an antigrav drive. Straightening up from his work, Sivath looked for the source but initially could see nothing. The sound was echoing up the canyon from below, running far ahead of whatever was making such a racket.

Sivath’s hand moved reflexively to his chest, but he noted with familiar chagrin that there was no badge affixed there. Touching the communicator on his wrist instead, he said, “Hakail, someone is coming.”

“I hear them,” came the immediate reply. ”Got ‘em on scope too. Small convoy headed your way. ETA: two minutes.”

“Weapons?” Sivath asked.

”The only energy signatures big enough to register are the engines. If they’re packing heat, it’s strictly small arms; nothing that would threaten the shuttle. Still, better not take any chances, right?”

Sivath caught a glimpse of something in the distance, a glint of light from the shelf below. “It may be our client,” he speculated.

”May well be, but drops are supposed to be no-contact. Those are the rules. The boss doesn’t like when we come back with funny stories.”

Hakail was correct, of course. The SS Kihai ran close to the margins nearly all the time, and its commanding officer did not welcome deviations from the flight plan. Unscheduled meetings with client representatives were not on the flight plan today. Entanglements with local law enforcement over proximity to contraband goods were certainly not on the plan. The standard operating procedure in such a situation as this, undocumented but universally understood, was that Sivath ought to get his cart-load of crafts back to the shuttle and get the hell off this planet, post haste.

Sivath understood the wisdom of that policy. Risk aversion was a rational survival strategy for those who lived just one mistake away from disaster, as was so often the case for the crew of the Kihai. But Sivath hadn’t chosen this life just to settle for survival. He touched the controls on his wrist communicator again. “I am leaving this channel open. Maintain a transporter lock in case of emergency. Stand by.”

As Sivath had expected, the transports which soon arrived were not law enforcement—at least, not enforcers of any laws Sivath or his friends had broken. The design stenciled on the sides of the vehicles was that of the Nation of Irreo, a separatist group seeking political self-determination and -defense following several years of escalating tensions with the planet’s dominant authority, the Echomet World Union. The Union was unconvinced by the Nation’s arguments thus far.

“Be advised,” Hakail reported over the comms, ”I’m seeing high-altitude contacts in the area. The mountains are making it hard to keep track, but it’s more traffic than I’d expect to see out here.”

Sivath’s attention was on the armed guerrillas piling out of the transports. There were at least a dozen of them, many of them carrying weapons. Torches were pointed at Sivath, blinding him momentarily, but when his eyes adjusted to the glare, he noted that the weapons remained holstered or pointed at the ground for now. Beyond the light sources, he could make out the movements of a figure, bent with age, slowly moving to join the welcome party. Sivath raised his hands to chest height, palms out. “I mean you no harm,” he announced, calmly and clearly.

The voice that followed was tinny and artificial, a computer simulacrum. “Lower the lights. You can see he is an alien. The Union does not use offworlders to do its dirty work.” As his vision adjusted further, Sivath could see that the old woman signing to her compatriots was wearing electrokinetic interface gloves. The vocalizations emitted from a translation module on her belt. These pieces of technology were of Echometan manufacture, but their design was based on a prototype developed by Starfleet engineers working under Sivath’s oversight, years before and a lifetime ago. The old woman asked, “What is your name, offworlder?”

“Sivath,” he replied, slowly lowering his hands but keeping them away from his sides, palms facing out. “I represent Captain Voh t’Kelani of the SS Kihai. I did not expect to encounter anyone here, however.”

The old woman began to sign, and the artificial voice followed a beat later. “The decision to make direct contact was mine. You bring us supplies—food and medicine, above all—that help to keep us going. And in trade, you take useless things, baubles and trinkets, which we know you have the technology to conjure from thin air, should you so choose. I would know why you do this.”

Sivath considered his answer carefully. He suspected he was being tested, somehow—judged against criteria he did not yet understand. “There is a proverb common to several species in this quadrant which asserts, with minor variations, that what is worthless to one individual may be valued by another. My people,” he said, gesturing briefly toward the night sky, “are very good at taking so-called ‘worthless’ things and finding their value.”

The old woman nodded, seemingly amused. “That is fortunate for me, then. For most of my life, I was considered a worthless thing, myself. Do you know who I am?”

