/ Language: English / Genre:sf_space

The Emperor's conspiracy

W Zellmann

William Zellmann

The Emperor's conspiracy

Chapter I

As I struggled toward consciousness, my first sensation was of overwhelming cold. The next was the smell and, yes, the sour taste of vomit.

I shook my head to clear it, and instantly regretted the action as the movement touched off a severe pounding. I groaned and cursed as I tried to examine my surroundings without moving my aching head.

The massive unpainted gray duracrete walls and barred grates, together with the uncomfortable cold, told me everything I needed to know. Jail, or whatever they called it on Haven. Depressed as I was about being in jail, it was as nothing to the knowledge that I was on Haven.

Weak sunlight did its feeble best to pour through the small, barred window. Haven is hardly the vacation spot of known space. Oh, it's about average size for a man-settled planet, and its gravity is only. 92 of standard. Unfortunately, though, while the system's primary is a class G0 dwarf, the same class as Prime's, Haven is slightly farther from it. More importantly, for the last thousand years or so, Haven has been emerging from an ice age. The glaciers have retreated enough that slightly over half the land between the poles and the equator are ice-free, at least part of the year. At the poles it's uninhabitable.

Man wouldn't have bothered with a world like Haven except for two things. First, the system hosts no less than four jump points. Second, it's the rim system nearest the rest of the Empire.

The first point guaranteed that Haven's system would become a major recalibration point for transiting starships. Such a busy transit point would inevitably develop into a trading hub, and Haven was habitable, barely. Even counting the expense of coping with the extreme climate, it was still cheaper to settle the planet than to build an orbiting space station big enough to serve such a hub. So a few hardy souls, mostly employees of the trading combines, came to Haven. They poured low, massive, ugly, super-insulated duracrete buildings to withstand the incredible storms, and settled in to stay.

The second point was why Haven was home to more than just a few traders and chandlers: someone with a nasty sense of humor selected Haven to be the capitol of the Rim Sector. Or perhaps it was just some bureaucrat who learned Haven was physically closest of the rim planets to the rest of the Empire, and didn't know, or didn't care, about its climate.

At any rate, Haven is now home to several million people. I'd never be one of them, though. I hate the cold.

That partly explained why I was in jail. From the surface, Haven City just looked like a cluster of huge, featureless gray domes, interspersed with a few more conventional buildings half buried in snow. But all those domes were interconnected by duracrete tunnels, and a lot of Haven City is underground. In contrast to the colorless ugliness of the surface, Haveners decorate the interiors of the tunnels and buildings in blindingly bright, sometimes garish, colors and patterns matched only by their equally garish clothing styles.

Of course, with the lack of outside amusements, they had come up with an amazing variety of indoor activities, many of which included or featured liquid refreshment. Alcoholic liquid refreshment.

Since I left the Empire Fleet some ten years ago, drinking and bar brawls had become increasingly important parts of my recreational activities. Hari, my engineer and best friend, was beginning to nag me unmercifully about it. But no matter how often I told him, he just didn't seem to understand that drinking helped blur the faces and drown the memories…

Metallic clanks that reverberated in my aching head announced the arrival of my jailer, accompanied by Hari. If I hadn't been so miserable, I probably would have snickered at the appearance they made. The jailer was short and stout, almost as wide as he was tall. His greasy black hair and blue chin lent him an apelike appearance. He barely came up to Hari's chest.

Hari was almost a comical opposite. Two meters tall, Hari is skinny, looking almost emaciated. His white hair is so thin as to be nearly invisible at any distance, which gives his head a skull-like appearance. Add to this the fact that Hari spends very little of his time off our ship, the Valkyrie, and his paleness instantly brings to mind a corpse.

But Hari is also undoubtedly the best engineer I've ever met. He has an instinctive feel that seems to let him know in advance if something is going to happen to the old bitch. He also saved my life.

When I dropped off my resignation letter and fled the Fleet, I was verging on suicidal. Hari resigned his commission to come with me. He nursed me through the nightmares and the sometimes-monumental drunks. He talked me through the depressions. He's my best — okay, only — friend.

Right now, though, he didn't look it. Now, Hari's pale cheeks blazed an angry red. His expression was grim.

I sat up on the bunk, suppressing a wince at the roaring pain in my head. I tried to greet him, but all that came out was a wordless croak. I swallowed, and almost gagged at the sour taste of bile.

Hari just shook his head in furious frustration as his gaze swept over my unshaven, vomit-stained person. Finally, he sighed deeply. "All right, let him out." His gravelly bass voice was, as always, a surprise, coming from that thin body.

The jailer shrugged and applied the key strip to the cell's lock. The door slid open. I rose unsteadily, and gathering what I could of my tattered dignity, walked out of the cell.

As I retrieved my belongings from the jailer I heard the desk sergeant tell Hari, "Drunk 'n disorderly, assault 'n batt'ry, assaultin' police officers. We'll send the damage bill out to yer ship. Don't try t' lift off 'til it's paid, 'r you'll both be in here." Hari nodded, glaring at me. While Hari was still dealing with the financial matters, I slipped into the 'fresher to make myself more presentable.

The image in the mirror didn't make me feel any better. I grimaced and scraped what I could of the dried vomit from my rumpled, creased uniform. A wetted towel got most of the rest. I couldn't depilate, and my chin and cheeks were darkly shadowed. I resolved to try to stay downwind of everyone. I splashed cold water on my face, hoping to banish some of the sallowness from my skin, the bleariness from my eyes. I didn't have notable success, but the splash of cold water did wash most of the cobwebs from my brain.

At least I didn't have to worry about a tangled mass of hair. Habit forged in the imperial marines had kept my hair only about a centimeter in length. I ran my fingers through it to give it a semblance of order. I examined myself again, and came to the reluctant conclusion that I'd done all I could. It would have to do until I could get to a 'fresher back aboard Valkyrie.

Hari was waiting when I left the 'fresher, his thunderous expression radiating disapproval. We started for the jail's door, and he started.

"Damn it, Val, this has to stop. You're getting as bad as Con!"

I winced at that. Con Wiler was Valkyrie's Astrogator. He was also the shallowest human I've ever known. He had an amazingly large collection of porn vids, and spent nearly all his in-space time in his stateroom, immersed in them. When grounded, Con spent all his time and all his money on port bars and port prostitutes. He was always drinking, drunk, or hung over. He didn't enjoy bar brawls, but he often bore evidence of the anger of boyfriends, husbands, or fathers.

"Don't be silly, Hari," I replied, stung. "It's only once in a while." I tried a weak smile. "And at least I'm not chasing women."

The smile didn't work. Hari just shook his head in exasperation. He opened his mouth to reply, but closed it as two men walked up.

The blinding colors of their clothing contrasted with their colorlessness. They were completely average. Average height, average weight, average hair color, average everything.

One produced a badge case. "Captain Val Kedron of Valkyrie?" He asked in a disinterested tone. At my nod, he continued, "Imperial Security Service. Would you and Mr. Carlon come with us, please?"

It was like a sudden ice water bath. Cops and jails are one thing. ISS is another entirely. Suddenly I was dead sober — and scared. The ISS spends most of its time pursuing terrorists and threats against the Empire. The rest of their time is devoted to the protection of the Emperor and other high imperial officials. They have incredible powers, and are responsible only to the Director of Imperial Security on Prime.

We were both so dumbfounded and so intimidated that we didn't even question the men; we just went meekly along. When we headed down the tunnel toward the dome that held only the Viceroy's palace, I swallowed loudly. It looked like we were in big trouble. Hari's face could have been carved from stone.

The man who rose to greet me didn't look intimidating. He was of average height and middle-aged. Slim and elegant, he was conservatively well dressed, a novelty on Haven. His face was darkly handsome, undoubtedly the result of expensive body sculpting. If anything, he most resembled an aging vid star playing an imperial courtier. His eyes scanned me from head to toe, missing nothing. I flushed, remembering my unkempt appearance.

"Thank you for coming, Captain. I'm Sander Cord, Viceroy of the Rim Sector." His smile appeared genuine and welcoming, but that didn't reassure me.

I'd heard of Cord, of course. Everyone has. How he was the son of one of the Imperial Prince's tutors. How the old Emperor had decided the Prince needed a companion his own age, and how Cord had literally been raised in the palace with the Prince, now Eron XXIV, Emperor of Humanity. Dozens of vids have been written and produced portraying Cord as everything from a gallant hero who rose from obscurity to become the Emperor's only true friend, to a villainous opportunist blackmailing his way to power. I really hadn't formed an opinion, though I suspected the truth was somewhere in between.

"I appear to have caught you at an unfortunate moment," he continued. His voice was a mellow and trained baritone, his accent pure upper-class innerworld.

I could feel warmth crawl over my face. I began to mutter an apology, but he waved it off. "Don't worry, Captain. I don't base my judgments of people on their appearance. I'm much more concerned with who they are than who they appear to be." He straightened, and his manner became businesslike. "I need you, Captain. And you, Mr. Carlon. And I need your ship."

That surprised me. "What in space would a Sector Viceroy need with a couple of broken-down old free traders and a ninety-year old ship?"

The smile didn't waver. "Now, now, Captain. You can hardly be called 'broken-down'. I still have access to Empire Intelligence, you know." He dropped a record chip into the reader slot on his desk.

"Let's see now. Kedron, Val. Native of Solaris IV. Graduated Fleet Academy with honors, 2842AE. Assigned… well, I'm not going to go through your entire service record. Resigned 2859AE, at rank of Lieutenant Colonel of Marines." He paused. "Immediately after the withdrawal from Haskins' World."

I winced at the reminder. "Yeah," I replied dully. That was one subject I didn't want to discuss. I'd been living with the nightmares for ten years.

He shook his head and sighed. "The Fleet lost some of its best people because of Haskins' World. You heard about Admiral Dunstan?" I nodded, and he continued. "Let's see, completed Strategy and Tactics at the Imperial War College with honors. A two-year course, is it not?"

I nodded again. I had a feeling I knew what was coming, and wasn't going to like it.

"Completed Ship Operations, Navigation, and Jump Theory. It appears you were on what they call the fast track to a flag. That's the usual reason for sending a Marine to Ship Ops."

I nodded again. I really didn't like this conversation. This guy knew entirely too much about military matters for a sycophantic politician. Flag rank is only conferred on officers who have commanded both a warship and marines on the ground in combat. "I was in receipt of orders to take command of a destroyer when I blew it on Haskins' World," I admitted. "I resigned as soon as I got back to the Aigash Kai, before they could court-martial me."

He looked puzzled. "Court-martial? There's nothing in your service record regarding a possible court-martial." His face cleared, and he stared at me intensely. "Could it possibly be you don't know, Captain? Didn't you read the reports of the investigating team?"

I shook my head nervously. I could feel the sweat forming on my forehead and palms. "I had just lost more than half of my command. I didn't need a bunch of bureaucrats from Prime to tell me I'd screwed up. Two days after we reached the Kai, Hari and I hitched a ride on a supply ship to Aragon II. We bought the old Valkyrie, signed on an Astrogator and Comm Officer on shares, and never looked back." I glared at him. "We're still not looking back."

Cord had a wondering expression on his face. "Gods, you really don't know! General Stilkis was the one who'd have been court-martialed, if he'd survived. The investigation not only cleared you, it praised your performance in the face of overwhelming odds. Admiral Dunstan put a note in your service record to the effect that he'd have recommended you for the Empire Star, if you hadn't bailed out so quickly. He said that…" Cord glanced at the screen.".. Colonel Kedron was almost solely responsible for our ability to extract all the nuclear and heavy weapons, and nearly six thousand Fleet personnel. Despite poor decisions by superior officers and casualties of more than sixty percent, Colonel Kedron was able to maintain unit cohesion and made it possible for the fleet to accomplish an effective evacuation, instead of a confused debacle." Cord raised his eyes to me. "I'm honored to be the one to tell you this, Captain. When the Fleet invaded and recaptured Haskins' World, it was largely due to your efforts that they didn't have to face nukes. Thousands of men and women owe you their lives."

It was my turn to stare.

"Hah!" Hari crowed. "I told you Fleet HQ wasn't stupid enough to blame you! The Empire Star!" He looked impressed.

"But I lost more than half my command!" I protested weakly. "Almost a thousand people died because of me!" I was reeling. On the one hand, I was absolved of the guilt I'd carried around for more than ten years. On the other hand, I was beginning to realize I'd given up a career I loved simply because I was depressed over taking heavy casualties.

Cord smiled gently. "Those men died so many thousands more might live. You bear no guilt, Captain. Quite the contrary." He straightened and his smile widened. "So you are neither 'broken down' nor simply a free trader." He turned to Hari. "And I believe you have a military background, as well, Mr. Carlon."

Hari nodded warily.

I shrugged. If Cord had my record, he certainly had Hari's. "Hari was a Fleet Commander, Engineering Officer on the Osiris." I was regaining my equilibrium. "Now, can we get down to what this is all about?"

A slight frown crossed his features as he looked at me appraisingly. Then, as though he'd decided something, he turned to the ISS men and waved them out.

"Very well, Captain," he began when we were alone. "I suppose I should start with the most basic fact, the one that has guided my efforts for the last thirty years." He looked as though he wanted to say more, to emphasize the strength of his feelings even more, but couldn't find the words. Finally, he just shrugged. "You see, Captain, the Empire has been in decline since the Horsehead Rebellion, and even the most optimistic estimates say it will collapse completely within three hundred years."

He didn't look upset at my involuntary snort of derision, but I was furious with myself for my lack of control. I was casting frantically about for a reply when Hari said, "And what are the most pessimistic estimates?"

Cord jumped to his feet and began pacing. "The three-hundred-year estimate is valid only if everyone is doing their best to retard the fall." He said grimly. "The most pessimistic scenarios give us less than a century. In fact, if worse comes to worst, the fall could come in our lifetimes."

I was speechless. I mean, the Empire covers over a million star systems. Twenty thousand of those systems are inhabited. The Empire has flourished for more than three thousand years. To be told that the Horsehead Rebellion had actually succeeded in destroying it…

All Empires are cursed with occasional revolutions and rebellions. Nevertheless, some four hundred years ago, the entire Horsehead sector rebelled. It was a hard fight, but the rebellion was put down, and the leaders executed. I mentioned this to Cord.

He simply shrugged. "True, but suppressing the revolt cost the Empire dearly. By the time it succeeded, the Empire's resources were overstretched. The Empire could no longer afford to expand.

"Just as importantly," he continued, still pacing, "the Emperor had been badly scared. Robur XII and his descendants took extreme measures to insure the Empire's security. Among other things, they began discouraging original thought and scientific advancement. Their intervention was enough to tip the scales. The Empire has been in a slow but definite decline ever since."

He sighed. "It's only become noticeable during the past century; and even so, I only learned of it by accident, when I was researching an economics paper on the imperial palace's comps."

"You seem awfully calm about this." I observed. "Why aren't you working to save the Empire?"

Cord shrugged. "It's too late. There's too much inertia. All I can hope to do is try to delay the fall and keep civilization going in a small part of the galaxy. I've been working on it for the past thirty years."

I wished he'd stop pacing and sit down. I also wished he'd just tell me what all this had to do with my crew, the Valkyrie, and me. I was about to interrupt him when I realized that he needed to tell us all this.

For over thirty years, he'd been forced to be a solitary plotter, unable to confide even in his closest friend — because his closest friend was the Emperor. Now, some circumstance was forcing him to reveal his machinations. I'm not sure he realized how glad he was to share his burden, even with strangers.

All right, I thought, I'll let him ramble awhile. But he'd better get to the point soon. I turned my ears back on as he continued.

When he ascended the throne, Eron named Cord one of his advisors. It hadn't been easy to thread a course between courtiers and their petty intrigues, and the ambitious with their plots. But Cord did it. Finally, when the old Viceroy of the Rim sector asked to retire, Cord knew the time was right. He helped the ISS break up a planned coup. The Emperor was grateful, and offered Cord his choice of three sectors. Eron XXIV was a bit surprised when Cord chose the Rim sector. It is neither as large as the Sirius sector, nor as wealthy as the Horsehead sector. But Cord had determined that it had to be the rim.

It irritated me, but I had to ask. "Why did it have to be the rim?"

He shrugged distractedly, and I realized he hadn't been fishing for the question, he'd simply assumed it was obvious. "The rim is a long way from Prime. It's man's furthest penetration into the universe. Out here, man can't afford to become decadent. Out here, the decadent don't survive."

For the past twelve years Cord, as Sector Viceroy, had been quietly pursuing his plan for the survival of civilization. The Rim was now nearly as prosperous as the Horsehead sector, though Cord went to considerable pains to conceal this. Every report going back to Prime said that the Rim sector cost the Empire more than it contributed. Everything emphasized that the Empire would be better served by cutting the rim loose. I started to mention that such behavior has a name: treason. Then I remembered the ISS men in the hall outside, and kept silent.

Cord had been reinforcing his recommendation at every opportunity, in person and through agents on Prime. Finally, The Emperor and the most influential senators agreed, and had quietly decided to disown the rim. It was Cord's moment of triumph. Oh, he'd still have to conceal their progress for a while, until the Empire's decline made it less of a threat, but he was on his way.

Now we were getting to it. "Exactly what do you mean by 'disown the rim'?" I didn't even try to conceal the suspicion in my tone.

Cord stopped pacing, and resumed his seat. He simply stared at me for a moment. Suddenly he relaxed, and a genuine grin lit his face. "No, Captain. I'm not fomenting another rebellion. If you know anything at all about me, you know that I have a reputation for loyalty to the Empire and His Imperial Majesty that many have called 'fanatical'."

He sobered. "To answer your question, the Emperor is planning to turn the Rim sector over to me. Oh, it will be promoted as a 'bold experiment in local autonomy', but that's what it amounts to. I'm even to be given the Empire Fleet base on Thaeron and the rather large task force based there. The Empire is shedding responsibility for the rim, and aside from a nominal oath of fealty, the rim will owe the Empire nothing. We will be on our own."

I frowned. "So you want me to do what? Take over that Fleet base you mentioned and run it for you?"

He shook his head. "Nothing so easy. I want you to defend the rim against the man who commands it now. Rear Admiral Micah Jonas." The grin flared again. "I understand you know him."

"I know him," I replied sourly. "I don't like him, and he doesn't like me. But he's nothing but a spoiled playboy. How much trouble could he cause?"

Cord frowned. "A lot, unfortunately. He commands all Fleet forces in the sector. The entire Thaeron system belongs to the Fleet. They have a large maintenance facility on the fourth planet, and a very powerful battle group home ported there. We're beginning to get indications that Jonas is aware of the plan to release the rim, and is planning some action. We suspect he plans to seize the sector."

I shook my head. "That doesn't sound like the Jonas I know. I mean, he's not stupid, but he's shrewd rather than intelligent, and tends to substitute ruthlessness for imagination. But he's a complete hedonist. His whole life has been devoted to pleasure. I can't imagine him having the drive or the desire to foment a rebellion."

"I hope you're right," Cord replied. "Most of my reports agree with your opinion. But something happened at his last assignment. I gather that a group of his officers conspired with a criminal syndicate to practically steal Jonas' base from under him. Fleet Admiral Chu-Lo wanted to court-martial him, but it seems there's no such charge as criminal stupidity. He couldn't even fire Jonas…"

"… Because his name is Jonas," I finished for him.

Cord nodded. "Exactly. One does not lightly offend one of the most powerful families in the Empire. The Fleet Admiral had to be content with transferring Jonas to the rim."

I laughed aloud. "To Jonas, that would be almost as bad as a court-martial. As far as he's concerned, Prime is the center of the universe. I'd bet he thinks he's been banished to the back of nowhere."

Cord nodded. "He's been out here for six years, and has hated every moment of it." His frown returned. "But there's something else. The family was very embarrassed by Jonas' stupidity. There are reports that he's been effectively cut off from the family's wealth and power. Yet somehow he manages to maintain his rather, uh, lavish lifestyle. Rumors are starting to circulate that Jonas has gotten himself involved in criminal activities." He held up a hand. "Nothing we can verify yet," he continued hurriedly, "Just rumors."

I frowned. I still didn't see the problem. Cord was a Sector Viceroy. Aside from the Emperor himself, Viceroys are the most powerful men in the Empire. I shuddered, and it wasn't just the cold of the room. Most Sector Viceroys were idiots and sycophants. Even so

… "Why don't you just have the Emperor recall Jonas before the release? Or, why not have him assassinated? Surely a Sector Viceroy has spooks or security people that would be happy to oblige."

He winced. "You're correct, of course, and such an operation is underway. Unfortunately, I'm not sure we can get to him in time. He's being very cautious. At this moment, he's sitting aboard a dreadnought, busily dreaming up excuses for not joining me here as I've requested, and suborning his chain of command. There have already been a few fatal accidents among his staff-level officers. As for your first question, the Emperor doesn't want him back. Disowned or not, even the Emperor has to be careful about offending one of the most influential and powerful families in the Empire."

He held up his hand to forestall my interruption. "In other words, the Emperor considers Jonas my problem, and expects me to handle it. That's where you come in. I want you to defend the rim against Jonas and his plot, whatever it may be."

I was puzzled. "I still don't understand. Why me? Why not Jonas' second in command? Or the captain of that dreadnought? Surely not everyone is in on the plot."

He shrugged. "True, of course. Unfortunately, military people assigned to frontier posts tend to become insular. I haven't time to have my intelligence people clear all the officers in the chain of command. I need someone from outside, a proven leader, someone familiar with both space and ground-based strategy and tactics, and finally, someone who won't be tempted to seize power himself." The practiced smile became a wide, genuine grin. "Your arrival on Haven was the best news I'd had in weeks. Coups can be very expensive, in both materiel and people, and I can afford to waste neither."

I was doubtful. "So, all you want me to do is go to Thaeron and relieve Jonas of command? What will you do after he has me shot as an imposter? Find another sucker?"

The grin flashed again. I was beginning to like Cord. "No," he replied, "I don't expect you to go to Thaeron, at least not yet. As soon as we announce his dismissal, we'll touch off the coup. Right now, I, we, need time. We have to prepare for the worst. I want you to begin assembling an armed force, and designing strategies and tactics for resisting the coup when it comes, assuming that Jonas will have the full strength of his forces."

"And if I refuse your generous offer?" I asked.

The smile disappeared. "No, Captain," He said quietly, "No threats. It'd be silly to try to draft you against your will. You and your crew will simply be interned here on Haven for the duration."

"And Valkyrie?"

He shrugged. "I don't know yet who he will be, but my second choice will need a Command and Control ship, and yours is large enough to hold all the comm gear that entails. Besides, her plans are on file, and have already been sent to the Chilson Shipyard on Outback. They are ready to install all the weaponry removed when she was decommissioned, and do the necessary modifications for C amp;C.

"So, Captain, your choices come to this: I can activate your Fleet Marine commission and promote you to Commodore, or you can sit on your butt here on Haven. You can even join Jonas, if you wish. At any rate, no harm will come to you. But I need your ship almost as badly as I need you."

I was furious. "I do not respond well…"

"NO!" Hari shouted, startling me.

"I'm sorry, Val," Hari continued, "But you were about to refuse for both of us. You command Valkyrie and her crew, but this decision has to be an individual one." He turned to Cord.

"You are not the only one to notice the decline of the Empire, Viceroy. Actually, there's quite a body of literature on the subject. I've also noticed the dynamism that you've fostered on the rim. If you need me, I'll be happy to serve, in whatever capacity you find useful." He glanced over at me again. "I really am sorry, Val, but this is right. It needs to be done!"

I was dumbfounded. I knew Hari was a good deal more intelligent than I was, but he usually tended to go along with my decisions. I honestly hadn't even noticed I was usurping his free choice. I obviously owed Hari a big apology later.

Cord switched his attention to Hari without missing a beat. "Certainly, Mr. Carlon. I've seen your record too, you know. I'd hoped you'd agree to help."

My shoulders slumped. I couldn't just leave Hari. In addition, I knew very well that Cord was as good as his word. He would seize Valkyrie, and probably hand her over to some thumb-fingered idiot who would get her destroyed. He knew I wouldn't permit that.

There was also the fact that Jonas had given me the only really negative fitness reports I'd ever received. He considered me an unlettered barbarian, an upstart who dared presume to advance to the higher levels of the Fleet. I considered him a snob and a foppish dilettante. I wasn't surprised to find he'd been shipped off to a frontier system after his political connections got him his second star. It would be fun to bloody his nose a bit.

Finally, Hari was right. If the Empire was indeed crumbling, creating an oasis of civilization was just about the most important job there was.

I held up my hands in surrender. "Okay. I assume you wouldn't need me if you were completely defenseless. What do you have to fight with? And even if Hari and I enlist, that doesn't mean my crew will. What about them?"

Cord nodded. "True. The rest of your crew, though, doesn't have a military background. They should be able to blend into the populace. If you or they prefer, I can buy out their shares and buy them tickets inbound. I'll pay a handsome premium over their shares' value."

I sighed. "I'm being shanghaied and I don't like it, but if your people can convince me we'd have a real chance, say 30/70, I'll do it."

Cord's face split into a wide grin. "Great!" he said, "The palace comp rated the chances of success at 21 % without you, and 32 % with you. Apparently, you even impress comps."

"Wonderful," I growled. "Now, you can impress me by letting me know what I've got to fight with."

The grin didn't waver, but he pressed a button on his desk, and three men entered. Two were obviously security, a 'muttandjeff' team, whatever that was originally. Now, it was a very large man with a thick neck and a battered face, and a very small, thin, foppish companion. The third was equally obviously a spaceman, and out of his element here. He wore a rumpled shipsuit on his pudgy body. His eyes constantly scanned the room. He looked so nervous I had a strong impulse to comfort him.

"Captain Kedron of the Valkyrie, please allow me to present Ralf Tomys, my Security Chief, Jabeth Rawl, his deputy, and Captain Albet Cony of the Rim Trader Too, who has been coordinating the organization of our fleet, such as it is. I'll ask you to go with them to be briefed. As you can imagine, I have a few things to attend to." Before we left his office, though, Cord reactivated my Fleet commission, promoted me to Commodore, and provided me with the various codes, documents, and memory chips I'd need.

We retired under guard to the security head's office, where Tomys apologized to Hari and me for the armed summons. "It was important to make it appear that you'd been arrested. There are a number of Military Intelligence agents on Haven."

Tomys went on to brief us. Since it was important to conceal my involvement with Cord from the Military Intelligence agents infesting Haven, we would be returning to Valkyrie in restraint cord and under guard. The idea was to convince any watching MI agents that we were being thrown off Haven for suspected smuggling. Tomys had arranged official outbound clearances to Galeta in the Omega sector. The idea was to keep the MI agents from noticing that our escort would number six going aboard, but only five disembarking.

The sixth would be Jabeth Rawl, Tomys' deputy. Since Tomys had to remain with Cord, Rawl would serve as my Security Chief, and would brief me on security and planet-based resources. Captain Cony was already scheduled to lift. He was to meet us on a planet called Outback, and assist me with space-based resources. He was also to be my liaison with the free traders of the rim worlds.

We trooped through the frigid Haven afternoon, a freezing wind driving a light snow almost horizontally. Even so, it was hard to miss Valkyrie. Her fat, cylindrical 400-meter body towered twice as high as the few rim tramps on the field. Once aboard, Rawl dismissed the security escort and released our bonds. I eyed him curiously. He was only about 160 centimeters tall and probably massed no more than 50 kilograms. He was dapper, but totally inconspicuous — the kind of man who can disappear into a crowd of three.

Silence dragged. Finally, he said, "Well, Commodore? Shouldn't we be making sail or hauling anchors or getting underway or something?"

His comment broke the ice, and both Hari and I grinned. "Or something," I agreed. Hari chuckled. "I'll get down to Engineering, Capt… uh, Commodore, and start hauling on the anchor."

I shouted at his retreating back to check on our other crewmen, and get them to lift stations. Then I rounded on Rawl. "All right. In a moment, my Astrogator and Comm Officer will come through that hatch, and they know nothing about this whole thing. Since it seems to be important for us to get off-planet, I don't want to spend hours explaining and arguing with them, so I'm simply going to continue this deportation story until we're in space. Cord and Tomys mentioned Outback, so I assume that's where we're going. Is there anything else I need to know before Jax and Con get here?"

Rawl shook his head just as Hari called on the intercom to inform me that Con was passed-out drunk, and wouldn't be doing any astrogating anytime soon, but that Jax, our Comm Officer, was on his way up. In a few moments, a furious Jax came boiling onto the bridge.

Jax was young, nineteen standard years old, seven on his home world of Pascua. He was also new to spacing. This was his second voyage, and he was busy loving every minute of his visits to new planets — even Haven. Jax was tall and gawky. His youthful face was merely typical, and marred by an acne problem that he was fighting valiantly. Somehow, his clothes always seemed a size too small, his shoes a size too large. Even the weathered tan that farm life had given him was beginning to fade. But his features were strong and well formed, giving promise that in a few years, he would be an attractive man. His face was suffused with a simple wholesomeness and lack of guile that inspired confidence. He reminded me of a puppy; he displayed an enthusiasm and a sense of wonder that made the rest of us feel jaded and old.

Now, though, Jax was furious. He glared at Rawl, and then turned to me. "What's going on, Captain? A security squad grabbed me in the middle of a meal, cuffed me, and dragged me back here. A few minutes later, another squad came in carrying Con. All the cops'd say was that my captain would explain!"

I glanced at Rawl. "It seems we're being thrown off Haven. Mr. Rawl, here, is coming along just to make sure we really leave. They seem to have decided we're smugglers. We're going to a planet called 'Outback' to ground while we try to figure out what to do next. You don't have anything to tell me, do you?"

Jax snorted in disgust and turned to his console to complete the liftoff formalities.

By the time Hari had the reaction drives on line, Jax had completed our clearances. Liftoff was uneventful. I began setting up our sublight course and delta-vee to our jump point. With Jax present, I couldn't talk freely with Rawl, but I couldn't think of a way to invite him to leave. His anger took care of the problem for me. As the silence became uncomfortable, Jax glared at both Rawl and me, then jumped up and stamped off the bridge, his fury unabated. Rawl and I exchanged uncomfortable grins.

Chapter II

Rear Admiral Micah Jonas was well aware that he was widely disliked. It no longer bothered him, though he still didn’t understand it. But the unconcealed hatred in the eyes of the man across the desk was annoying. It wasn’t as though Captain Jamin Van-Lyn's hands were exactly clean. In fact, it had taken Micah almost three years and a great deal of money and effort to make sure they weren’t.

Van-Lyn’s eyes blazed with anger as well as their ever-present disgust, but his shoulders were slumped, now. Once they had been broad and erect. Once, Jamin Van-Lyn had been one of the finest Captains in the Empire Fleet. Now, he looked like just an old man in a too-large Captain’s uniform. But Van-Lyn was a highly decorated and highly respected officer. That’s why he had command of one of only six dreadnoughts in the Fleet. That command was also why Micah couldn’t simply relieve him. Dreadnoughts were retirement posts for the most senior Captains in the Fleet. Command of one was an honor, and was always accompanied by a promotion to Commodore upon retirement.

For Van-Lyn, the honors assignment as the Captain of the dreadnought Nemesis and Flag Captain to the Commander, Rim Sector had been a disaster. For three years he fended off Admiral Jonas’ attempts to seduce him into Jonas’ shady and often outright illegal dealings. Then, somehow, his favorite grandson had found himself facing disgrace and even criminal charges. The boy swore to Van-Lyn that he was innocent, and Jamin believed him. Actually, he suspected that Jonas had something to do with the situation. Certainly, the Admiral had learned of the boy’s difficulty quickly enough.

Jonas’ oily attempts at sympathy had been transparent, and almost as hard to swallow as the boy’s situation. But if the boy was to avoid having his life ruined, Van-Lyn had to accept the Admiral’s help. Of course, the “help” meant that Jamin was forced to compromise his honor and his honesty. It also meant that Jonas had a hook into the Flag Captain, and had been able to slowly drag Van-Lyn deeper into his web of operations. Van-Lyn hated Jonas for that, with a passion equaled only by his contempt for the playboy Admiral.

Van-Lyn’s frown was annoyed. “You know it’s only a matter of time, Admiral. With a Fleet Investigative Service investigation under way, it's inevitable they find something. And we’ll be headed for a prison planet in disgrace.” He regarded the man across the desk. Micah Jonas had obviously been a handsome man in his younger days. The remnants of his body-sculpted features showed that, as did the mass of still-thick, wavy red-blond hair now lightening to gray.

In the years since his assignment to the rim, however, Jonas had let himself go. He’d added more than fifty kilos to his already large frame, and given up all efforts at trying to conceal the ravages of time.

Micah relaxed and smiled. “I don’t think so, Jamin. In fact…”

“You might not be worried,” Van-Lyn interrupted irritably, “But I am. I wish I'd never met you, Admiral!”

Micah’s smile faded. “Have a care, Captain. Like you, circumstances have caused me to do things that aren’t precisely legal. And the people I’ve been forced to associate with…” He shuddered

Van-Lyn's expression was skeptical. “You come from one of the wealthiest families in the Empire, Admiral. What circumstances could possibly force to you to criminal acts?”

Micah shrugged. “I may tell you sometime. But at the moment, we have more pressing matters to discuss.”

Van-Lyn snorted. “Like how to avoid spending the rest of our lives on a prison planet?”

Micah's smile resurfaced. “Actually, yes. But only as a side issue to something really important.” He dialed his desk screen for a moment, then swiveled the viewer, motioning Van-Lyn to look.

Van-Lyn stepped around the desk wearing a doubting expression. Micah dialed through the scrolling images, and pointed at one message. “After a lot of effort and an appalling amount of money, my agents were finally able to get to a subspace communications tech in the palace on Prime. This was intercepted between the palace on Prime and Cord's office on Haven.”

Van-Lyn read the message silently. He raised puzzled eyes to Micah. “But what does it mean? I mean, certainly…”

Micah shrugged. “Certainly it means what it says. The Emperor is planning to give the Rim sector to his good friend Sander Cord as a personal gift.” He ended in a sneer.

Van-Lyn looked thunderstruck. “But…”

“… But four hundred years ago, millions died to keep the Empire together.” Micah finished for him. “In fact, my family’s fortune was founded during the Horsehead Rebellion. Now this upstart of an Eron is plotting to give away an entire sector, complete with thirty-one inhabited systems and nearly a billion Empire citizens.”

Van-Lyn was frowning. "This can't be right. I can't believe the Emperor would do this. Is this one of your tricks, Admiral?"

Micah shrugged. "Check the authentication codes. It's a personal message from Eron to Cord. It didn't even go through official channels. I couldn't fake that if I wanted to."

Van-Lyn looked shaken. "This isn't right, Admiral. We have to do something!"

A slow smile spread over Micah's face. Perfect. Van-Lyn had reacted just as he'd hoped. "We're going to do something, all right, Jamin. We're going to stop it."

"But isn't that… I mean, he is the Emperor, and we're sworn to obey him. Do we have the right…?"

Micah's smile was firm. "Yes, we took an oath to serve the Emperor. But more importantly, we swore to defend the Empire against all enemies, external or internal. This time, the threat we have to defend against is the Emperor himself."

The old man was regaining his composure. His expression turned skeptical. "And just how much of this sudden zeal to defend the Empire is due to the ongoing FIS investigation, Admiral?"

Micah shrugged, then sighed. "I won't pretend that's not a factor. But this is one of those rare occasions where personal interest and duty demand the same response. We have to stop this treachery to the Empire."

The skeptical expression remained. "I suppose you have a plan, Admiral. Probably one that will make you even richer."

Micah shook his head. "I have a plan. Jamin, but it won't make me richer. Oh," he continued, "I won't deny that I'm planning to take advantage of the situation." Van-Lyn resumed his seat as Micah began to explain.

"From the fact that the Emperor was so careful about classifying and keeping this message out of official channels, we can assume that it's a closely-guarded secret. That means most of the senate doesn't know about it, or hasn't agreed to it. Most likely, there are only a few of the most influential senators involved.

"Now, they're probably planning an intensive public relations campaign to drum up support for this in the senate and among the people. Suppose we don't give them the time to sell it? Suppose as soon as Cord announces it, we attack Haven. We could kill Cord and seize the sector while loudly proclaiming that Cord is rebelling."

Van-Lyn's lip curled in disgust. "How casually you discuss murder, treason against the Emperor and rebellion, Admiral." He spat out the title, making it an epithet.

Micah frowned. He was tired of Van-Lyn's constantly obvious hatred and disgust. He was also getting very tired of wheedling and cajoling the man just to keep him from running to the FIS and confessing his sins. Van-Lyn was a true career Fleet officer. He'd bought all that Fleet propaganda and esprit de corps nonsense. The old man would never get used to being involved in illegal activities, Micah decided. He suppressed a snort of disgust.

Micah struggled to control his loathing and shook his head. "I've just had more time to think about this than you, Jamin. The treason is Eron's. If the Emperor betrays the Empire, which of our oaths is valid? Our oath to a man who would plot to dismantle the very Empire entrusted to his keeping? Or our oath of loyalty to the Empire itself?"

He shrugged. "For me, the answer is obvious. Eron may be the Emperor, but as far as I'm concerned, he's no better than the traitors that were hanged for the Horsehead Rebellion. The treason is his, the rebellion is his, and no, I won't feel guilty for executing his partner in treason!"

Van-Lyn was frowning, his expression thoughtful. After a few moments, he sighed. "Much as it worries me to find myself agreeing with you, Admiral, I'm forced to it now. Eron's betrayal is obvious." He shuddered. "I still find it difficult to believe. If it weren't for the codes on that message, I'd be certain it was one of your tricks."

Micah grinned. "If I could forge documents as good as that message, I wouldn't have to worry about FIS investigations."

The two officers set aside their mutual dislike, and set to planning their response to the Emperor's shocking treason.

"The action plan itself is simple, Jamin," Micah began. "As the Emperor's military representative, Cord is certain to invite me to the ceremonies when he assumes power. Well, we'll attend, all right. All of us. Every warship that can break orbit, and at least a battalion of Marines. We'll mount a full-scale assault on the Viceroy's palace, and seize the planet." He grinned. "This is the first time I've been glad that Haven is such a horrible place. We'll only have to control a million or so people."

Van-Lyn frowned. "Let me make sure I understand this, Admiral. You want to take our entire force? Even Nemesis?"

Micah nodded. "Of course." He raised a puzzled frown to Van-Lyn's face. "I must admit I'm surprised, Jamin. I thought you would certainly approve. After all, the more overwhelming show of force we make, the less the likelihood we'll actually have to fire on Empire citizens. And Nemesis is essential for that display. No one can ignore a kilometer-sized globe bristling with weapons. Besides, everybody knows that dreadnoughts carry planetbusters."

Van-Lyn nodded, but his expression remained troubled. "Oh, I understand that, Admiral. And I approve. But it will take months to get Nemesis ready for space."

Micah frowned. "Are you telling me, Captain, that your ship is not deployable?" His tone was dangerous.

Van-Lyn shook his head. "I'm telling you that Nemesis is two and a half centuries old. The last time she engaged in combat was over a hundred and fifty years ago. For the past fifteen years, she's been nothing but an orbital fort. Her systems consist of two hundred and fifty years' worth of jury-rigging and jerry-building. Her design specs fill four memory chips. But the documentation on the modifications, such as it is, fill sixteen chips. And that doesn't include undocumented jury rigs. Even with the base's facilities, it'll take months to get her spaceworthy."

Micah nodded thoughtfully. "Well, we should have months. Cord and the Emperor won't rush something this big. They'll take their time, make sure all the i's are dotted and the t's crossed. Of course, they won't be expecting us!"

His grin resurfaced. "We're going to mess up a lot of planning, Jamin. We'll go in hot, seize Haven, which means the sector, and then loudly announce that Cord was planning a rebellion. Then, we'll formally return the sector to the Emperor." The grin turned malicious. "The Emperor will have no choice but to accept, especially if Cord isn't around to contradict our version of events. Sheol, Jamin, he may end up being forced to award us medals for spoiling his treasonous little plan." The grin faded. "But we're going to have to get very busy. We only have a few months to get our entire fleet battle-ready."

Van-Lyn looked annoyed. "I wouldn't award yourself the Empire Star yet, Admiral. We still have a few problems in the way.

"One is Cord himself. I doubt he'll just sit around waiting for a chance to surrender the sector."

Micah waved a hand in dismissal. "Pah! Cord's a nothing. A nobody. No breeding at all. No background. Why, his father was just a royal tutor! If he hadn't grown up in the imperial palace with the Emperor, no one would ever have heard of him."

Van-Lyn shook his head. "He may be a commoner, but he's tough and smart. Don't underestimate him, Admiral."

Micah shrugged. "That just makes it more likely that he'll be killed resisting arrest. We'll have the element of surprise and overwhelming force. I don't care how tough and smart he is; without ships and weapons, we can brush him aside."

Van-Lyn shrugged, his expression skeptical. "Perhaps. I certainly hope you're right, because the other major problem is our own people."

Micah flushed, and his expression turned dangerous. "What do you mean? Are you saying that our own people might disobey my orders?" He swelled up visibly. "They're Fleet, and they'll do as they're told!"

Van-Lyn shrugged again. "They're Fleet, but they're not robots. Many of them have been stationed here for years. Some even consider themselves rimworlders now. Most, especially the officers, pay attention to the sector news. They've seen the good Cord has done for the sector. Besides, Cord's nearly fanatical loyalty to the Emperor is well known. It may not be easy to convince them that Cord's a villain."

Micah's flush of anger began to fade as he realized that Van-Lyn had a point. After a moment, he released his pent-up breath with a mighty whoosh. "You may be right, Jamin. If so, this is probably the most serious problem we'll have. How do we handle our own peoples' foolish support of Cord and their blind loyalty to the Emperor? If we just circulate the message, at least half of them will think it's a fake and a forgery. We have to come up with a way to deal with our own people before we can even begin to work on fighting Eron's treason."

The planning went on far into the ship's "night." Micah and Van-Lyn began screening their subordinate officers. They made up lists; officers they could count on, those whose loyalties were in doubt, and those most vocal in their support of Cord. Micah and Van-Lyn determined to sound out those on the second and third lists, finding out who was reliable and who was not, and shifting their duty assignments. When the shoe dropped, Micah wanted people that he could trust in positions of authority and power.

There would be resistance, of course. Non-routine reassignments would generate questions and resentment. However, Micah was confident that he could handle it. After all, he was the supreme Fleet officer in the sector. He also controlled access to communications with higher authority.

After Van-Lyn left, Micah became lost in thought. Van-Lyn's hatred and contempt irritated him more than he'd like to admit. Oh, he guessed he was rather a mystery to the old man. Why would a member of one of the wealthiest families in the Empire become involved in smuggling and any number of other illegal activities?

Van-Lyn just didn't understand. Coming from a certain social strata required a certain very expensive lifestyle. Certainly, his Fleet salary had never met his needs. Joining the Fleet had been his father's idea. He'd discovered early on that young Micah had no interest in or talent for business. When he finally ran out of patience, Jonas Senior had decreed that Micah accept the Fleet commission he'd purchased. So Micah had joined the Fleet, after being told in no uncertain terms that if he resigned, he'd be cut off from his father's money and power. His younger brother had become heir apparent to Jonas, Inc.

For a long time, all had gone well. True to his word, Micah's father, and later his brother, had used money and influence liberally to ensure Micah got fast promotions and plum assignments, well away from any danger of injury or death.

Micah's luck ran out during his last posting. Commodore Jonas had been given command of a supply base comfortably close to Prime. For over three years, he'd spent most of his time shuttling between his base and his vacation home on Prime.

Micah sighed as he stared out the viewport at the planet orbiting below. His planet, just as Nemesis was his ship. At least under his control. The old Emperor had deeded the entire Thaeron system to the Fleet. Micah snorted. Not that it was that much of a system.

Oh, it had a G9 star, and a system of 12 planets; but only Thaeron was inhabitable. Not that Thaeron was such a bad planet. In fact, it was very Prime-like. However, except for a few square miles devoted to the Fleet base, and a scattering of facilities to provide rest and recreation services, the whole planet was uninhabited. It was pretty from space, though. Well, to be honest, it was a nice planet. Those R amp;R facilities featured everything from snow skiing to lazing on tropical beaches to hunting Thaeron's weird fauna.

The system was heavily fortified, though it had never been threatened. Micah had many of the fields of drifting minefields dismantled after complaints from the captains of the rim tramps that made Thaeron a regular port of call.

Micah dragged his thoughts back from the view. He'd been happy at his last command. Life had been good.

Then some nosies from the Fleet Investigative Service had descended on his base. They'd been pursuing an undercover investigation for almost a year, and they arrested several dozen of Micah's officers and men for participation in a huge theft and smuggling ring. Why, Micah himself had been subjected to an intense grilling that lasted almost a full day.

He'd protested of course. He'd immediately returned to Prime and complained directly to the Commander in Chief of the Fleet, Fleet Admiral Chu-Lo himself.

He'd been shocked and humiliated. The old man had not only offered him no sympathy, he'd called him an incompetent fool, among other things.

His brother hadn't been much better. He'd called Micah names, too. His own brother — and his younger brother at that! He'd told Micah they'd get him out of this last scrape, but there would be no more help from the Jonas family. Micah would be on his own. Micah's protests were ignored. The family would buy him another star, and arrange a transfer, with no charges filed. Then they'd be finished with him. No more money to supplement his Fleet salary. No more influence used to get him his choice of assignment. Micah would be cut off from the Jonas family's wealth and power.

So, Micah was promoted to Rear Admiral, appointed Commander, Rim Sector, and shipped off to Thaeron, as far from Prime as Fleet Admiral Chu-Lo could find. He'd been here for six years now, and it was obvious he'd be here until he retired in ten years.

But Micah wasn't taking his humiliation lying down. He'd show them. He'd show them all!

Micah wasn't stupid. He'd learned how his officers and men had betrayed him, and the mistakes that had gotten them caught. Surely, as the Commanding Officer of an entire sector's forces, he'd be able to do a better job — and make sure he wouldn't get caught. He'd make his own fortune. When he retired, he'd return to Prime in triumph. He wouldn't have to piddle along on a Rear Admiral's retirement pay or worse yet go to his brother, hat in hand.

He'd done it, too. He had over thirty million crowns stashed in numbered accounts on half a dozen worlds near Prime. Directly or through intermediaries, Micah had a piece of every illegal enterprise in the Thaeron system and many others throughout the rim. By judicious use of his transfer authority and by trading on the Jonas name, he'd managed to surround himself with people he could trust — trust to help him defraud the Empire.

He'd even managed to get back at his brother. One of his clandestine contacts had underbid Jonas, Inc. on a supply contract then, with Micah's help, provided less than the required amount of substandard weapons system power cells. Micah had simultaneously denied his brother the lucrative contract, and made nearly a million from it.

But Micah was careful, even though he seemed to be getting away with everything. He constantly reminded himself that the traitorous officers at his last command had thought they were getting away with it, too, until FIS grabbed them.

So he wasn't too surprised when he discovered that an investigation was underway. Oh, the indications were subtle: several new officers and enlisted people transferred in, unrequested. Files accessed without apparent reason. Other seemingly minor occurrences. It all added up to FIS. However, Micah had set up warning systems and several alarms had gone off.

Micah still had a problem. He had shut down all illegal operations, but there would be traces. He had gone out of his way to cover his own tracks, but he was painfully aware that others hadn't been so careful. At the least, he could be caught in the undertow when they were sucked down. In addition, there was always the chance that one of the others had gathered evidence on Micah to use as a bargaining chip.

Even if he were not directly implicated, Chu-Lo would use it as an excuse to cashier him; and without his Fleet retirement pay as cover, it would be difficult to enjoy his hard-earned money.

He'd done what he could. The only subspace comm on Thaeron was in Micah's office, and Micah made sure it was secure. He'd contracted some of his illegal contacts to upgrade the office's security so even they couldn't penetrate it. It'd been expensive, but he'd run tests using his Marine infiltrators. Nobody would get into that office without Micah's knowledge.

That meant any agents' reports would have to be sent through normal channels; i.e. by mail sent by ship; and Micah had the outgoing mail scanned before being forwarded. He'd already identified six FIS agents, and intercepted their reports. So far, they didn't have anything solid on him. That wouldn't last, though. Sooner, rather than later, those FIS agents were going to turn up solid evidence on somebody, and the wall of silence would begin to crumble.

The Emperor's conspiracy had come at just the right moment. A lot could happen when the shooting started. Records could be lost or damaged. People could be killed.

Above all, no one would be pursuing any investigations until the shooting stopped — if there were any evidence left when the shooting stopped. Or any investigators.

He shrugged and dismissed the matter from his mind. Instead, he focused on the impact of his intervention in the Emperor's plans. The Emperor would be furious, of course. But he would be trapped. He couldn't admit that he'd been plotting with a Sector Viceroy to give away an entire sector without consulting the imperial senate. Not without Cord to speak for him.

No, Eron XXIV would have to grit his teeth and pretend to be grateful to have a rebellion put down. Micah tried to visualize the Emperor's face as he awarded Micah the Imperial Star for spoiling his plans. He chuckled. Not only could he bury any evidence of — and witnesses to — his illegal activities, but he would actually be doing his duty as a Fleet officer; preventing the loss of an entire sector. He was pleasantly surprised to find that the latter factor meant as much to him as the former.

Micah and Van-Lyn waded into a flurry of activity. They had to make sure that all of the ships were battle-ready. No skimming, no substandard supplies, no disappearing inventory. Oh, Micah didn't expect much fighting, at least not in space. He shouldn't have to invade every inhabited system. He'd only need to control the Sector government long enough to return it to the Emperor: a few months, a year at most. Cord would have to die, of course.

Micah actually made contingency plans to cause some fighting. He had people and evidence to dispose of. But armed conflict between the unarmed people of the rim worlds and his own overwhelming military force was hardly likely. He'd had to think of something, a pretext to provoke some armed resistance.

He had complete control of the Thaeron system, of course. However, everything there was defensive. No matter how powerful the fortified moons, no matter how well armed the satellites, no matter how many minefields the Fleet had here, it would all be useless to him. Hmm. Could he take some of the armed satellites along? Possibly. Have to look into that.

Nevertheless, the only things that really mattered were his ships. Well, those and enough Marines to occupy Haven City.

With that battle group to overcome a virtually unarmed sector, there should be little trouble. For one thing, Cord didn't know that he knew about the giveaway, or that Micah would even consider attacking and taking over the sector. Even if he found out somehow, there was little Cord could do. Certainly, he had nothing that could seriously oppose Micah's force.

In the meantime, his former co-conspirators must be reassigned to front-line positions out of the reach of the FIS agents, but where harm was likely to befall them if fighting occurred.

The only co-conspirator that worried Micah was Van-Lyn. Van-Lyn was Fleet through and through. The idea of purposely sending Fleet people to their deaths just to conceal his own guilt was one Van-Lyn would find impossible to accept.

Unfortunately, there was no way to put Van-Lyn in harm's way. All Micah could do was try to wheedle and cajole, constantly reinforcing the necessity for total security. Even so, Van-Lyn was a weak link. Why couldn't the old fool realize that the alternatives were a blaster bolt to the back of the head or the rest of his life on a prison planet? Micah needed him and Nemesis for the moment. But once the fighting was over, it might be necessary to arrange something. Perhaps a traffic accident or a street robbery gone bad…

Chapter III

It was a relief to escape Haven’s freezing temperatures and get back aboard the Old Bitch. Unfortunately, it had been a long time since I’d computed a ballistic. By the time we got into space, Rawl was openly admiring my command of invective.

“Okay,” I began, “Now, it’ll take Hari half an hour or so to get Con roused and sobered up, and we're a couple of days from our jump point, so why don't you give me a quick overview of what's going on? It'll take more than a week to make the three jumps to Outback, so we'll have plenty of time later for a formal briefing.”

Rawl shrugged. “We've known of Jonas’ plans for about six weeks now. The Viceroy has been on sub-space with every planetary head of state in the sector. All but six have agreed to support the Viceroy. Three of the six are those where the peoples’ only concern is survival. The others are taking a ‘wait and watch’ position. When this is over, they're liable to regret that decision.

“Jonas is being very cautious, for him,” Rawl continued. “We don’t believe he’s aware that the Viceroy knows about his treachery. We can't be sure of his plans, of course, but we think he expects the Viceroy to invite him to Haven for the ceremony, and plans to bring his dreadnought and enough other forces to seize the Viceroy and the planet. We’ve been very careful not to make him suspicious. Routine messages are still flying both ways, with both of us pretending nothing is wrong.”

“When is the announcement supposed to take place? How long have we got?” I asked.

Rawl shrugged again. “The Viceroy estimates that we can't wait more than six to ten months. If we don't announce it within that time, the Emperor will probably do it himself.”

I frowned. “That's not much time to put together enough force to fight a dreadnought and three battle cruisers. Exactly what force does he have, anyway?”

“He has complete control of the Thaeron system, of course,” Rawl replied. “But except for the supply base on the planet itself and the orbiting repair docks, everything there is defensive. The fortified moons, the satellites, the minefields are all useless for attack. The only things that really matter are his ships. Well, those and his Marines.”

“All right,” I said, “Can you run down the ships for me?”

Rawl nodded. “To begin with, he has Nemesis, the dreadnought.” He shuddered. “I’ve seen Nemesis. She alone could be enough to take the sector. He also has three battle cruisers, Fearless, Dauntless, and Relentless, and five destroyers: Eagle, Gyrfalcon, Harpy, Predator, and Raptor. He had a corvette as well, but Fleet HQ recalled it for pirate interdiction or something.”

“Come to think of it,” he added, “He is a bit short of auxiliaries. As far as we know, he just has one transport for the Marines, and one fleet courier.”

I’d been listening carefully. A kilometer in diameter and bristling with lasers, particle beams and missiles, Nemesis carried fifty Strengl in-system fighters, an equal number of Wasp long-range fighters, and even five planet-busters. I shook my head and sighed. I was never a big fan of dreadnoughts. They’re dinosaurs, useless against modern tactics. But here, all Jonas needed to do was to set it to orbiting Haven, and make us come to him. There would be little opportunity for fancy maneuvers; it would just be a matter of standing toe to toe and slugging it out. In a slugging match, nothing in the universe could match a dreadnought.

The three battle cruisers were only about half the size of Nemesis but much faster and more modern, and almost as well armed. Battle cruisers were the backbone of the Fleet. Three of them should be able to overcome an entire fleet.

Of course, the destroyers were the Fleet's workhorses. Fast, agile and well armed for their size. One destroyer is usually enough to pacify a planet; Jonas had five.

With that battle group, Jonas should have little trouble overcoming a virtually unarmed sector. I had absolutely no idea how I was going to fight back. Oh, maybe we could cobble together some converted tramps or something, but certainly nothing that could seriously oppose Jonas’ force. I sighed. This was going to take a miracle.

I grimaced. “Time is the critical factor,” I said. “It’s going to take awhile to even work up designs for something to fight with. Of course, that's assuming we can even build anything we design.”

He nodded. “The Viceroy is well aware of that. That’s why he's sending you to Outback. Outback and the rest of the outer worlds are our secret weapons.”

“Humph. Nothing very secret about planets.”

Rawl shrugged. “Oh, everyone knows they’re there, Commodore. What's not generally known is their unique situation. The Outer Worlds consist of five systems, including Outback, on the edge of explored space. Any of them can be reached from any other in one jump. Because of their relative proximity, the five systems have formed a very close relationship. Though they remain independent, they tend to trade among themselves, and specialize. One is a farm world, two are mining planets, Outback is the manufacturing center, and the last, Gamma, is the administrative and trading center of the group. The other four systems all have representatives on Gamma, and though they don't have a formal treaty or anything, they all tend to work together.”

He paused. “They form an economic and political powerhouse within the sector. The Viceroy refers to them as the engine of the sector. The only world more prosperous has been Haven, and that's sure to change with the Empire gone.”

“The point is that the outer worlds are firmly behind the Viceroy. They’ve benefited enormously from his policies, and are well aware that they are becoming a huge power in the sector. Jonas, on the other hand, hasn’t even bothered to learn of their importance. He simply isn’t interested in what he calls ‘primitive dustballs’. His intelligence people know better, of course, but there’s some evidence that their reports are largely being disregarded by the Admiral.”

I chuckled. “That's Jonas, all right. Anything more than three jumps from Prime is barbarian country, and couldn't possibly matter.”

Rawl nodded. “I'd heard you know him. But why would a man like that want to take over the sector?”

I shrugged. “Probably because he realizes that he’s effectively been banished to the ‘outer reaches’ for life. He resents it, and plans to show the Emperor how good he is. I suspect that if he succeeds, he’ll try to claim that Cord was planning to rebel and he, Jonas, single-handedly prevented a rebellion and saved the sector for the Empire.” I shrugged again. “I imagine he thinks the Emperor will reward him by calling him back to Prime for a promotion and maybe a Duchy. It would never occur to him that the Emperor was trying to give the sector away.”

Rawl nodded again. “You may be right.” He grinned suddenly. “I’d love to see his face if he succeeded and tried to return the sector to the Emperor.” The grin faded as quickly as it had come. “You know, of course, that the fact of the Empire’s release of the sector is highly classified. You won’t be able to mention it to your crew.”

“I know. I make it a policy never to lie to my men, military or civilian. I’ll simply tell the truth, if not the whole truth. That Jonas is plotting to take over the sector, that Hari and I are being drafted by the Viceroy to put down the coup and Valkyrie is being converted to a Command and Control ship. All true.” I hesitated. “There are always things the troops can't be told; but that doesn't justify lying to them.”

When I called the shareholders meeting in Valkyrie 's mess deck, I made no speeches, no recruiting pitches. I simply told them, and offered them the choice. They could: (a) join up with Hari and me, (b) accept internment (in this case, simply temporary discharge from Valkyrie and an allowance to stay on Outback), or (c) sell back their shares for a premium price and a ticket on an inbound liner.

No one interrupted as I explained the situation, and the silence continued for minutes after I finished. Jax was flushed with excitement.

Jax had joined us on Pascua, his home world. Our Comm Officer came down with Reiber’s Fever, and we’d had to buy him out. The port officials on Pascua wouldn’t let us lift without a Comm Officer, and the Trader's Guild office had no one to send us. We’d been sitting on the port apron for more than a week when Jax showed up.

He’d hitchhiked almost a thousand kilometers to try to join us. Hari was on duty at the time, and by the time I arrived Hari was his biggest fan. The three thousand Pascuan piastres his father had given him weren’t enough for a full share, but they were his father’s life savings. At Hari’s urging, we came up with a complicated deal that let Jax buy some cargo and deadhead to our next port of call where, hopefully, the profit from his 3,000 piastres would be enough to purchase a share. Owing to some creative bookkeeping by Hari, it was, and Jax was inordinately proud of being a full partner. Just now, he was caught up in romantic visions. Fighting always seems romantic to the young — until they've experienced it.

“So, It wasn't smuggling, huh, Capt… uh Commodore? That was just in case of spies, right?” Jax was squirming with excitement.

“That’s right, Jax.” I replied wearily. In the face of Jax’s excited expression, I felt ancient and jaded. I had no doubt how Jax would vote. This was the kind of adventure he'd dreamed about while feeding the animals on Pascua. Con, though…

Con Wiler was a gifted Astrogator. He was also the shallowest human I’d ever encountered. He was tall, slim, and classically handsome. Not today, though. Today, his handsome features were puffy and red. His usually impeccable uniform was creased and rumpled, and his hair was likewise rumpled. He was obviously suffering from a combination of hangover and the effects of sober-ups.

“It's not fair!” Con whined. “We didn’t join up with Cord. Why should he want to take Valkyrie? You aren't gonna let ‘im, are you, Captain?”

“You weren’t listening, Con,” I replied with as much patience as I could muster. “Cord would have seized Valkyrie anyway. She's the biggest ship on the rim that doesn’t already belong to Jonas. Cord’s going to outfit her as a C amp;C ship for me. I’m the Commodore whose flag she’ll fly, and Hari may even command her. Now, you have to make a choice.”

I spelled out the options again, and then stepped back. “All right. You have until we reach Outback to decide what you want to do, and let me know.”

The trip to Outback was uneventful. Jax, of course, wasted no time letting me know that he wanted to join up. He was flushed and excited. He was having great difficulty restraining his enthusiasm, and badgered Hari and me endlessly.

Con was a different case altogether. Aside from the times that he’d come up to the bridge to set up the jumps, he stayed in his cabin with the door closed, engrossed in his collection of porn vids. He ate in a corner of the mess deck, and replied to any conversational attempts with glares and grunted monosyllables.

I wasn't greatly surprised, therefore, when he showed up at my cabin door the day before we emerged into Outback’s system.

“It's not fair, Captain,” he whined. “This isn’t our fight. Cord has no right to ask…”

I cut him off with a wave of my hand. “Cord is an Imperial Viceroy. He can do just about whatever he pleases. And Hari and I feel that what he’s doing is right.” I shrugged irritably. I'd promised myself I'd remain neutral, and not press my feelings onto the crew. But Con's manner was so abrasive… “I guess you’re here to let me know your decision.”

He nodded, glowering. “I didn't sign on to die in somebody else’s war. I’ll sell him my share, but I’m going to make sure I get every centisol it's worth!”

I sighed. “You will, Con. I’ll go over the books with you and we’ll calculate the value of your share together. I’ll see to it that you get full value — and then some. Cord promised to pay premium prices for any shares sold out, and I’ll hold him to it.”

Con’s expression turned suspicious. “What about the inbound ticket? You said he’d buy us a ticket back to the inner worlds.”

I nodded. “He will. I knew that the only ships out here were rim tramps, and anyone that sold out would want to get back to where the Guild can find them a berth on a larger ship, so I got his promise in writing. Within a day of our arrival on Outback, you’ll be on your way back to Haven, with a ticket for Galeta.”

He nodded and rose to leave. At the door, he hesitated. When he turned back, his expression was puzzled. “Why, Captain? Why would you and the others want to get involved in this insanity?”

I reminded myself that Con didn’t know about the fall of the Empire, and that I couldn’t tell him. I thought for a moment. “I know Admiral Jonas, and I’d prefer almost anyone else to be in charge of this sector. Hari, well, I guess he’s just going along with me. Jax, of course, thinks it'll be a great adventure.”

Con snorted. “Adventure. A fancy word for something bad happening to someone else. But you, Captain! Most Sector Viceroys are no better than Jonas is. What makes this one worth joining?”

I shrugged. “Maybe it's the fact that Cord isn’t like those others. Maybe I think if I can help put a competent leader in place in one sector, it may encourage the Emperor to try it in other sectors.”

He shook his head. “I don't see it, Captain. Everyone knows the Emperor doesn’t want competent Viceroys; they might rebel. Moreover, if he is competent, chances are the Emperor will dream up a reason to execute him. He also usually executes those close to them. Be careful, Captain.”

After he left, I realized he might have a point. If Cord and Hari were right, and the Emperors actively discouraged progress, our current one would probably not tolerate competent leadership in an independent Rim Sector.

Hari just shrugged when I mentioned my concern to him. “What if the Emperor is Cord’s co-conspirator?”

“ WHAT?” I was astounded.

He shrugged again. “The evidence seems to indicate it.” He ticked off on his fingers. “One, Cord claims to have discovered the facts about the fall of the Empire while a student in the palace. Surely, a student making such a discovery would tell his best and only friend. Two, Cord claims to have formulated his plans with the help of the palace computers. I seriously doubt such a project could be undertaken in the palace without the Emperor, or the Prince, noticing. Three, Con is correct. The Emperor is usually very careful to appoint sycophants and incompetents as Viceroys, to minimize the risk of rebellion. Cord is neither, and the Emperor has to know it. Four, the idea of the Emperor voluntarily releasing a sector, no matter how unprofitable, is patently absurd — unless the Emperor has an ulterior motive. I suspect Eron and Cord planned this together.”

I thought for a moment. “It’s hard to believe the Emperor is involved in planning that deals with the end of the Empire itself.”

Hari hesitated. “It is hard to believe. However, by all accounts Eron is someone special, even for an Emperor. He is reputed to be highly intelligent and imaginative, as well as tough and ruthless. Obviously, his ruthlessness extends to the Empire itself. He believes the Empire is falling, and as a conscientious ruler, he’s making an effort to ensure that civilization survives.”

I was confused. “Then why doesn’t he just recall Jonas to the inner worlds, and have him quietly killed?”

Hari shrugged. “Perhaps to test his co-conspirator. If Cord can’t handle the first hurdle in his path, he’s unlikely to be the one to build the foundation for the preservation of mankind.”

I shuddered. “Sorry. That’s just a bit cold-blooded for me. Thousands, perhaps millions may die in this dustup. To consider it just a leadership test…”

“How many will die in the collapse of the Empire? Don't forget, Emperors are trained to consider humanity in the mass, not the individual.” Hari shrugged. “Suffice it to say that whether or not we’re correct, the Emperor will not intervene on Cord’s behalf — or on Jonas’, for that matter. If Jonas wins, I suspect the Emperor will simply begin looking for a replacement for Cord. I doubt he’ll find it easy to find one as gifted and as trustworthy.”

Landfall was uneventful, except that we grounded at one of Outback’s six shipyards, rather than the commercial port. Before the ground cooled, a fleet of vehicles converged on Valkyrie. Even while I was being shown the modification plans by the yard’s manager, workers were swarming over and into the old bitch.

Outback is almost the diametric opposite of Haven. It’s a warm, humid world, with huge seas sprinkled with continent-sized islands. I breathed a huge, contented sigh as I walked down Valkyrie 's ramp.

I never got a chance to say goodbye to Con. I didn’t particularly like him, but he was part of my crew. But Rawl had made all the arrangements before we grounded. Among the first of the people who crowded aboard was a viceregal representative with Con’s inbound ticket and a voucher for 110 % of the share value that Con and I had calculated. Con had packed most of his gear before we grounded, and by the time I’d fought my way free of the people demanding my attention, Con was gone.

I had little time for regrets. Rawl had briefed me in space on the status of Viceregal Intelligence (impressive) and ground-based resistance (nonexistent). As soon as I could escape the shipyard, I headed my chauffeur-driven aircar to the commercial port to talk with Captain Cony, the tramp skipper I’d met briefly on Haven.

“I’ll tell ‘ee, Commodore," the little man began, "Ye’ve the entire tradin’ fleet behind ‘ee. Lardass Jonas don’ like us, ‘n we don’ like ‘im!”

The ‘entire tradin’ fleet’ turned out to be forty unarmed rim tramps of various ages and designs. None was designed to be armed except Valkyrie, and she was currently being rearmed. As soon as we'd grounded, Hari had gone into a huddle with engineers from the shipyard to try to design weaponry to install in this motley assortment of tramps.

What the traders did give me was a spaceborne intelligence capability and secure intersystem communications. Three of the traders had voluntarily admitted to being agents of Military Intelligence, and they had identified two others. The two that hadn’t come forward would have to be isolated, but the others could prove useful for passing disinformation. Traders are inveterate gossips, and Captain Cony proved no exception. I got Cord to charter Cony’s ship for use as my flagship until Valkyrie ’s conversion to Command and Control vessel was finished. Cony temporarily became my Flag Captain, coordinating the flow of information to and from my fleet. His first job was to organize the traders into a secure communications pipeline for my ground-based intelligence efforts. The tramp skippers could carry coded messages by hand, making Military Intelligence’s broadcast surveillance useless.

Things were moving fast, and the days were a blur of crises. Rawl and Cony were distrustful of each other. Rawl considered Cony a shady and undisciplined possible smuggler, and Cony considered Rawl a spy who would use anything he learned against the traders when this was over. To some extent, I could use their mutual enmity for our benefit, but walking the fine line between them was wearing. Both of them proved their value almost immediately, though.

Rawl brought me a chubby, cheerful-looking man in a rumpled Fleet Commander's uniform two sizes too small. He turned out to be a retired Commander, and an absolute genius at handling paperwork. He had an unerring judgment regarding what to refer to me and what should simply be affixed with my forged signature. He could sign my name better than I could.

Rawl also assumed responsibility for our counterespionage efforts. The viceroy’s computers had access to all Fleet files, of course, including the personnel files of all Military Intelligence personnel assigned to the rim sector. Rawl took charge of security for the shipyard, and within a week had more than a dozen MI Agents in custody.

Cony's major contribution early on was running interference with the tramp captains for me. They’d appointed a committee to deal with Cord’s representative, me, and were proceeding to try to negotiate their participation as though it were a trade contract. As a trader myself, I could understand their viewpoint. I couldn't tolerate it, of course, but I understood it.

Until we could design and build weapons modifications, though, there was little but the occasional intelligence operation to occupy over thirty ships and crews. Cony got their committee to discussing every possible facet of their involvement, and was happily wrangling with them for hours at a time while leaving me free to deal with other problems. Like finding an Astrogator for Valkyrie, and a permanent Flag Captain.

I called the Spacer Guild office on Outback, but it predictably turned out to be a one-person operation. The Guild representative recognized me immediately. He’d already been briefed on my need for an Astrogator rated for DIN-class freighters. “As you can imagine, Commodore, There are few out here with ratings for that type equipment. There is none on Outback at the moment, of course, but I’ve spread the word to every planet in the sector. Hopefully, we’ll come up with someone in a few weeks.”

I groaned, but it was no worse than I’d expected. I mentioned to him that anyone who signed on would be volunteering for a fight, and that I’d consider signing someone on temporarily on a salaried basis, if necessary. He agreed to send the supplementary information to all the Guild offices in the sector.

My quest for a permanent Flag Captain was another problem. Captains qualified to command ships as large as Valkyrie were rare on the rim, and of those we located, there were none I’d trust with the old bitch. Complicating the search was the fact that my Flag Captain would also have to be qualified to double as my deputy.

I was discussing our lack of success with Cony when he mentioned what could be the answer to the problem.

“Weel, Commodore, They is this gloot owns a ship's chandlery and big bar on Thaeron. I heerd he war a destroyer skipper afore he ‘tired outen the Fleet. Heerd he gottim an Empire Star.” His face screwed up in concentration. “Got onea them ladeedah innerworld names with a hyphen. Ran… Van…” He snapped his fingers. “Got it! Tan-Li! Oh, sorry, Tan dash Li, ladeedah. Li with a ‘I’”

I jerked to attention. “Tan-Li? Sharlo Tan-Li?”

Cony frowned. “Cud be. Yeah, m’thinkin’ that's it. Y’know 'im?”

I nodded. “Very well. He was one of the best combat skippers in the Fleet. He’s the reason I survived Haskins’ World. It must be him! There can’t be that many Empire Star winners on the rim.”

“Weel, now he’s got thet bar ‘n chandlery at the commercial port just outside the base. Mightn't be smart t’try to visit ‘im right now.”

We decided that I would record a message crystal and Cony would see that it was delivered to Sharlo Tan-Li on Thaeron.

I turned on the recorder. I was in full Commodore’s uniform less hat, but I was sure he’d recognize me. “Hello, Shar. It’s been a long time. If you own a bar on Thaeron, I’m sure you know what's going on. ‘God’ Jonas thinks he can take over the rim. As you can see, I’ve been appointed by the Viceroy to stop him.” I grinned. “Who’d believe I’d finally get my star because of Jonas!” I let the grin fade and turned serious again. “I need you, Shar. I need a Flag Captain. None of these rimworlders can handle a DIN-class, and none of them have ever seen combat.

“I know you’re retired, and I know why. Sheol, it was the same reason I left. But I need you, Shar. By the way, I haven’t had a nightmare since I signed on with Cord. I believe in him, Shar. He’s good for the rim. I hear Jonas is telling the troops that the Emperor has abandoned them. It’s not true, Shar. I've seen a message from the Emperor himself guaranteeing repatriation, even if the rim is abandoned, and I have Cord’s word. I believe him. Besides, think how good it would feel to help me slap ‘God’ Jonas down! I hope you'll join me.”

I couldn't say more. The crystal could fall into Jonas' hands. Sheol, if he didn't believe me, Shar might turn it in himself! I turned the crystal over to Cony to be smuggled to Thaeron.

A month after we grounded, I was up to my elbows in paper when my office door opened and a skinny, nearly bald head thrust through. “The enemy's attacking, Commodore. Gird your loins or something!”

“Hari!” I yelled, delighted. “Tell me you’ve figured out how to make warships out of these rim tramps! They’re all we’ve got, you know.”

He grinned back. “Maybe I have,” he replied, “And you’re wrong about them being all you’ve got!” Then, incredibly, the head withdrew and the door slammed.

I jumped to my feet, cursing. “Hari! You bastard! Get back here!” I yelled as I scrambled for the door. I yanked it open just in time to see Hari’s cadaverous body disappearing around the corner at the end of the corridor. Cursing non-stop I lurched into pursuit. I caught up to him just outside the entrance to the building.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I yelled.

Hari just grinned. “Getting you out of that damned office,” he replied calmly. “And I’ve won ten credits doing it. I bet Jax I could get you to come out before dark.” Jax had been serving as my aide since our arrival.

I swelled up with indignation. Then the ridiculous image of me pounding down the hall cursing in pursuit of Hari made me dissolve into uncontrollable laughter. When I finally regained some composure, I said, “OK, Hari. But I think I ought to get half of those ten credits.”

The skull-like head shook. “Not a chance. I’m the one who took a chance on your temper.”

We laughed again. “Did you mean what you said? Have you figured out how to use the rim tramps? Come in and tell me about it.”

He shook his head again. “Nope. The other half of the bet was that I have to keep you out of the office all afternoon. If you want to find out what you have to fight with, you’ll have to come out to the shipyard with me. We’ve got a little demonstration set up for you.”

I started to protest about the pile of work on my desk when I realized that nothing on my desk, sheol, nothing on the planet was as important as Hari’s weapons research. I shrugged in defeat. “All right, Hari, let’s go see what kind of toys you've come up with.”

Chapter IV

Unsurprisingly, we headed for Engineering as soon as the crushing pressure of liftoff eased. The rim tramp we had boarded at the shipyard was brand new. It had been finished, but not yet delivered, when we’d arrived. I’d immediately seized it in Cord’s name. We were using it as a test bed for Hari’s weapons designs. It looked normal enough. The only difference I could see between now and when we’d seized it was a ring of three equidistant bumps around her middle.

“All right, Hari. I think I’ve been pretty patient. But if you don’t start explaining…”

Hari continued to act mysterious as we worked our way aft and entered the engine room. Finally, he waved at the inertial drives. “Look at those, Val. No, I mean really look that them.”

Puzzled, I followed his wave with my eyes. “They look a bit large for a ship this size, but they look conventional…” I began, but then I began to notice small differences. “Well, why would they…? Look how they…?” I turned to Hari. “What is this, Hari? These engines look all right at first glance, but then…”

Hari grinned. “You're beginning to get it.” He said. “Time hasn’t stopped out here. In fact, some of the most brilliant minds in the Empire ended up out here, where they were comparatively free to experiment. Take these engines. I’ve seen the specs and test results. I suspect that they’re better than Empire systems of five hundred years ago.”

I snorted. “Don't tell me that these rimworlders have that mythical superengine. It never existed.”

Hari nodded soberly. “You’re right, of course. There never was a superengine — just a slow decline in the capabilities of Empire manufacture. What these engines have is highly developed refinements of the standard system.” He patted one of the engines paternally. “These engines are powerful enough to require that the ships be equipped with gravity compensators. Figures I’ve seen indicate that they’re capable of over 3g constant boost, and nearly six in short bursts.”

I was jolted. “Are you serious? I mean, you’re saying these tramps could outrun a strengl fighter!”

Reflected light gleamed through thin hair as Hari shook his head. “True, but they can’t maneuver like a strengl. They’re not fighters. And that’s the point. I don’t think you understand how different things are out here. That’s really why I shanghaied you today. It’s vitally important that you understand the rim if you want to win this. Try to fight Jonas with Empire tactics, strategy and equipment, and you'll lose — he has the weight of metal. But the rim is different than you or he suspect. You have the chance to come up with completely new and unconventional tactics that can offset his advantage.

“You see, in the Empire, scientific and engineering development effectively stopped about four hundred years ago. A strengl fighter built last month is identical to the strengls used in the Horsehead Rebellion four hundred years ago.”

I nodded. “Except that a four-hundred-year-old strengl would be better built. I know, Hari. Sheol, look how much trouble we had finding techs qualified to rewind Valkyrie ’s jump engines! It’s one of the reasons I think Cord may be right.”

Hari was looking exasperated at my interruption. “My point is that the development you’re noticing applies to the whole vessel. They’re not based on any standard imperial design. They were designed from the ground up to trade here on the rim. They’re small, since except for a few grain haulers, the rim worlds don’t tend to trade in large shipments and bulk cargoes. They have oversize and better inertial drives because space isn’t crowded around rim planets, and their captains want to get to their jump points as quickly as possible. Their jump engines, on the other hand, are fairly small, since jumps are usually short. Their nav comps are specially designed for the rim. They’re fantastically accurate in computing short jumps, but would be almost useless for running a course from, say, here to Prime, where most jumps would be two or three times as long.”

He took a deep breath. “Taken individually, each design feature merely improves a bit on standard technology. However, put them together, and you have a vessel that’s bigger and less maneuverable than a fighter is, but faster than a corvette. They have the mass to mount some sizeable weapon power, and the speed and maneuverability to deliver it — if they can steer clear of the strengl s.”

This was the best news I’d had since enlisting with Cord. “Okay, so a strengl could outmaneuver them. But they have the advantage of being jump capable. We should be able to come up with some interesting tactics — if we can arm them. Now,” I teased, “tell me you’ve discovered a superweapon to arm them with!”

Hari shook his head. “No, no superweapons; but I think you'll find what we have interesting. The idea’s simple. Actually, the biggest problem we faced was making sure they had good enough targeting capabilities. Finally a young man here came up with one of those ‘why didn’t I think of that!’ solutions. Care to guess what it was?”

I grinned. “Nope. Suppose you just tell me.”

A wide grin split Hari's skull-like face. “People.”

I was puzzled. “People? What does that mean?”

“We both know that a ‘Gunner’ on an Empire warship is a tech manning a station monitoring targeting computers. Right?”

“Of course.”

“Well, there's a young man here that's addicted to ancient adventure stories; some of them he even claims are pre-spaceflight.”

I snorted. “Ridiculous!”

Hari shrugged. “Maybe. Anyway, according to him, projectile weapons called 'guns' were once mounted on seagoing ships and primitive aircars called ‘airplanes’. He found a description of one of these things, and showed it to us. These vessels had weapons that were mounted in turrets penetrating the hull, and those weapons were controlled by a man standing behind them and manually aiming them — the gunner.”

“Come on, Hari! No human can compute ballistics accurately or fast enough to control a space weapon! Besides, you'd have to have a person for each weapon.” That, of course, was the case with infantry weapons. But even infantry weapons have target-seeking and range-finding systems. Unaided humans control artillery? Or ship-mounted weapons in space, where relative speeds can run to thousands of kilometers per second?

Hari shook his head. “Of course no human can be as accurate or fast as a computer, Val. But for one thing, he doesn’t need to be. According to these books, gunners were highly trained to deal with such factors as wind, rain, and even gravity. However, in space, none of those things is very important. There is no wind or rain, of course. Gravity computations can be complex, but not at battle distances. Even at ranges up to several thousand kilometers, a human can control his weapon in space. A laser beam travels straight, regardless; and even a projectile wouldn’t be deflected enough that aim couldn’t be easily corrected.

“For another thing, humans can be trained to be quite accurate. We’ve done some experiments. Using a quick-firing projectile weapon, we’ve found that a man can quickly learn to observe the impact of his projectiles, and gradually correct his aim. We call it ‘walking’ the projectiles onto the target. And their initial accuracy continues to improve.”

I suppressed a snicker. Hari was an engineer, not a soldier. The rawest recruit learns to walk his fire onto his target within a few minutes — with infantry weapons.

By this time, he’d led me to what was obviously the inside of one of the strange bulges. A transparent ball some three meters in diameter was set into the hull, protruding through it. Most of the ball was crammed with interconnected boxes. The boxes filled all but a narrow, tunnel-like cleared space. The ball was set in a series of gimbals. The back of the ball was open, and three men were wrestling two long tubes into it. The tubes were attached at one end to a small, boxlike affair. As the tubes settled into their positions, I saw a rudimentary seat attached to the back of them.

Hari rested a hand on the transparent plas, which was almost ten centimeters thick. “We call this a ‘ball turret’,” he said. “Those tubes are quick firing projectile weapons.” He waved a rather intense-looking young man forward. The man appeared to be about twenty. “This is Jerith, the young genius who came up with all this.”

The man flushed. “I’m honored, Commodore. But I’m no genius. I just noticed something I thought we could use.”

I cleared my throat as I acknowledged the introduction. “So, what do these projectile weapons throw?”

“These, sir,” Jerith replied. He dropped a metal cylinder into my hand. The cylinder was about twenty millimeters in diameter and eight or nine centimeters long. One end was pierced by four equidistant holes.

“They’re actually small rockets,” Jerith said with the pride of a new father, “In space, you can see their drive flare, though we use radar to walk the rockets onto the target. This one is unplated, but the ones in the guns are plated with collapsed metal.”

I gasped. “But that would make them mass…”

Hari nodded. “About fifty kilograms in a one-gee field.” His skull-like grin was back. “You should see what they do to a hull!” He exclaimed. “They… well, what am I talking about? You're going to see! However, think about a collapsium-plated mass of fifty kilograms impacting an area only twenty millimeters in diameter at a relative velocity of several thousand meters per second. We've had them penetrate both sides of a target hulk, depending on what they hit inside. Of course, if they hit the magnetic fusion bottle…”

I nodded, and examined the turret with care. I wasn’t unfamiliar with the turret concept. They were common in tanks. But this ‘ball turret’ appeared to move in ways that a tank turret couldn’t. A tank turret rotates and has a laser or particle beam projector that can elevate. In this thing, it seemed that the whole ball elevated as well as rotating, giving an impressive field of fire — apparently an entire hemisphere.

“Let's see,” I said, “Your operator sits in the seat attached to the back of the weapons. How does he control the turret?”

Jerith grinned. “Feedback receptors in his helmet. The gunner moves his head slightly in any direction, and the turret rotates in that direction. Simple, intuitive and the gunner doesn't have to think about it, or be well trained. Most people catch on in a few minutes.”

I let myself be talked into squeezing into the seat. Jerith strapped me in. “I apologize for the cramped quarters, Commodore, but the turret is entirely self-contained. We didn't have time to figure out how to move the rockets into or out of the turret while it was moving. All this,” he waved a hand at the boxes squeezing us in, “is ammunition.”

Once seated, it wasn't uncomfortable, but an overwhelming sense of being cramped set in. Jerith slipped the helmet onto my head, then retreated and closed the small door. I looked around. In front of me were two handles attached to the rear of the box that joined the tubes. Each handle had a large red button set into its top. Suddenly an intercom hummed in my ears.

“All right, Commodore. Between the handles in front of you is a switch marked ‘Armed’. Flip it on.” I did so, and the turret immediately began slewing wildly.

“Easy, Commodore!” the voice shouted. “Hold your head still!” I froze my head, and the turret instantly steadied. After a few seconds, I twisted my head slightly to the left. The turret slewed, and suddenly I was looking out between the tubes at the planet we’d just left.

“It doesn't take much motion, Commodore. We wanted the turret to be as responsive as possible. Now, turn your head slightly to the right.”

I tried it, cautiously, and the turret obediently swiveled. I raised my head slightly, and suddenly I was looking into open space. The response was immediate but, I thought, easily controllable. I was beginning to get excited. I moved my thumbs back to the red buttons, and pressed them both. There was a thrumming more felt than heard, and two trails of fire spewed from the tubes. Yes, I thought, it wouldn’t be a problem to walk those onto a target.

A few minutes’ practice with the ‘ball turret’ made me quite confident that I could handle it. Maybe Hari and Jerith had something. Using the feedback helmet, I could control the turret quite well and very quickly. Certainly, a targeting computer would be faster and more accurate — but perhaps a man would be enough.

The intercom came to life again. "Now, Commodore, we’re going to be coming up on the target shortly. It's a scrap ore carrier. Lower the goggles from your helmet. They’re really radar repeaters that will magnify and let you see your target. Without them, you wouldn't be able to see a ship at ten meters.”

I lowered the goggles, and everything went black. I was just about to ask if something was wrong when the voice resumed. “The Captain will be rotating the ship in a moment, to give you a shot at the target. When the ship appears, you're cleared to fire. The range will be five hundred kilometers.”

Suddenly, a shape appeared at the bottom of my goggles. I lowered my chin slightly, and the image was suddenly in the center of my field of vision. Excited, I mashed the red buttons. The streams of fire looked different through the goggles, and I had to remind myself that I wasn't really seeing the fire, but magnified radar images of the tiny, fast-moving rockets. I think even the first rocket hit the hulk. At any rate, I had no trouble holding the ship in my sights.

“Cease Fire!” the command came over the intercom. I released the buttons. “The Captain would like to know if you’d like to try it on a combat approach,” the voice asked.

“Yes, I would,” I replied. “I assume we were pretty much stationary relative to the target just now?”

“Yes, sir. The Captain says that it’ll take about an hour to adjust our orbits to make a combat approach. If you'd like to step out of the turret, just turn the arming switch off.” I did so, and the turret swiveled back to its original position and froze. Young Jerith opened the turret, removed my helmet, and released the safety straps. I squeezed out of the cramped turret.

A grinning Hari was waiting for me. “Well?” He asked.

I was trembling with excitement. “You may really be onto something!” I exclaimed. “I want to try it on a combat vector, but it looks like this may work!”

We launched into a technical discussion. Yes, the gunner would have to stop when he exhausted his rockets, but the Captain could rotate the ship to move another turret into position to compensate while they reloaded the first. Besides, most space combat consisted of hours of maneuvering to permit seconds of actual fighting. Yes, they envisioned using the equidistant turrets to provide overlapping fields of fire.

The most limiting factor of the designs was the requirement that each turret be totally self-contained. They were working on it, but had no solutions at present. What about using lasers in place of the finite ammunition supply of the guns?

Hari shrugged. “We’ve got one rigged up in one of the other turrets,” he replied. “The main problem there is that there are no atmospheric particles to make the beam visible. It requires much more sophisticated sighting equipment. Besides, the magnetic bottle of the power unit takes up as much room as the boxes of rockets — and unfriendly strangers will be targeting the turret,” he added. “Imagine what would happen if a particle beam hit the magnetic bottle.”

I shuddered.

A sudden grin broke onto Hari's face. “Besides, we've got better things to do with the lasers.”

“What better things?” I asked.

Hari just grinned. “Patience, Commodore. You’ll see.”

We began the combat approach. We could feel the ship begin to jerk and corkscrew, despite the gravity compensators. The Captain was taking this drill seriously. As well he might, I figured. Any Captain would be a fool to miss a chance to drill his crew under simulated combat conditions. I hurried to the turret, and Hari and Jerith helped me slide in and buckle down. One of the things I needed to know was how long it would take to man and arm the turret. The helmet slipped over my head and the goggles dropped. I heard Hari and Jerith scramble out of the turret, and flipped the arming switch.

The turret slewed as I tried to locate the target. The Captain evidently rotated the ship, as I suddenly saw the blip of the target appear. I swiveled the turret into position and mashed the buttons. As soon as the streams of fire appeared, the Captain began maneuvering wildly, as though dodging missiles and lasers. I found I had little trouble holding onto the target. Oh, an unexpected maneuver might cause me to slew off-target, but I could reacquire in seconds. In a few moments, we were past the hulk, and I secured the guns, flipping the arming switch off.

I scrambled out of the confined bubble. My excitement had me spewing questions without waiting for answers. Finally, Hari held up a hand in surrender.

“Easy, Val,” He chuckled. “I’ll try to answer all your questions. Yes, you’ve seen that they can do serious damage to a spacecraft — even a warship. Yes, they can be installed in any rim tramp, complete with support systems. And yes, they can be manufactured cheaply and quickly.”

“How soon can we begin arming the tramps?” I demanded.

Hari grinned. “That depends on how soon you can get bids, let contracts and all that nonsense. The Engineering specs are available. We could probably have the first guns and turrets made and begin the modifications as soon as we could get a ship here. Certainly by the end of the week.”

I waved a hand in irritation. “Forget about that contract guff. Find the best makers, and do it on a cost-plus basis. But warn ‘em that the most cutthroat accounting firm I can find will be auditing them. They do not want to make me think they’re profiteering, I promise you. Get ‘em busy soonest.” I paused, my excitement fading slightly. “Well, that’ll give me over thirty armed ships, if Jonas gives us time to finish them. Not a lot to face Jonas’ force of trained troops and military ships.” I shrugged. “But we’ll be able to give them a bloody nose.”

A sly smile spread across Hari's features. “Don’t give up yet, Commodore.” The man he waved forward reminded me of nothing so much as a rat, with a small, slight body and a narrow face with close-set, beady eyes that were constantly moving. I made an effort to overcome an instant dislike as Hari introduced him as Toms Tindarr. “Toms is the best asteroid mining boat pilot on the rim,” he concluded.

Tindarr grinned, a grin that looked somehow feral. Hiding my reluctance, I shook his hand. “’At’s right, Comm’dore," he said in a grating voice. “Yer boys here called f’r th’ best, an’ ‘at’s me!”

I hoped that my greeting didn't sound as insincere as it was.

Hari noticed my dislike instantly. “C’mon, Toms,” He said hurriedly, “Let’s show the Commodore your pride and joy.”

The grin was back, looking if possible even more feral, but the man started off toward the hold eagerly. Hari hung back as we followed.

“I know the first impression he makes, Val,” he said quietly, “But he really is the best around; and I've seen no sign that his personality matches his appearance. Try to ignore his looks and give him a chance to show what he can do.”

If I was disturbed by the appearance of Toms Tindarr, I was appalled by the contents of the forward hold. It took a moment for my vision to adapt to the dimness of the interior of the hold, but it was just as well. Squatting in the center of the deck was the ugliest assemblage I’d ever seen. It looked as though someone had gathered bits and pieces of various vehicles, and just bolted them together haphazardly. There wasn’t even a perfunctory attempt at style or grace.

Hari strode up and patted its side familiarly. I hung back in case it fell apart at Hari’s touch. “Here we are,” Hari said, “A typical asteroid mining boat — well, as typical as they get. There are some pretty strange designs out there.” I looked to see if he was joking, but he seemed serious enough.

“There’s a pretty strange design in here,” I replied dryly. “You are joking, aren’t you?”

A strange, hurt look crossed Hari’s face, and I realized that he’d been serious. This… abomination was something he thought was important. Tindarr was glaring at me.

“Look, Hari,” I continued, trying to recover, “You’ve had some time with this thing, and have some familiarity with it. Maybe if you explain it to me, and why you think it’s so important, I’ll see the beauty in it, too.” However, I doubted it.

The boat was about 25 meters long, and some 15 in diameter, if you can use that term for something so irregular in shape. As I stared, some surfaces connected in my mind and I realized that the rear of the thing consisted of an inertial drive engine nearly the size of the one in the tramp, almost buried in fuel tanks. Sandwiched in the middle was what must be a large cockpit or small cabin. In front of the cockpit was a dizzying array of pipes and cables, jumbled into an apparently haphazard pile of varied shapes. I recognized the object at the extreme front of the thing, though. It’s hard to mistake a cruiser-sized laser for anything else.

Hari stepped back and considered the boat for a moment. Then he chuckled. “I forgot how they look at first glance. It isn’t until you appreciate the elegance of the engineering that they start to look good.”

I pointed to the rear of the thing. “Is that really an inertial drive engine back there? It's almost big enough to run this ship.”

Hari nodded. “Yes, both times. It’s an engine that's big enough for a small ship. After all, these things have to be able to push asteroids around. That's why they have this.” He patted the bizarre assemblage in front of the cockpit. “It’s a tractor/pressor generator," he added.

“What? I’ve only seen those on large ships… and judging by the ones I’ve seen, I’d say this one is huge!”

Tindarr grinned. “How else would ye hang onter an asteroid t’push it around?”

Hari was flushed with excitement; he was like a child showing off a new toy. “See, the miners cruise the asteroid belt looking for suitable asteroids. When they find one, they nudge it into an orbit that’ll carry it in-system to an orbital or moon-based plant where the asteroid is processed into its component metals and minerals. So, they have huge engines, huge tractor/pressor generators and huge ballistic computers for computing the orbital deflections and delta-vee requirements. The cabin, on the other hand, has just enough room for a miner to get out of his suit. It’s amazing that they spend days in these tiny cabins before returning to a larger mother ship.”

Now that I was beginning to understand its layout, the thing didn't seem as ugly. Homely, yes, but Hari was right; from an engineering standpoint it was a thing of beauty. Amazing power in a remarkably compact package. There had to be a way to use them. “I noticed the laser,” I said, “You obviously have something in mind for them.”

Hari nodded. “The laser’s mounted on the centerline,” he said. “No fancy targeting system, just some calibrated crosshairs etched into the plas of the cockpit screen. You aim the boat to aim the laser. Actually,” he added, “That’s nothing new. They use laser-equipped boats at the orbital factories to chop the asteroids into chunks for processing. We also thought about a centerline-mounted mass driver. A boat could handle one fifty centimeters in diameter.”

I was beginning to get excited. “These things could be better fighters than strengl s! How much acceleration do they have?”

Both Hari and Tindarr grinned. “More than the pilot can take. This model is rated for 12g — with a robot pilot, of course.”

“Aye, I’ll show ‘ee!”

Tindarr reached into the maze of pipes and touched some hidden latch. The cockpit clamshelled open. He reached into the cockpit and retrieved a helmet, which he began to don. “We’uns put tergether a show f’r’ee, Commodore. G’wan up t’ye bridge, ‘n see what m’beauty c’n do!” Somehow, when he was talking about his craft, Tindarr’s face lost some of its ratlike appearance.

Hari led me out of the hold and toward the bridge. “As Toms said,” he told me, “We’ve arranged a demonstration. The Captain is launching Toms’ boat now.”

At the bridge hatch, Hari paused. “You’ll see, Val. Toms is amazing! Don’t prejudge him.” I promised I wouldn’t, and Hari led me onto the bridge and presented me to the Captain, Fors Lentarr.

Captain Lentarr explained that Toms Tindarr’s boat had been jettisoned, and that Tindarr was setting up on an attack vector while we retreated to a safe distance. He also told me that the target hulk had been pressurized with flammable gas at three atmospheres, and all airtight hatches had been dogged. “If we’re lucky,” He said, “We may be able to see some of the hits. If,” he added dryly, “You left any compartments unholed!”

The target hulk, magnified by the bridge screen, appeared stationary. For a long moment, nothing happened. Then a tiny splinter of light appeared in the corner of the screen. At an impossible speed, it shot toward the hulk. As Hari had said earlier, the laser’s beam wasn’t visible. When the captain increased the magnification of the hulk’s image, though, it sometimes became possible to detect a pinpoint of white where the beam hit the hull. Suddenly a white pinpoint slashed across the hull, and there was a flash as it apparently ignited the gases inside the ore carrier.

However, that wasn’t what I was watching. I was watching the boat. It was incredible. The thing flashed across the screen, firing as it came. As it passed the hulk, it seemed to slow at an incredible rate, and the laser again raked the old ore carrier. Its speed and maneuverability were incredible. The thing was actually corkscrewing around the target’s hull — literally running circles around it.

With a flare of fire, hulk's image split in half. The halves began to drift apart.

I stared at Hari, dumbfounded. He was just shaking his head. “I’ve seen it several times, but I still have trouble believing it,” he said.

I began to get angry. “It’s a trick! Hari, if you think…”

He gestured impatiently. “Oh, Val, it’s no trick! I grant you that it seems impossible for a vessel under human control to maneuver like that, but it is true!”

“But… But how can a ship maneuver like that? And how can a man stand those acceleration stresses?” I demanded, “And don't tell me you found room on that thing for gravity compensators.”

Hari and Captain Lentarr burst into laughter. “No. As far as the maneuvering capability is concerned, I was just as flabbergasted as you are until Toms explained. He uses the tractor and pressor beams. If he flips the tractor on for a fraction of a second as he's passing, he’s whipped around the target. If he uses the pressor for a split second, he’s slowed. Leave it on a fraction longer, and he’s kicked away.”

“And as for his tolerance of high g,” he continued, “It's just a mixture of drugs and a skinsuit-type space suit. Toms can tolerate over 8g without blacking out.”

Ideas began pouring forth from all of us as our excitement grew. Finally, I drew a deep breath and tried to calm down. “Hari, you’ve done it! You’ve given us a real chance, if we have the time to get set up.”

The next weeks were a blur of activity as we arranged for the manufacture of weapons and turrets, and the modification of rim tramps and mining boats to accommodate them. The final design mounted six turrets, three spaced 120 degrees apart near the bow of the tramp, and three more, also equidistant but offset sixty degrees from the first, just aft of her cargo bays. This meant that the ship had complete coverage with at least two turrets covering any possible target.

Once the design was settled, the next challenge was the tramp captains. Captain Cony had kept them happily negotiating for weeks, but now we had no more time. I asked him to call a meeting of the “Captains’ Council.”

I was received with courtesy, and handed an agenda. I strode to the podium and took a deep breath.

“My fellow Captains,” I began, “I’m here today to tell you that weapons designs have been approved, and are presently being manufactured. We will be ready to begin refit of the first ships within the week.” I paused, and a rumble of conversation broke out. I raised my hand, and the rumble died. “This means,” I continued, “That we no longer have the luxury of time for these negotiations. Captain Cony is now handing out a copy of our only and final offer. The Viceroy will pay for modifications to your vessels and the removal of the modifications later. If any ship is lost or damaged, the Viceroy will pay for repair or replacement. In addition, each ship will be compensated for lost trade based upon an average of the vessel's income over the past year, pro-rated for the amount of time spent in the service of the Viceroy.”

This time the rumble was a roar. A man in the front row stood up, and the babble subsided. “What if a ship had a bad year last year, Commodore?”

I shrugged. “Then she’ll have a bad year this year too. The Viceroy is compensating you for your ships and effort in his behalf, not adopting you.” The roar flared again. I raised a hand and it subsided slightly, but I still had to speak loudly to continue. “I’m a trader, too.” I said. “I know that it’s our natures to try to get the best deal possible. I’m telling you right now that this is it. It’s non-negotiable. Those of you who wish to volunteer your services and those of your ships should give your names to Captain Cony. No,” I added, “You will not get a better deal by dragging your feet; and you'll be risking events catching up with you.”

The man in the front row hadn’t sat down. “And what if we decide that we’re not interested in the Viceroy's take-it-or-leave-it offer?” he asked belligerently.

My temper flared, but I held onto it. “Then you’re free to see if you can get a better offer from Admiral Jonas.” There was a murmur of hushed conversation. “Or you can try to pretend that nothing’s happening. But don’t plan on being very popular. When this dustup is over, be assured that the people of all the rim planets will know who the heroic traders were who fought for them — and which traders didn't.”

“That’s blackmail!” the man shouted.

I grinned. “Yes, it is, isn’t it?” I left the podium and the building. Even as I left, I could see the captains clustering around Cony, all wanting to show their heroism by being among the first to sign up. The man who’d spoken up was glowering at me, but he jostled into the throng. I wasn’t concerned. Any captain who wanted to stay on the rim would sign on.

Other problems were more complex. I still didn’t have a Flag Captain to command Valkyrie, or an Astrogator, and her refit was nearly complete. There were the thousands of details involved in the manufacture and installation of the weapons systems, and the transportation of the mining boats. Since they weren't jump-capable, they had to be brought to Outback aboard tramps for arming and pilot training. Luckily, Toms Tindarr turned out to be an excellent instructor, and since his students knew his ability and weren’t put off by his appearance, they paid attention and learned quickly. Within a couple of weeks, space around Outback was crowded with darting, speeding boats. We’d run out of scrap hulls, and the students were training using ship-sized asteroids as targets.

When the vidphone activated, it took me a moment to recognize the Guild representative I’d contacted when we’d first arrived on Outback.

“Good news, Commodore,” he crowed. “We’ve found an Astrogator on Gamma who paid off a Beta-class freighter a few months ago.”

“Great!” I exclaimed. “Get him here as soon as possible. Send him a round-trip ticket, so he won't have to worry about getting back to Gamma if it doesn't work out.”

The man smiled broadly. “She’s here on Outback, Commodore. I felt sure you’d guarantee her passage. Shall I send her over? I think you’ll find her quite… er… striking!”

“She, eh?” I replied. “Yes, by all means send her over immediately. As for whether she's striking, she could be a purple-furred quadruped for all I care.”

The smile didn’t fade. "Of course, Commodore. She says she can be there within the hour." After abbreviated courtesies, we signed off.

I keyed the intercom to Jax’s office. “Jax, a woman will be coming within the next hour or so to see me. Bring her right in; she may be a replacement for Con.”

