Two days later, The SSC Obelisk was in a star jump on its way to a new destination. Things were quiet, excluding the usual bustle of crewmen striding down the corridors, driven with purpose and fuelled by duty. Amidst this background activity of the ship, first officer Tawny stood rigid as he stood in front of admiral Haddock's temporary quarters. His finger was poised over the touch-button to activate the door chime, but he was having trouble making the final move to actually use it. Finally he made his decision and brushed his finger against it, and the shrill series of pleasant beeps announced his presence.

"Enter." said Haddock from inside. Tawny stepped forward and the doors parted. Haddock was standing by the small glass coffee table by the settee, pouring a small amount of amber liquid in a glass. He looked up and grinned when he saw who had arrived.

"Ah, commander Tawny. Would you care to join me in a glass of whiskey?" he said jovially. Tawny shook his head instantly, even though he was sorely tempted. He loved whiskey; in fact there was a bottle calling his name in his own quarters right now.

"Well that's a shame." said Haddock, taking a sip. "This is an extremely rare bottle of single malt, quarter barrel whiskey."

"Quarter barrel?"

"Oh yes. You can really taste the peat. More surface area touching the barrel, apparently. Some bright spark managed to cultivate seedlings of an oak tree from Earth, and has a few of them growing on one of the garden colonies. The man chops them up and makes barrels to mellow the whiskey in, to add character. Marvellous stuff. Are you sure you won't try some?"

Tawny's sense of etiquette was in a pitch battle with his sense of protocol. Starship officers weren't supposed to drink on duty, but the admiral was offering him a glass with a grin and a twinkle in his eye. In the end he decided that it would be rude to refuse the admiral.

"I suppose one little glass wouldn't hurt." he said.

"Good man. Now, what is it you wanted to see me about?"

"It's about our current mission, sir." said Tawny taking a small sip. He coughed and almost spit the whiskey back out, the admiral hadn't been joking! The commander had tasted single malt whiskey before, but this was something else altogether. You could practically taste the barrel! After the shock wore off he took another sip. The second sip was a lot easier to swallow, and the taste . . . wasn't so bad after all.

"Ah yes, I can imagine that you'd have many questions regarding our mission. Bijack's not exactly a chatty sort of man. He loves his covert and top secret security clearance. What do you know so far?"

"Well, nothing actually. We've been given a destination, but no hint as to what we're to do there. The captain's tried to glean something from the general, but he spends most of his time in his assigned quarters, not speaking to anyone. Although I have noticed that he's been sending a lot of instructions down to engineering. I asked the crew down there about it, but they don't know anything. The instructions are actually self-installing software for the computer that they plug in, but don't have any part in actually using it."

"Let me guess, there's been increased pull on the forward energy buffers?"

"Yes." said Michael, surprised. "How did you know?"

"You can call it an inspired guess. Now, what possible reason could there be for extra power to the forward energy buffers?"

"Those power buffers distribute power to the ship's main weapon systems." said the commander with a frown. Even as he said it he gasped in sudden realization. "He's upgrading the ship's weapons?"

"Well done commander, you figured it out. Just don't tell anyone else, it's classified information."

"But why did you tell me if it's classified?"

"I didn't tell you, you figured it out." said Haddock with a happy grin, sipping his drink. "Now that you know, I can tell you the rest of the mission details. We're going to some piece of nowhere to test out these upgrades. Or at least, we were supposed to. Now we've changed course after we left Vesper."


"I have no idea. Bijack ordered it shortly after I showed him Hamill's black box. That might have something to do with it. Or it may have to do with the prisoner he's taken aboard."

"Ah yes." said Michael as he took another sip of whiskey. "I was always curious about that. He orders our men to kill everyone, except for one person. What's so special about one person from a pirate colony?"

"All he bothered to tell me was that she had some useful information. But what kind of information, or how in the galaxy he could know that is completely beyond me. As I said: he's not the chatty type."

Michael drained the last sip from his glass, put it down on the table, and stood up.

