Breaking Protocol

Combat Class Star Ship 19325208, The Scythe

"Captain, incoming transmission. Priority encoding."

Captain Lehennin frowned, sitting up straighter in his chair and adjusting his dark grey uniform to smooth out a few wrinkles. "Put it on the main screen."

"Yes, sir."

A moment later the screen flickered to life, revealing a handsome, middle-aged man with white-blond hair and pale blue eyes. He was clad in the silver-trimmed black formal uniform of the Infinitum Government. At the moment he seemed tense, knuckles nearly white as he gripped a crystal water glass.

The moment the image appeared the rest of the crew matched him in tenseness, for a call from the High Chancellor could only mean trouble. Sigma subtly studied the man as he stood just to the side of Captain Lehennin's chair, hands clasped calmly behind his back. He'd seen High Chancellor Kavalerov many times in news casts and transmissions, though this was the first time the man had ever contacted the Scythe directly, and he couldn't remember Kavalerov ever looking quite so... worried. Serious, yes. Authoritative, yes. But whatever the problem was, it had to be rather severe to ruffle the normally cool High Chancellor.

"High Chancellor," Captain Lehennin greeted neutrally.

"Captain Lehennin Grahan," Kavalerov returned, and Sigma almost frowned at the odd undercurrent to his voice. "You and your crew will proceed immediately to Bangkok."

Captain Lehennin blinked and Sigma didn't even need to see him to visualize the surprise on his face. "Bangkok?" he repeated. "But Bangkok is..."

"As I'm certain you're aware, the Infinitum Government has been having difficulties lately with a certain set of revolutionaries," Kavalerov continued tightly. "We have been unable to locate their stronghold, and negotiations for the return of the prisoners they've been taking have been slow. Still, things were not a serious problem until yesterday."

The High Chancellor frowned, glancing down at his desk briefly before looking back up at the screen. "An IG consultant vacationing on Bangkok has gone missing, and all evidence indicates that he may have been kidnapped by the revolutionaries as much as three weeks ago. It is extremely important that he be returned safely, and locating the place where he and the others are most likely being held would also be exceedingly beneficial." Kavalerov's pale eyes flashed. "We need to get him out of there before they figure out exactly who they're holding... or something worse happens." He grimaced, but didn't specify what that 'worse' might be.

Captain Lehennin nodded tersely, gesturing to his Nav officer to set the course. "I assume the trail goes cold at Bangkok?" he asked.

Kavalerov sighed. "Unfortunately. I'm sending all the data we have on the kidnappings, and everything seems to be confined to quadrant three, though that really isn't much help. Just do what you can. I'm redirecting as many ships your way as I can, but you're the closest. Hopefully you can find the revolutionaries and our missing consultant..." The High Chancellor added something beneath his breath before breaking the connection, but Sigma was certain he had to have heard the man wrong.

After all, "Preferably before something explodes" didn't sound at all reassuring.

He was still puzzling over the parting phrase when Lehennin swung around in his chair to look up at him, hands steepled together in a show of confidence that the set of his shoulders and the tightness of his eyes betrayed as a pretense. "Sigma."

"Captain."

Lehennin grimaced. "So, anything you picked up on?"

Sigma hesitated, then shrugged. "The High Chancellor is extremely difficult to read even under the most favorable circumstances... He's worried, but about what, I could not say." He frowned. "What I am curious about is two things. First, why did he not name or otherwise describe the man we are to be looking for, and second, what is an 'IG consultant'? I have never heard of such a thing before..."

Blinking, Lehennin shifted in his chair. "You know, I didn't even think of that... but I haven't either." He considered. "Need to know basis, perhaps. As for the man we're looking for, there's probably a file on him in the data the High Chancellor sent over. Why don't you go through it all and brief me in an hour. I'm going to have to contact Bangkok and make sure we don't step on any toes in our search and it'll probably take that long."

Nodding and giving a brief salute, Sigma left the bridge. He made his way down one deck and forward to the observation room, calling up all the screens and inputting his personal code to access the files the High Chancellor had sent. Most of them contained information he already knew, about the revolutionaries, their tactics, their demands, and such, with a few new bits added here and there, but it was the personal data file that made him sit back and frown.

It was either all classified, or the most bare-bones data file he'd ever seen. There was a flat image of a nondescript man in a stained jumpsuit, a listing of where he was last seen and the number of his rented suite on Bangkok, and his security classifications. Not even so much as a name.

The security classifications, though, those made Sigma take another look to make certain he hadn't been mistaken. All of a sudden he had a pretty good idea of why the High Chancellor was so desperate to get this man back. They weren't government codes, they were tech codes. Whoever this mysterious 'consultant' was, he had access to nearly every computer system used within the IG. Sigma suddenly understood High Chancellor Kavalerov's comment about getting him back before the revolutionaries figured out what they had.

The problem was, where to start? Bangkok, most likely, to see if the local government had any more information than the High Chancellor, and then...

He pulled up all the dates and locations of the known revolutionist kidnappings, setting up a plausible grid to work from. If Bangkok ended up with no useful information as he suspected it would, they were going to need to figure out how to get their path to cross with the revolutionaries' and live to make use of it.

---

Planet 2147151 (Bangkok), Blue Dragon Tower

"Impossible."

"If you really believed that, you wouldn't be meeting with me now," Sigma pointed out calmly, trying to figure out what was beneath the Warden of Bangkok's surface anger. Frustration, perhaps. This man took his job very seriously. Failure would be seen as something personal.

They were in a lavishly decorated room in what the locals knew as Blue Dragon Tower. Sigma had chosen to meet with the Warden alone while Captain Lehennin took a handful of men to investigate the room where their missing person had been staying. According to the data flashing across his in-lens as it was relayed to him from the Captain, the room had been rented out to one Nineteen Whales. Not remotely helpful.

"People don't just disappear from Bangkok," the Warden was saying, his pale brown eyes flashing in annoyance. "Our security is considerable."

Sigma shrugged. "It is a well-known fact that no matter how well you build something, someone will be able to find a way to break it. I have no doubt that your equipment is state of the art; at this point we are less interested in how the kidnappers managed the feat as we are in where they've taken our missing man."

The Warden crossed his dark arms across his chest as he regarded Sigma. Sigma gazed back calmly, making certain his expression was completely neutral. No need to antagonize the man when he was just doing his job, and Sigma was well aware that most independent planets preferred to have authorities on their planets as seldom as possible.

"Really, at this point, all I'm hoping for are security vids," Sigma continued, putting just enough of a smile in his voice to be friendly without seeming condescending.

"There's nothing unusual on them," the Warden returned with a shrug. "I checked them after your Captain contacted me."

"I understand that, but I was hoping to be able to check for patterns in traffic flow," Sigma returned. "Or disruptions, as the case may be."

The Warden's brows rose in mild surprise, but before he could reply there was a soft hiss as the doors slid open to reveal two identical, incredibly handsome men in matching suits and pearl chokers. One glanced immediately at the Warden while the other carefully looked over Sigma, then they crossed the room to join the conversation.

"Cade," one greeted.

The Warden's lips twitched up in a faint smile. "Baxter, Lucid."

Sigma had the odd thought that he knew what a mouse felt like when confronted with a panther as two pairs of aquamarine eyes fixed on him. The twin Lords of Bangkok eyed him appraisingly, one taking a chair while the other remained standing just behind him. It was uncanny, the way they moved exactly the same - he wondered if they practiced it, or it came naturally. Either way, this was going to be extremely disorienting.

"And you are Lieutenant-Commander Sigma Altair, second-in-command of the Scythe under Captain Lehennin Grahan," the standing twin stated mildly. "On Bangkok to investigate the apparent disappearance of an IG official of some sort about whom almost nothing has been released." Those twin gazes eyed him pointedly.

There was that mouse versus predator feeling again. Was it because there were two of them? Or because he was having almost as much trouble reading them as he did with the High Chancellor? There were little tiny differences, here and there, but they were gone before he had time to think about it. This really was unnerving. Captain Lehennin wouldn't be this unsettled... but Captain Lehennin also wouldn't be trying to pick up information from the smallest gestures either. That was Sigma's special ability.

"You most likely have as much information as I do," Sigma said deprecatingly, grimacing just slightly to try to create a feeling of empathy with the twin brothers. He knew he was doing something right as their brows rose almost in unison. "The High Chancellor didn't seem to think we would need more than a low-res image to search from."

Twin glances exchanged, then the one sitting leaned forward a bit as he frowned. "Are you certain this mystery person even exists, given what little information as has been provided?"

Sigma nodded confidently. "Yes. While it would make sense to some for the IG to send us in to deal with the revolutionaries, the timing is not correct. This has the feel of something put together hastily, with speed as the greatest priority." He smiled wryly. "Also, the IG prefers not to get involved with the affairs of Bangkok unless there is no other choice. If this mysterious consultant didn't really exist, I think any other planet in the quadrant would have been a more preferable choice for use in a ruse."

That startled a laugh out of both twins and Sigma was relieved to note the subtle relaxing of tension in their shoulders. Good. So he wasn't about to start a political Incident with one of the most powerful planets in the quadrant, if not the entire Infinitum Government.

"True. All right, so you need... what?" The seated twin glanced at the Warden.

"Security vids," Cade supplied.

The twin nodded. "Alright. Anything else?"

Sigma considered. "Not yet, but I'll probably need a few records once I've run through the vids. With any luck I'll be able to find a lead of some sort. If not..."

Both twins chuckled quietly. "We don't envy you this task at all, Lieutenant-Commander Altair."

Sigma smiled faintly. "I'm trying to look upon it as a challenge," he returned.

Planet 2147151 (Bangkok), Red Dragon Tower

"Anything?" Captain Lehennin asked, his own voice conveying nothing but frustration.

Sigma shrugged. "I have confirmed the presence of our missing consultant on Bangkok and narrowed the timeframe of his disappearance to somewhere between nineteen and twenty days ago, standard time. Also during that time there was a notable increase in foot traffic. I have cross-referenced guest lists with security footage from before and after the time of interest and singled out all persons with no obvious reason to be present. Ensign Rigel is still processing those, but so far we have had two definite matches with known revolutionaries."

