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Growing up, Jeremiah Llyn had hated being short.

Not that he was that short. Not really. No more than nine or ten centimeters shorter than the planetary average. But ten centimeters had been more than enough to set off the jokesters in primary school, the brawlers in middle grade, and the more elaborate hazing during his teen years. Young adulthood had been marginally better, with at least a veneer of politeness and civilization covering up the derision. But even there, he could see the mental evaluation going on behind employers’ eyes as he was passed over for promotions and the truly lucrative jobs.

Now, with the perspective and maturity that fifty T-years of life afforded a man, he found his lack of towering stature not only comfortable but valuable. People, even supposedly intelligent people, tended to underestimate shorter men.

In Llyn’s current position, it was often very useful to be underestimated.

Llyn wasn’t sure why Haven’s maximum-security Deuxième Prison relied on human cleaning staff instead of remotes. Possibly it was because they still needed people for maintenance and had simply combined the departments; possibly it was because remotes were more easily reprogrammed or electronically hijacked than people. Either way, it had made the job of infiltrating the prison much easier than he’d expected.

He’d started by crafting himself a cleaning outfit, with the proper coveralls and a faked ID. Once inside, he’d found an opportunity to trade up to a guard’s uniform, the guard in question no longer requiring it. Another tweaking of ID, the activation of the worm his cohort on Haven had slipped into the prison’s computer two days earlier, a hijacked uni-link call and soothing noises made to a concerned woman on the nighttime security monitor staff, and within an hour of entering the grounds he was standing in the cell of the prisoner he’d traveled all the way from the Solarian League to see.

The man’s name was Mota, and he was a pirate.

Rather, had been a pirate. His gang had been all but wiped out five T-years earlier at a botched raid on Havenite warships in the Secour system. Mota had been one of the gang’s chief system hackers, tasked with chopping through the ship’s layers of security, which was why he’d managed to stay alive while the Havenite Marines were slaughtering his fellow pirates. He’d been briefly questioned at Secour, then brought back to Haven for a more thorough interrogation.

According to the documents Llyn had dug up, Mota’s interrogators had learned a lot about the gang itself, some of their previous crimes, and how the Secour scheme had been developed and laid out. They had, unfortunately, learned exactly zero about who had hired Guzarwan and his men to steal the ships in the first place.

Haven wanted to know that. Wanted it very badly.

Because while most mercenary groups were more or less aboveboard, there were some who weren’t. The former were unapologetic guns for hire, available to prosecute brush wars between small star nations or to provide defense for systems or private companies who couldn’t afford to build and maintain navies of their own. In some places those groups were officially licensed, and for the most part were careful to maintain a good, even honorable reputation.

The latter type weren’t straightforward, weren’t licensed, and the only reputation they had or wanted was the kind that was whispered in back rooms between people as unsavory as themselves.

They were also those who had learned to keep a very low profile over the past half T-century or so, as the galaxy at large got around to dealing with them. In more than one case, some of the more honorable mercenaries had been hired to eliminate the significantly less honorable ones, the result of which had been that the first group rose to the slightly more respectable status of paramilitary force, while the second group went completely underground. That kind of low profile made them difficult to find, even for someone with Llyn’s extensive list of dubious contacts.

In many cases, such mercenaries were barely more than extremely well-equipped pirate gangs. The Havenites, having had their share of run-ins with local pirates, and having seen what armed mercenaries like Gustav Anderman’s group could do to an underdeveloped system, were naturally anxious to learn who might have such ambitions in their part of the galaxy.

But according to Mota, who was the single bridge-crew survivor of the battle, all of the men who’d actually met their employers had died at Secour. Now, five years after the debacle, the interrogators still occasionally pulled Mota out of his cell for a chat, but they’d given up any real hope that their prisoner knew anything.

Fortunately for Llyn, Haven’s failure was his own golden opportunity.

No one hired pirates to steal a couple of heavy warships, not unless he had some pressing need for that kind of firepower. The Secour debacle wouldn’t have alleviated that need, and it had occurred to Llyn that the would-be warlord’s logical next step would be to look for a piratelike mercenary gang whose own ships could be used for whatever task he’d planned for his missing prizes.

