/ Language: English / Genre:sf_space

Deagth ship quest

W Zellmann

William Zellmann

Deagth ship quest

Captain Rog Fan-Jertril, formerly Lieutenant Fan-Jertril, fell into another fit of coughing and staggered against the bulkhead, trying without success to ignore the agony in his chest. He paused to spit a ball of bloody phlegm to the already-foul deck before forcing himself erect.

Soon, he told himself. Very soon, the Vir Rekesh would be ready for her long sleep, and he would be able to surrender to the endless peace of death.

Death. He was going to die. He examined his feelings curiously. Why was he not afraid? Why wasn't he curled up in a corner, crying? Or shouting and cursing his cruel fate? Or drunk? Or stoned? Why this clinical calm, this easy acceptance?

Even six months ago, he knew, the thought of his own death would have at least sent a thrill of cold fear down his back. But that had been before.

Before, when he was Lieutenant Fan-Jertril, scion of a wealthy family on Raltha, Recent graduate of the Fleet Academy and a year's advanced training that had enabled his family to buy his promotion, and newly assigned to the Battle Cruiser Vir Rekesh. The assignment, coming so close on the heels of the promotion, had strained even his family's resources, but his father had insisted.

A slight smile crossed his face at a fleeting thought. If he could only tell his father! He was commanding a Battle Cruiser after only six months aboard! If he didn't know the circumstances, Da would probably be impressed.

The plague broke out shortly after they left a terrestrial planet they had surveyed. When it broke out, no one was too worried. After all, Rekesh had a full medical staff and a completely equipped sickbay with the latest in diagnostic equipment. But people kept getting sick, and sicker, and dying, and the medical staff could not isolate the cause or devise a cure.

Rog remembered the excitement when Captain To-Ruffin announced his intention to turn on the plague beacon. It meant that they would not be allowed to approach any settled planet and that medical assistance would be limited to help that could be given without going aboard. Sheol, some planets had been known to destroy plague ships on sight! Nevertheless, the senior remaining medical officer insisted and Captain To-Ruffin finally agreed.

Rog had been at the rear of the room for the Officer's Meeting the Captain convened to explain his decision concerning their next move. They could drive inward for the Empire, but there was no assurance that anyone would be alive when and if they got there — the deaths were mounting rapidly. Then, there was the problem of what would happen even if they got there. The medical staff doubted that, given the rapid progression of the disease, even the facilities on Prime would be able to come up with a cure in time to save anyone aboard. The senior medical officer had recommended that they rig all the fusactors to self-destruct simultaneously.

However, it’s hard for a captain to order the destruction of his ship. Captain To-Ruffin decided to run her to a system empty even of planets they had recently mapped and put her in a stable solar orbit, in the hope that she could someday be salvaged.

That was when the first mutiny occurred. A group of officers led by the Operations Officer decided to seize the bridge, and force To-Ruffin to return to the Empire for help. The Captain actually shot the Ops Officer and two others on the bridge, and had the rest confined to the brig. Officers! In the brig! Rog and the rest of the officers had been scandalized. Normally, Officers under discipline are placed under quarters confinement. However, Captain To-Ruffin considered these officers an ongoing threat — after all, they had attempted mutiny. The wardroom had boiled with anger and excitement, and more than a little guilt.

Regardless, the Captain brought them back here, and assumed a solar orbit. By this time, of course, every man and woman aboard knew they were going to die. Oh, the medical staff kept trying to find a cure, until they became too sick themselves. But everyone knew they had failed.

That was when the second, really nasty mutiny broke out. They were down to less than a thousand crew — a third her normal strength — and everyone had seen one or more of their mates collapse and die. Some ratings broke the surviving confined officers out of the brig, and demanded that they take them back to the Empire.

Captain To-Ruffin tried to talk to the crew, to explain that they had no chance of making it back and tell them that they had an obligation to save the ship for the Empire. However, he only managed to convince about half of them. The rest were sure that if they got back to the Empire, the Empire would save them. It was ridiculous of course, but desperation and panic are hard to resist.

Rog remembered the endless wardroom discussions and arguments, and the horrible feelings when he realized that three of his close friends were among the nearly one third of the remaining crew participating in the mutiny. Loyalists managed to get to the ship’s armory first, but a force of mutineers arrived while they were gathering the hand weapons. Rog would never forget having to fire on Tru Jorkin, a bunkmate, in the pitched battle that followed. He shuddered as he remembered the fighting retreat from the armory. They had rigged explosives to try to destroy the weapons they had to leave behind, but they must have misfired or the mutineers were able to deactivate them. At any rate, both sides had ended up with weapons, though the loyalists had many more than the mutineers. The mutineers, on the other hand, controlled most of the engineering spaces, including the workshops. They immediately began making improvised weapons.

The mutineers attacked the bridge, demanding that the Captain take them back to the Empire or surrender command to someone who would. That was when Captain To-Ruffin made what Rog considered his fatal mistake.

The captain invited the leaders of the mutiny onto the bridge under a flag of truce. He made them watch as he destroyed the Astrogator’s console with a laser and a blaster and ordered the ship’s AI to wipe all astrogational files and programming from its memory. Rog shook his head in disgust at the memory.

Oh, that had effectively ended the mutiny, all right. However, it also destroyed the last bit of hope among the survivors. Even if they found a miracle cure, even if the plague ended, even the dimmest apprentice wiper knew there was no longer any way to return to civilization — any civilization. A certain death penalty had been imposed, and every person aboard knew it.

Rog was still undecided about whether what followed was worse than the mutiny. Discipline and order collapsed. Rapes became so frequent that Captain Val-Tiken, who assumed command when To-Ruffin died, granted female personnel special permission to carry hand weapons aboard. Later he had to rescind it — too many women were committing suicide, and their weapons falling into the hands of the human predators to which some of the crewmembers had reverted.

For many, life became a drunken blur. Rog personally knew of some two dozen stills and three drug labs running in various voids and between-hull areas. There were non-stop parties going on constantly — though most of them had an edge of hysteria to them.

Rog had assumed the captaincy upon the collapse of Captain Jeffer, though the title and position were almost meaningless by that time. Military organization had almost totally disintegrated and anarchy reigned.

Rog was determined to reassert military authority and organizational lines. He, Lieutenant JG Tor Colm and Ensign Jak Tur-Ker had ruthlessly imposed order. Rog himself was haunted by the memory of the sixteen crewmembers he'd had to personally execute and the several dozen he'd had to order publicly flogged. But Rog knew that rule by force majeure made him no better than a gang boss. So he tried to balance brute force with a sense of mission.

Over a period of a few weeks, he managed to convince the ninety-three survivors that they still had a vital mission to perform. Captain To-Ruffin had brought them here with the hope that one day Vir Rekesh would be reclaimed by the Empire. They had to make sure that the ship would be salvageable when found. He had convinced them it was their job to make sure that they and their shipmates cashed in their Round Trip Tickets.

Rog's weary faint smile returned. It had worked. He had managed to give the ever-dwindling number of survivors something to live for. It was up to them to make certain that whoever recovered the ship knew that her crew had died Fleet, and not an undisciplined rabble.

That mission was almost complete. For weeks, they had scoured the ship for bodies and body parts, carefully labelled them, and collected their ident tags. Now, the bodies were gathered into cargo nets in the hangar bay, which had been decompressed to prevent further decomposition. It had been a nasty job. Some of those bodies were weeks old. Once that grim job was complete, they began preparing Rekesh for her long sleep. All of the survivors moved onto one deck. They carefully shut down systems and machines that were not necessary for the ever-smaller number of survivors, using the ship’s instruction manuals if necessary. They dumped fusactors as their power became unnecessary, and shut down life support systems. They shut down the ship’s hydroponics and atmosphere plants. The air in Rekesh ’s tanks would last long enough for the few people left. As crew people became sicker and died, they took the bodies to the hangar deck and shut down more and more systems. When they were down to two dozen, all sick to some extent, they began the final preparations.

They began at the very center of the ship, and wedged open every door and hatch. There are a lot of hatches and doors on a ship half a kilometer in diameter, and there were less than half a dozen survivors by the time they had finished. Just in time, Rog knew. The last of them had only a few days left. He staggered to the bridge and began systematically trying to shut down the ship’s AI. The two other survivors went to Engineering, and began shutting down the last of the fusactors, artificial gravity, and life-support systems.

Coughing sounds heralded the approach of Ensign Jak Tor-Kur even before he rounded the corner of an intersecting corridor, accompanied by Chief Gunner Kantro. The young Ensign looked even worse than the grizzled Chief did. Rog sighed. All of them were approaching the limits of their energy reserves.

"All done, Captain," Jak reported wearily.

Rog nodded. "Me, too," he replied. "All right gentlemen. This is your last chance to back out of our pact."

Jak merely shook his head. "I'm ready, Captain," the Chief replied.

Rog smiled. "Excellent. I knew I could count on you. All right, gentlemen. It's time to put the Rekesh to sleep. Chief, please take the Port Three Supply Personnel lock. Jak, you've got the Starboard Four Personnel lock. I'll take the Main Bridge lock." With an effort he forced himself erect. "It has been a real privilege to serve with both of you."

Chief Kantro struggled to attention. "The privilege is mine, sir. And may I add I've never served with a better Captain." His right hand swept into an arm-cracking salute.

Jak straightened with an effort and rendered a crisp salute. "Thank you, sir. For Everything."

Rog returned their salutes with a nod. The two men slowly removed their ident tags, and handed them to Rog, who added them to a box he was carrying. The three of them shook hands and walked away silently and painfully. Rog turned to watch Jak totter down the passage and shook his head. Just in time. He hoped Jak would live long enough to carry out his orders.

Rog wearily carried his box through what seemed to be miles of bloody and blackened passages, stopping to rest several times against a bulkhead before he reached his destination. He had to lean against the airlock door for a moment to gather the strength to begin donning one of the heavy space suits. As he began struggling into it, a timer clicked down and the last active fusactor began shutting itself down. Suddenly the gravity disappeared, and Rog found himself floating in total darkness until the emergency lighting activated. Rog grinned in relief. That fusactor had been his second-to-last worry. He hoped his companions had made it to their respective airlocks. He had no doubt that they would carry out their orders if they lived long enough.

Free fall made it much easier for Rog to suit up. Finished, he latched back the inner door of the airlock so it would remain open. Entering the lock itself, he swam to the manual control for the outer door of the airlock.

The lack of gravity made it difficult to operate the manual control's pump, but he finally wedged himself into a position that let him work the pump's handle. After a moment, a line of blackness opened around the edge of the outer door. Rog could not hear the hiss of escaping air, but he could feel it begin to buffet him and see the rime of frost that grew on the door as it slowly swung aside. Finally, it was open, and Rog bounced on the end of his safety tether as millions of cubic meters of air escaped past him.

Between coughing spasms, Rog found himself grinning. He was bouncing like a child's balloon on a windy day, and it was actually kind of fun!

Finally, though, the rush of air ceased, and Rog floated on the end of his tether. He pulled himself hand-over hand along the safety line toward the pool of light that was the lock. The batteries powering the emergency lighting would last a few weeks. The utter silence was unnerving as his magnetic boots anchored him inside the airlock. He had not realized how many subliminal sounds and minute vibrations there were in an active spaceship. Especially one as large as Vir Rekesh.

Now, though, the only sound was his own breathing in the suit. The Rekesh was silent, dead. A derelict without life circling a sun without worlds until someone came to claim her. Rog hoped someone would find her. He didn't like to think of his ship and her dead crew circling this barren sun forever.

He struggled to a sitting position just inside the airlock and again wondered if the others had also succeeded. He hoped so. It was all they had lived for these last few weeks.

He just watched the stars for a while, finding calm in their remote coldness. He recorded messages for his family, and wondered if they would ever receive them. Instead of his father, perhaps his message would reach his great-great-great grandnephew.

Finally, it was time. He reached up and shut the air valve to his suit, and began simply talking, knowing that the message crystal in the arm of his suit would record everything. After a while, he became groggy and his talk became more disconnected, less intelligible as he exhausted his suit's air. His last intelligible comment was that it was a hell of a way to spend his twentieth birthday…



Chapter 1

It all began when he broke his Admiral’s jaw, though he didn’t know that for a while. Long, weary months under quarters arrest seemed to drag on forever as the court martial preparations ground on and on. Kas Preslin could see the end of his career in the imperial fleet in the eyes of the military lawyers. But through all the gloom, and the despair, and the boredom, he still knew he’d done the right thing.

The insistent signal of the vidphone dragged him to consciousness, bleary and groaning. Damn. He had done it again. If something didn’t happen soon he was going to turn into a full-fledged alcoholic.

He staggered to the desk and keyed the phone to receive. He was also careful to key the privacy button. Whoever was calling wasn’t going to see him naked, unshaven and hung over.

The image on the screen was of an immaculate Fleet Lieutenant Commander. The man looked like a recruiting poster, Kas thought sourly, except for the scowl that radiated disapproval. “Captain Preslin?”

Who else? Kas wondered, “This is Captain Preslin.” He was surprised by the shakiness in his voice.

The Lieutenant Commander noticed it too. His expression became even more disapproving. “Captain,” he said brusquely, “You are directed to report to the office of the commander in chief at 1400 hours. Please be prompt.” The image disappeared before Kas could reply. 1400. It was 1125. Not much time to prepare for an audience with the Grand Admiral.

Kas took a deep breath and expelled it in an explosive sigh. He considered himself reasonably brave, but he told himself that even the bravest would be nervous if summoned to the office of Grand Admiral Rev Pankin, Commander-In-Chief of the Empire Fleet and one of the most powerful men in the Universe. He hurried to the ‘fresher.

Kas regarded his reflection in the mirror in the outer office of the commander in chief, searching for any sign of his agitation. The figure that looked back was not impressive. Kas sighed in resignation. He was one of those unfortunates who always manage to look rumpled, even when wearing a new uniform with knife-edge creases. Though his plain, open face was freshly depilated, he was glumly aware that in only an hour or so a hint of blue would begin to creep over his wide features. If he weren’t in uniform, he decided, he could easily pass for a portfront shopkeeper on any one of a thousand planets.

He was of average height, and he grimaced as the reflection reminded him that his stocky, muscular body was beginning to sag. His centimeter-long black hair failed to conceal the tinges of gray at the temples. Kas closed his eyes resignedly, then forced them open again as he remembered the original purpose of this self-examination. No obvious nervous twitches. Good. He glumly regarded the reflection. He hoped his appearance wasn’t prophetic. In a few minutes, his twenty-six-year career in the Imperial Fleet could end in disgrace, and he could be on his way to becoming the port shopkeeper he so resembled. He shuddered. He clung desperately to the thought that if the grand admiral wanted him out of the fleet, he could simply have allowed Kas’ court martial to continue. No, for some reason Pankin had intervened. He must have something other than disgrace in mind for Kas. He took another deep breath.

“You may go in, Captain.” The voice of the aide manning the desk behind him made Kas jump involuntarily. Summoning his courage, Kas knocked on the real wood door. The door slid aside, and he entered the office. The man behind the cluttered desk — more real wood — was hardly impressive. Past middle age, he seemed average in height, though broad of shoulder. His salt-and-pepper hair, thinning and trimmed somewhat shorter than the current fashion, did not impress. But when he raised his eyes, his power and authority were unquestionable. Kas felt as though those piercing, steel-gray eyes could see through his uniform and reveal the naked man beneath. He froze at a strict attention.

Pankin regarded Kas silently for a moment, and then permitted himself a thin half-smile. “Well,” he said, “The infamous Captain Kas Preslin, pirate-buster and assaulter of admirals.” The half-smile faded. “Don’t worry Captain. You’re not in trouble. Yet.”

The final word insured that Kas remained ramrod straight.

Pankin’s smile widened became more genuine. “At ease, Captain. Have a seat. We have little time and much to discuss.” Kas paused uncertainly before moving to the chair the Grand Admiral had indicated. At Pankin’s barely perceptible nod he sat.

Again Pankin regarded him silently for a moment as the smile faded and his face relaxed, became expressionless. “It seems your superiors didn’t like you much even before you attacked your admiral, Captain.”

Kas was regaining his equilibrium. If Pankin was going to have him shot he doubted the grand admiral would invite him to sit and relax. Still he winced at Pankin’s comment. “No, sir.” Adding anything to his reply would be to court disaster. One does not criticize one’s seniors to the man most senior of all.

Pankin’s stony expression relaxed. “In this room I insist that I and my visitors be candid,” Pankin said. “And to be candid, I wish I’d been able to witness your… ah… discussion with that imbecile Lu-Jenks. Outside this room you didn’t hear that, and I didn’t say it. If I hear otherwise, you’ll wish you’d never been born. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Sir.” Kas waited.

The grand admiral stared at him for a moment. “I would not recommend repeating your little escapade. I went to more than a little trouble to keep you out of a penal colony. Naturally, most of the flag officers in the Fleet wanted to hang, draw, and quarter you.” He grimaced, and continued, “Parade officers! They couldn’t lead a Bithra to water.”

Astonishment curbed Kas’ tongue.

“As I was saying,” Pankin continued, “your superiors never liked you much. Why do you think that is, Captain?”

Kas suppressed a flash of resentment and curbed his tongue. “For one thing sir, I’m an outerworlder. It’s fashionable in the fleet to be from a good innerworld family. For another, well, I don’t always do things the way the book prescribes.”

Pankin scowled. “You mean you’re a smartass who thinks he knows better than his superiors and likes to throw the book out the hatch.”

“That’s not exactly how I’d put it, sir. It’s just that I tend to react to situations without consulting the book. Then later, I find out that I’m in trouble… again.”

The scowl faded and Pankin chuckled. “A nice way of saying you like to use your imagination and to Sheol with the book!” He sobered. “I’m sorry, Captain. I’ve been teasing you a bit. I’m going to tell you some things, and maybe even give you some advice, then I’m going to give you what may be the most important mission of your career.”

Kas straightened and leaned forward. A mission? Maybe a ship? His thoughts almost made him miss Pankin’s next words.

“As I said Captain, inside this room I insist upon honesty. I estimate that within ten standard years we will be at war with someone.”

Kas startled. “Who?”

Pankin grimaced. “I don’t know yet. There are now nine governments in settled space. It could be one or more of the independent systems or that disgusting tyranny calling itself ‘the Mission for the Greater Glory of God’. I pray it won’t be the Alliance.”

Kas shifted in his seat. “I have some very good friends in the Alliance Navy, sir.”

Pankin nodded. “We all do, and I’ll come back to that in a few moments. First it is a fact that we’ll be fighting within ten years. You know, of course, that the empire is in decline, and will probably fall within two centuries.”

Kas’ jaw dropped in shock. He stared, speechless as the commander in chief of the empire fleet calmly predicted the fall of the empire.

Pankin smiled a bitter smile. “Come, Captain, don’t tell me you hadn’t reached the same conclusion. It’s even beginning to penetrate the thick skulls of some of our denser senators.”

Kas frowned. He had long ago noticed the empire’s decline. He felt he was doing his part to slow the fall and the end of civilization by sticking with the fleet despite the harassment and his own growing cynicism. “Yes, sir,” he replied softly, “I just assumed that no one here on Prime realized it.”

Pankin idly toyed with a stylus on the desk. “For the last century the emperors have struggled to both hold back the tide and plan for the inevitable. His Imperial Highness and I have been doing what we could to postpone the fall while we concealed the fact from the senate. The decline is now so pronounced even the stupid and venal are beginning to notice. When it becomes obvious they will demand at the top of their lungs that the Emperor do something. To them, that means doing something military.”

He rose and began pacing. “I seriously doubt it will take ten years. At any rate, when it happens, we mustn’t lose. If we lose, the fall could be immediate and catastrophic. Right now, the strategic comps say that if we fought the Alliance we’d lose despite our Fleet being more than twice as large as theirs.” He stopped and turned to Kas. “We’re too rigid. The only technology we have that’s not obsolete is what we’ve bought from the Alliance. Worse, our officer corps is dominated by hidebound, parade ground officers.” He stopped and turned to Kas with a grim smile. “You don’t disagree, I trust?”

Kas’ answering smile was slight but genuine. Commander in Chief or not, he was coming to like Pankin. “No, sir. I can’t disagree.” He sobered. “But since the empire sells commissions it’s inevitable. The fleet has become a dumping ground for the lazy and incompetents from wealthy families throughout the empire. It's also inevitable that those families would have the power and crowns to get them promotions and plum assignments.”

Pankin slid back behind the desk, nodding in agreement. “Exactly. The Emperor and I have been working on policy changes. Next month his Imperial Highness will issue a proclamation officially ending the policy of selling commissions. It’s taken us a long time to make sure we could control the backlash. Now we have enough support to force it through the senate. More and more senior officers will also be finding retirement in their best interest.”

He leaned forward on his elbows and his gaze became intense. “Several months ago I began reviewing the records of every officer in the fleet above the rank of Lieutenant. I’ve made two lists: a list of sycophants and political book officers that I’m encouraging to retire or resign. Those that won’t will find a career in the fleet no longer fits their lifestyle.

“The other list is shorter; those officers I think are competent and effective.” He snickered. “They also tend to be the ones the parade ground admirals don’t like. Their fitness reports frequently mention things like ‘lack of respect’, or ‘lack of polish’” He flashed a sardonic grin. “Would you care to guess which list features your name?”

Kas’s answered Pankin’s grin with his own. A fleet unhampered by the incompetents and sycophants that had controlled it for years. An opportunity for the fleet to become as expert as the Alliance navy. Wonderful! He squirmed excitedly in his chair.

Pankin smiled and nodded at Kas’ obvious excitement. “I thought you’d approve. At any rate, over the next few months I’ll find reasons to call the officers from the second list in so I can meet them. I want to confirm my analysis and form my own impressions. When the shoe drops the fleet must be led by competent, effective officers.” His smile faded. “We’ll need the best when the fighting starts.”

Kas’ excitement disappeared. He leaned forward with a frown. “Are you sure about the fighting, sir?”

Pankin nodded, his expression grim. “The only things we don't know are the timing and our opponents. I must admit I’d look forward to ganging up on that abomination calling itself the ‘Glory’”. His eyes narrowed with a predatory smile.

Kas’s frown darkened. “I hate to think about war with the Alliance, sir. They know everything there is to know about our equipment, weapons and even our tactics. They also know which officers are competent. My Alliance friends are my friends but if fighting breaks out they’ll fight, and fight with everything they’ve got.”

Pankin straightened and his hand smacked the desktop. “I hope one day soon they can say the same things about us. At the moment, the comps say they’d beat us hands down. That's why we must replace the incompetent officers. Besides preventing the waste of fleet lives, I want officers with the imagination and the initiative to improvise and to develop new tactics — tactics the Alliance knows nothing about.”

Kas straightened attentively. “Yes, sir. We’ve got them outgunned. But they have a leadership edge as well as a technological edge that we’ll never match.”

The Admiral slammed his hand on the desktop again, and sprang to his feet. “Damn it! You’re right, of course. Their star is rising, while ours is setting. That’s why I’m trying to divert the action to somewhere like the Glory where the Alliance can stay neutral or even ally with us.” He scowled and started pacing again. “Of course, chances are that even if we go to war against the Glory and win, those five systems will end up part of the Alliance. The old empire isn’t even dynamic enough to absorb five new systems. Or reabsorb five old ones.” He continued pacing for a moment, then seemed to realize he was doing it. He stopped, grunted, and returned to his desk.

“Now," he said in a businesslike tone. "some advice. It will take time to get rid of the dead wood. Meanwhile, those officers still wield a lot of authority. I can’t apply too much pressure without damaging the chain of command and you’re going to need an intact command structure.

“Almost every flag officer in the fleet will be gunning for you as a result of your little dustup with Lu-Jenks. Keep your head down and your mouth shut! Don’t provoke another court-martial because I may not be able to find a technicality I can use to bail you out.” Pankin smiled. “I will, however, make you a little harder to hit. Whether or not your career survives is up to you." His tone softened. "Take care, Captain. Don’t screw it up.

"Now," he continued “to more immediate matters. Does the name Vir Rekesh mean anything?”

“The man or the ship?”

Pankin chuckled. “The ship.”

Kas shrugged. “One of the great mysteries of the fleet. Stellar Class battle cruiser. She disappeared over a century ago. She… Sheol! Don’t tell me they’ve found her.”

Pankin smiled again. “Exactly. She’s drifting unpowered in a rim system with her plague beacon running.”

“Plague? Uh…”

Another chuckle. “Relax Captain. It seems that one of the last survivors was her Third Lieutenant.” Pankin’s voice softened. “He was a remarkable young man. I wish I’d been able to meet him." Pankin straightened, and his voice resumed its businesslike tone "Anyway, he and the other last survivors went completely through the ship, wedging open doors and hatches. They shut down systems and fusactors, shutting down more and more systems as the crew died.”

Pankin sighed deeply. “When only two crewmembers remained, the Third shut down the life support and even the ship’s Artificial Intelligence so it wouldn’t go insane in isolation. They suited up, and went around to all of the ship’s airlocks. The Third took the main lock himself. Then they opened the ship to space. The idea was to expose the entire ship to the hard vacuum and absolute zero of space in hopes of killing the plague bug.

Kas shook his head in wonder. “A gutsy man! I hope he gets the hero treatment he deserves.”

Pankin nodded. “The Emperor is plans to present an Empire Star after you being him back.”

Kas startled and his eyes shone with excitement. “You want me to bring back the Rekesh?”

“Exactly," the grand admiral replied. "But it’s not going to be as easy as it may appear. You’ll have competition.”


Pankin frowned and started to rise, then caught himself and sat back down. “She was located by a tramp trader. Her captain investigated and went aboard as far as the lock. He found the Third’s body clutching a box of memory chips and ident disks. The captain grabbed it and retreated to his ship to play the log crystal. He was also well aware of the meaning of the ident discs.

“Naturally the trader’s crew knew they were rich. The salvage value of a battle cruiser will make all of them fabulously wealthy even after they fight the claims commission. So, they forgot their original mission and boosted for Prime, celebrating all the way in. They hit the bars in every port town, bragging about their find.”

Pankin leaned forward, his expression intense. “A lot of people listened. Judging by the sudden increase in military ship traffic, most of the independent systems and even our friends in the Glory are determined to find the Rekesh before we do.”

Kas licked his lips. This mission was sounding more difficult every moment. “I can understand that. Anyone with a battle cruiser would become one of the big boys. Even the Alliance would be interested.”

The stylus rolled as Pankin slammed the desktop again. “They are. The tramp’s crew was careful not to divulge the coordinates, and the captain claims that they took a roundabout return course to protect the secret. After all, if someone else got there first…" he shrugged and grimaced. "It’s just too bad they weren’t more discreet. That’s liable to cause you serious problems.”

Kas shook his head and suppressed his own urge to pace. “So," he said in a tone tinged with irony, "I’ll be leading a caravan of military vessels from all over inhabited space, all hoping to beat me to the prize — or to take it away. With the Rekesh completely dead that may not be too hard, especially if a few of them gang up.”

Pankin laughed aloud. “Sheol, Captain, if it were easy, any of our parade ground popinjays could do it!” His expression sobered. “I know what I’m asking, but we must get the Rekesh back. Or destroy her. If one of the Independent Systems gets her — or the Glory — it could destabilize known space and precipitate that war I was talking about. And we’re not ready.

“I’ve done what I can. We can’t send you on another battle cruiser or any other military vessel for that matter. Sending a military vessel into someone else’s space is called invasion; and there’s no real chance anyone would give us permission. They want to get there first, remember?”

Pankin rose and began pacing again. Kas suppressed a smile. He wondered how often they had to replace Pankin's carpet. He sobered as Pankin continued, “We have to get sneaky,” Pankin continued. “Now, that’s not something we’re particularly good at, but we have to try. We’ve refitted a DIN-class combat hauler for you. They've been around for centuries, and surplus hulls are common. She’s military surplus, not military, which means she’s not armed — officially.”

He stopped, and his gaze was unreadable as it settled on Kas. “We have gone to some trouble to conceal weapons systems, but we had to be careful. If you're boarded and your weapons spotted, you’d be shot as pirates. Or identified as fleet, which would be worse.”

Kas’s frown was back. “It takes over a hundred people to make a skeleton crew for a stellar class. It takes about four to run a DIN class. How can I explain that many people?”

Pankin resumed pacing. “We’ve thought about that. You’re still going to have to use that famous imagination of yours. Starhopper is being fitted with some three hundred fifty cold-sleep units. Your papers will indicate you’ve contracted to provide colonists for a colony being founded by Farterra. Fake, of course, so you’ll have to steer well clear of Farterra. The papers will show your cargo is the gutter-scrapings from half a dozen Empire worlds. Being an outerworlder will actually help. Your crew will be outerworlder as well.”

Again he stopped and turned to Kas. “We can't do that with the crew for the Rekesh. Battle cruisers are glamorous assignments. Wealthy families buy billets for their playboy sons. I’ve done what I can. I had my chief of staff, Captain Froud; select volunteers with technical competence. Since Froud cannot be bribed, I think you’ll find them to be the best we have.”

He frowned. “Technical expertise alone doesn’t guarantee a good officer or man. You’re getting a hand-picked crew, captain, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have some screw-ups, or snobbish popinjays.

“That’s not all,” Pankin continued. “About fifty of those people won’t be fleet at all. They’re civilians, with skills you’ll need. A medical team, for instance. They’ll make sure the Rekesh is thoroughly decontaminated before you bring her home. You’ll also have techs recruited from shipyards that’ll bring her back to life. You’ll have an entire new AI core since shutting down an AI is no easy task. Rekesh ’s Third probably destroyed hers. I've included experts in life support and propulsion to get you operational as quickly as possible.”

Kas' background had left him uncomfortable dealing with civilians. “Couldn’t fleet techs handle it, Admiral?”

Pankin shook his head. “ Rekesh has been shut down for a century. Nobody can predict what it’ll take to bring her back. They’re all civilians, but all except a few of the medical team have worked for the fleet, or at least been around the military. They won’t be completely illogical and unreasonable. Try not to push too many out an airlock, will you?”

Kas shifted uncomfortably in his chair and smiled weakly. “I’ll try, sir.”

“Well, I can help a little," Pankin replied. "If you complete your mission, you will bring home two ships instead of one. That gave me enough juice to push through a promotion. Congratulations, Commodore!”

Kas’s thoughts whirled. Commodore! He’d long ago resigned himself to the fact that he’d never get his flag. He gulped. “Thank you, sir! I…” He sought frantically for the words to express his feelings. Pankin would take a lot of heat over this.

Pankin noticed his discomfort and studiously avoided looking at Kas as he rummaged on the cluttered desk. “Ah, here we are!” He brandished a gaudy certificate and a pair of shoulder boards with one star on each. With a broad grin, he rose. “Allow me, Commodore!”

Kas jumped to his feet and struggled to regain his composure as Pankin pinned on the new boards. He backed up a step, then took Kas’ hand and shook it enthusiastically.

Kas struggled to regain his voice, if not his composure. “I… I don’t know what to say, sir…”

Pankin stepped back around the real wood desk. “Don’t worry about it.” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “I’ve given you that star for a reason. On the trip back, if you get that far, you’ll be commanding two ships, technically a flotilla. You can retain command of the Rekesh, of course, but you’ll have to appoint someone to command Starhopper. You’ll be in a very unusual situation. You’ll have several command-qualified officers to select from. Be careful in your selection. You’ve never had to command at second hand — but that’s what flag officers do. If you must jump him several steps past more senior officers, do it. In a non-regulation, offbeat operation like this, you need someone who will work with you, not against you.

“I won’t lie to you,” he said, “You'll be hated, not only for Lu-Jenks, but for getting this promotion. There are those who will do their best to see you fail, and show me I chose the wrong man.”

Kas nodded solemnly. “Thank you for the advice, sir.”

Pankin chuckled. “It’s worth what you paid for it. Now, take this,” he tossed a record chip at Kas, “and get the Sheol out of here. Some of us actually have work to do!”

Kas started for the door. “Oh, and Commodore,” Pankin called. “If there’s the slightest possibility of Rekesh falling into other hands, take no chances. Push her into the sun. We’d like to have her, but the Empire’s gotten along without her for a century. We don’t need her that badly.”

Kas snapped to attention. “Aye, aye, sir. I’ll take no chances.”

The record chip was a high-security type, and he assumed it contained his orders and the coordinates of the system containing the derelict Vir Rekesh.

Kas snapped a crisp salute and left, head high, grinning broadly.

Chapter 2

Kas decided to examine Starhopper, the freighter that was to take him on his mission. He had to find out what he had to work with. He summoned a sky cab. Luckily, Pankin had been in his fleet HQ office and not the more ornate office he maintained on the grounds of the Palace.

Prime’s Fleet starfield occupies over twenty square miles halfway around the planet from the Palace. It is surrounded by the base housing fleet headquarters. The entire complex occupies more than a hundred square miles.

Prime itself is a bit larger than old Earth, but with a surface gravity of 0.8. Prime’s sun is a bit larger than Sol, and its light tends slightly more toward white. Its overall climate is pleasant except in a narrow band at the equator, where the heat becomes oppressive. Naturally, fleet HQ is on the comparatively low-value real estate of the equator.

As he crossed the shipyard landing field, puffing with exertion and cursing the sweat trickling into his eyes, he cast a suspicious glance at the yellow-tinged pale blue sky. Over the years, he’d become much less uncomfortable with the open spaces of a planetary surface, but Kas still rather disapproved of weather. It seemed such a messy way to do things, compared to the controlled environment in which he’d grown up.

He didn’t know where he’d been born, but he’d grown up in the grimy, sterile corridors of Varner’s World.

Varner’s World is barely habitable. For the two hundred years since its discovery, Varner’s has been locked in a vicious ice age that will continue for centuries. The only reason man came to Varner’s was to mine the extremely rare metals far beneath the glaciers that cover more than three quarters of the surface.

So, the mining companies came, and their corporate structure was recognized by the empire as a government. At the top of the political hierarchy were the execs; beneath them were the senior managers and their staffs.

Since the living conditions were so harsh and competent managers difficult to train and keep, no expense was spared to make certain that the management areas of the mining domes were luxurious. Extremely luxurious. Plush, roomy apartments were provided, and their children got the best educational resources. Salaries were the highest in known space.

The companies were not as considerate of the miners. While company reps used high salaries to recruit miners on other worlds, they neglected to mention the inflated living costs that prevented a miner from leaving. If one was very frugal, ate only basic rations, and lived in a minimum dorm, it was just possible for him to raise his return fare within his two year contract term. Theoretically. The Empire required that.

It couldn’t be done. Basic rations are repackaged military field rations. Men simply can’t survive and, more importantly work, on a diet of basic rats for two years. Their health would deteriorate, and they would start to fall below their quota. There were penalties for that, of course.

Inevitably, a sizable underclass developed on Varner’s, mostly made up of cripples and surviving families unwilling or unable to leave, as well as criminals, the lazy, incompetent, and miscreants of various types, whom the companies “terminated”, then simply ignored.

The castoffs live in the slum. The name is a misnomer. There isn’t a single slum, but one in every mining dome. In the lower levels devoted to maintenance and storage, packing-crate lean-tos and shipping-container shacks spread like an infection over any open space. Their existence is based on theft. Down here, water is plentiful. The warmth of the dome melts the ice outside; but basic rats are worth as much as the cost of a management family’s dinner.

Kas had been a “feral kid,” a child who survived in the slum by guile and theft. Most died young, through mishap or by a patroller’s blaster. Kas had been very determined and very lucky.

When he was about twelve, he stole an exec child’s personal educomp. “Kas” was what they called him, but the “Preslin” had come from the educomp’s original owner.

He’d used the educomp instead of selling it, studying and learning from an exec child’s disgraced former tutor. After several years, he took fleet recruiting exam using forged documents, and qualified for the Academy. When he boarded the recruiter’s small ship, he didn't look back.

At the Academy, he’d worked even harder than on Varner’s. He learned what the Academy had to teach; and learned to live in civilized society, to blend in.

For the last twenty-six years he had gratefully served the emperor and the fleet.

For a while, it had looked as though he’d lose his Fleet refuge. Now…

He pulled his attention back to finding his ship. His ship. He’d been afraid he’d never have a ship again. When he finally saw it, though, his heart fell. The berth assigned to Starhopper was occupied by one of the shabbiest examples of a military-surplus DIN-class that he’d ever seen.

She was 200 meters long, a stubby cylinder 50 meters in diameter. Her inertial drive drive engines were mounted to four sponsons spaced around her stern, along with her landing jacks. The DIN class combat hauler was the largest ship that could land — anything larger was strictly orbit-to-orbit. This one looked as though she’d never lift again. Her antirad coating was scraped and patched, her drive coils corroded. Kas prayed to any god that happened by that there had been a mistake — this couldn't be Starhopper, but he knew there’d been no mistake.

Kas was glumly surveying the decaying hulk when he noticed a ground car speeding across the field toward him. He turned as it lurched to a halt, and a portly middle-aged man climbed out.

“Commodore Preslin?” The man called, “I’m Jad Holtow, Chief Engineer of the shipyard.”

Kas straightened in surprise. “I’m Preslin,” he confirmed. “What have I done to rate the attentions of the chief engineer himself?”

Holtow's brow furrowed with annoyance. “When one receives a vid call from Admiral Pankin himself, suggesting it would be nice if I personally show Commodore Preslin around Starhopper, I hasten to comply.” His eyes travelled up and down Kas’ figure.

Kas could almost read Holtow's mind. “There’s really nothing special about me, Sire Holtow. It’s the mission that the fleet admiral cares about.” He grinned. “So, why don’t we get on with it, and let you get back to important matters?”

Holtow’s hunched shoulders relaxed slightly, his annoyed scowl fading. “To be honest,” he said with a genuine smile, “I don’t really mind. We’re quite proud of Starhopper.”

Kas’ eyes travelled up the dilapidated hull. “Are you sure we’re talking about the same ship? This one looks like she’s being scrapped!”

Holtow’s smile widened. “I’m glad you think so, Commodore. If she can convince an expert like you, she should be able to convince anyone you meet along the way.”

“Actually,” he continued, “she’s in better than new condition. Her hull is about eighty years old. We didn’t want a new hull; it wouldn’t show the kind of wear traces that you can’t fake. It wasn’t easy to get the effect we wanted with the antirad coating and drive coils, either. We’ve spent weeks getting them right.” His tone had become increasingly enthusiastic as he spoke. It may have taken a call from the Fleet Admiral to pry him from his office, but the man was proud of the ship and determined to show Kas every detail.

His pride was justified. Beneath the patched and ugly antirad coating, Starhopper was an impressive ship. Both her jump engines and inertial drives were new, and Alliance imports, at that. All made to look old and worn.

DIN-class haulers don’t run to a full AI, but Starhopper ’s nav comps were also new-and carefully aged. The same applied to her life support and med comps.

Even the cold-sleep units had been made to look shabby and old. The total effect was of a decrepit tramp, but one whose crew kept her clean and in decent running condition. She wouldn’t be condemned by any officious customs inspectors, but they might leave shaking their heads.

“The only thing an inspector might notice is the med comp. It is slightly large for a DIN-class,” Holtow said. “I’d recommend you just say that it was salvaged from an old destroyer. The reason it’s so large," he continued, "is it’s also your battle comp. A concealed switch on your bridge comm panel accesses it, and the comm station becomes the weapons station. We used state of the art Alliance components. You’ve got more battle computing power than a new destroyer.” He caressed the med comp's control panel with paternal pride.

“What does it control? I haven’t seen a single weapon.”

For a moment Kas thought Holtow would jump up and down with pleasure. “Wonderful!” the man gushed. “If a spacer as experienced as you didn’t notice, no one else should!” He scurried off, Kas hurrying to keep up.

Starhopper ’s weaponry consisted of three Alliance light projectile quickfirers concealed between the inner and outer hulls. They were poised to fire through ports covered by concealed retractable doors in the hull. The quickfirers fired a small fifty-millimeter rocket some twenty centimeters long at a rate of 350 per minute. With its collapsed-metal plating, each rocket massed over a hundred kilos in a one-gee field. They were proven weapons, effective against anything up to destroyer class. “You’ll have to maneuver the ship to bring them onto target,” Holtow told Kas. “There was no way to conceal turrets.”

The ship’s main battery consisted of two heavy lasers in the cargo bays, concealed by packing crates. The crates appeared to be sealed, and were labeled as mining and terraforming equipment. Bringing them into action would require the cargo bays to be depressurized. Then the huge cargo doors could be opened, the packing crates would collapse, and the heavy, cruiser-sized lasers would be moved into position on tracks welded to the deck.

“That was one of the advantages of making her look ancient,” Holtow explained. “Most oddities like those tracks can simply be explained by saying it was that way when you bought her. Everyone knows a ship that’s been kicking around known space for a century or so is going to have all sorts of jerry rigs and modifications. If she looked reasonably new, you might have more explaining to do.”

By the time the tour was completed, Kas was truly impressed. The artificial aging was incredibly effective. He still had to take Holtow’s word that some of the equipment was new, but Starhopper would do. Any inspector looking closely enough to detect the subterfuge would already be so deep into the innards the jig would be up anyway. If his forged documents were as good, and he had no reason to doubt Imperial Intelligence wouldn’t make them so, the plan might just work.

Starhopper ’s crew all arrived the following day. Kas showed them to their cabins, but told them not to unpack yet, then called a crew meeting on the ship’s mess deck

As Pankin had mentioned, all five were outerworlders like him.

Commander Bol Evers, Kas’ exec, was from Arcadia. Arcadia is on the border with the Glory, and her people are painfully aware that if the empire continues to retrench, Arcadia is likely to fall to it. The cruelty and viciousness of the “missionaries” the Glory sent to “spiritually cleanse” newly acquired systems is legendary. Those who could had already left the Arcadia system. Physically Bol was large, burly and dark. Dark haired, and dark complected. He wore a permanent frown and an angry manner. His communication with the others seemed mostly to consist of grunts and growls. Bol’s papers listed him as the ship’s Purser. Froud’s report was not hopeful. “I wondered about the fact that so many of his fitness reports said he had ‘difficulty relating to some others’, and ‘insular attitudes’,” the Captain reported, “So, I called one of his former skippers. It seems he’s something of an outerworld bigot. You’ll have to make your own judgment.”

Commander Toj Kray was from Bulworth, a heavy-gravity mining planet. Like all Bulworthers, he was short, wide, and muscular. He was to be Starhopper ’s engineer. Captain Froud reported he was “very competent technically, but dislikes social situations. He tends to be something of a hermit, hiding out in engineering whenever possible.” As if to confirm the Captain’s words, the engineer huddled in a corner and responded to any verbal advances with grunts and monosyllables.

Lieutenant Gran Telker was tall, lean, handsome, and impeccably groomed. He suffered from nearly terminal cheerfulness. This was deceptive, because Gran was to be Starhopper ’s Gunner, though his papers listed him as second engineer. He would be responsible for the care and maintenance of the cold-sleep units. Captain Froud reported that he “fancies himself something of a ladies’ man. Acts like a social butterfly, but he’s a damned good gunner. He doesn’t take anything seriously, including himself.”

Lieutenant Edro Jans was to be Starhopper ’s comm tech. Small and slight; his constant nervous smile gave him a whipped dog air that bothered Kas. Like Kray, he huddled in a corner and ignored all efforts to engage him in conversation. Captain Froud considered Jans to be Kas’ biggest problem. “It’s ironic that he’s your communications officer, because he barely communicates with anyone. Almost terminally shy. To be honest, he was about to be kicked out of the fleet when I grabbed him.”

The final crewman was Lieutenant Commander Tera Fauss. Tera was a husky, plain woman from Fargone. She was to be Starhopper ’s Astrogator. Captain Froud observed that “she’s an excellent astrogator, and general pain in the backside. Officious and book bound, and not above reminding her superiors about regulations anytime she thinks they’re being violated. Guaranteed to infuriate her captains.”

A crew of six was actually more than most traders carried, but not enough so to create suspicion.

“As I’m sure you figured out from the appearance of this ship,” he began as soon as they’d introduced themselves, “we will be on an undercover mission. Is there anyone here that doesn’t know the story of the Vir Rekesh? No? Good. Well, she’s been found, and we’re going to go get her.” An excited babble broke out, and Kas waited quietly until it subsided.

“The Rekesh is drifting unpowered in a system near the rim. The word is out, and the governments of every independent system, as well as the Glory and even the Alliance wants her. We have the advantage of knowing where she is, but they have the advantage of surrounding the system she’s in.”

“We’ll be loading three hundred people to crew the Rekesh, as well as civilians to decontaminate her and get her operational. They’ll spend the trip out in cold sleep. None of the independent systems would give us permission to pass military ships through their space, so we’re going to sneak in.”

“First,” he continued, “This is an undercover operation. There will be nothing regulation about it.” He flicked a glance at Fauss. Her frown of concentration faded as her lips thinned and her face darkened with anger. Uh-oh, Kas thought, but he continued, “From this moment on, you will not address me as "Commodore" until we’re alongside the Rekesh. Call me ‘Captain’ or ‘Skipper’, or even ‘Boss’ like any other trader crew. You will use your first names. If we start now, we’ll get into the habit before we get to the independents.”

“Get rid of those uniforms. You’ll find shipsuits in your cabins. Your uniforms are to be sent ashore. Retain nothing that might indicate that you’re military. I’ll take your ident disks. Don't keep anything that says you’re Empire. The idea of staffing the ship with outerworlders was to make people think we’re from outside the Empire.”

“Hah!” said Bol. “The real reason for using outerworlders was because they wanted it done right!”

Kas frowned. “Would you like to explain that?”

“Sheol, Commodore. It's obvious. Those damned Innies are so effete and incompetent they had to come to us Outies! Why do you think they put you in charge, instead of some Innie fashion plate?”

Kas held his temper with an effort. “I’d like to discuss this with you further… after this meeting.”

He resumed, explaining Starhopper ’s apparent condition and the details of the mission. “We’ll make a detour to avoid stopping in any of the Glory’s systems. We’ll know for sure after Tera, Bol and I begin plotting our course. But we’ll stop in systems belonging to the Alliance and probably several Independent systems. All of them will be on guard so we don't sneak a salvage crew out to the Rekesh.”

The meeting broke up. Tera Fauss and Gran Telker were babbling excitedly to each other. Gran even gathered his courage and called Kas skipper, while blushing furiously. When no eruption was forthcoming, he visibly relaxed. Toj Kray and Edro Jans huddled wordlessly in their respective corners, ignoring overtures from the others. Bol Evers wanted to discuss lading details, but Kas put him off until later.

Tera Fauss was waiting outside his cabin when Kas arrived with Bol Evers. He sent Bol up to the bridge while he dealt with the obviously agitated astrogator.

He ushered Tera into his cabin. Her uniform was meticulously correct, with knife-edged creases. She was struggling to control her temper, red-faced, fidgeting, hands clenching and unclenching. He took his seat behind his small desk, and offered her a chair. She settled into it stiffly, obviously still fuming. “Want to tell me what you’re so angry about?” he asked.

She jumped to her feet. “He told you!" she shrilled. "Captain Ter-Jacon sent you a message along with my record, so you’d have a bad opinion of me. I request an immediate transfer.”

Kas shrugged. “No,” he said quietly. “Your former Captain did not tell me anything about you. What makes you think he did?”

She looked suddenly confused. “He didn’t? I mean… I thought..” she took a deep breath. “I was so sure… All that about this mission not being regulation… Captain Ter-Jacon chewed me out.. ”

Kas nodded. “I understand. And I was warned that you were perhaps overly concerned with the letter of regulations.” She began to cloud up again, and Kas hurriedly continued. “I don’t know if I can replace you at this late date, but if you insist, I’ll try. Understand this. This mission is important to you. You’ve already been passed over for Commander once. One more time, and you’re out. You’ll spend the rest of your career guiding civilian freighters on milk runs. This mission is your chance to overcome those unfavorable fitness reports, and to put you back on the path of a Fleet career. Since it’s such an oddball operation, you’ll have no choice but to conquer your urges.”

She blushed but chewed at her lower lip in thought. “But sir,” she protested, “Regulations are important. They’re the rules we live by!”

Kas frowned impatiently. Tera should have learned this long ago. “They’re important, but they’re not inviolable. They’re more like guidelines. They’re not intended to cover all situations. Junior officers are taught to obey them implicitly because they lack the experience to decide whether an exception is appropriate. If you want to advance to Commander, you need to know when it’s necessary to throw the rulebook out the window and improvise.”

She reddened and opened her mouth to reply, but he held up a hand and continued, “This mission is a good one to teach you that lesson. It’s not traditional. It’s not even a traditional undercover intelligence mission. We’ll be making a lot of it up as we go.” He straightened. “Think about it. If you still want a transfer, let me know within eight standard hours. I’ll see what I can do.”

She was gnawing at her lower lip again with a pensive expression, lost in thought as she allowed herself to be ushered from his quarters. Now for the tougher one.

Kas called Bol to his cabin. “Would you care to explain your remarks?”

Bol shrugged. “There’s nothing to explain. The mission is risky, so they’re sending Outies. The only way they’d send Innies would be if it were for a parade. Everybody knows Outies get all the tough jobs.”

Kas expression turned grim. “Most of the three hundred fifty people in cold sleep will be Innerworlders. How would you like to climb into a cold sleep cabinet, knowing your survival depended upon six strangers getting you through hostile territory?”

He’d been thinking ever since Bol’s outburst in the meeting. “You were assigned to be my exec for this trip. But I don’t think I can use you. Hatred and bigotry are weaknesses. We can’t afford them.”

Bol jumped to his feet. “You’re calling me a bigot? They’re the bigots, constantly harassing and demeaning Outies. I thought for sure that you’d understand, but I guess you got that star by bootlicking and kowtowing to the damned Innies.” He was braced for a blast from Kas, but he was totally unprepared when Kas’ burst into laughter.

When he could compose himself, Kas shook his head. “Sorry. I was just thinking of all the negative fitness reports I’ve received.” He was overtaken by another fit of laughter, but after a moment, he forced himself to an icy calmness. “Bigots come in all flavors. I’m surprised you're still in the fleet, and a commander. You’ve never been stationed in an inner system, have you?”

“At any rate,” he continued, “I can’t use you, and I don’t want you. Get your gear together and report to the bachelor officer quarters on the base. You will remain there on quarters restriction until you receive further orders. You know too much about this operation to be just turned loose.”

Bol flushed, and his hands clenched. “Well, screw you, Commodore! I’m glad I’m not going. If the rest of the crew is bootlicking Innie lovers like you, I don’t belong with them. Someday, we’ll show these Innies — and the traitorous Outie kiss-ups like you!” He jumped to his feet, fists clenched at his sides.

Kas also rose, clamping down on his surging anger. He slowly unclenched his own fists. “You have your orders, Commander," he said in a dangerous tone. "Get off my ship!”

“That might have been a mistake, Commodore,” said the image of Captain Froud a few minutes later, “It wasn’t easy to find an outerworld officer with both warship and freighter experience senior enough to be your exec. I’m not sure we can find another.”

"Then get me an innerworlder," Kas snapped. He took a deep breath, let it out with gusty sigh. "I'm sorry, Captain. I'm still a bit angry But I won’t subject my crew to months of his hate-filled diatribes. I wouldn’t put it past him to sabotage the cold sleep units — he’s that bigoted.” He paused. “You know, using an innerworlder might not be a bad idea, if he’s not from a good family. There are a lot of innerworlders serving aboard traders. As long as he doesn’t have upper class mannerisms, an innerworlder could be an advantage.”

Captain Froud raised a skeptical eyebrow. “If you say so, Commodore. The fleet admiral ordered that you be given a free hand. Let’s see. You want us to find an innerworlder with both freighter and warship experience, senior enough to be your exec, but one who hasn’t acquired any polish along the way. That will be a tall order.”

Kas chuckled. “To paraphrase something the fleet admiral said to me, ‘If it was easy, anyone could do it.’”

Captain Froud struggled to maintain a straight face. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Kas thanked him and started to sign off, then hesitated. “I’d appreciate it if you could keep Evers isolated until we get back, or you get reports that we’ve failed. He’s a hater, and he knows too much. He knows the name of the ship, her captain, and the entire plan. I wouldn’t put it past him to sell or give the information to the Glory or one of the independents just for spite.”

The captain nodded. “I can take care of that. He’ll remain under quarters arrest in the BOQ, with a tap on his vid. Don’t worry. We’ll take no chances."

Captain Froud was right. It wouldn’t be easy to find an innerworld exec with no polish. But this mission was hazardous enough without saddling himself with an XO unable to maintain objectivity. That trait bespoke a lack of discipline that Kas couldn’t tolerate. Then he thought about Admiral Lu-Jenks, and the crunch of the admiral's jaw when he hit him. Talk about lack of discipline…

Kas had watched the others during Evers’ bigoted comments during the meeting. All had looked uncomfortable, and none had made comments supporting his position. Tera Fauss had flushed with embarrassment. All of them had been victims of innerworlders’ discrimination but they hadn’t turned to hate. Judging by the records they compensated by trying to be better at their jobs. He was sure that none of them were as bigoted as the Arcadian.

Meanwhile, the officers destined to operate the Vir Rekesh began arriving. When all twenty-two had gotten settled in the BOQ, Kas called a meeting to explain the plan and their roles.

He watched carefully as they filed into the large conference room. He recognized only a few of them, but watched as heads bobbed and a buzz rose as he was identified to all. Some glanced at him with frank hostility, and several of them looked disturbed. But now was the time to raise neither the issue of Lu-Jenks nor of his Outie heritage. He’d be able to deal with it aboard the Rekesh, assuming they made it that far.

He was relieved to note that none of the officers forming his command staff aboard Rekesh seemed unduly bothered by his identity when he introduced himself. He was sure they’d be able to control their hotheads. And if not, well, a battle cruiser had a good-sized brig.

Many more of them looked disturbed at the news that they’d spend the trip out in cold sleep.

His words to Evers had been the bald truth. Kas wasn’t at all sure that he’d be willing to lie defenseless and unknowing while Starhopper might be fighting for their lives. No, they could scarcely be faulted for being worried. Any that climbed into cold sleep unit could hardly be called a coward.

“The records of the crewmen who’ve volunteered will be available on your terminals at the BOQ,” he concluded. “Review them carefully. If there appear to be problems, please bring them up now. Once we lift, we’re stuck with the people aboard, and the personnel files will no longer be available. We can’t afford to have them on the ship, in case we’re searched. We will have little aboard to link us to the Empire, and nothing to link us to the Fleet.”

A hand went up. “How long will we have, sir?”

Kas shrugged. “I can’t say exactly. We’ll lift as soon as the last of the crew and civilians arrive. Don’t anticipate any opportunity to talk to them until you’re awakened. As they arrive, they’ll be briefed, and then shuttled directly into a cold sleep unit. The shipyard simply doesn’t have accommodations for them.”

Another hand went up. A senior commander this time. “What about these civilians, sir? Are they really necessary?” He was frowning.

Kas grinned. “I’ll tell you what fleet Admiral Pankin told me. We have no choice. The Rekesh has been powered down for more than a century. Even her AI was shut down. Besides that, she’s a plague ship. Do you really want to man her without a medical decontam? Or perhaps have to fight her without a functional AI and with cold fusactors?”

The Commander smiled grimly. “No, sir. Do you really expect to have to fight her, Commodore?”

Kas’ grin faded. “I hope not. Even if we get her fully operational, her fighting crew strength is over three thousand. We’ll have less than three hundred, plus a bunch of scared civilians, and we’ll be a long way from home. The Alliance, the Glory and every independent system between here and there will want to take her from us.”

“Hah! The Empire wouldn’t stand for any such nonsense!” The voice was anonymous, but Kas decided to answer.

“The Rekesh is located near the edge of known space. To get back, we’ll have to pass through space claimed by the Alliance and half a dozen independents. I’ve tried to chart a course that’ll avoid the Glory, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be trying for us, too. The Empire has no grounds for protest if we simply disappear, and say, the Glory suddenly announces that they now possess a battle cruiser. Since we’ll be violating interstellar law by sending armed military personnel into nominally friendly governments’ space, our ambassadors wouldn’t even be able to ask about us — at least, not officially.”

Silence descended while the officers digested this last information, then a loud murmur arose as the officers considered the implications of Kas' statements. Many of them had been involved in border skirmishes and pirate interdiction combat, but a running fight through others' space in an undermanned ship was a new dimension. The Round Trip Ticket was a Fleet tradition so old it was said to predate star flight itself. Every member of the Fleet, officer or enlisted, learned during their basic training that everyone who joins the Fleet buys a round trip ticket. It was an article of faith that they, or their remains, would be returned to their home planet, regardless of the circumstances. The fleet went to amazing lengths to bring back Fleet personnel or their bodies. This time, if the fleet couldn’t even ask for the personnel or their bodies…

Kas allowed the discussions to go on for a few minutes before recalling the officers to order. He scanned the faces. There was excitement in a satisfyingly large percentage, but he also saw doubt and worry in more than a few. “This mission has to succeed,” Kas continued. “You’re all fleet officers. You’re well aware of what could happen if the Glory or one of the independents suddenly possessed a fully functional stellar class battle cruiser. It could destabilize all of known space. And the Rekesh was only twelve years old when she disappeared, practically a new ship. Imagine yourself on a destroyer sent on one of these interminable border skirmishes we’ve been fighting for the last fifty years. Suddenly the Rekesh shows up on the other side — perhaps manned by swords from the Glory.”