"Great," Captain Lehennin said, running a hand through his dark, close-cropped hair. "So we've confirmed what we already knew. Anything else?"

Sigma allowed a faint smile to curl his lips. "Yes. I acquired security vids for the spaceport as well and ran through them for signs of either our missing consultant or the persons of interest from the lobby footage. There are exactly three ships that our kidnappers could have left upon, and the descriptions and registrations of each have been broadcast to all IG ships within range."

Captain Lehennin blinked slowly at him, then shook his head. "Do you ever sleep?" he asked.

Considering, Sigma shrugged again. "Sometimes."

The Captain raised an eyebrow. "When's the last time you rested?" He held up a hand to forestall Sigma and added, "Actual unconsciousness, not a break from working."

Making a slight face, Sigma forced himself to mentally set aside the details of the mission long enough to consider his captain's question. "Three or four days ago, I think."

Captain Lehennin sighed. "For how long?"

Sigma scowled and stared fixedly at a wall. "Three hours."

Sighing quietly, Captain Lehennin shook his head. "As soon as we get back to the Scythe, you're taking a nap," he ordered. "No objections. You've done enough, and we have a lead now, which is a lot better than we had."

Biting back on all the protests he could have made, Sigma merely saluted and tried his best to look professional even if he could feel in every fiber of his being just how nice a long nap would feel right now. He couldn't afford to be taking naps. They had a mission to complete, and it had very clearly been stated that time was of the utmost importance.

"I'm not kidding," Captain Lehennin added dryly. "I'm going to check up on you to make sure you comply, so don't try to get out of it by locking yourself in your quarters and going over mission notes."

Two years aboard the Scythe meant that Captain Lehennin knew him and his habits far too well. His lips thinned, prompting laughter from his captain, then Sigma turned and left the room to make his way back to the ship. If he had to take a nap, he might as well get it over with as soon as possible so he could go back to doing his proper duty.

---

Combat Class Star Ship 19325208, The Scythe

Something wasn't right... Sigma's eyelids felt heavy and his limbs leaden. There was a persistent buzzing noise coming from somewhere that was making his head ring and interfered considerably with forming coherent thoughts. The last thing he remembered was lying down to take the nap he'd been ordered to, and then...

Sigma sat up quickly and nearly fell off his bunk, biting back an oath. Captain Lehennin had drugged him again! There really needed to be something in IG code about drugging your junior officers to make them comply with pointless orders to sleep. He didn't need sleep. Sleep was a luxury they didn't have time for on important missions. All he needed was a small bottle of caf-tabs and he'd be just fine.

Unfortunately, he'd never quite been able to convince Captain Lehennin of that. Thus, the ongoing problem of waking up to find that - he checked the chrono - twelve and a half hours had passed. Twelve and a half hours! Think of all the work he could have accomplished if he'd been conscious for that length of time.

Standing up unsteadily, Sigma frowned as the buzzing noise resolved itself into the priority alarm blaring overhead. Something was seriously wrong; he was needed on the bridge. Yanking on the nearest clean uniform and grabbing his weapons from the various places he'd strapped them - under his pillow, above his bunk, to the side of his mini-wardrobe, and so forth - he punched the button to open the door and walked out of his cabin.

And into a firefight. He immediately ducked back into his room for cover, aiming around the open doorway and down the hall where he could see several men that were most definitely not IG officers engaged in open warfare with two junior crew members. He fired, trying to ignore the lingering dizzying effects of whatever Captain Lehennin had used on him this time, and stifled a curse as the shot was stopped by a brief iridescent flash.

Reflector shields. Personal reflector shields. Those were illegal, and the odds had just tipped in the invaders' favor. Sigma now had two options. He could try to hold out until the notoriously unstable reflector shields overloaded as he knew they would do eventually, or he could try to get close enough for physical combat. Both were risky, both had serious dangers, but the sight of one of his crewmates getting shot from close quarters decided him.

Sigma was down the hall and beneath the attackers' shields before they'd quite realized he was moving. The first one went down as Sigma swept his feet out from under him, a well-placed strike to the solar plexus rendering him unconscious a moment later. He ducked a shot from the other's stunner, wincing as the sudden motion sent his vision spinning again. Making note to have words with his captain over the issue of drugging him right before the ship was attacked, Sigma lashed out at where he was fairly certain his opponent had been standing.

He scored only a glancing blow; the man had moved while Sigma's head was filled with dancing stars and swirling colors. There was a sharp pain in his left shoulder, but it was physical rather than energy-based. Seizing the opportunity, Sigma grabbed onto whatever had hit him and pulled hard, sending the man flying over his shoulder and crashing into a wall. Two strikes later and the second attacker joined his companion in unconsciousness.

Standing up slowly and ignoring the way the room was spinning, Sigma gestured to the two Scythe officers still able to move. "Situation report," he snapped.

"Unknown," one responded. "We heard the alarm and responded, but got caught by the invaders before we could get any further information."

"Captain Lehennin?" Sigma demanded.

"Should still be on the bridge..."

"Get moving," Sigma barked. "If there are more of them they'll most likely have shielding as well, so physical attacks will be your only option. I'm heading up to the bridge."

Ignoring the fact that neither one of them saluted, Sigma made his way cautiously through the narrow corridors toward the lift. He knew they didn't respect him; he'd heard some of the things they said about him when they didn't think he was listening, but he didn't really care. As long as they followed orders appropriately, it didn't matter what people's opinions of 'singleminded Sigma' were. He did his job and he did it well. That was all that mattered.

He heard the shouts and cries of pain from the next altercation before he saw it, coming carefully around a bulkhead and assessing the situation. The three officers obviously hadn't yet figured out that their stunners were worthless, given that they kept shooting ineffectually at their attackers. Two went down before he could get there, and the third stared at him in disbelief as he cracked the invaders' skulls together with a handstand and quick snap of his feet.

There were two dull thuds as the bodies hit the deck and Sigma remained crouched for longer than strictly necessary as he willed his body to behave. Definitely going to have words with Captain Lehennin. It wouldn't have been such a problem if he'd only had to aim and fire, but martial combat worked considerably better when one knew which direction was up.

Sigma didn't bother giving orders this time. There was only a fifty-fifty chance he'd be obeyed even if he gave them, and he was having too much trouble staying upright to devote any of his concentration to pointless conversation. He spared a brief, annoyed thought that he should have taken a caf-tab before leaving his quarters, then resolutely forced his feet to start moving again.

The bridge. He needed to get to the bridge and assess the situation. They'd been boarded somehow. How? Where? He had no idea where they were in the sector, or the quadrant for that matter. Who would be foolish enough to attack an IG vessel in the first place?

His answer was suddenly looking him in the face as he emerged from the lift into the short hallway to the bridge. He knew the features looking back at him, though it took his drug-clouded mind a moment to place them. Revolutionary. Kidnapper. This was one of the men he'd seen on Bangkok while investigating the missing consultant.

The revolutionary recovered from his surprise first, bringing up his stunner and firing. Sigma managed to dodge both shots, much to the obvious consternation of the man, and got in two strikes of his own before something hit him hard in the back of the head. The last thing he saw before his vision went dark was a brief glimpse of Captain Lehennin lying unconscious and bloody on the floor of the bridge.

---

Holding Cell, Location Unknown, Quadrant Three

Sigma's head hurt. Actually, all of him hurt, but the throbbing in his head was mostly managing to overpower the rest of his aching body. He wasn't certain how much of it was left over side-effects of the sleeping drugs and how much was new from when he'd been knocked unconscious. He started to sit up to gauge the situation only to have the breath knocked out of him as someone's foot connected harshly with his stomach.

Well, that answered the question of "Who won?" Next up was "Where am I?" and "What happened to the rest of the crew?"

Cracking open his eyes, Sigma was treated to a sideways view of one of his shipmates - Orgel, Oreo, something like that - sitting awkwardly on the rough floor with his hands bound tightly behind him. A slight tilt of Sigma's head brought more of the room into view, and the crew count up to around twenty. All bound, most showing signs of bruising or more serious injuries, and no captain in sight.

Which left Sigma as the ranking officer. Perfect. Even if they could get free, the chances of the crew actually listening to him were questionable at best. Somehow they'd managed to completely botch their rescue mission in the worst way possible.

Actually, Sigma amended that thought as a new face stepped into view and began snapping things at Lieutenant Deneb. They had managed to find the revolutionaries... although their method needed a lot of work. So, all they had to do was get loose, figure out where they were, and defeat their captors.

Sigma repressed a snort. Unfortunately most of the Scythe's crew were like the rest of the IG Authorities. Skilled fighters while armed, but absolutely helpless when their weapons failed. So between the fact that their opponents had those blasted shields and they'd unquestionably been unarmed, their chances were practically nonexistent without serious backup. That meant somehow transmitting their location to other Authorities in the area without getting either themselves or the rest of the hostages killed.

This had suddenly turned into an even bigger Potential Incident than insulting the Lords of Bangkok would have been. The last report he'd seen has listed close to a thousand missing persons that were thought to have been taken by the revolutionaries, thus why the Infinitum Government had been proceeding so cautiously in their negotiations. One wrong word and lives would be lost.

There were people talking, but Sigma couldn't seem to understand a word of it around the ringing in his ears. It was incredibly frustrating to be in a situation where he desperately needed to gather and process information and be completely unable to do so because of a few minor setbacks. He made yet another note to wring Captain Lehennin's neck, if the man had survived the attack upon the Scythe.

One after another his shipmates were dragged out of the room, and then it was his turn. His inability to comprehend basic language earned him several more blows and corresponding bruises before his captors finally bored of their game and threw him into a small room with a handful of other people. Their faces swam in his vision as he struggled desperately to stay conscious, knowing even as he fell that it was a hopeless cause.

