CHAPTER THREE (draft)

Start from the beginning

"I—" Nefir tries to speak, pauses, then finishes in a dead voice. "As you wish . . . Imperial Lord."

And then he is gone.

* * *

Next, we wait, with the video screen filled by the Imperial Fleet logo.

Aeson turns to me at once with a tragic expression, and takes me by the shoulders. "Gwen," he says in a completely different, gentle voice. "I'm so sorry that you had to see this—all of you—" he glances at Gordie and Gracie—"But it's better that you learn this harsh truth now than later. And I promised myself, no more withholding of information from you. Not for any reason. It is why I forced this ugly confrontation. You had to know everything."

"What did he do? What actually happened?" I manage to speak, regaining control over my sobs.

"Nefir Mekei is an agent of my Father, and has always been, that's not a secret. It has been accepted by all of us before we even went on the Earth mission, since he was assigned as the primary Earth liaison on the Imperator's behalf." Aeson takes a deep breath. "Nefir is an Imperial Kassiopei loyalist, firmly indoctrinated into the cult of traditional hierarchy, and his family prides itself on serving my dynasty. Previously he's always been able to balance his rigid loyalties to the Throne with his personal loyalties to the astra daimon. I had no reason to believe this time would be any different. . . . That he would act so contrary to my will, in direct defiance of my orders, without at least giving me the courtesy of informing me when he is being overridden by my Father. . . . I have to think that my Father specifically commanded him not to divulge anything to me. . . ."

Gordie cusses and says something unrepeatable about Nefir. Gracie echoes him.

I'm in such a state that I have no words.

"What an evil jerk!" Gracie spits out her words fiercely. "I always knew he was too slick!"

But I don't even glance at her. "Please continue . . . tell me what he did, all of it," I say, looking at my fiancé. "And Aeson, thank you for not holding back."

Aeson nods. His hands run down my arms then his fingers begin gently smoothing over my wrists. "This is what I learned—along with so many other things, once I confronted him—after a fortunate mention from another fellow astra daimon Pilot assigned to the same ship, Quoni Enutat, whom you're about to meet. Quoni has been observing Nefir's interactions with Earth and with those of us here . . . and he noted a subtle discrepancy in both the transmittal of information and the handling of commands. Quoni doesn't have the same high level of clearance as Nefir, but he is highly observant and capable of deductive inference under the most subtle circumstances."

"Okay . . ." I whisper. My hands, despite being held in Aeson's own, continue to shake.

"At some point Quoni noticed that the communications sent to your family were not entirely accurate and didn't reflect the state of things, based on the current planetary status. Nefir made an excuse about being unable to land a shuttle due to the specific location of a fire hazard near your part of Vermont that was not precisely true—not a complete falsehood but just enough deviation from reality to give Nefir's reasons for not coming down to the surface enough credence—which made Quoni wonder why. As time went on, Nefir presented other faulty details—heightened Earth government surveillance in your skies preventing a shuttle from passing without detection, social unrest and militia activity near your home, natural occurrences dangerous to flight, false weather conditions—even at one point an excuse about our own shuttle and personnel availability and technical malfunctions, which was clearly nonsense.

"Quoni began keeping track of all such details until he had enough of a pattern to suspect disloyalty or dark motives, especially after Nefir's subtle modifications to minor shipboard routine orders each time he communicated with my Father. And that's when Quoni contacted me privately and presented his evidence. I confronted Nefir about everything, at which point he could no longer distort details without lying to my face. Ah, the things I learned—not just about your family's stalled rescue but about so many other things related to the Earth mission. We'll speak more about it later, but for now I want you to know that a crime was committed, I'm aware of it, and I will not let it go unpunished."

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