/ Language: English / Genre:sf

The Dragon Never Sleeps

Glen Cook


Glen Cook

The Dragon Never Sleeps

He lies ever upon his hoard, his heart jealous and mean. Never believe he has nodded because his eyes have closed. The dragon never sleeps.

— Kez Maefele, speaking to the Dire Radiant

— 1 —

Guardship: VII Gemina

On rest station in trojan L5 off P. Jaksonica 3

11/23 shipsyear 3681; year 43 of the

Deified Kole Marmigus

Dictats: The Deified Ansehl Ronygos, dct 12

WarAvocat Hanaver Strate, dct. 1

Alert status: Green Three

WarCrew sleeping [.03 duty section]

Surveillance Mode: Passive

All was quiet in Hall of the Watchers. The whisper of electronics was soporific. Watchers struggled to stay awake. Third WatchMaster roamed silently, tapping shoulders with an ivory baton.

His admonitions were not vigorous. WarAvocat had not yet left his quarters. He might not. He was preoccupied with a new dalliance.

None of the Deified observed from their screens.

It had been this quiet for a shipsyear.

A ping! wakened everyone. Third WatchMaster tried to stroll toward the sound's source. His legs betrayed him.

It was that kind of time. Any trivial break in routine caused quickened breathing.

The Deified Thalygos Mundt came onscreen, his expression malign as always. Third WatchMaster asked, "What do we have, Break Detect?"

"Traveler breaking off the Web, WatchMaster."

Third WatchMaster looked to the head of the Hall. The appropriate displays were up. The routine challenge had pulsed out. He glanced up. The Deified Thalygos Mundt had gone.

What was it like, being a living part of the ship? It was a vagrant curiosity. He was young yet. Only the old entertained ambitions toward immortality.

The backfeed from the breakaway appeared on the wall, downsped pulse content running from right to left: Glorious Spent, House Cholot, bound from V. Rothica to D. Vawnii via P. Jaksonica: general cargo and passengers. Cargo and passenger transhipments scheduled at P. Jaksonica 3B, data follows.

Routine. A passenger list, in case one was wanted and stupid enough to travel without changing identity.

"WatchMaster! I have an emergency signal!"

"Bring it up audial. Alert, Yellow Three." All over the Guardship green lights went yellow, blinking.

The message: "... Gemina, we've had an unauthorized discharge of an emergency escape pod...."

Third WatchMaster snapped, "Alert, Yellow One! Page WarAvocat. Relay the incoming to appropriate divisions."

"... not yet know if anyone was aboard...."

"Search. Find that pod."

"We have it, WatchMaster."

"Lock on. Track and Probe." Conscious of the screens overhead, he barked, "Get the data on the wall. I want everything up when WarAvocat arrives."

Throughout VII Gemina the shift prepared for whatever demands might be placed on the Guardship.

"WatchMaster. We have Lock and Track. That pod is under control. Trajectory indicates a surface destination near Cholot Varagona."

Was there another city on P. Jaksonica 3? "Probe data?"

"None yet, WatchMaster."

"Feed the target data to WarCentral. Pulse Canon Garrison Varagona. Prepare to intercept illegal downbound."

Half the overhead screens were live now but the Deified remained silent. Still, he felt compelled to demonstrate his grip. "Probe? How long is it going to take?"

"First approximation is due up, WatchMaster.... Here it comes. One biological lifeform. Artifact or nonhuman."

Third WatchMaster hesitated. He did not want the disapprobation that would follow an order to waken the whole Guardship. "Alert, Red Three." He slapped his baton into his palm, repeated it more forcefully.

Alarms snarled. Decks and bulkheads shivered. The air whispered and murmured and became cooler as inertial sectors locking-in distressed peacetime flow patterns. Already dim lighting faded as power shunted to battle screen generators. Sound levels rose as normally silent Watchers ran verbal checks with their neighbors.

Then came a bone-vibrating grumble as starspace drives went on line and Web tractor wells lit off.

Third WatchMaster sighed, ran a hand through brown hair, adjusted his khaki OpsCrew uniform. He had reached the limit of his authority.

The wall began running information from the Cholot Traveler's report of conditions on the Web. The data proclaimed a routine passage.

WarAvocat Hanaver Strate, Dictat, immaculate in WarCrew black and silver, entered Hall of the Watchers.

— 2 —

Lady Midnight drifted through the perpetual twilight of Merod Schene DownTown, tall, brittle as leaf gold beaten translucent. Her lavender eyes darted from one nest of gloom to the next. Her slim, pale, fragile face was dewed with sweat. Her thin white hands fluttered like panicky hummingbirds. She started at a rustle from a shadow's heart, clutched her hands to her breast, wrapped her shivering wings more tightly around her. The last hints of their usual silken glimmer faded to shades of lead.

It was hot and damp and musty down there, decayed and slimy, dark and deadly, with sudden patches of fetid air, like an old jungle battleground. Small things scuttled away.

Midnight was afraid.

Fear was a new feeling. Fear was not part of her design. She had been made for the salons and bedrooms of high society. Fear had had to be learned.

Lady Midnight savored new things. But this fear she did not like. It stole the color from her wings. It gnawed her innards like cancer. It took away sleep and robbed her of appetite. It was an assassin that butchered the rhythm of her dance-in-flight. It knotted her muscles till they ached.

"Fool," she murmured in an angel's voice. "You're Immune." She swished clothing of pastel panels as thin as imagination. "You can't be touched." The fear did not subside.

Merod Schene DownTown reeked of insanity. The madness was spreading. Immunity could lose its value any minute.

Scraping, clicking sounds came from the deeper darknesses. Things were following her. Crazy things, evil things, the worst discards and mistakes, that till recently had confined their predations to the deepest hours of the night. She felt their mad eyes measuring her.

They grew bolder all the time.

She paused outside the breezeway leading to her destination. The silence in there was more intimidating than the clicks and slithers growing louder behind her. She did not want to go ahead. But they were working themselves up back there.

Something moved in the breezeway.

Terror yanked a melodic whimper from Midnight's throat.

Dark dread rolled over her, filled her hollow bones with liquid nitrogen. Then warmth swamped her as she recognized the shadow. "Amber Soul!"

The shadow shifted shape, becoming something out of nightmare, rushed past. Clicks, squeaks, scrabblings, whines, the hiss of scales on decomposed pavement moved away hurriedly. Lady Midnight rushed along the dank passage, through a doorway, into a brightly lighted room, where she fell trembling into Turtle's arms.

Only after her heartbeat slackened and her shaking stopped was she smitten by the incongruity of being held and comforted by a creature so much shorter.

Strange as she was, Midnight was human. Turtle was not.

Turtle stood 1.75 meters tall and 1 meter wide. He massed 125 kilos, not a gram of it fat. He had skin the color and texture of a snake's belly. His features vaguely resembled a turtle's. But there was nothing slow or lumbering about him. He moved like a cat.

Amber Soul drifted inside, now wearing human form, draped in apparent golden brocade. Half a meter taller than Midnight, she seemed regal. Her psionic menace had gone silent. They grow bolder.

"It's the madness," Midnight piped. "It's spreading. It's into UpTown and even the High City feels its breath." Turtle had said that last time. She did not think of things like that herself.

"They got their messenger out?" Turtle asked.

"Yes. Aboard a Cholot Traveler. Disguised as the child of a High City lord from F. M'Cartica 5."

"So the infection bounds from world to world. They are fools. Where was the Traveler bound?"

"P. Jaksonica."

Turtle settled into a chair, for all his lethal mass a weary little creature. He picked at a button on his homemade shirt. "Yes. The thing will be fool enough to try it. P. Jaksonica 3. Still under the Ban."

Turtle always knew so much. He amazed everyone. How could he know, trapped here in Merod Schene DownTown?

He looked Midnight in the eye. "The cure will not be long coming if it tries to reach Cholot Varagona." He closed his reptilian eyes briefly, which was no closing at all, for he had only nictating membranes. "Bless the Concord. There is no saving fools. Ladies, it is time we saw to our own welfare."

Is there no chance for the Concord? Amber Soul asked. Just the edge of that thought was enough to make Midnight's head buzz. Amber Soul almost never communicated with anyone. When she did she knocked you down.

"None," Turtle said. "The thing is one of those jackstraw rebellions that come along every human generation. I have seen a hundred. They don't last. The Enherrenraat did not last a year and it was five hundred in the shaping." He paused, then asked rhetorically, "How old are the Guardships? They were old when I was young. Sometimes it seems the stars themselves are younger and the Guardships were created old and wily and deadly and there was never a moment when they were not invincible."

No one knew Turtle's true age. Turtle would not say. They joked that DownTown had been built around him.

Turtle seldom talked about Turtle. Whence had he come? What was he? The last indigene of V. Rothica 4? There were ruins in the deserts. Unlikely that he was of the precursor race, though. Nobody was that old.

An artifact, then? Like Lady Midnight? Created in a laboratory for some inscrutable purpose even he had forgotten? The warrens of DownTown festered with artifacts who had outlived the usefulness of their designs. And it was thick with mistakes. The hobby life designers seldom destroyed their mistakes. They just turned them out. And some were terrible. And some bred true.

If not an artifact, might Turtle be an alien, lost, stranded, planetbound far from home?

That was the popular theory.

Turtle told nothing about himself directly, but Turtle told stories, only to the very young, on the streets of DownTown. He mirrored childhood dreams, singing interstellar songs, spinning epics of great ships clambering the Web. He told tales of warmer worlds and far suns, of races no DownTowner would ever see, of great fires searing the deep between the stars as warships met in battles of unimaginable fury. Perhaps he spoke of the destruction of the Enherrenraat. Or perhaps he spoke of another struggle more remote in space and time. He sang his songs of far wars in shades of emotion that said he had seen them himself, that he might have been among those who had gained only shattered dreams.

Turtle broke a long silence. "If it does try to carry its message to Cholot Varagona it will be taken. Canon garrison will pulse P. Jaksonica station. Every Traveler out will carry a call for the Guardships. The first to arrive will pick the thing's brain to the last synapse. Then it will come sniffing up the creature's backtrail. First stop: Merod Schene."

Lady Midnight trilled, "Will they be that terrible?"

"Huh! Worse than you imagine. A Cholot Traveler picks up a shapeshifting illegal of a race supposedly eradicated from a Merod world and delivers it to a Cholot world under the Ban. They will be thorough. We must assure our own safety. Precautions never taken are the only sort that leave one with regrets."

Amber Soul paced. She radiated a harsh, almost angry concurrence backed by emotions dark and deep and so powerful Lady Midnight cringed away from her.

"We may be in for interesting times," Turtle observed. "I suppose it had to happen."

— 3 —

WarAvocat was a lean old man whose dark uniform accentuated the pallor of his face. Deathshead. Crawling with colors and shadows from the displays. Hard, dark eyes. Thin, tight lips that had forgotten how to smile a thousand years ago. Sound seemed to fade as he approached, the air to grow more chill.

WarAvocat took in the wall display in one devouring glance. "Satisfactory, WatchMaster."

"Grace, WarAvocat."

"Most satisfactory." Hanaver Strate moved toward the Probe team.

A Probe spokeswoman said, "The second approximation is up, WatchMaster. The lifeform in that pod is both alien and engineered."

Third WatchMaster's dispassion cracked. He did not need Gemina's ID. "A krekelen! No known alien could have gotten near a Traveler's escape pods. The ship's own programmes would have prevented it."

"Gemina concurs, sir."

WarAvocat almost smiled. It had been a long time without action. "Access, all crews." A shimmer hovering behind him leapt his shoulder. "Alert, Red One." Alarms screamed. "All ready batteries commence firing. Intercept and Pursuit, commence launch. ConCom. Assemble an I and I team for transfer to P. Jaksonica station."

Third WatchMaster observed, "The pod is in the outer atmosphere already, WarAvocat."

Meaning the batteries' beams would lose coherency, that projectiles would be inaccurate, that the fighters would be wasted because they could not go down into atmosphere.

"Missiles? No. Too late." They accelerated so swiftly they would hit atmosphere like hitting a wall. "Perfectly timed. The thing is crafty."

"Hellspinners?"

"Probably too late for those, too. But they'll make an exemplary display." WarAvocat spoke to the shimmer. "Access, Weapons. Hellspinners, loose. Access, Hall of the Soldiers. Soldiers, warm one battalion of heavy infantry data-prepped for a search-and-kill in Cholot Varagona."

The air murmured, "Have you a unit preference, WarAvocat?"

"Whichever is up." WarAvocat's busy eye noted those from the off shifts who were tardy reaching stations. Second WatchMaster was among the latest. He wilted under WarAvocat's glare. "Access, Communications. Pulse to Station P. Jaksonica 3B. Total quarantine incoming Cholot Traveler Glorious Spent. Responsibility: STASIS. WarAvocat, Guardship VII Gemina."

WarAvocat recalled his interceptors and sent his pursuit fighters to escort the Traveler to dock. "WatchMaster. Efficiency deserves opportunity. I'm sending you to station as prize officer. Empowered to direct and employ I and I and STASIS."

Third WatchMaster flushed. Such an opportunity, unplanned, unscheduled, could make his career. Could get him nominated to WarCrew. Could get him elected if he did his job well. Or could shatter his chances forever if he fouled up. "Grace, WarAvocat."

"The I and I team will leave soon. You'll have to hurry. Second WatchMaster!"

Second arrived briskly, face red. "WarAvocat?"

"Relieve Third. You'll stand his shifts in addition to your own."

Second WatchMaster swallowed. "Grace, WarAvocat."

"Get going," WarAvocat told Third. "Don't embarrass me."

The Twist Masters loosed their unpredictable vortices. The furies ripped across space and clawed at the atmosphere of P. Jaksonica 3, scrawling fire upon the skies of that world, birthing auroras that would persist for days.

They rattled and scaled and scarred the falling pod but they did not stop it. At three thousand meters the krekelen bailed out. At twenty-five hundred, Canon garrison took the pod under fire.

They reported the illegal destroyed.

In Hall of the Watchers they knew better. Track followed the krekelen to the surface and into the city.

— 4 —

Gloom was a fourth presence there with the three Immunes. Midnight said, "I don't want to go out there now. The Darkness has become the tyrant of the night."

Turtle replied, "Then don't go. Unless you have to dance tonight? Amber Soul and I could see you to the lift."

Midnight was a cloud dancer, engineered for that and exotic erotic usage in House Banat-Marath. Her owner of record, a House Director's whelp on wanderjahr, had become bored with his pretty toy and had discarded her, without documentation, her only assets those designed into her fragile body.

She had survived.

"No. Not tonight. There's little demand for me now."

"Funny. I'd think just the opposite. Eat, drink, and make merry. Maybe trouble will go away."

Midnight lived in the High City usually, drifting from sponsor to sponsor. If she fell out of fashion there, she worked the merchant baronets of UpTown, who strove to emulate the decadence of their overlords. But DownTown was her spiritual home, as it was for all the outcast, the discarded, the ignored, the ordinary, and the abhorred. Princes of lost and vanquished races languished there, hip by thigh with pimps and murderers and worse.

"What do they know in the High City?" Turtle asked. "What do they feel? What do they fear? What do they think?" Midnight was eyes and ears for the Immunes. The Canon lords did not guard their tongues around her. She was a nothing, invisible.

"They know there's unrest. But they vie at demonstrating their indifference. They're amused by the idea of rebellion. But the UpTown merchants are concerned. An uprising would be bad for business."

"Commerce will go to hell when that Guardship breaks off the Web. It will nail this rock down tighter than a marble in a sealed cannister."

Will one come? Sure? Amber Soul remained unconvinced.

She could not comprehend humanity. The personas she projected functioned adequately, but even to Turtle she seemed insubstantial, like a shadow cast from another dimension. There was no fathoming her in her natural state.

She was an incredible rarity. How she had come to be stranded on V. Rothica 4 was a mystery. Even she did not remember.

She had been around almost as long as Turtle. When he thought about it, he could recall when she was not there but not when she had arrived. He knew more about her than anyone, but what he knew was minute.

Amber Soul was a force in DownTown, an anima, feared by all, best ignored.

"They will come," Turtle assured her. "Sure as the darkness weaves the night from afternoon. The breath of death is less certain than the vigilance of the Guardships. Pray that the Concord does nothing stupid before the Guardship arrives. Its appearance will bank their ardor." He reflected a moment. "This krekelen business has an odor. I suspect a manipulation by some House."

"They wouldn't stir rebellion against themselves, would they?" Midnight protested. She remained as naive as Amber Soul remained mysterious.

"They would, and they have done. The Enherrenraat was born from a greed-fever dream in Cholot and Merod. The dream grew up to become a nightmare. Cholot and Merod are paying still. The fury of the Guardships was so exemplary that it has not been challenged since, but the universe spawns fools and insects in numbers beyond all reason."

Something tickled the outside walls; something tested the door. An odor hovered on the brink of perception, like the electric promise before a storm. There were rustlings and what could have been whispers, a harassment that had begun after Midnight's arrival. It had grown worse as darkness flowed like slime between the ten thousand legs supporting DownTown. It was pure night out now. The creatures of darkness were on the hunt.

One wall groaned and bowed as something huge pressed against it. A network of lines spread upon the bulge. They widened, overflowed one another, turned the brown of paper too near a flame.

Something oozed through, trickled down. It was the color of blood.

"That is quite enough!" Turtle snapped, exasperated.

Amber Soul rested spidery fingers upon the bulge. A psionic darkness filled the room, a ghost of menace that hammered through the wall. There were muted cries. Then silence.

"They are playing intimidation games. In their insanity, they will pass beyond games soon. We will confer with the others tomorrow. Steps must be taken."

There were eleven Immunes in Merod Schene. None supported the Concord.

Turtle turned to Midnight. "How is Lord Askenasry?"

"He's still alive. He grows weaker, though his will remains steel. He won't be with us much longer. I dance for him once a week. He no longer makes other demands."

"Will you dance for him again soon?"

"Tomorrow night."

"Does he remember me?"

"He asks about you sometimes."

"Ask if he will see me. Tell him I'm ready to collect."

"If we survive the night." A timorous creature, she was shaking.

"We will survive this night and many more," Turtle promised. "We will outlive the Concord. I must. I have much to do before I go."

— 5 —

... whine dying. An exclamatory ping!

Jo Klass drew a frigid breath of medicine and machine, opened her eyes. She felt eager, curious, a touch of trepidation. What would it be? Warming was like wakening to a day guaranteed to be exciting.

How long had she slept?

Not that it mattered. Nothing changed.

As always there was a moth flutter of panic as the air grew hot and humid. The cell walls pressed in. Its lid opaqued with moisture. She scrawled an obscenity in the condensation.

The lid opened. Beyond lay the familiar white overhead of the warming room. How many times had she wakened thus, staring up at that sky of pipe and cable? Too often to recall.

Air swirled in, chilled her.

What was it? Another Enherrenraat? Fear stroked her. She had died that time. It haunted her, though the bud had detoured her around it.

Sometimes she thought she dreamed about dying while she was in the cell, but she remembered no dreams once she wakened.

A face drifted into view. "Off and on, soldier." No relief at finding her alive instead of a shriveled blue-black mummy. No expression at all. Just on to the next cell and next check.

Jo bounced out as filled with vitality as anyone in perfect health could be. Her squad tumbled out of neighboring cells, as naked as she. Shaigon eyed her, thoughts obvious. "Watch it, soldier."

"I am, Sarge. I am." He lifted one shaggy eyebrow.

"Later. Maybe. If you're a good boy." She counted ears and divided by two. All present. "Let's move." Their cells had returned to stowage. The team followed her, mouthing the usual gibes and wisecracks. Clary and Squat grabbed hands. A sleep in the ice had not changed their relationship. Eyes roved old comrades, seeking remembered scars. Unmarked skin could say a lot about last time out.

They dressed in loose black shipboards and retrieved personals. Clad and inspected, Jo led them toward the briefing center. News of the day drifted back from earlier squads.

"Hanaver Strate is WarAvocat now."

"Wasn't he Chief of Staff? What year is it?"

"Year forty-three of the Deified Kole Marmigus. Strate got elected Dictat, too."

"One of the living? I thought the first requirement was you had to be Deified."

Colorless laughter.

Marmigus Deified? It had been a long time. He'd just become OpsAvocat last time they were out. "Must have been slow times."

"Bet it's a routine cleanup, Sarge. Ain't nobody in a hurry."

"Ship is Red One, Hake."

"Ain't breaking out nobody but infantry. Somebody dropped a condiment tray."

Jo paused at the theater hatchway. "Can it, troops."

They entered a space where thirty thousand could be seated. They nodded to soldiers they knew, found seats, stared at their officers, waited. Above the stage, in large but unpretentious letters, was the motto, "I Am A Soldier." It was posted over every exit from WarCrew country. It emblazoned a patch worn by WarCrew, encircling a numeral VII superimposed upon a caricature of the tutelary, a naked woman running that did not seem warlike to Jo.

How about a wide, muscular thug like her, short, ratty hair and a bloody ax in hand? Be more like the truth.

People did not shy away when Jo Klass walked past, but she could not be convinced that she was not unattractive.

The lander grounded. Jo trudged out into P. Jaksonica 3's reddish daylight. Hake had it right. They were cleaning up a spill. A krekelen shapechanger, for Tawn's sake!

She glared at Cholot Varagona. It looked like every outport city on every House-dominated world in Canon. The houses were so damned conservative they would not stray from one standard prefab design. If you wanted something different, you had to hunt up a non-House world.

The High City floated a thousand meters up, connected to UpTown by a flexible tube containing passenger and freight lifts. The proconsuls of the House, the very rich and their hangers-on, remained safely isolated there.

The legs of UpTown lifted it, too, above the perils of a world poorly tamed and, especially, above the taint of the tamers. Administrators and functionaries; Canon garrison if there was one; House dependent, cadet, and allied merchants; contract operators; these lived UpTown.

DownTown was the base of the social pyramid. Its own gradient declined toward the deepest shadow beneath the belly of UpTown.

Some were big, some were small, but that basic structure formed the capital on ten thousand worlds.

Jo activated her suit and bounced to her right. Her squad followed. Sensors systems came up, displaying in color on the sensitized inner surface of her face plate, defining her surroundings. She could breathe the air. It was not too cold out there. But the info she cared about was that there were no unfriendly weapons nearby.

Data from VII Gemina, relayed from the lander, interrupted once a minute for five seconds, mapping the city as Probe saw it. The krekelen remained stationary near the heart of DownTown.

City work. Jo hated it. Cities were treacherous. You never knew who would hit you with what from where. The system was not great at detecting non-energy weapons.

Linkup. Circle complete. Nothing would get out. Came the order to advance.

Jo glanced up at the High City, at the flaming star of VII Gemina, which seemed tangled among fairy spires. How frightened they must be, those Cholot lordlings, wondering if the landing party had come to end the Ban by toppling UpTown and killing the High City's gravs.

There was no resistance. The few beings Jo saw stood rigidly immobile, staring with terrified eyes. Seldom had she seen so many sports, discards, and bizarre aliens. And this world had been allowed no outside contact for centuries. The creepy-crawlies were taking over.

The target did not move till the circle was under a kilometer in diameter. Jo's faceplate began displaying Gemina track in five second alternates with suit local. Up on battalion net, for all officers and NCOs: "A reminder from up top, people. We will take it alive." No commentary, of course. That was there only in tone.

I Am A Soldier.

Corollary: I Obey.

On platoon net: "It's headed our way, people."

Jo matched Gemina-feed with a suit-local heat trace a hundred meters out. She outlocked Gemina, fixed the track, switched on squad tac. "Coming right down our throats, guys."

"Why can't we see it? You see it, Sarge? Anybody see it?"

No one did. But it ought to be visible. It was on top of them.

Top! She looked up, adjusted to max enhancement. There. Something scuttling along a beam.

Her bolt edged it perfectly. It went into nerve lock, clung to a stress lattice branching from a pylon, slowly changed into what looked like a black plastic film. Jo switched to platoon tac. "Platoon, Second Squad. We got it."

— 6 —

The chamber was a perfect globe a thousand meters across. A great mass floated near its heart, slightly upward as gravity was oriented. Lightning leaped from the curved walls to the mass. Tin-sheet thunder beat its chest and howled around the cavity. Gouts of red, gaseous flame exploded across the darkness. Self-congratulatory devil's laughter pranced between the valleys of the thunder.

A woman stood in the mouth of a corridor ending at the wall of the chamber. "He's in a dramatic mood today." Her companion was a youth who looked seventeen. She looked twenty-one. He was. She was not. She was much older and more cruel. The sorrow of the torturer looked out through her pale blue eyes.

"When will we kill him?" The boy's dark eyes were not those of an adolescent. The rest of him looked naive and young and innocent, but his eyes were those of a predator.

She slapped him. "Don't say that! Don't even think it this close to him." She laughed. "Not soon. After he succeeds. If he succeeds." Though not as loud her laughter was as wicked as that racketing around the globular cavity. "Who wants to inherit a disaster?"

The boy shivered. It was cold there, and gloomy, and something in the air reminded him of graveyards before dawn. "Why did he summon us?"

"Probably because he needs to proclaim his genius, and Lupo Provik doesn't feed his ego because Lupo refuses to be impressed." She palmed a bright plate on the corridor wall. "Father! We're here."

The show doubled in intensity. Lightning arrows thumped the wall near the corridor's end. Hologramatic monsters slithered the air, snapping and clawing, breathing fire and spitting venom. A black gondola manned by a skeletal gondolier approached imperturbed through the fury. Backlighting betrayed the hologram. The thing was a grav-sled and humanoid robot tricked up by the imagination of Simon Tregesser.

The sled nudged the wall. The woman stepped aboard. The youth hesitated, followed. The wing of fear cast one brief shadow upon his face.

His features hardened into naive inscrutability. He was learning.

One learned if one intended to survive amongst House Tregesser's ruling family.

The sled glided toward the heart of the cavity. A closed, transparent bell filled with dark smoke hung from the machinery there, which supported the thing inside and made of its will realities. The sled stopped ten meters away. Search probes tickled its passengers.

A grotesque face pressed against the inner surface of the bell. The smoke faded, revealed the wreckage of a body, one arm withered, the rest gnawed by fire, blind, all the handiwork of an assassin who had been almost lucky enough.

"Ah. My loving child Valerena. And her plaything."

"My son, Father."

A shrill cackle surrounded her. "I have eyes that see farther and deeper than these blind scars. But who or what you bed is your own affair." A moment. "Are you Valerena indeed? Or her Other?"

"I'm Valerena Prime."

"That's a comfort. Sometimes I think you send your Other when your conscience bothers you."

Guilty, Valerena tried to change the subject. "Why did you summon us?"

"The most pessimistic projections suggest that the beast is down on P. Jaksonica 3 and has been recognized. That entire Presidency will be crawling with Travelers carrying the alarm. We count the game begun. Soon they'll come sniffing up the trail. And we'll seize a Guardship for House Tregesser."

"You underestimate them." Valerena sounded tired. She had argued this before. "You risk the existence of House Tregesser against a quantity you know only from fragmentary reports that survived the Enherrenraat."

"I have shielding the equal of theirs. I have Lupo. The rest is firepower. When the Guardship arrives it will be cut off from the Web and under fire so intense its screens have to overload. It'll be surrender or die. The only choice they give the rest of the universe. Then House Tregesser will have its Guardship, Hellspinners, and the secret of lifting so vast a mass onto the Web."

"That's the strategy of the Enherrenraat revenant. They thought they'd win with firepower. They're extinct. The Guardships aren't. And they're five hundred years wiser now."

"Five hundred years more senile, child. Five hundred years more frozen into old ways."

Blessed stepped in. "Why did you call me here, Grandfather?"

"You're the heir of my heir. It's time you learned why your mother and I doppelled; so we can work on this unconcerned by the jealousies of lesser Houses and the spiteful interference of the Guardships. They can't suspect us of schemes and duplicities if their spies see our Others devoting themselves to the interests of House Tregesser."

The thing in the bell roared, "A thousand years has House Tregesser prepared! In our generations the hour has come at last!"

"Yes, Grandfather. Grandfather, where did you find a krekelen? They're supposed to be extinct."

"I have my resources, boy. Valerena! I need a woman. Send me one. And this time make her one with some juice left. That last one was a crone."

Valerena flared. "She was twenty years younger than I am!"

"Ah? Then maybe I should use you while there's a dollop of juice left in you." A pendulous, maggot-colored, impossibly huge organ slithered through a sudden opening in the floor of the bell. "Come here."

"No."

"Then send me a woman who will please me. Or take her place yourself. Go away. I have no more use for you."

The skeletal gondolier began poling toward the corridor mouth.

"Noah!"

A black, winged man dropped down between the gamboling lightnings. He lighted on a tongue of metal protruding from the great machine. "Lord?"

"How was I, Noah?"

"You were madness itself."

"Were they convinced?"

"I believe so."

"Ha! And will they try to kill me, then?"

"Someday."

"How soon?"

"Not soon. They will wait till after you capture the Guardship. They will want to steal a triumph."

"And they'll want to avoid the consequences if I fail, eh?"

"Yes, Lord."

"Does Valerena know she's not the first Valerena?"

"I think not. You indulge her too much, Lord."

"I have no other heir."

"It's your funeral."

"If I become so lax as to let her reach me here, then House Tregesser deserves more alert, more aggressive leadership anyway."

"Such is the custom."

"Watch them. See their every hair fall."

"And the woman they send you?"

"Yours, if you want her."

"Grace, Lord."

Simon Tregesser's bell clouded. Outside, the show ached up toward a shattering crescendo. Lightnings and coils of darkness slithered around the bell till no eye could have pieced it out of the chaos.

The bell rose into the belly of the machine. Chaos died. Silence took mastery of the cavity. A lone winged form glided the stillness.

Simon Tregesser's prosthetic eyes stared through the bell wall at his special secret. The thing had adopted an especially repugnant arrangement, almost demonic, perhaps in response to the show outside. Tregesser smiled as much as he could with ruined lips. Valerena did not know, but this thing from Outside would give House Tregesser its Guardship.

He hoped.

Down in the shadowed heart of him he nurtured the very doubts his daughter had flung in his face.

And he did not trust this emissary from Yon, this ally whose urgings had led him to push House Tregesser's plans beyond endless preparation to considered action. Simon Tregesser did not trust anyone or anything he did not own completely, excepting Lupo Provik. Lupo was his good arm and good body and, sometimes, his brain.

An infantile display, Simon Tregesser. What do we gain by spawning machinations within machinations? There is but one goal. Let us devote ourselves with an appropriately holy fervor.

Tregesser sensed its contempt. The disgusting monster. A shot of oxygen into that methane murk would set it dancing in the fires. Someday ... the moment the Guardship surrendered. "You heard my daughter. Here, in private, between us, I second her doubts. You want me to dice with fate depending entirely upon your screens."

They are the ultimate possible within the laws of this universe. They are identical with those deployed by Guardships.

"So you say."

Our observations during the Enherrenraat incident leave no doubt.

"There's always room for doubt when you tempt the invincible. If you were that close to the action then, you were dead."

The thing did not respond.

"I suppose it's too late. I'm committed."

You are committed, Simon Tregesser. Forever.

Simon Tregesser's methane breathing ally set a thought vibrating along the Web. Every development must be registered lest it be lost.

The Tregesser creature was right. To observe the Guardship screens under pressure, it had been necessary for observers to be too close to survive. They had left their data vibrating on the Web.

This creature, too, would leave such a legacy if the time came.

What mattered was that the Guardship should come. That it should be tested and, if conquered, be rescued from the false ambition of fools and unbelievers.

The Guardships threatened to doom the truths of the Shadowed Path.

Death did not matter. Death was but a destination. The Shadowed Path led away in ten thousand directions but always ended in the same place, the maw of the Destroyer.

Always better to be the knife than its victim.

— 7 —

Third WatchMaster strode out the hatch. The stench and uproar and alien perspectives of the curving station dock hit him like blows, stunned him momentarily. Those creatures beyond the STASIS cordon... most were not even human!

His body kept moving till a portly, florid man said, "Commander Haget? I'm Schilligo Magnahs, Station Master. This is Gitto Otten, Director, Station Security and Investigation Section."

"Gentlemen." He clicked his heels. "The situation is?" He had no patience with ceremony. It wasted time.

"Static, Commander. The Traveler was brought to dock and locked in, per directive. STASIS seals were placed, quarantine was established. Not an electronic whisper has escaped. We awaited your arrival before proceeding."

"Satisfactory. WarAvocat will be pleased. Let's examine this Traveler that spits mythical aliens."

"Mythical, Commander?"

"Legendary and extinct, if you prefer. Probe showed the pod occupied by a krekelen shapechanger."

"But that's..."

"Exactly. Impossible. Yes. Soldiers are searching Cholot Varagona now. We'll have the thing soon. Then we'll see if it's genuine." Third WatchMaster continued to scan the dock, struggling with discomfort. He had not been off VII Gemina in too long. He had forgotten how mongrelized Canon space had become.

The Station Master sensed and misinterpreted his malaise. "Pardon the confusion and gawking, Commander. We see your people so seldom, curiosity tends to cause chaos dockside."

Third WatchMaster loosed a dry chuckle. "Diplomatically said, Station Master."

Station Traffic had brought VII Gemina's courier gig in four bays from the Cholot Traveler. The walk was shorter than Third WatchMaster's daily trek to his station in Hall of the Watchers. It gave him no time to regain his equilibrium.

The quarantined dockhead was properly sealed and cordoned. Third WatchMaster overheard onlookers discussing his party.

"Bunch of bloody zombies."

"Think if one of them smiled, his face would break?"

Third WatchMaster looked at the man. He flushed, lost interest, hurried away.

The STASIS Director returned the comm to its cradle. "They're going to open up now."

Machinery grumbled. STASIS agents leveled weapons. Vehicle doors thumped on the concourse as drivers dismounted and prepared to take on detainees. The personnel lock of the Cholot Traveler opened.

Third WatchMaster strode inside.

The Traveler's operating officers were shaky. One lean, red-faced passenger waited with them. The piping on his apparel pronounced him prominent in House Cholot.

A little man stepped forward, extended a hand that Third WatchMaster ignored. "Commander Haget? I'm Chief Operating Officer Timmerbach."

Third WatchMaster nodded. "How do you do?" He looked down the tight passageway beyond the crew, at the passengers. "Everyone turned out?"

"With the exception of two nonhumans requiring special environments."

"This farce must cease! I demand you end this absurd imprisonment immediately!"

Third WatchMaster did not glance at the civilian. He told the nearest I & I man, "That one fails the attitude test. Make certain he's the last processed out."

"Yes sir."

"You bloody... do you know who I am?"

"No. Who you are is a matter of supreme indifference."

"You bloody well better get interested. I'm Hanhl Cholot, of House Cholot Directorate."

Sweating, red, shaking, Chief Timmerbach tried to calm his owner's representative.

Turning away, Third WatchMaster said, "STASIS, after you process the Director, hold him as a material witness. If his attitude fails to improve, we'll transfer him to VII Gemina."

Cholot's attitude improved instantly, if not sincerely. Even a first trip downside functionary ignorant of the ways of the Web knew you did not get yourself dragged aboard a Guardship if you had hopes of feeling earth beneath your feet again.

Glorious Spent was exactly like every other Traveler. The shipbuilders of House Majhellain constructed only three basic forms: the fat bulk cargo Hauler, the more common cargo/passenger Traveler, and the yachtlike Voyager for the rich. Every ship of a class was exactly like every other.

The horror Third WatchMaster found while inspecting passenger compartments was on the manifest. He had been warned by Timmerbach that Glorious Spent carried two aliens who had boarded on the Atlantean Rim. But...

It looked like a group-grope involving giant hydras and starfish atop a heap of exposed intestines. It was some sort of colonial, symbiotic intelligence. It was a methane breather, which explained why it had not turned out for the passenger muster.

It was revolting.

What the hell excuse was there for letting something that hideous run loose? What was Canon coming to?

By contrast the second alien, shimmering golden as it stared back from the corner of its cabin, seemed almost natural. Third WatchMaster did not recognize it. The manifest was vague. But its documentation was in order.

There was something calming about it. After a minute in its presence he felt relaxed and incurious. He moved on without asking a question.

I & I went over every millimeter of the Traveler. Every datum in every bank got sorted and tasted, then sifted and sniffed again. Nothing turned up. The Cholot Traveler was innocent of wrongdoing. There was only a feeble case for negligence. Any secrets there existed only in the minds of passengers or crew.

Those got sifted, too, excepting those of the aliens, for whom adequate probes were unavailable. Hanhl Cholot suffered examination three times, Third WatchMaster blandly excusing the harassment by wondering why the shape-changer had masqueraded as a child of House Cholot.

Hanhl Cholot was as stupid as the krekelen had been clever. He had believed its portrayal completely.

There was no guilty knowledge aboard. Third WatchMaster was not surprised. He had expected to learn nothing useful.

Maybe something would turn up once Gemina digested the data.

— 8 —

Turtle looked at the soldiers, shuddered, sighed. Fear dragged the cold fingers of old ghosts across his flesh. He derided himself quietly. He had nothing to fear. His documentation was genuine. Fear was for when you had to risk the other kind.

But it had been so long since he had faced the disdain and suspicion of Canon troops, so long since he had put his nerve to the test. "Getting flabby," he muttered, and stirred himself before the indecision attracted attention.

Warned he would be coming, the sentries barely glanced at his passes at the UpTown escalator. They were more troublesome at the High City lift. The garrison did not much care if terrorists reached UpTown. But the holies of the High City must be shielded by every strength at hand.

The sentries in the lift could find no excuse to deny him. After all, he had orders from Lord Askenasry.

The soldiers took no chances. One rode up with him. Two more were waiting. They bustled him into an armored carrier more jail for those inside than protection from the world outside. He saw nothing of the High City's fairy spires, half energy construction skittered by rainbows. He saw nothing of the so-perfect people on their heavenly wind-washed streets. He saw nothing but metal bulkheads and the indifferent face of a Canon trooper whose conversation ranged from sniffs to grunts.

The machine whined to a stop. Turtle's companion did not move. Turtle remained seated till the back panel dropped and a vaguely familiar old woman beckoned him. He stepped out into a sun-washed courtyard. Surrounding walls masked the rest of the High City.

"Lona, is it?" It had been many years since he had been to the High City.

"I'm Carla. Lona was my mother."

It had been a long time. And he had forgotten that the Canon lords—those who stayed ahead of their enemies—rejuvenated themselves alone, not those who served them.

This woman might not have been born when last he had visited Merod Schene High City.

Lord Askenasry was a frail old stick figure, wrinkled, so black his skin had indigo highlights. A phalanx of machines kept him breathing. He had been past his prime when last Turtle had visited, but then had been healthy and virile and in command of himself and his environment.

One other man shared the sickroom. He stood out of the way, motionless, features concealed inside a cowled black robe, arms folded, hands hidden inside his sleeves. One of the physicians of House Troqwai, the unknowns, as much priests as healers, as much a harbinger of the inevitable as a hope. Turtle was uncomfortable under the creature's impassive gaze.

He thought of it as man, but it could as well have been woman or nonhuman. There was no evidence obvious to the eye.

The stench of decay permeated the room. Time, the great assassin, rested heavily there, its presence patient and implacable. The myriad sorceries of House Troqwai could hold the killer at bay for a time that seemed unimaginable to the harried children of DownTown, but still the murmurer gnawed and clawed and insinuated its dark tentacles through cracks in the walls. There was no escape for even the rich and the powerful.

Turtle recalled Askenasry as a merry youth, rambling the sinks of DownTown with rowdy contemporaries, accumulating the debt he would have an opportunity to discharge now. All those friends had fallen already. Now he was alone of his kind, like Turtle.

His eyes were open in slits. They tracked Turtle without emotion or apparent interest.

"I have come."

Askenasry's response came from a machine, a laryngal whisper amplified. "You have taken your time." His words came in little rattle-tat bursts interspersed with soft coughing.

"I have come before."

"At my insistence. Refusing payment for a service."

The argument was ancient. Turtle refused the bait. Let the man fade into the darkness not understanding that he would have helped anyone that faraway night. The ancient did not need the strain of a clash of philosophical sabers. "I have come now."

"To collect? At last?"

"Yes."

"What is it? Passage? Credit? Documentation?"

"No. I want you to save some hotheaded young fools from the consequences of their foolishness. As I once saved other youngsters from their foolishness."

Askenasry stared the grey steel stare that had made him so intimidating in his prime.

"A krekelen came to Merod Schene. It carried the old whisper of rebellion. There were ears to hear it. And now there are hands to dabble at revolution."

"The krekelen were exterminated when I was a pup."

"A krekelen came. I saw it."

Askenasry did not argue. "Where is this fabulous monster now?"

"Aboard the Cholot Traveler Glorious Spent bound for P. Jaksonica 3. Cholot Varagona."

Disbelief faded to doubt in old grey eyes. "What do you want?"

"This time they call themselves the Concord. They have the usual plan for taking down the High City and making a punitive landing impossible by seizing the garrison arsenal. They are immune to reason. They do not believe in Guardships. I want you to whisper in the right ears. I want them forestalled till the Guardship comes."