---

The next time he awoke Sigma was far more aware of the varying aches and pains of his body. He spared the inane thought that at least that meant his head must be feeling better before cautiously sitting up to take stock of his situation. He was in a small room with four other people, none of whom were one of his shipmates and all bedraggled enough to have most likely been here for a while. Three appeared human, one with the red skin coloration from quad one, and the last one some sort of fuzzy purple thing he wasn't really familiar with. It was the purple thing that noticed his stare and called out softly, "He's awake."

Muffled footsteps were audible somewhere behind him, then a pair of legs clothed in the sorriest excuse for a shipsuit he'd ever seen entered his field of view. Sigma looked up slowly, taking in the various tears and stains on the loose-fitting outfit, a tough, wide belt that was missing whatever normally hung from it, and... He blinked. Pale, mint-green skin and the most vivid violet eyes he'd ever seen in his life, surrounded by a fall of long, straight, horribly untidy black hair.

"Well well..." the green man drolled in amusement, "Look who's decided to join us." His ears were a good four or five inches long and gently pointed. Sigma had never seen anything like him before in his life.

Cautiously testing his tongue, Sigma managed to ask, "Who?"

The green-skinned man grinned. "Tau Ceti," he replied. "And you, to judge from what's left of your uniform, are with the Authorities."

Sigma grimaced, not liking the obvious amusement in Tau Ceti's voice. He was clearly a man who was accustomed to authority of some sort, to speak as confidently as he did, and he also seemed to have no problem subtly insulting an IG officer. Sigma frowned. The name sounded somewhat familiar, though he couldn't really place it, and he definitely couldn't place the face.

"I am Lieutenant-Commander Sigma Altair of the Scythe," he replied, slowly getting to his feet. He didn't much care for Tau Ceti smirking down at him. "We were on a rescue mission to retrieve a missing IG consultant when we were attacked..." He frowned. "None of you would happen to have seen him, by any chance?"

Tau Ceti chuckled, crossing his arms and leaning back against the wall casually. "You know," he pointed out, "You have no idea if any of us are revolutionary spies planted to find out what you know. Should you be telling us all your secret mission so openly?"

That smug confidence was starting to get on Sigma's nerves. "Obviously our mission wasn't as secret as we thought it was, if we were attacked while looking for this place," he snapped. "I'm just trying to make the best of things and hopefully complete my mission despite my current setback."

One of Tau Ceti's dark brows rose. "Alone, unarmed, with absolutely no idea where in the quadrant you are."

"Approximately twenty of the Scythe's crew are confirmed to be here as well," Sigma retorted, ignoring the fact that he'd already basically dismissed them as not overly helpful to his mission.

"Mmm-hmm," Tau Ceti mused, violet eyes gleaming as he regarded Sigma. "And they did so well against our captors last time they fought."

Quashing his rising irritation, Sigma crossed his own arms over his chest, ignoring the pain the motion caused. "Twenty trained Authorities are better than none at all," he pointed out.

"True," Tau Ceti agreed, surprising him. He'd been certain the man was going to continue baiting him until his temper snapped. "Twenty Authorities, hmm..." The green-skinned man looked curiously at Sigma, a faint gleam in his eyes betraying the fact that he was up to something. "Just one ship, to find this missing consultant of yours?"

"No," Sigma said with a slight head shake. "Others were on their way. We just happened to pick up the trail the fastest based on clues left behind on Bangkok."

Tau Ceti eyed him thoughtfully, the faintest hint of what might, in a normal man, be admiration flickering briefly across his face. "You followed them all the way from Bangkok? Perhaps you people aren't as useless as I thought..." He smirked again. "All right, then. If the IG is out there snooping around, then all we have to do is get their attention and then sit back and wait for the cavalry to arrive."

For some reason, Tau Ceti's statement sent a faint chill down Sigma's spine. He frowned at the smirking man, asking warily, "Just what are you planning to do to get their attention?"

White teeth flashed as Tau Ceti grinned, that irritating overconfidence rising to the forefront again. "Trust me, you really don't want to know," he promised cheerfully.

"I am the IG officer," Sigma pointed out, wondering internally why civilians always thought they had to interfere. They all needed to just step back and let the Authorities do their jobs.

"There are close to fifteen hundred people trapped here, some of whom have been here for months," Tau Ceti observed calmly, though there was a faint undercurrent in his voice that warned Sigma he was treading on thin ice. "If you have a plan on how to get them all free with minimal injuries, then I am more than willing to listen."

Sigma clenched his jaw tightly. The mission was to find and retrieve the missing IG consultant, not rescue the entire compliment of hostages. It would be considerably safer for a small compliment to escape, then relay the revolutionaries' coordinates once they rendezvoused with the rest of the IG ships. The kind of large-scale operation Tau Ceti was talking about was pure nonsense.

Tau Ceti took his silence for agreement and smirked again. "No? Didn't think so. Now then, just shut up and let me think, oh great IG officer." He paced slowly around the small room, contemplating Sigma and their other cell mates, the door, the walls, the lights overhead, and the bare floor. While Sigma would normally have been inclined to think the man was just glancing wherever, the fixed set of his eyes and the length of time he lingered on each seemingly innocuous object spoke otherwise. Tau Ceti was carefully studying everything within reach, but the purpose of it remained a mystery.

"All right," he announced suddenly, turning to look straight at Sigma. "The one thing we have to keep in mind above all else is the safety of the other prisoners. To that end, we have to keep our captors in the dark regarding our plans for as long as possible."

Without waiting for a reply from Sigma, Tau Ceti turned and strode over to the wall, prodding at a seam. He nodded thoughtfully to himself, then reached up behind one long ear to draw out a long slender object which he inserted into the seam on the wall, carefully prying off one of the panels. Beneath was a collection of circuitry and mechanics that the green man promptly set about disassembling.

Sigma blinked. "What are you doing?" he asked.

Tau Ceti seated himself on the floor, bits and pieces of the machinery strewn across his lap. He lifted his gaze to meet Sigma's eyes and smirked again. "Creating a diversion," he replied, tinkering with the electronic components in his lap with an intensity that almost burned. He approached his task with a focused single-mindedness that put Sigma's own eccentricities to shame, hands moving far more quickly over the delicate pieces than even the most skilled engineer Sigma had ever met.

He had no way to measure time, but when Tau Ceti announced "Done" and held up his creation, Sigma was certain he had to be joking. Disassembled basic transfer conduits and not even an hour's worth of time of work to make...

"What is it?"

Lips quirked upward as Tau Ceti's brilliant violet eyes regarded Sigma, his expression all but screaming that he knew Sigma wasn't going to believe him. "A holographic image inducer. I'm going to use it to take readings of us and then set up a simple program to have our images follow so that it's not immediately evident that we've escaped."

"Right," Sigma acknowledged wryly, shaking his head. So not only was Tau Ceti annoyingly overconfident, he was also a madman. Just what he needed to make this mission even more difficult.

Tau Ceti's little smile widened. "You don't believe me."

"You took apart a wall panel behind which was basic transfer circuitry and you're expecting me to believe that you've made a holograph projector out of it."

"No," Tau Ceti replied, allowing Sigma one brief moment of victory before he continued cheerfully, "It's an inducer, not a projector. Projectors can only show static images. I need ours to move or else it's not going to be a very convincing hologram."

It was the confidence that was most annoying, Sigma decided. Everything about Tau Ceti, from his face to his voice to the set of his body left absolutely no room for doubt. The man believed completely in what he was doing. It was as though he didn't know how to be wrong. Or was just plain insane.

"Here, I'll show you," Tau Ceti continued, walking to the lone door of their cell and setting his creation on the floor. He did something to it, then walked back to join the others. "Everyone please turn around in a complete circle so that the inducer can read you," he instructed.

The others obeyed him without question, getting up and turning around even as Tau Ceti followed his own instructions. The man looked at him rather pointedly as their cell mates sat back down again and, sighing, Sigma humored him. Tau Ceti walked back across the small space to pick up his toy, sitting back down and tinkering with it again.

Sigma began his own examination of the room, trying to discover a way out. The lock on the door seemed simple enough, or would be if he had his usual tools, but their captors had unarmed him rather efficiently. He was almost ready to ask Tau Ceti for that strange metal stick of his when the green man stood up and brandished his odd contraption.

"There," Tau Ceti announced. "That should keep our captors confused for a while. Everyone come over here near the door so I can give it a trial run."

The purple fuzzy thing got up first, followed by the three humans. They all shifted obediently over to stand around Sigma and Tau Ceti as the latter man set his holographic inducer down on the floor again and pressed something. An instant later completely lifelike reproductions of the six of them appeared, most sitting, Sigma standing and pacing, all moving in small ways that gave the impression that they were tired, bored, or just plain depressed.

Sigma stared. It wasn't possible, was it? He took a few tentative steps forward, reaching out and running a hand through the image of himself, encountering nothing. And yet it looked so very real...

A low chuckle behind him made him turn to meet Tau Ceti's obnoxiously smug gaze. "So, now do you believe me?"

"How... why..." Sigma shook his head. "Who or what are you, that you can... can do that?"

Tau Ceti laughed, an undercurrent of surprise in his rich voice. "I'm a Secret Weapon," he announced, eyes gleaming in amusement. There was something about that unexpected surprise that made Sigma go over the situation again in his mind. Once again, he had the odd feeling that there was something about the strange man that he should be recognizing, but he knew he'd never met Tau Ceti before in his life.

Before he could really start to analyze things, Tau Ceti turned and began fiddling with the door. That slender metal rod came out again to poke around, and three wires and two fingers later the door swished open to display an empty hallway.

"Now what?" Sigma asked, wincing inwardly when he realized he'd just accepted the fact that he was going to follow Tau Ceti's lead. But then, the man had just proven he wasn't a complete lunatic and he did apparently have a plan... All Sigma had to do was figure out how he was going to find the High Chancellor's missing consultant and keep them all alive in the process. Easy. In theory.

"Now," Tau Ceti replied, tracing a few fingers thoughtfully over the locking mechanism on the door frame, "I need to find a terminal I can access to get a map of the enclosure so I can figure out where they've stashed their communications equipment." He considered, then set off down the hallway at a brisk pace. The three humans and the purple thing immediately began following him, which left Sigma to bring up the rear.