Sivath suspected that he did. One of the first modifications the Echometa made to the design of the translation modules was to add pitch, tone, and rate controls, allowing each user to customize a distinctive personal voice. Starfleet R&D, under Sivath’s direction, had focused on the use case of a single user speaking to audiences of varying size. While sound output modulation was easily achievable through manipulation of variables in the code, the utility of exposing these controls to the user had been overlooked in the rush to mass-production. It seemed obvious, in hindsight, that two or more Irreo employing the device in proximity to one another would want to distinguish themselves, both for the sake of personal expression and to aid listeners in differentiating between the voices. The technology’s users had corrected for the blind spots of the designers.

This Irreo woman was familiar to Sivath. Her simulated voice had been among those speaking out, via unlicensed broadcasts, in favor of mobilization to demand equal protection and treatment under Union law. Her face had been highlighted frequently by mainstream Echometan news feeds covering the demonstrations, the clashes with law enforcement, the arrests, the trials. Her name had been attached to the label of “Irreo radical” in breathless coverage of the detention center breach several months prior. Sivath said, “I recognize you. It is an honor to meet you, Professor Behal.” His recognition of her made some of her comrades visibly nervous.

“Is it?” she asked, unphased. “How peculiar.” Signing quickly, she explained, “I want to leave this planet, my resourceful friend. I am told that you have a spacecraft that can take me far away from this place. I can pay. But you must decide quickly. I have taken a risk in meeting you this way, and I cannot linger for long.”

Sivath was unprepared for this request. He knew that Voh would not be eager to take on a fugitive as a passenger. Smuggling food and medicine was one thing, but people—especially enemies of the state—were another matter entirely. Yet Sivath was tempted, nonetheless, to grant the professor’s request. She was extending her trust to a stranger, so her need must have been urgent. Sivath believed in the righteousness of the Irreo Power movement and felt personal responsibility for the dismal status quo these activists were struggling against. He wanted to help however he could, but it wasn’t his decision to make in isolation. To invite this person into his home was to expose his family aboard Kihai to jeopardy. Sivath did not think it was his right to make this decision alone, and he would have liked to consult his captain first if he did not believe that Professor Behal would forbid it.

Unfortunately, the decision was made for him by the sudden arrival of military aircraft hovering in the sky above the canyon. The drone of antigrav engines filled the air as the predatorial silhouettes swooped down from high altitude, pinning the stunned separatists in place with bright searchlights. “REMAIN WHERE YOU ARE,” a booming voice commanded. “BY THE AUTHORITY OF THE WORLD UNION, YOU ARE UNDER ARREST. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO FLEE OR YOU WILL BE SUBDUED BY FORCE.”

The reactions of the separatists to this sudden intrusion were varied; some attempted to scramble for the transports, while others stood their ground or even opened fire on the Union craft. Behal remained standing in the open, even as her people pulled at her arms and pleaded with her to run.

Sivath, for his part, ducked into the lee of the overhanging rock face and took stock of the situation. His pulse was racing and adrenaline was pumping into his system, an animal response to clear and present danger. Soldiers were firing back from the air now, peppering the dirt with energy bursts, so the desire to take cover and hide was strong. One of the guerrillas shooting into the air was caught by return fire and fell to the ground, bleeding out; a moment later, another volley caught a separatist who hadn’t been carrying a weapon at all. Sivath’s position against the canyon wall protected him for the moment, but he knew it would only last until the World Guard descended on the scene. If he was going to flee, it would need to be soon.

One of the Irreo transports roared away, swerving off down the mountain in the direction it had come from. A Union aircraft above peeled off to pursue, its searchlight sweeping the desert floor behind the fleeing vehicle. The other Union craft remained parked above the canyon. Several rappelling cables fell, and dark-clad bodies followed. No sooner had their boots hit the ground, however, than one of the remaining Irreo transports suddenly exploded in a ball of plasma and sparks. Separatists and Guards alike dove for or were thrown to the ground; the rent carcass of the transport flooded the canyon with smoke.