"What Guardship?"

"The Guardship that will come after the krekelen tries landing on P. Jaksonica. Cholot Varagona lies under the Ban."

"This is all you require?"

"It is enough. Lives for lives."

"I have no power these days."

"People still listen when you speak, Lord."

"You would be surprised at their deafness."

"I doubt it. Your species' indifference to reason ceased to amaze me long before you were born. Let the garrison make a show of force. Let them round up known instigators. Let the boot rest heavily. Let it cause a howl. But stop the nonsense. So there will be a Merod Schene when the Guardship goes its way."

The old man did not respond. His eyes had closed. For a moment Turtle feared he had wasted his passion. He looked at the Troqwai, appealing....

The physician did not move. Turtle relaxed. The killer had not come. Otherwise the magician would have been plying his artifices. House Troqwai gave no quarter when it wrestled Death.

Lord Askenasry's eyes opened. He struggled after a smile. "I'll do what I can. To repay you, not because I give a damn what happens DownTown."

"I understood that before I came. Your motive is not important so long as you do the deed." Turtle offered a slight bow, added that little propitiating gesture of crossed fingers expected by the Troqwai, backed from the room.

The physician moved toward his charge as though floating. He bent to look into the old man's eyes.

Carla took Turtle to the carrier. Soldiers hustled him aboard. He saw nothing of the High City going home, either.

— 9 —

Tension chained knots of muscle across Third WatchMaster's shoulder and up the back of his neck. He lusted after another relaxant, dared not indulge. Another would turn him goofy.

It was the intimidating judicial formality of Hall of Decision. He hoped the inquestors would discover no reason to interrogate him.

Hall of Decision had been opened for the first time in decades. The Deified had come down from their screens and donned hologramatic guises.

Third WatchMaster shared the witness dock with the krekelen (wrung dry by I & I and passive as a potato), the soldier who had captured the beast, her battalion commander, several citizens of Cholot Varagona DownTown, Chief Timmerbach, Magnahs, and Director Otten. Facing them on a lone elevated throne was the avatar of the Deified Kole Marmigus, nominal master of VII Gemina. True power resided in the Dictats, enthroned at either side of Marmigus at a lower elevation. Marmigus's main function was to oversee the annual election of the pair who commanded the Guardship.

Significantly, one Dictat's throne was empty. Hanaver Strate had chosen to sit as WarAvocat, centering the rank of three thrones below those of the Dictats. He was unwilling to maintain a Dictat's objectivity.

Banks of thrones to the sides of the Hall were occupied by the Deified. This was the first Third WatchMaster had seen them all together.

So many! Hundreds upon hundreds.... But three millennia was time enough for countless deifications.

Third's gaze crossed that of the soldier who had captured the krekelen. She was tense and bewildered, out of her depth.

The ceremonials in honor of the tutelary ended. The Deified Kole Marmigus rose. "That's the folderol out of the way. Let's dispose of the cut and dried so we can get to the entertaining part."

Third WatchMaster was astonished. Marmigus alive had had a reputation for informality and irreverence, but in a formal inquiry dignity was mandatory.

"Up first, disposition of the krekelen. There is no ambiguity in the law. The damned things were judged useless. The only thing we can do is kill it. But WarAvocat has petitioned for a stay. He may be able to use it against those who loosed it. Anybody object? No? WarAvocat, you've got your pet."

Hanaver Strate was playing a strong hand these days, getting elected Dictat while he was still alive, getting this without demur from the contentious Deified.

"Next item. Disposition of the Cholot Traveler Glorious Spent. I and I and STASIS can't fabricate a case for detaining the vessel. Its Chief has asked that the quarantine be lifted."

Third WatchMaster snapped to attention, clicked his heels, shot a fist into the air.

"Commander Haget?" WarAvocat offered the recognition.

"Deified sirs. Stipulating that nothing concrete has been established, nevertheless I wish to insist that there is something very wrong aboard the Traveler."

Timmerbach cursed.

WarAvocat beamed down at Third WatchMaster.

Intuition had done him right.

Others looked at him like he was a treacherous shill for WarCrew.

Strate asked, "What disturbs you, Commander? The aliens?"

"Yes, sir."

"Isn't their documentation in order?"

"It's impeccable, what there is of it. But it's awfully thin."

"Exactly! Thank you, Commander." WarAvocat continued, but Third WatchMaster could not hear him. A pillow of silence had fallen upon the witness dock.

Timmerbach continued grumbling against fate in general and no one in particular.

WarAvocat appeared to be making an impassioned statement against resistance from the Deified. That made no sense. Arguments could be battled out in the electronic realm in picoseconds.

The truth struck him as a pair of shipboard security types entered the silence to fetter the krekelen. WarAvocat and Deified, krekelen and witnesses, all were part of a dramatization for slower biological minds. If any crew were watching.

"Sir?"

"Yes?" A sinking feeling. More security types had appeared.

"WarAvocat would like you to join him in his quarters. Will you accompany us, please?"

Third WatchMaster turned, marched, mind numb.

— 10 —

Simon Tregesser kicked his closed personal grav sled across Central Staff's vast Information Center, came to a hover behind Lupo Provik. He turned up the gain on his prosthetic eyes, still could not make out what interested his strategist. "Fresh data, Lupo?"

A hint of exasperation faded from Provik's features as he turned. His plain face, shelled by ginger hair, assumed its habitual cool blandness. Only blue-grey eyes hard as diamond drillheads betrayed the man within. "The new gun platform just broke away. We've started siphoning the intelligence packet."

No honorific. Never an honorific from Lupo. Simon would tolerate that from no one else. But Lupo's loyalty did not need to be compelled or paid for in the coin of terror. Provik had been with him all his life. Provik had masterminded the gambit by which he had rid himself of a tyrannical and sadistic father. Provik found those subtle traps in Valerena's schemes his own genius overlooked. As bodyguard Provik had lapsed only once. And for that, unforgiving Simon Tregesser had forgiven him.

Simon did not understand Lupo Provik but willingly used and even liked the man, in his odd way. Lupo was as courageous, merciless, remorseless, and brilliant as Simon Tregesser imagined himself to be. And he was no threat. He had suffered one defensive lapse. Offensively he had been invincible.

Simon most appreciated the fact that Lupo was not intimidated by Guardships. Few were they of whom that could be said.

"Anything exciting?"

"Standard fare. Antiquated Guardship sightings. Nothing tagged for special attention." Provik was trying to create a model of Guardship movements. After years of work he could guess the whereabouts of six with a fifty-fifty chance of being right.

Easily disappointed, Tregesser drifted away. He spat curses at a pod of Chtrai'el-i computer technicians.

Aliens! Outsiders everywhere! Central Staff was infested. But it was impossible to recruit humans with balls enough to try it with the Guardships. Guts and determination! That was the recipe for accomplishing the impossible.

A vagrant curiosity ambled the surface of his mind. How many of these monsters were agents of what passed for Houses Outside? Most, probably. But it would not matter. Lupo would see to that.

Provik watched his employer drift away. He felt no irritation anymore. He had no feeling at all. Simon Tregesser was a device, a mask, a tool, the means whereby Lupo Provik worked his will upon a universe that must be manipulated with the tongues and fingers of the lords of great Houses. Simon Tregesser had his allegiance and protection so long as he shared a passion for empire building.

From the outside it appeared that Lupo Provik had no other passions. From the outside it seemed that Lupo Provik had no weaknesses or vulnerabilities. From the outside it appeared that Lupo had neither friends nor loves. From the outside it seemed he did not believe he was missing anything.

From the outside.

Central Staff was of a magnitude in keeping with its mission. In the slowest hours of third shift, five hundred beings were on duty in Info Center, controlling the forces outside. Financing had come from the same sources as most personnel. Outsiders desperately wanted to break the Guardships' deathgrip on the Canon Web.

Simon Tregesser managed one of his smiles. Valerena failed to appreciate a genius that got others to pay the freight and set them up to take the fall.

Tregesser stared from an observation blister, watching the new ship. It would come to Central to have Guardship-grade shielding installed—and its ability to get back on the Web removed.

When the Guardship came, no one would have the option of retreat.

"Simon."

Tregesser withdrew his attention from the gunship. "Yes, Lupo?"

"One interesting datum did come in the intelligence packet."

Tregesser waited.

"XII Fulminata came off the Web at C. Payantica. It stayed only an hour, then climbed back on, presumably bound for Starbase Tulsa. This is the first sighting of XII Fulminata in sixteen years."

"It couldn't be the easy way." Tregesser glared at the gunship. XII Fulminata! "Starbase is only a dozen anchor points from P. Jaksonica, isn't it?"

"Yes."

"It would suit the drama of the thing, wouldn't it?"

"There's no cause to assume XII Fulminata will take the trail. But the possibility now exists."

"Does that change anything?"

"No. XII Fulminata carries no more firepower than any other Guardship."

"It would be one of the crazy ones," Tregesser mused. There was no response. He rotated his chair.

Lupo was headed back to work, satisfied that XII Fulminata's reputation would not stall the project.

Tregesser snorted. He could not stop it if he wanted to.

Simon Tregesser suffered one nagging worry. The reliability of the thing secreted down below. Its great value was an ability to know what was happening countless stars away. As promised, it had known when the bait's Traveler had broken off the Web at P. Jaksonica....

It had delivered no news since.

Tregesser was... concerned. As was the monster, he knew. It responded strangely when pressed. Something was wrong.

He ought to get down and check. Lupo's news was not reassuring. XII Fulminata, indeed!

He keyed a signal to Noah to ready the bell.

Time to shed this damned toy, anyway. Nothing could make it comfortable.

Lupo glanced up as Tregesser drifted into the lift to his hideaway. He blinked as though trying to clear smoke from his eyes. "Be back in a few minutes," he told his staffers. He activated his beeper and headed for the shipping docks.

Valerena had asked to see him before she left.

— 11 —

Five people were there with the serving robot: Third WatchMaster, the female soldier, Timmerbach, Magnahs, and Otten. Third WatchMaster stared at the deck and rummaged his mind for what he had done. Only Otten and Magnahs conversed.

Hanaver Strate walked in, flashed a grin. "Everyone comfortable? Had refreshments?"

Only the soldier had the nerve to respond. "Sir, what did we do?"

WarAvocat looked baffled. Then, "I see. You're wrong. It's not disciplinary. I intend deploying you against whoever sent the krekelen to catch a Guardship's attention."

"Sir? Someone sent it?"

"So the Deified say. The krekelen was a telepathically linked communal beast originally. The isolated individual became a low-grade moron that could be programmed like a robot. Our krekelen was programmed to give itself away."

"Isn't that a little unsubtle?"

"Only fools would expect us not to be suspicious. Someone wants us to react. Probably to backtrack.

"We have an advantage. Chance placed us here when the incident occurred. That puts us two and a half months ahead, that being optimum turnaround when a call goes out for a Guardship. Commander Haget, let's assess the I and I reports and see if we can't find a basis for your outburst."

Magnahs, Otten, and Timmerbach gave him dark looks.

"I'm sorry, sir," Haget said.

"The interruption was useful and timely. Saved me doing it myself."

"There wasn't anything solid, sir. Just my conviction that there was something wrong."

"Intuition?"

"It was more that I couldn't manage an interrogation. Whenever I tried the methane breather, I became so repelled I fled."

"But you went back."

"And ran again."

"And went back again. But I won't argue about standards you set yourself. What about the other one?"

"It bothers me more. The methane breather is a creepy-crawlie. The other seemed all right. It didn't bother me. But I never got around to getting anything from it."

WarAvocat asked Timmerbach, "Did your people have similar experiences?"

"Yes, sir. I even ended up moving all passengers off B Deck. They couldn't stand it near the methane breather."

"The other one?"

"No problem. It didn't socialize. It just wanted to look at the worlds we visited."

"Hunh. Commander Haget. Where did they come from? The methane breather has a commercially arranged temporary courier's credentials. The other has a Treaty World diplomatic pass."

"Gemina didn't know the methane breather, sir, and only that there's a Closed Treaty arrangement with the homeworld of the other, the one the Travelers know as Seeker of the Lost Children."

"Sounds like a job description."

Third WatchMaster shrugged. "The methane breather calls itself Messenger. Seeker's home is the Closed Treaty System M. Meddinia, which is in the Sixth Presidency, near the Atlantean Rim. It's a fixture on the commercial runs in the Sixth and Second Presidencies. It's been traveling without a destination for several hundred years. Like the Chief says, it's unsociable. But it pays well to be carried around and left alone."

WarAvocat nodded. "Thin. What about the other one?"

"A colonial intelligence previously unknown in Canon space. Even ships that trade Outside didn't know it. It boarded at A. Chancelorii 3B on open itinerary."

WarAvocat nodded. "Chief Timmerbach. Aren't the Manesa Systems, S.L. Manesica and B.L. Manesia, in the same Presidency as A. Chancelorii and M. Meddinia?"

"They're neighbors, sir. All part of the same cluster. The Web there is a tangle, there are so many interconnections between anchor points."

"And though it didn't cross paths with you till V. Rothica, the krekelen began its odyssey on the Cholot world S.L. Manesica 7. Interesting."

The Chief just shrugged.

WarAvocat leaned back, steepled his fingers. "The Deified say the chance of a connection between at least two of the aliens is close to unity."

Third WatchMaster had begun to relax. He had done a good job. No blame on him if he could not find data that did not exist. Might even be a good mark when advancement reviews came up....The way WarAvocat looked at him aborted his confidence.

Strate was going to shaft him.

WarAvocat's thin lips stretched in what he thought was a comradely smile. "It won't be as bad as you think. You could end up elected to WarCrew without loss of grade."

What the hell? "Sir?"

"I thought you'd see it. The Deified want to go after this one. VII Gemina is headed for V. Rothica. While we're charging around looking for the krekelen's masters, I want you and a team with Glorious Spent."

"Me and a team? Sir?"

The soldier got it first. "Shee-it!" she muttered.

"I'm going to put you aboard the Cholot Traveler. The Sergeant will go along. You'll stay out of sight. Legwork will be handled by people we'll borrow from P. Jaksonica 3B STASIS on a TAD contract. Otten, I want three good ops, preferably volunteers."

Often's thoughts left specters on his face.

WarAvocat continued, "The krekelen will be reprogrammed, set into Cholot shape, and put back aboard Glorious Spent."

Magnahs, Otten, and Timmerbach sputtered. Klass swore softly. Timmerbach found his voice first. "Sir! You can't do this!"

"We can and will, Chief. You'll be paid for your trouble. Might even be a lifting of the Ban on some Cholot systems. Can you cry about that?"

Timmerbach could but kept his mouth shut.

WarAvocat said, "Consider the circumstantial evidence. The krekelen started from a Cholot world and ended up on one, made the last leg from a Merod world disguised as a Cholot, carrying Cholot documentation, aboard a Cholot Traveler, accompanied by a member of the Cholot Directorate. Suppose you were dealing with IX Furia?"

Timmerbach blanched.

IX Furia's style was to shoot first and forget about questions. Or, some said, to shoot first and then shoot the survivors.

WarAvocat said, "Thank you for coming. Commander Haget, you and the Sergeant get your kits together. You'll find sealed orders at departure bay. I'll talk to the Station Master, Director, and Chief while you're getting ready."

Those three did not look delighted.

Third WatchMaster shambled toward the exit, deflated. He wished he could extinguish himself in drink or drugs. The soldier said something he did not catch. He grunted, trudged toward his quarters. There were people who would kill for this opportunity. But they had to send him.

It felt more like punishment than reward.

— 12 —

The wind licked and pranced through the ruins, muttering and chuckling. Superstitious DownTowners thought the ruins haunted. The wind carried voices that said something if you listened closely.

It carried dust and leaves, too. The dust kept getting behind Turtle's nictating membranes. "I'd forgotten what it was like out here," he told a squat Immune called Lonesome Mike. "Midnight can't come outside alone."

Lonesome Mike grunted. He was no conversationalist. He had not become Immune because of brainpower.

Turtle stared across the barrens at Merod Schene. "Looks like a dream city from here. Can't see DownTown at all."

It was the sort of view that ended up in tourist lures, Merod Schene glittering against the tapestry of a creeping orange sky, the High City wavering like seaweed amongst hurrying chubby clouds.

"How long we got to stay in that hole, Turtle?"

They had moved into the headquarters bunker of an archeological dig abandoned when an attitude shift among the House Merod Directors had cut off funds. It was comfortable but primitive. Lonesome Mike objected because he felt isolated from the action.

"Till we find out if Lord Askenasry can get out the garrison. Maybe only a few days. If he fails, we wait it out."

Turtle figured at least three months before the Guardship came. The Immunes had laid in supplies for six. No point worrying the future beyond that. What would be would be decided by then.

The day began fading. UpTown grew sparkly. Then its lights were overwhelmed by the fairy fires of the High City. Turtle stared a while, motionless as the old block on which he sat. Then he went below for supper and the day's rancorous exchange with an emissary from the Concord.

Those fools flat refused to take no for an answer. As long as the Immunes rejected Concord, half the population of DownTown did. Turtle expected overt threats soon.

That was the night Amber Soul sent the messenger scurrying, heart ready to burst with terror.

Three nights in succession the Concord fools threw the darkest denizens of DownTown at the ruins. Three nights in succession Amber Soul sent them flying.

"As if murdering us will sell the justice of their cause," Turtle said. "Just it may be, but it's doomed. They never see that. They never think. And they never learn."

It was the fourth night. Shouts rolled down from the watchers. "Here we go again," Turtle grumped. "This time we send them home carrying their heads under their arms."

Amber Soul touched him. It is not that. Lord Askenasry failed.

"Damn!" Turtle raced to the surface.

The violence of the explosions was sufficient to send muted thunders tramping fifteen kilometers to the ruins. The elfin towers of the High City listed thirty degrees.

"They didn't have sense enough to sheer the mooring cables."

"Or couldn't."

"It's going to drop on UpTown."

The disaster was a long time coming, but come it did, the High City settling onto UpTown, UpTown's supports collapsing. Turtle imagined screams running with the thunder. "I'm going to pack."

"What for?"

"We have to go do what we can for the survivors."

"Not tonight." That was Lonesome Mike. "Tonight they're going to be evening scores."

True. Hell would be in session over there. It had to run its course.

All day a carrion bird of smoke perched on the bones of Merod Schene. With night's fall fires reddened the bird's belly. Turtle stared while the Immunes gathered for the long hike. Midnight complained softly, to no one but herself.

The grandfather of all fireworks shells burst over the dying city.

"Nuclear!" somebody yelled. "The blast wave..."

"No!" Turtle snapped. "There will be no blast wave. Nor any sound."

"But..."

"That was a Guardship breaking off the Web. They're here."

"How could they be?" Midnight demanded. "You said it would take months."

"It didn't. One must have been at P. Jaksonica. Or near enough to summon quickly. People, get back in the bunker. And pray it isn't I Primagenia."

— 13 —

WarAvocat stared at the wall. The data painted a grim picture. "Communications. Anything from V. Rothica station?"

"Affirmative, WarAvocat. A warning loop on a STASIS emergency band. General broadcast. Not a beam or pulse."

"Been a long time," WarAvocat said to First WatchMaster while awaiting data sufficient to determine the number of soldiers to waken.

Overhead, the Deified fussed and bickered, ignored.

"Move ship toward station," WarAvocat directed. The visual showed the big wheel naked of shipping.

"Planetary-based insurrections seldom intrude upon off-planet operations," Kole Marmigus observed from above.

"This one has. Probe?"

"There are people alive in there, sir. We're not yet close enough to distinguish their loyalties."

WarAvocat cast a sharp glance around.

"I'll handle that, sir," First WatchMaster said.

"Let it go."

"I can't let my people smart off to their superiors."

"Forget it." WarAvocat's gaze locked on the wall. It was bad down below. "Access. Hall of the Soldiers. Warm one regimental combat team for surface action."

A voice called, "WarAvocat, a small vessel just left station. Looks insystem. A miner or something."

"Very well."

Probe added, "There's nothing alive aboard it, sir."

"Headed this way, sir."

"Very well." A gnat. "We'll need people to clear the insurrectionists off station. Deified. Any advice? We've not boarded a station in my memory."

The Deified had access to everything Gemina knew. Also, it was politic to consult them occasionally.

"That miner is accelerating at nine gravs, sir," First WatchMaster noted.

"Very well."

Kole Marmigus said, "We suggest a battalion for the assault, WarAvocat."

"That many?"

"There are corridors and passages to be held behind the shock force." The Deified vanished. Station schematics replaced him, tactically significant points marked by red dots.

"More complex than I anticipated." Strate accessed Hall of the Soldiers and ordered appropriate forces warmed.

"Thirty seconds to impact, WarAvocat."

"Very well. Put the show on the wall. Split it with one view an approximation of what they'll see from station."

Two views appeared. One portrayed the wheel of the station, a slim sliver of distant moon, and the onrushing miner. In the other a huge, dingy white, slightly flattened lozenge crawled across the starscape, the miner dwindling toward its immensity.

"Ten seconds to impact."

"Battle screen maximum," WarAvocat ordered.

In the exterior view the Guardship vanished behind an oily shimmer

"Five seconds to impact. Three. Two. One."

Both views died in a storm of light.

Then in the exterior view the Guardship ploughed through the nuclear fury. The great terror had not so much as shivered.

WarAvocat chuckled. "For a second, there, they were cheering over yonder." His humor vanished. "Let's take it before they purge the data banks."

"Are we taking prisoners?"

"I see no point, beyond SOP for interrogation. Deified?"

The Deified held their tongues. Thumbs down for the heroes of V. Rothica.

VII Gemina launched the assault battalion, then turned and followed other assault craft already headed for Merod Schene.

— 14 —

Jo Klass composed herself before leaving her cabin for the social compartment dividing the suite. Commander Haget waited there, seated at attention. She supposed he was uncomfortable too, but she did not commiserate. The man was insufferable. He dealt with everything according to regulations.

Or tried. There were none to govern this. He was going crazy without precedents and rulings.

"Good morning, Commander."

"Good morning, Sergeant. The others will join us momentarily."

The STASIS people shared a similar suite on another deck. They were as enthused about the morning meeting as Jo was. Pointless. They could report if something happened.

Degas and AnyKaat, who practiced the quaint old custom of marriage, knocked and entered. AnyKaat was the more outgoing. She was a lumpy, overly wide-bottomed, stringy-haired dishwater blonde in her late twenties. She had washed-out blue eyes, a ready smile, and was too cheerful for her profession. Jo liked her. She was not sure about Degas.

Degas had wavy black hair, olive skin, dark eyes, and was two centimeters shorter than AnyKaat. He did not talk much. He was a technical sort, more at ease with things than people. He had a fawning manner that made Jo feel he was trying to excuse himself for being or trying to sneak up on something.

Jo suspected AnyKaat was grateful for this chance to travel. She seemed to be the only real volunteer. Degas had come to keep up with her. Era Vadja might have come under orders.

"Good morning," AnyKaat said, brightly.

Commander Haget responded with a calculated nod.

"Era?" Jo asked. She did most of the talking. Haget apparently considered even Era Vadja, a Canon reserve light Colonel and second assistant STASIS Director at P. Jaksonica 3B, beneath direct notice by one as exalted as himself.

Sometimes Jo wanted to bust him one.

AnyKaat shrugged. "Sticking his nose in somewhere. He'll turn up."

Haget frowned. Punctuality was one of his fetishes.

"Anything to tell?" Jo asked.

AnyKaat shook her head. But Degas growled, "There's a thing called Hanhl Cholot that's going to turn up with broken bones if he don't keep his hands to himself."

"Don't fuss yourself," AnyKaat said. "I'll handle him."

Jo had had her own encounter. She thought of asking for details but Era Vadja came in. Without knocking. Haget reddened.

"Sorry I'm late. Seeker was on the move. Thought I'd better stick."

Haget's mood shifted. "What happened?" Neither monster had moved before. The methane breather could not, of course.

"Not much. It went and stood in front of Messenger's door for twenty minutes. Then the krekelen's for ten. Then it went home."

Haget grunted. "Circumstantial confirmation of WarAvocat's hypothetical connection. How do we find the lie of it?"

Vadja said, "I got the feeling Seeker was not friendly toward Messenger. For what a feeling is worth."

"Worth as much as anything on this job."

Jo wondered if she had been chosen to balance Haget. She had gotten into it occasionally because she had a tendency to improvise.

Someone knocked. Commander Haget pointed the STASIS trio toward Jo's room. "Answer it." He retreated into his own cabin.

Jo gasped when she found herself face to face with Hanhl Cholot. "What are you doing here?"

He tried to grab her. His face darkened when she retreated.

Then he froze. The color left him. He stared. Jo noticed his pupils. He was on Jane.

Haget's eyes were steel. "Your manners still lack polish, Cholot. Maybe we should have concentrated on them more."

Degas came out, popping a fist into a palm. He wore his best STASIS scowl.

"You will forget you entered this suite. You will forget you saw anyone here," Haget said. "In fact, you will return to your quarters and stay there. Do you understand? Or do you require instruction more direct than what you got at P. Jaksonica?"

Jo had seen frightened people but none more frightened than Cholot. Even so, she did not trust his terror. He was too used to having his own way.

Era Vadja said, "That man could be trouble. He sits around brooding; he'll think up ways to cause us grief."

"Maybe," Haget admitted. "And maybe he'll find all he can handle. Klass. Keep an eye on him."

There was another knock. This one was diffident.

"Now what?" Haget pointed toward cover again.

Jo found Chief Timmerbach twitching in the passage. "I need to see the Commander."

She stepped aside. Timmerbach moved past like a man marching to his own execution. Haget came out. "What is it?"

"Problems with the Web. We may shift to an alternate strand next anchor point. This one has begun to sag and mist. It shows feathering, too."

"Presence?"

"No feel of it yet. But we're running with the feathering."

"You've slowed ship?"

"To a crawl."

"Very well. I don't expect there's anything I can do."

"There never was anything anybody could do. I just wanted you to know we might fall behind schedule." He fled.

Haget observed, "A dozen ships a year disappear on the Web."

But never a Guardship, Jo reflected. Whatever it was, it did not trifle with the invincible.

— 15 —

Valerena glimpsed motion down the corridor. "He decided to come."

Blessed said, "This is pointless. You can't suborn Lupo. You can't even make Grandfather think you suborned him. Lupo is the one man he trusts. And with good reason."

"What do you know? You're still a child."

"I know you can't reach Simon Tregesser without going through Lupo Provik. Lupo can't be bought. If you can't bribe Lupo, you have to kill him. And he won't let you."

Valerena sneered. She was sure every man had his weakness or price. "What course would you suggest, beloved child?"

"Patience."

"Patience? What kind of suggestion is that?"

"Simon Tregesser is old. He has physical problems. Let time do the dirty work."

"He speaks more wisely than I expected." Lupo Provik skewered Valerena with the ice of his devil eyes. "You wanted to see me?"

Valerena shivered. That look. It haunted her. It seemed she had faced it before. "What is your price, Lupo?"

"I'm priceless, Valerena."

Blessed giggled.

Valerena stifled her anger. "There's no hope you'd help me take control?"

"None."

"And you'd resist me if I tried?"

"Of course. But you have no need. Your father isn't immortal."

"What will you do when he dies?"

"Go on. My second loyalty is to the House."

"Would that be true if my father didn't die of natural causes?"

"When the man is dead, he's dead. I'll defend him but not his ghost. I'm no avenger. I'm a tactician and strategist." What might have been a smile tugged at his mouth.

"I see. Maybe you're right. Maybe I should curb my impatience. I do have all but the final power now, don't I?"

"Indeed. Your father has indulged your every whim. Occasionally he's regretted that."

"And will you support me as devoutly, Lupo?" Blessed asked.

Valerena shot him a venomous look.

"Of course."

"That will be all, Lupo," Valerena snapped. "I just wanted to make sure of what I already knew."

Provik responded with a slight bow. As he departed, he reiterated, "Be patient, Valerena. It's the safer course."

He was gone. She spun on Blessed. "You'd better watch that sarcastic mouth."

"Yes, Mother. What now? I can't picture you taking advice just because it's good."

Valerena glared. "Contrary to what you and they believe, there are pathways to my father that don't lead through Lupo Provik."

Blessed smiled at her taut back as she stamped away.

— 16 —

The first refugees reached the ruins soon after the uprising began. The Immunes accepted them though that meant a drain on resources. After the retreat to the bunker occasioned by that furious starburst, though, Turtle announced, "We accept no more fugitives."

Lady Midnight, who could find charity toward a viper, asked, "Why not?"

"Because we're going to get hit by a flood. And some will be Concordians. We don't want them around when the Guardship soldiers come. They assume guilt by association. They shoot if there's a doubt. The point of coming out here was to survive."

Midnight argued against turning anyone away. "These are the people who terrorized you! Amber Soul. Come with me."

The fugitives came. Amber Soul drove them away. But before they arrived, the sky opened and rained sparks on Merod Schene.

The brightest object in the nighttime sky, after the moon, had been the station, stationary above the equator south of Merod Schene. But now there was a brighter object. "The Guardship," Turtle said.

It must be huge.

"It's bigger than anything you can imagine humans building."

A few hairs of fire reached for the rain of sparks. A pathetic few. Most of the garrison's arsenal had been destroyed in the city's collapse.

"Can you sense the city?" Turtle asked.

Only as a great fester of fear and pain.

Explosions limned the horizon and illuminated the bellies of scattered small clouds. "The last gasp of the Concord," Turtle guessed. "A booby trap no doubt sprung prematurely. This race never learns."

The Guardships learn. Do they not?

"The Guardships are immortal. They do not have to re-learn lessons every generation."

But they grow more nearly mad.

"Some have gone strange," Turtle admitted. "Some have grown impatient and terrible, like vengeful old gods. But mostly they just do what they were created to do—with an efficiency that must keep the ghosts of their designers in a turmoil. Those old pirates didn't figure they would have to toe the mark, too."

"You know a lot about them, don't you?" Midnight had come out. Lonesome Mike anchored her against the wind.

"Knowing them is my life's work."

"You respect them. But you would put an end to them if you could. Wouldn't you?"

"They have kept the peace and expanded its frontiers for four thousand years, but at the expense of most of humanity and all of everyone else. The wellsprings of power have become frozen. End some things, yes, I would. But I would not alter the inability of the Houses, or anyone else, to rampage across the Web."

Lonesome Mike grunted. "I can think of ways to play conquerer without going head-on with the Guardships."

"If you can, someone else has and it's been done. Everything has been thought of and tried. What works without being crushed by the Guardships or Canon forces is too difficult and expensive for most Houses."

"And you would end the peace," Midnight accused.

"No. I would end the misery, the rigidity, the stasis."

"By bringing on the chaos?"

Amber Soul kept them invisible for a while. They sat in the rusty sunlight and watched scout flits run game through the barrens. They watched glimmering assault craft hasten off to secure the rest of the world.

"Concord didn't put up much of a fight," Lonesome Mike said.

"One regiment to conquer a world," Turtle muttered. "I wonder which Guardship it is? Guess we'll find out."

The soldiers, when they came, were as invisible to Turtle as he was to them. Amber Soul alerted him. They are close. But I cannot fix them.

Turtle studied the terrain toward the city. Soon he discerned the unnatural twitchings of brush and stirrings of dust that marked the advance.

"Careful buggers," Lonesome Mike grumped.

"It's not efficient to expose yourself to needless risk. Amber Soul. Tell everyone to sit still, hands in their laps. Then let the mask fall."

He had hoped the soldiers would not come but had not expected to be overlooked.

A massive battle suit flicked into existence a few meters away. Turtle stared into the mouth of a weapon for a moment, then looked for the soldier's tutelary emblem.

"What's funny?" Lonesome Mike demanded.

"It's VII Gemina."

"Is that good?" Midnight asked.

"It could be a lot worse. You'll be all right. They'll be fair."

But his heart sank on his own behalf.

— 17 —

"Station is secure," the air told WarAvocat. Strate had moved to WarCentral, brain and heart of VII Gemina in combat. It made no difference where he was physically, but his presence there had symbolic value.

"Loyal personnel have been liberated. Little damage was done the physical plant."

"The data banks?"

"Sound and secure, sir."

"Very good. Prisoners?"

"Five percent per SOP. Random sample."

"Very good." WarAvocat preened. "Prep station for return to service. Send the captives over. What's your casualty status?"

"Zero for Medical. They weren't set for a real fight."

"Excellent." WarAvocat turned his attention to the world below, where operations were going as smoothly. Rabble never put up a fight against professionals.

That could take care of itself. He needed rest. He went to the space reserved, said, "Access, WarCentral furnishings. Close the WarAvocat's night room." Fantasy walls snapped into existence. "Give me a bed."

The floor crept, coalesced, softened, rose. Hanaver Strate stretched himself out. He fell asleep in seconds.

A soft buzz wakened Strate. "Yes?"

"Noon reports from Peacekeeper One, WarAvocat."

"Very well." He rose, smoothed his apparel, ran thin, bony fingers through his hair. Two hours here was worth six in a normal bed. Gemina reached in and reworked the sleeping body, eased the tensions, hastened the outflow of fatigue poisons.

Noon reports. Merod Schene's day ran only a few hours ahead of VII Gemina's. It would be early afternoon down there, just twelve hours after the first troops grounded.

An aide awaited Strate, walked with him. "No bad news?"

"No bad news, sir. Peacekeeper One is ahead of schedule with casualties nominal. The insurrectionists were unable to acquire significant portions of the garrison arsenal. Merod Schene is ninety percent secure. I and I have begun sifting survivors. Peacekeeper One has requested hospital and reconstruction units. He's dispatched his primary combat forces to satellite towns, mineheads and agricultural complexes where the insurrectionists routed the authorities. Our speed in recovering those facilities seems limited to the speed of personnel carriers in atmosphere at six hundred thirty millibars."

WarAvocat awarded the joke a chuckle. He seated himself at his command station. "Review noon reports," he told his desk.

The operation constituted an exercise. Most casualties had come accidentally, not by enemy action. He was into the I & I data before he found anything interesting. "Deified? Question."

His fellow Dictat, Ansehl Ronygos, materialized on a small screen. "Yes?"

"What's an Immune?"

"Immune is an honorary title from the lower social orders, usually indicating an unofficial magistrate. An Immune has no legal standing but his word acts like law. Most Immunes are too strong, too tough, or too crazy to meddle with. Occasionally one is proclaimed for wisdom or artistic value. Immunity indicates a popular consensus that an individual be exempt from the hazards of lawlessness."

"Apparently the Immunes of Merod Schene opposed the insurrection."

"Yes."

"They tried to give warning that a blowup was coming."

"Yes."

"And the Deified are interested in these Immunes?"

"In one in particular. Possibly."

WarAvocat awaited clarification. None was forthcoming. Sometimes the Deified were that way.

He released the requested hospital and construction units, then reviewed the data from station. He gleaned seven prior visas issued to the krekelen. Two had not been known to Glorious Spent, nor recalled by the beast itself. The additions gave WarAvocat a solid picture of VII Gemina's future course.

He hoped VII Gemina would not have to clean up every world along the way.

"Access, Peacekeeper One."

The commander of the landing force came back in seconds. "Yes, WarAvocat?"

"You have custody of locals called Immunes?"

"Yes, sir."

"The Deified are interested. Send them up."

"Will do, WarAvocat."

Hanaver Strate leaned back, closed his eyes, tried to imagine what those electronic spooks were up to now.

The night terminator had reached Merod Schene before the detainees arrived. WarAvocat inquired, "Deified, where do you want to interview the detainees?"

"Hall of Decision."

Startled, he examined the speaker. He did not know her. Her apparel proclaimed her one of the oldest Deified. First Millennium.

Strate reached Hall of Decision before the detainees. The old-time Deified were very interested. He spied several who had not appeared for the show with the krekelen and Commander Haget. Many lost interest in the outer reality after a few centuries in Gemina's bosom.

What brought them out now?

One awed junior officer delivered the detainees to Strate as the only living being present. "What's wrong with that one?" WarAvocat asked, indicating a woman in apparent catatonia.

"I don't know, sir. About seventy klicks out she started screaming. Then that."

"I see."

"The others didn't know what was wrong."

"Uhm?" Strate ordered an envelope of silence and a security shield, then climbed to his Dictat's throne. He considered the detainees. With one exception they seemed overwhelmed.

"Deified? You wished to examine these... people?" It was hard to regard them that way.

Ansehl Ronygos suggested, "Relax the silence."

Strate reiterated the request as an order. The system would have responded to Ronygos directly, but the Deified liked to nag the living for having introduced unbreakable routines that prevented them from issuing edicts and making decisions without the consent of the living.

VII Gemina was trying to avoid troubles that had befallen other Guardships. XII Fulminata, without restraints upon its Deified, had gone cold and weird, ruthless, merciless, and almost suicidally fearless. IV Trajana was the spookiest of all Guardships, having subsumed its crew completely. Afterward, it had climbed onto the Web and been heard from again only briefly during the Enherrenraat incident.

Some thought IV Trajana was hunting the Presence that lived on the Web and appeared to be responsible for the disappearance of so many ships. Possibly. Ages ago VI Adjutrix had gone seeking the ends of the Web, which extended far beyond Canon space.

Ronygos said, "Let's have their names and origins."

The young officer hurried through the list. With one exception they were aliens or artifacts. How did the aliens get to V. Rothica 4? Were phantom Travelers a problem again?

Several First Millennium Deified descended upon the detainees. They surrounded the one who seemed unimpressed. Then the old spooks just stood there staring.

WarAvocat checked the detainee's number. "Access, Gemina. Review the file on detainee number five."

A whisper in his ear: "Name, Turtle. Origin: Alien, species uncertain, probably Ku. May be an artifact. No other data available."

"Curious," WarAvocat mused aloud, watching the old Deified. Why was Gemina reticent about what was troubling them?

— 18 —

Simon Tregesser was playing lord of thunders to distract himself. It was not working. For two weeks that thing in the tank had been useless. Half the time it was comatose, the other half it might as well have been. It said nothing that made any sense.

When a thing like that was terrified out of its mind...

He did not want to think about it. But when he put it out of mind, Noah slipped in.

Noah had been missing too long. Something must have happened. That bitch Valerena! Next time he killed her he would make it permanent. Lupo said Blessed showed promise.

He hurled thunders and lightnings with renewed fury. The whole damned universe was out to frustrate him. XII Fulminata! What the hell? Was some malign force ranged against him?

That was his most secret fear. That somehow someone or something was using him the way he used so many others.

A small red pin light came on. He was tempted to ignore it. But no one pestered him with trivia. Hardly anyone but Lupo and Noah bothered him at all. Neither of them wasted time.

"Who was that? What do you want?"

"Noah, Lord."

"Where the hell have you been? Get down here." He flung lightnings like spears for near misses as Noah swooped down the vast empty cavern. His laughter pounded the walls.

Unperturbed, Noah drifted to his perch.

Disappointed, Tregesser let the uproar die. The damned illusion caster was a waste. Nobody but Lupo and Noah saw his productions. You could not impress either with a black hole big enough to gobble galaxies.

"All right, Noah. What have we got?" Echoes chased themselves around the vast hollow.

"Valerena tried Lupo Provik before she left."

"Again? The woman shows no imagination."

"I'm not sure she's witless. And the boy is no moron. He knew the effort was pointless and understood why."

"Where have you been?"

"Tregesser Prime. There were implications to Valerena's behavior that intrigued me. She deserved a closer inspection."

Tregesser Prime. In the Canon catalog it was designated P. Benetonica 3. The Tregessers rejected that name, and as much else of Canon as they could.

"And?"

"As I said, this Valerena may be dangerous."

"Get to it, Noah."

"She has several Others in development. She has a Banat-Marath team installed in her castle. Her security is tighter than usual."

"Interesting. Why a crew of Others? Why not have Lupo produce them?"

"I also caught a hint that she may have obtained the control cues for the Simon Tregesser Other."

Tregesser might have been drilled by one of his own lightning bolts. His speaker crackled for half a minute before he managed, "Indeed?"

"How she could have managed that escapes me, Lord. It seems unlikely. Yet my snooping—nobody pays attention to an artifact—convinced me something is going on. I've put together a scenario. It contradicts none of the known facts and ties the behavior of several individuals into a unified field."

Simon growled. Noah's manner could be frustrating. But neither threats nor rewards could change him. "Lay on, Noah. I don't think you can shock me more than you already have."

"Assume one of the earlier Valerenas enlisted one of the Directors. Plausible?"

"Probable. They're all vampires. They'd go for my throat in a second."

"Assume that Valerena made a mistake and you directed a changeover. Our hypothetical Director would not have to know about Provik's lab to realize he was dealing with a different Valerena. She wouldn't know things she should."

"Still plausible. This Director might tell her she was a replacement. That she was an Other. Hell. She must be terrified that we have a hold on her. We don't, do we?"

"No. You decided that was the lesser evil in the long run, where the welfare of the House was concerned. You directed Provik to produce replacements without controls. If he put them in, someone might learn about them."

