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"Com confirms it, Sir." Korvetten Kapitän Engelmann sounded as if he couldn't quite believe his own report.

"You're joking." Kapitän der Sterne Huang Glockauer, Imperial Andermani Navy, commanding officer of the heavy cruiser IANS Gangying, looked at his executive officer in astonishment. "Code Seventeen-Alpha?"

"No question, Sir. Ruihuan's positive. As of thirteen-oh-six hours, that's what they're squawking." Engelmann glanced at the bulkhead date/time display. "That's over six minutes, so I doubt that it's a mistake."

"Then it's got to be a malfunction," Glockauer half-muttered, eyes swinging back to his auxiliary plot and the glittering icon of the four-megaton Andermani-flagged freighter from which Gangying had just requested a routine identification. "Nobody could be stupid enough to try to sail right past us squawking a Seventeen-Alpha—much less squawk it in response to a specific challenge!"

"I can't dispute your logic, Skipper," Engelmann replied. He knew Glockauer wasn't actually speaking to him, but one of an executive officer's responsibilities was to play the part of his commanding officer's alter ego. He was responsible for managing the smooth functioning of the captain's ship, of course, but that was only part of his job. He was also responsible for providing a sounding board when the captain needed one, and this situation was so bizarre that Glockauer needed a sounding board badly at the moment.

"On the other hand," the exec continued, "I've seen pirates do some pretty stupid things over the years."

"So have I," Glockauer admitted. "But I've never seen any of them do anything this stupid."

"I've been thinking about that, Skip," Engelmann said diffidently, "and I wonder if it's actually so much a case of their being stupid or of someone else's having been sneaky."


"Well, every merchant line knows that if one of its ships is taken, whoever grabbed her will want to pull the wool over the eyes of any Navy ships they run into. But most navies have at least their own national shipping list in memory—complete with transponder codes matched to emissions signatures. So pirates also know there's at least some risk an alert plotting and com team will cross check and notice some little flaw any time they use a false transponder code." The exec shrugged. "That's why pirates tend to go on using the original code until they get a prize safely tucked away somewhere, rather than generating a fresh, false one."

"Of course it is," Glockauer said as his second-in-command paused. His comment could have sounded impatient, since Engelmann was busy saying something both of them already knew perfectly well. But he recognized that tone of voice. Binyan was onto something, and Glockauer was willing to give him time to lay out the groundwork for whatever it was.

"The thing I'm wondering, Skipper," the korvetten kapitän said, "is whether or not someone at Reichenbach figured out a way to take advantage of that tendency. Suppose they set up the beacon software to tag the transponder with a Seventeen-Alpha if the ship was taken? If they did, then they could also have rigged the rest of their software to strip the tag off when it plays the transponder code back to the bridge crew."

"You're suggesting that someone in the command crew activated a booby trap in the transponder programming when he realized his ship was about to be taken?"

"I'm suggesting that that might be what happened," Engelmann agreed. "Think about it. There's no way a normal merchie can hope to stand off a pirate. They're not armed, and the only thing trying to resist boarding parties would accomplish would be to absolutely assure a massacre once they actually got aboard. So if the command crew figured they might be able to pull off something like I'm suggesting may have happened here, it would have to be pretty tempting."

"Um." Glockauer rubbed his upper lip thoughtfully. "You're right about that," he said after moment. "Especially if the pirates decided to keep the original crew alive and force them to work the ship for them. Their best chance of being rescued—their only chance, really—would be for the people who grabbed them to stumble across a warship which somehow managed to realize they'd been taken."

He rubbed his lip some more while he considered the scenario he and Engelmann were discussing. Code Seventeen was a standard, universal merchant ship transponder code, although it was used far more often in bad adventure fiction than in reality. The code's actual meaning was "I am being boarded by pirates," but there wasn't really any point in squawking the code unless there happened to be a friendly warship practically in the merchie's lap when the pirates turned up. In very rare instances, a pirate might break off an attack in the face of a Code Seventeen if he thought there was a warship in range to pick up the signal and intervene. But that happened so seldom that a great many merchant skippers preferred not to squawk Code Seventeen under any circumstances. Pirates had been known to wreak particularly gruesome revenge on merchant spacers who'd attempted to resist . . . or to summon help.

Seventeen-Alpha was even rarer than a straight Code Seventeen, however. Seventeen-Alpha didn't mean "I am being boarded by pirates;" it meant "I have been boarded and taken by pirates." Frankly, Glockauer couldn't remember a single instance outside a Fleet training exercise in which he'd ever heard of anyone squawking a Seventeen-Alpha.

"Still," he went on after a moment, putting his thoughts into words, "it'd be risky. If the pirates' prize crew activated the transponder while their own ship was still close enough to pick it up, they'd spot it in a heartbeat, however the merchie's own communications software might have been buggered up. Even if they didn't bring the transponder up while their buddies were still in range, eventually they're going to make port somewhere, and when they do, someone's going to pick up the code. Which would almost certainly entail some seriously unpleasant consequences for whoever activated the booby trap software."