Coughing, Sivath picked himself up from the dirt. One of the guerillas must have fired carelessly at the descending soldiers and hit their own transport. Everyone in the area was dazed, if not seriously injured, and visibility was extremely poor. Sivath knew he wouldn’t get a better chance. He stooped to check Behal’s body and found her breathing. There was no time for analysis beyond that. Shoving the stacks of Echometan crafts off his cart, Sivath struggled to haul Behal’s limp body onto the bed in their place. Vague figures in the smoky haze scrambled to help him. Sivath engaged the antigrav and waved his new comrades onward, up the slope toward the landing zone of the Oben. “Go!” he yelled at them. “Get to the shuttle!” The exertion forced a coughing fit that required tremendous effort to bring under conscious control. Weapons discharged again somewhere behind him. The window of opportunity was closing. Sivath staggered forward through the smoke, running after the party with the cart, raising his wrist communicator to his lips and shouting into it. “Hakail, it was an ambush! Do you co—AARRGH!

Sivath’s teeth clamped down involuntarily as a sharp pain shot up his right leg. He pitched forward and fell prone, his outstretched hands barely breaking his fall. Rolling to his side with a groan, he tried to focus and assess the damage, but his vision was swimming and he felt light-headed. Blood loss or smoke inhalation? Possibly both. The wound in his leg was some kind of puncture, inconsistent with the energy weapons in use by either side of this fight. He must have been hit by shrapnel when the transport exploded and failed to notice it until his movements aggravated the wound further.

A masked figure charged through the miasma, tactical gear streaked with dust and blood. The World Guard patch on the soldier’s shoulder was still clear enough. The figure trained its weapon on Sivath and barked an order at him, but he couldn’t hear clearly over the battle echoing throughout the canyon. The soldier shouted again, hoarser this time, even harder to understand. Moving slowly and deliberately, Sivath raised his hands and placed them on top of his head, hoping this gesture would appease the soldier and keep himself from being shot for noncompliance.

Before he could find out whether his surrender was accepted, the familiar glow of the transporter embraced him, and when it passed, Sivath collapsed backward onto hard metal plating where snow and rock had been only a moment before. He was in the hold of the Oben, and the soldier was not. Sivath indulged a brief sigh of relief before calling out, “Hakail? I am injured.”

“I’m a little busy up here right now!” was Hakail’s reply from the cockpit. A glancing impact on the shuttle’s shields shook the entire vessel. “Could you show me your boo-boo later?”

Sivath propped himself up again and half-scooted, half-dragged himself to the first aid kit affixed to the wall. His leg was in agony. The medical tricorder identified the metal shards in his leg—three of them, in fact—and gave him coordinates he was able to feed into the transporter. The shards materialized in the air nearby, and before they had clattered to the ground Sivath was ready with the medical sealant, piping sticky gel into the wound which foamed up painfully on contact. Sivath had no idea whether these measures would be sufficient to keep him alive, but he had done everything he could think to do, so he administered a local anesthetic patch and turned his attention to matters where he might still make some difference.

When he stumbled into the cockpit, Sivath found Hakail engaged in evasive maneuvers. “Why are we not cloaked?” he asked as he dropped into the co-pilot’s chair, clenching his teeth against the dull pain. Sensor readouts identified the craft pursuing them as another Union gunship. Sivath engaged the communications jamming program, hoping to prevent their pursuer from reporting the Oben’s identity or description to the planetary authorities for a little longer.

“Funny story!” Hakail replied in a manic tone. “When I engaged the transporter to pull you out of there, power relay six blew its fuse! I guess the cloaking device is wired up through relay six, too? Hope you didn’t forget anything down there, because we can’t go back for it now.”

Sivath felt the weight of cold determination settle on the back of his neck. “As a matter of fact,” he said, “I left the hover cart behind.” He hauled himself up from the chair once again and started to hobble back toward the hold. “Bring Oben around for another pass. I will fix relay six.”

Hakail craned his neck to look back at Sivath like the Vulcan had lost his mind. But it seemed that something in Sivath’s demeanor communicated everything he needed to, because after he had gone, Hakail just muttered, “The boss isn’t gonna like this.”


Part II

“No,” said Nuhir.

Voh knelt on a blanket spread out on the aft landing pad of the Kihai, contemplating the small, solemn child and the series of life choices that had led to this moment.

“Refueling will be complete soon. It is time to return,” she explained, gathering the empty food containers back into her satchel. Observing this, six month old N’ven picked up a colorful lid and chewed it helpfully.

“No,” repeated the boy, attention returning to the blocks still scattered across one half of the picnic blanket. He was not sullen or angry. He spoke with the calm assurance of an individual stating incontrovertible fact, an exasperating habit he had inherited from his father.