"So there's a chance we've been dealing with the same Valerena through what we thought were several changeovers while she's been having Banat-Marath make Others she can sacrifice."

"Exactly, Lord."

"It hangs together, Noah. But what has she been doing with the replacements?"

"I wouldn't care to speculate."

"You wouldn't? Maybe I shouldn't, either. I might not want to know." Tregesser pondered a moment. "This doesn't upset me as much as you might think, Noah. It tells me my offspring isn't as stupid as I'd feared. But it's still a step from explaining the central mystery."

"Mystery, Lord? What mystery?"

"The sense of what she's doing. Her motivation. What is it? I'm clinging to life with broken fingernails."

"If you'd send to House Troqwai..."

"I won't have it. They're jackals." Not true. He did not want to die. He would have been happy with a platoon of Troqwai's phantoms hovering. But not here. "A little patience and the whole thing will drop into her lap. So why risk everything, repeatedly, trying to rush it? That isn't rational."

"That's easy." From where Noah stood it was easy to see. "She hates you. She has only one way of expressing that hatred. Take everything you have: life, property, and power."

Again Tregesser might have been struck by his own lightning. "But she's my daughter!"

"Emotion played no part when you removed your father? That was unadulterated concern for the House?"

Tregesser snapped the lie. "Of course! I know what it is. She wants to steal my victory. She wants to be remembered for breaking the Guardships."

"You really think so, Lord?"

"I know so, Noah. Get out of here!"

"As you will. But why would she want to take that, too?"

Lightnings crisped the air around Noah. He banked, sideslipped, even looped. Those lightnings were thrown in earnest.

— 19 —

Valerena lay on a couch in an open-air pavilion atop a small mountain on the Isle of Ise in Tregesser Prime's tropics. The structure was a replica of another of pre-Canon times, according to a memorial plaque. She did not care. For her history began with the conception of Valerena Tregesser.

Nobody cared about the Go Wars anymore, anyway. They would be forgotten if the Guardships were not still around.

Blessed settled into a canvas chair. "The artifact should have reached your father by now." He raised a tube to his eyes, turned a portion of the barrel.

"Must you play with that thing all the time?"

He pointed the tube at her, ran the tip of a finger across a heat sensitive surface. A symbol appeared inside. This one was Valerena Prime. "They say the pattern is never the same twice. I'm checking."

"Have you found a duplication?"

"Not yet. Mathematically, I have to."

He had begun the project a year ago and had identified nine Valerena Tregessers so far.

"Put it away. You do it just to irritate me."

"Will your father do what you want?"

"Of course. He'll rage for a while. Then he'll brood. Then he'll rage again. Then he'll call Lupo Provik."

"You surprised me, Mother. Not in a thousand years would I have believed there was a way to reach him without going through Lupo. How did you find out?"

Valerena concealed a smirk behind a hand. "Each time he summons me he demands a woman. Always younger and more vulnerable. Just to show me how disgusting he can get. One of those women got through alive. She told me all he did was give her to the artifact. And the artifact, unlike Lupo, has wants and needs that Father doesn't fulfill. He had a pleasant stay on Tregesser Prime. All the women he could handle."

Blessed spied a speck moving swiftly above the burgundy sea. He fiddled with his kaleidoscope till his mother scolded him, put it down. "And you're sure Lupo will do what you want?"

"He'll try to steal a march. Set a trap. That's Lupo." A jewel on Valerena's bracelet flashed. "Who is that?" she demanded.

Blessed did not hear the reply. But he knew the meaning of the flash.

"You'll have to play on the beach, beloved son. I have company."

"Your friends from the Directorate?"

Valerena did not respond except to point.

Blessed held his breath till he was out of sight.

The screen was small and the image flat, but Blessed and his friends Cable, Nyo, and Tina had a good view of the visitors. One was no surprise. Myth Worgemuth was an old schemer who dated back to the days of Simon Tregesser's grandfather. But Linas Maserang had prospered during Simon's reign. What did he stand to gain?

Valerena, presumably. The fool.

His mother shed the slutty role she played for him. "Sit. Get comfortable," she said.

"Your message sounded portentous," Worgemuth replied.

"I've found a way to lure Simon out of his fortress, away from Provik." She gave the men an edited story, maybe eighty percent truth.

"Good," Blessed whispered, and slapped hands with his companions.

"Blessed!" Cable Shike hissed.

Worgemuth had noticed the kaleidoscope. "What's this?" The view wheeled.

"A kaleidoscope. My son's. He must have forgotten it when I chased him out."

Tina snickered.

A huge eye squinted at Blessed. "Haven't seen one of these since I was a kid."

Sound transmission ceased. When Worgemuth put the toy down it sent a picture of the frescoes on the pavilion's ceiling.

Blessed was satisfied. He knew the identities of his mother's Directorate allies.

"I wonder what Lupo will really do?" he mused.

— 20 —

Lupo stood beside Simon's enclosed chair, stared out at the end space. "Our course seems evident. What options have you considered?"

"Mostly I've been in a panic. I'm not handling the pressure here like I thought I could."

"You came right away. That's a point." Provik had not asked for Tregesser's source of information. He would not. But he had guessed.

Tregesser had fewer secrets than he supposed. Lupo was aware of everything going on around his employer. He knew about the artifact and the Outsider. He knew the artifact had been away. "Is it possible Valerena has gotten those codes?"

"I don't see how. But the impossible has happened before. Hasn't it?"

"Yes."

Lupo Provik had delivered House Banat-Marath to temporary Tregesser thrall after accidentally learning that Sandor Banat-Marath maintained a force-grown second self he put out front. The only difference between Sandor and his Other had been control codes built into the Other during the vatwork. Most artifacts came with controls.

Provik had invested years of prime espionage work. He had uncovered the Other's codes. Shortly afterward Sandor Prime vanished.

Nine years later an assassin got the Sandor Other and Fodor Banat-Marath succeeded. Provik lost that House but none of the secrets he had plundered. House Tregesser now created its own specialized artifacts. No one suspected. Artifacts were a Banat-Marath monopoly.

"You think I'm being set up, Lupo?"

So. The old boy had not been thrown completely. "There's always that possibility. To be sure, we'd have to wait to see if your Other behaved strangely."

"I don't follow you."

"Assume the Simon Other codes haven't been compromised since even I wasn't there when you programmed him. If your Other acts weird, we can consider the news about the codes disinformation."

"What? Your logic eludes me."

"Think Valerena. If she really had the codes, you'd never know. Right?"

"That's how you and I would handle it."

"Yes. That's worth remembering. We aren't dealing with people who think the way we do. Valerena can be brilliant, cunning, blind, and stupid all at the same time. That's why she's so damned dangerous."

"So what do you suggest?"

"Assume the worst. Do what your enemies want you to do, only as fast as you can move. Switch places with your Other."

"But..."

"Right now. As fast as you can. Make the change before they're alert. They'll expect you to move with your usual deliberation."

"So I'd play the Other. When the time came I'd trade, and they'd have the real Other across their sights."

"If we need the double switch."

"I like it, Lupo."

"Nobody can know. I mean nobody but you and me. Don't trust anybody."

Simon Tregesser grunted. "There could be nothing in the shadows."

"In my experience there's always something in the shadows."

"Have a Voyager readied."

Lupo watched Simon out of sight, then yielded to his chief of staff. He headed for the vast suite he maintained. He spoke a code word. His door opened. It was the only entrance and Lupo Provik was the only being the door would pass.

Lupo called, "One! We have a job to do. Get everyone together."

In moments six more Proviks joined him. No one, not even Simon Tregesser, knew there was more than one. Provik had done the vatwork himself. The even-numbered Lupos had been altered there to become female.

"Update time," Lupo Prime said. The universe saw most of him, but Lupos One, Three, and Five sustained his tireless, workaholic reputation.

The dread, mysterious mastermind behind the ascendant fortunes of House Tregesser was a sort of hive creature.

The ambiance became semi-telepathic. Little external boosting was necessary. The update took only a moment because it had not been long since the last. Provik insisted on two a day now the Guardship game was running.

When it was over he gave orders. "Two, Three, and Four go with me on the Voyager. One, take control here. Keep an eye on the artifact Noah."

Below, Simon Tregesser was leaving his Outsider ally. Once more he had been able to get no sense from it.

It just kept on about something called the Destroyer, blowing steam because the Destroyer was being thwarted. It acted like it was about ten percent there, with most of its minds trapped in a far abyss.

Weird. But without it there would be no ships, no guns, no screens, no ambush, no wealth to siphon off to House Tregesser. For all that he could stand a little weirdness.

— 21 —

Turtle felt the sound shield go down. He glanced at Amber Soul. How long could she continue the total commitment needed to hide from VII Gemina? Not long enough, he feared. Even he could feel the probing edges of the great slow booming pulse of the somnolent thing that was the Gemina within and beneath the VII Gemina of ceramics, plastics, and metal.

It was the thing that was the sum of all that the Starbase builders had wrought, all the Guardship had learned, and all that had been input by Deification. It was the thing that made the Guardship so fearsome. It was the thing that, vaguely sensed, made all Canon shiver in dread and overrate a Guardship's terrible might.

Turtle knew the Guardships were not invincible. Not yet.

He noted movement among the silent, seated hundreds staring down at them, forgot Amber Soul.

So.

He did not recognize individuals, only uniform styles.

That was enough.

Here came people who knew that he knew about Guardships being vulnerable.

They surrounded him. And for a long time they just stood there, staring.

And for a long time he just stared back. Were these living creatures as old as he? Or were they VII Gemina's dead somehow recalled to life? "They are great necromancers, humans," old Kote had warned him before he had donned the K'tiba and had taken up the sword of honor. "They master sorceries beyond our ken."

"The mightiest wizard falls at one blow of the sword."

Kote had clicked his tongue in amusement. "Become a wizard, warrior child. Become the greatest wizard of the Ku. For it is their wizards who wield the mightiest swords."

In short, learn to think like the enemy, then outthink the enemy—instead of going on trying to outgut him and outfight him.

And so he had done.

"Kez Maefele. Greetings."

He turned to the woman. Now he knew her. She had been WarAvocat VII Gemina when the Surrender was signed. When he and the Dire Radiant had defied lawful orders to yield their arms and had, instead, fled into the waste reaches of the Web to continue the struggle.

It had been she, and perhaps these others, who had stalked the killers of the Dire Radiant till no ship but his Delicate Harmony, tired and torn and limping on wounded legs, remained. Till he had given the order that he had despised.

He clicked his heels and bowed slightly, after the fashion of the conquerers. "Greetings, WarAvocat. It has taken you three thousand years."

"Close enough as makes no difference. What are a few centuries from this perspective?"

Turtle now knew the thing he faced was nothing of flesh. They are great necromancers....

"What mischief have you been up to, Kez Maefele?"

"Staying alive in a hostile universe."

"You've had more than your share of luck."

"Perhaps luck had nothing to do with it, WarAvocat. Till now."

"Luck has run out. The Ku Question has run its course. The symbol is about to receive its final blow."

"You do nurture a grudge beyond any rational limit, WarAvocat. I, who suffered the loss, do not recall your name, but you have fed a hatred so old and so strong you want to do murder after thirty centuries."

"Not murder. An overdue..."

A voice cut across the woman's. ‘There'll be no killing, whatever you call it."

The woman turned furious but betrayed herself as a being not of flesh. She did not look at her contradictor.

Turtle did, plundered ancient memories to get an estimate of the man. A Dictat. But he wore the insignia of a WarAvocat and was among the living still. The combination would make him the most powerful being aboard. And more dangerous than the ghost, whose motives were not shrouded.

The woman and her companions went transparent as their attention turned inward. The woman appeared determined to argue.

"This is a valuable resource," the living WarAvocat said. He descended from his throne. "I won't waste it to satisfy an ancient grudge."

A stir rippled those figures seated at either hand. Turtle realized they were all Deified. The man approaching was the only living being of stature present. Had it come to that here, too? That the dead ruled VII Gemina and the living obeyed in hopes of being elected to the company of immortals?

The woman spat at the living WarAvocat. Her spittle vanished instantly.

There were limits to their sorcery.

They are ghosts, he told himself. But ghosts with a will to kill. Ghosts whose will could shape the universe.

Amber Soul screamed.

The psychic wave staggered Turtle. WarAvocat halted. His mouth dropped open. His skin became more pallid. His eyes bugged and his hands fluttered. But he did not remain rattled. He came on.

Turtle glanced behind him. Midnight crouched over Amber Soul, wings spread. Good. Her mind was not empty all the time. The others followed her lead, masking Amber Soul.

WarAvocat paused beyond jumping distance. "You are the Kez Maefele of Dire Radiant legend?"

"I was a long time ago, WarAvocat. These days I'm Turtle, a nonhuman spacer stranded by the strictures of Canon law."

"The Ku are long-lived."

"Wizards and warriors, WarAvocat. Other ghifus have shorter lifespans."

"That's right. Your geneticists wanted those castes to live till somebody killed them."

Caste was no synonym for ghifu. But why correct the man? It was not worth the trouble. "It was a hope."

"And you came from a breed designed to combine both castes."

"An idea that bloomed too late."

"I'm a student of your tactics in the waste spaces. The Dire Radiant was effective far beyond its strength."

Turtle shrugged. "In the end it did no good."

"It never does. But they never stop trying."

"What do you want? None of us have done VII Gemina or Canon any violence."

"The Deified were interested. You made fools of them once. Now I'm interested. You refused to take part in the rebellion. You tried to warn the authorities. Why?"

"To prevent pointless slaughter. The Concord were idiots. They could not hear the cries of four millennia of idiots who preceded them and dragged countless innocents down with them. But the High City people were as stupid as all their predecessors. So they died. The Concord fools died. And the innocent are dying still. For nothing."

WarAvocat responded only by looking thoughtful.

Turtle wanted to check Amber Soul again. She continued to radiate something that frayed his nerves. WarAvocat was not affected.

"What's wrong with her? Does she need medical attention?"

"She needs to be removed from VII Gemina. She is psionically sensitive. The gut of a Guardship festers with souls, all electromagnetically active, some marginally psionically active. She's straining to maintain her identity."

Turtle had no idea of the truth. That sounded good. "She'll lose unless she's moved out."

WarAvocat did not appear concerned. He started to ask a question.

"I've said enough. I owe you nothing. You've dragged these people here without right, unjustly, and illegally. I won't abet your crimes."

WarAvocat laughed. "You amuse me. I am the law. Justice and right are whatever I say they are." He started to ask a question.

Turtle turned away.

"Way of kokadu? That's a certain path to death, Kez Maefele."

"Death comes."

"Access." Turtle glanced back as a greenish shimmer slid over WarAvocat's shoulder. "WarAvocat for Peacekeeper One." The shimmer buzzed like insect wings. "Peacekeeper One, suspend all medical services and disaster relief till further notice." The insect buzzed. "It's being considered."

There was power at its rawest. "You would, wouldn't you?"

"It's all the same to me. Relief efforts cost us time better spent tracing the carrier of the rebel disease."

"Send the others home and I'll cooperate."

The shimmer buzzed at WarAvocat. He lifted an eyebrow. "Personal protection. Activate." A shimmer enveloped him. He moved forward, pushed the Immunes aside, lifted Midnight off Amber Soul. "That one stays. And the winged artifact. The rest go back to Merod Schene."

It was the best Turtle would get.

WarAvocat ordered the Immunes moved and the relief effort resumed. He settled into a seat. "Come here, Kez Maefele. Sit down."

Intensely aware of the scrutiny of several hundred Deified, Turtle sat.

"What is that creature?"

"Amber Soul? I don't know. Nobody does. I don't think she knows herself."

"How did she become an Immune?"

"Because she's so damned dangerous."

"Psionic?"

"Yes."

"There was a creature of her species aboard the Traveler that carried the krekelen to P. Jaksonica. It called itself Seeker of the Lost Children. That mean anything to you?"

"No." Turtle watched Guardship security lead the Immunes away. Midnight looked at him, lost, her wings drooping sadly, colorless. He tried to look apologetic.

Amber Soul screamed.

— 22 —

Commander Haget paced. His clomping abraded Jo's nerves. She wanted to tell him to sit down and stop fidgeting.

"Sergeant."

"Sir?"

"Any suggestions about how to fill unstructured time? I've never had to do nothing before."

Write your memoirs. That'll keep you busy for ten minutes. She shrugged. "In WarCrew we freeze down for the long waits. Short waits we sleep, we drill, we play games. We screw a lot. Sir." She bit down on a grin. His reaction was what she expected. In WarCrew they would have a lot to say about an officer like him.

"Why were you selected for this mission?"

"I screwed up. I got noticed."

"You don't want to be noticed?"

"It's the same as volunteering." Where did this guy live? OpsCrew! Poor short-lifers. This guy wasn't old enough to remember Kole Marmigus alive. "We don't volunteer. How old are you, sir?"

He was surprised. As though that was too personal a question. Maybe it was. They did things differently in OpsCrew.

"Thirty-nine."

"You've done well, then. Made full Commander."

"I suppose I have. How old are you?"

"I was elected four thousand years ago." She grinned at his reaction. "Twenty-six, physical. But I got killed during the Enherrenraat business. I don't know how old that me was or how much experience I lost."

He got that funny look. Like he was talking to a ghost. They never really understood. But dealing with the Deified did not bother them, and the Deified were nothing but electronic spooks. Weird people.

Someone tapped on the door. Haget disappeared. Jo opened up. "Chief Timmerbach. Come in."

"I need to see the Commander."

Haget appeared. "Chief?"

"Could you come to the operating bridge, sir?"

"What is it?"

"The Presence, sir." The Chief's fear was palpable.

"You want me to stand witness to the fact that this isn't an inconvenience created for my benefit, Chief?"

"I guess that's one way of putting it, sir."

"Very well. Sergeant, will you accompany us?"

"Yes, sir." Jo felt more excitement than unease, and was surprised she felt no fear.

She'd never been into the command center of any ship. And the Presence was something she understood only intellectually. It was not something Guardships feared. It fled from them.

There was no hard proof it bothered smaller ships, either. Except that ships did disappear, and others had brushes with the Presence that left everyone aboard shaken.

Dead silence reigned on the bridge. They were not the only spectators. Hanhl Cholot was there, sober and grim. He crossed gazes with Haget. Haget nodded, accepting his presence. This was a Cholot Traveler at risk.

Haget joined Timmerbach before a screen four meters high and six wide. Jo stayed with them. Cholot followed.

A ribbon of yellow smoke curved away into apparent distance on screen. Jo got the impression the Traveler was moving through the outer fringes of the smoke.

Haget grunted. "We must be close."

"We're as near the edge as we dare go, moving dead slow for the Web. But we're gaining on it. The disturbances and the fogging are getting worse. Can you feel it, sir?"

Jo felt the directionless dread, the creeping spine chill. Something close was hungry and deadly and getting nearer.... But that made no sense. There was no concrete object for her dread.

"Yes. I don't suppose we'd have a turn node coming up?"

"No, sir." Timmerbach reached up to indicate a remote starburst. "This is J. Duosconica, anchor for eight strands. We'll be all right if we reach it."

The starburst moved closer slowly.

Jo had thought you were supposed to see stars from the Web same as in starspace. This space could not be vacant, could it?

There were points of light on the periphery of the screen.

Something ahead was masking everything but the brilliance of that anchor point.

The dread grew.

The foggy ribbon grew foggier.

That was not right. A healthy strand looked like a cable of fiber optics, brilliant with light, solid, gleaming when seen from afar. Like the strands coming off that anchor point.

Hager asked, "Can you break away at J. Duosconica? Lay over till it's safe?"

"The star is a white dwarf. Nexus is too close in. Too hot for us. We have to go on. And hope we get there behind the Presence."

The dread grew.

The shaking started. It began as vibrations Jo barely felt through her soles. In minutes the Traveler was bouncing like a light aircraft in heavy turbulence.

Timmerbach shouted at his bridge gang.

"We can't hold it any farther off the centerline, sir. We're risking premature breakaway now."

Jo grimaced. If they dropped off now, they would be almost a light year from the overly hot J. Duosconica. Climbing back on might be impossible. Misty as the strand was, instruments might not locate it.

Jo palmed her communicator. "Colonel Vadja. Klass."

After a moment, "Vadja here, Sergeant. What's happening?"

"Trouble with the Web. I'm on the bridge. I thought it might be interesting to see what our aliens are doing. Can you cover it?"

"Will do, Sergeant."

Commander Haget nodded. "Good thinking, Klass. Chief, time estimate to the anchor point?"

"Ten minutes. Roughly. We may have to move back into the strand if..."

"Chief!" someone shouted. "We got something coming up behind us. Fast! Gods! It's a big mother... Saldy. What the hell is that? It's going to run us over!"

Timmerbach ran around, cursed, shook a fist at a secondary screen. "Take us in to the core! Maximum ahead. That's a Guardship! That's a goddamned Guardship, and it's going to smash us right off the Web!"

The Traveler rumbled and shuddered and surged. Jo staggered, grabbed for a handhold. The anchor point swelled. So did the darkness surrounding it. The strand grew more turbulent, the ride rougher. The Traveler creaked, groaned. There was a shriek of tormented metal somewhere aft.

The aft view showed a glowing egg ploughing through Web stuff, swelling. Timmerbach raged. "That bastard can see us! He don't care if he kills us! The goddamned arrogant asshole! Seligo. Pick a strand coming off the anchor. Now!"

"Sir, if I guess wrong ..."

"Do it! Chances are five to one for us."

If they didn't catch the Presence first, Jo thought. If the Guardship didn't shove them off the Web headed toward J. Duosconica....

Timmerbach continued to rage, demanding more speed. The Guardship closed. Features became distinct. Jo blurted, "That's IV Trajana!"

Haget gulped air. For the first time he was rattled. "Can't be. Nobody's seen IV Trajana since the Enherrenraat incident."

"More speed!" Timmerbach fumed. "Damned Web, you can't go anywhere but in a straight line. Seligo! Calculate a cut course to the nearest away strand in case we get knocked off."

Jo guessed they were two light weeks from the anchor point. Seconds on the Web. Months in starspace.

Her communicator whispered. "Klass? Vadja. Messenger was on a rampage when I went past. Seems catatonic now. The other one hasn't done anything."

"Right. Klass out."

"We may make it," Timmerbach said. He whirled toward the rear view screen. IV Trajana filled the field. "One extra minute, you bastard. Give us one extra minute."

Glorious Spent shook like it was coming apart. The dread had grown as thick as fog. Jo could almost smell it. She thought its smell was old death.

— 23 —

The Tregesser Voyager Elmore Tregesser broke away from the Web well off Tregesser Prime's Optimal. Lupo Provik signed. Two went aft to inform the passenger. Lupo nodded to Three, poised to send false ID if challenged. They had to get in unnoticed by Canon agents and Valerena's partisans.

Provik eased the Voyager toward P. Benetonica 3F, a trivial station supporting insystem mining. If there was no challenge, the Voyager would pretend to be insystem itself.

It was the usual way Simon Tregesser slipped in and out of his home system.

There was no challenge. Traffic control was inept, haphazard. Simon Tregesser preferred it that way.

Lupo sent a code to his people on station. When the Voyager nosed in, its three-bay section had been closed. Only trusted people were on hand.

No sense taking chances.

When it was time to move Simon, none of the crew looked like Lupo Provik. They looked like rough asteroid miners who maybe belonged to the same family. The kind of people who would move a dangerous cargo without asking questions. The kind Lupo Provik would hire.

Soon a battered lighter headed toward a port north of Tregesser Horata. Six hours later it touched down. An hour later still, the lighter's operators delivered Simon Tregesser to the basement of a building not far from the Tregesser Pylon, a six kilometers-tall tower that rose from Tregesser Horata DownTown through UpTown, and up and up, through the sprawling torus of Tregesser Horata High City and up a kilometer more. The Simon Tregesser Other waited in a ball that tipped the Pylon's peak.

Lupo stood at a window, stared up the immense height of the Pylon. He did not like it. Too vulnerable. Big showoff thing. A monument to Simon's ego. He could take it down a dozen ways. Did Simon think nobody was crazy enough to kill thousands to get just one? He'd do it himself.

"This's the touchy part," he said. "This's where Valerena will move if her intelligence sources are what they should be."

"They aren't," Two said. "She doesn't have what it takes. She's lazy."

"She is. I hate Tregesser Horata."

"That's because you can't control it."

"Yes."

Sheer size made Tregesser Horata remarkable. Neither the High City nor UpTown could accommodate their appropriate populations. After the heart of DownTown had been cleared for the base of the Pylon, UpTown had dribbled down and taken the near ground. Now the social gradient ran downhill from the Pylon to the Black Ring, then rose again. Thirty klicks out there were hill-straddling palaces of a new superclass a step above the hoi polloi cluttering Tregesser Horata High City.

The biggest, a fairy fortress perched precariously on a precipice overlooking the natural absurdities of Fuerogomenga Gorge, belonged to Valerena Tregesser.

Lupo's House Security department occupied ten levels of the Pylon, even with the High City. He hated the structure but lived there when he was home.

Airboats drifted across the arc of sky between the bottom of UpTown and the polished ivory face of the Pylon. Insects, Lupo thought. Deadly insects. He watched every one, half expecting a suicide assault. It had been tried. There was a permanent dark stain a kilometer up.

Two said, "If you're that worried, call T.W. See what she's got."

"Can't reach her without telling somebody who I am. I'm not supposed to be on Prime."

Four said, "We're within time parameters. It's not like you to be impatient."

True. Usually he was patient as a spider. "It's that place. It's a deathtrap."

Two observed, "Valerena may pull it down if she takes over."

"If she takes over. When I talk to Simon about the succession, he gets shifty. He has notions. And I have mine." The others eyed him. "Blessed has the real stuff."

"Valerena isn't worried about him."

"She has all the Tregesser ego. Considering her horizontal lifestyle, it's doubtful she can imagine any male as dangerous."

"What would she put up in place of the Pylon?" Four wondered.

"Something as ridiculous as that castle, a hundred times bigger." Provik glared at the Pylon. If will could bring Simon down, he was breaking the sound barrier.

Three returned. "He's coming."

"Get him moved. I want the Voyager gone before Valerena even thinks about setting a watch."

The bell in the cellar was identical to the one that had departed. All identifying marks and serials had been duplicated. The creature inside had been mutilated to become an exact duplicate of Simon Tregesser.

Lupo studied the Other as they loaded the bell. He frowned. Simon liked to be clever. Would he outfox himself by pretending to be his Other going back, leaving his true Other in place?

He might. He damned well might.

Some test was in order. He mentioned it to Three and Four, made suggestions. They would take the voyager back to the end space. He and Two were staying.

He had identities he and his family could assume. They belonged to people who arrived and departed mysteriously, with no apparent reason or rhyme.

He made a call after the lighter lifted. He and Two became a man and woman who were the scandal of Tregesser Horata. They pretended to be man and wife. Everybody knew they were brother and sister.

It gave people something to distract them from their own dark sins.

A tsunami of light hammered Tregesser Prime.

"Guardship!" Lupo cursed the fading starburst. "What the hell?"

What a time to have one break off the Web here.

— 24 —

Lupo One met Lupo Three in the docking bay. Three said, "Simon didn't make the switch. He's pretending to be his Other."

One looked at Four. She nodded, gave him the rest. "A Guardship broke away while we were in transit from Prime to 3F."

"We seem doomed to nothing but glad tidings. Which one?"

"VI Adjutrix. It took station out of traffic and just sat there. No signal of any kind."

Three asked, "Could it mean something? Could something have leaked?"

"Not likely. Nothing to be done about it, anyway. Let it sit. We'll know where one is. Let's move Simon. Keep an eye on him till we know his game."

The Simon whose bell appeared on deck boomed, "Lupo Provik, you old bastard! I haven't seen your ass since my big brother dragged it out here."

Not true, but One did not correct the Tregesser vision of reality. Simon was into his role. In private the Simon Other cultivated quirks in a grasp at identity, pretending it was more than a useful phantom.

"So this is the great endspace hideout. I want to see every nook and cranny."

"I'll arrange something. Right now we need to get you down where you can do a show. The staff are used to having you in their hair."

"Ha! If they have hair. I suppose. Did your people tell you a goddamned Guardship broke off the Web at Prime? Bastard like to ran us over."

When a ship broke away local space had to adjust. An energy storm raged till the shock damped out. With Travelers that energy ranged from long wave to visible light. With a Guardship the blast of white light was just the bottom end of the discharge.

One asked, "Were you inside the corona?"

Four nodded.

"Did you get any data?"

"Not much."

One grunted. That was the way luck went. They had not been a research ship sitting there waiting for it.

Simon Tregesser drifted across the great cavity, feeling smug. He could come up with a twist of his own still. He got the bell integrated with the systems at the center, went inside to check his Outsider.

The damned thing was comatose. He could get no response. What the hell was with that thing?

Instrumentation indicated continued biological activity. It was not the body that had gone. It was the minds. If what it thought with were minds. If it thought.

The hell with it. He didn't need it to tell him what was happening. Every Traveler leaving P. Jaksonica was howling for a Guardship. It would not be long before one came sniffing up the backtrail.

Time to get on with it.

He lowered the bell and began playing with his thunders and lightnings and image makers. A little clumsily. He summoned Noah.

Noah came looping down between the lightnings, swooped to his perch. "Yes, Lord? Have you been unwell, Lord?"

Mad Simon Tregesser laughter hammered the cavity walls. But it was Tregesser laughter a calculated touch off key. "Let's just say I set aside the Great Mission momentarily. In order to confound my beloved offspring."

Simon's attention was fixed on Noah absolutely, seeking nuances of treachery.

Simon stood accused of countless crimes. But stupidity did not appear on the True Bill.

Noah gone a while. Acting a little odd when he returned. Lupo suggesting he trust nobody with news of the switch. Meaning Lupo knew about Noah. So what? Lupo knew about every damned thing. Lupo made knowing his business.

A few questions in the Pylon. Enough oddities about Noah's itinerary on Prime to convert suspicion into intuitive certainty. To give him an idea for doubledealing Valerena into a corner. Teach the little bitch that she was playing with the big boys.

Noah covered well but not well enough. His reaction damned him.

Tregesser understood instantly how he had been reached. Valerena had bought him with women. He had not given enough weight to the artifact's lusts.

He would not make that mistake again.

Noah would get no more chances. But he would make himself useful.

Carefully, carefully, Simon led Noah to the suspicion that he was dealing with his master's Other, swiftly switched the moment Provik had sniffed Valerena's move. Then he sent the artifact off on a trivial task.

Lupo One secured the communicator, yielded to his chief of staff, headed for the suite.

The family gathered. He said, "Simon just told me to ready a Voyager for a trip to Prime."

Six said, "And the artifact will go along? Under the impression the switch has been made already?"

Three said, "If we're going back, we'd better think about that Guardship. Be a bitch to sneak in without it noticing."

"I'll leave you to that," One said. "Consider, too, the chance Simon is being too clever."

Lupo One was studying a holochart of Canon space when Simon entered main sector Central Staff Info Center. It floated in midair, away from normal business. It had a beanish shape fifty meters long, thirty-three wide, twenty-four high. Three million plus stars and stellar objects were represented. At a touch he could add or delete or zoom.

One had the chart retreating into the past, one hundred thousand years to the minute. He had only a few select strands portrayed. Without looking away he asked, "What happens when natural stellar motion moves anchor points so the strands connecting them come into contact?"

"I wouldn't know, Lupo."

"We can find out a little over six years from now. The strand connecting B. Shellica and B. Philipia will cross the strand connecting N. Nuttica and B. Belnapii. It'll be the first such impact since humans reached the Web."

"B. Belnapii? Didn't we have an interest there?"

"We still have a strong interest. Shaga timber."

"Why are you playing with this?"

"Knowledge. Knowledge is power, Simon."

"Firepower is power. I had that put in so you could track Guardships, not so you could play games."

"Do you suppose they have something like it?"

"Better. They've been prowling the Web forever. And you know I'm not the Simon Tregesser Other, don't you?"

"I know."

"Which means you've figured out what I'm up to. You know about my pet artifact."

"Yes."

"Is there anything you don't know, Lupo?"

"I don't know what happens when two strands collide. I don't know what causes tag ends. I don't know how the Web came into being. There's a lot I don't know."

"Is the Voyager ready?"

"Yes."

"There'll be an extra passenger. But you knew that, too."

"I anticipated it."

"Damn! I ought to kick out and give the whole mess to you. The hell with Valerena and the Directorate. Let them chew dirt. Let somebody have it who can keep reins on the monster."

Lupo One switched back to the display he had been running. "I wouldn't take the Chair, Simon."

"You wouldn't, would you? You cold bastard. You don't want it. I guess that's why I trust you. I just wish to hell I knew what you do want."

"I want to know where the Web came from. I want to know how new strands appear and feathery old ones suddenly get mended. That's happened three times in my lifetime. Nobody knows anything but that it happened."

"Single-minded bastard. Get a crew together. I'll let you know when I'm ready."

One toyed with the holochart for half a minute, then glanced at the departing bell. Time for an update.

— 25 —

A. Saarica. J.M. Ledetica. C. Phritsia. In each system Canon garrison had isolated the infection, then had eradicated it. White corpuscles on the job. WarAvocat was surprised. He had little respect for Canon's troops or officers.

His own competence and motives were under fire. The Deified were at their meddlesome worst, carping and second-guessing.

It had been too long since VII Gemina had seen any excitement. They all wanted a piece. A bigger piece than anyone else got.

And there was the complication of his predecessor. The Deified Makarska Vis resented his having robbed her of old prey. If she could not rip out the Ku's heart she would have his instead. So far she had been only a spiteful nuisance. Even so, he was glad he was Dictat. The honor gave him powers with which to suppress her pettiness.

VII Gemina broke off the Web at the Goriot world M. Anstii 3.

A patch of air in WarAvocat's quarters buzzed, nagging him. "Damn it!"

"Shall I withdraw, Lord?" The artifact's voice was the whisper of silver bells.

"No." It was too late to stop. He could not let go till it was done.

It was too late for Lady Midnight, too. The first tremors of pleasure had begun to torment her. Even with a man she loathed there was an early point when there was no stopping till racking, violent spasms reduced her to a comatose state of satiation.

The gene engineers had made her a slave to her flesh.

How could anyone have discarded a creature so exquisitely useful? Was there some hidden flaw in her?

"WarAvocat," he told the shimmer. "I'm occupied. What is it?"

The artifact moaned, a little cry almost of despair.

The air murmured, "We're off the Web, WarAvocat. House Goriot has appealed for help putting down a rebellion. Situation data suggests it isn't as ugly as V. Rothica 4."

WarAvocat gasped. Didn't the artifact realize he had business? No. Of course not. There would be no thoughts in her head, only needs burning to be filled. "I'll be there as soon as I can."

His attempt to hurry Midnight was defeated by the skill of the engineers who had designed her. When held helpless, her body was more mercilessly demanding.

WarAvocat entered WarCentral dazed. He had trouble taking in the information displayed. Deified glowered down from their screens. Or, like the Deified Makarska Vis, they smirked. He had betrayed a weakness.

That damned artifact! She had the power to obsess a man with that body....

Awed realization. Never before had he considered an artifact as possessed of any power at all.

The M. Anstii uprising had followed the classic pattern. The rebels had broken Goriot Glume High City's moorings and had destabilized its grav suppressors so that it was adrift in the planet's upper airs.

Beyond the stupidities that plagued every insurrection, the local rebels had failed to take into account M. Anstii's special circumstances. House Goriot's principal business was natural gems tones. M. Anstii was blessed with a profusion, some existing nowhere else. Forever plagued by jewel thieves, House Goriot had developed an elaborate private security force. The rebels had overlooked it in the first blush of bloodletting. The force had had time to get organized.

Result: standoff.

The Deified began pummeling WarAvocat with questions.

He scanned the ranks of screens and allowed himself a smile bordering on contempt.

The Deified Ansehl Ronygos spoke for everyone. "What are you going to do about this, WarAvocat?"

"Nothing, Deified."

Babble of protest and criticism.

"Explain yourself, WarAvocat."

"I am bemused, Deified. With all the resources you command... But, then, those no longer among the living forget how the living think. Deified, the most effective thing VII Gemina could do was break off the Web. By now the rebels are scattering. The household troops are in pursuit. Access." The shimmer jumped his shoulder. "Communications, WarAvocat. Are you in contact with House Goriot?"

"Yes, sir."

"Any reports on current rebel activity?"

"The insurgents have begun to disperse, sir, in anticipation of the arrival of our troops."

WarAvocat surveyed the Deified, case made. Some vanished in a huff. Some returned his smile, approving. Some looked like they had gotten a taste of something bitter. The Deified Makarska Vis lingered for a moment, glaring at him with a displeasure almost too intense for an electronic entity. Had a cabal of bitter kindred led XII Fulminata to become what it had? XII Fulminata's style would suit Vis well.

He thought of the artifact. Arousal was immediate. He tried to put her out of mind. He had not given the other two prisoners enough attention. The one continued her efforts at sorcerous dissimulation.

He laughed. To think of what the alien was doing in terms of witchcraft—he was letting the Ku's outlook intrude upon his own. Who could credit it? A spacefaring race so primitive in thought it still looked at the universe through lenses of mysticism and magic.

So the Ku were a species defeated and commercially enslaved, and when they died they stayed dead forever, unlike Guardship humanity, where immortality was assured. No one stayed dead long, though OpsCrew and ServCrew did not recall their former lives.

But Gemina remembered. Gemina forgot nothing and forgave everything.

He started thinking beyond the noncrisis of M. Anstii.

— 26 —

The breeze off the sea carried the murmur of spirits and sprites and a coolness that kissed Blessed Tregesser's cheeks. He stared out at the waves, watched one after another roll in and smash itself on the foot of the cliff, a hundred meters below. Darkness slithered over the water. The sun was setting behind him. As it did the evening's party came to life.

He shifted his kaleidoscope and thought that his grandfather's scheme would be just one more wave crashing against the cliff of the Guardships. The waves might demolish the cliff in time, but not in one year or ten thousand. Maybe the smart thing was to accept reality and operate within its constraints. Most of the Houses did, and prospered.

And in the genes of others, rebellion simmered on, a quiet inferno, consuming generation after generation. And nowhere was that more true than in House Tregesser. He could not shake his heritage. But he did not have to stoop to the stupidities of his forbears.

Behind him somewhere Valerena laughed. Blessed thought her laugh tight, contrived, premature for the progress of the evening. But she was the guest of Linas Maserang here, and was working hard to keep him entranced.

Maserang showed signs of becoming disenchanted.

"Blessed? Won't you come join us, son? You perching up here, staring out at Linas's bleak dark sea, is creepy."

Blessed faced the fraudulent smile and dead blue eyes of Myth Worgemuth. Behind him, Cable Shike shrugged as though to ask, "How could I stop him?" Beyond Cable servants began lighting paper lanterns. Blessed said, "Myth, I'm still young enough to be excused anything. You're too old to be forgiven anything."

A shadow moved behind those dead eyes. "What do you mean, son?"

"That you're old enough to know better. That there's no reason anyone should forgive you anything."

Worgemuth's smile remained fixed. "I think I've missed what you're trying to tell me."

"I doubt it, Myth. But I'll spell it out. A long time ago you helped my great-grandfather take the House. Then you turned on him and helped my grandfather take control. Now you're scheming with my mother to oust him."

Worgemuth's smile vanished.

"I'm not stupid, Myth. I can see what you're doing. I can even puzzle out the fact the poor senile old Commodo Hvar is being set up to take the blame if the plot unravels."

Worgemuth looked positively grim.

"And now, before you've even gotten my mother in place, you're around sucking up to me. Maybe figuring on getting a kid in there that you can control. You think my mother is too stupid or too silly to notice? Don't bet your life. She's a Tregesser."

Worgemuth's mouth tightened into a colorless prune.

"But why worry about it? There's a gala in progress. The interesting people are arriving, fashionably late." Blessed went down to greet Tina Bofoku and her brother Nyo. Worgemuth remained where he was, as though he had relieved a sentry post that kept watch on the sea.

"Trouble with the old-timer?" Tina asked. She was in a sparkling mood.

"Only for him. Your mother is over there. Later?"

"Absolutely." She made a face at Nyo.

Blessed entered the crowd without joining it. Even at the heart of the veranda he was an observer who watched from the outside. How many of these people belonged to Worgemuth? Not many. They would be innocents or, at most, potential recruits.

At first the guests seemed to be playing ocean, moving in little surges toward where his mother held court, rolling away. But soon Valerena retreated into Maserang's house. The population divided into equally spaced groups with cometary individuals between them.

Sometimes someone spoke to Blessed. Always he replied courteously but coolly, cultivating an image of distance that, tempered by warmth in private, might lead some to think they had wormed their ways into his confidence. Those would be the people he used.

As he spoke with an executive who seemed to think she could further his education and her career in private, he caught a snatch of conversation. He froze. The words did not register. They did not matter. Only the voice mattered. There was something frighteningly familiar about it. Something that raised the hair on the back of his neck. Yet he could not identify it.