A shudder ran through nearly half the officers. Many of them had faced the fanatical ferocity of the Glory’s Missionaries and Swords of the Lord. Few were ever taken prisoner, and those that were taken with serious wounds would usually attempt suicide as soon as they were able. If they were unable to suicide, most fell into a pathetic apathy, not even responding when offered return to the Glory. Accordingly, the Glory took few prisoners. It was thought that the only fleet personnel taken prisoner were those considered to have been cowardly or otherwise dishonorable.

"We cannot fail," Kas continued. “That’s an empire ship out there. We can’t let it be the cause of interstellar war.”

“Now,” he resumed, “You should have a few days before the first of the enlisted crewmen come aboard. Use it wisely. Fleet Admiral Pankin has given me unusually wide latitude on this mission; if you feel any of your personnel should be replaced, let me know. If we act fast enough, we may be able to replace them.”

By design, the senior petty officers were the first of the enlisted crewmen to arrive. They were assigned quarters, and briefed. Kas was pleased with them. Most were grizzled, no-nonsense veterans. These were the men that would anchor the crew, would provide the stability that would give the men the confidence to climb into those cold-sleep cabinets.

As the rest of the crew arrived, they were hurriedly briefed, given plain shipsuits and their luggage searched for anything that might identify the owner as fleet. That completed, they were marched to the ship, where they surrendered their ident disks before entering the cold sleep cabinets.

The closest thing to trouble that they had involved surrendering their disks. A loud murmur and dozens of hands went up when the men were told because the disks were closely identified with faith in the round trip ticket. A grizzled petty officer stood. “I served with you on the Revenge, Capt… uh… Commodore. Will you, personally, guarantee we’ll be getting our disks back when we wake up? I’ll take your word, sir.”

“This is an undercover operation,” Kas replied. “If we’re searched, they may insist on waking a few of you for questioning. That’s why it was important that you be briefed on the cover story. You’re street scrapings recruited from the jails and slums of a dozen Empire worlds.

“Now, I’m sure that most of you can carry off that story — but not if you’re wearing a Fleet ident disk. Yes, I’ll give you my personal word that your ident disk will be returned. Believe me; I’m no happier than you about taking mine off. We’re sure to be searched at least once. So mine will be hidden with yours.”

Once again, Kas was impressed with the caliber of fleet personnel. Only half a dozen refused to enter the cold sleep cabinets, and were hurriedly replaced with other volunteers.

Kas was getting nervous. The last of the volunteers were being shunted into the cold sleep cabinets, liftoff was fast approaching. Kas still had no replacement for Bol Evers.

Provisioning was nearly complete and liftoff only twenty hours away when Kas was summoned to Starhopper ’s personnel lock. A youngish man lounged there, in the ill-fitting uniform of a Lieutenant Commander. As Kas approached, he straightened, and awarded Kas a sloppy salute. “You’d be Commodore Preslin, I’m thinkin’,” he drawled. “I’m Rom Reffel. Cap’n Froud sent me over.” He proffered an official envelope.

Kas looked him up and down, clamping down on his surging anger at the man’s casual manner. Rom was short, and powerfully built. His uniform was wrinkled and creased, as though just pulled from a suitcase. But it was clean and in good repair. He was clean shaven, and his hair neat and clean. Finally, Kas took the envelope. The note inside was handwritten, and signed “Froud.” “Commodore,” it began:

This will introduce Lieutenant Commander Rom Reffel, Empire Fleet Reserve. With you lifting soon, I thought it unwise to send his entire service record, but to summarize: Reffel was on active duty for some fifteen years, culminating in an assignment as Executive Officer of Ranger, a Destroyer. He resigned, and for the past five years has served as purser on an independent trader. He is familiar with rim space and a number of the independents. He is also unmilitary and insubordinate; but he’s the best we’re likely to get. His commission has been reactivated for this mission. Good luck.

Kas crumpled the note and again regarded the man. His anger was cooling, and he barked a laugh at himself. He was getting angry because a man who was supposed to pose as a civilian was acting unmilitary. “Come along, Rom,” he growled, and led him aboard.

After talking with Reffel, Kas was happier. The man might not be a book officer, but he certainly knew DIN class traders, and was familiar with quite a number of the independent systems.

Kas briefed Rom on the mission, and told him to change his uniform for a plain shipsuit.

Rom relaxed with a huge sigh. “I’ll tell ya, Skipper, when Cap’n Froud tol’ me I’d be posin’ as a civilian aboard a DIN class wi’ a fleet crew, I wasn’t too happy. Th’ Fleet ain’t much good at cloak ‘n dagger. If yer’ve an outie crew, and if this ship is any example, we’ve a chance. Long as your outies c’n resist marchin’ ‘n salutin’ ‘n all!”

Kas smiled. “I don’t know if they’ll ever be as unmilitary as you are, Rom, but they’re working on it.”

Rom returned Kas’ grin. “Yar, well, It’us the military folderol that run me out. Seems as soon as some people gets a little braid on ‘em, they turns inter parade ground sojers! Long as yer don’t ‘spect that from me, I can be good at m’job. Yer’ll see!”

Kas’s smile widened to a delighted grin. Their chances of pulling off the deception had just doubled. “We lift in just under twenty hours. Change out of that uniform, and I’ll introduce you to the rest of the crew. Most of our lading is complete, but you’ll want to look over the manifests and stowage yourself. Let me know if anything doesn’t look right, or just doesn’t ring true. Once we boost we’ll have three days to our first jump point to get things straightened out.”

Chapter 3

They lifted on schedule. Once the course to the jump point was laid in, the crew used the three days on inertial drive to begin the delicate process of getting acquainted. The others were taken a bit aback by Rom’s manner, but by the time they reached the jump point, most seemed comfortable with it. The always cheerful Gran Telker was even beginning to ape Rom’s casual manner.

Toj Kray seemed a bit perturbed by Rom’s manner, but since the chief engineer was so taciturn, the signs were subtle. Kas noticed that Rom seemed to have recognized Toj’s reaction, and was making an effort to thaw the husky Bulworther.

The introverted Edro Jans several times fled from Rom’s manner and wit; but Kas noticed that when the innerworlder wasn’t looking, Edro’s gaze was one of envy.

The only possible trouble point was Tera Fauss. Rom’s irreverent comments about the empire and the fleet and his casual manner seemed to constantly irritate her. Kas kept a close eye on her, and was unsurprised when she appeared at his cabin door six hours before jump.

Her face was red and she was quivering with anger. “Captain, I know this is an undercover mission,” she began, “but we shouldn’t have to tolerate that man’s lack of respect for the service!”

Kas didn’t have to ask who that man was. “I don’t see a problem, Tera. He’s acting like an innerworlder signing onto an outie trader would act. I suspect that he’s going to be the most convincing of us all.”

“But it’s not right,” she persisted in an urgent tone. “You may be right about him being convincing, but there’s no one here to convince. We’re all Fleet officers. It’s not right for him to be making jokes about the Empire and the Fleet.”

Kas shook his head. “You’re wrong, Tera. We can’t relax and fall back into fleet behaviors just because we’re between jumps. We’ve got to act our parts all the time, or we risk a slip. A slip could get us and those three hundred fifty people in the hold killed, and turn a battle cruiser loose on settled space.”

He shrugged. “I know how you feel. As an outie, I had to make sure that my military bearing was better than everyone else’s. I’ve stood ramrod straight and marched everywhere since I was in my teens. Trader captains don’t have a military bearing. I‘m having to learn to slump and stroll instead of marching. Rom is a terrible example of a Fleet officer. That’s why he’s perfect for this mission.”

Tera was unconvinced. “But… It’s not right!”

Kas sighed. “I’m afraid it is right, at least here and now. I wish all of us found it as easy as Rom does. Once we get back, he’ll go back to inactive status, and you won’t have to be concerned about his effect on the Fleet’s reputation. For now, I’d suggest you start trying to be as unmilitary as he is.”

Tera left in a huff, but when he next noticed her, she was watching Rom with a thoughtful expression.

As they approached their first jump point, Kas, Tera and Rom huddled over the nav comp to work out their course.

“We could make it there in nine very long jumps,” Tera announced. “But with the comps we’ve got, that introduces too much possibility for error. We don’t want to emerge from jump inside a star.”

Kas shuddered. “The shortest route takes us through three of the Glory’s systems.”

Rom nodded. “Yar. Y’don’t wanna do that. The Glory pickets all jump points with military ships manned by Swords of the Lord. Ever’ ship is searched from sensor array to drive tubes.”

Kas raised an eyebrow. “I wouldn’t think the Glory would have that much of a smuggling problem.”

Rom shrugged. “It ain’t smugglin’ they’re worried about, Skipper. Oh, they look for contraband, but mostly they’re searchin’ for anything heretical or blasphemous. You’d be surprised what they consider blasphemous. They burn blasphemers,” he added.

Kas shook his head and sighed. “All right. I’d already decided to avoid the Glory systems if possible.”

Between them, they mapped out a course that would take them to the Rekesh in twelve jumps. Only three of the jumps would be into Empire space though, and while they avoided the Glory, they would pass through systems belonging to six of the Independents, and two belonging to the Alliance.

Kas also had Rom look over Starhopper ’s papers for inconsistencies. There shouldn’t be any. There really was a Starhopper. She had been trading actively for almost a century, until she had the misfortune to blow an inertial drive coil at the edge of an empire system. She limped into port several months late. By the time her crew finished paying delivery penalties, there weren’t enough funds left to pay for repair. Empire Intelligence had covertly bought her for unpaid port fees. Some tinkering with serial numbers and Kas’ imitation Starhopper had genuine papers and a genuine history.

The only real risk came from the papers documenting Starhopper ’s charter by Farterra to recruit and transport 350 cold sleep colonists for a planet referred to as Turow’s World.

Imperial Intelligence had the resources of the Empire government to draw upon. No shortcuts had been taken. Even the signatures forged on the documents were excellent copies of those of genuine officials of Farterra’s Department of Colonial Affairs.

Rom was impressed. “I’ll tell ya, Skipper, I doubt even the jabbos whose signatures these are would be able to tell for sure they were faked.” He shook his head sadly. “Think of the smugglin’ you could get up wi’ if ye had forgers this good t’work wi’!”

“You don’t anticipate any problems, then?”

Rom tossed the papers onto Kas' desk. “Nah, Skipper. Besides, we won’t have any problems for the next three jumps, anyway. They’re all Empire systems. They probably won’t even bother to look at our papers, since we’re comin’ from Prime.”

Kas’ grin faded. “Let’s hope you’re right!”

The jump went normally. Rom was casual, but Kas considered this jump, to the Nuhaven system, to be the first test of their disguise, and he paced nervously.

As soon as they emerged from Jump, Tera busied herself verifying the system was indeed Nuhaven. A few minutes after she confirmed their position, Nuhaven customs hailed them.

The official in the viewscreen didn’t look intimidating; he merely looked bored. “Customs,” he announced. Then, without a pause continued, “Ship’s ident and registration last port of call destination and purpose of visit.” He yawned.

Kas suppressed anger at the man’s attitude and replied courteously, “We’re Starhopper. Registration is being beamed. Our last port of call was Prime. We’re bound for Turow’s World. That’s a new colony being established by Farterra. We’re under charter to deliver three hundred fifty cold sleep colonists recruited on Empire planets. We won’t be grounding to trade. This is just a recalibration stop. Sir.” He added grudgingly.

The man snorted. “‘Colonists’. Hah! Gutter sweepings, you mean!”

Kas shrugged. “As long as they’re cold sleep passengers, I wouldn’t care if they were all murderers and psychopaths. That’ll be the colony’s problem.”

The man sniffed disdainfully. “As long as you’re not grounding, and begin boosting for a jump point within twelve standard hours, there will be no need for further customs inspection,” he said as though reciting an often-repeated litany. “Be warned: If you remain past twelve hours, you will be boarded and inspected.”

Kas shrugged. “That’s not likely unless we run into some kind of problem. I expect to boost as soon as our next jump is computed in less than four hours.”

The man nodded and clicked off with no further courtesies.

Kas felt irritated by the customs agent’s manner, but Tera, who’d been listening from the Astrogator’s station, was scandalized and furious.

“How could a representative of the emperor’s government act like that?” she fumed. “The man was a disgrace!” She carried on at some length about the proper attitude and demeanor for Empire customs officials, until Kas cut her off.

“Be glad he was such a poor excuse for an official,” he said, “and pray that all the customs agents we meet are that incompetent.”

Rom chuckled. “Nah, he’s pretty typical for the Empire, but the Independents take customs a lot more seriously. ‘Course,” he added, “If we’d been inbound from the rim, instead of outbound from Prime, even that gloot woulda paid more attention.”

As the hours passed, Tera fretted over the calculations for their next jump. There were no further hails, and Kas began to relax.

Finally, Tera pronounced herself satisfied with her computations and fed the data to the command console. Kas began to seriously consider double checking her computations, but stopped himself with a jolt as he reminded himself that Tera was a Fleet lieutenant commander with years of experience. Damn it! This disguise stuff was more complicated than he’d thought. With a jerk and an impatient grunt, he stabbed at the button that started the maneuvering program running. Starhopper moved toward the jump point, with Kas watching carefully for other traffic. After all, Starhopper ’s sensors were enhanced for a DIN-class, but still far inferior to the arrays on military ships.

Once back in jump, Kas called a crew meeting to discuss their first recal stop.

“Don’t get overconfident,” he warned. “This one was almost too easy. The next two are also within the Empire, so they shouldn’t be too bad. But then we hit the first of the Independents. If we’re going to have trouble, that’s where I’d expect it.”

“Yar,” Rom agreed, “It won’t just be the first ‘un. There’s a lot of smugglin’ going on outside the empire, an’ each system seems to be tryin’ to be tougher than the next.”

Kas nodded. “Don’t let down. Keep practicing until you can convince each other and yourselves that you’re not Fleet!”

After the crew had returned to their duties, Kas asked Rom to his cabin.

“Rom, you’re our resident expert. What do you think? Do we have any chance of carrying off this deception?”

Rom grinned. “Y’mean I’m th’ ony one that ain’ an ‘officer ‘n gentlebein’.”

Kas answered Rom’s grin with one of his own. “I doubt I’ll hurt your feelings if I agree with that; in fact I suspect you’d consider it a compliment. Your manner is as much a pose as what the rest of us are trying.”

Rom’s grin faded, and he eyed Kas narrowly. “Now, what w’d ye be meanin’ by that, Cap’n?”

Kas chuckled. “I keep remembering you were a Fleet officer for fifteen years. If you’d had the same speech and manner then, you’d have given several senior officers coronaries.”

Rom hesitated a moment, eyeing Kas appraisingly. Then he sighed and grinned. “You’ve caught me, Commodore.

“After I resigned,” he began, his gutter accent disappearing, “I made a cruise out toward the rim aboard a tramp. I found my innerworld manner made people out there suspicious and hostile. Luckily, one of my crewmates was from the slums of Newton. I watched him, and listened to him. I slowly tried to become him because his lack of polish made him welcome and let him fit in out there. By the time a few years went by, I was so adapted to the character I was playing I had to concentrate to go back to my polished manners. “I probably would have told you before, but you seemed to be enjoying my performance.”

Kas chuckled. “You could say I admired it. On this mission, I wish we all could act as rough and undisciplined as you do. Besides, I suspect you’ve been having a lot of fun with the reactions you’ve been provoking. I asked you if you think we’ll be able to carry it off. I’m especially worried about Tera.”

Rom’s grin faded, and he sighed. “Me too. She’s just too damned Fleet, if you know what I mean.” He paused. “I hate to say it, sir, but I don’t think she’s really trying very hard. She’s spent her entire career proving to the innerworlders that she’s as good as they are. She’s worked hard on that veneer and polish. I think she just can’t bring herself to shrug it off. To be honest, she’s endangering the mission.”

He tilted his chair back. “As for the others, Toj is so obviously a Bulworther that he’s almost sure to pass, especially if he keeps his mouth shut — and for Toj, that’s not a problem.”

He chuckled. “Then there’s Gran. If anybody blows our cover besides Tera, it’ll be him. Oh, not because he isn’t trying, but because he’s trying so hard. He’s also been trying to copy some of my mannerisms; and all that’ll do is make people wonder. You might need to talk to Gran.

“Edro is probably the best of the crew, as far as not looking military. He’s so introverted he’s painful to watch. Anyone who meets him is going to be so busy trying to get Edro to respond that he won’t care what kind of response he gets.”

Kas chuckled and nodded. “And me?”

Rom took a deep breath; let it out in a hiss. “Well, sir, you might be all right, if you can remember. When you keep your mind on it, you do all right. When you get distracted, you sound more and more like a Fleet officer.”

Kas looked thoughtful. “I’ll work on that. Do you think I’m a risk to the mission?”

Rom hesitated. “You’re the Captain. People expect captains to be a bit more controlled, even military. You can probably carry it off, especially if you keep practicing.”

Kas sighed. “So, Toj and Edro will be no problem. Nor you, of course. If I talk to Gran, tell him to tone it down, he might pass. That leaves Tera and me. All I can do is keep practicing. I hadn’t realized how hard it would be, until that officious little customs bastard at Nuhaven got me fuming.” He shrugged. “It’s obvious I’ll have to have another talk with Tera. I wish I could replace her; I hate having more than three hundred lives depending on a reluctant actor.”

Rom frowned. “We can try to keep her out of sight as much as possible, try to limit her interactions with non-crew.”

Kas shook his head. “An Astrogator can’t be invisible. For most routine contacts, you and I will be most involved. If we’re boarded for customs inspection, I can’t imagine an inspector not talking to all the crew.”

Rom shrugged. “You’re right, of course. We have to find a way.”

Kas had been thinking. “Perhaps we can give Tera her own cover story. She was Fleet, but was cashiered, or something.”

Rom shook his head doubtfully. “I don’t know, Captain. You could end up causing more suspicion. What do her ident papers say about her?”

Kas shrugged. “No more than is usual with civilian crew. Her logbook shows she graduated astrogator training at Largo University twelve years ago. There’s the usual list of ships. The dates are purposely vague, just as on our papers. We didn’t want to chance one of us meeting someone who was aboard a ship we were supposedly on.”

Rom shook his head again. “I can’t recommend we try anything fancy. Sheol, she can’t even carry off being a civilian. Add some lame cover story, and you’re courting disaster. Maybe you should consider checking the ident disks of the people in cold storage. If there’s a female Astrogator back there, maybe you could exchange places.”

Kas looked troubled. “That could be almost as dangerous. At least Tera is an outerworlder. All we’d need would be to thaw someone out, then find out they’re from the cream of innerworld society. Of course, there’s no guarantee they’d be any better actors than Tera. No,” he continued, “I’m putting my hopes on Tera. I’m going to have to shake her up. I may threaten to replace her.”

Rom looked doubtful. “Well, I hope something works. By the time we reach the Independents, the rest of you might be able to carry it off, but not Tera.”

Tackling the easier job first, Kas told Rom to send Gran to his cabin. Gran's cheerful good humor and youthful enthusiasm made him everyone's favorite, and contributed greatly to the ship's morale. He made Kas feel old and jaded, but he liked Gran as much as everyone else.

“Gran,” Kas began, “I want to talk to you about your acting.”

Gran looked distressed. “But I’m trying, sir. I really am!”

Kas smiled. “I know you are, Gran. You’re trying hard to look unmilitary, and, to some extent, you’re succeeding.” He paused with a sigh. “The problem is that you’re trying to imitate Rom instead of developing your own style. Rom is very good at it, but he’s had years of practice in becoming what he is. You’re trying to copy him with only a couple of weeks’ practice. As a result, you just look like a cartoon of Rom, and that looks even more suspicious than Fleet manners.”

Gran’s expression had turned thoughtful. “I think I understand, sir. Instead of copying Rom, I should work out my own mannerisms and speaking.”

Kas smiled and nodded. “As for the accent, just use the one you were born with. That would be… uh… Jule, right?”

Gran looked gratified that Kas had taken the time to find out. “Yes, sir. My family were fishermen.”

"All right, just try to remember how some of the fishermen from your home village walked, talked and acted. You don’t have to be a perfect copy; I doubt we’ll run into anyone from Jule. Just be a good generic Jule fisherman.”

“Yes, sir!” Gran replied excitedly. His face lit with enthusiasm. “I know I can do that. When I was growing up, I used to watch the boat captains and try to imitate them. I know just what you mean, sir.”

Kas hoped Tera would be as easy to deal with, but he knew that she wouldn’t. He called her to his cabin.

Tera obviously knew the reason for his summons. She looked desperately unhappy, and her expression was sullen and morose. She didn't wait for Kas to speak. “I know what you want,” she said accusingly, “You want me to start behaving like some… rim barbarian. You want someone like… like Rom!”

Kas was sitting erect and formal, grimly military. “Exactly. Lieutenant Commander Fauss, you’re endangering our lives, and those of the people in cold sleep. More importantly, you’re endangering the success of this mission.”

She cringed slightly. Suddenly her shoulders slumped and her expression revealed her misery. She seemed on the verge of tears. “Do you think I don’t know that, sir? But… well… I’ve worked so hard on becoming a Fleet officer that I don’t know how to act like an outerworlder anymore.”

Kas snorted. “Nonsense!”

A flush spread over her broad features. “I can’t help it if I’m a Fleet officer and not some… some savage like Reffel!” she snapped.

Kas' expression softened and he relaxed slightly. Tera wasn't resisting him. She needed counseling, not a chewing out. “I wish you were half as good at this as Rom is. You know that Rom is my Exec; what you don’t seem to realize is that until he resigned five years ago, Rom Reffel was a Fleet Lieutenant Commander, just like you. In fact, He had several years’ more experience than you do now, including a stint as exec of a destroyer.”

Her eyes widened. “ Rom? Rom was a lieutenant commander? That.. that uncouth…” The eyes narrowed again, this time in anger. “I’ll kill him! All this time he’s been…”

Kas suppressed a grin. “Yep. I gather he’s really been enjoying your reactions.”

“Hmph! I’ll show him reactions! That… that… man!” She jumped to her feet.

“Hold it!” Kas gestured toward the chair she’d just vacated. “We’re not finished here, Commander. Sit down!” She thumped back into the chair, still obviously furious.

“This is a Fleet mission, after all,” Kas continued calmly. “You should have known Rom would be Fleet. At any rate, Rom is an excellent example of what we’re all trying to accomplish — all but you. Until now, that is. From now on, I expect to see an honest effort toward acting your part.”

“But I’ve tried!” she wailed. “I just can’t seem to overcome my fleet training.”

Kas rose and walked around the desk to stand over her. He regarded her sternly. “No, you haven’t tried,” he said firmly, “But you will. I’m warning you right now. I won’t have this mission endangered by your stubbornness. You’ve got until our last jump from empire space. If I’m not satisfied with your efforts by that time, I swear I’ll thaw out an astrogator and freeze you in her place. Is that clear?”

She looked panicked. “But I don’t know how to act… like that,” she protested.

“Of course you do. Twelve years ago, a young farm woman from Fargone arrived at the Fleet Astronautics Academy. Surely you remember what she was like? How she walked, how she talked? You worked hard enough to change her.”

The panic faded from her face, to be replaced with a thoughtful expression. “You mean I should just be me… the me of twelve years ago.” He nodded. “I can do that. Of course I can do that! If you only knew how hard I had to work to lose those manners and habits…” Her smile was rueful, tinged with slight bitterness. She straightened abruptly. “I can do it, Commodore… I mean, Captain. You’ll see.”

He nodded in satisfaction. She sounded sincere. He could at least expect an honest effort from her. “Very well. Remember, your deadline is our jump out of empire space.”

“I can do it, sir. You’ll see.” She stood again. “If that’s all, sir…”

“That’s all, Tera. If I or any of the others can help, just ask.”

She nodded, a determined expression on her face. “Thank you, sir. Right now, though, I think I’ll go have a chat with our Exec…”

Unfortunately for Rom, she bumped into him in a passageway while she was still furious. She backed him against a bulkhead and, finger waving in his face, unloaded her anger and frustrations on him in a way that left him gasping in awe at her command of invective. Then she stomped off before he could get in a word of reply.

The next two jumps, both to Empire systems, were uneventful. The crew used the time to practice their personas.

For the first time, Kas felt that they had a good chance of carrying off the deception. Tera seemed determined to show Rom that she could be as uncouth and barbaric as he could. As a result, her persona was quite convincing. Finally Kas even had to ask her to tone it down, as few Fargonners were as crude as she was becoming.

Gran’s attempts were also successful. Once again, Kas had to ask him to tone it down, as his accent began becoming all but unintelligible. But from his rolling gait, an observer would be sure that Gran just debarked from a fishing boat.

Chapter 4

They were as ready as they could be, but Kas was still nervous as they emerged from jump at Meron, the first of the Independent Systems.

No casual dismissals here. A large space station picketed the jump point. Almost as soon as they emerged, a cutter cast off from the station and headed toward them. At the same time, the comm channels echoed demands that they cancel all orbital motion relative to the system’s sun and stand by to be boarded.

The man that Kas and Rom greeted at the passenger airlock appeared to be middle aged. He wore a uniform of nauseous green adorned with braid and an array of medals so gaudy as to make Kas suppress a wince and he displayed an attitude to match.

“Your papers!” he demanded. Next, he demanded their course data for all jumps since leaving Prime. Finally, he announced that a search party would be boarding to search Starhopper. At that point, Rom protested.

“Aw, C’mon, Admiral!” he whined, “We ain’t goin’ nowhere near your damned planet. Ya can see we’re on a charter job. Exceptin’ for some mining machinery, all we’re haulin’ is a bunch of corpsicles straight fer the rim! We cain’t hardly smuggle stuff to yer planet if we ain’t goin’ near it, can we?”

The gaudily uniformed official sniffed. “Nevertheless, regulations require that all ships entering Meron space be searched. If you’ve nothing to hide, you shouldn’t object!”

Rom broke into laughter, shaking his head.

Kas tried to explain. “The only objection we have is to the delay, sir,” he said. “Our Astrogator should have us recalibrated and our next jump programmed in less than six hours. Two days to boost to the jump point, and we’ll be gone.”

The official sniffed again. “I don’t think so. It’ll take at least a full day to search a ship this size.”

Kas nodded. “Exactly, sir. We could be delayed for several days. We have delivery commitments. Penalties could turn a profitable charter into a dead loss for us. Isn’t there some way we could speed this up? As my purser mentioned, we’re not going to be approaching Meron. Perhaps you could do a quick inspection. I assure you, we’ve nothing to hide, and would be happy to show you anything you want to see.”

“Yar,” Rom put in. “It could be worth some credits if we could avoid th’ delay.”

The man stiffened. “Are you trying to bribe me?”

“Oh, no, sir,” Kas hastened to reply. “My Purser was just saying that avoiding unnecessary delays could save us quite a lot of credits. We’d be happy to share some of those savings with someone who could expedite our passage.” He glared at Rom, and a slight movement of his head told Rom to disappear.

“Why don’t we go to my cabin, sir,” Kas said, “and you can examine our papers while we discuss it over a cup of caf or a glass of Solian brandy.”

The customs agent reluctantly allowed himself to be swept along to Kas’ cabin. He had proved resistant to Rom’s attempts to bribe him, but after several glasses of Solian brandy, he was persuaded to call the station and request permission to conduct an abbreviated search in person. This was evidently slightly unusual, but not extremely so, and the permission was granted in less than an hour.

“You see, Captain,” the man said as he and Kas walked around Starhopper, poking into various niches, voids and compartments, “we can be reasonable when the situation warrants. As your rather… uh

… forceful Purser pointed out, you won’t be approaching Meron. Since this is just a recal stop, a full search is unnecessary. But I would suggest he be more careful in future. Attempted bribery of a customs official is punishable by twenty years’ hard labor on Meron.” Kas hastily assured the man that Rom had no such intention.

Abbreviated the search might be, but it was anything but cursory. The man poked about and examined for almost six hours. By the time he finished, Tera had completed her jump computations and recalibration and Kas was exhausted.

He ushered the man into the main airlock and watched as he hooked up his safety line and jumped to his cutter. Kas sagged against the bulkhead next to the lock hatch. After a moment, he sighed and stalked off toward the bridge.

In only minutes, they received permission to boost. As Starhopper began moving, Kas whirled on Rom.

“Are you insane?” he demanded. “You could have got us all locked up for attempted bribery.”

Rom grinned and shrugged. “Naw, no chance, Skipper. Y’don’t unnerstand how business is done out here. Yar, this’n was honest, but even honest customs agents know that bribes ‘r routine in a lotta the Independents. They don’t resent th’ offer, if it’s made tactfully. I jus’ din’t know ‘bout Meron.”

“What about our next jump point, uh, Odell’s world?” Kas asked. “Is bribery routine there?”

Rom nodded. “Been there once’t. Th’ bribes ain’t too bad, if I ‘member right.”

Kas shook his head. “I’m glad they gave us so much cash; I wondered about that.”

“That’s Imperial Intelligence at work. They’d know how things are out here.”

Kas frowned. “All right. You’re the purser, bribes are your department. I’ll turn the cash over to you. Just try not to use all of it or land all of us in jail.”

Rom shrugged. “It’s all a matter of how you approach ‘em. Y’gotta be tactful, see?”

Tera turned from the astrogator’s station. “Oh, yes,” she said with broad sarcasm. “We can see that you’re a model of tact!” Rom grinned and blew her a kiss. She sniffed loudly, then turned back to her station. Kas reflected that it was the first time he’d ever seen a woman flounce while sitting down.

During the two days’ travel to the jump point and the seventy-nine hours of the jump itself, Kas amused himself by watching Rom and Tera. They reminded him of school children. Rom continually teased and irritated Tera and she could be counted upon to overreact just enough to motivate Rom to continue. Kas thought he could detect the signs of a budding romance.

It was four hours after they’d jumped that Kas received a call from Toj Kray. Kas was a bit surprised, as the big Bulworther tended to isolate himself in engineering, burying himself in technical journals and utterly unnecessary maintenance tasks.

“Captain,” the big man rumbled, “you’d better be comin’ down to Engineering C-4.”

Kas frowned. “I’ll be right there, Toj.” It must be important. The big man wouldn’t invite him into his solitary domain unless it was something important.

He was puffing when he reached the Engineering C-4 compartment where Toj awaited him. “What is it, Toj?” he gasped.

Wordlessly, Toj reached to point behind a generator housing.

Kas leaned over and craned his neck. He frowned. “What is it? I assume it’s not part of the generator.”

Toj shook his head. “Nossir,” he rumbled in his deep bass. “It isn’t for sure. I’m thinkin’ it’s some kind ‘er spook crap. A recorder or somethin’. Th’ question is whose?”

Kas started to answer, then paused. “I see your point. Is it something Fleet Intelligence put on there? Or Imperial Intelligence? Or was it put there by a spy or saboteur at the yard itself? It could even have been placed by that customs agent at Meron. We were in this compartment.” He cursed. “Is it connected to anything?”

Toj shrugged. “I dunno, sir. I don’t wanna try ter move it ‘thout knowin’ more, but I’m too big to get back there. And I don’t want to send any kinder snooper back there ‘til I know whether ‘tis a bomb or not.”

Kas' face was grim as he thought about the gadget. If it was a bomb, and they disturbed it, they could detonate it and cause serious damage to Starhopper. But they had no choice. They couldn't leave it to be detonated at the time and place of the saboteur's choosing. And chances were good it was some kind of transmitter or beacon instead of a bomb. After a moment, he keyed the intership on the bulkhead. “Edro, this is the captain. Please come to Engineering C-4 right away.”

Toj scowled blackly. First the Captain and now the comm tech was invading it. He understood the necessity, of course, but it still bothered him.

Kas turned to Toj. “Edro is probably the only one of us that can get back there without disturbing that thing. Can you give him some kind of camera he can use to let us examine it?” Toj’s expression relaxed slightly. With a quick nod he dove into his tiny engineering office, returning just as Edro Jans hesitantly approached the hatch to the compartment.

Kas caught sight of the small man. “Ah, Edro. Just the man we need. It appears someone has bugged us. Or perhaps bombed us. You’re just the man to help us find out.” He pointed out the object.

Edro’s eyes widened as the job was explained to him, but he merely bobbed his head in assent. Toj presented a small box, two centimeters square that he attached to Edro’s shipsuit. A fine wire protruded a few centimeters from the box. Toj pulled the end of the wire, which unreeled smoothly, and attached the end to the back of Edro’s index finger.

“‘Tis a camera," he explained. "Th’ wire has the lens, and is wound on a reel inside. When ye get back there, just point at anythin’ you want us to see. We’ll get a magnified view. You won’t. Sorry.”

“Toj will tell you where to point,” Kas said. “He’ll have to try to figure out what the hell it is.” He hesitated. “Edro, it could be a bomb. Be very careful.”

The little man’s eyes widened even more, but his lips tightened and he bobbed his head briskly. “Yes, sir,” he murmured so quietly that Kas had to strain to hear him.

Edro examined the area thoughtfully, then lay on the deck on his back and slid beneath the generator. After considerable squirming, his head and right arm appeared on the other side, framed by cables. He extended the arm and a magnified image of the object appeared on the screen. It was a box about five centimeters square and two deep, but on the screen it looked huge.

“To your left then, and a bit down,” Toj directed, and the image obligingly slid to one side and downward. “Good. Good.” Toj said. He touched a dial and the perspective approached the object even closer. “There’s summat’ looks like a wire on the right end o’ the thing,” he said. “Get as close to it as ever ye can ‘thout touchin’ it.” The camera zoomed in, and Toj nodded with satisfaction. “‘Tisn’t a bomb,” he reported.

Kas's shoulders slumped in relief. He frowned. “Can you tell what it is?”

Toj shook his head. “Not from here. Edro, trace ‘long the wire as far as ye can.” The screen image bobbed as it followed what looked on the screen like a cable, but was actually a hair-fine wire.

Finally Toj sat back. “‘Tis some sort of communications device, I’d wager,” he said. “There’s nothin’ more I can tell ‘til we get it out.” Without waiting for a reply he disappeared once more into his engineering office, reappearing almost instantly with a thin-bladed plas scraper. “All me other scrapers‘re metal,” he shrugged. “I cu’d be wrong about it not being a bomb.” He smiled as Edro stiffened. “Don’t worry Edro,” he said mildly, “‘Tis just a precaution. I’m sure it’s not a bomb.”

He handed the scraper over the generator casing, placing it in Edro’s hand. Then he resumed his place in front of the screen. “Captain, would ye be reachin’ over the generator and grabbin’ hold o’ the box? Edro can only get one arm in there, and he’ll have to scrape it off the generator casin’.”

Kas reluctantly stretched over the casing and managed to grab the object with three fingers. If it was a bomb and it detonated, he and Edro would be pulped.

“Right, Edro,” Toj said, “begin slidin’ the scraper under the box. There should be nothin’ but adhesive under there. Be goin’ slowly, and if ye feel any other resistance, stop immediately.” He couldn’t see Edro’s answering nod, but the camera showed the scraper sliding slowly beneath the box.

Finally the box came free, and Kas said “Got it.” He held it in his hand, still stretched over the generator, awaiting further instructions. He was relieved that there hadn’t been any loud noises, but was uncomfortably aware that they weren’t safe yet.

He felt the big engineer lean over behind him and a ham-sized hand gently removed the box from his hand. He released it with a sigh of relief, and scrambled out of the way.

“Edro?” Toj asked, “are ye still there? Can ye drop the scraper and give me pictures of the wire again?”

There was a muffled sound of assent from behind the generator, and the image on the screen once more showed the wire.

“All right,” Toj said, “I’ll be slowly pullin’ th’ box out. I think the wire’ll come with it. Edro, watch the wire right careful. If it begins t’ tighten, yell. Yell loud!” Very slowly, he began withdrawing the box. The wire followed smoothly. Finally, the wire’s end became visible on the screen, and Toj was able to straighten, holding the small box with the long, trailing wire.

He carried the box to a workbench, being careful not to kink or strain the wire. When Toj gently placed the box on the workbench, Kas suddenly realized that he hadn’t been breathing for at least a minute. His breath whooshed out, and he gulped his lungs full.

The big man’s shoulders slumped in obvious relief as well. He had reached for a magnifier, and was carefully examining the box, when Kas heard a muffled “Hmph!” from behind the generator.

Kas and Toj exchanged guilty glances, and then went back to the generator. “Edro?” Kas called. “Are you all right?” Scuffling and muffled sounds came from behind the generator. Edro’s feet were kicking wildly. Finally the words — or, rather word — became clear. “Mfm… Stuck!”

Kas and Toj exchanged grins. Kas stuck his head over the generator just in time to hear “Suit caught!” A quick glance at Toj revealed a broad grin. Yes, Toj had heard.

Toj reached down and grabbed the two kicking feet sticking out from beneath the generator. He gave a mighty tug. There was a ripping sound, then Edro came sliding out with enough velocity to slide almost across the compartment, his torn shipsuit flapping.

The small man came boiling to his feet, his wizened face scarlet with fury. He started toward Toj, fists bunched.

The big Bulworther held up his hands in surrender, fighting to control his laughter. “Nay, Nay, m’man,” He rumbled. “Ye’ve no quarrel wi’ me an’ no call t’hurt me. Ye’ve done good work this day. Not so, cap’n?”

Kas nodded. “Very good work. Without you, we’d have had a lot more trouble than we did — and we didn’t know it wasn’t a bomb.” He struggled to control growing laughter. “But… But you came squirting out of there like a cork from a bottle!” Unable to control it any longer, he dissolved in laughter, accompanied by the bass roar of Toj’s huge laugh. Edro stood for a moment, fists clenched. Then, slowly, the fury drained from his face, and in moments he, too dissolved into laughter. All three roared, and if their laughter held a tinge of relieved stress, well, so what?

As they began to sober, their attention returned to the mysterious object they’d found. “How long before you can tell me something about it?” Kas asked.

The big man shrugged. “Yon Edro’s the expert on communications stuff. Wi’ his help, could be we’ll know sommat in a few hours. Y’agree, Edro?”

The small comm tech flushed with pleasure at being asked, but he nodded enthusiastically. The two turned to the workbench and the mystery, their captain forgotten.

Kas started from the compartment. At the hatch he stopped and turned. If there ever was an odd couple, he thought this was it. Toj, two meters tall and a meter wide dwarfing his companion, some hundred-twenty centimeters tall and only massing about fifty kilos. He shook his head and headed for the bridge.

It was several hours later that Toj and Edro came onto the bridge. “‘Tis right I was, Skipper,” Toj rumbled. “It’s a communications device.”

“Beacon,” put in the laconic Edro.

Toj nodded. “Aye. ‘Tis a beacon indeed. It’s inactive for the now, but send it a signal on the right frequency and she’ll sing like a banshee.”

Kas frowned. “Any indication who placed it?”

“Not Fleet,” muttered Edro.

Toj nodded. “Nor is’t Imperial at all, we’re thinkin’. Could be it's Alliance, but ‘tis true it could as easily be from one of the Independents or even the damned Glory fer that matter.”

Kas hesitated, thinking. “That means a spy at the Fleet Yard on Prime.”

Rom snickered from his station. “Surely that doesn’t surprise you, Cap’n?”

Kas smiled sourly. “Not really. All right, let’s see. Whoever it was knew that we’d be sending a ship after the Rekesh, and that it wouldn’t be an obviously military ship. So they had their agent plant one of these beacons on any non-warships that came to the Yard. Then they have their pickets or customs cutters broadcast the trigger frequency.”

Toj nodded enthusiastically. “Aye! Use a frequency that nobody else uses, and nothin’ happens ‘til a ship wi’ one o’ the beacons emerges in yer system. Then th’ alarm sounds and they can decide whether t’ arrest us ‘r just foller us. Cute.”

Kas had been thinking. “Could you and Edro rig that thing to sound an alarm when it detects the trigger signal, instead of sending a signal?”

Edro’s head bobbed, and Toj replied, “Easily, Cap’n. Jus’ disconnect th’ receiver from the transmitter. Then, we c’n rig anythin’ atall fer an alarm. Eh, Edro?” The little man nodded enthusiastically.

“Why bother?” Rom asked. “It doesn’t matter who placed the damned thing. Just deactivate it. There’s no need to get fancy.”

Kas was not so easily satisfied. “Call it curiosity. I want to know who bugged my ship. I also want Starhopper searched from sensors to drive coils. Whoever left this little toy could have left something much more lethal. Or perhaps he’s not the only spy at the yard.”

“Luckily,” he continued, “our next recal stop system is Rejel, and it’s uninhabited. While Tera’s recalculating and recalibrating, the rest of us will suit up and check the outside of the ship. In the meantime, we have…” he glanced at his ring watch, “… sixty-four more hours in Jump. That should give us time to comb the interior. I want every nook and cranny checked and every access panel removed. Toj, pay particular attention to the engineering areas. A small bomb down there could be disastrous. Will you need any help?”

Toj nodded. “Aye, Skipper. Ye’ve seen there’s lotsa tight areas down there. P’rhaps y’cud see yer way t’let me borrow Edro, here.” The little man dodged as the Bulworther moved to slap him on the back.

Kas nodded. “Good idea. Edro, give Toj a hand after you’ve checked the comm systems, all right?”

The small man grinned and nodded. It was apparent that Kas’ odd couple was getting along very well indeed.

The ship’s routine was suspended and the next several ship days saw the entire crew frantically searching for bombs or bugs. Every drawer and cabinet was opened, every access panel removed and the circuitry so exposed examined carefully. Finally, only a few hours before they were to emerge into the Rejel system, Kas pronounced himself satisfied that they’d done all they could. There was no way that they could check every centimeter of the kilometers of wiring or every centimeter of space, of course. But they’d checked everything possible, and anything not searched was simply so inaccessible that it was unlikely a spy would go to the extreme risk required to place a device there.

As soon as they emerged everyone but Tera suited up and a similar centimeter-by-centimeter external search was conducted. Once her jump computations were complete, Tera joined them. The search took two days, and by its end the entire crew was exhausted and heartily sick of space suits. Finally, Kas gave permission for their next jump, to D’Jellabah.

D’Jellabah was no fun at all. Neither Rom’s bribe attempts nor Kas’ appeals to reason were effective. For two days, a crew of customs officials crawled over, around and through Starhopper. Kas was certain they’d find the quick-firers concealed between her inner and outer hulls, but the searchers simply accepted Kas’ explanation that the extra bracing and the metal bulkheads that concealed the weapons had been there when he bought Starhopper. Kas was grateful for the effort the yard crew had made to make the modifications look old. Even the most cursory examination revealed what looked like ten or fifteen coats of paint on surfaces, bolts and rivets. The inspectors ran detectors over the sheet, but whatever they were set to detect, it evidently wasn’t quickfirers. Finally, the inspectors reluctantly declared themselves satisfied, and departed.

Kas breathed a huge sigh of relief. “All right,” he decided, “Since we’ve been through this search we may as well stop at the planet to buy provisions. We’ve no time for a several-day-long port visit but I think we can spare a few hours. The port’s chandlers should have everything we need.”

“Yeah” Agreed Rom, “It’d be nice to have some fresh food, instead of that reconstituted dreck!”

To avoid yet another search, they grounded at the Bonded Area of the port. Since they’d announced their intention to buy supplies before grounding, they’d hardly secured the drives before a dozen dealers and chandlers descended upon them. Finally, Kas had to station Toj at the main lock to admit only one at a time. Within two hours, hovertrucks were lined up outside Starhopper ’s cargo hatch and cases were moving up conveyors. Since Kas refused to let native personnel aboard, the crew had to stow and secure the materials. Kas paid the dealers in imperial crowns, receiving broad smiles in return. Obviously, he was being taken by the exchange rate. Afterward, he realized he should have dickered, but military habits die hard. He could have had Rom buy the supplies, but he’d forgotten that Rom was supposed to be the purser. By the time he remembered, Rom was busy stowing cargo in the hold.

They boosted six hours later. Kas wasn’t happy. He’d blown it on D’Jellabah and he knew it.

“If anyone on that planet was watching,” he groused, “I just told them we’re military. Nobody else buys supplies without haggling, and any normal trader would’ve let his purser do the dealing.”

Rom shrugged. “Yeah, Cap’n, you’re right. But maybe we were lucky. Nobody seemed to be paying us much heed. Except the chandlers of course!”

Still, Kas huddled over the sensors covering Starhopper ’s stern until they reached the jump point and jumped. Then he straightened and stretched. “Well, I don’t think we were followed,” he said in a relieved tone. “Damn! I feel so stupid!”

Rom shrugged. “Forget it, Cap’n. It was me should’ve reminded you. I’m supposed to be the expert! Besides, D’Jellabah ain’t exactly a popular planet. I don’t think anybody who’d talk noticed.”

Kas relaxed slightly and even found himself grinning weakly. “Are we going to sit around here arguing about whose fault it was, or are we going to get on with the mission?”

Rom chuckled. “I vote fer gettin' on with it. Nothing’s to be gained by beating ourselves up over a mistake.”

Kas was scowling over a game of Jasc when Gran strode onto the bridge that ‘evening’. “Cap’n, I…” he began, then “You play Jasc?”

Kas nodded glumly. “I try. It’s not easy to play a game that requires creative and original thought with a ship’s comp without full Artificial Intelligence capabilities.” He glanced up hopefully. “You play?”

Gran hooked his thumbs in his shipsuit's belt. “Just the thing to pass time ashore waitin’ out a storm.”

Kas picked up his cue. “Yeah. I’ll bet you fishermen get pretty good, huh?”

“I can usually keep from bein’ swamped,” Gran said casually.

“Well, sit down,” Kas said. “Use Rom’s terminal. He’s off duty.” He reset his terminal screen as Gran called up a Jasc field on Rom’s terminal.

Both moved slowly at first, feeling each other out. After the twenty-fourth set of moves, Gran observed, “You ‘pear t’like the Rigellian game, Cap’n.”

Kas shrugged. “And you seem to favor the Silurian.”

The pace picked up, but it was nearly three hours later that Gran made the move that Kas had hoped for, placing himself firmly in Kas’ trap. After two more move sets, Gran realized his fate. He frantically tried increasingly risky gambits, but after another half hour, Kas had penetrated his keep and he was forced to surrender his Emperor. Both men were sweating profusely.

Gran slumped back into his chair. “That wasn’t a Rigellian maneuver!” he complained. Kas grinned. “I didn’t say I played a Rigellian game. You did.”

Gran’s usual grin resurfaced. “That’s right, I did. More the fool I! Y’know,” he continued, “Commodores aren’t supposed to be sneaky, underhanded, and ruthless. You’re all supposed to be fine, stalwart, upstanding, and full of honor.”

Kas laughed aloud. “Well, full of something, anyway. Besides, sneaky, underhanded, and ruthless is how you get to be a Commodore!”

Thereafter, their Jasc games became more or less a ritual during jumps. Gran’s game was technically better, more polished and smoother; but Kas’ strategic sense and imagination allowed him to win a satisfying percentage of their games. Several times Kas had to remind himself about the risks of becoming too friendly with subordinates.

Their next recal stop was to be the Hatchell system. Though it occupied space claimed by New Senegal, it was uninhabited, and Kas expected no trouble.

He was wrong.

Tera was less than halfway through her computations when Rom shouted. “A ship, Captain! No, two ships!”

Almost simultaneously, Edro shouted, “I’m getting something, sir!”

Kas whirled on the little man. “Are they hailing us?”

Edro shook his head. “No, sir. They’re talking to each other. But since neither is on tight-beam, we can hear them.”

“They don’t know we’re here yet, Skipper,” Rom added. “Our sensors are enhanced, remember. One of ‘em’s an Epsilon-class tramp. T’other’s an Empire-pattern corvette.”

Kas nodded. “Put it on the speakers, Edro.”

“You’ve no business here,” A rather good-looking woman in a brown shipsuit was saying, “And you’ve certainly no authority here! This system is owned by New Senegal, and you’re certainly not Senegalese!” The woman wasn’t a beauty, Kas noticed absently, but her features were strong, regular and open, and the shipsuit bulged gratifyingly in the appropriate places.

The other figure was dressed in a white shipsuit with a large red crucifix on the left chest, over the heart. This was the typical uniform of an officer of the so-called "Lord's Host", or military, of the so-called “Ministry for the Glory of God”, the theocracy known as the "Glory." Brighter patches on his much-washed shipsuit revealed where rank slashes and unit patches had recently been removed.

“Whore of Satan,” The man in white roared. “My business is wherever the Lord directeth me, and my authority is that of the Lord of All! Now, Thou’lt heave to for boarding and questioning, or suffer the wrath of the Lord!”

The woman looked annoyed. “Screw you, you damned fanatic! I know what ‘questioning’ by one of you Swords means. We’d rather go down running.”

The man flushed. “Blasphemer! Whore! Handmaiden of the Devil! Thou’lt pay for thy insolence!” His expression turned to intense hatred. “I look forward to questioning thee, slut! We’ll have thee and a battle cruiser for the greater glory of God!”

Kas started. But the woman merely looked puzzled. “What the hell are you blathering about? What battle cruiser?”

“It shall not avail thee to pretend ignorance, whore.” The man in white said with an evil leer, “Thou’lt tell us all that we desire to know presently!” His transmission ended abruptly.

The woman turned to someone out of range of the pickup “What the hell…” Her transmission broke off, as well.

Kas whirled on Rom. “How long before their sensors pick us up?”

Rom shrugged. “If they’ve got standard sensors, about five minutes at our present closing rate, sir.”

Kas nodded, and keyed his com. “Gran to the bridge. Urgent!” Gran was Starhopper ’s gunner, and it appeared that a gunner would be needed shortly.

Gran arrived on the bridge at a dead run. Edro slid aside to give him access to the comm panel which would shortly become the weapons station.

Kas keyed his com again. “All hands prepare for action. There’s a corvette from the Glory out there pretending to be a pirate. He’s looking for us! Luckily, he jumped another ship first- but he mentioned a battle cruiser that he planned to get.”

Rom frowned. “Any chance we can avoid him, sir? Slip away to another jump point? I mean, our weapons are pretty much improvised and his are Empire standard. We’re kinda overmatched!”

Kas shook his head. “No chance. Those ships are between us and the only other jump point in the system. Besides, I can't let civilians get tortured and killed just to avoid a fight. Gran, activate your weapons console and begin decompressing the hold. We’re going to need those lasers.”

Gran nodded and began pressing switches and buttons. Powerful pumps began sucking the atmosphere out of the hold while the apparently sealed crates containing the lasers began collapsing. As the pumps reduced the hold to near-vacuum, the huge cargo doors slid aside and the two nuclear-pumped self-powered lasers rumbled down the tracks in the deck, stopping just inside the doors.

“All right,” Kas said, “The Glory hates to spend any money that doesn’t go for building churches or taking over planets, so that corvette probably hasn’t been modified. Corvettes are lightly armed and lightly shielded; their primary defense is their speed and maneuverability. The corvette's main armament is her retractable missile rack. She also carries two medium-sized laser turrets mounted amidships, but they’re not particularly accurate. They're controlled from the bridge.

“We’re not going to give her time to use her speed or maneuvering. Rom, boost directly toward her at max G. As soon as we’re in detection range use the attitude thrusters to slew us around, and try to give Gran at least twenty degrees of leeway in bringing the lasers to bear.

“Gran,” He continued, “You’re only going to get one, possibly two shots with each laser before the Glory can respond. One laser is to be aimed at her missile rack. The rack is deployed; that pompous windbag wouldn’t be making those threats if it weren’t. The other is to be aimed at his bridge. Rom, does he have his shields up?”

Rom glanced at his sensor readings. “No, sir.” Kas could feel the surge of the drive through his feet. Toj was on the job.

Kas smiled grimly. “I didn’t think he would. He’s only facing a tramp trader after all. And those Glory fanatics consider shields cowardly.” He turned back to Gran. “The idea is to get off as many shots as possible before he can get his shields up. But concentrate on that missile rack! We may get lucky and detonate a missile in the rack; but at worst we should damage the rack enough to prevent him retracting and reloading it.”

“Sir,” Gran put in hesitantly, “Those lasers we have are pretty heavy weapons; certainly much heavier than his. We may be able to hit him pretty hard with our first shots.”

Kas nodded. “I hope so. This fat old bitch is no warship; I doubt she could dodge several missiles.”

Gran smiled. “No, sir. But I was thoroughly briefed on our weapons system. We do have those quick-firers and a chaff launcher. I think I can take care of at least one or two missiles.”

Kas was unimpressed. “Really. Well, don’t forget; we have to turn our belly to the enemy to use our lasers. And the quickfirers have a very limited field of fire. We have to maneuver the ship bow-on to use them.” He shrugged. “Our shields are beefed up and may be able to stop one or two missiles, if they’re not too big. But don’t get your hopes up.”

He turned back to Rom. “As soon as you detect a missile launch or laser blast, hit the attitude jets to bring us back to bow-on. We’ll need to be the smallest target this fat old tub can be, and bring our quickfirers to bear.” Rom nodded. “Now, how long before we’re in detector range?”

“Just over three minutes, sir,” Rom replied crisply.

“Missile launch!” Gran cried. “Bandit has fired on the tramp! Another!” seconds later he added, “One missile impacted her drive coils, sir. She’s lost all acceleration. The other missile was a near-miss on her sensor array.” He snorted. “Lousy shooting for close range and an unarmed opponent.”

“All right,” Kas said. “How much speed can we gain, Rom?” he asked.

Rom shrugged. “I estimate that given our original velocity relative to the target, and adding in max boost for 3.12 minutes, we should approach at just over a hundred thousand meters per second, relative.”

Kas’ eyes widened. “Really? Excellent! That’ll cut down on the time available for him to react. How long until detection?”

Rom hesitated. “With the additional acceleration, 1.35 minutes. We’ll be in optimum weapons range in 1.6 minutes. He should have less than half a minute to react and deploy weapons.”

“Good. As soon as we’re in detection range adjust our attitude to bring our lasers to bear; say, uh, thirty degrees from straight ahead. Will that do it, Gran?”

Gran nodded. “Should do, sir. That’ll give me about twenty degrees of swing. Uh, sir, I could open fire before we reach the high-confidence point.” He shrugged. “We might hit something useful.”

Kas shook his head. “No. I want to keep him wondering until we reach high confidence. If we go in with lasers firing his first impulse will be to raise his shields. If we’re just a blip he might not raise them until you’ve had your best shots.”

Gran nodded. "Aye, sir."

The seconds ticked away, though each seemed minutes long. They were a seasoned fleet crew, but the silence was oppressive with tension.

Kas fought the temptation to ask Rom how much longer just as Rom shouted, “Detection! They can see us now! Adjusting attitude to bring weapons to bear! Raising shields!”

There was a sudden flurry of movement on the bridge. The image of the corvette slid to one side of the viewscreen, though it continued to grow larger at an impressive rate.

“We’re being hailed, sir,” Gran said calmly. “Should I answer?”

Kas shook his head. “Keep your mind on your weapons. Let ‘em keep guessing. Maybe it’ll distract him from raising his shields. What’s the time to high confidence?”

“Twenty seconds, sir. Ten seconds. Firing in five… four… three… two… one… Firing! Firing! Firing!”

If Kas hadn’t been expecting it the results would have been disappointing for the first seconds. Since there are no atmospheric particles in space to render a laser beam visible, the only indication that Gran had fired was an infinitesimal white dot that flared on the corvette’s missile rack, and another that slashed across the bridge and then disappeared, so quickly as to barely be seen. The dots faded, then bloomed again. Suddenly, there was a blinding flash as a missile detonated in its rack, followed by an even greater actinic flash, and a circular fireball that dissipated immediately.

Kas blinked rapidly, and when his vision cleared the corvette was gone, replaced by an expanding cloud of debris. “Rom!” he shouted, “bring us bow on to the debris cloud, and pray that our shields deflect that junk! Once we pass through the debris cloud cancel all acceleration and bring us back around. I hope that crew’s all right.” That hope was sincere. More than a hundred and fifty people had just died in that single flash, and Kas’ satisfaction with his victory was tempered by that realization. To Kas, the only possible justification for that loss of life would be the survival of the tramp’s crew. The mere fact that they’d avoided endangering their mission was cold comfort.

The shields held, and none of the debris that until seconds ago had been a state-of-the-art warship got through.

Chapter 5

Finally, Kas could turn his attention to the tramp. It would take thousands of kilometers for Starhopper to slow and vector back toward the other ship and more than an hour before they could come alongside.

Kas sighed. “Well. Does anyone have any suggestions concerning what we do about the tramp and her crew?”

Rom scowled. “Strictly speaking, we should finish what the Glories started. Otherwise, our cover is blown completely.”

Kas nodded. “That’s what I mean. They have to know we’re armed and that we destroyed that corvette. I doubt they’ll believe it just happened to blow up at the moment we came barreling in on it.”

Gran was looking as unhappy as Kas felt. “Uh, they might not have seen anything, sir. Remember, that second missile was aimed at their sensor array; and it was fired before we were in detection range.”

“But it was a miss,” Tera put in. “We don’t know if it took out all their sensors.”

Kas sighed again. “All right, I see three alternatives. But I’m not sure we can live with two of them.” He raised a finger. “First, we can finish what the Glories started and destroy the ship.” He held up a hand to forestall the angry replies. “I’m sure that’s what Imperial Intelligence would tell us to do.”

He held up another finger. “Second, we can just leave them here and boost out. Chances are they haven’t seen us and are sitting over there wondering when the Glories are coming. Of course, their drive coils are destroyed, so unless someone else happened by they’d just drift here forever. With their sensor array damaged, they may not even be able to get an SOS beacon working. But,” he continued, "We don't know what sensors they have that are still functional. They may have seen everything."

He raised a third finger. “Finally, we can say to hell with Imperial Intelligence and follow our natural inclinations to rescue them.” Again he raised a hand to forestall interruptions. “Unfortunately, that one leads to complications. If we just pick them up and drop them at our next recal stop several things will happen, all bad. First, the authorities are going to want details about this Glory ‘pirate’ — and they’re going to want to ask us some hard questions.”

“Second, that tramp skipper is going to mention that the Glories talked about a battle cruiser. We do not want planetary authorities thinking about us and battle cruisers at the same time.

“Finally, even if they did let us leave, it wouldn’t be for days or weeks. If they figured out who we were, we might never leave.”

“There might be another option.” The quiet voice belonged to Tera. All heads turned toward the Astrogator.

“We won’t be grounding again until we’re on the way back,” she continued. “We could bring them aboard and pop them into cold storage until we get to the Rekesh.”

Gran shook his head. “I wish we could, Tera,” he replied. “But we don’t have any empty cold sleep units. We’d have to revive other crew.”

Kas was also shaking his head. “And we don’t have cover documents for anyone but us,” he continued.

Tera shrugged. “Maybe, but I’ll bet that the people on that ship have all the identification they’ll need.”

“I hadn’t thought about that,” Kas admitted. “We could rescue those people, pop them into cold storage, and the people we revive could use their ID’s and the tramp’s ship’s papers.”

Gran breathed a sigh of relief. “It sounds better to me than turning the lasers on them, sir. I’m not sure I could do it.”

Kas shook his head. “Me, either. All right, we bring them aboard. Once they’re aboard we’ll try to remember people in cold sleep that might fit their identification.” He tossed Rom a key. “Rom, get a hand weapon out of the weapons locker. They may not be exactly willing to climb into those cabinets.”

As they approached the tramp it was obvious that she was in serious trouble. As expected, her drive coils had been rendered unusable by the Glory’s missile. The near-miss on her sensor array had even more serious consequences. It appeared that all of the tramp’s sensors and antennas had indeed been destroyed, but more important, a deep gash in the hull was leaking a white cloud of air and water vapor.

As Rom maneuvered Starhopper alongside the tramp, he asked, “Should I grapple her airlock-to-airlock?”

Kas shook his head. “If all their sensors are out, I wouldn’t put it past them to short their fusactor and blow their own ship, if they thought they could take that Glory with them. No,” he continued, “stand off a bit. Edro, you’re our comm expert. D’you think you can work out a way to talk to them?”

Edro flushed, but he nodded. He ducked through the bridge hatch and headed for the airlock to suit up.

They watched as the little man jumped expertly across the ten-meter gap between the ships, and landed gracefully a meter from the ruined antenna array. He knelt and fumbled at his suit for a moment, then devoted several minutes’ attention to the stub of one of the ruined antennas.

“Uhhh, Captain,” finally came from Kas’ com in Edro’s self-conscious mutter, “I’ve got comm with them. Think you’d better talk to ‘em.”

Kas grinned, “All right, Edro,” he replied, “Connect me now. Hello, is anyone there? This is Captain Kas Preslin of the Free Trader Starhopper. The pirate is gone.”

The voice that answered him was clearly the one he’d heard arguing with the Glory, though it was muffled. Apparently she was suited. “Well, you sure don’t sound like a Glory! Good thing you called; we had a dead man switch connected to our fusactor.”

He chuckled. “That’s why we called first. I hate just dropping in on people- there can so many unpleasant surprises!”

“Well,” she replied, “now that the conventions are dealt with, who visits who?”

Kas chuckled again. “Why not come on over here, and we’ll discuss our options.”

“Options? Oh, well…” Kas could practically hear her shrug.

Rom nudged Starhopper within two meters of the ship, whose scarred antirad bore the name Lady Jane. Within moments, two suited figures jumped across the gap. Kas and Rom were waiting as the inner lock door cycled.

The suits, one tall, one medium, stepped through the lock. Both people reached up and released their helmet catches. The tall one was a thin, bald, middle-aged man. It was his companion, however that grabbed Kas’ attention.

She was obviously the woman who’d been talking to the Glory; but in person she was much more striking. Even the short spacer’s cut couldn’t conceal the fullness of her auburn hair. It framed her rather angular face perfectly. Actually, he mused, it wasn’t that she was extraordinarily beautiful. Her short, pug nose and freckles made her look like a juvenile tomboy, in fact. But those full lips and sparkling blue eyes somehow riveted his attention. The grin she flashed him was all tomboy, as well. “Captain Preslin?” she inquired, “I’m Jane Grey, owner and skipper of the Lady Jane.” She hesitated as if expecting a comment, then continued, “This is Lar Tennig, my Engineer, First Mate, and Comm Officer.”

The tall man slipped off his suit’s gauntlet and proffered a hand. “What,” Kas asked with a smile, “Not Purser?” A grin spread over the bald man’s skull-like face. “Nossir,” he replied in a pleasant baritone, “Nobody but the Lady here handles the money end!”

They chatted inconsequentially as the two unsuited, then Kas invited them to his cabin. Rom followed.

Unsuited, Jane Grey was some 150 centimeters tall, and massed about 50 kilos. That 50 kilos, Kas thought, was distributed in a disturbingly attractive fashion. He was trying to figure out why he found this woman so damned attractive, and he wasn’t having much luck. Her body was well-curved, without evident tendency toward fat, but it wasn’t spectacularly so. Her breasts, though full, weren’t unusually large, nor did she flaunt them. So, why was he responding so strongly to her?

“Well,” she said once they were all seated in Kas’ cabin, “Now that we’re all comfy, would you mind telling us who the devil you are, where you came from, and what happened to that damned Glory?”

Kas licked his lips. This was going to really strain his cover story. “Well, as I mentioned, we’re Starhopper, out of Prime, chartered to ferry colonists to a planet called Turow’s World. That’s a new colony being established by Farterra.”

He shrugged. “As for that other ship, all I know is that our sensors detected two flashes, and when we closed to investigate, we detected two ships close aboard. We hailed, but suddenly one of the ships boosted out max.” He shook his head. “He must have thought we were someone else. When we got closer, we could see the damage to your ship, and decided to check for survivors.” He frowned. “You say that pirate was a Glory?”

Her eyes were narrowed. “Uh huh. Look, Captain. I know you’ve saved our lives, and we’re grateful. But that Glory left us deaf, dumb and blind, not stupid. Please don’t pee on my boots and try to tell me it’s raining. Rank tabs or not, that Glory was at least a Swordtan in their Lord’s Host. Now, the Glories are a lot of things, but they’re not cowards, and they’re not stupid enough to confuse a DIN-Class with a battle cruiser!” She shook her head. “No, somehow you managed to run off or destroy that bastard. I don’t know how and I don’t really care. I’m just glad you did.”

She sat forward, resting her elbows on Kas's desk. “While you were talking I was thinking. You’re the ship that bastard was really after, aren’t you? What are you, some kind of spy or something? And what’s this crap about a battle cruiser?”

Kas took a deep breath. “Whew! That’s some imagination you’ve got there! Would you like me to show you the three hundred fifty cold sleep cabinets in our hold?”

She shook her head impatiently. “Please, Captain! Look, we’re wasting time. If you’re spooks, you can’t tell us anything but your cover story, even if that story becomes absurd. By the way, whoever put together your cover story was working from out-of-date information. Farterra isn’t colonizing anything. For the past three years they’ve been having money problems, and for the last eighteen months they’ve been in an economic depression. Last I heard, there were food riots on Newhome.”

She shot him a piercing glance. “On the other hand, spooks would have either finished us off or left us to rot. That means you’re not professional agents. Military, maybe? You shouldn’t have rescued us, should you? And now, you’re having a hell of a time deciding what to do with us.”

Kas shifted uncomfortably. In less than five minutes, this woman had completely exposed their identity and indicated that she suspected that their mission concerned a battle cruiser! She was right; he was beginning to regret rescuing them. Rom, in the corner of the room, apparently shared his concern. The needler he’d taken from the weapons locker was in his hand. Kas tried to remind himself of what was at stake — war or peace throughout known space. He tried to harden himself to signal Rom to open fire.

But he had to explore all the options first. They were no threat in cold sleep, and by the time they were revived the mission would be over. Unfortunately, her easy penetration of Starhopper ’s identity indicated that there might be other problems.

He took another deep breath, let it out in a huge sigh. “All right. You’re too close for comfort. We’re not spooks. We’re Imperial Fleet. We’re on an undercover mission. We can’t afford to have that mission compromised. We had, of course, discussed destroying your ship or leaving you here. But we were able to come up with an alternative. We really do have three hundred fifty cold sleep cabinets in the hold. We’re going to revive two of the occupants that can use your identities, and put you into cold sleep to replace them. You won’t be harmed, and you’ll be revived and released as soon as we complete the mission.”

She shook her head. “Won’t work.” Lar Tennig was also shaking his head.

“Look, Captain,” Kas replied in a nettled tone, “We’re trying to find a way to save your lives! It’s not too late to put you back aboard your ship, you know. Now, why won’t it work?”

“Because of something you couldn’t possibly know, Captain,” she replied. “I was born in space. My parents were traders as well. Most of the customs agents in this sector have known me since I was a babe in arms. They’ve watched me grow up. They know me and I know them. If a stranger suddenly shows up at any system in this sector trying to impersonate me, they’ll be locked up or dead before they can get a word out — and there will be some very hard questions asked!”

Lar Tennig spoke up. “She’s telling the truth, Captain. Everybody in the sector knows Lady Jane! Hell, she’s had that nickname since she was a kid. It’s probably the only joke that’s understood in every system in the sector.”

Kas frowned, and Jane Grey explained. “When I was a kid, oh, ten or twelve standard, I guess, I read this book about Old Earth. I dunno if it was true or not, but this book said that there was this place on Old Earth called Angle Land, or something like that. Anyway, it seems that there was a king named Henry Vee — something, and his queen was named Lady Jane Grey. Her name was even spelled the same as mine. She was young too, and she was only the queen for a few weeks, and then she was killed. It's a great tragic story.”

“Well,” she continued, “You know how kids that age are. I decided that I would now be called ‘Lady’ Jane Grey. My parents thought it was funny to go along with me. So, now everyone in the sector knows me by that name. And I can guarantee that you won’t make it past your first recal if someone tries to impersonate me.”

Kas’ frown had deepened. He sighed. “What you’ve told me only makes the decision harder. I guess the only thing we can do is put you back aboard your ship with supplies for several months and hope that no one finds you in time to interfere with our mission!”

Lady Jane leaned forward again, causing serious distractions for Kas. “Hold on a minute, Captain. Even if we’re found I’m not thrilled about sitting on a dead ship for months. Maybe we can work something out. You’re Impies, right? Well, we’re Alliance citizens. Tell us about your mission, and if it’s no threat to the Alliance, maybe we can help.”

Kas grinned. “You’re a trader, all right. And an excellent negotiator. But this isn’t a trade negotiation. I know this sounds melodramatic, but the future of mankind will be affected by the success or failure of our mission.”

She answered his grin with one of her own. “You’re right. It sounds too melodramatic to be true. But I keep remembering that it was important enough for the Empire to send a Fleet crew out here with another three hundred in cold sleep, and for the Glory to send out ships pretending to be pirates.”

“Captain!” Rom interrupted, “I’m sorry sir,” he continued, “but security…”

Kas waved a hand in dismissal. “Security be damned,” he replied. “The main reason we’re out here playing spook is because everyone in the sector already knows about it. I can’t see that it can do much damage to talk about the mission at this point.”

He turned back to his visitors. “An Empire battle cruiser went missing out near the edge of known space just over a century ago. Well, she’s been found. She’s intact, with her plague beacon running. The point is that she’s a complete, intact battle cruiser. That means she’s fully armed, including two planet busters.”

“Unfortunately, the people that found her talked to people all the way back in to the Empire. So, not only the Empire, but the Alliance, the Glory and about half the independents are out looking for her. We happen to think that the best thing that could happen would be for the Empire to reclaim her; but I’m not sure the Alliance would agree.”

“What I think we can agree on is that if the Glory or one of the nastier independents gets a fully operational battle cruiser, it could upset the balance of power throughout known space.” He shrugged. “It sounds melodramatic, but you could say that we’re trying to prevent an interstellar war.”

His guests exchanged glances. “Well,” Jane said at last, “We know how badly the Glory wants her.” She grimaced and shivered. “I was just imagining that Swordtan in command of a battle cruiser instead of a corvette.” She looked thoughtful. “Look, Captain. As we’ve mentioned, we’re known in every system in this part of space. We can help you.”

Kas chuckled. “I doubt it. Oh, we could use your undoubtedly complete knowledge of this sector, but I don’t think we need someone to shout “Impie spy!” at our next recal stop.”

She frowned. “We wouldn’t do that.”

Kas shrugged. “But we can’t take the chance that you would. No, I’m afraid we’ll just have to maroon you for a while.”

She sighed in exasperation. “Look, Captain, I can understand your lack of trust. All you know about us is that we’re Alliance citizens who spend all our time among the independents. But that battle cruiser is a threat to the independents, the Alliance, hell, everybody! Just the thought of planet busters in the hands of the Glory is enough to make me want to help you. Having them in Empire hands is far better than having them drifting around out here unclaimed.”

Kas started to reply, but she continued, “All right. We’ll give our word that we won’t betray you, even to the Alliance, and that we’ll do anything we can to help you get that damned thing back to the Empire!” The bald man beside her nodded, his face grim.

Again Kas started to reply. This time it was Rom who interrupted. “Don’t do it, Captain,” he said. “It’s an unjustified risk!”

Kas turned to him. “Rom, you’ve been crewing on traders for five years now. Tell me what you know about a trader’s word.”

Rom shifted uncomfortably. “A trader would die to keep his word. He knows that if he breaks it no one will ever do business with him again.” He shrugged. “I still say it’s an unjustified risk. We should put them back aboard their ship and boost max away from here.”

“He’s right, you know,” Kas said to the woman. “It is an unjustified risk. I have no right to jeopardize the mission for a pretty face.”

She grinned. “Pretty? Not in this universe!” Then she sobered. “Look, Captain. I ought to let you maroon us. We already know quite enough to blow your mission. We know your ship’s name and we know that you were here. You also let slip that you started from Prime. It wouldn’t be too hard to reconstruct your course data, project it forward, and get a pretty good idea where you’re heading.”

“But I don’t want to blow your mission. I want that damned battle cruiser safely back under Empire control. Oh, I won’t try to tell you that I wouldn’t rather see it in Alliance hands. But it does belong to the Empire, you’re the ones that know where it is, and you’ve got a crew for it already aboard.”

Kas looked doubtful, and she continued, “All right, I’ll prove my good intentions. You think that marooning us would be an effective way to isolate us for awhile. You’re wrong. This is a busy recal point. In fact, the Senegalese have been talking about putting a customs post here. It would be a few days at most before we were rescued. If we wanted to blow your cover, all we’d have to do is let you listen to your man here and maroon us, then contact the Alliance embassy on New Senegal when we were rescued in a few days.” she shrugged. “You see? I’m putting myself at risk just to tell you that. You could decide to kill us and destroy the Lady. But I don’t think you will. At least, I hope you won’t.” The bald man at her side nodded enthusiastically. “Me too!” he replied, glaring at the woman.

Kas released pent-up breath with a whoosh. “You have no idea how glad I am to hear you say that. You’ve just saved your lives. I figured the Glory would only have enough ships to picket the main recal points. That, plus the fact that we were both transiting it at the same time, told me that you’d be picked up quickly. That left me only two choices: trust you, or put you back aboard your ship and then blast her to emm-cee-squared. I was desperately hoping you’d come up with some way to let me trust you.”

Her eyes narrowed and her face darkened. “You mean that all this time you knew you couldn’t just maroon us? That every time you talked about marooning, you were really talking about killing us?”

Kas nodded. She jumped to her feet, her flush deepening. “Why, you revolving sonofabitch! You… you… unprintable bastard!” She seemed about to continue when Lar Tennig put his hand on her arm. “Lady,” he said quietly, “It might not be diplomatic to insult a man with reason and means to kill you!”

She stopped, mouth open. Her gaze moved from Lar to Kas, then back. The flush began fading from her cheeks. Suddenly she smiled and then giggled. Finally she collapsed back into her chair, roaring with laughter. Lar joined her a moment later and Kas broke down at nearly the same time. The three of them dissolved in gales of laughter as the almost palpable tension dissipated. Rom sat quietly, a smile lighting even his dour features.

Finally, they began to compose themselves. “What’s a ‘revolving sonofabitch’?” Kas asked. “I’ve been called names by experts, but I’ve never heard that one.”

She stifled a laugh. “A revolving sonofabitch is a sonofabitch any way you look at him,” she managed to get out before being once again carried off by gales of laughter. Kas, Lar and even Rom joined her. Kas managed to choke out some comment about ‘revolutions’, sending them all back into paroxysms of laughter. It was a good start for what Kas hoped would be an effective partnership, and not one of betrayal.

Before they boosted for the jump point Edro went over to the Lady Jane to erase the communications recordings involving Starhopper. He also gathered personal belongings for their new recruits. Neither Jane nor Lar suggested that they be allowed to return to their ship for that purpose; this partnership was too new and too fragile to permit that. As soon as Edro returned, they boosted for the jump point at max acceleration. The Lady Jane remained behind, of course.

“Y’know,” Lar observed, “By the time we get back here we’re liable to be a space legend; ‘ Lady Jane, ghost ship of the Hatchell system’. Found drifting with her drive coils and sensor array damaged, but no sign of the crew.”

Jane grinned. “Not really. Oh, maybe for awhile. But as soon as the authorities see our com tapes they’re going to be more concerned with the Glory. They’ll probably assume that Glory bastard grabbed us. It could cause a helluva stink, though.”

Rom was still unhappy about trusting the newcomers, but as soon as they’d jumped, Kas called Jane and Lar to the bridge. “Our next recal point is a system called ‘Homesite’. What can you tell me about it?”

Jane shrugged. “Not much there. Its only claim to fame is that it’s the only privately-owned planet in known space. It was some tycoon’s great idea. He bought the rights to the only terrestrial planet in the system from the government of Singh about twenty years ago. I hear it pretty much wiped him out, but he had this hare-brained idea that a privately-owned colony, operated for profit, would be more efficient than colonies with more typical governments.

“So he bought the planet, set up a shuttle service to Singh, and started trying to sell land. As I understand it, he planned to market his land in other systems once Homesite started to pay off. Only thing was it never did pay off until the heavy industries moved in. No laws or oversight, of course, so they could operate pretty much as they pleased. For the past twenty years they’ve been raping the planet’s resources, polluting the air and water, and just generally running the place into the ground.

“About the only people there now are a couple hundred thousand employees of one or another mining, smelting or processing companies. We’ve made a pretty good profit there a few times, though. Not enough people to attract most of the larger traders, so us little guys can run a load of luxuries in there, and make a pretty nice bundle.” She shrugged. “You won’t have to worry about customs there. No import restrictions, so no smuggling.”

Kas nodded. “Good. After D’Jellabah and Hatchell I could stand a little boredom!” He told her about their experience at D’Jellabah. He didn’t spare himself and confessed to his errors in dealing with the dealers and chandlers.

She chuckled. “Don’t worry about it. Oh, in most systems, you’d have attracted lots of attention. But on D’Jellabah you were just another unbeliever, and all unbelievers are crazy or stupid. Or both. They’ve got a weird version of Islam going on there, and it’s starting to hurt their economy. Did you notice that the port field was surrounded by a fifteen-meter wall?”

He nodded. “Sure. But I didn’t want to ask about it. I was afraid they had some sort of insurrection going on, and would get suspicious.”

She shook her head. “Nope. It’s to keep from offending the godly by exposing them to the fact that there are other inhabited worlds that don’t share their religious quirks. The shipping agents, factors, dealers and chandlers are permitted to deal with visitors, of course. But visitors are not permitted to leave the port field.

“They’re getting almost as hard to deal with as the Glory, and their balance of trade is starting to show it. A few more years of this religious fanaticism and they won’t have to worry about contamination by unbelievers — nobody will go there to trade.” She shrugged. “Anyway, that’s why the customs inspection was such a pain in the ass. Oh, they were looking for contraband, all right, but mostly they were interested in anything that might contaminate the godly. If they’d found anything they considered ‘blasphemous’, you wouldn’t have left there alive.”

He looked at her curiously. “How do you know what they consider ‘blasphemous’?”

She shrugged. “You don’t. Even more conventional Islamic believers have trouble figuring out D’Jellabah’s religious quirks. So you take your chances. And fewer and fewer traders are willing to take that risk. It’s a lot easier to just skip D’Jellabah and trade elsewhere.”

Kas nodded. “I noticed that there weren’t many ships at the port.”

She chuckled again. “And there won’t be, until D’Jellabah learns to share the universe with people of other beliefs.”

Kas found himself spending more and more time with Lady Jane. Even the seemingly endless series of Jasc games with Gran became less frequent.

Their conversations became the highlight of Kas’ days. Somehow they never seemed to run out of topics, or become bored with each other. Kas found himself getting up in the morning anticipating their chats, and saying good night only reluctantly.

But Lady Jane was wrong about Homesite. Almost as soon as they’d completed emergence from jump, Rom announced the presence of a ship, and moments later Edro reported that they were being hailed.

Kas frowned. “What kind of ship?”

“Empire-pattern corvette,” Rom reported.

“She says she’s the Singh system ship Shiva, Captain,” Edro added. “They demand to speak with our Captain.”

Kas looked at Lady Jane, standing beside his command chair. She shrugged and spread her open palms. “I dunno, Captain,” she responded to his unasked question. “They’ve never had customs here before much less picket ships. I think you’d better answer them. There must be something wrong.”

“Yar,” Rom put in sourly, “They’re lookin’ for a battle cruiser.”

Kas shrugged. “Maybe,” he replied. “Edro, put them on the main screen.”

The man who appeared was dark, with a large, thin nose. He wore some sort of cloth wrapped around his head to form a large helmet-shaped headpiece.

“Who are you and what are you doing here?” he demanded without preamble.

Kas had opened his mouth to speak when Lady Jane cut in. “Raj? Is that you? What’re you doing sitting on your ass out here? I thought you had some cushy posting on Singh!”

The man had noticed her as soon as Lady Jane spoke and relaxed slightly. He shook his head as she finished. “The question is, what’re you doing out here?” he replied. “You wouldn’t be planning to sneak in on the night side and pick up a load of thorium, now, would you?”She laughed aloud. “In this bucket? DIN-classes are good for a lot of things, Raj, but sneaking isn’t one of them! Naw,” she continued in a careless tone, “this is just a recal stop. Don’t tell me somebody’s finally figured out how to make smuggling profitable at Homesite?”

The man grinned. “Yah. Seems somebody’s been stealing heavy elements from the processing plants, and smuggling them off-planet. The Magnates contracted with the government of Singh to put a stop to it.” He shrugged. “And what’s the prettiest trader in the sector doing aboard a DIN-class, and not in the Captain’s chair?”

She shrugged again. “Captain Preslin here got himself a charter to run a bunch of cold-sleep colonists out to the rim. The Lady Jane ’s laid up for awhile, so I contracted to be kind of a local guide.” She grinned mischievously. “You know the weird things you local-system chairwarmers can dream up to harass us poor, innocent spacers.”

The man laughed aloud. “‘Poor’ and ‘innocent’ are not words that I would associate with you, Lady Jane.”

She shook her head in mock sadness. “And I thought we were friends,” she replied. “Captain Kas Preslin, this is Raj Brahamaputra. He’s an Ensign or something in Singh’s Navy. Raj, this is Captain Kas Preslin. Kas is an Impie trader tryin’ to make his way through the independents without getting’ himself killed.”

The man nodded, glaring at Jane. “That’s Commander, not Ensign, as you well know, Jane. If it weren’t for the fact that Captain Preslin is a stranger out here, I’d come over there and paddle your backside for you!”

She stuck out her tongue. “You’d better bring a working party if you want to try!” She struggled to keep a straight face, but finally broke into a smile. “Seriously Raj,” she continued, “Why don’t you come on over, and we’ll have a cup of caf and get caught up.”

The man answered her smile with one of his own. “I’d love to, Lady, but duty, duty. Uh,” he added, his smile fading, “You’re not going anywhere near the planet, are you?”

Kas shook his head. “No, sir,” he replied before Jane could speak. “This is just a recal stop as Lady Jane said. If you’d like to escort us to the jump point…”

Raj was shaking his head. “Sorry. We got a tip that a pickup was scheduled about now. I can’t leave this point. I’ll squirt a message ahead to the ship picketing the other jump point, so they don’t give you trouble. But keep well clear of the inner planets. I’m not the only surprise in the system.”

Kas assured the man that they’d stay well away from the inner planets and then signed off, as the communications time lag was becoming a problem. They began driving toward the other jump point in the system. Finally, Tera completed her computations and Rom set up their course to enter the jump point at the proper angle to take them to their next destination. There was another ship picketing the other jump point, but it didn’t even bother establishing communication. Evidently Lady Jane’s friend had been as good as his word. They jumped.

Kas breathed a huge sigh of relief. “Lady,” he said, “Thank you. You’re as good as your word. A single word to your friend Raj and we’d have been dead. His approach angle wouldn’t have let our weapons bear.”

She shrugged. “I’m a trader, and I gave my word.” She took a deep breath, causing serious distractions for Kas. “Where to next, Captain?”

“A place called Cytan. You know it?”

She nodded. “Yep. Poor system. Somehow, they’ve never managed to make the system a success on almost any level. They don’t even have an orbital port. If you’re not planning to ground you probably won’t even be questioned, much less searched. They don’t have any ships at all, just a few gunboats with no interstellar capability.”

This time, Jane was correct. They weren’t even questioned as they recalibrated and drove for their next jump point.

As soon as they were safely in jump, Kas called Lady Jane and Lar Tennig to the bridge. “I just want to warn you,” he began. “We have three more recal stops to make and two of them are in the Alliance.”

Jane frowned. “You mean this ship of yours is in Alliance space? If I’d known that, I might not have given my word.”

Kas shook his head. “No, actually it’s in a system just outside Alliance space. But to get there we have to pass through Alliance space. Otherwise, we’d have to detour through unexplored space and it would take at least six more jumps. We can’t afford the time penalty.” He frowned, his eyes narrowing.

“Don’t pay any attention to her, Captain,” Lar put in. “She suffers from a severe case of foot-in-mouth disease. We won’t betray our word, or you, just because we’re in Alliance space. So,” he added with elaborate casualness, “What’s the first stop?”

Kas stared at Lady Jane for a moment. Finally, she nodded, and he shrugged. “Our next recal is at a system called ‘M’Keba’. Do you have any information about it that we can use?”

Jane shrugged. “Just a general hint. In the Alliance, don’t try to bribe customs agents. Not that they’re not as bribable as any other customs agents, but the Alliance had a big scandal a year or so ago. Some customs agents ignoring a kidnap-and-slavery ring. So for now, you’re better off not trying. You don’t want to attract attention, and you might just get some fool that wants to show how virtuous he is by turning you in for attempted bribery.”

Kas nodded. “Hear that, Rom? We play it straight in the Alliance. No bribe attempts.” Rom nodded wordlessly. He was scowling at the traders in suspicion. He obviously still did not trust the two Alleys.

Kas and Jane’s interminable conversations resumed, and became increasingly intimate. It surprised no one but the two of them when they one day found themselves waking in the same bunk after a night of passionate lovemaking.

Kas seemed dazed. He was having trouble dealing with the concept that this exciting creature could be as interested in him as he was in her.

Lady Jane, on the other hand, was cheerful and seemed happy. She annoyed Rom with her smiles, jokes and contented humming.

Kas was still trying to analyze his feelings when they emerged in the M’Keba system. The jump point wasn’t picketed, but almost as soon as they emerged they detected a customs cutter heading in their direction and Toj called on the ship’s intercom.

“Cap’n!” the usually unflappable engineer reported, “Th’ damned alarm went off. T’was the Alliance as bugged us!”

Kas thought fast. “Thanks, Toj. Now tear that damned thing apart. If they search us we don’t want them finding and recognizing it.” He turned to the others on the bridge. “All right. These are the people that bugged us. Now in theory, since they’re not getting their alarm signal, they should assume we’re not the ones they’re after. But we take no chances. Play it straight and play it for all you’re worth. They’ll be suspicious of any ship coming from the Empire, even without the damned alarm.” He whirled to confront the traders. “Here’s where we find out for sure how good your word is.”

Both Jane and Lar nodded soberly. Rom was less than successful in concealing the needler he still carried.

They were hailed and ordered to prepare for boarding. Kas told Rom to bring the ship’s papers and accompany him to the main personnel lock.

Chapter 6

The man that boarded was small and businesslike. He examined the ship’s papers and manifests as well as the identification documents of her crew and the ship’s log in minute detail. Even Jane and Rom seemed inhibited by the man’s ruthless efficiency. Surprisingly however, the physical search of Starhopper was so casual as to be cursory. It was as though the official was convinced that if the papers were in order, the ship must be in order as well.

“Bloody smuggler’s paradise,” Rom muttered as the man headed for the lock. “Gotta come back here after this’s over!”

Lar overheard, and nodded. “Looks that way. The man was nothing but a paper pusher.”

Jane grinned. “Yeah. Guess they figure hiring cops got their fingers burned, so they’re hiring admin types. We may have to visit here more often. At least for awhile. Not that we do a lot of smuggling you understand, but…”

Kas snorted. “I don’t give a damn about the smuggling opportunities. I won’t be coming back here to trade. Let’s just get out of here before they change their minds.”

They boosted max for the jump point while Tera completed her computations. They had been in the system only two standard days when Kas signaled Rom and they jumped.

“One more,” he exulted. “One more recal and we can stop worrying about being found out.” He saw Rom open his mouth to speak and continued, “Okay, it’s actually two, but the last one’s in an uninhabited, unclaimed system.” He shrugged. “Oh, someone might stumble across us while we’re working on the Rekesh. Sheol, they might even be there now! But those are normal military problems; the kind we’re trained to handle.”

Jane didn’t seem to share his optimism. “What is our last Alliance recal stop?” she asked.

Rom grunted from his station. “Place called To-Han. Near the edge of the Alliance and the edge of known space. If it’s like most frontier systems, it should be easy!”

But both Jane and Lar were shaking their heads. “Wrong. To-Han’s got a small naval base,” she said. “Oh, I guess it’s not much of one, but it’s still an Alliance Navy installation.”

Kas frowned. “Why would they have a base ‘way out here? There wouldn’t seem to be any threat.”

Lar shrugged. “You know how it is. Their representative to the Alliance Congress had a lot of pull some years back. He rammed it through on the grounds of protecting the borders of the Alliance from the unknown. And there are half-a-dozen systems, both Alliance and independent, within one jump of the place. The real reason, of course, was to boost To-Han’s economy. From what I’ve heard, the units stationed there mostly do pirate interdiction.”

Jane nodded. “And that means that they may be suspicious, and that they’re experienced in searching ships.” She hesitated. “If I’d known To-Han was one of your scheduled stops, I’d have recommended going around, even if you had to go months out of your way!”

Kas slammed a fist on the arm of his chair. “Damn!” He shouted. “I hate having lousy intelligence! You’d think Imperial Intelligence could have told us about a goddam base on our route!”

Rom snorted. “They probably figured we didn’t have ‘need to know’.”

Kas clamped down on his anger. His tone was calm and cold as he turned to Jane. “Well, we can’t change our minds in mid-jump. We’re committed, now. Is there anything else you can tell us about To-Han? Are they likely to have the jump points picketed or is there a chance we can get by without Navy involvement at all? After all, they’re not likely to expect pirates to come to their home system.”

Jane shrugged. “It’s possible. I haven’t actually been to To-Han; few people have. It’s so far out that I wouldn’t expect that they’d get a lot of traffic. So you may end up being right; it may be ridiculously simple. On the other hand, if they’ve conned the Navy into handling security for the whole system, it could be a nightmare.”

Everyone’s nerves were on edge as they emerged. Kas’ heart fell as he saw the armed satellite that picketed the jump point. Over a hundred meters in diameter, it fairly bristled with lasers, particle beam weapons and missiles. An automated beacon was repeating, “Welcome to To-Han. Please kill all motion relative to this station, and stand by. Any attempt to maneuver will be considered a hostile move. Your cooperation is appreciated.” At Kas’ nod, Rom complied with the instruction.

Several hours went by before Rom detected a corvette approaching at a relatively high speed. It was almost another hour before it was in normal communication range. As soon as the communication lag was down to five seconds, Edro reported that they were being hailed.

Kas had decided that the best defense was a strong offense. As soon as the screen cleared to reveal an Alliance Navy Commander, Kas shouted, “What the hell’s going on here? We just want to recal here, not invade! Do you…” His voice trailed off as he realized that he recognized the face in the screen.

And the recognition was mutual. The Commander frowned for a moment, then his face cleared. “Well! Captain Kas Preslin of the Empire Fleet. And out of uniform. How interesting!” A predatory smile crept across the man’s face.

Kas was shaken, searching desperately for a response. Finally he sighed. “Hello, Tarn. I was hoping not to run into anyone I knew.”

The Alliance Commander leaned forward intensely. “I’ll bet you were. You wouldn’t be looking for stray Battle Cruisers, would you?”

Kas looked puzzled. “Stray what? What the devil are you talking about?”

The Commander grinned. “All right, then, suppose you tell me what you’re doing out here in a civilian ship, and out of uniform?”

Kas forced an embarrassed expression to his face. “I don’t wear that uniform anymore, Tarn.” The man’s grin faded, to be replaced by a skeptical look. Kas shrugged, then grinned as he continued, “Why don’t you come on across? I picked up a bottle of Penurian Glark on D’Jellabah… “

The Alliance Commander smiled sardonically. “I don’t suppose you know that Glark is illegal in the Alliance.”

Kas put on a shocked expression. “No!” He proclaimed theatrically, “Then you’d better get over here and help me drink up the evidence before somebody catches me with it!”

The Commander chuckled. “You always were an arrogant bastard. But Kas,” he continued, sobering, “You’d better be able to convince me to believe whatever story you’re going to run on me. Friends or no, this is duty. And you won’t like Alliance jails.” He shrugged. “I’ll see you in half an hour.” He terminated the connection.

Kas sagged in his chair. “People,” he declared, “We are in big trouble! Tarn Traskon is no bored customs agent. He’s Alliance Navy and he’s as sharp as they come. One slip and we’ll be in those Alliance jails he mentioned.”

Rom was looking concerned. “What’re you gonna tell ‘im, Skipper?”

Kas shrugged. “I’m not sure yet. It’s going to have to be very close to the truth, so it’s not contradicted by our documents.” He turned to the woman at his side. “Jane, I think that story you used on your Singhalese friend should work here as well; but if you’re going to change it let me know. Tarn is quick enough to spot the smallest inconsistency.”

“The rest of you,” he turned back to the others, intercom open. “Stick to your cover stories no matter what. He or someone on his staff may indicate that they know our covers are false, and that another crewman told them all about it. But that’s just a standard interrogation technique. If they say something like that, you simply don’t have any idea what they’re talking about. And don’t get fancy. You’re just outies who signed on to deliver corpsicles to a new colony. Play your cover story straight, and play it for all it’s worth. I don’t give a damn if things have happened that make it sound totally ridiculous; it’s all you know.”

Kas, Jane and Rom met Tarn Traskon at the main lock. He was accompanied by a single aide, a lieutenant. As soon as the two had stripped out of their suits, the group adjourned to Kas’ cabin. Kas brought out the advertised Glark and a handful of glasses. Jane helpfully served. Then Kas dropped into a chair with a huge sigh.

“We may as well get right to it,” he began.

Tarn nodded. “I can’t figure out why the Empire would send you, of all people,” he said.

Kas frowned. “Send me? Hell, they booted me! Look, Tarn, I get the feeling I’m missing something. Who or what am I supposed to be? I mean, you talked about jail. I just barely avoided being locked up on Prime. Now I come out here, and you want to lock me up. What’s going on?”

Tarn eyed him suspiciously. “We may get to that, though you won’t enjoy it if we do. Why don’t you just tell me what you’re doing out here out of uniform and in an old trading hulk?”

Kas put on a wounded expression that was, he was glad to note, echoed by Rom. “ Starhopper may be old, but she’s no hulk. She’s sound as an Imperial crown!” Tarn showed no reaction, and after a long moment, Kas sighed deeply.

“I’d hoped to not have to go into this. The crew doesn’t know. But it looks like I have no choice.” He sighed again. “You remember Admiral Lu-Jenks?”

Tarn’s rigid expression softened slightly. “Sure do. You were his favorite hate object. He seemed to want to devote the rest of his career to ridding the Fleet of outerworld scum like you.”

Kas grimaced as he nodded. “Yah. Well, he decided to take it upon himself to do just that. He sent me on a rigged mission in command of a destroyer. I was to raid a pirate base that had been found on an airless moon in an uninhabited system not far from Avalon. But they were waiting for us. We were hit with nuclear-pumped planetary defense lasers, heavy particle beams, and even missiles. We took ship damage and almost twenty percent casualties; over fifty percent in the landing party. The thing was, we succeeded, which Lu-Jenks obviously didn’t expect.”

“When we finally took the place, we found proof that Lu-Jenks had warned the pirates that we were coming.” He slammed his fist on the arm of his chair. “I still can’t believe that a Fleet officer, an Admiral at that, would do that to his own people!”

He frowned into his lap for a moment before continuing. “When we limped back to Avalon, Lu-Jenks knew something had gone wrong. He ordered me to his office on the planet to report.” A hint of a grim smile touched his lips. “I reported, all right. I broke his jaw and a few other body parts before his staff pulled me off him. He said he would have me executed for assaulting a superior officer. He would have, too. But I had the evidence, and I made sure it got to the proper people.

“Proper!” He continued with a sour smile. “They said it would be bad for Fleet morale to court-martial an Admiral, especially one from as powerful a family as Lu-Jenks’. All they did was make him retire. With full honors and full pension, of course.

“Naturally, they weren’t quite so considerate with outerworld Captains. I was offered a choice: take early retirement and a reduced pension, or be court-martialed for assaulting that pompous bastard.”

His expression turned bitter. “So, an innerworld Admiral schemes to get sixty-three Fleet people killed and a hundred and thirty more wounded, and retires with honors. I fight a heavy action against a prepared opponent, and get booted out at reduced pension. So much for devotion to the Fleet!”

He shrugged, and a sour grin surfaced. “When the story began getting around, I did find that I suddenly had a lot of friends. One of them fixed me up with a civilian Master’s ticket, and few more managed to find me financing to buy the old Starhopper and bid on the charter to deliver these cold-sleep colonists. I signed on an outerworld crew on shares, and here I am.” He finished.

Tarn was looking skeptical. “And how long ago was this?” He asked.

“Just over a standard year, now,” Kas replied.

Tarn turned to his aide and gestured slightly. The Lieutenant nodded, and Tarn turned back to Kas. “Lieutenant Trensa needs to call my ship,” he said. “Is there someplace he can get secure communications?”

Kas grinned, “This is a trading tub, not a flagship. Secure communications don’t come with the package.” He thumbed the intercom. “Edro, the Lieutenant from the corvette will be coming up to the bridge to use the comms. Show him how to use them if necessary, then you and Tera leave the bridge to give him some privacy.” He turned and looked at the Lieutenant as he continued, “the Lieutenant will let you know when he’s finished, so you can resume your bridge stations.” The Lieutenant nodded silently and slipped out the hatch.

Kas turned his attention back to Tarn as the latter was saying, “I should have known that anywhere I’d find Kas Preslin, I’d find a beautiful woman! And what’s such a lovely young lady doing consorting with a degenerate like Preslin?”

Lady Jane blushed, but flashed a broad smile. “Oh, aside from an insatiable lechery, he’s not so bad.” She shrugged. “Actually, I guess you could call me a guide. Captain Preslin wasn’t familiar with the independents and the Alliance. So, since my ship was laid up I contracted to help keep him out of trouble.”

Tarn snorted. “It would take more than one woman to keep Kas Preslin out of trouble.” His smile faded. “You have a ship? May I ask your identity and citizenship, please?”

She shrugged, her expression bland. “Of course. I’m Jane Gray. They call me ‘Lady’ Jane Gray. I’m an Alliance citizen, though I spend most of my time in the independents.”

He nodded. “I recognize the name, though I’ve not had the pleasure of meeting you before. You’re pretty well known in this part of space. Your ship is also the Lady Jane, is it not?” She nodded.

“Well,” He continued, “You’re an Alliance citizen, and you’ve just heard Kas’ story for the first time. What do you think? Is it just a cover story for an operation by Imperial Fleet Intelligence?”

Jane grinned. “Nobody would make up a story like that, especially a military organization! Punching out an Admiral? I mean, really!” She turned an old-fashioned glare on Kas. “I wouldn’t put it past him to do it, either!”

Tarn chuckled. “I wouldn’t, either. After all, I’ve known him for over ten years. How about it, Kas? Did you really do that, or is it just your cover story?”

Kas shrugged. “I imagine you’ll know in a few minutes. That’s what your Lieutenant’s doing, isn’t it? Checking out my story? I figure you must have someone on board your ship that’s recently returned from the Empire.”

Tarn's smile was sincere. “Of course. One of my officers returned six months ago from detached duty on Prime.” He shrugged. “In the meantime, let’s take care of business. Who issued that charter, and where is this colony they’re establishing?”

Uh oh, Kas thought, here we go. He shrugged and slid Starhopper ’s papers across his desk. “The colony’s on a planet called Turow’s World. The Charter was issued by Farterra.”

Tarn frowned. “Farterra’s not establishing any colonies. They can’t even keep their home world solvent.” He was leafing through the documents.

Kas shrugged. “So Lady Jane tells me. I figure they experienced a communications lag. Their trade representatives on Prime issued the charter before they heard about Farterra’s economic collapse. By the time they heard it was too late.”

Tarn nodded. “Possibly. So where does that leave you?”

Kas shrugged again. “Depends. If you don’t delay me too much and I can make my delivery on schedule, it makes no difference. The balance of the charter is in escrow on Prime. Of course if I don’t make it on time, I imagine they’d be eager to impose the delivery penalties set out in my charter. If you really held me up, I could end up losing Starhopper. So, while I’m glad to see you, you’ll understand if I tell you to quit wasting time and let me go! I just wanted to recal in your damned system, not take up residence!”

Tarn leaned forward with a grin, resting his elbows on Kas' desk. “We’ll see. But there’s too much at stake to just turn you loose for old times’ sake!”

Kas frowned. “There you go again! What’s going on, Tarn? What’s the Empire got up to since I’ve left that’s got the Alliance so excited?”

Tarn’s grin didn’t fade, but his gaze was piercing. “It’s the Vir Rekesh.”

Kas frowned. “The Vir… Oh, that old battle cruiser? The one that disappeared?”

Tarn nodded. “She’s been found, and the people that found her took her coordinates to the Imperial Fleet. Everyone in this area of space is on a scavenger hunt for her. Funny though, the Empire hasn’t asked anyone for permission to cross their space to get her. That means they’ll be sending undercover agents. People like you, for instance.”

Kas snorted. “Right!” He said with broad sarcasm, “I’m so good at that cloak and dagger stuff!”

Tarn laughed aloud. “I admit you make an unlikely spy. You’re more the ‘Damn the torpedoes, Full speed ahead’ type.” He sobered. “But maybe Pankin was more interested in a shiphandler and battle skipper than a cloak-and-dagger type. Let’s see what Lieutenant Trensa finds out, shall we?”

Kas shrugged with feigned indifference. “So, what are you doing running a corvette around a remote system? Did you punch out an Admiral, too?”

Tarn put on a theatrically wounded look. “I beg your pardon! I’ve been promoted! I’m the CO of To-Han Base. You know how people at remote bases tend to get stale? Well, I set up a policy that all of my officers, me included, participate in operations at least twice a year. It helps keep us from losing our edge in an armchair. I…” He stopped as his Lieutenant reentered the room, and bent to whisper in his ear.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” He resumed. “You really did beat up Lu-Jenks! Commander Tuels said that it was the talk of Prime Base for weeks! Oh, he couldn’t verify what had happened to you; he said the Fleet hushed it up. Of course, that would tend to support your story as well.”

He shook his head unbelievingly. “When I came aboard I was positive that I’d be taking you to To-Han under arrest; that you had to be the Empire agents sent to recover the Rekesh.” He sighed. “You have to be the luckiest sonofabitch alive. What are the chances that I could verify a wild story like yours?” He shook his head again and grinned. “I am damned glad I don’t have to arrest you, Kas. Why don’t you come on to the base and we’ll throw a party and you can tell that story again, and we’ll swap lies!”

Kas sighed with relief, then shook his head with a weak smile. “I’m glad you don’t have to arrest me, too. And I would like to visit with you; but as I said, I’ve got a deadline. And those bastards at D’Jellabah delayed us so much that we’re pushing that deadline. Maybe I can stop on the way back. From what I’ve heard about Farterra’s money troubles, I doubt I’ll be able to pick up a return cargo.”

After another hour spent chatting, Tarn was escorted to the lock. He’d been drinking Kas’ Glark freely, and the Lieutenant had to help him into his suit, and tow him across the ten-meter gap between the ships.

Kas returned to the bridge, unsteady himself. Rom was not in much better shape. Kas made a mental note to stick to less potent spirits in the future. Finally, though, an officer appeared on the viewscreen, informing them that the armed satellite was no longer locked onto them, and they were authorized to proceed to their jump point.

Kas breathed a huge sigh of relief, and as soon as their course to the jump point was locked in, he staggered to his cabin. He collapsed fully-dressed onto his bunk, and was snoring immediately.

Kas struggled to wakefulness. His head ached terribly. He sat up, and groaned in agony as the universe wobbled unsteadily. His movement triggered the cabin’s lights, which stabbed agonizingly at his eyes. His mouth seemed filled with foul tasting cotton. He struggled to his feet and staggered to the ‘fresher on sheer will power.

A long, hot shower and liberal use of toothpaste and mouthwash helped. He no longer considered dying a good thing. A savage headache remained, but for the most part, he was now willing to consider trying to make it through the day — as long as he could consume plenty of caf.

He was pouring his third cup and beginning to feel truly alive again, when Rom came into the mess, whistling.

“No,” Kas moaned. “Please tell me you’re not one of those horrible people who don’t get hung over!”

Rom grinned. “’Fraid so, Skipper!” He continued to whistle gaily as he poured himself a cup of caf and moved to join Kas, whose headache was finally subsiding a bit.

“So,” he said easily, “Didja really rack up Lu-Jenks, or was that just part of your cover?”

Kas winced. “I really did it. It wasn’t exactly the high point of my career, and there’s no need the spread the story, understood?”

Rom nodded, his grin widening. “I dunno, Boss. There’s lotsa folks would think forcing’ old Lu-Jenks to retire would be the high point of any career!” He paused, then continued, “Well, they obviously didn’t cashier or execute you. So what did they do?”

Kas sighed. “Well, they were going to court-martial me, all right. I was transferred under arrest to the base on Prime. The unofficial word I got was that Pankin himself ordered that charges were not to be filed. The way I heard it, he said that anyone that sent sixty-three Fleet people to be killed deserved a few broken bones — or worse.

“All I really know,” he continued, “is that the JAG investigating officers suddenly disappeared, and my quarters arrest was lifted by memo from the base CO. I sat around Prime Base for a while, and then Pankin called me to his office to give me this assignment — and my flag.”

Rom looked thoughtful. “This Pankin. Sounds like he might be a few cuts above the usual innerworld bootlicker.”

Kas snorted. “Fleet Admiral Pankin is a whole pile of cuts above the usual innerworld admiral — and he’s no kind of bootlicker!”

Rom’s gaze was level. “You believe in him, then. Interesting.”

Kas nodded. “Yes, I believe in him. I’d suggest you start keeping up with the Fleet news and rumors. I have a feeling it’s going to get even more interesting over the next few years.”

Rom’s eyebrows rose. He tried to draw Kas out, but Kas would tell him no more. Rom’s expression was thoughtful as he watched Kas leave the mess.

Unfortunately, Lady Jane did not intend to be discreet. Once she learned that the story was true, in less than two days everyone aboard knew about it, if they hadn't already. Kas was annoyed but Lady Jane was unrepentant.

“I think it’s great!” She proclaimed. “It shows that you’re a man and not some Fleet robot.”

“Damn it, Jane, can’t you see that it’s a cause for shame, not pride? I assaulted a senior officer, a man I was sworn to obey. Not to mention that he was just an old man, twenty years older than me!”

She shook her head firmly. “No. What I see is that man was responsible for the deaths of sixty-three people and you knew he wouldn’t be punished. I’m proud of you, even if you aren’t proud of yourself!” She refused to give him her word not to spread the story among the awakened battle cruiser crew, and the quarrel that resulted lasted until after they’d entered Jump.

“Well, Captain,” she asked in an icy tone once they’d entered Jump, “You mentioned one last recal. I promised to advise you, so where do we emerge next?”

Kas shrugged. “I’ m not sure your advice is required on this system,” he replied in an equally cold tone. “It’s supposed to be uninhabited. In fact, it doesn’t even have a name; just an NGC number.” He pointed it out on the chart. As she bent to examine the chart, Kas couldn’t help but notice the sweet fresh scent of her.

Jane frowned, and then called Lar to the bridge. They huddled over the chart, muttering animatedly. Finally, Jane straightened, slapping the chart in frustration. “Damn! I wish I had the Lady Jane ’s charts!” Lar turned and silently moved to Rom’s terminal, where he began typing. She turned to Kas.

“Captain,” she began formally, “We can’t be sure without the Lady Jane ’s large-scale charts of the rim, but I think this system is one that’s uninhabited for a reason. Lar’s checking the stellar index, but if it’s the system I’m thinking of, the primary seems to have been very unstable at some point. Anyway, it either never developed planets or its planets were broken up by extreme tidal stresses. The point is that instead of a normal system with planets, this system is just full of asteroid rubble. Everything from micropebbles to asteroids tens of kilometers across wandering around the system. It could be dangerous as Sheol. I’d at least recommend raising your shields the instant we emerge.”

Kas cursed. “Is anything going to go right on this trip?” He asked no one in particular.

A few moments later Lar confirmed that their target system was, indeed, the system he and Jane remembered.

Kas scowled at the chart. “So, what can we do about it?”

Lar’s scowl matched Kas’ as he shook his head. “I only see two choices,” he said. “Either we traverse the system dead slow, depending on our shields to deflect the small bits, and hoping we can veer around the big ones, or we turn right around and jump back out as soon as we can compute an angle.”

Kas shook his head. “Jumping back just puts us back at To-Han, with Tarn getting curious. That has to be the last resort!”

Lar shrugged. “It may be the only practical course of action, Captain. It would take us several weeks to traverse that system going dead slow. I don’t think we can stay sharp enough to dodge all the boulders for that long.”

Kas’ temper began to flare. “My crew is Fleet! They’ll be sharp enough however long it takes.”

Lar started to reply when Lady Jane interrupted. “Easy, boys. There may be a third way.” Kas and Lar rounded on her hopefully.

“Look,” she began, “We all know that if it could be seen from outside, a stellar system would look like a big disk, with the star at the center. The star’s gravitational forces eventually pull nearly all the matter in the system into the same plane, so instead of resembling a ball of string, the system ends up resembling a disk, right?”

Kas nodded. “Sure. The ‘plane of the ecliptic’. So what’s… Of course!” He shouted excitedly. “We can get out of the plane of the ecliptic!”

Jane nodded. “Right. So here’s my recommendation. As soon as we emerge you set your shields on full. Once your Astrogator locates the next jump point, we boost toward stellar north and pull out of the plane of the ecliptic. When we get clear, we can drive toward the other jump point, and only dive back onto the ecliptic when we reach the coordinates of the jump point. That should reduce our hazard time considerably.”

Kas cursed. “I should have thought of that. That’s first year academy stuff!”

Jane shrugged and grinned. “It’s not something we normally deal with. After all, all the planets we want to visit and all the jump points between them are on the plane.” She paused. “I wonder why the jump points tend to be on the plane.”

Kas shrugged. “Tera may know, if you’re really curious. My Astrogation training was more the ‘nuts and bolts’ type than the theoretical. I don’t care. All I care about is that your suggestion improves our chances of survival and success by several orders of magnitude. I’ve got to talk to Tera!” He hurried over to the Astrogator’s station.

Tera wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as she frowned over the chart. “It’s easy to say that the plane of the ecliptic forms a disk,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s just not that neat. The term ‘disk’ implies little thickness. Actually, the plane may cover anywhere from ten to twenty degrees of arc. We’re talking about millions of kilometers in depth. So, it’s not going to be just popping up a few kilometers and later popping down the same.”

She shrugged. “Even when we’re out of the plane itself we won’t be out of danger. We could still run into asteroids and comets wandering the fringe of the plane, or knocked out of the plane by collisions with other bodies. Oh,” she continued, “I don’t have a better idea. I just want you to know that getting out of the ecliptic won’t mean getting completely out of danger. The jump point is about a third of the way around the circumference of the system and just inside its outer edge. We’re still going to have to boost slowly and keep our sensors at max.”

Finally, it was only minutes until emergence. “Remember, Rom,” he fussed, “The second our emergence is complete, raise the shields at maximum power.”

Rom grinned. “Relax, Skip. We all know what to do. I’ll get the shields up, and Tera’s ready to calculate our orientation to the jump point, and decide whether we should boost north or south.”

The actual emergence was something of an anticlimax. Starhopper emerged without difficulty. Rom was as good as his word; the shields went up almost the instant they emerged. The only indication that this was not a normal system was a slightly higher-than-normal load on the shields as they deflected micrometeorites.

It was an interminable two minutes before Tera announced, “Got it! Captain, we should drive to the stellar south about eighty million kilometers, dead slow. Once there we should be able to use more velocity.”

It took more than thirty hours to traverse the eighty million kilometers to near-clear space. They were only about halfway when Rom cried, “Asteroid on collision course! Estimate sixty seconds to impact!”

“How big is it?” Kas barked, “And can we steer around it?”

“It’s big!” Rom replied. “Over a kilometer in the long dimension. Recommend emergency maneuver toward stellar east. I’m not sure we can avoid it, though.”

Kas’ only reply was max blasts on the maneuvering jets. Silence dragged until Kas said, “We’re not going to make it! Edro! Use all the quick-firers! Maybe we can divert it just enough. If not, maybe the recoil will help the maneuvering jets enough!” He flicked a switch on his panel. “All hands brace for impact!”

The little man didn’t reply, but immediately there was a deep thrumming, more felt than heard, that told Kas the weapons were firing. The collapsium-plated projectiles massing over a hundred kilograms would have an almost negligible effect on the asteroid, but even ‘almost negligible’ could help. Seconds dragged. Suddenly the ship lurched, as a loud metallic grinding sounded throughout Starhopper.

Kas shouted “All hands suit up! Possible hull breach!” as he reached for his own suit. He kept expecting to hear the loud hissing that would tell him that the ship’s atmosphere was venting to space.

It was with a definite sense of relief that he sealed his faceplate. He scanned the instruments on his panel. All gauges were steady. He focused on the life support gauges. Atmospheric pressure steady. He relaxed with a huge sigh.

He keyed his helmet comm. “Toj, We seem to still be tight. How long before you can give me a damage report?”

Toj’s voice had the loss of timbre that indicated a helmet comm. “’Bout half an hour, Cap’n. No hull breaches apparent. That rock seems to have clipped our stern.”

Twenty minutes later, Toj reported that Starhopper seemed sound internally, and requested permission to make an external survey.

Kas shook his head. “Not until we’re out of the ecliptic. The hull seems to be holding, and the risk is too great.”

Just over twelve hours later, Tera confirmed that they were out of the plane of the ecliptic. She and Kas set their course for the jump point, and Kas permitted half-normal acceleration. Tera estimated sixty-two hours until they must re-enter the plane of the ecliptic to traverse the jump point.

Toj again requested permission for an external examination of the damage. “Permission granted,” Kas told him, “But take Gran along. No one goes outside alone.”

Nearly another hour passed before Kas’ readings indicated the cycling of the passenger airlock to permit the two to reenter Starhopper. Kas fretted as he waited for the engineers to report to the bridge.

When they did appear they were unsuited. Kas unsealed his own helmet. “Well?” He demanded impatiently.

Toj and Gran exchanged glances. “Well, sir,” Toj replied, “Integrity’s all right. I was right; the damned rock just brushed us as we passed. Instead of hitting the hull, it hit one of the sponsons housing a landing jack. Totally trashed the landing jack. We won’t be able to ground without repairs, but other than that, we’re totally functional. Just a couple of dented hull plates and our antirad coating’s scratched up some.” He shrugged. “It could’ve been a lot worse.”

“Sure could,” Gran put in. “If you hadn’t used the quickfirers the damned thing might’ve brushed the bridge, or living quarters, or the hold. That was quick thinkin’, sir.”

Kas shrugged. “Not quick enough. A little sooner, and it might have missed us altogether.” Toj snorted, but made no other reply.

Kas permitted everyone to unseal their helmets but insisted that they remain in suits until they were out of this system, provoking a round of grumbling.

Normal in-space routine called for a single bridge watch, but Kas ordered that two people man the bridge at all times while in this system. Sensors were set to maximum as they crept carefully toward the jump point.

Nerves were stretched thin by the time that Tera announced that it was time to once more brave the plane of the ecliptic.

Kas nodded. “All right. Dead slow, shields and all sensors at max.” He took a deep breath and keyed in the coordinates. As they re-entered the ecliptic, the shield monitors again registered load due to dust particles and micrometeorites. Silence reigned on Starhopper. Everyone’s attention was riveted on their progress.

Tera and Kas stared at the instruments that indicated their agonizingly slow advance. Lady Jane hung over Kas’ shoulder. Rom and Edro monitored the sensors, alert to the slightest quiver. Toj, Gran and Lar huddled in Engineering, their suits festooned with tools and damage control gear, poised to race to any part of the ship at a moment’s notice.

Time crawled, but no one could relax. They remained glued to the sensors until sheer exhaustion drove them to a few hours’ fitful sleep. A lifetime later, Tera pronounced herself satisfied with her computations, and they began steering for the jump point, still dead slow.

The entire crew breathed a simultaneous sigh of relief when they entered Jump. Once supralight, they need no longer worry about encountering a solid object. Kas suspended the normal underway watch. The stress had left them all exhausted, and they all caught up on badly needed sleep.

Chapter 7

The next morning, Kas reestablished normal routine, and was once more all business. He called a crew meeting.

“All right,” he began, “The next time we emerge we’ll be in the system where the Rekesh is located. There is no longer any need to pretend to be something we’re not. Effective immediately, Starhopper is again a Fleet ship, and we are all Fleet officers. That means that all the usual Fleet courtesies, customs and traditions will be observed, and we can lose the accents. Toj,” he added as he turned to the big man, “I want you to whip up some sort of rank insignia for us. We won’t have access to uniforms until we can get at the Rekesh ’s stores, but I want some sort of insignia that can be worn on shipsuits.” Toj nodded.

“Why bother?” Kas looked around. It was Lady Jane, of course. “I mean, what the hell does it matter?”

Kas sighed. “It matters more than you think. For one thing, we’ve all spent more than a month trying very hard to ignore those customs and courtesies, and to cultivate various planetary accents, in order to convince people that we aren’t military. We need to get back into our proper personas, and we’re going to need time to practice.”

“For another thing, once we arrive in the Rekesh ’s system, we’ll begin waking our passengers. Those who are military will expect the stability of a military environment. Those who aren’t military, well, we’ll need to be able to enforce discipline. And that can best be done by establishing a rigidly military system immediately.”

Kas eyed each crewmember. Tera was visibly relieved to be able to resume her military identity. Gran’s relief was less visible, but still obvious. Toj and Edro seemed unaffected, but Rom was suppressing a scowl. Kas reminded himself that his Exec had spent five years building his nonmilitary persona. It wouldn’t be easy for him to resume a military personality. Kas hoped that Rom would try, and try hard.

Oh, once they began awakening their passengers, Kas could replace Rom, if necessary; but Rom was an effective officer, and at least Kas knew that. The officers in cold sleep were largely unknown quantities.

He asked Toj, Edro and Rom to remain after the meeting, and dismissed the rest.

“Toj,” he began, “I know no one can work outside during Jump, but I’d like a complete report on the damage. How bad is it?”

“Pretty much like I said, Sir,” Toj replied crisply, in his best military manner. “The worst damage is to the landing jack sponson and the jack itself. The other damage is minor.” The odd Bulworth accent was gone. Toj was an engineering Commander on duty again.

Kas nodded. “Will you be able to repair the jack with the tools and equipment on board?”

The big man frowned thoughtfully, then shook his head. “I doubt it, Sir.”

“Damn!” Kas cursed. “We’re going to need Starhopper badly!”

Toj shook his head again. “I don’t see the problem, Commodore. Once we get Rekesh on line we could even haul Starhopper in one of her cargo bays!”

Kas shook his head. “First, we don’t even know whether we’ll be able to make Rekesh spaceworthy — and if the med team can’t isolate the plague and produce a vaccine, we may still have to push her into the system’s sun.”

“Second, we may not be the first to reach her. What if someone else has gotten there first and moved her to another system? Starhopper could be all we have.”

“And finally,” he concluded, “Even if we’re the first to reach her and the med team does their job, the Empire’s diplomats still have to arrange passage for her through the independents and the Alliance, so we can get her back to Empire space.”

“We’re the ones that have to let the cookie pushers know we’ve reached Rekesh, and that they should begin negotiating. Which means sending Starhopper to the nearest planet with an Empire embassy or consulate. Remember, the reason we had to go through this whole charade was the fact that you can’t send military vessels unannounced through other peoples’ space. It’s called invasion, and causes wars.”

The big man frowned. “Sorry, sir. I still don’t get it. If we had to sneak out here because nobody would let a military ship pass, why should they let us through now?”

Kas shrugged. “They’ve nothing to lose, now. The only reason they’d have delayed or refused passage for a military ship outbound was the chance that they could find Rekesh first. Once they know we’ve found her, and that the Empire’s been notified, they no longer have a reason to deny the passage.”

“After all,” he continued, “the Empire didn’t ask for passage outbound because we didn’t want to tell anyone that didn’t know that Rekesh had been found, and we didn’t want to give those that did know any hints where to look. So all these systems that have been frantically scouring space for the derelict will now be putting on an innocent face, and loudly proclaiming how happy they are to assist the Empire.” He shrugged. “At least, that’s the theory.”

Toj shook his head in disgust. “I’m glad I’m just a Fleet officer. That political stuff would give me fits.”

Kas shrugged. “I know what you mean. At any rate, it’s important that we get Starhopper repaired. As soon as we can get a medical clearance and begin work on Rekesh we’ve got to send Starhopper to notify the Empire. It’s our insurance policy.”

Toj brightened. “Sheol, sir, I clean forgot! Vir Rekesh is a battle cruiser! She has complete machine shops. And, since Starhopper is military surplus, she’ll have all the prints and templates.” He straightened and grinned. “Don’t worry, sir. With the stuff available aboard Rekesh, I could practically rebuild Starhopper.”

But Kas didn’t share Toj’s excitement. “Don’t forget,” he warned, “ Rekesh is still a plague ship. And she’s dead. Even if you get medical clearance you’d be working in the dark, in zero gee, in a suit. Her AI’s even been shut down so you’d have no comps to help, and you’d have to run power for the machines over from Starhopper.”

Toj’s excitement faded. “Yeah. I’d forgotten about that.” He shrugged. “I still think I could do it if I can get aboard Rekesh.”

Kas shrugged. “That’s up to the medics. Right now I have a higher priority for you.” He turned to Edro, including him in the conversation as he continued.

“I’ve been thinking about how we surprised that Glory because he wasn’t in sensor range of the jump point. I’ve also been thinking that if someone should emerge in that system before we’ve got Rekesh operational, all they’d have to do would be destroy Starhopper and stake their claim.”

“I’d like you two to put your heads together and come up with a small buoy that we can leave at the jump point. What I have in mind is something small enough not to be noticed by someone emerging from the jump point, but that could squirt a single directional warning to us.”

Edro frowned, and muttered to Toj. “How do we know the derelict’s on the same side of the solar system as the jump point?” The big man asked.

Kas shrugged. “We don’t. But if it weren’t I don’t think that trader would have found her. After all, he just stopped there for a recal and detected the ship and the beacon. So I think we can assume it’s on the same side as the jump point.”

Edro muttered again, and Toj nodded. “That also assumes there’s only one jump point in the system.”

“True, but irrelevant. We’ll do what we can. If the derelict is behind the system’s sun, any interloper is unlikely to detect her or us. The safest way is to assume that she’s on the near side. If we station a warning buoy, it can give us a warning without letting the interloper know she’s been detected.”

“But if the buoy broadcasts a warning…” Toj began.

“It won’t,” Kas interrupted. “That’s why I asked for a directional warning. That’s also why I wanted it to be small. It should be small enough to convince sensors that it’s just a space rock. But it has to have enough power to transmit a warning strong enough for us to pick up, on a narrow beam that won’t be picked up by the interloper. I also want it designed and built by the time we emerge in the derelict’s system.”

The two muttered together for a moment. Finally, Toj straightened. “That shouldn’t be a problem, sir. We’ll need a lot of power, but only for a few seconds. I think…” his voice trailed off and he and Edro were again muttering together. After a few moments Kas realized that both men had forgotten that he and Rom were still there. He grinned at Rom and cocked his head in a signal to leave. Toj and Edro had turned out to be kindred spirits in opposites’ bodies. Over the length of the voyage they’d become nearly inseparable.

It was only some thirty hours later that they called Kas to the engineering deck and proudly displayed a gray sphere about a meter in diameter.

“It’s powered by a suit power cell,” Toj began. “The cell’s rigged to overload, so its full power will be discharged to the transmitter in about two seconds. The transmitter’s beam is not as narrow as say, a laser, but we don’t want it to be. Edro’s computed that it should be about as wide as the orbit of an earthlike planet by the time it reaches the liquid-water belt.”

“Great!” Kas enthused. “It doesn’t look like much, though. What’s the gray stuff?”

Toj grinned. “I melted together a mixture of nickel, iron and silicates, then formed it around the components and held it together with an inert binder. Every sensor we’ve tried on it identifies it as a typical space rock.”

Kas nodded. “Excellent work, gentlemen. What kind of signal does it generate?”

Edro muttered to Toj, and the big man replied, “Well, uh, really none, sir. What we’ll get is a two-second burst of static that’ll probably be powerful enough to drown out our comms. Even if we’re on the fringe of the beam we should be able to detect it.”

Kas nodded. “That should work. Now, as soon as we emerge, we’ll kill all motion relative to the jump point and you can go out and position the buoy.”

Not long before they were to emerge, Lady Jane awoke to find Kas sitting up in the middle of the ship’s “night.”

“What is it, Kas? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing important, dear,” he replied, “Just something I’ve been putting off that I have to handle before we get to the Rekesh. I have to take care of the Edro problem.”

She snickered. “And what, pray tell, is the ‘Edro Problem’? I mean, I know he’s shy, but that shouldn’t be something to keep a Commodore awake!”

His smile was wan. “I’m afraid it is." He sighed. "Okay, here goes. You know the Fleet has two types of officers, right?”

She looked puzzled. “I thought an officer was an officer.”

Kas shook his head. “Nope. We come in two flavors: line and staff.” He shrugged. “Line officers are what most people think of when they think of military officers. Whatever his current job, a line officer is first and foremost a commander. It’s the line officer that becomes the captain of a ship, or the commanding officer of a unit or base. Staff officers, on the other hand, are specialists. They need professional qualifications, but don’t really need many military leadership qualities.

“Engineers like Toj are staff officers, and so are legal officers and doctors, among other specialists. Staff officers are accorded the courtesies due their ranks, but regardless of their seniority, they are not in line to command a vessel or station. Their rank is a function of their seniority and technical expertise, not their leadership ability.

“Edro is perfectly suited for a staff commission in Comps and Comms. But his extreme shyness and self-consciousness make him a total disaster as a line officer. I have to give him an ultimatum. Change to staff, or resign. If he won’t change, I’ll have to relieve him of his duties, and wash him out of the Fleet when the mission is over.”

Jane frowned. “Oh, poor Edro. He’s trying so hard, and he’s so good at what he does!”

Kas nodded. “I know. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been putting it off. But I have to take care of it before we start awakening the sleepers.”

She frowned. “Do you think he’ll be willing to change?”

Kas sighed. “I certainly hope so. We’re going to need his skills and expertise badly on the Rekesh, and especially on the way back.”

She rose and walked to him, cradling his head against her breast. “You’ll do the right thing. And so will Edro. Now, come back to bed.”

Kas began by praising Edro’s contributions to the mission but soon got to the point, flatly asking Edro why he held a line commission instead of the staff commission that better suited his personality.

It took over an hour to find out between Edro’s muttered responses and the intricacies of the story. It seemed to be one of those ridiculous circumstances that begin with a simple mistake and get more complicated with every attempt to correct the mistake.

“I’m going to give you a choice, Edro,” he said. “If you want to transfer to a staff specialty like Comps and Comms, submit your request in writing. I’ll approve it, and we’ll make it effective immediately. I’m going to need your talents very badly.”

“But Edro,” he continued, “I must warn you that I consider you totally unsuited to be a line officer. If you insist on remaining one, I’ll have to consider relieving you of duty for the duration of this mission with an eye toward washing you out of the Fleet. Even if we get her operational, Rekesh will be severely undermanned. I will not endanger Fleet personnel by placing you in charge of them.”

Edro nodded. “That’s fair enough, sir. And I’ve already talked to Toj. Transferring would be the answer to a prayer for me! Thank you, sir. I’ll have the request ready in half an hour.”

Kas chuckled. “It doesn’t have to be quite that fast, Edro. As long as I can change your designator to staff before we begin waking up our passengers…”

Edro had his written request prepared in less than an hour, and with a great sense of relief Kas made a production of the change. He wanted the entire crew to be aware of Edro’s changed status.

Toj requested permission to throw a crew party. Since almost a hundred hours remained before they emerged in Rekesh ’s system Kas agreed. The party became a multi-purpose event, celebrating not only Edro’s change of designator, but the fact that no more hurdles remained between them and the system containing Rekesh. To Kas, the party represented a chance for the crew to dissipate the tension that had developed throughout their trip.

Toj had made up pin-on rank insignia for all of them, including a double-size Comp and Comm insignia that he proudly pinned to Edro’s breast while Edro blushed and tried to escape. Enfolding the little man in a massive bear hug, Toj welcomed him to the ranks of the ‘real experts’ and congratulated him on finally escaping the ranks of the ‘truck drivers’. He was forced, grinning, to dodge food thrown by his line shipmates, along with hoots and yells of derision.

The party was a huge success and lasted all night. Kas amazed himself by managing to remain sober, though he admitted to himself the next day that Lady Jane’s attractions had more to do with it than his own intentions.

They had managed to get past their quarrel mainly by ignoring its cause. Kas no longer insisted that Jane keep his encounter with Admiral Lu-Jenks secret, and she no longer mentioned it. Of course, since everyone aboard already knew, she no longer had cause to mention it. That detail was also ignored.

But the party succeeded in relieving the tension and stress of the crew. Everyone was noticeably more relaxed, and the banter and jokes that had become progressively more strained were once again casual and relaxed.

The party had one other unforeseen result: Tera and Rom ended the night in the latter’s cabin, to their own and everyone else’s surprise. For the next day or so, they tiptoed around each other. Even their most innocent conversations were nervous and short. They didn’t have much time to explore their new relationship; the timer clicked down toward emergence.

Despite Kas’ concern the emergence went smoothly. By the time Rom got all their accelerations relative to their emergence point canceled, they were several hundred kilometers from it — perfect for placing their buoy.

“All motion canceled, sir,” Rom reported crisply.

Kas nodded. “Very well.” He thumbed his comm. “Toj, you and Lar are cleared to place the buoy. Be careful to make sure that it’s oriented correctly and stationary relative to the jump point.”

Toj’s “Aye, aye sir!” was crisp and the telltale on Kas’ station indicated that he’d triggered the lock’s outer door almost as soon as Kas had begun speaking. Since Edro was busy scanning for the Rekesh and Kas would not permit a crewmember to work outside alone, Lar Tennig had volunteered to accompany him. Lar had been making himself useful ever since they’d taken him and Lady Jane aboard. By now, everyone considered him almost a member of the crew.

It took only a few minutes to place the buoy. As soon as his station indicated that the lock was cycling for their return Kas told Rom to get them underway. He turned to Edro. “Any luck, Edro?”

The little man shook his head. “No, sir. Sensors aren’t detecting anything, and I’m not getting the plague beacon, either. ‘Course, we’re about a light-hour out. That’s a long way.” He shrugged. “We’ll just have to get closer in.” Surprisingly, his tone was nearly conversational. It seemed removing Edro’s line designator had given him a dose of self-confidence.

Kas sighed. “I hope that plague beacon hasn’t gone dead. A solar system is a big thing to search. Millions of cubic kilometers.”

Rom shrugged. “That trader found her, and he wasn’t even looking. I don’t think we’ll have any trouble finding her, sir.”

Kas frowned. “If she’s still here, and if she’s not crawling with a reactivation crew from the Glory or one of the independents,” he added. “All right, she’ll be in the liquid water belt and certainly in the plane of the ecliptic. We’ll find her.”

“But this system doesn’t have any planets in the liquid water belt,” Rom pointed out. “What makes you think we’ll find the Rekesh there?”

“Several reasons,” Kas replied, and began counting them off on his fingers. “First, there’s the very fact that there aren’t any planets there. The Rekesh ’s Captain knew that she might drift here for centuries. Putting her into an orbit well clear of planets would minimize the chances of collision.”

“Second, he was counting on the ship being salvaged some day, and he knew that ships exploring new systems tend to examine the area around a star where water can exist as a liquid first. So it increased the chances that the ship would be detected and salvaged.”

He sighed. “Finally, there’s just plain old human nature. It’s just habit for humans to concentrate on the liquid water zone along the plane of the ecliptic. He might not have even considered the first two reasons, but I’d bet that in the absence of any reason to the contrary he’d just naturally put her there.”

Whatever her long-dead captain’s reasoning, Vir Rekesh was finally detected some twenty hours later — in the liquid water belt, along the plane of the ecliptic.



Chapter 8

The rest of the crew cheered, but Kas was more reserved. He was pleased that the plague beacon was still running, but his tension mounted as they drew closer. It was only when Edro announced that there were no other vessels nearby that Kas relaxed with a huge sigh.

His eyes were glued to his sensor screens as they approached the derelict. With no planets nearby it was impossible to judge the scale of the ship until they began their final approach. It was then that the true size of the huge derelict became apparent. The hull, its antirad coating pitted by a century of micrometeorites, swelled until it filled the viewscreen then swelled some more, and kept swelling. The half-kilometer-diameter sphere dwarfed Starhopper. In fact, Starhopper could have simply been driven through her open cargo hatches and landed in her hangar bay, had it been empty.

Kas had no intention of docking Starhopper inside the derelict, however. The battle cruiser was a plague ship after all, and while the chance that the plague could get aboard in such circumstances was infinitesimal, Kas was unwilling to risk it. Besides, Rekeash 's hangar deck was crowdeded with nearly a hundred Strengl and Wasp fighters.

So they approached the battle cruiser’s main passenger lock gingerly. Kas canceled all relative motion, leaving only some ten meters between the ships. Then, just as carefully, he rotated Starhopper until her personnel lock faced Rekesh ’s.

After a few moments staring at his console telltales to make sure that they were absolutely motionless relative to the huge derelict, Kas breathed a huge sigh and rose.

“All right, people,” he began briskly, “Time to get to work. Gran, begin reviving the senior med tech. Toj and Edro; we have a complete portable bio lab in the cargo hold. You can begin setting that up. I expect that med tech to want it almost immediately.”

“But I want it set up with its own atmosphere supply and a full decontam airlock. Once it’s set up, we’ll decompress the hold, so no bugs can get loose aboard.” He turned to Lar. “Would you mind giving them a hand, Lar? I can’t order you, but…”

The tall man nodded. “No problem, Capt… uh… Commodore. I’d be glad to help.”

Kas nodded his thanks. “Good. Rom, you’re with me. Nobody goes outside alone, and I have a duty call to make.” He strode from the bridge, Rom following.

Standing in Starhopper ’s airlock the true scale of Vir Rekesh became obvious. Her bulk blotted out the stars. He had to twist his body to see the narrow band of starred space between the hulls. Ten meters in front of him the main passenger lock of the derelict gaped blackly. He was staring at the gaping maw when he saw the magnetic grapple shoot past him. He whirled to see Rom tug on the grapple’s cable to make sure it had solid contact then affix its end to a nearby eyebolt. He forced himself to relax. Rom was just following routine. But somehow it felt wrong — a violation of something sacred. He scowled and shook himself. Damn it, he was no superstitious barbarian from Cutler’s World!

He hooked his safety line to the grapple’s cable and pushed off toward the dead ship. With only ten meters to go, he didn’t even have to pull himself along the safety line. He simply jumped. The blackness of the airlock grew, and he reversed himself to hit feet first. The clang as his magnetic boots gripped the derelict’s hull was plain through his suit. He twisted to see Rom clipping his line onto the grapple cable.

“Rom, I’d appreciate it if you’d give me a few moments before you come over,” He said.

Rom’s bulky figure remained standing on Starhopper ’s hull. If he wondered what Kas was doing, it wasn’t apparent. “Aye, Aye, sir.” was his only reply.

As Kas’ suit’s headlights swept the inside of the lock, they revealed what he’d been expecting; a suited figure drifting tethered near the lock’s inner door. He took a deep breath and approached it. The figure was frozen in a vaguely sitting position. Kas could easily imagine the man, having done all he could to preserve his ship, shutting off his suit’s air and power and simply sitting down to look at the stars until he fell “asleep”.

Frost inside the faceplate of the corpse’s helmet prevented Kas getting a look at its face; but it also indicated that the suit still held atmosphere of a sort. That indicated in turn that the body encased in the suit was probably intact. The man had died, but before decomposition could begin the body would have frozen.

Kas turned off his suit transmitter, then stiffened to attention and rendered a crisp salute to the suited figure. “Permission to come aboard, sir,” he murmured. Surely it was his imagination, but he was sure he heard a whispered “granted…”

He shivered but remained in his formal posture. “I relieve you, sir. You can stand down now,” he continued softly. After a moment he relaxed and stepped forward. He unclipped the line tethering the suited figure to the inside of the lock. He gently maneuvered the corpse out of the lock, and reclipped the tether to a ring outside the lock where the body would no longer impede access to the lock. Then he flicked his transmitter back on and waved at Rom, who jumped across.

Rom looked at Kas oddly. “What was that all about?” He asked.

Kas looked irritated. “It was about me being a sentimental old fool,” he replied. “That is, or was, Lieutenant Rog Fan-Jertril, formerly Third Lieutenant of Vir Rekesh, and her last Captain. The Emperor is looking forward to presenting him a posthumous Empire Star, unless we find evidence contradicting the Lieutenant’s account of events aboard.”

He shrugged, though the motion wasn’t evident through his suit. “Lieutenant Fan-Jertril recorded a diary covering the last six months of the Rekesh ’s mission. I have a copy of the log crystal in my stateroom if you’re interested. It’s a long and not very pleasant story. I’ll be summarizing it at a crew meeting later. For now,” he continued, “Let’s get up to her bridge and collect her official log. Lieutenant Fan-Jertril left it untouched so he couldn’t be accused of possibly tampering with it.”

They began maneuvering through total darkness pierced only by their suit lights and the hand torches that they carried. Kas was familiar with the layout of a battle cruiser and had no difficulty threading his way through the maze of passages. The more they progressed, the more evidence of violence they found. Bulkheads were blackened or bloodstained. Weapons, tools and other impedimenta drifted lazily.

As they approached the bridge they encountered an improvised barrier of furniture and equipment. Black smudges nearly covered the bulkheads. A variety of improvised weapons were scattered about — crude knives, hatchets and even what appeared to be a spear improvised from tubing. There’d been a battle here.

Rom bent to examine the spear, but Kas said, “We’ll be investigating later, Rom. For now let’s get to the bridge.” Rom’s suited figure straightened, and they continued to the bridge, some twenty meters down the passageway.

If there had been bodies on the bridge, they’d been removed; but signs of violence remained. The black smears of dried blood on bulkheads gave mute testimony that a fight had taken place here and people had died. Blaster bolts had also blackened consoles and stations. The Astrogator’s console was completely destroyed, evidently by laser and blaster fire. The complete destruction was obviously purposeful. Other consoles and stations revealed much less damage but all had suffered to some extent.

Kas moved to the command chair and console. It was here that Vir Rekesh ’s captain had given the orders to first maroon his ship, and then defend her. Kas carefully examined the log recorder and pressed the release button. The log crystal popped free. He put it in a pouch at his waist then turned to Rom. “Let’s get out of here,” he said grimly. “I want to view this log crystal.”

Rom nodded clumsily. “Did you expect this? I mean… all this?”

Kas sighed. “Something like it. The Lieutenant described the fighting, but that’s not the same as seeing the aftermath. And I want to hear the various captains’ versions of events.”

They returned to Starhopper in silence. Kas had listened to Lieutenant Fan-Jertril’s diary several times. But hearing his dry, simple descriptions had not prepared Kas for the actuality — the damage, the black smears that proclaimed that here people had died.

Kas called a crew meeting immediately. He had to prepare them for what they would encounter aboard the Rekesh.

“We’ve been so busy trying to make it out here that we haven’t talked much about what we’d find,” he began. He told them about Lieutenant Fan-Jertril and the diary he’d recorded.

He summarized the story of the death of Vir Rekesh and her crew. He described the horror of the plague, the desperation, the mutinies, the loss of hope following the destruction of the Astrogator's station and files. He did not spare any of the captains involved, nor did he sugar-coat or soften the narrative. His crew would soon enough see for themselves the remains of the story. He told of Fan-Jertril, of his efforts to re-establish order, and his efforts to make certain that the future would know that the crew of the Rekesh "died Fleet"

"It was an amazing feat for any officer, and even more so for one only twenty years old," Kas concluded.

Rom had tilted his chair backward. Now there was a thump as the front legs hit the deck. “Twenty!” He exclaimed.

Kas nodded. “He’d been out of the academy less than three years.”

Rom shook his head. “Twenty or no, he was a helluva lot more officer than those other cretins. And that includes that fool To-Ruffin!” He paused. “I think I understand all that when you first went aboard, now.”

“All what?” Lady Jane asked. Her eyes were bright with unshed tears.

Kas reddened. “Nothing!” he growled.

Tears were streaming openly down Tera’s face. She made no effort to wipe them away. “I think it’s the most beautiful story I’ve ever heard. That poor boy! That poor, wonderful boy!”

Toj snorted. “Not ‘boy’. ‘Man’. A man by any definition.”

Kas nodded. “All right. Now I’ve told you this story to prepare you for what you’re going to encounter over there. And also to warn you. At least early on, we’ll be assisting the medical and technical teams. Once we get medical clearance, if we do, we’ll begin waking the crew that’ll actually man the Rekesh.”

“Now, they’ve been hand-picked for this mission. The problem is that they were picked for their technical expertise, not their military attributes.”

Rom snorted. “You mean innerworld airheads.”

Kas shook his head. “Not exactly. Airheads wouldn’t be technically competent enough to be selected. But a man can be an outstanding gunner, say, and still be an innerworld bigot.” He shifted his gaze to Tera. “Or a chauvinist pig. After seeing Rekesh I’m concerned. Oh, we won’t be telling them the whole story. But there’ll be no concealing the blaster marks on the bulkheads or the blood stains.”

He shrugged. “Mutiny can breed mutiny. Don’t let your guard down. Remember, Fan-Jertril and his people didn’t bother picking up weapons — they’re probably scattered all over that ship. And also remember that Fan-Jertril reported at least two dozen stills over there, and he hints that there may have been drug labs. Alcohol, drugs and weapons are a deadly combination.”

Rom shrugged. “So we search her for stills and labs and pick up loose weapons. Even if we have to wait a bit to begin reviving the crew it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Kas grinned sourly. “What’s the volume of a sphere five hundred meters in diameter?”

Edro chimed in immediately. “Sixty five and a half million cubic meters.”

Kas nodded. “How long do you think it would take you to search that volume, Rom? Think it might take more than a few hours?”

Rom grinned sheepishly. “I keep forgetting what a big bitch she is.”

Kas answered his grin before resuming. “All right. Now to the nuts and bolts. That ship is dead. Completely dead. No atmosphere, no lights, no gravs. Any work that gets done over there will have to be done in suits. Only Rom, Toj and I have current suit quals. You others will have to begin practicing immediately. You've all been using suits recently, but I want you to complete the formal qualifications.

“Once Toj gets that portable bio lab set up we’ll be depressurizing Starhopper ’s hold and we can use it for practice. Rom will oversee the training, and Toj will help once the bio lab’s set up. Since this is just a refresher, it shouldn’t take long to get you all back up to speed — and I want you to hurry, because as soon as your suit quals are current you can expect to begin training a bunch of med techs with little or no suit experience. They’re going to have to be suit-qualified. If nothing else they’ll have to be able to get to and from the bio lab.”

He turned to Gran. “How long before the head med tech is thawed?”

Gran smiled and glanced at his ring watch. “He should be regaining consciousness in about an hour, sir.”

Kas nodded. “Good. Let me know as soon as he’s conscious. I’ll need to talk with him as soon as possible.”

Gran nodded. “Yes, sir.”

Kas dismissed the group. Lady Jane and Lar approached him. “You forgot to give us jobs, Commodore,” she said with a grin.

He answered her grin. “No, I didn’t. You don’t work for me. You’ve kept your part of our bargain. From here on out you’re passengers.”

Lar snorted, and Lady Jane got a dangerous expression. “You mean you just want us to sit around on our hands? Don’t tell me you’re going to pull that ‘military business’ crap on me!” A flush began creeping up her neck.

Kas could see trouble coming. “No, no! That isn’t what I meant, at all! Uh, I just meant that you’re not under my command. You don’t have to do anything. No, I’d be delighted to have your help!”

The flush began to recede. Lar, standing behind Lady Jane, was struggling to suppress laughter. Her eyes suddenly narrowed, and she whirled to confront him, hands on hips. “And what are you grinning at, you elongated slith?” She demanded.

Lar raised his hands in front of his face. “Nothing, Lady, nothing at all! Uh, Commodore,” he continued in a desperate attempt to sidestep her anger. “Both of us have current suit quals. I’d be happy to help Toj get that bio lab set up.” Kas nodded, and Lar fled. Now Kas was the one struggling to suppress a grin.

Lady Jane turned back to Kas, and her expression relaxed into a smile. “All right. What do you want me to do?”

Kas shrugged. “You could help Rom run that refresher. Based on what I've seen so far on this mission, I suspect that Edro and Tera, at least, are pretty rusty.” He relaxed. “I’m really going to need them shortly. And once their quals are up to date, you can help teach a bunch of civilian med techs.”

She rolled her eyes. “Now that could be a challenge!”

Tera was waiting outside the door. “Sir, could I borrow that poor boy’s diary chip? You tell his story so well that… well… I’d like to hear the original.”

Kas nodded and she accompanied him to his cabin, where he gave her the copy of Lieutenant Fan-Jertril’s memoir.

He’d barely returned to the wardroom for a cup of caf when Gran hailed him to tell him that the head med tech was awake. “He’s screaming to be taken to his lab and demanding to see the person in charge immediately.”

Kas rolled his eyes. “Oh, no. All right, tell him I’ll be there shortly.”

The man shouting at Gran was not physically impressive. He was short and pudgy, with thinning black hair trying vainly to cover his gleaming pate. Clad only in a sheet, he did not appear to be having notable success in intimidating the Lieutenant.

Gran turned to him with obvious relief. “Thank you for coming down, sir.”

The small man whirled to face Kas. “Are you in charge here?” He demanded, interrupting Gran. “Tell this cretin to fetch my clothes immediately! This is intolerable! I demand to get dressed and be shown to my room immediately! If this is any indication of how the fleet operates, it’s no wonder the Empire’s going to the canines!”

Kas clamped down on his temper. “I’m Commodore Kas Preslin,” he replied. “And you are…”

“Doctor Ver Ro-Lecton,” Gran hastened to supply. “He’s in charge of the medical team.”

The man sniffed. “Hmph. I am Director of Epidemiology at the Empire Center for Disease Control,” he proclaimed, “not just head of some team. Preslin, eh? Outerworlder, no doubt. Hmph. Now please have my clothes fetched immediately and begin resuscitating my staff. Some of us have work to do.”

Kas’ eyes narrowed, and his seething temper threatened to erupt despite his efforts at control. “You don’t have any clothes here, Doctor,” he explained. “You will be wearing a shipsuit like the rest of us.”

The little man waved dismissal. “Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I have clothes. I brought three suitcases aboard.”

Kas suppressed an evil smile. “Oh, yes. I remember, now. You’re the fool that brought all that luggage to the field despite strict instructions that you would only be permitted a small canister of personal effects.”

Ro-Lecton snorted. “Certainly that requirement didn’t apply to me!”

Kas shook his head in mock sadness. “Certainly it did apply to you. As far as I know your bags are still sitting on the blast apron at Prime base, if they haven’t been stolen by now.”

The little man looked stunned. “Impossible! You wouldn’t! You didn’t!”

“I would. I did. There was a reason for that limitation, Doctor. We were well searched on our way here. If your luggage had been aboard it would have betrayed the fact that we were not what we claimed to be. Your vanity would have endangered the entire mission.”

Ro-Lecton started to reply, but Kas bulled on. “Now, I suggest that you put on your shipsuit. Then you and I can go to my cabin, where we have much to discuss.”

Shaking with anger, Ro-Lecton donned the shipsuit, muttering the whole while about uppity barbarians.

As soon as they reached Kas’ cabin, Ro-Lecton began repeating his litany of outrage before he even sat down.

Kas whirled on him. “Shut up and sit down!” He snapped, seething with anger. The startled Doctor, stunned by Kas’ obvious fury, sat.

He opened his mouth to speak, but Kas forestalled him. “All right, Doctor,” he spat, “Let’s get this situation clarified right now. First. You are not in charge here. I am. This is a military operation and I command it. That man that you were ordering around like a servant down there is a highly trained Fleet officer. He does not have to tolerate that kind of abuse from a civilian, and I will not permit it to happen again. There are no servants here, and except for two guests you are the only civilian now awake. You will treat all Fleet personnel with courtesy and consideration. Is that clear?”

Ro-Lecton jumped to his feet. “You can’t talk to me like that! You have no right…”

Kas keyed the intercom, interrupting the man’s tirade. “Rom, would you come to my cabin, please? Bring a sidearm.” He turned back to the small man. “Now, I don’t know if this pompous ass routine is just an act you use to intimidate subordinates, or if you are really as stupid and fatuous as you seem. But either way it will not be tolerated here. You are under military authority out here — mine. And that means that I will enforce military ideas of discipline. Is that clear?”

The little med tech sputtered in speechless outrage. “How dare you talk to me in such a fashion? I’ll have you cashiered for this!” Kas let him continue his tirade until there was a knock at the door. At Kas’ growled “Come in”, Rom stepped through.

Kas nodded and winked at Rom before roaring, “Silence!” at the still-complaining Ro-Lecton.

“Doctor,” he resumed when the man fell silent, “You obviously have no concept of the meaning or extent of military discipline. Rom, aim your weapon at Doctor Ro-Lecton.” Suddenly the doctor was staring openmouthed at the belled muzzle of a blaster only centimeters from his nose.

“Now kill him.” Kas continued.

Ro-Lecton’s head jerked to stare at Kas, then back to Rom’s finger, slowly tensing on the firing stud of the blaster. He snorted derisively, but there was an edge of fear in his eyes. “You wouldn’t dare harm me!” He exclaimed. But his eyes were glued to Rom’s trigger finger as it continued taking up slack in the trigger stud. “No!” He suddenly bleated. He slipped from his chair to his knees, a dark stain spreading at the crotch of his shipsuit. “Please!” he begged.

“Stop, Rom,” Kas said softly. Rom’s finger relaxed but the blaster remained sighted on the civilian’s head. Kas felt a flood of pity, shame, and embarrassment for the man’s obvious terror. Rom’s expression mirrored his own feelings.

Ro-Lecton slumped in relief. Then he raised his head to stare at Rom. “You were really going to kill me!” he said in an accusing tone.

Rom shrugged. “Of course. The Commodore ordered it.” His tone was offhand.

Kas sighed. “Put it away, Rom. And get Doctor Re-Lecton a clean shipsuit, will you?” Rom nodded, then threw Kas a quick grin and wink behind the civilian’s back and slipped out.

“Now, Doctor,” Kas said as the man shakily resumed his seat. “I didn’t do this to humiliate you. It was obvious that you had absolutely no idea what you’d gotten into, and that you weren’t prepared for explanations. Oh, I could have spent the next several hours trying to explain it to you but you wouldn’t have been listening, and I didn’t have the time to pander to a pompous fool.”

“But now, perhaps you understand the difference between a civilian director and a military commander. I ordered Rom to kill you. If I hadn’t stopped him he’d have done it. If he’d refused, I could have had him shot for dereliction of duty. If he had done it, he would not have been held responsible; I would. But I would have been responsible to my superiors only insofar as justifying the need for your death. It would not be considered murder as long as I could provide a reasonable explanation of its necessity in terms of my mission.”

He sighed. “Now. If we’re quite finished playing games and you finally understand who’s in charge, we can get down to business. Despite the fact that we got off on the wrong foot I’m depending on you. If your people can’t complete their part of the mission, we’ll have to push an Empire warship into this system’s sun. That will not please the Emperor. A battle cruiser costs billions of crowns and takes years to build.

“It wouldn’t please me, either. I didn’t bring this ship and these people all the way out here, and kill a hundred and fifty people just to push the Rekesh into the sun and return home.”

Ro-Lecton looked stunned. “A hundred and fifty…”

Kas nodded and interrupted him. “Yes, a hundred and fifty people. It was necessary for me to destroy a Glory corvette in order to get you out here.”

The med tech was regaining his equilibrium. “Oh. Well, they were only…”

Kas interrupted again. “Only what, Doctor? Only military people? Or only Glories? Either way they were people, Doctor. People trying to do their duty. I might not have liked them personally, or liked their ideas of duty, or liked what they believed in. But they were people, Doctor. Military people just like me. They threatened my mission, and I did my duty.”

He sighed. “Now, Doctor, it’s time for you to do your duty.”

Ro-Lecton looked uncomfortable. “I’m sorry, Admiral. I didn’t realize how that sounded. And I apologize for my manner.”

Kas nodded and relaxed slightly. “It’s ‘Commodore’, not ‘Admiral’.” He sighed again. “Look, Doctor. I’m going to be brutally honest with you. In my experience, scientific and medical types who become ‘directors’ and ‘administrators’ and ‘chairmen’ fall into two categories.

“First, there’s the man who is very good at what he does. He becomes so good that he is promoted frequently, and honored and respected by his peers. At some point he is offered an administrative position as a ‘Director’ or ‘Chairman’ or something. It’s generally sold as being an honor, recognition of his standing in his profession. It’s only after he accepts that he learns it’s really a trap — that he is no longer permitted to actively do what he has loved. Instead, his life now consists of bullying and wheedling and cajoling politicians and fat cats in pursuit of funding. That type is not usually very happy, but they feel that they can’t resign. For them Administration is a tragedy.”

“The second type is completely different. Generally they’re only mediocre-to-competent in their chosen field. They recognize this fairly early on, and do their best to move from direct pursuit of their specialty into some sort of administrative position. These are the people who quickly move into positions such as ‘Assistant to the Deputy Administrator’ or some other glorified clerical position. Since they’re better at administration and politicking than science or medicine, they progress up that ladder instead of the technical side.”

Kas shrugged. “I sincerely hope that you’re the first type, Doctor. We can’t afford the second. The Rekesh had a full complement of medical staff, and they were completely unable to isolate or cure whatever was killing the crew — and them.”

Ro-Lecton relaxed slightly. But there was something in his eyes that told Kas that the little doctor would neither forgive nor forget the terror and humiliation he’d endured. “You may be assured, Commodore,” he said in a patient, condescending tone, “that my skills are neither ‘mediocre’ nor merely ‘competent’. At the risk of sounding immodest, had you bothered to consult any of the many sources available you’d have found that I am considered the Empire’s premier Epidemiologist. I was sent a letter signed by His Imperial Highness himself asking me to head this mission!” He paused for a moment. The pride in his tone had been unmistakable.

“Now,” He resumed in a businesslike voice, “How soon can we begin work? When can you have my team resuscitated? When can we move to the

… whatever it was… the big ship…”

Kas frowned. “There seems to be a misunderstanding, Doctor. You won’t be going aboard Rekesh for some time. Until you’ve finished your work, in fact. We have what I have been told is a complete portable bio lab aboard. The lab is being set up in the cargo bay as we speak. It will have its own atmosphere supply and an airlock with full decontam built in. Once it’s set up, we’ll be evacuating the hold. That means that you and your people will have to wear suits to and from the lab. I’m taking no chances with this thing.”

Ro-Lecton frowned. “I doubt my people have much, if any, experience with spacesuits. Of course, we’re all skilled at working in isolation suits, so perhaps it won’t be much different. What I don’t understand, Commodore, is why we can’t just work aboard the… Rekesh? I was told that she had a fully equipped bio lab.”

Kas nodded. “She does.” He sighed. “You really don’t seem to understand the situation, Doctor. The Rekesh is a dead ship. She’s been dead for over a century. No atmosphere. No gravity. No power. The last survivors shut her down completely, and then opened her to space.”

“Opened her to space? You mean the whole ship’s been in vacuum for over a century?”

Kas nodded again. “We think so, Doctor, though we haven’t verified that by searching through her.”

Ro-Lecton looked puzzled. “Then why do you need us? I mean, no microorganism could survive a century of the vacuum and cold of space.”

Kas shrugged. “Don’t you mean ‘known microorganism’, Doctor?”

Ro-Lecton flushed. “Of course. Sorry.”

“We don’t know what the ship might have picked up,” Kas continued, “or where. The ship’s last Commanding Officer left us a log crystal with his diary on it and several crystals that he gathered in the med lab, in hopes that their work would give us a head start. Weren’t you given those crystals, Doctor?”

Ro-Lecton nodded. “Yes, of course. But whoever gathered them wasn’t a medical man. The crystals are incomplete, and fragments. The first thing on my “to do” list is to board the ship and get the rest of the crystals from it. They’ll provide us with a starting point. Them and any cadavers that might have survived.”

Kas chuckled grimly. “Cadavers are no problem, Doctor. The bodies of the crew were gathered up and put into cargo nets in the hangar bay, which was then decompressed. They’ve been frozen in vacuum for a hundred years, waiting for you — and for a decent burial. But Doctor,” he added, “Please don’t forget that these are not just frozen cadavers donated to a medical school for study. They are Fleet crewmembers who died doing their duty. They are to be treated with respect.”

The little doctor’s grin was rueful. “Yes. As you can see, I’m unaccustomed to working in space. In most epidemics, getting undecomposed corpses to study can be a difficult task. Here, it appears to be the easiest and getting to and from the lab will be the hardest. Odd.” He shrugged. “But it’s still vital that I get aboard that ship and retrieve their medical files — all of them. There’s no sense even beginning work until we learn what was done by the ship’s medical personnel.”

Kas explained to the doctor that it would be several days at least before his entire twelve-person team was revived. He also reminded Ro-Lecton that he could not board the plague ship until he had learned to move and work in a suit — at least a week.

Ro-Lecton howled. But Kas couldn’t relent. There was no way to get the doctor on board the plague ship except in a suit — and suits contain so many ways for its wearer to kill himself that it would be criminally careless to allow Ro-Lecton to board Rekesh without a proper suit check-out.

“Now,” Kas continued when Ro-Lecton paused for breath, “You’ll need to give Gran a list of the people you need revived and the order in which you’ll need them, so he can begin waking them. While they’re being revived, I’ll have one of my crew give you a quick suit checkout. Then you can examine the bio lab and I’ll take you over to Rekesh myself.”

Lady Jane took Ro-Lecton in hand for an accelerated vacuum-suit qualification.

Chapter 9

Kas called a crew meeting. “I’m concerned about security,” he began. “If that alarm we set went off right now, we’d be nearly helpless. Oh, we’d have time to get the lasers on-line, but they wouldn’t be much protection against a frigate or destroyer.”

Lady Jane was frowning. “You don’t really believe that the navies of the Alliance or the independents would attack us, do you, Kas? I mean, well, maybe the Glory. They consider anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs less than human. But the others…”

Rom snorted. “I know Admirals in the Imperial Fleet who wouldn’t be above a bit of murder for a prize like the Rekesh!”

Kas nodded. “Rom is right. The skipper who brought the Rekesh back to one of the independents would be a planetary hero. Nobody would bother asking uncomfortable questions.”

“So,” he continued, “It’s essential that we get some protection. Toj, how long before that bio lab is operational?”

The big man frowned in thought. “I should have it ready by lunch tomorrow. Then we can decompress the cargo bay to test for leaks.”

Kas nodded again. “All right. As soon as you can, decompress. If there’re no leaks leave the bay in vacuum and run out the lasers. They’re not much protection, but they’re what we’ve got.”

He turned to Rom. “We’ll be going aboard the Rekesh tomorrow, Rom. If possible we want to try to get some of her weaponry on line. I also want to shut off that damned plague beacon. We homed on it, so could someone else. Gran, I’d like to have you along, but you’re going to be tied up with reviving cold-sleepers for some time. Rom, Toj and I will have to handle it.”

Rom nodded. “Shouldn’t be a problem, sir. I’m sure we can rig something.”

Toj shifted uncomfortably. “It may be harder than you think, sir,” he rumbled. “The weapons systems have three independent fusactors powering them. One powers the port and one the starboard laser and particle beam weapons. The third is much larger, and provides power and plasma for the plasma cannons. And then, of course, there's the big one that powers the shields.” He shrugged. “Getting the fusactors on-line should be fairly straightforward, especially if they were properly shut down. But with the ship’s AI dead…”

Kas frowned. “I thought there were independent weapons comps that could run the weapons systems even if the AI were gone,” he said. “There are smaller comp systems all through the ship if I remember correctly. Otherwise, a hit to the AI would leave the ship helpless.”

Toj nodded. “That’s the theory. But crews get pretty lax about keeping the backup comps at top readiness. A lot of jury-rigging can take place over a century.”

Kas grinned with relief. “That should be no problem. You’re thinking of her as a hundred-year-old ship. But she was only twelve years old when she disappeared. You might say she’s been in storage since.”

The big man’s somber expression lit up with a huge grin. “Of course, sir! She’s not a hundred-year-old ship — she’s a twelve-year-old ship! If her battle comps weren’t damaged in the rioting, we should be able to get almost all her weapons systems operational.”

Toj’s assessment turned out to be correct. It took only thirty hours to get nearly all of the cruiser’s weapons systems online. Fuel and reaction mass were brought over from Starhopper. Kas didn’t want to take the time to find and activate the cruiser’s stores comp.

It was with a great sense of relief that Kas keyed the switch and saw the Gunnery Officer’s console on the battle cruiser’s bridge come alive. In the airlessness, it was impossible to hear the comp’s verbal readiness report, but the console indicator dials and lights assured Kas of the system’s readiness.

He wouldn’t pressurize the Rekesh ’s bridge, of course. There would be no atmosphere aboard Vir Rekesh until the medical staff certified her safe from contamination. He set the controls for nonverbal reporting, and reported the console’s readings to Toj. Then he muttered a prayer to any god that happened by and punched the button that should launch a practice target.

There was no sound, but after a panicked moment, a blip appeared at the bottom of the main gunnery display, driving away from the ship. At its preselected point the target’s tiny onboard comp began running it through an array of zigs, zags, and wild, unpredictable course changes. Kas keyed a trigger, and his screen showed the target narrowly dodging a laser beam made luminous by the gunnery comp. Without atmospheric particles to excite, of course, the beam itself was invisible. He keyed another, and a particle beam swept space just vacated by the target.

Kas growled. This was really just a test to see if the weapons functioned, but there was no way he was going to let that damned target get away. He was hampered by his space suit, but began playing the console as though it were a musical instrument. Gunnery had always been one of his favorite activities. Still, the target managed to evade him for nearly thirty seconds. Then he triggered a particle beam and immediately followed it with a laser bolt. The target jinked away from the particle beam and directly into the laser bolt. Kas snorted and jerked a nod as the target disintegrated. Then he breathed a huge sigh of relief. If another vessel showed up now, at least he could give them a fight. Then he chuckled and decided that he would get some refresher weapons practice as soon as the mission was completed.

He set up a weapons watch schedule on the dead ship’s bridge. There was some minor complaining, but even the most dedicated bitcher had to admit that the huge ship’s awesome weaponry was a comfort.

It was another thirty hours before Lady Jane pronounced Ro-Lecton sufficiently skilled with a suit to go over to the derelict. “And am I ever glad!” She exclaimed. “That pompous windbag isn’t stupid, but I’d swear he was purposely acting obtuse just to annoy me!”

Kas grinned. “You only got half of it. I got the rest — his incessant demands to be taken over to the Rekesh immediately if not sooner, and damn the suit training.” He sighed. “Well, I promised to take him over to the Rekesh personally and he’d probably get all insulted again if I tried to pawn him off on someone else. Unless you’d like to volunteer…” he trailed off hopefully.

“No chance!” The answer was immediate and firm. “The less I see of that little… man, the better for all concerned — including him.” She frowned and her tone turned serious. “Watch out for him, Kas. He’s been pumping all of us for information about you. He doesn’t like you — and when that kind of stredd doesn’t like someone he’ll go to any length to cause them trouble.”

The little doctor was excited as a kid about the prospect of finally going to the huge ship. His enthusiasm even overcame his pomposity, and he seemed to regard it as a great adventure.

Kas had been aware that Ro-Lecton was gathering information to use against him but there was little he could do about it. At the moment, he needed Ro-Lecton too much. He’d been planning to have a discussion with the little man, but he decided to wait until they returned from the Rekesh.

Finally, they were ready. “Now remember, Doctor,” he began for the dozenth time, “keep your safety line clipped to me at all times except when you’re jumping across.”

Ro-Lecton nodded wearily. “Yes, Commodore. And I won’t even think of jumping without it being clipped to the guide line between the ships.”

Kas started to reply, then realized that whatever he was going to say had already been said many times. He grinned and clipped his line to the guide line. “Then follow me!” He shouted. He flicked off the switch controlling his boot magnets, and jumped easily across the ten meters separating the ships. Halfway across he flipped himself so as to contact the cruiser feet first, and switched on his boot magnets.

When Kas felt his boots contact the cruiser’s hull he twisted to watch as the doctor began to jump. Ro-Lecton crouched a bit to push off but was slow to switch off his boot magnets. As a result, he didn’t have enough momentum to cross the ten meters between the ships and bobbed helplessly around the guide line at its midpoint, crying “Commodore! Help! Help!”

“Easy! Easy!” Kas tried to soothe the panicked man. “Relax, Doctor. You’re not in trouble. Calm down.”

Kas’ soothing must have worked — the suited figure stopped flailing in panic. “Well? What do I do now?” Ro-Lecton asked, an edge of panic showing under the pompous impatience in his tone.

“Take it easy, Doctor,” Kas repeated. “You’re not in trouble. Just grab your safety line at your waist. That’s it. Now pull yourself along it until you reach the big guide line. Good. Now just start pulling yourself along the guide line. That’s it. See? No problem.”

Ro-Lecton’s heavy, rasping breathing began to slow as he lost the edge of panic he’d been feeling. “Rather more excitement than I’d expected,” he commented in an almost-normal tone.

Kas coached him through reversing his position so he’d hit feet-first, and reminded him to turn on the boots’ magnets. Kas grinned at the sigh of relief that escaped the doctor as his boots stuck to the cruiser’s hull.

Ro-Lecton indicated the suited body tethered outside the airlock. “Well,” he began, “That’ll be one cadaver that won’t be hard to retrieve.”

Kas stiffened. “That’s one cadaver that you won’t be retrieving, doctor. The Emperor is anxiously awaiting Lieutenant Fan-Jertril’s arrival, so he can award him a posthumous Empire Star and a ceremonial funeral. He was one of the last three survivors, and the Rekesh ’s last Commanding Officer.”

Ro-Lecton frowned. “You say one of the last three? Then there are two others. That’s all right then. You must understand, Commodore. I’m going to need to autopsy some of the earliest victims, and very importantly, the very last to die. I gather that the last three didn’t die of the plague?”

Kas frowned. “Sorry. I forgot that you don’t know the story. Yes, there should be two others, in suits, at the ships other two personnel locks. Frankly, we haven’t checked. But they’re the ones that opened the ship to space.”

Ro-Lecton sighed. “Yes. I have mixed emotions about them opening the ship to space. Oh, I understand their reasoning. Of course, they were assuming that the infection agent was airborne, which we don’t know. But it greatly complicates my job. It would be much easier if I had a sample of the live virus, or whatever it is.”

Kas shuddered. “I’d just as soon you never had a live sample, Doctor. It killed almost two thousand people in a matter of weeks.” He paused. “But if you need contaminated atmosphere, I’ll have my crew check the other locks to make sure they’ve been opened. One of the others might have lost his nerve and not opened her. Even if they did, and the entire ship is in vacuum some contaminated atmosphere should remain in the last men’s space suits — though the oxygen might be depleted.”

“Would they still be holding air after a hundred years?”

Kas shrugged and pointed. “That one is. And there’s been nothing that could degrade the suits except micrometeorites. You might say they’ve been stored in vacuum.” He started into the lock. “Prepare yourself, Doctor,” he continued. “Three thousand people don’t just lie down and die quietly. This ship saw two mutinies, riots, and even drunken orgies. The bodies were gathered up, as I mentioned — but there are bloodstains and signs of battle everywhere we’ve been aboard her.” He hesitated. “The survivors were too sick to worry about cleaning up the mess.”

Kas saw the doctor’s grim nod through his clear faceplate. “I’m an epidemiologist, Commodore,” he replied. “I’ve seen the aftermath of plagues before. I was in charge of a team on Acqueon.”

Kas shuddered. Acqueon had been a settled, populous planet — a trading hub. Somehow, a plague had broken out. The Empire sent immediate help, but the final survival rate had been just over five percent. Those few survivors had been relocated to other planets. There were simply too few keep civilization going on the planet. Acqueon was still uninhabited thirty years later, despite the fact that the plague had been identified and a cure found. The only visitors to Acqueon now were the particularly brave or particularly foolish salvagers that sneaked past the picket buoys to strip the empty cities. Maybe Ro-Lecton was more than a pompous dilettante after all.

The design of stellar class battle cruisers hadn’t changed significantly in more than two centuries. Kas didn’t need maps or schematics — she was identical to the Ka-Tora, on which Kas had served as a Lieutenant Commander. So he was able to lead Ro-Lecton straight to the sickbay and its attached bio lab.

Even in the blackness relieved only by the stark pools of their hand lights, it was obvious the sickbay was in ruins. Oh, there were signs of battle, all right, but most of the damage seemed to have come from looting and vandalism. That wasn’t surprising. More than a few of the crew would have decided that if they were going to die they’d do it in a drug-induced haze. Others would have been looking for poisons, for a quick, painless end. The vandalism would be the result of resentment of the medical personnel who’d failed them.

Ro-Lecton’s tone was businesslike. “Obviously, it could take some time to search through this for memory crystals. I hope the bio lab’s in better shape.”

There was an improvised barricade in front of the separate airlock of the bio lab, and a litter of weapons drifted in the weightlessness. Obviously, someone — probably medical personnel — had fought to defend the lab. The bio lab’s airlock doors were latched back. Kas brushed aside a crude axe whose head was covered with black stains drifting in the weightlessness.. He stepped through, followed by the doctor.

Ro-Lecton breathed a huge sigh of relief as his light revealed little damage or destruction. The light steadied on an empty rack atop a table. “This must be where your Lieutenant gathered those memory crystals,” he commented. “He just grabbed all that were in plain view.”

Kas grinned sourly. “He did have a few other things on his mind at the time, Doctor.”

Ro-Lecton’s suit bobbed slightly and Kas assumed that the doctor had nodded. “I’m sure he did.” The tone was dry. “But I’m also sure that any competent medical personnel would make sure that records of their work survived. There should be a storage… Ah!” The triumph in his tone was clear. Ro-Lecton hurried clumsily toward a small file cabinet in a corner of the lab.