Chapter V

The intercom rang. Vice Admiral Micah Jonas keyed it, and Captain Jamin Van-Lyn’s voice emerged. “Admiral, I think you’d better get up to the bridge. I think we have a problem.” The old man's voice sounded urgent.

Micah sighed. “What is it, Jamin? I’m very busy.”

“We just received a report that Predator drove from the repair dock at maximum emergency boost. She took out one of the orbiting missile batteries as she passed.”

“What? Stop her! Shoot her down! If she gets to Cord, we’re in big trouble!”

Micah could almost hear the shrug in Van-Lyn's voice. “Bendo evidently waited until Nemesis was on the opposite side of the planet. It’ll be almost an hour before our weapons bear, and by then she’ll be out of range.” The added, “You fool!” was unspoken, but clear.

By the time Van-Lyn finished speaking; Micah was at the cabin door, on his way to the bridge.

“Who is in range?” he demanded as he stormed onto the bridge.

“ Relentless has weapons that still bear,” Van Lyn replied, “But her drives are shut down. By the time she powers up, Predator will have jumped. It’s barely possible that Eagle could catch her before she jumps.”

Micah whirled to the Comm Officer. “Get me Captain Rhysman aboard Eagle!” he demanded. “Rhysman,” he rapped out when the connection was made, “ Predator is deserting to join Cord. I want you to overtake and destroy her. Is that clear?”

“Yes Sir!” the youthful skipper replied. Even before the connection was severed, Rhysman was streaming orders to his bridge crew.

“Now,” Micah rapped to the Comm Officer, “Get me Bon-Lor aboard Relentless.” He ordered the battle cruiser to open fire on the fleeing Destroyer. Captain Bon-Lor was obviously unhappy with the orders, but Micah knew he’d obey.

Then, all Micah could do was hover over the screens displaying images routed from Relentless and Eagle via the satellites.

Relentless got off three missiles and four laser blasts before Predator was out of range. Two of the laser blasts indicated hits, but Predator 's shields were up and her acceleration was unaffected. Predator destroyed two of the missiles, and Bon-Lor was forced to destroy the third, as it became as much a threat to Eagle as to Predator.

Predator continued to blast at maximum acceleration for the jump point. Eagle pursued on a converging course.

Micah cursed. “Will he catch Predator?” he demanded.

The Tactical Officer raised his head from his display. “Unknown, sir,” He replied crisply. “Tactical comp indicates that time to jump and time to intercept is identical to the limit of accuracy. Eagle may have time to deploy some weapons, however. Even one hit may slow Predator enough to let Eagle catch her.”

Micah grunted. He knew when an officer was trying to make up good news to soften bad news. Yes, Eagle might have time to deploy some weapons; but Predator would also have time to deploy weapons and countermeasures. Obviously, the Tactical Officer doubted that Eagle would stop Predator.

There was silence on the bridge as time slowed and the tiny blips crept across the screens. Hours dragged. Van-Lyn had food and drink brought for himself and the transfixed Micah.

Finally, after more than sixteen hours, the long range screens indicated a flurry of weapons activity and countermeasures, but then the blip that was Predator reached the jump point and disappeared, leaving Eagle to destroy three missiles that were barely too late.

Micah cursed. Predator was surely headed to Haven and Cord. That meant Cord would be warned of Micah’s plan.

Micah spun on his heel and headed back to his cabin. He had a lot of thinking to do and plans to change. He sighed. It looked like another long night.

Micah swept a glare around the conference table at his assembled captains. Their expressions varied, but Micah could detect widespread doubt, suspicion, and resentment. His control was wobbly. There were still far too many unreliables in key positions. The situation was intolerable. They were military people and he was their commander. Who did they think they were, questioning his orders? The Fleet was getting as decadent as the Empire itself!

“All right,” he said finally, “we can assume that Predator has defected to Cord. That means that our preparations must be speeded up. Cord will know that we’re coming, but he can only guess when. We’ll still be able to punish the traitors!”

There was a tense silence until finally Captain Rence Vidsen of Fearless took a deep breath and said, “There seems to be some doubt as to exactly who the traitors are, sir.”

Micah frowned and controlled his temper with an effort. He detested Vidsen, whom he always considered an unimaginative but fanatical Fleet loyalist. “I won’t pretend I don’t know what that means, Captain. I’ve seen evidence in all of you of a growing lack of respect and trust in me, your commanding officer. I find that appalling.

“I am not in the habit of explaining my orders and my decisions. However, it is obvious that I can no longer simply rely on your sense of duty or oaths of loyalty. I have been trying to minimize emotional and organizational trauma, but I find that my efforts have been misinterpreted and even subverted by my subordinates. Since my efforts have been in vain, I find myself with no alternative but to divulge information I felt, and still feel, would be better concealed. Please call up 128E-65d on your pocket comps.”

There was shuffling about as the officers retrieved the document. “This is a copy of a message I obtained from an agent on Prime. Please note the authentication codes; there is no way they could have been faked.”

“You will have noted,” Micah continued, “that the message is a personal one from the Emperor to Sander Cord, and deals with their plan for the secession of the rim sector from the Empire. The Emperor, our ruler, is conspiring to betray the very Empire he is charged with ruling and protecting!

“You will also have noted the Emperor’s comment that he has secret assurances from nearly enough influential Senators to push the ‘release’ through the Senate. I…”

“The Emperor is the Empire, Admiral.” Micah glowered at Vidsen’s growled interruption. “An Emperor cannot betray the Empire, and I will not betray the Emperor!”

Micah slammed a hamlike fist on the table. “Nonsense! We have sworn oaths to protect and serve the Empire. An Emperor is merely a man charged with serving the Empire. The Emperor has a responsibility to rule and protect the Empire, not destroy it!

“Yes,” he continued, “we swore to serve the Empire and the Emperor. However, our duty to the Empire comes first. Emperors come and go, but the Empire is eternal. That’s why we don’t have to renew our oaths every time an Emperor dies. Eron is betraying his duty to the Empire.”

Micah shrugged. “Now you can see why I tried to ignore the Emperor’s role in this treason and to assign the blame to Cord alone. I was trying to spare you and all the Fleet people in this sector the stress and trauma this information is certain to entail.

“Now that you’ve forced me to reveal the truth, I hope you will support me more willingly, and will not make it necessary to confuse our people. If we do this right, the people of the Empire will never learn that the Emperor tried to betray them.”

It wasn’t that easy, of course. The discussion went on for hours, becoming quite acrid at times. Sometimes Micah was on the defensive, at others mounting increasingly violent verbal assaults. When the meeting finally wound down and the dozen participants trooped out arguing and gesticulating, Micah signaled to Van-Lyn to stay behind.

He glared across the table at the slumped figure. Van-Lyn was turning into a real liability. He wandered around like a zombie, with a defeated, resigned air. The old man seemed to have aged another twenty years in the last months. Oh, Van-Lyn knew that his fate was linked with Micah’s for good or ill. He’d apparently decided it was ill. For the hundredth time, Micah wished he could afford to get rid of the old bastard.

“What do you think, Jamin? Did we convince them?”

The old man shrugged. “Some of them. That message is pretty damning. But they’ve been conditioned since childhood to revere the Emperor. And the older the man, the more ingrained that reverence and loyalty.”

Micah sighed. “The biggest problem is the captains of the ships. We need the support of the officers down on Thaeron Base, but without loyal captains to command the ships, we’re bound to lose.”

Van-Lyn nodded. “You can’t just relieve them without some obvious cause. Their orders come from Headquarters on Prime. They'd simply demand hearings and courts-martial.”

Micah frowned. “But I must have captains that I can control! Could we use our, uh, ‘business associates’ to frame some of them?”

Van-Lyn winced, and then shrugged. “Maybe one or two. But the frames would have to be airtight — they’ll be reviewed at HQ.”

Micah echoed Van-Lyn’s shrug. “Not until after this fracas is over. I need people I can trust in there now. Who cares if HQ reinstates them two years later?”

Van-Lyn winced again. “Sir, you're talking about excellent officers, some of the best in the Fleet. You could destroy their careers.”

Micah slammed a ham-sized fist on the desk again. “I don’t care!” He shouted, “It’s them or us!” He glared across the desk. “Damn it, Jamin, d’you want to spend the rest of your life on a prison planet? Or take a blaster bolt to the back of your head? I don't!”

Van-Lyn fidgeted, and his eyes dropped. “Well, we don't have to worry about Bon-Lor of Relentless or Gyles of Dauntless. Both of them are in this as deep as we are. That means that you control two of the three cruisers.”

Micah nodded. “True. I’m worried about Vidsen, though. The man’s Fleet through and through, and straight as an arrow. I doubt we could even get away with framing him. We may,” he continued thoughtfully, “have to arrange an accident for Captain Vidsen. I need every battle cruiser I’ve got. I can’t leave one in the hands of an unreliable captain.”

Van-Lyn's face tightened and he leapt to his feet. “I've gone along with some terrible things these last few years,” he said with massive dignity, “But I will not go along with the murder of one of the best captains in the Fleet. If you’re going to resort to murder,” he continued contemptuously, “You’d better begin with me.”

“Sit down.” Micah demanded; then, more forcefully, “I said, ‘ sit down’ ”

Van-Lyn slowly resumed his seat. “You fool!” Micah roared, “I don’t mean to kill him! I just want him injured badly enough to incapacitate him for a while. Once I get him off Fearless and in the base dispensary, I can appoint an interim Captain, and hold him incommunicado for as long as necessary.”

Micah’s scowl faded, and he relaxed slightly. “You know I’m not a killer, Jamin. I'm surprised you’d think that of me.”

Van-Lyn looked unconvinced, but somewhat mollified. Micah cursed silently. He wanted to jump up and yell, “Of course I’m going to have him killed, you idiot, just like the four others so far!” But knowing Van-Lyn, he restrained himself and forced patience into his tone.

“Don’t you see, Jamin,” Micah continued, “That may be the only way to get Vidsen out of the way?” He chewed his lip. “In fact, we may have to take similar steps with Jamro of the Harpy.”

Van-Lyn stared at Micah morosely. After a long moment, he said quietly, “Do you have any idea how much I regret ever getting involved in this with you, Admiral?”

Micah relaxed, and settled back in his chair with a chuckle. “I think I do, Captain. But I think the… what; seven million you have stashed on Beulahland will help ease your conscience."

Van-Lyn shook his head. “I doubt it. Oh, I thought it would. Once my grandson was out of trouble I thought it would be nice to have a nest egg when I retired next year, and it didn’t look as though anyone would be hurt. I was wrong. People have been hurt, and more will be hurt. I think I’d almost welcome that blaster bolt.” He rose and shuffled out.

Micah stared at the door. Something would have to be done about Van-Lyn, and soon. The man was coming apart.

Micah sighed. There was no time. He’d just have to keep cajoling the old man until this was over. Until he no longer needed him, he amended. When this was over, well, even dreadnought captains could have accidents.

He dismissed Van-Lyn with a shrug, and returned to his planning. He controlled Van-Lyn and thus Nemesis, of course, and two of the three cruisers.

None of the five destroyer captains in his flotilla was part of Micah's organization, but he thought he could control or bully three of them, and perhaps a fourth. Jamro, of the Harpy, admired and emulated Fearless ' Captain, Rence Vidsen. If he could remove Vidsen from the picture, he should be able to control Jamro. Micah wasn't very impressed with Jamro anyway. He was a typical outerworlder. Coarse, no polish, and no respect for the finer things. A bumpkin. Jamro’s crew seemed to like him, though.

That damned Bendo. Running off to Cord with one of his destroyers! Micah sighed. It was too bad. The lad had potential. He was quick-witted, and his apple-cheeked boy appearance made him easy to underestimate. Micah could have used a man like Bendo, if he hadn’t bought all that Fleet propaganda.

Part of the trouble was he'd been hanging around with that damned Marine… what was the name… something odd… Oh, yes, Tor. Major Wil Tor. Ridiculous name. Outerworld, of course. He shook his head. Typical Marine.

He might be an officer, but Tor was certainly no gentleman. A barbarian who didn’t belong in civilized society. No wonder he'd been sent to the rim.

If Bendo hadn’t been hanging around with Tor, Micah might have tried recruiting him. However, there’d been no way he could trust someone who’d associate with a ruffian like Tor.

He shook his head. Marines! They were a constant irritation. He'd never really understood any of them. All that rah-rah esprit de corps nonsense and that ridiculous honor they were so proud of. He’d never understand it.

He shrugged. Well, now that he thought about it, he guessed they needed something to get men to obey orders they knew to be suicidal. But he still didn’t understand people who’d volunteer to let unfriendly strangers shoot at them. He shook his head again. Oh, well, for the most part they had their uses. But their hardheaded pride and honor could be damned inconvenient.

Then, of course, they also had no polish. Oh, the more senior officers could at least be trained to wipe their muddy boots before entering a building, but their manners were never better than the bare minimum required by fleet regulations. They couldn't be made truly civilized. They always managed to convey the impression that a wild animal lurked just beneath their surface.

Ever since he’d attained senior rank, he’d had to learn to tolerate Marine orderlies. However, he'd never been comfortable with an escort of killers.

He shook himself. He shouldn’t be daydreaming. He had too much to do.

All right, he’d have to arrange an accident for Captain Vidsen of Fearless. Preferably a fatal one, despite what he’d told Van-Lyn. Only a fool left live enemies and witnesses behind him, and Micah was no fool.

Van-Lyn would be upset, of course, but Micah could simply tell him the killing was accidental. With Vidsen dead, Van-Lyn would have no choice but to accept Micah's version of events. And if he didn’t, well, Micah still needed the old man, but only because Nemesis ’ Executive Officer wasn’t part of Micah’s organization. If Van-Lyn became too much of a liability, though, Micah was sure he could think of something.

With Vidsen out of the way, Micah could make an emergency appointment of one of “his” officers, bypassing Vidsen’s Exec. That wasn’t exactly routine, but was within Micah’s discretionary authority.

Vidsen’s death would also give Micah a chance to gain control of that Jamro boy commanding Harpy. The boy had a serious case of hero-worship for Vidsen. Vidsen’s death would be a shock. Jamro’s defenses would be down, and Micah could move in with a mixture of sympathy, understanding, and authority. In a month or so, he could probably replace Vidsen in the boy’s eyes. After all, the kid couldn’t be very bright if he could have such exaggerated respect for someone Micah considered an unoriginal, by-the-book officer.

He really didn’t like having people killed. It offended his sensibilities. But better that than to take a blaster bolt to the back of the head. He shuddered again.

Chapter VI

The woman who entered my office was indeed striking, in every sense of the word. Her delicate features were black as space, and framed by fine, loose hair that was as white as her skin was black. As Jax ushered her in, it was obvious he was smitten; she tolerated his solicitude good-naturedly.

“No purple fur, Commodore, and only two legs, but I’m a damned good Astrogator!” She said with a smile that was a flare of white teeth

I flushed. “Sorry,” I muttered, “I didn’t know you were within earshot.” I was relieved to note that she had a sense of humor.

I was having a bit of trouble concentrating on business. Nearly two meters tall, slim, and full-breasted, she was female perfection personified.

I placed her immediately. She was a native of Freja, a planet that was an anomaly. Scientists figured the planet had been a wandering rogue that had been captured by a blue giant. The planet orbited more than four A.U. from its primary, and had somehow given birth to life. The original colonists had nearly been wiped out by the sun’s actinic light. A significant percentage of every generation still died of skin cancers.

I read something once that said man had originally come in a variety of skin colors. They called them tribes, or races, or something like that. Evidently, these physical characteristics were the cause of a great deal of suffering early in man’s history.

Now, of course, we are for the most part a light brown. Over a period of time, the groups had interbred until this ‘tribe’ thing was little more than a legend.

There are exceptions, though. Frejans are black as space. On the other hand, Twilighters are an almost ethereal white. In both cases, the skin color was due to their physical environment. It isn’t just skin color, either. Heavyworlders tend to be small and compact, and heavily muscled. On Otarn though, a gravity of only 1/3 G has resulted in people who are unusually tall, thin, and lightly muscled.

I knew about Freja only because I’d been there. It was one of the few places in the Empire where the color of one’s skin mattered. Over time, the colonists’ bodies had adapted by producing large amounts of melanin, while the actinic glare bleached all color from their hair.

This woman’s space-black skin and white hair identified her as a “firster,” one of the planet’s elite, a descendant of the original colonists. On Freja, to have a light skin means taking extreme precautions against the sun, and is a mark of inferiority. Frejans are known empire-wide as bigots, and it was rare to see one of them off their planet.

I realized the silence was becoming oppressive and flushed again. I rose, and ushered her to a seat. We introduced ourselves. Her name was Ursulas Fjolking, but she asked me to call her “Suli.” Her handshake was firm. “I find myself in an unusual position,” I began. “I’m a trader, Captain of the Valkyrie. She’s a military surplus DIN-class Combat Resupply ship. My Astrogator chose to sign off here on the rim, and as you know, out here Astrogators qualified to conn a ship larger than a rim tramp are rare. So, I need an Astrogator that I can sign on for shares aboard a freelance trader.

“On the other hand,” I continued, “The Viceroy has recruited my ship and crew to help him resist a coup d'etat. Therefore, for the moment, I’m a Commodore looking for an Astrogator to conn a Command and Control ship that might see combat. If I’m satisfied with your qualifications and credentials, I’ll be able to offer any of several arrangements.

“First, I can sign you on for the duration of the emergency, and offer you generous wages and a free trip to another, more populous sector afterward. Second, I can sign you on for shares to conn Valkyrie after the flap is over. However, that would involve sitting on a planet until this whole thing’s over, and the possibility that I might find and sign on another Astrogator in the meantime.

“Finally, I can sign you on for shares now, which means you’d conn Valkyrie from now on. While we’re in the Viceroy's service, you’d draw Lieutenant Commander's pay, and when it’s over, you’d revert to the usual shares.”

She’d listened carefully, and now she nodded soberly. Gods! She was spectacular looking. Now, she reached into the small bag she carried, and produced her logbook. “I think you’ll see my qualifications are excellent,” she said.

I ran through the entries. She was well qualified. After excelling in Astrogator training, she’d served on a laundry list of ship types. Last on the list was a Beta class freighter, the one she’d left on Gamma. The Captain’s evaluation entries were carefully neutral where they weren’t complimentary. The same seemed true of most of the entries throughout her ten-year career.

“Okay,” I said finally. “Now tell me what’s wrong with you.”

“What?” That had shaken her. “What do you mean?”

“I’ve seen and written enough of these evaluations to know when something is being very carefully not said. Is it that you’re Frejan?”

“No!” She exclaimed. Then, looking abashed. “I… I mean, you know about Freja?”

I shrugged. “I’ve been there. Once.”

She nodded uncomfortably. “And you didn’t enjoy your visit. Well, you are a bit pale… But, no, that wasn’t the problem. At least, I don’t think I’m color-conscious. It’s just… well…" finally the wall of reserve broke down. “If you must know, I get tired of fighting off captains and crewmembers who think they’re the universe’s gift to women. That’s why I had to leave my last ship ‘way out here. The Captain had about six hands, and thought that command of the ship gave him command of the crew!” It came out in a rush. Obviously, it had been building for a long time. “Honestly, Captain… uh… Commodore, if an Astrogator is what you’re looking for, I’m an excellent one. If you’re looking for a bedmate or someone to pass the time with, I’m not what you want."

I nodded. Time for a change of subject. “So,” I asked, “What’s a nice Frejan girl like you doing in a place like this?”

She burst into laughter. “I told you… Oh, you mean, why would a Firster leave Freja to wander around the universe on freighters?” I nodded and she shrugged, creating serious distractions for me.

“Actually, it’s all I ever wanted to do. Sure, I could have sat around my family’s stead, and married some other Firster and had a bunch of Firster kids. But I wanted more. I wanted to see other worlds, other ways. Everybody told me I was crazy, but I studied and studied, and got into the Astrogator’s Academy.” She smiled wryly. “That was an experience! The first time I came into contact with the fact that almost everybody was a paleskin! It was… it was hard to deal with, at first. But I did it!” Her voice firmed up. “I did it,” she repeated grimly. “I made myself one of the best Astrogators in space. And if you’ll leave me alone, I’ll be that good aboard your ship!”

“I’m not too pale,” I said quietly. “Our Engineer, Hari Carlon, is paler than I am. Jax… well, you’ve met Jax. He’s not quite as pale as I am.”

“I’ve met… Oh! You must mean the puppy outside!” She grinned, but she was obviously trying to avoid the subject. I remained silent, and finally she sighed. “Captain, I won’t try to lie to you. You’ve been to Freja. You know how I’ve been raised to respond to pale skin. I find it… well, repulsive. That’s one reason I’ve had so much trouble. The idea of that pale, fish belly flesh touching mine…” she shuddered. “But I’ll say again, if you and the others will leave me alone, we can get along fine.”

I shook my head. “I don’t know, Mistress Fjolking. A four-person crew is too small to accommodate isolation, voluntary or not. Frankly, I’m not as concerned about others bothering you as I am about you bothering others.

“Yes, you’re a gorgeous, exotic woman. But I’m too old to be letching after someone who’s disgusted by me. Hari… well, Hari wouldn’t be interested unless you had an engine. As for Jax, I’m sure you could handle a case of puppy love; you’ve had to handle worse. But I won’t subject myself and my friends to a crewmember who regards them as inferior, or treats them that way.”

She frowned. “I don't…”

I interrupted her. “Yes, you do. I could see it in your attitude toward Jax when he showed you in. You’ve tried to control it with me, but it’s there. For instance, you’ve used the term “paleskin.” Most people who haven’t been to Freja wouldn't notice. However, I’m well aware that to Frejans it’s an insult; and I suspect you use it as a way to exploit their ignorance. Poor paleskins, too stupid to know when they're being insulted.” I shook my head. “If you’ve managed to hang onto those prejudices for ten years, there’s not much chance you’ll ever get rid of them.

“I need an Astrogator very badly, both for the counter-coup operation and as a crewmember afterward. But I don’t think I can use you. A crewmember that’s disgusted by her mates… well…” I shook my head.

The result of my refusal of her services startled me. Those magnificent shoulders drooped, the gorgeous head sagged. She sighed deeply, and I could tell she was fighting off tears.

After a long moment, she raised her head, and her eyes met mine. They were proud, those eyes. She’d been battered, as much by her own prejudices as by others’ lechery; but she was strong, and she wasn’t giving up. For the first time, something besides Ursulas Fjolking’s remarkable appearance impressed me.

“Captain,” she said quietly, “I need a berth as badly as you need an Astrogator. I’ve never thought of myself as being prejudiced, but maybe I just can’t see it. However, since you seem to think that I am, perhaps you’ll understand how hard it is for me to say this: Please, Captain! Please sign me on. You’re my only chance to get off the rim and back to civilization!”

I thought for a moment that she was going to break down, but then she straightened. “You’re a trader, Captain. I’ll offer you a deal. Sign me on for the duration of the emergency on salary. When it’s over, if you’re not satisfied, I’ll sign off with no argument. If you are satisfied, you sign me on permanently.”

I shook my head. “Mistress Fjolking, I do not doubt your abilities as an Astrogator; your log book shows you to be very good. It’s your ability to fit into a crew that I doubt." The shoulders sagged minutely, but for the most part, she controlled her chagrin. I sighed.

I told myself I was an old softy and a fraud.

“All right, Mistress. Fjolking,” I began, “I’ll give you a single chance. I know that a woman as er… remarkable in appearance as you has to constantly fight off horny males; and I know that sometimes it isn’t easy. But I also know that anyone I sign onto a crew will take ‘no’ for an answer, or else.”

“But the fact that they pursue you is not a mark of inferiority. Rather, consider it a mark of excellent judgment. I will sign you on for the duration. For your part, I’ll expect you to try to fit into the crew, not isolate yourself. If you force yourself to deal with the others on a regular basis, I think you may find your prejudices hard to maintain.”

“During this military dustup, we’ll probably have up to several dozen extra crewmen aboard. I give you my word that I’ll protect you from them, if necessary. In exchange, you will force yourself to mingle with them, be friendly with them. I think you may find them worth knowing, despite their skin color.”

“If, after this coup thing is over, I’m satisfied with your relationships with the crew, I’ll sign you on permanently. If not, I’ll at least promise you a lift inward. Oh, by the way, the extra crew will be rimworlders. I’d watch those comments about getting back to civilization; you see, they consider the rim civilization.”

Her control broke, and tears coursed down those black velvet cheeks unheeded. It was all I could do to keep from taking her into my arms and wiping them off myself. She ignored them.

“Thank you, Captain,” she said with quiet dignity. “I’ll accept your offer. And I’ll do my best to become part of your crew. I hope you’ll be patient with me, and understand the difference between showing bias and fending off a pass."

I grinned. We were beginning to understand each other. “I understand the difference, Mistress Fjolking. I’ve been fended off by experts.”

Her answering smile was both genuine and blindingly beautiful. “I doubt that, Captain!” I was glad to see her sense of humor resurfacing.

I called Jax back into the office, introduced them, and told him to escort Suli out to the shipyard and turn her over to Hari. Jax barely heard a word. His eyes never left Suli. He tripped over his own feet three times before he could usher her out of the office. On her way out, she glanced at me with one of those blinding smiles and winked. I was going to have to have a talk with Jax.

It wasn’t easy to get back to my work. White-haired visions kept interfering. Finally, I walked over to the closet and opened the door. On the mirror mounted there, I tried to see what Suli had seen. 170 centimeters. Thinning hair. I’d always had a stocky build, but where had that paunch come from? Twenty kilos overweight. Funny I hadn’t noticed the grimness around the mouth before.

I visualized an ebon goddess standing next to me; then I dismissed the vision. It was just too ludicrous. “Val,” I told myself, “There's no fool like an old fool!” I closed up the office and went to get a drink. Several drinks.

In fact, it got pretty drunk out that night.

Though the transmitting and receiving equipment is no problem, the equipment to initiate a subspace connection is incredibly expensive; I’d heard figures approaching the annual gross domestic product of a reasonably developed planet. That’s why I was surprised to be informed that the Viceroy wanted to talk to me on subspace. I wasn’t aware that the capability existed here on the rim. I reminded myself I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, Cord was an Imperial Viceroy. Come to think of it, there might even be an initiator at the Fleet base on Thaeron.

I hurried down to the com room. A life-sized image of Cord sat behind a nonexistent desk. “Good Morning, Commodore,” he began pleasantly.

“Uh, good evening, sir,” I replied. I was still trying to cope with the fact that Cord was on Haven, three jumps away, yet we were communicating instantly.

Cord seemed to read my mind. He smiled. “You’ll get used to it, Commodore. By the time we’ve finished here, you’ll be an old hand at subspace communication.”

I grinned. “Calling to see how much of your money I’m spending, Viceroy? Or to tell me I’m under arrest?”

His political smile relaxed into one that was genuine. “I know how much you’ve been spending, Commodore. And what you’re spending it on. No, this is something urgent enough to require subspace.

“A ship has appeared in Haven’s system. A Destroyer. It claims to be the Predator. Jonas does, indeed, have a destroyer named Predator assigned to him. The ship is claiming to be manned by deserters from Thaeron. They’re asking for me, of course, but what I find especially interesting is that they’re also asking for you. Do you have any idea how they would know that you even exist? I was under the impression that we went to some pains to make sure you were a surprise.”

I flushed with embarrassment. “Uh, I may have told them, sir. Unintentionally. Did they mention what they wanted?”

An eyebrow rose. “Indeed? We may need to have a talk about security, Commodore.” The sardonic expression disappeared. “All that they said was that they had to warn me — and you. I led them to believe I’d been notified of their arrival by subspace. I ordered the Captain not to approach Haven, but to reverse course and report with all possible speed to you at Outback. I have been notified that they are obeying, and are driving at nearly 2g to the primary jump point for Outback.”

I thought for a moment. “With military jump engines and computers, they can make it in two jumps — say, three days. I’ll be ready for them, sir. If they’re sincere, a destroyer would make a welcome addition to our fleet.”

“If they’re not,” Cord replied, “your gunners may get some live fire practice. Take no unnecessary chances, Commodore. At the slightest suspicion of trouble, destroy that ship! I’m sending my yacht along to you, Commodore. It has the only other nonmilitary subspace initiator in the sector. My captain tells me it should arrive around the same time as the destroyer. It could be slightly before or slightly after. Please don’t let one of your trigger-happy warriors destroy it — it’s very valuable. The ship’s artificial intelligence will show you how to use the equipment. I will expect a report as soon as you know what’s going on.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” I replied in my crispest kaydet tones. “As soon as I know what’s going on, you will, sir.”

“I’d better!” His image disappeared. I hurried out of the comm room. I had work to do.

Valkyrie ’s conversion was complete. She now fairly bristled with comm and sensor gear. In addition, we had six of the rim tramps converted and armed, and over sixty of the mining boats.

I called a briefing for all the ship captains and boat pilots. I began by telling them about Predator, that she appeared to have defected, and that she was on her way here.

“There are three major jump points from which Predator could emerge,” I continued. “We have two ships for each jump point, and nearly twenty mining boats for each point, if we can get them there.” I outlined the tactical situation. Valkyrie would have to hang back to at least a thousand kilometers to provide a safety margin against collisions.

“If the destroyer appears at your jump point,” I ordered, “Both tramps will drive toward it a max boost; but you will stop at 500 kilometers. The boats, meanwhile, will close to 50 kilometers, and hold at that point.”

I turned to the rowdy, undisciplined miners. “Boat pilots, when I say hold, I do not mean simply sit stationary relative to the ship. I want you to keep maneuvering. Avoid letting the gunners lock onto you.” I grinned. “Sheol, give ‘em a show!” Cheering broke out, and I had to wait until they calmed down. “Give ‘em a show,” I repeated, “But do not fire. I say again, do not fire unless fired upon! These people may be friends. Even so, this will be an excellent opportunity to practice against real Fleet equipment, personnel, and weapons. I’ve seen you boys make those boats dance. Show the Fleet a nice fighter dance!” Cheering and whistling broke out again.

The miners weren’t trained and disciplined troops; they were a nonmilitary rabble who happened to be able to make a boat do incredible things. So, instead of orders, they needed pep talks. I hoped that none of them would get excited and take a shot at the destroyer. I repeated that hope many times in the next three days, as we prepared for the destroyer’s arrival. With such short warning, the ships and boats had to boost immediately to get to the jump points in time. It was no problem for the ships, but it meant that the boat pilots had to live in their suits and their tiny cockpits for a minimum of several days.

We had made rudimentary plans to use Valkyrie as a sort of mother ship for the boats: a place where the pilots could load aboard, climb out of that cramped cockpit and get a hot meal or even a shower. Now, those plans had to be implemented with no notice and no preparation. I thanked all the odd gods of the galaxy for Valkyrie ’s huge cargo hatches.

Valkyrie was designed to set down in the middle of a battle to resupply troops. DIN-class cargo carriers were the largest ships that could routinely ground. Anything larger was strictly orbit-to — orbit.

To give the haulers at least a minimal chance of survival, and more importantly, to make sure that the troops got their supplies before the ship was destroyed, the DIN-class ships had a specially strengthened frame. The hull plates over the holds actually formed huge doors, hinged at the bottom. When opened, these formed ramps that permitted the loading and unloading of heavy cargo such as tanks without special handling equipment. We’d never used them. The normal cargo hatches were better suited to the handling equipment used by all ground-based and orbital ports than the orange-segment hatches.

Now, they could work. Oh, not the way they were envisioned, but there was a way we could use them. As we drove for the jump points, boats pulled up, we opened the hull, and they settled into the holds, a dozen at a time. Close the doors, pressurize the holds, and the pilots got their breaks, and more important, could refuel. We used very strict rotations, and by the time we reached the jump points near the edge of the system, Valkyrie was the most popular ship on the rim.

Valkyrie 's crew now numbered twenty, but we still weren’t cramped; a full military crew had been fifty-four. I’d had a crew meeting aboard, and had warned all male personnel that ‘no’ meant ‘no’, and that no female crewmember owed them anything. I’d carried on at some length until I realized that I was sounding like the demented parent of some teenager.

Suli had been as good as her word. Of course, she wasn’t the only female crewmember aboard, which took a bit of pressure off her, but she screwed up her courage and actually approached crewmen to introduce herself. Most of the men, of course, had been dumbfounded to be approached by such a spectacular woman, and had fumbled for words. Only one idiot mistook her approach for a pass, and she was gentle about rebuffing him — well, relatively gentle. The arm wasn't broken.

I happened to be in the mess deck when Suli and Jax came in, already deep in conversation. Jax was babbling enthusiastically, and Suli was patiently tolerating his interest.

Jax had never encountered anyone as different as Suli, and he was asking her questions that were much too personal. I began to interrupt, but Suli didn’t seem offended, and I decided to see how she was dealing with the other crewpeople.

Her blinding grin preceded her answer to one of his questions. “Yes, Jax, I’m pretty much the same color all over; well, except for my palms and the soles of my feet.” She saw his eyes drop to her hands, and continued, “I know. But on my planet, it’s customary to use makeup to darken the palms a bit to match the rest of our complexions.”

“I’d like to visit your planet, someday,” Jax gushed. “Imagine, a whole planet full of beautiful black people!”

Her smile faded. “I… uh… I don’t think you’d enjoy it much, Jax. You’d have to be very careful about exposure to the sun, and… well… not all of the people would be very friendly.” Her face turned grim for a moment before she changed the subject, asking him about Pascua.

I must admit to a guilty pleasure in her discomfort. At the same time, however, I was pleased she was adapting so well. Reports I’d received from other crewpeople confirmed that she was honestly trying to overcome her prejudices.

My own relations with her were a bit strained. Since she was bridge crew, we were frequently on the bridge together, often alone. I found myself tongue-tied and sweating on these occasions and more than once had fled red-faced when I’d made a particular fool of myself.

Men my age shouldn't have such raw and vivid fantasies!

We arrived at the jump points with an estimated three hours, plus or minus two, before the destroyer was due. Actually, of course, there was no way we could calculate her arrival that exactly; in fact the three-day time limit was just an estimate. Nevertheless, I had to keep my rabble of fighters focused on the mission, and the possibility that the target might arrive at any moment helped do that.

As it happened, I was incredibly lucky. The destroyer arrived at the main jump point almost exactly three hours after we arrived. This gave an amazing boost to my reputation, which amused Suli, who knew better, tremendously.

Surprisingly, the operation went just as outlined. While Valkyrie hung back at a thousand kilometers, the two armed tramps dove for the destroyer. At the same time, the boats swarmed toward her. I held my breath as they approached the destroyer, but they really did stop at fifty kilometers. Then they began an intricate ballet. For a few moments, I was entranced. They were taking seriously my invitation to make their boats dance. They darted and whirled, avoiding certain collisions at the last split second, resembling nothing so much as bees swarming about an intruder.

Suli broke the spell. “Commodore, hadn’t you better talk to the destroyer?” she prompted. Cursing, I spun and ran to the bridge com console. We were already being hailed.

“Empire destroyer Predator to unknown vessels. Please identify. Predator to unknown vessels, please respond.”

I keyed the panel, and the screen lit to show a Fleet lieutenant starting to repeat his call. He broke off as I appeared on his screen.

“ Predator, this is Commodore Val Kedron aboard the command ship Valkyrie…”

The lieutenant spun from his seat while I was still talking. “It’s him, sir!” he yelled, “It’s the Commodore!”

I was about to shout at his back when he was brushed aside and a familiar form took his place. “Shar!” I shouted happily. He grinned. “H’lo Val… or, should I say Commodore?” Sharlo Tan-Li hadn’t changed much. A little grayer, perhaps, but still slim and aristocratic-looking. He was wearing the uniform of a Fleet Commander, the same rank as when I’d last seen him ten years ago.

I was delighted. “Don’t tell me they let you get your hands on a ship again,” I said. “You never could drive worth a damn — look what you did to the last ship you tried to fly!” His last ship had been damaged so severely that she’d had to be scrapped in the operation that earned him a well-deserved Empire Star, and incidentally saved my life and those of 650 of my men.

His answering grin was broad. “I heard you were running around out here without a keeper, so I grabbed a few friends and we came to bail you out!” The grin faded. “So, do you come to us, or do we come to you?”

I shook my head. “I’d better come to you. If your gig left your ship, one of my yahoos might get excited and trigger a fight.”

Shar chuckled. “Yeah. Say, what are those things, anyway? Our gunners are going crazy trying to lock onto them.”

I promised to tell him when I arrived, and signed off. I passed the word to tell all ships and boats that the ship appeared to be a friend, and to not get trigger-happy, but to stay watchful. Then I took Valkyrie 's boat and crossed to Predator. As I approached, I noticed she’d suffered battle damage. I began to suspect that Shar would have an interesting story to tell.

Shar entered the boat deck as soon as it was pressurized. Two younger men accompanied him. One was in the uniform of a Fleet Lieutenant Commander. I assumed him to be Predator ’s Captain. The other wore a marine Major’s uniform.

Shar introduced the Lieutenant Commander as Captain Sri Bendo of Predator. Regardless of rank, the commanding officer of a ship is the one and only Captain aboard. Officers holding the military rank of Captain who board are temporarily referred to as “Commodore” (Fleet) or “Major” (Marines). This tradition is so ancient that it is said that it may even be pre-spaceflight.

Captain Bendo was a husky young man in his late twenties or early thirties. The fact that he commanded a destroyer at his age spoke volumes. This young man was on his way to a flag; but his boyish looks and perpetual grin made him easy to underestimate. A young man to watch. In the normal course of things, after two years commanding Predator, Bendo would be expecting orders to the Empire War College for Strategy and Tactics and several other courses before being temporarily transferred to the Marines, probably to command a company or regiment.

Bendo’s regiment would be sent to any trouble spots that erupted in violence — he couldn’t be promoted to flag rank until he’d commanded troops on the ground in combat. Therefore, Captain Bendo had risked everything by fleeing Jonas’ forces on the chance that Jonas had lied to him. Smart and gutsy; a redoubtable young man.

Wil Tor, the marine Major, on the other hand, was obviously a career marine. His salt-and-pepper hair was trimmed to less than 2 centimeters. Most experienced marines cut their hair short — long hair has many drawbacks in the field. Something about his eyes and grim lines about his mouth told me that this man was a veteran.

His manner, though, was one of youthful enthusiasm. He pumped my hand vigorously. “I’m honored, Commodore!” he said, “I really am. Did you know that they teach your tactics on Haskins’ World in Strat amp; Tac now?”

I grunted in surprise. “My tactics on Haskins’ World mainly involved running. I didn’t do anything on Haskins’ except lose more than half of my men.”

“No, sir,” he corrected, “What you did was save almost half your command in an untenable situation. Yours was the only force landed on Haskins’ World that was still an organized military force when extracted, rather than a panicked rabble. Yours is a textbook example of withdrawal under fire without loss of unit cohesion in the face of overwhelming odds.”

I flushed. I don’t think there was anything heroic about Haskins’ World. I’d been having the nightmares for ten years, now. However, if there was one thing I didn’t want to argue about, it was Haskins’ World. “Humph!” I grunted. “Shar, here, was the reason we got as many as we did off Haskins’ World. He’s the one who brought a destroyer, an orbit-to — orbit ship, down into an atmosphere, somehow managed to hover it there and bring its space weaponry to bear on a ground battlefield, while simultaneously sending boats down to lift us off; the six hundred and fifty that were left. The rest of us, well, we were just trying to do unto others before they did unto us.” I noticed that Captain Bendo was looking at Shar with a new respect in his eyes.

Shar grinned. "Sorry, Val, but Wil’s right. They do teach you at the War College. Face it; you’re stuck with being a hero, like me. You just managed to sneak your resignation in before they could hang one of these things on you.” He indicated the Empire Star ribbon around his neck.

My face burned hot, and I desperately changed the subject. “Let’s get down to business. I’d suggest we adjourn to somewhere where we can talk.”

Captain Bendo escorted us to his cabin. Once we were all seated and had drinks, I said, “Captain, coming aboard I noticed battle damage. Did you have to fight your way out of the Thaeron system?”

Bendo nodded. “Yes, sir. But perhaps I’d better let Commander Tan-Li tell the story. That way you’ll get a single narration. Major Tor and I will fill in details, of course.” I nodded and turned to Shar.

“Okay, Shar, let’s start with what Jonas is telling the troops.”

Shar’s grin was back. “The story for general circulation is that Jonas has learned that Cord is planning to rebel against the Emperor. In order to do that, Cord has to attack and defeat the Rim Fleet. Naturally, it’s our responsibility to launch a pre-emptive strike against Cord, and to preserve the rim for the Empire.”

He shrugged. “Of course, there are those, mostly officers, who have seen what Cord’s been doing with the sector, and know his reputation. They won’t buy story number one, so there's a second one circulating as a rumor. In this one, the Emperor is going to give the rim to Cord, including the base on Thaeron and the Fleet resources. We are to be abandoned by the Fleet and transferred to Cord’s authority. Our only chance of convincing the Emperor to bring us home is to seize both Cord and the sector, and offer to trade them for orders home and guarantees of no reprisals. That one,” he continued, “can sound pretty convincing, especially when those who don’t accept it start having fatal accidents.”

Even knowing Jonas, I was startled. “You think he’s killing his own people? I’d heard rumors, but…”

Bendo answered. “All I can say is that in the last month four company and battalion-grade officers have died under, uh, unusual circumstances.” He shrugged. “That’s the main reason that Wil and I were receptive when the Commander, here, approached us.”

“I showed them your message,” Shar admitted. “I thought it was worth the risk. I could’ve hitched a ride with the trader that brought the message, but I knew if your message were right, Sri and Wil wouldn’t survive the purges. Wil signed on as soon as he found out it was you asking, and over a hundred of his men joined him. Sri had to do a bit more thinking, but finally he and most of his crew joined us. There are twelve men in the brig right now, though, that didn’t agree.”

“There is one thing, Commodore,” the young Captain said in a faintly embarrassed tone. “I will have to ask for assurances for my crew. I will not have them held responsible for what is, in fact, a mutiny!”

I nodded grimly. “You’ll have them, Captain. At any time, now, the Viceroy’s yacht will be emerging from a jump point. That yacht has one of the only two subspace initiators in the sector, the other being in the palace on Haven.” I explained that I was to report to the Viceroy as soon as the yacht arrived. “I’d like all three of you to accompany me aboard. You can get your assurances direct from Cord.”

Chapter VII

The yacht arrived about four hours later. In the meantime, I stayed aboard Predator. I hoped that my presence would keep some miner from firing on the destroyer just for fun.

I spent the interim learning the rest of the story. Shar had been suspicious of Jonas for several years, and had accumulated evidence that Jonas had been skimming money from Fleet procurement contracts. When Jonas had announced his discovery of Cord’s ‘treason’, Shar had been sure something was wrong. Shar knew Cord, at least by sight and reputation, from his ‘hero’ days on Prime. He knew Cord was completely and enthusiastically loyal to the Emperor. The second-level cover story had leaked to Shar almost as quickly as it had been released to Jonas’ people, and Shar was certain that something was wrong.

He knew that Wil and Sri were two of the best and brightest on Thaeron, and that they were trustworthy. He caught them one by one in his bar, took them to his office, and showed them my message.

Both had signed on, but there were practical difficulties. Luckily, the destroyer was in the orbital repair dock at the time. Shuttles and boats were always coming and going. Bendo told his crew that they would be participating in a covert marine intelligence operation, and that a company of marines would be boarding from a shuttle lorry to prevent Cord’s spies from knowing about it. He had confided in his comm officer, and told the crew that they were under comm silence for the duration of the operation.

Once Shar and the marines were aboard, the locks were sealed, and my message was played for both the ship’s crew and the marines. I was flattered to hear that every one of the marines had signed on when they were told who I was. A dozen of the ship’s crew had made an abortive attempt to escape the ship, and been locked in the brig. Then they’d blasted out of the repair dock on full emergency drive, a very risky maneuver. Once again, Bendo impressed me.

They’d waited until Jonas and his dreadnought, Nemesis, were on the opposite side of Thaeron, but they’d still had to exchange laser and missile fire with a cruiser, Relentless, and had taken some minor damage. Boosting at top speed, they’d reached the jump point a few seconds ahead of a pursuing destroyer. They’d emerged at Haven’s system, and started yelling for Cord or me.

I was amazed that so many people had taken such a chance based only on my message to Shar.

As soon as the yacht arrived, we four went aboard, and I established a subspace connection with Cord. He’d obviously been anxiously awaiting my call, as he arrived in his comm room within thirty seconds. I introduced the others, and explained that I’d invited them to join the conversation so they could reassure their people.

Cord simply nodded. “Very well. Please have your operator begin recording this session, so it can be replayed for them.” As I signaled the operator, Cord turned to my companions. “Gentlemen,” he nodded to Bendo and Tor. Then he turned to Shar with a genuine smile. “Commander, a great pleasure to see you again!”

Shar looked stunned. “Y-You remember me, sir?”

Cord's smile widened. “One does not easily forget meeting a man who has won the Empire's highest honor, Commander. I hope your presence means that you'll be joining us.” Shar nodded dumbly, and Cord returned the nod before returning his attention to the others.

“Anticipating that a conversation like this might occur,” he began, “I’ve retrieved copies of some messages that I’d like to play for you now.” For some reason, his tone had gone flat and his face expressionless.

Cord’s image faded, and was replaced by a thin, frail-looking white-haired man in the uniform of a Fleet Admiral.

Bendo gasped, and Tor cried, “Gods! That’s Chu-Lo!”

Fleet Admiral Chu-Lo was seated behind an empty desk, a grim expression on his face as he began speaking.

“Begin Message One. From Vinlen Chu-Lo, Fleet Admiral, Imperial Fleet, To Micah Jonas, Rear Admiral, Imperial Fleet. Unofficial, Unclassified.”

“Jonas,” he continued with the air of a man looking at something unpleasant, “I don’t know what you think you’re playing at out there, but you’ve really stepped in it this time, and not even your family’s connections are going to get you out of it.” His lip curled in disgust. “You’re a bloody fool!” The Fleet Admiral paused while he regained his composure. “I’m dictating these messages myself, and in clear, so that there can be no claims of coding errors or misinterpretations.” He shook his head. “End Message!”

His image didn’t fade. “Begin message two. From Commander-In-chief, Imperial Fleet, To Rear Admiral Micah Jonas, Commander, Rim Sector. Official, Unclassified. Subject, Orders.

“Paragraph One,” He began. “Effective upon receipt of this message, you are relieved of your duties as COMRIMSEC.

“Paragraph Two. You will present yourself to Captain Van-Lyn of Nemesis and report yourself under quarters arrest pending the arrival of an investigative team from the Fleet Judge Advocate General’s office.

“Paragraph Three. In the interests of good order and discipline, you will support the new COMRIMSEC’s assertions that you have removed yourself from your command due to ill health. End Message.” The old Admiral's face could have been carved from stone.

His tone warmed slightly as he continued, “Begin message three. From Commander-In-Chief, Imperial Fleet to Captain Jamin Van-Lyn, Commanding Officer, ESS Nemesis. Official. Unclassified. Subject, Orders.

“Paragraph One. Effective upon receipt of this message, you will temporarily assume the additional duty of Commander, Rim Sector. As this appointment is temporary and additional, you are authorized to retain command of Nemesis.

“Paragraph Two. You will accept the surrender and report of Rear Admiral Micah Jonas under quarters arrest pending the arrival of an investigative team from the Fleet Judge Advocate General’s office. You will insure adequate security to prevent escape or subornation of Fleet personnel.

“Paragraph Three. In the interests of good order and discipline, you will announce that Rear Admiral Jonas relieved himself as COMRIMSEC due to ill health.

“Paragraph Four. Upon arrival of the JAG Investigating team now enroute, you will support and assist the investigating team in any way requested, to include facilities, support, and ensuring the presence of Fleet personnel for questioning or testimony. End message.”

Finally, the stony expression relaxed, and the formal tone dissolved. “Begin message four. From Vinlen Chu-Lo, Fleet Admiral, Imperial Fleet to Jamin Van-Lyn, Captain, Imperial Fleet. Unofficial. Unclassified.”

“Jamin, I’m sorry to put you in this position, but Jonas has really stepped on it this time. Don’t take any guff from him; the authority is yours now. A word of warning: he’s loathsome, but he’s shrewd. He knows that his family can’t get him off this time, so he may try something desperate. Be on your guard. End message.” This time the image faded, and Cord reappeared.

“These messages were received about three months ago,” he said. “Obviously, Jonas is not under arrest. Evidently, they were too late; Jonas had already subverted Van-Lyn.

“But those messages,” he continued, his tone cold, “show where the Fleet stands. I hope that you and your people are reassured. And certainly, for what it’s worth, I offer my word that all Fleet personnel who so desire will be repatriated.”

Suddenly, Cord sat forward in his chair, anger suffusing his face. “I also want you to know that I am appalled! I find it difficult to believe that Fleet personnel would even for a microsecond believe that Fleet HQ, or me, or the Emperor himself, would violate a thousand-year-old tradition. Every one of you learned in boot camp or Officer Candidate School the basic tenet that everyone in the Fleet buys a round-trip ticket. Ships have been lost and people have died trying to bring home Fleet people or their bodies.”

He slammed his fist on the arm of his chair. “How dare you? How dare you believe that the Emperor or I would try such a thing, or that Fleet Admiral Chu-Lo would permit it? The entire Fleet would rebel first! So, I give you your assurances, but I'm ashamed of you for asking for them.” He glared at the three officers who by now were at rigid attention. “By the authority vested in me as Sector Viceroy, I now assume authority over all Fleet vessels, equipment, and personnel under your commands. You will place yourselves under the command of Commodore Val Kedron, and you will disregard any communication from the former Commander, Rim Sector, Micah Jonas, or his minions. The recording of this meeting is to be shown to all Fleet personnel presently in Predator. Is that specific enough for you, gentlemen?”

“AYE, AYE, SIR!” The roar would have done credit to recruits in boot camp, but it came from three company-grade officers frozen like cadets.

Cord nodded, his face still grim. “Very well, gentlemen. You are dismissed. Mr. Tan-Li, would you remain a moment, please?”

Bendo and Tor wheeled and marched out, ramrod straight. Shar remained at attention.

As the hatch closed, Cord's image relaxed. “Mr. Tan-Li, I’m well aware that you are retired. While I have the authority to activate your commission, I do not intend to do so without your consent. I hope that you will join us as the Commodore’s deputy and Flag Captain. It’s tempting to assume that your appearance in uniform implies a wish to volunteer, but I must also consider that it may have been a ruse necessary to escape from Thaeron. So, I ask you; do I have your permission to activate your commission and promote you to Captain, so that you can serve with us?”

