United by extortion, divided by duty, someone wants them both dead. They want each other. The catch is, nothing is what it seems…
Cormor City, Cormoran, Second Sector
It would almost be worth an execution to have an end to the pointless bickering.
Bo Barron stared out through the transparisteel wall, her gloved hands clasped behind her back as she tried to tune out the heated debate going on behind her. Their angry tones washed over her, rising and falling all around her like the storm-tossed seas of The Narvon’s holdings on her home planet of Mondhuoun. While her regent, the chamberlain and her three advisors discussed the legal ramifications of escape, prison breaks, and appeals, Bo absently studied the domes and spires of Cormoran’s skyline. In the distance, silhouettes of wedge- and cylindrical-shaped craft dropped out of the dingy gray sky, only for others to lift off from the spaceport and disappear into the tan clouds.
They would come to their decisions without her input. They always did. She was tired – tired of the debates, tired of defending herself, tired of being forcibly grounded against her will.
Without trying, Bo could imagine the rumble of engines vibrating through her; feel the pressure of a sudden increase in pulled gees as the ship maneuvered under her deft hands. Her hands flexed and clenched. She nearly groaned with pleasure at the memory. Grounded for a full season during the trial, the fever for space flight burned hotter every moment she was planet bound. The surest way to kill a Barron was to ground one anywhere but Mondhuoun.
“What do you think, Barron?” The chamberlain’s question broke into her thoughts.
Barron. The corners of her mouth twitched. It was a title as much as her name, and one she still wasn’t accustomed to. Her father, Bhruic, was The Barron, but he’d placed himself in medical stasis the year she’d entered Barron Academy. This year, she would attain her legal majority. This year, she would formally and legally take on all the responsibilities of her title. As the anniversary of her birth approached, Bo found less reason to celebrate. At the moment it looked doubtful she would live to take her place as the leader of her people.
“I think that if I don’t get back into space soon, I’ll go mad,” she said, replying in Gallic, her native tongue.
“You won’t go mad, Bo,” Galen Barron, Mondhuoun’s regent and her father’s cousin assured her. “They’re likely to execute you before you get the chance.”
She tossed a wry smile over her shoulder and returned to her study of the air traffic around the spaceport, unwilling to relinquish her hold on her daydreams just yet.
“It doesn’t look good.” The chamberlain regarded her gravely from underneath bushy, white eyebrows. “You need an alternative plan. What will we do when they turn in a guilty verdict?”
Bo shook her head. They’d been over this. “They can’t find me guilty. They don’t have enough evidence.”
“Begging your pardon,” Galen said. “Just what do you think we’ve been listening to for the last season?”
“Denying the facts won’t change the situation.” Daub, her father’s chief advisor, added gently.
“I’m not in denial,” she protested. “I just trust the system.”
“With all due respect, Barron, you are young and inexperienced. Our job is to advise you, and to help you make the wisest decisions for Mondhuoun,” the chamberlain reminded her. “And it is our considered opinion that blindly trusting this system will create havoc and unrest for all Mondhuic citizens.”
With a resigned sigh, Bo turned her back on the spaceport and faced the somber men who ran her government. “Is it or is it not my job to have faith in and defend the system?”
The chamberlain glanced to Galen and the advisors for support. “Well, technically, Barron…”
“Your job is to do what is right for Mondhuoun, to represent Mondhuic interests on the Sector Council, and to command the Black Wing with honor,” Galen said in the same professorial tone he’d used when he’d tutored her in her duties as Chief of Barron Clan. “There is nothing in the job description that says you have to let anyone execute you to prove a point or further an agenda in conflict with Mondhuic interests.”
“You have no proof of that,” Galen reasoned. “You were responsible for security. You were the only unexplained person security cams caught at ground zero prior to the explosion. Your authorization was on a purchase order for RT-729 dated prior to the bombing. You’ve gone on record with public disapproval of Mondhuoun’s trade agreements with the Commonwealth. That gives you means, motive, and opportunity, Bo. The fact that this has gone on for so long amazes me. You haven’t been able to provide any kind of defense.”
“My record is my best defense.”
The chamberlain tutted in annoyance. “A ‘sociopathic terrorist hiding behind propriety until she felt she could strike with impunity.’” He quoted the prosecution.
Bo struggled to control her rising temper. “I’m the eighth centurion…”
“Of a race proud of its history of piracy and terrorism,” Daub stated.
Her face heated at his use of the hated words the media had branded her with.
“Our skills as pirates are the reason the Second Sector begged us to join.” Bo snapped. “No one can outfly, outshoot or outthink a Barron Clan pilot. I’m not ashamed of that legacy. In the last eight hundred years, we’ve honored our agreement. It’s a point of honor that every Clan Chief drills into every Barron from birth.”