He spotted the man. "Who is that?" he asked his companion.

"Nikla Ogdehvan. He and his wife do something mysterious for the House. Probably something sinister. They come and go and nobody knows where or when they'll turn up again."

Subtle stress on wife. Why? Marriage was uncommon and quaint but not socially unacceptable. "Thank you. Excuse me, please."

The woman's lips tightened but she did not protest.

It took minutes of drifting. Once he had his target fixed he listened intently, not to words but to tone and rhythm. The man spoke seldom, but when he did everyone listened. There was a hard edge beneath his gentleness. No one knew what he did. No one wanted to find out.

Half an hour later, when he received the summons from his mother, Blessed knew exactly what Nikla Ogdehvan did for the House.

Linas Maserang, Myth Worgemuth, and a third man Waited with Valerena. Valerena said, "Myth tells me you've got everything figured out. With a mind like yours, you might be useful."

Was that sarcasm? "I presume something dramatic has happened to make you bunch up with so many witnesses around."

Valerena scowled. "Word just came. Father's Voyager arrived today." Exasperation. "Those morons up there didn't figure it out till a few minutes ago. They wouldn't have noticed if that damned Guardship hadn't challenged him."

"May I see the data, Mother?"

Maserang said, "Help yourself." His sarcasm was thick. He indicated his personal Information Center.

"Just scroll the message from station."

Irked, Maserang did so.

Blessed read. "Four hours twenty-three minutes since breakaway. Not enough time to dock and make the descent."

Valerena snapped, "Of course not! He's up there lying low. It says that right there."

"What we see Grandfather doing and what he's really doing aren't the same things, Mother. I submit that he intended to be noticed."

"Nonsense," Maserang said. "Why?"

"Because this is my grandfather's Other, who has been exchanged already, coming in to make the switch again."

"Don't let your imagination carry you away. It couldn't have been managed without our agents noticing."

"Neither you nor your agents have noticed that Lupo Provik is out on your veranda, among the invited guests, masquerading as Nikla Ogdehvan. And he's been on Prime for a week."

Dead silence. Stricken silence. Death might have drawn a talon through that room.

Maserang's Info Center buzzed. Irritated, he muttered, "I told them I didn't want to be disturbed."

The silence turned toward disbelief. Valerena said, "Amuse yourself at someone else's expense, Blessed. I no longer find your humor tolerable."

Maserang said, "You'd better take this, Val."

She went and snarled at the comm. She erected a privacy screen a moment after she started, though, so that Blessed did not know why she was growling.

She was deathly calm when she came back. "That was my father's pet artifact."

Blessed moved toward the door. "I'll go irritate someone else, Mother."

She screeched something obscene. He did not listen. He went out to see how life was treating Lupo Provik.

— 27 —

Timmerbach raged and wailed and scurried around, but not once did he lose control of Glorious Spent. He was a wonder. He railed against his deities, his employers, Canon, the Guardships, the Web itself, without prejudice—while occasionally pausing to give his techs advice in a calm voice. He sounded crazy most of the time but was just a man trying to save his ship and maybe his life.

Jo looked into the screen portraying the aft view. IV Trajana loomed ever larger.

One of the bridge crew beckoned Timmerbach. They muttered. Then the Chief jumped back and complained all the louder. "Commander, we're not going to make that anchor point. We'll come up several seconds short. We'll hang on till these bastards bump us off, though. May they get hung up and never find a way down."

Jo recalled stories of ships found caught on the Web, apparently unable to get back off.

Glorious Spent shuddered and jumped as though kicked. Warning lights went mad. Jo grabbed Haget and a stanchion. Alarms shrieked and hooted. Timmerbach yelled, "Kick it off! Kick it off now!"

And pray the systems had not been damaged.

Real Space. Starspace. The sense of having been relieved of a vast pressure. It took her several seconds to understand why.

The dread was gone.

She and Haget realized they were still in contact. She jerked away. "My apologies, sir."

"None needed, Sergeant. Chief. We're off the Web prematurely. Have you calculated the schedule delays?"

Timmerbach exhaled slowly, controlling his temper. "We were close to the anchor when we broke away, Commander. Assuming our numbers are good, we'll be in starspace four days. We'll pick up another strand and be gone."

Jo did not listen closely. She was trying to keep an eye on Cholot and to watch for the monster star raging somewhere nearby, and for the school of stars in which it swam. Guardships' soldiers seldom got to see such sights.

Haget said, "Thank you, Chief. We'll get out of your way now."

Jo's communicator beeped. She raised a hand to stall Haget. "Klass?" the comm whispered. "Vadja. Seeker is on the move. Headed your way."

"Got you. Klass out. Commander, Colonel Vadja says Seeker is headed for the bridge."

Timmerbach heard. "That's all I need. A goddamned creepy-crawlie... Keep it away from me."

"Chief, I have no intention of allowing an alien near the controls of a Canon ship. Klass. Get everyone up here."

"Yes, sir." As she summoned Degas and AnyKaat, she checked the exterior screens. Amazing that something as terrible as the dread or as big as IV Trajana could pass unnoticed in starspace.

"Astounding, isn't it?" Haget said. "Chief, we'll wait for it in the passageway. Lock up behind us. Sergeant, check with Vadja. See if it's still coming."

She did. It was. "Why?" she wondered aloud.

Haget shrugged. He made sure the bridge hatch was secured, stood at an easy rest. "That business makes you appreciate the problems of operating a small ship, doesn't it?"

"Yes." Surprise. That was too human a remark for Haget. Jo assumed a stance aping his.

"Here it comes."

Seeker of the Lost Children looked taller and more regal. Jo battled an urge to kneel.

The impulse went as suddenly as it had come. It was replaced by a desire to step aside. "It's trying to manipulate me," she said.

"Stand fast."

The thing slowed, halted. Era Vadja appeared behind it, then Degas and AnyKaat. Those two had brought sidearms.

Haget said, "Passengers are not permitted in this part of the Traveler. Please return to passengers' country."

Seeker did not move. Jo tried to stand outside herself while emotions and urges not her own tugged at her. She did not yield.

Haget repeated his admonition. He added, "Canon law forbids your presence on the operating bridge of any carrier not operated by your own species."

This vessel must turn back. I have erred. I have overlooked one of the children. She is in danger.

Jo shuddered. That voice was inside her head....

"Sir, you must return to passengers' country. This is a lawful order. If you fail to obey, I will be compelled to enforce it by force."

Jo was amazed that he would be so patient and polite.

Seeker was not listening. Move aside. I will have this vessel turned.

Hammer blows, those thoughts of command. Excruciating, but not unbearable. Jo withstood them. Haget seemed to shed them without effort.

Seeker appeared surprised. And distressed.

Haget said, "We have us a situation, people. I can't be sure it understands my warnings. AnyKaat, set to light stun. Degas, you for heavy. I'll try talking one more time."

If Seeker understood, it did not respond. Nor did it react to Haget's repeated directive to return to its quarters. It tried its mind magic again. It failed again.

Jo said, "Careful, Commander. It's getting pissed."

It started forward.

"AnyKaat."

AnyKaat drew and fired with Guardship soldier's proficiency. The alien collapsed. Jo moved in carefully.

Haget snapped, "Vadja! Check the methane breather. Now! Degas. The krekelen. AnyKaat. Cover us while we lug this thing to its quarters."

Chief Timmerbach cracked the bridge hatch, peeked out, squeaked, and locked up again as Haget said, "Don't be shy about using stun."

Jo knelt beside the alien. It was not entirely unconscious. It no longer looked much like the thing they had faced, though flickers of that semblance ran over it like scampering flames on a cotton wad moistened with alcohol.

The aspect beneath was no more real. Spots of black appeared on it and vanished as rhythmically as a heartbeat. Jo sensed sorrow radiating from it.

"I don't think it's really belligerent, Commander. I think it just doesn't know how to make us understand."

He knelt opposite her. "Ready, AnyKaat?"

AnyKaat eased around so she would be behind them. "Ready." Very professional, Jo thought.

Her communicator squawked. "Vadja, Sergeant. We got us a snake circus back here. This methane sniffer has gone berserk."

Haget said, "Tell him to stand fast. We'll be there as soon as we stuff this thing into its den."

Jo relayed the message. Before she finished, Degas checked in. "Nobody home back here, Sergeant. Our protean friend has gone AWOL."

"Can it do that?" Jo asked. "I thought WarAvocat had it programmed."

"Evidently not well enough. It has. AnyKaat, help Degas find it after we put this thing away."

"Yes, sir." She sounded worried.

Jo felt some feather touch from Seeker. She could make no sense of it. "It's trying to tell me something, Commander."

"It can talk us blue in the face after we get the bees back in the hive. But first things first."

Bees? How did he know about bees? From a former life?

Seeker was light. Jo had guessed a hundred kilos beforehand but now she was thinking fifty. Fifty creepy kilos. She grew increasingly repelled....

"Vadja, Sergeant. You people better get here. The damned thing is trying to get out."

"Shee-it!"

"Out?" Haget asked. "But..."

"No shit. Bang!" Jo said. "Shoot it if you have to, Era."

"Where?"

"Good question. Hell, just smoke away." She looked at Haget. "That all right?"

He nodded.

They reached Seeker's quarters. "In you go, buddy," Haget said. They dumped it and closed the door. AnyKaat set her weapon to Kill and welded the door shut. Then she ran.

"We'd better collect our own arsenal, Sergeant."

That took only a moment. Then, hip to hip, they raced for the methane breather's deck. Startled passengers dodged them and stared. Vadja kept Jo's communicator squealing. "Shooting doesn't do much good. It's spread out all over in there and just getting madder. Damn it! It is trying to get out."

Haget grabbed the communicator. "If you can't stop it, get the hell away from it. Now!"

They burst into the passageway. Forty meters away Vadja started running toward them. Behind him a compartment door popped open.

"Down!" Jo yelled, and tripped Haget. They landed in a sprawl as oxygen and methane met.

Thunder, flame, and the indignant wail of alarms filled the passage for the few seconds that Jo retained consciousness. The last thing she saw was Era Vadja flying toward her, spread-eagled on the knuckles of the blast.

— 28 —

Simon Tregesser's bell drifted out of shadow, onto the dock, as Noah secured the pay comm. The artifact left the booth, headed for a sanctuary whose location had been given him.

Valerena thought there was a chance he might be suspect, that he ought to run.

His pace slowed as the wrongness penetrated his self-involvement.

The silence screamed.

It had been a typical dock when he had gone into the booth. Dense. Loud. Hectic. Now it was as empty as if all life had been obliterated.

He froze.

In so short a time?

Short of cosmic intervention, there was only one power capable of clearing a dock so fast.

The crew of the Voyager appeared ahead and to either hand. Each carried a naked hairsplitter. They closed in.

Mad laughter rolled behind him. This time, he knew, he would not dodge the lightning.

But he tried, knowing he could not bluff his way through.

— 29 —

The thing hidden at the heart of Simon Tregesser's end space citadel sensed a quivering on the Web. The vibration beat upon it from every direction, like the subtle neutrino flux of the universe itself.

For a minute the message drove it totally sane.

By means provided it called, "Simon Tregesser!"

Simon Tregesser did not respond.

It called again. The news had to be related! A juggernaut of disaster was rolling down the Web, and only inspired improvisation would keep it from bursting into the end space long before it was due.

Fate had carved itself a big slice. Fate and the machinations of enemies the Outsider had not known it had.

Tregesser would not answer. The madman must be off amusing himself. If enough alarms sounded, he would have to respond.

The Outsider's period of sanity ended as it began stressing the limits of its habitat. It twitched, spasmed. Its components turned upon one another. A convulsion cracked a gap in a seal supposedly proof against violence. High-pressure methane squirted through.

There was no explosion. A three meter sword of flame stabbed a control panel. Heat interrupted circuits. Smoke boiled. Plastics began to burn. Alarms whooped. Fire-suppressant systems reacted too late or not at all. Temperatures went up and up and up. More systems failed.

Fire reached a storage compartment for chemicals used inside the closed environments of Tregesser and the Outsider.

The Lupo who first reached the cavity witnessed the blow, which sent shrapnel rocketing unpredictably off the walls. But the Outsider knew nothing of that. Its components were dead already, some of asphyxiation, some of oxygen poisoning, some of decompression, or, failing all of those, of being broiled medium well.

The Lupo watched the violence subside, shook his head, went back topside to see if instruments had recorded anything that would explain what had happened. He doubted he would learn anything.

He did not.

He did get to wondering.

— 30 —

In a place no Canon human knew or would go by choice, in a murk of methane and ammonia, a dozen colonial intelligences harkened as another thrumming blast of agony echoed across the Web. Their components rearranged themselves in some expression of shared emotion. It may have been sorrow, or anger, or despair, or something no human could conceive. Certainly there was a period of inactivity that might have been memorial or mourning.

Then that council joined its multiple brains to consider new machinations.

— 31 —

Turtle had been given quarters reserved for visiting dignitaries, the best living arrangements he had known since the Dire Radiant. A prison cell without bars. Only prisoners mad enough to attack their jailers would need restraint aboard VII Gemina. The Guardship was aware of every sentient corpuscle moving through its metal and plastic veins.

He had the freedom of the ship, with the exception of the Core. What harm could he do?

He was caught more surely than any fly in a spider's snare.

Amber Soul had been installed in the cabin next to his, where her pain was monitored remorselessly. Initially Turtle went nowhere else. He refused to pretend to be anything but a prisoner of the ancient enemy.

Midnight had quarters beyond Amber Soul's but seldom saw them. She spent her time with Hanaver Strate. Turtle felt no rancor. She had to be what she had been created to be.

He was sad, pitying Midnight her pain and Amber Soul her needless agony.

Maybe one of Amber Soul's own kind could penetrate her barriers. To Turtle it was as proof as a Guardship's screens.

Frustration at his helplessness translated into a restlessness he assuaged, eventually, by wandering. But he did so far from the habitats of living crew, out in remote reaches near the rider bays, the nests of pursuit and interceptor fighters, and the Hellspinner pits. There were places out there that offered direct views of naked starspace.

He suspected thousands of Guardship crew never saw space except as a telerelay. A screen had boundaries. A screen never portrayed more than a small, flat section of reality. These humans did not like to admit that they were of no consequence in the eye of the universe.

He found a dead Hellspinner pit. Gemina permitted him access. From the O Bubble on the Readying Room he had a view of as much universe as his mind could encompass. He could lie on the Twist Master's couch and subside into seductive, freckled darkness where there were no yesterdays, no tomorrows, no worries or fears.

He could get as morbidly philosophical as he liked.

WarAvocat found him the third time he visited the pit. Of course, Gemina would report. Amazing, though, that the man would come out and invest time visiting.

WarAvocat took the console seat, stared out at the void. VII Gemina was off the Web, doing Turtle knew not what. He could see a small moon, a station, the moving sparks of local traffic.

It looked as though he had nothing to say. When he did speak, it was only a confirmation of what Turtle read from his stance. "It's restful out here. When I look back, I feel nostalgic only about my time as a Twist Master. Out here you're alone with yourself. Sometimes you end up facing yourself and what you might be."

He grinned, apparently without calculation. "Nothing like popping off a 'spinner and having a Lock Runner slide through and you have to twist a new one and get him before he gets you."

Turtle countered, "Nothing like banging through knowing you have to spot the pit and take it before the Twist Master gets you and your team. Are you really that old?"

"WarCrew sleep a lot. Did you pilot a Lock Runner?"

"I invented the tactic." Successful Lock Runners had deposited commandos on the skins of Guardships. Guardship soldiers had been no match for Ku warriors.

"It wouldn't work now."

"There are no more Ku. No other species has the reflexes. WarAvocat, where are the children?"

"The what?"

"Your children. Your little ones. I've been aboard three Guardships. When we took XVI Cyreniaca, briefly, before it blew. XXII Scythica, before WarCrew drove us out. And now VII Gemina. I have yet to see children."

WarAvocat puzzled it out. "We're our own replacements. Everyone aboard has been here since VII Gemina was commissioned."

"But... I know WarCrew age only on duty. But the others look like they live uninterrupted lives."

"They do—till they get elected or Deified. Most crew just die, then a recorded and edited version gets impressed on a young clone."

Turtle did not comprehend the rationale. "They live their lives over and over?"

"As the jokes goes, over and over till they get it right."

Turtle shook his head. It made no sense. He had studied these people all his life. They were predictable but incomprehensible.

"It works for VII Gemina, Kez Maefele. Other Guardships evolved other directions. They've gotten strange."

Strange. "They say nothing ever changes. They blame you. You are wonderful devils. But I have lived every minute of several thousand years. The entire universe has gone strange. You may not have noticed."

"Why wouldn't we notice?"

"You do not look outside as long as Outside does not fracture the rules you enforce. Canon has changed, WarAvocat. I mark the watershed when the rage for tier cities swept Canon. Before that there were few nonhumans in Canon space, except along the Rims and on the Closed Treaty and Reserved worlds. Artifacts were rare. Like me, they were created for noble purposes. Now they are everywhere, nonpareil toys, to be played with, abused, and discarded. Humans' worlds were choked with people. The Web was acrawl with ships. Trade was brisk Outside. Where have the trillions gone, WarAvocat? There are thousands more worlds now. But they should be filled. They are not. Few are more populous than that pesthole where you found me. Why? Your normals are not breeding.

"These days those held in deepest contempt are the glue binding what is left. Humans own Canon, but nonhumans and artifacts keep it going."

WarAvocat ruminated. "Is there a point?"

"Not if you don't see it already."

"Are you saying this long die-off is our fault?"

"I have no opinion. I am an observer. But others watch. Maybe they see with greater acuity. They are more free than I to roam."

"Food for thought, Kez Maefele."

"I will pass you hearsay, WarAvocat. There are races Outside with ambitions toward Canon space. They perceive a vacuum. But one force holds them at bay."

"Us?" WarAvocat smiled. " ‘What cannot be achieved by strength must be gained by stealth.'"

Turtle grunted. "You have studied me closely."

"You accomplished more with less than anyone before or since. Your tactics set the tone for every incursion and rebellion since." WarAvocat chuckled. "As long as they pursue tactics that almost worked instead of looking for what will work, I ought to be pleased."

"Is there a way?"

"There must be. There always is." WarAvocat mused, "I wonder if anybody considers what would happen if we got knocked off. Seems obvious that whoever did the job would be somebody nastier than us."

"I don't expect that aspect garners much thought." WarAvocat was right. Who defeated the Guardships would replace the Guardships, almost certainly with a grander tyranny.

He stared outside, unseeing, wondering if greed and cruelty and brutality were as much absolutes of life as entropy was an absolute of the physical universe. Did the climb out of the slime write programmes no mind could overcome?

— 32 —

Two said, "The boy recognized you last night."

"He has a marvelous eye," Lupo replied. "And a mind to match. He capitalized on it instantly. He lessened Valerena in the eyes of her supporters, made them look incompetent to her, and pointed them out to us. House Tregesser will receive excellent leadership in his time."

"If he survives Simon and Valerena."

"He'll have to be nurtured. And weaned from traditional Tregesser obsessions."

"You're very thoughtful this morning."

"Too much of what is happening is beyond my control. This, here, while our Guardship is moving toward the end space. You feel it, too. The need to be there."

"This will end today. You expect to fail out there, don't you?"

"If anyone can capture a Guardship, I can. What I doubt is that a Guardship can be captured. It hasn't been managed since the Ku Wars. It didn't take then. XVI Cyreniaca blew itself up."

"Overload won't suffice?"

"We'll find out the hard way. The Directors are gathering. I want to be there when Valerena arrives. Let's go."

Valerena was a Tregesser. She had had twelve hours to compose herself. She was a Tregesser. When the Tregesser rage reached the heat of molten lead, it transmuted into cold, hard gold. Tregessers were most dangerous when they achieved that elevated state.

It gripped her as she passed through the ground-level entrance to the Pylon, Blessed in tow and armed with the inevitable kaleidoscope. She had examined her position minutely, dispassionately, and the best she could call it was hopeless. Lupo Provic had penetrated the true nature of the gathering at Maserang's.

With no hope of profit and little of salvage, she had chosen a course she thought would surprise Lupo, an almost mystical acceptance, a decision not to defend, nor to argue, nor even to participate.

The ground level of the Pylon was vast and open, carpeted in yellow ochre living carpet that subsisted on spillage and droppage, though during off peak hours keepers sprinkled it with water and fish food. Itinerant refreshment centers roamed the islands and archipelagos of furniture, their operators dispensing altered moods and states of consciousness.

The denizens of the Pylon were encouraged to mix there. Simon Tregesser wanted it known that he was a democratic guy. A waste management technician could relax with his head of section and defuse the age-old conflict between labor and management.

Valerena sneered.

It was crap. All crap, pure crap, and nothing but crap. Just a ploy to cozen the troops. It hadn't pulled anything over anybody's eyes.

Among the islands stood countless trophies of Tregesser triumphs. The refreshment barks were out tacking among them, business brisk even at this hour. But the refreshments were on the House. One of the little perks of working for Simon Tregesser.

Blessed said, "There's Lupo and his friend."

Valerena saw them. They would meet a few meters from the lifter banks, where that group were ogling some addition to the exhibits....

It was the artifact Noah, stuffed and mounted, looking like something out of mythology. She scowled at Lupo Provik.

"Very clever, Lupo," Blessed said. "Slick, even, getting Grandfather switched so quickly."

"There are times when you do what the adversary desires, but according to your own timetable."

"Who's your friend?"

Provik said, "You were quite clever yourself."

"I think Mother will finally take your advice about waiting." They entered a lift shaft as a group.

"Welcome news. If it lasts till we see what happens in the end space."

The surrounding walls presented ascending murals. But Blessed stared at Provik's companion. "I'm Blessed Tregesser. Who are you?"

The woman just smiled.

Lupo said, "You're clever, Blessed, but don't let it go to your head. You lack experience and finesse."

The youth's hand jerked a millimeter toward his mother.

Valerena had been paying no attention, but now she let her gaze drift to the back of her son's head. She mulled that remark. Clever Blessed! Had he indeed, with a few words, demolished everything?

Lupo had given the boy a gentle caution against prying. He had missed it twice.

The unsubtlety of youth.

If the boy had... No. If he had done that, he was no child anymore.

Lupo looked at her over Blessed's shoulder, smiling. Then he stepped out of the lift. They had come as high as they could in this shaft. Now they came to the first security barrier. Lupo's companion followed him. Both palmed a reader and passed. Each barrier she did pass would be one more datum about her place in Provik's enterprise.

Valerena left the lift last. As Blessed palmed the reader, she plucked the kaleidoscope from beneath his arm, ran fingertips over its barrel.

"Clever, clever Blessed," she said, and dropped it into the waste receptacle beside the security officer's station. "Naughty, naughty Blessed. Mother has to remember that you're a big boy now, doesn't she?"

— 33 —

Alarms wailed like newly orphaned children. A computer voice droned, "There has been an explosion on B Deck. Passengers please remain in your cabins. There is no danger. Hull integrity has been maintained. Damage control parties are at work." Over and over.

Cold air stirred a wisp of hair lying on Jo's cheek. She cracked an eyelid, thought, I'm still alive. That seemed absurd.

What a mess! Metal and plastic torn, warped, melted, hammered into grotesque sculpture by blast and heat. But she saw no structural damage. House Majhellain built their spaceframes to endure the ages.

The air was shivering cold and fresh. That contaminated by the explosion had been evacuated. But she still smelled singed hair.

Her skin looked broiled. Felt like it, too. Flash burn.

"Oh!" she groaned, touching her scalp. What hair she had left was hair that had been shielded by her arms. She must look like hell.

"You all right, Jo?"

Haget had gotten himself into a lotus position, sort of. He looked ridiculous. She laughed weakly. "Yeah. Underdone."

She got her knees under her, started a painful crawl toward Vadja, three meters away, sprawled in a pool of blood. "Commander, we got a problem. Something cut the artery in his left arm. His color is bad. Pulse and breathing, too."

"Where the hell are those damned civilians? Where's that damage control party?"

"That's just to keep the passengers from panicking. Go get somebody. I'll get a tourniquet on him."

Haget crept down the passageway, grunting, cursing softly.

Jo could not resist. "Dignity, Third WatchMaster. Everything with proper dignity."

He by damned got up on his hind legs and tottered, one hand on the bulkhead.

For nothing. A pressure hatch opened. A man in a protective suit stepped through. Another followed. They expected a worse disaster than they found. They gawked at Haget. One ducked back. The ship's doctor popped in, a fussy little fat man who sized up the situation on the fly and went directly to Vadja. He looked at Jo's work, harrumphed, got busy. Vadja was on a stretcher, taking plasma, and headed for the Traveler's infirmary in the time it took Jo to get to her feet and gingerly approach the opening to Messenger's cabin.

Pieces of alien were splattered on bulkheads, deck, and overhead. That brought back memories of a bunker taken during the Enherrenraat mess. Stubborn bastards had ended up plastered all over the place.

Haget arrived as she backed away, trying to keep her lunch down. "I thought you were used to this."

"Stick your head in there. Take a whiff."

He did. His lunch did come up.

Jo said, "Whatever those suckers eat, it must have to be dead a month before they start. We'll need suits if we're going to poke around in there."

The atmosphere system was trying. Its best was not enough.

Timmerbach appeared, oh-mying, looking like he'd shove them through the nearest lock cheerfully if only he dared. Haget said, "We're building a real credit obligation here, aren't we? Though I don't think we had much to do with the thing going berserk."

Timmerbach grunted. His look said anybody who had to deal with Guardship people would go berserk. "Fifty-six hours till we get to the off strand, Commander. Then on to S. Marselica Freeheld, where House Majhellain has facilities. Hopefully we can part company friends."

Haget smiled thinly. "We won't be leaving you, Chief."

"I didn't think so. But I thought I'd suggest it."

Jo was trying to contact AnyKaat and having no luck. "This damned comm got bruised."

"Try Vadja's." The doctor had dispossessed Vadja of his gear before moving him. "S. Marselica wasn't on the itinerary, Chief."

"Neither was the Presence, a killer Guardship, a suicidal Outsider, or this gallivant across starspace. But here we are. With who knows what damage from the explosion and the beating on the Web. We have to get Glorious Spent in for a hundred percenter."

Jo tried Vadja's comm. It would not crackle. But that did not matter now. Degas and AnyKaat had arrived.

Haget said, "You're probably right, Chief."

AnyKaat asked Jo, "You all right?"

"Overdone around the edges. Otherwise, fine."

"You look awful."

"Thanks. You're one of nature's rare beauties yourself."

Haget asked Timmerbach for the loan of suits so they could invade the alien's quarters.

AnyKaat asked, "How's Era?"

Jo explained. "Unless that Doc is a butcher, he'll be all right. Just shock and loss of blood."

Haget joined them. "Timmerbach will provide the suits, Sergeant. In the interim, I suggest we visit the infirmary. See about Vadja and if maybe the doctor hasn't got something that'll stop the stinging of these burns. What's Seeker doing?"

"Sleeping it off," Degas said. "Sir, what are we going to do now? I got the impression Seeker was tailing Messenger, maybe keeping it from doing whatever it was trying to do. Now it doesn't have a mission. And it wants to go back."

"I don't follow."

"We're supposed to stick and see what they do. But we haven't charged this one. It can do whatever it wants. Suppose next station it bails out and takes another ship?"

Jo grinned. "What he's saying is, how do you and me walk up to some other Traveler's Chief and bluff him into hauling us around? We'd be stuck. We don't have documentation. Him and AnyKaat have documentation but no credit. Timmerbach knows we're off VII Gemina, but if he gets pissed he could dump us and we wouldn't be able to prove a thing."

Haget scowled. "Don't give the little bastard any ideas. Hell. WarAvocat should have given us the necessaries. We'll work on the alien. It's out for sure? After the doctor we'll get cleaned up. Did you get any wind of the krekelen, Degas?"

Degas and AnyKaat shook their heads.

"Better work on that, too."

Jo came out of her quarters, found Haget ready before she was. She said, "That stuff does take the sting out. But it makes the red even redder. I look like some kind of artifact."

Haget grunted. He looked uncomfortable. He blurted, "Tell me something, Sergeant." But then he lost momentum.

"Sir?"

"Uh... what's wrong with me?"

"Wrong with you? Are you asking for an opinion of your personality?" She knew damned well he was, but if she pretended density maybe he would back off.

No such luck. He insisted. "Yes."

Shit. "You're probably a good officer. You wouldn't be a full Commander and a WatchMaster if you weren't. But you never go off duty. You probably sleep at attention."

He opened his mouth to snap, bit on his rejoinder. "I asked, didn't I? Qualities that are prosurvival in Hall of the Watchers but less important out here, eh?"

"You've adapted some, sir."

"I've tried." He did not know what else to say. So he fell back on the support system that had served him in the past: getting after the job. "Let's go visit Seeker and see if we can't communicate. Do you have a functional comm?"

"Yes, sir."

He strapped on a sidearm. "Tell Degas and AnyKaat we're coming."

Jo's eyes were vacant when she walked out of Seeker's cabin. Haget stepped into her path. She mumbled and tried to slide around him, headed for the bridge. He blocked her. "AnyKaat."

AnyKaat slapped her.

She shook her head, rubbed her cheek. "It got to me this time, didn't it?" It had been her fourth attempt and fourth failure. The alien was not interested in communicating, it was interested in getting Glorious Spent to carry it where it wanted to go.

"All right," Haget said. "We tried it one rational species to another. Now we do it my way." He drew his handgun, stepped inside, let the alien have it. ‘Two hours till it wakes up. Let's get the equipment installed."

His way amounted to crude operant conditioning. They would take turns trying to communicate. If Seeker tried to control instead of communicate, zap! Someone would sit monitor in Jo and Haget's suite, ready to administer the zap.

"There's no positive reinforcement in the cycle!" Jo protested.

Haget snapped, "The hell there isn't. The absence of pain. The opportunity to argue its case."

More than an hour passed before Jo realized that was what Haget considered a joke.

"You think we could try this on him, too?" AnyKaat whispered. "Zap him till he gets human?"

"He's basically all right. He just never learned how."

AnyKaat gave her a wonderstruck look.

"Shit," Degas said from outside. "Here comes the angel of gloom."

Jo leaned out. Sure enough, Timmerbach was headed their way. He did not look like he had a social visit in mind.

"What you got, Chief?" Degas asked. "We falling into a black hole? Somebody undo the golden zipper of the universe? You find the krekelen holed up in the wardroom?"

Timmerbach was taken aback.

Jo said, "You never come around with good news. What's wrong now?"

"Where's the Commander?"

"Asleep," Jo lied. Haget had gone off to test the monitor. "And he said don't wake him up."

"You'll have to do. I don't have time to run after him. We're not going to be able to get onto the strand we wanted. It's the one the Presence and the Guardship used. It's too feeble to get hold of."

"I knew it," Degas said. "What did I tell you?"

"We're headed for another one?" Jo asked.

Timmerbach nodded. "It means another four days in star-space."

"Any problems with that? Stores shortages or anything?"

"No. I just don't like to be alone in starspace so far from help. Anything could happen. If we have a breakdown, we're dead."

Degas said, "Chief, the law of averages is due to catch up. Your luck is going to change."

Timmerbach"s look said that while his Traveler was occupied territory, the only shift he expected was for the worse. That this was not worth whatever VII Gemina might do for House Cholot.

That things might have gone worse without them was irrelevant.

"I'll inform the Commander," Jo said. I'll tell him you looked like a fat little boy with naughty thoughts who maybe ought to have his butt spanked just in case.

She watched Timmerbach out of sight. "From now on we watch Timmerbach and Cholot. No need to be discreet about it, either."

— 34 —

A. Neuelica. J. Claeica. S. Reinica. The pageant of systems rolled. The roster of bloodsheds for naught lengthened. There was no pattern. No one House had suffered abnormally. None in harm's way had been spared.

WarAvocat had expected no less. The enemy's stupidity was not tactical, it was strategic.

In transit from K. M'Danlica to M. Colica, WarAvocat moved into seldom visited Hall of the Stars, down against VII Gemina's Core, where everything the Guardship fleet knew about its territory was projected in a display. The detail was as exhaustive and accurate as four millennia of observation could make it.

WarAvocat spent a work shift adrift there, then half another, till he thought he sensed something. Then he sent for Kez Maefele.

Security brought the baffled alien. The Ku's bewilderment only increased when they just deposited him. "WarAvocat?"

"I want to solicit a professional opinion."

"Military? Isn't that absurd?"

"Some things change more than others. I've located a suit Gemina says will do you. The fit will be odd but you'll be able to do everything you need to in it."

"You want me to go EVA?"

"We're going into near vacuum, but right here. The place is its own best explanation. If you will?" He indicated the suit he wanted the Ku to wear.

"It's been a long time, WarAvocat."

"I'm watching you."

The Ku fumbled some with unfamiliar closures but he made no mistakes. War Avocat led him into Hall of the Stars.

"You've always had this? No wonder you defeated us. We made do with paper charts and our own memories."

"The same system was on line. There's more detail now." WarAvocat moved them to the quadrant of interest. "This is the corner where we're playing. The Sixth Presidency. Chart my first. The red line is the krekelen's track. The green represents the course VII Gemina has made. They don't match. We don't want it obvious what we're doing. And the earlier we get there the better our chance of catching them on the stool. Chart my second."

Blue set off a globe seventy light years in diameter. "I believe, and Gemina and the Deified concur, that the krekelen started out somewhere in here. That's where we'll find whatever we're supposed to find. I'm not taking the chase any closer. There'll be alarms. I'd rather not give our adversary warning."

"You appear to be maneuvering against what you would do were you running your enemy's game."

"I always go against myself. I'm the trickiest WarAvocat I've ever met."

"Why am I here?"

"If he plans an ambush, he needs a place to set it. Chart my third." The blue faded. "I used my own requirements for a site. Chart my fourth." Most of the stellar information vanished.

"Three tag ends. None with anything to recommend it as more likely than the others. None have been explored. I've eliminated everything else."

"So now we come to me."

"Yes. You operated in this starspace. The Dire Radiant explored at least two of those tag ends. Could you use one to ambush a Guardship?"

WarAvocat wondered if he had bet wrong. Makarska Vis would make big noises if he had.

"There's nothing off the ends of the farther two. The nearest is the only choice."

"Why?"

"There is a lot of cold matter there. Some large enough for major basing. And the basing exists. We used that end space a long time. And it was used by the Go and pirates before us. I'd bet it's been used by pirates since."

"Any other reason for choosing that tag end?"

"It has a back door."

"Explain, please."

"A month of hard running in starspace takes you to the G. Witica—S. Satyrfaelia strand."

"Chart. Show me the strand." WarAvocat studied it carefully. "I should have seen that." Would he have? Probably. In time. "Thank you for your help, Kez Maefele."

"I did not help you, WarAvocat."

"I know. You did it for the same reason you tried to warn them on V. Rothica 4. Access, OpsAvocat. This is WarAvocat. I have the information I need. Take us to Starbase."

As he helped the Ku shed his suit he said, "I think I just gained another month on the bad guys."

— 35 —

Valerena pretended a calm she did not feel as she took her seat. The Directorate room was like many such in which the courts of power had convened through the ages. Quiet, large, comfortably furnished, overly warm. She, Blessed, Lupo, and his friend were last to arrive. Maserang and Worgemuth pretended she did not exist. Old Commodo Hvar looked confused.

Valerena was confused. Lupo had brought his friend into the room. They had assumed stations behind the refreshments bar. Never before had Lupo intruded here, let alone one of his people. Provik was not a Director.

Then, too, her father and his Other were both present. They occupied opposite ends of the room and were having a great time trying to out-Simon one another. There was no telling which was which.

Blessed slumped in his seat, the bored scion present only by compulsion.

Lupo made the Directors nervous. They knew he was. His presence was not reassuring.

"All right! Let's have a little order here!" one of the Simons bellowed. As though anyone was being rowdy.

"A little order! Knock off the farting around. We got desperate business."

Only Blessed continued his show of indifference.

Everyone knew a conspiracy against Simon Tregesser had been discovered. Names had gotten around. Enemies of the accused were eager for the bloodletting. Friends viewed the future with trepidation. Maserang and Worgemuth faced it in stark terror.

Neither Simon mentioned the matter.

They went off on a zany duet about insurrections on worlds belonging to the House. According to them the Tregesser fortune was being bled white. The House was being gutted. All because of a few incompetent managers.

"We are being destroyed! Devoured! We have to act now, today! We have to get those fools out of there! We have to put in managers of proven skill and decisiveness. I call for—No! I demand!—a vote removing the following near-traitors, before they do us more harm." He named six names. Valerena knew none of them. They could not be much. Eager to get to the blood feast, the Directors approved the dismissals immediately.

"In this extremity our proconsuls must be the best and most reliable." He nominated Valerena, Blessed, Maserang, Worgemuth, and two old men he had loved to hate since childhood. He demanded a vote confirming their appointments.

Blessed was not bored anymore. He sat rigidly upright. He stared at Lupo, who smiled at some private joke.

Her timing perfect, Provik's companion brought Valerena something aswirl with color in a tall, frosty glass. She said, "You owe Lupo a life."

Valerena looked at Provik. He nodded.

So. This was fetor from Lupo's brain. Clever. Cruel. Convince Simon that exile was a fate worse than death. She might have guessed.

And was it not more cruel? Was it not? To be marooned a thousand light years from home and the wellsprings of power and her own intricate systems of security? Lupo would make sure there was no way out.

Right around the table those smug, grinning bastards voted to throw her off Tregesser Prime.

What choice did they have?

Defeat had become a rout.

And the conquerer was not done exacting his revenge. "The times are desperate! There isn't a moment to waste! Voyagers await you, quivering to be on the Web and away! Hurry! Hurry now! The Voyagers await."

What a marvelous family and existence.

"I'm going," Valerena told Blessed. "But I won't let him harry me into a frazzled rush."

"Cover your home base, Mother. We won't be gone long. He won't last longer than it takes his Guardship to erase him."

The two Simons charged around, tried to drive everyone out of the room. "I thought this was supposed to be a Directorate meeting...."

"Mother! Even I know nothing gets settled here. Grandfather decides how the vote will go before he calls a meeting."

Valerena was thinking about her Others. In the tumult of a hasty move, some could get lost without being missed.

She smiled thinly. Then noted Blessed smiling his own smile.

What was that little wretch up to now?

"Will they be plotting against me again, Lupo?" Simon asked after the last Director left.

"Valerena and Worgemuth, certainly. Maserang is out of it. He was going along out of inertia."

"And Blessed?"

"Valerena dragged him along."

"I wish I could stick a knife in Worgemuth. But the old bastard has too many damned relatives."

"You going back to the end space now?"

"I don't want to miss this thing."

"It might be months."

"You're sure a Guardship will come?"

"Pure reflex. Of course."

"You have any doubts, Lupo?"

"Plenty. This's been tried a hundred times. All we've got new is those shields and a lot of crazy Outsiders to do the dying."

"We didn't send that krekelen out whimsically. You checked it right along with the eggheads. We have enough firepower. We have the Po-Ticra suicide pilots eager to die for their silly god."

"I know. It looks like a lock. But I've been thinking. We shouldn't have taken the Web-location modules out. We'll lose everything if it blows up on us. That's a lot of capital to burn."

"It's not Tregesser capital. If it goes bad, I want only two people getting out alive. You and me."

"You're the boss. But I still hate to waste ships."

— 36 —

Lady Midnight joined Turtle in Amber Soul's quarters. "She isn't any better, is she?" There were tears in her eyes.

"Neither better nor worse. She must be trapped in her own sorcery. We Ku have dozens of stories about sorcerers who destroyed themselves with their own magic. I wish I knew how to help."

"Time will help."

"I hope so. Is he treating you well?"

Midnight blushed. "Yes. Better than most. But..."

"He's basically decent, within the mandates of his culture. He wouldn't willfully do you a hurt. Yet he can destroy a world or exterminate a race without a qualm. What is Canon's is Canon's. What isn't shall be." He muttered, "The dragon never sleeps." Then, "You said ‘But.'"

"Someone has been harassing me. That woman who was there when they brought us here. She interrupts my sleep to call me names. And I don't even know who she is."

"She's a ghost gone rancid in her eternal life. It's not you she hates, it's me. I think we can circumvent her."

Did the Deified lose maturity with the millennia? Could an entire Guardship turn infantile?

Doubtful. This was a weakness of the ghost of Makarska Vis. "Excuse me? I was maundering."

"I asked if you know where we are. Not that it matters."

"No. But I know where we're going. Starbase Tulsa."

That name. It throbbed like the beat of primitive drums. Starbase Tulsa, the womb from which every Guardship sprang and to which every Guardship made its periodic hadj. If there was an object of greater dread than a Guardship it was that stellar citadel whence the invincible issued.

An entire mythology revolved around Starbase. It might be heaven or it might be hell. For the mass of humanity and those nonhumans adrift in Canon space, it was more of the latter. It was a place where devils spawned.