It was odd, really, how the other four seemed to have absolutely no problem at all accepting Tau Ceti as their leader and following him without question. Granted, they'd likely known him for longer than Sigma had, but still. He was grimy, annoying, and arrogant, and for some reason Sigma absolutely could not maintain a serene demeanor around him. Totally vexing.

At the intersecting hallway Tau Ceti paused, running his hands along the walls again before resolutely turning right as though following some unknown path. He made a left at the next turn, only to have to quickly jump back as they abruptly encountered two revolutionaries. Feeling useful for the first time since he'd awoken, Sigma threaded his way past the frightened civilians and launched himself at the men, taking out all his frustration with Tau Ceti on their hapless forms.

He straightened as Tau Ceti approached, violet eyes slowly looking over the revolutionaries' prone bodies before drifting up to meet Sigma's gaze. For the first time, there was something that he could almost call respect in Tau Ceti's expression. Almost.

"Apparently you're useful for something after all," he commented, that familiar smirk flashing as the infuriating man knelt down to efficiently strip the two unconscious men of all their electronic gadgetry. He spent a moment tinkering with a pair of rather outdated in-specs, doing something to them via chrono parts and pieces of the second stunner - Sigma having claimed one stunner for himself. Humming in pleasure, Tau Ceti stood and donned his modified in-specs, grinning through them at Sigma.

"There we go. Linked into the system."

Sigma raised a brow. "You have your map?"

Tau Ceti smirked. "Of course." Without another word he brushed past Sigma, heading out down the empty hallway. With a muted curse Sigma set out after him, the three humans and the purple thing following.

Four hallways and corresponding turns later Tau Ceti walked straight through a door into what was very clearly a communications center - and also very clearly occupied. The green-skinned man seemed completely oblivious to the armed revolutionaries staring at him in his quest to reach the equipment and it was only Sigma's hasty tackling of him to the floor that saved his life as one of the revolutionaries fired at him.

Rolling off of Tau Ceti, Sigma launched himself from a crouched position at the nearest opponent, disabling him almost before the man knew what had hit him then turning to fire off a shot at one of the other two. Much to his surprise it hit, then he smiled as he realized that 'safe' in their compound, the revolutionaries had no reason to put up their reflective shields. The last one went down just as easily, hitting the floor just as Tau Ceti was getting to his feet.

"Was that really necessary?" he asked, rubbing his shoulder where it had impacted with the floor.

Sigma crossed his arms. "First rule of combat in enemy territory," he retorted. "Sweep the area first, then move in. What were you thinking?"

Tau Ceti stared at him. "It's all rules and regulations with you, isn't it? Do you have any idea how to think for yourself, or do you need a protocol to do that for you?"

"At least I don't walk right into a room full of armed soldiers," Sigma snapped back, a little more stung by the barb than he cared to admit. The regulations were there for a reason. It wasn't his fault that he seemed to be the only one that actually bothered to memorize and follow them all.

"I didn't know they were there!"

"Of course not! You were too fixated on the computers!"

"Well excuse me for wanting to get us out of here!"

"Getting killed would put a serious damper in your plans."

"Don't question me. If it wasn't for me you'd still be lounging around in that cell."

"You're not the only one who can rig a lock."

"You have been nothing but rude since you arrived, all high and mighty officer. Why don't you get down off your self-absorbed pedestal and-"

The rest of Tau Ceti's rant was cut off by the sliding open of the door again to admit five revolutionaries, their weapons out and trained dangerously upon the escapees. "Don't move!" the one in the middle demanded.

Sigma and Tau Ceti both rounded on the men, snapping out, "Shut up!" in nearly perfect unison then blinking and looking at one another in surprise. The moment passed as one of the new arrivals fired a warning shot over Sigma's head and Sigma launched himself at the man in retaliation.

Time always seemed to slow down when he was fighting. He'd always prided himself on noticing everything that went on around him, studying an analyzing what he saw, but it was never more obvious than when he was in the thick of combat. He could see his opponent's startled eyes, the beginnings of a jerk away - not fast enough. Sigma's boot connected squarely with the man's jaw, rocking his head backward even as he lost consciousness. Before the body had even hit the floor Sigma was up and turning toward the next nearest target.

None of his companions knew a thing about fighting. That much was obvious. There were already several injuries, fortunately minor, but there would be worse if Sigma couldn't take them down faster. He yanked one man away from Tau Ceti and flung him into the one menacing the purple thing, then delivered a sharp kick to a fourth man's knees while the other two were still sorting themselves out.

One more strike and the man was unconscious, but then Sigma had to dodge quickly to avoid a blast from the fifth man. This one seemed to have at least some physical training and it took far longer than it should have before Sigma spotted a weakness and moved in to fell the man. The delay, only seconds but still far too long, cost him. There was a searing pain in his shoulder and he stumbled as his vision momentarily greyed. Obviously the two he'd knocked into each other had recovered.

Trusting to where his peripheral vision had last placed them, Sigma lashed out, smiling tightly when his uninjured arm connected with the stiff polyfibre of the revolutionaries' uniforms. He brought a knee up, heard a pained grunt, then his vision cleared and he rapped the back of the man's head. Letting the man slump to the floor, the looked around to find the final attacker... and had to blink twice as he discovered the two red-skinned humans holding the man down while the purple thing and the pale human took turns punching him.

A quiet snicker sounded off to his left and he turned to meet Tau Ceti's amused gaze. "You should probably put him out of his misery," the green man observed, violet eyes sparkling with mirth that swiftly shifted to concern as he spotted the blood seeping from the wound on Sigma's shoulder. "What happened?"

"I made a mistake," Sigma replied calmly, ripping off part of one of the fallen revolutionaries' uniforms to make a makeshift bandage. It was hard to do one-handed, and Tau Ceti wasn't really much help. Those hands that could be so graceful and skilled when manipulating electronics were almost worthless when aiding in field dressing a wound.

By the time he was finished the last revolutionary had finally passed out and Sigma took a few moments to deal with the injuries the rest of them had sustained. When he looked up again, Tau Ceti was sporting a terse expression somewhere between rueful and furious.

"The equipment's been severely damaged," Tau Ceti announced flatly. "I could fix it, but it would take too long. We'd be caught for sure."

"Other options?" Sigma asked, feeling strangely calm.

Tau Ceti considered. "Their ships will have some sort of communications equipment," he mused. "I'm sure I can jury-rig one of those hunks of junk into transmitting on IG emergency frequencies."

It wasn't protocol. It wasn't even sane, really. Stealing a pirate ship to get a message off to let the Authorities know your whereabouts wasn't even hinted at in IG code. But for some strange reason Sigma didn't really care. "Lead the way," he said simply, relieving the guards of their stunners and passing them out amongst the little group.

Tau Ceti grinned at him. "Aren't you going to, how did you put it... sweep the area first?"

That actually surprised a chuckle out of Sigma, who made his way to the door and carefully inspected the hallway for dangers before straightening and flashing the green man a grin. "Clear."

Tau Ceti's grin widened, then he strode confidently out the door without the slightest check for himself, trusting that Sigma had been correct. As he followed with the others, Sigma contemplated the odd feeling he got from that. Any of his shipmates would have double - sometimes triple - checked him before proceeding. Tau Ceti either honestly didn't care if he got killed... or he trusted Sigma to make that call.

At the next intersection Sigma got his answer as Tau Ceti stopped several feet from the adjoining corridor and waited patiently for Sigma to clear it before moving on. He would have been inclined to think the man was just mocking him, except that absolutely nothing in Tau Ceti's demeanor gave that impression. He stopped, he waited for Sigma to do his job, then resumed the lead. Apparently he'd decided, just as Sigma had, that they both had wildly different strengths and skills that didn't appear to overlap at all.

And they'd also decided, at some point, without ever stopping to discuss it, that they were comfortable relying upon one another's strengths.

Sigma didn't think that had ever happened before in his life. No, scratch that, he was sure it hadn't. He'd always forced himself to be the very best, leaving no time for frivolous pursuits or hobbies like other men, but that level that he held himself to also meant that there was no one he could rely upon to back him up. He'd never been able to understand before what was so desirable about working as a 'team.'

Now, perhaps, he did.

In short order Tau Ceti stopped again, gesturing toward the wide double doors at the end of the hallway they were in. "The hangar bay."

Carefully, silently, Sigma crept up and inched one of the doors open just enough to get a good look, then quietly closed it again. He backed up until he was standing next to Tau Ceti, meeting the man's expectant gaze.

"Looks like between ten and fifteen guards present, spread out across the hangar. We're going to need some kind of distraction," Sigma announced.

Tau Ceti looked thoughtful. "Distraction, hmm? How good is your night vision?"

Sigma blinked. "Better than average. Why?"

Violet eyes sparkled deviously as Tau Ceti flashed a smirk. "Because I'm about to cut the power in the bay."

Sigma felt his own lips curl up into a smile. "That would be just perfect." He slid back to the doors, peering through them once more to make sure he knew approximately where all his targets were, then closed his eyes. Five seconds passed, ten, then he felt a feather-light touch on his shoulder.

"Now," Tau Ceti said.

Faint cries of surprise met his ears as Sigma slipped through the doors, heading through the darkness for the largest group of soldiers. Little things gave them away - the glint of metal on their uniforms, the faint glow of their power packs - but Sigma could have found them blindfolded just on the noise they made.

One after another they dropped with muffled sounds of pain as Sigma felled them, making as little noise as possible himself. Once the first group was down he moved on to the next, and the next, until the entire hangar was silent. Waiting several moments, listening for noises where there shouldn't be any, Sigma cautiously made his way back to the hall door and blinked to find Tau Ceti already inside and waiting for him.

"Lights up?" he asked quietly. Sigma nodded.

Only about half of the lights came on, but that was easier on his eyes than the full brightness would have been. Sigma spared a brief moment to admire Tau Ceti's foresight even as he scanned the area for any guards he might have missed. There were none.

"Have a preference of ships?" he asked as the rest of their little jailbreak group joined them.

Tau Ceti considered, then pointed. "That one."