She retrieved the baby sling and slipped it over her shoulders. “Collect your blocks,” she told her son as she lifted N’ven into the harness. The infant girl made no complaint, content with the bright blue lid. “Then we will see Msh.” Voh was not above bribery. The boy liked the damp, earthy quiet of the Kihai’s botany lab.

The boy mulled this over, then, very slowly, began placing his blocks into their basket one by one. Voh’s communicator chime interrupted her impatient sigh.

“Voh,” she said tersely.

“There’s a problem with the Oben, Commander.” Jessen’s voice sounded tense, and Voh’s tension rose to meet it. “A hostile encounter with weapons fire.”


“Everyone else aboard?” She grabbed the blanket with one hand and Nuhir’s hand with the other. The remaining blocks tumbled to the pad. The little boy made a small surprised sound.

“Yes, Commander.”

She hustled Nuhir to the top of the ramp. “We’re in. Get us aloft and move to intercept.”

* * *

Voh reached the bridge just as the Kihai was lifting off. Korsol, the Klingon communications officer, rose from his station to meet her. “The locals don’t like us leaving without a farewell,” he reported as he accepted the occupied baby sling. “I don’t think they’ll invite us back.”

She looked down at Nuhir. “Go with Korsol and mind your sister,” she ordered sternly. The boy looked up into her face, nodded soberly and returned to the lift with Korsol. Voh saved her pride in him to appreciate later.

“Two minutes to intercept, Commander,” said Jessen. Her first officer was at the helm in Hakail’s place.

Voh took her seat. “Who fired on them?” she demanded.

“From what Hakail’s screaming, it sounds like local law enforcement,” answered Anna from the tactical console. “They’ve taken a few hits and they’re having trouble gaining altitude. We’ll have to get pretty low for them to dock. They’re coming into sensor range now.”

“On screen,” said Voh.

The viewscreen showed a vista of snow capped mountains, over which the shuttle Oben was now careening. The small shuttle was making erratic swings and dips to avoid incoming fire from the pursuing vessels, each of which bore the symbol of the Echomet World Guard.

“Get us between them,” she demanded of Jessen. The Kihai dropped ungracefully toward the smaller craft, but what it lacked in grace it made up for in size, she hoped. The Oben shot under them and the Guard vessels veered off, spooked by the sudden appearance of the old warbird.

“Open a channel,” she told Anna.

“All yours,” said Anna.

“World Guard representatives,” announced Voh in a steely voice, “this is Captain Voh t’Kelani of the free ship Kihai. Halt your attack on my shuttle or suffer the consequences.”

“No response,” said Anna. “The Oben’s coming around.”

“Hold position and drop the shields to let them dock,” said Voh tensely. As Jessen struggled to keep the creaking Kihai steady in the turbulent atmosphere so close to the mountaintops, the Guard vessels regrouped and positioned themselves off the port bow.

“Reinforcements are en route, Captain,” warned Anna, “and they’re scanning us.”

Voh muttered a bad word. The Kihai was, by most standards, completely unarmed. Their attempt to menace the Echomet into retreat was about to come to an end.

A more substantial shudder went through the groaning ship. “Oben’s aboard,” said Anna.

“Shields up,” ordered Voh, relieved, “and let’s get out of here.”

The Guard vessels kept up with them as they broke atmosphere. Then the Kihai cloaked and left Echomet and its frustrated police behind.

* * *

The medical bay of the Kihai occupied far more space than its original designers had intended, heavily altered to meet the requirements of its role as a mobile hospital. Hakail and the newly acquired refugees occupied six of the diagnostic beds; after ferociously interrogating her unlucky pilot, Voh had the what of the situation. The why was still unclear.

She approached the surgical platform where Sivath lay and watched Dr. Detaka work. The doctor took note of her presence, but did not let it interrupt his work. “Shrapnel wounds,” sighed the elderly Cardassian with a nostalgic air. “Makes me feel young.”

Voh watched the monitors. “Blood loss?”

“Nothing severe,” demurred the physician, then withdrew his hands from the surgical inputs and picked up a datapad to make a note. “Done. Be sure to admire my magnificent work before you kill him.”

Voh promised nothing. “And the others?”

Detaka consulted the datapad. “A few minor injuries. The old woman was worst off, a few fractures and abrasions, but she’s stable and resting. Two are the standard Echometan breed and three are the Irreo mutation. Very interesting deviations. Would you like me to tell you when he wakes up?”