"Thank you for your time, admiral." he said.

"My pleasure, commander." Haddock replied. Michael went to leave, but before he reached the door the admiral spoke again. "Oh, and commander? We never had this conversation. Understood?"

Michael looked back, and although the admiral was sitting quite at ease with his feet crossed on the table, and a glass in one hand, he was looking at the commander with such stern attention that it was a startling contrast.

"Like you said, admiral," he said eventually, "I figured it out on my own."

"Good man." Haddock grinned.

Out in the corridor, Michael strode quickly on his long legs with his hands clasped behind his back. The ship was in a star jump, en route to their destination, wherever that was. At the moment, even though he was technically on duty, there wasn't anything for him to do right at the moment. He hated not having anything to do, especially now, because it was giving him time to think. The commander had been a part of the Syndicate for most of his adult life, and had a long, extensive service record that any officer would be proud of. Words like 'loyal', 'dedicated', and 'diligent' stood out in practically every reference from every ship he'd ever served on. Among them another word was almost always present, almost out of place amidst the glowing praise. 'Stubborn', was how each of his commanding officers described him. Personally he didn't quite see it as a liability, but as a source of strength and purpose. He set out to do something, and he damn well got it done. If others called it stubborn, then so be it.

Perhaps it was this stubbornness at work, or perhaps it was the alcohol in his system, or even both, but his thoughts kept lingering on the prisoner taken from Vesper colony. So engrossed on the matter was he that he barely noticed that he'd reached the elevator and pressed the button for the brig on the lower floors until he'd already done it.

As a matter of course, the lights in the brig were kept dimmed, both as a form of energy conservation, and a form of unspoken, moral retribution. The brig was reserved for prisoners of all types, criminal offenders, and even Syndicate officers who had broken regulation and protocol severely enough to be sent there. It was kept dark as a reminder that they were there to be punished. When the elevator doors opened, it took Michael a moment to adjust to the dimness. He could still see perfectly, but the sudden change was disorienting. Once he'd gotten accustomed, he noticed that the general was standing outside one of the cells, looking in through the invisible force field. Michael approached carefully, wondering why the general was staring so intently without saying or doing anything. As he got closer the occupant behind the force field was suddenly visible to him, and what Michael saw shocked him.

The prisoner was keeling on the floor in the middle of the small cell, trembling terribly and looking up at the general with obvious pain, but defiance as well. Her nose was bleeding freely, running in narrow rivers over her mouth and staining her shirt. It also saturated her long blonde hair where it fell down around her chest. Bijack just seemed to be watching her, unblinking, but his face was unreadable, so it was impossible for Michael to guess what was going through his mind as he watched.

"Sir?" Michael asked softly. It was like pulling the plug on whatever it was that was going on. Bijack gasped and turned to look at the commander with wide, intense eyes, and the prisoner fell limp as though she'd been held up with strings that had suddenly been cut. She was out cold.

"What is the meaning of this interruption!?" demanded the general. Michael was still staring at the unconscious prisoner, wondering what it was he'd just witnessed.

"I apologise, general, I didn't mean to interrupt. I was just checking on the prisoner."

Bijack grunted with displeasure, and glanced at the woman as well.

"There is no need, commander. I was interrogating her for information. She is stubborn, but her resistance is for nothing."

"Interrogating her? How?"

"That's classified."

"So, some kind of drug?"

"No." said the general with a wry laugh. "I have my own methods for extracting information, without the need for petty things, such as her cooperation. It does not matter now. I have what I need. Dispose of her."

With that the general left, taking the elevator to one of the upper floors. Michael looked again at the woman lying unconscious on the floor. After a moment's brief consideration, he rushed over to the wall nearby to raid the emergency first aid kit. Returning to her cell, he deactivated the force field with his security clearance code, and waited for the luminescent glow at the edges of the large doorway to die down. Once he was at her side, he immediately checked for a pulse by placing fingers at her neck. The instant contact was made, she sprang upright, twisting his wrist behind him and ducking around so that she had his arm held straight out behind him and twisted so he was forced to kneel so far forward that his face was practically touching the floor.