It looked, to Sigma's eyes, like all the others, but he was more than willing to trust Tau Ceti's judgment on this. They made their way swiftly across the deckplates to the ship's hatch, Sigma's brows shooting up as a brief caress of Tau Ceti's hand across the hull opened the airlock and lowered the ramp. Magic, of some sort, though Sigma had never before heard of magic that could make electronics obey at a touch.

A brief chill went up his spine as it suddenly occurred to him just what Tau Ceti was capable of. There were encryption protocols designed specifically to keep intruders out of ships, and yet they hadn't even slowed the man down. Then there were the lights, and the hologram inducer... He was very, very glad that Tau Ceti was on their side. Or at least, appeared to be. Sigma was abruptly reminded of what Tau Ceti had said to him when they first met.

You have no idea if any of us are revolutionary spies.

He frowned and shook his head. He'd spent most of his life studying body language, learning how to read the tiniest clues, the smallest giveaways. If Tau Ceti had been preparing to betray them, he'd know about it. And yet... there were still a few little things that nagged at him. Small things, inconsequential, and yet... Tau Ceti was hiding something. The question was whether or not that something had a bearing on the mission.

If only he could remember where he'd heard the name 'Tau Ceti' before.

On the ship's bridge, Tau Ceti strapped himself into the pilot's seat and began powering things up. His movements were alternately hesitating and sure, as though he wasn't quite certain what he was doing.

Sigma slipped into the Nav chair and fastened his safety straps. "You have flown a ship before, right?" he asked.

Tau Ceti winced. "I know how it works in theory."

"Theory?" Sigma's brows shot up.

Tau Ceti shot him a heated glare. "Look, I can't work the weapons systems if they come after us, and you can't work them both at once. I just need a moment to interface with the system and I'll be fine." He looked back down at the console and added beneath his breath, "I build these things, I don't fly them..."

Putting the odd comment aside to study later, Sigma brought up all the defensive systems and checked their status. Some parts were obviously old and jury-rigged together while others were almost top of the line. Typical extremist mentality that the good systems were the primary weapons while the questionable systems were those meant for defense. Go out with a bang and take as many of your opponents with you as possible.

Stifling a snort, Sigma checked to make sure their four passengers were all strapped in before nodding to Tau Ceti. "Whenever you're ready."

The green-skinned man ran a hand briefly over the controls once more, then rapidly started pressing things. There was a muffled roar as the engines flared to life, a rather dizzying lurch as the external thrusters modified their position, then a sickening moment of acceleration disorientation as they took off far more rapidly than Sigma suspected the ship had been designed for.

The main screen showed their rapid ascent away from the planet - or more correctly, away from the small rocky moon orbiting a greenish-yellow gas giant planet. An insistent beeping drew his attention away from their location and back down to his own console and he let out a terse oath.

"They're after us already," Tau Ceti observed tensely.

"Not for long," Sigma muttered, hands flying over the weapons controls. They were sluggish, something he was going to have to account for, but at least they fired cleanly. His first two shots missed. By the third he'd gotten accustomed to the lagging system and the shot hit its target dead center. He smiled grimly and started firing off one shot after another, the pursuing ships scrambling to get out of the way.

Still, they were only one ship against many, and despite a few fancy evasive maneuvers that Sigma was certain should have been impossible, eventually they took too many hits for the shielding to withstand. Tau Ceti's hands flew over the controls, trying to stabilize things, then made a pained sound as another shot rocked the ship and only his safety straps kept him from flying across the bridge.

Sigma kept firing as long as he was able, determined to take out as many of the revolutionaries as possible before their hull was breached. They'd actually started to back off when the entire ship shuddered dramatically.

"What was that?" he demanded.

Tau Ceti's lips were a tightly pressed line. "Gravity."

Quickly Sigma called up the navigation systems, running through a list of curses in his head as he saw the enormous moon they were heading straight for. "Can you break loose?"

"That last shot wiped out our engines," Tau Ceti returned. "At this point, it will be a miracle if I can get us down in one piece."

Sigma stared briefly at the rapidly approaching bulk of the moon, then flashed a faint smile at Tau Ceti. "If anyone could pull off a miracle like that, you can."

Tau Ceti's violet eyes widened briefly in surprise, then a faint matching smile flashed across his face before he turned to his console with new determination. For a moment Sigma swore he could see electricity crackling in the narrow space between Tau Ceti's hands and the controls beneath them, then he couldn't do much but hang on tight as they started to spiral down.

---

Moon orbiting a Gas Giant, Location Unknown, Quadrant Three

His head hurt again. As did everything else, come to think of it. Unconsciousness was remarkably unpleasant after crash-landing on a barren, lifeless moon, and the waking-up even more so. As Sigma gingerly opened his eyes and glanced around, he inwardly winced at the destruction.

Only two lights were still on, and those at minimal power. Most of the control consoles had been twisted into unrecognizable shapes or broken clean in half, electricity sizzling intermittently from the shorn circuitboards. He could hear the faint hiss of a coolant leak somewhere, and the air was getting noticeably colder.

Gritting his teeth against the pain, Sigma unfastened his safety restraints and rose cautiously from his chair. He could make out the indistinct form of Tau Ceti slumped over what was left of the control console, his dark hair fanning out and obscuring his face. Stepping carefully over the wreckage on the floor, Sigma reached out to touch the man's neck and was relieved to note a faint, if rapid, pulse.

He got Tau Ceti out of the harness, picking him up and carrying him to a section of the bridge relatively clear of rubble, marveling at how light the man was. He wished he knew what was 'normal' for Tau Ceti's species, as he had no way to tell if anything was wrong. There was a shallow gash on the man's head that had already ceased bleeding, but his bulky clothing obscured any other possible injuries.

Sigma straightened and surveyed the rest, noting that, while unconscious, none of them appeared notably injured. The front consoles and part of the floor had born the bulk of the damage. And unfortunately, that damage was extensive. There was no way the ship would ever fly again. Frankly he was amazed that the life support systems were still functional. His gaze swung back to Tau Ceti, wondering how in the universe the man had managed to keep them alive.

"Nmmph..." Tau Ceti's eyelids flickered, then a pained expression creased his face as he slowly opened first one violet eye, then the other. He blinked a few times as his vision focused, silently regarding Sigma, then solemnly proclaimed, "Ow."

A low chuckle escaped Sigma's lips. "Something like that," he agreed. "How do you feel?"

"Like I had an up and personal encounter with the agri-loving Shatterstar," Tau Ceti grumbled, carefully sitting up and wincing at each new movement.

Sigma blinked. "The what?"

Tau Ceti blinked owlishly a few times, then grinned rather sheepishly. "Nevermind."

Sigma regarded him for a moment, then shrugged and offered him a hand. Tau Ceti looked briefly surprised, then accepted gracefully, getting somewhat awkwardly to his feet and swaying slightly.

Sigma frowned. "Are you all right? You hit your head and you may have a concussion, but I don't know anything about your species..."

A faint, bitter grimace twisted the edges of Tau Ceti's mouth. "Nobody does," he replied cryptically, reaching up to press a hand to his forehead. "Other than the pounding in my head and a few bumps and bruises, I think I'm okay. I suppose it's safe to assume that given we aren't all splatters on the deckplates that I got the ship down in one piece, more or less?"

"We're alive, for whatever good that's going to do us," Sigma replied, frowning and looking over the wreckage again. "By all rights we shouldn't have survived that crash, so we probably have a little bit of an advantage in that it's unlikely anyone will be looking for us... but at the same time, our systems seem to be completely down and we have no way to signal for help."

"Mmm..." Tau Ceti listed to one side and Sigma hastily caught him, more than a little worried.

"Tau-"

"M'okay," Tau Ceti refuted, though he still leaned rather heavily on Sigma. "Just get me back to the communications console..." He paused, grimaced, and corrected himself. "What's left of the communications console, and I'll see what I can do about piecing things back together."

Privately Sigma didn't think even Tau Ceti could fix something that had been obliterated, but then he had gotten them down alive, so maybe Sigma seriously needed to start believing in the impossible. At least when the impossible crossed paths with Tau Ceti.

He helped the green man over to the wreckage of the communications console ("Hmm, I think I saw some sort of impressionistic art that looked like this once," Tau Ceti commented) then made his way back to where the others were beginning to wake.

Sigma slowly organized the small crew into pairs, sending them off into the depths of the ship to ascertain if anything at all was still intact and whether there was any serious damage that would put their lives in danger. He himself headed down to the main engineering room to check on the life support systems and verify how much power they had before that gave out.

It wouldn't do to start panicking now. Granted, they were on a barren, airless moon in a system that the IG had been trying and failing to locate for months in a ship that was barely better than scrap metal, but they were alive and amazingly uninjured. The life support systems were functional on a low level and the one power cell that had survived the crash appeared stable. He estimated they would be able to survive two to three months before the power gave out, barring any unforeseen emergencies.

Such as that coolant leak.

Making his way back to the bridge, Sigma was surprised to find that the coolant was no longer leaking and Tau Ceti had half the bridge systems disassembled, their parts scattered everywhere. The man had a small circuitboard in his mouth and three more in his lap as he tinkered with them.

"So, how bad is it?" he asked.

Tau Ceti looked up at him and blinked, then carefully took the component out of his mouth to reply. "Good and bad. Good, in that I can work with it, and bad in that I don't think the emergency message I tried to send out while we were attempting not to get our atoms scattered across the cosmos actually transmitted." He scowled and kicked at the nearest bit of electronics. "Stupid hunk of junk pirate ship."

Sigma chuckled quietly. "You fixed the coolant leak?"

"And the ruptured phase conduit. Whatever idiot designed this ship obviously didn't do so with emergency landings in mind."

Attempting vainly to stifle his laughter, Sigma started inspecting all the storage compartments in search of anything remotely useful. He wasn't really expecting much, not on this ship, but there might be something they could use. Rations, at the least. Maybe some bit of equipment that Tau Ceti could magically transform into some outlandish device to transport them all to Zero.

He snorted at his own thoughts. Now he was just being ridiculous.

