Two months later.


Isla exhaled a long, slow breath as she limped down the featureless steel corridor, moving side by side with her companions in the narrow space. At the far end a plain grey door awaited them, flanked by a pair of armed guards. Two more of the taciturn men followed half a dozen yards behind them, short barrelled battery rifles held rigid across their chests. Exchanging dubious looks with Jonas and Redge, she shoved her hands into the pockets of her jacket and fixed her eyes on the camera above the door.

They halted a few feet in front of the door and waited. None of the guards made eye contact, leaving them staring dumbly at the camera. After what felt like an age, a deep, refined voice sound through the speakers on either side of the camera.

"Good afternoon." The man sounded grim, with little feeling behind the greeting. "Gentlemen, show them in." One of the door guards turned and punched a combination into the keypad with eye-blurring speed. There was a bleeping sound, followed by the clank of the lock disengaging. The soldier pushed the door open and motioned the trio inside.

Hobbling in first, Isla raised an eyebrow at what she saw. The room carried an air of sterile precision, its walls whitewashed and bare. A single light illuminated the space, the broad square embedded into the ceiling. In the centre of the room sat a square, metal table, bolted to the floor, and on the far side a man waited. Opposite him, three white plastic chairs stood forebodingly. She stepped forward and sat down on the right hand side, wincing at the stab of pain that shot through her right leg.

As Redge and Jonas followed, she eyed up the stranger warily. Staring off into the wall behind her, the neat little man didn't make eye contact, just like the soldiers. A black suit hung perfectly on his frame, over a white shirt with the top button undone. Sitting silently, he seemed to fill the room with his presence.

"Well, well, well," he murmured as the door to the office closed. "It's about time I had a chance to speak to all of you." Sitting up in his seat, he placed a pile of folders on the desk in front of him, before resting his elbows on it. "I imagine you all have a lot of questions."

"I'll say," Jonas butted in. Isla shot him a warning look.

"Indeed, Mr. Galloway." The man cast a disdainful glance over the pilot for the smallest of moments. "Now as you all know, two months ago there was an incident on board one of the Merchant Factory Ships, the Gehanon."
"An incident," Isla repeated slowly. "It was a little more than that."

"Nevertheless, you three are the only survivors of two crews. That makes you a valuable asset."

"An asset? We're people," Jonas snapped.

"That you are," the man returned icily. "But you, Mr. Galloway, in particular have several things to answer for. The siphoning and decoding of certain files that were never sent to your own ship, and were classified at level Damocles." He leaned back in his seat again and folded his arms. "But of course, you knew that when you hacked our system."

"Okay, okay," Isla interjected before her companion could reply. "How about we skip the point scoring, and you tell us what we're doing here."

"Officially, you're here for an after action report of your experience on the Gehanon."

"And unofficially?"

"You'll see. Now, as your pilot has undoubtedly made you very much aware, the Factory Ship was not sent out to gather fuel compounds. They received classified orders from the O.X.R.T to divert to Alsace IV under the highest priority. The Gehanon was the only available ship with the necessary equipment needed to carry out the orders in question."

"You wanted to capture one of those gas creatures," Redge said quietly, breaking his silence. "And rather than use your own ships you sent a civilian mining vessel?"

"The time it would have taken to fit one of our own ships with the necessary harvesting equipment made a substitution imperative. We do operate on a clock, Mr. Smith."
"It's a planet." Jonas shook his head. "It's not going anywhere."

The man glared at him for a moment before continuing. "We ensured that the crew of the Gehanon was prepared. Safety measures were in place, but, for lack of a better term, we had to guess. And, sufficed to say, we guessed wrong."

"A wrong guess? Those people are dead!"

"Don't you think I know that?" he snapped. "We can sit here and play the blame game until doomsday, but personally I have more pressing things on my mind. I admit, the containment specifications that we provided them with were inadequate, but we have a responsibility to learn from mistakes and use that knowledge to ensure that those people did not die in vain."

"No, no, no," Isla laughed humourlessly. "You have a responsibility. We, on the other hand, just got dragged into your mess through no fault of our own."

"We tried to prevent your ship's arrival. We tried to warn you."

"And you failed. We got that message an hour after we boarded the Gehanon. Too little, too late." She shifted slightly in her seat, extracting another lance of pain from her ribs. "Don't you dare try and pin any of this mess on us."

"I'll pin it on whoever I damn well please, Ms. Harrison. Perks of the job." He smiled thinly. "But that's not why I had you brought here. As you'll have guessed, I work for the O.X.R.T, and the skills you exhibited to survive your encounter on the Gehanon have turned a few heads."

"You want us to work for you?" Jonas chuckled.

"You know, Mr. Galloway," the man replied. "There is an old Earth saying, ‘if you can't beat them, join them.' I assure you, you can't beat us."

"Is that a threat?"

"Yes, yes it is." He leaned forward and stared at each of them in turn with narrow, blue eyes. "All of you have inadvertently been exposed to highly classified and incredibly significant information. Information that is not, under any circumstances allowed to be released to the public. You see my dilemma."
"Cut to the chase," Redge grunted.

"You have two choices. I can have you monitored and tracked for the rest of your natural lives, more or less imprisoning you inside your own homes. Or you can accept a contract, keep all that you've seen and learned confidential, and work for the O.X.R.T. I assure you, the latter is the option I'd prefer."

"What about the people we lost?" Isla said quietly. "Half our crew died on that ship. They were friends. What do we tell their families?"

"I've taken care of that."

"You have?"

"They have been informed of a drive malfunction on board the Factory Ship, resulting in an explosion that destroyed the vessel entirely."

"A malfunction?" Redge growled. "You conniving bastard."

"You forget yourself Mr. Smith," the man snapped. "Believe me when I say I can make your lives a living hell. You should know we haven't been so lenient with others. Your unique skill sets elevate you above them, but not above me. If you refuse to cooperate…well, the alternative is unpleasant."

Isla let out a resigned sigh. "Alright, I'm in."

"Fine." Redge grated, his jaw tight with anger.

"Mr. Galloway?"

"What do you do?"

"Excuse me?"

"The O.X.R.T," the pilot elaborated. "What do you need us for? What do you do, exactly?"

"You'll find out, I assure you. All training will be provided." He opened the first of the folders in the pile and smiled again. "And I have something rather special for your first assignment." Closing the folder, he passed it to Isla, then pushed the other two across to her companions. She hesitated a moment before flicking it open, then swallowed hard at what she saw.

"So," the man continued as they scanned the files. "If you want to ensure that you crewmates did not die in vain, I have a simple question for you." They all looked up in unison. The suited man clasped his hands together with his fingers interlocked and leaned back in his chair, his eyes twinkling in the light of the room.

"How would you like to go back to Alsace IV?"

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