Midnight began to shiver. Her wings, which had lost so much of their luster and color already, drooped, faded. Her timidity could not withstand the onslaught of dread.

"We'll be no worse off than we are now, Midnight."

"I know. But I can't help it." Tears tracked her cheeks. She stared at Amber Soul.

Turtle did, too. "Stay with her. Try to get something down her. I think she senses our presence and concern, on some level, and that comforts her."

Midnight had a high empathy quotient and an inability to resist appeals. She would forget herself for a while, ministering to Amber Soul.

"I have a few chores to do. I'll be right back."

In his own suite Turtle examined the comm. Getting the Deified Makarska Vis was easy. In moments he had her on screen, looking vexed. "You!"

"Me. Greetings, Deified. Did I disturb you?"

"Yes."

"Good. You have been disturbing a friend of mine, presumably venting your spite on her because she is incapable of returning your vitriol."

The Deified Makarska Vis gushed filth.

"To me you are a ghost, a memory mummy impressed upon the motions of electrons. I am not awed. If you do not wish to be disturbed, you will stop harassing my friend."

Would it work? Was she possessed of sufficient determination to lock him out? He shrugged and returned to Midnight and Amber Soul.

— 37 —

Among the satellites orbiting the ringed gas giant, there were a dozen moonlets that were natural only in appearance. They were created things half the size of a Guardship, sheathed in ice that concealed their true nature. The ice had been bombarded to give them an ancient, lunar appearance. Everything was camouflage here. This outpost was too near the frontier.

Blinding light ripped from one of the moonlets. Meteor impact? No. This came from within, sustained. Ice turned to water and water to gas. The light died, leaving a cone burned through the mask. The moonlet began moving.

A day later, far from its primary, it flicked out of existence. It had clambered onto the Web. Invisible, it hastened toward the Atlantean Rim of Canon space.

The intruder was invisible but not undetectable at close range. As the object breached the Rim, it very nearly ran over Guardship XXVIII Fretensis. Alarms sounded. The Guardship swept in pursuit.

— 38 —

On impulse WarAvocat went to Kez Maefele's door. The Ku responded immediately. "WarAvocat?"

"We're due to break away soon. Approaching Starbase. I thought you might be interested."

"Am I that obvious?"

"I know your weakness now. Curiosity. I could use it to trap you."

"The Deified Makarska Vis took care of me when she was WarAvocat."

"By main strength and awkwardness. The woman's tactics had the subtlety and finesse of an ax murder."

"There is something to be said for overwhelming might."

"Speaking of Makarska Vis, word is you bluffed her into backing down."

"I am sure she did not stop harassing Midnight because I told her to back off."

"No. Your suggestion got backing from Gemina. She'd begun showing divisive, political tendencies. I'm going to Hall of the Watchers. Their wall gives the best view. Are you coming?"

"Yes. You have a motive for doing this?"

Startled, WarAvocat said, "No."

"You did not mean to impress me with the power of the Guardship fleet?"

"No." He started walking. The Ku followed. "We are a less complex people than you think."

"Maybe. Few of you are subtle."

"We have no need."

"Remarkable. Especially considering the longevity and persistence of the players."

"It's gone funny on some Guardships. Here it hasn't because the soldiers nourish the roots of the culture. Soldiers tend to be direct and simple."

"And if something evades immediate comprehension, they blow it up or kill it. Ku warriors were the same."

It took an hour to reach Hall of the Watchers, by which time VII Gemina was off the Web and closing with some stellar concourse in the form of a triple wheel station, the rotational axis of which was a hollow cylinder large enough to pass a Guardship. Traffic was heavy.

WarAvocat observed, "Somone else has come in recently, for refitting. There's always activity but seldom this much."

"This is Starbase Tulsa?"

WarAvocat chuckled. "No. This is the Barbican, Starbase's only intersection with the universe outside. This is as far as outsiders come. They make deliveries here. Our own ships carry materials from here."

"Then the Guardship fleet is not self-sufficient?" Was that overdoing it? If not, it was on the boundary. WarAvocat looked like he was wondering if that ignorance was feigned. He had, after all, spent a long life studying the Guardships.

"You sound surprised."

"Not entirely. Logically, no system could be entirely closed. I know it was open long ago. But I have been out of touch. I assumed self-sufficiency had been attained."

"We work toward it. But it isn't an overriding concern. Someday."

"Then the system is vulnerable."

"Possibly. Not very. House Horigawa, who have the monopoly on supplying us, have remained faithful through the most trying tests."

"To their extreme benefit." That was no secret. House Horigawa had become one of the dozen richest by serving the Guardships.

"They did come out of the Enherrenraat incident very well." In part because they had betrayed the conspiracy before it had been ready to move.

Turtle watched quietly as VII Gemina entered the station's axial cylinder. "Masterful steersmanship," he said.

"You have to do it right," WarAvocat said. "We have secrets even from ourselves, I think. No one's ever told me why we run the Tube." VII Gemina left the Tube and began accelerating. "We go back onto the Web now."

"I fear I've missed the strategy here." Turtle did not have to feign ignorance now. "Why should everyone break off the Web here?" The answer, by remaining elusive, had kept him from bringing the Dire Radiant in here.

"No choice. This is the most unusual strand on the Web. There's a break in the strand here. The gap is only a few light seconds across, but it's enough. Any attacker has to come off. He has to cross the gap under fire. Messenger ships are always stationed at the tag end on the other side. You can take the Barbican by surprise, but anything beyond will be a deathtrap before you get there."

"Has it been tried?" He knew it had. What he did not know was why attacks against Starbase inevitably failed.

"Everything has been tried. That, half a dozen times."

"And there were no survivors to carry the news."

"None. The price of attacking Starbase is absolute and final."

VII Gemina climbed onto the Web with hydraulic ease. The wall, still carrying a forward view, flashed on a gleaming strand. The Guardship surged along it. In seconds the wall went nova.

The light storm cleared. The wall revealed the shine of a guttering red dwarf glimmering off the backs of two orbital fortresses and the complex they guarded. The primary around which the three scampered was a supergiant with a thousand moons, a planet a minim short of being fat enough to become a star itself. Turtle wondered how it had come to be paired with the red dwarf.

"By the right!" he murmured. "Starbase. I never imagined... no construct can be that big. Unless there is some trick of perspective...."

"No trick," WarAvocat assured him. "And it's not the biggest construct around. You'll see that, too."

The relative motions seemed odd. "We are moving past it."

"I told you this was the most unusual strand on the Web."

"Then this is not Starbase."

"No. We call it Gateway. It's a decoy."

"No one outside even suspects." He never had.

"No. It's totally automated. Its complement consists of dupes of Deified from the fleet. Starbase itself runs the same way."

The supergiant rolled beneath VII Gemina. Turtle asked, "What is in that atmosphere to give it those blue tones?"

"I don't know. I can access the information."

"Never mind. It isn't important."

WarAvocat watched the supergiant dwindle. He wondered why he'd never been curious about its coloration, nor been particularly cognizant of the planet's beauty, with those thousand pearls in its hair. Nor even much curious about a strand that had a double anchor, supergiant and red dwarf, with a gap between.

VII Gemina clambered back onto the interrupted strand.

The construct waiting off the nether tag end was much larger than Gateway. It was a vast rectilinear shape guarded by eight orbital fortresses poised on the points of a cube. The array orbited a feeble yellow star that had no planetary family.

One more curiosity on this particular strand. The star was there but the strand was loose. An end, period. There was no strand leading away in any other direction.

The Ku said, "A battery of adjectives suggest themselves. But none are adequate."

"I know. It still awes me. I used to see it as the ultimate construct, the product of a golden age, never to be equalled. Its builders probably thought that, too. But Starbase Dengaida will make it look like a pyramid raised by clever neolithics."

"Starbase Dengaida?"

"The inevitable consequence of being what we are."

The Ku looked puzzled.

"Invincible. Canon has grown so vast we have a problem with travel times. We have Guardships operating against pirates beyond the Roberquan Rim, which did not exist when you went into hiding on V. Rothica 4. Their patrols take them a thousand light years Outside. The Rim keeps advancing. It can take them six months to reach Starbase. A year in and back. The problem will worsen. Soon after the Enherrenraat incident, foreseeing the problem, Starbase recommended we build a new Starbase out there."

"Word never filtered down into Merod Schene."

"Wasn't meant to. I doubt anyone outside the fleet and House Horigawa has guessed yet. It isn't something we want broadcast. Construction works are vulnerable."

"And it will be bigger than this?"

"A lot. We couldn't find another site to compare with this one, though. So we had to make it tougher to crack."

The Ku's attention remained fixed on Starbase.

Cues on the wall said Gemina was in touch with the Guardship already docked. Data flowed both ways, and back and forth between Gemina and Starbase Core. He picked the ID code out. "Kez Maefele, the Guardship already docked is XII Fulminata."

The Ku eyed him. "You do not seem excited."

"They aren't a social bunch, XII Fulminata crew." He turned away. "Access, OpsAvocat. WarAvocat here. I'd consider it a great favor if you docked us on the same face as XII Fulminata. Out." He turned back to the Ku. "They want to cut themselves a slice of our action. I'm going to let them gobble till they choke. We owe them one."

Starbase was spotted like a domino, with eight black circles to a face, in rows of four. As VII Gemina approached the block it appeared to rotate, bringing another face uppermost. On that face one black circle had been obliterated. XII Fulminata docked.

WarAvocat did not look forward to his next few days.

— 39 —

The Outsider broke off the Web in the Closed System M. Meddinia. It boiled off its mask as it drove toward the system's archaic, ramshackle station. It should have shed its disguise before invading Canon space.

It had not finished when its gaseous surround was backlighted by the violence of XXVIII Fretensis breaking away.

The Guardship wasted no time asking questions. When the corona cleared, twelve riderships were running free and swarms of smaller craft were boiling off. XXVIII Fretensis seemed to be disintegrating.

A barrage preceded the riders. Boiling through space ahead of shells and missiles were a half dozen glimmering balls spit from Hellspinner pits. The best Twist Master ever had no hope of a hit at that range, though. The idea was to frighten the Outsider into raising its screen. Hellspinners terrified anyone who knew anything about them.

The Outsider stuck out its tongue. It did not raise screen. It took M. Meddinia 4A under fire.

The one Hellspinner that looked like the worst throw broke down and in and brushed the Outsider. Tonnes of matter erupted in a geyser of shattered nucleons.

The fastest attackers raced toward the hit, looking for a soft spot.

XXVIII Fretensis developed data on the Outsider's displacement. WarAvocat ordered a supplementary launch. A ship that large might carry secondaries of its own.

It did, but none were active. The Outsider had come expecting no resistance. In quickly, a message delivered, and out, silent and unseen....

The attackers closed in. The Outsider raised screen. Word went back: The screen was Guardship quality.

The Outsider could not have been in a poorer position. It could not deploy riders. A more powerful enemy lay between it and access to the Web. And it was deeper in the gravity well.

Attackers englobed the Outsider. They floated just meters off the screen. XXVIII Fretensis rotated to present its broadest face, closed to three hundred meters. At that range even the most inept Twist Master could not miss.

A hundred pulsating green eyes burned on the Guardship's face.

WarAvocat XXVIII Fretensis ordered his Hellspinners loosed. Those balls of mad energy drifted onto the Outsider's screen like the slow fall of a fine oil mist onto the surface of a summer-warmed pond. Rainbow points spread and faded slowly. Fighters darted to the impact points like fish to motes of food. They pounded those spots, probing for an opening or weakness.

The screen withstood the salvo. But the Twist Masters had permission to loose at will. No screen could absorb Hellspinners long.

The Outsider finally grasped the gravity of its situation. It began to move.

Its assailants moved with it.

Here, there, soft spots in the screen yielded. A one-meter gap opened and persisted for seven seconds. An interceptor put one hundred rounds of 40mm contraterrene shot through the hole. The Outsider's skin blossomed, a garden of small fires.

Other gaps opened. Some attack craft chose marksmanship, gunning for specific installations. Others just blazed away. None tried running the gaps. A screen shielded both ways. A fighter inside would become the target of every Outsider weapon otherwise unable to fire.

The gaps grew larger and lasted longer. The Twist Masters began pairing, hoping to get a second Hellspinner through a gap cut by a first.

The Outsider dropped inside the orbit of the station.

The riders armed their axial cannon, which hurled 250kg projectiles at 8000 meters per second. The projectiles spun off slivers of contraterrene iron as they rattled through a target.

Orders went out to the attackers: penetrate the screen and silence the Outsider's drives.

WarAvocat XXVIII Fretensis had guessed the reason for the Outsider's move planetward. It meant to eliminate evidence by throwing itself into atmosphere.

Cluster shells began getting through. So did Hellspinners and massed barrages from the secondaries. The Outsider was ablaze within the envelope of its shield, surrounded by a shrapnel metalstorm. The attack ships that went in had to use their own lesser screens till they reached firing position.

The Outsider offered only token counterfire. And that soon fell silent.

One salvo stilled the drives. But too late. The Outsider was in a groove that would take it into atmosphere in thirty-eight hours.

WarAvocat XXVIII Fretensis ordered the attackers to concentrate on shield generators. When permanent gaps appeared, he began recovering his secondaries.

XXVIII Fretensis began laying in all the fire it could, including 100cm axial clusters at 12,000mps capable of penetrating to the Outsider's Core—if it had one.

On the Outsider's far side, which had suffered little damage, attackers began opening a path for boarding parties already on the move.

The invaders found nothing alive. In the few hours they had they learned very little. They collected biological and technical samples and got out in time for XXVIII Fretensis to pound the hulk into fragments unlikely to be large enough to do damage when they reached the planet's surface.

As the Guardship turned toward the Web, M. Meddinia station broke communications silence with a laconic, "Thank you, Guardship."

The only Guardship casualties were two bruised and embarrassed pilots whose interceptors had collided during a race to be first through a gap in the Outsider's screen.

— 40 —

Jo slammed into the suite. She was in a grim mood. Vadja had the monitor. Degas and AnyKaat watched over his shoulders. Jo demanded, "Any sign of the krekelen?"

"Not a whiff," AnyKaat replied.

"What's going on?"

Vadja said, "We've maybe got a breakthrough, Sergeant. Course, I only hear the Commander's end. But it sounds like they're talking."

"Good. About damned time."

"Something eating you, Sergeant?"

"I just spent a watch poking around on the bridge. Making a pain of myself. It wasn't Timmerbach's turn to be on but he showed up ten minutes after I did. Looked like he dragged out of his rack in a panic. Worked his butt off trying to keep me from poking in the wrong places. But I still saw enough to know he stuck it to us when he skipped that strand. Him and Cholot are up to something. They think they're going to hand us the dirty end. Wish he'd hurry up."

"Want me to buzz him?"

"Don't bother. Time won't matter. I just want to break some bones."

Degas asked, "Did you get into the system deep enough to cull those biomass figures?" He was convinced that the krekelen had killed somebody and assumed his identity. Haget rejected the notion. Jo was drifting toward Degas's viewpoint.

Degas headed for the door. "I'm going to the galley. That thing has to eat."

Jo looked at AnyKaat, who said, "Instead of looking for the man, he looks for his footprints. Like checking with cooks and stewards on what meals went out when and where."

Vadja leaned back. "The Commander has had enough. He's working on his graceful exit."

Jo leaned past him. Haget was by-the-booking it out the door.

"Way to go, Commander!" Vadja enthused. "Look at there. He broke away clean."

Jo rested a hand on Vadja's shoulder. "How's your arm, Era?"

"Hurts bad enough. I don't think it's going to fall off."

Macho bastards were all alike, male or female. She had talked the same damned way. Was it just soldiers' territory? A defense mechanism that kicked in when you were vulnerable?

Haget shoved into the suite, flopped into a chair. "Jo. Can I impose on you?"

"That's what I'm here for."

"Ask a steward for an analgesic, some soda water, and whatever that liquor was you were swilling the other night."

"Headache?"

"Low grade. Nerves. It would have become a killer if I'd stayed down there."

"You got through?"

"Sort of. It's decided to cooperate. Sort of. Its thinking right into your head isn't as convenient as it sounds. It hurts."

AnyKaat called the stewards while Jo listened.

Haget said, "It's ground gained. Maybe we'll manage some back-and-forth now."

"Did you get anything?"

"Only that it's real anxious to get back to V. Rothica 4. It claims one of its own is marooned there, a child, that it overlooked when the Traveler was there."

"If it missed this kid when it was there, how come it knows now?"

"There's where communications break down. Maybe it couldn't explain. Maybe I just didn't understand. But it's positive and it can't figure out why we won't jigger the clockwork of the universe to help. Hell with it. I don't want to think about it. Answer the door."

The steward had come. He looked at them warily, the way Jo had come to expect. The STASIS people said law enforcement people faced that daily. Jo did not like it.

Haget asked, "Something bothering you?"

She told him about her visit to the bridge.

"Give me fifteen minutes. Then I'll choke Timmerbach till he tells us what's happening."

"Might do better with Cholot. Little sweater like the Chief, he isn't going to spit without orders."

"Uhm. Check the infocomm. See if you can access any Web data. See about this strand Timmerbach wants to pick up."

Jo did that. Timmerbach and Cholot, the twits, were slapstick comics at conspiracy. They had not locked inferential data out of the system.

"Commander, the second system down that strand is L. Caelovica 3, known locally as Karihn. Main city is Cholot Mogadore. Three stations. Only one handles Web traffic. Not much, but the only settled system on the strand. I'd guess only Cholot ships go there."

"That's enough. It ties the knot tight. We'll give them some slack and see how they hang themselves."

— 41 —

There were few occasions when the crews of Guardships came in contact. WarAvocat had come face to face with XII Fulminata crew only twice. He had not been impressed. They suffered from an excess of arrogance and presumption of superiority.

Still, there was a trap in that end space and there was no reason to suspect that it had not been put together with care. This might be the time the villains had what it would take. Wouldn't hurt to go in with more than one Guardship.

"You think too much, Strate," he muttered. "Don't think, act."

The tramp of many feet echoed through the corridors of Starbase. VII Gemina was warming every body and turning everyone loose, to have most of their expectations disappointed.

This was not the Starbase of old. This Starbase was a ghost artifact, empty corridors echoing only to phantom memories of the bustle that had been.

Today it was all automation, machines pursuing ancient programmes, overseen by the ghosts of ghosts, carrying on without human clutter.

There were six completed replacement Guardships in the construction channel and a dozen more being completed at a leisurely pace. They amounted to a macro-exemplar of the process by which slain soldiers were replaced. If a Guardship was lost, a replacement would be impressed with data left during its last visit to Starbase.

VII Gemina began updating its file when it broke off the Web. That would continue throughout its stay. All crew would register a current personal file.

VII Gemina might be destroyed, but there would always be a VII Gemina.

Those who created the fleet had faced a problem as old as idealism: how to keep the fire burning. Children reject the dreams of their parents, and grandchildren hold them in contempt.

Their answer was to preserve the founding generation.

A whisper from behind told Strate his time was no longer his own.

He did not hurry. They could not start without him. And they would be irked with him anyway, having to deal with a Dictat-WarAvocat who was one of the living.

He was less than a minute late. The stir had hardly settled.

Was there any real point to this formalization? A face-to-face only highlighted the ways in which Guardships had evolved independently.

VII Gemina had turned out a parade: soldiers, gunners, Twist Masters, pilots, ridership crews, OpsCrew and ServCrew. XII Fulminata had sent a minimum of live crew, a few passionless senior officers to attend the six Immortals who ruled the Guardship.

The formalities were to be conducted over a circular table at the center of a parade hall. That table was surrounded by equipment that would allow XII Fulminata's Immortals and VII Gemina's Deified to participate. XII Fulminata's delegation had not activated their images.

They waited till WarAvocat seated himself because in their universe the living snapped to attention in the presence of Immortals.

Hanaver Strate did not. "Ready? To remain in character you'll have a list of trivial complaints to demonstrate your superiority. Let's get them out of the way so we can get on with the job."

Thalygos Mundt winced. But Kole Marmigus looked at his opposite number and chuckled. WarAvocat XII Fulminata Delka Stareicha fixed Strate with his best cold stare. "You want us to break off into this end space first." He had turned up the chill on his voice box.

"You claimed the right by seniority. I happily yield the honors to so illustrious..."

"You think we'll go in there, take a beating, and look bad."

"Whoever goes in first stands a chance of hitting a firestorm. Whoever put out the bait believed he could take a Guardship. If you don't think XII Fulminata can handle it, you can run backup."

Stareicha was caught.

"You invited yourself, WarAvocat. If you want to play games meant to validate XII Fulminata's superiority, I'd as soon VII Gemina undertook the operation alone. Since neither first in nor second pleases you, why don't you return to routine patrol?"

Kole Marmigus chuckled again.

Prune-mouthed, Stareicha observed, "It must be getting near time to elect Dictats. Very well. XII Fulminata claims first honors."

History in the making. Formalities held for no better reason than so they could be recorded for posterity.

The shimmer behind Strate's shoulder murmured. Stareicha got a thoughful look.

Another Guardship was coming in. XXVIII Fretensis. It brought news of an Outsider attack upon the Closed System M. Meddinia. The creatures responsible sounded like the methane breather aboard Glorious Spent. Curious.

Had VII Gemina stumbled into one grand skein of schemes, or two? There had been nothing to connect the krekelen to the aliens aboard that Traveler, but now there was a connection between those two.

Their races appeared to be at war.

That was not permitted in Canon space.

The brass of that attack outraged Hanaver Strate's sense of the natural order.

— 42 —

Lupo could not shake a ballooning pessimism. He tried to study intelligence abstracts but his mind refused to focus.

Simon Tregesser cruised up. He was subdued, too. "I heard you had something." He had not recovered from finding his refuge destroyed by a berserk Outsider.

"We've had sightings of two more Guardships headed in to Starbase. VII Gemina and XXVIII Fretensis."

"That's three pretty fast. Any statistical significance?"

"No."

"Why so glum, then?"

"The unpredictable variables aren't coming our way often enough to please me."

"You want to put the Web locaters back, don't you?"

"If it sours, we lose our investment."

"And I say that strategy, run to fight another day, is hopeless."

"But..."

"But you have some right to your argument, Lupo. Put the damned things back."

"They won't know they can run. I'll give them sealed orders to be opened only on receipt of an unlocking code."

"Good. Have you made plans to get us out, too? With your usual devotion to detail?"

"Yes."

"It's the waiting. Relax. Go play with a woman."

"Yes."

"Can you say anything else?"

"Yes. But it'd be on a subject you don't want to talk about. You have to consider bypassing Valerena."

"It isn't done, Lupo."

"The House will suffer."

Tregesser made burbling, grumbling, contrary noises.

"She is a Tregesser. But she comes up short on perspective, Simon. She has no sense of timing. She's lacking in the intangibles. She can't hang on to loyalties."

"If she's feeble, she won't last. That's the way it's done."

"Blessed will take it away from her. But at what cost? Suppose we catch a Guardship. You want to imagine Valerena having her own Guardship?"

"We grab a Guardship, Valerena won't get her hands on it. Get me one. You'll have no worries."

"You'll give it to Blessed?"

"The hell I will. I'll give it to me. I'll succeed myself. You can make me a new damned Other, a healthy one, and I'll move into it when you do the personality impression."

"That's an interesting idea. If you can get away with it."

"Why shouldn't I?" Tregesser did not notice Provik saying "you" instead of "we," though he replied with "I" instead of "we."

"No clone has ever been anything but an artifact, except Valerena. But officially only you and I know about Valerena."

"Be the same thing, Lupo."

"Hardly. How the hell would you hide Simon Tregesser suddenly turning up with a healthy body? The Directors would claim it wasn't you. They'd say it was some scheme of mine to take over the House. Hell, it's been tried before. Somebody works a deal with Banat-Marath and Troqwai and gives it a shot, and everybody cheers him for giving Death the slip, then they show him the door to the nearest DownTown. There's too much wealth and power at stake."

"Crap."

"Human nature, Simon. It don't work. It's the iron law. They'll let you cheat death once if you're at the top but the price is you have to start over at the bottom. As an artifact."

"Bah! Crap, I say! Watch me! You're my man, aren't you? If we can flout the law and human nature and historical inertia to put together that mass of firepower out there, we can get around the Directors. Can't we?"

"No doubt." Lupo Provik maintained the neutrality of billet steel. He was Simon Tregesser's man, worthy of the trust he had been given, but his loyalty had been subscribed in the certainty that Simon Tregesser was not immortal.

"Hey! The more I think about it, the more I like it." Big mad peal of the old Simon Tregesser hilarity. "I'm going to get on it. Something to while away the hours. Ha-ha! Ha-ha! Immortality. Wouldn't that be a bitch!"

A screaming bitch, Lupo thought as Simon zipped away, roaring and treating his aides and allies with complete disregard. A bitch so big he would have to reexamine his commitments and undertakings if Simon pursued it.

Not that he objected to immortality per se. It was good enough for Lupo Provik.

— 43 —

Midnight told Turtle, "You'd better come. She might be coming out of it."

Turtle secured the infocomm. "That's good news." Gemina had not been letting him at much. For instance, he could access nothing about Kez Maefele.

He followed Midnight to Amber Soul's stateroom. "You haven't been spending much time with WarAvocat."

"He's busy figuring out how to kill people." Her tone was peevish.

Turtle suspected some of those people needed killing. They had loosed the beast of blood when they had sent that krekelen on its mission.

Amber Soul did seem changed. The air around her had lost that charge of pain it had carried so long. She no longer looked human, only humanoid, in the shape she had worn most often in Merod Schene DownTown.

He began with a gentle examination, aware that Gemina monitored his every twitch and breath. He did not try misdirection.

"This might be a good time to get some nourishment down her."

The door snapped open. Four humorless ConCom security types tramped in. A junior officer looked around with the cold eye of the jackboot breed. Turtle accepted it with bland indifference.

They needed the fear, his type. They fed upon it. "You're to come with us."

"Fine."

"Get that onto the stretcher and let's move out."

Turtle glanced over his shoulder. Nobody there. "You talking to me?"

"Who the hell else would I be talking to?"

Turtle shrugged. "I'm not crew. I don't do crew's work. Gemina wants her moved, Gemina can move her." Something was wrong here.

"You'll do what I tell you,"

"Or you'll put a bug down my shirt? I know you wouldn't be dumb enough to get physical with a Ku warrior."

The color left the officer's face. Odd response. Humans got red and puffy when they were angry.

One of the others whispered to the officer, who barked, "I know that, dammit! You and Blaylo get the thing on the stretcher."

The security men designated activated the stretcher's grav unit, moved Amber Soul aboard, set her floating into the corridor. They bothered guiding her only when the stretcher drifted near a bulkhead. Turtle remained close behind, keeping Midnight near. One security man ranged ahead, scouting. Another fell back to rearguard. The officer was nervous.

Midnight kept tossing Turtle questioning glances he ignored. But finally he asked, "Up to something sneaky, subaltern? Slipping through all these deserted passages. Who are you trying to put one over on?"

"Just keep moving."

"You can sneak but you can't hide. Gemina is watching."

The bearer's shoulder flinched. That had stung.

The officer snapped, "Close the mouth, Ku. Or we will give the obsolete warrior a field test."

Turtle turned, took the man's cap before he could blink, shifted hands, put it back. "You're right. I'm slowing down."

The act was satisfying but not worth the scorn he got from Midnight.

They mostly went down, past the armored bulk of the Core, always through the kinds of passageways Turtle haunted when he wandered. The final passageway led to an exit lock.

They were leaving VII Gemina? For Starbase? That was a surprise.

The subaltern slipped outside and took the lead. He marched them down corridors that stretched for kilometers, into visual infinity. Occasionally he zigged out and down stairwells that had not felt the tread of feet in lifetimes. Finally, he ushered them into an empty room. The subaltern said, "Wait here." He went out with his troops.

An hour later Turtle said, "We've been ditched, courtesy of the Deified Makarska Vis."

Midnight looked like she might panic. "Do you recall the way back? I do."

"Yes. They didn't try to be confusing." Which was ominous.

Midnight jiggered the stretcher controls. It rose a meter. "There should be a comealong."

"They would have used it."

"Probably. Let's go. I have to do something or I'll lose control."

"You're doing well."

"I do better when hysterics are a luxury."

"We all do." He let her manage the stretcher. He did not press. He was sure it was too late.

He kept expecting to run into somebody who would want to know what they were doing. But they encountered no sign of the builders or their heirs. Starbase, Turtle feared, was a prison where they would serve life sentences for having offended the Deified Makarska Vis.

The entry hatch was locked. As he expected. He told Midnight, "Stay here. I'll find a way to get hold of WarAvocat."

She had her hysterics then.

— 44 —

The spacers of House Horigawa saw something no one had seen since the days of the Enherrenraat, Guardships coming out of Starbase Tulsa, through the Barbican, in line astern, ready for war.

The news would go out. But no news traveled faster than a hungry Guardship.

— 45 —

Jo staggered into the suite's common room, not quite knowing why she tried. She pointed herself toward the info-comm. As though that would do any good.

Vadja lay slumped over the board.

Forewarned was not necessarily adequately forearmed.

"Bastards," she mumbled as she fell. "You're dead meat now."

— 46 —

Lupo was studying Web strands when the universe went white. In a voice almost sad he said, "Commence firing." The command was redundant. The outer gun platforms would have begun firing before the corona's light reached the asteroid. He touched his wrist comm. "Simon. Your Guardship is here."

He stalked the length of Control, stood before the vast window facing the tag end. The rush and chatter, the wail of alarms and flash of lights behind him, did not impinge upon his consciousness. He touched his wrist again. "Our guest is here."

There was no response from his family. None was needed.

The night donned a mask of fire. The Guardship became the brightest object in the universe.

Simon slammed to a stop beside him. "What's it doing here already, Lupo? How did it find us so soon? Are we ready? Can we handle it? Which one is it?"

Lupo answered none of those questions. He couldn't. "Let's watch it on the main display. Lower the armor now," he told a technician. He headed back the direction he had come, noting that all activity was orderly, efficient, and without panic. The technicians had their confidence. They had been through this in drills so often everything was automatic.

Tregesser tagged along, keeping quiet only because he did not want to betray frailty to his troops.

The display had reset to local. Data from every ship, station, gun platform, and observation point fed into the new picture.

"Ha!" Tregesser roared. "Ha-ha! What did I tell you, Lupo? It's locked up inside its screen. Look at them pound that bastard."

"Uhm. Wouldn't you know. It's XII Fulminata."

"Shit! Double shit! But look at it, man!"

"Its screens are holding, Simon."

"For how long? Eh? What're they doing?"

Slivers had begun sliding over the surface of the Guardship, behind its screen, roilsome as maggots in a carcass.

"Launching fighters. Holding them inside the screen."

"Why? They can't get them out."

A Tregesser ship, crawling the outer surface of the screen, laying down continuous fire, exploded.

"How did they do that?" Tregesser shrieked.

"He got too close, running with his own screen down. They fired a CT burst and opened a port just long enough for the shells to pass through. Our ship shaded the port."

While Provik spoke another ship blew up. They were too eager out there. He tapped his wrist. "Allkire Verkler! Get those ships off the face of that screen or I'll get me a new group commander."

Another blew before Commander Verkler made his adjustments.

"They aren't using Hellspinners, Lupo."

"They're not stupid. Hellspinners cause weak spots coming out." The course the Guardship had to run was a test to destruction, a tube of ships and gun platforms. The farther it advanced into the tube, the more fire it would take.

Tregesser said, "Those fighters are like bugs on the inside of a light globe." Then, "Hey! They're launching."

It was called a bubble-through launch though neither Provik nor Tregesser had heard of the tactic. It was used only by Guardships with little or no concern for living crew: I Primagenia, III Victrix, IV Trajana, XII Fulminata, others gone extremely strange. Losses in a bubble-through were heavy.

Fighters came out with their own screens maxed, osmotically. The gaps they exited never opened bigger than fighter and screen. The Guardship risked little. But fighter screens were of a lesser grade, and the ships they protected were easy targets for a moment. If they did not get through fast and start dodging, they were dead.

A lot got dead this launch.

But then the survivors were everywhere, making life miserable for the attackers, forcing them behind their own screens.

"They're as crazy as your damned suicide squadrons," Lupo said.

"It was a good move for them. It worked. Look. Magnum launch."

A cloud of fighters had begun boiling off the Guardship now. Heavier riders and gunships followed. XII Fulminata was deploying everything. Soon it looked like a wad of wire mesh.

"Magnum launch indeed," Lupo said. "You'd better send in the Po-Ticra before the heavy secondaries get maneuvering room."

There were Outsiders who would respond only to Simon Tregesser, apparently unable to understand that Provik spoke with his voice. Lupo thought that a bad way to do business. If Simon checked out, those personal alliances became void.

This battle meant more to Simon than he would admit. He did not have to capture a Guardship to profit. Destroying one should quicken a flood of Outsider support.

They wanted to shatter Canon Rim, of course. Simon, dancing on a tightwire, hoped it would not go that far. He just wanted a lot more for him.

Lupo wondered if the Outsiders would let House Tregesser gain a Guardship. Alien and stupid were not synonyms.

He issued orders, made adjustments, examined data. "Simon. The numbers say they can't win. They can't even turn around. Start your call for surrender."

"What's that? We did it? Did you say we did it?"

"I said we're going to do it. Unless something happens. These crazy Outsiders could screw it up."

"Eh? Ha-ha!" The mad laughter rolled. Then Tregesser began booming his brief ultimatum.

The Guardship did not reply.

XII Fulminata's screen began to show signs of distress. Lupo noticed, too, that the Guardship had begun to accelerate. That made no sense. Unless they had decided to rip straight through the end space.

Cold chills.

Death's glance had passed your way, they said, when that creepy cold brushed your back.

Nova fire.

"What was that, Lupo? Lupo! What's happening?"

"You know damned well what it was, Simon. Another goddamned Guardship just broke off the Web." He looked around. They had a positive ID. "This is VII Gemina and they're into a magnum launch already."

More creepy chills. This time they lingered. He had caught Death's eye.

"What are we going to do, Lupo?"

"You're going to leave me the hell alone while I figure out what." First, pull the fighters off XII Fulminata. They were not contributing much. Launch the reserve. Shift the fire of the more remote gun platforms to the new target. Have Simon throw Po-Ticra suiciders at any gap in XII Fulminata's screen. XII Fulminata could stop them only with massed Hellspinners. Most would miss and rip more holes in the Guardship's screen.

He executed as he thought, shifting from fighting for victory to fighting for survival.

The adjustments looked good. The numbers were iffy, but there was a chance....

Nova light.

"Are they sending the whole damned fleet?"

"Lupo!"

Provik tapped his wrist. "Family, we have to run for it. Get ready." He watched till the ID came up. XXVIII Fretensis.

Somewhere in the back of his mind he had been expecting a third Guardship.

— 47 —

WarAvocat's anger dwindled only because he had no time to indulge it. The moment duty failed to distract him, the rage returned.

The Deified Makarska Vis would pay.

Their conflict was the talk of the Guardship. Sympathy ran heavily in his favor. It was certain he would be reelected Dictat if he stood, and almost as certain that the Deified Makarska Vis would bow before a motion of censure from the Deified.

"Ready on all launch stations, WarAvocat."

He surveyed WarCentral. VII Gemina was ready.

He had never felt so uncertain.

What did this crop of villains have? They always had something they thought gave them an edge. He dreaded the day when they were right.

"We have broken away."

"Commence launch. Riders recheck your launch sequence."

"Heavy fire ahead. No incoming."

Verbal redundancy informed OpsCrew and ServCrew what VII Gemina and WarCrew were doing.

Tens of thousands of ears listened. Even the least member of WarCrew was awake and on station somewhere.

"Holy shit," someone said. "Look at that."

"That" was the sort of firestorm about which WarAvocats had nightmares.

The trap was obvious. And good. It was a sock into which momentum would carry the Guardship deeper and deeper while enemy fire grew more intense. XII Fulminata could not be seen. That Guardship was the focus of enough violence to fuel a small sun.

"We're starting to take fire."

WarAvocat told the WarCentral duty WatchMaster, "Someone has been getting ready for a long time. There's no way out except through the other end. We can't even turn back because XXVIII Fretensis is coming in behind us."

"Can we handle it, sir?"

"We'll find out. Maybe I should have allowed XXVIII Fretensis second honors."

Data accumulated. The picture was not good. XII Fulminata had lost half its riders. The rest were damned unless recovered by VII Gemina or XXVIII Fretensis. XII Fulminata's screen could take no more strain, yet it faced worse fire ahead.

"WarAvocat." WatchMaster pointed.

A swarm of fighters had broken away from XII Fulminata, headed for VII Gemina. Other viewscreens showed hordes of fresh fighters pouring out of remote chunks of rock. The enemy was committing reserves.

The nearest gun platforms, already under fire from VII Gemina, began shifting to the incoming target.

"They're quick," WarAvocat said. "Bet they've decided to forget capturing XII Fulminata and try for us. Comm. Anything from XII Fulminata?

"No, sir."

"That stubborn bastard." WarAvocat examined the latest. VII Gemina would have all its secondaries away before it had to hide behind its shield. If it had to.

"Sir, their screens are as good as ours," WatchMaster said.

"Damn!" So they were. XII Fulminata's secondaries had not been able to silence a single heavy weapon.

VII Gemina plowed through wreckage left by XII Fulminata. "Must have done a bubble launch. The crazy bastards."

"Don't look like they had much choice."

"Probably didn't."

Screens threw up schematics of enemy vessels amongst the wreckage. Few were not of nonhuman manufacture. Probe delivered data on species spotted in the wreckage. Few were recognized by Gemina.

They overhauled an enemy cripple of ridership size. A dozen Hellspinners whipped out. Three made contact, devoured half the vessel. WarAvocat nudged course slightly to pass a gun platform closely enough to use Hellspinners.

Its screen was Guardship quality. But it did not withstand the barrage.

VII Gemina's interceptors met the enemy attack ships. In seconds it was obvious the Guardship had the better pilots. But the enemy had the numbers advantage.

"They've been getting ready for a long time," WarAvocat muttered. Every weapon VII Gemina could target was in action. There was not yet enough incoming to mandate more than prophylactic screening.

XXVIII Fretensis broke away. WarAvocat XXVIII Fretensis assessed the situation and ordered his fighters forward to protect VII Gemina so VII Gemina could support XII Fulminata.

WarAvocat ordered, "Put out the mine cloud. If they come at us hard, we'll run behind screen till our support arrives."

The mine cloud consisted of explosive packets that would orbit the Guardship on attenuated grav strings.

XXVIII Fretensis began dumping velocity to deal with the enemy individually and to block access to the Web. There would be no escapes.

The senior communications officer beckoned WarAvocat. "Just got a squirt from XII Fulminata, sir. Personal for you. The signal was a mess. We'll have it together in a minute."

So. WarAvocat XII Fulminata deigned to speak to his auxiliaries.

Another voice: "Fighters coming in." WarAvocat faced a screen that segmented to portray multiple attacks. "None of those are of human manufacture. Hold screen till the last second. All weapons are free."

The fighters streaked in. Defensive fire reached out. Hellspinners rolled. One hapless pilot hit a mine. The screen snapped up at the last instant. It was too late for several eager pilots to avoid collision.

WarAvocat asked, "How many did we get?"

"Six on the screen, sir. Eight in the mine cloud. Thirteen with fire."

"Not bad." The enemy began sniping at the mines. They wanted room close to the shield. "Watch for Lock Runners," WarAvocat cautioned. There would be soft spots in the shield while the Hellspinners raged.

Most of the enemy fighters, though, went on to meet those from XXVIII Fretensis. VII Gemina's contingent were overhauling XII Fulminata, laying fire on everything in sight, doing damage wherever the enemy had his attention too obsessively fixed on XII Fulminata.

"Message from XII Fulminata is ready to run, WarAvocat."

"Go ahead."

It began with a visual collage showing enemy tactics, a grim variation on the Lock Runner theme. The Lock Runner would pop through and spray small caliber CT slugs. The Lock Runner would race in firing and just crash and blow up.

WarAvocat XII Fulminata was terse. "Our shield is destabilizing. It won't hold. We're going shitstorm. Good luck, VII Gemina. XII Fulminata out."

WarAvocat muttered, "In character to the end."

— 48 —

Lupo Provik cursed, exasperated. "Simon, I guarantee you I can't pull it off against three Guardships. They're eating us up. Will you get yourself into your damned Voyager and get out?"

Tregesser wanted to find hope where there was none.

"If it suddenly goes our way, you can turn back."

"What about you?"

"I'm covering you, dammit! I'll leave as soon as you're clear. Will you go? Do I have to drag you? You want to guess what it's going to be like here when these things realize they're all going to die?"

"All right. All right." Tregesser started moving. "At least we gave it a try."

"It'll help when we shop around Outside again. Go." Lupo scanned his data. Half his fighters gone. Half of everything suffering at least some damage. And that damned third Guardship just cruising in, doing execution duty, blocking the escape route. No point sending the signal that would free the troops to try for the tag end. He muttered, "But we weren't supposed to draw the whole damned fleet."