“But your father’s illness took him before you entered the Guard. All of your primary training was overseen by a different branch of the family, one without legal claim to the title. There are bound to be discrepancies in your training,” the chamberlain argued.
“Only a fool would find fault with Galen’s Regency!” She looked to her father’s cousin and offered him a grateful smile. “Galen, you’ve run things as well as Papa could have and certainly better than I will. Chamberlain, didn’t you tell me our economy is booming? The Black Wing comprises a good hunk of the Consular Guard’s Star Fleet, and Barron Academy is turning out some of the best clan pilots in its history. Aside from this little setback, we’ve never looked better.”
Galen unbent a little and regarded her with a fond smile as he shook his head. “Leave it to you to see the bright side to this mess,” he stated, his voice heavy with equal parts affection and frustration. “My eternal optimist. She has every faith in a system poised to destroy her.”
Daub touched her shoulder, drawing her attention. “Barron, I can speak for all Mondhuoun when I say that we don’t care about the Commonwealth, or Lord Scull. We care about the continuation of the Barron Clan. You are its Chief. We want you to live long enough to ascend to your rightful place.”
“Ascended or not, I’m still The Barron,” she reminded him. “I am Mondhuoun. As long as we’re part of the system, I have to trust it.”
“I don’t trust it. Not where you’re concerned.”
All eyes turned to the man who had been sitting silently near the door listening to the discussion. Royce Barron slowly unfolded his tall, muscular frame from the chair and rose, aware that he commanded the attention of his niece and the men who ruled their people.
“All Lord Scull does is take our flyers, take a percentage of Mondhuoun’s resources and offer nothing in return.”
The men murmured in agreement.
“The Commonwealth offers us free trade and protection from exploitation…,” she said.
“Only so it can levy taxes and exploit us for its own gain!” Royce rubbed his forehead and cast an anxious look around the room. “The Black Wing provides them with protection, prestige and power. As long as the Second Sector has the Black Wing in its arsenal, nobody is going to mess with them. What do we get out of the arrangement? The first chance they have of executing our Chief, they take it. They’re trying to break Barron Clan, and I’ll be damned before I let them.”
“Well said, Royce.”
Bo shook her head in exasperation. “Sometimes I think Barron Clan means more to you than your oath to the Consular Guard.”
“Family means more to me than anything, Princess,” Royce said softly. “I promised my brother I would look after you. That’s what I intend to do. The Inner Circle is only my job. You’re my family.”
“Royce, you can’t separate one from the other. Eight hundred years of service to the Sovran can’t be dismissed that easily.”
“Maybe you can’t, Princess. I don’t have any problem with it.”
“What are you asking me to do?”
“Run,” Galen urged.
“Run?” she echoed.
“Now, while they’re not expecting it.” Daub leaned forward. “We can arrange your escape and refuge on Mondhuoun. You have only to give the word and the Black Wing will withdraw to our homeworld.”
“As much as I hate to agree, we can secede from the Commonwealth. The Mondhuic are tired of Second Sector domination,” Galen said. “We are positioned for independence. I don’t trust Lord Scull. I remember the rumors of his involvement in the Trade Wars.”
“Secession would start a civil war. They’d never let us go without a fight.” Bo shook her head. “I don’t care how well-positioned we are for independence, Mondhuoun can’t stand alone against the military might of the entire Second Sector.”
Royce folded his arms across his chest and eyed her narrowly. “It’s a lot better than sitting in a cell waiting to be put up against a wall and shot.”
“Better for who? Nobody benefits from a war! People die – my people! I can’t agree to that.”
“What do you think will happen to the Clan… to Mondhuoun if you die before producing an heir, or choosing a successor from among your cousins?” Galen argued.
“You’re not just saying that because you have ambitions for your son, are you, Galen?” Royce looked pointedly at his cousin. “It’s no secret you’ve been grooming Jaden to be The Barron, too.”
Galen squared his shoulders and lifted his chin with a small smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “It would be irresponsible to ignore the possibilities of his succession. We wouldn’t want someone to take command who wasn’t prepared for it.”
It was impossible to ignore the undercurrents passing between the two men. Bo hated seeing them at odds with each other. After her father’s illness, both had stepped in to fill the void left by his absence. She loved them both dearly for it.
“Would you have told Papa to run?” she asked, drawing their attention.
The ensuing silence spoke volumes.
Bo’s eyes flicked over the men, who avoided meeting her gaze. When she looked to her uncle, she found his steady stare fixed on her. With a small shake of her head, she turned back to the window.