"There's not much question about that," Engelmann acknowledged with a small shrug. "On the other hand, it could be that whoever thought it up figured that between the possibility that the crew would already have been massacred, or that they'd be massacred anyway whenever they reached their final destination, the risk was worth it if it gave any of their people even a tiny chance of being rescued."

"Fair enough," Glockauer conceded. "And I suppose they could have built a few additional precautions into this hypothetical software we're theorizing about. For example, what if the program was designed to delay the activation of the Seventeen-Alpha? If it squawked a clean transponder for, say, twenty-four or thirty-six hours before it added the Code Seventeen, the odds would be pretty good that the original pirate cruiser would be far out of range when it did. And the program could also be set up to terminate the Code Seventeen after a set period, or under specific circumstances—like after the ship translates back out of hyper the first time."

"It could be." Engelmann nodded. "Or, it could be even simpler than that," he pointed out. "The only reason they squawked their beacon at all was because we requested an ID, Skipper. And we identified ourselves as a warship when we did."

"Now that, Binyan, is an excellent thought," Glockauer approved. "If the software's set up to automatically append the Seventeen-Alpha to any ID request from a warship, but not under any other circumstances. . . ."

"Exactly," the exec said. "Although, it would have been nice—assuming that there's anything to this entire theory—if Reichenbach had bothered to warn us that they were going to do something like this."

"Might not be a line-wide decision," Glockauer replied. "Mind you, Old Man Reichenbach was born with a poker up his ass, and he runs his company the way he damned well pleases. I wouldn't put it past him to have come up with the idea and ordered it implemented without even discussing it with his skippers. Or, on the other hand, it might be that this was the bright idea of some individual captain. A one-time solo shot, as it were, that Reichenbach himself doesn't know a thing about."

"Or," Engelmann said, reverting to another of a good executive officer's other roles and playing devil's advocate, "it could be that there's nothing spectacular going on here at all. It might just be that some merchie com officer has managed to screw up and accidentally squawk an emergency code without even realizing he's done it."

"Possible," Glockauer said, "but not likely. As you already suggested, their own com equipment ought to be picking up the discrepancy by now . . . unless there's some specific reason why it's not. In any case, we don't have any option but to proceed on the assumption that it's genuine."

"No, Sir," Engelmann agreed, and the two of them returned their attention to the plot.

The green icon of the freighter, still showing the alphanumeric transponder code assigned to AMS Karawane and surrounded by the angry scarlet circle of Code Seventeen-Alpha, moved steadily across the display. Glockauer considered the data sidebars carefully, then turned his head to look across at Gangying's tactical officer.

"How's your solution look, Shilan?"

"We've got the overtake on him without any problem, Sir," Kapitän Leutnant Shilan Weiss assured him. "And we can pull almost twice his maximum acceleration." She shrugged. "There's no way he could evade us. Even if he turns and runs for it right this second, we can run him down for a zero-zero intercept at least a full light-minute short of the hyper limit."

"Shilan's right, Skipper," Engelmann said. "But just turning and chasing them down would be a brute force solution to the problem." He smiled thinly, and it was not a pleasant expression. "I have to admit that what I'd really prefer would be to come up with some brilliant stratagem that tricked the bastards into letting us close with them without all that effort."

"Not in this universe, Binyan," Glockauer snorted. "Of course, assuming they have someone over there who can run the numbers as well as Shilan, they'll know the moment we go after them that they can't slip away. The only really logical thing for them to do would be to heave to immediately and hope we're inclined to take prisoners rather than just shoot them out of hand. But whether they're inclined to see it that way or not, there's no way to trick any crew of pirates, however stupid they may be, into thinking it would be a good idea to let a heavy cruiser into range of them."

"I'm afraid you're right about that, Skipper," Engelmann admitted. "And there's no way they're going to miss seeing us coming, either."

"Hardly," Glockauer agreed dryly. He gazed at the plot for a few more seconds, then nodded to himself.

"All right, Shilan. If there's no point trying to be cute about it, we might as well be brutally direct. Put us on an intercept heading at five hundred gravities. Ruihuan," he went on, looking at Kapitän Leutnant Hoffner, his communications officer, "go ahead and hail them. Tell them who we are, and 'suggest' that they heave to for rendezvous."

"Aye, aye, Sir!" Hoffner acknowledged with a grin.

"And just to give Ruihuan's suggestion a little added point, Shilan," Glockauer continued, "why don't you go ahead and bring up your targeting systems? A few long-range radar and lidar hits should help to convince him we're serious."

"Aye, aye, Sir." Weiss' smile was at least as unpleasant as Engelmann's had been, and she turned back to her console and her tracking party as the heavy cruiser altered course.

Glockauer returned her smile and waved Engelmann towards his own station, then settled back in his command chair to await Karawane's reply to Hoffner's demand that she heave to. His eyes returned to the icon burning in his plot, and his smile faded.

Piracy was always a problem here in the Silesian Confederacy. Silesia had never been anything but a sort of ongoing political meltdown at the best of times, and in this one thousand nine hundred and eighteenth year of mankind's diaspora to the stars, the times were anything but the best. In fact, things had been going steadily downhill even from Silesia's ramshackle norm for the last fifteen T-years.

Little though Glockauer or any other Andermani officer might care to admit it, the Royal Manticoran Navy had been the true mainstay of piracy suppression in the Confederacy for over two centuries. It was only in the last hundred or so T-years that the Andermani Empire's fleet had begun to acquire the size and the numbers to pretend to exercise any meaningful, long-term police power in the area. Glockauer knew that was true, just as he understood that until the last fifty years—seventy-five, at the most—the Andermani merchant fleet had been too insignificant to justify the expense required to build up the Navy's light forces to a point which would have permitted it to make any real inroad into the bloody forays of the Confederacy's pirates and privateers.

Of course, even though piracy suppression was a natural part of the responsibilities of any naval officer, the Empire's interest in Silesia had never been limited to, or even primarily focused on, the losses of its merchant lines. The true Andermani interest in the Confederacy had been unwaveringly focused upon frontier security concerns and the possibility of expansion. It would have been impolitic (to say the least) to admit that aloud, but no one in the Empire, the Confederacy, or the Star Kingdom of Manticore with an IQ above that of a rock could have had any illusions in that regard. Certainly, the Manties had been quick to depress any Andermani pretensions to sovereignty in the Confederacy, which they regarded with depressing arrogance as their own private fishing pond.

The grueling demands of the Manticoran war against the People's Republic of Haven had distracted the RMN from its traditional role as the policeman of Silesia, though. That distraction had grown increasingly pronounced over the last fifty or sixty T-years, during the RMN's build up to face the Peeps, and especially in the last fourteen or fifteen, after the actual shooting started. Glockauer wasn't supposed to know about the high-level internal debates in both the Navy and the Foreign Ministry over how the Empire ought to have responded to the combination of steadily worsening local conditions and the opportunity the Manties' distraction offered. Again, however, only an idiot could have been unaware of them. On the one hand, the Manticoran preoccupation with the Peeps had been an almost irresistible temptation to satisfy the Empire's long-standing territorial ambitions while the RMN had too much on its plate to respond effectively. On the other hand, the Star Kingdom had been the Empire's buffer against the People's Republic's insatiable expansionism.

In the end, real politik had governed, as it had a tendency to do in the Empire's foreign policy. Acquiring outright control of its legitimate sphere of interest in the Confederacy might have been nice, but joggling Manticore's elbow while the Star Kingdom was fighting for its life against someone who would just love to gobble up the Empire, as well, might have been fatal. So the Andermani Empire had elected to be "neutral" in the Star Kingdom's favor.

But the RMN's abrupt, stunning victory over the People's Navy had been even more complete than anyone had ever anticipated. So far as Glockauer knew, no one in Naval Intelligence had so much as suspected what sort of knockout punch the Manties had been preparing to deliver. Obviously, Intelligence had known at least a little about what Manticoran R&D had been up to. The recent and ongoing additions to the IAN's own hardware were proof enough of that, especially in light of the reports Glockauer had read of the Manties' new weapons and tactics. But he very much doubted that anyone in the Empire had realized the full magnitude of the RMN's qualitative superiority over its foe until Admiral White Haven finally pulled the trigger.

By rights, the RMN should by now have reverted to its prewar stance throughout the Confederacy. It hadn't, and in some ways, the situation was even worse than it had been before the war. The Manticorans hadn't built their light forces back up to their traditional levels, which meant piracy continued to flourish largely unchecked in much of the Confederacy. Worse, some of the "pirates" out here had acquired rather more capable ships. None of them were bigger than cruisers, but so far the Manties and the IAN between them had destroyed at least three of those which had . . . left the service of the People's Republic of Haven and fled to find greener pastures elsewhere. That meant that not only had the level of lawless activity increased, but so had its scope, with more planetary raids added to run-of-the-mill piracy. Intelligence's most recent estimate was that as many as a quarter million Sillies had been killed in the last year alone. A pinprick against the total population of something the size of the Confederacy, but a horrifying number when it was considered in isolation.

But if the Manties hadn't built their light forces back up, they had established a treaty relationship with the Sidemore Republic in the Marsh System. Over the past eight T-years, Sidemore had been built up into a fairly powerful fleet base, despite the Manticorans' need to concentrate most of their effort against the Peeps. The Marsh System's location, just outside the somewhat amorphous borders claimed by the Confederacy and on the flank of the Empire-to-Confederacy leg of the Manties' "Triangle Route," made it an ideal logistics base for the RMN's operations throughout southwestern Silesia.

Other than a certain desire to do it for himself, Glockauer had no objection to watching the Manticorans swat pirates. And their Marsh-based flotillas had enabled them to do a remarkable job of pacifying something like a tenth of the entire Confederacy. But they'd done it by establishing a Manticoran presence in an area in which they had persistently refused to countenance an Andermani one. If any star nation had a legitimate interest in controlling the situation in Silesia to protect its own borders and territorial integrity, that nation was the Andermani Empire . . . not the Star Kingdom of Manticore. Worse, the Manties had based an entire task force, two understrength squadrons of the wall, with battlecruiser and cruiser support, at their new Sidemore Station.

Ostensibly, those forces, which were far heavier than would have been required for any legitimate anti-piracy operations, were intended to cover Confederate space against a fresh intrusion of Peep commerce raiding squadrons. The official Manty position—to which the freelance operations of rogue ex-State Security and ex-People's Navy warships lent a certain point—was that covering against any renewal of the Peeps' commerce warfare in the Confederacy was the true (and only) reason for their treaty with Sidemore. No one in the Empire believed that for a moment, and resentment against Manticoran high-handedness had grown steadily over the last five T-years or so. Now that the Peeps had been militarily defeated, whether an actual peace treaty had been finalized or not, that excuse for the RMN's presence in Marsh was growing steadily more threadbare. Resentment over it had increased in direct proportion, and Glockauer suspected that the foreign policy considerations which had mitigated against any confrontation with Manticore were rapidly eroding.

He had no idea of where that might eventually lead. No, that wasn't really true. He had a very good idea of where it might lead . . . he only hoped fervently that it wouldn't in the end. Despite the recent and continuing upgrades in his navy's combat power, and despite the obvious idiocy of the new Manticoran First Lord of Admiralty, he had no desire to face the fleet which had proven its undisputed ability to annihilate the once-mighty People's Navy.

But at the moment, he reminded himself, watching Karawane's icon altering course on his plot, turning futilely away in a wallowing effort to evade his own, fleeter vessel, he didn't have to worry about Manties.

All he had to worry about was what sort of atrocity his boarding parties were likely to discover aboard the fleeing merchantman.

Experience suggested that it would not be pleasant.

* * *

"Message from Commodore Zrubek, Sir."

Admiral Lester Tourville, who was unabashedly delighted that he was no longer Citizen Admiral Tourville, looked up from his plot at Lieutenant Eisenberg's announcement. It still seemed odd to see her on his flag deck, but he supposed Tom Theisman was right. The smoothly functioning staffs he and Javier Giscard had assembled over the last several years had been a major factor in the success of the task forces and fleets under their command. But as valuable as those well-tested command teams had been, they'd also been replaceable. He and Javier had built them once; they could build replacements, if they had to, and in the meantime, those superbly trained staffers were far too valuable for them to hang selfishly onto. And so the subordinates with whom Tourville had fought against the Manties for the better part of ten T-years had moved on to other duties and long overdue promotions.

On the other hand, his new com officer, Lieutenant Anita Eisenberg, was even newer than most of his replacement staff. She'd been assigned to him less than six T-months ago, and he was still getting accustomed to her rather extreme youthfulness. He had to keep reminding himself that, at a mere twenty-eight T-years, the solidly built blonde wasn't actually the babe in arms she so resembled. The fact that, as a third-generation prolong recipient, she looked as if she were about twelve didn't help, and neither did the fact that she stood only a very little over a meter and a half in height. The truth was that she was extremely young for her rank, but that was true of a lot of officers in Haven's navy these days. And, he reminded himself, despite a pronounced predilection for military formality, she possessed a competence and a self-confidence at odds with her undeniable youth.

He brushed the thought aside once more, not without the reflection that perhaps his impression of her youth had something to do with the bone-deep weariness which made him feel every month of his own much greater age, and waved her closer to his command chair. She handed him an electronic memo board, and a dark-haired man looked out of the small screen at him when he pressed the playback button.

"You were right, Sir," Commodore Scott Zrubek told him without preamble. "They were trying to sucker us, just as you suspected they might. So I held the rest of the squadron at extreme range and sent a couple of destroyer divisions in to take a closer look at those 'merchantmen' of theirs. I think there may have been a small change of management when they saw what we were doing."

Zrubek's smile could really be extremely unpleasant, Tourville noted approvingly.

"It looks like they'd stuffed their cargo holds full of missile pods," the commodore continued. "They'd obviously hoped we'd come in close enough for them to roll the pods, but when they realized we weren't going to bring the heavy ships into their range, someone figured out that just killing off the destroyers was only going to really, really piss us off. So since we'd declined to walk into their ambush and there was no way in hell those merchies could run away from us, they decided to own up and surrender while we were in a prisoner-taking mood. Unfortunately, from the preliminary reports, it sounds like their CO had other ideas, so apparently his exec shot him in the back of the head to change his mind."

Tourville grimaced. There'd been a lot of that going around lately, and he supposed he had to consider it a good sign, over all. But that didn't make the scenario Zrubek was describing any less ugly.

"At any rate, Sir," the commodore went on, "we've got the merchantmen, and what looks like the better part of three of the old StateSec intervention battalions that were serving as Marines—more or less, anyway. Some of the StateSec goons may have been conscripts since Saint-Just got the boot, but it looks to me like the bulk of them are pretty hard core. One or two of them actually wanted to put up a fight when we boarded, and I've got my staff spook running them through the database now. I'm not going to be surprised if some of them turn up on the 'shoot on sight' list.

"In the meantime, we're firmly in control of all six ships, with what I'd estimate to be the equivalent of two or three superdreadnought load-outs worth of missile pods on board. My people are vacuuming the computers now, and the previous owners were too busy bargaining for their lives and surrendering to worry about data dumps. We've got our crypto teams ready for a preliminary run at the secure portions, and I'm having complete downloads prepared to send over to the flagship.

"My present estimate is that Carson sent these poor turkeys out to slow us down because his cupboard is bare of real warships. I wouldn't be surprised if we're able to get our hands on the IFF codes for his minefields, as well. On the other hand, he might be smart enough to plant fake ones on us, so I'm not planning on having any sudden inspirations without clearance from you. I should have the situation here completely squared away within the next five to six hours. I'll put prize crews aboard the merchies and send them back to Haven, and barring anything untoward, I should rendezvous with the rest of the fleet no later than seventeen hundred hours on the twenty-third. The locals seem pretty glad to see us, and I don't think we're going to need much in the way of a garrison to hang onto the planet, so I don't expect anything to delay me.

"Zrubek clear."

The screen blanked, and Tourville nodded in approval. Zrubek was one of the new crop of junior flag officers he and Javier had been grooming for the past three years. The assignment to clear the Montague System of the ragtag remnants of Citizen General Adrian Carson's forces had been the commodore's first real solo operation, and it sounded as if he'd passed his graduation exercise with flying colors. Which was exactly what Tourville had anticipated when he sent the youngster off. In many ways, Montague had been something of a training operation with teeth, but if Zrubek had gotten cocky and strayed into range of the sort of missile firepower which seemed to have been aboard Carson's freighters the outcome could have been very different. That was why Tourville had wanted to be certain Zrubek really was as ready for independent command as he'd thought he was.

Strange, he thought. All those years under StateSec's thumb, and I thought the worst thing that could happen to me was to get myself shot. Now StateSec is in the crapper, and instead, I have to worry about whether or not the people I send out with task groups are going to bring them back to me in one piece. Funny how much less sleep I lost over the possibility of getting shot. 

He snorted a chuckle at the reflection, then frowned thoughtfully.

With Montague out of the way, Carson was reduced to only two star systems still under his direct control. Citizen Admiral Agnelli, Carson's theoretical ally currently controlled three more, but Agnelli and Carson had been strange bedfellows from the beginning. Both of them were ambitious, but Carson apparently retained at least some genuine loyalty to the New Order created by the Committee of Public Safety. That might have something to do with the high StateSec rank he'd attained under the previous management, and he was a thoroughly unpleasant individual, who remained addicted to brutality and terror as his preferred methods of crowd control. But for all that, there was at least some evidence he was motivated by something other than the possibility of personal gain.

No one would ever be foolish enough to believe anything of that sort where Federico Agnelli was concerned. Tourville reminded himself that he might be prejudiced by the fact that he'd known Agnelli for many years, and detested him for all of them. The reminder was strictly pro forma, however, because try as he might, he couldn't think of a single redeeming characteristic Agnelli might have possessed. The man was a marginally competent tactician, with a pronounced belief in his own infallibility. He'd climbed aboard the Committee's political bandwagon not because of any belief in what Rob Pierre and Oscar Saint-Just had promised the Mob but because it had offered him the opportunity for personal power, and he'd played the political game with a skillfulness which somehow managed to elude him in the field of naval tactics. At least two other flag officers Tourville knew of had been shot because they'd stood in Agnelli's way and he'd convinced StateSec they were "enemies of the People" to get rid of them.

Which meant that if Carson was in as much trouble as Tourville thought he was, especially after the loss of Montague, Agnelli would cut his losses in a heartbeat and abandon his "ally" to his fate. Which was ultimately stupid of him, since it would leave him all alone to face Twelfth Fleet when Tourville got around to him, in turn. But no doubt he believed someone else would turn up for him to play off against the central government. He'd always been able to manage that before, after all, and he'd held off both all internal opposition and the Republican Navy for the better part of three and a half T-years in the process.