He watched the Guardships till he received word that Tregesser's Voyager was clear and running into the void, headed out the end space's back door.

"Mr. Provik!" The tone jarred. It was one of total disbelief.

"What?"

"The lead Guardship has dropped its screen."

"We broke through?"

"No sir. They shut it down. On purpose."

"That's insane." He scanned the incoming data, looked for the error. It was not there. The Guardship was spewing more fire than it was taking. Its output was not falling off as it should. He checked the visual display.

Pieces flew off XII Fulminata in all directions.... He caught something, adjusted scale. "I'll be damned."

XII Fulminata was peeling itself like an onion, sloughing layers a hundred meters thick in chunks and sections as they were destroyed. The layers beneath were as heavily armed as those blown away.

It was depressing. They always had something more to show you.

More and more, his gun platforms were forced to waste time shielding themselves. That made it more difficult to fend off the pinpoint attacks of enemy fighters.

"Damn them. They're as crazy as Simon's suiciders. They just keep coming. How do you whip somebody who doesn't care if he gets killed?"

Be interesting to find out why they valued their lives so lightly.

No time to worry about it now. He tapped his wrist. "Ready? It's time."

He drifted away when no one was watching. He joined his family on the operating bridge of his personal Voyager. As Lupo One backed it from its docking bay, he said, "VII Fulminata blew up a minute ago. Want to screen it?"

"Might as well."

Lupo felt tired beyond any weariness justified by exertion. It was the tiredness that comes after great stress, great failure. It was a weariness brought on by a certainty that half a life's work had gone for naught.

He had expected it, but that did not soften the impact of reality.

Behind the Voyager, fire and death clawed the face of the night and ripped the fabric of space.

— 49 —

Absolute silence gripped VII Gemina. In every compartment boasting a viewscreen, men and women watched fire blossom on the field of stars, XII Fulminata's self-chosen eulogy.

No Guardship had chosen self-destruction in two thousand years. Even in defeat that extremity had been unnecessary.

WarAvocat suspected it was a statement rather than a necessity. Fulminata would not let anyone or anything external become the arbiter of its fate.

Characteristic.

WarAvocat surveyed the Deified. Makarska Vis refused to acknowledge his presence. He smiled. She was shaken. What support she retained, after her trick with the Ku, would dim.

He vandalized a holy silence. "Stand to, people. It's our turn."

The smell of fear tainted the air.

VII Gemina was deep into the deadly sock, approaching the point where XII Fulminata had dropped screen. Much of the enemy's resources had been destroyed. But a lot remained. Maybe enough.

A leaden weight dragged at WarAvocat. He did not want to follow XII Fulminata into oblivion. Could he have gone on without XXVIII Fretensis there to see?

The might of the enemy smashed in. In seconds VII Gemina was locked up inside its shield too tight to fire back.

He checked his secondaries.

XII Fulminata's last few and some of VII Gemina's were headed for XXVIII Fretensis to rearm. The XII Fulminata pilots would not be much use anymore, as exhausted and disheartened as they must be.

The enemy had begun recovery, too. Suddenly, he understood why Stareicha had seemed intent on racing to his doom. "Maximum acceleration ahead," he ordered, silently cursing the man or woman who had condemned him to follow this one straight course. "Connect me with all the squadron commanders. Off whichever Guardship. All secondaries to relay to anyone we can't reach directly."

Click! Every viewscreen reserved for the Deified became active.

"We have a net, WarAvocat."

"Access. All squadrons. This is WarAvocat VII Gemina. All ships capable break off present action. The enemy is recovering for rearming. Pursue. If his bays are open, fire into them. Destroy ships moving in to rearm. Don't waste time on enemy batteries. When you need to rearm, do so on XXVIII Fretensis.

"XXVIII Fretensis, I'm going to run this gauntlet through, then work back outside it. Do you have reserve pilots sufficient to reman ships off XII Fulminata and VII Gemina?"

A simple "Yes," and that connection ended.

WarAvocat checked his shield. It was solid but under increasing pressure. That pressure would get worse. Maybe so bad he would have to follow Stareicha's example and hope VII Gemina cleared the sock before it was consumed.

Could he give the order to drop screen? He was not WarAvocat XII Fulminata, obsessed with an image of invincibility, ready to accept destruction if withdrawal was the alternative.

All those silent Deified, many of whom had been WarAvocat before him, stared, knowing the conflict within him, perhaps wondering if they could have given the order themselves.

"WarAvocat."

That voice was grim. He hurried to the woman's side. She tapped her monitor. It displayed a schematic of the sock ahead, aflicker with fields of fire. She cancelled that. A stark portrait and bleak prognosis remained.

"I should have figured." He had been thinking of it as a sock, not a tube. And the mastermind on the other side had shown no inclination to miss an opportunity.

The end of the killing tube was plugged with chunks of dead rock. "How many? Four?"

"Six. Two are small."

That was one decision made. It was too late to avoid a collision. He had to go into that with a shield. "We taking any fire from them?"

"No, sir. Probe shows only dead rock."

"Fields of fire again."

She brought them back. He studied them, ignoring protests from warning systems associated with the screen. He grunted. Only one thing to do, feeble as that was. He had to open a port forward and throw everything he could to reduce the masses of those rocks. Tube it like a gun barrel so it would channel Hellspinners. The Twist Masters could get off more if they were not aiming them.

He gave orders. VII Gemina hurled massed fire forward. He fixed his attention on the schematics, ignored the creaking screen. It would hold. Or it would not.

A lucky Hellspinner destroyed the smallest rock. A heavy CT shell blew the other small one into gravel. Hellspinners rolled, snapped chunks out of the four big rocks. "I want everyone strapped securely," WarAvocat directed. He set the example.

Twenty-eight seconds and the run would be over. VII Gemina would be clear of the killing zone and ready to get down to the business of massacre.

"WarAvocat! The screen is going!"

"Hold it forward! All weapons commence firing!" He was going shitstorm, want it or not. "Damn it, I said hold the screen forward! Get it up! Get it up!"

Two. One. Impact.

— 50 —

Provik secured the stern view. "I was good enough to take out two Guardships."

"Only thirty to go," Four quipped.

"Good enough to take two, but they sent three. The same old story. You can't beat them if you play their game." He stared at nothing. "Our whole investment, smoke in a few hours."

Four said, "We knew the odds. We weren't doing anything new. Just putting more firepower in one place. We had the Outside screen, but it didn't contribute much."

"Tactically, it had little significance," Lupo admitted.

"We need a new strategy," Four said.

"I'm open to suggestions."

Three said, "We need Hellspinners."

"Let's not fool around here," Lupo said. "As long as we're wishing, why don't we do what Simon did and wish for our own Guardship?"

That stifled conversation. Lupo reactivated the viewscreen, contemplated the receding battle zone. They were killing each other there still, but it was harder to see. The massed firing was over. The surviving Guardship would take its time and do the job right.

Had he covered House Tregesser well enough? That was his main concern now. That he might have left something that would point a finger. Not something important, like someone who knew something, but something trivial that would scream House Tregesser.

He had it all covered. Still, he would be watching over his shoulder for a long time.

"Do we have contact with Simon's Voyager?"

"Way out on the edge."

"Keep it there. Don't reply if he tries to communicate."

Everyone looked at him. One asked, "What are you thinking?"

"Not yet. It needs time to ripen. Or rot."

"He'll get irritated if we don't respond."

"He won't see us. Our system is better than his. He'll keep his mouth shut. He won't want the Guardship coming after him."

Lupo stared into that viewscreen and wondered if he had what it would take to do what he was contemplating.

— 51 —

Jo broke a long silence to spit, "Chains! How absurd are these clowns going to get?"

Degas, AnyKaat, and Vadja—still groggy from drugs—burned with the same indignation. They wanted to bite somebody. Chains! In a pseudoprimitive cell, shackled with chains!

Only Haget was in a good humor.

Jo snapped, "What're you grinning about, you stiff-necked martinet? Are you getting off on this?"

His smile faded. It resurfaced quickly, though. "I can't help it. I keep thinking of the fun I'll have after the pendulum swings."

"The pendulum swings? You silly sack of shit, what do you mean, after the pendulum swings?"

Haget laid a finger to his lips. "Let them find out the hard way."

Jo muttered, "He's crazy. We're in the hands of savages and our fearless leader thinks it's a joke on them."

"It is, Jo. They played it on themselves."

Degas said, "Cholot was the krekelen."

Haget agreed. "Timmerbach wouldn't pull a stunt like this on his own. The real Cholot had the spite but not the balls."

"We've lost it. It'll get out of that Traveler and turn into somebody else."

"Maybe. But if you can figure it out, so can Timmerbach. We catch up with Glorious Spent, our krekelen will be there. Locked up. Bet?"

Degas mumbled, "You're right, Jo. He's got a wobble in his spin."

Haget said, "Two weeks at the outside, troops. Jo. Is that thing dead yet?"

Jo glanced at Seeker. It had not yet shown an inclination to recover. "It's still breathing."

"It'll come around. So let's lay back and enjoy the holiday."

"Listen to the man. Calls this a holiday."

"Fake it, then. It'll drive them crazy."

"Ha-ha. We've got a party now." Jo looked at Seeker. Had the damned thing gone into hibernation?

"Hi, guys," Haget told three humorless STASIS types outside the door. "Smile. It's good for you."

Jo pasted on a grin. "Eat, drink, and make merry. You don't have a lot of time."

They went away. Jo wished she felt as confident as she had sounded.

— 52 —

Turtle established them in an empty office overlooking that cavernous birth canal where new Guardships came to life. For him the location was no better than any other. But it pleased Midnight. She could launch herself on fanciful acrobatic flights in the inconsequential gravity of the construction channel. Her wings had gained color and luster.

For six days Turtle worked himself to exhaustion. If Starbase had secrets it wanted kept, he could not detect the blocks locking him out. If there were living beings anywhere, he could not track them down. He could locate none of the Deified supposed to haunt the system. There seemed to be no omniscient observer as there was aboard VII Gemina.

He could find no evidence Starbase was anything but what it appeared, a half-forgotten fortress where no one had remembered to shut the gate and the garrison were dozing at their posts. The neglect of absolute assurance.

No defenses were active.

Turtle could not focus on the monitor. He went to watch Midnight's ballet. "Castle Dreaming," he murmured, recalling a myth as Midnight looped. A fortress dire and invincible, defended by unkillable demons with claws of steel and fangs of diamond. But Tae Kyodo had entered unchallenged and had walked out with the Bowl of Truth because the demons were taking a siesta, confident their reputation would keep the bad guys away.

Up the cavern the automated factory went to work. Sparks flew. Midnight glided down. "That was beautiful," he said.

"It's easy where there's so little gravity. Did you find a way?"

"It's so easy it's pathetic. We just get on one of the shuttle ships. The Deified operating them aren't interested in what happens inside them. But once we reach the Barbican, we'll have problems. We'll have to change ships. And they will be alert for people who do not belong."

"I'm going to check on Amber Soul."

"All right." Turtle stared at nothing. Somewhere along his life path he had lost the fervor that had driven him in the days of the Dire Radiant.

All those years slinking through the shadows, peeking through the cracks, educating and arming himself against his next bout with the necromancers, and now his inclination was to lay his sword aside and declare peace on the Guardships. Revolutionary change would deliver Canon into the jaws of predators.

There was an evolutionary thing happening, and he'd just begun to recognize it—though he had listed symptoms for WarAvocat.

Canon grew as inexorably as a black hole. Growth would not stop while there were Guardships and Outsiders to offend them.

Give them that. The conquerers never struck first.

Within the ever-advancing Rims a vacuum was developing, consequent to human depopulation. The race was old and, maybe, beginning to fade from the stage of the Web.

The vacuum was pulling nonhumans off the worlds where they sulked, to fill empty shoes. Almost by capillary action, some were oozing upward into the hierarchies. This great empire, Canon, might be theirs to inherit. Ten thousand years hence, Canon law and the Guardships might be the only evidence of the human race's passing.

Circumstances argued that the greatest good for the greatest number sprang from the status quo.

How to get out? Just the one way. Stealth. Going without being seen, without leaving a spoor. But the Barbican stood athwart his path like a wall a thousand kilometers long and five hundred high.

"Turtle!" Midnight squealed. "Come here! She's waking up! For real this time."

He hurried into the office.

— 53 —

Blessed Tregesser paused before leaving the cozy Voyager for the uncertainties dockside. M. Shrilica 3A. Not exactly the hub of the Tregesser empire. A financial loser. The in-system station, 3B, unaffected by Canon regulations, was almost completely shut down.

The world, too, was a source of negative profits. To recommend it, it had nothing but its value as a place to dump exiles.

Rash Norym, whose governorship he would usurp, looked like a woman who had received an unconditional pardon. She waited dockside with the Station Master and a platoon of functionaries who looked like they were doing life without parole.

"If we're going to do it, let's get it done." Blessed started walking. Nyo and Tina Bofoku and Cable Shike followed, willing companions in exile.

Shike was twenty-two. He came out of the darkest dark of the Black Ring. His eyes were the eyes of an old man who had seen all the evils that men do. Blessed hoped to make Shike his own Lupo Provik. Cable aspired to the role.

Blessed stopped in front of Norym, took her hand in his. "Don't question your good fortune. Make use of the opportunity. I'll do the same here." She seemed pained because her escape would be at the expense of another. "Nyo. The envelope."

Nyo handed it to Norym. "Transfer, travel authorization, whatnot."

She opened it. She read. "Tregesser Horata? The Pylon?"

"I pulled a string. It would be nice to have a friend inside. Somebody who would send the occasional letter telling me the latest gossip."

Her face closed down. She knew there would be more to it. A time would come when a major payback would be demanded. "I understand. Thank you."

"Good. The Voyager is waiting. Go when you like. I'll need to meet with your managers to see if we can't turn this operation around."

Rash Norym looked at him hard, a seventeen-year-old talking about turning around the worst loser in the Tregesser empire. "Lots of luck."

"We studied it coming out. Cable thinks he sees a way to cut our losses."

Norym glanced at Shike. "Like I said, good luck. I'll write when I'm settled." She was amused. But there was no humor in her companions. They had heard the deadly edge in Blessed's voice.

— 54 —

Valerena stood staring through double armor glass into the high noon gloom of a mild and sunny day on C. Pwellia 2, a world in its toddler stage. It was so active tectonically nothing dared be built upon its surface. Everyone lived aboard the same airborne prison, a feeble giant of an imitation starship that could not rise above fifteen thousand meters with prayer boosting it.

"Tregesser Tzeged," she muttered. "Armpit of the universe."

C. Pwellia 2 boasted a crop of volcanos so vigorous the planet seemed to simmer. Its surface was a treacherous scum that could break up or turn over any moment. Sometimes the activity exposed concentrations of rare elements worth harvesting.

It was a low-budget operation, marginally profitable, kept in place by the Tregesser need to possess. If House Tregesser pulled out, some other House might move in.

Valerena wondered if the seeds of disaster might not lurk inside that attitude. If you were too stubborn about holding on you might not recognize when getting out was your only viable option.

She had brought a retinue of a hundred to this hellhole, where it rained only at stratospheric altitudes, and that a deadly corrosive rain. Her retainers were there behind her. She turned. "They sent us to Hell on a pretext. Let's shove it down their throats."

— 55 —

Amber Soul ate ravenously for three days. Then they grabbed the first ship out to the Barbican. Turtle spent the time aboard explaining what had happened, where they were, and what they had to do to get away. Then he explained again. Then he zeroed in on the gray areas where she did not comprehend. Then he just hoped for the best.

And there was the thing she wanted to hear over and over again. "Your race inhabits a system called M. Meddinia, the fourth planet, a Closed Treaty World. Your people don't leave there often. Nobody could figure how you got to Merod Schene."

Then she would want to hear all about the member of her race who had been on the Cholot Traveler. He could tell her nothing but the name: Seeker of the Lost Children.

The passage to the Barbican was easy. The Deified managing the ship noticed nothing. The transfer to a Horigawa Hauler was more difficult, but Amber Soul covered them perfectly.

But they did register on several intruder sensors and got STASIS and a few technicians grumbling about ghosts and glitches.

The journey in the belly of the Hauler was as easy as the first leg. Running empty, the crew had no cause to check the holds.

Midnight became the problem. Her nerves were not up to this. Turtle had to keep calming her. "One more leg and we're safe. Two at the most. We go off the Horigawa onto some other Hauler. Get off that at a station down the Web and just disappear. Maybe find a phantom and make a move just to get thoroughly lost. They can't turn over the whole universe looking for us."

"But where are we going to go? What are we going to do? We don't have any documentation. We don't have any credit."

For Turtle, with his timeless perspective, those were not problems. Given ten years he could develop either anywhere. He had done it often before going inert in Merod Schene.

They might not turn over the universe, but WarAvocat would alert STASIS and Canon garrisons everywhere. He represented a real threat now. He had to go to ground fast.

Where? That would be determined more by Midnight and Amber Soul than by his own desires. He thought of heading Yon. There were Ku Outside. But that was too far. He thought of Amber Soul's homeworld. But the Guardships would suffer no qualms seeking him there, treaty or no.

The Horigawa Hauler left the Web at the obscure, planetless system N. Kellrica. It meant to collect transhipped luxury goods destined for the Barbican.

Midnight told Turtle, "Amber Soul doesn't want to leave."

"We have to get off here. This is a very minor nexus station. Perfect for losing our trail. Security will be feeble."

"There's something here that scares her."

"There is something about them all that will frighten us. We're fugitives, Midnight. They will hunt us. We do not have the option of choosing which fears we want to face. Tell her to come on."

Amber Soul came. In a state approaching petrification. Had security not been nonexistent, Turtle would not have gotten her off the Hauler let alone all the way around station to the only other vessel docked, the Sveldrov Traveler Gregor Forgotten.

He had not counted on finding himself with no options but one. From what he overheard along the docks, though, it was a bad season for the old station. There might be no other ship in for months. He could not turn back. The Horigawa Hauler had departed.

A Hauler would have been preferable. A Traveler was more difficult to hide aboard.

Amber Soul did not want to board. Turtle could make no sense of her objections. Midnight shrugged. "She doesn't understand herself. She says she doesn't remember, but it's evil. She's been there before. Something like that."

"Damn! We have no choice. Unless we're ready to sit here till VII Gemina comes. She doesn't want to go back there, does she?"

"No."

"Then we have to do this. And she has to hide us while we're aboard."

Amber Soul managed. But her mental state continued to deteriorate. Her thoughts, that leaked over at times, were flooded with terror and misty memories of something terrible long ago.

Something was very wrong. Amber Soul walked the edge of madness, continuously terrified. Still she could not explain. But it was that Traveler. That specific Traveler.

Midnight fell into a bleak mood of her own. She had begun to suffer because of her design specs. It had been too long since she had seen a man.

Turtle could lead neither out of shadow.

He began to suspect that there was indeed something sinister about the Traveler. Yet the passage began with promise. The crew remained unaware that they had been joined by unregistered companions. Till Amber Soul went into a sudden paranoid frenzy that ended with one of her psychic screams.

In her last moment of consciousness, she sent mind pictures of things writhing and people screaming for mercy where there was none while shadows murdered them brutally.

It made no sense, but it felt real, like something Amber Soul actually had seen.

Turtle understood only that because of the outburst he was not going to get away.

— 56 —

Chief Timmerbach released the final coupling. Centripedal force eased Glorious Spent away from M. Carterii 4A. He had little to do. So he worried.

Had the Majhellain techs been thorough? Should he go ahead and incarcerate Hanhl Cholot? Should he backtrack and try to brownnose that prick Haget into letting him off?

Nova light.

"Guardship breaking off the Web," some genius said.

"Bet I could have figured that out for myself."

A less confident voice announced, "Chief, that's our old buddy IV Trajana."

Timmerbach's stomach went into freefall. He stepped to nav comp and brought up back course data. "Shit."

Hanhl Cholot—or whatever—said, "Take us back to dock, Chief."

"Like hell. I'm not dragging anybody else across their sights."

"That's an order, Chief. If you won't execute it, I'll replace you with someone who will."

"I doubt it." Timmerbach's bridge people continued turning the Traveler, laying it into the groove headed toward the Web.

Cholot started to bluster.

Timmerbach said, "Master-at-Arms."

A hard-looking woman approached Cholot. "To your stateroom, sir." She showed him a pacifier.

"Hey, Chief. Check this."

Timmerbach turned away as Cholot walked out ahead of the Master-at-Arms. "What?"

"Pair of fighters off the Guardship headed this way like they want to see if you can burn holes in vacuum."

Timmerbach sighed and slumped into his command chair. He had no reserves left. He was accursed, and he accepted it. He wanted to go to sleep and shut the universe out.

But he could not. He had an obligation to passengers and crew and House. He kept Glorious Spent in the groove, headed for the Web.

He understood why IV Trajana was here. Web geometry. The strands they had taken leaving that anchor point converged again here. That bastard Haget had seen that. He must have deadmanned the Traveler. "Should have known better. You can't beat them."

The fighters spread out. Timmerbach's last hope vanished as they began curving in. One took station ahead. The other came in on his quarter in firing attitude, snapped three sudden shots that scrubbed three Web tractor vanes. Glorious Spent could not run away.

"Guess that's a message, eh? All right. Guide on that lead fighter."

What the hell could he do? How was he going to deal with this? IV Trajana was not VII Gemina.

The fighter guided him straight to the Guardship, to an empty rider bay. The Guardship grabbed hold. It began accelerating, headed for the strand leading back the way the Traveler had come.

Warning lights flared. Main cargo hatch gave way. Timmerbach heard noises in the passageway. He faced the hatchway.

A pack of little machines scurried in, accompanied by a feeble ghost. The ghost surveyed the bridge, fixed on Timmerbach. It said, "Come."

— 57 —

The wound in VII Gemina's shoulder was three kilometers long and half a kilometer deep. It had been scarred over enough to ignore till the Guardship reached Starbase Tulsa. WarAvocat had no intention of heading there immediately.

A Voyager had been detected sneaking away just before VII Gemina hit the rock.

That mastermind was in for uncomfortable times.

The guns in the end space were silent. The task now was to root the survivors out and find out what other throats needed cutting. Thus far the sword of evidence only pointed Outside.

The one clue he found intriguing came out of the heart of the command asteroid, the wreckage of a monster artificial environment. A few squiggles of data suggested the system had been occupied by a monster like those aboard the Cholot Traveler and the invader destroyed by XXVIII Fretensis.

— 58 —

The crew of the Sveldrov Traveler were unfriendly but surprisingly cautious. They isolated the hold and that was that, initially.

The Traveler broke off the Web at the first anchor point up, made station, then the crew surged in and tossed the stowaways out dockside. Then the Traveler scooted before Station Master or STASIS could act. It refused anything but responder communication.

Turtle was baffled. He could think of nothing that would explain such behavior.

"Remain calm," he told Midnight. STASIS personnel and dock workers eyed them warily. "Let me do the talking. Don't say anything if you can help it. If you can't, don't contradict me. I'm going to blow smoke in their faces." He looked at Amber Soul, no longer in a coma but certainly in a fugue of some sort, lying on the deckplates, panting, changing external appearances as though trying to find one that would protect her from what she feared.

What the hell had it been about that Traveler?

He told Midnight, "Just pretend you're too stupid to understand their questions." There were advantages to belonging to the underclasses. One was that you never disappointed the master race by being stupid.

Bureaucracy ground slowly where for ages it had had no need to handle the unusual. Turtle had plenty of time to rehearse an elaborate fable.

— 59 —

Seated against the wall, Jo was first to sense the strange, short vibrations. They filled her with undirected dread. "Anybody else feel the station shaking?"

Everyone did. AnyKaat, Degas, and Colonel Vadja looked grimly uncomfortable. But Haget just sat there grinning. "I suggest you all get yourselves up to military specs."

Eleven days in close confinement had produced one plus. Seeker was communicating. Some.

A killer ship has come, Jo heard within her head. It is attacking. It has not communicated with the station.

Jo glared at Haget. "A Guardship is here. You knew it was coming. How did you do that?"

Haget grinned some more. "The routes IV Trajana and Glorious Spent took come back together at M. Carterii. When Timmerbach started acting strange, I rigged a dead-man signal on a longwave transmitter and concealed it in the main hold. It carried a copy of our mission log. It had to be reset daily to keep it from broadcasting a mayday."

"Clever. And you kept it all to yourself."

"If I'd told you, I'd have been telling everyone else who happened to be listening. They might have moved us out of here. They're coming. Let's look like soldiers."

I Am A Soldier. Jo grunted, got up, joined Haget at the cell door. The others fell in behind them. Even Seeker prepared to move. Haget smiled pleasantly when Station Master, the STASIS chief, and a squad of retainers appeared. "Buck up, girls. We all screw up."

"Don't overdo it," Jo muttered.

The station people let them out and returned their possessions and equipment, loaded them aboard a bus. The bus took them to a docked ridership guarded by an unstable hologram of a youth clad in a style unseen for three thousand years.

"WatchMaster Commander Haget, take your party aboard. Station Master, I've surveyed your data reservoir. The following persons are to be delivered to me." Followed a list of forty-six, with job titles.

Station Master started to protest.

"I have loosed a Hellspinner. This station can survive no more than seven."

Station Master got the message.

"I am remanding to this station the crew and passengers of the confiscated Cholot Traveler Glorious Spent. All passengers will be delivered to their contracted destinations at the expense of House Cholot and will be reimbursed for their inconvenience and lost time."

There were no comforts aboard the ridership. Prisoners and rescuees alike were crowded into a compartment that soon stank of fear and excretions for which no facilities existed. Some prisoners babbled pleas to Haget.

"Be quiet. I'm no more in control here than you are."

The ridership settled into IV Trajana's hull. The Guardship was in the groove and running for the Web.

The same uncertain hologram waited outside the exit hatch. It seemed blind to everyone but Haget. "Bring them out, Commander."

Haget nodded to Jo. She herded the prisoners out and formed them in a column of threes. They were beyond terror now, into that dulled, accepting, bovine antihysteria that grips the victims of great disasters and atrocities, glazed eyes becoming one-way glasses keeping reality at bay. Wake up some day and find it all a bad dream.

Ha.

Lights came on ahead and died behind. Physically the Guardship resembled VII Gemina. But it was empty. Haunted empty, leaving Jo feeling isolated and alone. Like she had been warmed from storage to find the entire Guardship abandoned but going on. Haulers and Travelers came off the Web that way sometimes. Without a soul aboard and nothing to show what had become of the crew.

It took half an hour to reach their destination. The same holo character awaited them. "Prisoners to the left, Commander. Your own facilities to the right."

"Jo?"

There was an electronic barrier. It parted. A light came on. Jo moved the prisoners.

Degas said, "Hey, look. It's our old buddy Chief Timmerbach. How's it going? Not so good?"

AnyKaat silenced him. "They left the lights on where we were, Degas."

The holograph told Haget, "I'm on the Web running for Starbase. Gemina will put in before and after the action against the pirates. I have little capacity for sustaining the living. I may dispose of the prisoners as I examine them."

"My WarAvocat would want the Chief off the Traveler. And possibly the krekelen."

In a moment of illumination, Jo realized Haget was talking directly to Trajana. Directly! No one ever spoke to Gemina direct, nor did Gemina speak directly to anyone. If that should happen, it would scare the crap out of the whole crew.

Bound for Starbase. For home. There was a lot of loneliness and uncertainty out here. She missed the familial closeness of the squad and platoon, the certainty of knowing who and what and where you were. She did not miss the rigidity, the lack of humor and humanity in the chain of command.

Things happened out here. Strange things, weird things, interesting things. Today's universe was alien to the one where she had been bom.

Born? A woman she no longer remembered had carried her inside her body. Did they still do that, down on the worlds? She could not recall the last time she had seen a pregnant woman.

They did not have the several immortalities down there. That was not allowed. Somebody too strong might come along.

This place was the antechamber of Hell. Here the shadows of madness met and danced. She wanted out badly.

Once upon a time she had lived on a world, a child who could look up and see uncovered sky... .What was the matter with her?

Shit. The place was creepy. And that damned spook Trajana was on a talking jag, going like it would not stop till it dumped them at Starbase. Yakking like some crazy old hermit who had not seen another human being in thirty years.

Spider momma, ate all her babies, cries because she's all alone.

— 60 —

Blessed scanned the report again, pushed it away, shook his head, pulled it back, pushed it away again, looked at the others. "What do you think, Cable?"

"Improbable. But it fits the facts."

"A mutiny? A Canon legate and most of his staff murdered?"

"Killed accidentally, according to this. And the legate had not announced himself."

"They do that," Nyo said. "Especially when they're sneaking around."

Tina said, "Maybe that's what got them killed. Maybe they found something out."

Cable said, "The Traveler behaved erratically from the moment it broke off the Web. It ID itself as the Hansa Traveler True Ceremonial."

"And Bligger says it isn't? Based on the pathetic data he has?"

Rolan Bligger was the Canon garrison in M. Shrilica system. An honorary, at that. But he took his appointment seriously.

"His ship records go way back. Only one Hansa True Ceremonial is noted. It vanished on the Web fifty-three years ago. He says this ship's markings were either Sveldrov, Pioyugov, or Volgodon."

"Stolen ship?" That meant pirates.

"That would explain their lack of interest in an investigation."

Blessed gnawed a hangnail. The business stank. And felt like it might fall on him. "So what do we have? An artifact and two aliens. Why would a legate drag them around?"

Tina laughed. "The artifact is obvious. For the same reason you drag me around."

Nyo simpered. "You really think she can cook, Tee?"

Shike smiled. He tapped one of three small holoportraits. "This one is mental. Psionic. Strong. Be handy if it was tame."

"What's the other one? It's ugly. And it looks mean."

"Bligger says it's a Ku warrior."

"What the hell is that?"

Blessed said, "Check history, Nyo."

Cable said, "I looked them up. They had it out with the Guardships a long time ago. Gene-engineered their whole species. Ku warriors were faster and meaner than anything human. If you were a Canon legate peeking in dangerous places, you might want a character like that covering you."

Blessed said, "It builds into an interesting picture. I don't believe them, but I'll give them a closer look. Bring them down."

"I took the liberty after I talked to Bligger. Smelled like something we might use."

As they awaited their interview, Turtle admitted, "I put it on too thick."

"Maybe that Traveler was extrasuspicious."

Of course. Amber Soul's seizure had not made those people produce false identifications. He had been asked about that repeatedly. All he knew was, he had boarded a vessel purporting to be Gregor Forgotten. Lord Strate had booked passage. Wasn't his business to know why. He was a bodyguard.

He had picked Strate because that was a name Midnight could remember and talk about endlessly—he hoped not too much.

If he kept them focused on him long enough, they would lose interest. Then it would be into DownTown and disappear and scheme out how to get away before VII Gemina came.

A tall young man summoned them into an office. Turtle took his measure at a glance. A lifetaker. Doubly dangerous because he had a mind stacked atop the conscience of a spider. Carrying at least three weapons.

He rose and followed. Midnight knew he would do the talking unless she was questioned directly. Amber Soul could not stick her foot in her mouth if she wanted.

There were three more in the office, all younger than the thug. The leader would have stood out even had he not fortified himself behind an immense combination desk and info center. Turtle saw toughness and competence in spite of youth.

The one behind the desk asked, "Are you the one doing the talking?"

"Yeah." Turtle pitched his voice near the bottom of the register of human hearing. Its undertones would make them uneasy.

"Name?"

"Sally Montengrin." A entertainer whose name was known throughout Canon space.

"What?" The boy was startled.

"You ask a stupid question you're gonna get a stupid answer, kid. You got it in front of you. You got the next answer, too. And the one after that. All the questions been asked five times each by fourteen different guys. They been cross-checked by three different computers. So cut the crap."

He had the boy rattled. Probably nobody ever talked back.

"Do you know who you're talking to?"

"Should I care? Some kid who thinks he matters because he's big in his House. But ain't nothing in Canon."

"I could make your life unpleasant."

"You can't make it worse than it is already, being here on the butt of the universe getting interrogated by a fifteen-year-old with delusions of importance."

Midnight touched his arm, cautioning him not to overplay it.

The girl laughed. "It is the butthole of the universe, Blessed."

The boy flashed her an irritated look. She sneered. The boy looked at Turtle. "You might be right. If your answers are a web of lies, I won't trip you up now. So what am I going to do with you?"

"Not being human, I don't get why you figure you got to do anything. But the human that's got the power always figures he's got to interfere. What would a Ku do? Ignore us because he'd figure we wasn't any of his business. Unless he got in a bureaucratic bind. Then he'd ship us off to Capitola Primagenia and let the Presidents sort us out."

"Most human administrators would agree."

"But you're not going to do that because you figure you might be able to use us somehow."

The boy's face went cold. One finger twitched.

Turtle seemed to do nothing but lean a little and take a small step backward. The thug flung past him in a surprised sprawl. He showed no animosity as he pulled himself into a sitting position. "That's enough, Blessed."

"An experiment," the boy told Turtle.

"If I'd thought you was serious, you'd all be dead."

Young eyes went hollow as young ears heard echoes of the whisper of the wings of Death.

The boy Blessed said, "You've made an impression, Ku. Seriously, do you know who I am?"

"Who you are, no. I've heard this is a Tregesser world."

"I'm Blessed Tregesser. My grandfather is Simon Tregesser."

Turtle looked at him blankly.

"Simon Tregesser! Simon Tregesser!" the girl chirped.

Her brother asked, "You've never heard of him?"

"No." He hadn't.

Blessed Tregesser stared for half a minute. "Tina, show them where they'll be staying."

The girl frowned but led them out of the office.

Turtle was satisfied with his performance. But now he had to get off this world. Before these people found him out. Before VII Gemina came.

Blessed waited till Tina returned. She came in and demanded, "What did you guys cook up while I was gone?"

Nyo said, "Nothing. We waited for you."

Blessed asked, "What did you think, Tina?"

"He was scary. And I think he played you like a magic flute."

"Uhm. Nyo?"

"He scared me, too."

"Cable?"

"He was telling the truth. He could have killed us."

"Tina's right. He played us like magic flutes. Am I the only one who noticed he wasn't alone? He focused everything on himself."

Tina said, "You had one without a mind and one that couldn't talk."

"I've got a habit of accepting nothing at face value. Cable. Can we use them?"

"Him certainly. If we find a handle. I've never seen anyone move like that. Not a millimeter of waste motion. He could kill you so fast you wouldn't know you were dead. The psi-active alien might be valuable, too. If it can be controlled."

"That's the catch with all of them. That and the fact that they might be what they claim, and somebody might come looking for them. Research them. And cover any trace of them having come here."

"That'll take some doing. They made a racket coming in."

"Take Tina. If it can be gotten out of the system, she can do it. Nobody talks to people anymore. Unless they volunteer. Discourage that."

Shike smiled. "Consider it handled."

Blessed did. He always did when he suggested Cable handle something. Cable always got the job done.

— 61 —

Simon Tregesser's Voyager had been running flat out, well into the red, for nineteen days. It was seven days ahead of the schedule Provik had posited for the run to the G. Witica—S. Satyrfaelia strand.

Tregesser's crew thought him mad. Nobody pushed a ship so hard so long. It was a miracle the Q had not gone.

Simon was no more confident than they, but he was riding a nightmare hunch that if he did not get to that strand fast, he was a dead man. He had no idea why. But he trusted his hunches. They had done him right before.

They would be coming up on the strand soon. He had them feeling for it now. He wondered how Lupo was doing. He had not seen Provik since the run began. He had stopped trying to communicate.

Maybe Lupo hadn't gotten out. That would be hell. How would he manage without him? Lupo had been his rock forever.

Simon was on the operating bridge, filling half with his bell, when the Guardship broke off the Web. Right there. In his lap. Six light years from anywhere.

"Aw, shit," he said without any force. "One more signal to Provik. Warn him off." He analyzed the Guardship's motion vectors and ordered a turn that offered a chance to reach the strand before the Voyager could be destroyed.

He would not be taken, that he determined.

Provik remained amazed. "Simon is going to complete the run a week fast. Or kill himself trying."

None of his family were comfortable running in the red, though his Voyager was more suited to it than was Tregesser's and there were enough of them to close-monitor the Q.

"He should be getting close." Simon's Voyager remained at the very edge of detection.

"Message coming in."

Guardship. Right in Simon's lap. Motion vectors thus and so. He was turning so. Fifty-fifty chance of outrunning death and getting onto the Web.

"Damn! Decision time."

Tension filled the bridge. Suddenly they were all there, all offering to share the pain, wondering if he could do what, for nineteen days, they had been deliberating.

Lupo stared at the comm board. The tight beam was locked onto Simon's Voyager. The code sequence was in. The circuit was armed. The machinery was ready. Was the man?

Could he kill Simon Tregesser?

He could. But could he live with Lupo Provik afterward?

"Damn it!" His hand stabbed. "Turn us into the Guardship's vectors and shut everything down."

He sat down and cried.

Shedding their own tears, his family began trying to make the Voyager invisible by reducing its emissions.

— 62 —

WarAvocat feared he would have a minor mutiny on his hands if his move did not produce quick results. To hear OpsAvocat and ServAvocat fuss you would think VII Gemina would scatter into its component atoms shortly if it did not head for Starbase immediately. And that despite assurances from Gemina that the Guardship's wounds were neither deadly nor incapacitating.

There would be political consequences if the fugitive did not turn up. His reelection looked ever less certain. The cream of his support had been killed in that end space. The regrowth system would be a long time replacing them.

"Coming up on breakaway, WarAvocat."

"Very well." That bastard had better show.

"Breakaway."

Two seconds passed. "Holy shit. There he is."

What? Already? Impossible.

"Look at that bastard go!"

WarAvocat ran to where he could see it for himself, telling no one in particular, "He's got to have been running at the top of his red all the way. Why hasn't he blown his Q?"

"He's seen us, WarAvocat. He's turning."

WarAvocat scanned the motion vectors, range rates, relative velocities. The son of a bitch had a chance.

He gave orders quickly, moving VII Gemina not in pursuit but so as to cut off flight toward S. Satyrfaelia. Once the Voyager headed the other way it was dead. VII Gemina could overhaul it on the Web and run it till its master gave up.

Then the fireworks started.

The Voyager's Q went. The multimillion-degree fusion process erupted into the Voyager, obliterating everything inside before it reduced the more stubborn hull to stripped nuclei. Those inside the Voyager did not live long enough to realize what had happened.

Probe had time only to determine that there were five beings aboard, all apparently human.

Before the fire faded OpsAvocat asked, "Can we head for Starbase now?"

Lady Midnight fluttered into WarAvocat's mind. "It's your Guardship, OpsAvocat. Condition Yellow One. WarAvocat out."

Nothing left now but the chore of hunting down the villains behind the ambush.

— 63 —

Valerena watched figures scroll. She was pleased. The balance had shifted just enough to produce the first profitable week of the century. Better weeks would come. All you needed was the will....

"What?" she snapped. She loathed interruptions. And that was one lesson these people were too stupid to learn. She glared at the creature in the doorway.

"I was told to deliver a message." Sullen and without honorifics. "A Tregesser Voyager has broken off the Web. A man named Lupo Provik wants to talk to you. He's sending a shuttle."

Lupo? Here?

She was frightened. This should not be. He was supposed to be in that end space with Simon. Had something happened? Had they aborted?

She had a thousand questions and a hundred fears.

She was on the flying city's docking platform, suited, when the shuttle set down. The poison wind barked and whined around her.

She stepped onto the bridge of the Voyager. Lupo was there alone, waiting. There was something wrong with him. "Have you been sick?" she blurted.

He responded with a soft, sad, almost holy smile. "Only here." He tapped his chest.

She frowned, worried. Lupo Provik, of all people, going spooky and mystic?

The universe could not be that perverse.

"What's happened? Why aren't you in the end space?"

"Sit down."

There was an echo of the old whipcrack. She sat.

"It's over, Valerena. We blew it. They came earlier than we expected. VII Gemina. XXVIII Fretensis. XII Fulminata."

"Three? But..."

"Three. We got XII Fulminata and VII Gemina. But XXVIII Fretensis finished us. Your father didn't get out."

Shock. She felt lightheaded, numb. Her brain closed up shop.

"Valerena? You hear me? Simon is dead. You're the Chair."

She nodded slowly. And for once told the complete and naked truth. "I'm scared, Lupo."

"That's what Simon said the day he took over."

"It's real, isn't it?" She knew it was. Lupo would not say it if it wasn't.

"As real as death, Valerena. I'm taking you to Prime. You have to be confirmed. You have to take charge fast. The Directors will panic when they find out we failed. They might get the idea they could profit by informing. They'll need supervision."

"Yes." Tendrils of self-possession insinuated themselves through her shock.

Simon Tregesser was dead. The Tregesser empire was hers. There were things to do.

Dead! "The bastard got me again. Dying in his own time and way."

Lupo smiled sickly. "He didn't die willingly or in a place of his own choosing."

"It was Simon who died? You're sure? It wasn't his Other?"

"It was Simon Prime."

"Will his Other give me trouble?"