Royce gently laid his hand on her shoulder and faced her reflection in the window. “Bhruic had a successor. He was a good Barron and a strong military leader; well respected in the Commonwealth. Not even Lord Scull would have tried to do to him what’s being done to you. This isn’t about guilt or innocence, baby girl. This is about power; how to seize it and how to keep it.”
Wearily, Bo lowered her head. “I’m The Barron, Royce. I refuse to shame my clan and all Mondhuic by running before the Tribunal has reached a decision. I swore to protect and defend the Second Sector, the Commonwealth, and my Sovran, even at the cost of my own life. So did you. I’ve done nothing but my job. The Tribunal has no option but to rule in my favor.”
She wasn’t sure she believed it anymore, but she had to hold on to that hope. Hope was all that kept her from running screaming from the room.
Royce shook his head. “Princess, the Tribunal doesn’t care whether you’re guilty or not,” he said. “Six hundred people died at Frostfire. The public is screaming for someone to pay. You’re it.”
Tears stung her eyes. Bo swallowed hard, trying to dislodge the knot forming in her throat. She shook her head, refusing to look at the men behind her for fear they would see her tears and find her somehow weak and unfit to serve her people. She cleared her throat and swallowed again, forcing her voice to show no sign of her inner turmoil.
“I’ve cooperated with the investigation every step of the way.” Her voice was hoarse with emotion. “I’ve turned over every bit of data I had. I have nothing to hide. I didn’t do it!”
“We know that, Barron,” Galen assured her. “You’ll forgive your Uncle Royce’s vehemence in this. Of all of us, he has a personal stake in your future.”
Royce’s lips twisted in a self-deprecating smile and his hand fell away from her shoulder. “Yeah, Princess. If something happens to you, they’re gonna start looking to me to be Chief. We all know how badly that would end. There’s not enough Gallis Rye in all the Highlands to make that a good idea.”
Bo’s lips twitched at his humor. Squaring her shoulders, she drew herself up and stepped away from the window. Falling back on her training, she cleared her mind, blinked away her tears and smartly turned to face them. Standing at attention, she stared past them, focusing on a spot on the wall behind them.
“I am fully prepared to face the Tribunal and accept any verdict they return.”
Royce’s chiseled features set in a hard line. The chamberlain and the advisors looked expectantly to him. “Could we have a moment in private?” It was more an order than a request.
“Of course,” Galen replied. “We’ll wait outside for the Tribunal to reconvene. Gentlemen?”
He gestured for the advisors to precede him. With one last nod towards Royce, he made his bow to Bo and left them alone.
As the door closed behind them, Bo’s eyes darted nervously towards her uncle. Her brave façade crumbled under his inscrutable regard. Unable to help herself, her lower lip quivered and tears filled her eyes once more. Pursing her lips tightly to hold back her fear, she reached for him, seeking reassurance as she always had since childhood.
Royce took both her hands in his and pulled her to him. “Listen, Princess, this isn’t a holofeature. That Bevis… Bevin… Beryl… guy isn’t going to swoop in to your rescue at the last second.”
“Blade Devon.” Bo chuckled, sniffed back her tears and reluctantly smiled up at him. “I know that,” she said. “I don’t expect him to. I have you. You’ve always looked out for me. You are the real version of the kind of hero he plays in holofeatures.”
He searched her face for a moment. He shook his head. “You know what? So are you.”
She tried to smile, but the corners of her mouth fought her. “When they… when they make a holofeature about this, do you think we’ll be the good guys or the bad guys?”
Royce tenderly cuffed her under the chin. “Depends on who’s writing the history.”
The communications grill signaled. “Commander Barron, the Tribunal is assembling. Please return to the central chamber,” the bailiff requested in Basic, the standard language of the Commonwealth.
Royce’s mouth set in a grim line. “This is it,” he said. “No more waiting.”
Bo squared her shoulders and forced an equally grim smile. “Let’s do this then. Mondhuoun kir brahay.”
“To Mondhuoun, the victory,” Royce echoed. He tucked her hand into the crook of his arm and started for the door, pulling her with him. “Who do you think they’ll get to play me?”
He escorted Bo to her place in the central chamber: a solitary seat at a long table in the front of the judicial platform. Once she was seated, Royce reached over the low divider and caught up a chair reserved for him. Ignoring the bailiff’s disapproving glower, he set the chair beside her and settled himself into it just as the door to the Tribunal’s conference room opened. Meeting her questioning look with a wry twist of his lips, he climbed to his feet and nudged her out of her seat, just as the order to rise was called in Basic.