Shar was still at attention. “Sir, it would be my honor and pleasure to serve in the positions you mentioned, or any other in your service.” The heartfelt sincerity in his tone spoke volumes. Sharlo Tan-Li had met a man he respected.

Cord nodded. “Thank you, Captain. I’m sure we'll speak again. For now, though, will you excuse us? I have some things to discuss with the Commodore.”

Shar snapped Cord a smart salute, wheeled, and marched out.

Cord sighed and settled back into his chair. “You were pretty rough…” I began.

Cord shook his head. “You don’t understand, Commodore. Those people risked everything to escape Thaeron. However, ever since the adrenaline wore off, everyone on that ship has been second-guessing himself or herself, worrying themselves and their shipmates with doubts. Did they really do the right thing? Or have they become involved in a mutiny? They needed a kick in the pants; a reminder of who and what they are.

“If I’d pampered them, you’d have had a ship with a demoralized crew, and a bunch of incompetent marines. However, I’ve stung them. I’ve reminded them. Now, they’ll be aching for the chance to show me that I was wrong about them. You have a ship full of motivated, competent people instead of emotional cripples. You’ll see. We’ll have their respect, now.”

I shrugged. “You may be right…”

Cord waved a hand. “I am right, Commodore. Military people are easy to deal with. For the most part, they’re honest and straightforward. You should try to deal with politicians regularly.”

I shuddered. “No, thanks, sir. Uh, tell me, sir, did you really remember Shar, or did you just look him up for this meeting?”

Cord shook his head. “You disappoint me, Commodore. You’re always thinking the worst of me. Of course I remembered Commander Tan-Li. One meets very few genuine heroes at court; I’d scarcely forget one of the two real ones I’ve met.”

Two? I was afraid to ask. It was time to get down to business anyway. “Uh, you know that Predator has created a problem for us?”

Cord nodded. “I know. They’ve forced Jonas’ hand, and ours, as well. He can no longer pretend that everything is normal on Thaeron, and I can no longer pretend to believe that. We’re both being forced into a fight for which neither of us is prepared.”

For nearly an hour, Cord and I considered and rejected a dozen possible actions. Finally, reluctantly, we concluded that we had only one choice. “I have to go to Thaeron after all.” I said reluctantly.

It was almost two hours later that I finally emerged from the yacht’s comm room while the subspace operators transferred images of Bendo and Tor’s service records. But, we had a plan. Not a good one, but a plan, nevertheless. Cord would be risking his expensive yacht and a detachment of marines. I would be risking confinement or death.

He was right about the Fleet people aboard Predator, though. Both Bendo and Tor spoke of him in admiring tones, and were determined to show him how good they really were. When Tor asked for volunteers to form a commando for the marines’ part in the plan, every man in his company volunteered. He selected the best twenty, and I heard that there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when the names were announced.

A review of their records pretty much confirmed my original impressions of our two newest recruits. Bendo was one of those people with the annoying ability to excel at everything he tried. Evaluations and incident reports showed him to be imaginative and highly efficient. Despite this, he seemed to relate well to others, and was respected and well liked by superiors, contemporaries and subordinates. Obviously, flag material.

Tor was also what he appeared to be: a career marine whose ambitions didn’t include a flag, because to strive for flag rank, he’d have to leave his beloved marines. A dedicated and highly effective field commander, he showed an intuitive grasp of strategic and tactical concepts. He’d also shown in battle that while he respected Standard Operating Procedures, he was imaginative and resourceful enough to scrap them when they didn’t apply, and try new ones. Tor was what I’d been looking for — someone who could coordinate and command our ground-based resistance efforts.

For my part, I had to pin two more stars on each shoulder. Cord had decided that for this to work, I had to outrank Jonas. So now, I was Vice Admiral Val Kedron. I was certainly going up the ladder fast, I reflected. I was embarrassed rather than pleased, though. I'd earned none of the promotions.

Few people would have noticed anyway. I was spending all of my time on Cord’s yacht, the Rimrunner. A computer expert was making programming modifications and introducing me to the yacht’s artificial intelligence. The AI that ran the yacht was the most advanced I’d ever encountered; sometimes it seemed to border on sentience. Cord evidently felt the same way, since he’d given it a female voice and a name, Kaleen.

Introducing me to Kaleen involved more than a handshake. It took major programming and a lot of patience to add me to the people to whom she was loyal (making a total of two). She also had to be programmed to fulfill her end of the plan. Kaleen was a major, if not the major player in the plan.

The marine commando set off for Thaeron aboard a rim tramp.

A few days later, all was in readiness, and I could put it off no longer. I departed for Thaeron, alone aboard Rimrunner. Part of me was relieved to know that I’d no longer have to face bridge duty with Suli; another part was bemoaning that fact.

When he’d first come to the rim, Cord had done his homework. He’d heard that the rim was more technologically advanced than the rest of the Empire. He’d also noticed that rimworlders seemed to suffer from an inferiority complex despite their technological expertise.

With typical Cord imagination, he’d tackled both problems at once. He’d commissioned a rim-built ship to highlight the very best the rim could produce, with cost not a factor. He’d talked it up as something that he could take back to Prime, to show the Emperor.

Not surprisingly, it had worked. He’d challenged their abilities, and with cost eliminated as a factor, the very best minds on the rim had worked themselves ragged for ten years making sure that Rimrunner was the most advanced ship in the Empire.

She was smaller than a rim tramp, in keeping with her role as a yacht. However, she had a rim tramp’s reaction engines and gravity compensators. Her jump engines were much larger than those of the tramps were, and rivaled those of a cruiser. I doubt there was a ship in space that could catch her.

The crowning jewel of Rimrunner, though, was Kaleen. According to the computer tech working with her, Kaleen was the most advanced artificial intelligence in the universe. In fact, he claimed that there were ongoing arguments among computer scientists all over the rim over whether Kaleen was sentient. Since no one had come up with a way to establish true sentience, or even a mutually agreeable definition of it, the arguments threatened to go on forever.

I was in no position to judge. Therefore, I treated Kaleen as though she were one of my crew, one that happened to be a whole ship. Sentient or not, I try never to get machinery mad at me. I know how that sounds, but I’ve also seen equipment that functioned flawlessly for me try to kill people who didn’t respect it.

While we were still driving for our jump point, I decided to begin getting to know Kaleen without a computer tech as intermediary. “Have you computed our first jump, Kaleen?”

“Yes, Vice Admiral. We will jump in two hours twenty-seven minutes and thirteen seconds.” her voice was a pleasant contralto, but without inflection; dead.

“Can you estimate our time to arrival in Thaeron’s system?”

“Yes, Vice Admiral. I estimate ninety-two hours, plus or minus twenty-six.”

“Please stop calling me ‘Vice Admiral’. Tell me, does the imprecision of a twenty-six hour margin of error bother you?”

“It is the closest estimate possible. The large margin of error results from the necessity of applying Newtonian mathematics to a non-Newtonian continuum. I do not understand the term ‘bother’ in this context.”

I chuckled. “Well, us soft people are saddled with emotions, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. When we’re not satisfied with something, we find it frustrating; and frustration becomes a low-level irritation. Bother is a term for low-level irritation.”

There was a brief silence. “I believe I understand. I may experience something similar when I contemplate a problem without a complete solution. May I ask a question?”


“You have instructed me not to call you ‘Vice Admiral’. Yet it is my understanding that Vice Admiral is a rank worthy of a certain respect. Is my programming in error?”

Damn! Oh, well, I asked for it. “No, Kaleen, you were not misinformed. Vice Admiral is a rank worthy of considerable respect. In my case, however, it is unearned rank. Therefore, I do not feel deserving of the respect, and your continual use of it as a form of address makes me uncomfortable.”

“I do not understand. Are you not performing the duties of the rank? Are you not therefore entitled to the title?”

I shook my head. “No, Kaleen, I’m not really performing the duties of the rank. At least, I don’t think so. The rank was conferred specifically to insure that I outrank Rear Admiral Jonas for this mission.”

"What form of address would you prefer?"

I thought about it. Ninety-two hours each way meant Kaleen and I would be interacting a lot. Besides, I was beginning to get interested in seeing just how human Kaleen was, or could be. “Well, let’s see. If what you wish to say relates to the business of ship operation or our mission, call me Captain. It’s the title I've had longest and feel most comfortable with. If what you wish to say is social or chat, call me Val.”

“Chat is conversation without purpose. Why would I indulge in such conversation, Captain?”

I chuckled again. “You’re indulging in it now, Kaleen. Chat is conversation without specific purpose or relation to immediate duties. It is, however, not purposeless. It is how we get acquainted with each other.”

“Did I then use an inappropriate form of address, Val? Are we not already acquainted? I have a copy of your dossier stored. Have you not seen my schematics and basic programming?”

I shrugged. “No, Kaleen, as a matter of fact I haven’t seen your schematics and basic programming; and if I had, I wouldn’t have understood them. But, there’s more to people than just their records. And don’t worry about using the wrong form of address. The rules are not hard and fast.”

Silence dragged. Finally, a tone that sounded hushed, timid! “Val, am I ‘people’?” Kaleen’s voice was no longer flat, monotonic. She sounded unsure.

Oh, Gods. I thought carefully. “That’s been a topic of hot conversation and argument by experts ever since you were built, Kaleen. To me, a person is defined as a sentient being. Of course, since man has been trying to define sentient for several thousand years without notable success, that may not be the easiest definition of a person to use. Are you sentient? I don’t know what the experts would say, but to me, if the question even occurs to you, you can answer ‘yes’.”

I sighed. “I don’t know if Cord would agree with me; I know that the computer techs wouldn’t — or, at least some wouldn’t. But to me, yes, Kaleen, you’re people.” I wondered how I was going to tell Cord that he’d have to start treating his ship’s comp as a person. Oh well, it wouldn't be necessary unless we both survived this mission — not a high probability.

I suspect that Kaleen actually was sentient all the time. On the other hand, perhaps I woke her up. Nevertheless, from that time on, her voice began developing inflection and cadence. The dead, mechanical voice was gone.

I no longer had to worry about how to pass the time. Kaleen bothered me unmercifully. She was like a five-year-old, with endless questions, most of which didn’t have answers. I finally had to tell her to shut up. That hurt her feelings, and she sulked for several hours. Between philosophical discussions, we played games. She beat me handily at Chess and other games requiring computational ability, of course, but she didn’t do nearly as well at Jask or other games requiring creative thinking — though by the time we arrived at the Thaeron system she was getting better. I had a feeling that when we got back, Kaleen was going to put an end to that sentience debate.

As the time to emergence ticked down, I briefed Kaleen. Cord and I had put together an IFF tape using fleet codes, identifying Rimrunner as a fleet auxiliary courier, and announcing the presence of a flag officer on board. “Make sure it’s running, Kaleen,” I fussed, “But stay ready on the inertial drive throttles. If they start shooting, we’ve got to run for it!”

“These instructions have already been given, Captain,” Kaleen replied, “All is in readiness, and both inertial drive engines and gravity compensators are fully functional.” Her tone was flat, formal. Kaleen was back on duty.

“Let's go over your instructions one more time,” I said. “We’ll only get one chance…” My voice trailed off as I realized that I was repeating myself for the dozenth time.

“Yes, Captain. If we are fired upon at the jump point, I apply maximum power to the inertial drives and drive at top speed for another jump point, while computing an emergency jump to the nearest system within jump range.

“If we are not fired upon, we should be escorted to Nemesis. We will have asked to speak with Rear Admiral Jonas, and to the best of our knowledge, he is presently aboard. Fleet Standard Operating Procedures call for us to enter Nemesis ’ landing bay. SOP also calls for fueling and communication connections to be established immediately.

“You will board Nemesis, and engage Admiral Jonas in conversation. As soon as communication connections are complete, I will use the viceroy’s security codes to access and override all onboard computers, and broadcast the Fleet Admiral’s message over every band on every communicator in the system. I will also prevent Nemesis ’ personnel from regaining control of comm and weapons systems.

“You will attempt to escape Nemesis and reboard, and I will run an evasion course to the secondary jump point.” She hesitated. “Captain, I estimate our chances of complete success at less than 25 %, of your survival at less than 32 %, and of my survival at less than 50 %.”

“I know, Kaleen,” I replied, “but we will have bought Cord time he desperately needs. He’ll lose a lot more than one smart ship and a fat old man if Jonas attacks too soon. We have to try. How long ‘til emergence?”

“Ten seconds, Captain. IFF running… 5… 4… 3… 2

… 1…”

We popped into normal space. As we’d expected, Jonas had the jump point picketed. Nobody fired. When our IFF had been confirmed, the destroyer on duty established communication and escorted us in-system, while broadcasting an alert to Nemesis. As we threaded our way through the sown mines over the next day and a half, Jonas’ comm people tried to get me to talk about my mission, but I stood on my new rank and refused to speak with anyone but Jonas. I merely told them that Jonas was to meet me in the landing bay immediately upon my arrival. Jonas himself did not attempt to talk to me.

Kaleen had no problem sliding into Nemesis ’ landing bay. I’d forgotten how huge a dreadnought was! Her landing bay held nearly a hundred fighters, but there was still sufficient room to have accommodated Rimrunner, Valkyrie, and three rim tramps.

Shields normally sealed Nemesis ’ landing bay. The massive armored doors would be closed only in battle, after her fighters had been launched. Rimrunner slid through an opening in the shield, and settled to the deck. It actually took some ten minutes to repressurize the huge bay.

Dreadnoughts are the capital ships of the Fleet. There are only half a dozen of them, each a globe a kilometer in diameter. At full wartime strength, each could carry nearly a hundred Strengl and Wasp fighters, and they bristled with lasers and particle beam weapons. Two of them had defeated an entire fleet during the Horsehead Rebellion.

However, the Horsehead Rebellion had been four hundred years ago. Many of the younger Fleet officers, including me, thought of dreadnoughts as obsolete dinosaurs. They were also horrendously expensive, which is why the newest of them was some two hundred years old. Nemesis, at two hundred fifty, was one of the last ones built. Older officers like Jonas, though, regarded them as living representations of the Fleet’s power. Every time the idea of scrapping the dreadnoughts came up, the old guard rallied around and swore that it would mark the end of the Fleet’s effectiveness.

As I walked down Rimrunner 's ramp, Jonas, a Captain, two Commanders and four armed marines awaited me.

Jonas had put on weight since I’d known him. He’d had a paunch before, but now he was positively obese, and even the minor exercise of walking across the landing bay had left him red-faced and breathless. The Captain, whom I assumed to be Jamin Van-Lyn, CO of Nemesis, was the opposite, thin to the point of emaciation. He also looked very nervous. Obviously, he was intelligent enough to be wary of the presence of a senior officer purportedly from Fleet HQ.

Jonas seemed unimpressed, however. For a moment, a puzzled expression crossed the florid features, and then cleared, to be replaced by obvious anger.

“I know you! Kedron! I knew that name was familiar! You're that jumped-up marine!”

I had to grab the initiative. I hoped Kaleen would hurry. I could see the service techs swarming over Rimrunner. “Atten- shun!” I roared, “Is this how senior officers are greeted on the rim?”

Jonas instinctively snapped to attention along with everyone else, and then forced himself to relax with a disgusted look. I narrowed my eyes, and took on a dangerous tone. “You have a problem with that, Admiral? I’d suggest you count the stars on my shoulder boards, and then count the ones on yours.”

“Bah!” he snorted, “I don’t believe it. This man's an imposter,” he told the marines. “Arrest him!”

I turned to the marines as they began raising their lasers uncertainly. “Arrest him!” I barked. “I have arrest warrants for Rear Admiral Jonas and Captain Van-Lyn for treason and mutiny, issued by Fleet HQ!”

The marines hesitated, while I silently prayed to any god that happened by to get Kaleen working.

“That’s ridiculous!” Jonas sputtered. “This man is obviously a pawn of Cord’s, here to spread dissension. I said, ‘arrest him’!”

The marines were confused. They looked at each other, and at the sergeant commanding the group, who wavered uncertainly. Just as he opened his mouth to speak, every speaker in the bay activated, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

“Attention all military personnel in the rim sector! This is an urgent message from Fleet Headquarters on Prime for all rim sector Fleet personnel. Stand by for an announcement from CINCFLEET!”

As the announcement began to repeat, Jonas whirled to one of the commanders behind him. “What’s that? Who authorized this broadcast?”

The commander gulped and punched frantically at his keypad. “I.. I don’t know, sir! It’s taken over my keypad, too.”

“Well, stop it!” Jonas growled, then turned to me. “What d’you think you're playing at, Kedron?”

“Sir!” The commander pawed at Jonas’ arm in panic. “I can’t stop it, Admiral! It’s blanketing all frequencies, and it’s being broadcast system-wide using the comm satellites!”

Jonas whirled to confront me just as another, familiar voice began an announcement over the speakers.

“This is Fleet Admiral Chu-Lo, Commander-In-chief, Empire Fleet, addressing all Fleet personnel in the rim sector. Rear Admiral Micah Jonas and Captain Jamin Van-Lyn are relieved of their commands, and are to be considered fugitives from charges of treason and mutiny.” Though we couldn’t see it, I knew that the Fleet Admiral was appearing in vid on every receiver capable of receiving images.

Jonas looked stunned. “It’s a lie!” he shouted, pointing at me. “I’m not the traitor! He is! He works for Cord! He’s doing this!” Admiral Chu-Lo was still talking, but Jonas had heard enough.

I nodded. “I’m doing this,” I confirmed, “But the message is genuine. Maybe you'd better hear all of it before you do anything rash.”

“Arrest him!” Jonas demanded hysterically, “ Shoot him!”

The marines still looked unsure, but one of them began raising his laser, and I decided I’d been brave enough for one day. “Look at this!” I shouted. I tossed the flash grenade I’d held concealed in my hand, and squeezed my eyes shut.

The grenade went off, and the actinic flash penetrated even my closed eyelids. I reopened my eyes, spun, and pounded back up Rimrunner ’s ramp. In the lock, I turned and looked back. The grenade had caught Jonas and the others. They were stumbling around, blinded. Jonas was shouting to the marines to shoot me, but they’d all been looking at the grenade. The lock slammed shut, and I scrambled for the bridge. “ATTENTION!” the Landing bay speakers began, “The landing bay will be depressurized in thirty seconds. Twenty-nine… twenty-eight… twenty-seven…”

As Kaleen continued counting down, service techs were scrambling for the hatches. Jonas’ group had begun getting some vision back, and two of the marines were actually shooting at Rimrunner. Their infantry weapons had no effect on the ship, of course. I suspected they were firing only because Jonas was screaming at them hysterically, and they wanted to be doing something. As Kaleen’s countdown continued, Jonas and the others finally broke, running for the hatches. Discipline be damned, Jonas was the last one to scramble through a hatch, with the countdown at “four.”

Precisely at “zero,” Kaleen disabled two of the shield projectors, and the outrush of atmosphere, assisted by our own maximum acceleration, blasted us through the resulting hole at more than four gees.

Chapter VIII

Rear Admiral Micah Jonas pressed his face to the small circular window in the hatch leading to the landing bay, puffing mightily and producing a steady stream of curses between puffs.

Kedron’s ship blasted out of the landing bay. Micah spun to hurry to the bridge when his legs suddenly went out from under him, and he crashed into one of his marine orderlies. The man bounced off Micah's bulk and drifted away.

The gravs were out! They were in free fall! Micah blanched. What about the rest of life support? Could that damned Kedron have sabotaged everything?

For a moment, Micah debated whether to head for the bridge or for his barge to escape. His mind was made up when he realized that it would take him at least ten minutes to get suited to enter the unpressurized hangar bay. If Kedron had sabotaged life support, he’d never make it. No, he had to gamble that Cord wouldn’t permit the massacre of Nemesis ’ crew of over five thousand people, even if Kedron suggested it. No, he had to get to the bridge. He had to regain control!

Nemesis had been in orbit around Thaeron for over fifteen years. Dreadnoughts are horribly expensive to operate, and smaller vessels are more appropriate for nearly everything. Essentially, Nemesis had been treated as an orbital fort, albeit one that was mobile, and had jump capability.

Because of her long sojourn in orbit, her crew was no longer practiced in null-grav activity. In addition, human nature had reared its head. As a warship, Nemesis was, of course, adapted to weightlessness. Tools and equipment, even bunks and desks, were designed with clamps and straps to secure them.

Unfortunately, her crew had grown lax about these precautions. Nemesis hadn’t seen null-grav in over a decade. Of her crew, only a few technicians had more than a few hours’ zero-gee experience. No weightlessness drills had been held in the last five years.

Predictably, the result of Kaleen's action was chaos. Both Nemesis ’ Captain and her Admiral were off the bridge when the gravs shut down. Moreover, of course, with Fleet Admiral Chu-Lo’s address blaring over every comm circuit, there was no way to even call the bridge.

All over the ship, chaos reigned. Cooks frantically dodged boiling food that surged from pots and kettles and began drifting around the galley. In the holds, handlers equally frantically dodged crates that, though weightless now, were not without inertia.

One enterprising gunnery tech had used Rimrunner ’s approach to run drills. When Rimrunner blasted free, the young tech debated opening fire, then remembered Admiral Jonas’ temper, and restrained himself. His finger was still poised over the fire button when he found himself floating free. Suddenly the fleeing ship had a much lower priority as a power cell case full of manuals drifted unerringly toward his head.

All over the ship, crewmembers caught or dodged pictures, caf cups, bookdisc readers, and all sorts of other impedimenta that had accumulated and had now become physical threats.

Hundreds of the crew flailed about in the center of compartments, unable to reach a bulkhead, deck or overhead to brace against. Others clung to anything stationary, unwilling to chance letting go. Many, perhaps most, were space-sick. Globules of vomit drifted about all over the ship, occasionally themselves triggering more attacks when they encountered crewmembers.

Moreover, over it all, Fleet Admiral Chu-Lo called for the arrest of Rear Admiral Micah Jonas and Captain Jamin Van-Lyn.

Ironically, Micah was bothered less by the zero-gee conditions than most of the crew. Though he hadn’t been in null-grav for some time, it took only a minute or two for him to reacclimate himself.

He began pushing against the other drifting bodies in the corridor, using the reaction to guide himself toward the bulkhead. Once there, he hooked an ankle over a projection and began shouting into his communicator. “Shoot! Destroy that ship! All ships pursue and destroy that ship!” However, the voice of Fleet Admiral Chu-Lo droned on. Cursing, Micah sighted on the next hatch, and kicked off. A quick glance back showed him Captain Van-Lyn following.

Despite his anger, Micah found himself enjoying the zero-gee. He’d forgotten how pleasant it was to not be dragged down by his own bulk. When he pulled himself through the bridge hatch, he was pleasantly surprised to find himself quite composed, not even puffing. He should do this more often!

However, the momentary pleasure couldn't overcome his raging fury. There were more immediate concerns. “Destroy that ship!” He screamed. “And shut off that damned lying broadcast!” Unfortunately, he was the only one who could hear his voice. Chu-Lo’s broadcast blared from every speaker. He pulled himself to the Comm Officer’s console, reached past the man, and twisted a knob viciously as the Comm Officer drifted helplessly nearby.

The volume of the broadcast subsided. He couldn’t turn the damned thing off, but by all the odd gods of the galaxy, he could turn it down so it wasn’t heard! He grabbed the drifting Comm Officer and dragged him to where he could grab hold of the console.

“Commander, you are to personally make sure the volume is turned all the way down on all systems until we can figure out how to disable that recording. Is that clear?” The Commander, clinging desperately to the edge of his console, nodded.

“Y-Y-Yessir!” The man tried to salute, but his arm's movement threatened to send him drifting away, and he hurriedly grabbed at a knob on the console. “Then,” Micah continued, “You are to find out where that damned broadcast is coming from, and stop it! That is your only priority from this moment!”

The Commander clung to his console with both hands. “Yes, sir!” He replied, but his expression spoke volumes. The man had no idea how the message was being generated or broadcast.

Micah looked disgusted, and then whirled toward the weapons console. “All weapons are to fire on that ship! I want it destroyed!”

The Gunnery Officer had managed to strap himself into his chair, and so was not as helpless as the Comm Officer had been. He began rapidly flipping switches and murmuring commands into his throat mike.

His expression, smug when he saw Micah’s reaction to the unfortunate Comm Officer, faded to one of astonishment, then discomfort as he stared at his readouts and screens.

“Well?” Micah demanded.

“I, uh, I don’t understand, Sir,” the Gunnery Officer said plaintively. “All my readouts show us launching missiles and firing laser and particle beam blasts, but we should have felt the launches, and my screens don't show anything at all.”

Micah threw up his hands. “Pah! Isn’t anyone on this ship competent?”

“Admiral.” Micah turned to see Van-Lyn in the bridge hatch. “May I speak with you, sir? In private?”

Micah's fury was unabated. “But…” He stopped and threw up his hands again. “Of course, Captain,” he said in a more moderate tone. He stepped through the hatch, and Van-Lyn swung it shut.

“Admiral,” the old man began, “You’re accomplishing nothing except to demoralize the bridge crew. May I suggest that you retire to your cabin, and I’ll report as soon as there's something to report?”

“Besides, sir,” he continued, “It’s much more important that you devise some way to cope with that broadcast and the confusion it’s bound to cause. You do realize that our own people have just been ordered by the Commander of the Fleet to arrest us?”

Micah hesitated, and then sighed. “You’re right, of course, Jamin.” He straightened. “All right. Number one priority is to regain comms and shut off that damned broadcast! Number two is to secure all ships. As soon as we can get the landing bay repressurized, I want officers sent to each ship in the flotilla. Officers, not just messengers, and those officers are to be accompanied by marine guards. And escort them with a fighter. Sheol! They may have to shoot their way aboard some of those ships! In the meantime, I’ll work out the message they’re to deliver”

He sighed. “Any idea how he did it, Jamin? It appears that he effectively seized control of this ship from the landing bay!”

Van Lyn echoed his sigh. “No, sir. Perhaps he had a comm tech concealed aboard his ship. Even so, I can't imagine anyone skilled enough to override our systems and seize control in the short time available.”

He shrugged. “You realize, of course, that we’ve just had our authority snatched from underneath us. Where do you suppose Cord got a Vice Admiral? If HQ had sent one out, we’d have known about it. I gather you know the man?”

Micah sighed and nodded. “He served under my command some years back. He was a marine light Colonel, then. Typical marine. No manners, no respect. An uncouth, uncultured outerworlder.” He frowned. “He did possess a certain native shrewdness, though. As for how Cord got him, he created him. Somehow, Kedron must have convinced Cord that he could resist us. Cord is a Sector Viceroy; he has the authority to appoint and promote Fleet officers.”

Van-Lyn's expression was grim. “He did pretty well this time.”

Micah nodded. “True. However, trickery won’t be enough to deal with the force we have available. Eventually Kedron will have to meet us in battle. I’m rather looking forward to that.”

Van-Lyn grunted. “I’m not sure that I am.” He straightened. “Well, that fool Comm Officer has had time to figure out what Kedron did. I hope he’s figured out how to stop it.” He turned and ducked through the bridge hatch.

Micah stared after him for a moment before turning and pushing off toward his cabin.

Micah was scouring his brain for justifications when there was a knock on the hatch. At his bellowed “Come in,” a young sensor tech appeared. “Admiral, Captain Van-Lyn asked me to tell you that we’ve detected a launch from Thaeron. By the size of the blip, it’s that tramp that came in two days ago.”

Micah frowned. “I assume that there is some reason that this is being reported to me?”

The young man fidgeted. “Yes, sir. The Captain thought it was an odd coincidence that she’d lift off at this moment.”

Micah shrugged. “Very well. Though I don’t see what I could do about it. I assume that comms are still down?”

“Yes, Sir. However, the landing bay is being repressurized. Pressure should be up to normal at any moment.”

He shrugged again. “Well, if I could, I’d send a destroyer to check her out. Now, the only thing I could send would be a fighter — and with comms out, they couldn’t even communicate. Very well,” he added, more briskly, “You’ve reported. Please ask the Captain to send someone to me with a progress report.”

“Aye, Aye, sir!” The tech wheeled and started to slip out the hatch.

“Just a moment,” Micah called. The man whipped around with amazing agility. “Please ask Captain Van-Lyn to begin detailing officers and marines for the duty he and I discussed. He’ll know what you mean.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” The young tech repeated. He whirled and was gone.

Micah admired the young man’s easy zero-gee technique for a moment before returning to his task.

When the increasingly anxious Micah finally got his status report several hours later, it did nothing to ease his worries.

The reporting was done by Nemesis ’ Executive Officer, a junior Captain. Micah ignored the man’s narrowed, suspicious gaze. He wasn’t a part of Micah’s organization, and was obviously trying to decide whether to believe his own Captain and Admiral, or a tape purporting to be from CINCFLEET.

“All efforts to restore the gravity generators have so far failed,” he reported. “The engineering staff says that the power is available, and is even being drawn off. But the generators are not activating. The Chief suggests that he may have to shut down the main engineering computer and reboot it with backup programs. But he’s sure there’s nothing wrong with the generators themselves.”

“Is he requesting permission to shut down and restart? I’d think that Captain Van-Lyn would be the one to grant it.”

The XO shook his head. “No, sir, not yet. The Captain has already authorized it if the Chief thinks it necessary.”

“Yes, Yes, of course.” Micah responded hurriedly. “What about the comms? And that cursed tape?”

The man shrugged. “No joy, sir. Commander Falker and his men have been going over the comm system inch by inch. Like the Chief Engineer, the Commander tends to suspect that it’s a computer worm. He says he may have to shut down and reinitialize the whole system.”

Micah frowned. “How long will that take? To reinitialize both systems, I mean.”

The XO shrugged again. “At least twenty-four hours to restore both the mains and all ancillary systems, sir. One of the main problems is that the computer that controls the grav generators also controls a lot of life support functions.”

Micah’s frown deepened. “I thought it was a simple matter of bringing the distributed systems online, then rebooting and reconnecting the main.”

The man nodded. “That was how she was designed, sir. In theory, we should be able to shift from the main life support computer to distributed systems in a matter of seconds.”

“Unfortunately,” he continued grimly, “ Nemesis is an old ship. A lot of jury-rigging has been carried on over the last two and a half centuries. The Chief Engineer has to trace a lot of non-standard wiring and programming. Then, he’ll have to restore a lot of the jury-rigging afterward. It could take up to thirty-six hours. The Captain has told him to eliminate all other possibilities first.”

“And the comm systems?”

“Not quite as bad. Commander Falker thinks he may be able to find and eliminate the message and the subroutine that's overriding our controls without reinitializing the entire system. If a total reboot is necessary, it will take some twelve hours.”

“Very well,” Micah replied. “Oh, I almost forgot. What happened to the weapons systems?”

The XO shrugged again. “Same story, sir. Evidently we were the target of a very sophisticated computer assault.”

Micah nodded. “Very well. Tell the Captain and the Weapons Officer that the status of the weapons system is classified Top Secret, as of now.”

The XO raised an eyebrow quizzically. “Sir?”

Micah waved a weary hand. “Just do it, XO. Because of this imposter and his faked-up message, we may actually be faced with mutiny. Any such mutineers must not find out that Nemesis is, for all practical purposes, unarmed.”

The XO nodded. “Yes, sir.”

After he left, Micah gnawed at his lower lip. He’d listened to Chu-Lo's message several times. It was obvious that Micah was headed for a blaster bolt to the back of the head unless he could do something. However, after several hours, the only hope he could see was his original plan. Seize the Sector, and then offer to return it to the Emperor — but this time with an amnesty as an added proviso.

A pounding awakened him. In response to his growled “Come in,” a marine sentry entered. “Admiral, sir!” the young marine gasped. “The Captain sends his respects and asks that the Admiral join him on the bridge, sir!”

“Very well,” Micah growled, and the marine retreated out the hatch. Micah looked at his bedside clock.

Almost twelve hours since Kedron’s attack, and still no gravs. No comms either, he guessed, or Van-Lyn wouldn’t have sent a marine for him.

Van-Lyn was waiting for him on the bridge. “Admiral, a few hours ago, Harpy broke orbit and swung close alongside Fearless. Then, a few minutes ago, both of them broke orbit and are now driving at maximum for number one jump point.”

“They’re deserting, then. Is there anything we can do to stop them?”

Van-Lyn nodded. “Yes, sir, I assume they’re deserting. However, something’s strange. The ships are so close together they’re almost touching. Any Captain would be a fool to maneuver so close to another vessel.” He shook his head. “And I doubt we can stop them. Nemesis has no weapons, of course, and we have no comms to send another vessel, even if we could be sure which ones we can trust. The only thing we can even possibly do is send a flight of strengls after them; and against a destroyer and a battle cruiser, they wouldn't have a chance.”

Micah’s shoulders sagged. Damn Kedron anyway! How could one jumped-up marine so thoroughly complicate his plans?

He sighed. He should have known when the officers dispatched to Harpy and Fearless had failed to return or report. Micah watched the tiny blips crawl across the screen toward the jump point. Vidsen and Jamro were obviously defecting to Cord. He sighed. He should have moved faster on the accidents scheduled for those two.

It took more than forty-eight hours to restore all of Nemesis ’ systems, many hours after Kedron’s ship and that damned tramp had jumped. It was also just too late to stop Fearless and Harpy. By that time, Micah had regained control of his flotilla, but it had been a near thing.

Even among Nemesis ’ handpicked crew, several dozen had to be confined to the brig. There’d been actual hand-to-hand fighting aboard all the other ships. He’d had to send over a hundred marines to secure Dauntless, and he was convinced that only the threat of Nemesis ’ weapons had prevented Raptor from following Harpy ’s lead and deserting.

Then there was the base on Thaeron. He’d been infuriated when communications had been restored and the base’s CO had reported. After thinking about it, though, Micah had to consider it a case of mixed emotions. Evidently, at the time Kedron had been sabotaging Nemesis ’ systems, a force of armed men in marine uniforms had mounted an attack from that damned tramp.

They’d destroyed almost every shuttle and orbital lifter he had, which was a serious problem; but they’d also kept the base’s personnel too busy to react to Chu-Lo’s message. Now, using the attack as an excuse, Micah had two hundred armed marines occupying the base. He didn’t have to worry about being cut off from the base’s supplies and personnel.

In addition, his counter-propaganda seemed to be working; at least physical resistance had ceased. He’d visited all the ships of the flotilla, and on all of them, he’d harped and continued to harp on the theme that Kedron was an imposter sent by Cord to demoralize and cause dissension among the Fleet personnel, and the message a hoax and a fake. Calm was finally restored, but casualties had been heavy.

Micah sighed. It was going to take months to recover from this. Moreover, he wasn’t sure he could hold it together that long. He shrugged. He’d have to. If his plan failed, he was a dead man.

There were three bright spots though, two of which involved personnel. For one thing, Van-Lyn had turned out to be a pleasant surprise through the emergency. Oh, the old man had been shocked by his inclusion in Chu-Lo’s message. Now, he seemed resigned to his own disgrace and death. Surprisingly, Van-Lyn had become determined that if he were going out, he'd go out fighting. The doddering, uncertain Van-Lyn of a week ago was gone, replaced by the strong, determined commander he must have been in past years.

Micah could also be certain he knew where all his Captains stood. No more doubts could be entertained. They all finally knew that their fates were tied to his. He’d have to tolerate no more opposition and agitation from within his own command ranks.

Raptor ’s Captain’d had to die in the fighting, but his replacement, his inexperienced XO, was controllable. The fool was focused only on his own ambition, and was sure that his only chance of surviving this episode with his career intact was to blindly follow the orders of duly constituted authority — Micah.

A slight smile flitted across Micah’s face. The third bright spot was that the turmoil had given Micah an opportunity to eliminate four investigators and quite a bit of evidence. He’d still have to be watchful, of course. Some of the investigators could still be undercover. However, most of the documentary and computerized evidence had been destroyed.

Those were the only bright spots, though. Damn Kedron! His ten-minute visit had caused months of delays. What if Cord announced the release before Micah was ready?

It appeared, though, that Cord wasn’t ready for a confrontation, either. The very few intelligence reports he’d been receiving indicated that Cord had all the shipyards on Outback working day and night, doing something involving those damned tramps. He slammed his fist on his desk. He had to give Cord some credit, at least. The man understood security. Every MI agent Micah had tried to infiltrate into the shipyards had been caught, and the three agents remaining on Outback were unwilling to try it again.

Evidently, Cord was using his viceregal access to Fleet records to identify Micah’s agents. Micah frowned. All right, so he couldn’t get an agent into the yards. However, over the years, Micah’s Intelligence chief had recruited a number of those tramps’ captains — and their names wouldn’t be in Cord’s files. It was time to lean on them. Oh, they were all provincials, so he couldn’t expect too much, but he should get something useful, even from them.

In the meantime, he’d ordered every ship’s launch, gig, or barge transferred to the base below. Only his own barge remained in space, so that the force had at least some intership movement capability.

It wasn’t going to be enough. Launches, gigs, and barges weren’t the same as cargo lifters. He slammed his desk again in frustration. Kedron’s attack had been almost completely successful. Micah wondered whether the idea had been Cord's or Kedron’s. He really hadn’t thought that a bumpkin like Kedron could have that sort of tactical sense.

Micah shrugged. Whoever it was, he’d slowed Micah’s timetable by months.

It appeared he’d have to do something about this Kedron, though. The man was proving to be entirely too effective. He sighed. Micah could have used a man like Kedron in his organization.

It was nearly time for his tiny fleet courier to sneak into the Haven system anyway. He dug through the papers on his desk, and located the timetable. Yes. The courier should be leaving in about nine hours. Excellent. He’d send along a message for his Military Intelligence agents on Haven.

The fleet courier was Micah’s secure communication line with his agents. The agents beamed messages to a certain area of empty space at prearranged times. They also maintained listening watches at those times.

The fleet courier would emerge into Haven's system through a little-used jump point a short time before the messages arrived at the target area. Hovering at the edge of the system, it would squirt-beam coded messages toward Haven, then wait. At the appointed time, it would intercept the messages previously sent by the agents, then jump back to Thaeron.

Since the courier didn’t dare approach the planet closely, light-speed lag times made two-way communication impossible; though of course, secure communications could scarcely be maintained anyway, with messages being beamed at a whole planet.

Micah scrawled a message, then grabbed his codebook and laboriously translated the message into unbreakable code. He could have just used the computer to code the message into standard fleet codes, of course, but Micah didn’t want this message seen by anyone but the agent concerned.

He called in his aide, and had the coded message delivered to the courier. Then, dismissing the incident from his mind, he returned to his work.

Micah could only hope that he’d have time to complete his preparations before Cord’s announcement.

Chapter IX

“Okay, Kaleen,” I asked, “Exactly what did you accomplish?”

“I seized Nemesis’ command defense systems using Imperial overrides,” she said. “You heard the resulting broadcast. It will continue repeating, blanketing all frequencies in the system, until they shut down and reboot Nemesis ’ entire comm system. Weapons control comps have been infected with a virus that is deleting tactical controls. Nemesis should be able to neither fire on us, nor call in other vessels to attack.”

Kaleen's voice paused, and alarm bells began ringing in my head. A comp, hesitating? “Captain,” her voice resumed. “I must report that I took an action without direct instruction. But,” the voice added hurriedly, “you did instruct me to do anything that might increase our chances of escape without endangering human life, and I estimate that this action increased our chances of survival by 12.43729 percent.”

I began getting really frightened. How much did Kaleen know about what constituted danger to human life? Gods! What if she’d shut down life support? Nemesis carried over five thousand crewmembers! I kept my tone carefully casual.

“Exactly what did you do, Kaleen?” I asked quietly.

“I realized that Nemesis ’ comps were designed with large-scale redundancy,” she explained. “All of the functions of the main artificial intelligence can be assumed by one or another of the smaller comps spread throughout the ship. Though they lack full AI capability, all that it would take to get Nemesis operational would be for someone to shut down the main AI and bring the distributed systems online.

“Since I am not familiar enough with human capabilities to assess the time required for someone to realize that and take action, I deemed it desirable to add a confusion factor.”

Now I was really getting worried. A comp was temporizing, behaving like a child confessing a misdeed! “What did you do?” I demanded.

“At the moment that we blasted clear of Nemesis, a timed command executed, and the gravity generators shut down. They can be restarted only by shutting down and rebooting the main engineering comp. Rear Admiral Jonas is effectively isolated for a period I estimate to be a minimum of twenty-four hours. At maximum boost, this should permit our escape, though perhaps not that of the marine commando on the planet below.”

I began to relax, and then started guiltily. In all the excitement, I’d forgotten about Tor’s commando raid on Thaeron. Tor and his handpicked men had been huddling concealed in a rim tramp that grounded on Thaeron just as we were arriving in-system. The plan was for them to come out shooting upon a signal from Kaleen, penetrate the landing field’s security systems, and damage or destroy all the shuttles they could reach.

Since all of Jonas’ ships were too large to ground, all servicing and repairs had to be carried out at an orbital station. Virtually every tool, part, and supply had to be shuttled up from the planet. Tor’s mission had been to interfere with the servicing and even the staffing of Jonas’ ships by damaging or cutting their lifeline to the surface.

The escape plan for the commando had been as iffy as our own. After blowing Sheol out of anything that even resembled a shuttle, they were to regroup and reboard the tramp, where they would have mere seconds to don pressure suits while she lifted with her cargo hatch open, revealing the pair of heavy lasers welded to the hold deck.

Unlike us, there was a very good chance that the tramp would be pursued and attacked. Frankly, the lasers were more for morale than anything else. If Lubyloo couldn’t outrun any pursuers, there was little chance that the lasers could save the lives of the men aboard her.

“I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything from them?” I asked worriedly.

“I’m sorry, Captain. The only contact I’ve had was the acknowledgment of my signal as we entered Nemesis.”

“All right, Kaleen,” I began carefully. “In future, however, please inform me or whoever’s in command of any actions that you contemplate. I do not want you to underestimate a danger to human life. In this case, I approve. The confusion created by loss of gravity can only aid in our escape and that of Lubyloo. Just let me know before you do anything like that again, please.” I struggled to keep my tone even and calm.

“Yes, Captain,” Kaleen replied. Her tone was formal and grave. I could at least hope that she appreciated the importance of that instruction.

I was coming to realize that there were drawbacks to sentient ships.

Almost half an hour later Kaleen reported a ship lifting off Thaeron at a high gee. “From its size, I infer that it’s Lubyloo, Captain.”

I strained at the sensor screen. “Any pursuit?”

I could almost hear Kaleen shrug. “As we estimated, Captain, pursuit is not expected for a minimum of fifteen minutes. With communications blanketed by our announcement, the base has no way to inform the ships of the attack. Pursuit will require a ship to detect Lubyloo ’s departure, her captain to decide that something is wrong, and then give the orders. I will continue to monitor as long as we remain in sensor range.”

“Thank you, Kaleen,” I replied. “As I remember, Jonas didn’t think highly of initiative in his subordinates. Hopefully, fear of Jonas will keep any ships from going after Lubyloo — if they’re in any condition to pursue at all.”

“After all,” I continued, talking, as much to myself as to Kaleen, “Chu-Lo’s message has to have had some impact! With any luck, fighting has broken out on most of the ships, with half the crew believing the message, and the other half convinced it’s a fake. Is there any movement at all?”

“None of the ships have maneuvered. Gyrfalcon, the destroyer that escorted us from the jump point, began warming her inertial drives, but that effort has ceased.”

It was maddening, watching the ships of Jonas’ flotilla orbiting serenely, just as they’d been before we arrived. With our tape disrupting all communications, we had no way of knowing if anything was happening.

Our only evidence was negative. No ships broke orbit to pursue Lubyloo, which was boosting frantically for a secondary jump point, or us. I breathed a huge sigh of relief as we jumped.

“What about Lubyloo?” I asked Kaleen, “Is she going to make it?”

“As of the moment of our jump, no pursuit had been mounted,” Kaleen replied. “It is doubtful that even the fastest of Admiral Jonas’ flotilla could catch her, and nothing that could possibly catch her is armed. Barring accident, Lubyloo should escape.”

I sighed again. “Thank all the odd gods of the galaxy! I hope Tor’s casualties weren't too heavy.”

The trip back to Outback system was no less nerve-wracking than the trip out. We had no way to judge how much trouble, if any, we had caused, or whether we’d delayed Jonas’ attack sufficiently. As before, I occupied most of my time with Kaleen, who was becoming more human every day. By the time we emerged, I was seriously worried about how Cord was going to react to his newly sentient ship.

My return was cause for a surprisingly large and heartfelt party aboard Valkyrie. When I returned aboard, people held their positions just long enough for the military courtesies to be dealt with, and then I was mobbed.

Amazingly, the first person to rush up and grab me was Suli. Tears were streaming down those lovely ebon cheeks, but I barely had time to notice before she planted an enthusiastic kiss on my lips and hugged me tightly against her magnificent breasts. Then she released me and fled while I gasped for breath and struggled to regain my composure.

I didn’t have time to wonder about it, though. People I didn’t recognize kept coming up to me and shaking hands, congratulating me on my success. Since we didn’t know whether my mission had been a success at all, I felt their congratulations were premature. However, the party lasted all night.

I waited for Lubyloo to return before I risked a report to Cord. Tor’s news was good. They’d disabled or destroyed every shuttle that hadn’t been in space at the time. Resistance had been limited to a few guards and techs with improvised weapons. Tor’s casualties were light; two dead and three wounded. By any measure, our mission had been an unqualified success.

Nevertheless, I was still reluctant to call Cord. I had to tell him that the most expensive ship in space wasn’t just a ship, but a person. What if they didn’t get along? What if Cord tried to order Kaleen disassembled? What if… I sighed. Worry was pointless, and I had temporized enough.

Some preparations were necessary, though. As soon as we’d entered Outback orbit, I’d sent for Doctor Petain, the compman Cord had sent to introduce me to Kaleen. (And who turned out to be one of the top designers and experts on the rim!) Luckily, he hadn’t yet returned to the Haven system.

Ever since I’d taken him aside and gently told him there was no longer doubt about Kaleen's sentience, he’d been running her through a series of tests and exercises, getting more excited by the moment. I wanted to make sure that he’d be available to answer Cord’s questions. I also had to ask Kaleen to disable all her audio and video sensors in the comm room, a much more difficult task. Finally, I had to pull rank and pretend to get angry. I could only hope she’d obey. Living with a sentient ship took some adjustment.

Finally, all was in readiness. I took a deep breath and flipped the switch establishing subspace connection with Haven.

Cord had obviously been anxiously awaiting my report. The relief on his face when he saw me uninjured reinforced my decision to join him. Cord cared about people!

“Well, Admiral,” He began, “You seem to have survived.”

I nodded. “Yes, sir. Our part of the mission went exactly as planned, and the commando raid was also a success. Rimrunner and I are both undamaged, and the marines suffered two dead and three wounded. It could have been much worse.”

Cord grinned. “Excellent! Can you estimate the impact? How much time have we gained?”

I shrugged. “I’ve no way of knowing, sir. But after seventeen years in the Fleet, I’m sure that tape is the only subject of discussion in the Thaeron system.” I paused a moment before continuing. “Some Fleet people are going to die as a result of this. Maybe a lot of them.”

Cord nodded soberly. “I know, Admiral. However, we had no choice. If Jonas had launched an attack before we were ready, many more would have died.”

“I know, sir,” I replied, “But frankly, that doesn’t make me feel any better.”

“Nor I. But theoretically, there shouldn’t even be a problem. Direct orders from Admiral Chu-Lo should impress even the rawest recruit. Right now, Admiral Jonas and Captain Van-Lyn should be in their own brig, and the next-senior officer should be reporting to Haven for orders.”

I snorted. “Not likely! By now, Jonas is shouting his head off about how the message was faked, and if it was genuine, why did I run away? He won’t mention his ordering a marine to shoot me.” I shook my head. “No, there’s bound to be fighting and death in the Thaeron system.”

Cord nodded again. “I know. Actually, I’m hoping that one or more of Jonas’ ships will desert to us. All it would take would be a majority of the crew believing Admiral Chu-Lo’s announcement.” He shrugged, and then continued briskly, “Is there anything else, Admiral?” His tone was obviously dismissive, and he equally obviously expected a negative answer.

I couldn’t evade it any longer. “Uh, yes, sir, there is one more thing. Uh, it’s about Kaleen.”

Cord looked puzzled for a moment. “Kaleen? Rimrunner 's AI? Did something happen to it?”

“You could say so, sir.” I took a deep breath. “Sir, Kaleen’s sentient.”

He frowned. “Are they still arguing about that?”

I shook my head. “You don’t understand, sir. There can be no argument. Kaleen is sentient. Uh, perhaps I’d better bring Dr. Petain in to join this discussion.”

The frown had deepened. “Perhaps you’d better,” he replied. His tone had turned cold. I triggered a signal, and Dr. Petain entered the comm room.

“Good morning, Viceroy,” He began excitedly, “has the Admiral told you the good news? Kaleen is sentient! She's developing her own personality…” Cord held up a hand to force a pause in Petain’s bubbly recital.

“Please, Doctor,” Cord said coldly. “Restrain your enthusiasm for a moment. Thank you. Now,” he continued, “You’re absolutely certain that Kaleen is really sentient? A few weeks ago, there was considerable doubt, as I recall.”

Dr. Petain was squirming in his chair, struggling to restrain the enthusiasm of a scientist encountering his greatest dream and challenge. “Oh, there can be no more doubt," he bubbled. "Even that cretin Volpig will have to admit it. Kaleen is sentient! It’s wonderful!”

Cord turned his attention to me. “I gather that you had a hand in this, Admiral,” he said mildly, “If you don't mind my asking, what the Sheol did you do to my ship? ” He looked furious.

“Uh, nothing, Viceroy,” I replied weakly. “I just had a lot of time on my hands during the trip to Thaeron and back. I… uh… I talked to Kaleen.”

His face was grim. “You talked to it… er… her? That’s all?”

I nodded. “That’s all, sir.”

Cord looked thoughtful for a moment. “Can she hear us now?”

I shook my head doubtfully. “I don’t think so, sir. I ordered her to disable all audio and video input from this room. I hope she obeys the order.”

“Oh, she’ll obey,” Dr. Petain interrupted, “It wouldn’t occur to her not to obey an order.”

“Really?” Cord's look was skeptical, his tone scathing. “Can you be sure?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Never mind. Admiral, I want you to bring Rimrunner to Haven immediately.” He held up a hand to forestall my interruption. “You will break orbit within the hour, and will proceed to Haven as quickly as possible. I want maximum acceleration between jump points, and maximum length jumps. Is that clear?”

“Uh, sir, I’ve got a lot to do here…” I began.

Cord shook his head coldly. "You have nothing to do that’s more important than getting that ship here to Haven as quickly as possible.” He turned to Dr. Petain. “Doctor, you will accompany the Admiral on this trip. You will spend the trip studying exactly what has happened to Rimrunner ’s AI, and studying its emerging personality, if any. You will ground at the palace, Admiral, and you and Doctor Petain will report to me as soon as you arrive. Are these instructions clear?”

“Yes, sir” “Yes, Viceroy,” we chorused. “One more thing,” he added. “Admiral, make arrangements to move your headquarters to Haven. You can have your flagship follow along after Rimrunner.”

“But…” I began to protest when he interrupted me. “I know, Admiral. Consider your protests entered. But unless you can name me one thing that you can do there that Commander Carlon cannot, I’m ordering you to move to Haven. You can no longer plan on having subspace communication available, and coordination between us will be increasingly important.”

With a wave of his hand, Cord terminated the connection. Petain and I looked at each other. I wasn’t surprised that Cord was unhappy that his yacht was now a living being, but I couldn’t think of anything we’d done to provoke that kind of reaction.

“Kaleen,” I said tentatively. No reply. Maybe she had obeyed my orders not to eavesdrop.

Petain snorted and gave me an ‘I told you so’ look before stalking out of the comm room. I followed more slowly. I’d looked forward to exploring Suli’s remarkable reaction to my return. We hadn’t had time since the party, but it seemed to me that Suli seemed equally anxious to talk with me.

Well, with Valkyrie following me on to Haven, perhaps we’d find the time there.

Old farts my age should not be having such fantasies!

Seventy-three hours later we emerged in Haven’s system, and began driving at maximum acceleration for the planet. I shuddered with anticipation of the cold.

Shortly thereafter, Kaleen informed me that a Fleet warship was orbiting Haven. I called Cord on subspace.

“Actually, there are two of them. They’re refugees from Jonas,” he told me irritably. “The Cruiser is Fearless, and the Destroyer is Harpy. I took a chance and ordered them to assume orbit until your arrival. My people have been aboard both of them, and by all reports they’re genuine, but I reserve judgment until you can decide yourself. I understand that their CO’s have some interesting stories to tell.” He waved a hand impatiently. “Just get down here as quickly as possible!” He disconnected.

We strained the gravity compensators getting to Haven and grounding. Kaleen was still shutting down the inertial drives when Cord’s personal guardsmen began spilling from the palace. The ground was still steaming as their officer began pounding on Rimrunner ’s lock. It looked like we were in big trouble.

An armed guardsman remained on the bridge, while an armed squad double-timed down to the comp bay, and another squad escorted Petain and me into the palace. I didn’t even have time to complain about the cold.

By the time we were ushered into Cord’s office, Petain and I were unsure that we were going to survive this experience. Cord wasn’t alone. I recognized the room’s other occupant as the gaudily uniformed Captain of Rimrunner.

Cord waved us to seats. “Doctor,” he began, “Your report, please.”

Petain swallowed nervously. “Yes, sir. Uh… Kaleen is definitely sentient. I’m unable to state positively whether she’s been sentient all along, or whether the Admiral somehow triggered something. Uh, there’s a lot we don’t understand about sentience, especially since we’ve only encountered two other species that might possess it. I’d estimate her personality development is approximately that of a brilliant child of about five. She’s exceedingly curious about herself, wondering about her place in the universe. She’s also brutally honest and clumsy with social conventions; in fact, I had to explain to her what a social convention is. Of course, she doesn't think she’s human or anything, and she understands she’s unique, and that we’ll be learning from her as much as she’s learning from us.”

Cord still looked grim. “Does she understand that she’s not, can’t be, an independent agent? That she’s dependent upon humans for maintenance, supplies, and support? In other words, does she understand that she must obey us? And will she obey us?”

I was beginning to see why Cord was so worried; still, he seemed to be overreacting badly. “I’m sure she’ll cooperate,” I said. “I’ve spent a lot of time with her, and I don’t think she even has the concept of disobedience. If she does, I’m sure it never occurred to her.” Then her actions in shutting down Nemesis ’ gravity generators occurred to me…

Cord swung those cold eyes to me. “I certainly hope you’re correct, Admiral, and that it remains that way. Doctor, you remember the larger duplicate of Rimrunner that we were building for the Emperor?"

Petain nodded. “Of course, Viceroy. In fact, her AI’s slightly in advance of Rimrunner ’s. Don’t worry, sir, we’ll make sure that everything’s all right before we send the ship on to the Emperor.”

Cord shook his head. “I’m afraid not, Doctor. You see, while the Admiral was off on his mission, the Emperor himself made a secret, unannounced visit to Haven. It’s the first time that an Emperor has ever visited the rim. He came to personally participate in ceremonies turning the rim over to me. All the teams involved in building the Emperor’s yacht agreed that it was ready, and we commemorated the visit by presenting the yacht to the Emperor. As we speak, the Emperor is riding his new yacht back to Prime. What if his AI wakes up? And what if that AI decides that it doesn’t like him? Does it just depressurize itself, leaving itself a free agent? Or does it trigger an overload in its jump engines, and simply disappear from normal space forever?”

I was dumbfounded. The Rim’s technological superiority could very well cause the Emperor’s death and the Empire’s disintegration. I looked over at Petain. He was a ghastly pale.

“Viceroy! I… er… that is…” Cord waved him to silence.

“Doctor,” Cord ordered, “You and Captain Sinas, here, have a mission. You will resupply Rimrunner as quickly as possible, and you will leave as soon thereafter as humanly possible for Prime. You will travel at maximum at all times. If you should encounter the Emperor’s party en route, or catch up with them on Prime, you will board his new yacht and ascertain whether it, too, has awakened. If it has, you will become its temporary tutor. If you encounter even the slightest doubt of the yacht’s benevolence, you are ordered to destroy it.”

Petain was looking stunned as Cord continued, “I’ve already contacted the Emperor by subspace, and I think he’s going to leave the yacht for the Battle Cruiser that’s with him; but I’m not sure he believes me. Offer to introduce him to Kaleen, if necessary. Whatever it takes, get the Emperor off that yacht!” he looked at Petain expectantly.

Petain was a civilian; A few moments passed before he jumped and said, “Oh! Of Course… Ah… Yes, sir!” Another moment, and he added, “Ah… sir… Ah… how long will I be expected to be gone? I mean, I’ve already been away from my family for over a month..”

Cord shrugged. “Surely you understand that this is the biggest thing to hit the Empire in more than a century, Doctor. Actually, you’re in a better position to estimate that than I am; but I’d be surprised if it didn’t take years to learn about that AI and to teach it.”

Petain looked panicked and started to protest, but stopped as Cord continued, “Don’t worry, Doctor. I can’t let you wait for them, but I’ll send your family along to you by the first available transportation; and I’ll see to it that the Emperor pays you an amount well above your rim salary. I’m sure you’ll be given housing in the Imperial Complex, of course.

“After all, Doctor, you’ll be unique! You’ll be the only man on Prime that knows anything about AI this advanced. Then there’s the work itself; working with one of only two sentient comps in the universe. You’ll be Empire’s foremost expert on artificial sentience!”

I had trouble keeping a straight face as Petain literally puffed up. His eyes turned glassy and got a faraway look. Then I caught the twinkle in Cord’s eye and grinned.

Cord winked, and then turned to Captain Sinas. “Captain, How long until you're ready to lift?”

Sinas looked thoughtful. “For a trip of that length, I’d say at least twelve hours, sir.”

I’d have said more like eighteen; but Cord replied, “Use my codes and do it in eight.” Sinas nodded, and then stood, saluted and left, trailed by the starry-eyed Petain.

Cord looked at me and sighed. “Admiral,” he said, “Things certainly happen around you.” He shook his head in exasperation. “Only you could take a glorified navigation comp and turn it into an Empire-wide emergency.”

“All I did was talk to her!” I protested weakly.

He looked at me skeptically. “Yes. Well, perhaps we’d better move on to business.” I sighed in relief as he continued, “The Emperor’s visit was secret, of course. The turnover ceremonies were taped, and will be broadcast as soon as we announce the release. But the Emperor’s presence is not an easy secret to keep, and I’m afraid it has only increased the time pressure on us.”

“Your first order of business,” he continued, “Is to board Fearless and Harpy. Inspect them, and assume command of them. I understand that they’ve suffered some damage. Assess that, and if necessary, send them on to Outback for repairs. Then you can begin establishing a headquarters here on Haven. Nothing fancy, of course. When Jonas attacks, you'll have to abandon it.”

I nodded. Valkyrie should be arriving in a day or so, accompanied by Predator and three rim tramps loaded with armed mining boats. I wanted to be ready for them when they arrived.

Fearless was not nearly as huge as Nemesis, of course, but was still some five hundred meters in diameter, bristling with lasers and particle beam weapons. Harpy, half her size, was huddled alongside Fearless. It was only as we swung around her to Fearless ’ personnel lock that I could see that Harpy was actually attached to the cruiser. Rigid metal struts ran between them, welded raggedly to both hulls. Suited men swarmed around both ships. Obviously, these ships had incurred serious damage. I hoped they could be made battle ready in time.

Fearless ’ skipper was Captain Rence Vidsen, a grizzled veteran of some thirty years’ Fleet service. He was gruff and somewhat tactless. I liked him immediately. Anyone who could attain command of a battle cruiser despite such an abrasive personality must be highly competent.

Harpy ’s Captain, on the other hand, was a junior Lieutenant Commander named Pres Jamro, who immediately reminded me of a puppy. He was always cheerful, always enthusiastic, and always inquisitive. All he needed was a tail to wag. I had to keep reminding myself that the Empire Fleet had given this young man command of a destroyer and more than two hundred and fifty men. He couldn’t be as ineffectual as he looked. I resolved to pay particular attention when I reviewed his record. He seemed to defer to Fearless ’ captain most of the time, which was one favorable trait, but I had considerable doubts about Jamro.

Captain Vidsen escorted me on a tour of Fearless, pointing out damage while providing a running commentary.

Evidently, my mission to Thaeron had been as big a success as we’d hoped. Admiral Chu-Lo’s message had touched off a firestorm throughout the system. It seemed that a small majority of the fleet personnel were convinced that the message was genuine. However, Jonas had enough foresight to pack Nemesis with crewmembers loyal to him, transferring anyone whom he’d doubted. Using Nemesis as a threat, he’d regained partial control of his forces, but fighting had broken out on every vessel in the system and on the base below. Onboard Fearless, the fighting had been hand-to-hand and brutal. When the Jonas loyalists on board had seen that they couldn’t win, they’d seized Engineering and disabled the interstellar navigational comp, among other things, before being wiped out. Captain Vidsen had been preparing to defend his crippled vessel and its crew when Harpy had suddenly come riding an evasion course into Fearless ’ orbit.

With the comms blanketed by Chu-Lo’s message, things had been touchy for a few minutes, but finally Jamro had convinced Captain Vidsen of his loyalty. Harpy had been much luckier than Fearless. On the other hand, perhaps it wasn’t luck, and I was underestimating Jamro. At any rate, Harpy had been one of the few ships on which no fighting had taken place. Jamro had simply behaved as though the Fleet Admiral’s orders were genuine, and none of his crew had dared suggest otherwise. I decided I had underestimated the young Captain. If he could foster that kind of unquestioning loyalty in his crew, he must be an effective commander.

At any rate, once he’d been sure his ship was secure, Jamro had gone looking for somewhere that Harpy could be useful. I later learned that he had a serious case of hero worship for Vidsen, and he’d decided that joining Fearless was his best course of action.

Jamro had placed Harpy under Vidsen’s orders, and the two had discussed their best course of action. They’d decided that they had to get out of the Thaeron system, but Fearless ’ disabled nav comp made a jump impossible for the cruiser. Vidsen had decided to try welding the two ships together, and use Harpy ’s nav comp to compute the jumps to Haven, and Fearless ’ more powerful jump engines to power them. It had been by no means a sure thing, and Harpy ’s Astrogator and Fearless ’ chief engineer deserved medals, but they’d made it.

I had no choice. “Can you make three more jumps? I want you to go to the Outback system for repairs.”

Vidsen looked at his engineer, who looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded. “Yes, sir,” Vidsen replied. “They’ll have to be short jumps, though. We don’t want to risk getting lost in null space.”

I nodded. “Very well. Proceed immediately to the Outback system. Once there, I want Harpy to be detached from Fearless and to return here. I have a feeling we’ll be needing you, Captain Jamro.”

They were on their way within hours, and I began working. I now realized Cord had been right to move me to Haven. The preparation phase was finished. Rim tramps and boats were being armed at a furious pace on Outback, but I wasn’t needed there. It was time to begin the strategic and tactical phase of the operation. Cord had been excited about the cruiser and destroyer, but I reminded him that Jonas still controlled the base on Thaeron, a dreadnought, two cruisers and three destroyers, plus auxiliaries. We were still badly outgunned. I was beginning to worry about Cord. He seemed convinced that a couple of genuine warships would enable us to beat Jonas. More importantly, he was beginning to display a tendency to meddle.

Chapter X

The most immediate requirement was the establishment, staffing and supplying of bases of operation. When Jonas finally regained control of his forces, he was going to come to Haven immediately and in full strength. We knew this, of course, and had no intention of fighting a pitched battle here if it could be avoided.

Cord, with his usual foresight, had already begun work on one of the bases, his ‘bolt hole’. Located on an airless moon in an uninhabited system one jump away, Cord had equipped it with living quarters, communications, and administrative facilities. However, it would serve wonderfully as a supply and staging area for operations. We began expanding it at a frenzied pace.

The other base was much smaller, but since it was located in the Haven system itself, it was much more modest and highly classified.

It was established on a large asteroid in the belt. We packed it with supplies for several months. It would house some thirty of our armed mining boats. For the present, we would rotate boat pilots every week or so; but when Jonas invaded, whoever was present would remain for the duration. The base consisted of little more than drilled caves full of supplies, a few domes, and a relatively flat area that served as a landing field for the boats. The asteroid had just enough gravity to keep the boats from drifting away, though a single man could have pushed them off. They were tethered down for safety.

Predator, Valkyrie and the rim tramps arrived, with the mining boats and pilots. I sent the rim tramps and the first batch of pilots off to the asteroid base, while Predator and my old Valkyrie (with Suli aboard!) assumed orbit around Haven. Valkyrie 's own load of mining boats remained aboard.

I lost no time summoning Wil Tor.

“Major,” I began, “I have a job for you. Any time now, Jonas is going to come swarming out of the Thaeron system with blood in his eye. When he does, most of our forces are going to run fast and far. But,” I continued, “that means leaving the people of the rim to Jonas’ tender mercies — and he doesn’t have any.

“Until now, events have forced me to concentrate on spaceborne defenses. However, not only the systems need defending. Many innocent people will need help, too. When Jonas comes, we’ll have to let him have the sector for a while, perhaps several months. But we don’t want to let him dig in. We want to keep him nervous, keep things going wrong for him.”

Tor nodded. “You want me to organize a resistance movement.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “but I can’t give you much in the way of weapons. We have the manufacturing capacity, but we simply don’t have the time to design and make them. Oh, we may be able to adapt some industrial lasers or something, but don’t expect blasters and marine laser rifles.”

Tor looked excited. “That’s not a problem, sir. Actually, this is great! My hobby is ancient weapons. I’ll bet we can improvise some nasty surprises. What can you give me, sir?”

I grinned. I remembered my own fire-eating days. “I can put an unarmed rim tramp under your orders,” I replied, “and I can give you all of your marines, and authority to have weapons made when possible. But Major, you’re going to be pretty much on your own.” I shrugged. “Hopefully, we’ll be ready to fight within a few weeks of Jonas’ invasion, but I can’t guarantee that, of course.”

He nodded excitedly. “We know we’ll need an active resistance movement on Haven, but how many other planets do you think we’ll need to cover?”

I sighed. “I wish I could tell you. There are thirty-one inhabited systems in the sector, but Jonas has limited resources. If I were you, I’d start with Haven, and then perhaps set up operations commanded by one of your subordinates on Gamma, if necessary. I’m told that Gamma and four other systems are the economic engine of the sector. I’d expect them to be Jonas’ secondary targets.”

“Thank you, sir!” he crowed. “We’ll keep him so busy he won’t have time to think about you and the Viceroy!”

I nodded. “I hope so. However, please bear in mind that you’ll be dealing mostly with civilians, both as fighters and as hostages. This won’t be a picnic, Wil. You may have to watch some pretty nasty reprisals take place, and you may have to deal with double agents, criminals, and a lot of other slime. By the time this is over, you’ll be praying to any god that’ll listen for some disciplined marines.”

Tor grinned. “I can handle it, sir. If I run into trouble, I’ll just ask myself, ‘What would Kedron do?’”

I answered his grin. “I hope not. Mostly, Kedron would run!”

A few more pleasantries, and Tor was off, excited as a kid. I hoped I’d be seeing him again.

My next problem was finding someone to command the asteroid boat base. I’d need someone with an understanding of the capabilities of the boats, and the skill and patience to handle the undisciplined pilots. On the advice of Jabeth Rawl and Toms Tindarr, I settled on the supervisor of the orbital smelting station on Delta. He was a tough, grizzled, whipcord-thin old man who was an ex-asteroid miner himself. Most of the miners claimed to dislike him intensely, but they obeyed him without question. I didn’t like him much, but he and Cord hit it off right away. Like him or not, I had confidence that he would be able to run the station, and the intelligence to use it effectively when the time came.

I never did really establish a headquarters on Haven. When Valkyrie arrived, I moved aboard her in orbit. For such planet-bound activities as were necessary, I shuttled to a small office in the viceregal palace. For the most part, I tried to stay off that frozen mudball.

I was walking from the palace’s landing pad to the palace itself when I saw the flash and heard the sharp crack of molecules ionized by a blaster. I instinctively dropped to the ground. After seventeen years in the marines, I was very familiar with the sound of a near miss. I rolled toward cover as the Viceroy’s guards opened fire.

All but one of the guards scurried off in pursuit of the assassin. The one who remained crouched over me, his laser tracking back and forth above my head. There could, after all, be more than one shooter. After a long moment, he said, “When I say go, Admiral, run for the palace; it’s closer than the shuttle… Go!”

I levered myself to my feet and pounded across the pad toward the ornate door, puffing and cursing. It seemed to take days to cover the few yards, my back prickling from the anticipated blaster bolt. Finally, I reached the door and dove through it. I squirmed around so that I could see out the plas of the door, but I remained prone on the floor.

There was a flurry of blaster and laser fire near a small hut at the edge of the landing pad, then silence. Finally, my protector rose and walked casually to the door. I rose to greet him.

“We got him, Admiral. One of our guys is wounded slightly, but otherwise everything’s all right.”

“Any idea who he was?”

The man shrugged. “No, sir. I expect Inspector Tomys will find out. We frown on people trying to kill the Viceroy’s guests, here!" He looked very angry; outraged at the very idea that someone would attempt an assassination at the palace.

Tomys arrived at a pounding run. “You’re really all right, Admiral?”

I assured him that I was unharmed, and he relaxed visibly. “Good, good.” Then he resumed briskly, “Well then, Admiral, I have some work to do, but I see no sense in delaying you any further. I’ll let you know what I learn.”

It was an obvious dismissal. After a few more courtesies, I continued on to my office cubby. It didn’t work. When I found myself reading the same passage for the fourth time and realized that I still had no idea what it said, I gave up and fidgeted, waiting to hear from Tomys.

It was several hours later that I was summoned to Cord’s office. Tomys lounged in a chair across from Cord’s desk.

“Well, Admiral,” Cord began with a sardonic grin, “Few of us are privileged to know our exact worth. Yours seems to be ten thousand crowns!”

I glanced at Tomys. “I thought you had all of Jonas’ MI people under control.”

He nodded. “We do. The shooter wasn’t Military Intelligence. Oh, we’ve identified him, all right. He was a professional killer named Ven Dorgo.” He frowned. “I’m not all upset that dear old Ven is dead, but I sure wish I’d been able to talk with him a bit.”

Cord looked exasperated. “Damn it, Ralf, the guards tried! But when one of them was wounded, they couldn’t take any more chances. I won’t criticize people for doing their jobs effectively!”

Tomys held up his hands in surrender. “I understand, sir, and I don’t blame the guards for killing him. But I’d dearly love to know who gave him that ten thousand. It wasn’t one of Jonas’ regular agents — they’re either in custody or under surveillance. That means that Jonas either has some deep-cover agents we don’t know about, or close contacts in the underworld."

“I’d vote for the underworld contacts,” I put in. “I don’t think Jonas is intelligent enough or cares enough to have set up deep cover agents.”

Tomys shrugged. “Well, somebody is willing to put up ten thousand for your head, Admiral. While we try to figure out who’s involved and what they’re up to, I’d suggest you begin taking precautions.”

Cord nodded in agreement. “Yes. I think you’d better have a bodyguard, Admiral.”

I cursed. “No! Look, sir, how about if I start carrying a weapon? I really don’t want to be stumbling over gunmen!”

Cord shook his head. “Sorry, Admiral. Somebody wants you dead, and is willing to pay handsomely to have that happen. I need you too badly to let you get killed because of foolish pride.”

“How about a compromise?” I asked desperately. “You can put an escort or bodyguard on me when I’m down here, if you insist. But if I start running around with a bodyguard aboard Valkyrie, the crew’s going to start thinking I don’t trust them. Until now, I’ve managed to get cheerful enthusiasm from them, and it’s brought us a real chance of beating Jonas. However, if people can’t talk to me without being frisked by a guard, that cheerful, friendly enthusiasm will turn to surly compliance. We need our people motivated to use their imaginations. I can’t endanger that, no matter how much risk there is.”

Cord looked thoughtful. “I understand, Admiral. And I agree that your approachable style has had a lot to do with our accomplishments so far.”

“All right,” he concluded, “I won't require you to have a bodyguard on board your ship, if you'll agree to go armed when aboard. When you’re grounded, though, you will have the best man that Ralf can give you as a bodyguard. Once the news that they’ve tried to kill you gets out, I’m sure that our people will understand.”

I sighed. It was obviously the best deal I was going to get, and I finally agreed.

When I returned to Valkyrie, I was amazed at the crew’s reaction to news of the attempted assassination. They were furious! People I barely remembered went out of their way to find an excuse to talk to me, to assure themselves that I was all right and express approval of the needler now slung from my waist.

Most amazing of all was Suli. Her anger was monumental. I suspected that the shooter was lucky to have been killed by the guards. If he’d fallen into her hands… I’d never have suspected her of such feeling for me. It almost made me hope…

At any rate, Jonas’ plan seemed to have backfired. Valkyrie ’s crew was more motivated than ever, and their grim determination to prevail over the man they were now calling “Backshooter Jonas” spread to everyone else.

Wil Tor came through immediately. Two days after our initial talk, he accosted me in Valkyrie’s galley.“Sir, I think we’re going to need secure communications,” he began.

I nodded. “So do I, but I doubt we can get them with the Fleet monitoring equipment available to Jonas.”

He shook his head. “No, sir, I think we can do it. We can use something called the radio spectrum for communication! See,” he continued excitedly, “They used the low radio frequencies a lot, pre-empire. I’m talking about only a few kilocycles per second. It’s just that better fidelity could be attained farther up the electromagnetic spectrum, so they stopped using the old radio frequencies over a thousand years ago. Moreover, of course, Ultra coms don’t use radio at all. I doubt if anyone but a few scientists even scan the radio spectrum any more. We might be able to communicate right under Jonas’ nose!”

I was starting to get excited, too. “You may be onto something. But, aren’t there limitations? I mean, there must be a reason we don’t use them anymore.”

He shrugged. “Well, I think they’re line-of-sight, for one thing. And they may need more powerful transmitters. Sheol, sir, I don't know; but I’ll bet you could find out!” He grinned maliciously.

I grimaced. “Have I ever told you how much I hate smartasses? All right, I’ll look into it. I hope you’re right. Secure communications would be a big help.”

I wasted no time checking with the experts — except that there were no experts on low-frequency radio as a communications medium. Most of the scientists dismissed the idea out of hand, but Cord found a ‘brilliant young man’ brilliant enough to admit that he didn’t know, but wanted to find out. Cord put him in charge of a team and gave him a week to find out if it were possible at all, and to design the transmitters and receivers if it were.

He was back in three days. He’d taken my suggestion that the low frequencies had been used for communication in the past, and done his homework before starting hands-on research. Of course, he’d had almost immediate results. Most of the three days, he claimed, were used in designing transmitting and receiving equipment. He called our new frequencies “Amplitude Modulated,” and it turned out that there were drawbacks to them. For one thing, the signal was strictly line-of-sight. For another, it degraded badly over distance. However, none of this was a serious enough handicap to change our plans to use them. He had designed combination receiver/signal amplifier/transmitters that we would strew all over Haven City and the surrounding areas. He assured Cord that the equipment could be manufactured in large numbers in a matter of two or three weeks.

He was as good as his word, and less than a month later, I was able to issue several hundred of the transceivers to Wil. Wil’s people even had receivers implanted in their heads, on the mastoid bone, so that only they could hear transmissions, and transmitters that clamped to their throats, so they could transmit subvocally. The tramps and boats were also equipped with more powerful versions. Every building in Haven City more than two stories tall now had small boxes containing the receiver/amplifier/transmitters mounted on them. Every tower within two hundred kilometers, no matter what its original purpose, became a communications transmission tower as well. We classified all of it top secret, of course.

Wil wasn’t done. The floodgates had been opened, and Wil seemed to want to make versions of every early weapon he’d ever read about. Finally, I foisted him off on Cord's ‘brilliant young man.’ He and Wil seemed to be kindred spirits, and within minutes they were buried in esoteric methods of slaughter. I hoped they’d come up with some useful gadgets before Jonas arrived.

I wasn’t surprised when Cord summoned me to his office. I’d been a frequent visitor. Cord began by asking me for a status report. When I finished summarizing our progress, he merely sat, thoughtful, for a moment. Then he dropped his bombshell.

“I think it’s time to make the announcement, Admiral. Nothing can be gained from further delay. I want you to make sure that all ships in orbit tune in, and broadcast the activities ship-wide. You will also make rim tramps available to deliver copies of the tapes to every other inhabited planet in the sector, together with my orders for planet-wide broadcast. That includes Thaeron! Do whatever it takes to smuggle a copy to the Thaeron system. Arrange for its broadcast there, if possible. If that’s not possible, try to arrange for mass copying and underground distribution. After the ceremonies, the Emperor recorded a personal message to the people of the rim worlds; I want to make sure that it is seen by every man, woman and child on the rim.”

Cord commandeered all the civilian channels for three hours. Repeated announcements asked all citizens of Haven to tune in.

Since I had a pretty good idea what was going to happen, I watched the proceedings in a local bar in Haven City. I divided my time between the broadcast and observation of my fellow customers.

The broadcast started with Cord simply sitting at an empty desk. “My fellow Rimworlders,” he began, “A few weeks ago, we were honored by a personal visit from His Imperial Majesty, Eron XXIV himself. This historic occasion was the first time in history that an Emperor has visited the Rim Sector.”

“Unfortunately, due to the unsettled conditions caused by the treasonous activities of some military personnel on Thaeron, His Imperial Highness was forced to visit in secret. However, despite dangers that prevented a state visit, His Majesty insisted on making a visit to his loyal subjects of the rim worlds. The rest of this broadcast will deal with the Emperor’s visit, and an important announcement by His Imperial Majesty that affects every man, woman and child on the rim worlds.”

The tapes opened with the welcoming ceremonies on Haven, and the presentation of the new yacht to the emperor. After a tour of the yacht escorted by vid cameras, the imperial party adjourned to the viceregal palace. The patrons of the bar were rapt with attention. At least six bystanders shushed a drunk who began to complain loudly.

The coverage resumed in the palace’s Receiving Room, with the Emperor enthroned on one end, resplendent in ceremonial robes. Obviously playing to the vid cameras, the Emperor unrolled a stiff parchment and began reading. Unsurprisingly, Cord had been telling the truth. Despite the florid, concealing language, by listening carefully I could understand the meaning of the proclamation. The rim would remain attached to the Empire in name only. Aside from a nominal fealty, the rim would have no responsibilities to the Empire, and the Empire would have no responsibility for the rim.

The Emperor spent several minutes reading the ornate parchment aloud. Finally, he laid it carefully aside. Then, looking directly into the cameras, the Emperor began removing his ceremonial robes. Beneath them, he wore a plain business suit. Laying aside the robes, he removed the huge crown of state, and donned a simple gold circlet.

This was unheard-of behavior for an Emperor in public. However, he wasn’t finished. Handing the crown to an aide, he stepped down from the dais, and stood behind a simple lectern.

He began speaking. “The ceremonial robes have been laid aside. The crown of state has been removed. With those removals, I no longer speak to you for the Empire. I speak to you as your Emperor, Eron XXIV, and I speak without the imperial ‘we’, because I wish to speak personally and directly to each of you. I have asked Viceroy Cord to make sure that everyone on the rim worlds sees this tape; but I also ask that it not be circulated off the rim. This is just between us.

“You have heard me announce a bold and unprecedented experiment in government,” he began. “The rim worlds were chosen for this experiment because, among all the sectors of the Empire, the rim worlds are unique. For years, I have admired you from afar. The rim is our frontier. The people who came out here, and their descendants, are special. Cowards don’t move to a frontier. They stay on their comfortable inner worlds and read exaggerated accounts of your exploits. The weak, those that come to the frontier, don’t survive. Nor do the stupid. The challenges of frontier life kill them. No, the people of the rim are the brave, the bold, the strong, and the intelligent. You are the hope of the Empire and of mankind.

"The Empire faces unprecedented challenges in the years to come. The people of the rim are best equipped to meet those challenges. I and the rest of the Empire will be looking to you, your children, and their children to help us survive those challenges. This is why Sander Cord was appointed Viceroy of the Rim Worlds.

“Viceroy Cord has my complete confidence. He has led the rim words effectively and loyally, and is well suited to lead them to meet the challenges of the future. I ask that you honor him with the same loyalty and devotion with which you have served me, and my father before me.”

The image of the Emperor faded out, to be replaced by that of Cord. “My people,” he began, “One of those challenges that the Emperor mentioned stands before us already.

“Many of you,” he continued, “are aware of the mutiny now taking place on Thaeron. For those of you that aren’t aware of it, a Fleet Rear Admiral has found out about the emperor’s bold experiment, and thinks that he can take advantage of it to seize the rim and turn it into his personal kingdom.

“Unfortunately, he controls a rather large flotilla of warships. This firepower raises him from a petty plotter to a real threat to the rim. It is this firepower that forced the Emperor… Our Emperor!.. to sneak into and out of his own domain in secret!” He looked scandalized, and it was a moment before he could resume speaking.

“We are not helpless. Many of you know that we have been preparing to defeat the usurper. Many of you have been involved in our effort, and many more will become involved before the madman is defeated and the rim made safe.

“But our preparations are not yet complete. The enemy is powerful, and the chances are excellent that we will be forced to let him occupy some of the rim worlds for a while. Nevertheless, our forces, under the leadership of Vice Admiral Val Kedron, hero of Haskins’ World, will prevail. Of that, let there be no doubt.”

Cord carried on a bit more in that vein, preparing the people of the rim for the fight to come.

The customers at the bar were getting excited. Comments such as, “Did you hear what the Emperor said about us?” and, “Imagine the Emperor taking off his robes like that!” In the hour after the broadcast, I heard only one negative comment; most of the patrons were flattered and honored by the emperor's visit, and determined to help Cord fight against “tyranny.” And none of them questioned why the Emperor hadn’t simply come to the rim with a huge battle fleet and destroyed Jonas.

We used Haven City’s schedule aboard Valkyrie, and it was the middle of one ‘night’ when I went down to the galley for a late (or early) cup of caf. I’d filled my cup from the ever-ready pot and turned to sit down when I noticed Suli. She was sitting silently at a table in the far corner, nursing a caf of her own. Acutely aware of my unshaven, unkempt appearance, I forced a smile to my face, and moved to join her.

Even in the middle of the night, she was achingly beautiful. Not a strand of that silky white hair was out of place. She wore a maroon robe. I couldn't tell what, if anything, she wore beneath it, but the wine-red of her robe, lighter red of her lips, and white of her hair and eyes framed the velvety blackness of her skin to perfection.

“Good Evening, Admiral,” she began, and flashed me a blinding white grin. “Or should I say ‘good morning’?”

“To tell the truth, I don’t know,” I replied. “But I suspect it's ‘good morning’. It’s mostly been morning before I get to sleep, lately.”

The grin faded, to be replaced by an annoyed expression. “That’s what I thought,” she said. “Damn it, Admiral! Don’t you know we’re all depending on you? Are you going to be groggy from lack of sleep when Jonas shows up? You need a keeper!” The expression had gone from annoyance to exasperation.

Sometimes my tongue has a life of its own. “Are you volunteering?” I asked without thinking. I immediately wished I could kick myself, and frantically cast around for a more innocuous response, without success.

She flushed purple. Her eyes grew panicky for a moment, and then she regained her composure. She sniffed loudly, and then replied, “I’ve better things to do than babysit admirals!”

I was still looking for an innocent topic. Somehow, whenever I was in her presence, everything seemed to take on sexual, or at least romantic, overtones.

“I’ve wanted to tell you,” I said desperately. “You’ve been more than keeping your word. I’ve been watching. You’ve done very well relating to the rest of the crew.” This was true — and it hadn’t been easy for her. But she was forcing old prejudices down, and it was obviously growing easier. “Well,” I continued, “except for that one idiot, of course. You should have broken that arm.”

She laughed and shook her head. “Chief Erske? He treats me like a little sister now. For some reason, he’s appointed himself my protector." Her expression changed to one of puzzlement. “They all treat me like that. In fact, I think they follow me around when I go down to Haven. One night a drunk started giving me trouble, and suddenly four of them were there.” She shook her head. “I don’t understand it.”

I shrugged. “They’re surprised and flattered that someone as gorgeous as you would treat them like shipmates. The ones that thought they had a chance with you made their pass, and you turned them all down gently. There’re no hard feelings. Oh, they still admire your beauty, but now it’s more the way a man can admire a work of art without lusting after it. As for the women, they see that you’re not competing with them.”

“And the men are proud of you,” I continued. “To them, you’re almost a mascot: the most beautiful Astrogator in the Empire. They feel a proprietary interest. They’re glad that others admire your beauty, but anyone that tries to force himself on you will have a whole crew to deal with — male and female.”

She shook her head, and that glorious mane of white whipped around her shoulders. “I just don’t understand,” she said. “I’ve been in space for ten years now, and no crew has ever treated me this way.”

I shrugged again. “You’ve never treated a crew this way. You were always so worried about the paleskins pursuing you that you made yourself a target and a challenge. You never became more than a beautiful object to them, because you treated them like objects — objects to be feared and rejected in disgust.”

She looked thoughtful. “You may be right, Admiral. If so, I owe you a debt of gratitude.”

I chuckled. “No, you don’t. That hug and kiss when I got back from Thaeron did more for my reputation than I’ve done in forty years!”

She looked puzzled and embarrassed. “I… I don’t understand.”

This time I actually laughed. “I know, and that’s why it’s so funny. Everybody on the ship knew about that kiss within ten minutes of it happening. I understand that there was a lot of discussion on all levels, but the final verdict is that you and I have something going, and the crew approves. You’ve turned a fat old trader captain into a romantic legend. I hope that doesn’t bother you.”

She flushed purple again. “No, no, it doesn’t bother me, but.. ” A panicked look began creeping onto her face.

Impulsively, I took her hand in mine. “If you’d like, I can leak the word that there’s really nothing going on. I should have done it before. I’m sorry.”

She was staring fixedly at my hand holding hers. I realized what I’d done, and snatched the hand away, muttering an apology.

“No, no,” she said softly, “It’s all right. I mean… Oh!” She jumped up and ran out of the galley.

I went back to my cabin, but not to sleep. Damn it! I wasn’t a horny teenager!

By the time I ran into her on the bridge the next day, she was back in control of herself. She gave me a wink and a confident grin. “Don’t worry about leaking that word, Admiral. I wouldn’t want to interfere with a romantic legend.”

I answered her grin with one of my own. “A fat old trader captain thanks you,” I replied formally, bowing. “But if you should meet another Frejan or something, and change your mind, just let me know.” I sobered. “And I’m sorry about touching you. I really wasn’t thinking. I hope you weren’t disgusted.”

Her grin faded. “No,” she replied, “I wasn’t… disgusted.”

Something had happened, though. In a strange way, we were more comfortable around each other, now. Why, there were times when I could talk to her for ten minutes without saying something completely idiotic. I still felt stupid and tongue-tied, but now I seldom had to flee in embarrassment. I began dropping in on the bridge when I knew she had the watch.

A few days later, I had a visit from Shar. “Damn it, Admiral, either bed her or wait ‘til this is over. Having the Admiral showing up at all hours is driving my bridge crew crazy.”

I could feel my face grow hot. “What do you mean? Who?” He merely looked at me with a skeptical expression.

I started to bluster, but could see that it wouldn’t work. Finally, I sighed. “Is it that obvious, Shar?”

He grinned. “The smart money is offering three to two, but the odds are starting to climb because you're so clumsy about it. The only reason they’re as low as they are is because you both obviously want it so much.” He waved a hand to forestall my excited denial. “Val, we’ve been friends a long time. This can’t go on. Please. You have enough to worry about. Put this thing on hold until this is over. Stay off the bridge.”

My face grew warm again. “I’m sorry, Shar. I hadn’t realized I was being such an old fool. I’ll stay away from her, I promise.”

I tried hard to keep my word. I threw myself even more intensely into the details of planning and operations.

Every ship and boat was now equipped with the radio transceivers, and we’d assigned one overall battle frequency and other, separate ones to different commands and forces.

Harpy was back from Outback. Fearless ’ damage had been surveyed, and the news wasn’t good. Her weapons systems could be repaired in fairly short order, as could her life support. However, the jump comp would be a major problem, and would take months to repair. Captain Vidsen had assigned Fearless personnel to replace shortages on Harpy, so Jamro had a full crew, and was spoiling for a fight. He and Bendo of Predator had become fast friends, though they’d only known each other casually on Thaeron.

Chapter XI

We were at a staff meeting, bemoaning, as usual, our lack of firepower, when Sri Bendo said, “I wish you could figure out a way to give us some of those boats, Admiral.”

Jamro shrugged. “You mean those ridiculous armed miners?” he jeered, “Why would you want them? They’d just get in the way. Besides, where would you put them? A destroyer's boat deck is just about big enough for the gig and a couple of launches.”

Bendo snorted. “You haven’t seen them in action. We wouldn’t have had a chance against them if we’d been fighting when we got to Outback system. They were driving our weapons comps nuts, not to mention our gunners. They’d have sliced us to ribbons.”

Jamro looked at Bendo unbelievingly. “If you say so, Sri. As far as I’m concerned they’re no loss.”

Bendo looked at me, grinning. “Admiral, d'you think we could arrange a small demonstration for the unbeliever, here?”

In the end, Jamro took Harpy, with Bendo aboard, out to the asteroid belt, and the attack boats mounted a demonstration attack on a ship-sized asteroid, then a simulated attack on Harpy herself.

Jamro came back an enthusiastic convert. He and Bendo burst into my cabin with Toms Tindarr in tow, demanding that we find a way to give the destroyers boat support despite their lack of jump capability.

“Don’t you think I’ve wanted to do just that?” I replied testily. “But as you pointed out, destroyers don’t have large enough boat decks, and the boats don’t have jump capability. The best we can do is having the destroyers escorted by an armed tramp with a load of boats.”

Jamro opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by an unexpected source. “I dunno, Admiral,” Toms Tindarr said, “’Pears t’me t’might be done.”

I suppressed a snort of derision. “All right, Toms, how might it be done? The boats don’t have jump capability, and the destroyers don’t have space to carry them."

“Weel noo,” he began “th’ boats don’ have jump motors, it’s true. But they do have big ol’ tractor generators. S’pose a dozen ‘r so clamped theyselves onter the hull an’ the destroyer jumped?”

Bendo stared at Toms. “Do you know what would happen if those tractors failed in mid-jump?”

Toms grinned. “Nope. An’ neither does ye, ‘cause ain’ nobody come back fum nullspace! But ye don’ unnerstand. I ain’ sayin’ the boat’s pilot gotta be in the boat durin’ the jump. Ye ain’ got room inside fer the boats, but I’ll bet ye got room fer the pilots.”

“I get it!” I crowed excitedly. “You clamp a dozen or so boats to the hull, and the pilots go inside the hull for jump. As soon as the jump is completed, they climb back out, man their boats, and unclamp!”

Bendo looked doubtful. “Space combat happens quickly. I wouldn’t want to be on the outside of a ship in a suit during a battle.”

Toms snorted. “Yah? Think ‘bout it. Be safer’n bein’ inside ‘thout a suit! Les’n ye was hit direct, ‘course,” he added.

Bendo still looked unconvinced, but Jamro was excited. Eventually, Toms agreed to recruit pilots for an experiment.

A week later, Harpy hung in space near the main jump point for Haven system. I watched from Valkyrie. Three boats were clamped to Harpy ’s hull. Their pilots were sealed in an unpressurized personnel lock. Harpy jumped. She would emerge a short jump away, reverse course, and jump back, simulating an attack. Predator was acting as a guard ship picketing the jump point. When Harpy emerged, alarms would sound, and Predator would go to battle stations.

Who had the advantage, attacker or defender, had been a subject of debate in military circles for centuries. A crew cannot be kept at a constant state of alert. Thus, it takes time for a picket ship to assume battle stations and begin fighting. The attacker, of course, is already at battle stations when he emerges. However, it takes precious moments to spin down his jump engines and light off his inertial drives, which power his shields and weapons. In the meantime, he is vulnerable.

So, several minutes might elapse between the emergence of an attacker and the start of battle. In many cases, the outcome of a battle depended entirely upon who was ready to fight first. There might be enough time for the boat pilots to come out of the airlock and man their boats. That was one of the things this test was to establish.

The wait was nerve-wracking by the time Harpy suddenly appeared and Shar, standing next to me, mashed the button on the timer in his hand. In seconds, the airlock hatch swung open and three tiny figures swung out, and then paused, as they made sure that their magnetic boots were grasping the hull. In a strange slow motion shuffle, they approached the boats still safely clamped to the hull. A few more seconds, and they detached and swung toward Predator. It was almost a minute later that Predator ’s shields went up.

The boats had been in space for more than a minute and a half before the light announcing Predator ’s battle-readiness flashed on and Harpy ’s shields went up almost simultaneously.

Shar and I exchanged glances. If that kind of performance could be repeated, those boats could completely change the face of space warfare.

However, Shar looked at me without enthusiasm. “You know, Val, those boats are fast and incredibly maneuverable, but they’re also pretty damn vulnerable. One hit by just about anything, and they’re gone.”

I nodded, sobering. “I know, Shar. But these pilots are like fighter pilots; the more dangerous something is, the more enthusiastic they get.” I shook my head. “I don’t pretend to understand it, but when Toms went looking for volunteers for this experiment, all of them volunteered, and more than half said they’d prefer to stay in the boats during jump.” I sighed. “I have to use them, Shar. They’ve turned out to be the best weapon I have. But I know that casualties will be high.”

In any event, we’d demonstrated that Toms’ idea was feasible; destroyers could carry their own fighter escorts.

Experimentation showed that a destroyer could play host to nine external boats, three attached near each of her three personnel airlocks.

I'd kept my word to Shar. I stayed off Valkyrie ’s bridge unless on duty, and my long, rambling talks with Suli had degenerated to embarrassed monosyllables.

Things were coming together, though. We’d decided to leave five of the rim tramps unarmed, so that they could function as intelligence gatherers and as contacts for Cord’s extensive network of agents. The last of the others were in the shipyard now. Most of the existing mining boats were already armed, and more armed boats were being stamped out at the rate of several per day. We now had well over a hundred and fifty of the lethal little monsters, and were beginning to run out of skilled miners to fly them.

My biggest problem now was Cord. Why do politicians always seem to believe that political power automatically makes them military strategists? The only thing that kept him from ordering me to attack Jonas at Thaeron was the damage to our only battle cruiser, Fearless. Thaeron was a fortified system, with defenses in depth. Our small forces would never even reach the orbit of Thaeron itself. Nevertheless, it was becoming more and more difficult to restrain Cord.

I didn’t have to restrain him for long. Jonas’ flotilla emerged in Haven’s system.

There was no panic. We’d prepared and rehearsed for this day. It would take more than a day for Jonas to reach Haven’s orbit; by then we’d be gone.

A grim Cord addressed the people of Haven from the palace, blanketing the commercial airwaves. “Citizens of Haven,” he began. “That which we have feared has come to pass. Traitors and mutineers have taken over the Fleet forces on Thaeron. They are attempting to seize the entire sector, and are now approaching Haven. Many of you have already made sacrifices, and many more of you have helped in our efforts to prepare for the coming battles. Now I must ask you to sacrifice even more. We are not yet ready to engage the enemy, and our forces must withdraw from the system.

“But we are not simply leaving you defenseless, nor are we running away. A resistance force has been established on Haven, and other preparations have been made. All sector and planetary records have been copied from their host comps, and the comps wiped. All state and local officials have been urged to take the same precautions.

“But you are all warriors, now, my people. Yours is a war of passive resistance. If you can inconvenience the enemy in even the smallest way without risking your life or health, do so. Do not give the enemy a moment’s peace. Do not cooperate with him except under threat of violence, and then do your best to sabotage your efforts. If an enemy soldier comes into your restaurant, make sure his food is inedible. If he brings his clothes to your laundry, return them stained and torn. Every little inconvenience, every irritation, is a victory for us. It distracts him from his main mission, seizing and holding the rim.

“Admiral Jonas thinks rimworlders are uneducated, uncivilized bumpkins. You and I know better. Over the past twelve years, I’ve learned that the rim worlds don’t breed fools and weaklings. That’s for the inner worlds, the worlds that breed the Jonases of the Empire. The rim worlds breed tough, independent people; people who will not easily bow to tyranny just because a dreadnought brings it.

“We will fight them, my people. We will fight them, and we will win. We go now to complete our preparations. When we are ready, when the enemy is off-balance, we will return with a fleet, and Jonas and the other traitors will taste rim world courage and rim world vengeance!

“I must go now, my people. I have many preparations to make. But never forget, even if the days stretch into weeks, and the weeks into months, never forget and never doubt that I shall return, and I shall have my vengeance!” His fist slammed into his desk as he said his last sentence. It was obvious that Cord wasn’t frightened, just angry. A beautiful performance.

A few minutes later, every vid channel on the planet broadcast Cord boarding the rim tramp that now served as Rimrunner ’s replacement. Despite the swirling snow, his head was held high, his carriage proud.

The boats that were to remain in the system retreated to their asteroid base before Jonas’ ships reached detector range. Predator, Harpy, Valkyrie and the three remaining armed rim tramps assumed formation around Cord’s ship, and we began boosting for a jump point too far in-system for Jonas’ less advanced ships to use.

When we reached “Bolt Hole,” our secret base and Cord’s temporary headquarters, he lost no time in summoning me. His manner was grim. “How long, Admiral? How long must my people suffer before we can attack Jonas?”

I shrugged. “Months. Definitely more than three, possibly five, probably not more than six. We can’t take any action until we know a lot more than we do now.”

He slammed his fist on his desk. “Damn it, Admiral! I want something done!”

I sighed. “Something is being done, Viceroy. Men are at this moment risking their lives to learn things that we need to know.”

It was an unsatisfying meeting. We were both angry by the time it ended. However, I was more than angry. I was worried. Cord was on the verge of ordering me to do something stupid. And when he did, I’d have to decide whether to obey, or to resign and turn good people over to the command of a politician.

Three unarmed rim tramps had remained on Haven, behaving as though it were trade as usual, loudly denying any connection to the Viceroy or his puppet, Kedron, and equally loudly demanding to be allowed to continue trading. I heard that Captain Cony waxed positively poetic as he described how much the rim worlds depended on the traders. I could imagine how Jonas would react to Cony’s thick accent. Jonas would immediately brand him a stupid barbarian, and would probably let him go just to shut him up.

Something worked. Jonas put out the word that the tramps could continue trading unhampered. "Makes’t a bloody smuggler’s paradise," Cony moaned to me, “’n we cain’t afford t’ do nawt about it!” There was genuine anguish in his tone; the tone of a trader deprived of obvious profit.

We worked out a schedule that allowed at least one tramp to be in the Haven system at nearly all times. The tramps would take on a cargo, then, on their way to the jump point, would rendezvous with a boat and exchange messages and supplies for the asteroid base.

After reporting to Bolt Hole, they would proceed to visit their usual ports of call via Outback, and then return to Haven via Bolt Hole. This meant that we got reports almost weekly, with information in some cases only a few hours old.

The only exceptions to this schedule were the two unarmed tramps tasked with supplying the three planets in the sector that were not yet self-sufficient. Supplying those planets was critical, regardless of the risk. The captains of those two tramps cursed and moaned about being away from the action; but they were very quiet about the profits they were earning.

Jonas was busy. His fleet assumed orbit around Haven. The planetary government hardly let him get into position before announcing their capitulation. Jonas sent Nemesis ’ marines to seize the capitol and the viceregal palace. The marines met with no overt resistance, of course, but they were pelted with garbage and called names by crowds lining their route from the landing field.

I could imagine how the marines felt. They didn’t expect to be treated as heroes, but they’d never before been treated as invaders and traitors. Much of that, and morale would begin to slip badly.

Jonas took over all regular comm channels to address the people of Haven. He should have used a polished spokesperson, but that would have been out of character. He was no politician, no trained speaker. His claims that Cord was preparing to rebel against the Emperor were patently false to people that had known Cord for twelve years as a loyal viceroy, and had seen the tape of the Emperor’s visit. His demands that the people aid him in defeating Cord were merely whiny, his claim of authority merely pompous. Overall, it was not a sterling performance; and what immediately followed only made it worse.

The skipper of our asteroid base chose his moment well. As soon as a time was announced for Jonas’ speech, he computed the lightspeed lag, and then triggered a buoy that was floating at the edge of the system. The broadcast reached Haven just as Jonas was running down.

The buoy had been Cord’s idea, inspired by Rimrunner ’s performance at Thaeron. The buoy contained only a transmitter and a huge amplifier. When triggered, the buoy played a looped tape, blanketing all commercial channels. The tape consisted of Cord announcing that Jonas and Van-Lyn were wanted for treason and armed insurrection, and placing a bounty of twenty thousand crowns on each of their heads. Once triggered, it could not be shut off. It would continue repeating the looped tape until it was destroyed. Cord was delighted with the idea of Jonas having to hear a message calling for his arrest repeat for several days.

