A Choice of Treasons

To save himself he first had to save two empires . . . but when he tried, his found his options limited to a choice of treasons.

A Choice of Treasons
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ISBN# 978-1-937387-13-6 (eBook)

Version 2014.04.11

Contents

Chapter 1: Interference

Chapter 2: Long Ago

Chapter 3: Confrontation

Chapter 4: Assault

Chapter 5: Hunted

Chapter 6: Dreams

Chapter 7: Remembrance

Chapter 8: Condemned

Chapter 9: Damned

Chapter 10: Old Friends

Chapter 11: Desperation

Chapter 12: Reality Lost

Chapter 13: Mistakes

Chapter 14: Illusion

Chapter 15: Choices

Chapter 16: Abandoned

Chapter 17: Escape

Chapter 18: Murderous Need

Chapter 19: Another Choice

Chapter 20: More Choices

Chapter 21: Old Memories

Chapter 22: Gunner’s Blood

Chapter 23: Betrayal Upon Betrayal

Chapter 24: Aagerbanne

Chapter 25: Sarasan

Chapter 26: Tank Dreams

Chapter 27: The First Treason

Chapter 28: Chaos

Chapter 29: Again Treason

Chapter 30: Treason Upon Treason

Chapter 31: Andyne-Borregga

Chapter 32: Homecoming

Chapter 33: Honor Abandoned

Chapter 34: More Illusions

Chapter 35: The Fruits of Betrayal

Chapter 36: Party Time

Chapter 37: Return

Chapter 38: Prisoner No More

Chapter 39: Bait

Chapter 40: Payback Time

Chapter 41: Loyalties Shift

Chapter 42: One Big Party

Chapter 43: The Final Treason

Epilogue: Options

Appendix: Some Notes on Time

Other Books Available by J. L. Doty

About the Author

A Choice of Treasons

To save himself he first had to save two empires . . . but when he tried, his found his options limited to a choice of treasons.

Chapter 1: Interference

“Mr. Ballin, is there a fight waiting for us or not?”

The bridge of the imperial heavy cruiser Invaradin was silent as everyone waited to hear York’s verdict, but the silence was suddenly broken by the XO’s voice blaring from allship, “Down-transition in ten minutes and counting.”

York had spent the last twenty minutes trying to raise the imperial embassy on Trinivan, but had run into some suspicious interference. Ten minutes from down-transiting blind into a supposedly neutral system and Captain Telyekev wanted him to make the call.

“Mr. Ballin, is it Federals?”

“I’d be guessing, sir.”

“Then take your best guess.”

York couldn’t prove anything one way or another, but his gut was telling him this was a trap, an ambush. “I haven’t been able to pick up any kind of interference signature. Just broad spectrum.” But the interference shouldn’t be there at all, though York kept that thought to himself.

“Any idea what’s causing it?”

York turned away from his console, craned his neck to look through the maze of instrument clusters that crowded Invaradin’s bridge. He could see only Telyekev’s head, a faint shadow in the darkened lighting, though the captain’s eyes were bright sparks reflecting the dim glow of his console.

Telyekev stared at York and waited. Olin Rame, the XO, peered past one end of the navigation console, while Rame’s two assistants peered around the other end. Anda Gant and her assistants at the scan console had turned almost completely about to look at him. At the weapons console Franklin Stara and Paris Jondee had also turned his way: Frank frowning intently, Paris with a one-sided grin. And Magdalena Votak, encased so completely in helm controls little of her could be seen by the rest of them—York wondered if she too was peeking through some little slit in the instrumentation that enclosed her. They were looking at their lifer, York Ballin, their lucky charm, the man who was supposed to guess with clairvoyant certainty if they were going to live or die.

York looked Telyekev in the eyes, nodded. “It’s got to be feddies, sir.”

Telyekev seemed to shrink. “Thank you, Mr. Ballin. Sound General Quarters. Then contact Nostran and the Diana and tell them to cut drive and coast while we go in for a look-see.”

“Aye, aye, sir.” York spoke into his pickup. “Watch condition red.”

In his implants the computer demanded, Confirm status change.

“Red status confirmed,” York said.

A loud, irritatingly unpleasant horn burped once, was followed immediately by the steady clang of the alert klaxon. York switched his implants into allship and spoke precisely. “Watch condition red. All hands, this is not a drill. Repeat: this is not a drill.” He repeated the message once more, recording it, then put it on continuous replay and switched his pickup to the exterior com. “Nostran, this is Invaradin.”

Nostran here, Invaradin. Our computer says you’re on red. What’s up?”

“Could be feddies, Nostran, but that’s only a guess. We’re going in fast for a look around. Telyekev instructs you and the Diana to cut drive and hold back until we’re sure. Please advise the Diana.”

“Consider it done, Invaradin. Good hunting.”

Invaradin out.”

Nostran out.”

York put a combat status summary in the corner of one of his screens. By now it was a half-lit patchwork of randomly placed black and green highlights superimposed over a schematic of Invaradin. He looked on intently as the remaining stations completed their precombat checks, and one by one the black highlights turned to green. But suddenly one lit up with a bright, demanding red. York touched it with a finger. “Turret three,” he demanded. “This is com. What’s wrong?”

“We’ve got an inoperative ordinance feed, com. We’re looking into it now, but no estimate on repair time. We have eight rounds on turret.”

“Thank you three,” York said. “I’ll advise Telyekev. Com out.”

“Main Three out.”

One of the defensive stations red-lighted with difficulty on their computer link. York tried a temporary routing through a nearby station. That cleared the link enough for him to green-light them, with a yellow flag for the computer to check into it later.

The last station reported in. The computer automatically cut the alert klaxon and a heavy silence descended.

York switched his implants into the bridge circuit. “All stations in, sir. Main Three reports an inoperative ordinance feed; eight rounds on turret and no estimate on repair time. All other stations are green, with one conditional yellow.”

“Thank you, Mr. Ballin. Did you hear that helm?”

“Yes, sir,” Maggie Votak said. “Main Three. Eight rounds. If it gets hot, I’ll favor starboard.”

“Very good, Miss Votak. All ahead full.”

“All ahead full, sir.”

York tapped into Anda Gant’s scan console, pulled up an outboard scan summary in the lower corner of one of his screens where it shared space with summaries from Olin Rame’s navigation console and Frank Stara’s weapons console. On it he watched the small blip of the destroyer Nostran and the larger blotch of the lumbering freighter Diana drop back as they cut drive power. Then Maggie firewalled Invaradin’s full drive and the two ships literally disappeared from York’s screen. Invaradin was no longer limited to the slow crawl of the lumbering freighter she’d been assigned to escort.

“Navigation,” Telyekev said. “What’s our new ETT?”

“I’m computing now, sir,” Olin Rame said, then York’s timer flickered as it abruptly changed its reading. Rame spoke again. “Estimated time to transition is now two minutes, eighty-one seconds, sir.”

“Thank you, Commander Rame. Lieutenant Ballin, put me on allship.”

York touched a switch as he spoke. “You’re on, sir.”

Telyekev paused, cleared his throat, then activated his pickup. “Attention,” he said. “This is Captain Telyekev. You made it on station in ninety-three seconds, almost a full minute. That’s atrocious, more than ten seconds off your best time. I’ll expect you to do better in the future.”

He cleared his throat again. “We’re just under three minutes out from transition into the Trinivanian system. Two days ago, Fleet received an urgent message from the imperial embassy there. They need help and we’re the closest warship, so we’ve got the job. We don’t know any more than that, and we’re having trouble making contact with the embassy so we suspect there may be Syndonese Federals involved. But remember, we only suspect. We don’t know. So don’t go off halfcocked—”

A red light on York’s console pulled his attention to some problem down on Hangar Deck. He touched a switch. “You’re red-lighted, Hangar Deck. What’s wrong?”

One of York’s screens lit up with the image of a young female officer named Krassille Doanne. She looked worried. “We found a steering malfunction in one of the drones during prelaunch check, sir. We’re working on it, but it won’t be ready at transition.”

“Not acceptable,” York growled. “Get me Temerek.”

Doanne frowned. “I’m sorry, sir, but Lord Temerek gave me orders to—”

“I don’t give a damn what he said. Get him here. Now. And tell him that’s an order.”

Doanne saluted. “Aye, aye, sir.”

She disappeared from the screen. A moment later Temerek replaced her, handsome, arrogant, angry. Temerek started to speak but York cut him off, “What’s this about a faulty drone, Lieutenant?” He refused to use Temerek’s title.

Temerek’s lips tightened. “It failed prelaunch check, something in its steering.”

“And why did it wait until now to fail?”

“I wouldn’t know. But you’re welcome to come down and ask the drone yourself, Mr. Ballin.”

“God damn it, Lieutenant, we need that drone.”

“I know that. We’re doing everything we can, but I’m no magician. If I send that drone out we’ll lose her for sure. Then we’ll only have four.”

“We’ll only have four if you don’t send her out.”

Temerek’s face darkened. “We’d have five if we could get replacements, six if we could get spare parts. Tell me why we can’t get spares, Ballin.”

“I don’t know,” York lied, trying not to think of an empire no longer able to maintain a war that had lasted for generations.

“Mr. Ballin!” Telyekev growled harshly. “Pay attention.”

“Sorry, sir. Bad news from Hangar Deck. We’ve only got four drones on green, sir. No prognosis on the fifth. I’ll keep you informed but it won’t be ready at transition.”

“God damn it!” Telyekev snarled. “How the hell do they expect me to fight a war without spare parts? Let me speak to hangar, Mr. Ballin, and keep an eye on that timer. I want a count down on allship starting at ten seconds.”

“Aye, aye, sir.” York made the connection. Then his attention turned to a red light from turret six: trouble with their local targeting computer. That was an easy one; he gave them priority to back up with Invaradin’s comp-central. He glanced again at his timer, then switched his pickup to allship. “Transition minus ten seconds and counting,” he said, keeping his voice calm and even. “Nine . . . Eight . . . Seven . . . Six . . . Five . . . Four . . . Three . . . Two . . . One . . .”

His screens fluttered. An undefined tickle crawled up the back of his spine. He cut off all external communications and said, “Sublight.”

The bridge went silent. Fresh out of transition, Invaradin was a blind target with no idea of what she’d dropped into until Anda Gant got them data.

“We’re clear to a hundred thousand kilometers and expanding, sir,” she finally said.

York’s implants seemed to whisper with a long collective sigh of relief.

“Thank you, Anda,” Telyekev said easily. “No surprises then. Now let’s see what’s on long range. Drones out, Commander. Hold them at the limit of your short range scan.”

A distant, ghostly clang sounded through the hull of the ship as the four drones shot out of their launch bays. “Drones out, sir,” Gant barked.

York’s scan summary compressed as the drones shot outward from Invaradin’s hull and their effective scan baseline broadened. At fifty thousand kilometers the drones shifted into a complex circular orbit about Invaradin, and the scan summary compressed even faster.

With one ear tuned to the bridge circuit York touched another switch on his console. “Hangar, this is com. Drone status.”

Krass Doanne answered. “Parasitic demand is smooth. Response is strong. Still no word on number five.”

“Thank you, Miss Doanne,” York said. “Com out.” He cut her out of the circuit.

“Clear to one million klicks and expanding,” Gant announced.

“Excellent,” Telyekev said happily. “Good job, Anda. Hold the drones at fifty thousand klicks. Go to extreme long range and start scanning. I want a full system map soonest. Mr. Ballin, get back on that com and see if you can raise Trinivan.”

“Aye, aye, sir.” York reopened an exterior com channel, confident now it wouldn’t provide a homing beacon for a feddie warhead, and immediately, without any effort on his part, the signal came in clearly and strongly.

“Help! Please help! Whoever you are out there, we desperately need your help. Please answer.”

York frowned suspiciously at his console as the message repeated itself. He touched a switch and a clear picture formed on one of his screens: a middle-aged man with unkempt hair dressed in a wrinkled tunic and several days’ growth of beard.

York checked to see that the incoming signal was riding on an imperial encryption code. That was at least some sort of identification, so he touched another switch and broadcast his own picture on the same code.

At sight of York the man on the screen stopped speaking and his eyes widened. “Who are you?” he demanded.

York spoke precisely. “I’m Senior Lieutenant York Ballin of His Majesty’s Ship Invaradin, Captain Lord Alexiae Telyekev commanding. Please identify yourself.”

“Jerrik Lassen,” the man said. “Thank God you’ve come. We’d almost given up—”

York interrupted him sharply. “Please identify yourself fully. Where are you and what’s your function?”

The man frowned. “I’m a computer tech here at the embassy.”

“Which embassy?”

“Why, the imperial embassy here on Trinivan, of course.”

“Of course,” York said. “Now, what’s a comp-tech doing at a com station? And where’s your com-tech?”

“He’s dead, Lieutenant. A mob of locals literally tore him apart.” Lassen shivered visibly. “I’m filling in.”

“Who’s in charge?”

“His Excellency, Lord Frederick Cienyey.”

“Very good, Mr. Lassen. Now find Lord Cienyey and bring him here immediately. Captain Telyekev will want to speak to him.”

“I’m sorry, Lieutenant,” Lassen pleaded. “We haven’t been able to find his lordship for hours, but Mr. Harshaw’s somewhere about.”

“Who’s Harshaw?”

“He’s the vice consul.”

York nodded. “Then get him.”

“Right,” Lassen said. He tore off his headset and stepped out of view.

York switched to Invaradin’s command channel. “Sir, I’ve got Trinivan and it doesn’t sound good.”

“What happened to all that interference?”

“I don’t know, sir. It’s gone. My guess is the feddies are playing games with us.”

“Or perhaps . . .” a new voice interrupted nastily, “. . . there aren’t any Federals around here at all.”

York cringed at the sound of third officer Commander Lord Mayhue Sierka’s voice. Sierka had joined Invaradin’s crew less than a year ago, and taken an immediate dislike to York. “But I’m sure you’ll have some excuse, won’t you, Lieutenant?”

“The feddies are out there,” York insisted. “You can bet on—”

“No more excuses, Lieutenant,” Sierka interrupted. “You’re going to have to—”

“Enough!” Telyekev barked. “And don’t make excuses, York.”

“But sir, those feddies are out there. I know it.”

“We all make mistakes—you fewer than most—so don’t worry about it. Now what have you got on Trinivan?”

York let it drop and spoke carefully. “A dead com-tech, sir. And a half-hysterical comp-tech filling in for him. Sounds like chaos down there.”

“There you go, Sierka,” Telyekev said, making excuses for York. “That damn comp-tech probably doesn’t know a com from a weapons console. Probably caused that interference himself.”

“No doubt Your Lordship is right,” Sierka said.

A new face appeared on the screen carrying the signal from the embassy: probably Harshaw, an unattractive man, with a flat face and wide-set eyes. Like Lassen, his face showed fear.

York spoke. “I believe Vice-Consul Harshaw is ready for you, sir.”

“Good,” Telyekev said. “Put me on without introduction. And you stay in circuit.”

York put he and Telyekev on a split screen to Harshaw. Telyekev wasted no time. “I’m Telyekev, Invaradin’s captain. I assume you’re Harshaw?”

Harshaw nodded. He seemed to know instinctively now was not the time to speak.

“We’re standing on full alert status, Harshaw, and neither of us has a lot of time. So bring me up to date fast, and don’t waste my time or yours with any bullshit.”

For an instant Harshaw appeared offended, but he adjusted to the situation quickly. He swallowed once, then spoke carefully. “We’re mixed up in a big power play on the part of some local politicos. For the last twenty years Trinivan’s been neutral, which is just another way of saying its government is loaded with factions that include hard core supporters of both the Syndonese and we imperials, and of course everything in between. But the in-betweens have lately been drifting toward the Syndonese, and the imperial sympathizers are now badly out numbered. And this unscheduled visit of Her Royal Highness was like throwing fuel on an already hot fire. She—”

“Her Royal Highness?” Telyekev barked. “You have a member of the royal family down there?”

Harshaw frowned. “Why, yes. I thought you knew.”

“I know nothing,” Telyekev said. “Following standard procedure we down-transited two days ago to check in with Fleet. They told us you were in trouble and you needed help. That’s all. Beyond that I am wholly unaware of the situation down there.”

Harshaw nodded and collected himself for an instant. “The emperor’s daughter, Princess Aeya, arrived unannounced four days ago with an entourage of about fifty, apparently on a lark. Her arrival aggravated an already bad situation, though my intelligence sources suspect Directorate intervention here so I don’t believe she alone is responsible for this. In any case, whoever’s behind it started agitating shortly after she arrived and brought it to a head two days ago. With the active help of some local politicians, and the passive sanction of others, they whipped up a mob of several thousand supporters and stormed the embassy compound. They murdered about thirty of the embassy staff—literally tore them apart in front of our eyes—and ransacked most of the embassy. Those of us who are still alive are holed-up in the top two floors of the main embassy building. The mob controls the bottom four floors. We’ve deactivated the lifts, and have about a dozen marines guarding the lift shafts and the two emergency stairwells at either end of the building. We have no food or water, no sanitary facilities, no medical supplies, and very little ammunition left for the few weapons we have. The situation is critical, and becoming more so by the hour. And not coincidentally, the leaders of this mob started whipping it up as soon as you made transition, so they’re obviously being fed data by someone in the local government with access to off-planet scanning equipment. Something’s going to happen in the next hour, and when it does, we won’t be able to hold out for long.”

“What about feddies?” Telyekev asked. “Are they part of the mob?”

“Certainly there are Syndonese spies all over the place,” Harshaw acknowledged, “competing with all the imperial spies, I have no doubt. But as for any direct intervention by the Syndonese, I couldn’t say. We’ve been able to identify only a few of the mob’s leaders, and they’re all known locals with histories as empire haters.”

“Mr. Ballin,” Telyekev said. “Do you have any questions?”

“Yes, sir. I’d like to know if the mob is armed. And if so, with what kind of weapons?”

“They’re not heavily armed,” Harshaw said. “Not more than one in twenty, and their weapons are a mish-mash of knives, guns, and rifles of all sorts.”

“Any Syndonese issue weapons?” York asked.

Harshaw shrugged. “I wouldn’t know a Syndonese weapon from any other kind.”

“You’ve got a noncom in charge of your marines, don’t you? Ask him.”

“Right,” Harshaw said. “But he’s a she, and it’ll take a minute.” He looked at Telyekev.

“Go ahead,” Telyekev told him. “Lieutenant Ballin and I have to confer anyway.”

York switched off the external audio. “We’re off-line, sir.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant. Commander Rame. Compute a short transition hop into Trinivan nearspace.”

“Aye, aye, sir. But it’ll be difficult to be accurate. We’re already within heliopause.”

“Do what you can, Olin. Mr. Ballin, this is a job for your marines, don’t you think?”

A cold knot formed in the pit of York’s stomach. Several months ago Invaradin’s marine CO had taken a bullet in the face. Telyekev wanted an experienced officer in command of them, so he’d made York acting marine CO. York wanted to snarl that they weren’t his damn marines, but instead he said politely, “Yes, sir.”

“Very good, York. Mr. Sierka will relieve you at com.” Telyekev looked at his screen. “I see Harshaw’s back.”

York switched on the audio. Harshaw needed no warning. “Corporal Elkiss says she’s spotted several Syndonese issue weapons, though there aren’t too many, and they’ve all been projectile weapons, no power weapons.”

Telyekev shook his head. “Doesn’t really sound like feddies, does it York?”

“No, sir.”

Telyekev shook his head. “Any more questions, Lieutenant?”

“No, sir.”

“Then you’re dismissed as soon as Commander Sierka relieves you.”

York’s hands trembled as he punched in a call to the marine ready-room. Master Sergeant Mieka Palevi, looking quite bored, appeared on one of his screens. The marines didn’t like regular navy, especially when they had to take orders from them, and the sergeant smiled with a special sneer he reserved for York.

“Sir,” Palevi said flatly.

There was never any small talk between them. “One hundred marines,” York said without emotion. “Full battle kit, plast-armor, and a fifty-fifty mix of radiation and projectile weapons. Short-term rations. Hazardous situation, non-hazardous environment. Both assault boats fully manned and armed. Orbital drop to planetary surface, high G, crash priority. Got all that?”

Palevi’s look of boredom changed to a smile. “Of course, sir. Will there be anything else, sir?”

York couldn’t put aside the fact that no one believed him about the feddies. “Bring along two portable mortars and maybe a couple of portable rotary blast cannons. And have you got any antipersonnel gas that’s unpleasant but nonlethal?”

Palevi’s face broke into a broad grin. “Oh yes, sir. Some real nasty stuff, sir. How do you want it? Grenades, mortars, or sprayed from the boats?”

“All of the above. And scramble on it. I’ll be down soonest.”