The military judges making up the Tribunal filed in and settled into their seats on the raised dais. The bailiff called for the crowd to be seated, but Bo and Royce remained standing as was customary. The chamber was filled with reporters, and spectators. Some friendly faces dotted the crowd. Others regarded her as if she were evil incarnate. Bo glanced over to her right and met the cold, cadaverous smile of Lord M’hin Scull; the Second Sector Overlord had personally come to witness her judgment. A frisson of fear laced through her. Bo quickly returned her attention to the Tribunal.
A group of twenty judges, elected to the post by their peers, comprised the Tribunal. Seated in the center of the raised dais, with his colleagues in three rows behind him, the chairman of the Tribunal rose and mounted the steps to the Judgment Podium with measured, even strides. He adjusted his robes and pushed back his hood away from his face, symbolically, so Bo could face her judgment.
“my Lord Scull, esteemed assemblage. Through much deliberation, this Tribunal has reached a verdict and is now prepared to pass sentence on the accused.” The Chairman of the Tribunal noticed Royce standing beside Bo and paused. “Agent Barron, you are not on trial for any crime. Why do you stand with the accused?”
“I stand with my Chief.” Royce’s steady stare did not waver. “The Barron is the embodiment of all that the people of Mondhuoun hold dear,” he stated. “To judge The Barron is to judge all Mondhuic. As her uncle, I stand with Mondhuoun and accept the judgment and sentence for myself and my people as well.”
A murmur went up in the chamber. Bo gaped up at Royce.
“What are you doing?” she whispered.
Chairs scraped behind her. Bo glanced over her shoulder to see Galen, her advisors, and every citizen of Mondhuoun in the crowd rising to their feet.
Swallowing hard, Bo shot Royce a worried look before returning her attention to the Chairman of the Tribunal. He regarded them with undisguised annoyance.
“This show of support is admirable,” he conceded. “Commander Barron is fortunate to have such loyalty. However, the findings of this Tribunal apply to the accused and to no one else. You may resume your seats.”
Royce stubbornly remained standing. A glance behind her revealed that no one else sat either.
His gaze flicked over them, then returned to the prepared statement in front of him. “As you wish.” He made a show of examining the statement, and then looked directly at Bo. His next words were clearly spoken so that all could hear, but their meaning was for her alone.
“After careful consideration of the facts of the events leading up to the bombing of the Frostfire Trade Summit, this Tribunal has reached a final decision. We find Regional Commander Bo Barron, Chief of Barron Clan, Representative of the Second Sector Council, First Minister of Mondhuoun…”
Bo held her breath. Royce gripped her hand so tightly it hurt.
At the announcement, the crowd began shouting all at once, some in protest, others in praise. The room swung crazily around her. Bo gripped her uncle’s hand tighter, trying to stay on her feet.
The voice of the chairman rose over the noise of the crowd. “We find you guilty not only of terrorist acts against the United Galactic Commonwealth and the Second Sector, but guilty also of high treason. It is the finding of this Tribunal that Commander Barron is a danger to the Commonwealth. She has disgraced the Consular Guard and the memory of her clan. The sentence is death. Three days from this, the traitor will be taken from her cell to a place of execution where she will be placed against a wall and shot until dead. Has the traitor anything to say for herself?”
“Mondhuoun kir brahay!” someone shouted.
Her clansmen in the crowd echoed the Black Wing battle cry. Suddenly afraid for her people, Bo opened her mouth to call for reason. Before she could speak, the wall behind the Tribunal erupted into flame. Panicked screams rose over the roar of the flames. Royce released her hand and grabbed the edge of the table in front of them. He ducked under it, pulling her with him a fraction of a second before the cooling unit exploded. Pieces of the ceiling collapsed, blocking off the door to the holding center. A third explosion went off, filling the room with thick black smoke.
Bo looked up into her uncle’s grim face. “What have you done?” she demanded. “Are you insane? You’ll start a war!”
“Come on, Princess.” he said. “We’re getting you out of here.”
He caught her hand once more and reached up the back of his jacket. He withdrew a wicked-looking energy pistol Bo knew well.
“That’s Papa’s Capre!”
Royce didn’t give her any time to wonder how he’d managed to smuggle the weapon past security. He pulled her to her feet and dragged her after him through the crowd. He fired the weapon once and a meter wide hole exploded in the wall to the left of the main door. Some of the flow of escapees changed course for the new escape route. He dragged Bo directly toward the main door and the two Consular Guard officers who tried to control the mob swarming past them.
