“Private Reddy. I’m going to ask you one question and I want an honest answer. Did you do it?” JAG officer Roberta Castille asked the soldier hunched on a stool across from her.
“No, ma’am. I mean, yes, but no.”
“Which is it? Yes or no?” Bobbi leaned back in her chair and fixed her gaze on the young private. Veth. He was just a baby. She glanced down at the tablet in her hand. Twenty-one. Not as young as she’d thought. When did I get old enough to see twenty-year-olds as kids?
The man straightened on his stool and met her eyes. “No, ma’am. I did not do what I’ve been accused of.”
She considered him for a moment. He was a scared, angry young man, which wasn’t surprising given the charges he was facing. He was also telling her the truth, and there was clearly more to the story than the brief report she’d perused on her way over. “Alright.”
He blew out a long breath, his stance softening slightly. “You believe me?”
“I believe there’s more going on here than what I’ve read.” She set the tablet down and gave the private a small smile. “I’d like to hear your side of the story.”
“I don’t want to be dishonorably discharged, ma’am. I’ll take whatever punishment is required but not that.”
That got her attention. “Who said anything about a discharge?”
“The officer who arrested me. He said I was done.”
She picked up the tablet again and made a quick note. “Did he say anything else?”
Reddy was quiet for a long moment before answering. “He called me disloyal and said I should have remembered whose side I’m on.”
And just like that, she had a good idea what was going on. This story played out repeatedly all over Astek Station. Too many soldiers were packed in with a civilian population who resented their presence. Tensions ran high, and both sides had their share of troublemakers. “Tell me what happened.”
She listened, made notes, and asked questions as needed. By the time he was done, she had the beginnings of a defense planned and more concerns she needed to send up the chain of command. In the Interstellar Armed Forces, even small changes took time. But she had an inside track to the highest-ranking officer in the area and she was taking advantage of it to speed things along.
Reddy slumped back in his chair, as if telling the story had drained the last of the anger away and left him deflated. “So, that’s what happened. They were harassing Irani—uh, the Torski girl.”
“And how long have you two been dating?”
The look of panic on Reddy’s face was almost comical. “Me? No, no. We’re not dating. She’s just someone… a friend.”
“I take it her fathers don’t know?”
“That we’re friends?”
She didn’t bother acknowledging the lie. It was the first one he’d told since he’d started talking. Now she’d seen him try it was clear he was a lousy liar and probably a terrible poker player, too.
The silence stretched out for several long seconds, and she wondered how long he’d hold out.
He blew out a breath and hung his head. “Okay. We’re dating. And no, her family doesn’t know.”
“You should tell them. I’ve been to their establishment a few times. They’re good beings. And you did protect their daughter from getting harassed. If I were you, I’d use that to your advantage.”
“Maybe. But what if I’m discharged?”
“Were you off duty at the time?”
“Did you know the male you struck was an officer?”
“No. He wasn’t in uniform, and he’s not from my unit. I knew they were probably IAF because…” he gestured to his regulation haircut. “We all look alike.”
That made her laugh. “Not all of us, but I see your point. Do you see mine?”
He frowned and then nodded. “You’re saying that my intent wasn’t to deliberately punch a senior officer. I was just being a good citizen. Is that what you mean?”
“It is. And the MP who arrested you should have investigated their behavior, too. You’re not going to be discharged, Private. In fact, once I’ve spoken to Irani and gotten her statement, I’ll try to get the charges dropped. Until then, you keep out of trouble and don’t talk to anyone about this unless I’m present. Clear?”
“Yes, ma’am!” His words came out crisper now, the fear replaced with something more becoming to a soldier.
“And, Reddy? A bit of personal advice. Once you’re through this, you need to talk to Irani. Then go see her parents and tell them what’s going on. I can’t promise it will go the way you hope, but honesty is always the best policy. You always want to base your relationships on the truth.”
He dropped his head and the tips of his ears darkened slightly. “It’s not really a relationship yet.”
She laughed and rose from her chair. “You stepped up and protected your girl from some jerks giving her a hard time, and you got arrested for it. You might not think it’s a relationship, but Irani could have a very different opinion on that. You should ask her.”
“I… okay. I will. Thank you, ma’am.”
It took her another half an hour to arrange for her newest client to be released back to barracks and start rattling a few cages about the piss-poor quality of the report she’d been given. She threw in a few pointed remarks about a biased investigation and the comments made to Reddy. By the time she was done, Bobbi was hopeful that Reddy would soon be a free man.
She checked the time. Interviewing Irani and any other witnesses she could find would have to wait until tomorrow. It was late evening now, and while that was an arbitrary distinction on a space station that ran twenty-four hours a day, her day was nearly done. It was time to go home, eat, and crawl into bed for a few hours. And a few hours was all she’d get. When Colonel Archer had asked her to take on a secret assignment trying to ferret out the mole in the IAF ranks, she’d been prepared for challenges. What she hadn’t considered was that working two jobs meant eating and sleeping became luxuries that didn’t fit well into her new schedule.