“Aye, aye, Cap’em,” Palevi said, granting him the marine equivalent of his naval rank, though, as was customary among the marines he carefully mangled the pronunciation to distinguish it from Telyekev’s rank. The marines knew how much it bothered regular navy in general, and York in particular.

Sierka sat down in the seat next to York. “You’re relieved, Lieutenant.”

York lifted his hands off the console, acknowledged Sierka with a sloppy salute, stood and threaded his way through the darkened clutter of Invaradin’s bridge. He stepped into the personnel lift, cycled the lift hatch shut, and once alone he paused to retrieve a small container of pills from a sealed pocket in his fatigues. High G drop, higee drugs, he crammed a half dozen phets into his mouth and swallowed hard.

He returned the container to his pocket and growled, “Hangar Deck, One Bay.” The ride, beginning to end, took little more than a heartbeat as the lift shot him downward at more than one hundred gravities, though the computer compensated the lift’s internal grav field so York felt nothing. But during that heartbeat he damned Telyekev a dozen times for making him acting-captain-of-marines. He was a ship’s officer. He didn’t belong in combat armor. Put him at a console, throw warheads at him that could crack a planet; that didn’t bother him half as much as stepping personally onto the soil of some godforsaken rock so some idiot with a rifle could take shots at him.

The lift door slammed open and York stepped out into service bay One. He caught a momentary glimpse of one of Invaradin’s two assault boats, appropriately named One, then someone slammed his chest plate hard against his ribs. He would have fallen but someone else behind him let him stumble into his back plate. They spun him about dizzily, dropped him into his leg plates and boots, checked his joints and seals. It was a routine they’d rehearsed many times, for he, unlike they, was forced to post duty as both ship’s officer and marine CO, and would never have time during an alert to stop by the ready-room for his gear. But it was more than that; it was a not-so-subtle reminder of who they were, and who he wasn’t. It was an insultingly familiar pair of hands—male or female—touching him momentarily where they had no right to touch him, all under the guise of checking his seals. It was insult, bordering on insubordination, but never in such a way he could call them on it.

Someone slammed his helmet down over his head, and while they were checking his neck seals someone else snapped the heavy reactor pack into place on his back. That done, the marines stepped abruptly away from him.

The suit began its initialization sequence, flashing readings and diagnostic data on the inside of his visor. He flipped the helmet visor up as Palevi stepped in front of him. Like York, his visor was up; he smiled and slapped a pistol into York’s hand. “Yer sidearm, Cap’em,” he said, grinning that special grin of his.

York suppressed a snarl, looked at the gun in his hand. Palevi had chosen a grav-gun for him. Its gravity field accelerated a small fragmentation shell up to something over Mach one. The shell would puncture armor, or flesh, then fragment. It frequently caused more damage than an explosive round.

York looked at the gun clipped to the sergeant’s thigh plate, a bluish-black, chemically-powered, heavy-caliber slug thrower. Every time York saw that gun he thought of the last marine CO, a desk jockey assigned to Invaradin with lots of rank and no experience. The marines had gotten into a pinch on some jerkwater planet and their new CO called Invaradin for fire support. Unfortunately he didn’t know how to call in fire support, and Invaradin cut her own marines to pieces. After it was over the new CO was among the dead, though oddly enough no shrapnel had touched him. He’d been shot in the face, his visor up, by a chemically-powered, heavy-caliber slug thrower.

York gave his sidearm a quick once-over, snapped it into the clips on his thigh plate without fully inspecting it.

“You had a chance to check out the news yet, Cap’em?”

York looked at Palevi quizzically. When they’d down-transited the day before to check in with Sector—and gotten the urgent message to rendezvous with Nostran and the Diana and proceed with all haste to Trinivan—after so many months out of contact they’d also received a standard transmission packet. York hadn’t had time to review it personally, but it would contain mail, promotions, reassignments, transfers, and an up-to-date summary of every newsworthy occurrence since they’d gone out on patrol. “No, Sergeant, I haven’t.”

Palevi’s grin broadened. “Darant bought the farm eight days ago somewhere in Orion. It’s been confirmed.”

York’s armor grew very warm. “Who’s the new SDO?”

“Sadeline,” Palevi said. “She’s on the Lonesome Star somewhere in this sector. You know, sir, with all your time on the clock, that moves you up to number two.”

“No it doesn’t,” he growled. “I can’t be SDO because I ain’t no god damn marine.”

Palevi shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, Cap’em. The closer you get to SDO the less likely you are to get shot. The way I figure it, them feddies don’t wanna kill you until the reward’s good.”

“Shut up!” York snarled. “Visors down and seal ’em up, Sergeant. Short inspection and com check.”

“But, sir, we’ve already che—”

“I don’t give a damn. Do it.”

Palevi saluted casually. “Yes, sir,” he said, then shouted orders at his marines. They lined up quickly in front of One, their rifles held out for inspection, visors down. Palevi spotted something he didn’t like, did more shouting.

Someone behind York cleared his throat politely. “Um. Lieutenant?”

York turned about slowly, found Canticle Thring dressed in the long, archaic robes of a churchman. York didn’t have much use for the church; among crew he was not unusual in that. “What can I do for you, Canticle?”

The man seemed almost frightened of York. “I was wondering, Lieutenant, ah . . . if any of your people might care to be blessed before going into danger.”

York shook his head, couldn’t believe the man would ask such a stupid question about marines. “Sorry. No time for that.”

York turned back to Palevi and his marines, dropped his visor, felt his ears pop as his suit ran an automatic pressure check. A small square in the upper-right corner of the visor blackened and his suit computer displayed a stylized image of a suit of armor colored in green. A readout next to it told him they’d fully recharged the core of his reactor pack; he was carrying a capacity of well over fifty gigawatt-hours. “Computer,” he said. “Status, physical, execute.” The display on the inside of his visor changed to the silhouette of a naked man. The right knee and ankle were tinted a pale yellow; old wounds, old damage. The suit would keep the pressure seals around the knee and ankle slightly over-inflated to provide extra support, but beyond that, and some painkillers, there was nothing he could do.

He shrugged inwardly, keyed his com. “Count off, Sergeant.”

“Count off,” Palevi shouted.

“One.” “Two.” “Three.” “Four,” came the reply, each word spoken in a different voice. The damn marines were a breed apart. The empire couldn’t even keep them supplied in uniforms, but while their armor was patched and stained and blackened here and there, it functioned perfectly, like the marines themselves. They weren’t much to look at—not much to like, either—but when needed they functioned, and they functioned well. York had to admire them for that, if nothing else.

The count reached one hundred. York keyed his com. “Sergeant, is Private Dakkart dropping with us?”

“Yes, sir. I worked out—”

“I thought we agreed she wouldn’t drop again.”

“We did, sir. But she’s one of my best. I need her, so I made a deal with her.”

“What kind of deal?”

“I’d rather not say, sir.”

“I’ll bet you’d rather not say! Anyone else I should know about?”

“Yes, sir. Private Stacy. New man, green as they come. This’ll be his first hot drop.”

“Both of them,” York said. “Front ’n center.”

Palevi shouted orders into his com. Two figures broke ranks and sprinted forward to stand rigidly in front of York. They flipped their visors up, held their rifles out for inspection.

York’s ears popped again as he lifted his own visor, looked into the helmet of the shorter of the two. Female, not unattractive, with the fading remnant of a black bruise framing one eye. York kept his voice low. “You’ve got Palevi to thank for one more chance. But if you get into another brawl on this ship you’ll never drop again.”

She rightly said nothing.

York stepped sideways to stand in front of the new recruit. In the kid’s helmet, York saw a young face with blond hair and blue eyes, and a chin that barely needed shaving.

“How old are you?” York asked.

“I’ll be seventeen next month, sir.”

Palevi leaned forward. “Excuse me, sir,” he said politely. He turned to the boy, bellowed at the top of his lungs, “The cap’em did not ask you how old you will be, private. He asked you how old you are. And when you speak to the cap’em you’ll address him properly. And I can’t hear you. Is that clear?”

“Sir,” the boy screamed. “Yes, sir.”

Palevi stepped aside, spoke calmly to York, “Sorry about that, sir.”

York nodded, looked at Stacy again. “How old are you?”

“Sir. Sixteen, sir,” the boy screamed.

“Who are you buddied with?” York asked.

“Sir. Mackin, sir.”

York shook his head. “Now you’re buddied with Private Dakkart here.”

Dakkart broke discipline. “But sir! I—”

Palevi shouted her down. “As you were, private.”

Palevi, Dakkart, and Stacy all turned into statues of very silent stone as York said, “See to the details, Sergeant.”

York’s com came to life with Olin Rame’s voice. “Stand by for transition.” There was a pause, then Rame barked out a short count-down sequence. York felt Invaradin up-transit, then almost immediately down-transit. Another pause, then, “Stable orbit in two minutes.”

York suppressed the panic crawling up into his gut and grumbled, “Load ’em up, Sergeant.”

Palevi shouted more orders. The marines split into two squads, Palevi in charge of one, and a female corporal named Tathit in charge of the other. Tathit double-timed her squad through an air lock to Two Bay. Palevi and his marines scrambled into One’s open hatch. York, the last to enter, took the commanding officer’s position immediately aft of the hatch, a small recess that allowed him to be the first out in the drop zone. Like the rest of the marines, he sat down and strapped himself in place and waited.

“Cap’em,” his helmet speaker said. “This is Pilot Corporal Hackla. Bridge reports weather over the embassy looks good. High G drop, right sir?”

York answered, “Crash priority. And give me a full exterior scan.”

“Yes, sir. One moment, sir.”

Hackla sent him a signal that blackened the inside of his visor, then showed the view forward of the gunboat: the open hatch of One’s now evacuated service bay, with just the edge of a blue-green globe showing in one corner.

“Stable orbit and ejection in twenty seconds . . . nineteen . . . eighteen . . .”

York stopped listening and spoke into his helmet without keying his com. “Computer. Higee dosage, maximum. Execute.”

He felt a pinch in his neck as one of his suit injectors fired: a mix of G drugs, phets, aggression hypes, and a few other things the marines wanted in their mood of the moment.

They cut gravity in One Bay and York’s stomach rose up into his throat. A moment later Hackla activated One’s internal fields and his stomach dropped back into his bowels. A loud clang echoed through One’s hull as Invaradin’s docking boom pushed the boat gently out through the hatch.

“You all right, Cap’em?” Palevi asked.

York ignored him.

“Cheer up, Cap’em. Could be worse. You could be sittin’ here with a bunch of tank-crazies from the Vincent.”

York cleared his visor, couldn’t see Palevi’s face hidden behind his own visor, but sensed somehow that his lips were turned up in that self-serving grin of his. York wondered if Palevi actually knew something, or if his remark about the Vincent had been just a simple jibe. “Don’t worry, sir, you’ll make a good marine yet.”

“Not if I can help it,” York growled, then opaqued his visor, returning to the view forward of the boat. The bloated globe of a large planet now filled it almost completely.

Hackla’s count reached zero. With the internal fields of the boat compensating, there was no sensation of acceleration, but a small readout superimposed in one corner of York’s visor flickered and displayed a steadily rising number. After a moment it stabilized at thirty, and Hackla’s voice said, “Shall I hold it at thirty G’s, sir? Can’t compensate beyond that.”

“Take it to the limit,” York growled, “Captain’s orders.”

A large, heavy hand pressed on York’s chest, and the number on his display rose immediately to thirty-three. “Three G’s internal, sir.”

The number rose further. “Five . . . Eight . . . Ten . . . Holding at ten.”

York instructed his suit to give him another dose of higee, concentrated on breathing slow, steady, deep breaths. “Maneuvering,” Hackla said. “Going to fifteen gravities internal.”

York cursed.

“Eighteen G’s. Twenty . . .”

York didn’t actually black out. By that time he was so loaded on phets he couldn’t lose consciousness, but he did drift off to a place where nothing seemed to matter, where he didn’t care that he was a lifer, that the only perk in his retirement package was a free burial in space.

••••

His Majesty, Edvard the tenth, Duke de Lunis, King of the nine beasts, Commander-in-Chief of the nine fleets of the royal navy, guardian and protector of the people’s faith, beloved emperor of the Lunan Empire, sat in the dark of his office and waited, feeling powerless and impotent.

He was much younger in years than his appearance, but the constant strain of ruling a crumbling empire losing a two hundred year old war had etched deep lines in an almost boyish face. And as he had done so many times before in his thirty-eight years of living, he wished again he was not king and emperor.

A soft knock at the door pulled him out of his dismal reverie. He rubbed his eyes and commanded the computer, “View.” A display on his desk showed a tall and powerfully built man dressed in a naval uniform, unable to hide his impatience as he waited beyond the door.

“Admit,” Edvard commanded the computer.

The door swung open instantly. The naval officer entered at a brisk walk, his back straight, and at first glance one might think him to be in late middle age, but a closer inspection revealed the signs of a much older man. He stopped before Edvard’s desk, and holding a single piece of paper in his right hand he stood at rigid attention.

Edvard shook his head. “Please drop the formalities, Theodore. You have some news?”

Without relaxing the naval officer took the piece of paper in both hands and looked at it carefully. “Invaradin made transition into the Trinivanian system about an hour ago; they believe there are no Directorate ships in the vicinity. They’ve contacted the embassy and are trying to evacuate her personnel now, though the embassy reports approximately thirty dead so far. I’ve asked Invaradin to send us a complete list of casualties and survivors as soon as possible.”

“What about her?” Edvard demanded.

The naval officer shook his head. “I don’t know. I was afraid to ask about her specifically, don’t want to draw attention to her. We can’t afford even a hint of suspicion.”

“I know,” Edvard said, rubbing his eyes tiredly. “I know. Who’s captain of the Invaradin?”

“Alexiae Telyekev. Old-line nobility. Fifth son of the Earl of Seegat. No inheritance prospects so he’s made what he can of a commission. Basically a good man.”

“Can he be trusted?”

Rochefort shrugged. “God knows, but I wouldn’t risk it. If she’s already dead, then he can’t help, and if she isn’t, then she’s not likely to come to harm now that Invaradin’s on hand. And one never knows who’s working for AI or the church.”

“Damn! How could it have gone so wrong? Years of careful planning, all for nothing.”

“It’s not over yet. Invaradin’s a good ship.”

“What about Red Richard?” Edvard asked. “You told me yesterday he’s been operating in that area. And there’re rumors that he’s working with the Syndonese.”

Rochefort shook his head. “Richard’s a Mexak, and pirates like easy pickings. I don’t think he’ll mix it up with Invaradin. I’m more concerned about the Syndonese. You know the riots on Trinivan began within hours of her arrival there.”

“Coincidence?” Edvard asked.

“Not likely. Somebody was tipped off.”

“Not from this side,” Edvard said. “There are too few of us who know.”

“It’s possible the Trinivanians are working with the feddies. I suspect Telyekev’s people are in a lot more danger than they realize.”

Chapter 2: Long Ago

“Atteeuun . . . shuuuuun!”

The shout startled York Ballin and he tried to assume the correct posture, but the manacles on his wrists and ankles prevented him from standing properly rigid with his hands at his sides. There was some sort of commotion near the front of the crowd, but he was yet only twelve years old and the forest of tall uniformed strangers surrounding him blocked his view. He glanced at the female marine standing guard over him, and, as if she sensed his gaze, she looked down at him, her face devoid of expression, her eyes cold and unsympathetic. “As you were,” he heard someone say, and everyone relaxed.

“Spacer Apprentice York Ballin,” someone barked. “Front’n’center.”

The female marine nudged York unkindly.

He decided a look of simple innocence would be best. Edging forward among the elbows, he stepped out into the only clear space on Hangar Deck.

Behind a table sat three officers. York didn’t know them, but guessed the woman in the middle was the captain. He threw his shoulders back, did his best to stand very proper and rigid.

The captain took no interest in him. Her hair was neatly trimmed, and she wore a freshly pressed uniform open at the collar. She glanced at a comp-tablet on the table before her, leaned to her right for a moment to consult privately with the sharp-eyed male officer seated next to her, then turned her attention to York. She had soft, pleasant eyes, and York hoped he might have better luck with her than with the marine. “At ease, Spacer Ballin.”

York pretended to relax.

“I am Captain Jarwith, and this is captain’s mast. Do you know what that means?”

York shook his head. “I’m sorry, ma’am, no.”

She nodded. “Then I’ll explain. Captain’s mast is an informal proceeding convened for the purpose of disciplining enlisted personnel. It allows me to correct certain deficiencies in my crew without resorting to a trial or court-martial. Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” York said. No trial; it appeared the old broad was going to be an easy touch after all.

“Good,” she barked rather tersely. Again she looked down at the comp-tablet. “Now it’s customary that a crewmember’s civilian past is not held against him, but I’m free to consider it if I choose. Four months ago, while stealing an old woman’s purse, you struck her on the head with a blunt object, causing her death. I don’t mind telling you, if you were to commit such a crime while under my command, I’d keelhaul you out to an appropriate set of coordinates then vent you.”

York didn’t like the way her voice hardened as she spoke. “What’s keelhauling?” he asked. “And what’s venting?”

Her voice cracked angrily. “Pray you never learn.

“Because of your age the civilian courts chose not to execute you, even though you had previously been arrested more than twenty times. And for reasons I still don’t understand, they pressed you into the navy instead of sentencing you properly, most unusual since the press gangs don’t ordinarily take capital offenders. But be that as it may, you joined this ship on the planet Dumark and since that time have been a continuing disciplinary problem for my subordinate officers. You’re conniving, deceitful and disobedient.”

“But I try,” York lied in a pleading voice.

“No you don’t,” she barked angrily. “Your civilian rearing has taught you if you can get beyond the moment, then you can repeat any offense you wish as often as you wish, and probably get away with it. But here that will not be the case. You committed an act of gross insubordination while this ship was on alert status. You disobeyed a direct order and struck the NCO in charge of your station.”

“But he hit me first.”

Captain Jarwith’s eyes turned the color of steel and she growled, “Don’t say anything more.”

She paused, looked at him carefully for a moment, then barked out orders in a sequence of staccato commands. “I sentence you to thirty days unflavored protein cake and water, and thirty days suspension of pay. During that time you will be given the dirtiest, filthiest, most dangerous jobs on this ship, and when not on duty you will be confined in the brig. Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

York stifled a sigh of relief. The punishment was a harsh one, but it evidently could have been worse. He tried to look deeply remorseful, thinking he could steal real food and wheedle his way out of the brig when needed. “No, ma’am,” he said.

“Humph!” she growled. “No doubt you think you can get around this punishment in some way. But you need to learn I have absolute power over your life, your very existence, and I will tolerate nothing less than absolute and instant obedience from the likes of you. And to teach you that lesson, I sentence you to fifty strokes of the lash.”

York frowned. “What’s a lash?”

Jarwith’s eyes turned almost sympathetic, and there was no joy in her voice. “The lash is a strip of hardened plast two millimeters thick, one centimeter wide and two meters long. It’s method of use is . . . well . . . it’s really quite impossible to describe.” She looked at the female marine guarding York and nodded. “Sergeant.”

“Aye, aye, ma’am,” the marine snapped crisply, then literally picked York up by the manacles on his wrists. He struggled but she cuffed him once across the jaw, then dropped him on his feet between the girders supporting two bulkheads. Two marines joined her and helped her manacle his wrists separately to the girders. York heard the unmistakable hum of a power knife as she cut away the back of his fatigues, then left him standing with his back bare and his arms spread wide.

An ominous figure stepped into York’s now limited field of view. It was human in shape, but encased head to foot in mottled gray-black plast, with a face hidden behind the silvery glare of a helmet visor. It was the first time York had ever seen a marine in full-combat plast-armor. Someone had made judicious use of black tape to obscure all identifying insignia, as well as the name stenciled on the marine’s chest plate.

The marine saluted Jarwith crisply. She returned the salute and handed him a long strap of transparent plast. He doubled it up in his right hand, then struck it against the armored gauntlet of his left. It cracked against the plast with a sharp snap, and York suddenly understood the lash.

The marine walked around him, behind him, out of his field of view. Jarwith remained in front of him, standing at arm’s length, her eyes filled with sadness. That scared York even more than had the whip-crack of the lash against the marine’s gauntlet.

“I’m sorry,” he pleaded. “I didn’t mean to do it. I won’t do it again.”

Jarwith shook her head and spoke without rancor. “Yes you did and yes you will, though I do believe at this moment you are truly sorry. But if I let you go now, you won’t learn the lesson you need to learn.”

She looked over York’s shoulder, nodded at the marine, said, “You may proceed.”

The metallic voice of the armored marine’s helmet speaker answered her. “Aye, aye, ma’am.”

There came no real warning beyond that, only a momentary delay, an infinitesimal instant during which York had enough time to hope he was mistaken about the nature of this punishment. Then he heard a loud snap, and a pencil thin line of searing, white-hot fire etched itself with infinitely painful slowness across the back of his shoulders. His universe exploded, expanding like the fireball of a warhead in deep space, then shrinking again to that thin, narrow line of incandescent pain. He screamed and pulled violently at his restraints, had a nightmarish vision of his back splitting open to disgorge gouts of fire.

The instant ended, and the metallic voice of the marine’s helmet speaker said, “One.”

There came no delay now, no moment of respite. A second line of pain cut into York’s back, burning its way this time across his ribs, and he disappeared for an instant into a gulf of black nothingness.

“Two,” the marine barked.

The lash struck a third time, “Three,” and a fourth, “Four.” Each time the marine voiced the count, and each time the blackness of an unknowing vacuum swallowed York for a longer and deeper moment, while between the strokes he screamed and cried and begged for mercy. For a few strokes he screamed almost continuously, until finally he was unable to scream at all. Then the black gulf devoured him and he felt nothing more . . .

Awareness returned slowly. He still hung by the manacles between the bulkheads, too exhausted to whimper or cry. His back was a smoldering cauldron of fire, and he could no longer distinguish the pain of the individual strokes. In front of him the ship’s doctor stood facing Jarwith, an injector in his hand. “That’ll keep him conscious,” the doctor said to Jarwith.

Jarwith nodded. “Any chance of permanent damage? It’d be a shame if he died.”

The doctor shook his head. “He’s young and strong. Probably be ok.”

Again Jarwith nodded. “Thank you.”

The doctor stepped out of York’s field of view while Jarwith came closer and filled it completely. Her eyes were now deeply sad. “The count stands at twenty-three,” she said. “I can’t let you pass out. You have to feel every stroke for it to do you any good, and you have to know I’m a hard woman with a hard job to do. And I want you to understand in the depths of your soul that I will do it.”

He could see lines of strain around her eyes as she looked at him, and he felt oddly sorry for her. Then suddenly she reached into a pocket, pulled out a length of some odd, brownish material about as big around as her thumb and a bit longer. “This is leather,” she said. “Real leather, the kind you don’t see any more, braided strips of treated cowhide. But then you probably don’t know what a cow is, do you?”

Without another word she thrust the plug of material edgewise into York’s mouth. It tasted strangely unfamiliar. “When the lash strikes again,” she said, “bite down on that. Bite down hard. It helps a little. Not much, but a little.” Then she turned her back on him, walked a few paces away, turned to face him again, and called loudly, “The count stands at twenty-three. Continue the sentence.”

Chapter 3: Confrontation

“Cap’em.”

York came back from wherever he’d been.

“We’re about two minutes out from the embassy, sir.”

Without thought York said, “Computer, higee antidote, execute.” There came the all too familiar pinch in the side of his neck, then relief as the higee antidote flooded his system. “Computer, status, global, execute.” The inside of his visor flashed a detailed summary of his armor status: reactor pack levels and reserves; seal conditions; minor malfunctions flagged for repair at the next overhaul; maintenance status and schedules; his first aid reserves, which consisted primarily of drugs.

He put One’s outboard view on the inside of his visor, saw a large city sliding rapidly beneath One’s hull, a mix of old and new buildings. If they were closer to Luna he’d expect to see more plast, less stone and mortar.

He keyed his com. “When you get to the embassy, circle it once at three hundred meters and give me a pan of the entire compound.”

“Yes, sir.”

Hackla kept them low, less of a target, skimming the roof-tops of a semi-residential district. The tallest structure in the area appeared to be the main embassy building standing on the horizon dead ahead. The pilot banked to one side, began a turn while decelerating and lifting the nose to gain altitude. The view in York’s visor suddenly shifted to a camera in the side of the craft, and as they rose above the city they circled the embassy slowly.

The embassy compound consisted of one large, square, six-story structure, several smaller buildings that were probably residential, what looked like a small barracks, and a large garage for surface craft. The whole was surrounded by a stone wall about three meters high, with wide avenues between buildings that had probably been spacious gardens, but now seethed with a mob that overflowed the compound wall and spilled out into the streets beyond, a sea of faces that swelled and rippled like the waters of some human ocean.

As Hackla banked One and began dumping altitude, a sharp ping reverberated through the gunboat’s hull, some fool with a rifle taking shots at impers.

A small crowd of people were gathered on the roof of the tallest building waving frantically at One as it approached. Vents and climate control equipment cluttered the roof, but there were also several stretchers lined up. York keyed his com. “Sergeant. Are you watching this?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Apparently our people only control the top two floors of that building. When we hit the DZ secure the roof and those two floors. There’s also a member of the royal family down there—one Princess Aeya, daughter of the emperor. Find her. Put one of your best people on her. Tell him to stay with her no matter what, and to keep her alive.”

“Think this is more than just a riot, Cap’em?”

“I’m not paid to think, Sergeant. Hackla, can you hover about ten centimeters above the roof?”

“You got it, sir.”

York switched to the pickups on his helmet, which gave him the illusion of a transparent visor, though to someone facing him it would appear an opaque, shiny black. The boat’s drive whined for a moment, then steadied to a low hum. “Cap’em, we’re zoned for drop.”

York popped the clips on his safety harness, stood, stepped up to the hatch. He slapped the hatch release, and with a hiss and outrush of air the hatch slid quickly into the bulkhead. He stepped out, dropped to the embassy roof, heard his marines fanning out behind him. Palevi and Tathit knew what to do without York’s interference.

Harshaw stepped in front of him. “Lieutenant Ballin, you can’t believe how happy we are to see you.”

York flipped his visor up, and with it open the chant coming from the mob below was a deafening roar. Behind Harshaw a cluster of people were crowded about a single stretcher. “Who’s on the stretcher?” York asked.

Harshaw looked over his shoulder. “Lady Sylissa d’Hart. She’s—”

“Where’s the princess?”

Harshaw flinched at the interruption. “She’s the young one,” he said, indicating a young girl in her mid-teens, wearing an unadorned coverall, kneeling beside the stretcher. She was crying.

York stepped around Harshaw to the stretcher. The princess looked up and stood to face him. Harshaw bowed deeply. York bowed too, but in the armor he was limited to a much shallower bow, and he saw the princess’ eyes flash angrily at what she ignorantly considered an affront. She started to say something but stopped suddenly, and looking over York’s shoulder she demanded angrily, “Where’s it going?”

One lifting,” Hackla said on the com, “clearing for Two.”

“There isn’t room for two boats on the roof,” York said, “not if it isn’t absolutely necessary.” As an after-thought he added, “Your Highness.”

“But Syl’s hurt,” she pleaded, “badly. We have to get her up to your ship now, before she dies.”

“I’m sorry, Your Highness. But I have to stabilize this situation before we can evacuate anyone. And we’ll need both boats if a fight starts.”

“Well it’s up to you to see to it a fight doesn’t start. And Syl’s dying. I command you to evacuate her instantly.”

Clearly, logic would have little influence on her. He keyed his com. “This is Ballin. I want a medic on the roof immediately.”

He stepped around the princess and bent over the woman on the stretcher. She was about York’s own age—mid-thirties—and in obvious pain, clutching one arm tightly to her chest. Somehow she forced a smile to her lips, managed to choke out, “Sorry to be so much trouble.”

York tried to give her a reassuring smile, though the way the phets chewed on his nerves it probably looked more like a snarl. At that moment, a female medic knelt down beside him.

“Lady d’Hart,” York said politely. “May my medic examine your wound?”

The woman nodded, apparently finding speech too difficult.

The medic went to work immediately, cutting away the bandages the embassy people had improvised.

Palevi’s voice spoke on York’s command circuit. “Top two floors are secure, Cap’em. Where you want them mortars?”

“Here on the roof. I want to be able to target any place in the city.”

“Yes, sir. Uh, one more thing, sir. It’s real quiet down here all of a sudden. These fish are up to something. We’d better get the hell out of here, or start a fight.”

“Captain!” the princess shouted at him. “Don’t ignore me.”

She was starting to get on his nerves. “I’m sorry, Your Highness. I’m not ignoring you, but this is a very unstable situation we’re in and—”

“I don’t care. I command you to take Lady d’Hart up to your ship. Now.”

York looked at the medic. “How bad is the wound?”

“Fragment of a rifle slug, sir, just below the left breast about four centimeters under the skin. Didn’t do much damage, just some bleeding which I’ve already stopped. Want me to remove it?”

“Is she critical?”

“Na,” the medic said, shaking her head.

“Then don’t bother. Field prep it, give her something for the pain and report back to your squad.”

“Captain!” the princess shouted. “I demand that you obey me. Now.”

“Aeya . . .” the injured woman groaned. “Let Captain Ballin do his job. I’ve been waiting for several hours. I can wait a few more.”

“But Syl,” the princess pleaded. “You’re hurt, and in pain.”

With the little snot distracted York took the opportunity to get lost. He grabbed Harshaw, growled, “Stay close to me, and show me how to get below.”

A large hatch in the roof opened onto a stairway that led to a small storage room filled with janitorial supplies; no sign of the maintenance robot that should have been there. Harshaw led him out into a hallway jammed with people, many injured, some badly. York turned on Harshaw angrily. “How many people you got?”

“A little over a thousand.”

“A thousand?” York demanded. “I was told less than two hundred.”

“Imperial citizens, yes, Captain. The rest are Trinivanian locals who’ve—”

“Then start cutting out the locals.”

“But the Trinivanians have to be evacuated too—”

“No locals,” York growled. “Imperial citizens only.”

That brought a mixed reaction from the crowd. On many of their faces the already visible fear turned to near panic, and anger.

“But Captain. You don’t understand—”

“I said no locals.”

“But that’s a death sentence for these people.” As Harshaw spoke, the princess stepped out of the janitorial closet behind him. “These people were part of the embassy staff. If we leave them behind that mob’ll tear them apart. The Empire is responsible for their lives.”

“We refuse to abandon them,” the princess added. “Not one member of the embassy staff will board your shuttle if the Trinivanians are not included.”

York looked at her carefully. She was just young enough to be just stupid enough to mean what she said, though at the look on Harshaw’s face he wondered if the embassy staff felt as strongly about it as she. Oh hell! he thought. He could drag her onto one of the boats, but that would only get him court-martialed. “I have to ask my captain,” he said, and without waiting for a reply he flipped his visor down and keyed Invaradin’s command frequency. “Invaradin. This is Ballin.”

The wait was much longer than would have occurred had there been anyone else at the com console. “What do you want, Lieutenant?” Sierka demanded unhappily.

“We’ve got problems down here. I need to speak with the captain.”

“Captain Telyekev is busy.”

“Please tell him I wish to speak with him.”

“He’s too busy to be bothered—”

York interrupted him. “I’m asking you, the communications officer, to relay an urgent message to my commanding officer while we are on alert status.” York had to quote regulations at Sierka to get anywhere. “Failure to do so at the earliest possible convenience can be construed as dereliction of duty in the face of the enemy.”

There was a pause. “And you, Lieutenant, are insubordinate.”

York didn’t answer. He waited, and it took even longer to get a reply this time, but Telyekev finally came online. York explained the situation quickly, though through his visor he could see that, for Her Highness, it was not quick enough.

“She’s right,” Telyekev said. “They’re our responsibility. What do you suggest?”

“I don’t know, sir. Our assault boats are too small; we’d have to make too many trips. Take too long. Maybe the Diana. She’s got to have a cargo shuttle big enough to carry them up in three or four trips. At the same time we can send imperial citizens up in the boats, and we marines can follow last.”

“You’ve got it, Lieutenant. Anything else?”

“Yes, sir. That cargo shuttle can’t hover over the roof like our boats. She’ll have to put down on the lawn, and that means I have to secure the entire compound.”

“I understand, Lieutenant. I’ll have the Diana’s shuttle awaiting your orders. And try not to damage too many of the locals.”

••••

A burst of automatic weapons fire erupted up the stairwell from below. York crouched against the wall on the fifth floor, watched the burst tear into the ceiling above, splattering chips of masonry across the debris strewn floor. In reply one of his marines slung the muzzle of his rifle blindly over the edge of the stair and cut loose with a burst of his own.

York keyed his com, tried to sound confident. “All set, Sergeant?”

“All set, Cap’em,” Palevi answered.

York dropped his visor. His armor seals inflated and his ears popped. He keyed his com. “Visors down and seal ’em up. Tathit, check in.”

Corporal Larwa Tathit was on the roof with Palevi’s best sharp-shooters. “We’ve got four of their ringleaders clearly identified, Cap’em. On your orders we’ll burn them. Until then, standing by.”

One and Two?” York demanded.

“This is Hackla holding at three hundred meters, Cap’em. All systems are hot. Standing by.”

“This is Two. We’re go, Cap’em.”

York made a mental note to ask someone the name of Two’s pilot. “Very good. Sergeant Palevi, count off.”

Palevi barked some orders into the com and the marines repeated their count. York looked up the hall. Earlier, he’d had Harshaw move all the civilians up to the top floor and the roof, and now the fifth floor was empty except for York’s marines.

They’d finally found Cienyey, the imperial ambassador, hiding in the com room, interfering with Lassen and pretending he was there to be on hand for any communications from Invaradin. York couldn’t restrict a royal ambassador’s movements so he’d assigned a marine to dog his heels. He also had marines dogging the princess and Harshaw.

The stairwell was a continuous shaft from the top floor to the basement, with a landing and a doorway on each floor, and an intermediate landing half way between floors. It was Palevi’s idea to take only one of the building’s two stairwells, leave the other on the opposite side open so the panicked mob could escape. Now all they had to do was panic the mob.

“All marines accounted for, sir,” Palevi barked.

“All right,” York said. “This is Ballin. Listen up. Remember, all we want to do is clear the compound, not take prisoners or do a lot of killing. Once the action starts, if they stand and fight, or come at you, do what’s called for. But when they turn and run, let them go. But go ahead and unload a few rounds at their heels, help them remember which way to run.

“Along those same lines, keep use of the A-P gas to a minimum. We’re going to use it heavily in the stairwells, less so in the hallways and building proper, but outside I just want them uncomfortable and scared. If you over-do it and we end up with a lot of twitching, unconscious civilians, it’s going to be you who’ll have to carry them outside the wall and dump them in the street.”

York looked at Palevi. “Anything you’d like to add, Sergeant?”

“No, sir.”

“Tathit. Your snipers ready?”

“All set, Cap’em.”

York looked down the hallway at his waiting marines: lined up, ready to file into the stairwell at his command. Oddly enough he was a little proud of them. They were good at what they did, and if nothing else, they were consistent. York unclipped his sidearm from his thigh plate, thumbed the safety. “All right, Sergeant. Let’s go.”

Palevi handed him a gas grenade, a cold, gray cylindrical canister with a readout on one face. “After you, sir,” Palevi said.

York bent into a crouch, stepped onto the landing of the stairwell with Palevi behind him, thought he could imagine the grin on the sergeant’s face.

York keyed his com. “Tathit. Take out those ringleaders. One and Two. Start gassing that mob. All units go!”

York triggered his grenade, dropped it over the edge of the landing. One second later it let out a loud whoof, followed by a cloud of green smoke wafting upward. Someone below responded with two pistol shots that chinged off the landing above them.

Using the smoke as cover York jumped to the intermediate landing in a single bound. Half a flight below he caught a glimpse of a lone figure partially hidden by the green haze. The man was turned away from him, clutching desperately at his eyes as he aimed a pistol blindly in the wrong direction and fired a single shot. York bounded down the half-flight of stairs, landed behind the man and kicked him out into the hallway on the fourth floor. The man staggered for a moment; York was about to follow him when he heard the unmistakable scream of a large rotary wind up to a firing rate of several hundred rounds per second. The hallway erupted with streamers of tracer fire crisscrossing from both ends.

Two rotaries, York realized as he watched the man cut to pieces by dozens of small shells. He started to back up the stairs, but before he’d moved a step the streams of fire converged on the open stairwell door; the stairwell walls exploded in York’s face and he went down amidst the scattered rubble. He keyed his com, screamed, “They’ve got rotary emplacements at both ends of the hall.”

York curled up in a tight ball as the two cannons tore at the wall, hurtling fist-sized blocks of masonry against his plast-armor, redlining his reactor pack. Over the com Palevi shouted, “Cap’em’s pinned down. One and Two. Take out the southeast and southwest corners of the fourth floor. On the double.”

The cannons continued to rip away at the wall for a few seconds, then York heard the crump of a large shell, felt the building shake, and one of the rotaries went silent. An instant later he heard another crump, the building shook again and the scream of the second rotary ceased.

“That changes the rules,” Palevi growled over the com. “Advance with caution. And don’t take chances.”

York struggled to pull free of the rubble as several marines sprinted past him to take up positions at the gaping hole that had once been the stairwell door. He right leg was still stuck beneath a small piece of wall, and he was tugging at it when several gauntleted hands grabbed him by the armpits and hoisted him to his feet. “You all right, Cap’em?”

York shook his legs and arms: no pain; his suit status showed all green: no breeches. “I’m okay.”

“Let’s try ’er again, eh sir?” Palevi handed him a grenade and crouched by the hole in the wall leading to the fourth floor. York pressed his back against the wall on the other side of the hole. Small arms fire zinged and spattered up and down the corridor. Palevi smacked his grenade against the wall, tossed it up the hall at an angle. York followed suit, tossing his down the hall. Another whoof; more green smoke. A bullet zinged off his armor.

Palevi nodded at two of his marines, both carrying small, four-barreled, portable versions of the emplacement rotaries they’d just faced. The two marines jumped through the door, turned back to back, dropped to one knee, sprayed shot up and down the hall. The sound of their weapons made York think of a cutting machine grinding away at thick steel. Then abruptly they ceased fire, and on queue Palevi’s top corporal, a man named Baddin Hyer, filed through the doorway between York and Palevi with forty marines behind him.

Palevi held out another grenade. “One more time, eh sir?”

York took the grenade, turned away from the fourth floor hall and back to the stairwell leading down to the third floor landing. He triggered the grenade, tossed it down, waited for it blow and waft the green smoke up, then jumped to the intermediate landing, saw something moving in the swirling, green mist below him. He took no chances this time, squeezed the trigger on his grav-gun; the bullet hit something, exploded with the muted thump of a fragmentation shell.

York took the stairs two at a time, halted at the door to the third floor hall and pressed his back against the wall. A stream of bullets spattered at the door jam.

Palevi and five marines joined him on the third floor landing. One of the marines handed him a grenade. “Careful, sir. That ain’t gas.”

York looked at the canister in his hand, a fragmentation grenade with a one-pound rating. At some time in the past he’d had to learn what a pound was, recalled only that it was some archaic measure of the weight of an archaic chemical explosive used to rate the yield strength of modern explosives. Someone called over the com, “One pound hot.” A moment later the building shook, and he realized Tathit and her marines were using the same explosives on the floor above. York thumbed the timer for a two-second delay, touched the trigger, stepped against the wall again and tossed the grenade up the hall. He turned his back to the doorway and keyed his com. “One pound hot.”

Out in the hallway his marines split up, half going to the front of the building and half to the back. They moved slowly, stopped at each doorway, tossed a fragmentation grenade through it, followed the explosion by spraying the room with rifle fire, cleared the room quickly, then moved on. They advanced steadily, herding the opposition before them, killing quickly and efficiently the few that tried to fight back.

Corporal Hyer’s voice came over the com. “The side hall on the fourth floor is secure, Cap’em. We’re moving out into the front and back halls now.”

The two stairwells ran up the sides of the building, and on each floor opened out into a short hall that ran from front to back, connecting long hallways at the front and rear of the building. Like Hyer’s marines above, York’s were now moving out into the front and rear main halls, slowly working their way toward the stairwell on the other side.

“Hyer,” York heard his com say. “This is Palevi. Ten imperials says we take the other stairwell first.”

“You’re on, Mieka,” Hyer answered.

It was like a game to the marines, York realized, not a fun game, but at least a challenging game. Kill them, and move on. He keyed his com. “Tathit, what’s that crowd outside doing?”

“They’re climbing all over each other trying to get away.”

“Cap’em Ballin, this is Hyer. We’ve reached the other stairwell. Fourth floor is secure.”

“Cap’em, this is Palevi. Third floor’s secure. Total elapsed time: three minutes, eighty-one seconds. I owe ya ten, Bad.”

“Make it ten drinks and you can help me finish them, eh Mieka.”

“Yer on, Corporal.”

They took the lower floors with the same technique: Hyer and his platoon moving through the second floor while York and Palevi and their marines worked their way across the first. They ran into far less opposition, but they still moved slowly, checked out each room first before moving on. Hyer’s squad swept the basement, and when they’d finished York stopped in the ground-floor entrance and surveyed the littered and chewed up embassy grounds. The only remnants of the mob were quite a few civilians sprawled haphazardly about, whether dead or wounded or over-gassed, York couldn’t tell. It had all been easy, he realized. Too easy.

