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"Detection. Ship track."

Belazir t'Marid looked up from his crash couch where he had been rerunning a tactical manual on the screen.

"What signature?" he said.

"Ion track, very faint," Baila said. "Could have been weeks ago."

Belazir ran his hand through the long blond mane of his hair and cursed inwardly. The second in two days, he thought. They were getting into well-traveled space, despite the fact that their data showed little or no settlement in this area. The centuries-old Grand Survey reports listed no inhabitable planets, although there was a nebula with potentially valuable minerals. There must be a regular traffic now, perhaps habitats or small space colonies. Dangerous, very dangerous.

A time would come when the Kolnari would not have to skulk around the fringes of known space, biding like scavengers. But that time was not yet.

"Reduce speed," he said. "Pulse message to the consort ships. Keep formation on new vector." That form of communication was so short-range that it was undetectable. "Anything more on the subspace monitors?"

"Plenty of nearby traffic, but mostly encrypted," the intelligence officer said. Belazir nodded. Perfect codes were an old phenomenon, available to anyone with decent computers.

"And the prey?" he asked.

Baila shrugged. As she was almost as well-born as Belazir, he decided to let the informality pass unreprimanded. Also, she was daughter to a staff officer of Chalku's.

"The track is firm and hot," the woman said. "We gain, at an increasing rate. Signs of deterioration, as one would expect from old engines heavily stressed—sublimated particles from exterior drive-coils and cooling vanes. She cannot survive much longer."

"Much longer, much longer! You've been saying that for days!" Belazir snarled, starting half-erect. The junior officer's eyes dropped before the captain's lion stare. Belazir sank back, satisfied that deference had been restored.

"Transmit to all vessels," he went on. "Maximum alertness. We strike hard and then we run. Plasma tells no tales."

* * *

"Dad, I'm not going," Seld Chaundra flatly told his father.

The head of SSS-900-C's medical department looked up in surprise. For a moment, he tried to fit the words into a context that made sense as his hands continued automatically packing a carry-all for his son's trip. Then he shook his head. He was very tired. Since the announcement was made two days ago, there had been absolute chaos in the station. Literal chaos in some instances, and sickbay was full of injuries, everything from carelessness through flare-ups to attempted suicide.

"Do not make troubles now, son," he said. "There is too much to be doing."

"I'm not going, Dad," Seld said again.

Gods, but he looks like his mother, the doctor thought with despair. She had had exactly that set to her jaw when she decided to stand on an issue of principle. And I could never convince her of her error when she looked like that, either. Fortunately, he did not need to convince his son, who was still a minor.

"Yes," Chaundra said, "you are going. I need for you to go."

"Well, I need for me to stay!"

Chaundra grabbed his son by his upper arms and shook him gently. "You're all I've got, Seld. You're the most important thing in my life and I've got to keep you safe." He pulled out his ace. "It's what your mother would have wanted."

Seld's red-headed temper flared and, for the first time in his twelve years, he contradicted his father. "No, she wouldn't! She'd say what I'm gonna say. You're all I've got, and if you can't be safe then I've got to be with you!"

He pulled his son to him in a fierce hug to hide the sudden glisten of tears in his eyes. Then he sank into his armchair, covering his eyes with his hand.

"Yes," he said thickly, "that's just what she'd say. But," he pointed a finger at Seld, "she'd be talking about herself, not about you."

"Dad . . ."

"I have packed one change of clothes, two changes of underwear and one," he held up one finger for emphasis, "thing you can't bear to part with. I'll be back in half an hour to walk you to the ship."


"Half an hour." He stood and left. There are times when a man must weep alone.

* * *

"Joat!" Simeon said in exasperation, "Answer me! I'd hate to have to send someone in there to flush you out."

He heard laughter echo softly then, from somewhere in the ductwork. Damned tunnel rat, he thought in exasperation. She had rigged the sensor in her room to show her present and he was still trying to figure out how it had been done.

"You know they wouldn't find me."

"C'mon Joat, you've got to go. Channa has packed some of your things. She'll meet you at the lock. You're one of the lucky ones. You don't have to wear a suit and travel in the hold for the whole trip."

"Hunh. Done it before."

"Well, you don't have to do it now. Come on! They're leaving in fifteen minutes."

"I'm not going."

"Perhaps I left something out here? Pirates, heavily armed, almost certain death and destruction? Did I mention any of those?"

"You need me," she said simply.

"Yeah," he said slowly after a moment's pause, "but I think I should do without you for a while."