Unfortunately for him, that wouldn't be possible much longer, Tourville thought with deep, uncomplicated satisfaction. He, Giscard, and Thomas Theisman had faced a daunting task when they set about putting down all the Hydra-headed threats to the security of the new government. If he'd had any choice, Tourville would never have accepted any part of the responsibility for dealing with the snake pit of constantly changing alliances and betrayals between everyone who believed he or she had just as much claim to the rulership of the People's Republic of Haven as the people who'd overthrown the Committee. Unfortunately, he hadn't had a choice, any more than Tom Theisman had had one. And the good news was that very few of the warlords and would-be warlords who'd struck out for themselves were still on the board. Which was why Federico Agnelli was about to find himself extremely hard pressed to replace Carson as an ally.

It may just be that we're about to clean up this entire sector, Tourville allowed himself to think. And if we can do that here, we only have two or three more real trouble spots to deal with. My God. Tom and Eloise were right all along. We really are going to win this thing. 

He shook his head, astounded by his own temerity in daring to contemplate anything of the sort, then looked up and handed the memo board back to Eisenberg.

"Thank you, Anita," he said gravely. "See that a copy of the Commodore's dispatch is downloaded to our next report to Nouveau Paris, would you please?"

"Of course, Sir." The com officer clasped the board under her arm, snapped to attention with parade ground precision, turned on her heel, and marched back towards her station.

Tourville watched her go and tried not to smile too broadly.

* * *

Admiral Michel Reynaud, Manticore Astro Control Service, missed his old office. Not that anyone seemed about to offer him a great deal of sympathy over its loss, he admitted, and that was probably fair enough. After all, his new, magnificent, huge, luxurious, and all those other superlatives office aboard Her Majesty's Space Station Hephaestus was only one of the perks which had come with his recent promotion, so he should undoubtedly stop whining and enjoy it. It was just that splendid though it was, it wasn't the one he'd spent the last fifteen T-years arranging exactly the way he wanted it.

Besides, he'd liked his old job much better than his new one. Or, no, that wasn't quite true. He'd just liked the people he'd worked for better.

He tipped back in the sinful comfort of his automatically contouring chair and ostentatiously planted the heels of his boots squarely in the middle of his huge desk's blotter. Then he clasped his hands behind his head and gazed up at the deckhead while he contemplated the perversity of success.

When he'd first been sent to the Basilisk System as a relatively junior officer, it hadn't precisely been a plum assignment. As a matter of fact, no one had been certain the Star Kingdom of Manticore was even going to keep the place, and if the Liberals and the Conservative Association had had their way, Manticore wouldn't have. But those ill-matched partners in isolationism hadn't had their way, and over the next half T-century, Basilisk had become an immensely important and valuable possession. The traffic through the Basilisk terminus of the Manticore Wormhole Junction had grown by leaps and bounds, until it accounted for almost a third of all traffic through the Junction, and Lieutenant Reynaud had advanced steadily through Commander Reynaud, to Captain Reynaud, to Admiral Reynaud, commanding officer, Basilisk Astro Control.

And then, of course, the Peeps had blown the entire Basilisk infrastructure to Hell.

Remembered pain twisted Reynaud's face as he recalled the devastating Havenite raid which had utterly demolished a half-century of investment and development. Warehouses, repair facilities, building slips, solar power satellites, orbital farms, transient housing, orbital factories and refineries . . . It had been the single most successful Peep attack of the entire war, and Reynaud had gotten entirely too close a look at it. Indeed, Astro Control had been on the Peep list as well, and only the fact that Eighth Fleet had gotten there in time had saved it. And, he conceded, that was probably the only thing that had saved his own life, as well.

But that had been five T-years ago. Basilisk was rebuilding now, and much more rapidly than anyone—including Reynaud—would have believed possible before the attack. Partly he supposed that was because the original infrastructure had grown only as the demand for it grew, whereas the replacement installations had been designed and constructed to meet an established and clearly understood need. And another factor, he acknowledged unhappily, was that the High Ridge Government had seen the reconstruction of Basilisk as a perfect opportunity to pour vast sums into public projects. Not only did it create jobs, not a minor consideration now that the military was downsizing and demobilized Navy personnel were glutting the job market, but it fitted perfectly with the High Ridge slogan: "Building the Peace."

Damned straight they're "building the peace," Reynaud thought disgustedly. The idiots certainly couldn't have fought the war! But I guess Basilisk is probably less of a scam than some of their other programs. 

And that, he acknowledged, if only to himself, was the real reason he disliked his present job. Not just because it had taken him away from Basilisk while the star system was still climbing back to its feet, but because in his opinion the entire program he'd been tapped to command had been authorized only because High Ridge and his stooges saw it as one more PR-rich boondoggle.

Be fair, he scolded himself. They may be padding the budget, and they're certainly playing their brainchild for all it's worth politically, but it really is about time someone got behind Kare and pushed. I just hate all the hoopla. And then there's the fact that I don't happen to think the government is the best entity to be doing the pushing. And the fact that I really, really don't like having people like Makris hanging over my shoulder . . . or harassing the people who work for me. And— 

He made himself stop adding to the laundry list of things he didn't much like about the situation. Besides, he admitted very, very privately, a lot of them simply added together and boiled down to how much he hated the fact that Baron High Ridge and his cronies would see to it that they got any credit that came of it.