When this was done, she was booking a week-long stay on Plasia IV and doing nothing for the first three days but lying in bed and eating ice cream.
Kurt didn’t want to be in the gym this late. Hell, he’d rather not be there at all, but it was a necessity. If he didn’t work off his excess energy safely, he ran the risk of letting his temper get the better of him. He’d worked too long and far too hard to let that happen. So, the more stress he was under, the harder he worked out. Usually, that wasn’t a problem. Lately, though, he’d spent more of his downtime in the gym than anywhere else, including his bed. The problem wasn’t that their new assignment was on a tight deadline with high stakes. He was used to that. It was why he’d signed on with Nova Force in the first place.
He counted out another set of push-ups and then rested while the computer automatically turned up the gravity for his next set. No, the pressure wasn’t what kept getting to him but the fact they were investigating people he knew. Every one of the suspected moles were IAF personnel. Some of them had been to his commander’s wedding for fraxx sakes. The whole team was on edge, all of them bracing for the moment they learned which of their friends and fellow soldiers had betrayed them to the Gray Men, so named because they were a nameless, faceless cabal that hid in the shadows. Some of their number had created the cyborg project. Others had concocted pharmaceuticals designed to alter the minds and bodies of their employees. They were believed to be behind everything from assassinations to black site research labs where cyborgs were experimented on long after they were supposed to have been freed. Their spies were everywhere. No one knew what their endgame was. The stakes were high, the death toll rising, and everyone on Kurt’s team knew they were running out of time.
That was his team’s focus. Kurt had been assigned a secondary task. There was another list of possible suspects—one that most of the team didn’t know about. Only two names were on it: Lieutenant Commander Roberta Castille and Colonel Scott Archer. Castille was a mystery. Archer was the highest-ranking officer in the sector. Kurt’s job was to eliminate them as suspects, and so far, he hadn’t been able to.
Both of them had read the mission file that had been leaked to the Gray Men. The colonel had given Roberta access to that information, which made no sense given she was JAG. Her duties barely intersected with Nova Force’s at all. Then there were Bobbi’s family ties. During an earlier mission they’d learned that a Dr. Oran Castille had been working for his grandmother as a corporate spy. Oran was Bobbi’s cousin with many of the same connections, which was yet another reason to consider her a suspect.
Complicating matters was the fact that parts of both Archer and Bobbi’s files were redacted or sealed for security reasons, and that lack of information made it next to impossible to figure out what connections they might have to the Gray Men and to each other.
Were they friends? Lovers? Fraxx, he really didn’t want them to be lovers. He might not be able to make a move on the pretty JAG officer until the investigation was over, but that didn’t mean he wanted images of her doing wild, naked things with Archer in his head either.
Normally he’d get Ensign Eric Erben, also known as Magi, to work his cyber magic and acquire the information he needed, but he couldn’t do that this time. After getting caught breaking protocol and more than a few laws to make progress in their fight against the Gray Men, the ensign was under scrutiny and would be for quite some time. Since Kurt was the one who’d suggested Eric break the rules, there was no way he’d endanger the man’s career by asking him to hack the colonel’s files.
There was also the fact that Eric wasn’t aware of the second list. Only he, Dax, and Trinity knew about it, and they’d all agreed to keep it from the team. If things blew up, they’d have deniability. The others couldn’t be held accountable for an investigation they knew nothing about. At least, that was the plan. The longer this went on, though, the more likely they were to figure it out.
He finished his last set of push-ups and got to his feet, his arms burning. He toweled off some of the sweat and grabbed a drink from the dispenser, chugging the water as he scanned the room and pondered what to do next.
The only equipment in use was the treadmill. Cris had been on it when he’d come in, and the team’s medic had kept up a punishing pace the whole time Kurt had been there. That was unusual.
Instead of continuing his workout, Kurt grabbed a fresh towel and wandered over to the lieutenant. “Pro tip. If you’re running away from your demons, it helps to get off the treadmill first.”
Cris snorted. “There’s no escaping my demons. I’m just trying to tire them out enough to grab a decent night’s sleep.”
Kurt draped the towel over the railing. “Long day?”
Cris slowed to a cool-down pace and mopped his face with the fresh towel. “Do we have any other kind?”
“Not often. Something particular on your mind?” He might not be able to solve his own problems, but helping the team with theirs was part of his job. In Cris’s case, the problem usually had to do with his teammate, Aria. One day, those two would stop dancing around what everyone else already knew. They were made for each other.
“I’ve been hearing rumors.”
“Which ones? This is a military base. There are at least fifty flying around at any given second. And for the record, I don’t believe the one about our commander being pregnant. He just needs to spend more time in the gym.”
Cris chuckled. “I hadn’t heard that one.”
Kurt stayed quiet, waiting for Cris to speak first. If this wasn’t about Aria, what had him so worried?
“Medi-bots,” the medic said at last. “There are whispers that we’re all going to be injected with nanotech soon.”
He’d heard some of those same theories, but he didn’t see it happening. “I’ve been hearing those stories since my first days in boot camp. The corporations developed medi-bots years ago. If the IAF wanted to dose their soldiers with that kind of tech, they’d have done it by now.”