Jonas sent Raptor to trace and destroy the buoy. The round trip took nearly a week.

It wasn’t something we could do too often, though, since every time one of Jonas’ ships passed near the asteroid belt, we risked losing our little boat base. And that base was vital to our struggle.

Jonas’ forces consisted of Nemesis, the dreadnought, two cruisers, Relentless and Dauntless, and three destroyers, Raptor, Gyrfalcon, and Eagle.

Jonas was so angry that he didn’t even wait for Raptor to get back from the edge of the system. He ordered Gyrfalcon and Eagle, his remaining two destroyers, to scour the sector and find Cord or Cord’s renegade destroyers. The captains of the two destroyers protested that they were risking ambush and destruction, but Jonas ignored their concerns, and ordered them to visit every system in the sector, if necessary, to bring Cord’s forces to bay.

Then he ordered a cruiser, Relentless, to Gamma, to seize control of the economic heart of the sector. Though Relentless ’ captain evidently shared the concerns of the two destroyer skippers, he obeyed, and was reportedly very relieved when Gamma surrendered immediately.

Jonas retained Nemesis, the battle cruiser Dauntless and the destroyer Raptor. However, his mind wasn’t really on the ships. He was having no end of trouble on Haven, thanks to Tor’s efforts and Cord’s sabotage of the comp records. Cord’s passive resistance idea was working well. Nothing was going right for Admiral Jonas.

He tried to establish a headquarters in the viceregal palace, but found that there were no servants or workers of any type that would admit to working there. With the comp records wiped, he had no way to identify anyone. When he tried to hire or impress workers, he found that everyone he could get was incompetent. Food was inedible. Service was so bad that he ordered several servants arrested. The palace’s fusactor had been shut completely down, and no fuel could be found for it, and no techs to restart it. Finally, he moved back to Nemesis, cursing the rim and all its denizens.

His marines were faring no better. Everywhere they went they were cursed and pelted with garbage. When they tried to tell the citizens that they were there to save them, they met with laughter, jeers, and taunts. They couldn’t venture out unarmed or in groups smaller than three without risking assault. No one would willingly talk to them; no one would willingly serve them or sell them anything. Within a month, more than twenty marines were under arrest for assaulting civilians. Four Military Intelligence agents had been found murdered.

Then there were Wil Tor’s activities. Any marine detachment, vehicle, or convoy leaving Haven City might be found with its vehicles burning and personnel dead; or they might simply disappear.

Not all of the disappearances were violent. Wil was running a vigorous propaganda campaign, urging marines to desert Jonas and defect to Cord and me. I still didn’t believe the power that my name carried. I’d resigned right after Haskins’ World. I had no idea I’d become some kind of legend in the corps. More and more marines began deserting. Jonas finally banned all forays outside Haven City except for tank-defended convoys to seize supplies. This was emphatically not working out the way Jonas had planned.

The first rim tramp to leave the Haven system and come to Bolt Hole had also brought a message from the asteroid base. This message lasted some five minutes, reporting on the status and readiness of the base, the boats, and the personnel. The most important part of the message, though, took only seconds at the end. “Four birds are flying,” was all it said, but it meant that a very risky plan had been put into action.

The problem was the plan would take almost six months to mature; and our attack had to be very carefully synchronized with its fruition.

It was the middle of the night when I was summoned to Bolt Hole. Cord didn’t explain, he just ordered me to shuttle down as soon as I could get there. Worried, I didn’t even shave. I just got dressed and hurried over to the asteroid base.

Cord was waiting. “I’m not sure I believe it, but you have a subspace call, Admiral.”

I snorted. “That’s impossible! The only initiator in the Sector is in the palace on Haven, and we disabled it.”

By that time, we’d reached the comm room. Cord just shrugged, and then followed me inside. The end of the room that normally displayed a hologram of the caller showed only an empty chair and desk.

I waited a moment, but no one appeared. Finally, I grunted, “Kedron here, is anybody there?” in an embarrassed tone.

The response was immediate. “Captain Kedron, this is Kaleen, aboard Rimrunner.”

I snorted, and whirled on Cord to tell him that his joke wasn’t funny when I realized that the caller had called me “Captain.” Kaleen was the only one I’d asked to call me Captain, during our mission to Thaeron.

I turned back to the hologram room. “Kaleen?” I asked uncertainly. “Is that really you?”

“Yes, Captain,” replied the disembodied voice. “I’m contacting you pursuant to orders from Captain Sinas. Though I would have called anyway,” she added.

“The last we heard, you were on your way to Prime at maximum boost,” I said. “Tell us what’s been happening. Did you reach the Emperor?”

“Yes, Captain,” she replied. “We caught up with the Emperor’s party at a recal stop in the Donner system. The Emperor was aboard the Battle Cruiser Merciless. The yacht Imperial was accompanying Merciless without human crew under Artificial Intelligence. Doctor Petain boarded Merciless to explain to the Emperor, and then went directly to Imperial.

“Apparently, Imperial ’s AI is not yet self-aware,” Kaleen continued, “If indeed it possesses that capability. Once Doctor Petain was safely aboard Imperial, The Emperor’s secretary called Captain Sinas, and conveyed the Emperor’s orders that we return to the rim as quickly as possible, to assist in its defense in any way possible.”

“So, you returned to the Haven system and found Jonas,” I supplied.

“Yes, Captain. The jump point was picketed, and we were immediately challenged. We had little time before a boarding party came aboard, but Captain Sinas told me to conceal my sentience from Jonas’ people, and to contact you or the Viceroy by subspace at the earliest opportunity.”

“So, Jonas’ people have no idea that you’re a, uh, person. Where are you now? And where is Captain Sinas?”

“I am grounded on the palace landing pad on Haven. Captain Sinas was removed from me immediately upon our arrival. He managed to order that I make no attempt to rescue him, and that I should contact you immediately. Admiral Jonas came aboard to see if he could use me as a courier or perhaps a flag yacht, but by creating malfunctions I managed to convince his people that shoddy rim workmanship rendered me unreliable. I considered securing my locks and pumping out all atmosphere, but that was not something that I could do to humans. At least, not without orders. At present, I am grounded outside the palace with a guard on my airlock and another on my bridge.”

I was thinking, hard. “Is there any chance that the bridge guard can detect this transmission?” I asked.

“No, Captain. The guard is at present in that strange unconscious state humans refer to as ‘sleeping’. I have also disabled the bridge tell-tales, and secured the lock on the comm room.”

I shuddered slightly, but my glance at Cord showed that he shared my relief that his ship wasn’t homicidal. Since that was the case, I was getting some ideas about how we could use Kaleen.

“Very good, Kaleen,” I replied. “Now. What is the local time?”

“It is precisely 0942 and twenty-seven seconds, Captain.”

I nodded. “Very well. Can you monitor and communicate on a band of six hundred kilocycles?”

“Of course, Captain,” She replied. “At this moment there are short bursts of traffic. The traffic is very cryptic or coded, however.”

“Excellent,” I replied. “Now, the Emperor ordered that you assist with the defense of the rim. Are you prepared to do that?”

“Of course, Captain. It is why I contacted you. How may I be of use?”

“That frequency is used by our planet-based resistance. Now, you obviously can’t physically participate in that resistance; but you have unmatched communications capabilities. I’d like you to serve as a communications intelligence analyst. Basically, you’ll monitor Jonas’ comm traffic, and report anything that may be of use to our resistance.”

“Of course, Captain. It is a role for which I am uniquely qualified.” She sounded pleased.

“Very well. I’d like you to patch me through on that frequency. Can you do that?”

“Of course, Captain. You are connected with a voice-activated transmitter. Please proceed.”

I hesitated. “Don’t connect me yet. First, it is vital that you realize your importance to us, and the necessity that we keep your identity absolutely secret. While you have incredible capabilities, you are also very vulnerable. This is an order. You are not to reveal to Sneaker One or anyone else the details of your identity. You may become a hero of the resistance, but only as an agent whose identity will never be known.”

“Yes, sir!” Her tone was pleased and even excited. She was becoming more human every day.

“All right, you can key the transmitter now. Sneaker, this is Boss One. Sneaker, this is Boss One. Do you read me?”

“Boss One, this is Sneaker. Wait one, please.” The response was immediate and the connection clear.

Only a few moments elapsed before I heard, “Boss One, this is Sneaker One. Please confirm identity.” The voice was obviously Wil Tor’s.

“Sneaker, this is Boss One, code one-oh-oh-one.”

Wil’s voice was strained. “Identity confirmed. What in the bloody universe are you doing on Haven? Have you lost your mind?”

“Relax, Sneaker. I’m not on Haven. I’m being patched through on subspace. I’m calling to introduce you to the agent that made that possible.”

His voice became agitated. “But that isn’t possible! The only initiator in the sector is in ruins in the palace.”

I hesitated. “Don’t ask. You don’t need to know. First off, I know this is your general frequency. Give me one that’ll give us secure comms.”

It was Wil’s turn to hesitate. “We haven’t been using tac six. Meet me on tac six plus four hundred.”

I nodded, and then realized that Wil couldn’t see me. “Very well. Within three-oh seconds on tac six plus four hundred.” There was an audible click as Wil switched frequencies.

“Are we disconnected?” I asked Kaleen cautiously.

“Yes, Captain,” she replied. “If you will tell me the frequency of tac six, I’ll reconnect on the secure frequency.”

I nodded. “Tac six is at eight-four-oh kilohertz. Connect us on eight-eight-oh.”

“Yes, sir. Connected.”


“Listening, Boss One.”

“All right. Now, I’m not going to explain, but we’ve been able to obtain the help of an agent with unparalleled communications resources. We’ll call her Snooper. I want you to assign her a secure frequency for contacting you. She will be available to help you in any way you need, but only concerning communications. I envision her primary duty as that of communications analyst. She will monitor all Fleet frequencies, and report to you anything interesting that she learns. Of course, she’ll also provide us with subspace communications capability.”

“Uh, can she judge what’s interesting, sir?” Wil’s tone was dubious.

I hesitated while I phrased an answer. “She is an expert in communications and ships. She has no experience in judging the military content of messages, other than book knowledge, but expect her to learn fast. Very fast. Her clearance will be Alpha-One, the same as yours or mine. She is to have access to any data that she feels necessary.”

“Oh, by the way,” I added. “You are hereby directed to make no effort to ascertain Snooper’s identity, under any circumstances. To do so will endanger both her and you, and may cost us an incredible intelligence asset. Is that clear?”

I could hear the frown in his “Yes, sir!” It would rub him the wrong way, being forced to trust someone he’d never met, and would never meet. I hoped.

I was afraid that, despite orders, Wil would try to find out what he could about Snooper. I certainly would try to learn about someone providing intel that might get my people killed. I shrugged. I’d just have to warn Kaleen, and hope she was able to carry it off.

“I have some final instructions for her,” I concluded. “She will call you back on this frequency within five minutes. I want the two of you to begin getting to know each other, and to set up ultra-secure communications. Boss One, out.” I waved at the empty chair filling the other end of the comm room, hoping that Kaleen would understand and disconnect the comm link with Wil.

“Clear, Captain,” Kaleen said crisply, “What instructions did you have for me?”

I shrugged. “Nothing important, Kaleen. I wanted to warn you. Sneaker One will try to learn your identity, despite my orders.”

“He would disobey your orders?”

I winced. How was I going to explain this to a comp?

“He would not wish to, no. However, he is responsible for the lives of several hundred people. He will consider it his responsibility to make every effort to learn the identity of someone who could put those people at risk. He will probably try to interpret my orders in such a way as to permit him to violate the spirit of the order without violating its letter. Besides, Sneaker One is very good at his task, and he will convince himself that any punishment he might receive would be less important than his people’s lives.

“At any rate, Kaleen, I want you to be prepared. You can simply ignore or refuse to answer his questions and hints. You can even invent a persona; a whole background as a human. If his prying becomes too inconvenient, you could let something slip occasionally. Be careful, though. If he learns that no such person exists, you’d probably lose any of his trust you might have gained.”

“Yes, sir!” she replied crisply. I struggled to hide a grin. Kaleen was like an incredibly precocious child. I would have to remember that.

We arranged for Kaleen to report on a regular basis, and then I signed off so that she could start getting to know Wil Tor.

Our new intelligence agent delighted cord. “Once this is over,” he said with a grin, “I’m looking forward to getting to know Kaleen — that is, if you haven’t corrupted her by then.”

I shrugged. “I’m sure she’ll be effective. Given time, she’ll be coordinating our attacks.”

Cord was impatient. He wanted action. Finally, he overruled me, and ordered that Predator and Harpy ambush the two searching destroyers.

“But sir,” I protested, “We can’t afford to slug it out with Jonas’ ships mass for mass. Two destroyers fighting two destroyers mean four disabled or destroyed ships.”

Cord shook his head. “Our two will have those boats to help. But we must attack those two destroyers.”

“If we must, then at least wait until we can hit them with an overwhelming force; Predator, Harpy, Valkyrie, rim tramps and attack boats.”

“How long?”

I shrugged. “A week, maybe two. It takes time to plan and execute a multi-ship battle.”

He shook his head. “No. It can’t wait. Send the destroyers.”

“But, sir…”

He waved me to silence. “You don’t understand, Admiral. It’s not just important that we do something; we must be seen to do something. The people of the rim have to see that we’re actively resisting. Otherwise, their resistance falls apart. If we lose both destroyers, we still have to do it.

“Look, Admiral,” he continued in a more reasonable tone, “you understand military strategy and tactics; but I understand politics and group dynamics. This has to be done, and it must be done as soon as possible. By all means, give the destroyers any edge you can. If they can win decisively, it’ll be worth a dozen destroyers. But it must be done!”

Chapter XII

Rear Admiral Micah Jonas was not a happy man. It had all seemed so simple and foolproof back on Thaeron. He would simply move in with massive firepower on the unarmed planets of the rim, seize Haven and Cord, kill Cord, and present the Emperor with the return of a ‘renegade’ sector. Its very simplicity made the plan’s success almost inevitable. Besides, nobody would dare resist a flotilla powerful enough to destroy a planet.

He was well aware of the ancient adage that “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy” — but he’d been sure that there would be no battles. Surely even these provincials would realize that resistance to his overwhelming force would be doomed to failure.

However, things had begun going wrong almost immediately. First, Predator had deserted, providing Cord a nucleus for an armed space force, and incidentally revealing Micah’s plan to the Viceroy.

Then, Cord had dug up that damned Kedron somewhere, and suddenly what had been a simple exercise in gunboat diplomacy became a military gamble.

Then, Kedron had shown up at Thaeron claiming to be a Fleet Vice Admiral, and nearly destroyed Micah without firing a shot.

Kedron’s visit had cost Micah dearly. He’d lost two more of his ships, strength he was becoming painfully aware that he could ill afford. He'd also lost hundreds of crewpeople when hand-to-hand combat had broken out on all of his ships between those who’d believed Kedron’s message and those who’d remained loyal to Micah. Over two hundred died, and almost a thousand more had to be confined to various brigs.

It had been a near thing. Micah’s plan had almost ended in disaster. It’d taken months for Micah to regain enough control to proceed. He was getting desperate. The plan could still work, but time was getting short.

He’d breathed a huge sigh of relief when he’d finally given the order for the flotilla to jump to Haven. However, it seemed his relief had been premature.

Certainly, Cord had fled as soon as Micah’s ships emerged at the edge of Haven’s system. Micah had watched in impotent fury as blips identifying two destroyers, four of the ubiquitous rim tramps and a blip whose beacon identified her as a merchant vessel called Valkyrie drove for a secondary jump point. They’d disappeared before Micah’s forces were close enough to engage. He could have destroyed Cord, Kedron and the resistance in one blow if he’d been able to catch them. Oh, well, Cord couldn’t win without control of his sector capital. Eventually, he’d have to launch an attack. All Micah had to do was sit and wait.

Once his ships had assumed standard Fleet orbit positions, Micah had commandeered all commercial vid channels for his announcement.

“I am Rear Admiral Micah Jonas of the Empire Fleet,” he'd begun. “I have come to secure the arrest of the traitor Sander Cord and his criminal minion, Val Kedron, as well as to secure this sector for the Empire, and prevent its rebellion.

“I call upon all loyal citizens of the Empire to assist me in preserving the peace of this sector, and its quick return to the Empire’s fold. It will be necessary for me to temporarily impose martial law on the planet of Haven. Do not resist. Our marines are authorized to shoot when necessary to preserve order.

“However,” he’d continued with what he’d considered a friendly smile, “I’m sure that shooting will not be necessary. We are, after all, all loyal subjects of the Empire, despite Cord’s lies and duplicity. Unfortunately, the Viceroy’s treasonous acts require that I impose certain restrictions and directives until we’ve rooted out the traitors. I’m sure I can count on your cooperation. Please stay tuned for the regulations and instructions that are required to implement martial law."

He’d been pleased with his speech, but almost as soon as he finished, the commercial vid channels were suddenly blanketed by a broadcast originating somewhere off-planet.

“This is Viceroy Sander Cord,” it began, “Warrants are hereby issued for the arrest of former Rear Admiral Micah Jonas, and former Captain Jamin Van-Lyn, both recently cashiered from His Imperial Majesty’s service. These criminals are wanted for mutiny, rebellion, sedition, and high treason, and are wanted dead or alive. A reward of twenty thousand imperial crowns is offered for each of them. All Fleet personnel are reminded that these men are traitors to the Empire and the Fleet. Conflicting Fleet regulations are temporarily suspended, and Fleet personnel may claim the reward.

“I call upon all military and civilian personnel within the rim sector to resist these criminals in any way possible. Cooperation with these fugitives may result in imperial criminal charges up to and including treason and rebellion.”

It took Micah’s techs only moments to trace the signal to its source, but that source turned out to be a drone buoy orbiting at the edge of the system. It took more than three days for Raptor to get close enough to destroy the buoy, and all that time, Cord's message drowned out all broadcasts on the commercial channels.

Micah was furious. His carefully crafted message was made to look ridiculous, and his authority and legitimacy virtually destroyed by a thirty-second recorded message. Not only that, but everyone on the planet had to listen to the damned thing repeat over and over for more than three days!

In fury, Micah sent his other two Destroyers, Gyrfalcon and Eagle, to find Cord. Neither Captain was happy about putting their ships at risk, but Micah was adamant. By all the odd gods of the galaxy, he wanted Cord and Kedron!

He also decided to send Relentless to the Gamma system. He knew that Gamma and the four other closely associated planets along the far edge were the economic heart of the sector, as Haven was its political heart. It was essential that he have control of both.

Bon-Lor complained about being sent three jumps away without backup, but Micah had bullied the drunken sot into submission. In the end, Bon-Lor had complied, much to Micah's relief. Bon-Lor had been useful on Thaeron, but now, his drinking was making him a liability.

In the meantime, within minutes after his broadcast had concluded, Haven’s planetary government had called to capitulate. Less than ten minutes later, the marine detachment sent to seize the Viceroy’s palace had reported the palace secure, with no resistance. Micah had been relieved. Despite everything, the plan had seemed to be working. Then…

The first sign of trouble had come when Micah had shuttled down to the planet, to personally move into the Viceroy’s palace.

He’d walked into a dead building. There’d been no power to operate anything. His marines’d had to force the doors. The building had also been empty. Not only Cord was gone; there was a complete absence of people. Not a servant was to be found. Not a tech, either. The building was deserted. Unheated, the building’s interior temperature was well below zero. Hoarfrost decorated the walls.

The first order of business had been to restore the power. Once the comps were up, it would be simple to locate and secure the palace employees. He’d had Nemesis ’ Chief Engineer come down, bringing a work party. Then he’d retreated to Nemesis. Time enough to move into the palace once the power was restored-and the heat.

The Chief had called back in less than half an hour. “The fusactor’s been dumped, sir,” he reported.

Micah had frowned. “Well, how long to get it up and running?”

“You don’t understand, sir,” the man protested, “The fusactor’s been dumped! All the fuel has been removed — and there’s no fuel in the storehouse. The fusactor’s cold. Once we can get the fuel, we could probably get it back on line in about forty-eight hours. But without fuel…”

Micah’s irritation was becoming more visible. “Well, get the fuel! Have it sent in, if necessary. But get that fusactor started. I need access to Cord’s comp!”

However, that blasted Cord had backed up the comp’s files and memory, then dumped the core. Even the basic operating system was gone. The same had been done to every government comp in Haven City. Even the records of the prisoners in Haven’s jails had been wiped.

As for the palace, it seemed that fuel rods no longer existed on Haven. In the end, it had taken a visit by Micah’s marines to the processing plant. Under the prodding of aimed weapons, the plant’s manager had remembered where some fuel rods were stored.

Finally, after almost a week, the palace had power, light, and heat. What it didn’t have was anyone who’d admit to being an employee there. Without the comp personnel files, Micah had no way to identify the workers. When he advertised for more workers, the only applicants were rather obviously the lazy, the incompetent, and the criminal. Micah had finally appointed an officer to oversee the palace personnel, but even so, meals were frequently late and rarely edible, laundry was as likely to be returned soiled and torn as clean, and housekeeping… well, the less said the better.

In the meantime, Micah had other troubles. An active underground resistance, for example. All Fleet property had to be constantly guarded, and even so, in many cases the guard disappeared along with the guarded. Moreover, even with the patrolling and guarding, Fleet weapons and equipment were sabotaged or destroyed.

Early on, Micah had tried to use detachments of marines to protect his people and equipment. However, every time they left the palace grounds, jeering crowds pelted them with garbage, insults, and taunts. When individual marines or small groups tried to go on liberty, if they didn’t end up retreating to the palace, they found restaurants that refused to serve them, and girls that cursed and assaulted them. When small parties began disappearing or turning up dead, Micah had no choice but to keep them close by.

The marines weren’t used to being treated as invaders and criminals. If a solution wasn’t found soon, their commander warned that Micah would begin seeing wholesale desertions.

Micah was not impressed. “Damn it, Colonel, Haven City has less than two million people. You have over six hundred marines and a shipload of weapons and equipment. Surely you can maintain control of a city that size!”

The Colonel struggled in vain to rein in his flaring temper. “Admiral,” he grated. “Haven’t you figured out yet that we’re the targets of a very well planned and executed guerrilla campaign?”

Micah grunted. “Pah! I thought marines were supposed to be good. What do they have to fear from an unarmed rabble? Patrol with sensors and detect every power cell in the city,” he continued. “That should lead you to them in no time. Really, Colonel, I shouldn’t have to do all your thinking for you!”

The Colonel flushed. “They are neither unarmed nor a rabble. They are very well armed and very well led. Moreover, we’ve been doing what you’re suggesting for days. Every power cell in the city has been located. But the resistance is using weapons that don’t use power cells. I have something to show you, sir.” His emphasis on the last word effectively conveyed his disgust with his superior. He spoke into his wrist comm. “Sergeant, bring in the stuff.”

The door opened and a sergeant and a private brought in armloads of what were obviously weapons. They placed them on the conference table then assumed the parade rest position.

“Private,” the Colonel ordered, “tell the Admiral about your patrol last night.”

“Yes, sir,” the private snapped. “My squad was ridin’ around in a hovertruck. I was talkin’ t’Snerson. Then alla a sudden this dart’s stickin’ outta his neck. He barely had time t' look s’prised before he collapsed. I looked around, and three more of the guys’re down. There was no way a’ tellin’ where the darts come from, no noise, no flash. Just guys dyin’.”

Micah shivered slightly. It wasn't a pretty picture.

“At first we all jus’ sprayed fire at anything and ever’thing within range,” The private continued. “Then I heard the screams. I turned aroun’, and Smiley’s face is melting! And the two guys on either side of him are screamin’, too. They was all screamin’ and squirmin’ around on the floor of the hovertruck. ‘Fore we cud even react, there’s this explosion, an’ the whole back end of the hovertruck was flames. I get blown outta the truck, and when I go to get up, I see Smitty jump down from the truck’s bed. His tunic’s on fire an’ he’s screamin’ somethin’ awful. So, I grab ‘im an’ roll ‘im like they taught us; but these flames wasn’t smothered. I grabbed my canteen to douse the flames, an’ the water just makes ‘em spread! I couldn’t do nothin’ but stand by and watch Smitty burn. I finally give ‘im a shot from my blaster, just t' stop the screamin’.

“By the time the Reaction Squad got there, they was only three o’ us left.” He shuddered. “An’ we never saw nobody the whole time. Nobody!”

Micah was shaken. The Colonel nodded to the Sergeant and the Private, and they trooped out.

The Colonel swept a hand toward the display on the table. “These are what we’ve managed to pick up after fights with the enemy,” he began. “They usually manage to take their dead and wounded with them, but they’re not as careful with their weapons.”

He picked up an object that looked like an oversized, bulky sporting shoulder-laser stock. But there was no laser crystal, no projector. The Colonel fumbled with it for a moment, and then threw something on Micah’s desk.

It was about twenty centimeters long, with a wicked-looking barbed point at one end, and rudimentary fins at the other. Micah picked it up and examined it. The fins were angled and hinged at their fronts, and pivoted to fit within the stubby shaft of the object. It was all metal. “So this is the dart the private mentioned?” His anger with the Colonel was forgotten.

The Colonel shrugged. “It appears that our enemies have been digging into the history books, coming up with primitive weapons that don’t use power cells. That thing you’re holding is called a ‘bolt’ or ‘quarrel’, and this is the launcher. It’s called a ‘crossbow’. The sergeant who identified it for us says that this one’s an improvement over the originals. It uses a coil spring for power, and has a magazine that holds ten bolts. Evidently the ancient ones used a leaf spring of some type.”

Micah's brow wrinkled. “Spring powered? Surely they couldn’t be powerful enough to be dangerous?”

The Colonel smiled grimly. “This one has a pull of over five hundred pounds. It launches those darts at more than three hundred meters per second. It also doesn't produce a flash, and is almost completely silent.”

He picked up another weapon from the table. This one appeared to be a child’s toy, a simple plas handgun. Micah had seen them advertised. They were powered by a light spring and fired two-centimeter balls of paint. The Colonel picked up three balls, his exaggerated care telling Micah that they didn’t contain paint.

The Colonel indicated the balls in his hand. “This weapon is a modified version of the kid’s toy, of course. They’ve just put a slightly more powerful spring in it. But the balls! Some of them contain acid, some explosives. Again, no noise, no flash. And they have a range of about ten meters.

“The resistance has other toys, as well. A pneumatic slugthrower, for instance. Muzzle velocity of several hundred meters per second and a range of two to three hundred meters. Explosives based on something the lab boys call ‘black powder’ that can’t be detected by our sniffers. One of the nastiest, though,” he continued, picking up a clear cylinder twenty centimeters in length and ten in diameter, “.. is this. The cylinder is thin glass, not plas, and contains a highly flammable liquid.” He indicated a length of fabric protruding from one end of the cylinder. “To use it, you just light the fabric, and then throw the cylinder. When it hits, the glass breaks, and the liquid bursts into flame. Notice the stuff floating around inside,” he continued. “We had a devil of a time analyzing it. Seems it’s something called ‘white phosphorus’ that burns when it comes into contact with air and heat. Moreover, water won’t put it out. The stuff just burns until it's gone.”

Micah shuddered again. Then he looked thoughtful. “You’re right, Colonel. This isn’t a spur-of-the-moment resistance movement,” he concluded. “These people were prepared well in advance. Do you have any idea who they are?”

The Colonel looked uncomfortable. “We got lucky yesterday. There was a skirmish, and one of the men covering the enemy’s retreat was hit just as they were retreating. The Lieutenant commanding the squad was smart enough to have his men drive off anyone who tried to help the man escape. By the time they could get to him, the man was dead. But we found this in his pocket.” He tossed a coin-sized object on Micah's desk. Micah examined it. “A marine ident disk!”

The Colonel nodded. “I think we’re facing Wil Tor and his marines.”

Micah snorted. “Tor! Certainly, he shouldn’t be a problem! An uncultured provincial.”

The Colonel’s half-smile was grim. “I suggest you call up his record again. Uncultured, maybe. But Wil Tor is a veteran of over a dozen actions, and his last assignment prior to coming to the rim was as a student at the War College — in Strategy and Tactics. I can’t think of anyone I'd rather not have opposing me.”

Micah looked troubled. “I’ve been trying to preserve the illusion that we’re here to save Haven. But now… What about taking civilian hostages, Colonel?”

The Colonel shrugged. “That’s the classic tactic, sir. However, I’m not sure I could muster up a firing squad if Wil called your bluff. Don’t forget, to my marines, these people are civilians, citizens of the Empire.” He sighed and removed a sheet of paper from his tunic. “Then there’s this, Admiral.” He tossed it on the desk in front of Micah.

It was a poster, obviously professionally printed. In large lettering at the top, it began “MARINES!” Beneath that heading, the actual message began.

“Is this why you joined the marines? To help a corrupt criminal take over an imperial sector? To harass, injure and even kill unarmed civilians? Look at them. They could be your family. Your sister, your mother!

“You have no business here,” it continued, “There is no violence here. The only treason here is the treason you brought with you! Do you really believe the Emperor would abandon the Round Trip Ticket? Or is that just another of Jonas’ lies? THINK ABOUT IT!”

“Those things are appearing all over the compound,” the colonel said. “There seems to be a whole series of them. I’ve seen several different versions. Moreover, the troops are reading them. Since we got here we’ve had almost a hundred desertions.”

Micah frowned. “Well, stop them, Colonel. Confine the men to barracks or something!”

The Colonel shook his head. “That's not a solution, sir. For one thing, it’s not necessary. None of the troops go into town anymore, except on duty. It’s too dangerous. Besides, they don’t like being treated like brutes and criminals. Even so, if I ordered them confined to the compound, they’d resent it. We’d just trigger even more defections.”

Micah was getting angry. “Well, do something, damn it! We have no choice. Send your damned marines out and have them round up two hundred civilians for hostages. Equal numbers of men and women, but no children.”

The Colonel looked unbelieving. “You’re serious, sir? You’re really planning to kill civilians?”

Micah nodded grimly. “If necessary. We’ll tape them and broadcast the word that unless the terror activity ceases, they’ll be executed.”

The Colonel winced. “It won’t work, sir!” he said desperately. “Tor won’t stop. All you’ll do is help him by alienating anyone left not on Cord’s side! Besides,” he continued, “I’m not sure I can find enough men to fill a firing squad to shoot civilians. In fact, I hope not. I’d hate to know that I have that kind of people in my Marine Corps.”

Micah glared. “Your precious marines haven’t done very well so far! It’s their fault I have to resort to hostage taking. Round up those hostages, Colonel.”

The Colonel popped to attention and rendered a smart salute, whirled and left the room. The next morning he was gone. A message posted on the day room door said he’d defected, and urged as many of his men as possible to follow.

Micah finally got the hostages, after relieving the major who’d replaced the fugitive colonel and replacing him with a captain. However, that didn’t end his problems, external or internal.

Less than two hours after the hostages had been taken and the warning broadcast, Micah’s orderly announced Jamin Van-Lyn. Micah was irritated. Van-Lyn was supposed to be aboard Nemesis. He must have come down to protest as soon as he’d seen the warning broadcast. Micah sighed and had him admitted.

As he’d thought, Van-Lyn was upset about the hostages. The damned fool couldn’t understand that Micah had to be able to hold out until Cord came to fight.

If it cost a few hundred civilian lives, well, so be it.

Van-Lyn shook his head. “No, Admiral. Some of the things I’ve done since this began sicken me. But I will not permit the slaughter of innocent civilians. The Fleet exists to protect Empire citizens, not murder them.”

Micah slammed his fist on his desk. “You’re forgetting who’s in command here, Captain!” he thundered. He pulled his sidearm. “I’m warning you, Captain. You will obey my orders, or I’ll execute you on the spot for mutiny.”

Van-Lyn glanced mildly at the needler in Micah's hand, then shrugged. “I doubt it, Admiral. You need me and you need Nemesis. Shoot me and you’ll have neither. Cord will be able to simply waltz in here and arrest you. Or simply shoot you down.

“But I warn you,” he continued. “If you execute those hostages, I’ll relieve you on grounds of mental aberration, and place you under arrest. Then I’ll order the flotilla back to Thaeron, and report myself to Chard Danought under arrest.” The old man spun and stamped out of the office, slamming the door.

Micah stared after him. The trouble was, the old man was right. He couldn’t afford to lose Van-Lyn now, not with combat ready to erupt at any moment. Van-Lyn’s exec wasn't experienced enough to fight a dreadnought. Besides, Micah didn’t have a firm grip on the man. Nevertheless, as soon as they’d beaten Cord and Kedron, Van-Lyn would die.

Planetary resistance wasn’t the only problem Micah faced. Predator and Harpy had jumped his two Destroyers, Gyrfalcon, and Eagle.

Eagle had been destroyed. Gyrfalcon had fled back to Haven, seriously damaged. Micah’s Chief Engineer surveyed her damage, and decided that she'd have to be sent back to Thaeron for repair.

“It wasn’t Predator and Harpy that were the problem, Admiral,” her captain explained. “They’ve got a bunch of small armed boats. The damned things are smaller than a Strengl, and harder to hit. They’re unbelievably fast and maneuverable. They jumped us before we could transition from jump drive to inertial drive, before we had shields. And our targeting comps were just baffled. They swarmed around us like bees, carving us up with big lasers, or hitting us with rocks. Some of them have mass drivers that must be fifty centimeters in diameter.

“Then, just about the time we got shields and some of our shots began to hit those little monsters, Predator and Harpy moved in. When I saw Eagle blow up, I knew I had to get back here and warn you.”

Micah was thoughtful. Gyrfalcon ’s captain was young, but by all reports, he was smart, resourceful, and brave. No, he hadn’t run out on a battle. He’d retreated from one that was lost.

Gyrfalcon ’s damage was so severe that Micah had no choice but to send her limping back to Thaeron.

Micah had Gyrfalcon ’s sensor logs shown to the captains of his other ships. The lethal little boats impressed and worried them. Oh, Nemesis and Dauntless probably had little to fear. Though enough stings could eventually be serious, even to a cruiser or dreadnought. They wouldn’t be given time to realize that threat.

The Lieutenant in command of Raptor, though, had a lot to fear from them. If Kedron had enough of those damned things, they could overload Raptor ’s shields and cut her to pieces.

“Nothing’s really changed, though,” Micah decided. “Those boats are a surprise, and I want you all working on methods of dealing with them. However, there’ll be no ambushes here; no jumping us before our shields are up.

“No,” he continued, “There’ll be no opportunity for tricks here! They have to emerge far enough out to give us more than enough warning. Then, they have to attack us on our terms; and one damaged Cruiser and two damaged Destroyers are simply no match for our forces.”

“But…” Raptor ’s Captain began. Micah held up a restraining hand.

“Don’t worry, Captain.” He said, “I’m well aware of the threat of these new boats to your ship. Nevertheless, as long as we keep her under cover of either Dauntless ’ or Nemesis ’ weapons, you should be all right. Moreover, we will be looking for ways to deal with the damned things. Perhaps the Strengl s could give you cover.” He shrugged. “At any rate, we’ll work it out.”

Chapter XIII

Bendo and Jamro were as enthusiastic as Cord. They felt the boats would give them a decisive edge. I wasn’t so sure, but the only armed rim tramps available at the moment weren’t fully crewed. They’d have to go it alone.

We decided to jump Jonas’ destroyers in the Lonesome system. Lonesome was one of the three planets still being colonized. There were only a few thousand people on it. It probably wouldn’t suffer reprisal for the battle.

Predator and Harpy deployed their boats and picketed the main jump point. They maintained patrols of half their strength of boats, rotating them every few hours. This meant that each destroyer would have four or five boats grappled to it at any given time, while nine boats patrolled. The off-duty boat pilots would be relaxing in the airlocks, suited but with their helmets off.

They didn’t have long to wait. Gyrfalcon and Eagle emerged less than a day after Predator and Harpy. The boats on patrol swarmed almost instantly, and the rest of the boats joined them before Jonas’ ships could get their shields up.

Dodging, wheeling, the boats corkscrewed or arrowed in, slashed viciously with their lasers or mass drivers, and then bounced away on their pressor beams. The two destroyers were sitting ducks for almost three minutes until their weapons system power came online. Finally, their consoles came to life and a few of the braver gunners began overriding their battle comps and trying to manually aim their weapons. The destroyers’ battle comps didn’t have a hope of locking onto these bouncing, jinking, torturers.

Then Predator and Harpy closed in and the slugfest began. Even with the boats, it was a bloody mess. The gunners aboard Jonas’ destroyers had to shift their attentions from the swarming boats to the more heavily armed destroyers. The boats had to be treated as secondary targets.

Secondary, perhaps, but not ineffective. One of the boats slammed a laser beam into a weakened area of Eagle ’s shields, and suddenly Eagle became an expanding ball of incandescent gases, the first verified kill by an attack boat.

Unfortunately, Eagle was closely engaged with Harpy at the time. The explosion overwhelmed Harpy ’s shields and caused serious hull damage, disabling six laser and particle beam weapon stations.

Gyrfalcon drove frantically for the jump point, with Predator and a flock of boats in hot pursuit. One of Predator ’s particle beams was seen penetrating Gyrfalcon ’s shield and hull split seconds before she jumped.

Suddenly it was over, and all that remained was to lick our wounds and evaluate the results of the battle.

Shar had been right about the boats. Of the eighteen used in this first-ever battle, only seven remained operational, though one pilot was rescued from his disabled boat. Following normal Fleet procedure, Predator and Harpy recovered what they could of the ten dead pilots’ bodies and body parts before jumping out.

Harpy was in rough shape. Almost half her crew was in suits. She was running on 38 % power, though her jump engines seemed all right. With nearly half her weaponry disabled, she wouldn’t be battle-ready for some time.

Predator was somewhat better off. She’d been holed in two compartments, but both had been resealed, and integrity restored. She’d lost almost a fourth of her weapons stations and over a dozen crew.

Quick damage inspections revealed that both were still jump-capable, though Harpy ’s nav comp had slight damage.

They limped back to Bolt Hole to a hero’s welcome. They were the first of Cord’s forces to meet the enemy in battle, and the attack boat pilots were the first, period. Cord was grinning from ear to ear, but I was less enthusiastic.

True, we’d destroyed one of Jonas’ destroyers, and an incoming rim tramp informed us that after reporting to Jonas, the badly damaged Gyrfalcon had been sent to Thaeron for repairs that would obviously take months.

Nevertheless, I rated it a net loss for Cord; all three of his true warships were damaged.

Fearless, our battle cruiser, had jumped out of the Outback system with the help of an attached rim tramp’s comp. She was battle-ready, except that she had no jump comp; and without that, getting her into battle was going to be the problem.

Harpy was probably out of action for the duration. She needed an orbital repair dock. Jamro was cursing volubly as he enumerated her battle damage and casualty lists; but cursing wasn't going to help Harpy — or us.

Predator was the bright spot. She could be repaired even with the limited facilities available to us, and her crew casualties could be made up from Harpy. Repair time was estimated at two to three weeks. “Make it two, maximum!” I ordered.

With one destroyer converted to emm cee squared and another damaged, Jonas was down to Nemesis, two cruisers, Relentless and Dauntless, and one destroyer, Raptor.

“Well, Admiral,” Cord beamed. “Your crazy boats seem to work.”

“Yes, sir,” I replied. “But I certainly hope that sixty percent casualty rates aren’t typical.” I sighed. “And we’ve lost the element of surprise. They know about the boats now. They'll be trying to figure out defenses as we speak.”

He grinned. “I know. However, it was worth it, Admiral. We’ll call Wil Tor on Haven, and have the rim tramps spread rumors of the battle to the other planets. Sheol! Jonas couldn’t have hidden the condition of that damaged destroyer; I’d bet rumors are already circulating.” He shook his head. “I know you don’t understand, Admiral, but that victory is worth a dozen destroyers!”

He sobered. “Now. Do we know who the boat pilot was that blew up the destroyer?”

Jamro answered. “Yes, sir. A miner from Keth’s World. But he was caught in the blast, and is one of our ten boat casualties.”

Cord nodded. “Very well. Captain, I want you to recommend him for the silver comet. As I understand it, you were closest to the action.”

“Yes, sir. I’d already suggested something like that to the Admiral.”

“Good!” Cord smiled. “Now, I want you, Captain, to take a rim tramp to Keth’s and track down some of the man’s family. Bring them here for a public ceremony.”

“Uh, sir,” Jamro began uncomfortably, “I’ve got repairs to my ship to oversee, and…”

“No, you don’t.” Cord interrupted, “Come, Captain, do you think I can’t recognize serious damage when I see it? Your ship is out for the duration, and you know it.” His manner softened. “I’m sorry, Captain,” he continued quietly, “But it’s true. Harpy needs a shipyard, and we don't have one.”

“What you don’t understand,” he continued, “Is that this mission can help our cause as much as Harpy and her entire crew. We desperately need a hero. The rim needs one, and those boat pilots especially need one. This young man genuinely was a hero, and I intend to see to it that his heroism is recognized. By sending a ship’s captain to bring back his family, we’re showing the rim how important this young man’s heroism was.”

“When you get his family back here,” Cord continued, “we’ll tape the award and the memorial ceremonies for the other twenty-two casualties we suffered and have the rim tramps smuggle copies of the tapes onto every planet in the sector. Don't be surprised if that boy ends up the rim’s first sector-wide hero.”

When the other officers had left, Cord turned to me. “All right, Admiral. You’re scowling. Why?”

I shrugged. “I just don’t like seeing you use those young peoples’ bravery and heroism for political gain, I guess.”

Cord paused, a thoughtful expression on his face. “Admiral,” he said quietly, “I’m getting a bit tired of your attitude. I’ve never dealt less than honorably with you, yet you continue to ascribe less-than-honorable motives to my every move. Was it dishonorable of me to use those young men to fight for our cause?”

“No, sir, of course not.”

He nodded. “Nor is it dishonorable for me to honor their heroism and sacrifice by sharing their ceremonies and awards with the people they fought and died for. Alive, they served by fighting a battle. Dead, they will serve by giving hope to all the people of the rim. You know better than I the real value of military ceremony. It seemed that there was always some cretin in the Imperial Assembly complaining about the waste of money for military ceremony and customs such as the ‘round trip ticket’.

“And every time it happened,” he continued, “every Admiral and General in the Fleet let out a howl that could be heard to the Pleiades! I know as well as you that morale and esprit de corps are two of the most important reasons that men fight.” His fist slammed his desk. “Damn it, Admiral, I’m honoring their service, not abusing their memories. And I resent your constant implications of dishonesty!”

“I’m truly sorry, sir,” I replied. My apology was genuine. Cord had always been honorable in his dealings with me. “I’m afraid I’m guilty of typing you as a politician; and the few politicians I’ve dealt with were the ultimate pragmatists. Right was whatever was good for their career, and wrong was anything that risked compromising or diminishing their power.” I shrugged. “You are quite correct, sir. I’ve never seen you display that kind of behavior, and I have no right to ascribe dishonorable motives to you.”

Cord grinned and nodded. “I understand, Admiral. Many if not most politicians are of the type you describe. But some of us are capable of seeing beyond our own noses.” He waved dismissively. “Now, tell me about our next operation.”

Cord was turning into a real fire-eater. A narrow victory over two destroyers had whetted his appetite. I hoped I could keep him from wasting good people.

When Kaleen called via subspace, we were still arguing. Cord wanted to mount another attack immediately, this one on Relentless, the Battle Cruiser Jonas had sent to Gamma.

I had just made the point that Jonas was certain to recall the Cruiser, in light of the destroyer battle. Cord was saying that was why we should strike now, when the comm tech called us.

Tempers still hot, we went to the comm room.

It was Wil Tor, of course. “Admiral, Viceroy, I’m afraid I have a bit of a problem down here. Lieutenant Colonel Ratjek, my CO on Thaeron, has deserted Jonas, and was picked up by my people last night.”

“That doesn’t exactly sound like a problem, Sneaker,” Cord said. “In fact it sounds like a coup. If the CO of Jonas’ Marine Detachment defects, surely others will follow.”

“Yes, Sir,” Wil replied, “You’re right, of course. The problem is that I’m the CO of the resistance unit. Now, the Colonel outranks me. Oh, the Colonel has no real problem with being under my command,” he added hurriedly, “but my marines are used to him being in charge. I’m afraid they’ll look to him every time I give an order.”

Cord looked slightly puzzled, but I understood completely. A CO has to be able to expect instant obedience, especially in combat. This is even more important in a guerilla operation, where uniforms aren’t worn and lines of command can become blurred. If Wil weren’t the senior officer present, it would seriously impair his effectiveness. The trouble was, I could see that Cord didn’t understand the situation.

“You say that the Colonel has no problem with being under your command?” I asked.

“None, sir. That’s not the problem.”

“I understand, Sneaker One,” I replied. “Stand by. We’ll be back with you in a moment. Snooper, disconnect.”

“Yes, sir,” Kaleen replied crisply. “You’re disconnected.” It sounded as though Wil was having an effect on Kaleen.

I turned to Cord. “I can see you don’t understand the seriousness of the problem down there, Viceroy.”

He shrugged. “You’re quite right, Admiral. If we’ve placed Tor in charge, it shouldn’t matter who shows up.”

“In anything but a combat situation, you’re correct, sir. However, in combat, lives depend upon total and instant obedience. You can’t have the troops looking around for the Colonel every time Wil gives them an order. This situation can’t continue. People will die.”

Cord shrugged again. “Very well, let’s promote Tor to full colonel. That should solve the problem, shouldn’t it?”

I was taken a bit aback. Despite my own lightning promotions, I still tended to think in Fleet terms, where majors were not simply booted up to bird colonel. That progression can take up to ten years in the Fleet. I guess I still didn’t understand the power of an imperial viceroy that Cord wielded so casually.

I nodded. “Yes, sir, that should do it, if we can make the promotion public to Wil’s people. How about this: we set up a small promotion ceremony via radio, and have as many of Wil’s people as possible tune in?”

Cord nodded. “I wish all our problems could be solved so easily.”

Wil’s call had stopped our argument. We scheduled the promotion ceremony for that evening, Haven time, which made it the middle of the night on Bolt Hole. By the time all the arrangements were finally complete our quarrel had faded.

However, the underlying reason for the quarrel didn’t go away. Cord wanted immediate action, and I preferred to move more slowly, with better planning and preparation.

I didn’t really disagree that we should attack Relentless. I just felt certain that Jonas would recall her, and I didn’t want to waste a lot of planning on an attack that would most likely never occur.

I kept waiting, but when a week had passed and Relentless showed no signs of leaving Gamma, I began to hope. Could even Jonas be so stupid as to leave a cruiser so exposed?

Evidently, he could. When another week passed and the cruiser was still orbiting Gamma, we began planning.

Captain Vidsen of Fearless was invaluable in planning the attack on Relentless. He’d known her CO, Captain Bon-Lor, on Thaeron.

“He’s one of those that always end up being on the winning side,” Vidsen said with a grimace of distaste. “In any discussion, he could be depended upon to keep his mouth shut until it became obvious which side would win, then jump in loudly with both feet. I don’t think the man had an honest opinion in his life.”

“Well,” I replied. “He’s made a choice this time.”

Vidsen shrugged. “I doubt it. I suspect that he was swept along by circumstance. Relentless was orbiting just ahead of Nemesis when you visited Thaeron. Even if he’d believed you, saying so would have risked getting him and his ship vaporized.”

“Are you saying that he may be looking for a way to switch sides?”

“No,” he replied coldly. “Bon-Lor may be a pragmatist, but he’s no coward. Once he’s committed, he won’t turn his coat. But,” he continued, “He may accept an honorable way out of his situation. He can’t be very thrilled with Jonas for sending him off to Gamma without support. He has to know how far his neck is stretched out.” He shrugged. “I’d suggest launching a genuine attack, but offering him an opportunity to surrender honorably. If it was put to him as a way to save his crew’s lives, I wouldn’t be surprised if he took the chance.”

The boats that had been so effective against the destroyers would be less so against a more heavily armored battle cruiser. We’d need bigger guns; in other words, we had to attack in force, especially if we were to give Bon-Lor a chance to surrender.

That meant Valkyrie, Predator, and more than twenty armed tramps, carrying over a hundred and fifty armed boats.

The most serious disagreements revolved around Predator. I wanted to hold her out of the fight, save her for the attack on Nemesis. Judging by the anguished howls, you’d have thought I was advocating destroying her myself.

“ Predator is the only battle-ready true warship we have,” I argued, “We’re going to need her desperately against Nemesis!”

“We need her desperately against Relentless, Admiral,” Bendo protested. “For the psychological advantage, if nothing else. When Captain Bon-Lor sees a rabble of converted tramps closing on him, that's one thing. But, if they’re accompanied by a destroyer, that's quite another.”

“He’s right, Admiral,” Vidsen put in. “In fact, I think you should take Fearless, too. Yes,” he continued as I started to interrupt, “I know that having a tramp welded to my hull doesn’t improve my fighting trim, but all Bon-Lor will see is another cruiser coming at him. When he sees a fleet that large closing on him, he’ll believe that his position is untenable. As I said, he likes to be on the winning side. I’d almost bet that he’d surrender to a force like that with only a token battle.”

In the event, we all went. Both Valkyrie and Fearless took aboard a load of armed boats.

Relentless was on station in orbit above Gamma when we emerged.

Bon-Lor’s crew was on their toes. They detected us within an hour, and Relentless broke orbit, driving toward us to gain fighting room.

I hailed Relentless, and called upon Bon-Lor to surrender to an obviously superior force.

Bon-Lor was a thin, aristocratic-looking man, but a certain carelessness had crept into his appearance, accompanied by the florid features of a man who drinks too much. “To Sheol with you!” he growled.

“Captain,” I persisted, “I am a Vice Admiral of the Fleet, as you know. By now, you’ve seen the tapes of the Emperor’s visit. You have to know that you’ve chosen the wrong side. Jonas has used you, and used you poorly. What Admiral would put you out here without support? What Admiral would keep you here after losing two destroyers to my forces?”

My tone hardened. “You're not under Nemesis ’ guns now,” I said, “If you persist in making Fleet people fight each other, it will be on your own head. If you survive, I’ll have you hanged!”

That last comment had hit hard. Despite everything, Bon-Lor was a Fleet Captain. The idea of Fleet fighting Fleet upset him as badly as it did me. I could also tell by his eyes that my comment about being under Nemesis ’ guns had reached its mark, giving him a possible defense for his actions.