He glowered at the deckhead for several more seconds, then glanced at his chrono, sighed, returned his feet to their proper place on the decksole, and allowed his chair to come back upright. Speaking of Dr. Kare . . .

The door—it was much too splendid to be called a "hatch," even here aboard Hephaestus—opened exactly on schedule. That was not, Reynaud knew, the fault of Dr. Jordin Kare, who seldom got anywhere on schedule. Trixie Hammitt, Reynaud's secretary, on the other hand, was obsessively punctual enough to compensate for an entire regiment of Kares.

The admiral stood behind his desk, smiling and holding out his hand, as Trixie shepherded in the man whose work was at the core of the grandiosely titled Royal Manticoran Astrophysics Investigation Agency's current endeavors. Kare was a man of medium height, with thinning brownish hair and eyes which couldn't seem to make up their mind whether they were gray or blue. He was a good fifteen centimeters shorter than Trixie, and Reynaud's tall, red-haired secretary's compulsively fussy and overabundant energy seemed to bemuse the distinguished astrophysicist. Which was fair enough. It not only bemused Reynaud, it often intimidated him, as well.

"Dr. Kare is here, Sir," she announced with crisp authority, and Reynaud nodded.

"So I see," he observed mildly, and a glint of humor showed in his visitor's eyes as Kare gripped the admiral's hand and shook it firmly. "Could you see about ordering us some refreshments, Trixie?" Reynaud asked.

Hammitt gave him a hard, pointed look, as if to remind him that her duties were clerical, not catering. But then she nodded and withdrew, and he exhaled a deep sigh of relief.

"I don't think we're going to be able to get rid of her that easily much longer," he observed to Kare.

"We're both intelligent, highly motivated men," the physicist replied with a grin. "I'm sure that, given the alternative, between the two of us we'll be able to think of some way to . . . divert her."

"I should be ashamed of myself," Reynaud admitted. "I've never had a secretary or an assistant who worked harder or longer hours. I know that, and inside somewhere I appreciate it enormously. But the way she fusses over our meetings drives me stark, staring mad."

"She's only doing her job . . . I think," Kare responded. "Of course, the other possibility that occurred to me is that she's secretly in the pay of one of the Star Kingdom's commercial rivals and that her assignment is to permanently derail the project by pushing its directors over the edge."

"You're being paranoid again, Jordin," Reynaud scolded.

"Not paranoid, just harried," Kare corrected.

"Yeah, right." Reynaud snorted, and waved for his guest to be seated.

It was part of his ambiguous feelings about the entire project that he liked Jordin Kare as much as he did. Of course, the professor was a very likable human being, in his own, absentminded sort of way. He was also one of the more brilliant astrophysicists the Star Kingdom had produced, with at least five academic degrees Reynaud knew about. He suspected there were probably at least two or three others Kare had forgotten to mention to anyone. It was the sort of thing he would have done.

And much as Reynaud hated to admit it, in choosing him to head the scientific side of the RMAIA when they split the agency off from Astro Control, the High Ridge Government had found exactly the right man for the job. Now if they'd only get out of his way and let him get on with it.

"And what wondrous new discoveries do you have for me today, Jordin?" the admiral inquired.

"Actually," Kare said, "there may really be something to report this time."

His smile had vanished, and Reynaud leaned forward in his chair as the physicist's unexpectedly serious tone registered.

"There may?"

"It's too early to be certain, and I hope to God I can keep the bureaucrats out from underfoot while we follow up on it, but I think we may actually be about to crack the locus on the seventh terminus."

"You're joking!"

"No, I'm not." Kare shook his head vigorously. "The numbers are very preliminary, Mike, and we're still a huge distance from nailing down a definitive volume. Even after we do that, of course, we're going to be looking at the better part of a solid T-year, more probably two or three of them, before we get any farther than this end of the string. But unless I'm very mistaken, we've finally correlated enough sensor data to positively state that there actually is a seventh terminus to the Junction."

"My God," Reynaud said quietly. He leaned back once more and shook his head. "I hope you won't take this the wrong way, Jordin, but I never really expected us to find it. It just seemed so unlikely after all these years."

"It's been a bear," Kare agreed, "and I can see at least half a dozen monographs coming out of the hunt for it—probably more. You know the original theoretical math was always highly ambiguous, and it's only been in the last fifteen or twenty T-years that we've had Warshawskies sensitive enough to collect the observational data we needed to confirm it. And we've pushed the boundaries of wormhole theory further than anyone else has done in at least a century, in the process. But it's out there, and for the first time, I'm completely confident we're going to find it."

"Have you mentioned this to anyone else?" Reynaud asked.

"Hardly!" Kare snorted harshly. "After the way those publicity flack idiots went running to the media the last time around?"