“They didn’t want it spreading into the population at large.” Cris spread his hands. “But that shuttle has left the cargo bay now. Babies are being born with the nanotech already in their systems. Not to mention our new allies, the Vardarians, all carry a version of that tech in their blood.” Cris frowned. “Even my little sister has medi-bots thanks to her cyborg husbands and the rebellion.”
Kurt felt like he was missing something. “Okay, so, maybe it’s coming sooner than I think. I still don’t see the problem. Don’t you trust the tech?”
“It’s not the tech. It’s what it means.” Eric jerked a thumb at his chest. “I’m a medic. If we’re all self-healing, what’s my role on the team? The guy who gets coffee for everyone?”
“You make the best mochas on the ship. You have a real knack for optimal sprinkle distribution.” Kurt raised a hand and rubbed his fingertips together. “It’s a true talent.”
“Will mochas be enough to keep me on the team?”
“No. The fact you’re a talented investigator with years of experience will do that. And it’s not like we’re all going to be immune to blaster fire and explosions. If we get dosed with medi-bots, we’ll still need a medic on staff. Or have you forgotten how many times your sister has patched up those crazy cyborg friends of hers?”
That made the other man laugh. “That’s a good point. Sometimes I forget my baby sister is a talented doctor too. I keep thinking of her as being tiny, sticky, and annoying. I’ll ask her to share what she can about that kind of treatment. She’s the closest we have to a specialist on the subject.”
“Do that. And don’t worry about your place on the team. You’re stuck with us. In fact, I’m going to need your help soon.”
“Whatever you need.”
“Great. Clear some time from tomorrow’s schedule. You’re giving me a crash course on how not to fraxx up while hobnobbing with corporate snobs and the upper echelons of society.”
“How long do I have to impart my wealth of knowledge to you, my farm-born friend?”
Cris winced. “Well, I do love a challenge. I think that’s enough time to make sure you don’t insult anyone or start a war.”
“Ha-ha. Funny. It can’t be that difficult.”
“Oh, yes, it can. You’re about to walk onto the galaxy’s most polite battleground, where words are weapons, and loyalties change faster than the appetizer trays.”
“Wonderful. I can’t wait,” he deadpanned.
“You’ll be fine. If all else fails, just stand at attention and don’t say a word. They’ll assume you’re part of Archer’s protection detail and leave you alone.”
“That would work?” If it were that easy, he’d imitate a statue all night to avoid small talk.
“Usually does. You’re not high ranking enough to be of interest to most of these people. Archer and Halverson will be their focus. Not you.”
“Hopefully that keeps Brigadier General Pain in Our Ass busy enough he stays out of our business.”
Cris pitched his voice low despite the fact they were the only two people in the room. “Until then, we just keep investigating him and the others.”
“Exactly.” None of them were happy General Halverson had somehow managed to get an invitation to the gala. After he’d interfered in Operation Fury and somehow allowed their prime suspect to escape from his brig, Halverson was banned from interfering in any future Nova Force investigations. He wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near this part of space. Hell, the man was on their list of potential spies, which was one more reason he’d been sent off to ride a desk somewhere far away from here.
Cris kept talking in low tones. “Do you think he’s gone Gray? I mean, it makes sense. But if he has, he’s not being very subtle about it.”
“I don’t think he knows the meaning of that word. If he did, he wouldn’t be coming back here so soon. As much as I want it to be him…” Kurt trailed off.
“It would be too obvious,” Cris agreed. “And nothing the Grays do is obvious. Whatever they’re planning, it’s part of a longer strategy. So he’s a distraction. Maybe accidentally. Maybe not.”
Kurt clapped him on the shoulder. “This is why you shouldn’t be worried about your place on the team. Good thinking. It might just be him being an ass, but what if it’s more than that? Check into his staff and anyone else in his immediate orbit. See if anything stands out. Dig into that aide of his, too. Clooney. We know he comes from money. Maybe he’s got connections we need to investigate.”
“Did you just reward me for my insight with more work?” Cris asked, his expression somewhere between bemused and incredulous.
“It’s the Nova Force way.”
“I’m starting to rethink my reluctance to leave the team. I could make a killing in the private sector.”
“Too late. You’ve proven your worth and I’m telling Commander Rossi to keep you forever.”
“Damn. Guess I better grab some sleep, then. Tomorrow is going to be a busy day.” Cris powered down the treadmill, stepped off, and then turned to face him. “And since I’m still the team’s medic, I’m advising you to get some sleep, too. The gala starts tomorrow, and you’ll be expected to look your best. See you tomorrow.”
Cris left, which meant Kurt had the gym to himself. Perfect.
He pulled on a pair of training gloves, holding his hands out until the nanotech-infused fabric adjusted to the correct fit as he walked over to the heavy bag and started throwing punches. He didn’t plan on stopping until he was too tired to think, but no matter how hard he pushed himself, one thought kept buzzing around his brain. Bobbi Castille. Whose side was she on? What was she doing here? And why couldn’t he get her out of his head?
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