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Damocles was settling into orbit over Casca when the roster of those who would be joining Captain Marcello in the first shuttle came through.

Tactical Officer Lisa Donnelly’s name was third on the list, right behind the captain himself and Executive Officer Susan Shiflett.

Lisa smiled, hoping the smile wasn’t big enough or gloating enough for the rest of the bridge crew to notice and resent. It wasn’t like anyone was getting cabin fever, after all—sixty-three days in hyper hadn’t exactly been a burden on the crew’s collective psyche. Certainly not when compared to the three and a half months it had taken Guardian to reach Secour on Lisa’s first trip outside Manticoran space.

But this trip was different. At Secour, Lisa and the rest of the crew had spent the entire time in orbit, never making it down to Marienbad proper. She’d never heard an official reason why none of the Manticoran contingent had been allowed ashore, but rumor had it that the local government had been so thoroughly outraged with the events that had taken place above their world that they’d issued a flat no-landing policy.

But here, things were going to be different. Here, she was going to actually walk in a foreign city under an alien sun.

And she was going to be one of the very first of those aboard Damocles to do so.

She could hardly wait.

It was a feeling that was probably shared all through the ship. Certainly it was being felt beside her. “Congratulations, Ma’am,” Chief Petty Officer MacNiven murmured from the helm station to her left.

“Thank you,” Lisa murmured back, noting with a mild twinge of guilt that MacNiven himself wasn’t on the list.

But that had been how Marcello had set this whole thing up. Commander Pappadakis, Damocles’s engineering officer, wanted to tear down Life Support Two, which had developed a minor scrubber glitch en route to Casca, and he was the sort who objected to the very notion of grass growing under his feet. He would be staying aboard to oversee the operation, which neatly covered the Regs requirement that a senior officer remain aboard at all times. With the legalities—along with plain simple common sense—satisfied, the captain had thrown the rest of the crew into a lottery, giving each of them an equal chance to be aboard the first shuttle to land on Cascan soil.

Lisa had always liked and respected Marcello as commanding officer. This kind of foresight and sense of fair play just made her like him a bit more.


Lisa straightened to attention and swiveled around. “Yes, Sir?”

Marcello was eyeing her, his lips curving with that faint smile that always made her feel like he was reading her mind and liking what he saw in there. “Don’t just sit there,” he admonished mildly. “You saw the list. Go get yourself ready to feel real gravity again.”

“Yes, Sir,” she said. “I was just waiting until Goldenrod made it to her final orbital attitude.”

Goldenrod is perfectly capable of handling that herself,” Marcello said. “Go, Commander. That’s an order.”

“Yes, Sir,” she said, returning his smile. Unstrapping from her station, she grabbed the handhold on the back of her seat and launched herself through the bridge’s zero-gee toward the aft hatch.

“That’s full dress uniform,” Marcello called a reminder after her. “Let’s show the Cascans how it’s done.”

Twenty minutes later, the shuttle dropped away from Damocles and headed toward the blue-green planet below.

Packed to the gills with the best-dressed group of officers and ratings Lisa had ever seen outside of a parade ground. Dress uniforms, with buttons gleaming and impressive rows of “fruit salad” medal ribbons, as far as the eye could see.

Having served with most of these men and women for the past T-year or more, she’d had no idea that some of them cleaned up this good.

“I just hope they know how to behave themselves,” Captain Marcello murmured from the seat beside her.

Lisa smiled. For some officers she’d served with, appearance was everything, with style at the top of the list and results a distant second. Other officers barely cared that they even had formal wear. Marcello fell somewhere in the middle: perfectly able to cut a respectable profile if he needed to, but more focused on making sure his ship and crew functioned to their fullest abilities. “They will,” she assured him. “The XO and bosun beat it pretty bone-deep over the past few days.”

“Good,” Marcello said. “I have to say, I was a little concerned that the delay in our departure from Manticore would cause us to miss Soleil Azur. Glad we didn’t.”

Lisa felt her forehead crease. She knew perfectly well that Soleil Azur was still here. She’d been on Damocles’s bridge when CIC made contact with the Havenite freighter, confirmed it was indeed the ship that had brought Haven’s current pirate data to Casca, and relayed that information to the captain. For Marcello to bring that up now, barely ten hours later, seemed a bit odd.

Was the captain actually trying to make small talk? With her?

“Were we planning to meet with anyone aboard?” she asked, aware that the question wasn’t really small talk but not sure how she was supposed to continue her end of the conversation.