“If I were a med tech and I knew that rioters might get in here and vandalize the place, I’d put the memory crystals in a plain box and stuff them into the back of the bottom drawer of a cabinet full of papers where nobody looking for drugs or poisons would bother with them,” the little man continued. He jerked open the bottom drawer of the cabinet and shifted the file folders it contained. Behind the file folders was a stack of papers lying flat. Ro-Lecton cursed as his clumsy gloved hands lifted the papers, which began to drift away. A small box lay on the bottom of the drawer. The doctor pounced on the box. “Ha! I was sure…”

Kas chuckled. “You might want to look inside the box before you congratulate yourself, Doctor. You might be getting all excited about a box of rubber bands.”

But the box was nearly full of memory crystals as Ro-Lecton had predicted. It was all Kas could do to get the little man to contain his enthusiasm and concentrate on working his way back out of the dead ship.

Ro-Lecton almost assaulted him when he told the little doctor that he would not be able to take the box of crystals to his stateroom for study but Kas was adamant. “You’ll take them to your bio lab. Nothing from that ship goes anywhere else aboard Starhopper,” he insisted. Then he found himself trapped into escorting Ro-Lecton to the bio lab, since he himself had decreed that no one aboard was to work in vacuum alone.

Kas decided it was a good thing the lasers Starhopper mounted were on tracks. Only with them in their deployed position near the open cargo doors was there room for the portable bio lab. The lab formed a flat cylinder some twenty meters in diameter and three high. It consisted of pie-shaped sections that had been bolted together and sealed. A cylindrical airlock protruded from the main cylinder, its exterior festooned with the components of the decontam system.

They entered the airlock and Kas secured the outer hatch. As soon as the hatch was secured the decontam routine began. Both men stood with legs apart and arms stretched outward from their shoulders as their suited forms were bathed in rays that would be lethal to an unsuited man. Finally, a cloud of gas appeared, designed to penetrate the tiniest crack or crevice in their suits. As the gas was sucked into vents near the nozzles Kas took two deep breaths, held his breath and unsealed his helmet.

The lock was now pressurized, but with an inert gas. Kas grabbed for the breathing mask that dangled from the ceiling of the lock, and looked to make sure that Ro-Lecton was following his lead. He cursed himself silently as he realized that the little doctor would be much more familiar with decontam procedures than Kas was.

With the breathing mask secured to his face, he unsuited. Any contaminants that had survived the earlier treatments should be destroyed by the lack of oxygen. He hoped.

They hung the space suits on a rack near the lock’s outer door. Ro-Lecton handed Kas an isolation suit that resembled an oversized, thin space suit made of clear plas. In place of the self-contained air tanks on the back, these had a large umbilical hose that slid along a track in the ceiling. They also had gloves that were much more useful than those of a space suit. These had to be pulled on, stretching into place and gave the wearer the ability to easily handle delicate tasks. The isolation suit’s air was fresh but had that definite but indefinable taste that marked air from tanks.

Ro-Lecton keyed the button that would pump the inert gas into holding tanks, and release the same breathing mixture that filled the lab itself. If their air supply was interrupted somehow, they’d be able to unseal and breathe the mixture that pressurized the lab. Of course, the risk of biological contamination in such a case was very high despite the fact that the air was continually cycled through the most effective scrubbers available.

A light above the inner door turned green, and Ro-Lecton released the inner door and hurried into the lab itself.

Kas looked around the lab. The overhead tracks that supported the umbilicals crisscrossed the ceiling, permitting the suited med techs access to all areas of the lab. The lab itself seemed spartan and cluttered. There were no windows or ports, of course. Tables seemed to be everywhere, and packed between and on top of them, seemingly haphazardly, were crates and boxes. Obviously, Toj had the foresight to put the boxes and crates containing the lab’s equipment and supplies inside as he assembled the lab and before sealing it. Ro-Lecton’s crew were going to spend their first several days in the lab unpacking and setting up, but at least they wouldn’t have to change in and out of space suits to carry the lab’s equipment inside.

Ro-Lecton scrambled over crates, examining labels. After a few minutes, he crowed in triumph and dragged a smallish box to a clear place on a table, where he unpacked a new crystal reader. The eyepieces on the reader were oversized and oddly shaped. It took Kas a moment to realize that the reader was designed for use with the isolation suits.

Ro-Lecton snapped a power cell into place on the unit, then, eyes glued to the eyepieces, adjusted the machine’s parameters for initial use. Trembling with excitement, he slipped a crystal from the box he’d been clutching into the socket.

“Hah!” He crowed. “This is it! Oh, they’re all jumbled together, of course, and we’ll have to put them in order. But that’s no problem.” He turned to Kas with a huge grin. “I imagine that nearly all of the ship’s medical staff’s research is here!” The grin faded. “But really, Commodore. We have to come up with a way for me to study this information in my stateroom. Neither of us wants to wait until my whole team is awake and the lab is operational.”

Kas frowned. Though he’d never admit it he agreed with the doctor. They couldn’t afford the time. “We’ll talk with my comm tech,” he said finally. He broke into a grin. “If there’s a way in the universe that it can be done, Edro’s the man to do it.”

It was the best answer he could have made, he realized a few moments later. It was probably the only way Ro-Lecton could have been convinced to leave the box of crystals he’d been clutching and let himself be led back through the airlock, into his space suit and back to the habitable part of Starhopper.

A shrug and a “No problem, sir,” was Edro’s only response when the question was put to him. “A reader is basically an electronic decoder, changing the alignment of the crystal’s matrix into readable text. Toj and I can breadboard a transmitter that’ll just intercept the signal on its way to the screen and transmit it to wherever you want. How about to another reader in your stateroom, Doctor?”

Ro-Lecton nodded excitedly. “That’d be wonderful, Lieutenant,” he enthused.

Kas cleared his throat. “Uh, Doctor, wouldn’t it be more useful to copy the contents of the Rekesh ’s crystals to some of our own? I mean, transmit the signal to some sort of recorder? That way you’d have a permanent copy.” He paused. “In fact, we could just have someone run each crystal through the reader/transmitter without bothering to read it. Then you could sort through the copies later.” He shrugged. “It’d get you working much sooner. Sheol, by the time your entire team is suit-qualified, you could know just about everything the Rekesh ’s medical staff had done. You wouldn’t be covering ground that’s been covered before.”

Ro-Lecton bounced to his feet. “Yes! Do you think we can really do that, Lieutenant?” Kas struggled to suppress a smile. Gone was the superior, supercilious air the little med tech had displayed since his awakening. This Ro-Lecton was pure scientist. His tone had been plaintive, almost pleading.

Edro flushed with embarrassed pleasure and nodded. “Y-Yes sir. That should be no problem at all!”

And it wasn’t. It took Toj and Edro less than three hours to rig a transmitter to be fitted to the reader in the bio lab and turn another reader into a combination receiver/recorder.

Ro-Lecton’s thanks were so heartfelt and effusive that even the stolid Engineer flushed with embarrassment.

Kas shook his head. He realized that he was seeing the real, the original Ro-Lecton — Ro-Lecton as he’d been before he’d been tricked into an administrative and political position. This Ro-Lecton was pure scientist — intrigued by a professional problem and totally focused on its solution. Dignity, pecking orders and lines of authority were no longer important to the little man — he had a real problem to solve, and could hardly wait to get started.

Kas wondered what Ro-Lecton’s team would think of the Mark II version of the little doctor.

Tera volunteered to suit up and run the crystals through the reader/transmitter in the bio lab. Ro-Lecton refused to let anyone else tend the receiving/recording unit.

In the meantime, the rest of the crew was equally busy. Gran was awakening the medical team as quickly as possible and shuttling them to Jane and Lar for suit training. Toj was busy bringing space suits from storage and preparing them for use. Edro was helping Toj whenever he wasn’t busy with communication or comp work. That left Kas and Rom to begin exploring the Vir Rekesh. Kas had realized when speaking to Ro-Lecton that they really didn’t know whether or not the entire ship was open to space. Fan-Jertril’s companions may not have shared his idealistic heroism. So, as soon as possible, he and Rom suited up and each took one of the remaining two personnel locks.

He needn’t have worried. Both locks were open, and contained a suited corpse.

Kas breathed a huge sigh of relief when Rom reported that the last personnel lock was open to space. “All right, Rom. Meet me at the hangar bay. According to Fan-Jertril, that’s where they put the rest of the bodies; and Ro-Lecton’s going to start screaming for bodies to autopsy as soon as his team is ready.”

The huge black maw of the hangar deck opening was large enough to easily swallow Starhopper. The hangar deck occupied almost an entire level at the ship’s widest point. In effect it nearly split her in half and created an open area of nearly 200,000 square meters. “Open” was a relative term, of course. The Rekesh ’s hangar deck was occupied by nearly a hundred Wasp and Strengl fighters. It also contained an assortment of other craft — from the Admiral’s barge and Captain’s gig to atmosphere craft, some designed for combat and others merely as transports of various types.

But Kas wasn’t interested in the Rekesh ’s cargo of lethality. He was looking for a cargo net, probably stretched near a personnel airlock leading from the hangar bay. Sick men and women moving sometimes dismembered and often decomposing corpses were unlikely to be choosy. They’d rig the cargo net as near the lock as possible.

It was there, of course. In the inky blackness the pools of light from their helmet lights revealed a huge net stretched against the hangar bulkhead. The net bulged with its grisly cargo. Arms, legs, and even heads protruded grotesquely through the net’s mesh.

Familiar as he was with death, the ghastly contents of the net made Kas shudder. The bodies were frozen, perfectly preserved as they were when Captain Fan-Jertril decompressed the hangar deck. Some were still contorted in the agony their wounds had inflicted. Others appeared to be merely sleeping peacefully. Quite a number were missing limbs, but plas bags were tied to a number of the bodies. Kas assumed the bags contained body parts.

There was little blood, though there was much bloodstained clothing and skin. When the bodies had been brought here life support had been functioning. They’d been carried or dragged here. What bleeding there had been was only a result of moving the bodies. Kas was sure that the passages leading to that nearby hatch would be black with dried blood stains. But there were none of the large globules of drifting, frozen blood that he’d half expected.

Kas saw Rom turn away with a sick expression visible even through his helmet. He, himself was struggling to suppress a strong urge to throw up. He reminded himself that vomiting in space suits is not recommended.

He turned and shuddered again. “Let’s get out of here, Rom. If Ro-Lecton wants any of these cadavers he can come get them himself.”

Rom obviously agreed, though he made no reply. He merely kicked hard off the bulkhead, sailing across the cavernous hangar deck as though speed could relieve the horror. Kas knew that the action was irrational — but he kicked off just as hard. He’d seen death before, of course. As a junior officer he’d more than once had to gather bodies and body parts after accidents or skirmishes. But three thousand bodies, many of them scarred or dismembered, and most decomposed to at least some extent, was simply too much.

Rom was silent for a long time as they made their way back to Starhopper. Finally he said in a dull voice, “Commodore, I request to be assigned to Starhopper for the return trip.”

Kas frowned. “Why? You’re a Fleet officer; you’ve seen death before.”

Rom shook his head. “I’ve seen death,” he agreed. “And I’ve done my share of killing. But this… this is a death ship, sir. There’s evil here!”

“Nonsense!” Kas roared. “There’s no evil here. Evil requires purpose. A plague is purposeless — a natural disaster. It just is.”

He paused. “Certainly bad things happened here. There was mutiny and riot and cowardice and horror. But it was the all-too-human result of three thousand frightened people facing certain death. I will not tolerate talk that undermines discipline and panders to rank superstition. You will keep any such opinions to yourself. Is that clear?”

Rom’s face looked strained behind his suit’s faceplate. “Yes, sir. But I still request assignment to Starhopper for the return trip.”

Kas shrugged. “And you may be assigned to Starhopper, if that’s where I decide to put you. But you are a Fleet officer. You will serve where you are needed.” He glowered at the other man. “Damn it Rom, I didn’t expect this kind of nonsense from you! I need you too badly to have you go into some kind of funk just because you’ve seen some bodies. I don’t have time to pamper a prima donna. Now, get hold of yourself!”

Rom flushed. “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. But that…” he shook his head before resuming. “I’m afraid I’m going to have nightmares about that.”

Kas relaxed. “I doubt I’ll sleep well myself for a while. But we’ve got a job to do, and by all the weird gods of the galaxy, we’re going to do it.”

Chapter 10

By the time they returned to Starhopper and unsuited it was time for dinner. At the moment there were few enough of them awake to permit simultaneous meal hours, and Kas was encouraging them to make meals a social occasion. He felt that the interaction promoted crew cohesion and good morale. Today he was hoping that the dinner conversation would help lighten his mood and banish the horrid visions of contorted, agonized bodies that kept intruding on his consciousness. He even looked forward to Ro-Lecton’s barbed wit.

The others were already there when he and Rom arrived, but he noted that Ro-Lecton wasn’t present.

He turned to the little man’s assistant. “Where’s your boss, Doctor?” He asked.

Doctor Nila Kor-Nashta was a statuesque woman of mature but indeterminate age. In these days of easy and affordable body sculpting, one could make few assumptions. In this case, Doctor Kor-Nashta stood some 180 centimeters tall, and the lab coat she habitually wore over her shipsuit — Only the weird gods of the galaxy knew where she’d gotten it — failed to conceal a slim, attractive body. Her honey-blonde hair was pulled into a severe bun. She shrugged. “I haven’t seen him today. I’ve been busy setting up the bio lab. I guess he’s wrapped up in those memory crystals.”

Kas frowned. “Come to think of it, he wasn’t at dinner last evening either. Did anyone see him at breakfast?” Heads shook negatively.

A look of concern crossed the woman’s face, and she rose, gathering her tray. “I’d better check on him.” She turned away toward the disposer, hesitated, then turned back with a curious expression. “What did you people do to him, anyway? I mean, he’s so different.”

Kas’ face relaxed into a grin. “I just explained his priorities. That there were no bureaucrats to impress out here, no fat cats to wheedle for grants. Just a job to be done. I think he was relieved.”

She nodded and returned his grin with a smile. “I’m sure he was. Frankly, I was expecting to have to run the show while he socialized. This is going to be interesting.” She hurried out.

She returned a few minutes later, red-faced, puffing, and slightly disheveled. Tucked beneath her arm was a crystal reader.

“This assistant’s job may be tougher than I thought,” she said ruefully. Then she chuckled. “He didn’t answer my knock, so I got worried and barged in. He was sitting there stark naked, glued to this damned viewer. I’d guess he’s been there at least one day and probably two. He was dirty and unshaven. He cursed me and told me to get out. I tried to reason with him. But finally I had to grab the viewer and tell him that if he wanted it back he’d have to get cleaned up and come down here for dinner.”

She chuckled again. “At any moment he’s going to come boiling through that hatch, probably demanding my head on a platter.” She shook her head. “We’re going to have to keep an eye on him, sir. I know he’s an ass, but he may well be the most gifted epidemiologist in the Empire. Unless he starts taking care of himself…”

Kas nodded, grinning. “Don’t worry, Doctor. I’ll back you up. In fact, why don’t you give me that viewer? I don’t work for him. He can’t just order me to give it back.”

She looked relieved as she passed it over, then got herself a cup of caf and sat down, obviously nervous. Most of the crew had already left the mess room, but those remaining were dawdling and delaying their departure. It seemed that Ro-Lecton’s appearance was anticipated with interest.

They weren’t disappointed. A clean and freshly-depilated Ro-Lecton hurried through the hatch in less than ten minutes, red-faced and angry.

“ Doc tor Kor-Nashta!” He demanded furiously as he entered, “This is inexcusable! Give me that reader immediately! How dare you…”

His voice trailed off as he saw the reader in front of Kas, who was, with difficulty, keeping a straight face.

“Doctor Ro-Lecton!” Kas shouted cheerfully. “Pull up a chair, Doctor.” He looked around. “Tera, would you get the doctor a tray?” Tera, struggling to control her amusement, nodded and hurried to the food dispensers.

Ro-Lecton was obviously wondering what Kas was doing with the reader, and trying to figure out how to demand its return. He dropped absently into a chair, and Tera slid a tray in front of him.

He frowned. “Really, Commodore, I do have work. I have no idea what Doctor Kor-Nashta thought she was doing in stealing the viewer, but if you’ll give it to me I’ll get back to work…”

Even while he was still talking, Kas began shaking his head. “Nope. Sorry, Doctor. Now, you cram a couple thousand calories down your neck, and then we’ll go discuss it.”

Ro-Lecton eyed Kas warily. He was clearly remembering the last time he and Kas had ‘discussed’ something. He was about to protest when his nose was assailed by thoroughly distracting smells coming from the tray in front of him. He swallowed noisily, hesitated, and began wolfing down the food on his tray like a starving man — which, in fact, he was.

He finally sat back and sighed with contentment after consuming what Kas estimated to be over two thousand calories, Kas invited him and Doctor Kor-Nashta to his cabin.

“All right, Doctor,” he began. He suppressed a smile at Ro-Lecton’s wary expression. “You have a very important job here. In fact, the rest of us can’t even begin our part of the job until you’ve done yours. Everyone aboard this ship is depending upon you. Fortunately I think you’re the man for the job, and represent our best chance of accomplishing our mission.”

“But,” he continued, “You’re behaving like a fool. Before this meal, how long had it been since you’ve eaten?”

Ro-Lecton looked uncomfortable. “Uh, I’m not sure. Breakfast? Or was that yesterday? But Commodore, what I’m doing is vital…”

Kas interrupted him with a wave of his hand. “Of course it’s vital. But I don’t want you to miss something important because you’re groggy from lack of sleep. Damn it, Doctor, you have to take care of yourself. We need you too badly to let you kill yourself trying to do everyone’s job.”

“Now, I won’t insist that you attend every meal. But I will insist that you at least eat dinner. If necessary, I will send someone to fetch you — and if you try to scuffle with them the way you did with Doctor Kor-Nashta today, you’ll regret it.”

“Finally,” he continued, “Until further notice power to your cabin will be turned off at 2200 hours ship time, and not restored until 0600. I intend that you have no choice but to get some sleep.”

Ro-Lecton leaped to his feet. “You don’t understand, Commodore! They’ve almost got the bio lab operational! Within a day or two, we’ll be ready for autopsies and post-mortems. By then I have to know…”

His voice trailed off as he saw Kas’ head shaking. “No, doctor. No one expects miracles, including me. This isn’t a single-handed research project, and this plague eluded a top-flight medical staff aboard the Rekesh. Overnight results are not expected. In fact, I’ll be more impressed with thoroughness than speed. Do I make myself clear?”

Ro-Lecton’s shoulders slumped in defeat. “As you wish, Commodore. But we’ll be losing valuable time…”

Kas’ head was shaking again. “Not at all, Doctor. Your team consists of what, fifteen? People…”

“Fourteen, sir.” Kor-Nashta corrected.

“Fourteen, then. Only about half of them have been awakened, I believe.”

“Eight, sir.” Kor Nashta put in.

“All right. Eight have been awakened so far, and five, including doctor Kor-Nashta, here, have completed suit qualifications. It will be at least several days before your team is complete.”

Kor-Nashta snorted. “More like a week. You haven’t seen a klutz until you’ve seen a field biologist who’s never been in space try to walk in a suit!”

Kas grinned. “There you are, Doctor. You have plenty of time.” His grin faded.

“Look, Doctor,” he continued earnestly, “Our best hope of beating this thing quickly lies with you finding something in those crystals that everyone else missed. I need you to take care of yourself. We can’t even begin trying to salvage the Rekesh until you succeed. Sheol! Until you complete your work, we won’t even know if we can salvage her!”

Ro-Lecton sighed. “Very well, Commodore. I really have no choice but to agree to your requirements.” He sounded unconvinced by Kas’ statements.

Kas grinned. “Nope. You don’t.” He passed the reader over to the little scientist. “Here you are, Doctor. Now that you’ve eaten, I’ll let you get back to work. But don’t forget. Your cabin will go dark at 2200 hours.”

Ro-Lecton grimaced in annoyance. “Thank you, Commodore. If thanks are appropriate.”

Kas’ grin widened. “I suspect that thanks don’t really express your sentiments, but I’ll accept them anyway. Now get out of here and get to work.”

Ro-Lecton sniffed and slipped out the cabin door. Kor-Nashta started to follow, but was stopped by Kas.

“What do you really think, Doctor? Don’t worry, I won’t hold your opinions against you, or betray your confidence.”

She frowned, and paused to push an errant strand of hair from her angular face. “I don’t know what to tell you, Commodore. Are you asking my opinion of Doctor Ro-Lecton? Or my estimate of our chances for success?”

Kas returned her frown. “Both, I guess. Look, Doctor. Despite the fact that I think he’s a pompous ass, my opinion of Ro-Lecton is largely favorable. I suspect he’s a top scientist that got shanghaied into management and away from his science. But I am concerned that his technical knowledge may be out of date, or his instincts dulled.”

She shrugged. “Commodore, you know I’d be out of line to discuss my team leader with an outsider, even a Fleet Commodore.” Kas started to reply, but she continued, “But I like the way you dealt with him — firm but gentle. All right. Ver Ro-Lecton is probably the best scientific mind in the Empire. Certainly the best in the medical field. He single-handedly isolated and analyzed the plague on Acqueon. I’ve worked with a member of his team there. There was none of this nonsense of grabbing credit for his team’s accomplishments, either. The word is that Ro-Lecton deserved every bit of the credit he got.”

She sighed. “But, as you saw, in many ways he acts like a child. Oh, he’s not intentionally difficult, but he’s been away from lab work for so long that he’d almost forgotten how much he loves it. He thinks that being supercilious and demanding is the way to get things done, because it works on Prime.

“As you’ve seen, though, put him in a lab, and he’s a totally different person. He becomes so engrossed in his work that he fails to note that there’s a world, or other people, around him. I understand that on several occasions on Acqueon, he came into the lab naked under his isolation suit, or forgot to put on a shirt, or pants, or some other article of clothing. His team got into the habit of forcing him out of the lab and putting a sandwich in his hand once in a while. The way I heard it, if you put it in his hand, he’d eat it; if you set it down, he’d ignore it.

“He was kind of a joke, if you know what I mean. The classic absent-minded professor. But then, he was appointed Director of Epidemiology at the ECDC. I used to feel kind of sorry for him. He was just a figurehead, a trophy for the bureaucrats to show off to help draw grants. I don’t think he’s been very happy. But you’ve awakened the scientist in him. I think you’ve got the best man in the universe for this job, and I’m honored to be on his team.”

She shrugged. “As far as our chances for success are concerned I couldn’t hazard a guess. I doubt it’ll be easy. From what I understand, that ship had a medical staff of twenty-six. Now, none of them were epidemiologists, but the Fleet medical personnel I’ve met have been very competent. And they certainly didn’t lack motivation — their own lives were at stake.

“Of course, we’ve a hundred years’ more experience. If we’re lucky it’ll turn out to be something that’s been identified and beaten during the last century. But to be honest, our techniques and equipment haven’t changed that much.”

She shrugged again. “I honestly don’t know, Commodore. But I’ll admit that I’m relieved to have Ro-Lecton in charge. If anyone can beat this thing, it’ll be him. By the way,” she added, “I’d like to mention that I approve of your precautions. Evacuating that hold and isolating the bio lab with vacuum may turn out to be the smartest thing you’ve done.”

Kas grinned. “It’s not that I’m smart. I’m just scared spitless by that damned bug!”

She nodded. “Me, too.”

The first few ship ‘nights’, Ro-Lecton made it a point to seek Kas out every evening at 2200, to complain about having his cabin’s power shut off and stopping his work. He was also surly and distracted at the evening meal. On several occasions it was necessary for Kas to send someone to drag him to dinner. Luckily, Kor-Nashta seemed to have adopted the little scientist, and usually volunteered to fetch him.

After a week, Ro-Lecton appeared at Kas’ cabin door.

“Commodore,” he began, “I’ve completed my review of the memory crystals. It should no longer be necessary to shut off my power at 2200. Nearly all my work now will be in the bio lab. Nila has it quite well set up, and it seems to be well equipped. And all but three of my team have completed their suit training. Within a day or so I’ll probably need one or more cadavers.”

Kas nodded. “Did you learn anything useful from the crystals, Doctor?”

Ro-Lecton shrugged. “Well, they kept us from having to go over ground they’d already covered, for one thing. They had one med tech, a Lieutenant named Kranit that had a fine mind. He missed hardly a trick. He was the one that most exhaustively tracked the disease’s progression, and he did an outstanding job.”

He sighed. “But if you mean did they give me the answer, I’m afraid not. They did give me some excellent leads, however. The disease displays some of the symptoms and pathologies of Reiber’s Fever, but there are inconsistencies.”

“Do you think you’ll be able to isolate it and devise a cure?”

The chubby little man smiled gently. “That’s the billion-crown question, isn’t it, Commodore? I’m confident that it can be isolated and cured. I’m not as confident that we’ll be able to do it.” He shrugged. “Any pathogen that evolves to occupy carbon-based, oxygen-breathing life forms must be of one of a comparatively few types. And there are only a finite number of ways in which they can affect the functioning of that organism so as to cause death. Eventually, this one will be identified and defenses will be devised. But even assuming that it’s caused by a single organism, and not a synergistic partnership, it could take centuries to isolate it.”

Kas frowned. “We don’t have centuries. We don’t even have years. What we have is months or weeks or days, and damned few of them.”

Ro-Lecton looked puzzled. “What’s the problem, Commodore? I know we were in a race to get here first, but we did. We should have all the time we need.”

Kas shook his head. “Once we’re found, things are going to get interesting. The Rekesh will become an interstellar incident. Oh, we’ve got enough of her weapons working to defend ourselves. For awhile. But as soon as we’re located, you can bet that a couple of the neighboring systems will file a claim on this system and start trying to force the Empire to relinquish its claim on the Rekesh.”

“And that’s assuming that they adhere to the niceties of interstellar diplomacy. They’re just as likely to bring enough force here to overcome even a partially-functional battle cruiser and simply attack, on the theory that they’ll be able to salvage whatever’s left. Or perhaps simply, ‘If we can’t have it, they won’t have it either.’”

“And then,” he added, “there’s always the Glory. There’s no guessing how far they’d go to deprive the ‘Godless’ of a battle cruiser, but I don’t think I want to find out. No, Doctor, we’re still under the gun. We’ve got to find out whether we’ll be able to salvage her, and if so we’ve got months of work to do. Every moment that we’re not on our way back to the Empire, we’re in danger.”

Ro-Lecton’s expression had faded from puzzlement to understanding and finally, determination. He nodded. “We’ll do what we can, Commodore. But you do understand that the odds are against us isolating the cause quickly. I got some leads and ideas from what the ship’s medical staff learned, but still…” He shrugged.

Kas sighed. “I understand, Doctor. I only expect your best efforts. I know there are no guarantees. Uh, about the… uh… cadavers. Do you think your medical people can retrieve them? Or must it be my people?”

Ro-Lecton frowned, and then shrugged. “I don’t know. Does it matter?”

Kas suppressed a shudder. “Yes, I’m afraid it does. I’ve seen that net full of bodies. None of my people are squeamish, but seeing those bodies crammed into that net, well…” This time he couldn’t suppress it. His shudder was jarring.

Ro-Lecton looked bemused. “Really?” He shrugged. “They’re just cadavers, after all.” Then seeing Kas’ expression he resumed. “Well, yes, I suppose my people can retrieve the cadavers. But none of them are very skilled in vacuum. Shouldn’t one of your crew accompany them? For safety reasons?”

Kas sighed. “You’re right, of course. All right. I’ll go with them. But I’m not looking forward to it.”

In the event, it wasn’t as bad as Kas feared. By focusing his attention strictly on the suited med techs he was largely able to avoid watching what they were doing, or handling, while they worked several cadavers free of the net. Once the bodies were gathered, however, it was impossible to avoid looking at them, or handling them.

There were three of them, two men and a woman. None had visible wounds — the med techs wanted the bodies of people they could be certain had died from the disease. The woman and one of the men were even clad in hospital gowns. Thankfully they’d also wanted people who’d survived until near the end, so none of the three were badly decomposed. Actually, their faces looked peaceful. Kas’ face was grim, but after a moment’s hesitation he had no difficulty helping the med techs handle the frozen corpses. He told himself it was like handling statues, not real people. Frozen solid, they certainly felt like statues.

The senior med tech turned to Kas as they were leaving the hangar deck. “We’re also supposed to get a suited one from one of the airlocks, sir.”

Kas nodded. “I’ll go get one. All of you hook your safety lines to deck eyebolts until I get back. And don’t touch any of your suit controls while I’m gone.”

He kicked off, relieved to be moving away from the grisly contents of that damned net. It took only a few minutes to reach the nearest of the occupied personnel locks. He paused, and then clumsily saluted the drifting suited figure before unhooking the suit’s safety line while cursing himself for a sentimental fool. Clipping the safety line to his own suit, he headed back for the hangar deck and the med techs. The suited corpse bobbed along in his wake.

When they returned to Starhopper, Two of the bodies were taken directly into the bio lab — the woman and the suited man. Kas made sure that the other two cadavers were covered with tarps. There was no sense upsetting the troops. Besides it offended his sensibilities to leave the bodies uncovered, as though on display.

He suspected that the med techs had been suppressing snickers at his obvious reluctance to handle the corpses, but frankly he didn’t give a damn. He hoped he’d never learn to be matter-of-fact about handling bodies. He felt that anyone who could handle bodies without confronting his own mortality wasn’t someone he wanted to know.

Things settled into a routine. The medical team was hard at work, and Kas had been forced to allow them to develop their own meal schedule. In fact, meals became rather a hit-or-miss affair generally. Starhopper ’s crew, aided by Lady Jane and Lar, were usually busy aboard Vir Rekesh.

Edro and Toj had begun activating a few of the distributed comps aboard the battle cruiser. One was the stores comp, and Kas stared longingly at the lengthy printout of the resources available on the big ship.

By Fleet regs virtually all Fleet supplies were required to be supplied in airtight containers, and most were vacuum-packed. So Kas had long arguments with himself over whether they should bring things like uniforms aboard.

But he’d determined from the start that nothing from the dead ship would be brought aboard Starhopper except samples and cadavers kept in her evacuated hold or the bio lab, and he reluctantly decided to stick with his decision.

The rest of Starhopper ’s crew had begun the daunting task of trying to find and remove the weapons scattered throughout the Rekesh. Kas was uncomfortably aware that it would be impossible for so few searchers to find every weapon on the huge cruiser. But it would be irresponsible to leave so many weapons scattered around, especially since the crew that was to take her home was an unknown variable.

The ratings sleeping aboard Starhopper were Fleet, but that didn’t mean they were angels. Military personnel have always had a reputation for hard drinking and fast living; when you so frequently place your life on the line, somehow decorum and tastefulness no longer seem as important as they might to a civilian. Alcohol, drugs and weapons added up to a deadly mix.

But there were problems. In the absolute blackness aboard the Rekesh, their suit lights created moving, jerking shadows that imposed themselves on the crew’s attention. The shadows combined with the total silence to make them all uneasy. They found themselves suddenly whirling around, searching for the source of movement detected by peripheral vision, only to realize almost immediately that it was a shadow cast by their own suit lights.

It was a strain. It became an uncomfortable haunted feeling. No matter how often they told themselves it was ridiculous, morale was declining. Kas found his crew — and himself — more and more reluctant to go aboard the derelict.

Toj wanted to activate more of Rekesh ’s fusactors to power the comps and provide light, at least. Kas agonized over the decision before realizing that if they had to push her into the sun it would scarcely matter how many of her fusactors were hot. And light would help. He authorized the powering of lights, but he cautioned Toj not to activate the gravs or any other life support facilities.

Despite expecting it they were all startled when the derelict suddenly erupted in light. They breathed a huge sigh of relief and exchanged sheepish glances.

The light reduced the tension, but it also revealed the grim condition of what had been a proud warship.

Damage was everywhere, but wasn’t all battle damage. Much of it was simple vandalism. Most of the rest was the remains of what appeared to have been the biggest, longest party in the galaxy.

Least damaged seemed to be the staterooms and berthing areas. Some of them even appeared perfectly orderly, as though their owners had simply stepped out for a moment. In others, globules of frozen blood or vomit drifted lazily in the vacuum. Some bunks were neatly made; others were mussed and bloodstained.

The most battle-damaged area seemed to be the Engineering decks. Here, barricade after barricade gave mute testimony to besieged crewpeople fighting off repeated, desperate attackers. Maybe they’d wanted to overload the fusactors in a massive suicide pact, or maybe they thought they could fly the Rekesh somewhere. Whatever the reason for the attacks, there had been a series of brutal and bloody battles here.

Other fighting areas had been officers’ country and the passages leading to the Combat Information Center and the Bridge. Weapons drifted everywhere. They had to be gathered up and armfuls carried to the nearest airlock to be thrown overboard.

Except for a few very expensive versions intended for orbital construction projects space suits are not designed for long periods of working occupancy. Nor are they designed to be easily donned or removed. For Kas’ crew, maneuvering through narrow passages and trying to bend and twist in the clumsy suits to locate hidden or partially-hidden weapons for hours per day became increasingly exhausting. For the medical team it began to seem that they were constantly getting into or out of the suits and exchanging them for isolation suits in the lab. There were half-serious complaints that they spent more time changing clothes than working. Days began to blur into weeks.

Kas had just removed his helmet and was beginning to remove his suit when the alarm sounded. He grabbed the helmet and pulled it back on.

“Bridge, Preslin here. What’s happening?”

“We don’t know yet, sir,” came Gran’s voice. “The alarm came from the bio lab.”

Cursing, Kas rechecked his suit seals and used the airlock’s manual controls to cycle the lock. He hurried across the hold to the bio lab.

As he reached for the bio lab’s airlock control, the lock began cycling. Kas stepped back as a suited figure began to emerge.

“Preslin here,” he said, “What’s happened?”

The figure started. “Oh! Uh, Commodore! I was just coming to report. It’s Doctor Kor-Nashta. She’s been contaminated. Oh, uh, I’m Med Tech Vil-Norris, sir. Doctor Ro-Lecton sent me to report.”

Kas was irritated. “Then report, dammit! What happened?”

“Uh, yes, sir. Uh, we had thawed one of the suited cadavers and were starting the autopsy. Dr. Kor-Nashta was cutting the suit off. The beam cutter slipped, and sliced into her isolation suit. Of course, atmosphere from the suit had already contaminated the lab.

“As soon as Doctor Kor-Nashta’s suit detected the breach it sent a blast of high-pressure air through the umbilical and sealed the doctor’s umbilical. The system worked, but Doctor Kor-Nashta’s been exposed to the contamination.”

It was like a blow. Kas had come to know and like Nila Kor-Nashta. Now, unless Ro-Lecton and his people could isolate a cure for the plague she was doomed. Her cheerful good humor had helped keep morale up. Not to mention that she had become Ro-Lecton’s chief keeper, insuring the absent-minded scientist got washed, fed and dressed. In fact, Kas suspected that romance was blooming between the two epidemiologists — or at least it would when Ro-Lecton began once again to notice the rest of humanity. Kas nodded grimly. “All right, you can get back to the bio lab. I imagine they need you right now, and they certainly don’t need me. Tell Ro-Lecton to keep me posted. No, don’t bother. Tell whoever his new deputy will be to do it.”

Even through the suit faceplate Kas could see the med tech’s shocked expression. “But, sir! Doctor Kor-Nashta is the director’s deputy. Surely you don’t think he would relieve her?”

Kas had assumed just that, but he now realized that even if Doctor Kor-Nashta were infected and they didn’t find a cure for the plague, it would be weeks before she became too sick to function.

He flushed. “Of course. I’m sorry. I didn’t think.”

The med tech nodded. “We’ll keep you posted, sir.”

Kas returned to the airlock deep in thought. He hadn’t considered it, but of course the bio lab’s atmosphere had become contaminated. This would be the second suited body they’d worked on. Perhaps he hadn’t wanted to think about it. Knowing that plague-contaminated atmosphere was separated from the inhabited portions of Starhopper by mere meters of vacuum was unsettling. He knew that vacuum and decontam were virtually absolute security — but still…

The bio lab had not been designed for continuous occupancy. As soon as he unsuited Kas called Toj to his cabin.

“We’ll need to figure out how to build a sleeping accommodation for Doctor Kor-Nashta onto the bio lab,” he said. “We also have to figure out a way to deliver food. I assume there’s already a way to deliver water.”

Toj nodded. “Yes, sir. As for food, I just don’t know.” He shrugged. “Perhaps we can take a food synthesizer from one of the Rekesh ’s auxiliaries and build it into the sleeping accommodation. Then all we’d have to deliver would be the raw supplies.”

Kas nodded. “Good. Since the lab has already been contaminated, I think I can make an exception for a food synthesizer. But how are you going to build onto a lab that’s already contaminated?”

Toj shrugged. “I don’t anticipate any problem, sir. I’ll just weld together a box oh, say, three meters by four. It won’t even need an airlock. I’ll put a bunk and all the other stuff inside, then bond it to the bio lab, go inside in an isolation suit and cut a doorway.”

Kas chuckled. “You certainly make it sound simple.” His smile faded. “I wish it weren’t necessary.”

Toj nodded again. “Me too, sir. Doctor Kor-Nashta… well, she’s good people. Don’t worry, Commodore. I’ll fix her up nice and cozy.”

Starhopper ’s other crew seemed to share Toj’s opinion of Nila. While Toj built her sleeping quarters, Edro was working on electronic facilities that would make Nila’s stateroom the most luxurious aboard. Rom, Tera and Gran bothered Toj constantly, suggesting improvements to her accommodation.

Toj was as good as his word. Within two days Nila had a comfortable stateroom available to her, complete with food synthesizer. Edro had rigged a large viewscreen with several cameras so Nila could join the others for meals and even check in on Ro-Lecton.

Nila had been almost pathetically grateful to all of them. She was obviously frightened, but determined to stay in control. For once, even Ro-Lecton noticed something larger than a microbe and tried to be considerate of his assistant. As the days dragged into a week, then two, he resumed his usual behavior patterns. But now there was an edge to his obsession. He frequently had to be physically removed from the bio lab and forced to get some food or sleep.

Nila was plainly getting sicker. She was pale, losing weight, and suffering from diarrhea. But by all reports she was invaluable in the search for a cure. Unhampered by an isolation suit, she was able to speed their progress considerably. And as she commented wryly, there was now no shortage of live samples.

Chapter 11

By the one month mark, Nila was becoming weaker. She frequently had to stop her work to rest, and on particularly bad days she couldn’t even make herself leave her stateroom to cross to the bio lab.

The mood aboard Starhopper was somber. Nila obviously had at most only a few weeks to live. Ro-Lecton’s pace became frantic, and it was a constant struggle to get him to leave the bio lab at all. When he was found hunched asleep over a microviewer, Kas decided enough was enough. He called the little doctor to his cabin.

Ro-Lecton was angry at being forced to leave the bio lab. He was also badly worried, scared, and exhausted.

Kas shook his head. “Doctor, this won’t do. You are Nila’s best hope, and you’re hurting her chances by behaving like an idiot.”

The little man’s eyes blazed. “I can’t just let her die!”

“No, you can’t,” Kas replied. “But you can’t save her the way you’re going. Falling asleep over a microviewer! Ridiculous. That’s for interns, not a seasoned researcher like you.”

Ro-Lecton frowned. “But…”

“But nothing!” Kas flipped a switch. “Rom, would you come in, please?”

Ro-Lecton was looking worried, now. He obviously remembered the last time Kas had called Rom to his cabin.

“Now, Doctor,” Kas resumed, “Rom is going to escort you to your quarters. Then he’s going to give you an injection from the ship’s medical stores. Then you’re going to sleep for about twenty hours.

“When you wake up, you will eat, and then return to your lab. I want you to re-run every test you’ve run in the last forty-eight hours. But this time you’ll run them fresh and alert, instead of dull and exhausted.”

Ro-Lecton’s protests were heartfelt, but in his exhausted state they weren’t very emphatic. He put up only weak resistance as Rom marched him to his quarters and gave him the injection.

As luck would have it, the crew was at supper when a clean and freshly-depilated Ro-Lecton appeared. He seemed considerably refreshed, almost cheerful. “Commodore, I…” he began, then noticed the large viewscreen mounted on one bulkhead, displaying Nila’s image. Edro had set up the screen so that Nila’s table seemed a continuation of Starhopper ’s messroom table. Similar care had been taken with the image Nila received. If one didn’t closely examine his surroundings, it was easy to feel as though she were joining them.

Her evident presence jolted Ro-Lecton. “Nila!.. uh, Doctor Kor-Nashta!” He hesitated. “Uh, Good morning, Doctor. You’re looking a bit better.”

Nila’s pale, drawn features relaxed into a weary half-smile. “And you’re looking much better, sir. I’d heard the Commodore had been bullying you again. By the way it’s evening, ship time.”

“Err, yes.” Ro-Lecton struggled to regain his equilibrium. “Well, I’ll be right down. I’ve had some thoughts, and we have a lot of work to do.”

“Yes, he’ll be right down,” Kas interrupted. “As soon as he’s eaten.”

Ro-Lecton started to protest, then relaxed as Nila hurriedly replied, “Of course, Commodore. Is there anything we can do to get things rolling until you get here, Doctor?”

Ro-Lecton swung his head from Kas to Nila’s image. “Don’t think I don’t know that you two are conspiring,” he began. Then his scowl lightened and he sighed. “However I suppose I must tolerate it. Very well, Nil… uh, Doctor. Please have the staff assemble all my lab notes from the last ninety-six hours. There was something in there.. and there was something you said a few days ago about the old records.” Nila looked surprised. “Me? What did I say?”

Ro-Lecton’s frown was back. “I don’t know. I can’t remember. But when I woke up just now, I realized that something I was working on fit with something you said about the old records.”

“Enough!” Kas put in. “Rom, get the doctor a tray. Doctor, I’m going to stay right here and watch until you consume at least five hundred calories. And Doctor Kor-Nashta, please refrain from any more shop talk until the Doctor has eaten.”

Ro-Lecton dropped into a chair with a wounded expression but without another word. Rom slid a tray in front of him, and after a moment, the little man began wolfing down the food.

Nila smiled fondly at Ro-Lecton, who didn’t notice. “I’ll have everything ready for you when you get here, Doctor,” she said. She struggled weakly to her feet, and tottered out of the camera’s range to begin the preparations.

Ro-Lecton looked up from his empty tray and glared at Kas. “I assume I may finally get to the lab, Commodore,” he said in an angry tone.

Kas smiled innocently. “Of course, Doctor. And I hope your thoughts lead to a solution.”

Ro-Lecton grunted wordlessly and stamped out of the messroom. Over the next few days Nila reported what she called “real progress”. But time was rapidly running out. She could barely drag herself into the lab anymore. And more and more often she was turning off the viewscreen, no longer joining the crew for meals. She obviously had only days left.

So, Kas was surprised when Ro-Lecton appeared at his cabin door. “I’m here to give you a progress report, Commodore,” he began.

Kas ushered him in immediately. “Please tell me you’ve made some. Progress, I mean.”

Ro-Lecton nodded. “I think so. That is, I hope so. That’s why I’m here. I was right, you know. I did see something; and combined with something Nila… uh, Doctor Kor-Nashta noticed in the old records, we had a lead. I’m ready to synthesize a serum. But I have a problem. I need a sterile environment to make it. Normally, I’d simply depressurize the lab for a few hours, then repressurize it and proceed. But Nila’s… Doctor Kor-Nashta’s presence makes that impossible, of course.”

Kas frowned. “Does creating this serum require the presence of the active plague, or whatever it is?”

The doctor nodded. “I’m afraid so. That means that I can’t make it aboard this ship. The big ship has the facilities, of course, but is in vacuum at absolute zero. You see my problem. And I’m running out of time, if I’m to have any hope of saving Nila’s… Doctor Kor-Nashta’s life.” Kas called Rom and Toj to his cabin, and they worked on a solution. It would take too long to insulate the lab on the Rekesh so that its temperature could be raised from the absolute cold of space to a temperature suitable for cultivating a serum, even if Kas agreed to permit that compartment to be pressurized. And even Ro-Lecton didn’t suggest bringing live plague aboard Starhopper.

Finally Rom said, “Well, we’ve already stripped a food synthesizer from the Rekesh ’s cutter. Doctor, how much room would you need?”

The man shrugged. “Not a lot. Two meters by two, perhaps. Just enough for a microviewer, a centrifuge and a small incubation unit.”

Rom nodded and turned to Kas. “Sir, suppose we just put the stuff into that cutter. Then we can power up life support, and the doctor, here, can make his bug, or serum or whatever he needs.”

Kas frowned. “But we’d be contaminating the cutter.”

Rom shrugged. “So we have to power it up and vector it into the sun afterward. The doctor will have his sterile environment.”

“Yes!” Ro-Lecton added, “And we wouldn’t be contaminating this.. cutter. I’m certain now that the plague is airborne. This ‘cutter’ is a small ship, yes?”

Kas nodded. “It’d be cramped. And I’m not certain that the Emperor would approve of us throwing his property into the sun. But…”

Toj snickered. “Unless the doctor comes up with something, we’re going to have to push a whole battle cruiser into the sun. I suspect the Emperor would consider it a good investment, if it leads to a serum.”

Kas chuckled. “You’re right, of course. All right. Toj, Rom, use the biggest shuttle aboard the Rekesh. Gather all the equipment Doctor Ro-Lecton needs and get it over there. Let’s get moving. Doctor Kor-Nashta’s life is at stake.”

Everyone aboard wanted to help; it was heartbreaking watching Nila slowly die. The shuttle was flown from Rekesh ’s hangar bay to Starhopper ’s hold. Even with the lasers partly withdrawn it didn’t fit within the hold, but they tethered it with its hatch slightly inside the cargo bay. Since life support was started as soon as the shuttle was powered up, it was ready in less than two hours.

Less than four hours after that, Ro-Lecton emerged from the shuttle with a small vial. He hurried straight to the bio lab with it, cursing every moment of the delay as he skinned out of the space suit and into an isolation suit.

Pride had made Nila struggle from her bunk to meet Ro-Lecton at the door of her stateroom. Everyone aboard Starhopper watched tensely as Nila was injected with the serum.

Then there was nothing to do but wait. The tension was palpable. The crew and medical staff were quiet, subdued. Conversation was limited to monosyllables as everyone was preoccupied, waiting to learn Nila’s fate.

After an hour, they learned that Nila was unconscious. The crew was worried, but the medical staff assured them that was an expected result, as her body marshaled its defenses to fight off the plague. No one was much reassured.

No one slept well, but it was next morning before the news came. Nila’s fever had broken. Ro-Lecton himself made the announcement.

“This doesn’t signal that she’ll recover,” he said, “but it’s a very hopeful sign. By tomorrow we should know more.” Groans of disappointment resounded throughout Starhopper.

But the improvement continued. By the third day Nila was demanding food. By the fifth, she was able to stand, weakly, and on the sixth, she once again joined the crew for dinner by viewscreen. Everyone examined her image worriedly. They were reassured. The dark hollows around her eyes were beginning to fill, as were her sallow cheeks. Her pallor was beginning to fade. Her meal consisted of a thin gruel, and she had to disconnect after only fifteen minutes, but it was enough. They had all seen that Nila was definitely recovering. The relief was as palpable as the earlier tension had been. Bowing to the inevitable, Kas declared the next day a holiday, and the messroom became the site of an impromptu celebration. A supply of medical alcohol appeared from somewhere — Kas didn’t dare ask — and the party grew raucous, especially after Nila appeared by viewscreen and joined the festivities for a few minutes.

Despite fighting a monumental hangover Kas waylaid Ro-Lecton on his way to the bio lab the next morning.

“Well, Doctor,” he began, “Your serum appears to work. Is it a treatment or a preventative?”

Ro-Lecton shrugged. “I don’t know yet. It may be both. Please don’t expect a magic bullet within a day or two.”

Kas shook his head. “That’s just what I have to expect, Doctor. I need a vaccine so we can begin thawing crewmembers and working on the Rekesh. I’ve explained the urgency to you before. Well, it’s no less urgent now. We’ve been here for almost three months. During all that time people have been scouring unsettled systems for us. At any moment the buoy we concealed at the jump point may go off. And what if the one we know is not the only jump point in the system? Either way, we could find ourselves having to try to fight a battle cruiser with six people.”

Ro-Lecton frowned. “But Commodore, the success with Nila… Doctor Kor-Nashta was almost pure luck borne of desperation. We still don’t know the treatment is safe. There are tests, limited trials.. it could take months to get a vaccine ready.”

Kas shook his head again. “I’m afraid not, Doctor. Your tests and limited trials will have to be carried on simultaneously — on us. You have a week to make sure your serum won’t kill a healthy man or woman, Doctor. Then we begin inoculating our crew and yours, and begin awakening the sleepers.”

Ro-Lecton looked scandalized. “There’s no way I can be certain there won’t be violent reactions, side effects…”

Kas shrugged. “True. But you have a fifteen-person medical team to deal with those problems, Doctor. Up ‘til now, you’ve been laboratory research scientists. But your people are also qualified physicians and med techs. We can no longer afford to work on a research basis.”

“But the risks…” the Doctor protested, though in a weaker tone.

“This is a Fleet crew. We’re paid to take risks. One week, Doctor. Then I get the first injection.”

Ro-Lecton was clearly unhappy about it, but he finally assented.

Having tracked down all the weapons they could find, Kas’ crew was now scouring the Rekesh for stills and drug labs. They’d found and destroyed seven stills and two drug labs, but Kas knew there were probably at least that many more left to find. Nila’s recovery had raised morale considerably, but scouring the huge ship in suits was still exhausting work. Kas was tempted to wait until the week he’d given Ro-Lecton was up, then seal the Rekesh and reactivate life support. But, he reminded himself, Ro-Lecton couldn’t be positive the infective agent was airborne. Nor was the little doctor certain his serum was effective. At any rate, he decided to keep them searching in suits until they began awakening sleepers. Once the reviving began there would be time to bring the big ship back to life.

Ro-Lecton might disagree with Kas’ decision to begin inoculations, but on the appointed day an adequate supply of vaccine was on hand. The medical staff administered it to themselves and Starhopper ’s crew without protest.

Contrary to carefully-contrived appearance, the cold sleep cabinets had been laid out to permit the orderly revival of their occupants. Closest to the sick bay had been the medical people, of course. Then came the officers and petty officers, then the civilian techs, and finally the bulk of the crewpeople. While Gran, Tera, Lady Jane and Lar began reviving officers, Kas, Rom, Toj, and Edro began working to awaken the Vir Rekesh. With the central AI disabled or dead, this meant lighting off several fusactors and activating six distributed comps. Slowly, slowly, the big ship began coming back to life. Kas took advantage of the activation of the supply comps, and located uniforms for himself and Starhopper ’s crew. By the time there was atmosphere throughout the ship and a livable temperature was being maintained, all of the officers and senior petty officers had been revived.

Leadership aboard a Fleet ship was always problematic. Fleet officers might be members of planetary elites, but Fleet ratings were usually gutter-sweepings and street toughs — uneducated and largely uncivilized. Many were felons given a choice between confinement and enlistment in the Fleet.

The Fleet took them, and ran them through Fleet or Marine boot camps. There systematic brutality routinely broke their spirits and then rebuilt them as sailors or marines. They entered the Fleet machine as misfits — they came out Fleet.

But that didn’t mean they became robots. Any Fleet crew could be expected to take advantage of any opportunity to set up and run at least one still to produce alcoholic beverages, and fighting was almost inevitable. In this case, there were sure to be stills and perhaps even drug labs scattered all over the huge battle cruiser despite Fan-Jertril’s efforts. After all, he’d had other priorities — still- busting had been low on the list.

But the men in cold sleep aboard Starhopper wouldn’t be in a life-or-death situation. They’d climbed into cold-sleep cabinets at the shipyard on Prime, and would awaken to be shuttled almost immediately to the huge ship. There was no dedication to the mission, no involvement in its earlier phases. They would be unfamiliar with and unknown to their officers and petty officers. They would be, in other words, a typical Fleet crew. Given the Fleet’s habit of selling commissions, discipline was always rather a hit-or-miss affair. Some officers took their leadership training seriously, and enforced discipline rigorously. Some carried it too far and became martinets. But most simply left discipline to the senior petty officers.

Those petty officers, of course, were usually well aware of the caliber of their officers. Some responded by ignoring their officers, and enforcing discipline in their own way, often brutally. A small minority, becoming angry with officers that refused to lead, simply went limp, and allowed their troops to do as they pleased. These few usually found out that while the Fleet might tolerate incompetent officers, it would not tolerate incompetent or ineffective senior petty officers. If their compatriots didn’t set them straight in an unofficial — if brutal — way, they usually found themselves coming to the attention of ever-more-senior officers until they either responded or were cashiered.

It this case no one knew anyone. Kas had no idea which officers, if any, were competent. How many were prejudiced against outerworlders? He’d been promised that they were all technically competent. But that didn’t mean that they would be effective officers and leaders. How many would be petty tyrants? How many ditherers running to him with every decision? How many foppish dilettantes?

The greatest threat to Kas’ mission was not the Alliance or the Glory or any external force. It wasn’t even the plague. If Ro-Lecton had failed, Kas would simply have pushed the Rekesh into an orbit terminating in the system’s sun. No, the biggest challenge was the combination of a Fleet crew and the weapons, drug labs and stills aboard the derelict.

As soon as the last of the petty officers had been awakened, Kas called them and the officers together for a briefing.

“We didn’t have time for a detailed briefing on Prime,” he began, “so I’ll do it now.

“In case you’ve forgotten or didn’t know, I’m Kas Preslin. Yes, that Preslin, the one who had the, uh, rather spirited discussion with Admiral Lu-Jenks. Since it was common gossip throughout the Fleet, I imagine most of you know the story.

“The obvious next question is why I’m out here wearing a star instead of cashiered or hanged.” He shrugged. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know. All I can tell you is that it was Fleet Grand Admiral Pankin’s decision.” He smiled slightly. “Now I don’t disagree with his decision, of course. But some of you might. To you I say ‘that’s too bad’. I’m here, you’re here, and you’re under my command. Any officer that I find is not behaving in the best traditions of the Fleet, and doing their best for this mission, will find himself popped back into cold sleep. Petty officers will find themselves broken to common spaceman, and wearing lash stripes.

“If I find that you’re actively hampering the success of this mission, I won’t bother with cold sleep. I’ll space you. Consider yourselves warned and pass the warning along to your ratings.

“Now,” he continued, “Each of you and each of the ratings assigned to this mission were hand-picked by Grand Admiral Pankin’s Chief of Staff. That means that technically, you and they are the cream of the Fleet, the best. I’m proud to have you with me on this mission.

“But we all know there’s more to a crew than technical expertise. An outstanding gunner, for instance, can be a disciplinary disaster off-duty. So don’t assume your people are some sort of elite. You will have to be very watchful. There are some special circumstances on this mission that make vigilance especially important.”

He went on to repeat the story of the Vir Rekesh. There was dead silence in the crowded messroom as he recounted the mutinies, the fighting, the despair, and the heroism of the battle cruiser’s crew. “You have all been vaccinated against the plague,” he continued. “But there’s no inoculation against disciplinary failure and mutiny. We cannot conceal the signs of fighting aboard the Rekesh, and mutiny is contagious. All of you, officers and petty officers alike, will be expected to keep a close eye on those around you and under you. Report suspicions, so they can be investigated. Don’t wait for evidence; that evidence might turn out to be a homemade knife stabbing into your back some off-watch. You heard me mention two mutinies, and a lot of fighting. Starhopper ’s crew has spent the last two months in suits, scouring the Rekesh for weapons and disposing of every one we found. We got rid of hundreds of them, but no one is prepared to bet we’ve found them all.

“Then there are the stills and drug labs. You’re going to see the remains of the biggest, longest party in the history of the Fleet. It went on for weeks, and covered most of the ship.

“We will be running, and maybe even fighting a battle cruiser with only three hundred officers and crew, less than a tenth of her full complement. We will also be saddled with a bunch of civilian techs that will be repairing her enroute. Her central AI has been shut down. Her astrogational comps have been destroyed. We’ve brought spares, and the civilians will be installing them. Then, of course, there are the doctors and med techs that came up with the cure for the plague. In other words, you’re going to have civilians underfoot. And no, I won’t make them go back into cold sleep when they’ve finished their work. We may need them or their expertise. In an emergency, some of them might even be able to serve as crew.”

Kas turned to the petty officers. “You petty officers have a tough job ahead of you. When you go aboard the Rekesh you’re going to see a total mess. There are passages literally covered in dried blood. With life support restored, there will be bits of flesh rotting. The stench will be bad until we get her cleaned up. But that’s not the worst.

“There’s a cargo net in her hangar bay that’s full of some three thousand bodies. Some of them are pretty horrible and all are in various stages of decomposition. The Rekesh ’s hangar deck will be left open to space for the trip home to prevent further decay. But that’s not the worst, either.