"They always do. They don't want to die, either."

That was a snake's nest someone was sure to stir. The Simon Other had become a nonperson with Simon's death but some Directors might defy that, preferring the Other to her. Then, too, someone might try to make something of the fact that she was not the original Valerena. She was not popular with the Directors.

Did that matter? Simon hadn't been popular. He had been the boss. The king. The bloody damned emperor.

As she would be.

"Can we use it?"

Lupo paced. He milked his chin and stared at unseen infinities. "If you kept it out of sight, maybe. But we'd never dare forget it's Simon Tregesser in almost every sense." He faced her, "We can talk while we're on the Web. How soon can you leave?"

"Now. But how safe will I be?"

"Why would you... My loyalty is to the Chair. You're the Chair. I'm the one at risk."

"You are?"

"I've thwarted your ambitions so often."

Valerena examined her feelings. She entertained no resentment. He had been doing his job. "Will you do as good a job protecting me?"

"Probably better. Especially if I can convince Blessed to be patient."

"I could leave him where he is."

"You can't. He has to be on Prime, to learn. Just as you were, despite the frustration you caused your father."

"He bottled me up here."

"An emergency expedient. He was frayed. Too much pressure. You wouldn't have liked the solution he preferred himself."

"He wanted to kill me again?"

"All of you. I convinced him it would be more cruel to send you here. We're still saying things better said in transit."

"Then go, Lupo."

He nodded, touching something. "Two. Four. I need you."

Valerena watched the women enter. One had been Lupo's companion that day in the Pylon. The other had to be her sister.

Provik said, "We have a crash priority here, ladies. See if station will bump us to the head of the launch schedule."

Good heavens! The man had a sense of humor.

— 64 —

Starbase! At last!

That damned spook Trajana had not shut up the whole time. How did you exorcise such a ghost? It had tried to keep its prisoners alive, a captive audience.

No one talked much except when humoring the ghost. Trajana was not just weird, it was psychotic. Two prisoners had spoken their thoughts. Their remains shared confinement with the survivors.

The ghost kept hinting that Trajana wanted to acquire new living crew. Each hour raised the tension level. Degas had the shakes half the time.

Haget handled it best. He could take Trajana's ravings about the Presence without twitching a lip, feigning an interest in Trajana's obsession. Or maybe he was interested. Maybe Trajana did have something to say behind all the shit about devil gods, death cults, and phantom Travelers.

Haget broke away from the spook. "Starbase, people. XXVIII Fretensis is in for post-combat refitting after a joint mission with XII Fulminata and VII Gemina."

Jo asked, "What's up? You look rattled."

"Unsettled. It was the trap WarAvocat expected. XII Fulminata was destroyed. VII Gemina suffered heavy damage and hasn't yet made it back."

AnyKaat blurted, "Somebody took on three at once?"

"Yes. They had the hair and almost enough firepower. And that's all I know. Except that Trajana wants to horn in on the follow-up."

Jo asked, "How bad was VII Gemina hurt?"

"Trajana has graciously offered us refuge if VII Gemina doesn't come in. We're docking now. We have health and dietary matters to attend outboard. Let's go."

Haget led them on a long hike. Jo brought up the rear, behind Seeker, who stumbled with weakness. They debouched onto a vast, empty, sterile dock. A lighted dock. A dock not foul with the stenches of wastes and decaying corpses.

To and around a corner. "Now," Haget said. He hugged Jo so hard he crushed the wind out of her. When she wriggled free, she hugged Vadja too. Degas and AnyKaat looked ready to couple on the spot.

Haget said, "One more day and I'd have started chewing the bulkheads. I'm going to scream the craziness out."

Jo whispered, "I know a better way."

He looked at her. "Yeah. Let's get Seeker to Medical before we have to carry him."

They reached hospital bay. Haget tried to get Seeker to tell him what he needed. Seeker did his best. Maybe Jo would have been a better receiver. They had developed a feeble rapport aboard IV Trajana. Jo ordered a feast while the others sought physicals.

Haget handed Jo a note. "See if you can come up with a broth with all that in it."

"All right."

AnyKaat stepped out of the physical scanner. "Am I alive?"

"Close enough," Degas said. "You'll do for what I've got in mind."

Vadja said, "There are indications of malnutrition, AnyKaat."

"Surprise, surprise. Degas, get in there and see if you're man enough to live up to your brags."

The scanner pronounced Degas fit. An automated cart arrived with a consignment of Jo's feast. AnyKaat said, "What do I want to do most? Eat or get clean?"

"Eat," Degas said. "Getting clean is going to take a while."

"You talk a good game, anyway."

Haget said, "Give Seeker something with plenty of sugar."

"You notice something spooky?" Jo asked, handing Seeker a sweet roll. "There isn't anybody around. Last time I was here the place was crawling."

Haget grunted. "Long time ago?"

"Yeah. Come to think."

Haget began pounding a general info keyface. Seeker came to the cart and studied the food. Vadja came out of the scanner judged healthy, arm included. He joined the assault on the foodstuffs.

Jo poured herself a cup of amber liquid, told Seeker, "Try this juice." She headed for the scanner.

Seeker drained the pitcher.

A second cart arrived. Seeker went to work on his broth.

The scanner declared Jo healthy. "Scanner's all yours, Commander."

"I got your answers, Jo. Most Starbase personnel were drafted into the crews of Guardships. A few are in storage."

Seeker made a hissing sound. Jo looked.

Several people had come to the doorway. Their uniforms were unfamiliar. "Commander. Company."

Haget rose.

A hard-faced, graying woman stepped forward. "Commander Haget? Commander Stella Cordet, Third WatchMaster, Hall of the Watchers, XXVIII Fretensis." She spoke with an accent. Haget accepted her hand in a numb parody of his usual crisp manners. "WarAvocat sent me to offer the hospitality of XXVIII Fretensis and ask if there's anything we can do. You must have had a harrowing experience."

"Harrowing?" Haget chuckled. "You might say that. WarAvocat is most gracious. I hope he'll understand when I plead a need to regain my wits and self-confidence before I visit an unfamiliar Guardship again."

The woman gave him a hard look. "He'll understand." Then the iron mask collapsed into a smile. "Frankly, I don't see how you didn't come out of there a raving lunatic."

Haget seemed faintly embarrassed. "You know what happened?"

"IV Trajana sent the data. I skimmed it and reviewed your original mission as described in the data VII Gemina left behind."

Gah! Jo thought. Two of a kind. Efficient to the point of constipation.

"If there's nothing you need immediately," Cordet said, "we'll just get out of your way."

"Uniforms, Commander," Jo suggested.

Haget looked at her. "Sergeant?"

"We need fresh, clean uniforms, sir."

"Yes. We do, Commander Cordet."

"Consider them on the way. I'll check back later, Commander Haget."

"Right. Thank you, Commander."

Cordet gave Seeker one brief look, marched off.

"Why didn't you ask about VII Gemina?" Jo demanded.

"I had other things on my mind." Shy smile. "I was thinking something might not work out."

Shit. She had to go through with it now, want to or not. Well, hell. It might be interesting.

— 65 —

Blessed looked over his workscreen, with its ranks of strutting bugs, at Cable Shike. "I'm going to put a bell on you. How long have you been there?"

"Ten seconds. You got to stay alert."

"You sit here staring at production figures for six hours and see how sharp you stay. You're wearing your smug look. How come?"

Shike seated himself. "Had a lucky strike in the data mines. Station Master is a history freak. Worked up a fair history of the region. It was pretty active during the Ku Wars."

"And?"

"They got desperate toward the end. They engineered some special leaders. Only a few saw action. The most famous was a Kez Maefele who didn't stop fighting when the rest of the race surrendered."

"You going to tell me we have the original, one and only, live Kez Maefele in our hat?"

"Looks like."

"He don't act it."

"Would you?"

"No. You figure he might be more useful than we thought?"

"More useful than ten of me or a dozen Lupo Proviks. Look him up."

"I'm glad you have that strong self-image. How do we reach him? Where's our leverage?"

"He brought it with him. Here. Specs on the artifact. A production model with options. And some stuff on the alien. Mostly guesswork."

"What about covering their arrival?"

"I've got it scoped. I haven't scrubbed it. There's something weird about the in and out of that Traveler. I want to hold the data till I figure out what it is."

Blessed had confidence in Shike. "Keep my ass covered."

Shike rose, walked out.

Blessed thumbed through Cable's printout. "Nyo," he said to his comm, "bring me our guest artifact. Alone." He had been thinking about trying it. This made it business.

"You all right?" Turtle said into Midnight's tears.

"I did it again. I couldn't stop myself."

"I know. Why do you punish yourself?"

"He didn't have me up there for three days because he wanted a toy, Turtle. His bodyguard figured out who you are. He bragged about how he would have the famous Ku warrior Kez Maefele on his staff. In private he turns into a nasty, mean-spirited little boy."

Midnight was not as slow as she pretended. She assumed there were eavesdroppers.

"I've been around a long time, Midnight. This has happened before. It will happen again. Those who want power try to seize talismans of power. But such talismans are dangerous, like the magic sword that makes a warrior invincible but devours his soul."

Turtle was worried. What Midnight knew could set tides of adventurers rolling across the Web. Worse, she knew he knew more and knew how to capitalize on what he knew.

He was a Ku warrior. He had bragged in his interview with those children, but there were ways to force his cooperation. The plotters and schemers always found ways.

If he were one of them, he would be less vulnerable. He would have no conscience. He could show them a shrug when they threatened Midnight.

They ate their young and tortured their mothers.

He could take that attitude about Amber Soul. She could look out for herself.

Midnight forgot the listeners. "Can we get away from here? I don't like these people."

"I'm thinking about it."

"You sound unhappy."

"I'm suffering a bad case of cynicism."

"Can I do something?"

"Just go on being Midnight."

She hugged him. "Sometimes I wish you were human."

He understood. "Sometimes I wish I was, too." He extricated himself carefully. "My Swordsmaster had a motto. ‘When in doubt, attack.' The moment seems appropriate. No. I don't mean physically."

She did not seem reassured, though.

He encountered the girl Tina before he had gone a dozen steps. She said, "Blessed wants you."

"I was just heading up to see him."

"You're amused?" Blessed demanded.

"Bored," Turtle said.

"Bored?"

"I've been around a long time, boy. You think I'm a virgin? Thieves have been trying to twist my arm for ages."

"Thieves?"

"You going to tell me you want me to join a holy alliance to make the universe a better place? Or admit you're out to grab whatever you can for yourself?"

Blessed grunted.

"Thieves."

"That's a harsh view of commerce."

"Commerce? We're talking predation. Except the true predator kills only to assure its own survival. You live better than all but a handful of beings. What need have you for more?"

The boy was off balance. He could come up with no rationalization quickly enough to counterattack.

Time would tend to that.

"You don't have a need. You have a want. Power. We Ku look at things differently. Our villains know they're villains and don't try to hide, especially from themselves. They don't understand what compels them but they recognize its impact upon external reality.

"You humans lie to yourselves."

"Is there a point to this?"

"Several. The least is that you and the Ku will both go ahead regardless. Your true purposes are not external. You are trying to placate a demon within. I want you to know that when your demon is whispering in one ear, I'm going to mutter into the other."

Blessed looked puzzled.

"You think Kez Maefele might be useful. Perhaps. But I'll always remind you what you're doing to others. I'll drench you in their heartbreak."

"Our research indicates that you were the most dangerous of your ghifu. That a literal translation of your name might be, ‘Revenge of the Ku Race.' But you haven't been doing anything about revenge."

The boy's comm blinked as Turtle replied, "Of course I have."

Blessed listened to the comm with one ear. He snapped, "Bring in that antique maxiscreen we shoved in with those broken-down cleaning robots. I can look at it on that." Of Turtle he demanded, "How?"

"By constantly rubbing the villains' noses in the consequences of their villainies."

A staffer shoved in, pulling an old 220cm vision plate that crackled and popped.

"Over here. What's wrong with the picture?"

"It's all right when the plate isn't moving."

"That's good. Right there. All right, Ku. One of the real villains of our time has just broken off the Web."

"A Guardship?"

"VII Gemina. Probably headed for Starbase. Our strand is one route in. But they don't stop here."

Turtle looked. "It's been in a fight. Must have run into somebody tough."

Blessed glanced at him. "I wonder who won."

"Self-evident. The Guardship wouldn't be here if it had lost."

"Yes."

The Guardship had found the mouth of hell somewhere. It had not recovered its secondaries. Its exterior had been slagged.

"There's the ancient enemy, Ku. Suppose you could command a battle fleet again. Would you?"

Turtle stared at the wounded Guardship. "I might." The genes. He could not be one of the villains, could he?

"Could you give them a better run?"

"I could. I could have before, given the tools. But those tools are rare and dear. I don't believe they could be gathered." By the Prime! He was being tempted.

"Not in Canon space. But there's a lot of Outside."

Turtle concentrated on the Guardship, willing his wizard side out of hibernation. He had to be very careful.

The boy had grown tense. His games had ended. Because of that Guardship.

"It might be arranged, Kez Maefele."

"I might be interested. If I knew what you were talking about."

The boy studied the Guardship, too. Then, "We're at a point of no return, aren't we?"

"Are we?"

Blessed left his desk. He paced. Turtle reached into the past for tools with which to calm hormonal storms. The Prime was determined to drag him past the mouths of the guns of fate.

Blessed stopped. "I learned most of what the artifact knows."

"She can't help herself."

"What you see is my grandfather's handiwork. He may be dead now, along with a man named Lupo Provik, who might have been your match. They had the help of aliens from beyond the Rim." Blessed looked at him hard. "Two people in this system know what I've told you."

A child had put a knife to his throat.

"Grandfather must have made a showing."

A hell of a showing. It spoke well for the alliances he had forged.

"That, and your name, would make great arguments when we go back to those creatures. There they go. They weren't looking for you."

The Guardship had climbed back onto the Web.

It was walking-through-the-fire time, staying-alive time, and being the fastest and deadliest thug around was not going to be enough. Was he ready to take up the lance and enter the lists for one more tilt with the dragon?

The boy hurled his comm unit at the vision plate. The plate crackled and popped. He said, "That was Cable Shike. The Guardship helped itself to station's data while it was here."

"That's routine."

"There was stuff about your arrival still in the system. Think about that. Then think about the fact that we're stuck here till I get a parole from Tregesser Prime."

Turtle stared at the now blank plate.

— 66 —

WarAvocat wakened relaxed. He swelled a little with the thought that he would see Midnight soon.

It had been tense there, off the Web, getting that runaway drive well damped, more because of the carping of Makarska Vis's coterie and Ops and Service people than because VII Gemina was in any danger.

But the crisis was over. The bad feelings had bottomed out. The technicians should have the well relined, new casements set, and the tractors recalibrated before VII Gemina reached Starbase.

No. The bottom line was political. The Dictat election had delivered some disappointments. OpsAvocat, hoping to become the second living Dictat of the century, had drawn only cool support while Hanaver Strate, whose campaign had consisted of an admission that he would stand, had drawn approval from sixty-eight percent of the electorate.

WarAvocat's new fellow Dictat was the Deified Aleas Notable, a little known former WarAvocat taking office for the first time. Her genius was a cipher. She had been one of the longest reigning WarAvocats ever, but her term had run smack in the middle of the longest period of peace in VII Gemina's history.

WarCentral was quiet. The boards and wall had nothing interesting to say. Quiet time was useful, though. This he could use to establish a working relationship with Aleas Notable. They had to get along for a year.

A staffer said, "Sir, there're rumors Tawn has been seen."

"Really? Where? It's been a couple hundred years."

"The usual places. Empty corridors and whatnot. One man supposedly touched her. She paralyzed him with the fire in her eyes."

"I might look into it. I'd like to meet her myself."

"Nobody who goes looking for her finds her, WarAvocat."

"You're right." Not even the Deified could find the Guardship's tutelary spirit. Gemina claimed she did not exist. Even so, Tawn turned up after every spate of combat. A savant once suggested Tawn was a dream. Gemina had enough spare capacity to create a platoon of phantoms real enough to touch.

A spare, youngish woman said, "WarAvocat, would you look at this?"

He accepted a data pad. "What is it?"

"An abstract of data taken during routine scan while we were off the Web. Gemina tagged it."

WarAvocat skimmed it. "A phantom?"

"The info came off the abandoned 3B station, which was in a conjunctional mode during the incident. There was no comparable data from the 3A source. Gemina thinks someone was purging and weaving in so there wouldn't be a noticeable hole."

WarAvocat scrutinized the ID data. Gemina said the phantom could not be either of the ships it had claimed to be. Gregor Forgotten was on a regular trapezoidal run between L. Maronia, K. Foulorii, M. Bemica, and D. Sutonica-B. Always had been and always would be. The Hansa Traveler True Ceremonial had been lost, but it had been found by XVII Macedonica twenty years ago. Pirates. No known survivors.

"A phantom phantom? That's a new one."

Phantom operators did borrow the identities of ships which could be counted on to remain safely far away. But to underlay one falsehood with another hinted at something more sinister than smuggling.

Gemina had caught no whiff of a true identity.

"Curious."

Insofar as Gemina could determine, no one had boarded or departed the Traveler during its inexplicable approach to M. Shrilica 3A.

"Run it through the Starbase pool when we get there."

Starbase.

He was an old fart. He should not be moved by anything. But he could not suppress his excitement when he thought of the artifact. VII Gemina would be in repair dock a long time. His duties would be light.

"WarAvocat. Word from XXVIII Fretensis. IV Trajana is in."

"IV Trajana?"

"It brought in those people you put aboard that Traveler at P. Jaksonica. It rescued them from a Cholot prison."

They had dared? ... He would get the story. That Haget would be sorry if he had screwed up....

He ordered the artifact and two aliens brought as soon as VII Gemina entered repair dock.

What artifact and two aliens?

WarAvocat brooded. Then, "Access, Gemina. Priority input. I want a council of Deified WarAvocats. Mandatory. No excuses accepted. Input immediately." In seconds all the former WarAvocats were present.

"During our previous visit to Starbase, the Deified Makarska Vis put three guests of mine off the Guardship. They aren't there now. Think about that."

They saw the peril before he finished.

Someone offered a motion to recall the Deification of Makarska Vis. It failed. Barely.

— 67 —

"Why is that damned Guardship still out there?" Valerena demanded.

"Why not go ask?" Provik snapped.

"Hell. I might." She knew he was tired of hearing about it. He feared she had fixed it as an object for all her frustrations.

The transition was going well because of the failure in the end space, because the stakes were high, because there was a Guardship in the sky. Somebody had to be in charge. And Valerena was the designated heir.

Beyond that general agreement, though, the Directorate fell into factions trying to get the advantage of one another.

The Simon Tregesser Other, acting in an advisory capacity, was cautious and cooperative. It did not want to be shut down.

Provik said, "You have to recall Blessed. No matter how insecure he makes you."

"I know. Soon."

"Real soon. The Directors won't tolerate having the heir apparent kept isolated and ignorant. They'll make it an issue."

"Screw them."

"They're scared, Valerena. They're going to be scared for the rest of their lives. I can tell them ten thousand times there wasn't anything in that end space to connect House Tregesser and they're not going to believe me down in their guts. They're going to wake up every morning wondering if this is the day the hammer falls."

Valerena grunted. She understood. She felt it herself. She told the nearest window she wanted to look outside. Sometimes staring down at Tregesser Horata had a calming effect.

"Can they find us?"

"I don't think so."

"But they never give up. They never forget."

"They can be distracted. Simon made a lot of friends Outside. They'll consider the ambush a great success. They'll be primed for anything. The Simon Other would be priceless as a go-between."

"All right. See who's outside."

Somebody wanted in. Lupo asked who it was.

"Simon."

"Speak of the devil. Come ahead."

Valerena watched Provik move to the best vantage point. She had seen him dispose himself like that for her father a thousand times. She was tempted to move, just to mess with him.

Lupo said, "We were just discussing you. I told Valerena we shouldn't dispense with you because you could be valuable as an ambassador Outside."

Valerena controlled a lip twitch. The bastard could say a lot without saying anything directly. She asked, "What brings you here?"

"That sonofabitch sitting up in the L5 is using our mining drones for target practice."

"What?"

"It just blew away an empty headed for the Pyrimedes moons."

Valerena could not think. Why did she freeze like this sometimes?

Lupo asked, "Why?"

"Who the hell knows? Maybe they're bored. Maybe they didn't know the gun was loaded."

"No provocation? The drone didn't buzz them?"

"Hell, the bastard was five million K away and headed out. They showed off a trick shot with a CT slug."

"Have they been asked for an explanation?"

"They aren't talking."

Provik said, "Valerena, the Directors will be in a panic. Someone will have to hold their hands."

"You do that better than me. You scare them more than a Guardship does."

"I'm usually more immediate."

"Calm them down. I'll try to find out what's going on."

Provik stepped into the down shaft behind the Simon Other's bell. As they descended, the Other asked, "What was that about me being an ambassador Outside?"

"They're used to dealing with Simon Tregesser."

"Why drag it under her nose?"

"Trying to give her reasons to keep you alive."

"I'd think you'd want rid of me."

"Why?"

"You got out of that end space by dancing around a Guardship you expected. If you'd wanted Simon to get out, you would've seen to it. He didn't get out. That makes me a living reproach."

"He overstepped."

"His immortality thing. I warned him. He thought he could bring you around by offering to share. He couldn't survive without you, anyway."

Lupo said nothing.

"I owe you, Lupo. Had he done it his way, he would've gotten rid of me." The Other drifted out of the shaft. "I won't mention my suspicions."

"No. You won't."

The Other would have to be monitored. No way it would not try to use what it knew.

"They're settled," Provik told Valerena. "What's the story upstairs?"

"No story. It won't talk. But it keeps taking potshots. Nothing that can't be dodged, though somebody could break off the Web and get blasted before we could warn them."

"This is screwy, Valerena. Guardships don't play games. They kick ass and say goodbye. Send a Voyager to Starbase for help."

"What? Us ask them for help?"

"It's their job. Coming back, the Voyager could collect Blessed."

"That's a joke? It's a lousy one, Lupo. Where did Simon find you, anyway?"

"Down in the Black Ring. Before there was a Black Ring. The same way Blessed met his jocko boy Cable Shike."

"That's at least the tenth story you've told." Who the hell was Cable Shike?

"I never tell the same one twice. It's nobody's business. But one of the stories might be true."

"Sure. I'll send for Blessed. But no Guardship. I'll go handle this personally."

"Manage that and you'll shut up the Directorate permanently." He left.

"Why did I say that?" Valerena asked her reflection in the window. "I'd better start thinking before I talk."

She made a call to her castle, then sat down to think. Would she stifle the Directors if she dealt with the Guardship?

Lupo was right. There was something bad wrong with it.

— 68 —

Haget had reverted. He was relaxing at attention. Degas and AnyKaat seemed numb. Vadja was in some sort of relaxing trance.

Unable to sit while WarAvocat thumbed through a mountain of hard copy, Jo approached Seeker. "Are you all right? Still feeling well?" His health had improved radically.

I am well, thank you. This is the man to convince?

"This is the man?"

WarAvocat flipped back and forth, comparing. He looked up. "Pardon my manners. I've just gotten a glimpse of a mystery that makes me uncomfortable. During your travels, did you hear anything unusual about the phantom trade, missing ships, or ships found empty on the Web? Other than apocrypha?"

"We heard a lot about the subject on IV Trajana," Jo said.

"I have Trajana's remarks here. Twenty-six hundred forty-one single-spaced pages, eighty-eight lines to the page, one hundred twenty characters to the line. A preliminary report, yet." Thin smile. "I wouldn't believe it even from a Guardship—from that one, anyway—if it weren't for incidents involving XXVIII Fretensis and VII Gemina returning from that end space."

WarAvocat checked a particular page again, shook his head.

"Sir?"

"We had to leave the Web to stabilize a drive well. Routine scan on local stations found an anomaly, a Traveler that had shown two identities, neither genuine. Just a nervous phantom, I thought. Till I spoke with WarAvocat XXVIII Fretensis.

"A few anchor points away, by chance, they stumbled on a Traveler caught on the Web. They maneuvered it into a rider bay, broke through a cargo hatch. Crew and passengers had been tortured and murdered and mutilated. Ritually, Fretensis suspects. Six passengers listed on the manifest were missing. So was much of the cargo."

"That doesn't make sense, sir. Pirates would put people aboard a Traveler, sure, but they wouldn't just kill everybody and leave the ship. A Traveler is worth more than any cargo."

"You're right. Ships are mostly what piracy is about. But. Trajana really talks ritual. And when you slide into the supernatural, you do leave all rationality behind. But I'm getting away from the subject. I want to hear what happened out there. Commander Haget?"

"Have you seen my report, sir?"

"I have."

"Then you're aware that I gave new meaning to the word incompetent."

"I didn't see that. Sergeant. Do you consider the mission a failure?"

"A grim time, sir, but not a failure, considering we had no fixed brief. And a success in that we established communication with Seeker. He still won't tell us anything substantive, but we might get it with a little work."

WarAvocat cut her off. Damn. She wished she were somewhere else.

"I have to explain why you've been isolated. There has been a catastrophic polarization among the Deified during your absence. Gemina fears you might worsen that."

Shit. That was all she needed, to get caught in the power games of the Deified. Screw them.

WarAvocat looked at Degas, AnyKaat, and Vadja. "I've screwed your lives around too much already, but I'm in a bind where all I can do is jack you around some more. We can't take you home till we're spaceworthy. IV Trajana is willing. Interested?"

He got no takers.

"I thought not. I'll express regrets."

Jo indicated Seeker. "There were things we didn't put on the record, sir."

"And things you weren't told. For example, XXVIII Fretensis came into the picture by aborting an Outsider attack on your friend's homeworld. Handled quickly and efficiently," he assured Seeker. "Without damage or casualties."

Jo asked, "Did you really have one of his people here, sir?"

"Yes. She and two companions. A Ku and an artifact." He explained. "They're walking bombs. They could blow up on us any time."

The sly bastard was sneaking up on something, Jo thought. She had a cold feeling. She would not like it when it came.

She wanted to rejoin her squad. She wanted to sleep off the rest of this nightmare.

I Am A Soldier.

Yeah.

"I'd like to question Seeker," WarAvocat said. "I had no chance with the other one. She was in a coma the whole time she was here."

Haget said, "Sir, it would be best to handle that through the Sergeant. He trusts her more than the rest of us."

Jo shot him a killing look. He did not shrivel. Maybe he thought he was doing her a favor.

"Makes sense. Commander, I'm sure you have friends you want to see. Indulge me and put that off till I've reviewed the data."

"Yes, sir."

"Colonel Vadja, I'll explore the possibility of alternative transportation. Meantime, be patient and enjoy our hospitality. Commander, if you'll show everyone to VIP, I'll get on with Seeker and the Sergeant."

Bloody hell. She felt like an animal caught in a trap.

WarAvocat studied the soldier. She was scared. He glanced at the alien. It wore a human guise but not well. As though to ease the discomfort of those around, it but not to deceive.

"Is there some way I can help you relax, Sergeant?"

She started. "I don't think so, sir."

"What about your friend? Would he be more comfortable sitting?"

"Not in a human chair, sir." She looked at the alien. Something passed between them. "He's anxious to hear about the one you had aboard."

"I have some tape made during her visit. If he can move to that viewscreen?"

The soldier explained through speech and gesture. WarAvocat set the tape running. "How good is this rapport, Sergeant?"

"Feeble. You have a fifty-fifty chance of getting through. If it's simple and concrete. What I get from him turns into garble easy. I can't catch the odors they use like we use gestures and expressions. They don't hear quite like we do, so they lose some of our verbal stuff. And our odors confuse them."

"I sensed hollow spots in your report."

"Not intentional, sir. I'd never done one before. I spent most of my time learning how to write one."

"He's agitated. Why?"

"I don't know, sir. Don't interrupt him. He gets real singleminded. You have to take things in series."

"Who and what is he?"

"That's hard. Seeker is more a job title than a name. A long time ago his people sent eighteen children to Capitola Primagenia. They wanted to understand humans better. They sent children because their minds are more flexible. They were supposed to stay ten years. But they never came home. When the first Seeker went out he found out they'd never gotten to Capitola Primagenia. But then, later, they got signals that some of the children were alive."

"Then what?"

"That's where we run into a wall, sir. I can't figure it. They knew. So they sent another Seeker. Him. He's been out ever since. And he's found several Lost Children. Near as I can figure, the Traveler they were on got hit by pirates. Methane-breathing Outsiders had something to do with it."

"Curioser and curioser."

"There was a methane breather on their Traveler. Some of the human passengers grabbed the bridge and stopped the ship on the Web. Another ship came. It brought more methane breathers and a crew of humans and aliens. They boarded..."

"On the Web?"

"Yes. They boarded but didn't do anything till the Presence arrived. Then they started killing people. When they started on the children, though, they made them stop. I don't know how. Seeker isn't a storyteller. He stated facts. If he doesn't, I can't follow him."

WarAvocat glanced at the alien, engrossed in watching one of its own do nothing. "How did our Lost Child get to Merod Schene?"

"I gather the children cooperated as long as the pirates didn't hurt them. So the pirates abandoned them one by one, on outbacks like V. Rothica 4. They couldn't talk, didn't know how to survive in a DownTown, and were kids. Solution to a problem."

"How long ago did this happen?"

"From context, shortly after the Enherrenraat crisis."

"That long ago?"

"They're functionally immortal. They don't die from natural causes. The tape is done. He's upset."

"Find out what you can."

He gave up trying to follow the exchange, reflected on fate's penchant for hatching villains. This phantom phantom pirate bunch might be the most bizarre yet. And ambitious, if they were behind the ambush.

He punched up data delivered in response to an old query.

No known, suspected, or rumored connection between any House and pirates. On the other hand, most Houses indulged in smuggling.

"Sergeant. Was it chance he was on the Cholot Traveler same time as that methane breather?"

"No. He heard the thing had entered Canon space. He made arrangements to get onto the same Traveler."

He heard the methane breather had entered Canon space? How? And after missing the Lost Child on V. Rothica 4, later, suddenly, six hundred light years away, he knew she was in trouble? How mental could you get?

The soldier said, "He's very agitated, WarAvocat."

"I noticed."

"This particular child is about to go through a transition from adolescence to young adulthood. That's sudden and traumatic and could kill her, or worse, if there isn't an adult there to guide her."

"Or worse?"

"That's what he said. He says he's got to hunt her down before the crisis comes."

"Uhm?"

"They go through life stages. Like insects. Only more stages. The early stages they can handle alone. He says they can delay the final transition consciously as long as they stay in control of themselves. But if she was under stress and retreated inside herself—which she did—she might not be able to hold the change off."

"He wants to look for her?"

"With our help?"

"Want to go along?"

"Shit! I knew it would be a fucking when it came."

"Sergeant?"

"Sorry, sir. I am a Soldier."

"The idea doesn't appeal?"

"No, sir. I've been away as much as I want. The trip was interesting but I didn't enjoy it."

"I thought it might be a way to track the others I mentioned. One is the Ku warrior Kez Maefele. You might examine his war record."

"Yes, sir."

"For now, learn from Seeker. He'll cooperate because that's his best chance for finding his Lost Child."

"Yes, sir."

"That will be all. Don't talk to anyone. I'll get back to you."

"Yes, sir." She started trying to make the alien understand that they were supposed to leave. It did not want to go.

"Complete information on the Other's stay with us is available in his quarters, Sergeant."

That did it.

WarAvocat arranged that, then leaned back. The thing to do next was obvious, if unpleasant. He had to visit IV Trajana personally.

— 69 —

Valerena surveyed six identical versions of herself. A little unnerving, looking at all those Valerenas. Only they were not exactly Valerena anymore, were they?

To work up a proper Other, you had to put time into the details, especially motivation and indoctrination. But she was always so damned busy.... Face it. She did everything half-assed. These were her six best Others, but she had no idea how they would jump if a shitstorm hit.

She fixed her attention on viewscreen and controls. The shuttle's inertial system was up to max. The escape and evasion programme was poised to zag out on the first shot. On screen, the Guardship filled the entire field. Its surface seemed worn, abraded, even scruffy. It made her think of old, old stone, barren except for patches of lichen.

She thought the thing looked unhealthy.

The comm kept squirting a semi-hysterical, "We come as friends" message. There was no response, but there was no shooting, either, and the shuttle was well inside the traditional killing radius.

The color of fear is brown. Those old farts on the Directorate were dribbling it down their legs. After this none of them would dare say anything about her courage.

Only a few kilometers now.

She was soaked inside her EVA suit. Her hands trembled. What was it Simon had said about the day he and Lupo had taken the House? "Going in with assholes so tight you couldn't drive a nail up them with a sledge." She knew what he'd meant.

She was having trouble breathing, gobbling air in gulps. Her suit cautioned her against hyperventilation.

She exploded in one of those goofy laughs that had become her father's trademark. She understood that now, too. It bled the tension.

She glanced at her Others. Buttoned up the way they were, she could read nothing.

Eyes to the screen. Still nothing from the Guardship. It was not showing lights. Wait. To the left there, just above her line of approach. A bay door had opened.

That was message enough.

She laughed again before forcing trembling hands to make course adjustments and switch on forward lights. A fighter nest. She made out a dozen pursuit ships. Like the Guardship, they looked neglected.

Nothing but ominous shadows moved in there.

She eased the shuttle in, rotated it to face outward. Like she really expected she could make a quick getaway. The bay door closed. Fifteen centimeters of armor, proof against any weapon the shuttle carried.

No Tregesser had come this close. In this she had outshone Simon already. "Just the beginning," she promised herself. "Grab it by the horns and ride it."

Shuttle said no atmosphere was being released into the bay. She swallowed a big dry egg.

No turning back.

One of the Others cycled the personnel hatch.

"Better take hand torches," someone suggested. Not only was there no air, there was no light.

"Right." Take charge. Do something. "Full kit. In case the whole dammed thing is this way."

She had asked Lupo to brief her. He had given her a big nothing.

He divided Guardships into four kinds: Normal (thirteen units), Strange (four units, including I Primagenia and XII Fulminata), Weird and Deadly (three units, II Victrix, IX Furia, IV Trajana), and Insufficient Data (all the rest, including VI Adjutrix). Based on its current behavior, he suspected VI Adjutrix was Weird and Deadly.

And she had jumped right down the dragon's gullet. Like some silly sacrificial virgin.

Personnel egress from the bay was sealed but not locked. The corridor beyond was empty of air and light too. Surface paint was cracked, chipped, peeling. There was dust everywhere.

"Is it deserted?"

"Somebody shot at our drones."

"Somebody opened that bay."

And closed it again, too.

Valerena took the lead.

Hours passed. Nothing changed. Was it all for show? A test to nervous destruction?

Maybe. She was riding the edge of getting spooked. They came to a huge hall. It was dark but there was a trace of atmosphere. "We'll break here. Feed ourselves."

Valerena swallowed a mouthful of liquified slop. Four hours already.

"Hey!"

"What?"

"I saw something. Over by that display."

Six lights beamed that way. Valerena examined the instrument pack she carried.

"There!"

"I didn't see anything."

"I saw it, but I don't believe it. He was naked."

"Put the weapons away," Valerena cautioned. "Sit tight. See what happens." The pack said there was somebody out there.

The watcher hung around the edge of the light, shy as a fairy. Valerena glimpsed him once. A young him. He wore no protection against cold and vacuum.

Fed, rested, less rattled despite the improbable observer, Valerena said, "Let's catch him."

Ten minutes later, she knew they were being watched more closely than was possible for one pair of eyes. She could not surround him. She was being led. That imp stayed right there at the edge of the light.... She let the chase continue because he was the only contact they had made. Impossible as he was.

He left bare footprints in the dust.

Valerena saw the boy slip through a hatchway a hundred meters ahead. "I'm ready for another break."

Someone said, "I feel like I'm caught in a fairy tale."

The adventure became more unreal by the minute.

Valerena stepped through the hatchway—into intense light, acceptable warmth, decent atmosphere. The place appeared to be a battle command center. "Spread out and squat. This is the place." A minute later, "This is getting too weird. Did I have some damn fool reason for coming here?"

Time passed. Some of the Others cracked their suits. The boy flitted, watching. He grew more bold. But not much.

"The hell with this shit. I'm crapping out. Long as we're all right don't wake me up."

— 70 —

Turtle glanced up as Midnight bustled in. "What is it?"

"We're going to Tregesser Prime. A Voyager just came for Blessed. He's taking us with him."

He just looked at her.

"Aren't you excited?"

"No."

"Oh."

He had explained his moral quandry. She understood but was not worried. He was Turtle, and Turtle did not hurt people.

He wished he had faith in himself. Temptation and rationalization had him back-against-the-wall. "Have you seen Amber Soul?"

"Yes. She wasn't excited, either."

"I'd better pack if I'm going traveling."

It worked. Midnight said, "Oh! Me too!" and fluttered out.

Turtle did no packing. He had none to do. He settled back to ponder an odd question Blessed had asked recently. Had he ever heard of a stardrive, overdrive, hyperdrive, whatever, that ignored the Web?

He had. But in no context suggesting such a thing was possible. It was the intellectual toy of fantacists who carped against the restraints imposed by the Web.

Turtle had asked why.

"Curiosity. My hobby is trying to figure out where the human race came from. It didn't evolve on any of the worlds it occupies today. It didn't migrate into Canon space on the Web. Its first contact with the Web came a thousand years before Canon's founding, when the Go visited M. Vilbrantia in the Octohedron. All eight systems there had been occupied for several thousand years before that.

"Pity about the Go," Blessed had said.

In its first millennium on the Web, humanity fought eighteen wars with its benefactors. There was no need for a nineteenth. The Guardships came onto the stage of the Web in triumph complete and absolute.

Blessed scowled at Nyo. "Let the bastards grumble. I don't move till everything is set. I want nothing left for Provik's scavengers or the Guardships. Cable."

"Yes?"

"What's the data situation? They haven't come back, but that doesn't mean they didn't get something. Did they?"

"I don't think so. I can't find a hole that would've caught their attention."

"What're you doing now?"

"Trying to figure out how to get our guests into Tregesser Horata."

"Anybody going to get suspicious if I turn up with an artifact for a playmate?"

"No."

"There's one covered."

"Artifacts come and go. Ku warriors don't."

"It's your competence. Where's Tina, Nyo?"

"Fussing around trying to get everything on the lighter."

"And I've got everything loaded but live baggage," a voice said from Nyo's wrist. "Will you come on?"

Blessed glanced around. "I always feel like I'm forgetting something."

Nyo grunted. Cable did not say anything till they were on the launch platform. And that was something Blessed did not want to hear. "We'll have to bring Provik in on this eventually. There's no way around it."

"That means handing the whole damned thing over."

"He'll have somebody on the Voyager. He'll have somebody around us every minute. There won't be any way to hide the Ku."

The first person Blessed saw aboard the Voyager was that woman who had been Provik's companion that last day in the Pylon.

She smiled her enigmatic smile.

— 71 —

N. Etoartsia 3. Tregesser Hyxalag High City. Myth Worgemuth sneered. He had seen DownTowns that pleased him more.

The High City was bedecked with special effects. It was some damned holiday he did not understand and had no intention of understanding, though he was hosting a gala for Tregesser Hyxalag's cream.

Be barely better than scum in Tregesser Horata, he told himself, and kept smiling.

He looked out at the High City, sneered again, glanced at his guests. The locals ignored him. He could slide out for a dip without anyone noticing.

He slipped.

He was dipping from a jar of Jane—the finest True Blue—when he realized he was not alone. A figure in black moved toward him. "Who the hell are you?" The figure unnerved him. He backed toward the doorway.

"Go ahead and snort, Myth."

"Valerena? What're you doing here?"

"Take it, Myth."

He looked down the half-meter barrel of a hairsplitter. Its compressed sodium bullet could cook his brain beyond hope of reclamation.

He snorted a dip. The euphoria started immediately.

"Do one on the other side."

Voice frightened but growing languorous, he protested, "That would put me out of it."

"Do it, Myth."

He did it. He had no choice, did he?

Two minutes later he needed help standing. The woman in black helped. She led him to the rail of the balcony, where he could support himself. She dropped his jar of Jane. A fortune spilled across the balcony. He did not notice.

"Goodbye, Myth." She squatted, lifted his ankles, flipped him over the rail.

He giggled for a while, having fun flying. Then he stopped doing anything at all forever.

— 72 —

The Trajana ghost bustled around WarAvocat, babbling, straining his patience. But he was learning more than he wanted to know about phantom phantoms.

The ghost never did catch on.

He found no breech in the closure of IV Trajana's Core. Trajana, having subsumed its crew into a single character, had become neurotic and lonely but not diseased. The Core tissue remained safely sterile.

— 73 —

Valerena wakened certain something was wrong. She rolled over. The boy jumped up and tore away.

The Others were sleeping. Some had shed their suits. The boy had been squatting over one with an impressive erection.

Valerena laughed through a dry throat. She had a handle on him.

She needed a drink.