Two hours later they'd located a lot of really useless junk and a handful of ration packs. Sigma reflected silently that their food would give out long before the life support did, and dying of starvation and dehydration was not amongst the most pleasant ways to go. He didn't voice any of that, however, just passed out a measure of food to everyone before taking Tau Ceti's portion over to where the man was doing something with the wiring underneath the deckplates.

"Hey."

Violet eyes peered up at him in bewilderment. Sigma grinned. "Dinner," he clarified.

Tau Ceti shrugged and went back to whatever it was he'd been doing. "Too busy," came the muffled reply. "You eat it."

"You need the energy," Sigma countered, making himself a clear section of floor in which to sit and parking himself next to Tau Ceti.

"I'm fine," Tau Ceti retorted without looking up. He shifted around a bit and grasped blindly for something, muttering beneath his breath when it didn't immediately turn up. A moment later Sigma started as something green and slender wafted over the disassembled pieces, curling around one and hoisting it over toward Tau Ceti, depositing the piece into the hand that reached out expectantly for it.

"What... was that?" Sigma asked, baffled, as he reached out and prodded at the long appendage, near the very end where there was a tuft of silky black hair.

"Gyaah!" Tau Ceti jerked, sitting up quickly as the long green thing coiled defensively around him. "Don't do that!"

Sigma blinked. "Do what? What is that?"

Tau Ceti glared. "My tail."

"Your what?"

Tau Ceti sighed. "Tail. I know it's a hard concept for you humans to wrap your minds around, but yes, I have a tail. It is attached to my body, and sensitive, so I would appreciate it if you would warn me the next time you take it into your head to poke at it."

"You have a tail." Sigma's mind didn't quite seem to be grasping the concept.

"Yes, I do." Tau Ceti glared again. "No, it is not a deformation or a mutation, it is normal for my species."

Sigma blinked. "I didn't say anything."

"I've heard it before."

"Huh..." Sigma tentatively reached out and lightly stroked the slender appendage thoughtfully. "It suits you."

Tau Ceti blinked, holding perfectly still as Sigma touched him, giving him a most peculiar expression. "I'm trying to decide if that was an insult or not."

Sigma chuckled quietly. "Not in the slightest. You're..." He hesitated, choosing his words carefully. It was obvious from Tau Ceti's reaction that he'd had a lot of trouble with his appearance in the past. "Unique. Interesting. I've never met anyone remotely like you before in my life."

One of Tau Ceti's dark brows lifted. "A fact which you are undoubtedly grateful for."

Sigma shrugged, wincing at the pain of the shoulder wound. "I don't know about that. You're certainly more capable than most of the people I know." A slight pause and a hint of a smirk. "As well as considerably more stubborn."

Tau Ceti's smirk was positively proud. "Good. I work very hard to be the most skilled brat in space."

"You're succeeding admirably," Sigma returned.

Tau Ceti laughed, then grabbed his ration pack from Sigma and wolfed it down almost in one bite. His eyes fairly danced, taunting Sigma to say something about it, then he ducked down beneath one of the not-so-badly-damaged consoles and resumed his work.

Bemused, Sigma picked his way back across the rubble to the clear section of floor and sprawled out, adjusting himself so that he could watch Tau Ceti as he worked. The man was unquestionably fascinating. On the surface he was all fire and arrogance, completely confident in himself and his skills, so self-assured it seemed as though he feared nothing.

Then there were those brief glimpses Sigma got every now and then in which it was almost painfully obvious that a few ill-chosen words hurt more than any wound could. Something about his appearance, the way he looked. Sigma wondered if it was actual shame about his species, or simply because he was different.

Very few races possessed tails, after all. And something Tau Ceti had said earlier gave Sigma the impression that his people were not very well known. That alone would draw attention to the man wherever he went, as watchers would attempt to figure out what exactly he was.

But then, if it bothered him that much, why wasn't he still on his home planet where everyone looked like he did?

Sigma mulled it over for quite some time, watching the slight shiftings as Tau Ceti did this or that to modify the machinery, then blinked as an unexpected thought occurred to him. He felt... relaxed. He wasn't going over mission briefs or ship specs, wasn't flinging himself into desperately trying to find a way to get a message back to the IG; he was lying casually on the floor and trusting that a man he barely knew would come up with a solution.

That thought should terrify him. It didn't. Instead, he was waiting. Waiting for Tau Ceti to finish, to share his plan, to tell Sigma how he could help. It was strange, and yet at the same time it felt reassuring. As though this was how life was supposed to be. Cooperation amongst Equals.

His eyes felt heavy, his muscles weary. A brief glance at the other four showed that all but one of the red-skinned humans were already asleep, and that last one nearly so. He was on a mission; he didn't normally sleep at all during missions, but until Tau Ceti finished whatever he was doing, there wasn't really anything for Sigma to do, and his battered body could really use the time to rest and mend. Still...

"You going to get some rest at some point?" Sigma called out softly, pitching his voice low so as not to disturb the others.

"Later," came the muffled reply, Tau Ceti's backside sticking out of a hole in the floor where he'd ripped off one of the deckplates and climbed partway in to the tangle of wires beneath.

Sigma opened his mouth to persist, then closed it with a rueful smile. Who was he to demand anyone take the time to sleep? "Don't stay up too late," he said instead, pillowing his arms behind his head and closing his eyes.

"How late is too late?" came the bemused response.

"When your eyes start to cross," Sigma returned with a slight chuckle, sitting up slightly to look at him.

There was a brief pause, then a quiet laugh. "All right," Tau Ceti said, climbing up out of the wires long enough to flash him a grin. "I'll take a break when my eyes start to cross."

Sigma watched him dive back down into the electronics, then closed his eyes. He was fast asleep when, some time later, Tau Ceti regarded him thoughtfully for a long moment before pacing over and dropping a thin blanket across his sleeping form.

---

When Sigma awoke his body was stiff and he took nearly a half hour slowly working the soreness out of his muscles before getting to his feet and looking around. The bridge was almost unrecognizable, so extensive were the changes that had taken place while he slept. Several systems were up and running, though even the most cursory glance showed that whatever they were doing now, it wasn't what they'd originally been intended to do.

Tau Ceti was nowhere in sight, though his handiwork was everywhere, and Sigma spent several minutes wandering from one bundle of modified electronics to another, trying to guess what they were for. It could have been anything, really. If Tau Ceti could turn a bundle of transfer circuits from behind a basic wall panel into the most sophisticated hologram inducer Sigma had ever seen, there was absolutely no way to tell what he'd done with the broken ship parts.

One by one the others awoke and Sigma handed out ration packs. He'd just given one to the fuzzy purple creature, who he'd learned was a Daneubian named Tiluk, when the hall doors swished open and Tau Ceti reappeared, wearing the most patchwork excuse for a pressure suit Sigma had ever seen.

"It's perfect," he announced, completely oblivious to the ration pack Sigma tried to offer him as he went sailing past.

"What's perfect?" Sigma asked, picking his way a little more carefully through the randomly strewn rubble and electronic components to where Tau Ceti had dropped into one of the seats.

"The moon," Tau Ceti replied, swiftly punching in commands and bringing up a diagram on his monitor. "Partially hollow with an iron and silicon core, threaded everywhere with copper. Absolutely perfect."

Sigma arched a brow. "Perfect for what?" he inquired dryly.

A sly smile spread across Tau Ceti's lips. "To get people's attention."

At the look on Sigma's face, Tau Ceti laughed and elaborated. "I've wired the ship into the moon as best I was able with the limited supplies we had. If I've calculated correctly, there isn't a ship in the entire quadrant that won't be able to find us."

"As long as it's the Authorities that find us before the revolutionaries do," Sigma observed wryly.

Tau Ceti waved a hand dismissively. "Not a problem. IG ships use different encryption protocols than the rustbuckets those idiots fly."

Sigma blinked. "What?"

"Um." Tau Ceti scrunched up his face in thought. "I'll explain the details later. Let me think... if I was trying to explain this to the Princess..." He drummed his fingers on the edge of the console, then spun around in his chair to face Sigma. "Okay, like this. I'm going to channel a massive EMP pulse through the moon, which will be amplified by the silicon-metal core before being sent out in a single massive burst. It's going to disrupt systems trillions of parsecs away, more than far enough to get the attention of whatever IG ships happen to be in the area. I've taken the configuration and design of those ships into account and calibrated the pulse to allow them to recover faster, as well as set it up so that the formula for calculating the origin of my EMP wave will be written into their computers. Provided the lunkheads figure out what it's for, we should have visitors in two, three days tops."

A stunned silence met his announcement. Sigma slowly ran over the explanation in his head, two thoughts floating to the forefront of his mind. "So then, the revolutionaries' ships will stay down longer than the Authorities'?" He looked to Tau Ceti for confirmation.

Tau Ceti shrugged. "As long as they haven't stolen an IG ship, anyway."

Deciding to let that one slide for now, Sigma frowned slightly. "Where are you going to get that sort of power? All but one of the ship's power packs were damaged in the crash."

Grinning in a way that Sigma was swiftly coming to realize meant Trouble, Tau Ceti idly twitched his tail back and forth over one of his arms. "Well, I fixed about half of the power packs while you all were sleeping... and I may know of a way to generate the remaining power needed."

"You fixed the power packs." Sigma shook his head, wondering why he found that surprising. "You realize, with an EMP pulse of the magnitude you're proposing, you're going to end up with half the IG ships in the quadrant in this system."

Tau Ceti laughed. "That's the point. I told you, everyone is getting rescued, including all the people still locked up in that compound of theirs, and if those idiots down there take a long as I think they will to get their systems up and running again, they'll be on their way to Rehab before they know what hit them."

"I think not," an icy voice interrupted.

Sigma's head jerked up to meet the eyes of one of the red humans, a stunner aimed steadily at his head. The pale-skinned human had the other red one and the fuzzy purple thing cornered with another stunner, and both of them looked like they knew exactly what they were doing.

"Rebel spies," Sigma stated flatly, his hand tightening on the back of Tau Ceti's chair.

Tau Ceti sighed quietly. "I rather suspected something like this would happen, though I didn't anticipate two of you. I suppose I should feel flattered."