Chapter 4: Assault

“I’m not leaving until you have the last Trinivanian safely on his way.”

York looked at the Princess and swallowed his temper. “Your Highness, Captain Telyekev has ordered me to evacuate the embassy staff first.”

“I don’t care about your orders. I’m not leaving until I’m satisfied you’re taking proper care of these people.”

York looked at the Trinivanians seated on the lawn, men, women, and children, huddled together in small groups, ringed by armed marines. To one side a smaller group of about three hundred had already been searched and was ready to leave.

A deep male voice behind York said, “You’re treating them like criminals.”

York turned around, faced another churchman He wondered if they all made a habit of sneaking up on you that way.

“I’m Archproverb Rhijn, Her Highness’ personal confessor. And you are treating these people like criminals.”

York nodded deferentially to the churchman. “Your Eminence, we have no records on them, so we have to be careful.”

“But do you have to search them that way?”

“Yes,” the princess agreed. “Surely that’s not necessary.”

To the princess, he said, “Yes we do, Your Highness. The captain of the Diana has requested it, and rightly so. It would be disastrous if we allowed armed civilians aboard his ship.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. These people aren’t armed.”

York struggled to remain polite. “But quite a few of them are, or were. We’ve already accumulated a large collection of dangerous devices.”

She scoffed, “Dangerous devices! What have you actually found, a few letter openers?”

“Yes, Your Highness,” York said, “and we’ve also found several power knives, and one fellow even had a grav-gun much like my own sidearm, though his was Syndonese issue. We’re giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming he picked it off one of the dead rioters.”

The princess sneered. “That’s very big of you.”

York shrugged. “In any case, Your Highness, I have my orders, and if you can convince my CO to change my orders, then I will, of course, obey. But short of that, there’s nothing I can do.”

The princess shook her head sadly, turned her back and, accompanied by Rhijn, walked away. But under her breath he heard her mumble, “. . . mindless automaton.”

“Bitch,” York growled under his breath.

“Cap’em,” York’s com said. “This is Palevi. We’ve cleared the last building. The compound is secure. With your permission I’d like to put most of my people around the wall, with a couple on the roof as lookouts.”

“Very good, Sergeant.”

Quite a number of dead locals littered the lawn, most trampled to death in the mindless stampede of the mob. The lower floors of the main embassy building were a much more grisly sight. It was astounding that unorganized civilians thought they could stand against armored, professional, disciplined, imperial regulars. And where the hell did they get rotaries?

A large shadow slid across the ground in front of York. He looked up, caught a glimpse of One disappearing into the heavens with the first load of embassy staff. Two came in from the other direction—York had learned the pilot’s name was Blake—slowed carefully as it approached the embassy roof.

“Ballin,” his com said. “This is Invaradin. The Diana’s shuttle is about one minute out from you.”

“Thank you, Commander Sierka,” York said. He dropped his visor, programmed it to display a copy of Two’s overhead scan, used the blip displayed there to locate the Diana’s shuttle. I hope we can get this done before nightfall, he thought.

The shuttle had trouble setting down. It was much larger than the assault boats, had no hover ability and needed a short distance for landing. They were stretching its capabilities bringing it down in the embassy compound.

York had a few words with the shuttle’s pilot. The loading went smoothly, and York relaxed a bit as he watched the ungainly cargo shuttle lift off the lawn.

“Cap’em. This is Palevi. I got something here I think you should see.”

“I’m busy. Can it wait?”

“No, sir. I don’t think so. Not this.”

“All right. Where are you?”

“In the ambassador’s residence. Private Stacy’ll show you the way.”

York turned around, found Stacy waiting behind him standing at a very rigid attention. “Lead on, private,” he said.

The boy screamed, “Sir. Yes, sir,” then he turned around and moved away at a trot.

“Slow down, private,” York called after him.

Stacy led him to a one story, spacious, residential building, clearly the ambassador’s residence. The mob had trashed the place, though it was clear the shattered furniture had once been rather lavish. Palevi and his marines were waiting in a hall toward the back of the building. “What is it?” York demanded as he stormed up to the sergeant.

“This,” Palevi said without humor, then opened a door to a nearby room. The stench hit York like a slap in the face.

It had been a private bedroom, shared by two young girls, both still tied to their beds with their arms and legs spread. The two girls had died unpleasantly at the hands of the mob, with dried blood spattered throughout the room. York had to turn away, step out into the hall. Palevi followed him and closed the door.

York thought carefully; the list of missing or dead imperial citizens had not included two young girls. He dropped his visor so he wouldn’t have to put up with the smell and reentered the room.

Both girls were locals. One about fourteen, the other about ten or twelve. York looked at the debris scattered about the floor, most of it broken beyond recognition, but it was the kind of paraphernalia found in most whorehouses.

He returned to the hall, closed the door again and flipped his visor back up. “Get me Harshaw,” he barked angrily. “I want him here on the double, whether he likes it or not. And don’t say anything about this.”

Palevi barked orders into his com. York walked to the end of the hall and waited in sight of the front entrance to the residence. When the assistant consul arrived, escorted by two marines, York could see his face as they directed him toward the hall, and his expression darkened. When he reached York, and saw down the hall where Palevi and his marines waited, he almost flinched.

York grabbed Harshaw’s arm, bent it into an elbow lock, used it to push him down the hall. “Open the door,” he shouted at Palevi as he hustled Harshaw toward the marines. Palevi moved quickly, had the door open before York reached it, and York literally threw Harshaw into the room.

Harshaw fell to the floor, started coughing and gagging. As he tried to rise, York grabbed his lapels and slammed his back against a wall, shoved one armored forearm under his chin and pressed hard enough to cut off his breathing. York kept the pressure on, and as Harshaw’s eyes began to bulge he growled in his face, “What happened here?”

Between breaths Harshaw gasped out, “The mob must have killed them.”

“I can see that, but why so brutal? And what the hell were they doing here in the first place?”

Harshaw closed his eyes for a long moment, then opened them and said, “Lord Cienyey’s tastes . . . are . . . perhaps somewhat different than yours and mine.”

York relaxed the pressure on Harshaw’s throat. “Spell it out for me.”

Harshaw nodded. “Lord Cienyey purchased the two young ladies as bond servants, though their duties were quite different from those of a servant. To the locals, whose morés are not as sophisticated as his Excellency’s, the existence of this room was a constant source of irritation. In fact, this room probably had more to do with causing this riot than anything else. The rest—” Harshaw looked slowly about the room. “I have to assume the rioters vented their anger on these poor girls.”

“Palevi,” York growled. “Let’s get Cienyey here.”

Harshaw shook his head desperately. “Don’t, Lieutenant. According to imperial law he did nothing illegal here, and if you press the matter you’ll only get yourself in trouble.”

“Best drop it, Cap’em,” Palevi said.

York hesitated, and in that moment a voice on his com said, “Cap’em, Sarge, this is Tathit up on the roof. I think you two best come up here.”

Palevi growled, “What is it?”

“There’s something funny going on down in the city.”

York let go of Harshaw, growled at him, “Get out.” The assistant consul walked out of the room without a word.

York looked once more at the grisly mess, then keyed his com, “I’ll come to the roof, Tathit. Palevi, stay with your marines on the wall.”

••••

York headed for the main embassy building at a trot. The lifts were still out of commission so he had to use the stairs, and after six flights he staggered out onto the roof gasping for air. Tathit was waiting for him, visor down. York dropped his visor and they both walked out to the edge of the roof. As he looked out over the city he heard One lift off behind him.

Tathit pointed down into the city. York watched carefully for some seconds, then, for just an instant, he caught a glimpse of a dark figure as it darted between two buildings. He adjusted the magnification on his helmet pickups, watched the scene on the inside of his visor expand rapidly.

The figure moved again, and while York’s glimpse was fleeting, it was enough to see the glint of armor and the hint of an insignia. A hard knot formed in the pit of his stomach.

He dropped the magnification back to normal and waited. Out in the city he saw another shadow move, then another, and another. He waited several seconds and saw a dozen more.

He and Tathit stepped away from the edge of the roof as he keyed his com to the open marine frequency. “This is Ballin. Visors down and seal ’em up. We’ve got armored feddie regs out there. Looks like a full company of them. Palevi, you’ve got the wall. Act at your own discretion. I’ll contact Invaradin.”

York keyed his com to Invaradin’s command frequency. “Invaradin, this is Ballin requesting emergency com clearance.”

There came no answer, Sierka again making him wait.

Invaradin, this is Ballin. We are red down here.”

Still he had to wait, but Sierka finally did acknowledge him. “What do you want now, Ballin?”

“We’ve spotted a company of Syndonese regulars moving in on us, sir. We’re about to be hit hard.”

“Syndonese regulars, Lieutenant. I seriously doubt that. There are no Directorate troops operating within thirty light-years of this system. Stop trying to justify your earlier errors in judgment by—”

“God damn it!” York shouted. “I know a feddie when I see one. And if we’ve got feddie troops down here, you’ve got a feddie warship up there somewhere.”

York’s com went silent. He switched com channels. “One and Two, dump your passengers and get the hell down here on the double. We need fire support and evac. And if either of you can get hold of anyone on the bridge, let them know we’re being hit.”

“Ready,” he heard Palevi say. “On my command: two second burst . . . FIRE!”

The embassy compound filled suddenly with the scream of automatic weapons. A few of the darting shadows in the streets below were caught in the open; one literally burst into pieces in the crossfire between two power rifles. York drifted off into that half-dream world of adrenaline and fear where he oscillated between hysteria and panic.

The two second burst ended abruptly and the feddie troops began returning fire. “Three second burst,” Palevi said. “Then fire at will . . . FIRE!”

The feddies were now returning a continuous stream of fire. York could see tracers from at least two emplacement skipping about through the compound. “Sierka, you son-of-a-bitch,” he screamed into his com. “Where the hell are you? We’re under assault. Now. We need fire support.”

“Cap’em, this is Hyer. I got bad problems down here. The locals’re out of control, crawlin’ all over the Diana’s shuttle.”

“Use your weapons,” York barked.

“Can’t, sir. The princess is with them. Probably hit her too. It’s like she thought we was the enemy.”

“Damn!” York snarled. “I’m coming down, and if anything breaks before I get there, your only responsibility is to keep her safe.”

“Sir?” Hyer asked indignantly.

“You heard me. Just fucking do it.”

York hit the stairwell at a run, taking the steps three at a time. His world narrowed to the next step, and the importance of hitting it squarely.

He reached the bottom, burst into the hallway there, realized he’d overshot by one floor and was down in the basement. He reversed his tracks, ran back up to the ground floor, then down the length of the first floor hall and out onto the embassy lawn.

The Trinivanian locals, swarming all over the Diana’s shuttle, looked like ants on a piece of rotted food. They spilled out of the open cargo bay, with people climbing desperately over one another in a panicked effort to save themselves. Some had wrapped their arms tightly about the shuttle’s skids, hoping to ride out that way, never thinking what would happen when they reached the vacuum of space. And in the midst of it all stood the princess, shouting at everyone. York looked about quickly, spotted the churchman Rhijn standing far to one side out of danger.

“Cap’em,” Hyer said. “Shuttle pilot wants to lift off. Says he’s going whether you like it or not.”

“The hell he will,” York growled. “You tell him if he lifts one second before I give the word, we’ll shoot hell out of him and leave him for the feddies.

“What about these locals? Did you finish searching them?”

“Only about half, sir.”

York nodded unhappily. “I’m going into that mob to get the princess out. Cover me. And remember: her life has priority.”

York walked into the mob carefully with his hand resting on the hilt of his gun so no local could grab it. They took no notice of him at first. Frightened people ran about in front and behind him, but none blocked his path. He approached the princess from behind, reached out and gently took hold of her shoulder.

She jumped and turned to face him. “Who are you?” she shouted above the noise of the mob and the gunfire, unable to see his face through the blackened visor, and not thinking clearly enough to look at the name stenciled on his chest plate.

He activated his external speaker. “Ballin. Will you come with me please?”

“No,” she said flatly, though without conviction.

“Cap’em. This is Palevi. We can’t hold out much longer.”

“Two minutes. I’m on the front lawn trying to get the princess out. I need two minutes.”

There was an almost undetectable pause. “You got them, sir.”

York switched back to his external speaker. The princess was shouting something at him. “Shut up!” he barked.

She started and her eyes narrowed angrily. “What did you say?”

“I said shut up. You’re coming with me now if I have to carry you out. Is that clear?”

She put her hands on her hips. “I’d like to see you try.”

“Listen to me,” York said. “You can pound on me all day and my armor’ll protect me. But you start that and this mob’ll go crazy, and my marines will then protect you with some very powerful weapons and kill a bunch of these people. Or you can come with me nice-like. It’s your choice, so make up your mind and do it now.”

She said nothing, gritted her teeth and glared.

He grabbed her by the upper arm, gripping her hard enough to hurt. “Now walk beside me and try not to look forced.”

Together they turned away from the shuttle and began walking. At first the crowd paid no attention to them and York thought they might get away with it. But then suddenly the mob stilled, a deathly silence descended, and with the sound of the weapons fire at the wall providing a deadly backdrop, the crowd began to close menacingly about them.

The mob’s panic was gone. Fear still hung in the air but it no longer had the taste of many individuals. This was the fear of a single monstrous entity, cold, deadly, united. This mob would get foolishly brave now.

In that moment he almost halted, but he realized that to hesitate in any way would be a confession to them that he was not the one in control. He kept walking, taking long, great strides as if he would climb over anyone who got in his way, literally pulling the princess after him. His hand still rested on his grav-gun, and he knew how intimidating a faceless, black-visored suit of plast-armor could be.

The mob parted reluctantly, though one man was a little braver—or more foolhardy—than the rest and he refused to step aside. York plowed into him, hit him under the chin with an armor-plated forearm and knocked him down. And then he was walking across open lawn, with Hyer standing not far away, a rifle in his hands. We made it, York thought.

Suddenly Hyer raised his rifle and screamed over the com, “Cap’em behind you!”

York threw the princess to the ground and spun about as something zinged off his armor. A young woman stood a few meters away with a gun aimed at him.

Later, much later, when looking back on the incident, he could never remember pulling and aiming his sidearm. He remembered the fear, and he remembered that eternity of an instant when the gun in the young woman’s hand kicked, spitting a puff of angry, gray smoke while he squeezed the trigger on his grav-gun, only then realizing that it was aimed at her abdomen, and that she was just a little girl, no more than ten or twelve years old, and that she was far more frightened than he, and that the signal from his brain to his trigger finger had already been sent, and the action irrevocably begun.

The bullet from her gun smashed into the center of his visor, splattered just in front of his eyes and slammed his head back painfully. He staggered with the force of the impact as his own gun kicked in his hand, barely managed to keep his feet.

“Hold fire,” he screamed into his com, fearing a massacre if his marines lost control. “As you were.” He glanced up at the telltale in his helmet; still green, his visor had withstood the impact of the bullet.

He didn’t remember crossing the distance to stand over the Trinivanian woman—girl. The single shot from his grav-gun had blown away most of her abdomen and pelvis. She was quite dead, and York felt nothing for her, only the letdown that followed the rush of adrenaline needed to react. His own cold, unemotional lack of reaction bothered him far more than the actual death of the poor girl.

“You bloodthirsty son-of-a-bitch!” the princess screamed. “You bloody butcher.”

York turned on her angrily, felt his control slipping away. “She had a gun,” he growled, “and I had to protect you. Those are my orders.”

“Orders?” she screamed. “You animal.” She struck at him, hit him square in the visor with her fist, knocked his head back. “You monster! You maniac!”

Suddenly she was all over him, screaming and kicking and tearing at his armor. “Somebody give me a hand,” he yelled.

“Incoming mortar!” someone screamed over the com.

York reacted instinctively, wrapped his arms around the screaming princess, let his knees buckle and fell on his back, pulling her down on top of him. She landed with an “oomph,” lost her wind, and with his arms still locked tightly about her he rolled over and lay on top of her, trying to protect her from what he knew was coming.

The ground beneath them bucked like a wild animal. The shock wave hit with a loud whomp partially muffled by his helmet speakers as they cut out to limit the volume, and even York, protected within his shell of power-reinforced plast, was momentarily stunned while clumps of dirt and lawn rained down upon them.

York scrambled to his feet, took quick note of a large, smoking crater nearby. The next mortar round followed instantly, taking out a section of the compound wall. York keyed his com. “This is Ballin. Pull back to the roof. Double-time.”

The princess picked herself up slowly, but her knees wobbled and she swayed from side to side like a drunkard as she tried to walk. York grabbed her by the back of her collar, swung her around and threw her at Hyer. She landed in a sprawl at the marine’s feet.

“She’s yours, Corporal,” York shouted. “Get her to the roof and on the first available boat. And get her there alive.”

Hyer pulled her to her feet. She started to struggle but the marine ignored her, threw her over one shoulder and ran unsteadily toward the main building. York and Hyer’s squad turned toward the breach in the wall, started backing toward the main building and laying down a continuous barrage of cover fire.

The shuttle pilot begged for permission to lift without being shot down. “Go,” York hollered.

“But what do I do about these fools hanging onto my skids?”

“Hell if I know,” York shouted as he squeezed off several rounds at a gap in the wall. “You wanna stick around and figure something out that’s your busi—”

The hand of some enormous god came out of nowhere and swatted him like a bug, left him dazed and sitting on the ground near another smoking crater. The Diana’s shuttle had already lifted several hundred feet in the air, ant-like humans still clinging to its skids. One of them lost hold, and in a last, frantic effort to save himself managed to take several of his friends with him when he fell.

York crawled to his feet and looked around groggily. The same godlike hand of the mortar had swatted his small squad, and two of them were not getting up.

Palevi and the rest of the marines had already reached the main building, were now laying down a heavy barrage of cover for York and his squad. Four of York’s marines grabbed the two wounded by the ankles and started dragging them while York and the rest backed in behind them, spraying cover-fire indiscriminately. York keyed his com. “One and Two, where the hell are you?”

“On our way down now, Cap’em. High G drop—two minutes.”

York thought of diverting one of them to the ground to pick him and his squad up there, but at dirt level the boat would be too good of a target for that mortar, and in two minutes the whole compound would be swarming with feddies. “One,” he shouted, “go straight to the roof. Two, see if you can find that mortar and knock it out. And strafe the hell out of the feddies in the compound. When One’s full-up, trade places.”

York and his squad reached the embassy building. “What’s the count?” he asked Palevi.

“You were the last one in, sir. Rest are on the roof. All marines accounted for.”

“What about the embassy staff?”

“Don’t know for sure, sir. We got the princess, Cienyey, Harshaw, and about a hundred and fifty others.”

“That’ll have to do. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

“Right, sir.” Palevi’s next words came over the open marine frequency. “Pull it in, grunts. To the roof. Go! Go! Go!”

They hit the stairwell running. Palevi hollered something about keeping their eyes open for feddies in the building, but York was too busy counting the steps and each landing as he cleared it. He was on the fourth floor with his lungs burning and starting to slow down when one of the stairwell walls exploded in his face and slammed him to the floor. Everything came to a stop for an instant, then the floor crumbled beneath him. He scrambled to grab at anything, tumbled through the air with a dizzy view of the lawn far below, but landed instead one floor down on a pile of twisted ironwork and broken masonry. A wall collapsed on top of him, knocked him flat, then everything went still.

The first thing he checked was his telltale: still green; no suit breach, though he was half buried beneath a pile of broken masonry in the hall on the third floor. He could see blue sky through an enormous hole in the wall above and to one side of where the stairwell should have been. He thanked whatever gods existed the mortar hadn’t hit the stairwell directly, then, with the aid of a lot of adrenaline, pulled free of the rubble.

He scrambled to his feet, saw the legs and hips of a suit of armor protruding from more rubble nearby. He grabbed the ankles, pulled with everything he had, and again, adrenaline did the job.

No stripes and the name Dakkart stenciled on the chest plate. Dakkart seemed to be in one piece, though badly stunned. York backhanded her visor with an armored fist. “Come on, Dakkart. Snap out of it.”

No response so he slapped her again. “Come on, private. Any breaches?”

The woman shook her head. “No, sir. Telltale’s green, sir.”

The umbilical that connected Dakkart’s rifle to her reactor pack disappeared in more rubble. York pulled on it and the rifle came free. He picked it up, slammed it against the marine’s chest. “Take your rifle and let’s get the hell out of here.”

“Cap’em,” Palevi’s voice said in his ear. “There ain’t much left of this stairwell; better head for the other one. We’re coming down after you so don’t start shootin’ until you’re sure who you’re shootin’ at.”