“I’m assuming not,” Marcello said. “Haven’s usual pattern has been to send just the data, without any analysts or couriers riding herd.” He cleared his throat. “Speaking of analysts, is there a reason why Townsend has brought a personal with him?”

Lisa blinked. Personal computers were midway between the ubiquitous tablets that everyone aboard used and Damocles’s heavy-duty central net, with its slightly less ubiquitous collection of terminals scattered across the ship. Why Townsend would bother lugging something like that around on shore leave she couldn’t imagine. “No reason that I know of,” she told the captain. “In fact, no reason I can even think of.”

“There’s at least one,” he said, his voice going a little darker. “A couple of years ago, when Pegasus made its show-the-flag trip to Suchien, one of the ratings slipped a personal out of the ship and tried to sell it to one of the local computer companies.”

Lisa stared at him. “I never heard anything about that.”

“That’s because Cazenestro made sure the whole thing was hushed up,” Marcello told her. “The company was smart enough—or paranoid enough—to pass on the deal, even though it would have given them a nice leg up on their local competition. They also blew the whistle on him, and the CO and XO were waiting when he got back to his shuttle.”

“I assume he was charged with theft?”

“And a couple of other things,” Marcello said. “My point is we don’t want to see any Naval equipment try to grow legs here and now.”

“Yes, of course,” Lisa murmured, mentally pulling up everything she knew about Townsend.

There wasn’t a lot in there, she realized. Charles Townsend was a petty officer first class, who’d transferred aboard Damocles barely three months ago, right before they shipped out for Casca. By all accounts he worked well with superiors and subordinates alike. He had a somewhat raucous sense of humor, but he seemed to have it mostly under control and knew where the invisible lines were drawn.

The only exception to that rule—and the only black spot on Townsend’s record aboard Damocles—had come from a newly minted ensign who had written up Townsend six days into the voyage up for insulting him to his face. Unfortunately for the outraged junior officer, the XO’s subsequent investigation had concluded that what Townsend said and what the ensign heard were two entirely different things.

Townsend had kept a low profile since then. But Lisa doubted the ensign had forgotten. Ensigns never forgot things like that. If Townsend put even one of his oversized Sphinxian feet over the line, she had no doubt the ensign would be there to nail it to the floor.

Townsend wasn’t stupid. Under the circumstances—especially under these circumstances—the man would have to be crazy to attempt to sell one of His Majesty’s personal computers to a foreign government or company.

So why was he lugging the thing all the way down to Casca?

Marcello was sitting silently, his unasked question hanging in the air between them. “I have no idea, Sir,” she conceded. “I could call Lieutenant Nikkelsen and see if he knows anything.”

“No, that’s all right,” Marcello said. “If you see Nikkelsen later, ask him to keep an eye on him.” He snorted under his breath. “And let’s make damn sure that the personal is still in its carrybag when Townsend returns to the ship.”

There was a small delegation waiting on the Quechua City landing platform when the shuttle touched down: a dozen men and women, wearing a mixture of high-class civilian outfits and Cascan Defense Force uniforms.

And smack in the center of the group, wearing the most impressive of the CDF uniforms, was a man Lisa recognized.

More astonishing to her was the fact that he recognized her, too.

“Commander Donnelly,” Commodore Gordon Henderson greeted her after all the formal introductions had been made and Damocles’s captain and XO officially greeted. “It’s good to see you again.”

“And you, Commodore,” Lisa said, smiling at him through the flood of memories. Henderson had been the senior CDF officer during the unpleasantness at Secour, and despite having been thrown into the deep end of the pool by the attack—which, admittedly, all the rest of them had been, too—he’d held up his end admirably. The last time they’d seen each other had been as Guardian prepared to return to Manticore and Henderson prepared to take Casca’s newly purchased heavy cruiser home.

Clearly, the Cascan Defense Force’s assessment of Henderson’s conduct during that time had matched Lisa’s own. A navy the size of the Cascans’ couldn’t have very many commodore slots to hand out, and they’d given one to Henderson. “Congratulations on your promotion, Sir,” she added.

“Thank you.” Henderson turned back to Marcello. “The reason I asked specifically for you to bring Commander Donnelly, Captain, is that I have some disturbing news, and I wanted to get the commander’s input as soon as possible.” He gestured behind him at the Customs Clearing Center. “If you’ll come with me, I have a conference room waiting.”

Lunch had been served and eaten, and with two glasses of wine inside him Torrell Baker was even more cheerful and effusive than he’d been aboard Soleil Azur.

Which was fine with Llyn. After five wearying days of criminal gang activity—hunting for them, meeting with them, paying them off, and finally convincing them that he wasn’t a police plant—Baker’s out-of-the-sky lunch invitation had actually been a welcome relief.