“No, the worst is the combination of weapons, drugs, and booze. I want you to let your people know that anyone caught with a weapon will be given a drumhead court-martial and executed. Anyone caught drunk or stoned will be given lashes — lots of them. We can’t tolerate even a single lapse of discipline.”

He shrugged. “But we can’t tolerate losing crew people, either. Even if most of the civilians volunteer to serve as temporary crew, we’ll be trying to run the Rekesh very short-handed.

“Every man or woman I’m forced to execute is one less to help us fight if we’re attacked. Every one I’m forced to flog is unable to function for days. We simply can’t afford it.

“So, I’m depending on you officers and petty officers to keep that from happening. I expect you officers to give your petty officers quite a bit of latitude when it comes to unofficial discipline. Ignore cuts, bruises and black eyes unless you feel they’re becoming too frequent. Give your petty officers room to work.” An enthusiastic rumble began among the petty officers, though a number of the officers were frowning.

Kas raised a hand. “Don’t get too excited, you petty officers,” he continued. “Yes, you’ll have as much support as possible. But I expect the officers to be watching, and monitoring. Bullying and brutality will not be tolerated. At the first sign that any of you is a bully or a brute, I’ll break you to common spaceman. Then you can see how you like it!”

He sighed. “This is a very unusual mission, and an unusual situation. We might have to fight the Rekesh at any moment, without the ability to jump out of this system. More than half the governments in man-settled space are scouring uninhabited and out-of-the-way systems looking for us. We have very little time.

“All right,” he concluded. “We’ll probably take a week or so to get things sorted out before we begin awakening the rest of the crew. I’ve already moved into the flag cabin aboard the Rekesh. You petty officers would be well advised to spend that week looking for stills, drug labs and weapons.” He smiled grimly. “You know, check the places us officers would be too dumb to look. All right, a boarding tube has been rigged so you won’t have to suit up to get over to the Rekesh. Once you get aboard her you’ll be issued uniforms. You’ll have to let the issuing officer know the insignia you’ll need. As you know, we were unable to bring any service records with us.” He smiled again, less grimly this time. “That does not mean you can convince me that all of you are Master Chiefs! Some of the officers will know some of you, and most will have seen your records before we left. Be advised — when in doubt, I’ll just assume that any of you is qualified for common spaceman. Is that clear?

“All right,” he continued, “I’d like the officers to remain, but you petty officers are dismissed.”

There followed a period of benign chaos as the petty officers filed out, and the officers talked, whispered and gestured among themselves.

Kas regarded the twenty-two officers remaining after the NCOs left.

“All right, ladies and gentlemen. I see only three familiar faces among you. That’s unfortunate, but we’ll live with it.

“What you may consider even more unfortunate is that we have no written records for any of us. Oh, I’m sure that those three will be able to fill you in on what a sonofabitch I am. But I will have no one to fill me in on each of you.” He shrugged. “You may consider that good news or bad news, I don’t know. But it means that each of you is starting with a clean slate.

“Now. Grand Admiral Pankin gave me somewhat more of a free hand than is usual. I may be selecting a Fleet Captain from among you to command the Rekesh, and possibly a Captain for Starhopper. Yes, I did say ‘may’, and I did say ‘selecting’. Seniority will not be the deciding factor. And be advised, Starhopper ’s exec is command qualified.

“I’m sure that I’ve just shocked some of you. Sorry about that. But I intend to deliver the Rekesh safely to Prime, and will do whatever I consider necessary to complete that mission. I will be talking with each of you individually over the next few days, forming opinions of you, as you will form opinions of me. I sincerely hope that both sets of opinions are favorable.” He dismissed the officers, and then watched as they milled about for a few moments before shuffling out. It was hard to gauge reactions, but there seemed to be little overt dissatisfaction. With a sigh, he began preparing for his first individual interview.

Chapter 12

Kas’ first visitor was Roi Tremling. As the staff insignia on his shoulder boards showed, Tremling was an Engineer. In fact, he was almost a caricature of the breed. His shipsuit was already rumpled, and even the three gold Commanders’ stripes on his left shoulder board were stained. His military bearing was noticeable only for its total absence; he slumped, even when tossing Kas a rudimentary salute. Despite the grease-stained rag he wrung ceaselessly between his fingers, his hands were none too clean. Kas suppressed a grimace as he invited the man to sit.

“Thought I’d go first, Commodore,” Tremling muttered, “So’s I can get back t’work. Then th’ rest o’ you can get on with your military silliness.”

Kas’ face darkened. “It’s your military silliness, too, Commander!”

Tremling shrugged slightly, but did not reply. Kas’ flush deepened and anger flared.

“On your feet, Commander!” The man looked annoyed, but obeyed. “Now,” Kas continued, “You must be an outstanding engineer, mister, because you’re a disaster as an officer. But I will not have my crew snickering behind their hands at one of my officers, line or staff! Nor will I permit you to infect junior officers with disdain for the Fleet and its purpose.

“Now, I have no choice but to assign you as Rekesh ’s Chief Engineer. But by all the weird gods of the galaxy, by the time we get back, you will be as acceptable an officer as you are an engineer, or you’ll die trying!

“Now,” he continued in a more moderate tone, “I know you’ve a lot to do to get this ship combat-ready…” Tremling muttered and Kas paused. “What?”

Tremling glowered. “I said, ‘If it can be done at all’.”

Kas matched the man’s scowl. “You mean, ‘If it can be done at all, sir!’ he demanded.

After a moment, Tremling’s eyes dropped, and he grated a reluctant, “Sir”.

Kas stared at the man for a moment, seething. Finally, he controlled himself enough to snap. “That will be all, Commander. For now. But rest assured,” he grated as the pudgy man rose; “You and I will be having much more contact in the weeks to come. For now, get out of my sight, and get my ship on-line!”

Kas found that he had to allow himself a few moments to subdue his anger and control trembling hands. Closing his eyes, he breathed deeply, trying to clear his mind before his next interview.

But the man who next entered was nearly the antithesis of the engineer. Tre Wansung marched into the room like a cadet on parade, snapped to attention, and rendered Kas a textbook salute. Where the engineer was large and hulking, Wansung stood only about 160 centimeters tall, and probably massed about 70 kilos. Slim and graceful, he conveyed an air of tightly constrained energy. His blond hair and youthful face belied his Commander’s shoulder boards.

Kas wondered how the man managed to get knife-edged creases in his shipsuit. Certainly the ship’s laundry facilities were not yet online. He straightened and returned the salute, inviting Wansung to sit. The man did, but still somehow managed to convey a feeling he’d be more comfortable standing at attention.

Wansung flashed him a blinding grin. “It’s a genuine honor to meet you, Commodore,” he began. “It’s about time one of us got a flag!”

Kas frowned. “One of us?”

Wansung’s head bobbed. “Sure. An outie. I was beginning to think the only way an outie would get flag rank would be by moving to the Alliance!” He favored Kas with another blinding grin.

Kas suppressed a groan. “Please,” he prayed silently to any god that happened by, “Not another damned bigot!”

He sighed. With an effort, he made his tone light and pleasant. “Tell me about yourself, Commander. You were one of the last to arrive at the base on Prime, and I didn’t have much time to review your record.”

Wansung responded with another crisp nod. “Yes, sir. I just got my third full ring three years ago.” He flushed slightly as he admitted, “I’m afraid this is my first assignment to a combatant vessel, unless you consider a planetary assault ship a combatant.” He shrugged. “I don’t. I mean, all they really are is a space bound truck hauling the real fighting troops to the battle.

“Aside from my last tour, as Exec on one of those, I had two tours on supply vessels. I’d almost given up hope of getting a combatant assignment, where I could really show what I could do. It’s getting so the innies keep all the good fighting assignments to themselves!” He continued in this vein for several moments, not noticing Kas’ increasingly stony expression. Finally, he ran down.

Kas sighed. “Very well, Commander. You will be assigned as Rekesh ’s Operations Officer. Now, your lack of combatant ship experience will be a problem, and I expect you to be using the strategic and tactical library and simulations frequently to hone your skills.”

They talked a bit more, and Kas began to relax. Wansung made no further comments that might be considered bigoted, and Kas began to wonder if the man had just imagined that stressing their common origins would be a good way to try to bond with his CO. If so, his judgment might be faulty, but at Least Kas wouldn’t have to worry about his treatment of innerworld crewpeople.

Kas began to relax a bit, but he was still uncomfortably aware that there were only two more Commanders. Despite his words at the meeting, Kas really didn’t want to appoint Rom to command Starhopper, and Wansung was simply too inexperienced. The freighter would be his scout, and operating largely independently. Kas wanted her to have the most qualified skipper available.

Kas looked at the woman on the other side of his desk, trying to recall all the details of the service record he’d seen on Prime. “Please be seated, Commander.”

Commander San To-Ling was the senior of the cold-sleep officers, which meant she was senior to everyone on the mission except Kas. Her last assignment had been as Executive Officer aboard Haroun Al-Rashid, a battle cruiser and sister ship to the Rekesh. Judging by her seniority, she was undoubtedly due for promotion to Captain. In fact, Kas suspected she was overdue. For the fiftieth time, he cursed the fact that he’d been unable to bring the crew’s service records.

Physically, To-Ling was a tiny, middle-aged woman. She certainly massed less than fifty kilos, and stood only about a meter and a half tall. But she stood ramrod straight, and her angular features betrayed a coldness and arrogance Kas felt as a physical force.

“Thank you, sir,” she replied, her tone making the last word a sneer. “I prefer to stand.”

Kas nodded. “Very well.” He frowned. “Tell me, Commander. Just what is it that makes you so hostile? Is it me personally, or is it just that I’m an outerworlder?”

To-Ling regarded him coldly. “May I speak freely, Commodore?”

Kas nodded again. “Please. And consider that permission to apply at any time when we’re alone.”

She suppressed a snort. “Very well, sir. To be honest, it’s both. I’ve never served under an outie before, and I’m not looking forward to the experience.” She shrugged. “Oh, I’ve known some outies that were very competent at their jobs. But I’ve never known one to be completely civilized.”

She hesitated before continuing, “And frankly, sir, an officer who would assault another officer, especially one senior to him, betrays a lack of self control I find appalling. I find it difficult to deal with the fact that this mission is commanded by an officer so… unmilitary.”

Kas paused before replying. Finally, he said, “Very well, I asked for honesty, and I’ve received it. I replaced Starhopper ’s exec because he was an outerworld bigot. Now it seems I must deal with an innerworld snob. I’ll merely content myself with asking who is more civilized — a person who deals with others based on who they are rather than where they’re from, or one who substitutes arrogance and stereotypes for judgment? I’ve always felt that being ‘civilized’ mostly consisted of making others feel comfortable in one’s presence — not assuming an unjustified air of superiority and using it to look down on those one considers ‘inferior’.

“As for your feelings about me personally,” he continued, “You may be surprised to learn that I agree with you. The episode to which you refer is not one of which I am proud; but I have no intention of defending myself or my actions to a subordinate. I will say only that it was an aberration — not typical behavior for me.

“Now. For good or ill, you are the senior Commander aboard. I can do three things with you; give you command of Starhopper, make you Flag Captain of Vir Rekesh, or retain command myself with you as exec.

“I’ve decided on the third alternative. Starhopper ’s crew is all outerworlder. I will not subject them to a skipper who considers them inferiors. For the same reason, I’m not going to appoint you Flag Captain. You’ve served as the exec of a cruiser before. You’ve done it well enough to retain the position. How you’ve been able to successfully do that despite being an arrogant snob and while retaining such silly prejudices, I confess I don’t understand. But by the time this mission is over, I will know whether you’re as effective as your manner indicates you think you are.”

He sighed. “Now, sit down, Commander, and let’s figure out how to make this ship as battle-ready as possible as quickly as possible.”

To-Ling reluctantly took a seat and for the next half hour they discussed the situation aboard the Rekesh. As their discussion continued her reluctant air slowly dissipated, and soon she was animated and enthusiastic. As long as the discussion remained professional, her snobbery was not evident. But as Kas brought the discussion to a close, her arrogance reasserted itself, and Kas shook his head as she stalked stiffly out of the room. San To-Ling was going to require watching.

The next officer summoned to Kas’ cabin was Var Ler-Traken, Kas’ next senior officer. Ler-Traken was the opposite of To-Ling. Tall and distinguished-looking, he could have been a vid star. But if anything, Ler-Traken seemed even more unhappy than To-Ling. With him it showed in a black scowl and growled surliness.

Kas sighed and briefly wished for the days when he had only the five crewmembers aboard Starhopper to concern him. “All right, Commander. You’ve made it obvious that you’re unhappy. Tell me about it. And you can be honest.”

The scowl faded slightly. “I’m sorry it shows so much, Commodore. But not very sorry. I was in transit when I was grabbed for this mission. I had orders to command of a destroyer, Harpy.”

Kas nodded. “And of course, such orders are usually followed shortly by promotion to Captain.” Ler-Traken nodded.

Kas sighed. “I’m sorry about that, Commander. But this mission is vital, and I won’t apologize for the best officers available being grabbed for it. I’m sure that if we succeed, the delay will be short. And of course, if we fail…”

A first, faint smile played across the handsome face. “If we fail, we won’t have to worry about it.”

Kas grinned and nodded. “Exactly. Now. As I recall your record, your last assignment was as Captain of a frigate.”

Ler-Traken nodded again. “Yes, sir. Sparrow. We were involved in that border skirmish at Snomish last year.”

Kas straightened. “Of course! You captured a Glory ‘pirate’ intact, right?”

Ler-Traken smiled grimly. “Yes, sir. Of course, she wasn’t a pirate. She was one of those corvettes the Glory bought about fifteen years ago. And that skipper was at least a Swordsir, even if the crew didn’t wear insignia.” The smile faded. “They booby-trapped the airlock, but we were ready for their tricks. When we got aboard without blowing the main fusactor, the crew suicided. The Glory claimed they were pirates, of course. But they had a harder time explaining the ship.”

A smile tugged at Kas’ mouth. “I remember. You caused quite a diplomatic disturbance, Commander. Excellent work.”

Ler-Traken nodded. “Thank you, sir.”

Kas made up his mind. An officer with command and battle experience was just what he needed. And Ler-Traken had not only been good enough to defeat a corvette with a frigate, but smart enough get boarders aboard a Glory ship. Glories were famous for setting booby traps to simultaneously suicide and destroy their enemies. When defeated in battle, they often tried to lure the enemy close aboard and trigger overload of the main fusactor.

“Commander,” he began, “How do you feel about outerworlders?”

Ler-Traken frowned. “I don’t understand, sir. What about them?”

“Do you have any problem with commanding a ship with a crew of them?”

The man shrugged. “Of course not, sir. I don’t care where they’re from. I only care how they perform.” He shot a glance at Kas. “Unless they’re planning to take a swing at me, of course.” he added grimly.

Kas winced, then put on a smile. “I think you’ll find they’re a good crew. I’m giving you Starhopper. I know what she looks like,” he added hurriedly as a scowl began to darken the handsome face, “but there’s a lot more there than meets the eye.” He shrugged. “Much of the success of this mission is going to depend upon you and Starhopper. You’re going to have to function as my eyes and ears. I can’t even move Rekesh until you go let the diplomats know to begin negotiating passage for her through other systems’ space.”

The big man nodded. “I guess that means I’ll be warping out almost immediately.” He looked pleased now, his annoyance abated by a new command and a mission.

Kas nodded. “Yes, but you’ll still be ‘undercover’, pretending to be a trader, until the cookie pushers can negotiate passage for two Empire warships. And you can’t go to the system we’d originally planned. There’s an Alliance base there, and I barely managed to lie my way through. Naturally, you can’t show up in ‘my’ ship.

“So, you’ll go to the next-closest system with an Empire consulate, a place called ‘Remor’.” He shrugged. “I don’t know anything about it, but my resident expert tells me you needn’t worry about strict customs inspections.” He smiled. “’Laid back’ was the term she used. I gather that means things are pretty loose there — or at least, informal.”

Ler-Traken frowned. “‘Resident expert’… does that mean someone who knows more about the area than Fleet Intelligence? I hope?”

Kas grinned. “Much more. She and her crewman are traders, born and raised out here. You’ll be meeting them. In fact, you’ll be dropping them off on Remor. We sort of rescued them from a Glory corvette, and they’ve been quite a help in getting us out here alive.”

Ler-Traken’s frown deepened. “You’re saddling me with civilians, sir? What about when we get to this Remor? What’s to keep them from turning us all in? For all we know, there’s a big reward for Starhopper and her crew.”

Kas’ grin faded and he nodded. “True. But I’m certain they won’t betray us. They’re Alliance citizens, but Remor isn’t an Alliance system. They’re also known to have helped us when they could have betrayed us. I doubt they’d be considered heroes by the Alliance.” He shrugged. “Besides, I know them now. I trust her — them.” His tone held an element of finality.

Ler-Traken’s frown remained, but he nodded firmly. “Yes, sir. I guess the trip out here was pretty interesting.”

Kas’ grin was back. “I’m not sure ‘interesting’ is the word I’d use, but it certainly wasn’t boring.” He straightened. “Now, Captain, There is one other thing I want to mention before you get busy. Starhopper ’s crew. They’re all outies, as I mentioned. But more importantly, they’ve spent the last several months struggling to hide the fact they were military, to appear to be traders. They’ve worked hard, and they’re very convincing, which will help on Remor. But of course, once you leave there, you’ll need to reimpose the military manners and courtesies to which you’re accustomed.” He fidgeted and flushed. “I guess what I’m doing is suggesting that you consider that when you see lapses. I…”

“Are you ordering me to relax my insistence on military conduct, sir?” The tone was carefully neutral.

Kas shook his head violently. “No! I… ah, Sheol. I guess I was. Even though I know better than to tell a captain how to run his ship. My apologies, Captain. Of, course; you’ll do as you think best. Just consider it an advance explanation of any lapses that might occur.”

Ler-Traken nodded. “Yes, sir. But have you considered that a tight ship might be the best way to minimize those lapses and get them back to their military selves?” Kas looked thoughtful, and Ler-Traken continued, “Don’t worry, Commodore. I’ll try to base my opinion of the crew on their efficiency, not any minor lapses in military courtesy.”

Kas sighed with relief. “Thank you, Captain. Believe me; it wasn’t easy to try to break their military conditioning. I just hope it’ll be easier to restore it.”

The two set to planning Starhopper ’s mission, and by the time they were finished, Kas had relaxed considerably. Yes, there would be problems with Tremling and To-Ling, but hopefully those problems would involve their personalities rather than their effectiveness. He was certain he could count on Ler-Traken. And his first impressions of young Wansung were largely favorable despite his early false steps. Inner-versus outer-world attitudes had been developing and hardening Empire-wide for a number of years. It wasn’t unreasonable for the man to assume Kas would have strong feelings on the subject.

He sighed deeply, then began calling in his six Lieutenant Commanders. They would serve as Department Heads aboard Rekesh, though those were normally Commanders’ billets. Three of them were staff, and only three were line.

Below the command level, the most responsibility would undoubtedly rest with Til Be’Rak, a strikingly attractive redhead, and the senior Astrogation staff officer aboard. Despite her name, Be’Rak was an innerworlder. Kas’ interview showed her to be friendly, outgoing and gregarious. Her seductive appearance and smiling manner made her easy to underestimate and dismiss, but Kas knew that she had to be highly competent for Captain Froud to have drafted her for such an essential position.

Wor Sha-Tren was an Engineering staff officer. Rough edged and surly, he made an exasperated Kas wonder what it was about the engineering specialty that attracted misfits and malcontents. Sha-Tren was from a wealthy innerworld family, and considered his assignment to Rekesh a betrayal of an “arrangement” his family had made permitting him to stay on Prime. After only a few minutes, a seething Kas dismissed the abrasive officer to the care of Tremling.

Vol Ra-Lavon was no big improvement. Kas’ only Supply staff officer, Ra-Lavon stated in the first few moments of their conversation “with all due respect” that he felt Kas should have been shot for assaulting an innerworld Admiral. Kas was unsure whether the man was more upset that Lu-Jenks had been an Admiral or that he’d been an innerworlder. With no real choice, Kas appointed Ra-Lavon Admin as well as Supply Officer. But Kas was afraid the man would become one of his biggest problems.

Coincidentally, all of his line Lieutenant Commanders were outerworlders.

Senior among them was Con Vertring. Vertring had two years’ experience as Executive Officer of a corvette. He seemed competent, if a bit of a ‘book’ officer. He seemed to go to great lengths to mimic innerworld manners, even to the extent of denigrating outerworlders. Kas appointed him Assistant Operations officer.

Bru Raskin seemed the extreme opposite of Vertring. Indeed, the man seemed a veritable cartoon of an outerworlder. He seemed to enjoy using the coarsest of outerworld mannerisms to scandalize and irritate innerworlders, whom he considered effete snobs. At first Kas wondered how such a coarse loudmouth had attained the rank of Lieutenant Commander, but he learned that Raskin had never been stationed on an inner world. Kas seemed to remember the man’s fitness reports hadn’t been particularly good in any area except gunnery. With crossed fingers and desperate hopes, Kas appointed him Gunnery Officer.

Kas had purposely saved Lordsgrace Worshipful for last. A small, rather voluptuous brunette, she was one of the three that had served with Kas before. Worshipful’s parents had been defectors from the Glory. Kas had known her casually, and knew she was very sensitive about this. In compensation, she had always been very vocal about her contempt for the Glory, and indeed for anyone with religious beliefs. When he’d known her as a junior Lieutenant, she had always seemed to be on a crusade to prove herself as good as the best of the others. Kas had a few reservations about her attitudes toward her more devout colleagues, but he knew that her relentless drive to excel had made her an outstanding officer, if somewhat stiff and formal. After giving her some pointed hints about religious tolerance, Kas appointed her Environmental/Commissary Officer, responsible for the maintenance of living spaces, laundry, and food and beverage preparation.

Of the other twelve officers, nine were Lieutenants, with five to ten years’ service. Five of the nine were staff officers, including two Engineering officers, two Comp amp; Comm officers, and an Astrogator.

The other four were general line officers. Kas had served with two of them when they were Ensigns, fresh from the academy. He ignored their previous acquaintance, and assigned two of them to Gunnery and Fire Control under Raskin. One of the others went to Supply, and the last he assigned to Wansung as Assistant Operations and Helm Officer.

Finally Kas had three Lieutenants, Junior Grade. With two to four years’ Fleet service, they occupied the second-lowest rung on the officer ladder. Thankfully, Kas had been spared any Ensigns, though he was authorized to commission any NCO’s he found suitable. Two of the JG’s were assigned to Worshipful, and the last to Gunnery under Raskin.

By the time Kas had finished interviewing his officers, Starhopper was nearly ready to break orbit. He hurried to suit up and cross to her. He didn’t want to miss the opportunity to bid farewell to Lar Tennig and, of course, to Lady Jane.

The man-settled universe is a huge place, and attitudes toward male — female relationships run the gamut from the Glory, where extramarital physical contact of any type other than hand-holding is punishable by death for both parties, to places where nudity is common and sexual contact as casual as a handshake.

Lady Jane had been sharing his bed aboard Starhopper for some time, and Kas was fairly certain her mores were as liberal as his own, or nearly so. Still, he couldn’t avoid a sense of guilt and responsibility.

He was relieved when she seemed to take their separation with a reluctance and tinge of regret that matched his own slight wistfulness perfectly. He firmly quashed a constant urge to ask her to move aboard the Rekesh before Starhopper boosted. Once they began moving the cruiser back toward the Empire, there would probably be no chance to drop off passengers. He gave her the remaining cash Empire Intelligence had given him as compensation for their help, and promised to swear if asked that he had coerced their help. Finally, Ler-Traken was hovering around; trying to delicately tell his Commodore the ship was ready to boost and to get the Sheol off! and Kas could delay no longer.

Back aboard the Rekesh, Kas cursed as Starhopper was swallowed up almost immediately by the blackness of space. He didn’t even have the consolation of watching her fade into the distance. He sighed with regret and entered the airlock.

He had no chance to dwell on his loss, however. There was simply too much to do.

His most immediate problem was the habitability of the huge ship. With life support restored, blood, bits of flesh and even body parts that had been missed by the searchers had begun to rot. The stench was nearly unbearable, and permeated the entire ship. The only-partially-restored life support system was simply unable to cope with the problem.

Working parties had dispersed throughout the ship trying to clean up the mess. It was a nasty job, and the NCOs were forced to become increasingly rough to keep the ratings at work. Kas actually had to caution his officers to give the NCOs a loose rein, and to ‘not see’ many infractions.

But as he returned through the Rekesh ’s airlock and unsuited, he encountered one of the working parties, and noted they were all wearing breathing apparatus usually used for exploration work on worlds where harmful trace elements had to be filtered from the atmosphere. He asked the petty officer in charge of the party about the masks.

The man shrugged. “The Chief brought ‘em around to us a couple hours ago,” he replied. “Chief said Lieutenant Commander Worshipful got the supply officer to pull ‘em from stores.” He sighed. “Sure makes a difference, sir. It’s still a nasty job, but at least now we don’t haveta stop every few minutes to barf!”

Kas dismissed the man, and continued to his cabin. He was impressed. Not only had Worshipful thought of the breathers, she’d somehow managed to get an innerworld bigot like Ra-Lavon to pull and issue them without Kas’ signature on a dozen requisition forms. This was the best news he’d had since boarding the Rekesh. It seemed that at least one of his officers was on the ball. In fact, maybe two of them. He determined to find out how willingly Ra-Lavon had participated. Maybe the man wasn’t such a hopeless prig after all.

But the smell wasn’t the only problem aboard the huge ship. When he reached his cabin, he saw urgent messages from the head of the civilian contingent installing the new AI, his new Chief Astrogator, and, of course, Roi Tremling, his Chief Engineer. He sighed, and got ready for a long day. He sighed again. Okay, make that a longer day!

Chapter 13

Var Ler-Traken breathed a huge sigh of relief as Starhopper boosted for the jump point. He might not be aboard Harpy, but at least he had a ship — of sorts. And a mission — one that could turn out to be hazardous, despite Preslin’s assurances.

As Starhopper passed through the tedium that was Jump, Var pored over both the ship’s logs and the supplemental report Preslin had drafted after they’d reached the Rekesh ’s system. The memory crystal containing the supplemental report would be concealed when they reached Remor. It contained the true account of the outward journey. The official log, naturally, contained only the information that supported Starhopper ’s cover.

Var pushed the viewer aside and sat back. Kas Preslin seemed a competent skipper. He approved of Preslin’s actions with the hidden beacon, for instance. And even his own cursory contact with Lieutenant Edro Jans showed Preslin’s switch of his designator from line to staff to be wise.

But regardless of the Commodore’s opinion, he still had his doubts about the two civilians. The woman was obviously Preslin’s doxy. The Commodore had no business risking such a vital mission just because he was horny. But Var had no choice. He called Lady Jane to his cabin, and asked her to brief him on Remor.

She shrugged. “It’s a major trading hub for the whole region. Half the planet’s covered with warehouses. We shouldn’t attract a lot of attention.”

Var frowned. “What about customs?”

She shrugged again. “Not much of a problem. They dragged this huge asteroid into orbit around the planet and built the biggest orbital station in space on it-or, rather, in it. Ships aren’t permitted to ground. They have to dock at the station. Customs just inspects everything removed from the ship.”

“Including the people?”

She frowned. “Not really. I mean, they may have hidden scanners or something but all I’ve ever been asked for is my ship’s papers. They’re pretty informal.”

“Yes. That’s what the Commodore said.”

She merely looked at him for a moment. Then, “You don’t like me or trust me at all, do you, Captain?”

He shook his head. “I neither like nor dislike you, Mistress.” He shrugged. “In any case, my personal likes or dislikes are irrelevant. I’m simply transporting you in accordance with the Commodore’s orders. As for trusting you, No, mistress. Not a bit.”

She sighed. “I think we’ve proved our good intentions. We could have betrayed the Commodore several times on the trip out.”

It was his turn to sigh. “I’ve read the logs. At first, you were under pressure to survive. You’d have promised anything. Oh, I don’t think you’re Alliance agents. But I must consider the possibility that you helped the Commodore only until you could learn where the Rekesh was located. Now that you know where she is, and that she is salvageable, it would be easy for you to contact the Alliance ambassador on Remor and pass your information along. I think the Commodore’s actions with regard to you were… unwise.”

Suddenly she smiled. “You mean you wouldn’t have picked us up?”

He shook his head. “No, Mistress, I wouldn’t. If I’d been on a mission as important as that, I’d have taken no chances. The Commodore admits in his logs that he knew what he should have done. He made his decision despite that realization. I’m not sure he’d have made the same decision if you’d been a hairy, two — meter male.”

The smile widened. “So you think I worked my feminine wiles on the Commodore and seduced him from the Path of True Duty.” Var could hear the capitals in the final phrase.

He relaxed slightly and produced a faint grin. “Something like that.” He frowned. “No matter how dramatically you put it, the Commodore risked the entire mission and the safety of more than 350 Fleet people out of sentiment. Or lust. Either way, I feel that risk was unjustified and I am uncomfortable giving you another opportunity to betray us.”

“So, what are you going to do?”

He shrugged. “Nothing, at the moment. However, when we reach Remor I will insist that you and your friend remain aboard until we have talked with the Empire Embassy. If we are boarded or inspected, well, I’ll be armed. As will some of the crew. I hope to simply turn you over to the embassy staff, and let them deal with you and the Alliance.”

“You think the Commodore is that poor a judge of people?”

He shrugged again. “Irrelevant. The Commodore had no right to risk the mission for that judgment. I will simply behave as though you are enemy agents. If you are, I hope to prevent or delay you reporting what you’ve learned. If you are not, you will simply be somewhat inconvenienced. I regret that, but I think it is necessary.”

Her smile had faded as he talked. “I see. Very well. I have no way of convincing you of our good faith, so Lar and I will go along with your plans.”

She stood, frowning, her anger obvious. “But I want to tell you, Captain, that I consider you a pompous, officious ass. You’ll never be half the leader Kas Preslin is, or half the man! You represent the worst of the military — cold, ruthless, and driven. But Kas asked me to help you. So I’ll tell you what I know, and I’ll try to help you get safely clear of Remor. And I’ll enjoy myself by watching you try to decide how much of what I tell you is true, and how much Alliance lies!” She whirled and stamped out.

Var simply sat staring at the cabin door for several minutes after she left.

The problem was, she was right. He had no way of judging how much, if any, of her information was true. For all he knew, Remor was as paranoid as the Glory, and they’d all be arrested and shot almost immediately.

But he had to act as though her information was good. Certainly there were no better alternatives to consider. The only other system within reach with an Empire diplomatic presence was To-Han, with a small consulate. They couldn’t return there. Even if the Alliance hadn’t learned of Starhopper ’s real mission, Var could hardly show up with Preslin’s ship without blowing their cover completely.

He shrugged and tried to dismiss his fears. Even if she were an Alliance agent, Lady Jane would be unlikely to guide them into danger. No, her priority would be to make contact with Alliance authorities. After all, stopping Starhopper or the mission would be their problem, not hers.

So, agent or not, she was probably telling the truth about Remor.

The only recal stop they had to make was in an uninhabited system, and went smoothly.

Just before they emerged into the Remor system, Var gathered the crew, and reminded them of the necessity to resume their non-military personas. He issued Rom Reffel a concealable needler, and took one himself. Lady Jane stiffened and reddened at this reminder.

His preparations proved unnecessary. They were not challenged, and when they got close enough to the planet to hail Remor Control, they got a surprise.

“Remor control to Empire Diplomatic vessel Starhopper,” the youngish man in the viewscreen began. “We’ve been expecting you. The Empire ambassador has asked us to relay the following orders: you are not to approach the orbital station. Instead, you are to match orbits 500 kilometers behind the station, and stand by for orders from the embassy.” He paused. “The embassy is being notified of your arrival as we speak. Maneuvering vectors to your orbit are…” He ran off a string of numbers.

“ Starhopper to Remor Control,” Var replied. “We understand and will comply. Do we have clearance for maneuvering?”

“Wait one, Starhopper.” The man paused again and looked off-screen, evidently at someone talking to him. He turned back. “I’ve just been told that the Embassy has been informed of your arrival. You are cleared to assume orbit.” The screen blanked.

Var stared at the darkened screen. After a moment he turned to Lady Jane. “I assume this is not a normal procedure,” he said. Her eyes were wide. “It sure isn’t!” she replied. “I’ve never heard of any ship not docking at the orbital station. Your ambassador must’ve been pulling some big strings.”

He slowly stood. “Commander Reffel,” he said, “Please assume the indicated orbit. I wish they’d given us an idea how long we’ll have to wait.”

“Probably not long, sir,” Rom replied. “If they’ve been waiting for us and making these kinds of preparations, something’s up. Remember, we weren’t even supposed to come here. This was a secondary contact in case we couldn’t use To-Han.”

Var looked thoughtful. “You’re right, Commander. Something is up. Something tells me our mission just became even more complicated.”

It was some five hours later that Edro reported a small ship departing the orbital station and headed for their position. “ID says it’s a diplomatic yacht, Captain,” he added.

The yacht refused communication and merely matched Starhopper ’s orbit, some ten meters off her port bow. Var, who’d been waiting by the passenger hatch with Rom, was annoyed when Edro called him back to the bridge. “She’s not linking up, sir,” Edro reported. “She’s just hanging there.”

Var emerged on the bridge, cursing, just as Edro reported the yacht had established a com laser link. That wasn’t a good sign. It meant whoever was on the yacht was insisting on totally secure communications. Why the devil didn’t whoever it was just come aboard?

Fuming, he plopped down in front of the viewscreen. He straightened as he realized the elderly man in the screen wore the dress uniform of a Fleet Captain.

“I’m Captain Tan Ro-Ligon,” the man began. “Military Attache to the Empire Embassy on Remor. Please identify yourself.”

“Commander Var Ler-Traken, sir,” Var responded crisply. “Commanding Starhopper.”

Ro-Ligon scowled. “I rather expected Commodore Preslin to be in command,” he began. “I assume the fact that he sent you means that your mission was successful and you’ve found Vir Rekesh.”

“Yes, sir,” Var replied. “The medical team has come up with a cure for the plague, and the Commodore’s reactivation team is preparing her for her return to the Empire. He expects her to be at least marginally operational by the time we return. I was directed to notify the embassy, so the diplomatic staff could begin getting us clearances.”

The man on the screen reddened and fidgeted. He seemed embarrassed! “Err, yes. Well, Commander, there have been developments, and your mission is no longer so simple.” The man stared into the screen with the manner of a man bracing himself to deliver bad news. “That’s why this infernal nonsense is necessary.” He waved a hand to vaguely indicate the entire situation. “Stand by to receive classified directives,” Ro-Ligon ordered. Then his image disappeared, replaced by blankness, and a prolonged screech told Var they were receiving compressed data. A glance at Edro confirmed that he was recording it.

The screech went on and on, lasting more than ten seconds; evidently they were being fed a lot of data. Finally, the screech cut off, and Captain Ro-Ligon’s image reappeared.

The old Captain looked like a judge delivering a death sentence. “You’ll get the details from the directives you’ve just received,” the man began, “But I’ll give you your immediate orders.

“No one is to embark or disembark from your vessel, Captain,” he began. “Nor are you to ground on any inhabited planet. No one on your ship or Vir Rekesh is to have physical contact of any kind with anyone not presently aboard those ships.”

“Uh, sir,” Var interrupted, “I have two civilians aboard. Alliance citizens. The Commodore directed me to disembark them here. I was planning to turn them over to you.”

Ro-Ligon frowned. “Civilians? Alliance citizens?” He sighed in exasperation. “Is nothing ever simple with Kas Preslin? Who are they? Bring them to the bridge.”

“They’re here, sir.” Var stepped aside, and Lady Jane and Lar Tennig stepped in front of the pickup.

The old Captain frowned. “Who are you, young mistress?”

Lady Jane put on her brightest smile. “I’m Captain Jane Grey of the trader Lady Jane,” She replied. “This is my friend and crewman Lar Tennig.”

The man’s frown deepened. “Traders, eh? Alliance citizens, y’say?”

“Yes and Yes. Commodore Preslin rescued us from an attack by a Glory corvette. We’ve been assisting him as much as possible, but now you’ve got your damned ship back and we’re ready to get back to business.”

Ro-Ligon shook his head. “Amazing. Leave it to Preslin to find a good-looking woman, even in the middle of a secret mission!” He sighed in resignation. “I’m sorry, young mistress. It will not be possible to repatriate you or your companion, at least not in the near future.

“Unfortunately, the orders you heard me give Captain Ler-Traken are direct from Fleet Headquarters on Prime. I have no authority to deviate from them.”

Lady Jane frowned. “Sir, I protest. And I demand to be permitted to contact Alliance diplomatic personnel immediately!”

Ro-Ligon shook his head in denial. “That will not be possible, I’m afraid. We will notify the Alliance embassy immediately of your whereabouts and present status.” His lined face hardened with determination. “But no one will be permitted to leave that ship for any reason. Again, I’m sorry.” He straightened. “Captain Ler-Traken?”

“Here, sir.” Var nudged the civilians aside and resumed his seat in front of the pickup.

“I’m sorry, Captain,” Ro-Ligon resumed. “You are to treat your Alliance guests with all possible respect and consideration. But under no circumstances are they to be permitted to contact Alliance authorities.

“Now,” he continued. “I repeat: there is to be no physical contact of any sort between the people aboard your two ships and anyone not presently aboard one of those ships.

“You are to boost out immediately at max possible delta-vee, and return to Commodore Preslin. You will deliver to him the directives that have just been provided to you. Those directives contain all the information he will need to complete his mission.”

“Sir,” Var said urgently, “Will we rendezvous with reinforcements from the Empire?”

Ro-Ligon frowned. “Reinforcements? Don’t be ridiculous. Even an outie like Preslin should be able to defend himself with a fully armed battle cruiser!”

Var flushed slightly. “Ordinarily that would be true, sir. But he has only 300 Fleet personnel aboard, less than a tenth of Rekesh ’s complement. That’s barely enough to fly her. It’s certainly not enough to fight her effectively.”

To-Ligon waved a hand in dismissal. “There’s no one to fight! Certainly none of these provincials would be up to attacking a Fleet battle cruiser.” Var shook his head. “I disagree, sir. The Glory would certainly try, if they knew where she was. And I suspect Libertad might take the risk, too. But the point is we have an undermanned ship whose course is, or will shortly be, known to anyone interested enough to bribe a clerk in any of a dozen of the independents. The danger is real, sir.”

To-Ligon looked unimpressed. “Very well, Captain. I’ll relay your concerns. But no one will be going aboard Rekesh or Starhopper.” An annoyed expression crossed his face. “Frankly, I think you’re overreacting. Those outies on Libertad and the Glory don’t want to pick a fight with the Empire, after all.”

Var suppressed a frown of disagreement. “Yes, sir. Uh, there is one other thing, Captain. I’d hoped to reprovision here…” His voice trailed off as he saw Ro-Ligon give a curt shake of his head.

“Quite impossible, Captain. I’m afraid you’ll just have to make your ships’ stores last awhile.” He hesitated, and then continued in a less formal tone, “I’ll make sure that the powers that be haven’t forgotten that you might need supplies. Perhaps a rendezvous with a stores ship can be arranged.” He shrugged. “I’ll try, anyway, Captain. I’m well aware that all of you are being treated quite shabbily for Fleet officers and crew.” He frowned. “I’m sorry, Captain. There’s nothing more I’m permitted to tell you. I’m told that all the details are in those messages you’ve been given. Good luck.” His image faded as he clicked off. Var frowned. What the Sheol was going on? Something was up, no doubt about it. His face cleared as he got to his feet. “All right, you heard the man. Mr. Reffel, break orbit. Mistress Fauss, please plot us a course to the jump point, max boost. Mr. Jans, get us clearances from Remor Control. Now, people. I want to boost out in fifteen minutes.”

As the crew scrambled to obey, Var turned to the two civilians. “I doubt you’ll believe this, Mistress, but I’m truly sorry.”

Lady Jane smiled. “Oh, I believe it. You’re still saddled with two Alley spies. And me without a single cloak or dagger.”

Var’s handsome face relaxed into a smile. “I’m sure you’ll make do. No, I meant I’m sorry that we weren’t able to disembark you here. I’ve a feeling that you’re going to wish we had.”

Her smile faded. “Something’s going on, isn’t it? Something big.”

He shrugged. “You know as much as I do. But yes, I’d say something’s badly wrong.”

He was right. They’d received a lot of comm traffic; and surprisingly, none of it was personal mail for the crews of either Starhopper or Rekesh.

Nearly all of it was classified, and much of it appeared to have come directly from Fleet HQ. Most amazing of all was one that carried the imprint of the Imperial Senate.

Unfortunately, only one directive was addressed to CO, Starhopper, and that consisted only of written orders confirming those he’d been given by Captain Ro-Ligon. Var would have to contain his curiosity until the Commodore briefed him. If he did.



Chapter 14

Kas stared incredulously at the viewer in front of him.

Curiosity had led him to open the message from the Imperial Senate first. After all, he’d never before heard of the Senate sending messages directly to Fleet personnel. On the rare occasions such contact was made, it was made through Fleet HQ and Fleet Admiral Pankin. It was unprecedented.

He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He was summoned to appear before a session of the Imperial Senate to “explain matters directly relating to the safety and welfare of the Empire.” The date he was commanded to appear was just over a month ago. He wondered if there was a warrant out for his arrest for Contempt of the Senate.

He shook his head in disbelief, and turned his attention to the next most impressive; the one imprinted with the personal seal of the Commander In chief, Imperial Fleet. He set the viewer display to ‘screen’.

Fleet Admiral Pankin appeared, sitting behind a bare desk.

The Fleet Admiral smiled. Kas almost answered the smile with one of his own before remembering he was seeing a recording.

“Hello, Commodore,” Pankin began. “By now, you’ve been looking at this mass of electronic junk and wondering what the Sheol’s happened.

“Well, your secret mission’s no longer secret. The story of the Vir Rekesh hit the newsies about three months after you left.”

His smile turned bitter. “Of course, they played up the sensational aspects, with the emphasis on the plague. For months now, the Rekesh has been the “Ghost ship” “Imperial death ship,” and even something called the “Flying Dutchman.” It took the newsies about two minutes to decide that she was a threat to the entire Empire.”

The Admiral shrugged. “Then the news somehow leaked that we’d sent a mission to recover her. The newsies went mad.” He smiled grimly. “Of course, the Senate went mad about five minutes later, as soon as the reports hit the terminals. I’ve been before six Senate committees and before the full Senate twice. It seems they think we’re fools or villains. Or both. The Emperor has already had to personally intercede when a pack of senators demanded my head.

“I guess some staffer’s been counting heads or something, because about two months ago your name came up in connection with the Rekesh. Ever since, you have been a prominent feature of the newsies all over the Empire, and in most of the independents.

“You’ll be interested to hear that you’re some sort of madman or arch-villain. It seems they got hold of a garbled account of your little fracas with Lu-Jenks. There are several versions being bandied about, but the most popular says that after going insane and attacking your own Admiral, you escaped custody, vowing to destroy the Empire. Somehow, you learned about the Rekesh, and you gathered a gang of renegade outies to go get her, bring her back to the Empire, and travel from system to system-spreading plague. Another version has you headed for Prime with armed planetbusters. Still another has you plotting to turn an armed battle cruiser over to the Alliance. Lu-Jenks has been interviewed almost daily; and you can imagine what he’s saying about you.

“We denied it as long as possible, but finally had to admit to the Senate that there actually was an undercover mission to recover the Rekesh. That set off even more howls of outrage. Naturally, the newsies found out a few minutes after our ‘secret’ Senate briefing.

“We knew that endangered your safety, so the Emperor ordered the State Department to register Starhopper as a diplomatic auxiliary. At least you won’t be shot as spies. Moreover, there is one small bright spot. They don’t seem to have learned Starhopper ’s name — at least, not yet.”

Pankin sighed, and leaned forward. “So, that’s what’s been happening. Whether you’ve managed to salvage the Rekesh or not, you and your people are in very real, serious danger. As these plague stories spread through the independents, they are bound to grow more and more bizarre. I find myself hoping you contact an Empire embassy soon. Very soon. Once your ship’s name leaks, you may very well be attacked without warning as soon as you enter a system. And it will leak; too many people worked on it to keep the secret.”

The Fleet Admiral sighed again, and then hesitated. His face became sad. “I’m very sorry, Kas,” he continued. “I’m very sorry for what I’m being forced to do. It violates everything I hold dear. However, I have no choice.

“We’ve been spending nearly all of our time lately with senators, especially that weasel Ta-Lank, trying to make them understand the real situation. We have had some success, but I’m afraid it’s going to take quite some time for this thing to settle down and get out of the headlines. So, we have had to give in and deal with Ta-Lank and his cronies.

“I’m not proud of what I’ve had to agree to. And I am not happy to be dictating these orders. But concern for you and your people and, to be honest, the Emperor’s orders compel me.”

He straightened his expression still troubled. “A route has been planned for you to return to the Empire. It is quite roundabout, and it does not lead to Prime. The course is mostly through unclaimed space, and completely avoids inhabited systems. It terminates in an uninhabited system on the edge of the Empire.

“The Senate has agreed to appoint a medical committee. This will consist of a bunch of doctors in various medical and scientific specialties. They will review the work of Doctor Ro-Lecton and his staff. If, and only if, they agree there is absolutely no danger from the plague, you will be permitted to return to Prime.

“It was the best deal we could get. There was a lot of support for ordering you to an isolated system and just blowing you out of the sky.”

He shrugged. “If I were you, the question going through my mind right now would be, ‘well, you are ordering me to an isolated system. How do I know you’re not going to destroy me when I get there?’ Well, I am embarrassed to say that you don’t know it. All I can do is give you my word.”

Pankin sighed. “Six months ago, if someone had told me that one of my crews would feel threatened by their own Fleet, I’d have referred him for psychiatric evaluation.” The Fleet Admiral slumped in his chair, shaking his head. He suddenly looked very old.

After a moment, he raised his head, an agonized expression on his face. “These are orders, Kas. Whether or not you have the Rekesh, you are to follow your assigned course. It is going to take you awhile; I understand it involves over twenty jumps. Neither of your ships is to attempt to enter any inhabited system, and none of your people are to have any physical contact with anyone not presently aboard your ships.”

The Grand Admiral’s eyes narrowed. “I know you have a rather, uh, cavalier attitude toward orders. But please, don’t get imaginative, and don’t look for loopholes. Play this straight, Kas. We’re trying to save your lives.

“Yes, we’re wasting a lot of time on hysterical nonsense. But this is a situation where time is on our side, for a change. The longer we drag this out, the better the chances of the whole thing settling down and dropping out of the news. Once the newsies and some of our more hysterical senators calm down and move on to the next crisis, we can get back to normal. I hope.” With a sorrowful shake of his head, Pankin signed off.

Kas sat silent, staring at the empty screen. He marveled at his lack of emotion. Why wasn’t he furious? His personal reputation was being smeared all over the Empire and the independents. Despite what Pankin said, Kas knew that from now on, whenever his name was mentioned, it would bring visions of madness and plague to peoples’ minds. He winced as he realized it also meant he would never be able to put the Lu-Jenks incident behind him now.

Finally, he realized. Fleet people would know better. They wouldn’t be infected by the hysteria. And Fleet people were the only ones whose opinions mattered to him. He realized he didn’t really give a damn what groundhogs thought of him. Even billions of groundhogs.

He shrugged. Certainly, one day he would retire. So what? He could always change his name. Especially since it wasn’t really his in the first place.

He waved a hand dismissively. He had no right to sit here worrying about something as trivial as his reputation. He was responsible for the lives of more than three hundred fifty people. And most of them would not be as detached as him. They would be angry. And scared.

He keyed his intercom, and summoned To-Ling from the bridge and Ler-Traken from Starhopper. He had some decisions to make, and he would need their input.

“Well,” he said as he snapped the viewer off after playing Pankin’s message for them. “There it is. Comments and suggestions, please.”

His eyes moved from one to the other. To-Ling’s face was expressionless, stony. Ler-Traken, on the other hand, was open-mouthed in shock and dismay.

Starhopper ’s captain shook his handsome head. “I don’t believe it.”

“I do,” To-Ling put in. “We’re lucky Ta-Lank was willing to deal.”

Kas frowned. “Who is this Ta-Lank? And why does he have so much to say about it?”

To-Ling looked startled. “How could you not know Senator Ta-Lank? Besides the Emperor himself, he’s probably the most powerful man in the Empire.”

It was Kas’ turn to look surprised. “Really? I thought Grand Admiral Pankin was the next most powerful.”

She shook her head. “It’s not even a contest, sir. Pankin’s power is only military…”

“Only military?” Ler-Traken interrupted.

To-Ling looked irritated at the interruption. “Yes, only military. The Emperor could dismiss him in a microsecond, and he would have no power at all. Oh, he might be able to set off some sort of uprising in the Fleet, but I don’t doubt any insurrection he started would easily be put down.

“But Ta-Lank has real power. On second thought, I’m not too surprised you’re not familiar with the name. So many Fleet people think there’s some sort of virtue in ignoring the political realities.”

Kas flushed slightly. He had always made a point of dismissing the goings-on in the Senate as political posturing. “All right,” he grated. “Educate us.”

The small woman shrugged. “Actually,” she resumed, “Ta-Lank isn’t that well known off Prime. He is not interested in the spotlight — he’s more of a behind-the-scenes type. But he directly controls more than a third of the votes in the Senate, and through blackmail and deal making he can influence enough additional senators to make sure that anything he wants passed gets passed. And anything he doesn’t want to pass never sees the light of day. And he is utterly ruthless and conscienceless. That means that every wheeler-dealer and special interest in the Empire is willing to give him anything he wants.”

Ler-Traken was frowning. “If he’s that powerful, I’m surprised the Emperor hasn’t sent a couple of his spooks around to arrange a funeral for him.”

To-Ling shrugged again. “Rumor has it he’s tried, twice. Then Ta-Lank let him know that if anything happens to him, all the dirt and blackmail evidence he’s collected over the years will go straight to newsies all over the Empire.” She sighed. “Ta-Lank probably has dirt on enough senators to bring down the entire government. So, I understand they have a sort of armed truce.” She sighed and shook her head. “It must have cost the Emperor a lot to make this deal.”

Kas frowned. “Then you think it’s safe for us to follow orders — that we won’t be met by a battle group and blown to emm-cee squared.”

She smiled grimly. “Where Ta-Lank’s involved, there’re no guarantees, sir. However, if he’s made a deal, he will go through with it. The only thing Ta-Lank has to sell is his reputation for honoring his word and his deals.

“Besides, I don’t think Rajos IX would make a deal with Ta-Lank involving the murder of Fleet people. Ta-Lank has no honor, but the Emperor certainly does.”

Kas nodded. “I agree. And Grand Admiral Pankin would resign before giving such an order, even if he thought he could find crews willing to carry it out.”

Ler-Traken snorted. “Oh, I think he could find the crews. All he’d have to tell them is that we’re plague ships.”

Kas shrugged. “Perhaps. But I still think he’d resign before giving an order like that.”

To-Ling nodded. “I agree. Anyway, it seems we have no option but to obey our orders.”

Ler-Traken snorted again. “Wrong. There is one option that has not been mentioned. We could send Starhopper to To-Han and negotiate with the Alliance.”

To-Ling sprang to her feet. “Traitor!” she hissed. “How could you even suggest such a thing?”

“Sit down, Commander,” Kas said mildly. “Captain Ler-Traken is right. It is an alternative, and should be considered. I asked for suggestions, and it is your duty to advise me. Besides, I don’t think the Captain was advocating that course of action. Were you, Captain?”

Ler-Traken’s face split into a grin. “No, sir. However, it is an option, and needed to be discussed. And rejected.”

Kas nodded. “I agree. Even if I ordered it, I doubt we would be able to get enough of the crew to agree to even fly the Rekesh there. And we really do not want to touch off another mutiny.

“So don’t worry, Commander. We’re not going to commit treason.”

To-Ling sat back down, a puzzled expression on her face. “So, what are we going to do, sir?”

Kas shrugged. “I guess we’re going to follow our orders, Commander.”

They sent for charts, and the three pored over them.

Finally, Kas straightened and stretched. “They’re sure sending us the long way around. I think some idiot just drew an arc around man-settled space, and decided that should be our course.”

“D’you think they’ve negotiated passage, Commodore? Or are we still likely to have to fight our way through?”

Kas shook his head. “I don’t know. A lot of this course lies through unclaimed space. I’m sure they have negotiated passage through those areas that are claimed. But you will notice we go nowhere near the Glory. That means they haven’t signed onto any free passage agreements. Moreover, they aren’t the only independent without discernable morals. I wouldn’t trust Maximum Leader S’ran T’kando of Libertad as far as I could throw him.”

Ler-Traken snorted. “That wouldn’t be far. He must mass 200 kilos in a one-gee field!”

Kas shot him a quick grin. “I know. The point is that there are k'nith in this pond, and by now they know our route. Moreover, T’Kando and the Glory’s Council of Elders, among others, aren’t going to let a little thing like a plague keep them from getting their hands on a battle cruiser. A schoolchild could plot this course backward and locate this system. Sheol, a Glory battle group could be heading for this system right now.”

The two Commanders exchanged troubled glances as Kas continued. “And as you, Captain Ler-Traken, learned, we can’t expect to be met and escorted by a fully armed battle group. Therefore, we cannot relax. In fact, any time we’re in normal space, we’ll have to be at full alert. The only time we’ll be able to relax will be during Jump, when we’re supralight.”

Ler-Traken straightened. “Are we going to full alert now, Commodore? If so, I need to get back…”

His voice trailed off as Kas shook his head. “Not yet, Captain. We still have the detection buoy at the jump point. We’ll have at least two days’ warning if anyone shows up here.” He shook his head again. “No, I’d rather concentrate on getting Rekesh ready to get underway.”

He turned to To-Ling. “How long, Commander? I know the new nav comp has been installed. Have the files been downloaded?”

To-Ling nodded. “Being done as we speak, sir. We had to wait for Starhopper to get back, since her nav comp contained the data.

“The only other holdup is the AI. The tech in charge told me this morning that it should be ready to activate in a day or two — at least for testing.”

Kas frowned. “We don’t have time for fancy testing. Tell the… no, I’ll tell him. They can debug the damned thing in Jump. We’ve got to get out of here!” He paused as a thought struck him. “One other thing, Commander. I will want to talk with those civilian techs. I want to see if they can rig controls so that three or four gunners can control most or all of our weapons systems.”

To-Ling frowned. “Is that possible, Commodore? I mean, the weapons control stations are scattered throughout the ship so a few lucky hits can’t disable them all.”

Kas shrugged. “True. But we have to take the chance. And those techs’ lives are on the line, too. Sheol!” He continued, “I don’t know if it can be done. But in this case, unless we can centralize the weapons controls, we’ll only be able to use half or less of Rekesh ’s weapons.” He shrugged. “With only a tenth of a crew, we still can’t beat much of a battle group. But we can damned well let them know they’ve been in a fight!”

“May I make a suggestion, Commodore?”

Kas turned to To-Ling. Irritation tinged his tone. “Of course, Commander. That’s what we’re here for.”

She flushed slightly. “Yes, sir. Sorry. Uh, well, I was just thinking. We are so short-handed that if we are attacked by any decent-sized battle group, we’re going to lose, fancy controls or not. It would be bad enough if the Glory got their hands on the Rekesh. How about we at least get rid of those two planet-busters? Send ‘em into the sun, or something? I mean, just as a precaution.”

Kas shuddered at the mental image of a Rekesh in the hands of the Glory, launching a planet-buster at Prime. “You have a good idea there, Commander. But can we do it safely?”

To-Ling frowned. “What do you mean, sir?”

“Well,” Kas replied, “Planet-busters are matter/antimatter bombs. Pure Emm-Cee squared. Is there any chance two of them might actually be powerful enough to affect this system’s sun?”

To-ling looked troubled. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

Ler-Traken snorted. “What difference does it make? It’s an uninhabited system. It doesn’t even have planets in the liquid water belt. I mean, if we toss ‘em into the sun just as we’re Jumping, it won’t matter if the damned star goes nova!”

“Good point, Captain,” Kas replied. “Commander, Get with Lieutenant Commander Raskin and start working on orbits to launch both planet-busters into the sun. And plan a schedule that won’t let them hit the photosphere until we’re nearly at the jump point.”

She winced, but nodded. Obviously, Raskin’s purposely-coarse manners bothered the innerworlder.

Kas sighed. “Well, fighting or not, we’ve got a very long trip ahead of us.”

“Very long, indeed, sir.” Ler-Traken shook his head. “It’s not going to be easy keeping morale up.” He smiled faintly. “Even mine.”

Kas grinned. “Nor mine.” the grin faded. “But you’re right,” he continued more seriously. “We already have morale problems, with the nasty cleanup and rigid discipline we’ve been enforcing.”

To-Ling shrugged. “We don’t have to tell them everything, sir. In fact, we don’t have to tell them anything.”