The building shook with the impact of another mortar round exploding somewhere. Dakkart was still groggy. York had to push her down the hall ahead of him, slapping the back of her helmet to keep her moving. They’d just rounded the first turn in the hall when York heard a groan over his com. He pulled Dakkart to a halt. “Palevi,” he screamed. “What’s your count?”

“We’re missing you, Dakkart, and Stacy, Cap’em.”

“And I’m missing Stacy,” York snarled. He spun Dakkart about, pushed her down to one knee at the turn in the hall. “Cover me,” he said. “I’m going back.”

York ran back the way they’d come, conscious that feddies might come swarming up out of the broken stairwell at any moment, wondering if Dakkart might find it more convenient to let him take a feddie bullet. He dug through the rubble frantically until his eye caught the glint of a small piece of gray-green armor. More adrenaline helped him lift a piece of wall off the wounded marine and he had him free in seconds. He was still alive but unconscious.

York grabbed him by the ankles, started dragging him on his back down the hallway, trailing his small rotary on its umbilical. He was half way back to the turn in the hall when Dakkart screamed, “Cap’em, yer in my line o’ fire.”

York lifted his eyes and looked toward the broken stairwell, had one short instant in which to see a feddie there, and to understand he was looking straight down the muzzle of a rotary—

••••

The inside of a visor, blackened and scorched with a jagged line of a crack running down through the middle of it, spattered with flecks of blood. York stared at it for a long time before coming to the slow realization he was looking at the inside of his own visor. All of the lower half and most of the left half no longer functioned as a 3-D projection screen, and without power those areas had gone fully transparent. The telltale visible in the upper right corner of the visor still functioned, but only the upper half of the silhouette of the armored marine was visible, with the lower half cut off at the waist by an offshoot of the crack. The helmet and torso sections of the telltale were blinking an angry red at him, and his vision was oddly limited.

Beyond the visor he saw his chest plate; it too was blackened and scorched, with power arcing across a large crack like small bolts of lightning. His breathing only came in shallow gasps, and any effort to breathe deeper punished him with excruciating pain.

Beyond his chest plate his legs were splayed out into the middle of the hall and tangled in Stacy’s still form. York lay on his back in the hallway, his back and shoulders on the floor, his head propped up uncomfortably by the wall.

His com chattered incessantly with angry and frantic voices. For a moment his vision dimmed while he struggled to hold onto consciousness.

Suddenly a pair of armored feddie legs hurtled over Stacy then disappeared out of sight down the hall. York turned his head to the left carefully, and slowly, just enough to see the turn in the hall where a cluster of feddie regulars were huddled, staying out of sight of whatever lay beyond. York hoped it was Palevi and his marines that lay beyond.

Evidently he and Stacy had been taken for dead. Again he turned his head carefully and slowly, but now to the right. At the rubble-strewn entrance of what was left of the broken stairwell another cluster of feddies stood in the open, gesturing as they conferred about something. York guessed the situation was a temporary stalemate, though that wouldn’t last long.

He looked about for a weapon of some kind, careful to keep his movements to a minimum. Stacy’s rifle lay near his ankles, still attached to its umbilical, though whether or not it would function was academic since it was too far to reach quickly.

His eyes settled on a short, dark cylinder clipped to the boy’s hip: a nuke, a big one. He kept his eyes on the feddies at the stairwell, had to gamble those at the turn in the hall were too busy with Palevi and his marines to pay attention to their backside. He inched his hand slowly toward the grenade, freezing whenever he thought someone might look his way. He reached the grenade, fumbled momentarily at the clips, panicked at the thought he might not get it free, but then it suddenly came loose and he had it in his hand. He kept it close to the floor, between him and Stacy, while he looked carefully at its face.

He wanted to cry. It had a forty-pound rating, and it wasn’t adjustable. What he needed was a small two-pound chemical charge, not a forty-pound nuke. He swore that if he got out of this he’d kick Stacy’s ass across Hangar Deck for carrying non-issue explosives. But now he had no choice, so he set the dial on its face for a ten-second delay, then keyed the arming sequence on its side. A small red indicator lit up.

“Computer,” he said. “Kikker, execute.” He felt the sting on the side of his neck as his suit flooded his system with a special mixture known as a combat kikker: adrenaline, phets, painkillers, anything that might help a badly wounded marine.

His thoughts cleared for a moment and he keyed his com, spoke into the middle of all the com chatter. “Palevi,” he croaked.

His com grew suddenly silent, then everyone started shouting at once.

“Shut up,” Palevi shouted. “Shut up, god damn it. Cap’em, is that you?”

“Ya. I’m gonna blow a forty-pound mininuke at the busted stairwell then hit the rest from behind with Stacy’s rotary.”

“We’re ready when you are, sir.”

York looked again at his chest plate. His suit computer had cut power from the area around the breach and the arcing had stopped. Otherwise it might short, and the energy available from his reactor pack could easily cook him alive in his suit. But without power to strengthen it, almost any weapon could punch through the plast.

He shrugged mentally. “I’m ready,” he said. “Ten seconds.” Then he pressed the stud on the grenade, released the arming safety. He started counting down from ten, and when he reached two he rolled over, pitched the grenade to his right as far down the hall as he could, then grabbed hold of Stacy and held on for everything he was worth.

There came a blinding flash and the walls lit up with an incandescent white glare. A shock wave traveled up the hall like the exploding powder in a gun barrel, and his ears popped as the force of it blew he and Stacy several meters up the hall. Then everything became suddenly still, silent.

York hurt everywhere but he ignored that and scrambled over Stacy, grabbed the kid’s rifle, thumbed the settings to maximum muzzle velocity and fire rate, then rested the four-barrel rotary on Stacy’s still form. He could see nothing through the clouds of dust in the hall, so he sighted blindly up its length and squeezed the trigger.

The rotary wound up to full firing rate and screamed with an angry, low-pitched whine, kicked and vibrated in his hands. Unlike his grav-gun it didn’t fire fragmentation shells. Instead, with all four barrels spinning madly, it spit small, blunt projectiles with enough velocity, and in sufficient numbers, to deliver far more destructive energy than a grav-gun shell. He fanned it back and forth randomly, watched it light up the hall as the friction of the shells burned through the dust and debris in the air. And then suddenly it went silent.

He released the trigger and squeezed again. Nothing. He’d used up Stacy’s weapons reserves.

He had nothing to lose now. He gave himself another dose of kikker, picked himself up with the intention of grabbing Stacy’s ankles and dragging him down the hall again, but his bad knee gave way and his leg slipped out from under him. He fell flat on his butt and his right foot suddenly began to throb with enough pain to bring tears to his eyes. He looked down at it, realized his bad knee really wouldn’t be giving him any more trouble since his right leg was missing from the knee down. His armor ended there in a jagged and bloody stump.

He passed out.

••••

York awoke weightless, stretched out on his back and strapped to something hard. It was dark, and he guessed he was in one of the assault boats since he could hear the cries of dying people all about him. He wanted to cry himself, to tell someone he didn’t want to die, but he didn’t have the strength.

Someone had cut away most of his armor. Bandages covered much of his head and face, and his ankle hurt like hell. One of the marine medics leaned over him working on his chest, and the sense of urgency in the medic’s movements told York a great deal.

Palevi leaned over him, entered the field of view of his good eye. The sergeant had removed his own helmet and his head seemed disproportionately small protruding from his chest armor. And he wore that grin of his, though it was now strained and forced, and his eyes lacked the usual mirth. York reached up, tried to grab the sergeant’s shoulder, but he failed and his hand fell back to the stretcher. Palevi took hold of it and lifted it with almost parental concern. “Don’t try to move, sir. Yer in pretty bad shape.”

If he was going to die, York had to know if it had all been for nothing. “The kid?” he asked, but the effort sent him into a fit of coughing that filled his mouth with blood and spewed globules of it all over Palevi and the medic.

“God damn it, Sarge,” the medic cursed. “Keep him still.”

Palevi nodded at the medic, looked at York. “Stacy’ll be okay. But you gotta be still, sir. Yer chest is full of splinters from your chest plate.”

“The . . . rest?” York demanded.

Palevi’s face saddened. “Twelve dead, sir. Seventeen wounded. But we brought them all home, Cap’em.”

York tried to relax, though his right foot was in agony and he couldn’t stop shaking. He reminded himself his right foot was no longer there, but it didn’t seem to care about that and still hurt like hell. The medic’s actions became more frantic and he realized then that he was dying. He didn’t want to die, not here, not this way: lying on a grav stretcher, his mouth filling over and over with blood, cries of the dying all about him. But at that moment he suddenly realized there was something far worse than death.

He struggled for one last instant of strength, managed to grip the open neck ring of Palevi’s chest plate. He couldn’t pull himself up, but he pulled the marine down to him. He knew what he had to say, and struggled to say the words, just a few simple words, the most important words in his life, “No . . . tanks.”

“No tanks, sir?” Palevi asked. He looked at the medic.

The medic shook his head.

“Sorry, sir,” Palevi said. “They may have to tank you to keep you alive.”

A long ago memory climbed up out of his stomach and into his throat. York fought to hold onto consciousness long enough to speak. “Please . . . No Tanks . . . The . . . Vincent.”

“The Andor Vincent, sir?” Palevi asked. “Ah Cap’em, you shouldn’t pay no attention to them ghost-ship stories. Just stories, that’s all they are.”

York shook his head frantically. He remembered all too well the voices, and the fear, and the pain, and now he had to make Palevi understand. He opened his mouth, pushed the words out with his last bit of strength, “I . . . was . . . on . . . the Vincent.”

Palevi recoiled as if struck. His eyes opened and his jaw dropped, and for an instant the impenetrable wall of his self-confidence crumbled. The medic’s reaction was no less dramatic, and he and Palevi looked at one another for a long moment.

York groaned, “Please . . .”

The medic gave one of those short, simple shakes of his head. At that, Palevi’s face hardened. He nodded at the medic and looked carefully at York, paused for a long moment. “If you gotta go down, Cap’em, I’ll personally see to it you go down clean. No tanks. You got my word on that, one marine to another.”

York let go, relaxed completely, felt as if he’d been suddenly relieved of a great weight. Palevi would die before he’d break such an oath.

Something inside his chest turned a somersault and pain sent him to the edge of consciousness. He gasped, choked on a convulsion and his mouth filled again with blood. He coughed it out all over Palevi and the medic.

“Shit!” the medic swore. “He’s goin’ down.” He started rifling desperately through his kit, but suddenly he stopped and turned to Palevi with a stricken look on his face. “Fuck, Sarge, I’m out of stass.” The medic leaned back, looked up at the ceiling of the boat, shouted at the top of his lungs. “I’m out of stass, god damn it! Cap’em’s goin’ down and I’m out of stass. Somebody get me some fuckin’ stass.”

For York, reality became a distant, abstract thing, and a calm stillness settled into his soul. He was thankful his leg no longer hurt and the pain in his chest receded. Warmth washed over him with an enveloping softness, and then there was nothing.

Chapter 5: Hunted

Lieutenant Magdelena Votak watched the expanding fireball on her screen with a feeling of overwhelming relief. The enemy had been vanquished in the cosmic fires of thermonuclear fusion, and victory was not sweet. That was one of the first things she had learned as a young ensign: victory was never sweet; it was merely a relief.

“All stop.”

She cut power to the sublight drive, felt the hull go free.

“A direct hit, sir,” Anda Gant said. “One hundred megaton warhead; no survivors in that.”

Maggie looked again at the ball of radioactive fire. “No,” Telyekev said almost sadly. “No survivors. Let’s pick up One and Two.” Telyekev sounded tired. “Mr. Sierka, what’s Palevi’s casualty count?”

Maggie suddenly wanted to see something other than screens. She needed some human contact, needed to see Sierka look up from the com console, needed to watch him say, “Twenty-three, sir, counting civilians.” But Maggie was denied that visual luxury, for in the helm cluster she could see next to nothing beyond the tiny world of her own console telemetry and implant feeds.

“Thank you, Commander Sierka. Mr. Rame, plot a course for Trinivan. Miss Votak, take it slow until we see how she’s handling.”

Rame’s numbers appeared on Maggie’s navigational screen and she spun Invaradin accordingly. She spoke without emotion, “Course is set at one quarter drive, which puts us about forty minutes out, sir.”

She applied power gingerly to the sublight drive. The helm moved sluggishly, had a tendency to drift to starboard.

“How’s she handling, Lieutenant?”

“Not too bad, sir,” Maggie said. “The damage to the starboard drive is giving me a little trouble, but I’ve got room to compensate.”

“What about full drive?”

“With your permission, I’d prefer to keep it at twenty-five percent, and we don’t want to do any quick maneuvering.”

“Very good. Do so.”

The drive imbalance had begun to seem almost a personal, physical pain. She monitored it carefully until Invaradin was stable, then gave the computer partial control. Fatigue weighed heavily on her.

“I think it’s time you took a break, Miss Votak. Lieutenant Moboow will relieve you.”

Maggie wanted to protest. She was Telyekev’s best pilot, and by comparison Geara Moboow was a novice.

“I relieve you,” Moboow said.

Maggie stifled her protests, merely said, “Acknowledged. I am releasing . . .” she relaxed, keyed her implants out of the drive cluster, “. . . now.”

She became instantly aware of Moboow’s control: amateurish, indelicate. Invaradin’s keel wobbled momentarily as he adjusted to the damaged drive. To Maggie, with her senses still tied into the console, it was as if her own body was under his control. She felt she had almost become a part of Invaradin, and yet another part of her recognized that as the first symptom of a dangerous hallucination common to good pilots.

The helm cluster rose slowly, releasing her from its demanding grasp. For the first time in hours her eyes took in something besides scan readouts and navigational summaries. It brought home that she was not herself the ship; she suddenly became conscious of her own body, and how badly she needed to piss.

“Miss Votak,” Telyekev said. “Mr. Temerek’s having trouble with the marines on Hangar Deck. Please go down there and take control.”

Telyekev understood the need to get a pilot out of the cluster after a couple hours of combat. “Right away, sir,” she acknowledged.

••••

Hangar Deck was a mess, dirtlovers wandering everywhere in a disorganized mob tainted by fear and confusion. For crowd control, Temerek had brought in those marines who hadn’t dropped to Trinivan. That was a double mistake: the marines didn’t like taking orders from naval officers, and Temerek wasn’t good at giving orders to anyone, let alone a female marine sergeant with twenty years seniority on him. When Maggie stepped into Hangar Control, the first monitor she looked at showed a picture of young Lord Temerek standing in the middle of one of the service bays screaming at the ranking marine noncom, a woman named Meciden Notay. There were civilians milling about freely, while Notay’s marines stood idly by refusing to do anything.

Maggie leaned over the shoulder of one of the controllers, keyed her implants into the console there and activated the pickup. “Mr. Temerek, Sergeant Notay,” she growled, “report to Hangar Control immediately.”

Temerek stormed into the control room with Notay following casually behind him. He opened his mouth, started to shout something at Maggie but she cut him off. “Take charge of your controllers, Mr. Temerek, while I speak to Sergeant Notay.” Temerek hesitated for a moment, looked into her face, then sat down at a console without speaking.

Notay came to attention and saluted carelessly. Maggie turned on Notay and lowered her voice to a soft growl. “One and Two are coming in with heavy casualties. They’re your people, shot up pretty bad. Now get those service bays cleared so those boats can dock. And be careful. There are some very important people out there.”

Notay’s sloppy attitude disappeared. She shot out of the control room, barked orders at her marines, and they herded the civilians like cattle. They were not easy on the first dirtlover to put up an argument, and after that everyone was careful to obey.

One came in nicely, but Two came in sluing to port and wobbling badly. Twisted and warped underbelly plates were dire evidence of a small rocket that had struck it just after takeoff. Two’s pilot managed to clear the main service bay seals, but at the last moment his braking jets failed, and Two came to rest in a slow motion of grinding and snapping plast and steel.

Hangar Deck crew was good. In seconds they had the service bays shut, sealed, graved up, repressurized, and scanned for any residual contamination. When they sounded the all-clear the hatches of both boats burst open simultaneously and erupted with marines half stripped of their armor, carrying wounded comrades on grav litters and sprinting for the service lift.

Maggie left the control room looking for York. In the confusion of One Bay she caught glimpses of several wounded men and women with their features locked up in the rigidity of stass, their skin a bright, lobster red, their eyes open, unfocused, unseeing. She passed a wounded female marine lying momentarily abandoned on a litter. The woman had been stripped to the waist then wrapped in blood-soaked bandages, and one breast lay immodestly exposed. Maggie carefully draped a corner of the litter blanket over the breast.

Somewhere in the confusion Maggie heard a young woman shouting angrily. It took her a moment to spot her, the princess venting her anger at poor Palevi. Maggie intervened. “Excuse me,” she said loudly as she stepped between the two. She bowed lightly from the waist. “I’m Lieutenant Magdelena Votak. May I be of some assistance, Your Highness?”

The princess spoke breathlessly. “Thank god there’s someone here besides these marines!”

Maggie looked at Palevi. “Thank you, Sergeant. I’ll take care of this.” She scanned the crowd for York but saw no sign of him.

Maggie turned back to the princess, noticed a churchman behind the young noblewoman. His eyes were calculating and hard.

The churchman took up what seemed an almost defensive position behind the princess. “That marine refused to let me speak to your captain,” the princess said. “I hope I won’t have the same problem with you.”

Maggie nodded deferentially. “If you’ll come with me I’ll try to arrange that.” She herded the princess toward Hangar Control, the churchman following. “We’ve just come out of combat, and we took some damage, so Captain Telyekev is very busy at the moment. Can you tell me what this is about?”

The princess halted, turned on Maggie angrily. “Captain Ballin murdered a defenseless Trinivanian woman, and I intend to press charges.”

The princess had regained her composure. As for York committing murder, Maggie suddenly feared something like that was all too entirely possible. “That’s a rather serious charge.”

“It was a rather serious crime.”

Maggie nodded, “Please follow me.”

When they stepped into Hangar Control the princess spotted Temerek, shouted, “Daka!” and rushed to him. He in turn stood from his console and bowed deeply. “Daka. What are you doing out here?”

Temerek had the princess occupied for the moment so Maggie quickly got hold of Telyekev and explained the situation. “Did she give you any details?” he asked.

Maggie shook her head. “No, sir. Nothing beyond the accusation that York murdered a defenseless woman.”

“Damn it!” Telyekev swore. “What the hell has he done now?”

Maggie shook her head. “I don’t know, sir. Have you spoken to him? I can’t find him anywhere down here.”

Telyekev flinched and his expression softened, and at the look on his face a hard lump formed in the pit of Maggie’s stomach. “Mr. Ballin came in under stass on the A-list. Most of one leg missing, deep chest wounds, deep head wounds. He’s in surgery now, listed as extremely critical. Yan thinks she may have to tank him, and even then he still may not make it.”

Maggie closed her eyes, tried to breathe evenly. “Not the tanks, sir. York wouldn’t want that.”

“God damn it!” Telyekev shouted. “I’m not going to let my best line officer die just because of some silly superstition about a ghost ship.”

“It’s not a superstition with York, sir.”

Telyekev nodded, spoke more softly. “Ya, I know. And so does Miss Yan. She’s doing everything she can, but she may have no choice.”

Maggie nodded. “What should I do about Her Highness, sir?”

“Bring her up to my office immediately. Then talk to the marine noncoms and find out exactly what happened down there. And have anyone who might know anything report to Commander Joyson on the double. I want statements on record while their memories are still fresh.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” Maggie said mechanically.

Telyekev broke the connection.

Temerek and the princess were still reliving old times. Maggie interrupted them politely. “Your Highness, Captain Telyekev has instructed me to escort you to his office immediately.”

“It’s about time,” the princess snarled.

“This way,” Maggie said, indicating the hatch to Hangar Control. The princess turned to leave and the churchman followed her. But before Maggie could follow them Temerek grabbed her arm. He whispered quickly, “Is it true? Is Ballin dying?”

Maggie looked closely at Temerek. The luck of a ship rode on the life or death of a lifer. She looked about and saw that everyone in Hangar Control was waiting on her words. “He’s in pretty bad shape: deep chest and head wounds.” She shook her head at Temerek. “And you, Dak, are a real two-faced son-of-a-bitch.”

Temerek frowned angrily. “Just because I don’t like the bastard, doesn’t mean I want him dead.”

The princess called out. “I’m waiting, Lieutenant Votak.”

“Coming, Your Highness,” Maggie said, then turned her back on Temerek and the rest of Hangar Control.

••••

Theodore Rochefort, Lord Chancellor to His Majesty Edvard the Tenth, knocked softly on the door in front of him.