Llyn enjoyed the games he played for Axelrod. But sometimes it was nice to just spend a little time with someone who wasn’t looking for an opportunity to knife him in the back. Or vice versa.

“Well, have a great stay in Quechua City,” Baker said, giving Llyn’s hand and arm an final enthusiastic farewell handshake across the table. “I’m off to continue my quest to bring the glories of molecular crafting to the citizens of Casca.”

“I hope it goes well,” Llyn said. “You’ll be here four months, I believe you said?”

“If I’m lucky,” Baker said. “A cottage factory like this typically takes three just to get uncrated, assembled, checked, calibrated, and running. If there are any bugs—and there are always bugs with something this complicated—it could take me another three or four just to chase them down.”

“Well, good luck with that,” Llyn said. “And good luck finding a freighter going the right direction when you’re ready to go back.”

“Hey, the company’s paying for it,” Baker said philosophically. “If I get stuck here, there are supposed to be some nice vacation spots on the other side of Casca. How are your sales meetings going?”

“Reasonably well,” Llyn said. In fact, that part of the mission was pretty well settled, with the gang now sitting back and waiting for the message that would bring them onto the scene.

But Phase Two would require a bit more prep work, and it wouldn’t do to have Baker spot him wandering the streets alone when he should be ensconced in meetings or at least surrounded by eager potential buyers.

“I’ve had some preliminary get-togethers, but two of the main participants are elsewhere on the planet and can’t get here for three more days. Guess that means I’m going to have to play tourist a little longer.”

Baker harrumphed. “Between you and me, friend, if you think touristing is something you have to do, you really need to relax more.”

“I had plenty of relaxation time aboard ship,” Llyn reminded him.

“Not exactly touristing per se,” Baker said. “But to each his own, I guess. Maybe you’ll be able to make your deals before the Soleil Azur’s ready to leave and you’ll be able to skip the tourist thing entirely.”

“That’s my hope,” Llyn confirmed. “If not, I’ll just have to wait for the next ship through.”

“Well, good luck,” Baker said. “If you miss the connection, be sure to look me up. I’ll teach you how to tourist properly.”

“It’s a deal,” Llyn said. “And if the deal goes through, first dinner is on me.”

“Right.” With one final pump of Llyn’s arm, Baker turned and headed out of the restaurant into the bright Cascan sunlight.

Llyn followed more slowly, pretending he was looking up something on his tablet. Baker was decent enough company, but the interlude had sufficiently refreshed him and he was ready to get back to work.

Besides, much more interesting at the moment than Baker’s prattle was the large group of men and women in Royal Manticoran Navy uniforms passing the restaurant.

His first reflexive reaction upon seeing a swarm of foreign military personnel had been the normal wariness of a man on a covert mission. But it had been quickly clear from their casual behavior and lack of sidearms that they weren’t on the hunt for anyone, let alone him. Apparently, his arrival at Casca had simply overlapped with that of a visiting Manticoran warship.

Six years. The number ran through his mind as he let the line of chatting spacers pass and then fell into step behind them. There were a fair number of older faces in the crowd, most of them officers and senior petty officers. Still, most of the men and women were young. Some possibly on their first voyage, many of them probably planning to make a career out of this.

Six years. If the operation kept to Llyn’s tentative timetable, in six years the Star Kingdom of Manticore would suddenly find itself under attack by forces beyond their wildest expectations. Certainly forces beyond any hope of their successfully resisting.

If King Michael and the RMN leaders were smart, they would quickly surrender. If they were stupid or stubborn, they would fight.

Many of the young men and women Llyn was passing would be aboard the warships Michael would throw against the invaders. How many of them, he wondered, would be dead hours later?

Six years.

Some of these people had just that much longer to live.

But that wasn’t Llyn’s problem. Ultimately, their fate was in the hands of their leaders.

He hoped those leaders would make the smart decision.

“I apologize for the quality of this recording,” Commodore Henderson said as he slipped a data chip into the slot on the display. “They were barely able to get it aboard Soleil Azur before she left Haven. In fact, I believe she’d already left orbit and they had to transmit it to her via com laser instead of packing it in with the rest of the pirate data. We’ve had a couple of days to run it through the scrubbers, but unfortunately this is probably about the best we’re going to get.”

Lisa felt a flicker of anticipation. Had they actually found evidence of pirate activity in the region?

She hoped so. It would certainly shut up doubters like Chancellor Breakwater.