As she took a long draught off her canteen tube, she noticed the time.

Two days gone? A night in Elf Hill for sure. No wonder she felt awful.

But they had not been harmed. She supposed they had been studied, but how and why was not evident.

She ate. She drank. She did not waken the Others. She watched the boy, who had gotten a console between them but had not continued his retreat. "You have a name?"

No reply.

"Are you alone?" A bored kid with a battle center as a toy would explain the sniping incidents. She closed her mind to the larger questions that made the whole surreal.

Concentrate on the narrowest possible focus. Get her hands on the boy and work from there.

She rose slowly. He was poised for flight but did not go. He watched, fascinated, as she shed her suit.

It was a matter of time till the moth dipped a wing in the flame.

There was something weirdly exciting, even erotic, going on here. That surprised her. Her couplings had become little more than desperation transactions, brief and usually unsuccessful attempts to escape.

Four Others were awake when Valerena brought the boy to the group. He was hers. Or any woman's who wanted to manipulate him.

She settled on the deck, pulled him down beside her. "This is Tawn. He's amazing." She trailed her fingers up his inner thigh. He responded instantly. "He'll do whatever we want as long as we do what he wants."

"Artifact?" one asked.

"Sort of. He's an organic hologram projected by the Guardship's subconscious. We've got a very horny Guardship here."

"You say if you screw the kid you're screwing the whole damned machine?"

"Near as I can tell."

It looked like House Tregesser could take possession of a Guardship through simple sexual manipulation.

Maybe.

There was a lot she did not yet know. Where were the crew? Why was the Guardship sitting here like a derelict? Why was it in such bad shape?

She let her hand drift into the boy's lap. He would tell her.

It was outrageous. Absurd. Unbelievable. It was a surreal and spooky universe.

— 74 —

It was the first time the Barbican and House Horigawa had seen Guardship soldiers. Everyone dockside stopped to stare. One of the soldiers feigned a charge.

Jo snapped, "Hoke!"

"Aw, Lieutenant, I was just..."

"Working on getting the shit details. As usual." She spotted AnyKaat up the curve, with a small, brownish man who should be the purser of the chartered Horigawa Traveller. AnyKaat waved.

The purser spoke first. "Is this the lot, Lieutenant?"

Trying to be cool. Like having his Traveler rebuilt and taken over was nothing new. "All the personnel. There's still cargo in the system. Where are the others?"

"The two Colonels are on the bridge, putting in black boxes. The other one is snooping."

AnyKaat smiled. "Degas being Degas."

"Where is the alien?"

"In his quarters."

AnyKaat asked, "Want me to show your people where to go?"

"That's my job," the purser snapped. "Come along, you people."

Jo dismissed the soldiers, asked AnyKaat, "Are they all like that?"

"All of them. Working real hard to show us they aren't impressed. Wait till you meet the Chief. You'll wax nostalgic for Timmerbach. Though Colonel Haget has his number."

"That's TDA brevet-Colonel Haget." Jo grinned.

"Be like him to insist we use all that luggage, too. Wouldn't it?"

"What the hell. You can't have everything. He's good in bed."

"Wouldn't he love to hear you tell me that."

"He'd shrivel up and die. How's Seeker?"

"Settled in and eager to go. Except he don't know where. I gather his Lost Child has to have a seizure before he can sense her."

AnyKaat guided Jo to her cabin. This time there would be separate quarters for whoever wanted them.

"He's awfully evasive."

"Wouldn't you be?"

"Damned right. I don't say I don't understand, only that I don't like it." She began removing her combat suit. "I'll drag this back to the armory later. This cabin is huge."

"Want a ball of string?"

"Wise ass." She had room but the appointments were not plush. The Horigawas were a spartan crowd. "Guess I better report."

As they approached the bridge, Jo asked, "Why did you guys volunteer?"

AnyKaat grinned. "Great pay. Short hours. Nothing else to do but wait around till WarAvocat sent us home."

"Really?"

"No. We weren't ready to go home."

"Uhm?"

"We were all born on P. Jaksonica 3B. Era is the only one who's been off. A year for Staff College. My mother was STASIS, too, till she moved to Admin. She always wanted to travel. Fixing it so I could was the next best thing. Degas's mother is a dock worker. She'd throttle him if he didn't work this for all he could."

Jo stopped. This was all news. After months in AnyKaat's company. She'd never wondered about the woman's background. Soldiers did not think about anyone having antecedents.

"What's the matter?" AnyKaat asked.

"Just being awestruck. You probably see your mother sometimes."

"Every day. Another good reason for going away."

"Mine died while VII Gemina was being built. I was in storage." She resumed walking, shaken. "What about children?"

"We have a son. Tobias. Be turning four soon. He's staying with Degas's mother. I miss him." Just like that. And that was all. "What about you?"

Jo shivered. "We're all sterile." Without knowing why, she was sorry she had opened the subject. She increased her pace, arrived on the bridge briskly. "Combat team is aboard, Colonel."

"Ah. Lieutenant." Haget smiled. "I rehearsed. I'll probably call you Sergeant the next ten times. We're almost set. What about cargo?"

"Last of it shoud be loading now."

"Vadja's in Operations running test routines. When he's ready, tap station data and see if you can get a line on our aliens."

"You're pretty calm. Considering."

"Of course. The Deified will be along in an advisory capacity only."

"And if you don't follow his advice, there goes your career."

"Only if he's right and I'm not."

"Are they ever wrong?" Jo did not want the Deified along. There were a lot of angles to this mission she did not like.

"Your soldiers good for anything besides kicking ass?"

"Tell them what you need, they'll try to do it. I'll see what Vadja's got."

Haget pretended to notice AnyKaat for the first time. He beckoned her over and asked how he might best utilize her and Degas. Another angle Jo did not like. The thing was being thrown together, without formal manning for the systems being jammed into the Traveler. She left the bridge, stepping between stonefaced Horigawas pretending they did not mind having their ship rebuilt around them.

What had been crew's quarters and mess decks had had the partitions removed so the space could be made an operations center. The entrance lay only a few steps from the bridge hatch. Once the cargo bays were filled and passageways were cluttered with cables and everything was connected and integrated with the Traveler's systems, the ship would have many of the espionage and data-processing capabilities of a Guardship. There would be nothing like it on the Web.

"Can I get into the system yet, Era?"

"Jo. Hi. Sure. Funny. You don't look any different."

"What?"

"I thought you might have a mystic glow now that you're an officer."

"Shit. You're all going to get cute, aren't you?"

"Sure. Want to watch something you'll never see again?"

"What?"

"XXVIII Fretensis heading out."

She joined Vadja at a viewscreen. XXVIII Fretensis was just leaving the Barbican. It was impressive.

"Good hunting, guys," Vadja said. He had worked up a definite dislike for Messenger's species.

"There you are." Jo dropped a sheet of hard copy in front of Haget. "You said the ten most likely departures so I got you ten, but if they didn't go out on one of the first three you can have my comet."

"Why so sure?"

"All three were docked in the same section. The ship from Starbase docked in the next section. They all left within ten hours. And the Barbican had false alarms on its intruder watch there at the right time. STASIS decided there was a self-correcting glitch or a rodent off one of the Horigawas."

"All Haulers. What do you think, Smokey?" The Traveler's Chief's name was Hide Yoreyoshi but he insisted on Smokey.

"Ore carriers, Colonel. They bring in metal billets."

"Why the intermediate stops?"

"Picking up special order stuff."

"If you were the fugitives which Hauler would you have taken?"

"They were flying blind, Colonel. Probably whichever had the sloppiest dockside security."

Haget grunted, stared at the sheet. "Anybody think of a reason the Ku wouldn't get off the Hauler first chance he got?"

Nobody offered one.

Haget circled each of the first three stops. "There's our itinerary, Smokey. If we don't find anything, I'll spank the Lieutenant and we'll think of something else."

Jo snorted. She knew she had this step of the search in a lock.

— 75 —

Lupo Provik gazed out his office window, at a level with Tregesser Horata High City. He saw nothing that pleased him. "What is she doing up there?"

Four said, "Still no word."

"Doesn't she realize how much mischief the Directors can do? Especially now?"

Blessed's Voyager had broken off the Web two hours ago. Lupo and the family had gathered to await Two's report.

Three said, "What's Two waiting for?"

Four asked, "Blessed wouldn't have neutralized her, would he?"

"No," Lupo said. "We won't catch him in that kind of mistake."

One had been on station since yesterday, waiting to escort the crown prince.

Five and Six had comm duty. Six said, "Stop fussing. Two is on."

They clustered as Two took shape. Lupo felt mildly foolish. He should have suspected she was waiting to get close enough to send holosignals. She asked, "Am I coming through?"

"Perfectly," Lupo replied. "Got anything interesting?"

"Blessed is making a show of model behavior. For now. Main point is that though he took only three people out to M. Shrilica, he's bringing eight back."

Two vanished. Holoportraits replaced her. "Cable Shike. Nyo Bofoku. Tina Bofoku. They went out with him. Kharsen Bhentus. Oral Stang. Specialists in financial forecasting exiled by Simon Tregesser."

"I recall the incident. Not one of Simon's better days."

"Bhentus is human. Stang looks like an artifact trying to pass. The M. Shrilica records are inconclusive."

Lupo glanced at Three and Four. They were researching the names already.

"There are no records on these next three. Lady Midnight. Artifact. Function self-evident. Amber Soul. Artifact with a question mark. Of alien manufacture? Whatever, it gives me the creeps. Turtle. Alien. Actual name unknown. Race probably Ku. Supposedly Shike's assistant."

Lupo sensed what was on Two's mind. "You think it's a ringer?"

"This one, yes. Maybe more than one."

"We're on them. One will meet you on station. Brief him. Stick to Blessed. We've got us a situation."

"The Guardship?"

"Part of it."

Two said, "We saw a Guardship, too. VII Gemina." She secured comm.

It was very quiet there till Lupo managed a chuckle. "Seems I was a little optimistic about our success in the end space."

Nobody said anything. No point going into it till Two arrived with the whole story.

"Let's bring those last three images back and see what we can get out of the bank."

The one artifact was in the Banat-Marath catalog, a standard item. The alien was a Ku warrior, possibly useful to Blessed, noteworthy only for its rarity.

That left Amber Soul.

Strange name. Not in the Banat-Marath catalog. Not in any damned file. Human? If so, she was the ugliest woman Lupo ever saw. Alien? Alien artifact? Wouldn't do any good to run that.

"Lupo."

"Uhm?"

"Call from Goshe. Just had somebody come at him with the right codes, wants a face to face. Name is Kim Chingamora. I ran him. A class three, reliable, second purser on the Medvihn Traveler Federal Lotus. There hasn't been a Medvihn in here in eight years. He took an emergency leave and came here on his own credit."

"He's got something hot."

"Something he thinks will set him for life."

"Clear out. Four, you stay."

Goshe arrived with the guest, did introductions, faded. Four bustled around offering refreshments. The agent, not on the regular payroll, had yielded enough good material to rate the grade three. He said. "This is my first visit to Tregesser Horata. Impressive." He was nervous. He had mortgaged his future to get here.

"Relax. If what you have isn't what you thought, we'll still cover your expenses and lost salary. You've done good work before. You're the kind of operative we want to keep happy."

Chingamora laughed nervously. "Better get to it, hadn't I? If I've got fool's gold, I'll have to hustle back to my Traveler while they're holding my berth."

Lupo nodded.

"All right. I brought a holocasette and a regular video cassette. It's like this: we picked up a passenger at C. Colignonica who wanted to charter a stopover at N. Etoartsia 3. Nobody thought anything about it. The rich do weird things. And a charter is the only way you can get some places. We were supposed to wait at station for her. She was only going to be down a while."

He offered the video cassette. It was a one-minute excerpt from local news reporting the death of planetary governor Myth Worgemuth. Authorities wanted to question an unidentified woman with whom he had been seen talking before his fall.

"The holo ties this up?"

"You be the judge." Chingamora gave Four the other cassette. A shape formed in the projection cube. "Hold this frame. This is the woman we saw publicly, when she left her stateroom. But the day before she was due to leave us, she called the purser's office for help setting up an itinerary that would get her to N. Compeuia. I popped this while I was going over schedules with her. Next frame."

It was not a good holo but it was good enough. Lupo said, "You have an excellent memory."

"I done good?"

Lupo laughed. "You done great. Count on a bonus."

"That's a load off."

"Wait in the outer office while I talk to my technical people."

Chingamora nodded, stepped out. His nervousness had not abated.

"One of Valerena's Others," Four said.

"Yes. Which explains why he's nervous. He didn't know she'd taken over till he got here."

"Going to be some excitement when the news comes."

"Some, yes."

"And Linas Maserang is next."

"Apparently. And it's too late to stop it."

"You think she wanted to be spotted?"

"I don't know. We'll find out. Six!" Six came in. "You catch all that?"

"Yes."

"Assume the Other will head for Tregesser Prime when she's done with Maserang. Find a choke point and go wait for her. Go back in the other room while I talk to Chingamora again."

"One thing first. Valerena called. Almost hysterical, she was so excited. She's off the Guardship. Wants to see you as soon as she gets down."

"All right." He opened the door. "Mr. Chingamora. Staff wants to know if you'd be interested in full-time work." Chingamora looked surprised. "First assignment would be to accompany my assistant to identify and grab the woman who chartered your Traveler. She's been impersonating Valerena Tregesser. We want to know why."

Kim Chingamora looked immensely relieved.

— 76 —

There was enough randomly accumulated data in the Starbase pool to pinpoint the source of the meddlesome methane breathers with a sixty percent chance of being right.

XXVIII Fretensis broke off the Web in a magnum launch. Forty minutes later there was no doubt it had come to the right system.

The Outsiders were completely surprised. But they were not unprepared. Moon after moon came to life and joined the contest. Twenty hours after his arrival, WarAvocat consulted his Deified about the advisability of withdrawal.

IV Trajana broke off the Web as the debate raged. It attacked with a ferocity and self-disregard that left WarAvocat XXVIII Fretensis agape.

Eighty-two hours later, the last orbital fortress succumbed. XXVIII Fretensis assumed a polar orbit around the gas giant. IV Trajana moved into equitorial orbit. Both began probing for targets below.

Such sieges lasted for however long they took. The Guardships had the time.

There would be a small difference this time. This gas giant was but one of a hundred dewdrops on the Web.

Canon did not know. The Guardships had not guessed. Simon Tregesser had not known, either. His Outsider allies had not been frank with him.

— 77 —

Turtle watched Tregesser Prime grow. He was impressed. The system was the most vigorous he had seen in a thousand years. Did it matter that its masters represented everything he loathed in the human species?

It mattered. A lot. But temptation was a siren.

He tried concentrating on getting a feel for Lupo Provik, met on station. Blessed had said a lot about Provik.

Provik did not look dangerous. He was a plain man with no sinister aura. But some were that way. They did not wear their character like a Ku.

Provik seemed interested only in Amber Soul. Why her, particularly?

Another shuttle grounded within moments of theirs. As they debarked, Blessed whispered, "That's my mother. The Chair. What's she up to?"

Turtle saw four of the woman. And she did wear her character where it could be seen.

"Oh, Turtle!" Midnight enthused. "Look! Have you ever seen anything like that? Isn't it magnificent?"

Turtle eyed the white fang of the Pylon, rising through the tiers of Tregesser Horata. It was an impressive sight. And it had a sinister feel. Almost an aura of menace. "Yes. It certainly is."

Valerena felt like hugging Blessed when she saw him. She confined herself to a wave. He returned it uncertainly.

It was a sin they had to eye each other like fighting dogs. Especially now.

Who were all those people with him? One she knew. He was that accountant that had pissed Simon so bad he'd exiled him.

She spied Lupo and his girlfriend, for a moment felt a cold something slide down her spine. But, of course, he would have met Blessed. He had promised to stick to Blessed like a second skin.

Provik left the other party, took charge of her own security. "Lupo, you'll never believe what I've done."

"I doubt if anything you did would astonish me."

"This will get you."

"Save it till we're inside the Pylon. Four days ago we caught a spy here with a camera and sound gun."

"What? Working for who?"

"No telling. She destroyed herself. An artifact created for the trade. We get them all the time. Not much you can do but hope what they get isn't all going the same place."

"I'll bust keeping it in, but all right. What about Blessed?"

"He's going to behave."

She glared at the Pylon. "Its days are numbered, Lupo."

Lupo took Valerena to his office rather than hers. He claimed he had things to do that could not wait. She told him he should have gone before he left the shuttle. That earned one of his tired smiles.

He rejoined her changed, refreshed, relaxed, looking like a new man. She supposed he had taken a stimulant.

"Tell me now," he said.

"House Tregesser has a Guardship. Actually, Valerena Tregesser has her Guardship."

He just looked at her.

"I'll change its name. VI Adjutrix. That sounds so... I don't know. Dull. How about Horido Segada? That sounds dramatic and menacing."

It meant "Black Storm Rising." She had heard that somewhere.

"It's sure to catch the imagination. That's what the Go called their Main Battle Fleet."

"So I'll think of something else. What matters is, I've got aGuardship."

"How?" Cool Lupo. Over his shock already. Probably the biggest shock of his life.

"I seduced it."

His eyes narrowed.

"And now it will do anything I tell it to keep me liking it. It'll get a steady diet of Valerena Others."

"How many of those are there, Valerena? How reliable are they?"

"Why?" She did not like his tone.

"Others can be troublesome if you haven't kept them on a short leash."

"There were some things my father kept to himself. I'll follow his example."

Lupo shrugged. "We have a Guardship to discuss. I suggest you don't reserve anything there."

He was right. He was the Guardship expert. He could tell her if she had made a fool of herself. So she told it all, from first impulse till she set foot on Prime again.

He gave her his absolute attention. He had that knack, of shutting out everything but you. She'd never held anyone's complete attention so long. He listened gravely, the way, as a child, she had thought a father ought when his little girl brought him tales of her adventures.

"Did I do good?"

"You did marvelous. I may revise my opinion of what kind of Chair you'll make."

While the spell held, she asked, "What should I do now?"

"Move it. We'll have to refit and recrew it. We do that where it sits and every ship through here will run off to tell the universe."

"It can't get back onto the Web. That's why it stayed here. It barely remembers that it was headed for Starbase. If it wasn't a machine, I'd think it was sick."

"We'll head it out past the mines. Maybe to Wodash. I'll find an orbital path that won't get any attention. On record we can open a new mining facility to account for the traffic. It can move in starspace, can't it?"

"Yes."

"This will be harder than managing that ambush was. We didn't have to do that under the noses of everybody on a busy strand."

"I really did something that's never been done."

"You made history. If we handle this right, you'll be the most famous Tregesser ever. But if we screw it up, there won't be any House Tregesser."

"Yes." She was tired, suddenly. "Don't you get bored, being right all the time? Figure out what you want to do, then set it up."

"First we need cover stories...."

Valerena left her seat. "Don't waste time. I want that Guardship for my headquarters. You like the Pylon, you can have it. Blessed can have the place on the Gorge. He needs something better than that old relic in the High City."

Lupo nodded. She thought she detected a hint of strained patience. Every time he talked to her... It hurt. He was worrying about the future of the House again. When he did that, she worried too, wondering if she was incompetent and a peril.

It made her want to scream, "You bastard, I'm trying! I'm doing the best I can! Stop listening to what I say when I'm running my mouth and pay attention to what I'm doing! Help me!"

Provik rose too. "We'll talk again after you've rested. I have a thousand questions about the Guardship."

"When I get the chance."

As he opened the door, Lupo added, "I really would like more information about your Others, Valerena. It could be important."

She went without answering, wondering why the sudden interest.

Lupo stood looking at the door. The family joined him. One said, "I refuse to be amazed by anything ever again."

Lupo said, "I think it's time to grow us some brothers and sisters. Otherwise the workload is going to bury us."

One suggested, "You might consider doubling T. W. a few times, too." T.W. Trice was the second name on the chart of the House Tregesser security apparat. She was the one person Provik trusted completely. She was the perfect manager, taking most of the routine load off his shoulders.

"I've tried. She won't do it."

Two observed, "Valerena was sensitive about her Others. She's worried. Does that mean some of them are out of control?"

"Probably. She had to go churn them out to confuse us, then just turned them loose. We'll have to find them all, tag them somehow, and keep them under surveillance. The workload keeps growing."

"And you love it," Two said. "You're practically running House Tregesser now."

"Just this side. They can keep the business end."

— 78 —

Haget was in a mood where he thought everything he said was funny. Everyone else thought he was being nasty. Jo was tired of making allowances.

They had visited the first two stations. They had come up with zeroes. All right. So it was not going to be a stroll. They had known that. Why get irritable and sarcastic?

The Traveler was coming up on the third station now. Everyone, including Seeker, had a job. This was no time for emotional distractions.

Jo and her squad were convinced. This was the jackpot. They were ready.

Breakaway. Haget went to the bridge to oversee communications with the station. AnyKaat offered Jo a compassionate glance.

"Kark! Look at that thing!" Degas said. "Straight out of the Stone Age." He and Vadja were in charge of plundering station data.

AnyKaat said, "I make it three ships docked. One Hauler and two Travelers."

"Curious." Jo looked over her shoulder. The schematic had Travelers docked side by side around the wheel from the Hauler. "Suggestive?"

"Maybe. But an old station might have a wobble it damps with its porting arrangements."

Jo looked around. Too early to have gotten anything else.

Haget stepped in. "They aren't pleased to see us. You'd think a tramp station would be eager to suck anybody in."

"Wouldn't you?"

"Watch them, Jo."

What did he think she was doing? "Yes, sir. Have they assigned us a berth?"

"Eight. Beside a Hauler."

"Why am I not surprised?"

AnyKaat said, "Lieutenant, I'm starting to get heat readings from both Travelers."

Jo looked. She was only a touch more familiar with the equipment than AnyKaat. "Colonel, can you look at this?" He had been a WatchMaster.

"They're warming up to pull out," he said. "We've made somebody nervous. Yell if they undock." He returned to the bridge.

They would have seen nothing had they been a normal Traveler. Civilians did not need gear that could see such things.

The Probe team began to get results. "Lieutenant, there's a lot of running around going on."

Why? Guilty consciences? Making with coverups they did not feel were needed for a Hauler?

There was a ping. Degas said, "Jackpot."

They had penetrated the station's system, starting with the obvious, records of arrivals and departures. The entry following the departure of the suspect Horigawa Hauler was: dpt sveldrov trav gregor forgotten.

The Traveler that had behaved so oddly at M. Shrilica. Interesting.

"That Hauler is Horigawa," Haget tossed in the hatchway.

Jo felt a touch, found Seeker beside her. There are some of Them there. Mind picture of a Messenger thing. Three. Possibly four. They may sense my presence.

"Would that explain the activity?"

Perhaps.

"Activate the weapons systems. Warm screen generators."

"All right!"

"Hoke!"

"Yes, ma'am," sheepishly. Hoke was on a CT cannon he wanted to try.

"Probe. Do we have anything nonhuman?"

"Three possibles, Lieutenant. Not enough resolution to confirm yet."

Good enough. She went to the bridge hatchway. "Colonel, we have at least three Messenger types on station. One or more in the hub and two headed for the Travelers."

Haget smiled. "That's interesting. We can take off the mask, Smokey."

Jo returned to her post. Degas and Vadja had pinned the identities of both docked Travelers as false. "What do they have for defenses on that dump?"

"Nothing. Not even shield generators."

"Then all they can do is run."

AnyKaat interjected, "Those Travelers are heating up fast."

Probe said, "The alien in the hub is headed for the Travelers, Lieutenant. It's a big one."

Haget stuck his head in. "What're they doing?"

"The Travelers are getting ready to run."

"Shoot their asses off so they can't do anything if they undock. Then suit a team to go take control."

He was having fun now.

So were all the Weapons team. She gave the signal. Twenty-five seconds passed. Time. Twin-fire lilies blossomed. "Hey! All right!"

"Get those targets assessed, Hoke. See if you need to pop them again. The rest of you get suited. Full armor and weapons." The squad hurried out, leaving their stations live. AnyKaat, Degas, Vadja, Haget, and Seeker some, could cover the critical functions.

"Got them both, Lieutenant," Hoke said, rising. "Those suckers want to go anywhere they'll have to put out oars and row."

"Stay. The Colonel may need a trained hand on weapons. Colonel Vadja, it's all yours."

Jo ran to the after-refrigerated hold, which they had converted into an armory. The squad was climbing into their suits. She stripped. "Let's be careful. We don't know what we'll run into. Those Outsiders are fucking crazy."

They got suited, through the activation checklists, armed, and forward in plenty of time. Jo checked her command channels. AnyKaat told her one of the Travelers was adrift. Degas, covering Probe, said station personnel had stopped running around. She had them send schematics.

Haget told her, "We'll offload you and back away. That loose Traveler has a couple popguns. Don't want it butt-shooting us."

"I understand."

"Jo... Do you have to go yourself?"

"I am a Soldier, Colonel. It's my command." Her tone was cool, but she was pleased.

"Of course. What support do you need?"

She put the schematics up on her faceplate. "Tell that Hauler to get its people aboard and button up."

"Already done."

"Good. We'll move out against the spin, pushing them ahead of us. Once we clear the section, knock a hole in it and let the air out so they can't sneak up behind us. We'll breach the radials as we go."

"Right. Don't take chances, Jo."

Chunk! Clack-clack-click-clack. The Traveler was in, held by drive. Some station genius had secured the docking mechanisms. A demo charge opened the station side lock. Jo checked the schematic. Probe saw nothing that looked like resistance. But there were people out there, apparently carrying on with business. "Go!"

The first two out covered the rest. They drew no fire. When Jo hit the dock she saw a lot of nothing. In the distance several civilians ran like hell up the curve. "Let's move."

Four soldiers went left, to seal the accesses from the next section. Two went to breach the radial to the hub. There would be few EVA suits on station, none designed for combat.

She assigned two soldiers to seal the lock behind them. She did not want the section decompressing before they left it.

Station shivered as charges holed the radial. Jo started up the curve. Her people spread out. Those with assignments would catch up. She came even with the Hauler. It was closed up tight.

So quiet.

She did not have outside sound. She switched on and got all she could handle: breach alarms, riot alarms, computer voices repeating calm warnings.

She found a dozen frightened civilians caught at the section boundary, unable to pass the decompression doors. She checked them over while she waited for the welders.

Degas came on. "Looks like an ambush shaping up ahead of you, Jo."

"I see it. Colonel Vadja. Can you get into the station system deep enough to override the commands to this decompression door?"

"Can do, Lieutenant."

"Open on my mark, then."

She moved the civilians out of the line of fire, disposed her troops, relayed her schematics on squad tac, assigned someone to each of ten targets.

The ambush had been laid in the expectation she would use demos to come through one of the personnel hatches.

"Now, Colonel."

The big door shot up.

The shooting started.

The shooting stopped.

Five ambushers were dead. Three were wounded. Two were in flight.

Another fusilade.

Nine dead now. One escaped. For the moment.

"Move those civilians over here. Colonel, shut the door after we're through. Hoke, blow that section as soon as he does."

Degas came on. "Jo, you've got them all stirred up around the other side. The big alien is headed back for the hub."

"Feed that to Fire Control. Hoke, when that thing gets halfway along the radial put one right through it."

"I can't hit the spoke from here, Sarge."

"Then move the damned ship. You're Weapons." She grinned at her faceplate. Hell. She was WarAvocat here. Even Haget had to take her orders as long as the team was engaged.

The station staggered as Hoke put two CTs into the section just cleared.

The alarms went berserk.

"Let's move up."

Station shivered again as Hoke took out the Outsider.

They received sporadic rifle fire, mostly inaccurate. None was effective. The other side had no weapons capable of dealing with Guardship soldiers in full combat armor.

There was a brisk, one-sided fight at the next sector boundary. They took several prisoners.

Hoke came on net. "Lieutenant, you want that section breached after you're out?"

"No. Let's not do any damage that isn't tactically necessary. We got to leave something for the honest folks. Degas. That next section shaping up as hairy as it looks to me?"

"Yes."

"How many of those people you figure for civilians?"

"No telling."

"I'm not getting my ass shot off for their sake. Colonel Vadja. This time open all the accesses so they don't know where we're coming from. Shut them as soon as we're through. Hoke. When the doors close behind us put a round through the section. They can't fight if they can't breathe."

"I might hit you...."

"Put it through the far end." She disposed her troops, sent the civilians and prisoners back up the curve so they would not be hit. "Open up, Colonel."

The doors opened. Massed small-arms fire poured through. It died as gunners realized they had no targets. She let them sweat for six minutes before she ordered, "Go!"

They flung through behind grenades, got down, got behind things. The doors slammed shut. Seconds later the far end of the section flared with the blinding light of matter annihilation.

Jo waited till the pressure had fallen below a level that would sustain life. "Let's see what we've got."

"What we got is a lot of dead people," somebody said.

She let it slide. He was not a false prophet.

She was surprised there were so many. And few were civilians because they were all armed.

"Sarge!"

One of the methane breathers, inside some kind of pressurized, motorized tank, was headed toward her. She shifted to microwave output and gave it a whole charge pack in one blast. Its tank exploded.

"I think it wanted to talk, Lieutenant."

"Tough shit."

That was the last shot fired on station.

The picking through the ruins began.

— 79 —

Lupo scanned the report again. "What business could she have in the Black Ring?"

For three days a Valerena Other had been seen going into the Black Ring. The past two Provik ground people had tried following her and had failed. This Other seemed to have no existence outside its jaunts. Where it came from was as mysterious as where it went.

"Smells to me," Three said.

"You and Four go see if you can pick her up today. Be careful. Have the regular team back you up."

Three and Four left before he changed his mind, fleeing routine.

Lupo returned to work but twenty minutes later yielded to a hunch. "One. Call Operations. Tell T.W. to scatter stationary watchers around where she turns up."

Four trailed Three by twenty-five meters, self-conscious there in the fringes of the Black Ring, though nobody paid her any attention.

Three gave the Other more room. The two men of the regular ground team kept pace across the street.

Four became uneasy as they approached the area where the Other had vanished twice before. She loosened her weapon.

It was a wide open aisle between ranks of warehouses where surface transports could maneuver into loading docks. But there were no transports there. There were no workers. The warehouses had been sealed up and broken open again by thieves and vandals. The walls were enscribed with folk literature that was short, pithy, anything but ambiguous.

Three hesitated, stepped out after the Other. Four exchanged looks with the ground men, shrugged, followed.

She saw it coming before it started. She was amazed that Three did not.

She shot the Other before it finished giving the signal to the assassination team. Shooting with mechanical precision, she blew three of those out of their hiding places before the ground men reacted.

One had icewater for blood. But the weapon he chose was a camera. He stood there taping while the shit flew. The other shot back, with no more luck than the rattled ambushers.

Four shot three more before the rest ran for it. She shot two of those. Two got away while she slapped a new charge pack into her weapon.

No matter. She knew where to find one of them.

She went to Three, knowing there was nothing she could do. He'd been hit at least twenty times.

The Other groaned.

Four stepped over. The Other looked up, eyes appealing.

"Goodbye."

"No!"

Four shot her once through the forehead. The burn looked like a small caste mark.

She shot each of the attackers the same way, alive or dead. Then she set for a wide beam and worked her way back, collecting weapons and charring the right hand of each corpse.

It was a message from Lupo Provik nobody in the Black Ring would misinterpret.

She crisped the Other's face, too, so nobody would connect it with Valerena Tregesser.

"What about him?" the man with the camera asked.

Without exception the captured weapons were House issue. Their charge packs could be used as grenades. Each had a timer that could be set for a delay up to twenty seconds.

She told the ground men what to do.

They did it, then ran.

There was enough energy in the captured charge packs to consume Three and turn the eight weapons to slag.

Four shouted, "But they even had House weapons!"

Lupo looked at her. She had kept cool till she had gotten back. She'd even retained the presence of mind to isolate the ground men. But now she had broken.

"I tell you it's too pat. Come. Let's do an update." To spread some of that emotion around, to dilute it, before it poisoned her.

"Don't you even care?"

"Come and find out."

After the meld Lupo asked, "Were we supposed to notice where the Other came from or only meant to follow her into a trap where I could be burned?"

Two said, "The Worgemuth kill."

"Right. Valerena didn't order that. Blessed couldn't have. We need to see him." He fiddled. A street map appeared on one wall. "Four. Here's where the stationary observers picked up the Other. Coming this way. Suggest anything?"

Four's hysterics had vanished but her emotional state remained ragged. The meld could not adjust hormonal balances. "That's a hundred meters from the place we used to slide Simon in and out of the Pylon."

"Right."

"Have you been in there yet?"

"No. You and Five go watch it. Don't disturb anyone. Two and I will see Blessed. One. Hang on here."

— 80 —

Valerena grumbled. Everything wanted attention at once. She could not keep up even with her Others helping. She summoned the most trustworthy from the adjoining office.

"I just had a call from my father's Other. He wants to talk to me about Lupo. Right now. I don't have time. Go down and listen to his latest paranoid fantasy. Nod in the right places. Don't mention the Guardship."

The Valerena Other entered the new office assigned the Simon Other. He greeted her with crazy laughter. She asked, "What about Lupo now? I'm pressed for time."

"The load will lighten soon, Valerena."

"What about Provik?"

"What about Provik?" More laughter. "This about Provik. He's dead."

"Since when?"

"Since an hour and a half ago down in the Black Ring." The Simon Other's bell drifted to one side. Another Valerena Other stepped from behind it. She carried a hairsplitter.

"What the hell?"

"The Others are running amuck, Valerena. They're taking over the world." More mad laughter.

The hairsplitter rose.

"Wait a minute!..."

Sodium shrapnel cooked her brain.

The Valerena Other dropped the hairsplitter, started stripping the still twitching body. "Damn! She shit herself."

"Just put on her outer clothes. Rinse them out if you have to. Hurry. Before Blessed or T.W. hear about Provik. If you don't get control of the security forces, we're dead." He started grumbling about the massacre in the Black Ring. It had claimed a quarter of his hired hands.

The Valerena Other left smiling. As far as anyone would ever know she was Valerena Tregesser.

Valerena glanced up as the door opened. "What did the silly sack want this time?"

The Other gaped. Her jaw moved but no words came out.

A chill struck Valerena. This was not the one she had sent.... It was trying to pull a gun....

Valerena dived into the knee space beneath her work center. "Blazon!" she shouted. "Enemy!"

A roaring whir, like the beating wings of ten thousand small birds. The desk thrummed. Glass broke. Things fell. The Other mouthed one gurgling scream.

"Code Sane! Code Sane!" The whir ceased.

She crawled out shaking, dragged herself upright. The needle storm had demolished the office, had shredded the Other.

She lost her lunch.

"What happened?" One of the Others from the outer office stood in the doorway.

"Get out! Get out! Get out!" Valerena flung herself at the door, slammed it, locked it, leaned against it while the heaves doubled her over. Then she stumbled to her desk to call Lupo.

The comm system had been destroyed along with everything else.

She was trapped. With a corpse. With no way to summon help.

— 81 —

Turtle returned the comm to its cradle.

"What was it?" Midnight asked.

"I'm about to get a closeup look at Lupo Provik. He's here to see Blessed. Blessed wants both Cable and I there."

"Don't show off."

"I won't."

Shike and the Bofokus arrived before he did. Blessed asked, "You didn't come armed? Never mind. It's too late."

They were in a vast room in the rear of the second level of the High City home Blessed had taken over from his mother. Valerena had used it for large parties. Blessed settled in a chair against a wall. Tina sat at his left, Nyo at his right. Shike stood farther to his right. Turtle took his place at Tina's left.

A man and a woman stepped through a doorway fifty meters away.

They moved with polish, disposing themselves without a word or signal, the woman falling back and drifting out so Provik was exactly in Shike's line of fire when they halted.

They had read him as unarmed and Shike otherwise. The woman could shoot him and Shike both before he could reach her.

Blessed asked, "What brings you slumming, Lupo?"

"Some gunplay in the Black Ring."

Blessed frowned. "There're gunfights down there every day."

Turtle relaxed. He read Provik as having no violent intent. He tried to get a feeling for the man. It was difficult. There was nothing obviously remarkable about him. He would not stand out in a group unless he chose to.

Turtle eyed the woman. He saw the same qualities there.

Provik replied, "I was lucky enough to get this on tape. I want you to see it."

Blessed frowned again, off balance. "Tee? Would you take that? There's a player over there." He rose, started walking. He said something to Provik's companion. She just smiled.

The tape was brief. It began in the middle of the action, with a man collapsing while Provik's friend gunned down everyone in sight. There was no need but Provik let it roll through the coups de grace.

Turtle looked at the woman. There was that little smile, just for him.

Very, very dangerous.

"One of Mumsie's Others," Blessed said. "Leading your people into an ambush? Why come to me?"

"One of your mother's Others, yes, but she wasn't what brought us here."

Provik's companion was watching Shike now. Turtle stepped forward. "Excuse me, Tina." He rolled the tape back, zeroed in on the moment he wanted, froze the action. Two men in flight, one looking back. "Can we blow this up, Tina?"

She did it. Blessed said, "I see what you mean, Lupo. But Cable hasn't been out today."

"So who is that man?"

"Cable?"

"I have a half-brother."

"Is that him? Would he get into something like this?"

"It might be. He would if he was paid. If he didn't know it was House politics."

"I'd like to talk to him. Could you arrange it?"

"If it was a chance to get him out from under whatever's hanging over him."

Blessed glared. That was not the answer he wanted from his number one boy.

Provik's companion snapped into motion with the suddenness of an unexpected explosion. As she turned she produced a hairsplitter with her right hand, a House issue energy gun with her left. She never looked at Turtle but the energy gun flew straight to his hand.

Provik moved half a heartbeat behind her, drawing identical weapons, throwing his energy gun toward Tina.

Turtle snapped the weapon out of the air. The hairsplitters made thwock thwock thwock! noises at people charging into the room. He shot twice himself and moved forward, on the woman's left, while the people over there were dumbfounded by the failure of their surprise.

He glanced at the woman, saw a hunting animal totally intent on its prey.

She was not as fast as a Ku. Neither was Provik. But she had begun moving before anyone had come into the room. She and Provik had begun shooting as targets materialized. Despite the range, the woman dropped four and Provik two before he took his own first shot.

Turtle glanced back.

Shike had Blessed and the Bofokus down behind a couch, was estimating the best way to get them out.

A man with a four-tube rocket launcher leapt through the doorway. Hairsplitter pellets hit him before Turtle could shoot.

They were anticipating.

That was worth remembering.

The dead man launched his missiles by reflex. Into the floor. Two warheads exploded immediately. The other rockets ricocheted. One proved a dud. The other blew a hole in the ceiling.

Turtle stood. He shot pieces of furniture, to blow them apart or set them afire. Provik and his woman picked off the people they sheltered when they tried for new cover.

His charge pack went dead. He got down.

He glanced back, saw Shike push Blessed through a doorway, jump through after him.

Blessed was angry. "Who the hell do you think you're shoving, Cable?"

"The guy I'm going to keep alive. Even if I have to knock him in the head and drag him away."

"He's right, Blessed," Tina said. She was calm. Nyo was the rattled Bofoku.

Shike said, "Let's keep moving. There were at least twenty of them. The Ku and Provik won't beat those odds. Tina. Rearguard. Nyo, stay in front of him. I'll lead."

Blessed demanded, "How did they get past the alarm?"

"Your mother used to live here."

"She's trying to kill me?"

"Maybe. But Provik was getting at her Others. Be quiet. Analyze it after we're safe."

"I can't just be a lump while you take the chances."

"You'd better. The way I hear, your grandfather ended up in a bottle because he had that attitude."

Two men appeared ahead. They looked like household staff. Shike shot them both. He approached warily, toed a dropped hand communicator blinking for attention. "Nyo. Get their weapons."

"Where are we headed?" Blessed asked.

"Out. To Tina and Nyo's place."

The hall turned twice and ended on a balcony hanging seven meters above the lobbylike entry foyer. Shike looked down at an empty floor. He heard a voice.

"Keep after them. If even one gets out, we're dead." That voice belonged to Valerena Tregesser. It came from beneath the balcony. There was a cloakroom down there. Someone hidden there could cover the entrance, both stairs, and the freight and passenger elevators beside the stairs.

A second Valerena voice said, "I can't get Chocki. They must have gotten past him."

"Then be quiet. They'll be here soon."

Shike backed away. "Tina, go around the balcony as far as you can. When I wave, shoot at the cloakroom. Take an extra charge pack. Nyo, cover the hallway." He took a captured charge pack himself, along with his own hairsplitter and extra magazine. He ran along the crescent balcony in the direction opposite Tina, to its end, where it met a black marble wall. He waved.

Tina was no sharpshooter. She hit the cloakroom only four times.

Good enough. A cursing Valerena showed enough of herself to shoot back.

Shike hit her shoulder with his hairsplitter. She screamed and kept on screaming. She stumbled out.

Blessed cut her down.

Shike emptied an entire magazine into the cloakroom hoping to start a fire or get a hit with a ricochet. He failed.