“Enter,” the intercom said.

Rochefort grasped the heavy, archaic knob, turned it, pushed the door open and stepped through, then closed it carefully behind him. He had barely turned when the emperor asked, “Well?”

“She’s alive,” Rochefort said as he crossed the room. “And apparently unharmed.”

The emperor let out a long, deep sigh. “Thank god!” he said. He buried his face in his hands, rubbed his temples and brow tiredly. When he looked up, years of worry had disappeared from his face. To Rochefort it was another reminder his king was still a young man. “What about Lady d’Hart?”

“She was hurt,” Rochefort said, “but not seriously. For the time being they’re both safe.”

“Good,” the emperor said. “For a while there I thought it was all over but the executions. But they’re safe now, you say?”

“Yes, Your Majesty. They’re aboard Invaradin. I took the liberty of ordering Captain Telyekev to head for Dumark, and about ten minutes ago they up-transited out of the Trinivanian system.”

“Excellent, Theodore! Excellent! Did you warn Cassandra to expect them?”

“The message was sent, Your Majesty, though Her Majesty has yet to acknowledge it.”

“Is there something wrong there?”

Rochefort shook his head. “The message was coded, of course, and I placed no great priority on it. Again I felt we should avoid the possibility of unwanted attention. It will take her time to receive it, decode it, and reply. But she’ll have ample time since Invaradin, even at top speed, will take at least a tenday to get there.”

“Good,” the emperor said. “Thank you, Theodore. I’ll sleep better tonight than I’ve slept in a long time.”

As an afterthought, the emperor asked, “What about Aeya?”

“She too is safe,” Rochefort said. “All three of them made it out alive.”

“Good,” the emperor said. He stared at his hands for a moment, then asked, “What about casualties? What did we pay for this little victory?”

Rochefort looked at the report he held. “Invaradin was forced to engage a Syndonese war craft. She was victorious, but she sustained damages. Her marines had to evacuate the embassy without fire support and under heavy fire from regular troops of the Syndonese Federal Directorate. Twenty-three of your subjects died today in the service of their king, and another forty-one were seriously maimed and wounded.”

The emperor’s face aged while Rochefort spoke, and the young king said, “It’s got to be worth such a price. It must be.”

••••

Fleet Director Add’kas’adanna stepped into the committee chamber warily. Director General Kaffair already sat at the large, old table, tapping his fingers impatiently on the wood. Operations Director Zort sat next to him, equally as nervous, though if Add’kas’adanna knew Zort he was nervous only because he sensed Kaffair’s mood. But Zort was always fearful of something or other. Zort eyed Add’kas’adanna carefully as she sat down, though neither he nor Kaffair spoke.

An instant later the door opened and Security Director Ninda stepped into the small room. “Well,” Ninda said, taking control immediately and sitting down. “Let’s get started.”

Zort leaned forward. “Where’s Theara?”

Ninda smiled. “Our esteemed Director of State is nowhere to be found. She has apparently disappeared, and not been heard from for more than a month. My people are this moment investigating the possibility of foul play.”

Zort’s ears perked up. “Is that why we’re meeting?”

Ninda dismissed Zort with a wave of his hand. “Of course not. If she’s been assassinated, then we’ll make some effort to identify and execute the assassins, and we’ll find another Director of State. If not . . . well events are proceeding without her.”

That was an invitation for someone to ask the obvious. “What events?” Zort demanded.

Kaffair spoke for the first time. “Obviously, this thing on Trinivan.”

“Exactly,” Ninda said.

“What thing on Trinivan?” Zort pleaded, looking nervously from one to the other, foolishly unable to see the battle lines being drawn between Kaffair and Ninda.

Ninda gave a fairly concise account of the events surrounding the evacuation of the embassy on Trinivan. From what Add’kas’adanna could tell, he injected only a few inaccuracies. He finished with “. . . We have yet to identify the Imperial warship involved.”

Add’kas’adanna shrugged, tossed out, “Invaradin—one of their heavy cruisers.”

Ninda and Kaffair both looked at her sidelong. It would have been wiser to keep her mouth shut. These politicians wanted an obedient Fleet Director, one who kept her thoughts limited to executing their policies. They really didn’t trust a Kinathin breed warrior, and Ninda, in particular, didn’t like her to think for herself.

Zort saved her. “So what are we going to do about it?”

Ninda leaned forward. “We have an opportunity to capture a princess of the royal blood, the emperor’s only daughter.”

“And what would that buy us?” Kaffair asked. “I doubt she can provide us with any real information . . .”

Add’kas’adanna tuned Kaffair’s words out, reached inside for the old training. She concentrated on the disciplines of thought construct, built the logical sub-mind carefully, then released it and experienced the odd sense of schizophrenia that accompanied the existence of a separate consciousness within her. It would view the proceedings distantly, allowing her to participate without the need to focus elsewhere, tallying subtle observations of breathing and gesture without the distractions inherent in being a participant.

The sub-mind focused on Ninda and Kaffair, on their eyes, their hands, listened to the tenor of their voices, the tempo, the rhythm. The two men argued back and forth, but there was a dispute here that had nothing to do with their words, a struggle between two old enemies concerning something neither was yet willing to reveal. Kaffair knew something—No! He was up to something, and Ninda was trying to block him. The imperial princess meant nothing, Invaradin meant nothing, but somehow they were keys in a power struggle between these two men. And until Add’kas’adanna knew more, she would be foolish to get involved.

“That’s a waste,” Kaffair argued.

“Not if we are successful,” Ninda shot back. “I call for a vote.”

That brought Add’kas’adanna back to the moment. “This is a military matter,” Ninda continued. “And I propose we proceed as such.”

“And I propose we let it alone,” Kaffair said coldly.

They both looked at Zort, who, as always, immediately sided with Ninda. “We proceed,” he said.

And then the three of them looked to Add’kas’adanna. Her vote was a foregone conclusion. In their eyes she would not dare oppose Ninda, for she was part of his power block, and a Kinathin dare not think for herself. But in fact it was none of that; it was kith’ain, which none of them understood.

She didn’t yet know enough to oppose Ninda, and in any case, with Theara absent, it would only bring about a tie in the vote, a stalemate. And since the question was a military one, the decision would fall to her, and she would have to declare herself, and she didn’t know enough yet to do that. She nodded, did what was expected. “We proceed.”

“It’s done then,” Ninda said, standing triumphantly. He looked at Add’kas’adanna. “You’ll see to the details.”

She nodded.

“Good. Then we are adjourned.”

••••

Captain Jewel Thaaline, commanding officer of the Pride of Altalane, stared at one of her screens and swore silently to herself. She was a loyal officer with more than thirty-two years of service in the Federal Directorate of the Republic of Syndon, and she’d be damned if she would obey such orders without one hell of a good reason. Not now. Not ever.

“Captain,” her first officer Ducan Soe said. “I’ve got Subsector Operations on line. The CO there is Illcall Terman and he’s—”

“I know,” she growled. “Just give me the damn line.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Soe said coldly.

She’d hurt his feelings, she knew. She’d have to make it up to him later, but for the moment Terman was on her screen. “Jewel,” he said happily. “What’s the occasion? We haven’t spoken in—”

“Cut the crap, Ill,” she snapped. “You know goddamn well why I’m calling. I want to know what-the-hell kind of orders you’re sending me?”

“Now calm down Jewel—”

“Don’t tell me to calm down. I’m damn mad and I’m going to stay mad—”

Terman interrupted her angrily. “Well don’t start barking at me. I was told to send in the nearest hunter-killer and you’re it.”

“Send someone else.”

“Damn it, Jewel! I’m sending everyone else. The only ships I haven’t sent in yet are the ships I can’t communicate with because they’re still in transition, but as soon as they down-transit they get the same orders as you. I’ve got my orders straight from Directorate Central Operations, and they say to divert every available warship into this. That means you and a lot of others.”

Jewel’s anger dissipated. “Why’s DCO getting involved in Subsector Operations?”

Terman shrugged. “Hell if I know. Maybe something big. Late yesterday an imperial cruiser burned one of our destroyers off Trinivan and DCO wants that cruiser bad. They don’t have a positive ID but they think it was H.M.S. Invaradin. They’d like to take her intact, but they know that’s impossible so they’ll be happy if you just put a torpedo in her; a big one.”

“But damn it, Ill,” Jewel pleaded. “We’ve just spent a whole month drifting into position. We’re right in the middle of the Cathan-Dumark shipping lane and the damn impers don’t even know we’re here. There’s likely to be a big convoy along any day now. We could take out ten, maybe twenty million tonnes of shipping.”

“I’m sorry, Jewel.” Terman looked none too happy himself. “DCO didn’t leave anything up to me. They think Invaradin’s headed for Dumark and they want you there.”

“Two days,” she pleaded. “Just give me two days.”

Terman shook his head. “DCO’s orders are quite specific. You move out now.”

“Damn it! The Pride’s just a fifty-man hunter-killer. We can’t take on an imperial cruiser.”

Terman shook his head. “Now you’re the one that’s full of crap, Jewel. You’ve done it before. But in any case, you’re the closest ship we’ve got to Dumark; you’re behind their lines and well hidden. Just try to sneak into the Dumark system quietly and observe. See if you can be there before that cruiser arrives and get a positive ID on her. Then wait for some of our heavy stuff to show up.”

“Why all the fuss over this damn cruiser?” she asked. “One of them burned one of us. So what? Happens every day. We’ll burn one of them tomorrow.”

Terman shook his head. “There’s more to it than that, Jewel. But DCO’s not talking so your guess is as good as mine.”

“Captain,” Soe said urgently. “I’ve got a transition wake at about one light-year. Imperial patrol, I’d guess. Probably spotted some of our transmitter splash.”

“Shit!” Jewel swore. “Are you sure they’re coming this way?”

“No,” Soe snapped angrily. “I’m not sure of anything.”

“How much time have we got?”

“No more than half an hour.”

She looked at Terman. “Looks like the game’s up anyway. We’d better not be here when that patrol shows up.”

Terman shrugged. “Sorry, Jewel. It was really out of my hands from the beginning.”

“I know, Ill. I know. It’s just a shame; a whole month of setting up this shot, wasted.”

He smiled. “Good hunting, Jewel.”

She smiled back. “Thanks, Ill. Pride of Altalane out.”

Chapter 6: Dreams

“Lieutenant Colonel Juessik.”

Torrin Juessik looked at the young yeoman. She smiled pleasantly at him and said, “His Grace will see you now.”

Juessik smiled back at her, stood, said, “Thank you,” then crossed the small room and stepped into the office of Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Bargan Abraxa.

The old man sat behind his desk, so Juessik crossed the room smartly and came to attention in front of it. He saluted and Abraxa returned the salute casually. “At ease, Mister Juessik.”

Abraxa looked him over carefully, then tapped the folder sitting on the desk in front of him. “So. Rochefort personally intervened in the standing orders of a ship-of-the-line. He’s done that before and he’ll do it again. And he did it for a good reason: a member of the royal family. So why does a young lieutenant colonel of Admiralty Intelligence consider it a matter of such urgency that he’d bring it to my personal attention?”

Juessik spoke carefully. “When Invaradin was deflected to Trinivan, Your Grace, Directorate agents there broke cover almost simultaneously and began agitating openly for a riot, their purpose, apparently, to delay Her Royal Highness’ exit until heavier forces could arrive. In so doing they revealed their entire Trinivanian organization. The capture or death alone of the princess would not have warranted such costly action.”

Abraxa looked at him narrowly, and after a few seconds nodded. “Go on.”

Invaradin successfully rescued Her Royal Highness and her entourage, as well as our embassy staff on Trinivan. Rochefort again intervened in Fleet Operations to order Invaradin to Dumark.”

It took a moment, but comprehension slowly appeared in Abraxa’s eyes. “The Empress Cassandra is on Dumark, is she not?”

“Yes she is,” Juessik said. “Traveling incognito. And so is the queen mother. Rochefort sent them a message after he left Fleet-Op.”

“Very curious!” Abraxa said. “But why Trinivan? And why Aeya? She’s nothing but a stupid, young girl, with obvious, but naïve, peacer sympathies. Not even Edvard is foolish enough to entrust her with something important.”

“No,” Juessik agreed. “But among Aeya’s entourage is Sylissa d’Hart, and Edvard and Cassandra trust her implicitly.”

Abraxa considered that for a long moment, then slowly began nodding his head. “Yes! They’re up to something, aren’t they? Do you have anyone in Aeya’s entourage?”

“Yes,” Juessik said. “But he’s been rather ineffectual. Not his fault, actually. Whatever Edvard is up to, he’s been exceedingly careful about leaks.”

“We must have information,” Abraxa demanded. “What’s your next move?”

Juessik spoke carefully, for this was the key moment. “I had not intended to make a next move, Your Grace. My superior will not allow me to act on the matter.”

Abraxa’s face remained expressionless. “And your superior chose not to inform me at all of the matter.”

Juessik shrugged. “Perhaps he feels it’s unimportant.”

“Or perhaps . . .” Abraxa added, “. . . he’s withholding the information for his own purposes.”

Juessik knew he had to speak carefully now. “I wouldn’t know, Your Grace.”

“Then why did you circumvent him? Why come directly to me? Are you not doing so for your own purposes?”

Juessik shrugged. “I would hope to be of some service, Your Grace.”

“Of course,” Abraxa said. He leaned back in his chair and smiled in a way that told Torrin Juessik his future was brightening. “Let us assume, Lieutenant Colonel Juessik, that I allowed you a free hand in this. What then would be your next move?”

“We need to let them play their hand, so I would go personally to Dumark, under cover as an AI major, observe events and be ready to move at the right moment. And I have an extremely reliable agent in Cassandra’s entourage who’ll be forewarned and on hand when it does happen.”

“And if that fails?” Abraxa asked.

Juessik wanted to keep Abraxa as uninformed as possible, but he had to impress the fat old fart with something. “I have an option I would prefer not to exercise unless it’s absolutely necessary, a certain leverage with the d’Hart woman, though she’s not yet aware of that. If necessary I can induce her to aid us, albeit reluctantly.”

Abraxa considered the matter carefully for some seconds, then nodded slowly. “Very well. I’ll take care of your superior, and you may proceed without his interference.”

••••

Abraxa sat for a moment without moving. There was something he should remember about Invaradin, but nothing would come to mind.

He turned to a small console built into the ornate desk, activated it, pulled up a description of Invaradin: an ordinary heavy cruiser. The ship and her captain had a distinguished record. Abraxa had even met him a few times: the youngest son of the Earl of Seegat. Perhaps that was it. But no, there was something he should remember, and it bothered him that he couldn’t. But he was a patient man, and he was confident it would come to mind eventually.

••••

York slammed awake, sat up in bed, ignored the sideways tug of the gravity field of his cabin deck as it interfered with that of his grav bunk. He hesitated for an instant, wondering how he’d gotten back to his cabin, wondering why everything seemed so normal. Then he tore frantically at his shirt, exposing his bare chest. The skin there was pink and healthy.

He threw back the covers, found to his great relief that his right leg was still whole, with no indication it had ever been missing. He wiggled his toes and they felt fine.

It had all been a dream, an insane dream. Trinivan . . . the embassy . . . the chaos on Hangar Deck. It had all been just a dream.

He reached for the controls next to his bunk, cut the gravity field back to a few inches, and with years of practiced ease pivoted and landed on his feet as he dropped to the deck of his cabin. The field of the grav bunk held the covers pressed tightly against the wall.

He pressed a senor on the opposite wall and a sink folded down out of the bulkhead. That was one of his few perks, a small fresher in his cabin—not much to show for twenty-odd years of service. No toilet—he had to make command rank for that—but it was more than a typical junior officer’s quarters. As a lifer he was more than a junior officer, less than a senior officer, and never to be promoted.

The sink settled into place with a soft click. York touched a sensor over the tap, and as the water flowed he touched another sensor to adjust the temperature to near scalding. He started to bend toward the sink, but before he got there he caught a momentary glimpse of his face in the mirror, and he froze half bent over the sink.

His left eye was a chrome-plated metal ball that reflected his own image back to the mirror, with a featureless black spot in the center that served as a pupil. On the skin surrounding the eye socket a starburst of bright, pink scars radiated outward in jagged lines; up his forehead, back along his temple, down his cheek.

He straightened up and looked again at his chest, still could find no trace of any scars there. He folded a chair down out of the wall, sat down and reexamined his right leg, discovered that if he looked closely he could just detect the last residues of scar tissue around his knee where his own skin joined that of the prosthetic. He wiggled his toes again; they felt like real toes.

It all came back to him now, though it seemed hidden behind a mist of confusion and drugs and fear. He had awakened in sickbay the day before, brought slowly out of electro-sedation by the technicians there. He had to struggle to remember what Alsa Yan had told him. “. . . accelerated-healing . . . rapid regrowth . . .”

York closed his eyes, leaned back in the chair, listened to the water running in the sink. “You almost bought it, York. Your leg’s gone just below the knee. Your knee was a mess too, but I managed to reconstruct most of it and regrow what I couldn’t. Below that, however, the leg’s a cyber-prosthetic, and I don’t have the facilities to clone you another so you’ll have wear it until we get to Dumark. But don’t forget, the skin on that thing is as real as your own; it’ll bleed if you cut it and it’ll hurt, and it’ll get infected.”

“Dumark,” York said aloud into the emptiness of his cabin. That would please the crew; they could get in some good R’n’R.

What else had Alsa said? “. . . That rotary shattered your chest plate and your visor, filled your head and chest with splinters and fragments of the rotary shells. I pulled your lungs and heart, stuck them in regrowth for a couple of days. They’re pretty well healed now so I stuffed them back into you yesterday. I pulled the eye too and put it in regrowth, but it’s scarring up on me. I think I’ll be able to repair it, but it’s going to take some time, so you’ll have to be happy with the cyb I installed.”

York looked in the mirror above the sink: the scars, the chrome-plated eye. “. . . I didn’t have time for the cosmetic work. We can color match the eye and clear up the scars in a couple of hours. But I can’t do it today, or tomorrow either. Talk to my floor nurse, see when she can schedule you in. And in any case, for the next few days you take it easy. It’ll be at least that long before you’re fully healed. Incidentally, Sergeant Notay scheduled you for therapy with the rest of the marines.”

York remembered shaking his head, saying, “I don’t want anything to do with those damn marines.”

Yan had shrugged. “It’s not up to you. The marine medics know their stuff as well as my own people, and Notay cleared it with me and the captain.”

There was one last thing she’d told him. “I had to pull some gray matter out of your head. Not a lot, not enough to affect your abilities, but you may notice . . . gaps in your memory. And if you do, let me know right away.”

York looked in the mirror again, at the chrome-plated eye and the mess they’d made of his face.

••••

As Edvard entered the room the attendant at the door barked, “His Majesty, the King.” Edvard smiled at the guests assembled there, and of course they all stopped whatever they were doing or saying and turned his way. Depending on station, or rank, some dropped to one knee, some bowed deeply, and a few, like Abraxa, and old Archcanon Bortha, merely bent at the waist slightly and lowered their eyes. Abraxa’s bow had been getting shallower of late.

To dine with the emperor was an important privilege; a great honor, some thought. For Edvard these evenings were hard work, sometimes the only opportunity he had to meet informally with certain people under circumstances that weren’t carefully orchestrated.

“Excuse me, Your Majesty,” a rather nondescript man said, stepping casually in front of him. The man, while dressed rather simply, was actually a senior officer in Edvard’s personal guard. He bowed carefully, then stepped in close, a small instrument in one hand. “We have a minor problem, sire,” he whispered. He held the instrument out toward Edvard, paused at an appropriate distance, “May I, Your Majesty?”

Edvard nodded. “Certainly, Captain.”

The man held the instrument, no larger than the palm of his hand, close to one of the buttons on the front of Edvard’s coat. He looked at the instrument for a moment, nodded, touched something on the face of the instrument and pressed it against the button, nodded again, then discretely put the instrument away in his own coat. “It’s deactivated, Your Majesty.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Edvard said. “The press?”

The officer shook his head. “Not likely, Your Majesty. They’re usually not that clumsy. Probably some branch of the military, or someone employed by one of the minor Houses. With your permission, we’ll remove the button at the end of the evening and conduct a full investigation. At the least, someone on your staff has accepted a bribe.”

The man disappeared into the small crowd. Edvard spoke for a time with the daughter of a minor Earl, a young girl bubbling over with excitement. But she’d been well trained and kept her enthusiasm appropriately damped, so Edvard enjoyed himself a bit. Next there were her parents. Her father’s holdings had become somewhat strategic in an alliance between Houses de Vena and de Plutarr. All parties concerned were close to agreement on the terms of marriage between the young woman and the son of Andralla Schessa, the Duchess de Vena. The boy was a fool, careless and irresponsible, but by law he must inherit the properties of House de Vena. The girl was smart, though quite young, but given time and training and tutelage under Schessa herself, they could be sure the properties would be administered properly.