A second later, her brain caught up with that first reflexive thought. She was hoping some helpless merchant ship had been hit and robbed?

The display lit up.

But it wasn’t the list of data or fuzzy sensor readings that she’d expected. It was, instead, an overhead view of a small room.

No, not a room. A prison cell.

She caught her breath. The image was a bit fuzzy, but it was clear enough for her to easily recognize the man lying on the bed against the far wall. It was one of the handful of pirates that the Marines had captured at Secour.

She shot a look at Henderson, who nodded. “That’s Mota,” she identified the figure for Captain Marcello. “One of the survivors of the Secour pirate attack.”

“Exactly,” Henderson said. “And the only one of their bridge personnel we took alive.”

“Yes, I recognize him from the reports,” Marcello said. “Who’s that with him?”

Lisa frowned. With her full attention on Mota, she hadn’t even noticed the hint of another figure at the very edge of the field.

Not that there was much to see. The camera was nearly on top of him, and his back was to it, leaving his face hidden. His hair was a medium-length and somewhat tousled blond, with one ear and the right side of his neck the only other body parts in view. The corner of a mustache was visible, and at the base of the neck she could see was what seemed to be the top of some sort of uniform collar.

“The Havenites have no idea,” Henderson said. “That’s a prison guard’s uniform he’s wearing, taken from one of the men who was on duty that night.”

“Without the guard’s permission, I assume?”

“Without permission or even a memory,” Henderson said grimly. “Whatever the intruder used to knock him out, it also erased the section of memory leading up to the attack.”

“The prison doesn’t have security cameras?”

“Lots of them,” Henderson said. “All the recordings were erased. Apparently, he loaded a worm program into the system that first allowed him entry into this restricted area and then erased the recordings of the whole period when he was there.”

On the display, Mota gasped, his whole body stiffening. The figure by the camera moved forward, pulling a light plastic chair with him. Positioning it by Mota’s head, he sat down.

And as he turned, Lisa finally saw his face.

Her first reaction was a twinge of disappointment. Somehow, she’d expected that a man who’d broken into—and apparently then out of—a maximum security prison would look the part: steely-eyed, square-jawed, ruggedly handsome, perhaps with a scar he’d decided to keep as a memento of some former job.

Her second reaction was embarrassment that she’d even thought along such lines. The best master criminals, after all, should look as bland and completely commonplace as possible.

In which case, the man leaning over Mota was about as good a master criminal as she was ever likely to see. Aside from the mustache and blond hair his profile was as unremarkable as she could imagine: dark eyes, average nose, smooth skin, and no scars at all. He might be a little shorter than average—it was hard to tell with him sitting down.

“Hello, Mota,” the man said softly. His voice was as nondescript as the rest of him. “I’m going to ask you a few questions. You’re going to answer them. All right?”

“All right,” Mota said, his voice vague and distant.

“Drugged?” Marcello murmured.

“To the eyeballs,” Henderson confirmed.

“Your chief, Guzarwan, contracted with someone to steal a pair of Havenite ships at Secour,” the intruder said. “Who was with him when he made that deal?”

“Vachali,” Mota said. “Shora. Dhotrumi.”

“No one else?”


The image abruptly jumped, wavered violently, then settled down. “—refer to during your preparations for the job?”

“They talked about Secour,” Mota said. “Ueshiba. Haven. Casca.”

“Were all of those conversations and references related to the job?”


The interrogator nodded. “What odd or off-handed comments did any of these men—”

Abruptly, the image dissolved into snow. “Is there anything else?” Marcello prompted after a few seconds of the static.

“There’s one more piece,” Henderson said. “I’m leaving it running just so you’ll see how little time is actually spent in his interrogation before—”

As abruptly as it had arrived, the snow vanished. Mota was now lying back on the bed, his eyes closed. The visitor turned toward the camera, an eerie, self-satisfied smile on his face, and disappeared from view as he left the cell. The cell door closed behind him, and for several seconds they watched Mota sleep. Then, suddenly, his eyes popped open once more, his entire body convulsed, arching sharply before it went abruptly and totally limp. This time, his eyes stayed open, staring sightlessly into infinity, and Lisa swallowed hard. The imagery lasted perhaps another thirty seconds, then vanished again into snow.

“And that’s all we’ve got,” Henderson said somberly as he ran the record back to the last view of the murderer. “The techs were able to salvage this much—the cover note Haven attached said they used a back-scrub something or other—but couldn’t get anything more before Soleil Azur left.”

“Of course, that was nearly a year ago,” another voice came from the back of the room. “They may have more of it by now.”