Which, by a happy coincidence, was exactly the kind of mercenary gang Llyn wanted to hire.

And not just Llyn. Other agents were spread all across the civilized galaxy, trying their own approaches to the problem. Some were poking around dark corners of the Solarian League. Others were backtracking through the aftermath of unexplained military action. Still others were sifting through the records of the more legit merc groups, looking for defectors who might have gone into business for themselves.

Lying back on his bunk, closing his eyes, Llyn replayed the scene over again in his mind. Mota waking up abruptly to find an unknown person in his cell. Mota attempting to call for help, but already fading from the drug Llyn had administered in the man’s sleep. Mota falling into the hypnotic state where his memory would be more open to discovery.

The Havenites had already used drugs like this, of course. Their problem was that they hadn’t asked the right questions.

So Llyn had passed up all the obvious ones: name, age, home planet. He’d skipped the standard logistical stuff, too: the pirates’ home base, suppliers, previous jobs. The Havenites had asked all of those, and had gotten mostly useless answers for their trouble. Llyn’s hacker contact in Nouveau Paris had snagged him a copy of the official report, which he’d read thoroughly and tucked away for possible future reference.

Mota knew something important. Llyn was convinced of that. The trick was that the man didn’t know he knew it.

And so, he’d asked all the questions the Havenites hadn’t.

Who was with Guzarwan when he went to make the original deal?

What planets, systems, or cities did any of these men reference during the months of training and preparation for the job?

What odd or offhanded comment did any of these men make during prep?

What jokes did any of these men make during prep?

What vids did any of these men watch or comment on during prep?

What music did any of these men listen to during prep?

It was on that last one that Llyn finally hit the clue he’d been looking for. It seemed that Dhotrumi, Mota’s fellow system hacker, had taken to humming a particular tune, but only when Guzarwan barged into their work room to check on their progress. The tune seemed to annoy Guzarwan, and after a few repeats of that particular interplay Mota had asked Dhotrumi about it.

But Dhotrumi had merely given a wink and a knowing smile and assured Mota that it would become clear after they finished the job. Mota had accepted that explanation, and they’d gotten back to work.

A few months later, the job had gone sideways, Dhotrumi and Guzarwan and most of the rest of the pirates had been killed, and Mota himself suddenly had more pressing matters on his mind than a private joke between two dead men. The Havenites had grabbed him, hauled him back to his new four-by-four-meter home, and the tiny musical mystery had disappeared into the far reaches of his brain.

Until Llyn had arrived and dug it out.

The freighter Soleil Azur, with Llyn as one of its eight paying passengers, had left Haven on its great circle route around the various regional ports only a few hours after he slipped back out of the prison. The close timing was deliberate, of course—there was no way for Llyn to keep his nighttime prison incursion from eventually being discovered, and he needed to make sure he was off-world before the authorities could organize an investigation and search.

But those few hours had been enough. With the aid of a melody search engine and Haven’s vast cultural database, he’d been able to identify the tune as part of an old ballad called Bound for the Promised Land.

The title wasn’t especially helpful. But the first two lines were:

On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand and cast a wishful eye

To Canaan’s fair and happy land, where my possessions lie.


It was an obscure world, in a group of equally obscure systems loosely clustered between the Solarian League and the Haven Sector. But as with many out-of-the-way nations on pre-Diaspora Earth, and other star nations since that time, anonymity hadn’t translated to peace and quiet. Instead, living in the shadows had led to despotism and subjugation.

Canaan’s experience had been a particularly brutal one. The world had been taken over thirty T-years ago by a military junta, which had been itself overthrown by a popular movement secretly organized by one of its own generals, a man named Khetha. Once firmly in power, Khetha had proclaimed himself to be the Supreme Chosen One and settled into absolute rule.

Four years ago, that rule had come to a sudden and violent end. The people of Canaan had overthrown his government, and Khetha and a small group of his inner circle had beaten a hasty retreat off-planet.

For a couple of years afterward Khetha had tried playing the role of legitimate and wrongly-ousted government leader, first with a couple of League planets and then with Haven, hoping they would force the new Canaanite government to reinstate him.