The red-skinned rebel smirked. "It isn't every day that one of the IG's pet Gremlins falls right into our laps. I'll admit, we weren't sure at first, but then you went and proved yourself rather nicely, didn't you? All for some stupid Authority."

There was a slight movement as Tau Ceti shrugged. "It seemed like a good idea at the time." He sat forward, eyes intense. "Why wait until now? Why not make your move while we were still on the moon with your base?"

This time the man grimaced and gestured at Sigma with the stunner. "Normal Authorities can't take down five armed men with their bare hands. We had to wait until we could catch you off-guard, and then we crash-landed on this stupid moon. We were just going to signal to our people and wait to be 'recaptured', but we can't let you go through with your plan, so... here we are."

Tau Ceti glanced up at Sigma briefly, his lips quirking into a slight smile. "Hmm, yes, he is rather special, isn't he?" he mused quietly as he regarded the man pointing the stunner at him. "If I might ask, what were you hoping to do with me once you had me?"

The rebel snorted. "We have our informants at the Palace of Eternity. We know full well what a Gremlin is capable of." He smiled coldly. "Men will do almost anything with the right... motivation."

"You mean torture," Tau Ceti corrected flatly.

The red-skinned rebel smirked. "Call it what you wish."

They regarded one another silently for several moments, then Tau Ceti said quietly, "You can't force a Gremlin to create against his will. Coerce, bribe, yes. But not force."

"Is that an offer?" the rebel asked, one brow arching. "You'll come with us if we reward you handsomely enough?"

Tau Ceti smiled, and Sigma knew he was the only one that noticed the expression didn't reach his eyes. "That's better," he murmured. "What sorts of trinkets can you offer to secure my cooperation?"

"Name it," the man shot back. "If we don't have it yet, we can get it."

"Can you now?" Tau Ceti asked aloud, slowly rising from his chair and spreading his hands to emphasize that he was unarmed. "What if I wanted, oh, a necklace of Earth Amethysts set into Tredad silver?"

The rebel man's brows shot up. "That's a lot of points."

Tau Ceti laughed. "You'd probably be amazed how much I get paid," he said, almost condescending. "But then, you really had no idea what you'd caught, did you? To you humans, all Gremlins are alike. One is just as good as another, just a funny-looking slave to make you fancy toys. You never stopped to think that maybe, just maybe, you'd gotten more than you'd bargained for..."

All the while he'd been talking Tau Ceti had been moving steadily closer to the red-skinned rebel. It took a moment before the man seemed to realize just how close in proximity Tau Ceti was and he took a step back, his voice squeaking. "Don't!"

"Or you'll do what?" Tau Ceti purred. "You're not going to shoot me. You want me too much."

Frantic, the man's gaze jerked from Tau Ceti to Sigma and his weapon steadied. Tau Ceti's violet eyes widened and he lunged at the man even as the shot went off, barely missing Sigma's head as he dodged to one side. He leapt across the wreckage, bringing one arm down hard on the back of the other rebel's neck, then turned to help Tau Ceti.

Who didn't need help at all. His hands were clasped tightly to the rebel's shoulders, the man's body twitching and jerking in an entirely unnatural way before Tau Ceti finally released him and stood. He turned and looked at Sigma, his eyes the coldest Sigma had ever seen them.

"Are you all right?" they both asked at once. There was a brief moment of surprise before first Sigma, then Tau Ceti began laughing quietly.

"I... oh..." Tau Ceti breathed, stumbling over to make sure that the remaining two members of their little group were unharmed. "I think I needed that."

"What did you do to him?" Sigma asked, nudging the cooling body at his feet. He hadn't thought it was possible to kill a man by touching his shoulders, but apparently Tau Ceti was out to surprise him again.

"Electric shock," Tau Ceti replied calmly, using a length of wiring to tie up the one remaining rebel. "Which is what I'm about to use to signal for help, if everyone is done with pointing weapons at my head."

Sigma arched a brow, then slowly shook his head. "Somehow, I doubt you'll have any more problems after that particular display."

Tau Ceti smiled grimly, then walked back over to his modified equipment. He pressed a series of buttons, then wrapped his hands around a wide metal rod emerging from the floor. "This had better work like it's supposed to," he muttered quietly beneath his breath, then electricity began crackling around him, arcing from his body to the rod and down into the ship, presumably then to proceed deep inside the moon. For several long moments he glowed brighter than the ship's lights, then quite suddenly the effect ceased as quickly as it had begun.

Before he was even really aware he was moving Sigma was across the intervening space, catching Tau Ceti as the man - Gremlin - collapsed. He had barely a moment to worry about what had happened before all the ship's systems went haywire at once, lights flashing wildly, unbroken screens displaying dizzying patterns, then they were plunged into utter darkness.

Sigma's breath caught. He knew Tau Ceti had said everything would recover from the pulse eventually, but their ship was one of the revolutionaries' and damaged at that. How long would it take before the life support systems cycled back up? Would they come back up, damaged as they were? With Tau Ceti unconscious, none of them had the knowledge to do anything about it. All they could do was wait. And hope.

---

Combat Class Star Ship 22139453, The Black-Widow

Sigma stared out the plas-glass window at the small rocky moon, the yellow-green gas planet looming massive behind it. The Black-Widow had arrived two days after Tau Ceti's message had gone out, with five more ships appearing shortly afterward, and more arriving every minute. It seemed that Tau Ceti had been serious about getting the attention of every IG ship in the quadrant.

The Black-Widow's slightly irritable captain had finished debriefing him approximately ten minutes ago and was now coordinating with the rest of the ships over the impending assault on the revolutionaries' headquarters. Sigma mused that he could see why the man was so tetchy, having experienced the gut-wrenching fear of being caught on a powerless ship himself, but that still had to count for one of the most unpleasant debriefings he'd ever experienced.

He'd learned via the man's Second that the Scythe had been located and its remaining crew rescued. Captain Lehennin, having taken the worst injuries, was in the medical center on Bangkok and was expected to make a full recovery, and the Scythe itself was even now undergoing repairs. The only thing that still remained incomplete was the Scythe's original mission to locate and retrieve the missing IG consultant, but the Black-Widow's captain flatly refused to let Sigma take part in the ground assault squad, citing Sigma's injuries.

Sigma had politely refrained from telling him he could take down five of the man's officers with his current injuries, ten if his shoulder wasn't still aching.

Instead, he'd chosen to wander aimlessly through the corridors, wondering where Tau Ceti had gotten to. He hadn't been in the debriefing; the captain had shown absolutely no interest in any of the three civilians even after Sigma had explained how the EMP message-pulse had been entirely Tau Ceti's doing. Somehow, that didn't really surprise Sigma at all. Tau Ceti was obviously something you had to see and experience for yourself. Otherwise, who would believe it?

He'd just finished mapping out the third deck and was on his way to the fourth when voices caught his attention. One he recognized immediately, Tau Ceti's smug, arrogant manner of speech almost impossible to mistake. It was the other that he was certain he was hearing wrong, deep and rich and more than a little bit exasperated. It couldn't possibly be...

Backtracking, Sigma found himself outside of a small meeting room normally reserved for when the captain needed to brief the senior officers. The door was partially ajar, being the old-fashioned kind that swung open rather than sliding, and allowed just enough space for Sigma to spot Tau Ceti as the Gremlin sat cross-legged atop the conference table.

"Really now, my dear Ice Princess, if you hadn't been slacking so badly on finding me I wouldn't have had to resort to such drastic measures," Tau Ceti was saying.

Sigma stiffened as the reply came, unable to deny what he was hearing. The person Tau Ceti was so cheerfully conversing with on the vid-screen was High Chancellor Kavalerov.

"Sending out an EMP pulse with enough strength to knock out every electronic system between Coni and Bangkok is a bit much," Kavalerov reprimanded. "Do you have any idea how much work you just caused me?"

Tau Ceti rolled his eyes. "You need to learn to delegate, Princess. Besides, there was no lasting damage done, and I just took care of your little revolutionary problem for you, so you should be thanking me."

There was a quiet sigh from the speakers. "Diplomacy is obviously beyond your comprehension, Tau."

"Like you're one to talk," Tau Ceti retorted. "You're just jealous that I get to go blow things up and you don't."

"Behave," Kavalerov warned, "Or I'll send you off to work on the Sweet Dream with your brother for a while."

"Oh, that's cruel and unusual punishment, Princess," Tau Ceti exclaimed, sitting up a little. "As long as I keep building you your little toys, you really have no room to complain." He stuck his tongue out at the screen.

Sigma leaned against the door jam, utterly baffled. Obviously the strange conversation could only mean that Tau Ceti was the High Chancellor's missing consultant, though he didn't look remotely like his picture. Then there was the small issue of Tau Ceti being the one to rescue them, which begged the question of why High Chancellor Kavalerov had felt the need to send out rescue parties in the first place.

"Eavesdropping is completely against regulations," Tau Ceti announced from where he'd crept up to the other side of the door while Sigma had been thinking. "I'm so proud of you."

"Corrupting law-abiding officers isn't something to be proud of," Kavalerov said dryly.

"Why not?" Tau Ceti asked. "You do it all the time."

Sigma flushed as Tau Ceti pulled him into the room and kicked the door shut firmly behind them. He nervously straightened his uniform and managed to salute properly, only to have Tau Ceti smack him in the back of the head.

"No, no, no," Tau Ceti scolded. "You don't salute him. You never salute the Ice Princess. You do this." Grinning broadly at the screen, he made a gesture that was widely understood to be more than a little bit rude on Zero and at least a hundred other worlds.

"I..." Sigma blinked at Tau Ceti, then at the image of the High Chancellor on the screen. "Wait, wait, wait... would someone please explain what's going on? Tau Ceti's the consultant we were supposed to find, isn't he?" At Kavalerov's affirmation, Sigma asked, "Then why doesn't he look like the image in the profile you sent?"

Kavalerov chuckled. "I have a guess, but I'll let Tau explain that one."

The Gremlin rolled his eyes. "The bastards broke my image inducer and I didn't get around to making a new one."