Edvard chatted for a time with old Bortha. The titular head of the church worked hard at presenting the image of a wise, old man in his declining years. It was quite a disarming act, but Edvard knew better than to succumb to the old churchman’s guise. Bortha was a dangerous schemer.

Edvard was speaking with Andralla Schessa, second only to Abraxa on the Admiralty Council, when she said, “Since I’ve heard nothing more of Trinivan, Your Majesty, I assume Aeya is unharmed.”

“Good of you to ask. She’s quite all right, though I confess I’m a bit miffed at her for going to such a backward planet on nothing more than a lark.”

“Was that all it was?” Schessa asked, and Edvard had the feeling she was testing him.

He shrugged. “I hope so. Better that than her peacer sympathies getting the best of her again.”

Schessa changed the subject. “It’s a shame about poor Colonel Eschmann’s unfortunate demise.”

Edvard nodded. He had no doubt Eschmann had stepped on the wrong toes and been eliminated. “Heart attack, wasn’t it?” Edvard asked.

“Yes,” Schessa said. “And alone, with no one to call help. Could have easily been saved, I hear.”

“Have you chosen a successor?” Edvard asked, knowing the answer.

Schessa said, “Young fellow named Juessik. He was Eschmann’s second in command at AI, seems quite qualified. We’ll be voting on confirmation in the Council tomorrow. I assume you’ll see the paperwork shortly thereafter.”

The evening proceeded nicely. From what Edvard could determine there seemed to be some suspicion about Aeya’s activities, but no awareness of anything else. That was good.

••••

Driving steadily in transition there wasn’t much to do on first watch, so York scanned the report on the engagement at Trinivan. The feddie destroyer had taken Invaradin by surprise, and the damage to turret six had come in the first instant of contact. Curious, York searched the log, found no mention, or recording, of his efforts to warn Invaradin, and he realized Sierka had done the unthinkable: he’d tampered with the official log. However, without proof he dare not make any accusations. But someday, maybe someday, Sierka just might find himself standing next to York on the surface of some planet, with only marines for witnesses. Sierka would most likely die in combat that day.

At the end of first watch York headed for the officer’s mess. With VIP’s on board it was unusually crowded. York grabbed a tray full of food, didn’t pay much attention to what was on it, had trouble finding an unoccupied seat, finally spotted an open place next to a bulkhead at a table full of civilians. But as he sat down all conversation at the table came to a sudden stop.

He peeled the lid off the tray, began eating in silence, heard someone whisper something about “. . . Ballin . . .” Then one by one they stood and walked away, leaving York alone at the table. He sat there and concentrated on eating his lunch.

Maggie Votak and Frank Stara rescued him. They stood from a table across the room, lifted their trays, made a show of crossing the room and sitting down opposite him. As he sat down, Frank growled, “Damn dirtlovers! And they’ve got you to thank for saving their butts.”

York shrugged. “They’re just snobs. Or maybe they don’t like the eye. Come to think of it, if the eye keeps the dirtlovers away, maybe I’ll wait until we get to Dumark to have Alsa do the cosmetic work.” He winked at Maggie.

She shook her head. “York! That’s not very nice.”

Frank grinned. “Who knows, York? You might discover a pretty, young civilian with a fascination for scars.”

York grinned back at him. “Maybe she’ll have a friend.”

“That’s all right for you, York,” Maggie said, her eyes narrowing, “but if old Frankie-boy here discovers anything pretty besides me, all Fleet won’t be able to protect him.”

When she looked at Stara there was something in her eyes that caught York’s attention. He frowned, looked carefully at them both for a second, then understood. He nodded his head and said to Maggie, “You finally accepted, didn’t you?”

She smiled, blushed—rather unusual for Magdelena Votak. He reached across the table, aimed his open hand at Stara. “Congratulations, sucker. She’s too good for you.”

They shook hands, and York asked Maggie, “What made you change your mind? Old Frank here has asked you a dozen times. And Telyekev wouldn’t have let you share Frank’s cabin without contracts. And now, all of a sudden . . .”

“Well . . . I’ve been rotated back. It was in the contact packet we got before heading for Trinivan. And if we make it official then they’ll let Frank and I stay together. And now . . .”

York knew the one fear she’d been hiding from them all. He finished her sentence for her. “And since you’d never been rotated back before, and you’d been out here for six years already, there was just the chance you were a lifer. But now you know you’re safe, eh?”

She cocked her head slightly. “I’m sorry, York.”

“Ah!” He shrugged it off. “We should do a little celebrating tonight.”

Frank’s attention suddenly shifted to someone behind York. York turned and saw Daka Temerek heading their way with Lady d’Hart in tow. As they approached both he and Frank stood and bowed. “Please, gentleman,” she said. “Sit down. I understand on ship we relax some of the formalities.”

Temerek greeted each of them with a nod. “Maggie. Frank. Ballin.”

The noblewoman sat down, and York and Frank and Temerek followed suit. She looked at York, nicely resisted the temptation to stare at his eye. “How are you feeling, Lieutenant? I hear you were rather badly wounded.”

“I’m fine,” York said. “They can fix us up pretty quick.”

She smiled, was quite beautiful. “Well, we’re all indebted to you for saving our lives.”

Her words clearly didn’t sit well with Temerek. “Yes, Ballin, very heroic, unfortunately that one little incident seems to capture everyone’s imagination best.”

“Dak!” Maggie said angrily.

York stiffened. “What incident?”

Temerek persisted. “I just want to know if it’s true.”

“If what’s true?” York demanded.

“Daka,” the d’Hart woman interrupted. “I’ve personally read the inquiry Captain Telyekev conducted, and Mr. Ballin was fully justified in his actions.”

York demanded patiently, “What are we talking about here?”

“York,” Maggie said softly. “We all realize we don’t know what it’s like to be in a drop zone, but we can guess.”

“No you can’t,” York said.

“Well we can try,” she said. “And I think everyone knows what it’s like to make split second decisions—”

York interrupted her. “What are you getting at, Maggie?”

She hesitated for a moment, and it was Temerek who answered him. “There’s a rather nasty story going around about a young Trinivanian girl . . .”

York’s appetite disappeared as he thought of the dead young girl with most of her abdomen blown away. Maggie was saying something about the princess filing charges and Telyekev convening an official investigation. “. . . You were exonerated of all charges, York.”

From the looks on their faces it was clear there was more. “What are you not telling me?”

Temerek grinned and spoke, “They’ve given you a nickname, Ballin.”

York shook his head. “I don’t think I want to hear this.”

Butcher Ballin,” Temerek said loudly. “They like to call you Butcher Ballin.”

“God damn it,” York snarled, not caring if he offended Lady d’Hart. “We were under assault. I’d like to see you do better with mortar dropping all around you.”

Temerek shrugged. “I’m no marine.”

“No,” York agreed. “You’re not.”

“Stop it, you two,” Maggie said. “Why can’t you get along?”

York looked at Temerek. “Give His Lordship a year and he’ll pull a Home Fleet assignment like all the rest. Then he can pretend he’s an experienced line officer.”

Temerek shook his head. “I don’t have to be a lifer to know what to do in combat.”

“I’ve heard that expression before,” the d’Hart woman interrupted in a blatant effort to change the subject. “What’s a lifer?”

Everyone froze, looked at York, and as the silence drew out he answered her. “A lifer is an officer who never gets rotated off the front lines, and never gets promoted beyond the rank of lieutenant. He’s forever a very senior junior officer, and his only break from combat duty is a few tendays of R’n’R here and there.”

The d’Hart woman frowned. “Do you mean this goes on for his entire life?”

York shrugged and nodded. “Most don’t live long.”

“But that’s terrible. How does such a thing happen?”

Maggie answered her, trying to put a positive spin on the rumors. “No one knows for sure. Lifers are rare. The rest of us get rotated on a random basis. Some after a year or two, but never more than six.”

York added. “Unless you’re a lifer.”

Maggie tried to ignore him. “Rumor has it lifers are a glitch in the computer, an accident Fleet is unaware of.”

“Some of us,” Temerek said, “think they have some character flaw that’s hidden deep in their file.”

Lifers are valuable,” Frank added, speaking for York’s benefit. “They have enormous experience, and are considered good luck.”

The d’Hart woman looked at him carefully, perhaps beginning to sense there was something more here than merely idle conversation. “Have any of you ever met a lifer?”

They all looked at York, then they realized what they were doing and looked away in embarrassed silence. The d’Hart woman frowned, then realization hit her and she looked at York. “Oh! I’m sorry, Lieutenant. I’ve stepped in it, haven’t I?”

Behind him he heard Aeya growl, “Butcher Ballin.” They hadn’t seen her approaching.

York stood and turned to face her. She looked up at him, clearly intending to give him a piece of her mind. But then she saw his chrome eye and scarred face, and she stood there speechless.

York stepped around her and left the mess, thinking that maybe the chrome eye and scars weren’t such a bad thing after all.

••••

The gathering was a small one. There wasn’t that much room in the aft maintenance bay on Hangar Deck. Telyekev and his first officer Joyson, and York and Palevi, and the twenty-one flag draped bodies, and a couple marines and a few crewmembers. And of course Rhijn and Thring were there too. It was a shame Rhijn had chosen to supersede the young canticle’s responsibilities. Thring took it all so seriously, even though most of his flock couldn’t take him seriously.

York stared at the small puddle of clear fluid on the deck as Telyekev gave the command and the hull echoed with the emergency blow-down cycle of the aft maintenance hatch. For eight crewmembers it was over.

They recycled the hatch, then turned to the thirteen marines sealed in body bags and lined up on the deck. York had chosen, more out of respect for the dead than any allegiance to the living, to wear a marine tunic for this occasion. He’d had to borrow it from Palevi, have them mount captain’s bars on it, and it felt odd to wear the dark blue with red piping and gold trim. He looked down at his chest, and as Rhijn started chanting his superstitious invocation over the dead, York couldn’t take his eyes off the old-fashioned brass buttons that shone in the harsh artificial light.

Rhijn put on a good show, very formal, with much pomp and circumstance. But that wasn’t appropriate here; better perhaps on the vids, or at court. It should have been Thring, York thought through the whole thing. It should have been Thring.

When Rhijn finished, it took York a moment to remember the next move was his, and though he intended to call out strongly, his voice came out barely above a whisper. “Sergeant, call the roll.”

“Yes, sir.” Palevi stepped forward carrying a list of names on an old-fashioned piece of paper. But as he called out the first name the paper stayed locked in his fist, unopened. “Private First Class Stanwell Sinscar.”

“Here, sir,” one of the marines called out loudly.

Palevi continued. “Private . . .”

Sinscar? York thought. He couldn’t remember the man, and as Palevi called out each of the names, and as a marine answered symbolically for each, he realized he couldn’t remember any of them. Sinscar? No matter how hard he tried he couldn’t recall a thing about the fellow.

The silence brought York out of his reverie, everyone waiting for him now that Palevi had finished. York nodded, and the marines of the grave detail began stacking the body bags into the maintenance hatch. A crewmember passed out small plast cups filled with a clear fluid. As they sealed the hatch York looked at the liquid in his cup: slightly diluted trate, very strong. He lifted the cup to his lips, and the others in the bay followed his lead. One sip, that was all, and the trate burned its way down his throat, then he held the cup out in front of him and spoke the time honored lament, “For them it’s over. For us it goes on.” He tipped the cup slowly and poured the rest of the trate onto the metal and plast of the deck where it spattered and splashed all over his boots. He waited until the rest had done likewise, then he called out, “Release them,” and the hull echoed with the emergency blow-down cycle of the aft maintenance hatch.

Chapter 7: Remembrance

York sat down on a bench against a bulkhead in the gym, breathing hard and soaked with sweat. The damn marines were pushing him too hard, wouldn’t let him rest, and his leg was starting to ache. He looked around: nothing but marines, Invaradin’s entire compliment of two hundred. The gym was filled with them, men and women all stripped down to the bare minimum with an immodesty that would have been shocking on the upper decks, grunting and sweating; exercise drills, hand-to-hand combat drills, physical therapy for the wounded.

Sergeant Meciden Notay stopped in front of him, tossed him a towel, put her hands on her hips and said, “Come on, Cap’em. One more set.”

York caught the towel, wiped it across his face and looked at her carefully. She was actually rather good looking, if a little tough in appearance, but stripped down to shorts and a T-shirt he couldn’t help noticing she was in pretty good shape. “Go to hell,” York growled at her. He leaned over, began massaging his calf.

Notay squatted down in front of him. “Leg giving you trouble, sir?”

“You’re damn right it’s giving me trouble.”

She stood up, shouted over her shoulder. “Kalee. Front’n’center. Cap’em’s leg’s acting up.”

One of the marine medics slipped out of the crowd carrying a medical kit, squatted down in front of York and began rifling through the kit. It took York a moment to recognize him. “You’re the one patched me up on the boat, aren’t you?”

Kalee found what he was looking for. “Yeah, Cap’em. That was me.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it, Cap’em.” Kalee pressed a small, black box against the side of York’s calf, threw a switch on it and York’s leg went numb from the knee down. “Nothing to worry about, Cap’em. I just turned off your cyb. Need to make a few adjustments. That’s all.”

While the medic worked Notay sat down next to York, handed him a tumbler of cold water. York gulped at it greedily. “Glad you could make it this time, Cap’em.”

York finished drinking, looked at the woman and shrugged, “The old man made it an order.”

She smiled. “It’s all for the best, Cap’em. We need to stress that new leg of yours a little, work the bugs out of it. Besides, you’re a marine. It’s only right you working out with the rest of us.”

York started to growl that he wasn’t a damn marine, but instead he asked, “What kind of game are you playing, Notay? You and Palevi.”

“Game, Cap’em?” She looked offended. “I don’t understand.”

“Of course you do. You marines treat me like shit, then all of a sudden you start treating me like I’m one of you.”

“But you are one of us, Cap’em. And we take care of our own.”

“But I’m not. I’m navy, all the way.”

She shook her head. “You went back for Stacy and Dakkart. Only a marine would’a done that.”

“But I screwed it up.”

“That doesn’t matter, Cap’em. You went back. That’s what counts.”

The medic removed the little, black box from the side of York’s leg and he could wiggle his toes again. “I dropped the gain back on the pain circuits, sir. I also checked the fit on the interface and the neural circuits. Shouldn’t give you any more trouble.”

York grinned unhappily. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

“Don’t mention it, Cap’em.”

“That’s enough for me,” York said. He stood, tested the leg for a moment. “I’m going back to my cabin, get cleaned up.”

“Don’t forget tomorrow, Cap’em,” Notay reminded him. “Same time.”

York turned for the exit. “Yeah,” he said as he walked away.

He was only a few meters down the corridor outside the gym when someone called after him, “Cap’em.”

He stopped, turned about, found Dakkart jogging down the corridor toward him. She stopped just in front of him, saluted crisply. He returned the salute. “At ease, private. What is it?”

The marine relaxed, and politely asked, “Can I speak frankly, sir?”

York nodded. “Sure.”

“Well, sir, I just wanted to tell you I don’t figure I owe you nothin’ for coming back for me and Stacy. It was what you was supposed to do, so I don’t consider it no favor.” She finished with a defiant look.

York shook his head and ran a hand through his hair. “That’s fine with me, private. Now leave me alone.”

“Yes, sir,” she shouted in his face, snapped to attention, saluted, then turned and jogged back toward the gym.

••••

“Captain’s compliments,” the yeoman said, “and Captain Telyekev wants you to report to his office immediately.”

Even on a screen, York could see the tension in the yeoman’s face. “Is Captain Telyekev aware I’m on bridge watch?”

“Yes, sir, he is. Commander Rame has been notified, and he’s arranging your relief.”

York nodded. “I’ll be right down.”

York logged off the system, cleared himself off the console. As he was doing so, Paris Jondee sat down next to him. “I’m here to relieve you, York old boy. Kind of funny, isn’t it? Only an hour out from Dumark and captain, first officer, and third officer haven’t even shown their faces on the bridge.”

York shook his head. “You ask too many questions, Paris.”

“Questions!” Jondee exclaimed. “I didn’t ask any questions. Just thinking out loud, old boy.”

York looked at Jondee carefully. “Well do your thinking more quietly, eh?” He didn’t wait for an answer, stood and stepped around the fire control console to stand beside Olin Rame at the command console. He saluted. “Request permission to leave the bridge, sir. Under orders of the captain.”

Rame was busy. He didn’t look up, threw a sloppy salute and said, “Permission granted.”

As the captain’s yeoman let York into Telyekev’s office he whispered, “Watch out, sir.”

York didn’t need the warning. The tension in the room was palpable. Sierka stood at attention in front of Telyekev’s desk, a bead of sweat running slowly down his brow. Telyekev sat behind his desk making no attempt to hide his anger. Joyson, a calm counterpoint to the white-hot fury of her captain, sat comfortably on a nearby couch.

Not the time for sloppy manners, York snapped to attention beside Sierka and saluted crisply. “Lieutenant Ballin reporting as ordered, sir.”

Telyekev growled, “At ease, Lieutenant.”

York assumed the position, but there was no ease to be had in that room.

Telyekev was in no mood for small talk. “Tell me about Trinivan, Mr. Ballin.”

York frowned. “Where would you like me to begin, sir?”

“From the moment you left this ship.”

York told them about Trinivan. It was not the first time he’d told the story so he kept it brief, leaving nothing out, but hoping to avoid details. He didn’t want to get caught in the middle of whatever was going on here. When he got to the part about his argument with Sierka, he merely said, “. . . so I contacted Invaradin to warn you of the danger and—”

“Then you did contact us prior to the attack?” Telyekev asked.

“Yes, sir. I followed standard procedure there, sir.”

“Did you, now?” Telyekev asked. “And did you request fire support?”

“I believe so, sir.”

“And what did Mr. Sierka say?”

This was getting nasty. “Well, sir, it’s rather hard to remember. We were under fire—”

“Bullshit!” Telyekev shouted, standing and leaning forward on his desk. “I want to know exactly what was said.”

Joyson intervened. “Now Alexiae,” she said softly. “Don’t take it out on poor Mr. Ballin.” She looked carefully at York. “Lieutenant, we need to know exactly what happened.”

York shook his head. “I’m sorry, ma’am. But I’d rather not make allegations I can’t prove.”

Joyson nodded resignedly. “I see you’ve already discovered portions of the ship’s log have been erased.”

York said unhappily, “It would just be my word, ma’am.”

“His word against mine,” Sierka added. “And I still don’t understand why the both of you’re so ready to side with him. He probably erased it to . . .”

Telyekev turned on Sierka with a sudden start, and Sierka’s voice trailed off into silence as Telyekev stormed around his desk, his anger unchecked, his face slowly expanding into a mask of rage. When Telyekev spoke, his voice was even more frightening for the calm, cold menace it held. “I want you to listen to something, Commander.”

Telyekev turned away from Sierka, leaned over his desk, touched a few keys on his console. York’s voice came out of a speaker there, surprising both he and Sierka. “. . . Sierka, you son-of-a-bitch. Where the hell are you? We’re under assault. Now. We need fire support—” His words were punctuated by the sounds of heavy weapons fire and exploding mortar rounds.

Telyekev touched another key and the sounds died. He turned toward Sierka, stopped with his nose only inches from the commander’s face. “Apparently you weren’t aware a copy of any marine transmission is automatically stored in the marine log, which is separate from the ship’s log and its backup.

“I don’t need to be told what happened. In fact I’ll tell you. Mr. Ballin called com and told you about our feddie friends, and you ignored him. Not only that, you didn’t bother to report the fact to me. And then, as if that weren’t enough, you tried to cover up your actions by erasing the com recordings of the incident.”

Sierka lifted his chin proudly. “You have no proof I destroyed any recordings—”

“Shut up,” Telyekev shouted. For an instant, York thought he might hit him.

“Be careful, Alexiae,” Joyson cautioned.

Telyekev made a visible effort to calm himself, but his voice still came out in a growl. “Don’t you say another word, Sierka. I’m so mad right now, if you so much as squeak I’ll have you vented on the spot and worry about covering it up later. You seriously endangered this ship. That feddie got the drop on us, nothing but a fucking destroyer and it managed to hull us. He could have burned us. Not only that, you left Mister Ballin and his people at the mercy of the enemy without the support they should have been able to expect from us. I don’t give a damn what kind of difficulties you and he have between you. He and his marines are my people. Do you understand? My people. You don’t double-cross them that way.”

“It won’t happen again, sir,” Sierka said.