Kas shook his head. “I don’t work that way, Commander. Besides, I don’t think we could get away with it. “Oh, we could pretend nothing is wrong for awhile. Only the Astrogators and senior officers would have to know.

“But Fleet people aren’t stupid. Before long, crewmembers would begin to wonder why all our recal stops were in uninhabited systems and why they weren’t getting liberty. Even before that, there would be questions about why we hadn’t reprovisioned — why they still had to eat reconstituted ship’s rations. Sooner or later, probably sooner, we’d be forced to tell them.”

To-Ling frowned. “So what do we tell them, sir?”

“The truth, Commander. Almost all of it.”

“May I have your attention, please?” Kas’ voice reverberated throughout both ships. “I have an important announcement that concerns everyone aboard Vir Rekesh and Starhopper, Fleet and civilian. As you all know, Starhopper has just returned from contacting Empire diplomatic personnel. You also know that it is necessary to negotiate passage for us through the independents.

“But news of our mission has leaked to the media. They, in turn, have spread the word throughout man-settled space. They have also fueled a plague hysteria.

“Now, we know that a cure has been found. If it had not, all of us would be sick by now and most of us would be dead. Unfortunately, the people of the Empire and the independents don’t know it.

“We’re almost ready to begin our run home. Passage has been negotiated. However, due to the excitement over the plague we are not going to be allowed to approach Prime or, indeed, any inhabited system. The course we have been given is roundabout and ends in an uninhabited system near the Empire/Alliance border. Moreover, we will be quarantined when we get there until the authorities are convinced the plague is no threat. So, it’s going to be a long, boring trip.

“Captain Ler-Traken of Starhopper managed to get a promise from a diplomatic Fleet Attache to try to get us reprovisioned, but I’m not going to lie to you. At the moment most of settled space considers Vir Rekesh and Starhopper to be plague ships. If we try to deviate from our approved course, we might very well be attacked and destroyed by our own Fleet.

“Now that would be bad enough,” he continued, “But there’s more. Our course has been negotiated. That means any competent astrogator can backtrack the course and locate this system — and us.

“I’m not going to belabor the obvious. We have to get out of this system as quickly as possible. A battle group from the Glory or one of the other independents could be on its way here right now. I’m sure that even you civilians realize that a warship with only a tenth of a crew is not an effective warship.

“So, I’m calling on each of you, civilian or Fleet, enlisted or officer, to do your utmost to get us underway. I have been given an estimate of three to four days to get us ready to boost. We can do better than that. I want to boost in forty-eight hours.”

He flicked off the intercom, then immediately flicked it back on. “I almost forgot to mention something. Most of you know that battle cruisers carry planet-busters. We have two of them aboard. Just in case we have to fight and are overwhelmed, I intend to make certain those weapons do not fall into the wrong hands. Therefore, as soon as we break orbit we will jettison both of them into this system’s sun. No matter what happens to this ship, or us, those planet-busters will not be allowed to threaten our homes and our loved ones. That is all.”

He flicked off the intercom and turned to To-ling. “What do you think?” he asked.

She shrugged. “I think we’d better be on our toes. We might make your forty-eight hours. And most of the crews will be too busy trying to cause any trouble. I would not have expected trouble for at least forty-eight hours anyway. But once we enter Jump, most of them will find themselves with time on their hands. Time to compare notes and begin bitching and egging each other on.”

He nodded. “That’s about the way I figured it. Okay, let’s pass the word to the officers and petty officers to slack off a bit on the discipline and concentrate on getting us under way.”

The previously busy atmosphere aboard Rekesh took on an edge of urgency and became noticeably more frantic. Every officer and petty officer, as well as most of the civilian techs, was exhausted and groggy from lack of sleep, but they made Kas’ forty-eight hour deadline.

The civilian techs were a pleasant surprise. Oh, there was some bitching and a few hysterics that demanded to be immediately returned to Prime but for the most part, once they realized their lives were also at stake they attacked their jobs with frenetic enthusiasm. In addition, they had taken his idea and developed it further. All of Rekesh ’s weaponry could now be controlled by the two gunnery officers, assisted by four enlisted Gunners at secondary stations away from the bridge.

Tre Wansung breathed a huge sigh of relief as Vir Rekesh broke orbit and headed for the jump point, Starhopper matching her moves.

Kas suppressed a grin. “I don’t think I’d relax yet, Commander Wansung. We’re still almost two days from the jump point.”

The young Commander flushed, and then grinned. “Yes, sir. It just feels good to finally be under way again. I was beginning to feel like I was on a space station instead of a ship.”

Kas started to snap a retort when he realized that he felt better, too. He contented himself with ordering max boost — which was not particularly impressive. A ship in space may be weightless, but it is not massless. It was no mean feat to accelerate the ship’s multi-megaton mass at all, much less to accelerate it quickly.

He did permit himself a smile as he ordered the planet-busters launched on their self-destructive orbit into the system’s sun. At least the Fleet would not have to face those monstrosities in the hands of an enemy. Of course, what Pankin or the Emperor might have to say about him throwing away perfectly functional weapons… well, he’d deal with that if, no, make that when, they got to their destination.

Kas and To-Ling had double-checked Lieutenant Commander Raskin’s orbital computations. They agreed that the planet-busters should hit the sun’s photosphere an hour and twenty-seven minutes before they jumped.

Given the speed of light and their own no-longer-trivial acceleration away from the sun, that meant they should have a few seconds to see at least the beginning of any effect the bombs might have, but they should escape into jump ahead of any wave fronts generated by them. They hoped.

Once underway Kas sent the crews of both ships to alert stations. From this time on, they would be at alert stations anytime they were not actually in Jump. It wasn’t exactly standard procedure, but then, these were not exactly standard conditions.

Despite their theoretical safety margin, Kas was fidgeting, eyes glued to the countdown timer as the time approached for them to be able to see the effect, if any, of the planet-busters’ impact on the sun.

A shout from the helmsman interrupted his worrying. “Ship emerging! Two… Three… Six ships, sir!”

Kas cursed and swung to his panel, clicking the controls to forward sensors, rather than aft. There they were, six blips. Two were noticeably larger, and he was unsurprised by the Gunnery Officer’s cry of “Empire pattern warships, sir! Two are destroyers!”

Kas forced himself to remain calm. They were incredibly lucky. Whoever the admiral commanding that flotilla, and whatever his origins, he could not be expecting to find Kas’ ships charging directly toward him at a significant fraction of light speed.

No, he had certainly been expecting to have plenty of time to form his command into an attack formation, then to spend perhaps days looking for Rekesh and Starhopper.

His surmise was confirmed by the ragged formation that was becoming even more disorganized as the ships’ captains detected a half-kilometer-sized ship bearing down on a collision course and keyed emergency maneuvers.

He swung his command chair. “Gunners, fire everything we’ve got. They’re confused, and we’d better keep them that way!”

The hull beneath his feet thrummed as Vir Rekesh erupted in weapon discharges. Heavy lasers, particle beams, and even projectiles slashed out toward the new arrivals. Kas tried to judge the effect, if any, of their fire, but as suddenly as it had begun, the universe disappeared, and they were in the nothingness of supralight. Kas glared at now-useless sensors. “Damage reports…” he began. Then he noticed Con Vertring, the Assistant Operations Officer, speaking urgently into his headphones. Of course. Any officer worth ten minims would be collecting damage reports as soon as they jumped — or even before.

“Ops,” he continued, “route damage reports and all sensor scans for the last five minutes to my cabin. XO, if you’ll join me, we’ll try to figure out what the Sheol just happened.”

A frosty smile rose to To-Ling’s lips. “Of course, Commodore.” They hurried to the flag cabin.

“The first thing to find out is whether Starhopper made it,” he began. “I hope we had some sensors trained on her!”

To-Ling shook her head. “I doubt it, sir. Almost all our sensors were trained on the sun, so we could observe and record what happened. If anything.”

Kas frowned. “Yah. If anything. Okay, let’s try to piece this thing together. Whoever that was,” he waved an arm vaguely, “His timing couldn’t have been worse from his point of view. Or better, from ours. I…” he paused as his earpiece came alive with damage reports.

He breathed a huge sigh of relief. Damage was minimal. Their enemies had managed only scattered, disorganized fire. It appeared that only those who had not waited for orders had opened fire.

Rekesh ’s hull had not been breached, but a sensor array had been damaged and a beam projector turret was off-line. The few personnel injuries were due to accident and excitement among the civilians. No one was seriously hurt.

To-Ling was hearing the same reports over her earpiece, and one of her rare smiles testified to her relief.

Kas took a deep breath, released it gustily. “As I was saying,” he began, “we were incredibly lucky. But now, we know for certain we’re being pursued and our course is on record. This trip may end up being the longest pursuit and running fight in spaceflight history.”

To-ling frowned. “I don’t know, Commodore. We need to review those sensor scans.”

Kas nodded. “Of course. We will have to review them second by second. Most important, I want to know whether Starhopper made it. Then, we have to know how much damage, if any, we inflicted on the enemy. The more damage, the longer before they can pursue.”

The small woman nodded, irritated. “Those aren’t the only scans we need to review. Don’t forget about those planet-busters. If we’ve triggered a nova, we may not have to worry about pursuit at all.”

“Damn! I’d forgotten about that.” He smiled. “Somehow, battles seem to drive little details like novas out of my mind.”

The tight-lipped smile surfaced again, and they huddled over the viewers, slowing them until they could be certain they had missed nothing.

Chapter 15

“I’m just not sure about Starhopper.” Kas cursed disgustedly. “If only we’d had even one sensor on her…,” He sighed. “There were only a few laser bolts I could trace toward her, and perhaps one missile. We’ll just have to wait until we emerge and see if she’s there.” He slammed his fist on the desk. “I hate being deaf, dumb and blind in Jump!” he complained.

Another of To-Ling’s thin smiles rewarded him. “Hardly an original sentiment, Commodore. I doubt there’s a military commander in known space that hasn’t felt the same way.”

Kas relaxed and grinned. “Yeah. Well, that doesn’t make it any less true. All right,” he continued in a businesslike tone, “It looked to me like we took out one destroyer and possibly one of those corvettes. How about you, Commander?”

She nodded slowly. “I agree about the destroyer, Commodore. I don’t think any of the corvettes was destroyed, but two suffered heavy damage, and I don’t think any of them came through undamaged.”

Kas grinned and nodded. “Well, we were certainly lucky. If we hadn’t been going so fast, they’d have had time to at least get their shields up.”

To-Ling shrugged. “Perhaps. You don’t suppose their admiral happened to be on that destroyer, do you, sir?”

Kas’ grin widened. “Even I wouldn’t count on that much luck.” He sobered. “All right. Now for the big question. How much time did we buy ourselves? How long will it take them to mount a pursuit?”

The small woman frowned. “There are so many variables, I’m afraid even our best estimates will be no more than guesses.”

Kas nodded. “True. But I have to make decisions, and we have to make plans. So, we start with the most pessimistic of our estimates, and then set up contingencies to cover variations. Agreed?”

To-Ling nodded. “Of course, sir.”

“Very well. We agree that we got one of the destroyers. The most pessimistic scenario would be if one of the corvettes was also destroyed…”

To-Ling frowned “I don’t follow, sir. It seems to me that the most pessimistic scenario would have all of the corvettes survive.”

Kas shook his head. “No. A damaged corvette would slow them down more than a destroyed one. They would have to spend time on damage control, make emergency repairs, rescue and care for wounded, and so on. A destroyed ship means just a quick scan for survivors before continuing with their mission.”

Her brow cleared. “Of course, sir. All right, we have one destroyer and one corvette destroyed. Naturally, we have to assume their admiral is aboard the surviving destroyer.”

Kas nodded. “Now we have to try to decide how badly each ship was damaged.”

She shrugged. “Even being pessimistic, battle cruisers mount heavy weapons, and corvettes are lightly armored. Any hit by one of our weapons certainly caused major damage.”

“True. All right. We have one destroyer and three corvettes remaining. All suffered at least some damage, and we agree that one of the three corvettes is in pretty bad shape. The destroyer took several hard hits, and I think one of our missiles took out several of her weapons emplacements.”

To-Ling’s eyes narrowed as she called up her memory of the encounter scans. “Yes, sir. However, she still has plenty left. And I don’t think her engines were damaged.” She frowned. “I thought I saw a heavy laser hit near her bridge… but I wouldn’t want to place any bets on it.”

Kas nodded. “Perhaps. But we’ll assume you were wrong. So, we have a damaged destroyer and three more-heavily-damaged corvettes, with an intact command structure. Anything else?”

To-Ling sniffed. “Yes, sir. The fact they showed up there tells us they knew our location. Which means they probably also know our course.”

Kas nodded again. “Of course. Moreover, since we’re taking the long way around, that also means they will probably be able to catch us, cutting straight across this damned big curve of a course they’ve given us. Sheol, they might even have time to go back to wherever they came from and get fresh ships.”

“I doubt that, sir. Unless they came from somewhere very close, by the time they returned to base, explained, and got everything sorted out to return, turnaround would take months. However, you’re right about them having time to catch up and hit us again. The big question is ‘where?’”

Kas grinned. “Ah! The jackpot question. If you have any psi abilities, Commander, especially in the field of precognition, I’d be glad to hear about it.” She favored him with another of her half-smiles.

As for the effect of the two planet-busters on the system’s sun, the issue was still in doubt. They had realized that if the missiles triggered a nova, the wave front of the explosion would propagate at the speed of light. This meant, of course, that they must be jumping just as the wave front arrived at the jump point. A few seconds too early, and Kas would not be sure the missiles had been destroyed. A few seconds too late, and Rekesh and Starhopper would simply become part of the rapidly expanding ball of incandescent gases.

What they had hoped to record was the last few moments as the missiles encountered the photosphere and the antimatter containment failed. They hoped to record the disturbances that would occur in the seconds, or even microseconds before a possible nova explosion. Kas had theorized that by analyzing their sensor scans and comparing them to scans of past novas, they would know what happened in that system just after their jump.

The results were somewhat disappointing. Though the sensors’ last few moments revealed large solar disturbances, there were distinct differences between their scans and those of past novas. No, Kas decided, they couldn’t count on a stellar cataclysm. This battle would be fought with conventional weapons.

Despite Kas’ preoccupation with unanswered questions, life rapidly changed from the adrenaline-charged pressures of battle to the unending tedium of a ship in Jump.

To keep from dwelling on the unknowable Kas devoted himself to crew problems. On the theory that he should start at the top, he summoned Roi Tremling to his office.

When the man arrived, Kas had him escorted back to his own quarters, demanding he shower, shave and put on a fresh shipsuit before returning.

Returning sullen and glowering, he found both Kas and To-Ling awaiting him. In an apparent rage, Kas thundered at the man for some ten minutes before getting to business.

“Commander To-Ling,” he grated, “I realize that the Wardroom is not my domain. But I cannot believe that the other officers willingly tolerate this officer’s lack of hygiene and manners.”

To-Ling was stone faced. “They don’t, sir. But he is senior to all of them. Even me.”

Kas waved a dismissing hand. “You are President of the officers’ mess. As far as I am concerned, a staff officer’s commissioning date is irrelevant.

“I am specifically giving you permission to deny this officer entry to the wardroom if you consider him unfit to associate with Fleet officers. You are to permit him entry only if his hygiene is satisfactory. And if his manners offend you, you have my permission to eject him.”

Tremling’s head swiveled from one of them to the other. Suddenly he snorted. “Don’t think I don’t know what’s goin’ on here,” he said in a surly tone. “I don’t have t’put up with this. You’ve got no right


“I have every right,” Kas interrupted. “Even an engineer has to know that. However, you have no right. No right to subject your fellow officers to your lack of manners and hygiene.” He continued at some length, until he happened to glance at To-Ling, who rolled her eyes. Too long. His tirade was losing its effect. He decided to end it.

“You seem to pride yourself on not behaving like a Fleet officer. Very well. Until further notice, Commander To-Ling will be ignoring your seniority. If she feels it necessary to dress you down like an Ensign, she has my permission to do so. Moreover, if your behavior does not improve, I will progressively reduce you in rank until we find a rank I consider appropriate. Perhaps Apprentice Wiper.”

Tremling paled. “You wouldn’t dare! You don’t have the authority to demote an officer…”

Kas just shrugged. “You can file a grievance when we get back to Prime. If we get back to Prime. Now, get out, Commander!”

Tremling stomped out, furious.

To-Ling looked at him narrowly. “You really want me to do that, sir? You could get in trouble…”

Kas chuckled. “Commander, I’ve been in trouble ever since I joined the Fleet. After all, an outie barbarian uncouth enough to assault an Admiral is certainly uncouth enough to authorize you to deal with a fool like Tremling.”

To-Ling flushed slightly. “Is it my turn now, Commodore?”

“No. Well, maybe.” He shook his head. “Look, Commander. I’ve been very impressed with the way you handle your job. You’re good.”

He shrugged. “I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. However, because you impress me, I will tell you this. Changes are coming in the Fleet over the next few years. We cannot afford to waste good officers just because they have some silly prejudices.

“You know as well as I that you’re overdue for promotion to command and to Captain. If you could put aside these silly ideas of superiority, you’d be a good one. Don’t let your mouth keep you from realizing your potential.”

She frowned. “What do you mean, ‘changes are coming’?”

He shook his head. “I can’t go into detail. But I suspect you’re going to see a real shakeup, with some being forced out, and others gaining rapid promotion.”

“Like yours.”

He nodded. “Like mine.” He sighed. “I’m sorry, Commander. I cannot tell you more, and I have no business lecturing a senior officer like an Ensign. But I strongly urge you to take a hard look at your opinions and your prejudices. They’re holding you back.”

She was looking thoughtful. “I’ll think about it, Commodore.”

Kas straightened. “Good. Now, about these daily reports…”

Tremling was not the only problem case among the officers. Ra-Lavon, the Supply and Administrative Officer, and Raskin, the Gunnery Officer, for instance.

They were like two sides of the same coin of bigotry. Ra-Lavon had already shown himself to be openly hostile to outerworlders in general and Kas in particular. Raskin was equally hostile to innerworlders, and delighted in annoying them by acting as coarse and offensive as possible. The two were constantly irritating each other. Moreover, since one was a staff Commander and the other a line Lieutenant Commander, their constant bickering was affecting crew morale. Kas called them to his cabin together.

Feigning a towering rage, Kas ordered the two of them to convert an empty storeroom into a double stateroom, which they would share for the remainder of the voyage. “You’ll either learn to get along, or one of you will kill the other and I’ll execute the survivor,” he roared.

It was not just the officers, of course. He knew they hadn’t found all the stills and drug labs aboard, though they destroyed them as quickly as they were found. But he’d had to break four petty officers down to able spacers and two others had lost a stripe. That wasn’t the worst, though. Three spacers and two civilians were in the brig. He’d been forced to order three floggings.

Hardest of all was being forced to order the execution of a man who had attacked and killed another with a weapon he’d found. The man had pleaded, begged, and fouled himself in fear; but Kas had no choice. He had to show the crew in the strongest way possible that he would enforce discipline. He personally triggered the blaster bolt, then had the corpse put into a stasis chamber, to be jettisoned once they had returned to normal space. Only the man’s DNA-coded ident tag would complete his round trip ticket. Then he went to his cabin and threw up.

Time still dragged but finally, eventually, the jump timer clicked down to emergence.

Kas was pacing the bridge, fretting, when they emerged, and the viewscreens leapt to life. Kas forced himself under control. If Starhopper were detected Kas would learn of it instantly. It would accomplish nothing to hound good people.

He could stand it no longer and was about to demand a report when the chief sensor tech spoke. “Nothing detected, Commodore,” he reported crisply. “No hazards and no ships.”

Kas’ shoulders sagged, but it would have taken a careful observer to notice the slight change. Kas sighed. “All right. Maintain all sensors on max. If Starhopper or any other ship emerges, I want to be notified immediately.”

“Aye, Aye, sir,” the tech responded in the same crisp tones. Kas keyed his ship’s comm. “Commander Tremling,” he said, “Your repair crew is cleared to work outside. But no one works outside alone.”

“Yeah, yeah,” came the response, but then, just as Kas was about to roast the man’s ears, a reluctant “sir” was added to the bald acknowledgment. Kas glanced at To-Ling, who rolled her eyes and shook her head slightly.

“When your people have completed the damage assessment, Commander,” Kas continued, “You will deliver your report in person in my cabin. Preslin out.”

He sighed. Yet another bitch session with the engineer. So far, his and To-Ling’s efforts had largely been in vain. Tremling seemed to prize his lack of military bearing, manners, and standards of hygiene. It appeared that Kas was going to have to make good his threat to reduce the man in rank. He grimaced.

The problem was that Tremling was right. Kas almost certainly did not have the authority to reduce an officer in rank. Moreover, someone as abrasive as Tremling would never have made Commander in the first place if he did not have influence somewhere. Tremling would be certain to howl to anyone within reach when they returned to Prime, and Kas would be in trouble again. Pankin’s voice rang in his memory, telling him to keep his head down and stay out of trouble.

The problem was that Tremling had a disastrous effect on morale and discipline in the Engineering Department. How could the junior officers and senior petty officers be expected to maintain discipline among the enlisted people when the senior Engineering Officer was so unmilitary? He suddenly got a glimmering of an idea, but pushed it to the back of his mind. He had more immediate concerns.

“Astrogation, begin recalibration,” he instructed, noting with satisfaction that Lieutenant Commander Be’Rak, was already hammering at her keyboard. A large, if fleeting, grin accompanied her crisp “Aye, Aye, sir.” Kas suppressed a smile of approval.

He beckoned To-Ling. “What do you think, San? Have we lost Starhopper?”

The tiny woman shrugged, but her expression was grim. “Too soon to say, sir. Her nav comp was slaved to ours, so in theory she should have emerged at the same time and place we did. But we know so little about Jump space,” she continued. “She could emerge at any moment or perhaps not for two or three hours.”

“If she emerges at all,” Kas finished. To-Ling nodded soberly.

Despite To-Ling’s obvious disapproval, Kas remained on the bridge, hovering over sensor techs and pacing until he learned that the damage control team was returning aboard. With a scowl, he returned to his cabin to await Commander Roi Tremling’s arrival.

While he was waiting, he fleshed out the glimmering of an idea he had suppressed before. By the time Tremling arrived, Kas was almost cheerful.

He was unsurprised when Tremling appeared unkempt as ever. He restrained himself as the officer gave a detailed account of the damage Rekesh had suffered.

Kas relaxed somewhat when Tremling concluded his report. The only serious damage had been caused by only a few hits by destroyer-based weapons. The smaller weapons of the corvettes had been unable to inflict more than minor damage. It could have been much worse. More important now was the fact that none of the repairs would require special expertise. Only normal damage control would be required — which left him free to deal with Tremling.

The man was staring at him with a wary, frankly hostile expression.›From his oddly stiff posture, Kas suspected Tremling was carrying a concealed recording device.

Kas straightened. “Very well, Commander. Now all I have to deal with is you.” He glared at the dumpy, rumpled figure. “Upon consideration, I have decided that you were correct before. I probably do not have the authority to reduce you in rank, even temporarily. Nor do I have grounds to confine you to your quarters, much as I would like to.”

The wary expression began to fade into a satisfied smirk as he continued, “What I do have the authority to do is determine your duties. You are hereby relieved of your duties as Engineering Officer. I’m assigning you a special project.” The smirk faded to alarm.

With grim satisfaction, Kas gave his orders. Starhopper ’s crew had made use of one of Rekesh ’s shuttles during the quest for a plague cure. First, they had stripped out the food synthesizer to install in Dr. Kor-Nashta’s improvised quarters in the bio lab. Later they had stripped out some of the vessel’s accommodations to give Ro-Lecton room to synthesize the plague serum. Now the shuttle would provide Kas with an excuse to remove a serious irritant from the crew. Since the hangar deck had to remain unpressurized to preserve the bodies stored there, and Kas had forbade the crew to operate in suits alone, Kas gave Tremling four hours to move from his cabin to the shuttle. He would remain aboard while he examined “every bolt, nut, circuit board and connection” on the shuttle, and made repairs as necessary. “And I don’t mean just running diagnostic programs. I want every piece physically examined and checked out!” Kas finished.

Tremling was shocked. He was well aware that this was a sentence of solitary confinement for an indefinite period, but he suspected that Preslin had found a pretext for the action that fit within Fleet regulations — barely.

Once they installed a spare food synthesizer, there was no reason Tremling could not live aboard in comfort indefinitely. Since the shuttle was designed to serve as a lifeboat for forty people if necessary, it carried full ‘fresher facilities and food and water supplies for a month.

“You can’t do this!” Tremling exclaimed.

Kas shrugged. “I think you’ll find I can,” he replied in a satisfied tone. “But I suggest that while you are moving aboard, you arrange to hookup to the ship’s library. Perhaps you’ll have time to review Fleet regulations. Particularly those referring to the authority of the commander of a warship in time of combat. You might also,” he added, “review the standards of hygiene and conduct for Fleet officers.” As soon as the engineer stormed out, Kas summoned Tremling’s assistant, Lieutenant Commander Wor Sha-Tren. Sha-Tren seemed only a small improvement over Tremling insofar as appearance was concerned. At least Sha-Tren bathed regularly, though his shipsuit looked as though he slept in it.

Kas merely stared at the man for a few moments. Aside from meeting him for a few moments at his awakening, Kas realized he had not even seen the man since he had come aboard. Evidently, Sha-Tren wasted little time on social contacts.

More importantly, the man seemed angry for some reason. His every movement was calculated to offend. For some reason Sha-Tren wanted Kas to know he was angry.

After a moment, he remembered. Sha-Tren felt that he had been betrayed. He claimed to have had a “deal” arranged that permitted him to remain permanently on Prime. Given the man’s abrasive surliness, Kas suspected that Sha-Tren had made Lieutenant Commander only because his wealthy family had bought him the promotions. Even without his obvious display of anger, Sha-Tren was rough-edged. Clamping down on his temper, Kas explained that Sha-Tren was now Rekesh ’s Chief Engineer, and told him why.

The man’s eyes widened as Kas explained Tremling’s “special assignment”, but Kas noted that he immediately straightened, and his replies to Kas’ questions and comments began to be sprinkled with ‘sir’s’. When Sha-Tren left, he walked with a stiff straightness, and even threw Kas a clumsy salute. It appeared that Kas’ actions with Tremling were already showing dividends.

However, while personnel matters occupied a lot of time, there was no shortage of opportunity for Kas to worry about Starhopper and her crew.

After delaying for three ship ‘days’ Kas could wait no longer. Every hour they stayed in this system was another hour of danger for Rekesh. With a sense of despair, he gave the order to begin accelerating toward their programmed jump point. Nevertheless, he ordered a continuing watch for Starhopper. Though the Astrogator focused on the approaching jump point, the main bridge screen was directed aft. Kas knew that even if Starhopper emerged she would not be visible at this distance. However, he could not bring himself to realign the bridge screen. It would be a betrayal, somehow. A final admission of Starhopper ’s loss.

They were less than half an hour from the jump point when the Comm Officer shouted, “Emergence, sir! A ship!”

Kas whirled. “Is it Starhopper?”

The lieutenant frowned. “The ident beacon’s wrong, sir. She claims to be Starhopper, but the beacon is not the usual automated one. Either their ident beacon was damaged or…”

“… Or someone’s making a crude attempt to impersonate her.” Kas finished. “All right. All sensors on that ship. We have to know if she’s Starhopper within the next ten minutes if we’re to abort jump.” He turned to Til Be’Rak, Rekesh ’s Astrogator. “Is that about right, Commander?”

Be’Rak flashed him a blinding grin. “We could stretch that a minute or so if we had to, sir, but for every minute of delay, that’s a minute we’re accelerating at. 5G away from her.”

Kas grinned back. “Right. Thank you, Commander. I…”

“Incoming transmission, sir!” the Comm Officer interrupted. “Vessel continues to identify as Starhopper, but transmission is voice only.”

Kas frowned. “Well, now we’ll know. Put it through.”

The large bridge screen flared for a moment, then faded to blackness. “ Starhopper to Vir Rekesh,” a voice began, “This is Captain Rom Reffel aboard Starhopper. Mayday. I say again, Mayday. We have taken serious battle damage. Captain Ler-Traken was badly injured, and had to be placed in a stasis pod. Most of the rest of the crew are injured to various degrees. Request assistance.” Rom’s voice continued, but Kas was no longer listening. He could play it back later.

“Abort jump!” He ordered. “Adjust vectors to bring us around in minimum time. Make max boost toward Starhopper!”

Before he was even finished speaking, To-Ling was streaming orders.

It took almost a full day to vector the huge battle cruiser around and reverse course, another two days to drive back across the system, and yet another two days to slow the big ship and match orbits with Starhopper.

Kas replied to Rom’s first transmission almost immediately, but the lightspeed lag of more than half an hour prevented two-way communication for nearly two days. They established two-way communications as soon as possible, of course, but even then, lightspeed lag of minutes prevented most contact. Kas would receive a transmission from Rom, and reply. But before Kas’ message arrived, several minutes would have elapsed, during which Rom might have sent additional transmissions on totally different subjects. By the time Kas’ message arrived Rom had to try to figure out which message Kas was replying to, and how it might affect the messages he had sent in the interim. The same applied in the other direction, of course, and until the lightspeed lag was reduced to seconds instead of minutes, little could be accomplished.

Nevertheless, Kas finally got a coherent picture of Starhopper ’s condition.

When the enemy fleet had emerged, Starhopper had her inboard lasers deployed, in accordance with Kas’ standing orders. Ler-Traken had immediately ordered all weapons to open fire, and Gran had responded quickly, firing the lasers and even the quick-firers in Starhopper ’s nose.

For a moment, it had seemed they would reach the jump point unscathed. Then one of the destroyers had hit Starhopper ’s bridge with a particle beam, nearly destroying the Astrogator’s console, and inflicting either direct or decompression injuries on nearly the whole crew.

“If our jump comp hadn’t been slaved to yours there’s no telling where we might have ended up,” Rom said. “But even so we almost dropped out of jump several times. It was only thanks to Tera and Edro that we made it at all. Edro cobbled together controls that let Tera manually control emergence.”

Til Be’Rak’s eyes widened. “Manually? But that’s…”

“Impossible?” Rom’s grin was detectable even over the voice-only transmission. “I’d have agreed, until I saw Tera prevent us from dropping out of jump, then manually recompute the emergence using the captain’s station, then manually drop us out of jump. Sheol, I’m amazed we’re even in the right galaxy, never mind the right system! She hasn’t slept in forty-six hours, so I just ordered her to bed. She deserves a medal, Commodore.”

As more information poured in concerning the battered Starhopper, Kas began assembling repair crews. He relented and allowed Tremling to take charge of the team. Kas also alerted Ro-Lecton. He was pleasantly surprised when Tremling immediately established communication with Toj Kray aboard Starhopper and began drawing tools and supplies from Rekesh ’s stores.

Aside from the Astrogator’s station and the com system, Starhopper ’s damage was not serious. There were several hull breaches, but all but one were in the ship’s huge cargo bay, which had already been in vacuum.

The other one, of course, was on the bridge. Rom had managed to slap a self-sealing patch over the holes left by the particle beam quickly enough to save the crew’s lives, barely.

Unfortunately, several large pieces of the Astrogator’s station had struck Captain Ler-Traken, gashing his head, and smashing his left thigh. Worse, a large piece impacted his left side, shearing off his left arm at the elbow.

Edro had been quick enough to apply a tourniquet to the arm until the stump could be sealed. A quick examination convinced them that the captain’s best chance would be treatment aboard Rekesh. They put him in the sick bay’s stasis pod and Rom had assumed command.

Luckily, the civilian techs aboard Rekesh were qualified to repair Starhopper ’s Astrogator’s station, and they had plenty of spares and parts.

As soon as they pulled alongside Starhopper, they extended a pressurized tube between the two ships’ personnel airlocks, so they could avoid the necessity of suiting up to move between them. Kas followed the medical team aboard, even elbowing aside the repair techs. He accompanied Dr. Kor-Nashta to the bridge, while Ro-Lecton and the rest of his team went directly to the sick bay and the stasis pod.

Everyone on the bridge displayed injuries to some extent. Rom’s right arm was in a sling. Edro hobbled on a makeshift crutch while favoring a heavily bandaged left leg. Both of Gran’s hands were bandaged, and the blackened com panel revealed the reason. Kor-Nashta wasted no time in pushing Edro into the padded captain’s chair and scanning his leg. “Compound fracture of the tibia,” she said tersely. She raised her wrist com. “Doctor Ro-Lecton, I need a stretcher on the bridge,” she snapped. Without waiting for a reply, she whirled on Rom, who tried to wave her off. “It’s just a dislocated shoulder,” he protested.

“Really?” She replied frostily. “And where did you study medicine?” Nevertheless, after scanning the area, she was forced to admit he was correct.

“But that doesn’t mean it isn’t serious,” she continued, turning to Kas. “Commodore, I realize that you’ll need the Commander at the moment. But I warn you, if he doesn’t report for treatment within a few hours, I’ll… I’ll sic Dr. Ro-Lecton on you!”

“Not that!” Kas chuckled and raised both hands in surrender. “I promise, Doctor. Two hours… Or less,” he added as her expression clouded.

She jerked a nod and sniffed. “Very well. Mister Telker, you will come with me and get those hands tended. Now, what about the other one?”

Rom sighed. “You’ll probably need another stretcher team. Not that she’s that badly injured,” he added hurriedly as Kor-Nashta straightened. “But she was totally exhausted. I gave her Deepsleep. She won’t be waking up for… uh… six more hours.” he finished after checking his ring watch.

Kor-Nashta nodded and murmured into her wrist com again. “Uh, Doctor,” Rom added. “She does have a nasty head wound, and I’m really worried about her eye. The eyeball was literally jarred out of the socket and hanging on her cheek by the nerves and blood vessels. I.. uh… I popped it back in and bandaged it.”

“The nerves weren’t severed?”

Rom shrugged. “I don’t think so. But it was a hell of a bloody mess, and I didn’t do a careful examination. I just did what I had to do. We all did.”

The doctor’s nod matched Kas’. “What about Toj?” Kas asked.

Rom shrugged again. “He got bounced around, but you know those heavy-worlders. They can take a lot. Far as I can tell, he just has cuts and bruises. But I don’t think he’d admit to needing treatment if he’d lost a leg.” He smiled. “An arm, maybe. He wouldn’t be able to work as well without an arm.”

Kas chuckled in relief. Only Ler-Traken’s injuries seemed to be life threatening, and with the Rekesh ’s medical facilities even he was in little danger. “Don’t worry, Doctor,” he said. “I’ll order Toj to report to the Rekesh ’s sick bay at the earliest possible moment. Just now, though,” he continued, “we have to get Starhopper in condition to jump. I’ve ordered the Rekesh to deploy a tractor beam and take Starhopper in tow. We’re already boosting for the jump point.”

Rom looked surprised, then troubled as Kas turned to him. “Sorry, Rom,” he said, “I should have cleared it with you. But every moment we stay in this system, we’re in danger. We have to get back into supralight.”

Rom’s face cleared, and he nodded. “Understood, sir. But that only gives us a few days to complete repairs…”

Kas shook his head. “No. We’ll have to get the Astrogator’s station back on-line, but you can keep a work crew aboard and complete any other repairs while we’re in jump.”

Rom nodded again. “Yes, sir. Uh, with the captain injured…”

Kas sighed. “I don’t know, Rom. You’ve done very well. But I haven’t decided who will command Starhopper. Yes, you’re command qualified. But you’ve been away from military service for quite a while.”

Rom straightened. “Understood, sir. I’m sure you’ll make the best decision.”

Kas gave Rom a sardonic look. “Sarcasm doesn’t become you, Commander.”

Rom flushed. “Yes, sir. Sorry sir.”

Kas grinned. “Now, with Dr. Kor-Nashta’s permission, let’s go find our engineers and see if we can get them to tell us anything interesting.”

Chapter 16

A swarm of civilian techs stampeded past as they were leaving the bridge, headed for the Astrogator’s station. Kas’ sense of urgency was communicating itself.

Ler-Traken would be spending at least a month in a regeneration station. “He was literally seconds from death when they got him into that stasis pod,” Ro-Lecton reported. “He’ll recover, but it won’t be quick and it won’t be easy.”

That meant that Kas had about two days to decide who would command Starhopper.

In fact, he had a number of choices. First, of course, there was San To-Ling, his exec aboard Rekesh and the senior Commander. By seniority, she was the obvious choice. However, Kas was not confident she could overcome her innerworld bigotry.

Next by seniority was Tre Wansung, the recruiting-poster Commander who now served as Rekesh ’s Ops Officer. Wansung lacked combatant-ship experience, but from what Kas had seen since he had been aboard, the young Commander displayed a quiet competence that impressed Kas.

Next in seniority was Rom Reffel, but Kas was not impressed by that fact, since much of his seniority was based on inactive reserve time. Rom did have command experience, and he’d done well under the pressure of a combat situation. Still…

Finally, there was Lieutenant Commander Con Vertring, presently the Rekesh ’s Assistant Ops Officer. Vertring was an outerworlder, though he went to great pains to conceal that fact, affecting innerworld speech and manners. Since Vertring’s duty station was the bridge, Kas had observed his performance and behavior. He was effective and competent, but he had a tendency to insist that things be done ‘by the book’, and he seemed to treat those junior to him brusquely and with scant courtesy. He had never held command, though he had been the Exec of a corvette.

Kas sighed. He might have four names, but he really had little choice. To-Ling was really shaping up as his XO, and seemed to be working to overcome her prejudices; but he was not ready to put her in command of a crew of outerworlders.

His first impulse was to give the command to Rom, based on his observations on the trip out and Rom’s excellent performance under pressure. Nevertheless, he could not escape the feeling that Rom wasn’t ready for command.

His objection to Vertring was based more on a feeling than a fact. Based on what he had observed, he suspected that, given the opportunity, Vertring could easily become a martinet, commanding by fear rather than respect. While that technique could be effective in certain circumstances, a combat situation without expectation of reinforcement was not one of them.

No, there really was only one choice. He called Commander Tre Wansung to his cabin.

The young Commander entered with a snappy salute and a bearing worthy of an academy cadet. As usual with Wansung, the man’s shipsuit was faultlessly pressed, with knife-edged creases.

After inviting Wansung to sit, Kas began, “Commander, when we last met, I suggested you use the strategic and tactical library and simulations to overcome your lack of combatant-ship experience. How’ve you been doing?”

The man was sitting at attention; bolt upright, with his knees together and arms at his sides. At Kas’ words, his expression became one of suppressed excitement. “I’ve been studying the manuals and texts nightly, sir, and I’ve been running tactical simulations several times a week. I have more to learn, of course. But I’ve wanted to talk with you about that. I think I’ve learned the most important lesson, and it’s not in the manuals. Tactics isn’t procedures, is it, sir? I mean, it’s not applying a textbook response to a situation. It’s a way of thinking, isn’t it? Like in chess, or jask.

“You can read hundreds of books about chess and still not be a master, because each situation is just unique enough to need a unique solution or maybe just a unique twist on an old solution. So a chess master studies texts as a means of learning techniques he can adapt to his use, rather than a person who might memorize hundreds of past games and still lose, because he is trying to use solutions that worked in the past in situations that aren’t exactly like those in the book. So, he loses.”

Kas smiled and nodded. “I think so, Commander. You always need to know what has worked, or even failed, in the past — but you cannot try to endlessly repeat them. Very good. But don’t stop studying. Some ancient wise man once said that those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it.”

Wansung bobbed his head excitedly. “Exactly my conclusion, sir! And I wasn’t planning to stop now. Those texts are fascinating. Did you know that some are so ancient they may even be pre-spaceflight? Incredible!”

Kas’ smile turned to a grin. “I’ve heard that rumor, too. I don’t believe it. Just because someone has an odd name like Sun Tzu or Clausewitz, it doesn’t mean his book goes back to Old Earth.”

Kas made up his mind. Wansung might be green, but Kas was willing to give him an opportunity to prove himself. Besides, there was no real alternative. “All right, Commander,” he said. “I’m giving you temporary command of Starhopper.”

Wansung’s eyes widened, and then narrowed in determination. “You won’t regret it, sir.”

Kas nodded. “I’m sure I won’t, Captain. However, there’s no time to waste. Starhopper has sustained battle damage that must be repaired before our next jump, in… about forty-two hours. Repairs are underway as we speak, and I have every confidence that Rom Reffel will make certain they are done correctly. But she needs a skipper. First priority is repairs to her Astrogator’s station, at least well enough to let her jump with her system slaved to ours.”

“Excuse me, sir,” Wansung said with a frown, “but what’s the hurry? They can’t be ready to attack us again.”

Kas sighed. “True. However, we do not even know who they were. Sheol, if it weren’t for the fact that their ident beacons were disabled, I’d be wondering if perhaps they were sent by the Empire to escort us back!”

Wansung’s frown deepened. “I guess I just assumed they were Glories, sir.”

Kas shrugged. “Perhaps they were. But they could just as easily have been from Libertad. And I can think of a couple of other independents that would not be above a bit of piracy for a prize like the Rekesh.

“The point is,” he continued, “whoever they were; they probably aren’t the only ones chasing us.” He shrugged. “That group might not be able to attack again for awhile, but another group may have arrived almost immediately after we jumped.”

Wansung smiled sourly. “If so, maybe we’ll get lucky and they’ll fight each other.”

Kas grinned. “Want to bet your life on it? No,” he continued seriously, “we’re running a gauntlet. And our only chance is to run it as fast as we can, while expecting attack at any moment.”

The young Commander jumped to attention. “I won’t let you down, sir,” he said crisply.

Kas’ smile was warm. “I know you won’t, Captain. Now, get out of here and get your ship fixed.”

Wansung snapped him a bone-cracking salute, and marched from the office.

The ease with which Wansung assumed command of Starhopper was a pleasant surprise. By the time they approached the jump point, Starhopper ’s jump comps and systems had been installed and double-and triple-checked. A small crew of civilian techs would remain aboard her to complete repairs to her comm systems and to fine-tune her weapons systems while she was in jump.

Kas breathed a huge sigh of relief as they jumped with no sign of any pursuers. Life again assumed the more relaxed pace typical of jump. The tiny bubble of the jump field was again an oasis of reality in the nothingness of Supralight.

Kas returned to shaking down his crew and his vessel. Tremling returned to his solitary ‘special project’. A pleasant bonus was Sha-Tren, Tremling’s replacement as Engineering Department Head. Perhaps warned by Kas’ treatment of Tremling, Sha-Tren had become more careful about his grooming and military courtesies, and had begun insisting on the same from his juniors. The engineering department was beginning to again resemble part of a military ship more than a shipyard workshop.

Raskin and Vertring, the two officers Kas assigned to share a cabin, were another matter. They studiously tried to ignore one another, and were icily polite when forced to associate. But Raskin went out of his way to display the rudest and crudest of outerworld manners, while Vertring was becoming almost a cartoon of a mincing innerworlder. Since both were frequently on the bridge at the same time, the tension was often palpable.

Finally, To-Ling escorted them to the ship’s gym, where she locked them in, with instructions to call her when they had their problems settled. It was some two hours before they called for release. Both were disheveled and panting. Raskin had a bloody nose and was cradling his left arm in his right, and Vertring was bleeding from several small cuts and favoring his right leg. To-Ling savagely dressed them both down, then sent them to sick bay to have their wounds tended before letting them return to duty.

To-Ling’s own distaste for outerworlders was much less obvious. Kas had hopes he would be able to recommend her for command and promotion to Captain when the mission was over.

However, paperwork and personnel matters were not Kas’ favorite activities, and a feeling of relief tinged his apprehension as the jump timer ticked toward emergence.

As the universe flared into existence on the main screen, Kas scanned for Starhopper. He breathed a sigh of relief when she emerged within seconds. But he did not relax until Vertring announced that no other ships in detection range.

Within a few hours, Be’Rak completed her recalibration, and they boosted for the jump point, Starhopper nestled at their side.

Still, Kas found it impossible to relax during the three days in normal space. He kept half-expecting detection alarms to sound at any moment.

All of Starhopper ’s systems were back online, and the civilian techs returned to Rekesh. Wansung remained in command of the freighter, as Ler-Traken had yet to recover enough to return to his duties.

Back in jump, time began to drag again. Then another emergence, and another tense few days. They jumped again. And again.

During their fifth recal, Ler-Traken resumed command of Starhopper, much to Kas’ relief. The young Lieutenant Commander had done a good job, but Kas had been more concerned than he’d have liked to admit about Wansung’s lack of combat ship experience.

His crew was shaking down well. Even Tremling had come around. He had appeared at Kas’ door in a clean, pressed shipsuit and begged Kas to let him resume his duties. Kas agreed, while cautioning To-Ling to let him know if the engineer fell back into old patterns.

Their comfortable routine was shattered during their eighth recal. They had emerged into the system of a red dwarf star, a remnant of a long-ago supernova. The system was empty, since the planets had been vaporized or blown out of the system by the stellar cataclysm.

Be’Rak had completed her recal. They had been driving for the jump point for about 30 hours, with about four hours to go when Vertring shouted “Ships, sir! Five blips. Three read Empire-pattern destroyers, one possible corvette, and one smaller vessel.”

Kas spun to him. “Where’d they come from? Any Ident?”

“They were masked by the sun, sir. They just emerged from the umbra. Receiving ident data now…

“Ident signals are Glory, sir.” Vertring continued. “Confirm Empire-pattern destroyers. One carries flagship ident. Flagship is Sword of Fire. Others are Retribution and Hellfire. Other vessels are frigate Sinkiller and diplomatic vessel Faith.”

“We’re being hailed by the diplomatic vessel, sir,” the com tech reported.

Kas took a deep breath. “Very well. Put it on the main screen.”

The man who appeared on the screen seemed unusually normal, for a Glory. He was well, if conservatively dressed. He looked more like an imperial courtier than a representative of a repressive theocracy.

“You have entered without permission a system claimed by the Mission for the Greater Glory of God,” the man announced without preamble. “I am Ambassador Faithful Godservant. You are ordered to cease all motion relative to this system’s primary and stand by to be boarded.”

Kas suppressed a derisive snort. “This is Commodore Kas Preslin of the Empire Fleet. The nearest Glory system is hundreds of light years from here. We are military representatives of the Empire, and we do not recognize your right to stop or question us.”

The man’s urbane facade began to slip, and a glint of fanaticism appeared in his eyes. “This system has been legally claimed by the Mission, and you are trespassing. You will surrender to the Lord’s justice or be destroyed.”

Kas’ smile turned sardonic. “Now, why do I suspect that the Glory only decided to claim this system after they learned we would be transiting it?”

Godservant flushed. “No matter when my government claimed it, we have done so. In accordance with interstellar law, I hereby accuse the Empire of the military invasion of a system claimed by the Mission for the Greater Glory of God. Be advised that if you do not surrender, you will in effect be declaring war on the Mission on behalf of the Empire. This is your final warning. We will defend our sovereignty!” Obviously, this exchange was being recorded, and the “ambassador” was establishing cause for action in case the Empire learned of this attack and objected.

This time Kas didn’t even try to conceal his derisive snort. “You don’t really expect this to work, do you? I…”

A more powerful signal, obviously from the flagship, suddenly blanketed both ships’ com signals.

The man who appeared wore the white uniform of a Wielder-of-Swords, roughly the equivalent of an Empire vice admiral. He was large and powerful looking, with close-cropped graying hair. The starkness of his simple white uniform was relieved by a chest full of medals. Kas recognized some of them; this was no armchair admiral. “Thou’lt obey the Lord’s will,” he growled, “or thou’lt be destroyed.”

Kas could not resist. They were going to fight no matter what he said. “I didn’t hear the Lord’s will here. Just the ranting of fanatical hypocrites.”

The Wielder-of-Swords recoiled as if struck. For a moment, his mouth worked in shock, but no words came. Then he found his voice.

“Blasphemer!” He thundered. “Unbeliever! Thou’lt pay for thy heresy and impiety!” He controlled himself with an effort. “Thou hast condemned thyself and thy crew to eternal damnation!” His image abruptly disappeared.

The “ambassador” had obviously heard his exchange with the Wielder-of-Swords. When the Wielder’s image faded, he was revealed, staring in openmouthed shock. The shocked expression faded to one of raw, naked hatred. “Then die, heathens!” He spat before cutting the connection.

Kas turned to Wansung, who was staffing the main sensor station. “Sensors to the main screen,” he ordered shortly, and the star field disappeared, replaced by a blackness relieved by five fluorescent blips.

The smallest blip, apparently the “ambassador’s” yacht, was scurrying to get behind the flagship. The three destroyers broke formation in an attempt to encircle Rekesh and Starhopper. The fifth ship, the Frigate, was too small to do serious damage to the battle cruiser, but she was driving at max boost directly toward them. “Com, get me Starhopper,” Kas ordered. As his chair’s screen lit to show Ler-Traken, Kas snapped. “Var, stay close but make sure your lasers are deployed and bear. That damned frigate is either heading for you, or is planning a suicide dive into us.”

Ler-Traken’s image nodded. “I see him. Don’t worry, Commodore. I would bet he thinks we’re unarmed. We’ll take care of him. You concentrate on those destroyers.”

A battle cruiser is an awesome vessel. A 500-meter globe, she carries fifty Strengl in-system fighters, fifty Wasp long-range fighters, and bristles with over a hundred weapons emplacements, including lasers, particle beams, missiles, and even mass drivers. Her shields are powered by their own fusactor, and are much stronger than those of a destroyer. Fully crewed, Rekesh could simply brush aside one destroyer, and would have no trouble handling two.

However, Rekesh was not fully crewed. She was running with less than a tenth of a full crew. Her hangar deck was stocked with Strengls, and Wasps, but there was no one to fly them. Even drafting the civilians and any crew members not required for other duties, there would not be enough crew to keep the missile stations and mass drivers supplied. In addition, there were not one or two, but three destroyers.

Kas turned to To-Ling. “All right, San. We can’t let them encircle us. We could handle them one at a time, but even a battle cruiser is no match for a coordinated attack by three destroyers. Recommendations?”

The tiny woman looked grim. “You’re right, sir. We cannot just sit here. I’d say pick one and charge them.”

Kas grinned savagely. “Right. I… What the Sheol is Var doing?”

Starhopper was driving away from Rekesh ’s side, heading away from the oncoming frigate at an angle. “I’d say he’s trying to draw that frigate away from us,” To-Ling replied.

“Damn it! I told him to stay close! Get me Starhopper… No, belay that. It’s too late now. He’s on his own.

“Helm!” He continued. “Aim for the flagship and boost max. Weapons! Monitor the other two, and keep them busy, but I want all available weapons focused on the flagship. Engineering! I want every meter per second of delta-vee you can give me. Push redlines and strain safety margins. I want this big bitch to drive like a destroyer!”

“Aye, Aye, sir!” and “Yes sir” were followed a split second later by a crisp “Engineering Aye, sir!” in Tremling’s voice. Kas and To-Ling had time to exchange a surprised glance.

Kas turned back to To-Ling. “All right. We’re going to charge the flagship, but I assume he will retreat and stay ahead of us. What I’m really hoping for is that one of the others will get careless and give us a chance to jump him.”

To-Ling looked dubious, and Kas continued, “We’ve got to keep them from forming a circle that’ll let them just sit there and pour on the fire until our shields fail. Our advantage is that they want to capture Rekesh, not destroy her.” His eyes narrowed. “I have no such limitations.”

The two destroyers that had been boosting to encircle Rekesh tried to respond to Kas’ tactic of attacking the flagship, but they were accelerating in precisely the wrong directions, and could only launch a few missiles and fire a few despairing laser blasts before Rekesh was past them and firing at the flagship.

However, the Wielder-of-Swords was no novice. A destroyer is much more maneuverable than a battle cruiser, and he was able to retreat with only moderate damage from Rekesh ’s awesome weaponry. Of course, “moderate” damage from a battle cruiser’s weapons was still serious. Kas had ordered his gunners to concentrate on the destroyer’s drive tubes and maneuvering jets. All he’d need do would be to slow her down a bit…

Experienced crews evidently manned the other destroyers as well. Instead of trying to decelerate to a halt and reverse course, which would take them light-hours away and give Kas time to destroy the flagship, the ships swung toward each other, describing a large circle and allowing them to again threaten Kas with encirclement.

Kas cursed. Unless the enemy began making mistakes, they would eventually succeed in their encirclement maneuver; and when they did, the battle would be all but over. If only Rekesh were fully manned, and carried pilots to fly her fighters…

No sense wishing for the impossible. Perhaps defeat was inevitable, but he would make it an expensive victory for the Glories.

He turned to To-Ling. “We’ve got to keep chasing that flagship. If we can force her to keep maneuvering we can keep them from completing the encirclement — and if we can interfere with her maneuverability, we’ve got her! They can’t encircle us with two ships. All we need is a few lucky hits.”

She looked at him, expressionless. “I don’t believe in luck, sir.” She leaned toward him and lowered her voice. “You know they’ll get us, eventually.”

He nodded. “I know. I’ve been thinking about getting Tremling to rig a self-destruct to at least keep them from getting a usable ship. But with civilians aboard, I’m not sure I have the right to make that decision for them.”

She shrugged. “You know what capture by the Glories means. Torture to force confessions of espionage and blasphemy, followed by ‘The Lord’s Mercy’; either death or imprisonment. Even those that survive are crippled for life. They’d be better off dead.”

Kas sighed and nodded again. “You’re probably right, San. But, damn it… All right. You get down to Engineering and have Tremling get busy on something that can trigger enough fusactors simultaneously to totally destroy the Rekesh. And hopefully to take one or two of those bastards with us…” There was a slight quiver as a nuclear missile impacted Rekesh ’s shields, and the viewscreen image faded for a moment. The Glories were using nukes to overload the shields. It was an effective tactic, and cut their available time. Kas and To-Ling exchanged a serious look, and To-Ling headed for Engineering. His order to build a self-destruct was not one he could trust to the intercom.

Kas returned his attention to the enemy. The one off to starboard had been tending to slowly close with Rekesh. If Kas could lure him just a bit closer…

“Engineering,” he called. “If we can bring that one bastard just a little closer, I think we’ll have him. Stand by. At any moment, Helm will signal ‘full starboard’. What I’ll want is maximum effort. Essentially, I want to fire every maneuvering jet and anything else that will move us in his direction quickly. I know maneuvering isn’t a battle cruiser’s specialty, but even if we can just jerk or lurch toward him, it’ll help.”

Again Tremling’s tone was crisp and military. “Aye, sir. We’ll give you everything she’s got.” Kas clicked off.

“Weapons,” he said, turning toward Lieutenant Commander Bru Raskin, “lighten up on the starboard destroyer slightly. We want to coax him in. But on my order, fire every projectile weapon on the port side, and then hit him with everything we’ve got on the starboard side. Maybe the recoil from the port weapons will help us move toward him. This’ll be our best chance to even the odds.”

“Aye, Skipper,” the outerworlder replied with a predatory grin. “We’ll get ‘im!”

Kas frowned at the man’s words, but said nothing. This was no time for commenting on a subordinate’s manner and speech.

“Helm,” he said, “On my command, full starboard. Ready… Ready

… Not quite… NOW!” he shouted. “Now! Now!” The helmsman muttered into his communicator.

There was momentary hesitation, then a sudden lurch. Retribution ’s captain suddenly found himself dangerously close to the big battle cruiser. He frantically ordered his helm to pull back but before the order could be obeyed, Rekesh ’s starboard side erupted in a storm of weaponry.

The destroyer’s shields blackened, flickered, then disappeared, overwhelmed by the might unleashed against them. In less than a second, the destroyer became a rapidly expanding ball of incandescent gases.

Kas did not stop to admire his work. “Helm! Full ahead. Weapons! Hit that flagship hard!”

However, the Glory Wielder-of-Swords was no amateur. Sword of Fire was already retreating quickly, swinging to circle to Kas’ starboard. Obviously, the Wielder was trying to catch Vir Rekesh between his two remaining vessels. Kas noted that the ship to port also retreated to a respectful distance, but they kept firing, probing for a weak spot in the battle cruiser’s shields. Sooner or later, they would find one. And from where he stood, Kas could glance at the weapons console and see the red lights announcing missile emplacements and mass drivers needing replenishment, and the blackened ones telling of weapons stations no longer operable.

To-Ling returned to the bridge and wordlessly handed him a switch that was obviously handmade. They exchanged significant glances.

“Ships, sir!” The cry made Kas whirl toward the sensor station. “Four… no, six vessels, sir! And Commodore!” The voice cracked with excitement. “Two of them are battle cruisers, sir!”

Hope surged. Only the Empire and the Alliance had that many battle cruisers. “Ident!”

“They’re Empire, sir! Battle cruisers are Dauntless and Tur-Kan. Flag is Tur-Kan. The others are destroyers Hawk, Eagle, Goshawk and K’Taun.”