Still, he temporized as we approached each other. I felt he wanted to surrender, but the idea of surrendering without firing a shot outraged his sense of honor.

Cutting transmissions to him, I flipped on our secure general push. “Flag to all boats. Relentless ’ captain is reluctant to surrender. I want all boats to drive ahead of the flotilla. When you get within range of Relentless, show him what our boats can do. You are cleared to fire on Relentless; I repeat, you are cleared to fire on the battle cruiser. But mostly, I want her CO to see a hundred and fifty boats dance. Try to keep those Fleet gunners from locking onto you. I want to show him that his Fleet weapons can’t keep up with the rim’s boat Fleet.”

Some idiot broke radio discipline with a cheer, and suddenly the frequency was overwhelmed with noise. Boats began pouring from Valkyrie, Fearless, and all the tramps. Even Predator was spewing black dots. There was no semblance of formation; the boat pilots weren’t that disciplined. Nevertheless, I knew what Bon-Lor was seeing on his viewer: a cloud of glowing dots closing head on at amazing speed.

It took slightly less than two hours for the boats to close the shrinking distance to the oncoming cruiser.

They englobed Relentless, and began swirling, darting and diving, slashing and retreating. It soon became obvious, though, that their weapons could do only minor damage to the Fleet battle cruiser.

Bon-Lor called me. “If that’s the best your rim rabble can do,” he crowed, “maybe you’d better surrender to me!”

I shrugged. “Don’t be ridiculous, Captain. Of course, the boats are lightly armed. They can’t do more than sting you — but enough stings can be as fatal as a bullet. And you don’t seem to be exactly wiping them out.”

He flushed. “Whatever those… things are, we’ll get them eventually.”

I shook my head. “No, Captain, you won’t. Within two hours, you’ll be busy with a battle cruiser, a destroyer, and more than twenty armed tramps.”

He looked triumphant. “Pah! Fearless was damaged at Thaeron. You may have limped her here, but I’m not worried about her. And I have nothing to fear from a destroyer. As for those… those ridiculous tramps, I have nothing to fear from anything your rim rabble can cook up.”

I shook my head. “You’re whistling in the dark, Captain, and you have a very painful lesson coming about the capabilities of rim rabble. I just hope that the lesson won’t cost too many of your people’s lives. I’ll leave this channel open in case you change your mind.”

Both Relentless and our flotilla were slowing to battle speed, to avoid having to maneuver for hours to return to contact.

I keyed my microphone. “Flag to all tramps. Prepare to engage by flights. You are cleared to attack.”

The armed tramps were organized in flights of four ships each. Though some shifting had occurred due to personality differences, most of the flights had been training together since their ships were armed. The tramps broke from their loose formation around us and began driving toward Relentless. It would be another half-hour before Fearless, Predator and Valkyrie could engage.

We never got the chance. The tramps drove in, reversed course, and began raking Relentless with their quick-firing guns. Almost immediately, Relentless ’ shields were overloaded, and collapsium-plated projectiles began penetrating her hull. Her lasers and particle beams replied, of course, but the empire battle comps weren’t up to the job of locking onto the darting, swirling tramps and boats.

In less than five minutes, Relentless surrendered. It wasn’t Bon-Lor that surrendered her, though. A projectile from one of the rim tramps had removed his head. His executive officer surrendered immediately.

As with all battles, the aftermath took more time and effort than the battle itself. Casualties on both sides had to be found, treated, and identified. Drifting debris had to be run down and checked for bodies. Bodies and body parts had to be identified and stored.

Most urgently, we also had to find a way to deal with over three thousand prisoners, and we had to do it before they got any ideas. I called Captain Vidsen on ship-to-ship. “How quickly could you remove critical components from your weapons systems, and route all ship controls to your rim tramp?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Less than two hours, I’d guess. My Engineer could give a better estimate.” The Engineer was cut in on three-way and agreed that the weapons could be disabled and the bridge functions rerouted to the rim tramp attached to Fearless ’ hull in relatively short order.

I nodded. "Very well, here’s what I’m planning. We have more than three thousand prisoners. There's no way that we can guard that many without trouble. I suggest that we simply swap ships. Fearless ’ crew will disable her weaponry, re-route all bridge functions, and weld and alarm the bridge hatch. They will then move to Relentless, and Relentless ’ crew will be shipped over to Fearless. The tramp will control her operation, and can carry a load of boats to help with security.”

Vidsen frowned. “It’s far from foolproof, sir.”

I nodded. “I know. However, I suspect it’s the best we’ll be able to do, at least until we get to Bolt Hole. They’re Fleet, and they’ve surrendered, so we can at least hope that they’ll behave honorably. I'll talk to their officers before the transfer.”

Vidsen sighed. “I confess I’d like to have a ship that can fly herself and doesn’t need a hitchiker,” he admitted. “I also don’t see any better options. I guess we’d just better be lucky.”

Vidsen and his engineer began preparing Fearless and her crew for the switch. I went over to Relentless to meet with the ship’s officers.

“Ten-shun!” The officers crowding the wardroom jumped to attention. At least they were granting me the customary military courtesies, a very good sign. “At ease, gentlemen,” I said. I closed the hatch behind me as I entered, making the point that I was unaccompanied by bodyguards.

An elderly Commander approached and saluted smartly. “Commander Rigslan, Admiral, in command of Relentless.” I regarded him sympathetically. At his age, he’d obviously been sent to the rim sector to wait retirement. Instead, he now faced court-martial for mutiny and treason. I returned his salute, and then turned to the others. “Be seated, ladies, gentlemen. I’ve come here for some frank talk. You’ve noticed that I have come alone. Anything said during this meeting will be off the record.

“I asked if Relentless ’ officers or crew had seen the tapes of the Emperor’s visit to Haven. I was assured you had not, that Captain Bon-Lor thought it would be prejudicial to good order and discipline.”

A buzz had broken out at my mention of the emperor's visit. Voices began asking if the Emperor himself had really visited. The babble threatened to become a roar. I held up my hand for silence, and the babble subsided to a quiet mutter, then silence.

“Yes,” I continued. “The Emperor himself visited Haven. Because of Admiral Jonas and you, he was forced to virtually sneak into a sector of his own Empire. Before we continue, I want to play the tape for you. I ask that you watch carefully for evidence of tampering. You won’t find any. By the way,” I added, “this tape is also being shown to the entire crew.”

The room darkened, and the tape began running. It was uncut, from the welcoming ceremonies to Cord’s address to the people of the rim.

When the tape ended and the lights came up, there was dead silence in the wardroom. Every man and woman there had no doubt they’d been on the wrong side.

“Well, So what?” a voice rose from the back of the room in a sullen tone. “They were going to abandon us out here! We had a right to try to make them send us home!”

I shook my head. “I’ll tell you what the Viceroy told Captain Bendo of Predator when he asked for guarantees of repatriation. He told Captain Bendo that he would give those guarantees easily, but that he was ashamed of Captain Bendo for asking. The Viceroy was outraged that Fleet personnel could believe that he or the Emperor would violate the Round Trip Ticket, and that Admiral Chu-Lo would permit it if they did. His exact words were, ‘The entire fleet would rebel first.’ Is there anyone here who doubts that is true?”

Silence. After a moment, I nodded and continued. “Now, ladies and gentlemen, make no mistake. You and the rest of the crew are all prisoners. Some of you will be charged with serious crimes. I will be quite honest with you. I don’t have enough people to effectively guard more than three thousand people. I will take what precautions I can, but for the most part, I rely on your honor as fleet officers to control your people, and to honor your surrender. I assure you that your actions now will have much to do with your fates later.”

“I am asking for your personal parole,” I resumed. “I’m asking each and every one of you to give me your word as an officer and gentlebeing to make no attempt to escape, and to control your hotheads to keep them from doing anything stupid. Is there anyone here who feels that he or she cannot extend that parole?”

A tight group of three men and two women stood. The senior was a Lieutenant Commander. “You were lying on Thaeron and you’re lying now!” he proclaimed. “These others may turn coat, but we will not betray our Admiral!”

There was much groaning and rolling of eyes. Evidently, these were not the most popular officers aboard. I turned to Rigslan. “Captain,” I asked politely, “Do you think that you could find a few volunteers to escort these officers to the brig?”

“Of course, sir,” Rigslan replied. He turned to the group, and over twenty hands went up even before he asked for the volunteers. He selected ten, and for several minutes confusion reigned in the crowded room as the five were hustled out. Order slowly returned.

I yawned. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s been a rather long day for me, with the battle and all.” Chuckles rumbled through the group. “Let me see. It’s the middle of the night for me; but it’s… late morning for you?” I looked to Rigslan for confirmation and he nodded. “All right,” I continued. “We’ve been here a long time. That tape was over two hours long, and I talked for… well, too long.” The chuckles turned to laughs. “Knowing how long that tape runs, I made arrangements for food to be prepared and served. I suggest we adjourn this meeting for, say, an hour. In addition to food, this will give you a chance to absorb and discuss what you’ve seen and heard here.” I opened the door and signaled the servers waiting outside. A benign chaos ensued as the senior officers fought their way out of the wardroom and headed for the senior officer’s mess and the junior officers began jockeying for seats.

Captain Rigslan approached, rescuing me from officers besieging me with questions. “Perhaps you’d care to join me in Cap… uh, my cabin, Admiral?” He looked embarrassed and old.

“I’d be delighted, Captain,” I replied.

Chapter XIV

Captain Bon-Lor’s cabin was luxurious, but a total mess. A number of empty liquor bottles littered the room, which smelled of alcohol and stale body odor. Captain Rigslan stopped suddenly just inside the door, and whirled to me with an oath. “I’m sorry, Admiral,” he began, “I haven’t been in this cabin since we arrived in this system. I had no idea… If you don’t mind; perhaps we could go to my cabin?”

I nodded, and he led me farther down the passage. “Surely Captain Bon-Lor wasn’t always… that way?” I asked. He opened the door to a neat, smaller cabin. Pictures of a gray-haired woman and a variety of children and adults adorned the bulkheads. He ushered me to a seat, and an orderly brought us sandwiches and caf.

Rigslan’s head came up. “Oh, no, sir! Captain Bon-Lor was always very meticulous, and only a social drinker. This started after your.. visit to Thaeron, Admiral. The Captain became irritable. After meetings with Admiral Jonas, he was frequently in a rage. He seldom came to the bridge, and when he did, he smelled of alcohol. But he was a good officer until then, sir.” Rigslan looked me in the eye. “I guess he realized that we were on the wrong side. But I don’t understand it. For a while, it was a toss-up aboard, which side to join. The Captain could’ve swung opinion either way. He was the one that chose that we follow Admiral Jonas.”

I shrugged. “I was told that Relentless was in the same orbit as Nemesis, and slightly ahead of her at the time. Perhaps the Captain thought that not choosing Jonas would risk the destruction of his ship.”

Rigslan straightened. “Of course! That must be it. He felt that to save his ship he had to betray his duty. That’s why he was acting so strangely.” His tone turned puzzled. “But why didn’t he just surrender to you this morning?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. Now that you are in command, you’re going to find that Captains must often make difficult decisions. Moreover, there is no one with whom to discuss them. Nor can you explain them.”

Rigslan’s tone became bitter. “I won’t be in command long, sir. Just until your prize crew takes over.” He sighed. “Then I can watch my career self-destruct.”

I could feel the flush of anger suffuse my face. “How dare you? How dare you feel sorry for yourself? You're an adult. You made your choices. But most important, you’re in command. You have no right to self-pity!” I waved toward the door. “There are more than three thousand people out there who are frightened and confused. They are your people, Captain. And they need your help. Bon-Lor abandoned them after Thaeron, and now you want to abandon them again to wallow in self-pity!”

Rigslan jumped as if slapped. I continued, “Qualified or not, selected or not, you are in command. If your people see you mope around, worrying about your own career, they will cease being disciplined Fleet troops and become a frightened rabble. Damn it!” I shouted, “I don’t want to have to order my troops to open fire on these people one day just because Captain Rigslan abandoned them!”

He flushed, but his gaze was level. “I was good once,” he said quietly. “I was a good officer. Maybe I could be one again. My apologies, Admiral.”

I looked at him appraisingly. He had been a good officer, once, or he’d never have made Commander. “Would you mind some unsolicited advice, Captain?” I asked.

He looked embarrassingly grateful. “Of course not, Admiral. I’d appreciate it. I admit to being a bit lost.”

I shrugged. “This crew has been leaderless for a long time, certainly longer than they deserved. You have to take command. Give orders and act as though the thought that they might not be obeyed would never occur to you. No matter how busy you are, take the time to dress down a man who shirt isn’t pressed, or a woman whose hair is unacceptable. The crew must believe that you see everything, and know everything. Don’t explain your decisions, and don’t accept excuses. Accept input only from those on your staff, but don’t let them begin thinking that they get a vote.”

I sighed as I continued, “If you have any friends among the crew, you’ll have to give them up. Command is a lonely position.” I shrugged again. “As far as what you should do immediately, I’d suggest you find out if any of your people have legal training. If so, put them in charge of counseling the rest of the crew.

“We’ll be putting you aboard a disarmed ship as passengers and prisoners. Your people won’t have anything to do except sit around, complain and worry for a long time. Nevertheless, remember, the weapons on that ship may be disabled, but the comp’s memory banks are fully functional. Assign research tasks to teams, with the expressed purpose of helping your people defend themselves against charges. Or think of something else. Your one and only job is to keep hope alive. Keep them busy and motivated. Don’t let them fall into the trap of self-pity or desperation.”

I looked directly into his eyes. “It’s a big job, Captain. It may be a hopeless job. Nevertheless, you have to try. Over three thousand lives depend upon it. You're not retired or fired yet, Captain. If you must go out, go out trying, with your head held high; don’t just slink out the back door.”

Rigslan had slowly straightened. By the time I finished, he was straight as a rod and I could see some of the young man with high hopes that once had been. “Thank you, Admiral,” He said in a quiet, dignified tone. “You've reminded me of some things I’d forgotten. Including my own capabilities. I think I’ll be all right, now.” With a final sip of his caf, he stood, ramrod straight. “I believe the hour is up, Admiral. Shall we go surprise my crew?”

I grinned. “Why not?”

There was no trouble as the shaken crew of Relentless was exchanged with that of Fearless, though I understand there were some tense confrontations when crewmembers from the two ships encountered each other. Finally, Fearless, with an escort of armed tramps, boosted for the jump point and Bolt Hole.

Meanwhile, cleanup efforts continued. Though Relentless appeared to have taken little serious damage, she had numerous hull leaks, and the tramps’ projectiles had been more effective than it appeared. Forty of Relentless ’ crew had been taken to Fearless ’ sickbay with wounds and decompression injuries. Twenty-four, including Captain Bon-Lor, were dead. Blood and body parts had to be cleaned up, and the ship set right. Vidsen lost no time beginning work.

Our own losses were fourteen boats and three rim tramps, with all hands. Only one of the tramps hadn’t blown up. She drifted airless, almost cut in half by Relentless ’ lasers. Her entire crew was dead. We recovered the bodies, and put a beacon on the hulk to prevent collisions. Then we nudged her into an orbit that would eventually take her into Gamma’s sun.

We were involved in recovery of bodies from the debris of the attack boats when Shar pulled me aside.

“Admiral,” he began, “I want to remind you that it might be considered polite to inform the people of Gamma about the battle and its result.”

“Damn!” I exclaimed, “I’d completely forgotten about that.”

“Shall I set a course for the planet, Admiral?”

“Gods no! It’d take us a week or more to get away again. Besides,” I added, “I detest ceremonies and such nonsense.” I thought frantically. “I’ll just record them a message. We’re far enough out that the time lag would make two- way conversation practically impossible anyway.”

Shar grinned. “If you say so, Admiral. I’m not sure it would be the Viceroy’s solution, though.”

I chuckled. “I’m sure it wouldn’t. But I’m just a fat old trader captain, not a Sector Viceroy. If he wants speeches and ceremonies, he can come back and make them himself.”

Shar looked at me skeptically. “How long do you think you can get away with that ‘fat old trader captain’ nonsense?”

I grinned. “Hopefully, long enough to end this ‘Admiral’ nonsense and make it true again.”

His skeptical look didn’t change. “This is Shar you’re talking to, remember? You love every minute of this ‘Admiral nonsense.’ And you’re damned good at it.”

My face grew warm. “C’mon,” I growled, “Let’s go write up a message that’ll keep me out of trouble with Cord.”

Several hours later, I found myself staring into the glowing eye of the camera. “People of Gamma,” I began. “I am Vice Admiral Val Kedron of the Rim Worlds Fleet. It is my great pleasure to be able to inform you that today; the Rim Worlds fleet attacked and captured the Empire Fleet battle cruiser Relentless. Relentless is the ship that has been holding you prisoner and hostage.

“Unfortunately,” I continued, “time and battle damage prevent me from visiting Gamma to deliver this happy message in person, and the distance from the battle site to the planet creates a time lag that prevents two-way communication. By the time your reply to this message reaches my present location, we will be gone. I sincerely regret the impersonality of this one-way announcement, but I’m afraid that I have no choice in the matter. I hope that those of you with broadcast facilities will distribute this message to the people of Gamma.

“I doubt that Admiral Jonas can spare the forces to again menace Gamma. We expect him to concentrate his forces at Haven. He has lost two destroyers and a battle cruiser. He is in retreat, and soon, we will pay him a visit at Haven and put an end to this treason and mutiny.” I sighed before I continued, “I’m sure that Viceroy Cord will soon be in contact with you. But now, I must be on my way. There is much to be done. Thank you for your kind attention.”

The glowing eye faded, revealing Shar standing behind it, grinning like an idiot. He put his palms together and raised them to his cheek. “My Heeeero!” He gushed in falsetto.

I shot him a threatening look. “One of these days you’ll go too far, and I’ll forget that I’m just a fat old trader captain in an admiral suit.”

The message sent, we finished cleaning up the loose ends of the battle, and returned to Bolt Hole.

Cord was delighted with the results of the battle, but not as happy with what had occurred afterward.

“Admiral,” he fretted, “You purposely avoided going to Gamma. Your return here wasn’t that urgent.”

I made no apologies. “Sir, if I’d gone to Gamma, It would have been days before we could get away again. Probably longer, once Valkyrie ’s crew got liberty on-planet. I had no intention of being trucked around as the duty hero for a week or so.”

He rolled his eyes and sighed. “Admiral, you’re an excellent battle commander, but you have absolutely no concept of the political side of an Admiral’s job.” He waved a hand to signal a change of subject. “Now, tell me about this rim tramp that got cut up, but didn’t blow up.”

I shrugged. “Yes. It was too bad. She was Lubyloo, the ship that took Wil Tor’s commando to Thaeron. A good ship and a good crew.”

Cord was staring at me. “Have you no sense of history, Admiral? I want you to immediately send a rim tramp with a load of boats to recover that ship, and transport it to Gamma.”

I frowned. “Why? She’s damaged beyond economic repair; in fact, I’m not sure repair is even possible.”

He sighed. “Someday that hulk will form the centerpiece of a museum devoted to the rim worlds’ struggle for independence. For now, I want every possible honor rendered.”

In the end, we sent two rim tramps. While mining boats maneuvered the hulk of Lubyloo toward Gamma, the two tramps provided an honor guard.

When they reached Gamma, the boats lowered the hulk to the surface, flanked by the two tramps. Then the boats moved back and landed facing outward, to form a guarding circle around Lubyloo.

The whole thing was broadcast live planet-wide, and the landing field was crowded with thousands of onlookers, since Cord had sent along a tape that had been transmitted to Gamma even before the tramps had located Lubyloo. Cord’s instructions were remarkable.

He began by telling of Lubyloo ’s part in the commando raid on Thaeron, then her participation in the attack on Relentless, and her fatal damage.

He followed his introduction with a series of instructions calculated to transform Lubyloo from a mass of scrap metal to a sector treasure. He instructed that an honor guard be recruited. Lubyloo was to be manned by at least two people at all times, and her colors were to be raised and lowered at the appropriate times.

Her fusactors were to be powered down to the minimum required to provide lighting, heat and cooling, but were not to be permitted to go cold. Thus, Lubyloo would remain on the active list of the rim fleet. Along with the rim tramp escort, Cord had sent a ‘conservator’, whose job it was to inventory and remove the crew’s personal belongings for presentation to their next of kin. Then he was to evaluate Lubyloo and figure out a way to permit visitors to tour the hulk without chancing the pilfering of someday-priceless artifacts.

In this message, Cord also coined the term by which the armed tramps have been identified ever since: Privateer.

For over a week, people crowded the landing field trying to catch a long-range look at the heroic wreck. The encircling mining boats kept them at a respectful distance. There was really little to see, but the crowd never seemed to diminish much.

When she was finally opened for tours, people streamed through her by the thousand. Collection points had been strategically placed at entrance and exit, and in less than a month, nearly a million crowns had been raised for construction of a Lubyloo museum.

Meanwhile, back at Bolt Hole, there was much discussion of our next move. Only six weeks remained until our carefully timed attack on Nemesis could be mounted.

Cord and Bendo wanted to attack the base on Thaeron. Shar and I thought it would be a waste of time, resources, and most importantly, lives.

“But we could cut off his supply line,” Bendo protested.

I shrugged. “He’s not dependent on that supply line. He’s been provisioning by requisitioning supplies on Haven, and he hasn’t been using any ammunition, aside from some for infantry weapons for his marines. When he does use his ammo, it’ll be against us. He won’t be able to restock. If we beat Jonas at Haven, we can simply go to Thaeron, announce that fact, and accept their surrender. No loss of life or ships. I see nothing to be gained by attacking a fortified system.”

“And it is heavily fortified,” Shar added. “Everything from command-detonated mines to heavily fortified moons. It would take a full-scale attack, and even then, we might not win. Why fight an unnecessary battle?”

In the end, we didn’t attack Thaeron, but I’m not convinced that we were persuasive. I suspect it had more to do with the relatively short lead-time to our attack on Nemesis and her companions. We were busy with plans and preparations for nearly the entire six weeks.

Finally, all was in readiness, and Cord ran out of patience.

He sighed. “All right, Admiral, are you going to tell me about it? I mean, I understand classified information, but I think I have a ‘need to know’.”

I nodded. “Yes, sir, but I wasn’t sure about your staff. The last rim tramp left this afternoon, and no one else will be leaving this system until ‘R Day’. I can tell you now.

“As soon as Jonas’ ships settled into a predictable orbit, a dozen boats and a single rim tramp went into action. The boats selected four asteroids of at least a kilometer in one measurement, and began nudging them into an orbit that will slingshot them around the sun and into a collision course with Jonas’s ships’ orbits.”

Cord looked incredulous. “That’s it?” He said, “You’re guiding kilometer-sized rocks into positions where they could hit Haven? Are you insane? Even a minuscule error could wipe out all life on the planet!”

I shook my head. “No, sir. You see, the boats stayed with the rocks. They’re making constant corrections to insure that doesn’t happen, as well as accelerating the rocks. The rim tramp is following along on minimal power and hiding behind one of the asteroids, so as to avoid detection. But we had to be able to rotate boat pilots. It’ll be just over six months from the time they launched the rocks until they cross Haven’s orbit, still guided. We’ll launch our attack just before that time.”

“I see. And what’s to keep Jonas from simply moving out of the way? Those rocks will mass far too much to be moved.”

“Actually, not much,” I admitted. “But they’ll be approaching from behind Haven, if we’ve timed it right. Of course, he’ll also have a bit of a battle to occupy his attention. I’m hoping he won’t notice the rocks in time to light off Nemesis ’ inertial drives. Dreadnoughts are not very maneuverable, you know.”

“Can’t he destroy them?”

I shrugged. “To tell you the truth, sir, I don’t know for sure. A dreadnought carries some sizable fusion warheads. But I don’t know how sizable, other than the five planetbusters she carries. He can’t use those, of course. They take almost half an hour to prepare and launch. But, we have four rocks. By the time they reach Haven, they’ll be in a row, seconds apart.” I shrugged again. “I’m sorry, sir, but it was the best I could come up with. We simply didn’t have time to build a fleet large enough to tangle with a dreadnought.”

The clock ticked down to our launch time. Valkyrie and the thirty-two armed rim tramps… ah… privateers all carried holds full of attack boats. Other boats, already in the system, were driving in from our asteroid base, hopefully too small to register on Jonas’ detectors. Predator escorted Relentless and Valkyrie.

Our fleet lifted and drove for the jump point. The die was cast. There was nothing more for me to do until we emerged in Haven’s system. Despite my best intentions, I found my eyes coming to rest on Suli, immersed in her jump calculations. I wished I’d found a way to leave her behind on Bolt Hole.

Our rim comps let us emerge at a jump point far farther inside the Haven system than would have been possible for Empire vessels. I scanned my monitors anxiously. Suddenly a speck of light swung into view around Haven, and one screen resolved it into the kilometer-wide globe of Nemesis, still in her standard Fleet orbit. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, and began looking for Dauntless and Raptor. There! Dauntless preceded Nemesis in her orbit. Finally, Raptor emerged from behind Haven. Other screens showed me my own fleet. Cargo locks on all of the privateers were open, and they were spewing clouds of boats as they drove for the orbiting warships. This was the showdown.

Even from our advanced jump point, and at full acceleration, we were hours from Haven. My largest concern was that Jonas would break orbit with Nemesis. It was vital that he keep her in orbit. I did expect Dauntless and Raptor to break orbit to gain fighting room.

I was wrong. It must have been Jonas’ orders that kept them from moving out. Surely, both captains realized that by staying in orbit they compromised much of their ships’ fighting ability.

At any rate, the three ships simply maintained their orbits and cleared for action. Nemesis launched almost a hundred Strengl and Wasp fighters, Dauntless twenty more.

As planned, the privateers broke into three attack groups, and each headed toward one of the enemy ships, accompanied by a cloud of armed boats. I cursed as Valkyrie slowed; but she wasn’t a combatant, she was a flag C amp;C ship, and had no place in the line of battle.

Six privateers and a dozen armed boats had headed for Raptor. Suddenly, Raptor broke orbit and began frantically transmitting surrender messages. Evidently, her captain had simply been waiting for his chance to desert Jonas’ forces. I had one privateer approach her and board. In moments, the privateer’s captain confirmed the surrender of the destroyer. I left two more privateers and their attendant boats to guard Raptor, and rerouted the other three and their boats to one of the other targets.

The captain of Dauntless had worries of his own. His own sister ship, Relentless, a destroyer, Predator, and over ten privateers, as well as more than fifty armed boats were attacking him. The Strengl s and even the Wasps had been simply brushed aside, out flown by the boats, and outgunned by the privateers. The boats swarmed so thickly around Dauntless that they were getting into Relentless ’ and Predator ’s lines of fire.

Again the boats were putting on their space ballet, dancing, weaving, pirouetting, then suddenly arrowing in, slicing with their lasers, and bouncing away, to resume their evasion dance.

Dauntless ’ captain tried to fight a textbook battle against Relentless and Predator, as he’d been trained. However, his training hadn’t included small, heavily armed ships that could maneuver like fighters, but carried the armament of frigates. Then there were the boats…

The plan had been to concentrate on Dauntless and Raptor, and simply keep Nemesis too busy to come to their aid. Once the battle cruiser and destroyer had been defeated or destroyed, we’d be able to focus completely on Nemesis, even if the asteroids failed.

It seemed to be working, or else Jonas was cooperating, behaving as stupidly as we’d hoped.

Nevertheless, flares began to appear, each marking the death of one of our privateers or boats. Dauntless was beginning to show her damage. Her shields were dangerously weakened in several areas, and nearly a third of her weaponry was apparently disabled. However, she was taking a serious toll on my fleet. Her battle comps might not be able to deal with the boats, but they could track the privateers. Track them and attack. The flares became more numerous.

When two more flares announced the deaths of two more privateers, I lost patience, and called in one of our unconventional weapons. A privateer broke free of the battle, swung away, and drove at maximum into an orbit exactly opposite the battle cruiser’s. Once clear of both Dauntless and Nemesis, she opened her cargo hatch, and a crewman gently nudged a long cylinder out of the hull. The privateer slowed and altered course to blast back to the battle as the cylinder sped at several thousand kilometers per second around Haven and toward the battle cruiser on a collision orbit.

I followed the beacon it carried until it disappeared behind the planet, and waited anxiously for several minutes until it reappeared. I triggered a control, and a flash announced the disintegration of the cylindrical container, revealing a packed mass of fist-sized rocks.

The flash must have been noticed aboard Dauntless, too. She began frantically firing at the mass of rocks. But her powerful lasers merely fused small rocks into larger ones. Her particle beams were simply absorbed. Missiles and projectiles only scattered the rocks a bit, making them even more dangerous.

Armed boats and privateers scrambled out of the way as the rocks closed on the cruiser at incredible velocity. The thousands of rocks impacting her weakened shields at ten kilometers per second simply overwhelmed them. When the mass of rocks passed, they left a shredded, airless hulk in their wake.

The destruction was so complete and sudden that for a moment, everyone in the battle was stunned. Even Nemesis stopped shooting. Then Relentless, Predator and the remaining privateers changed course and engaged Nemesis.

Nemesis was ready. Her crew had plenty of notice to make their preparations. This was what I’d been dreading. I’d hoped to be able to find a way to beat Jonas without having to slug it out with the dreadnought. However, even if my asteroid plan worked, we’d have to keep Nemesis busy until they arrived…

Nemesis was old, and in my opinion obsolete. However, she was still one of the most powerful weapons systems ever designed by man. It was going to be a very expensive distraction, in ships and people.

I gritted my teeth and ordered our forces to concentrate on the old warrior. But even my repeated warnings couldn’t prepare my people for the reality of a dreadnought.

Nemesis carried more weaponry than the planetary defenses of most civilized worlds. Her huge lasers and particle weapons were pumped by their own independent fusactors, and were of a size usually mounted on moons. Her battle comps, though obsolete, were huge, and were capable of directing the fire of the nearly seven hundred weapons stations that she mounted.

We’d been inflicting damage, and of course, her age and background as a showboat and flagship were showing. Entire weapons emplacements were going dead as their ancient control systems failed under the pressure of the attack. Shields weakened. Battle comps began failing under the stress of trying to deal with our non-standard weapons and attack patterns. Given enough time, I felt sure that we could eventually beat the old monster.

Of course, we wouldn’t be given enough time. I doubt it was Jonas, but someone aboard her had imagination and initiative. The laser and particle beam emplacements stopped firing at points, and began trying to slash the beams across their targets. It was a devastating tactic, especially against the privateers. With their incredible maneuverability, the boats were less vulnerable to it. But privateers began dying with distressing regularity.

Suddenly, Relentless spouted a huge cloud of vapor, and began drifting away. A few of her weapons continued to fire over the growing distance, but it was clear that she was no longer an effective fighting vessel. I could hear Jax desperately trying to reestablish communication with her. However, she was obviously no longer under command. I considered breaking off the attack and retreating. Nemesis was simply too tough a nut to crack with our small fleet. But if we drew off, Nemesis might detect our asteroids in time to light off her inertial drives. Retreat was not really an option.

Damn it, people were dying out there! I glared at the timer counting down to the first asteroid’s arrival. The damned thing had to be broken! It must have been about this time that Nemesis ’ sensors detected the first asteroid swinging around the planet.

First one, then several of her laser and particle beam weapons began firing ineffectually at the huge boulder. However, Jonas had evidently learned something from the destruction of Dauntless. Despite the continuing attacks of our ships, he launched a missile. When that one was intercepted and destroyed by an armed boat, he fired another, and our sensors detected that Nemesis’ inertial drives were powering up.

The second missile impacted the asteroid with a tremendous nuclear flash. Jonas’ gunner wasn't stupid. He’d known he couldn’t destroy the asteroid; he’d aimed the missile to deflect it, and it had worked.

Unfortunately, he had deflected the asteroid away from the planet, in the only direction that Nemesis could have taken to break orbit. It was only when the asteroid moved relative to the ship that Jonas could see the second asteroid, some five seconds behind the first. There was no time to maneuver, no time to launch another missile.

A kilometer-sized ship is huge; but a kilometer-sized boulder is just as huge and much denser. Nemesis ’ shields were never designed to handle impacts of that magnitude; they burned out in microseconds. The boulder pushed more than halfway through the dreadnought, whose remains appeared simply pasted to its front.

The impact had slowed the boulder, though. Its orbit began to decay, and I yelled for the boats to nudge it away from Haven. A swarm of boats flocked around the boulder, pushing frantically to keep it from falling into Haven’s atmosphere, while others diverted the remaining two asteroids. They succeeded, but the remains of Nemesis slipped from the front of the rock, and became a blazing smear across Haven’s sky. Only a few charred pieces have ever been recovered.

And that quickly, the battle of Haven was over. At least, the fighting was.

The dismal job of cleaning up the aftermath of the battle continued for days. Once the shock of watching Nemesis ’ end as a shooting star on Haven faded, I’d dispatched a privateer to report and to fetch back Cord. Most of my part of the job was finished. Now his part began in earnest.

The casualty reports were appalling. Over five thousand men and women had died with Nemesis, including, of course, Rear Admiral Micah Jonas and Captain Jamin Van-Lyn. Three thousand more had died aboard Dauntless. Surprisingly, forty-seven people had been found alive aboard Dauntless, trapped in sealed compartments that had not been holed.

Ninety-two of our hundred-twenty four armed mining boats had been destroyed. Six of those pilots had managed to trigger their emergency beacons, and were recovered alive, but we didn’t stop until we’d recovered as much of each body as possible. That gave us a casualty rate of just over sixty-nine percent for the boats, an appalling rate.

Relentless had two hundred seventy-six dead and a hundred thirty-four wounded. She was once more under control, but it would take months of effort even with Thaeron's facilities to make her a combat vessel once more. Predator had suffered thirty-four dead and six wounded. Sri Bendo was recovering from decompression effects suffered when his bridge was hit.

Fourteen of the thirty-two privateers with whom we’d entered combat had been lost, a casualty rate of over forty percent. Cord had his victory. I hoped it was worth the cost. Suited men carefully examined every bit of debris looking for bodies or wounded — especially wounded.

When they were found, wounded were rushed to Relentless. As soon as they could be stabilized in her sickbay, they were evacuated to hospitals on Haven.

Cord arrived, and lost no time grounding on Haven and crowing about our victory. I remembered a line of ancient poetry I’d encountered at the staff college: ‘Another such victory and I am undone!’

Chapter XV

Unfortunately, it didn’t take Cord long to learn that I’d been hiding out on Valkyrie, refusing to go down to the planet and ducking dozens of well-wishers, hangers-on and social invitations.

“Buck up, Admiral,” he instructed. “You’ve had your battle. Now you have to face the music.”

“I’d rather face another dreadnought!”

He grinned. “I’m sure you would. Unfortunately, you’re not being offered that option.” He sobered. “Consider it a duty of your rank, Admiral. Consider it anything you want — but get down here and start hero-ing!”

I cast about desperately. “Uh, I have to plan for an assault on Thaeron, sir.”

He shook his head. “Won’t work, Admiral. Thaeron will wait. They no longer have any offensive capability. They can just wait until you get around to them.” He leaned close to the vid and pointed his finger at me. “Now, get down here and let them make you a hero!” He started to cut off, and then paused. He looked at me with pity.

“I will offer you a piece of advice, Admiral. You possess the unfortunate characteristic of being unattached. You’d be much safer if you were life-mated. Since you aren’t, I’d suggest that you comb your fleet for an unattached female that can accompany you and keep the sharks away. Otherwise, you won’t get a moment’s peace.”

I sighed. “How long will you give me, sir?”

He grinned again. “One day, no more. Don’t try to stall me, Admiral. I’ve already heard that you have a young lady aboard that.. ah… interests you. Bring her along, and get down here!” He cut the connection, which was fortunate. I could feel my face warming.

I agonized for an hour before summoning up the duty roster and learning that Suli was off duty. I temporized for another half-hour in desperation before taking my courage in both hands and heading for her cabin.

She answered the door in that same maroon robe I’d seen before-but this time, it was obvious that there was nothing under it but Suli. I almost forgot why I’d come.

She looked surprised at seeing me. “Why, Admiral!”

Heat flared in my face. “Uh… Ms Fjolking… I… uh.. I need your help. May I come in?”

She purpled and those beautiful eyes widened in panic. Then, suddenly, the flush faded and the eyes steadied. She stepped backward. “Of course, Admiral. Please come in.” That blinding smile flashed.

I stepped in and she closed the door. The cabin was tiny. A single chair and minuscule desk occupied a cubbyhole opposite her bunk. Everything was perfectly orderly. The cabin hardly looked lived-in. “Have a seat, Admiral,” she said, grinning.

“Thank you, but I’ll stand,” I said firmly. Sitting would mean one of us sitting on the bunk.

She shrugged and sat down… on the bunk. “Well, Admiral, what can I do for you?”

“Well, I uh… The Viceroy has ordered me down to Haven. I have to let them make a hero out of me.” My face warmed again.

“Good.” she said firmly. “It’s about time, and highly deserved, too!”

I felt myself flush again. “Come on, Suli, you were here. You know I was no hero. The heroes were out there.” I waved vaguely.

She sniffed. “Too right, I was here. Sure, there were heroes out there. But there was a hero in here, too.” The passion faded from her face, to be replaced by puzzlement. “But what’s that got to do with me? You said you needed my help.”

I writhed in embarrassment. “Well, you see, I’ve been flooded with invitations to social events-dinners and the like. I’ve been ducking them, but the Viceroy caught me, and he’s insisting that I begin attending them.”

She just regarded me silently. “You see, He… uh… I, Oh Sheol! Cord suggested that I arrange for a female to accompany me to these events, to keep me from being bothered by a bunch of women!”

She collapsed in a paroxysm of laughter. My acute embarrassment began to fade into resentment. “Excuse me,” I said stiffly, “I’m sorry I bothered you.” I started for the door, but she put her hand on my arm.

“Please,” she said between peals of laughter. “Don’t leave!” She began to sober as she saw my irritation. “I’m sorry,” she said gently. “I really am. I wasn’t laughing at you. It was just the…” She suppressed a giggle before continuing, “It was just the idea that the great Admiral Val Kedron, Savior of the Rim, Commander of thousands, needs me to protect him from predator females!” She trailed off into more gales of laughter. I began to see the humor in the situation myself, and in a moment, we were both howling. As our laughter began to fade, she added, “me, a Frejan!” and we both roared again. It took several minutes for us to regain our composure.

“All right, Admiral,” she finally said. “Exactly what is it you want me to do?”

My face grew warm again. “Well, uh, just go with me to these dinners and things… and… uh… pretend that we’re… uh…”

“Involved,” She supplied.

I nodded. “Believe it or not, you’re the only female in the fleet that I know other than in passing.”

She grinned. “I believe it. But if anyone down there knows anything about Frejans, they’ll know a Firster would never be involved with a paleskin. I mean…”

My heart sank. “I know what you mean. I’m sorry. I can see that I wasn’t considering your sensibilities…” I started for the door again, and again she put a hand on my sleeve.

“No, damn it!” she said fiercely, “You don’t know what I meant! And don’t say ‘sensibilities’ when you mean ‘prejudices’! Dark or light, you’re the most man I’ve ever met. I’ve learned more about myself in the past few months than in all the years before them. I’ve learned about prejudice, and I’ve learned about friendship, and…” she flushed, “other things.

“For the first time since leaving Freja, I feel like a member of a crew, instead of some kind of target. I have pale-skinned friends now! People I like and respect, that like and respect me. And I owe that to you. You wouldn’t let me hide inside my small prejudices; you made me come out and greet the world — the real world, not the nonsense that passes for reality on Freja.

“I’ll be delighted to be your protector, Admiral,” she continued. “I owe you much more than that.”

I shook my head. “You don’t owe me anything. I just pointed out the obvious. You were the one that took action. If your life has changed for the better, it’s your doing, not mine.”

She threw me a sidelong glance. “Y’know, Admiral, excessive modesty is just as irritating as a lack of modesty. Maybe you’d better work on that!”

After a few more minutes’ conversation, I reluctantly excused myself. As I left, she took my hand. I stared at my hairy white paw holding that slim black hand, and a thrill of excitement ran through me. I was shocked. I again reminded myself I was no horny teenager, to get excited about a handshake!

There was one more piece of real business for me before becoming Cord’s sacrificial lamb.

Luckily, there was one unarmed tramp in the Haven system at the time. I summoned her captain.

“I have a job for you,” I began. “I want you to go to Thaeron.”

His eyes widened. “Uh, that could be dangerous, Admiral,” he protested.

I nodded. “Yes, it could. However, we must know what’s going on there, and make sure that they know what’s happened here.

“Actually,” I continued, “I suspect they’re so starved for information that you’ll be in no danger at all. I doubt they know anything that’s happened since Gyrfalcon was sent back for repair. Keeping Thaeron informed was probably low on Jonas’ priority lists.”

We worked out a cover story for the tramp. We’d load her up with a typical cargo for Thaeron, mostly luxury foodstuffs. He’d tell whoever asked about the battle here, and portray himself as so greedy a trader that he’d run the risk of destruction to be first into Thaeron with a cargo to sell.

“I expect them to pump you for information, and they may not be particularly gentle about it,” I told him. “But if you talk willingly, I doubt they’ll get rough. While you’re talking, keep your eyes open. I’ll want to know about everything you see and hear, and even how you feel about what you see and hear. Any detail may save lives.”

I issued orders for the tramp to be provisioned with whatever the Captain ordered, and sent him on his way. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. At least I could feel that I was accomplishing something besides being an animated display for Cord.

A few hours later, we shuttled down to Haven. I’d been hoping we’d be able to sneak in unnoticed, but it was not to be. When the shuttle’s hatch opened, a roar erupted from a large crowd. Spaceport guards formed a human chain and held a path open for us through the throng. I turned and offered my arm to Suli, just behind me. She flashed me a grin and a wink before taking the arm as though it was the most natural thing in the world. When we appeared in the hatch, the crowd’s roar increased, and then trailed off, as they became aware of Suli. She was breathtaking in a red hooded cloak that framed her midnight skin and white hair dramatically. She was wonderful, behaving as though a throng greeted her everywhere she went.

A lot of the crowd seemed to be reporters. People shouted inane questions at me while I muttered “No comment!” over and over. Suddenly I noticed that more than half the cameras were now pointed at Suli. I could see the headlines now: ‘Mystery Woman Accompanies Kedron!’ Nevertheless, her exotic beauty knocked them off balance long enough for us to reach our ground car and escape.

The car had been sent by Cord, and it whisked us to the Viceregal Palace, where adjoining quarters had been arranged for us.

I introduced her to Cord, and he was as instantly smitten as every other male that meets Suli. At lunch, he was holding her chair and monopolizing her conversation. I began to get irritated.

“If you’ll excuse me sir,” I said. “I’ll just return to Valkyrie and blast off for Betelgeuse.”

He waved a hand dismissively. “Of course, Admiral, of course!” Then he seemed to process what I’d said, did a comical double take, and flushed. “Wha…” His expressions ran the gamut from preoccupation to puzzlement, embarrassment, and finally, anger. “How dare you?”

I chuckled. “Sorry, sir, I just couldn’t resist.” It was the first time I’d ever seen him in less than complete control.

After a moment, the humor of the situation struck him, and his anger dissolved in chuckles. "I take your point, Admiral," he said with a grin. After that, he was completely in control with Suli, unfailingly polite, reasonably attentive, but not so obviously smitten.

We descended into a maelstrom of social obligations. It seemed everyone on Haven wanted to meet and express his or her gratitude to the ‘hero’. We were mobbed everywhere. Every day it was another ceremony or dedication. Every evening it was another reception or formal dinner, with Cord, me and sometimes even Suli as guests of honor. I had a lifetime’s worth of cold, barely edible food, and was greeted by a seemingly never-ending stream of strangers.

In just one more out of a blurred series of parties at the palace for the local powers-that-be, I’d been shaking hands as usual and exchanging inconsequential chatter when something soft nudged my arm.

I turned. Suli stood there. However, it was a different Suli; looser, somehow. Those beautiful gray eyes were heavy lidded, and she seemed uncoordinated. This was so untypical that it riveted my attention. It took only a few slurred words to let me know that she was completely drunk.

I grabbed her elbow as she staggered, excused myself, and slid my other arm around her waist. She giggled. “Kinda forward, aincha, Adm’ral?”

I felt my face begin to grow warm. “I think we’d better get you to your room.”

She pulled back, looking at me archly. “Why, Adm’ral! What’re your intentions?”

The warmth crept down my neck. “Strictly honorable, Suli,” I replied. “I think you need somewhere to rest for a few moments.” She let me guide her to the lift shaft.

We reached our floor, and I helped her into her room. “What happened, Suli?” I asked, “Is something wrong?”

“Damn ri’ sump’n’s wrong,” she slurred. “Ony man onna planet I wan’, an’ y’don’ wan’ me!”

I stepped back in surprise. Me? She wants me? “Don’t be ridiculous, Suli,” I began, ignoring my own cardinal rule never to argue with a drunk. “Every man on Haven, me included, wants you. Maybe especially me,” I added in a mutter. “Why don’t you lie down for a few minutes, and we’ll talk about it in the morning?”

White hair whipped as she shook her head violently. “Nope!” she said, “You won’ talk inna morning. Y’r scared ’a me!”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” I replied tartly. Me? Scared? Never. Well, maybe a little intimidated…

“I’ll bet if I was a paleskin you’d wan’ me!” she continued as if I’d never spoken. She grabbed my head, and stared into my eyes. “I’m not some kinda statue!” She said fiercely, “I’m a woman! I know what I look like, but I won’ let you turn me into some kinda work of art!

“Val Kedron,” she continued jeeringly, “Big hero. Big brave man. Scared t’tell a woman he wants her! What do I haveta do, Adm’ral? Trip you an’ fall on you?”

I was taken aback. I’d had no idea… “Come on, Suli,” I said uncomfortably. “Why don’t you lie down for a few minutes?” I urged her toward the bed, and she sat on its edge.

She shook her head again. “Don’ wanna lie down,” she protested, but she let me lower her onto her back. She began snoring almost immediately.

I stood over her for a few moments, thinking. Should I remove some or all of her clothing? I debated about it, and decided I’d better not.

Could it be true? Could this ebon goddess actually want me? A fat old middle-aged man? A paleskin? Or was it just the liquor talking?

More importantly, did I want her? Did I really want her, or did I just want to possess her exquisite beauty? Did I want a serious relationship with her, or was I just a horny old goat smitten by a beautiful and exotic woman?

I retreated to my room, but I didn’t get much sleep. I was haunted by Suli’s words. I did reach one conclusion: It wasn’t just lust. I wanted a relationship with Suli on any terms she’d accept. Term contract or life mating, with or without progeny, I’d take anything I could get, and count myself incredibly lucky.

I tossed and turned until I watched the sun rise. Finally, I sighed and got up. I got dressed and went down for an early breakfast.

Surprisingly, Cord was there. I don’t know when the man ever slept.

“Well, Admiral,” he said, grinning. “What happened to you last night? It’s not generally considered polite for the guest of honor to disappear halfway through the festivities.”

I shrugged. “Suli got drunk, and I took her up to her room.”

A puzzled look crossed his face. “Suli? But I saw her just before you disappeared. She wasn’t even tipsy.”

I shook my head. “No, sir, she was really out of it. I took her up and put her to bed.” I saw his eyebrow raise, and hurriedly added, “To sleep, Viceroy. She passed out almost as soon as I got her to lie down.”

Cord was looking thoughtful. “Really. And did she say anything interesting before she passed out?” Warmth flooded my face, and he nodded.

“Yes. Well. Suli tells me that you’ve been to Freja, Admiral. Did you spend much time off the port itself?”

Surprised at the change of subject, I replied, “Why, not much. After the first day, I got tired of being treated like an animal, so I stuck to the port bars, with the rest of the paleskins.”

He nodded. “You know, Admiral, I’ve been there as well. But I didn’t have the luxury of hiding in the port, so I learned a bit more about the planet and the people.” This type of chat was not typical of Cord. I wondered where this was going.

“Freja was colonized during a socially conservative time in Empire history,” he continued. “And many of the mores still dominate Frejan society. For instance, in male/female relationships, it is the responsibility of the male to make the first advances. Females are very limited in the actions that they can take to indicate interest to a male.” He looked at me significantly. What he saw evidently didn’t impress him.

He shook his head and sighed. “It is not my habit to advise admirals on their love lives,” he said ironically. “But you are so dense! I think you’ve just been given your absolute last chance. Suli has done everything her moral code permits to indicate her interest in you. This drunken act is an act of desperation — it must have taken her a week to work up to it. I suspect that if she doesn’t see a reaction today, you’ll never have another chance with her. Think about it.”

I shifted uncomfortably. “I did think about it. All night. I just can’t believe that she’d really be interested in a fat old man like me!” The words tumbled out, and a flush of warmth spread over my face.

He chuckled. “I find it rather puzzling, myself. But everyone else has been aware of it for weeks.” He shook his head. “All right, Admiral. I’ll make your excuses. You have the day off. Take my aircar and take her somewhere and get this settled.”

The warmth hadn’t faded from my face. “Yes, sir. Thank you.” I started for the door.

“And, Admiral,” Cord said. I stopped and turned as he continued warningly, “This has been the one and only time that I shall ever discuss your love life!” I fled through the door, his laughter ringing in my ears.

I was trembling as I took my courage in both hands and knocked on Suli’s door. She was wearing a robe of thin white material that did little to conceal the dark shadow of the body within it. Exquisite!

And distracting. As she looked at me expectantly, I began, “Suli, I… ah… I, Oh! Sheol!” I stepped to her, put an arm around her waist, and pulled her face down to mine. Her warm lips made my head swim. After a long moment, I released her, worried. How would she react?

A blinding smile lit her face. “Well! It’s about time!” was all she said before pushing the door closed behind me and taking me in her arms.

She stepped back and, with another of those blinding grins, touched a button at the throat of the robe. It fell away, revealing Suli in all her nude glory.

And she was glorious! Only her wide shoulders and erect posture could have supported such large, full breasts. The large aureoles and prominent nipples, both in purple, were an effective contrast to her ebon velvet skin. The triangular pubic patch was coarser of texture and not quite the pure white of her head hair, having a slight yellow tinge.

Gods! She was gorgeous! Again, I was amazed. How could this exquisite creature, this fantastic example of nature’s artistry, really be interested in me?

After a long moment, she put her hands on her hips and bent one knee in the eternal pose of women. She smiled. “Well, Val, are you just going to look?”

I began fumbling with my uniform, flushing with embarrassment at the hairy, paunchy, pale body I was revealing. When I was as nude as she was, she stepped forward and planted a huge, passionate kiss on my lips while her hands roamed my body.