Joat came into view, grinning. "You are so soft," she said and shook her head. "You need me because no adult except you knows this station the way I do." She crossed her arms smugly. "This is my home, too, and I want a crack at defending it. Besides, I'm not about to deliver myself to Dorgan the Gorgon." If she's still alive. Those demonstrators looked mean. "So here I stay!"

"Joat, is avoiding Ms. Dorgan and the orphanage worth risking your life for?"

"You better believe it!" That forced an unwilling chuckle out of Simeon.

"Look, Joat, no more kidding. Channa and I are fighting for our lives. If we have to worry about you, too, it might make that last little bit of difference and get us killed. We can't afford distractions from a kid."

Joat's lips went white. "You fight dirty," she whispered.

"I fight to win," Simeon replied.

"Well, so do I!" Joat shouted. "And I'm alive, aren't I?" She paused for a moment, breathing hard. Then the urchin grin came back. "I've got an instinct for this kinda thing. Trust me." She took a step back and disappeared.

I wish I knew how she did that, Simeon thought. It would come in handy when the Kolnari get here. 

"Channa's expecting you on Boat Deck!" he called after her.

A voice filtered in from nowhere. "Tell her I'll be seeing her."

* * *

"Detection . . . ship detected! Ship detected! Captain to the bridge!"

Belazir t'Marid had been kneeling between his wife's thighs, with a heel in each hand.

"Demonshit!" he swore, diving off the pallet and toward his clothing. The woman—she was his second wife, and a third cousin—cursed antiphonally, rolling away in the other direction.

"The Divine Seed damn them," she said, hopping on one leg as she stuck the other into her skinsuit.

"Easy for you to say," he snarled and kicked at her, struggling with the humiliating and acutely uncomfortable process of getting into space armor in a state of arousal. Then he raised his voice. "Battle stations, full alert. Brief me."

"One vessel. Approaching on path of our trajectory, in normal space."

"Normal space?" he said. The door hissed away as he trotted out of his quarters which were aft of the bridge and one deck down.

"Confirmed," Serig said as Belazir stalked into the bridge. While the captain slept in hostile space, the executive officer stood the watch. He now rose from the commander's couch; a squat man for a Kolnar, a hand below Belazir's height, and muscled like a troll. "You have the bridge, lord."

"Acknowledged." Belazir felt an obscure comfort as he slid into the crash couch and let his hands fall on the controls. And that cold plastic catheter has settled my other problem, he thought with an inward quirk of the lips. "Data."

"Vessel is in the one kiloton mass range." The battle team was on the bridge now, the circular room brightening as consoles came up to ready status. "Neutrino signature indicates merchanter-class engines, presently running on ballistic. There may be energy or kinetic weapons, but I detect no triggers for fusion warheads."

"Interesting," Belazir said calmly. "Serig."

"Command me, lord."

"Indeed. We're going to take a closer look. Prepare for drop into normal space. Notify the flotilla."

"Lord . . ."

"Yes, yes. The primary mission. We are gaining swiftly and have the time. Also, if we detect this ship, it may have detected us." The Kolnari fleet had the best instruments they could steal or copy, but there was no telling how much performance had improved in areas in close contact with regular shipyards. There had been one or two nasty surprises like that before in the Clan's history. "If they have, all the more reason to investigate and make sure they have no tale to tell anyone."

"Prepare for breakthrough." Alarm chimes tinkled and sang. "Thirty seconds, mark."

A twisting at the fabric of the universe; the view on the exterior screens did not change—the computers compensated during FTL running—but a subtle sense of reality returned, something at the corner of the mind.

Serig's voice spoke beside Belazir. "Lord, we have her on electromagnetic detectors. No answer to hailing. Shall we use the kinetics?"

Their relative velocities were in the thousands of kps; solid shot would strike with nuclear force.

"Not yet," Belazir said thoughtfully. "Give me a visual."

The image sprang out before him a few seconds later. There was a noticeable lag now that they were confined to Einstein's universe. A flattened spheroid, quite a small ship. Fairly fast, from the size of the exterior coils; neatly made, nearly new. And totally unarmed, as far as the detectors could determine. Certainly not meant for rapid transit in atmosphere as a Kolnari warship of that size would be.

"They have a small laser," Serig said. "Meteorite-clearing type. Apart from that, nothing."

"Is she dead?"

"The cabin is at sixteen degrees," he replied, and touched a control. The screen's image split. A molded double of the ship appeared, infrared scanning to show temperatures.

"But no reply to our hail," Belazir mused, tugging at his lower lip. "This is too interesting to pass by. All ships, establish zero relative velocity and stand by."