Kas’ released pent-up breath in relief as he returned his attention to the screen and the remaining two Glories. “Keep firing. Those ships are still a couple of hours away, even at max boost!”

“ Tur-Kan calling, sir.” The com tech said. The sensor display on the main screen faded, and then lit to reveal a large, jowly man wearing the uniform of an Empire Vice Admiral. “Need some help, Commodore?” The man asked cheerfully.

Kas smiled. “Actually yes, sir. I’m a bit short-handed, and could use a hand shooing some Glory flies.”

The man’s answering grin was merry. “Glories, eh? My pleasure.” The grin faded. “You’d be Preslin. You’re one of Pankin’s bad boys. I’m Rol Tu-Ker.”

Kas nodded. “I know your reputation, sir.”

The merry grin resurfaced. “They could never prove any of it! But I’ve heard of you, too, of course.” The grin faded.

Tu-Ker straightened. “All right, Commodore. As soon as we get the Glories off your back, I know you will be busy dealing with damage and casualties. When you’ve finished, please report to me on a secure com laser link. We have classified matters to discuss. Say, three hours after the Glories break off battle?”

Kas straightened to attention. “Yes, sir. Uh, there are the two Glory destroyers. Sword of God is their flagship. There’s also a frigate chasing an Empire DIN-class, Starhopper, and there’s a courier claiming to be a diplomatic vessel and carrying someone claiming to be an ambassador.”

Tu-Ker’s grin resurfaced. “We’ll give the ambassador an escort to the jump point. First, though, we’ll give those destroyers a bit of exercise. Can’t have the Glories thinking they can attack Empire warships. Tu-Ker out.” The main screen image faded to the sensor display.

The Glories were drawing off, running for the jump point by which Kas’ ships had arrived. However, chances were slim they would get that far. Tu-Ker’s destroyers were approaching at high speed and the two battle cruisers lumbered in pursuit.

Kas scanned the screen for Starhopper and the Glory frigate. After a moment, he spotted the blip representing the freighter. There was no sign of the frigate. “Comm,” he ordered, “Get me Starhopper. Put it on my console.” What he had to say to Ler-Traken might need to be private.

The console’s screen brightened to show Ler Traken. “Report!” Kas snapped.

“No damage, sir, and no casualties. Enemy destroyed,” Ler-Traken replied crisply. “I was right; they thought we were unarmed. I figured we could draw him away from you, and let you concentrate on the big boys. Sure enough, he followed right along. He fired a few projectiles across our bows, and ordered us to heave to. I slowed down, and he just closed. He moved right into the lasers at close range. We took out his bridge, but we really didn’t do that much damage. I think they suicided.”

Despite his relief, Kas’ expression remained grim. “I ordered you to stay close so our weapons could cover you, Captain. If that Glory had decided to destroy you instead of capture you…”

Ler Traken flushed. “Yes, sir. But with all due respect, sir, you were quite occupied protecting yourself. You couldn’t afford to divide your attention in an attempt to protect us. I felt that my course of action had the best chance of survival for my ship and crew.”

“You may be right, Captain.” Kas said stonily. “But there is no doubt you disobeyed my clear and direct orders. When Starhopper rejoins Rekesh, you will report to me in person. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

The news from Rekesh was nearly as good. The battle cruiser had been hulled twice, but both hull breaches were in unoccupied areas. They had less than a dozen casualties and no deaths. One woman was in a coma with a serious head wound, but she should survive. Most of the rest consisted of cuts, scrapes and a few broken bones. The results of the damage survey were also encouraging. Tremling reported twenty-two weapons emplacements damaged or destroyed, and the shields had been weakened in several more areas, but none of the damage seriously hampered Rekesh ’s spaceworthiness. Rekesh was in excellent shape to continue the voyage — as long as he could keep her out of further combat.

Tremling asked permission to dispatch repair parties; and he did so with proper military courtesy. Marveling, Kas told him to wait until he checked with Vice Admiral Tu-Ker. The man accepted Kas’ decision with none of his usual anti-military grumbling. Perhaps Tremling had learned something.

At the appointed time, Kas reported to Tu-Ker by laser com. The Admiral was in an expansive mood. His ships had caught and destroyed the Glory destroyers, and two of his own destroyers were escorting the Glory “ambassador” to the jump point. Kas’ damage report only increased the admiral’s good humor.

As he had mentioned, Kas knew Tu-Ker by reputation. The Vice Admiral was an innerworlder originally from Prime itself. Nevertheless, he reputedly had little patience for innerworld bigots. Or outerworld ones, for that matter. He was also an excellent battle commander, with a string of victories in border clashes and minor uprisings extending over the past thirty years. Kas had no doubt that the bluff, cheery officer was prominent on Fleet Admiral Pankin’s “short list” though, of course, neither man mentioned the existence of any such list. After a few minutes’ chat, Tu-Ker sighed and straightened. “All right,” he said, “I guess we’d better get to it. Fleet Admiral Pankin sent me out here as soon as we learned your route had leaked. He figured you would need some help.

“Unfortunately,” the admiral continued, “the only way he could get it past that bastard Ta-Lank was to convince him you might run off. So, I’m afraid I’m as much prison guard as bodyguard. I’m supposed to keep you from running amok and either using the Rekesh to turn pirate and attack a string of civilized planets, or going from system to system spreading plague.” He snorted. “Nobody seems quite certain whether you’re a pirate or a plague carrier, but either way, I’m here to thwart your dastardly plans.” He flashed Kas a wide grin and a wink.

Kas grinned back. “I’m afraid we’re fresh out of plague to spread, Admiral. Dr. Ro-Lecton did an excellent job of curing it. We haven’t had so much as a sniffle since everyone was inoculated.”

The admiral snorted again. “Of course you’ve cured it! D’you think I don’t know you would all be dead or dying by now if you hadn’t? The whole idea’s absurd.”

Kas nodded. “Thank you, sir. I’m afraid we’re out of eye patches and cutlasses, too. I guess I could assemble the crew for a hearty “Yo-ho-ho,” but I doubt many of them would understand the allusion.”

“Pah!” Tu-Ker’s expression was disgusted. “I don’t tolerate fools well. I suspect Pankin was as anxious to get me away from those fatuous civilians as he was to get help to you.” He waved a dismissing hand. “Anyway, I see no reason to alarm your crew-either of them. There will be no further nonsense about arrest and guards. As far as your people are concerned, we are here to make sure you get to your destination safely. Of course, you know that no one will be permitted to leave your ships, and no one will go aboard?”

Kas nodded. “I assumed that, sir. There will be no problem.”

Tu-Ker grinned again. “I was sure there wouldn’t be. Now, I understand your ships might need reprovisioning. We’ve brought supplies for you.”

The conversation moved to the practicalities of ship operations.

Chapter 17

With Tu-Ker’s battle group protecting them, morale aboard Rekesh and Starhopper soared. The fresh supplies they brought helped even more.

Nevertheless, as jump after jump came and went and time dragged, it became increasingly difficult to maintain that initial high morale. Minor irritations became major confrontations. Fights became more and more frequent. As quickly as it had risen, morale plummeted.

Once more Kas was grateful for the presence of Lady Jane. As a civilian, she was outside the military chain of command, and her friendly good humor made her as welcome in the crew’s mess as the wardroom. Kas learned of several instances in which she had stopped trouble before it started. After several weeks of increasing violence, she appointed herself unofficial morale officer, and enlisted the help of Lordsgrace Worshipful, the Commissary Officer. Together, they devised a series of games and contests featuring minor prizes looted from Rekesh ’s cavernous supply stores. Kas first learned of it because he had to authorize issuing some of the Fleet supplies for the prizes, but he became an enthusiastic promoter, and soon ship-wide team competitions were underway.

Unsurprisingly, it worked. The air of tension eased noticeably.

Another positive factor was that the personnel were coming to form a bond. They were becoming a crew instead of a collection of strangers. In a strange way their isolation, the fact that they knew they were confined to their ships, helped mold them into a cohesive group. They knew they had done nothing wrong, and they knew there was no threat of plague, and they were both derisive and resentful of the limitations inflicted on them by the politicians. Pride in being Fleet surged, and even the civilians became unofficial ‘members’.

Kas made no effort to curb this “us-against-them” attitude. It was proving very valuable in maintaining morale. He was careful, however, to leak enough information to make certain that the Empire’s civilian politicians, and not the Fleet, were identified as the “them” involved.

Still, time was heavy on their hands and Kas’ officers had to resume searching for stills — new ones. Kas was forced to order more floggings, and had one petty officer put into cold sleep to await a court martial upon their return to the Empire.

Tu-Ker did what he could; Rekesh and Starhopper enjoyed all the latest holovids and any other luxuries he could think of, and he even sent over wardroom supplies with specific, if unofficial, instructions that they be used to feed the crew instead of the officers.

Nevertheless, the time did pass. They began counting down to the end of the mission in weeks instead of months, then days.

As they entered the final jump, Kas’ relief was tempered by a rise in his own anxiety. Was this where his career would end? How long would he be imprisoned aboard Rekesh? The newsies Tu-Ker had brought led him to suspect he was destined to be a sacrificial lamb for the imperial senate. He was being savagely attacked almost daily, his name and reputation ruthlessly vilified. After reading the newsies he was beginning to think the worst thing that could happen to him would be to be released on nearly any Empire planet. He would probably be lynched.

Once again, Lady Jane helped. She relieved his depression and fear with jokes and tenderness. She joked that perhaps Fleet Intelligence could provide him with a new identity, and promised to smuggle him to the Alliance. By the time they had finished projecting wilder and wilder scenarios of his possible future, they were both roaring with laughter.

However, Kas knew his situation was no joke. His career and his life were on the line.

Tu-Ker was also supportive, but he did not minimize the gravity of the situation.

“When we arrive,” he mentioned as he briefed Kas, “We’ll be greeted by the largest battle fleet ever assembled.” He shrugged. “Sheol, when was the last time two battle cruisers and four destroyers were dispatched on convoy duty?”

Kas frowned. “Never, to my knowledge.”

The admiral nodded. “Exactly. But the assembled fleet is so huge that my little group was hardly missed. They’ve even brought out the old Atropos!”

Kas started in surprise. “The dreadnought? It must have taken months to get her spaceworthy!”

Tu-Ker grinned sourly. “It did. But when Ta-Lank and a bunch of other senators formed a committee and demanded to be there when you arrived, the Emperor decided a dreadnought was the only ship large enough to accommodate all of them and all of their staffs.” He snorted in disgust.

“I think Pankin himself might be coming out,” he continued. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t think there’s been anything like it!”

Kas was stunned. “The Grand Admiral? Here?” He paused to collect his thoughts. “I’m in really big trouble, aren’t I, sir?”

Tu-Ker nodded soberly. “I’m afraid so. But it’s not just you. It is everyone aboard your ships. And maybe everyone in the entire Fleet. Practically everyone in the Empire thinks you are the greatest threat since the Horsehead Rebellion five hundred years ago. And they may be right.”

He waved a hand. “Oh, I don’t mean that ridiculous pirate or plague nonsense either. But what happens if that damned senate committee demands you be destroyed? Would the fleet fire on someone they know was just doing their job? Would Pankin order it? And what happens if he or they refuse? And what would the Emperor do? You could touch off a civil war that’d make the Horsehead Rebellion look like a border skirmish!”

His expression became thoughtful for a moment. Then, “You have a reputation for thinking fast on your feet. I hope it is true. For all our sakes.”

As soon as they emerged, Kas was ordered to cancel all vectors relative to the system’s sun. Then he and his crew watched incredulously as no less than eight battle cruisers quickly formed a globe around his ships. All but two of the Empire’s entire fleet of battle cruisers was now in this empty outlying system. Sixteen destroyers and a virtual cloud of auxiliaries supported them.

Finally, hovering just inside the battle cruisers’ englobement hung the huge Atropos. A sphere a kilometer in diameter, she dwarfed her accompanying battle cruisers. She bristled with hundreds of laser, particle beam, and projectile emplacements. Tu-Ker had been right. This was the largest battle fleet ever assembled. And they were here for him! He forced down a surge of fear.

As soon as his ships were stationary relative to their “escort,” Kas fled to his office to report to the Admiral in command, Fleet Admiral Rev Pankin.

The face that appeared was not Pankin’s, though. It belonged to Captain Froud, the Grand Admiral’s Chief of Staff, and it wore a sympathetic and slightly embarrassed expression.

“Good day, Commodore. The Grand Admiral is expecting your call, of course. For security reasons he requests that you report via laser com.”

“Of course, Captain,” Kas replied stiffly. “I’ll establish laser com immediately.”

Froud paused. “Please use a minimum-diameter beam, sir.” Kas nodded. Froud did not have to add that it was very likely that the senators would try to eavesdrop on even a laser com transmission. As they were on the same ship as the Grand Admiral, that would be difficult but not impossible. A minimum-diameter beam would be less than a centimeter across, and would require careful tending to stay focused on one of Atropos ’ antennae. It was the closest thing possible to an untappable com.

As soon as the connection was established, an obviously embarrassed Pankin appeared. “Good day, Commodore. Are you impressed by your welcoming committee?”

“Good day, sir. Impressed is not the word. Terrified would be more accurate.”

Pankin looked angry and very uncomfortable. “This is the silliest damned thing in the history of the Empire,” he began. After a moment, he continued in a more businesslike tone, “All right, let’s get the crap out of the way.”

He flipped a switch on his desk — evidently, he was recording his next words. “First, I have been ordered to inform you that you are to consider yourself and the crews of both your ships under arrest pending an investigation into your conduct during this mission, and that of your officers and crews.

“Second, both ships are also considered under medical quarantine. In addition, by action of the imperial Senate your status is considered the same as that of ships bearing active plague beacons. Any boat or launch attempting to leave either vessel will be fired upon and destroyed. Any attempt by either vessel to initiate boost will be considered an attempt to escape, and the ship will be destroyed.

“Third, you are ordered to cooperate with all legally-constituted investigative bodies to the limit of your ability, and you will pass this order to your crews. You are warned that failure to cooperate with any such body may be considered disobedience of this direct order. Do you understand the orders you have just been given?”

“I understand, sir,” Kas replied grimly, “I and my people will of course obey, though I am unaware of any offenses committed by myself or my people.”

Pankin nodded, his expression changing to one of relief. He nodded. “Very well, Commodore. There is a senatorial investigating committee now on board Atropos, and a legally binding subpoena has been delivered to me ordering you to appear before the committee by vid at 1600 tomorrow. You are ordered to appear at the designated time. Do you understand this order?”

Obviously, all Pankin wanted was a bare acceptance on the recording. Presumably, more information would be forthcoming once the recorder was turned off.

“Yes, sir, I understand. I will be available at 1600 tomorrow.”

Pankin nodded and flipped the switch off. Then he breathed a huge sigh. “Kas, I can’t tell you how sorry I am. This whole episode disgusts me. I came out here to make certain you receive every possible aid. To do that, I’ll need your mission report as soon as possible.”

“No problem, sir. I have been working on it for days. I’ll need to bring it up to this point to make the report complete, but that shouldn’t take long.”

Pankin nodded approvingly. “Excellent. However, I think you should know that damned committee has already subpoenaed your report, so you might want to review it before you send it. Make sure it does not say anything that might make you a target. Transmit it by minimum laser com as soon as you finish it.” He straightened. “Now. You have to appear in front of that damned committee, of course. They’ll probably grill you over every detail of the mission, and second-guess every decision you made. Be prepared for a lot of silly questions about that fool Lu-Jenks.

“Since this stupid committee is an investigative body only, you’re not entitled to have a lawyer present. But the Fleet Judge Advocate General himself is standing by to advise you any time you want him.”

Pankin cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Uh, He’s already asked me to tell you to be very careful what you say about the Lu-Jenks incident. My intentions were good, but by stopping that court-martial, it seems I have left you hanging. This fool committee can reinstate the charges. Since the court never took place, jeopardy did not attach, and double jeopardy doesn’t apply. So watch yourself. The JAG recommends that you cite the Charter and refuse to answer any questions about the incident.” He shrugged. “I’m not sure I’d go that far. These people are powerful, and it would not be wise to offend them unnecessarily. But I’d agree that any answer that compromises your possible defense at a future court-martial should be avoided.”

“Understood, sir.”

Of course, Kas’ ships were now receiving the commercial vid channels and newsies. Every channel and every newsie seemed obsessed with Kas and his ships. Several of the senators who would make up the committee he was to face were interviewed. All of their comments could have been summed up in five words: “We’re going to get Preslin!” So much for senatorial impartiality.

The session was every bit as bad as Kas feared. There were five senators on the panel but it was obvious from the start that the one seated in the center, Ta-Lank himself, was the one that really mattered.

Since he was sitting it was hard to be sure, but Kas thought that Ta-Lank was unusually tall. Certainly, he was thin. His head was shaved which, when combined with his cadaverous body gave him a skull-like appearance. His voice though was soft and melodious. Kas decided that the man’s voice was what had originally gotten him elected to the Senate. However, his eyes were hard and hostile. In fact, none of the faces on the committee revealed anything but hostility.

“Good day, Commodore,” Ta-Lank began in that strangely melodious voice. “This committee has been empowered by the imperial senate to investigate the conduct of your latest mission. Be warned: we will not permit you to put the billions of people of the Empire at risk. Nor will we tolerate any attempts at mutiny or sedition. At the slightest indication of risk to the Empire, your ships will be destroyed. Now, have you any preliminary remarks?”

Kas smiled at him. “Only that there is no risk to the Empire in Vir Rekesh or Starhopper. Our mission has been a complete success and we have retrieved a warship of immense value to the Empire, as well as preventing it from falling into unfriendly hands. As for me personally, I’ve spent more than twenty-five years protecting the Empire, not threatening it.”

Ta-Lank’s smile was mocking. It was obvious that this meeting was being recorded, and he was playing for the cameras. “No risk? You don’t consider a plague that killed over three thousand people a risk?”

Kas shook his head. “No, sir, I don’t. Thanks to the efforts of the ship’s last commanding officer, Dr. Ver Ro-Lecton, the Empire’s foremost epidemiologist, and his equally distinguished medical team, the plague was eradicated aboard Vir Rekesh.”

“How can you know that? You can’t know that!” The senator that spoke was on the left end. His handsome features fairly screamed “body sculpture,” but his voice was high-pitched and scratchy.

Kas sighed. “We know that because one of the medical team became infected and almost died. Dr. Ro-Lecton’s serum saved her, and no one injected with the serum has shown any symptoms. We know that because we have spent more than nine months aboard her, and the records of the original plague indicate an incubation period of only ten days to two weeks. We know that because Vir Rekesh was open to space for nearly a century.”

Ta-Lank was glaring at the other senator. He had not intended to give Kas a chance to have his say this soon, if at all.

“Yes, well, we’ll see about that, Commodore. I am afraid we cannot just accept your word for such an important fact.

“Now,” he resumed briskly. “This committee has only just received a copy of your report to Fleet HQ. We have not had time to review it completely, but we can pose some preliminary questions. Would it be fair, Commodore, to say that you are familiar with the broad outlines of interstellar law?”

Kas shrugged. “I suppose so, sir. An educated layman’s familiarity. I’m certainly no expert on it.”

“But you are aware that intrusion of an armed Fleet vessel into space claimed by another entity is forbidden by interstellar law? And that such intrusion is considered an act of aggression?”

Kas could see where this was headed. “Yes, sir.”

“’Yes, sir’,” Ta-Lank repeated. “Yet despite that knowledge, isn’t it true that you took an armed Fleet vessel and intruded into the claimed space of neighboring entities? And isn’t it true that you did so using falsified documents?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then you admit to violations of interstellar law, treaties, and conventions. You stand condemned out of your own mouth. What have you to say in your own defense?”

Finally, Kas thought. “I was ordered on a mission, the first part of which was covert. The ship, as you noted, was a Fleet vessel specifically prepared for this mission. Fleet Intelligence created the documents you mention. For my part I was, and am, a Fleet officer, carrying out the orders of a senior Fleet officer with the obvious approval of high imperial authority. Were you under the impression that I simply cooked up some papers in my cabin one lonely night, then built and armed a ship, all without the knowledge or approval of the Imperial Government?”

“Hmph,” the senator grunted. “And did your orders include a ruthless attack on a civilian vessel and the murder of what I am told is over a hundred innocent people?”

It took Kas a few seconds to understand what Ta-Lank was talking about. Suddenly it hit him, and he snorted.

“I can only assume that what you are talking about is the destruction of a corvette showing no ident beacon, occupied by Glory military personnel without insignia. In other words, a Glory ‘pirate’. It is well known that the Glory uses such vessels so that it can deny responsibility for such intrusions as you have mentioned. I did fire on and destroy that vessel in order to rescue a civilian freighter she was attacking at the time.”

“So you say!” It was another of the senators, a woman this time. She was horsey and plain, her mousy hair drawn into a severe bun. “We have a reliable report that you attacked a civilian vessel without provocation. You savagely murdered over a hundred people. What proof do you have of your scurrilous charges against our friends in the Ministry for the Glory of God? Your word?” The last words were a sneer.

“Yes, mistress,” Kas replied, unruffled. “My word and that of the survivors of the civilian freighter the Glories were attacking. And the testimony of my crew, and the various sensor logs.”

Panic surged across the woman’s face, fading almost instantly as she regained control. A dark scowl had settled on Ta-Lank’s face. “Survivors?” She said, struggling to appear calm. “But the Gl… I mean, we were informed that no survivors were found when the wreckage was examined.”

Kas nodded. “That’s true, mistress. No survivors were found because we had taken them with us in order to preserve security. They are two Alliance citizens, crew of the free trader Lady Jane. Since we were unable to release them at Remor, they are at present aboard Vir Rekesh. I’m sure they would both be happy to testify.”

The woman glanced nervously at Ta-Lank, who was glowering at Kas. This was not going as scripted. Ta-Lank raised his hand and stroked his chin for a moment. Then his eyes narrowed and he raised his head.

“Yes, well,” He began, “We’ll see about that. We will obviously have to subpoena those logs and carefully examine your report to higher authority. I think we can defer further questioning until those documents and memory crystals have been carefully examined.

“There are more urgent matters to deal with anyway. You are aware that your vessels are under medical quarantine. The military may go off adventuring, but the senate takes very seriously its duty to protect the citizens of the Empire from the consequences of those hastily conceived and ill-advised adventures.

“Accordingly, the senate has assembled a board consisting of two dozen of the most skilled and prominent medical practitioners in the Empire. You will make available to this board all documents and logs relating to the plague. You will also insure the presence of all medical personnel now aboard your vessels for questioning.

“When, and only when, that board determines that there is absolutely no risk of the plague spreading to the Empire at large your ships and personnel will be released from quarantine. Until that time, your vessels have been declared plague ships. Be very careful, Commodore. You have a reputation for lacking respect for higher authority. Nevertheless, this time there will be no nonsense. Try to power up one engine, try to launch one boat, and both your vessels will be destroyed immediately.”

Ta-Lank sat back in his chair with a satisfied expression. “I think that’s all for today, Commodore. But we will be talking again.” The image of the five senators faded, and Kas let out pent-up breath in a massive whoosh.

Less than an hour later, the head of Ta-Lank’s medical board, a Dr. Nol Sho-Tra called. Sho-Tra was a portly, elderly red-faced man with an officious manner. He had called to arrange for the delivery of all records relating to the plague, and to arrange interviews with every member of the medical team aboard Rekesh.

Kas kept the man on the com while he summoned Dr. Ro-Lecton. This promised to be interesting.

Ro-Lecton appeared, and Sho-Tra repeated his demands in a peremptory tone. As he spoke, Ro-Lecton’s eyes widened, and the little man swelled perceptibly. “ You?” He demanded in an outraged tone. “You expect me to submit our work to you? For your approval? Ridiculous!” Ro-Lecton reached around Kas and snapped off the com. Sho-Tra’s image, puffing wordlessly, faded.

Ro-Lecton whirled on Kas. “Did you know about this, Commodore? What can that… that nonentity possibly imagine that he’s doing?” The old Ro-Lecton, the one who had been awakened aboard Starhopper, was back and in full blossom.

Kas explained about the “medical board” and showed him the recording of Ta-Lank’s final words.

The little man was furious. He called Sho-Tra back, just long enough to demand and receive a list of the members of the investigative board.

“They’re all second-raters and mediocrities,” he told Kas. “Political types. Most of them have not seen the inside of a lab for years. This epidemiologist, for example. I guess they thought they needed one, since they are supposed to be investigating a plague. Unfortunately, the best epidemiologists in the Empire are aboard this ship. So, they dug up Tancre. The man has not done any fieldwork in over thirty years. He’s director of Public Health on Satterlee, and a pompous, self-important…” He cast about for a sufficiently insulting word, gave up with a wave of his hand and a sigh of exasperation.

Kas was struggling to suppress a grin, but Ro-Lecton must have spotted the twinkle in his eye. The little man’s expression softened to one of rueful humor. “Oh, very well, Commodore. He’s much like I was when I was first awakened.” He chuckled. “I might as well warn you. The most effective counter to this nonsense is to be more pompous than they are. We’re dealing with politicians here, whether they call themselves Senator or Doctor. Fortunately,” he continued with a smile, “that is an area in which I have a certain expertise.”

Ro-Lecton paused, and frowned. “Commodore, I have enjoyed the last few months more than I can say, and I’ve come to like and admire your fleet people. It was also rather a pleasure to have someone else bear the burden of command.

“But now the military mission is finished. The problems we face now fall more within my area of expertise than yours. In this situation, what are normally military virtues become liabilities; the chain of command, subordination to civilian control, and so on. Could you perhaps call your Admiral and more or less throw up your hands in despair? Tell him that we are refusing to accept military authority any more, or something? Anything that minimizes your responsibility for whatever we may say or do.

“What I’m suggesting is that you step aside and let me handle the medical aspects of the situation. I don’t want you or your people held responsible for anything I may find it necessary to do or say. Do you understand?”

Kas nodded, and now his grin was one of genuine pleasure, tinged with anticipation. “Indeed I do understand, Doctor. And I thank you. Technically, the mission is complete, and therefore it could be argued that you are no longer under my command. And something tells me I’m going to have my hands full dealing with other aspects of the situation.” He threw up his hands. “I’d been wondering what to do about this board.”

Ro-Lecton’s answering smile was also genuine. “Yes, well, I have a feeling I’m going to enjoy this. I’d already planned to resign and go back to field work with Nila, uh, Doctor Kor-Nashta, so what they think is their strongest threat is really no threat at all. This is going to be fun.”

Kas shook his head and sighed. “I hope so, Doctor. However, I’ve got over three hundred people on two ships facing the largest battle fleet ever assembled. And I somehow have to defeat months of hostile, Empire-wide propaganda.”

They talked for over an hour, making plans, and considering alternatives and consequences. Finally, Ro-Lecton stood and stretched. “Well, Commodore, I wish you luck. But now, I think I’ll let you get to work disassociating yourself from me.” He picked up the list of board members. “And I have some homework to do.”

Kas sat lost in thought, for a few minutes. Then he had a minimum laser link established with Fleet Admiral Pankin. He explained the plan, and Pankin began to smile.

As soon as he disconnected the laser link, he had the Comm Officer connect him via normal radio comms. Both Pankin and Ro-Lecton had agreed with him that Ta-Lank was virtually certain to be monitoring the radio comms.

“Admiral,” he began when Pankin’s image appeared. “I must report a problem that may impact my ability to carry out my orders. Since he considers the mission complete, Doctor Ro-Lecton refuses to accept my authority over him and his people.”

Pankin frowned. “You mean he’s resisting your commands?” The Grand Admiral’s tone was ominous.

“No, sir,” Kas replied hastily, “that is, not exactly. He grants me only the authority of the captain of a ship on which he is a passenger. He and his people will obey any order relating to ship operation or safety — but he specifically refuses to recognize my authority to order him to comply with this senatorial medical board. He says that neither they nor I have authority over him. I think he’s going to refuse to cooperate with the board.”

“I see.” Pankin’s frown had deepened. “Well, I can certainly see his point. Officially, the salvage mission ended when you filed your report.” He shrugged. “Well, Commodore, Certainly no circumstances exist under which you could use force to compel obedience. As far as I can see, this is an issue between the medical team and the senate investigating committee. I will inform Senator Ta-Lank. You can hardly be held responsible for the behavior of civilians not under your command.”

In less than an hour, Ta-Lank was demanding to speak to Ro-Lecton. “I’m sorry, Senator,” the little man said. “I do not work for you, but directly for the Director of Public Health, a member of the Emperor’s Cabinet of Advisors. I have made my report to my superiors. I suggest you contact them if you desire a copy, and not bother me with a bunch of incompetents and has-beens.”

Ta-Lank looked incredulous. “You refuse to comply with a senatorial subpoena? Are you mad?”

Ro-Lecton was unfazed. “You appear to think so, sir. If you will transmit your subpoena, I will forward it to my superiors for their consideration. I’m sure that in due course, after consulting the appropriate legal authorities, they will advise me whether the Senate has the power to subpoena an official of a cabinet-level agency.”

Ta-Lank looked furious. “You know you’ll have to comply and testify. There have been several cases…”

Ro-Lecton simply shrugged. “Perhaps, sir. Nevertheless, it is my understanding that you are not ordering me to testify before your committee. I am informed that you have assembled some sort of board, comprised of medical so-called ‘experts’ of dubious ability and background, and actually expect me to give them access to our work. The very idea is ludicrous. However, when I’ve written this case up for publication in the Journal, I will be happy to send them a copy.”

“That board is comprised of recognized experts, and has been specifically empanelled by the Imperial Senate!”

Ro-Lecton only shrugged. “Perhaps. However, I am told that among the decisions you mentioned, there are none that mention or involve extra-governmental bodies such as your ‘Board of Incompetents’.” He controlled his face with an effort. “I’m sure that the Supreme Court can be persuaded to rule on your subpoena in, oh, two or three years.”

Ta-Lank glowered, his eyes radiating hatred. After several more threats and tirades, he signed off, slamming the button with a vengeance.

Ro-Lecton turned to Kas with a wide, genuine grin. “There, Commodore. Now you can concentrate on your own battles, and leave the medical war to me.”

Kas was looking at the little man with admiration. “There will be repercussions…”

Ro-Lecton nodded, the grin still wide. “I know. Moreover, I’m prepared for them. I think this is going to be the most fun I have had in years. Call it a rather spectacular method of resigning my position.”

Kas did have his own battles to fight. Day after day, he was called to testify. His report was analyzed word by word. Night after night, he watched the heavily edited newsie coverage. Obviously, the newsies were not being given raw tapes of the sessions, but were being fed carefully slanted excerpts. The coverage was limited to short “sound bites” — words and phrases taken out of context and matched to questions either never asked, or asked in another context. They were obviously looking for something with which to charge him.

Unfortunately, they weren’t having much luck. The days began to drag into weeks. Lady Jane and Lar Tennig testified voluntarily, though as Alliance citizens, they were not subject to subpoena by the committee. By the time they finished, the senators flanking Ta-Lank were looking more and more unhappy.

Chapter 18

His bedside clock read 0425 when a call from To-Ling awakened him. “I think you should come to the bridge, sir,” she said. “Someone’s trying to establish a laser com link with us. He’s being very mysterious, but he demands to speak to you, personally.”

Kas sighed. “All right, San. I’ll come. No, on second thought, pipe it to my cabin. How wide is the beam? Is it from Atropos?”

To-Ling shook her head. “No, sir, the beam isn’t coming from any of the Fleet ships. It seems to be coming from a launch outside the ring of ships. And it’s not military quality — the beam measures about three meters at our end.”

Kas rolled his eyes. “Oh, no! Not some damned newsie!” He slipped a tunic over his chest and sat down at the com unit. “Oh, well. Put it through, San.”

The man whose image appeared on Kas’ com screen was a newsie, all right. The handsome, carefully sculpted face and head of thick, wavy hair set in the latest Prime style revealed that, even before his caller began to speak.

Kas scowled. “All right, I’m Preslin. Who are you, and what do you want?” He grated. “I’m not giving any interviews.”

The professional smile on the husky young man’s face did not slip. “Oh, I recognize you, Hard Man Preslin,” the man began. “And much as I’d like an interview with you, that’s not why I’m calling.”

The nickname stopped Kas for a moment. One of his men had coined the nickname “Hard Man” in a bar. Kas hated it. However, few people outside Kas’ crews had heard it. His scowl faded to a suspicious frown.

“Last chance. Who are you, and what do you want?”

The man shrugged. “I’d rather not give you my name,” he replied. “I’m going to be violating the ethics of my profession, and I’d rather preserve as much of my anonymity as I can.”

Kas was puzzled. “What are you talking about? What ethics?”

The man broke into open laughter. “Oh, we do have some, Hard Man. Not many, but some. One of them is that we report the news — we don’t make it. I’m going to violate that by giving you, a participant, information that will almost certainly affect your actions.”

“And why would you do that?”

The man’s expression faded to seriousness. “For two reasons, Commodore. First, I was Fleet for six years. I don’t like the way you and yours are being treated. Second, well, let’s just say I’m one of the reasons you punched out Lu-Jenks. I figure I owe you one for that.”

Kas was getting impatient. “If you’re going to tell me something, get on with it. I don’t have time for this nonsense.”

A smile lit the man’s face. “Oh yes, you do, Commodore. You have all the time in the universe. You see, you’re not going anywhere for years, if ever.”

“What are you talking about? Why do you think that?”

The man shrugged, his smile fading. “An eavesdropped conversation between Ta-Lank and one of his aides. He intends to keep you out here for years. He hopes to keep you here until he retires — which won’t be for twenty years or so.”

Kas’ puzzlement deepened. “Why would he do that? What could he possibly gain?”

“You don’t understand your position,” the man continued, shaking his head. “You keep thinking of yourselves as Fleet crews completing a mission. You’re not. You’re pawns in a power struggle. You’re hostages.”

He shrugged. “You’re a club he can hold over the Emperor. The Emperor knows very well that Ta-Lank controls this committee and that phony medical board. If he had the committee order the destruction of your ships it would touch off an explosion that could destroy the Empire and the Emperor knows it. He cannot afford to take a chance like that. So, the committee will go on investigating, and the medical board will go on analyzing, for as long as possible. And Ta-Lank will use you to force the Emperor to go along with whatever he wants, for as long as he can. Any time the furor dies down and the Emperor tries to release you, Ta-Lank will fire up the newsie hysteria machine again.”

Kas was thinking, hard. “I see. And what do you expect me to do about it?”

The smile flared again. “I don’t know what to expect from you, Commodore. But I suspect that something will happen. You are not the type to just quietly sit aboard a marooned ship for years. Whatever you do,” he continued in a more serious tone, “I wish you good luck with it.” His image faded as he cut the laser com beam.

Kas stared at the blank screen for several minutes. Could the newsie be right? Could all this be a move in some power chess game?

He glanced at the clock. 0500. Pankin might be up, but this could wait until after breakfast.

The Grand Admiral frowned when he finished relating the newsie’s information. “He could be right, Commodore,” Pankin said slowly. “It’s the best explanation I’ve heard yet for this… this circus. I wondered what was important enough to drag Ta-Lank out here, away from Prime. It also explains why the Emperor sent me. Ta-Lank probably decided it was vital that he come out here during the early stages, to make certain everything went smoothly.

“That medical board, for example,” He continued. “I’m sure he didn’t foresee the furor doctor Ro-Lecton is causing, but it explains why he’s out here. He’s making sure no problems interfere with his plans.”

Kas frowned. “So, what should I do, sir?”

Pankin straightened. “Nothing, for the moment, Commodore. I have to think about this. I’ve also got to contact the Emperor by subspace.” He hesitated. “What do you think, Kas? Who is this newsie? Do you believe him?”

Kas shrugged. “He has to know that we could find out his identity fairly easily. He said he was one of the reasons I punched out Lu-Jenks. I think that means he was one of the men wounded in that asteroid assault. It seems obvious that he took medical retirement, got body sculpting, and became a newsie. There can’t be many veterans that match that description.

“But he wouldn’t give me his name. That means he trusted me not to try to find out who he was. Yes, sir. I believe him. I think he is who he says he is, and that he’s really trying to help us.”

Pankin smiled slightly. “I agree, Commodore. All right, I will get busy on this right away. You just continue your normal routine. You’re testifying again, right?”

Kas sighed. “Yes, sir. In about an hour. They’re starting on the Lu-Jenks business.”

The Fleet Admiral nodded. “I know. I’m scheduled to testify day after tomorrow. And if you think they are raking you over the coals, wait ‘til they start trying to get me to explain why you weren’t court-martialed and shot!”

The humdrum round of interrogations continued. Unsurprisingly, the committee refused to consider any of the evidence of Lu-Jenks’ complicity with the pirates in the assault on the asteroid base. Instead, they harped endlessly on every movement of his attack on the man, and continuously prodded him to explain why he wasn’t punished.

Kas managed to hold onto his temper, barely. But now, in light of the newsie’s revelations, he began to see what was occurring. The carefully edited coverage of the hearings, the character assassination he had been enduring for months, now made sense. Ta-Lank was manipulating public opinion, working to convince the Empire’s billions that he was guilty of something, that he deserved to be kept hanging out here on the edge of known space for as long as possible. The senator was cultivating an “it serves him right” attitude among the populace, to get them to accept an action that would otherwise be seen as an injustice.

Days dragged into more weeks. Neither Pankin nor the Emperor’s advisors had been able to come up with a way to counter Ta-Lank’s efforts. It seemed that the senator’s plans would succeed.

Kas fumed and brooded. His people did not deserve this. Moreover, it offended his sense of justice and loyalty that a schnurk like Ta-Lank might end up being able to dictate to the Emperor because of him and his crews. Moreover, his attitudes were communicating themselves to his people. Morale was low, and a simmering resentment was beginning to fester.

Lady Jane was the bright spot in his world of misery. She knew about the newsie’s call, of course — she had been in his cabin when he’d received it. However, she seemed unfazed by the threat of long-term imprisonment aboard Vir Rekesh. “You won’t let that happen,” she responded airily when he brought it up. “You’ll do something — something brilliant and unorthodox. Oh, you might have to leave the Fleet, and maybe the Empire. But you won’t let that happen to your people.”

Kas grinned despite his low mood. “Your confidence in me is touching, Jane. I hope I can live up to it.”

She came over and took him into her arms. “Of course you will. Now, come promote my morale!” She led him toward the bed.

Nevertheless, it was something Ro-Lecton said that finally gave Kas the glimmering of an idea. “At least we’re keeping that bastard out here with us,” the little doctor mentioned. “It’s a delaying action. He can’t start any real mischief until he gets back to Prime!”

Vir Rekesh and Starhopper had been clamped together since they had arrived, permitting free movement between the two ships without provoking a response from their guards. Kas called Toj Kray and Edro Jans over from Starhopper. As he explained his idea, slow grins began to appear on the big Bulworther and the little tech.

Several days passed before everything was in readiness. In the quiet of the ship’s “night,” Kas crept from his cabin, through what seemed to be miles of empty corridors in the unoccupied section of the ship. Finally, he arrived at his destination, one of the ship’s waste processing chambers. Toj and Edro awaited him, with an odd-looking spacesuit.

“Now, remember, sir,” Toj told him. “The suit’s specially shielded, but whatever you do, don’t use the propulsors. They would be detected instantly. The only maneuvering you can do is using this.” “This” turned out to be a large gas cylinder, almost too heavy for even the big engineer to handle in the ship’s gravity. Two smaller cylinders were clamped to its side.

“Once you’re clear of the ship’s gravity field you should be all right,” the big man added as Kas began donning the suit. “But remember, there’s a big difference between weight and mass. Just because it’s weightless doesn’t mean it’ll be easy to handle! Now, I’ve fitted a nozzle that will give you a bit of steering ability, but most of your maneuvering will involve pointing one of the smaller cylinders opposite the direction you want to go, and venting some gas. Don’t expect to be able to maneuver as though you were using the suit propulsors, though.”

“What you should do,” he continued, “Is kind of straddle the cylinder, and lay on it. Try to keep your body aligned with its long axis, to keep from tumbling too much, and keep one of the smaller cylinders in your hand. The nitrogen is compressed to five hundred atmospheres, so you should have adequate maneuvering reserve.”

Edro stepped forward and handed Toj what appeared to be a collar for a very large animal, with a large stalk projecting from it. “Now, sir,” the engineer said, “This is the passive sensor Edro designed. It will detect almost any kind of radiation, but it doesn’t emit anything. It fits around your neck, and the stalk sticks up in front of your helmet, to give you a display that will let you home in on Atropos.

“Oh yes,” he continued as Kas donned his helmet. “Your heads-up display has been programmed with the layout of Atropos. That should help you find a vent or a small lock near your landing site.”

Kas nodded. He was beginning to wonder if he was crazy to try this. He was risking the lives of every man and woman aboard both his ships. He sighed. Crazy or not, it was necessary. It was obvious that no ideas would be coming from Prime, and Pankin’s advisors had come up empty, as well.

Still, it was a big risk. Reluctant or not, Kas had no doubt that the guard ships would open fire at the first sign of a boat or launch leaving either of his ships. Moreover, he had no doubt that the surrounding ships kept a close watch.

However, he had noticed that the guard ships ignored routine waste dumps. It was a normal procedure for ships to jettison wastes into a system’s sun. The guard ships never considered that such dumps might come under the heading of “nothing leaves those ships.”

In a few minutes, they were going to dump waste again. This time, Kas would be in the middle of it and the load would not be aimed directly for the sun. Once clear of Vir Rekesh, Kas would orient himself toward the huge bulk of Atropos, and use the gas cylinder to boost himself in the direction of the dreadnought.

Kas had not cleared his plan with Pankin. It was better that the Fleet Admiral be able to deny knowledge, even under probing.

Finally, the moment arrived. Kas clumped over to the waste lock. Toj handed him the gas cylinder, and showed him the controls and the handles he had affixed to it. Then Toj closed the lock’s inner door. Kas felt his suit stiffen as the air pressure fell. Finally, the outer door opened, and the last of the air in the lock swept the waste, and Kas, into space.

Kas was slowly spinning and tumbling. He hugged the gas cylinder and began scanning for Atropos. There! Nothing could be confused with her massive bulk. A few short, well-timed bursts of nitrogen, and the huge circular image steadied in his detector’s ring-shaped display. Taking a deep breath, Kas triggered a long, hard burst of gas from the large tank. He turned slightly, and could see the bulk of Vir Rekesh receding into the blackness of space. He gulped. He was committed, now. The fate of every man and woman on his two ships were in his hands. When Ta-Lank learned he had left Rekesh he was sure to order both ships destroyed. And that could be the end of the Empire. Unless his wild plan succeeded.

Time dragged. Minutes became hours, but Kas didn’t dare accelerate too much — it wouldn’t be wise to trigger Atropos ’ meteor defenses!

Nearly six hours had passed, and Kas was beginning to become concerned about his air supply when he realized he could see the dreadnought’s bulk even without Edro’s detector. He also realized that he was approaching it much too fast. Frantically, he threw his weight around, finally coaxing the tank’s mass into a slow tumble.

Steering was more complicated this time. Space suits are not designed to provide wide-range vision. In particular, they are not designed to let the wearer see his feet.

Kas gulped and then began carefully slewing his body around, trying to rotate on the tank and face its nozzle without losing contact with it. He finally succeeded, and with a relieved sigh began venting gas to slow himself.

With a huge sigh of relief, he brought himself to a stop relative to Atropos ’ hull. The pitted antirad coating was almost within touching distance — a few meters at most. Kas simply hung there for a few moments, panting with relief and released tension.

Then he called up the image of Atropos on his heads-up display. He was… there! Yes, there was that particle beam projector, and over there, that sensor array.

There should be a maintenance lock nearby that array. After a few moments, he located the circle that indicated the opening. He nosed the tank as close as he dared, then pushed off it in the direction of the lock.

Judging by the micrometeorite pitting of the lock controls and the hatch itself, this lock had not been used in a generation. He nodded with satisfaction. If he was lucky the lock would still work, but the bridge indicators would be either out of order or simply ignored. Of course, there might also be an indicator in Engineering…

He swallowed noisily and ignoring the normal lock control, began to crank the manual mechanism. After what seemed hours but must be less than a minute, a red light indicated that the lock’s atmosphere had been evacuated. More pumping, now accompanied by panting, and the outer door reluctantly slid aside. For a heart-stopping moment, it ground to a stop after about fifteen centimeters, and Kas strained at the crank. Finally, the door gave with a jerk, and slid easily the rest of the way open.

Kas carefully climbed into the lock and hurried to the inner door, half convinced he would see an armed squad on the other side. However, what little he could see of the passageway through the tiny window of the inner door was empty. He turned and began pumping the interior manual control. The outer door slid smoothly home. Kas whooshed in relief and turned the control that flooded the lock with air.

He skinned out of the spacesuit as quickly as possible. Then he checked his watch. 0450. Good. He had time. Beneath the spacesuit he wore an oversized enlisted man’s shipsuit, and beneath that the undress khaki uniform of a Commodore. No sense attracting attention until he was ready.

When he opened the inner door, he was relieved to note that there was still no indication that his entrance had been detected. Good. He had been counting on the fact that, until this mission, Atropos had been nothing more than an orbital fort for half a century. He had been hoping her crew had become sloppy — and apparently, he had been right.

It seemed this whole area of the ship was unused. Dust lay thick in the passages, and he saw no one. He moved carefully. It was important that he wasn’t detected before he was ready to reveal himself.

He had spent much of his five-hour “flight” studying the layout of the dreadnought that Edro had programmed into his suit’s comp. Even so he wandered for almost half an hour before encountering a location he recognized. He checked his ring watch again. A little after 0500. A little early, but well within the margin of error he had established.

He surveyed his surroundings. The entire area was still mostly unoccupied. A dreadnought’s battle complement was more than eight thousand people. However, he knew that the standard crew allowance was “only” twenty-five hundred.

That meant that most of the huge ship was usually empty. He wandered a few passageways until he found a door labeled “Second-Level Port Aft Gunnery Officer.” He opened the door and slipped into a large, comfortable stateroom. A thick film of dust covered the furniture and bunk, but Kas did not care. He just needed somewhere to hide out until reveille in just under an hour. He stripped the bunk, and used the lower sheet to wipe the dust from the lone chair and the comp terminal. Praying to any god that happened by that no one would notice, he activated the terminal and began gathering information he needed.

All right, Admiral’s country was there, here were the senior officers’ quarters. Ah! There were the VIP quarters, just down from the Admiral’s stateroom, on the same deck. And yes, Ta-Lank was occupying the stateroom nearest the Admiral’s, with the rest of that blasted committee lining the passage. Excellent. Just as he had hoped. Ta-Lank would have no way of weaseling out of it! He was reviewing the Grand Admiral’s published schedule when a horn blaring over the ships PA system announced reveille.

Kas stood and stretched, then snapped off the terminal. Time to go. This might be his last day as a Fleet officer. Sheol! It might be the last free day of his life! He stripped off the shipsuit and, wearing his work uniform, headed for Pankin’s quarters.

Until he approached Admiral’s Country, he saw few crewmembers. Aside from salutes, he attracted little attention from them, though one petty officer frowned as though something was wrong.

Kas had long ago learned that a hurried, self-important manner could get you unquestioned access to most military places, and it seemed that Atropos was no exception. He strode up to the marine on guard outside the Grand Admiral’s door. “Would you please tell the Fleet Admiral that Commodore Preslin would like to see him?” He asked politely.

The marine snapped to attention, his spotless blaster at his side. “Sir!” the man replied with a marine’s exaggerated crispness. “The Grand Admiral is at breakfast, sir!”

Kas smiled. “I’m sure he’ll see me, Private. Please announce me.”

“Sir! Yes, sir!” The marine spun smartly and rapped on the door then, blaster at trail, marched into the stateroom. He did not close the door completely, so Kas was able to hear Pankin yell “Preslin! Impossible!” Then, in a softer tone, “Well, show him in, Private. Show him in!”

The marine marched back out of the stateroom. “The Grand Admiral will see you, sir. Please go in.”

Kas suppressed a grin of triumph as he entered Pankin’s stateroom and saluted.

Pankin merely stared for a long moment after the door closed behind the marine. Then, “It is you.” He paused, and then continued, “Can you give me one good reason not to have you summarily shot?” A sumptuous breakfast sat ignored on Pankin’s desk.

“Yes, sir,” Kas answered crisply. “It’s too late. It wouldn’t do any good to have me shot. If Vir Rekesh is a plague ship, then Atropos is now contaminated as well.”

Pankin stared for a moment longer, the barked a snort of laughter. “All right, all right. Sit down, and let’s see how we can best use this turn of affairs. You know, of course, that you’ve deliberately disobeyed a direct order.”

Kas sat in the chair Pankin indicated. “No, sir. I have reviewed the tapes of your instructions to me. They specifically said that Starhopper and Rekesh would be destroyed if a boat or launch tried to leave either. None did. I came over here in a suit.”

“A suit!” Pankin grinned. “Preslin, you’re a pain in the ass, but you’ve got guts. All right, you have obviously thought this out. What now?”

“Well, sir,” Kas began, “I really planned to leave that to you. I just felt that putting Ta-Lank and company into the same quarantine as Rekesh and Starhopper might give you or the Emperor a means of getting us released.”

Pankin grinned sourly. “I’m touched by your confidence in me. If you knew the lengths I’ve gone to avoid having to deal with that… that treetha…

“Oh, well,” he continued. “In this case it’ll be worth it just to see the expression on his face when he sees you here.

“All right. When we finish talking, I’m going to have him come here. When he arrives, he will meet you on your way out under marine guard.”

He glared at Kas. “And you’ll keep your damned mouth shut! Do you understand? If I hear anything but ‘Good morning, Senator’ come out of your mouth, I will have the marines shoot you on the spot! Is that clear?”

Kas was sitting at a rigid attention. “Aye, Aye, sir.”


They compared notes. Despite his manner, Pankin was obviously pleased with Kas for breaking the stalemate — however unconventionally.

When the clock showed 0700, Pankin called Ta-lank. “Could you come to my stateroom as soon as possible, Senator? No, no, it is really very important. There have been… developments. Yes, yes of course, Senator. In a few minutes, then.” He disconnected, and then turned to Kas, not even trying to suppress a wide grin.

“This is going to be the most fun I’ve had in years, Kas. But I’ve got to get you out of the line of fire.” He keyed his intercom. “Mor? Would you send a couple of marines to my stateroom, please? Have them stand by in the passage until I call for them. Yes. And I’ll need quarters prepared for a flag officer. Immediately. Yes. Thank you.”

Ta-Lank appeared in less than ten minutes. Pankin had the marines sent in first, then had him admitted. When the tall man entered the stateroom, he was confronted with Kas and two marines just inside the door. Kas saluted and said, “Good morning, Senator.”

Ta-lank frowned. “Good Morn… You!” He whirled to Pankin. “What are you doing, Admiral? Are you insane?”

Pankin merely looked at him impassively. “I had nothing to do with it, Senator. Commodore Preslin sneaked aboard last night. As you can see, he is under arrest.” He turned to the marines. “Please escort the Commodore to quarters, and mount a guard on the door.”

“Sir! Yes, sir!” The marines whirled and marched out, Kas between them.

The stateroom they gave him was larger and more luxurious than even the flag quarters aboard Rekesh. As soon as the marines backed out and took up station on the stateroom door Kas moved to the terminal and called To-Ling. He briefed her on what he had done and why, and let her know that she was in command until he returned. “And, Captain, please let Lieutenant Commander Kray and Lieutenant Jans know that I made it. They’re probably pretty nervous by now.”

Then he called Lady Jane. She took it well. “I told you you’d come up with something,” she said in a satisfied tone.

Then there was nothing to do but wait. He knew that there must be a flurry of frantic activity going on all around him as people struggled to deal with the fact of his presence. But here, confined to this stateroom, was nothing but worry and boredom. It was torture.

He paced. He called up holovids and bookvids on the terminal, trying without success to lose himself in them. He paced some more. He tried to nap, with little success. A few hours in a luxurious cabin, and he already felt as though he had been imprisoned for months!

He forced himself calm, called up another bookvid, and with iron discipline, forced himself to concentrate on its contents. Luckily, it was a gunnery manual — Projectile Versus Beam in Space Combat, a classic and one of his favorites.

He wished he could call Gran Telker aboard Starhopper and play him a few games of Jasc. However, Gran was serving under another captain now. Oh, he was sure that Ler-Traken would not object. Nevertheless, he would feel as though he were keeping Gran from his duties. Perhaps later that evening, during Gran’s off time…

Time might pass with agonizing slowness, but pass it did. He finally slipped off to sleep late that “night.” He was up before reveille, pacing again. The steward was just removing the tray with Kas’ noon meal when he was summoned to Pankin’s cabin.

Pankin’s expression was grim. “Well, Commodore,” he began without preamble, “I’ve made us a deal. It’s not ideal, but at least you won’t be executed or spend the rest of your life on Hellbore. I hope.

“The Senator’s tame medical board will lift the quarantine in a week or so — they want to give themselves time to look as though they’ve given the matter serious study.

“The committee will continue its hearings, and, to save their faces, the charges against you in the Lu-Jenks matter will be reinstated and additional charges of disobedience of a direct order and placing Fleet personnel at unnecessary risk will be leveled.”

He smiled at Kas’ stricken expression. “Trust me, Kas. You have made a powerful enemy, but like many senators, Ta-Lank has little understanding of Fleet matters. He seems to be under the impression that by insisting on a court-martial, he has somehow taken the matter out of my hands.”

Pankin shrugged. “To a certain extent, of course, he has. I can have little effect on the verdict of a court or on the punishment it imposes. On the other hand, I do have the authority to assign the officers who will make up the court. And of course, I’m free to talk with them before assigning them. This will not be a political lynching.

“You will be relieved of your command, of course.” Kas was unsurprised. He had not really expected to keep command of the battle cruiser now that the mission was over.

“You’ll also be moved down a hundred names on the promotion lists,” Pankin continued. Kas suppressed a shrug of indifference. He knew that Pankin had reached far “below the line” to promote him to Commodore. His chances of ever making Rear Admiral had already been nonexistent.

“And finally,” Pankin finished, “You’ll be placed on Unassigned Duty.” Kas winced. That was serious. In theory, placement on Unassigned Duty merely meant that an officer was in transition, between duty assignments. But in practice, Unassigned Duty was the Fleet’s method of dealing with senior officers who were too incompetent to command Fleet personnel, but whose families were too wealthy or powerful to permit them to be simply kicked out of the Fleet. It meant that Kas would have no duty assignment at all. He would have no job, no function. He would spend the rest of his career sitting in the Flag Officers’ Quarters on Prime Base. Fleet people referred to it derisively as the “ROAD Program”-“Retired on Active Duty.”

Pankin sat back with a satisfied grin. “Your reaction tells me that should be sufficient to convince Ta-Lank that you’re being thoroughly punished. Oh, relax, Kas. Of course, under normal circumstances it would be a severe punishment. But you will not be working under normal circumstances.

“No,” he continued. “In your case, Unassigned Status means you’ll be on call to work for me. I told you tough times are coming. I need a troubleshooter; someone who can help me whip the Fleet into shape. And you’re it. You will be plenty busy hopping from one crisis to another while we weed out the dead wood. So don’t let your status fool you as I hope it will fool Ta-Lank.”

Kas did not know what to say. Working for Pankin promised to not be dull, but it wasn’t command, either…

“Oh, yes,” Pankin’s words interrupted Kas’ train of thought. “Speaking of unassigned resources,” he continued, “I seem to have another one. Starhopper. Fleet Intelligence tells me she is of no use to them — they say she has been ‘blown’. By that, I gather that they mean she’s too widely known by now to be able to act in a covert role.”

Kas frowned. Starhopper was much too good a ship to be scrapped, but that seemed to be what Pankin was leading up to.

“Since Intelligence doesn’t want her,” Pankin resumed, “and she certainly has no place in the Fleet order of battle, I’m leaving her crewed but unassigned at Prime Base. That way she will be available for your use. We’ll have to remove the lasers, of course. Everyone in known space knows about them now. But the only mention of the quickfirers was in your report of the asteroid impact in that unnamed system. Somehow, it seems to have been deleted. So, you will have at least some weaponry available. And since she’s already on the rolls as a diplomatic vessel you should be able to move around with relative ease.”

Kas was stunned. He was being given Starhopper as virtually a private yacht!

Pankin shrugged. “You’ll have to command her yourself, of course. I can’t spare an officer of the quality of Ler-Traken. But I don’t think that’ll be a problem, do you?”

Kas struggled to contain his excitement. “Of course not, sir. I.. I don’t know what to say. I…”

The Grand Admiral waved a hand in dismissal. “Don’t say anything, Commodore.” A smile struggled to break through. “I told you to keep your head down, but it appears impossible for you to do that. So, I guess the next best thing is to keep you close, where I can sit on you if necessary!”

After a few more pleasantries and another firm warning to make sure the committee hearings went as planned, Kas was dismissed.

Kas paid no attention to his marine guards as he hurried back to his stateroom. Wait until he told Lady Jane!