"Image inducer? Like the hologram you made back in the cell?" Sigma asked.

Tau Ceti grinned. "But smaller and more sophisticated. With it, I can look like anyone I want, though I usually stick with the mundane appearance that the Ice Princess sent you."

Sigma blinked. "Why?"

Tau Ceti hesitated, then shrugged. "Honestly? It's just easier. I don't have to deal with all that nonsense if nobody knows who the hell I am. I don't like a lot of attention."

"Oh." Sigma frowned, something finally registering in the back of his mind. His eyes widened. "Wait... now I remember why I know your name! You're the one that designed the Scythe! And half of the prototype ships in the fleet!"

Tau Ceti winced as Kavalerov started laughing quietly. "You shut up," the Gremlin shot at the screen, then crossed his arms and glared at Sigma. "I liked it better when you didn't know who I was."

Sigma hesitated a moment, then smiled ruefully. "Actually, to tell the truth, the trick with the hologram thing was more impressive than either the ships or the EMP wave." He shrugged. "There's just something incredible about taking a few power circuits out of a wall and building a holograph inducer out of them. You had a lot more to work with when you did the rest of it."

Kavalerov started laughing again as Tau Ceti stared at him, then laughed harder when the Gremlin flipped off the screen a second time. "I never thought I'd see the day when Tau Ceti was rendered speechless," the High Chancellor stated, amused. "Lieutenant-Commander Sigma Altair, correct?"

"Yes, sir," Sigma replied, automatically starting to salute again and hesitating partway as he looked at Tau Ceti. Kavalerov's amused voice interrupted before he could finish being confused.

"I would really prefer you not pick up on all of Tau's bad habits," the High Chancellor commented wryly.

"With all due respect, sir," Sigma said with a smile, "He's a lot closer to me at the moment and I've already seen what he can do when someone pisses him off."

"Hmm, you do have a point there," Kavalerov agreed.

Sigma shook his head slowly, looking from the glaring Tau Ceti to the bemused High Chancellor and back again, then frowning a bit. "Magics-capable aren't allowed to be in the Infinitum Government..."

"I'm not, technically," Tau Ceti replied, shooting Kavalerov a warning look. "Thus why they call me a 'consultant' and pay me quite nicely for my services. I get a nice cushy workshop on Zero and free rides to wherever I might want to go, though after this trip I think I'm going to stay home for a while."

"Zero?" Sigma said, surprised. "Not your home world?"

Tau Ceti's face went blank. The High Chancellor's quiet voice came over the speakers a few moments later. "Perhaps it would be in your interest to access the library files regarding Gremlins at your earliest convenience," he suggested.

A green hand waved dismissively at the screen. "It's fine, Pyotr," Tau Ceti said. He took a careful breath, then looked up at Sigma. "My homeworld was wiped out by a space plague two centuries ago. Two space plagues, actually. Those of us who are left live on Zero, though our birth rates are still so low that there are less than a hundred of us remaining." He shrugged. "Most of us are trying to advance your technology as far as we can before we completely die out and you're stuck with incompetent human engineers."

"Not all humans are as unintelligent as you think we are, Tau," Kavalerov chided, then added, "The banquet incident notwithstanding."

Tau Ceti's lips quirked upward as he turned to look at the screen. "I told you they'd do it."

Kavalerov shook his head, faintly bemused, then asked calmly, "When are you heading back to Zero, so I know when to have the staff don their armour?"

"I got kidnapped before I got to finish my vacation," Tau Ceti replied, violet eyes starting to sparkle again, "So you'll be seeing me in three weeks." He paused, eyed Sigma speculatively, then added, "Sigma's going on vacation too, and I'd appreciate it if you'd do the paperwork. We'll be on Bangkok, if you need us." He grinned. "Probably."

Before either Sigma or Kavalerov could protest, Tau Ceti cut the call. Sigma stared helplessly at the blank screen. "Wait, you just... the High Chancellor..."

"Don't worry about it," Tau Ceti told him, scooting closer. "I do that all the time."

The rest of his attempted protests were cut short as warm lips descended upon his and all thought processes promptly stuttered to a halt as Sigma realized that Tau Ceti was kissing him. Kissing him. The thought was so completely overwhelming that he didn't notice in the slightest when he started kissing the man back, hot and demanding and oh so right. He had Tau Ceti pinned against the conference table when something warm and silken coiled around him and slipped up the back of his uniform, Tau Ceti's tail teasing his skin before firmly pressing them closer together.

They were both panting softly when they parted, though between Sigma's arms and Tau Ceti's tail they didn't separate very far. The Gremlin smiled and licked his lips, violet eyes sparkling in a way that was proving highly distracting to normal thought processes and Sigma very much wanted to kiss him again but there was still one question he needed to ask.

"Just explain one thing to me..."

Tau Ceti smiled lazily. "Mmm?"

"You got us out of the cell, away from the compound, and called in the reinforcements. Why did the High Chancellor feel the need to send all those ships out after you when you were perfectly capable of rescuing yourself?" Sigma asked.

This time, Tau Ceti's smirk was positively devious. "The Ice Princess was trying to avoid something like the EMP incident," he replied. "How does he phrase it? I have a tendency towards massive overkill?"

Sigma shook his head, unable to keep the slight smile from his lips. "I'm amazed he hasn't sent you off to Rehab yet, given, well, everything."

Tau Ceti snickered. "Trust me, the Ice Princess gets even. That man is craftier than a Daneubian hellcat. He's the only human I've ever really respected and if you ever tell him I said that then Rehab will look like a pleasant vacation compared with what I'll do to you."

"I won't breathe a word," Sigma promised, his breath catching as Tau Ceti wriggled enticingly against him. Biting back a strangled moan, he tilted his head and leaned in for another kiss.

---

Planet 2147151 (Bangkok), Red Dragon Tower

"Nnmph."

Sigma lifted his head and blinked blearily at the message screen blinking at him in the darkness. He started to reach out for it only to have to pause and untangle Tau Ceti's tail from where it was wrapped around his waist, earning him a sleepy protest from the Gremlin.

"Sorry," he murmured quietly, brushing a soft kiss across Tau Ceti's forehead.

"Mmm, get back here," Tau Ceti ordered, punctuating his words with a yawn as he sat up to run his eyes along Sigma's body as the Authority picked up the small message tablet.

There was silence for several moments as Sigma read over the contents of the screen several times to verify, then he turned to stare incredulously at Tau Ceti. "I'm being reassigned."

Tau Ceti frowned and scooted across the bed, his tail reaching out to pluck the tablet out of Sigma's hands and bring it up to where he could read it. The glow of the screen made his face appear eerily beautiful in the darkness, then the Gremlin broke the effect by doubling over and laughing.

"What is it?" Sigma asked, retrieving the message tablet and reading it over for a fourth time. "I don't get it. Why am I being assigned to duty on Zero?"

Grinning, Tau Ceti plucked the tablet out of his hands and tossed it across the room, yanking Sigma down roughly on top of him. His hands traced tiny patterns up Sigma's sides, setting all his nerves aflame. "I told you," he murmured, leaning up to lick one of Sigma's nipples, "The Ice Princess is a crafty bastard."

Sigma struggled desperately to keep his thoughts in order despite the slow torment. "Wait, the High Chancellor reassigned me? Why?"

Violet eyes gleamed in the darkness. "Because he's obviously decided that you're wasted out there with those morons when your talents are obviously far better suited to one of his little pet projects." Tau Ceti chuckled quietly. "Welcome to the Princess's pets, Sigma Altair."

"Pets?" Sigma arched a brow.

Tau Ceti laughed. "Slaves, minions, or lackeys don't have the same alliteration."

Sigma shook his head slowly. "This is crazy. I mean, it's an honor to serve in the Palace of Eternity, but they don't really do much..."

"Oh, don't worry," Tau Ceti said calmly, "You won't be staying on Zero. As soon as he figures out exactly where your particular skills would be most useful, you'll be sent out on one of his toy ships." The Gremlin paused, then scowled darkly and rattled off a series of rather crude curses. "That agri-loving bastard!"

Sigma blinked. "What?"

Tau Ceti scowled darkly. "He did this on purpose, I know he did."

"Did what?" Sigma asked patiently.

"He knows I'll follow you wherever he decides to stick you," Tau Ceti grumbled. "It had better not be the Sweet Dream, or I'm so sending in the sheep army again."

"The Sweet Dream?" He didn't want to know about the sheep.

"It's... well, the Ice Princess can explain those later. Suffice to say my brother's on the Sweet Dream and we don't exactly get along," Tau Ceti muttered. "That devious, crafty, conniving..." He stopped, blinking into the darkness, then his entire expression shifted into something cunning and slightly unnerving.

Sigma winced. "You're plotting something."

Tau Ceti smiled sweetly at him. "Yes, yes I am."

Sigma shook his head. "Do I even want to know?"

White teeth gleamed in the darkness as Tau Ceti grinned feraly. "I am going to build the fastest, fanciest, most drippingly lavish ship in the universe to put all his little toys to shame, and then I'm going to name it the Ice Princess just to annoy him." He practically beamed. "How do you feel about being Captain?"

Grimacing, Sigma shook his head. "Not me. I'm a fine Second, but a captain needs to be someone who the crew will actually listen to."

"Mmm, I think you underestimate yourself," Tau Ceti murmured, tail stroking sensuously up Sigma's back. "But maybe by the time I get it designed and built you'll have figured that out for yourself. If not..." He chuckled. "Well, then the Ice Princess gets to draft some other poor unsuspecting soul into his clutches."

Sigma snorted and rolled his eyes. "You really need to get another hobby besides seeing how many ways you can annoy the High Chancellor."

Tau Ceti smirked. "I have one."

"Oh?" Sigma arched a brow. "And what's that?"

"Ravishing you."

That, Sigma reflected, was a perfectly acceptable hobby, even if it meant his entire neatly organized world was coming down around his head in pieces. He could adapt. His life was changing in major ways, but somehow he found he didn't really mind.

Whatever happened, Tau Ceti was worth it.