"Computer, activate force field!" he said, straining to get the words out. The glow at the door returned, which meant that both of them were now locked inside the cell. The woman snarled with frustration.

"Unlock it." she said, twisting his arm harder to accentuate her command. Michael groaned, but said nothing.

"Unlock it now, or I break your arm!"

"It won't do you any good. The computer will detect the stress in my voice if I give the command under duress."

Grunting in disgust, the woman released him, pushing him hard so he rolled across the floor. He wasn't badly hurt, although his arm was a little sore, but he didn't hurry to sit up. He wasn't sure why, but he wanted her to know that he wasn't a threat to her. No sudden moves, no aggressive gestures, he slowly pushed himself into a sitting position and leaned back against the wall, and his arms resting on his raised knees. She was huddled in the far corner, watching him closely. She'd managed to snatch up some of the bandages he'd brought with him, and was dabbing her mouth to wipe away the blood. The next several minutes passed with nothing being said, each one staring at the other.

"What's your name?" he asked, after almost fifteen minutes. She didn't respond. "Look, I don't know why you were taken prisoner, or why your colony was wiped out. As far as I'm aware the only one with anything against you is the general."

"You're Syndicate." she sneered. "Syndicate soldiers came to destroy our colony, and when they failed you came in your ship to finish the job. You are not my friend, Mr Syndicate."

"If you say so." said Michael with a shrug. "But it still couldn't hurt to tell me your name."

Several more minutes of silence stretched out between them, punctuated occasionally by her sniffs as her nosebleed slowed to an eventual halt.

" . . . Fiona." she said quietly. "My name's Fiona."

Michael smiled, and touched two fingers to his brow in a mock salute. "Nice to meet you Fiona. My name's Michael Tawny, commanding officer of the Obelisk."

Fiona's eyes narrowed. "You're the first officer? And you don't know why our colony was destroyed?"

"Afraid not. From what I've been able to tell, it was sanctioned from the very top; the general himself. He's been keeping everyone else in the dark about a lot of things."

"That doesn't surprise me." she said with venom in her voice. "He's an evil man."

Michael laughed again, softly. "Yea, so I'm learning."

More minutes ticked by as they two of them stared at each other from across the room.

"Tell me about what happened between you." he said, making himself comfortable in the far corner of the cell. "He looked like he was doing something without even touching you."

Fiona cringed and shuddered even as he spoke about it. Her nose bleed had cleared up and finally stopped bleeding, but she was still sniffling.

"I don't know exactly what it was that he was doing, or how he was doing it." she said. "But I could feel him in my mind. It was like having a hole drilled in my head, and hot cement poured into my skull, filling in the cracks and setting into stone."

"You felt him in your mind?" Tawny asked. He couldn't quite believe what he was hearing, and Fiona couldn't blame him.

"I know it sounds crazy, but that's what it felt like. He was there, standing right there, staring at me with those cold, lifeless eyes. When he did the pain started, like a headache, and my mind started to wander. But this wasn't like daydreaming. I don't know how to describe it."

"Was he communicating with you?"

"No." said Fiona, shaking her head so hard that her hair flew out in all directions. "There was no talking, no words. But I could feel his hatred. I knew it was him because it was so strange to feel hatred come from the outside. Then I started to remember things, random things, switching from one to another quickly and without wanting to. Like he was holding onto the back of my head, making me look at different things, 'look at this, now look at this'."

Tawny thought back to what he'd seen. The general staring intently at Fiona on the floor; so intently that he hadn't even been aware that anyone was nearby. The brief encounters that Michael had with the general had taught him that, while Bijack was a private man who could get very involved with his work, he always knew when someone was approaching. He was always facing Michael when he came into the room. It was actually very unnerving. Sneaking up on him with Fiona didn't really prove anything, but it was certainly out of the ordinary.