But no one had been interested in assisting with his counter-coup. Eventually, Khetha and his entourage had given up the effort and settled down into an unobtrusive and sulking role as government-in-exile.

In Quechua City. Right in the middle of the Cascan capital.

The very next stop on Soleil Azur’s route.

Llyn hadn’t expected things to work out nearly so neatly. His plan had been to ride Soleil Azur to its first major port, get off, and wait for the next freighter heading in whatever direction his interrogation of Mota had indicated. It would have meant months of idleness waiting for freighters or perhaps an occasional passenger liner, plus more months of travel. But after the five T-years that had already been spent moving this operation forward, a few more months wouldn’t have made much of a difference.

Now, thanks to good luck and perhaps the only local government with the kind of “live and let live” cultural ethos that would let Khetha settle on its soil without also putting him under full-press official observation, Llyn was suddenly ahead of the game. Unexpectedly but gratifyingly ahead. The odds against his getaway ship just happening to be bound for his ultimate destination were so astronomical that they wouldn’t even have been worth the trouble to calculate.

Sometimes, he mused, the universe went out of its way to be helpful.

He smiled at the ceiling of his tiny cabin. Bound for Casca. Bound for the Promised Land.

I’m bound for the Promised Land…

The Promised Land wasn’t Casca, of course. From a born-and-bred Solarian’s point of view, Casca was little more than a fly speck on the back end of nowhere.

But it was on the road to that Promised Land. To a land of milk and honey.

To the Star Kingdom of Manticore.

Three worlds. A triple fly speck, from the League’s point of view.

Only the League was wrong. Five T-years ago, researchers from the megacorporation Axelrod of Terra had stumbled on the groundshattering possibility that there was a wormhole junction somewhere in the Manticore system. Axelrod had immediately launched a twin-pronged Black-Dagger-classified operation, with the researchers continuing to dig into the data while Llyn and his associates laid the groundwork for a move on the Star Kingdom should the junction prove to be real.

The last report, which had arrived on Haven just prior to Llyn’s infiltration of Mota’s prison cell, had included new modeling that had raised the likelihood of the junction’s existence to nearly eighty percent.

Unless that tentative conclusion somehow went off the rails in the next couple of years, the men and women at the uppermost pinnacle of Axelrod’s power would make the decision to take over Manticore’s three worlds.

It wouldn’t be easy. The Star Kingdom boasted a far more powerful navy than a colony system that size had any business having. It would take an equally powerful force to win out over it; and, moreover, a force that couldn’t be traced back to Axelrod.

Such backtracking would come later, of course, after the junction’s existence had been announced. Fortunately, the machinery for muddying that particular puddle of water was already in motion. While Llyn hunted for a merc group to do the initial heavy lifting, other agents were quietly assessing various star nations with an eye toward bringing in one of them as Manticore’s “official” conquerors. Once the Manticoran military forces had been defeated, that nation would assume control of the Star Kingdom, more or less legitimately as far as the rest of the galaxy was concerned. When the wormhole junction was subsequently “discovered,” the figurehead government would call in Axelrod as “consultants,” and the future would be in Axelrod’s hands.

But the first crucial step along that path was Llyn’s.

Hiring a mercenary group was relatively easy. Hiring one that was willing to play fast and loose with established rules of warfare was tricky. Finding one he could hire without leaving any tracks behind was trickier still.

But that was fine. Tricky was Llyn’s specialty.

The intercom in his cabin gave a soft chime, signaling to the passengers and crew alike that the evening meal was ready in the ship’s mess room.

Llyn wrinkled his nose. The food aboard Soleil Azur was bland and uninspired, as was only to be expected from a no-nonsense working freighter. The passengers, mostly industrialists, low-level government officials, and high-level sales agents, were for the most part equally bland and uninteresting.

Nevertheless, Llyn had looked forward to their times together over the past few months of travel. He would eat with them, talk with them, and laugh with them.

But mostly, he would listen to them. Very, very closely.

Because knowledge was power. And one could never predict where and when those nuggets of power would be found.

Getting to his feet, snaring his dinner jacket from its hanger, Llyn headed out into the corridor.

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