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For someone who claimed to be a wrongly ousted head of state, and who supposedly was seeking foreign allies and champions to restore him to power, Llyn mused, General Khetha was proving to be damned hard to find.

The uni-link number listed for the Canaanite Government-in-Exile led to a vague recorded message. The physical address, a modest space on the third floor of a large office building in downtown Quechua City, was closed and had the look of a place that hadn’t been visited in weeks or months.

A backtrack on the address led to another uni-link number. That one didn’t even have a canned message attached, but simply continued to trill without any answer at all.

A gentle probe into the official Cascan governmental information system proved equally useless. Apparently the Cascans’ cultural live and let live philosophy extended to political refugees, even the less than savory ones.

Which, in retrospect, should have been a clue to Llyn as to where to start his search for Mota’s employer in the first place. The kind of person who was willing to hire pirates would likely find an air of official acceptance mixed with a lack of official surveillance irresistible.

Llyn tried going by the Canaanite office twice more, just before noon and again two hours later. Still locked, still apparently empty. He thought about breaking in, but by this time it was clear that there was unlikely to be anything of real interest behind the door.

In fact, it was starting to look like any contact with Khetha would have to come from the Supreme Chosen One himself.

Which was the main point of visiting the office so often. It was as Llyn left the Canaanite office that final time that he’d finally caught their interest enough for them to put a tail on him.

Patience is a virtue. Llyn’s mother had been fond of quoting that one when he was growing up. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. That one had come from his uncle.

Personally, Llyn preferred the advice that had been offered by his controller when he’d first been hired by Axelrod of Terra fifteen T-years ago: Never start something you’re not ready to finish.

Today, it seemed, all three aphorisms were going to come together.

He gave it an hour, mostly for the amusement factor, roaming around the city on foot like a simple visitor to the big city and letting his tails do their job. They were reasonably competent, he saw, swapping out with each other on a regular basis and occasionally switching hats or shirts between shifts to obscure their identities even more. They also knew the city well, utilizing short-cuts and alleys to get ahead of him and even anticipating which shops he might stop to browse at.

For a while Llyn toyed with the idea of intercepting one of them in one of those alleys, which would show his own competence as well as providing the venue for a private chat. But with a man like General Khetha running the show, such a confrontation might quickly turn violent, and that wasn’t the kind of competence Llyn was trying to demonstrate today.

Clearly, a more civilized approach was called for. And so, after leading his tails around for an hour without them making an approach, he found a comfortable bench in one of the city’s expansive parks and used his uni-link to record a message onto a data chip. When he’d finished, he set the chip down on the bench and walked leisurely out of the park and into a restaurant-intensive street.

He was studying one of the window-display menus, trying to decide what sounded good, when his uni-link trilled. He pulled it out and keyed it on. “Yes?”

“What do you want with the Supreme Chosen One?” a harsh voice demanded.

“Oh, hello,” Llyn said calmly. “Good; you got my message. Tell me, is this Tan Shirt or Floppy Hat?”

There was a slight pause. “What?”

“Tan Shirt or Floppy Hat,” Llyn repeated. “Those were your most obvious tags when you first started tailing me. If you’d prefer, I can call you Blue Shirt and Pinstripe. Never mind—I see Blue Shirt behind me, and he’s not on a uni-link, so you must be Pinstripe.”

“You haven’t answered my question,” Pinstripe growled. He was back on balance and sounding more annoyed and suspicious than ever. “Who are you?”

“I thought my message already answered that,” Llyn said. “My name is Noman. I have a deal to offer General Khetha that will—”

“There is no such person,” Pinstripe snapped.

Llyn frowned. “I assure you, I’m very real.”

“I mean this General person,” Pinstripe bit out. “He is the Supreme Chosen One. You will address him as such.”

Llyn sighed. “I have a deal to offer the Supreme Chosen One,” he corrected, “that will return him to Canaan and once again make that title official.”

There was a moment of silence. Probably, Llyn thought, Pinstripe was trying to decide whether or not he should point out that the title was eternal and didn’t need anyone to make it official. “Describe this deal,” he said at last.

“I’ll be happy to,” Llyn said. “But to the Supreme Chosen One. No one else.”

Pinstripe snorted. “You think him a fool?”

“I think him tired of being trapped on a third-rate world in a fourth-rate region of space,” Llyn countered. “And of course I’m not suggesting that he should meet me alone. That would be foolish, for both of us. No, he’s welcome to bring all the guards he wants. But as I said in my message, they need to be people he absolutely trusts.”

“He trusts all those who stand loyally at his side.”

“That’s nice,” Llyn said. “But there’s loyalty, and there’s loyalty. And when finances are involved…well, I don’t expect you to understand. You’re a soldier, and soldiers obey orders without question. But the Supreme Chosen One has dealt with politicians. He’ll understand what I mean.”

There was another pause. “I will pass on your message,” Pinstripe said. “The Supreme Chosen One will then decide.”

“That’s all I ask,” Llyn said. “One other thing. On that data chip you picked up is a hidden file that can be unlocked with the name Khetha. In that file is the combination to a lock box in Quechua City Bank containing blue diamonds worth approximately fifty thousand Cascan sols.”

There was a derisive snort. “You expect his price to be so low?”

“Not at all,” Llyn assured him. “It’s a gift, free and clear, for him to have whether he chooses to meet with me or not. Think of it as earnest money, a down payment on a venture which will yield a vastly more valuable reward for both of us.”

“I will tell him,” Pinstripe said. “If he wishes to continue with this conversation, you will be contacted.”

“Thank you,” Llyn said. “Now, if I may beg one small indulgence?”

Another snort. “Let me guess. You wish us to stop following you?”

“Not at all,” Llyn said. “It’s your day—if you want to spend it walking behind me, knock yourselves out. I just wanted some advice.” He pointed to the window display he was still facing. “The Kung Pao chicken here. Is it any good?”

“Okay,” Electronic Warfare Tech Second Gregor Redko said as he tapped a couple of final keys on the personal Charles Townsend—“Chomps” to his friends and fellow petty officers—had brought down from Damocles. “Should be up in a second. I assume you want to start with the pirate data?”

“Let’s see if we can find a summary first,” Chomps said, glancing reflexively around the room. The two other spacers who’d been assigned to their hotel suite were long gone, headed out into the fleshpots of Quechua City in search of local color, local drinks, and probably local women.

But the sheer audacity of what he and Redko were doing had slathered a thick layer of paranoia onto Chomps’s gut, and he found himself increasingly checking to make sure no one was watching them.

He looked back at the personal just as the scramble of nonsense characters on the display reformed themselves into orderly columns of clear English.

“There you go,” Redko said with satisfaction. “Okay, you wanted a summary. Let’s see…”

“Wait a second,” Chomps said as an item marked with a pair of red stars caught his eye. “That one looks interesting. Can you open it?”

“Probably,” Redko said. “It’s the same encryption the Havenites are using with their other official stuff. Well, mostly the same, anyway. