“Agent Souvarine,” the Octopus began. “I assume you know why I’ve called you here.”

It was her private office. The formality and simplicity of the room reflected its owner’s personality. It was not welcoming, and nothing about her demeanor did anything to improve this welcome.

No photographs. Not one, I reflected.

“It has been only weeks since IPEC started our push for system control and I have already been flooded with a year’s worth of complaints about the commanders in our employ.”

She scattered an armful of folders across the desk in front of me.

“Need I remind you that this is meant to be a subtle operation? Phin, you assured me that these were competent pilots, some of the best that you’ve found on your travels. Why, may I ask, have I had the repair bill for two station letterboxes and five outpost landing pads appear on my desk?”

She sighed, exasperated.

“The sector news is now full of incidents involving light transports flying dangerously. When you choose such a ‘distinctive’ paint job, I would have hoped that you would then do all you could to make sure that that was the only reason your ship would be noticed.”

She paused, leaning forward on her desk.

“Your pet drunk seems to be racking up bounties for fun, Vex hasn’t been seen and Ronnie Kane has been left to do the work of four people. Sort it out.”

“I didn’t realise they were my responsibility.”

It was a flippant, childish response, and I knew it.

“Step up, Souvarine. This is only going to work if the four of you can operate as a unit. I can’t personally manage every contractor on the Company books, so I need one of you to show a bit of leadership. I’ve chosen you, for better or for worse. Can you handle it?”

There was an inward tussle as part of me wanted to say something defiant and storm out. Another part – a quieter, wiser part perhaps, that until recently I hadn’t known was there – insisted I stay silent. I nodded.

“Good.” She swept the files up and put them to one side, a sign that the conversation was over.

“We’re turning up the heat on the Pact,” she stated matter-of-factly.

“I know. What can we expect?”

“Obstructivism. More aggro as you come and go from their ports. Eventually, possibly war.”

“Will we win?”

She smiled. “Of course. The Pact are a shell, nowadays. They control about half of the populated settlements in this system, and yet polls show they command less than twenty percent of the citizens’ support. That’s an unsustainable position. They’re stretched too thin; they’ve rotted from the inside. A kick from a strong boot and the edifice will crumble.”

“Yes.” I chewed my bottom lip for a few seconds. Sensing I wanted to speak, she said:

“What is it?”

“Um. It’s the letter you sent to Vex. ‘Doing the right thing’. I get it – what’s right is not always popular, or politically palatable.”

I furrowed my brow, struggling to turn my thoughts into diplomatic words.

“But… we are in the right, aren’t we?”

The room was quiet. Eventually she smiled.

“‘Right‘. We’re as ‘right’ as ‘right’ exists, Phin. Magnus Trabe, the Patron of the Pact, is a weak man. Is he unjust? Is he immoral? I dare say he’s a mixed bag, like you or I. But let’s see what history records.”

She gave me that enigmatic half-smile.

“In nature, there is no such thing as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. The wild beast doesn’t stop to reflect on whether it was ‘right’ to devour its prey, even when the prey was a mother, leaving her cubs to starve. There’s no morality in nature. There’s only the weak and the strong. Fast-forward two thousand generations, when biologists are looking at the history of the species, and you don’t find them condemning the beast that ate the other. Instead, they say: the strongest survived. The species endured.

 I watched her, fascinated. 

“That’s how primitive species are. And then you reach a point in which you think you have more than that – you have ‘civilisation’. You have morality. It is not the strong who get what they want any more – they are subject to the same justice as the rest. You have ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and these govern. You live by them. But do you know what’s really interesting?”

I shook my head in silence. 

“When you get to the top of the tree, it’s back to the beginning again. For those with real power, words like ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ lose meaning. You recognise morality as the illusion it always was. Suddenly it makes no difference upon which side of an imaginary line you are – you either survive and endure, and go on to write the history books, or you perish. The strongest survive. And you know what, Souvarine?”

She leant over the desk towards me. 

We are the strong.”  Her eyes glittered darkly. 

“So yes, we’re in the right. When the war is over and we’ve taken territory from the Pact, people will say: “that Trabe, he had it coming.” And we won’t be short of friends. And our friends will tell us what a good thing it was that we did.”

“But the really interesting thing is this: were we to lose, we would most definitely be in the wrong. The Pact would have all the friends and they would all agree, “that IPEC, they had it coming”. Don’t you think that’s interesting?”

She winked at me. Then, suddenly, she straightened up and clapped her hands together. 

“So Commander. Let’s not lose, eh?”




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