"Great Lord." The communications officer. "The Age of Darkness is hailing, imperative code."

"Put her through." Belazir nodded to himself; exactly what he would expect. A face that might have been his brother's flashed into a screen on his couch-arm.

"Aragiz t'Varak," the man said. Equal-to-equal greeting, full personal and subclan-name. Socially correct as the t'Varak were one of the noble gens of the High Clan, but a military solecism. One of the problems of a family business.

"t'Varak," Belazir said, reminding him of it. In a social situation, he would have replied with his own full name.

"Why are we halting?" Belazir waited. "Sir."

"Because there is a potential prize of great value here," Belazir said mildly. "In any case, we must deal with it."

"A missile is quick." And Father Chalku is impatient: the unspoken thought was plain enough.

"A missile is wasteful," Belazir said. He grinned for an instant. Aragiz looked slightly alarmed. "But your objection is noted. You will not, therefore, insist on sharing in the prize credit—you or your ship."

Now Aragiz's face was unreadable black iron. Fool, the captain of the Bride thought. Everyone on the Age would be monitoring this, as the Bride was broadcasting in ship-to-ship clear. An intact merchantman could be a prize of great worth, particularly a new, fast ship, suitable for conversion to a family transport or an assault carrier. No matter how well-born or ruthless, a captain could not afford to alienate the common crew too badly; not to mention the relatives who would fill most of the command positions.

T'Varak had just sharply reduced his chances of surviving to flag rank. Belazir's hand cut off his protests and the intership screen.

"Serig," he said, allowing himself a slight feral smile of satisfaction. "You will take the assault team. One boat, three fighters. Full monitor at all times."

Serig grinned, white against his ebony face. Being petit-noble, he could afford such open enjoyment at the t'Varak's discomfiture.

"Perhaps there will be a scumvermin woman aboard," he said.

* * *

The lock cycled open.

Serig na Marid signed behind himself: on the count of three. He felt good, loose and easy and fast, the plasma gun in his hands an extension of his body. Nothing else felt quite as good as the tension just before combat: not sex or wealth or satisfied revenge. The knowledge that his lord would be observing through the helmet pickups was an added bonus. Whatever he accomplished would not be just another small byte in the chaotic melee of large-scale destruction: it would be uniquely his, with commanders and officers on all four ships watching.


Swiftly, smoothly, the three figures in dark combat armor swung into the lock. The deck rang under their boots as they landed in the interior field.

"Still no sign of reaction," Serig said. "Field is point six-three GK." Kolnari gravities, that was. It was 1.0 G Terran, the old human standard. "Pressurizing."

Serig dropped to a three-point stance on the floor, fingers of his left hand, toes of both feet, knees bent. The two ground-fighters were on either side of the airlock. The inner portal was of standard form, circular, with a seam down the middle where the leaves met. Air hissed into the lock, and the light went from vacuum-flat to a warmer, yellow tone. Much like that on some planets he had seen, although the Kolnari fleet still kept the harsh brightness of their vanished homeworld.


The leaves snapped back. In the same instant Serig vaulted forward, plasma rifle ready. A single octagonal corridor lay in front, ending five meters ahead in a T-junction. He went to ground just before the intersection and pressed a thumb to the stock of his weapon. A long stiff thread extended out, and Serig keyed the image it carried onto his faceplate. More empty corridor, this time running north-south through the main axis of the ship. Again octagonal, 2.0 meters in diameter, with a synthetic fabric covering on the "down" side and the ceiling; extruded synthetic sides, luminous at regular intervals, and recessed hatchways. Another door was at the north end of the corridor with a keypad, and a duplicate at the south.

A careful one second later the two backups leapt past him, facing either way. They waited in silence, eyes flickering in trained patterns.

"Nothing," Serig said, coming to his feet and walking into the axial corridor. He glanced down at the readouts on his gauntlet.

"Air is Terran-standard basis." Thinner than Kolnar, but with more oxygen and less sulfuric acid and ozone. Homeworld had much ozone at the surface, little in the stratosphere. "Slightly depleted oxygen levels, high level of necrotic decay products. Wouldn't like to have to breath it."

"Proceed," Belazir's voice said.

"As you command, lord," Serig replied. In the language of Kolnar, that phrase was one word. "Proceeding up axial corridor now."

Almost all human-made ships still had a notional "bow" at the north pole, and that was the most common location for a bridge. Serig directed his subordinates forward with hand signals. They moved from one compartment to another, opening each, checking inside with a vision thread and then going on to the next.

"Sensors detect no live presence," Serig reported. They moved forward again, two covering the one exposed, up to the small ship's control center. "These chambers appear to be staterooms, lord, presently disused."