“Immediately,” she confirmed.

* * *

An hour later, she escorted her mate from the medical bay to the turbolift in chill silence. Sivath leaned against the interior wall for support as she selected their destination. “I am sorry that I did not consult with you before bringing passengers aboard,” he said quietly. “I would not have done so if there had been an acceptable alternative.”

Voh pulled the halt lever on the wall to stop the lift and stood in the center with her arms crossed, disdaining support of any kind. “You cost us a friendly port, foreclosed the possibility of further assisting the Irreo, put our lives in danger and sustained potentially life-threatening injuries. Your apologies are noted, but not relevant,” she paraphrased stonily. “What I would like to know now is what we purchased.”
“The elder, Behal, wanted to leave the planet. Surely not under these circumstances, but here we are. If we assist her in her off-world mission, whatever that is, we may yet be of assistance to the cause.”

“What a comfort to the elder Behal,” she snapped sarcastically. “You don’t know what she wants? I suppose,” she added grudgingly, answering her own question, “you weren’t given much time to converse.” She looked at Sivath directly, his dependent posture, his face still pale from surgery. “We will find other ports,” she said more gently. “No elders or their servants are worth your life to me, my mate. Could you be fractionally less a Federate fool?”

“I have reviewed the decisions I made in the field,” Sivath admitted, “and I will review them further still, in search of defects which I might learn from. However, at this time, I can find no such flaws.” He straightened up from the wall as if to make his point by pretending he was not recovering from emergency surgery. “Anything I might have done differently seems likely to have resulted in more death and imprisonment. My own injury was the result of an unfortunate causal chain which was neither foreseeable nor avoidable. That injury notwithstanding, I am inclined, however reluctantly, to deem this outcome as ‘optimal’ for the given circumstances.”

Voh looked at Sivath for a long moment. “A simple no would have sufficed,” she replied softly, and pushed the halt lever back into place. The turbolift resumed its motion.

“Who has the children?” he asked. Despite the presence of a community of helping hands available, Sivath didn’t like to let his brood out of his sight for long. He claimed it was because he did not like to shirk his responsibilities as a parent, but it was clear that he still didn’t fully trust the crew when it came to his offspring.

“Korsol has them,” she reassured him. “Nuhir was present when your craft came under fire, and he knows that you are safe. Details beyond that seemed unnecessary, but he will be glad to see you when we are done welcoming your guests.”

Sivath was not reassured. “Korsol will tell the children stories,” he predicted. But before he could elaborate on his concerns further, the turbolift arrived at its destination. The doors opened into a short corridor terminating at the galley, where the Kihai’s new guests had been asked to wait. Sivath trailed Voh inside.

The separatist fugitives had gathered at one round table near the center of the room. Behal was among them, flanked by two other Echometa on each side. All five rose from their seats upon the arrival of the vessel’s captain, though Behal herself was the last to get to her feet. The male immediately to her right was the first to speak. He was not Irreo, and needed no technological assistance to be heard. “Greetings, captain. I am Moryn. On behalf of everyone, I want to extend our most profound thanks for the aid you and your brave crew have rendered to us. It was never our intention to leave our home but, under the circumstances, we’re grateful to have had the chance to choose this over prison.” Behal merely bowed her head and said nothing.

“Thank you for your candor,” said Voh brusquely. “I shall return it and say it was never my intention to aid you in this fashion, but under the circumstances, it seems we had no choice. Our ship is not equipped for recreational passengers, but we can feed you and take you to our next port of call, provided you are willing to help where you can.”

“You’re most generous,” the man replied, “and we’ll all do what we can to pull our weight in the mean time. None of us has ever been aboard a space ship before. Where, in fact, are you headed next?”

“New Circini. It’s well-established but not overly populous, with plenty of work for willing hands and a trader’s market for handmade goods. You won’t see many Echometans in permanent residence there, but merchants come and go. You could get news of home.”

Moryn exchanged glances with a few of the other passengers. He received only uncertainty and silence in response. Clearing his throat, he said, “It will have to do for now. We don’t have much choice.”

Sivath, who had been hanging back until this point, chose to speak up now. “You have a choice,” he asserted. “The Federation starbase Deep Space 13 is not far from New Circini. You could seek asylum there.”