Royce released her hand and pistol-whipped the officer on the left, relieving him of his weapon and handing it to her. He pulled her out of the court chamber and down the smoke filled corridor. They rode the wave of panic-stricken spectators to the ground floor. Already more Consular Guard soldiers were arriving.
“We’ll never make it,” she warned him.
“Now you decide to be a pessimist?” he joked. “Don’t worry; some of our people are running interference for us.”
Shouldering her way through the crowd, Bo had to appreciate the easy way in which the crowd parted for them as they pushed through. However, her sense of responsibility demanded that she protest.
“Royce, they’ll be marked as traitors if they’re not killed outright!”
He glanced at her. “They volunteered. They knew the risks.”
“Galen? The advisors? We can’t leave them at the mercy…”
“They were expecting this. They were in on the planning sessions. I’m good, baby girl, but I couldn’t have orchestrated this all by myself.”
“Look, even if we get out of here, we’ve got nowhere to go but Mondhuoun. My first responsibility is to my people. Mondhuoun can’t resist the whole Second Sector Consular Guard… not even if we recalled the Black Wing.”
Just outside, a ground cruiser was waiting for them. Royce pulled open the door, shoved her in and fell in behind her. The vehicle set into motion before the door closed behind him. Panting slightly from the exertion, he cast a quick look around and then smiled with grim pleasure.
“Perfect,” he said, a mad gleam in his amber eyes.
“Royce, please be reasonable…”
“The time for reason is passed. My brother kept some secrets from you,” Royce said, overriding her protests. “He forbade anyone from telling you about your mother’s people.”
“My mother?” she echoed.
“Just shut up and listen,” Royce said. “When this mess started, Edge contacted me about setting up an escape. I’m sending you to him for protection.”
“You just took a call…? And you’re doing all of this based on that? Have you lost your wits?”
“Dammit, Bo, he’s your brother!” Royce glanced around, and then continued in a calmer tone. “When Bhruic married your mother, she already had a son old enough to join the Academy. After your mother left, Bhruic forbade anyone from mentioning either of them. I don’t know how he did it, but somehow, Edge managed to keep in touch with me. After Bhruic put himself in stasis, Galen didn’t think it necessary to tell you about your other family. Edge’ll tell you the whole story himself. I’m just supposed to deliver you to his ship. They’ll take you the rest of the way.”
“Royce, they’re going to execute you in my place if they catch you.”
He winked at her. “You let me worry about that. We’ve got a handful of Black Wing waiting to run the gauntlet for you on my signal. They’re all volunteers and they all know the risks. It’s past time that somebody taught Lord Scull that Mondhuoun looks after her own.”
“What about Galen and everyone else?”
“Already on their way home,” Royce told her. They’ll be grounding all Mondhuic craft thinking that we’ll be trying to smuggle you home. Every bird lifting off will have a Barron pilot. They’ll be hard-pressed to figure out which ship you’re on. But you’ll be on a ship of Altairian Third Sector registry.” He glanced at his chrono. “They’ve already received clearance for takeoff and are ready to go as soon as you board.”
Bo shook her head. “You’ll have a price on your head for this,” she warned. “Who’ll run things until we can straighten this out?”
“Galen. He’s a great diplomat. He’ll keep the peace.” Royce met her eyes squarely. “Listen to me, Bo; it will be up to you to clear your name if you can. This is yours now,” he handed her father’s Capre to her. “It’s The Barron’s badge of office. I took it out of the Black Wing museum. I think you need it more. Keep it close. It’s a storied weapon. It’ll identify you and open a lot of doors for you. It’ll also mark you. Carry it with honor, Barron.”
Bo reluctantly accepted the weapon, tucking it into her belt. “You don’t have to tell me, I know what the Capre means.”
“Take care with it, sweetheart,” he warned. “This isn’t just a blaster, it’s a hand cannon. Don’t shoot yourself by accident,” he added with a grin. He glanced past her out the window. “This is it.” He said, his attention returned to her.
The cruiser pulled to a smooth halt near the ship’s ramp. Royce reached past her and opened her door.
“Go on,” he urged. “There’s no time for a long good-bye.”
Wanting to say so much, and not knowing where to begin, Bo studied his face. Tears blurred her vision. Without a word, he pulled her close in a bone-crushing embrace. Then, without meeting her eyes, he released her and nudged her towards the open door.
“Royce, we are the good guys, aren’t we?”
With a lopsided smile, he nodded in agreement. “Yeah, Princess. We’re the good guys.”
Bo stepped out of the cruiser and started for the ship. Behind her, she heard the cruiser’s door shut and the whine of its motor as it set into motion once more. Without a backward look, she headed towards the ship and a future that scared the hell out her.