"Better and better," Belazir's voice said. That implied extensive life-support facilities.

The north-end hatch yielded to the same simple random-number code as the exterior entranceway. The control chamber was a domed hemisphere with three couches, only one occupied. It had half-closed around the pilot's body in a coldsleep cocoon, not fully deployed.

Serig moved to look down at the body.

"You were right; a woman," Belazir said dryly.

"Not one that appeals to me," his second-in-command replied. "Tshakiz, get a tissue sample." He was glad for the filtered, neutral air that flowed through his helmet.

The rotting flesh slid greasily away from the probe. Serig looked elsewhere, touching the controls with slow caution. The shrill accented voice of the Medical Officer broke in. That was a low-status occupation, and the man was the gelded son of a slave mother.

"Subject has been dead approximately four days," he announced. "Scan, please, my great lords."

One of the ground fighters detached a sensor wand from her belt and ran it slowly from head to toe of the corpse. A minute's silence followed.

"Preliminary analysis: death from overdose of coldsleep drugs, combined with oxygen starvation and dehydration when cocoon failed to properly deploy."

Serig nodded. On single-crewed vessels the pilot would often use coldsleep, relying on the AI systems to handle the simple and tedious work of long interstellar transits. Slightly risky, but it saved lifespan.

"Ship systems are live," Serig said. "Cryptography, please." He punched a jack into the receptor and waited while the powerful machines on the Bride worked on the guardian programs of the enemy ship. "Worm is through. I have control of the computer." That was simple, he thought. Not much computer security at all, and . . .

"Ah! Lord? The coldsleep system was sabotaged."

"How wicked," Belazir said, and they shared a chuckle. "Why?"

"A moment, lord. Yes, by the dugs of the Dreadful Mother! This is a commercial courier. The female was an agent for some merchant house, traveling with samples. She boasts of making the 'sale of a lifetime' at her most recent stop, a nexus-station designated SSS-900-C. Some rival did it."

"It was the sale of her lifetime," Belazir said.

This time Serig could hear more laughter in the background. He turned sharply to his assistants. "Nobody told you to stop working," he barked. "Divine Seed of Kolnar! Lord, I have accessed the cargo manifest!"

He could hear Belazir grunt like a man belly-punched as the figures and data scrolled across to the Kolnari warships. Computers and computer parts; engineering software; fabrication systems; drugs; luxury consumer items, wines, silks . . .

"And lord! The cargo compartments have full climatic control!"

Rigged for the carrying of delicate cargo? That made the vessel beyond price to the Clan. With climate-controlled holds, she could be easily and cheaply rerigged to hold families or troops in coldsleep.

Belazir's voice grew sardonic. "Captain t'Varak, I hope you are satisfied." Nothing came over the circuit but the sound of teeth grinding. One of the other captains did venture a comment.

"Does this not seem too much like the answer to a prayer?" he murmured. "I sacrifice much to my joss and the ancestors, vessels of the Divine Seed, but . . ." The joss help the strongest fist, the saying went.

"Under other circumstances, Zhengir t'Marid," Belazir answered him coolly, "I might agree. But cousin, who could know we forayed in this direction? Only those we pursue, and they press forward in a disintegrating hulk with no communications capability since we blew it away." Command snapped in his voice. "Serig. Secure the ship. Discard the corpse and flush the environmental systems. Are fungibles adequate?"

"More than adequate, Great Lord," Serig said, hammering the glee out of his voice. My gods! My greed! he thought. A full percentage point would be his as noble-in-command of the boarding party. My lord is well pleased with me, he decided. He must, to give his bastard half-brother such an opportunity. Petit-nobles had been translated to full status for less.

"There is plenty of air," he went on. "Surplus water. The pilot never awoke to renew."

"Good. Await the prize crew—Alyze b'Marid will command it—and then return. Expedite! We will resume superluminal in less than an hour, or skin will be stripped."

Alyze was the commander's new third wife. Serig suspected she might be pregnant, and Belazir anxious to have her out of harm's way before even the slight danger at the end of their chase. He nodded to himself. Such was good noble thinking, for a man's honor was in the diffusion of his portion of the Divine Seed.

"Hearkening and obedience, lord," he said. And this SSS-900-C will also be in the path of our pursuit, Serig thought. I will light ten sticks to my personal joss in apology. 

He had kicked the little idol across his cabin in anger when he learned they were to be sent on a lootless, honorless pursuit mission while their comrades and clanfolk plundered Bethel. It seemed he had been premature.


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