Voh shot her mate a frown. A longer journey with unexpected guests who had nothing but unskilled labor to offer in exchange for their board did not please her - but she would not retract an offer he had made. “The Federates do enjoy quality asylum seekers,” she agreed dryly. “They need a steady supply to maintain their self-satisfaction.”

A series of uncertain looks passed between the guests. The youngest of them, a boy in his late teens, signed what several others seemed to be thinking: “The Federation doesn’t care about us.”

Moryn interjected hastily, “What Pojaddu means is, we can’t count on the charity of the Federation when their commitment to our wellbeing has been so . . . inconsistent.”

Behal began to sign, but no electronic voice accompanied her gestures. Moryn responded with a few quick hand motions of his own before turning his attention back to their hosts.

“The Professor wishes to remind everyone that her mission, planned before the Union raid, was to seek out off-world allies. But of course, our circumstances are much different now.” Behal’s expression went flat as Moryn kept talking, editorializing her statement. “No one else here meant to leave, and we must see to the safety and shelter of our people first.”

Sivath regarded the exchange skeptically. “Is Prof. Behal’s translator malfunctioning?” he asked.

“It was damaged in the chaos of the attack,” Moryn answered without consulting anyone. “I’m a dab hand with machines, if I say so myself, but there are some critical parts missing. I don’t know that there’s much to be done for it until we reach New Circini.”

Behal made a few quick, curt gestures.

“Of course,” Moryn replied immediately. He signed dutifully as he spoke. “My apologies, Professor. I did not mean to derail us. Captain, do you have any notion as to what aid we might secure for our cause on New Circini?”

“The governing population on New Circini is comfortable but not affluent enough to have a significant number of young people with nothing to do,” answered Voh tersely. “They have no use for causes.”

“Passionate young people, we have,” Moryn said with a tolerant glance at Pojaddu. “We thought to send Prof. Behal out in search of more practical assistance. Trade agreements, financial backing, weapons . . .”

Voh fixed him with a steady gaze. "Mr. Moryn, let me clarify your situation. You have just been chased off your home planet by your own people. You have no money, no food, no transport, no worldly goods to call your own, no way to meet your needs in either an immediate or a long-term sense. That is the problem before you.

"If we leave you at the Federate starbase, they will feed you. They don’t indulge in finances and cannot provide financial backing. They don’t indulge in helping others when it might sully their self-image, so you won’t get weapons, either. In exchange for your stories, they will provide you with an abundance of sustenance and sympathy. You will want for nothing save purpose.

“New Circini will require your labor, but over time you may acquire enough money to do more than sustain yourselves. You could use that time to make acquaintances. Inform people. Perhaps your plight will find the ear of someone free to act on your behalf. Perhaps you will gain enough resources to become useful to your cause again.”

Sivath glowered visibly at Voh’s description of the Federation. “The captain would have you waste precious time toiling for subsistence while the Nation of Irreo is left to fend for itself, just to avoid accruing any debt real or imagined,” he insisted. “I urge you not to let her pathology sway you from making a sensible decision. The Federation is the powerful ally you need. Make your case to them before you give up on helping your compatriots.”

“Yes, make your case and listen to their gentle apologies as they explain why the Federation isn’t permitted to meddle in your politics,” Voh retorted. “You will be stranded and dependent upon them until you find another ship willing to take you someplace like New Circini in exchange for nothing but what labor you can provide. That would be a true waste of your time.”

“It is true that the Federation may disappoint you,” Sivath conceded with obvious difficulty. “They may reject your plea. It is still worth making. The situation on Echomet is the Federation’s responsibility, acknowledged or not. If they are determined to deny that responsibility, you should not make it easy for them. Let them deny it to your faces.”

Voh returned her gaze to Moryn. “Punishing the Federation for their crimes is not your responsibility,” she said firmly.

Moryn, looking uncomfortable with the exchange before him, took the opportunity to break in. “I agree wholeheartedly. We mean no disrespect, my friend, for your help on the surface was a miracle,” he said with a nod to Sivath, “but it sounds as if you’re the one with a case to make to the Federation. They’ve had nothing to say to us for years and I have nothing to say to them.” With a brief glance at the other Echometa seated at the table, he said, “I think I speak for all of us when I say that we’d be better off making our own way. Captain, we are grateful for passage to New Circini, and will trouble you no farther than that.”

“So be it. My first officer will assign you work until we reach port.” Voh spared a glance toward the unhappy Sivath, then left the galley and their guests.