Lisa shifted in her chair to look behind her. The man who’d spoken was middle-aged, wearing civilian clothing. He wasn’t part of the group that had been with Henderson’s welcoming committee a few minutes ago.

“And you are?” Marcello prompted.

“Sorry,” Henderson apologized. “I meant to introduce you when he came in. This is Professor Cushing, head of our Military Intelligence and Decryption department.”

“Really,” Marcello said, sounding interested. “You have a full department? I’m impressed.”

“Don’t be,” Cushing assured him. “It’s all of four people, and most of us work there part time. Our main job is to analyze the pirate data that comes in via freighter from you and Haven.” He nodded toward the display. “Since this came in along with the Haven data, we caught it along with the regular stuff. I’m hoping more of the recording will be forthcoming.”

“I doubt it’ll show anything more,” Lisa said.

Cushing smiled. “You must have a low opinion of Havenite technical cleverness.”

“Not at all,” Lisa assured him. “It’s just that if it had been vital that we have it, they could have dispatched a fast courier that would have arrived months ago.”

“She has a point,” Henderson said. “It also follows that they haven’t been able to identify the intruder, either.” He looked at Lisa. “Which brings us to you, Commander. Of everyone currently on Casca, you were the one who had the most contact with the pirates, both the ones who died there and the handful who were taken alive.” He tapped the edge of the display, and the image of the mystery man he’d frozen there. “Is there anything about him that strikes you as familiar? His face, his voice, his mannerisms?”

“You’re thinking he might be a brother or relative of one of the other pirates?” Marcello asked.

“Exactly,” Henderson said. “Commander?”

Reluctantly, Lisa shook her head. “I’m sorry, Sir, but I don’t see anything at all. Of course, my only real contact with Mota was when our TO asked me to sit in while he questioned him about the missile the pirates had had aboard Wanderer.” A missile the pirates had nearly had an opportunity to use, she remembered with a shiver.

“I know,” Henderson said. “That’s all right. We knew it was a long shot, but as long as you were here anyway, I thought it was worth trying.”

“Nothing from facial recognition, I assume?” Marcello asked.

“Not that the Havenites had found by the time Soleil Azur left,” Cushing said. “We’re running a similar search through our own records, but I’m not expecting us to find anything.” He smiled humorlessly. “Our people don’t get out very much.”

“He must have found what he was looking for, though,” Marcello said. “Otherwise, he should reasonably have started working his way down the rest of the prisoner list, and Haven would have a whole string of bodies to deal with instead of just one.”

“Point,” Henderson said. “Well. Nasty business, but not really our concern, I suppose. If Haven comes up with anything they think we should know they’ll presumably pass it on with the next freighter.” He tapped another key, and the image disappeared. “To a more pleasant topic. I assume, Captain, that you’ve been briefed on the arrangements we’ve made for your people?”

“Yes, Sir,” Marcello said. “We appreciate your generosity.”

“No problem,” Henderson said, waving a hand in casual dismissal. “There’s no reason for everyone to have to go back to Damocles every night when the Hamilton Hotel’s just two blocks from here.” He smiled faintly. “I trust they won’t make me regret Casca’s hospitality?”

“They had better not, Sir,” Marcello said ominously.

“I’m sure they’ll do the Star Kingdom proud,” Henderson said. “Well, then, I think that’s all for now. We’ll be meeting tomorrow morning at oh-nine-hundred for Professor Cushing’s preliminary report on the Havenite data, with a meet-and-greet buffet breakfast starting at oh-seven-hundred. Until then, I hope you’ll take the opportunity to enjoy everything Quechua City has to offer.”

“Until tomorrow, Sir,” Marcello said, standing up.

A minute later the two Manticorans were walking down the street. “And with that,” Marcello commented, “I guess it’s back to more standard Navy business. As soon as everyone from Shuttle One clears the entry procedure, Commander, I’d like you to escort them to the hotel, just to make sure they know where they’re going and what they’re doing. I’ll do the same for Shuttle Two.”

“I can do both shuttles, Sir, if you’d like,” Lisa offered.

“I appreciate the offer, Commander,” Marcello said. “But you heard Commodore Henderson. We’re to enjoy the delights of Quechua City, and I wouldn’t dream of asking you to disregard a superior officer’s order. Not any longer than necessary, anyway.”

“Aye aye, Sir,” Lisa said, putting a formal snap into her tone.

“Good,” Marcello said. “If it makes you feel better, you’ll be in charge of the first drunk the Cascans throw out of one of their bars.”

“Thank you, Sir,” Lisa said, wrinkling her nose. “I can hardly wait.”

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