"They were just a mite premature," Reynaud conceded.

"A 'mite'?" Kare stared at him incredulously. "They had me sounding like some egotistical, self-seeking crank ready to proclaim he'd discovered the Secrets of the Universe! It took me almost a full T-year to get the record straightened out, and half the delegates to last year's Astrophysics Conference at the Royal Society still seemed to think I was the one who'd written those asinine press releases!"

Reynaud started to say something else, then changed his mind. He could hardly tell Kare he was wrong when he was convinced the physicist was exactly right. That was the main reason Reynaud objected so strenuously to the government's involvement in RMAIA. The work itself was important, even vital, and the funding level required for the dozen or so research ships, not to mention the lab and computer time, certainly left it with a price tag very few private concerns could have afforded. But the entire thing was one huge PR opportunity as far as the current Government was concerned. That was the entire reason they'd created the agency in the first place instead of simply increasing the funding for the Astro Control's Survey Command, which had been quietly pursuing the same research for decades. The RMAIA had been launched with huge fanfare as one of the "long overdue peaceful initiatives" which had been delayed by the war against Haven, but the reality was just a little different from the shiny facade the Government worked so hard to project.

Nothing could have made the calculating reality behind the "peaceful initiative" more obvious than the blatant way the politicos scrambled to make political capital off of the work of the project's scientific staff. Official spokespeople who "forgot" to clear their copy with Kare or Reynaud were bad enough, but at least they could be thumped on for their sins. The project's political overlords, like High Ridge and Lady Descroix, were another matter entirely, and they were the ones who'd really infuriated Kare.

"I agree that we need to keep a lid on this until we have something definite to report," the admiral said after a moment. "I'm guessing that you told your staff people to keep their mouths shut?"

"On the research side, yes," Kare agreed. "The problem is going to come on the funding and administrative side."

Reynaud nodded. The scientists assigned to the project shared Kare's opinions about the PR people almost unanimously. Some of them might even have put it a little stronger than the professor did, in fact. But RMAIA was also awash in paperwork, which was the other main reason Reynaud felt the government would have been better advised to let someone else run it. It had been bad enough in Astro Control, which for all its military rank structure was actually a civil service organization. RMAIA was even worse. Not only did government bureaucrats with perhaps three percent of Dr. Kare's credentials and half that much of his intelligence insist on trying to "direct" his efforts, but they also insisted on exercising a degree of oversight which Reynaud privately estimated had probably doubled the project's time requirements. People who ought to have been attending to research were spending at least fifty percent of their time filling out endless forms, writing and reading memos, and attending administrative conferences that had damn all to do with finding the termini of wormhole junctions. Almost as bad, the project managers were not only scientific ignoramuses; they were also political appointees whose first loyalty was to the politicians who'd given them their prestigious, well-paid jobs. Like Dame Melina Makris, the Exchequer's personal representative on the RMAIA board. Although she was technically in the Countess of New Kiev's department, everyone knew she'd been appointed on the direct nomination of the Prime Minister. Even if there hadn't been any rumors to that effect, Makris herself would have made certain that every soul unfortunate enough to cross her path figured it out. She was officious, overbearing, arrogant, supercilious, and abrasive . . . and those, in Michel Reynaud's opinion, were her good points.

But she also knew precisely how the bureaucratic infighting game was played. Better, in fact, than Reynaud himself did. And she had access to all of the agency's paperwork. Which meant that the moment Kare and his scientific team started requesting additional funds for sensor runs, she was going to go running to the Prime Minister—and the public relations department—with the news that Dr. Jordin Kare had once again discovered the ultimate secret of the universe.

In which case, that same Dr. Jordin Kare was going to shoot her. And not just in a kneecap.

"Let me think about it for a day or so, Jordin," Reynaud said after a moment. "There has to be a way to lose the funding in the underbrush." He swiveled his chair gently from side to side, tapping his fingers on his blotter while he thought. "I might be able to get Admiral Haynesworth to help us out," he mused aloud. "She doesn't like bureaucratic interference any more than I do, and she still resents the hell out of having the project stripped away from her own people. She's in the middle of a routine Junction beacon survey right now, too. Maybe I can coax her into letting us have a little bit of her budget for the extra sensor runs we're going to need if we collect her data at the same time."

"Good luck." Kare sounded skeptical.

"It's one possibility." Reynaud shrugged. "I may be able to come up with another. Or, much as I hate to admit it, there may not be any way to skate around it. But I promise I'll do my damnedest, because you're right. This is too important for premature release."

"I'd say that was a fairly generous understatement," Kare said seriously. Then he grinned. "On the other hand, and even granting what a tremendous pain in the ass all of this bureaucratic oversight has been, think about it, Mike. We're about to add another terminus to the Junction. And not one of us—especially not me—has the least damned idea where it leads!"

"I know." Reynaud grinned back. "Oh boy, do I know!"


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