Telyekev shook his head and growled, “No. It won’t. At least not on this ship. We’re going to dock at Dumark Station shortly, and until that time you’re confined to your cabin. You can take the time to prepare a request for transfer to dirtside assignment. Have it logged for my approval before we hit dock. And have your gear packed, because if you’re not off this ship one minute after we break seal, I’ll lock you up and vent you to space when we lift off again. You’re dismissed.”

Sierka was smart enough to know when to keep his mouth shut. He saluted, turned and left.

For a moment it seemed as if Telyekev had forgotten York. But then he glanced his way, looked him over for a second, grumbled, “Get out of here.”

••••

“Transition,” York said on allship, simultaneously blanking all exterior transmissions as Invaradin went sublight in Dumark farspace.

“Drones out,” Telyekev ordered.

Invaradin’s hull echoed eerily as the combat drones launched. They waited in silence for Anda Gant to give her verdict, though on green status with little possibility of any feddies in the vicinity the atmosphere on the bridge was relaxed. York picked up an incoming transmission, switched it to his implants, heard the voice of a bored com-tech. “This is Dumark Station requesting an identity check.”

York examined the signal carefully. “Captain, I’m getting a request from Dumark for an identity check. It’s properly encrypted and coded.”

“Thank you, Mr. Ballin. Anda, what’s the word?”

Gant’s voice was calm. “Nothing in our immediate vicinity, sir. We’re clear to a hundred thousand klicks. There’s quite a bit of traffic near Dumark Station, but everything we’ve scanned so far seems to be ours.”

“Olin?”

Rame sounded as bored as the station com-tech. “We’re point-one lights out from Dumark’s primary, well beyond heliopause. We can move fast if we have to.”

York heard Telyekev take a deep breath. “Well, it looks like we’re home. Mr. Ballin, open communications with Dumark.”

York touched a switch on his console, activating a coded identity transmission. It also opened them up to receive their contact packet—news, mail, official business—and it transmitted a copy of their packet to Dumark for relay to Fleet, all in a fraction of a second. Then he switched in his voice pickup. “Dumark Station this is H.M.S. Invaradin requesting docking clearance.”

The com-tech’s voice showed a little interest. “You people sure are cautious. How long you been out?”

“Six months,” York said.

They made a short transition hop into Dumark nearspace. A big convoy was staging for transit to Cathan the following day. Dumark was a large agricultural concern out on the periphery of the empire, close enough that a feddie strike was unlikely, but far from the worlds of the inner empire. Cathan was two hundred light-years deeper in. York hadn’t been that deep into the empire in ten years, and thinking of Cathan made him a little melancholy.

Invaradin waited in a holding orbit for three hours, though it would have been longer if the princess hadn’t been on board. When the docking gantries clanged into place they slaved into Dumark Station’s power, cut their power plant back to standby, broke seal, and were officially docked.

Anyone wounded on Trinivan was given immediate leave, while the rest remained on duty to get Invaradin’s repairs going smoothly. Back in his cabin York scrounged through his locker for a decent uniform, but everything was patched or badly worn. The best he could do was combine the trousers from his day blacks with the tunic from his grays.

York glanced in the mirror; there was nothing he could do about the chrome eye and scars. He’d put off the cosmetic work repeatedly, taken stubborn pleasure in the discomfort the sight gave the civilians. York got what he wanted: they’d avoided him with a vengeance. But he’d waited too long, and now Alsa Yan didn’t have any time for him. “Maybe in a few days,” she’d said.

The civilians on Dumark Station had the same reaction: some stared, most looked away. Even some of the military people had trouble looking him in the face. The ticket teller at the shuttle dock refused to look at him after doing so once. “Janston,” York said. “It’s on North Continent. Small agro coop.”

“What’s it near?” the teller asked.

York reached into his memory. He hadn’t gone back there in twenty years. “Nearest big city is Bowenhead.”

“Here it is,” she said, reading data off her screen. “Population: ten thousand. And you say this Janstown is even smaller?”

“Janston,” York corrected her. “And yes, it’s small.”

She scanned the data on her screen for another minute, finally said, “I can’t find any reference to it. Best I can do is get you to Bowenhead. There’s a shuttle leaving here in about two hours that’ll drop you into Andermay. From there it’s about a hundred klicks to Bowenhead via surface transit. Then you’re on your own.”

York thanked her, paid for his ticket, and six hours and half a world later was standing outside the transit depot in Bowenhead. It was a dingy, old place, badly in need of maintenance. There were no facilities for renting a vehicle, and only a few cabs, but none willing to take a passenger to the middle of nowhere. He finally found one fellow driving an old-fashioned, four-wheeled vehicle that coughed and spit obnoxious fumes. The vehicle’s owner demanded double the round trip fare.

“What you want to go to Janston for?” the old man asked once they were under way. There was something vaguely familiar about him. “Ain’t nothin’ there for a big-shot officer like you.”

The man’s voice kept plucking at some memory. “Just want to look up some old friends,” York said.

“I used to live in Janston, long time ago. What’s their names? I might know how to find them for you.”

It felt strange to speak the names of his foster parents after so many years. “Maja and Tollem Zoa.”

“The Zoa’s eh? Ya. Sure. I know them, or at least of them. Sour old Maja and her crazy old husband Toll.”

The cab driver was right about Maja. But Toll? Good old Toll wasn’t crazy. York wanted to hear what else the driver knew. “Didn’t they have a foster son lived with them some years back?” he asked.

“Ya,” the cab driver said. “Long time ago. Rotten kid. Always in trouble. No good. Come to a bad end, if I remember correctly. Tried to rob somebody. Fucked it up and killed him instead.” The cab driver shook his head. “Ya. I’m remembering now. Judge sent him into convict labor, or into the navy, or something like that. Don’t know which.”

“He joined the navy,” York said.

“Oh ya?” the cab driver asked. “How’d you know that?”

York didn’t answer. The cab driver looked back at York and frowned at his uniform. Then he turned carefully back to face the road and they finished the trip in silence.

Janston was not what York remembered, though he didn’t remember much more than a hateful old woman, and a friendly old man. The place was tired, run down and shabby. The cab driver stopped in front of a small agro supply store, said, “This is it.”

York said, “I thought the Zoa’s were croppers.”

The driver shook his head. “Not for ten, twelve years now. They never were much good at cropping, so now they run the supply.”

York paid the driver and dismissed him, then stopped to look the place over. It needed paint, and repairs, and . . . He shook his head, pushed gingerly on the archaic, old, hinge mounted, spring loaded door at the front of the store, stepped into a large, dimly lit room with racks and shelves half filled with supplies and equipment. A layer of dust coated everything. Evidently Maja and Toll were no better at managing an agro supply than they were at cropping.

He let go of the open door and the spring slammed it shut with a loud bang. “Be with ya in a minute,” a female voice called. Some seconds later Maja appeared out of a back room. She was older now, but the sour and hateful expression on her face had not changed.

She looked at York suspiciously. “Good afternoon, yer lordship. What can I do for you?”

“I’m not a nobleman,” York said.

“Right,” she grunted. “I still need to know what you want. I can’t guess what some highfalutin admiral wants here in a agro supply.”

“I’m not an admiral either,” York said. “Just a lieutenant.”

“I still need to know what you want.”

York didn’t know what he wanted. He’d been on Dumark a dozen times in the last twenty years, and each time he’d thought about coming to see them, but always found some reason not to. He considered making up an excuse and leaving without identifying himself, but instead he blurted out, “I came to see you and Toll.”

Her eyes narrowed. “What you want with us? We ain’t done nothing wrong.”

“No,” York said. “You’re not in any trouble. I just came to visit. I’m York Ballin.”

She jumped as if stung, and her eyes narrowed even further. “The hell you say!” She stepped back warily, but leaned forward and squinted at him. After a moment she shook her head. “Well I guess you are. What you come back for? We ain’t got nothin’ you can have.”

“I don’t want anything,” York said. “I just came to visit.”

“What for?” she asked. “Why now, after all this time?”

York shrugged and shook his head. “I just . . . thought I’d visit.”

She squinted at him harder, dripping with suspicion, stood that way for what seemed an eternity, then suddenly nodded over her shoulder, spun about and walked toward the back of the store. “What the hell! Come on back. At least Toll’ll like seeing you again. We’re eating dinner. I suppose you want some for yourself. Probably still eat like a protein processor.”

York followed her, stepping into a dark passage that led to the back of the store. They crossed through a small living room, littered and unkempt. Maja had never been much of a housekeeper.

In a tiny kitchen, Toll sat at a table that dominated the room, a plate of food in front of him, Maja’s plate nearby. He, like Maja, was much older than York remembered: grayish-white hair, the skin of his face lifeless and fleshy. His attention was devoted to a portable vid sitting on the table in front of him, blaring something loud and noisy. He took no notice of York and Maja, stared blankly at the screen and giggled now and then at something, picked at the food in front of him.

Maja leaned over and shouted into one of his ears, “Look who’s here.”

He took no notice, continued to stare at the screen even as Maja grabbed a third plate and threw it onto the table with a crash. “Look who’s here, you crazy old man.”

She looked at York. “Sit down and eat.”

York obeyed, feeling oddly like the twelve-year-old boy who, twenty-two years ago, had obeyed the same sour commands barked in the same harsh voice.

She threw some food on his plate, then, sitting down herself, she reached out and turned off the vid.

Toll whimpered and looked at her.

“York’s here,” she shouted at him.

Toll frowned. “York?”

“York Ballin. The boy, you old fool.”

Toll’s head turned toward York slowly, his face vacant and lifeless. York wanted to cry; strong silent Toll, able to withstand even Maja’s strongest tongue lashing with an indifference York had always admired, reduced by the years to this whimpering old man.

“York?” he asked again.

“Hello, Toll,” York said.

Toll started as recognition hit him. “York boy?” He smiled, and for an instant the old Toll was there, then just as quickly he was gone and the shabby old man returned. It was the shabbiness that bothered York most.

“Eat,” Maja barked.

Toll obeyed.

York looked at the food. “I’m really not hungry.”

“It’s on your plate so eat it.”

York ate. It was the lowest quality of protein cake and dark, bitter synthetic caff. It had almost no taste, but he ate it anyway.

They ate in silence, interrupted only by an occasional bark from Maja. When the meal was done she cleared the table, dropped the leftovers into the recycle processor and the dishes into the sterilizer, then left without a word. And York and Toll sat in silence.

After what seemed an eternity Toll finally moved. He reached out hesitantly, like a child afraid he might be slapped down, and touched the sleeve of York’s tunic. He fingered the stripes there gently. “Navy boy,” he said.

“Yes,” York said. “I’m a lieutenant on the cruiser Invaradin. She’s a good ship.”

“Do you go see stars?” Toll asked.

York nodded. “Yes. Sometimes. But mostly we just fight feddies.”

Toll nodded mechanically, looked at the silent vid longingly, then fearfully at the door through which Maja had disappeared. York understood now, as he and Toll had always understood one another. But he wondered if the old man could still understand him after all these years, especially with what he wanted to ask.

“Toll,” he said tentatively, trying to get the old man’s attention, reaching far back into the memories of a frightened, six year old boy, who, all those many years ago, had clutched desperately to the one familiar person in a world turned strange and foreign. It had been a man’s hand he’d held so tightly that night. Not a father’s hand, not someone he’d loved or longed for, but a face and a voice that was, at least, familiar when he’d needed familiarity most.

“Toll?” he asked. “Do you remember the man who brought me here? I was six years old at the time. That was twenty-nine years ago. I’ve tried to remember his name. It was something like Matches. Do you remember?”

“Matches?” Toll asked.

“Yes,” York said eagerly. “Matches. Was that his name?”

Toll nodded. “Matches. Yes. Matches.”

“Are you sure?” York asked. “It was a Lunan name—inner empire. Matches . . . or Mathis . . . or something like that.”

“Yes,” Toll said, nodding idiotically. “Mathis.”

“What you asking him for?” Maja snarled, standing in the doorway. “He can’t remember yesterday, let alone thirty years ago. And why you wanna know anyway?”

“I was just curious,” he lied.

“Well he don’t remember.”

“Do you?” asked York.

“O’course not. That was thirty years ago for me too. The man brought you. Said we was to tell everyone you was my dead sister’s boy. Sent cash money every month. Said if we told anyone about him, or didn’t raise you right, he’d take you away and the money would stop. Money stopped anyway once you went away to the navy.” Her eyes narrowed as she looked at York angrily. “We needed that money. Bad we needed it. And that’s all. There ain’t no more to tell.”

That night Maja fixed up a cot for York, but he didn’t get much sleep. He lay awake most of the night, angry at himself for wasting his time on an idiotic quest for information thirty years dead. He managed to get a few hours of restless sleep near dawn, then got up quietly with the sun and decided to leave without saying good-bye. He was sneaking out through the store when he caught sight of the small comp terminal at the counter there, and on impulse he sat down and punched in a call to Invaradin.

Krass Doanne was on com watch and her face appeared on the screen. She was junior enough to obey most any order York gave her short of outright mutiny or treason. “Route me through ship’s Central . . .” he said, “. . . into Dumark’s central banking computer. And don’t flag me as an indirect.”

She looked at him narrowly. Such a request was highly improper, and only marginally legal. “Yes, sir,” she said

Moments later he was in direct contact with Dumark Central. His access was limited, but they thought the call had originated on Invaradin. He requested access to Maja and Toll’s banking and credit records, giving an access code that identified his request as a security matter. That, the apparent origin of the call, and Maja and Toll’s status as nobodies, made it simple.

They were broke, he found, badly in debt and getting in deeper by the month.

He called up his own balance from Invaradin’s paymaster files. By Maja and Toll’s standards he was rich. There wasn’t much to spend your pay on when most of your life consisted of one deep space patrol after another: a couple of tenday leaves a year, a big binge now and then on a two day liberty, a luxury item or two aboard ship. And as the years had passed his money had just stacked up.

He withdrew half his account, paid off Maja and Toll’s debts and had enough left to leave them a sizable sum in their own account.

“Why’d you do that?”

York jumped, turned about to find Maja looking over his shoulder. She was wearing an old dressing gown. “What for?” she demanded.

He shrugged. “I don’t need the money. You and Toll do.”

She thought about that for a moment, then she nodded and held out her hand. “Here,” she said angrily, handing York a crumpled piece of yellowish paper.

He took it, opened it carefully. It was an old piece of paper, ready to disintegrate at the slightest misuse, and upon it, written in a tight and repressed hand, was a single name: Collier Maczek. “What’s this?” he asked.

“You wanted his name,” she said. “I wrote it down thirty years ago ’cause I thought I might need to remember it someday.”

York’s heart pounded as he looked at the piece of paper again. The name was there, Collier Maczek, written in a scrawl he guessed hadn’t changed in all that time.

“Thank you,” he said.

She shrugged. “I don’t need the name. You do.”

••••

“Transition flare!” Ducan Soe shouted. “Dead ahead.”

Jewel Thaaline’s heart skipped a beat. “Have we been spotted?”

Soe shook his head. “I don’t know. We’re still a good half light-year out. Maybe they picked up our transition wake. But we’re running dead slow and awfully clean. They’d have to be good.”

Jewel nodded. “Don’t assume they aren’t.” She caught one of the scan-techs glancing at her fearfully. That wasn’t what they’d wanted to hear.

“Damn,” Soe swore. “Another flare, right on top of the first. They’re coming at us in force.”

“Can you see their wakes?” Jewel asked. “Are they fanning out, or coming at us straight?”

“I don’t know,” Soe grumbled. “I can’t see a damn thing.”

“Then how the hell do you know they’re coming at us?”

“I don’t. I assumed—”

“Don’t assume,” Jewel barked. “I want hard data, not guesswork.” She looked at Tac’tac’ah. “Mr. Tac’tac’ah, see if you can pinpoint those flares.”

Tac’tac’ah wouldn’t see much while they themselves were in transition, and not at this distance, just gross phenomena like transition flares and solar masses, and when they got in a little closer, planetary masses.

“There’s another one,” Soe said. His voice had calmed somewhat. “Right on top of the last.”

That’s better, Jewel thought. Soe was too experienced to be shouting excitedly.

Jewel glanced at Chief Innay. The old petty officer worked his console patiently, double-checking the data from his techs. He looked up and their eyes met, one corner of his mouth turning up just the slightest bit, the closest Innay had ever come to a smile.

“Well, Tac’tac’ah?” Jewel asked.

Tac’tac’ah’s voice was also calmer. “Looks like it was about three hundred million kilometers out from Dumark’s primary. Do you think they’re coming after us, ma’am?”

Jewel shrugged. “Three hundred megaklicks? That could be Dumark herself. We’re on line to Cathan; might be a convoy escort. We’re too small to warrant three ships.”

Soe gave her a sly look. The imperials had been jumpy lately, to the point where they just might send out three ships to intercept a lowly hunter-killer.

“Another flare,” Soe barked. “That’s four. Probably a convoy.”

Jewel waited silently.

“There’s another one. That’s five.”

Jewel started to breathe easier.

“Bam, bang, bam!” Soe yelled. “There went three of them, almost on top of one another. That’s eight. She’s a convoy, all right, and a big one.”

“I’ve got a wake now, ma’am,” Tac’tac’ah said. “Dead ahead at point-oh-nine-three lights and closing.”

Jewel nodded. “Mr. Soe, sound General Quarters.”

Soe slapped a switch on his console and the alert klaxon began pounding at their ears.

“Mr. Tac’tac’ah, back off to minimum transition drive, and rig for silent running. This close to all that flaring it’s unlikely they’ll spot our transition wake. I want that convoy escort to pass right over the top of us. But be careful. If you accidentally drop us into sublight we could flare enough for them to see us.

“Mr. Soe, how big is that escort now?”

“I’ve spotted fourteen flares so far. The last six were in rapid succession, and now nothing. I think that’s it for the escort. We should see the main body flaring out any minute now.”

“Fourteen, eh?” Jewel asked. “That’s a big escort.”

“That’s a damn big convoy,” Soe said. “And we’re going to be right in the middle of it with their escort behind us.” Soe cut the alert klaxon, then switched his voice pickup to another channel. “Standby forward launchers.”

Innay ignored the order, waited for Jewel to confirm it.

“Belay that,” Jewel snapped. “We pass it up this time.”

“Pass it up?” Soe demanded. “This is the chance of a lifetime. We’re going to be right in the middle of a big imperial convoy, with her escort out looking elsewhere. We could take out a couple hundred million tonnes of shipping before they knew what hit them, then transit out of here free as you please.”

Jewel looked at him carefully before speaking. “This is a piece of incredible luck, all right. But it’s luck we’re going to use to help us carry out our mission, which is to slip quietly into Dumark nearspace. When that escort is past us I want full drive. I want to flare in right on top of that convoy as they flare out. They’re going to mask our transition flare with theirs, and we’re going to get closer to Dumark than could have been possible otherwise. And we’ll not engage the enemy unless it’s necessary to defend ourselves. That is an order.”

••••

Archcanon Bortha led the procession out of the great cathedral on Luna. The ceremony celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the crowning of the present emperor had been tedious at best. Bortha watched Edvard and Rochefort walk away, huddled in some whispered conversation. “Lynna,” he said, still looking at the back of the king.

His most trusted lieutenant stepped into his field of view. “Yes, Your Holiness.”

“Have you learned anything yet?”

“Very little, Your Holiness. As you requested, I’ve made some discrete inquiries, but there’s almost nothing of substance available. Apparently Aeya was present when a rather nasty riot erupted on a planet called Trinivan, and one of our warships had to evacuate the embassy there to get her out of it. Trinivan is far out on the fringes of the empire, an independent government, with no significant resources nor any strategic value to either us or the Syndonese.”

Bortha turned toward the rectory, began walking briskly without the apparent age he carefully displayed in the presence of laymen. Lynna followed close on his heels. “Why was Aeya there?” Bortha asked.

“We’re supposed to believe it was a lark,” Lynna said.

“But you don’t believe that, eh?”

“Lady d’Hart was on Trinivan with her. And they’re being evacuated to Dumark where Cassandra is waiting with the queen mother and Martin Andow.”

Bortha nodded. “There is a pattern here, isn’t there. Do we have anyone there?”

Lynna smiled, a rare occurrence. “Rhijn is Aeya’s personal confessor.”

“Rhijn?” Bortha asked. “Do I know him?”

“You’ve met him, Your Holiness, though that was some time ago and there would be no particular reason to remember him. But he is a man of undying faith and unquestioned fervor.”

“You trust him, then?”

“Of course not, Your Holiness. But we can depend on him, especially if we offer him a Canonship if he does well.”

“Very good, Lynna.” Bortha nodded. He looked at the Canon, who always seemed to have trouble keeping pace with him. “Please continue to investigate. Edvard and his women are up to something, and the church must know what it is.”

Chapter 8: Condemned

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