"Not to trivialize what you went through," he said carefully, "but telepathy is pretty far-fetched."

"I said I don't know how he did it!" Fiona screamed, throwing her hands up in frustration. "I just know what I felt. I don't care how unlikely it is."

"Hey, I believe you. I really do. I'm just saying that there is a lot we don't know, but if we're going to figure it out we need to stay rational."

"We?" Fiona asked, narrowing her eyes at him.

"Yes. We. I'm on your side here."

"I told you that we are not friends, Mr Syndicate." she snarled. "The Syndicate destroyed my colony, and killed everyone there except me!"

"The Syndicate didn't do that! The general did." said Michael with a flash of anger.

"What's the difference!?"

"Hey!" Michael yelled, and in a breathless moment the two of them stared daggers at each other from across the room. Raising and eyebrow, Michael put his hands out in a conciliatory gesture, and they both let out a long, drawn out breath.

"This discussion isn't going to go very far if we get angry about it. We both need to calm down." he said.

"What do you have to be so angry about?"

Michael hesitated, and pinched his brow. " . . . I always used to get angry when people from the fringes would talk about the Syndicate as though it was the enemy by default. But that was a long time ago, and I've learned a lot since then. But still, some habits die hard.

Fiona watched the man carefully. She prided herself on being a good judge of character, and even though she didn't fully trust him, she could tell that he was being sincere.

"What changed your mind?"

Resting his head back against the wall, Michael remembered the day that had changed the way he'd thought about, well, everything; the way he thought about the galaxy. Memories he'd kept buried for a long time were suddenly front and centre in his mind, and the emotions associated with them were just a sharp.

"It doesn't matter." he said eventually.

"I'd like to know." she said softly.

"I'll tell you what," he said with a forced laugh and a fixed smile, "once we get our immediate concerns out of the way, I'll tell you all about it. I promise"

"Hmm, do you mean that?"

"I always keep my word."

He was staring at the floor, and she could tell that he was reliving something that hurt him deeply. Even despite her fear and anxiety of her predicament, she couldn't help but feel the need to reach out to him somehow. Before she could, he looked up.

"Do you know what this ship actually does?" he asked suddenly. "We're the flagship of the Syndicate fleet. What does that mean to you?"

"I don't know. You have bigger guns?"

"We hardly ever engage in any kind of fight or conflict. We're not purely military; not every person on board is a soldier. We have scientists, diplomats, engineers and doctors, all performing different functions, but all part of the same crew. Last week we explored an uncharted star system, and collected data on all orbiting planets and found two that were excellent candidates for terraforming. Before that we were sent to the Delnora system, to mediate a peace treaty between two factions that had been at war for years! And before that, we got a distress call from outside Syndicate space. When we went to investigate, we discovered that a colony on a planet's moon was about to be destroyed because the orbit of the moon was decaying, and about to crash into the planet. Our engineers worked night and day for a week coming up with a solution, and spent another week building, and installing massive inversion generators across the surface of the moon to help stabilize its orbit."

"Wow." said Fiona, impressed. "I didn't know that gravitational inversion fields were stable enough to work on a whole moon."

"They aren't, or at least not for very long. But they did work long enough to push the moon back into a stable orbit." he said, and pointed at Fiona. "That is what the Syndicate does. As for the things you've heard about, the destroyed colonies and teams of commandoes, those operations are only authorized by the alumni of high command. From what I understand, that consists of one man, and the council underneath him."

"The general."

"That's right. He is famous for his black operations with top security clearance and 'need to know basis' authority. No one outside high command knows about more than a little of what this man does."

Another long silence stretched out between them, and both of them shifted around to get more comfortable.

"I didn't know." said Fiona quietly, after several minutes. "About the kind of things you do, I mean. We hear a lot of things outside on the 'fringes', as you call it. A lot of it is bad, but it's also stuff that people have been saying for a long time; the same stories going around and around. I don't think anyone talks about the good things."

"Sounds like people wouldn't want to believe it even if they did." Michael said with a laugh. There was more silence. Michael coughed.