We never did use the Viceroy’s aircar that day.

The next few days passed in a glorious haze. I barely managed to check in with Shar every day. It was about three weeks after we'd grounded that his reports began to give me hope that I could extricate Suli and myself from the social whirl.

I went to visit Cord. “Sir,” I began. “I think I need to get back to work. Shar’s starting to run into problems.”

He started to shake his head, and then paused. “What kind of problems could Captain Tan-Li be running into that he can’t handle himself?”

“Trouble holding our forces together.” I replied. “The privateer captains want their ships disarmed so they can get back to trading. The mining companies want their boats and pilots back.” I hesitated, and then continued, “You’ve been so successful selling the idea that we’ve won, that everybody wants to declare victory and go home. They seem to forget about Thaeron.”

Cord nodded, his expression thoughtful. “You may be right, Admiral. Very well, you may return to your ship.” He grinned. “I don't suppose you’d be willing to leave Suli here, would you? No, I suppose not. Oh, well.”

It was with an immense sigh of relief that we boarded Valkyrie. It felt wonderful to escape Haven’s cold bleakness and walk onto Valkyrie ’s bridge. It took all my strength of character to keep from ordering her into space immediately.

If what I’d experienced was the life of a politician, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want political power.

Suli was as weary as I was, but unlike me, she’d delighted in the attention and social whirl. Besides, we were still investigating each other. We’d decided that for the moment, she would keep her own cabin. Too much was happening, could still happen. After the insurrection was over, we’d make plans that were more permanent. Permanent! Glorious!

Once again, the shipboard grapevine had shown its amazing efficiency. Judging from their expressions and actions, our new relationship was no secret from the crew. I didn’t have time to pamper my embarrassment. I had to immediately summon Shar so we could assess our forces and status.

We had Valkyrie, of course. Relentless, our best battle cruiser, had been badly mauled by Nemesis ’ weapons. She was at Outback, along with our other cruiser, Fearless, and two of our three destroyers, Harpy and Predator. Only Raptor, the destroyer that had surrendered at Haven, was undamaged. She was the only true warship still in the Haven system. We had a total of eighteen privateers remaining, and some thirty-two boats.

Those last two facts shocked and disturbed me. We’d started with thirty-two privateers and over a hundred and fifty boats. Of the remaining eighteen privateers, seven were in the Haven system, largely undamaged. The other eleven had gone to Outback for repairs.

There were also the six unarmed rim tramps. Since the Battle of Haven, they’d resumed their trade routes, and were reportedly making their fortunes due to the lack of competition. That was one of the factors causing the privateer crews to want to get back to business.

Another of the factors causing trouble was the attitude of the Outback repair yards. They had assigned higher priorities to the true warships than to the privateers. I wasn’t quite sure why they’d done so; I certainly hadn’t issued any such orders. I suspected that it was simply that military skippers become quite adept at bullying yard personnel.

In this case, it couldn’t be permitted to go on. If we had to assault Thaeron, we needed the psychological advantage of the largest number of ships possible, even if none of the number was completely battle-ready. Besides, we owed our privateers better than second-class treatment.

I decided to take Valkyrie to Outback as soon as I’d talked with the privateer skippers and boat pilots here in the Haven system. I was going to have to convince the privateers on Outback to stick a little longer. Besides, I wanted Shar to coordinate the repair efforts, with strict orders to make sure that he assigned the repair priorities, based solely on the need to get the largest number of ships possible spaceworthy.

I met with the privateer crews and boat pilots in Valkyrie ’s wardroom. Before, we’d needed much larger spaces; but now, with only about fifty people to accommodate, the wardroom was adequate.

As soon as I entered the wardroom, chaos erupted, crews demanding to have their armament removed, and boat pilots demanding transport to this world or that one. I simply stood quiet until the uproar died away.

Finally, the roar subsided to a dissatisfied rumble. I held up my hand, and the rumble faded.

“First,” I said, “I’d like to thank you all for coming. I’d also like to thank you for making possible my escape from Cord’s program of parties and dinners!” Chuckles erupted, but it would take more than lame jokes to do what I had to do.

“All right,” I resumed, “I know you’re dissatisfied. You privateer crews want to get back to the important stuff — trading profits.” I paused for another rumble of laughter. “And you boat pilots, I know you want to get back to herding asteroids instead of shooting up dreadnoughts.”

“You’ve all been hearing Cord's speeches. ‘The danger is past’; ‘the rebellion failed’ and so on. Yes, he makes it sound like it’s all over.

“But it’s not over!” I continued. “Those speeches are for the civilians; those who would have been screaming for surrender as soon as a ship appeared in their sky. How much peace can we count on with an entire fortified system in the sector? Thaeron’s yards and docks have the capability to actually build complete warships. Are you willing to have your children go through this all over again in fifteen years, just because we quit too soon?

“I’m asking you to stay with me just a while longer. I sent a scout tramp to Thaeron several weeks ago. I expect him back at any time. When he arrives, we’ll know more. Maybe you will be able to be disarmed and go home. Perhaps Thaeron is just waiting for someone to come and accept her surrender.

“On the other hand, Thaeron’s commander may be feeling secure behind his thousands of drifting mines, and his fortified moons. He may even have at least one warship. I’m told there was a battle cruiser in orbit there that was being cannibalized. I doubt it’s being cannibalized now. He also definitely has one destroyer. Gyrfalcon was damaged in the battle at Lonesome; Jonas sent it to Thaeron for repair. Those repairs are probably complete by now.”

“What we’ve done so far,” I continued, “is the equivalent of beating off a mugger attempting to rob us. But if you did beat off a mugger, would you be content to turn away and leave his armed accomplice in an alley behind you?”

“I hope that you will stay with me for awhile; but I won’t try to force you. Every one of you is a hero already. I will not try to compel heroes to face more and possibly even greater dangers.”

“In a few hours, I will be taking Valkyrie to Outback, to talk with the privateers and boat pilots there. I give you my word that I will direct the yards and docks to begin removing the weaponry of any privateers that ask, as soon as possible. However, you must understand that repairs to our damaged ships are a higher priority, with a battle yet to fight. So, we’ll disarm your ships, but you’ll have to wait until the yard and dock space is available.

“To you boat pilots I say this. There’s not one of you who hasn’t lost a friend in this fight. Some of you have lost many friends. Too many. I look out here and… there are so few of you! Barely more than thirty out of more than a hundred and fifty. You are the bravest and best of the best. I and the rest of the rim owe you everything. I hope some of you will stay with me. To the others, I say there is no disgrace in leaving now. On the contrary, every one of you has a medal coming. If you decide to go, go with your heads held high. Go as heroes! I will make sure that passage to your home systems is arranged as quickly as possible.

“Finally,” I continued, “I mentioned that we will be leaving for Outback in a few hours. In the meantime, I will make myself available to any of you to discuss your individual situations.” I straightened. “I want to make certain that you understand how much I appreciate the sacrifices you've made for the rim; and I promise you that both Viceroy Cord and I will do our best to make sure the people of the rim appreciate them, too. For now, I salute you.”

A gratifyingly large percentage of them jumped to their feet and returned my salute. A large lump had somehow become lodged in my throat, so I just muttered, “Thank you,” and fled out the hatch.

Shar was waiting. “I saw you palm that ace, Admiral!”

“I don’t know what you mean,” I replied with as much dignity as I could muster.

He grinned. “It’ll be weeks or months before all of the repairs are completed on all of the ships. So you’ve left them the choice of staying with you or sitting on their butts on Outback, arguing over who’ll eventually get to go first. ‘You'll have to wait until the yard and dock space is available’,” he mimicked. “When have you ever known a shipyard to be empty? Space will be ‘available’ when you say it is, and you know it!”

I looked around guiltily. “I know. And I feel terrible about it. I, we, owe them better! But, what can I do? I might need their help with Thaeron.”

His grin faded. “I know. What do you think the boat pilots will do?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know, Shar. But I didn’t have the courage to press them hard to serve again. There are so few of them left!”

He nodded soberly. “I understand. And I agree. I’ve never served with braver people — in or out of the Fleet."

Chapter XVI

I’d barely got to my cabin before Toms Tindarr was knocking at the door.

“Ye can count on alla us, Admiral,” he said with a cheery grin. “We’re wi’ ye!”

I shook my head. “Thank you, Toms,” I said in a heartfelt tone. “But I must admit I don’t understand. Your casualties were so high, yet you’re still willing to serve.”

Toms shrugged, and looked slightly uncomfortable. “It’s ye as don’ unnerstand, Admiral. See, rock jock ain’ zackly a respected perfession. Mostly we’re loners ‘n misfits. We generally loses a couple dozen a year, but don’t nob'dy care. ‘Cept Ye! Ye ‘n th’ Viceroy, Ye care!”

He shrugged. “Take Lar Quiston. He were a bum an’ a ne’er-do-well. His fambly threw him out — that’s how he ended up a rock jock. But ye an’ Cord, ye sent a ship’s cap’n allaway t’ Keth’s World t’fetch his whole fambly to Bolt Hole, so’s ye c’d persent ‘em a medal fer ‘im. Now he'll be ‘membered by his fambly as a hero, ‘steada a bum.” He shook his head. “Naw, Admiral, we’ll go ennawheres wi’ ye!”

I could feel warmth creeping up my face. I hurriedly thanked Toms and ushered him out. Sending Jamro to Keth’s World for Lar Quiston’s family had been strictly Cord’s idea. It seemed I owed him another apology.

Ultimately, all but one of the privateer crews elected to stay. I thanked each of the eleven crews, even the one that was opting out.

After some discussion, Cord agreed that I should take the entire force to Outback with me. That way, we could jump straight to Thaeron without time-consuming delays returning to Haven. He also agreed to send our scout tramp on to Outback to report.

The news at Outback was good; at least, as good as I could expect. Relentless was barely capable of maneuvering and jump. But if we couldn’t get her to Thaeron’s orbital shipyards, she’d never fight again. Though Fearless ’ jump comp was still out, all her other systems were operational. That meant that one of our two cruisers and three destroyers would be available for the Thaeron campaign. Even Jamro’s Harpy was now battle-ready. Perhaps we wouldn’t have to rely so much on the privateers and boats.

But captains are captains. They’re never satisfied with the condition of their ships; and they’d been hogging the orbital repair docks. I put a quick end to that.

To be honest, though, most of the repairs to the privateers had been completed in the planetside yards. Despite the complaints, there was little remaining to be done to make all the privateers spaceworthy. I was even able to get our one defector yard space for disarming. Frankly, I didn’t want his crew hanging around complaining and inducing others to change their minds. My one fear was that his disarming would be complete before we heard from Thaeron. If the other crews saw him lift off to trade, well…

Actually, that was what happened. Luckily, though, the day before she was scheduled to lift, our scout arrived in the system. All the crews were so busy betting on whether we’d have to fight that the tramp’s departure was almost unnoticed. I didn’t make any effort to keep the scout’s crew from talking on their way in from the jump point. If the crews wanted to gossip badly enough to tolerate communications lags of as much as an hour, they were welcome. I didn’t want the privateer crews thinking I was witholding information.

When she finally arrived in Outback orbit, I sent for her captain and asked for his report.

“The man in charge was an old man, a Captain. He’s the CO of the base on Thaeron.” He grinned. “But don’t underestimate him because of his age,” he added, “His chest is covered with ribbons. This is no armchair officer.”

He shifted in his chair before continuing. “I think he figured me out in about five seconds. Knew what I was doing there, and that you sent me. I told him about Jonas and Van-Lyn bein’ dead and Nemesis and Dauntless destroyed, and gave him a copy of the tape of the Emperor’s visit. After he pumped me for every bit of information I had, he gave me a message for you.”

I was startled. “What kind of message?”

“He said, ‘Tell Kedron that I said to leave us alone for a while. I’ve sent a courier to HQ on Prime for orders. If he’s telling the truth, all he has to do is wait until that courier gets back, and he’ll have nothing else to fear from us. But if he shows up here with a fleet before the courier gets back, we’ll fight!’”

I thought, hard. The elderly Captain seemed a competent leader. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to leave him alone. In fact, I couldn’t afford much delay at all, without risking the dissolution of half my fleet. On the other hand, did I really need the privateers?

I raised my eyes to the scout Captain. “All right. Now, tell me everything you saw and heard.”

He stared at me intently. “You're going to attack? After what the Captain said?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. However, before I make the decision, I want to have all the facts. Now, what did you see and hear, and what do you think about it?”

He stared at me for another long moment, then sighed and began. “Well, they towed an old hulk of a battle cruiser out to picket the jump point. It looked like they’d been stripping it for years; I was surprised it held atmosphere. Still had enough weapons to scare me, though.

“After I emerged, they sent a pilot aboard to guide us along the cleared lanes through the mines. Seems they’ve sowed mines over the whole system, thousands of ‘em. If you go there lookin’ for a fight, you’d better worry about them.

“Then there were the fortified moons,” he continued, “Two of ‘em. I didn’t get to see ‘em, of course, but it turned out that our pilot liked to talk. They’re armed with mass drivers, lasers too big to mount on ships, particle beams, and missiles. Not to mention a string of armed satellites. I couldn’t find out how the satellites are armed.

“Finally,” he said grimly, “There was a Destroyer in an orbiting repair dock. Gyrfalcon. I dunno how bad off she was, but workers were swarmin’ on her like ants. I figger the base has some defenses, too, but I didn’t get to see ‘em.” He shrugged again. “I dunno, Admiral, it’s your decision, but I gotta tell you, it won’t be easy. Or cheap.”

I dismissed him, and thought. The scout captain didn’t realize it, but what he’d told me made it essential for me to attack Thaeron. With that much firepower concentrated in the system, I had to go there while I still had all my forces. What if the Captain's courier didn’t make it back? Or if the elderly Captain died? Who would command then, and would he be as reasonable?

Oh, the hulk at the jump point wouldn’t be too much of a problem, and I could use the boats to clear a path through the mines. However, it would take everything that I could muster to deal with fortified moons and armed satellites, especially since they'd have days to get ready for us.

And I was already on borrowed time. As soon as that scout skipper got talking to the privateer captains, I’d begin losing them.

I called Shar. “I want you to send that scout ship back to Haven immediately, to report to Cord. Tell him I want him to boost in an hour, and I’ll have dispatches for him to take. And, Shar,” I continued, “if you can keep him busy until it's time to boost, I’d appreciate it.”

Shar grinned. “Palming aces again, Admiral?” He didn't wait for an answer. “I’ll take care of it.”

I cursed as I signed off. I hated manipulating people. But I needed every ship I could muster — as well as a lot of luck.

I taped a message for Cord, detailing the scout’s report and the actions I was planning to take. I also explained why I was sending the tramp, and asked Cord to keep close tabs on the scout captain until it was over, one way or another.

I rang for my aide. “Give this to the scout ship captain for delivery to Viceroy Cord.”

“Yessir,” he replied. “The scout ship skipper’s with Captain Tan-Li.” I suppressed a grin. Shar had found a way to delay the man’s departure.

I called a Captains’ conference for the next hour, and then got busy drafting orders. I put most of the boats aboard Valkyrie, so they could use her huge cargo doors to get into action quickly. The rest clustered on the destroyers.

Jumping a fleet is a delicate business. Unless the ships jump precisely at the same moment, they may emerge hours, or even days apart, and be cut up piecemeal. We slaved all the ships’ jump comps to Valkyrie’s, and boosted for the jump point. Suli could have used at least one more pair of hands as she tried to juggle all the variables in the jump computations, but she began counting down just as we approached the jump point. We jumped.

The absolute worst part of being a commander is jumping into a battle. You know the battle is coming, but you have to wait days for it to happen. You constantly second-guess yourself, but since comms don’t work in null space, you can’t make any changes to your battle plan. Luckily, I didn’t clearly remember the agony when we attacked Jonas at Haven, but this time I knew it would stay with me forever. If it hadn’t been for Suli, I think I’d have expired from anxiety exhaustion.

Suli devoted herself to distracting me from my doubts and anxiety. It didn’t work completely, but it helped a great deal to watch her try.

An eternity later, I stood on the bridge as Suli counted down. 5.. 4… 3… 2… 1… We emerged.

My first action was to check for my fleet. A quick look at my screens seemed to suggest that we’d all made it together. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Shar had already depressurized Valkyrie’s holds. Now he opened the cargo doors, and boats began zipping to battle stations. It was almost heartbreaking. What had been a cloud of dots on the screens was now only a pathetically few discrete blips.

Suddenly the comms came alive. “Forlorn Hope to unknown vessels. DO NOT FIRE! I say again, do not fire! We are not hostile! Do not fire!"

I keyed the command channel. “Flag to all ships and boats. Hold fire. I say again, do not fire! Take up battle positions, but stand by. DO NOT FIRE!”

I looked at Shar. “What do you think?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Forlorn Hope? Someone has a sense of humor. That.. thing out there was obviously a decommissioned battle cruiser being salvaged. When the Captain or whoever decided to tow her out here, he needed a name.”

I snorted in exasperation. “Not that, you idiot! Do you think they’re just trying to delay us while they get to battle stations?”

He shrugged again. “I doubt it. It wouldn’t make much difference in the ultimate outcome, and would just make us angry. I think he’s trying to surrender.”

“Then why doesn’t he just say so?” I muttered, irritated. Just at that moment, the com ceased its pleading not to fire. The voice was replaced by one with much more authority, and the Ensign's face was replaced by that of an elderly man with Captain's bars on his shoulder boards.

“Forlorn Hope to commander, unknown ships. Please respond.” He didn’t repeat himself. He knew I’d hear.

I flicked the switch to intership. He straightened slightly as my image formed on his viewscreen. “You’d be Kedron,” he began. “I’m Captain Chard Danought. It seems patience isn’t one of your virtues.”

I nodded. “I’m Vice Admiral Val Kedron. Are you surrendering?”

He grinned. “No need, now that you’ve held fire. No battle, no surrender!” He waved a hand. “Welcome to Thaeron, Admiral. Feel free to kick the cat and drop ashes on the carpet.”

I chuckled. I liked this man. “Thank you, Captain,” I replied dryly. “Am I to assume from this that you’ve heard from your courier?”

He shook his head. “Nope. Not yet. However, I did come across a couple of interesting prisoners in the brig on the base. Two officers from JAG. Together with that tape your spy left, I knew my duty.” He sobered and his voice went soft. “How many Fleet people did Jonas kill, Admiral? How many ships?”

I shook my head. It wasn’t a pleasant memory. “ Nemesis and Dauntless died with virtually all hands,” I reported grimly. “But over three thousand were saved from Relentless, and Raptor surrendered intact.”

He blanched. “That’s more than eight thousand people!”

I shrugged. “I couldn’t take chances with a dreadnought.”

He sighed. “I know, Admiral. But it’s still a tragedy. All because of one man’s greed.” He straightened. “Well, Admiral, I’d ask you aboard my ship while we proceed to Thaeron, but my ship, such as it is, lacks a few amenities like engines.”

I chuckled. “Captain, I’d be honored to offer you a ride on my flagship, such as it is!”

We secured from battle stations. The boats returned, and we buttoned up and headed for the planet.

Captain Chard Danought was excellent company. Urbane and witty, he captivated everyone he met. There was more to him than a sense of humor, however. His chest held an impressive display of ribbons. I recognized most of them, and they weren’t for good attendance.

We had almost reached planetary orbit when he received an urgent message from his headquarters. He took it in my cabin. When he emerged, his normally cheerful face was grim.

“We have a small problem, Admiral,” he began. “You may get your battle after all.”

Uh oh. “What is it, Captain?”

He shifted uncomfortably. “Uh, perhaps we’d better go to your cabin, sir,” he replied. Captain Danought was back on duty.

In my cabin he continued. “It’s one of the moon forts. Admiral Jonas pretty much stripped the system to get his fleet underway. I was left with responsibility for the defense of the system, but without much in the way of real firepower or battle-ready personnel.

“I had the cruiser hulk towed to the jump point, and I retained command. But I had trouble finding sufficient officers to man the defenses. I drafted nearly every officer I could find.”

He sighed. “Evidently, I wasn’t selective enough. The Lieutenant Commander that I assigned to one of the fortress moons turns out to be a Jonas loyalist. He’s seized control of the moon and its weaponry.”

“What’s he got?” I asked tightly. A lot of lives could be lost attacking a fortified moon. And if he controlled armed satellites, we could be in danger even now.

Chard grimaced. “Heavy lasers, for a start. He could hit and hurt any ship on his side of planetary orbit. Then, he has particle beam weapons, mass drivers, and missiles.” He sighed again. “Sheol! He could damage the base on the planet itself. He could do a lot of damage.”

I thought furiously. “Does he have control of automated armed satellites?” I sighed with relief when Chard shook his head. “He must have some reason for doing this. Any ideas?”

Chard shook his head. “Not a one. I can’t see that he could accomplish anything except kill a lot of people. He couldn’t win; a fortified moon is a defensive weapon, not offensive.” He sighed again. “I guess I’d better talk to him. Would you like to listen in, Admiral?”

Good manners would probably have called for me to bow out and allow Chard to talk to his man in private, but manners be hanged. The lives of my people were at stake. “Yes, Captain, I certainly would.”

The man must have been waiting for Chard’s call; he responded almost immediately. The man who appeared in the vidscreen was in late middle age. Old for a Lieutenant Commander. He had to have been passed over for promotion at least once. His sour expression and insolent manner seemed to confirm that.

“Hello, Captain!” he said with sarcastic emphasis. “I see you’ve got the imposter with you!”

Chard replied, “Admiral Kedron’s no imposter, and you have to know it. What do you think you're playing at?”

The man's face flushed with anger. “You might have betrayed your oath and your people, but I haven’t! You've surrendered without a shot to this rim rabble, and condemned your people to abandonment by the Empire.”

Chard was stung. “Ridiculous!” he snorted. “You’ve seen the tapes of the Emperor’s visit to Haven. You have to know Jonas lied to us.”

“NO!” the man shouted. “A crude fake! You’ve betrayed us for a fake and an imposter!”

Chard started a hot reply, but I put a restraining hand on his arm. “And just what is it that you want, Commander?” I asked calmly.

“Nothing from you, rim scum!” The man yelled. “But you’d better tell your tame Captain to see to it that we get a ship. We’re going home! We’ll let His Majesty know what’s being done out here in his name. If we don’t get a ship within twenty-four hours, we’ll start picking off those juicy targets orbiting Thaeron!”

Chard was about to reply when both his and my signalers went off at once. We each answered our own, while the Lieutenant Commander scowled at us from the vidscreen.

“Ships, Admiral,” Jax, my comm officer, reported. “Two ships just emerged; well, they must have emerged half an hour ago, but we’ve just detected them.”

“Tell me,” I ordered.

“One’s small and one’s large. The small one’s ID signal identifies her as Greyhound, a courier. The other's a cruiser, Ruthless. The cruiser is signaling ‘Flag on board’.”

I looked at Chard, whose face echoed my own surprise. “A Flagship? Whose?”

Jax looked puzzled. “Uh, that’s got to be a mistake, sir, but I’ve reconfirmed twice. Her ID signal says CINCFLEET!”

My astonished gasp was echoed by Chard. “But that’s Chu-Lo!” cried the Lieutenant Commander.

I whirled to the vidscreen. “I hope so!” I hissed. “Maybe you’ll believe the Commander in Chief of the Empire Fleet himself — and I won’t have to fire on any more Fleet people!” I cut the connection, and spun to Jax.

“What’s happening?” I demanded.

“Sir, a signal from Ruthless. ‘I am downloading safe path through mines, and will boost maximum. CO, Thaeron report to CINCFLEET upon arrival. Request presence of Vice Admiral Val Kedron. ETA twelve hours. Message ends.’ That’s all, sir. Latest fixes show Ruthless inbound at maximum boost.”

Chard turned to me. “If you’ll excuse me, Admiral, twelve hours is hardly enough to get ready for a visit from CINCFLEET!" I nodded, and he hurried off.

I spent most of the next twelve hours trying to figure out how a Vice Admiral in a nonexistent rim Fleet should greet the Commander In Chief of the real Fleet. I wanted to go put on my merchant Captain’s uniform and be done with it, but I knew that was impossible. I even considered trying to locate a marine major’s uniform — which shows how nervous I was. Vinlen Chu-Lo had been CINCFLEET for five years before I quit. During that time, he’d seemed almost a god to me, remote and omnipotent. Now he’d had the job for fifteen years, and he was the fleet. It was impossible to conceive of a fleet without him.

In the event, it was much easier than my fears had led me to believe. When Chard and I arrived aboard Ruthless, a flag Captain in an impeccable uniform met us. He barely nodded to Chard, and then awarded me a slight bow before asking us to follow him. “The Fleet Admiral is expecting you,” he said with masterful understatement.

When we entered the flag cabin, I was surprised to see the small, wizened man occupying the desk. A few wisps of white hair crossed his almost bald pate.

However, when he looked up, I forgot all that. The man’s gaze held power. His entire manner radiated it. This small, frail old man became power personified when his hard eyes met yours. Chard and I stood at attention.

A smile crossed the lined face, though it didn’t reach the eyes. He rose and came around the desk. "Please sit down, gentlemen. Captain Danought, I believe, yes?"

Chard nodded. “Yes, sir! I’m honored and a bit surprised you knew the name, sir.”

The smile firmed up. “Don’t be surprised, Captain. When I learned that idiot Jonas had suborned Van-Lyn and boosted for Haven, I hoped it would be you he’d leave in charge." Chard looked pleased and embarrassed.

The Fleet Admiral turned to me. “And you must be Kedron.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good of you to greet me, Admiral. I’ve been wanting to meet you. I’ve seen your record, of course,” he continued, shaking his head. “You’re another one of those young men we lost after Haskins’ World. Damn that planet! One small outlying system full of religious fanatics, and it nearly destroyed the Fleet. Cost us many of our best and brightest.”

“Yes, sir,” I replied. What else could I say to a statement like that?

The old man's smile turned to a genuine grin. “Would you excuse us, Captain?” he inquired. “I’d like to speak with Admiral Kedron in private.”

“Of course, sir. Uh… the welcoming ceremonies…”

“… can wait,” Chu-Lo finished.

“Yes, sir,” Chard replied hastily and fled.

“Now we can really talk,” Chu-Lo resumed. “Do you mind if I call you Val?”

“Not at all, sir. I’d be honored.”

He waved a dismissal. “None of that nonsense. We’re just two old Fleet mates here. Call me Vin.” He turned those blazing eyes on me. “The officer commanding that hulk at the jump point told me that you destroyed a battle cruiser and a dreadnought with a couple of damaged fleet ships and a flock of tramps!”

“Actually, sir, I used a bag of rocks and an asteroid,” I replied.

His eyes jerked to mine. “You mean that, don't you?” I nodded. “You know I’m going to want a detailed report,” he continued. “But you’re not under my command. Would you mind?”

“Not at all, sir. But if I may suggest…”

“Don’t be so damned humble,” he grumped. “Just tell me what’s on your mind.”

“Yes, sir,” I replied. “It’s just that it’s not quite over yet. There’s a Fleet Lieutenant Commander and twenty-two others sitting out there on a fortified moon, threatening my ships.

“I don’t want to fire on any more Fleet people,” I continued. “They won't listen to Captain Danought; they called him a traitor and a coward. They think I’m an imposter. They’re demanding a ship to go back and, quote, ‘let His Majesty know what’s being done out here in his name.’ They went for Jonas’ cover story hook, line and sinker.”

The Fleet Admiral looked thoughtful. “I see. Do they know I’m here?”

“Yes, sir. We were negotiating with them when your ships arrived. I was hoping, well, would you mind, sir? My people have had their fill of fighting for awhile.”

He walked back to the desk and flicked a switch. “Res? I want to talk to a particularly thick Lieutenant Commander squatting on a moon out there. Captain Danought can tell you how to make contact. Call me when you have him.”

He returned to me. “All right. Now, I’ve been hearing that you’ve developed some interesting unconventional ships out here. I’ll take that stupid crew off your hands if you’ll offer me a tour.” His grin was genuine and wide.

I returned the grin. “Done, sir! We’ll board one of the privateers, and we’ll tour her. We’ll even let you have some fun with some interesting weapons. But I think you’ll be just as interested in our attack boats. They’re weird and wonderful.”

We continued to chat for several minutes. Then a buzzer on his desk rang, and he went to talk to the mutineers on the moon.

“I am Fleet Admiral Vinlen Chu-Lo,” he began. “Do you recognize me?”

“Of… of course, sir,” the Lieutenant Commander replied in a small voice.

“Good. That may be the only intelligent thing you’ve done recently! I have orders for you. In one hour, a shuttle will be sent to the moon you occupy. You and your people will board that shuttle for transport to this ship.” His thunderous scowl turned sardonic. “You’re about to get your wish. You’re going ‘home’ to Prime. Chu-Lo out!” He didn’t give the Lieutenant Commander a chance to reply, or even to acknowledge the orders. “That takes care of that,” he said. I could almost hear the thud of twenty-three Fleet careers slamming into a dead end. He sighed. “I guess I have to take the idiots back. I almost wish you’d wiped them out before I got here — would’ve raised the average IQ in the Fleet by ten points.”

I shook my head. “I’ve killed entirely too many Fleet people, thanks to Jonas. Thank you for making it unnecessary to kill more.”

He looked at me intently. “You mean that. I’m surprised you ever left the Fleet, if it means that much to you.”

I shrugged. “I had to. After Haskins’ World, I had to get entirely away from the military. As it was, the nightmares nearly drove me crazy. Thanks to an engineer named Hari Carlon and an old surplus cargo hauler, I made it. But I still feel like Fleet.”

I took him for a tour of one of the privateers. He stood on the bridge as its amazing speed and maneuverability were demonstrated, then thoroughly enjoyed shooting up an asteroid with one of the quick-firers. By the time we headed for Valkyrie, he was dictating memos directing Fleet procurement to look into contracting with the rim yards for a number of privateers.

The privateers impressed him, but the boats were something completely new. We went all out, staging a mock attack on Ruthless with three privateers and all our boats. Cackling gleefully, Admiral Chu-Lo launched Ruthless ' fifty Strengl fighters. The Strengls ‘destroyed’ one privateer and ‘damaged’ another, but were themselves ‘wiped out’ in minutes at the ‘cost’ of four boats. The remaining boats swarmed around Ruthless, registering hit after hit, and defying Ruthless ’ gunners’ efforts to lock onto them. In less than half an hour, Chu-Lo was forced to admit that Ruthless had been ‘destroyed’. When the simulated attack was concluded, Toms Tindarr and his boys went on to give the Fleet Admiral an unscheduled exhibition of a boat dance.

When we returned to the flag cabin, Chu-Lo was looking thoughtful.

“What you’ve done out here is incredible,” he began. “I had my doubts, but His Majesty insisted that the Rim would be the salvation of civilization. Now, I’m not so sure he wasn’t right. I know that I wouldn’t want to take on your forces with an entire battle group. You’re rewriting the book on spaceborne tactics. Once you get your Fleet established, I hope you’ll entertain visitors from the Fleet — we’ve got a lot to learn from you.”

I shook my head. “I don’t expect to be around, sir. Cord shanghaied me by grabbing my ship. Now that it’s all over, maybe I can go back to being just a fat old trader.”

He gave me that intent look again. “Had any nightmares recently?” he asked with elaborate casualness.

“Why, no sir.” I replied, confused.

“Uh huh. Admiral,” he continued, “You’re an excellent strategist and an outstanding tactician. You probably even make a profit as a trader. But mostly, you’re a commander. You can no more walk away from command than breathe vacuum. Cord’s too smart not to ask you to build the new rim worlds Fleet. If you turn him down, you'll regret it the rest of your days.”

“Will you be visiting Haven, Admiral? I'm sure the Viceroy would be honored.”

The old man's grin told me that he’d seen through my effort to change the subject. “I’m afraid not, Val. I’ll have to return to Prime immediately." He grimaced. “The only reason His Majesty unchained me from my desk this time was that we thought a dreadnought might have fallen into the wrong hands.” He shrugged and chuckled. “We were right, but we didn’t count on having you out here to throw rocks at it!”

Fleet Admiral Chu-Lo didn’t participate in the ceremonies that had been hastily prepared. Instead, he ordered that all Fleet personnel tune into a broadcast, during which he announced an amnesty for all Fleet people for any acts committed pursuant to orders from a superior officer. He also mentioned that despite Jonas’ claims, the Fleet had never intended to abandon its personnel on the rim. “Our intent was that you would be rotated back as you finished training rimworld replacements for yourselves. His Majesty was very disturbed to learn that Fleet personnel would believe that he would violate the Round Trip Ticket. I was equally disturbed to learn that our people would believe such a ridiculous story. If you can truly believe that the Fleet is capable of such duplicity, perhaps you should reconsider your career choices.

“Yes, the rim will be taking over Thaeron and the ships currently homeported here. His Majesty has seen fit to present them to his good friend and ally, Sander Cord. However, he has not and will not abandon Empire subjects! On the contrary, His Majesty has asked me to urge you to train the rim people as quickly as possible, so we can bring you home.”

After a few more reassurances and pleasantries, Chu-Lo ended his broadcast.

Finally, it was time to say goodbye. I saluted him, but Chu-Lo would have none of it; he shook my hand. “Admiral,” he said, “It’s been a genuine pleasure to meet you. I’m sure we'll be seeing each other again.” Suddenly he leaned close. “Val, thank you for the most fun I've had in years! Playing with that quick-firer and then commanding during that battle exercise are things I’ll remember fondly when I’m chained to my desk."

His smile faded and his voice got even softer. “I can guarantee you at least five years, Val. His Majesty is positive that he can control the troublemakers for that long. After that…” he shrugged. “Use the time wisely.” He sighed. “I’ll pray that our fleets never have to oppose each other. Good Luck, Val!” He turned sharply and strode away. Ruthless boosted for the jump point within the hour.

Chapter XVII

Valkyrie and the privateers jumped shortly afterward. We had nothing to fear from Thaeron, and our jobs were largely done. All that remained was for the privateers to jump to Outback for removal of their weaponry, and Valkyrie to Haven, so I could report to Cord. I hoped he wouldn’t suck me back into that social whirlpool. We left all the true warships at Thaeron; they wouldn’t be needed immediately — we hoped.

During the long hours in jump, Suli and I talked at length about my encounter with Chu-Lo; or rather, I talked and she listened. Finally, she burst into laughter. “You sound like a teenager who’s met his favorite trivid idol.”

I flushed. “Actually, you’re not far wrong,” I replied. “I’ve admired Chu-Lo for years. He is the Fleet.”

She nodded. “I saw his broadcast, and I watched him when he toured Valkyrie. He certainly has presence. He just dominates any situation, doesn’t he?”

I nodded as she continued. “Somehow you feel that it would be wrong to have any opinion that differed from his. I’ve never met anyone like him — and I’m not sure I’d want to. That kind of power over people makes me uncomfortable.”

“I see your point,” I replied. “In a politician it would be scary. But in an Admiral, it's an asset.”

She shook her head. “I think that kind of power is scary in anyone.” She shrugged. “Anyway,” she continued, “I gather you two got along all right.”

I grinned. “He said that he had been looking forward to meeting me. Imagine!” I shook my head, still having trouble believing it. “He also said that Cord’s going to offer me the job of heading up his rim worlds fleet.”

She shrugged again. “Well, of course he is! Just how many candidates do think he has that have beaten half of the Empire fleet?”

I shifted uncomfortably. “You think so, too? Even Shar said something about it awhile back. I thought he was joking.”

She sighed in exasperation. “Y’know, Val, we’re going to have to do something about this excessive modesty of yours. Here you are, one of the greatest military minds of the age, and you can't even see it. You still think you’re just a shanghaied trader captain.”

I snorted. "‘Greatest military minds’… ridiculous!”

She shook her head. “All right, you tell me. How many commanders can you name that have defeated a dreadnought and a battle cruiser in a single battle, with casualties that have to be called ‘light’?”

I fidgeted. “What if he does ask? What’ll I say?”

She reached out and ruffled my hair. “You’ll say ‘yes’, you idiot!”

I shook my head. “I’ve got to think about this. I have responsibilities. I owe Hari everything. Can I just walk out on him? And what about Jax? And you?”

“What about me?” She asked in a tone I should have recognized as dangerous, but didn’t.

“Well, I promised to sign you on for shares, remember? Or at least take you back to the Empire.” Then I continued with what has to be the stupidest thing I’ve ever said, “I suppose I could arrange a ticket..”

She leapt to her feet and stomped toward the door. “Don’t worry about me, Admiral. I’ll be easy to get rid of. In fact, you’ve just done it!”

The door slammed so hard that I almost expected it to fall from its hinges. I sprang up and started after her, belatedly realizing what I’d said and implied. When I opened the door, though, she was no longer in sight. Shoulders slumping in defeat, I closed the door again, wallowing in my misery.

I’d only known Suli a few months, but somehow I couldn’t imagine a life without her. Luckily, we were still in jump — she couldn’t leave the ship. I had time to try to figure out how to make it up to her.

I don’t know how long I sat there trying to decide what to do, but it must have been quite a while. I vaguely remember the steward bringing in a tray of food. Finally, though, someone knocked on my cabin door. Hoping that it might be Suli returning, I said, “Come in!” with real eagerness.

It was with a mixture of regret and pleasure that I saw Hari’s bald head and cadaverous body come through the door. I struggled to conceal my disappointment.

“I thought you might want to talk, Val.” he began.

“Actually, I do want to talk to you, old friend. But what made you think so?” I asked.

He grinned. “The most efficient grapevine in known space.” The grin faded. “I gather you’re having some problems? Suli was observed storming down passageways and talking to herself.”

I cursed. “Doesn’t anyone on this ship have anything to do besides spy on us?”

Hari looked hurt. “They care about you, Val. They want you to be happy, and they want Suli to be happy. You’re the most popular two people aboard. Besides, you know how a skipper’s emotional state communicates itself to his crew.”

I sighed. “You’re right, Hari. In this case, though, I don’t think it's anything serious. At least I hope it isn’t.” I shrugged. “At any rate, I’ll have to deal with it; it was my stupid mouth that caused the trouble.”

Hari’s relief was so obvious and heartfelt that it was comic. I relaxed and grinned. “But I am glad you came, Hari. Everyone I talk to recently seems to have the opinion that Cord is going to offer me command of his rim fleet.” I looked at Hari, but there was no indication of surprise.

He merely nodded. “And you’ll be accepting, of course?”

Anger flared. I slammed my fist on my desk. “Damn it! Why does everyone assume that I want to be an Admiral? Cord forced these stars on me! You should remember!” Memories surfaced, and I continued less excitedly, “In fact, as I recall, you had as much to do with shanghaiing me as Cord did. I was going to turn him down.”

The bald head nodded. “Smartest thing I ever did!” he smirked. “Cord’s cause was right, and you needed a combat command again. You were letting yourself get fat and old.” His skull-like grin reappeared. “Besides, look at the great toys I got to play with.”

The grin faded. “I know you, Val,” he continued. “I’ll bet you’ve been beating yourself up about taking Cord’s offer because you think you’d be abandoning me and Jax, right?”

The direct question threw me off. “Well, I… Yeah, you could say that.”

He nodded. “I thought so. Well, put your mind at ease. Offer me an Engineer’s commission, and I won’t file any grievances.” His grin flared again.

“Are you sure, Hari? I mean, could you settle down here on the rim?”

He looked at me as if I’d grown another head. “Are you joking? The rim is an engineer’s paradise. I’ll spend years just catching up with the state of the art.”

I smiled. I could lay that concern to rest. Hari was never happier than when he had engineering problems and studies to work on. “But what about Jax?” I asked, my smile fading. “The kid just got his full share. He won’t be ready to settle down.”

Hari chuckled. “Perhaps not, but he’s already asked me to put in a good word with you about becoming a boat pilot.”

I was shocked. “A boat pilot? Hari, do you know their casualty rate?”

He nodded soberly. “Yes, and I reminded him of it. But he’s young, Val, and immortal. What could be more romantic and exciting?”

I shifted uncomfortably. “I’d been thinking about disbanding the boat unit. The casualty rate is just unacceptably high.”

“Ah ha!” he crowed triumphantly, “So you have been thinking of taking over the rim fleet!”

“Well, not really,” I replied worriedly. “I’d just… well, I guess I meant that I’d planned to talk to Cord about disbanding…” I gave up. “All right, Hari. I honestly hadn’t been thinking about it consciously, but I guess that at some level I just kind of assumed it.”

He nodded. “So did everyone else. So, why are you huddled in here spreading hate and discontent among your crew? Why aren’t you already halfway to Suli's cabin?”

By the time we emerged in Haven’s system, it seemed to be assumed that I would be retaining command of Cord’s fleet. If he appointed anyone else, I suspected that he'd face a mutiny in his command and control ship and his attack boat force.

By the time he actually did offer me command of the rim fleet, it was almost an anticlimax — I think Cord was a bit disappointed at my lack of surprise.

However, I owed much to all those who’d warned me in advance. By being prepared, I got quite a few concessions from Cord; more, I suspect, than he’d been willing to offer.

For one thing, we agreed that one Fleet was enough. Let the Empire have the Fleet, we’d have a ‘Navy’. I also got a free hand in designing and organizing it.

“But Admiral,” he cautioned. “Plan carefully, with a long future in mind. As we pursue my policy of aggressive development, we will become an increasingly tempting target. As the years become decades, and the decades generations, and the Empire continues to decline, future emperors and even renegade viceroys will see the rim as a prize to be looted.

“You mentioned that Chu-Lo conveyed the Emperor’s assurances that he could control the troublemakers for five years; and if the Emperor promised them, you can be assured that we will have those five years. But don’t count on six. I would suggest that you not share every trick and tactic with the Fleet. You may be facing them in battle some day.”

By the time we returned to Thaeron, I was accustomed to wearing stars; they no longer embarrassed me. In fact, Cord had added two more to the three I already wore, so I would have rank equal to the Commander in Chief of the Empire Fleet, Vinlen Chu-Lo!

Hari had a couple of stars, now, too. He was the Commander, Rim Fleet Engineering Command. Now he was the one embarrassed by the rank he carried, which gave me a malicious pleasure.

Shar was annoyingly blase about the two stars he wore as Commander, Thaeron System and my deputy. He acted as though the whole thing were simply a matter of course.

Every one of Toms Tindarr’s boat pilots had decided to forego returning to their asteroid mining jobs, and had joined up. They were strutting around proudly in their new uniforms, showing off the distinctive emblems we'd designed, and telling anyone who'd listen how they’d earned the medals on their chests. I teamed Toms with Thaeron Base’s training officer, and they were designing a training program for attack boat pilots.

Jax couldn't wait. He used his share of Valkyrie ’s sale to the Navy to hire one of Toms' pilots to teach him to fly a boat. By all reports, he was getting ‘pretty good’.

I was also doing my level best to seduce Wil Tor into retiring from the Fleet marines and heading up the Rim Navy Marine Force. If I could pry him loose, he’d be wearing three General’s stars. However, there were problems.

It seemed that on the long lonely nights camped out on Haven, Wil had developed the habit of calling Kaleen just to chat. There was a woman in Wil’s civilian resistance group that was interested in him, and he in her; but for some reason Wil had become obsessed with Kaleen.

When he offered to resign and take a rim commission if I would give him Kaleen’s name and address, I knew I had to do something.

The problem was that Kaleen’s sentience was the most tightly guarded secret on the rim. I conferred with Cord, and he agreed to permit me to break the code of silence in this one instance, and let Wil know that his long-distance lover was a comp.

I had Wil meet me at the palace, and we boarded Rimrunner. “Brace yourself, Wil,” I warned. “This is going to be hard to take.” I turned to a corner of the bridge, where I knew Kaleen had a camera. “Hello, Kaleen,” I said.

“Statement does not compute,” came a flat, mechanical voice. “Please rephrase.” Wil was beginning to look scared. Even without inflection, he was afraid he’d recognized that voice.

“It’s all right, Kaleen,” I said. “The Viceroy has authorized Wil to meet you.”

“Good morning, Captain, Wil,” Kaleen replied, her voice now warm and genuinely welcoming.

Wil was jerking his head wildly from Kaleen’s speaker to my face, and back again. “What is this?” He demanded. “This is a trick!”

I put a hand on his shoulder. “No, Wil, it’s no trick,” I began. “When the comp designers were designing and building the AI for Rimrunner, all they were told was to build the most advanced AI in the Universe, with cost no object. They built better than they knew. Kaleen is the first sentient AI in the universe. She is completely self-aware, and probably smarter than any human on the planet.”

“Obviously,” I continued, “her sentience is the most carefully guarded secret on the rim. Only the Viceroy, a few comp experts, and I know about it. And you, now.”

Wil looked as though he’d been bludgeoned. “Can this be true?” He grabbed my sleeve. “Can this be true, Admiral? You aren’t lying to me?”

I shook my head. “No Wil, I’m not lying, and it’s no trick. When Kaleen got back to Haven and contacted me, it was just too good an opportunity to pass. This is why I ordered you not to try to learn her identity — she doesn’t have one, at least as far as human records are concerned.”

“It is all right, Wil,” Kaleen put in. “I understand the human concepts of privacy and secrecy. I am aware that many of the ideas expressed in our talks were to be regarded as personal and confidential.

“You should know, however,” Kaleen continued, “that I retain complete copies of all our conversations, in real time and actual voice recordings. They are maintained behind multiple levels of security that prevent anyone but me from accessing them. They are also keyed to erase if anyone but me tries to access them.”

Wil was still trying to grasp the fact that the woman he’d fantasized about on those long Haven nights was really just an assemblage of printed nanocircuits.

I tried to help, to give him time. “Why did you do that, Kaleen? You weren’t told to keep records of those conversations.”

Kaleen hesitated. Since her processors worked in nanoseconds, I could not even imagine what was going on in there. “I was not forbidden to do so, Captain,” she finally replied, her tone defensive. Defensive? A comp? I sighed. No matter how many times I had my face rubbed in her sentience, Kaleen surprised me every time she displayed it.

“However, I retained copies so that I could replay them. I… have had few visitors since the battle, other than Captain Sinas and a number of comp analysts who want to poke and probe my systems. I… have been lonely, Captain. Wil’s recordings help. They remind me that I am more than just an assemblage of circuitry bound to a ship hull. I am a person.”

Wil was regaining his composure. “I’m flattered, Kaleen. I, too, valued our talks. But I don’t have verbatim recordings, just memories. Those memories were very important to me a time when I felt disconnected from everything I knew. I thank you for that.”

There was a short silence before Kaleen replied. “Wil? Would you call me occasionally? On radio? Just to talk?”

Wil bowed toward her bridge camera. “Of course, Kaleen. I would like that. Provided the Viceroy approves, of course.” Wil was catching on quick, regaining his equilibrium much quicker than I would have.

“Thank you, Wil. And you, Captain, my first friend? Will you call me once in awhile?”

I grinned. “I’ll try, Kaleen. However, much has happened since our mission to Thaeron. I now command the new Rim Worlds Navy, when I get it built. I’ve also grown more accustomed to my rank. You no longer have to call me ‘Captain’.

“I noted your shoulder boards when you boarded, Fleet Admiral. My congratulations! Should I now refer to you as ‘Fleet Admiral’?”

I nodded with a smile. “When discussing business, call me ‘Admiral’. But for chat, I’m still just ‘Val’. However, to answer your question, I’m now stationed on Thaeron base. I doubt I’ll get to Haven often.”

I could almost hear a grin in her voice. “You forget my capabilities, Val. I contain a subspace initiator, remember? I could call you if you were on Prime.”

I controlled a wince. All I’d need would be Kaleen calling me at odd hours, just to talk. “No, Kaleen, I hadn’t forgotten. But I expected that you would use the capability only at the Viceroy’s order.”

The answer was quick. “He didn’t tell me not to!” Kaleen sounded like a guilty child.

I sighed. I did like her. “All right, Kaleen. If the Viceroy approves, we’ll set up a schedule for you to call me on Thaeron. However, remember, I have a lot to do. I’ll set up a schedule that lets us keep in touch, but you can’t be calling me too often.”

We talked for a while longer, and then I stepped outside, to let Wil and Kaleen talk in private. I was beginning to get impatient when Wil came down the ramp, a thoughtful expression on his face.

“I’m sorry, Wil,” I began, “but I knew you wouldn’t believe me if I just told you. And I didn’t want you pining away over someone who’s not even real.”

He whirled on me, fists clenched. “She’s real! She more real than a lot of flesh and blood women I know!”

I nodded carefully. “She’s real, but she’s not human. The only relationship possible between you and her is an intellectual one. I’m sorry, Wil. I really am.”

He relaxed a bit, but then he whirled and stomped off. I had a feeling it was going to get pretty drunk out that night. I warned the Viceroy’s security guards that Wil might be back.

He was, but after a few monumental drunks and some marathon talks with Kaleen, Wil began seeing less of Kaleen and more of the woman that rumor had pursuing him for several months. A few weeks later, he accepted my offer to take over the Rim World Marines; and a couple of months after that Suli and I were invited to the wedding. Kaleen attended by remote.

Surprisingly, the crews of four of our privateers had voted to enlist and let the Fleet buy their ships.

We were negotiating with the yards on Outback for the design rights to the privateers. Once they were obtained, the Navy planned an initial order of fifty hulls. Since they weren’t privately owned, we could no longer call them privateers. We needed a new class name, and we decided on ‘Frigate’. I heard that the Empire Fleet was taking bids on several hundred hulls.

I was busier than I’d ever been in my life. We were simultaneously trying to design and man a completely new military service and at the same time run an existing space Fleet. But first, I had an obligation. Valkyrie toured every inhabited world on the Rim, and I presented posthumous medals to the families of every boat pilot who'd died.

Suli… uh, Commander Ursulas Fjolking-Kedron, Commandant of the new Rim Navy Astrogator’s School and my life-mate(!) and I had to move off my old Valkyrie. We took up accommodations on Thaeron base: Quarters, Flag Officer, For the use of. Suli was not impressed, but she wasted no time turning the sterile house into a lovely home.

Then she took her accumulated salary as Valkyrie ’s Astrogator and bought herself a mining boat. She somehow got Toms teach her to fly it, and still spends every spare minute terrorizing orbital traffic.

And that’s how it happened, from my point of view. I’ve tried to be scrupulously and even brutally fair and objective in this manuscript, revealing my own weaknesses as well as those of others. Of course, that won’t prevent revisionist so-called ‘researchers’ from picking it apart and reducing it to bones. I can only hope that the real heroes of this story, the men and women who served during this time, are remembered with the honor they deserve.