"So," said Fiona, breaking the silence again, "are you going to dispose of me?"

Michael hesitated, and considered his position. Duty demanded that he carry out his orders and 'dispose' of this young woman. However, he could tell that the only thing she was guilty of was being of no further use to the general. The Syndicate charter also had rules about the treatment of civilians, but right now orders from an officer from high command superseded those rules. It was clear to Michael that Bijack wanted the girl killed.

But now that he thought about it, he never actually said so.

"You know what?" Michael said at last. "I think I will. Do you trust me?"

Once again, Fiona narrowed her eyes at him. He raised his eyebrow with a grin.

On the bridge, general Bijack swept out of the elevator and took up position by the captain in his command chair. The usual bustle of the crew around them continued, although the tension in the room went up. Admiral Haddock was already there, sitting in a spare chair by tactical. He frowned deeply when Bijack appeared.

"Captain, you will set new coordinates for our destination." said the general. It was a statement, but also an order. Captain Renould winced and looked up from his chair at the tall figure of the general beside him.

"Again?" he asked.

"Is there a problem, captain?" asked Bijack, not bothering to hide the fact that he hoped that there was a problem. He was smiling.

"Of course not. Please defer to the helmsman, and relay your new coordinates, general."

The general approached the man at the conn before the huge viewscreen in one step, and began dictating a new destination. Haddock got up and sat next to the captain in the commander's chair.

"You might want to watch yourself, captain." the admiral whispered, leaning in close. "Something's wrong. He's far too happy."

"I can't help but agree with you, admiral." said the captain. "But I'm getting fed up with being given orders on how to run my ship. The man can't fire me for not liking him."

"Wanna bet?"

Renould glanced at the admiral, but before he had a chance to say anything in return, the general swung around to face him, beaming.

"Captain, the time has come for you to know the purpose of our mission."

Unnerved by Bijack's strange attitude, but nonetheless intrigued, the captain stood up.

"Yes, general?"

"No doubt you've detected and observed some major changes to your weapon systems. Well that is my doing. I've had your crew install several new upgrades that increase the Obelisk's weapons power by more than a thousand times!"

Everyone on the bridge stopped dead and stared at Bijack, who didn't seem to notice. He was still looking at the captain with wide eyes and happy smile. On many people this would be pleasing to look at, but on Bijack's face, it just looked scary.

"That's not possible." muttered the captain. His feelings of justified indignation that had been fuelling him thus far were starting to feel substantially less justified. Even Haddock was beginning to look a little worried. He couldn't remember ever seeing the general do anything more than grin. He could feel deep in his bones that something very bad was looming ahead.

"Oh trust me captain, it is possible." said Bijack, still smiling. "Helmsman! Please set course for the coordinates you have been given. At C10 if you please."

"Aye sir. Maximum speed." said the man at the conn, grateful that his only job right now was to steer the ship.

"General, this heading brings us nowhere near the original destination." said Haddock, examining the commander's monitor by his chair. "I don't recall anything large enough to test the weapons on where we're going."

"Oh you're quite wrong, admiral. We're going to Minosia."

Haddock gasped and stood up beside the captain.

"You can't be serious." he said. "The council has already made its final decision on the Minosia situation."

"This mission has no bearing on the Minosia situation, or any decision that the council has made." said Bijack with a laugh. "However, once the mission's done, the situation will definitely be resolved."

Struck dumb with incredulous astonishment, Haddock fell back into his seat. Renould sat down as well, and leaned in close while the general checked on the helmsman's heading.

"What's the Minosia situation?" he asked. Haddock barely noticed the question, and the captain had to repeat himself to be heard.

"A long standing civil war." replied the admiral. "High command ruled that the Syndicate would not interfere in an internal dispute. But now it seems that the good general is planning on ending the conflict once and for all."

"How? By blowing up the planet?" said the captain, half smiling at his own joke. The admiral didn't smile back.

"No." he said. "Both its moons as well."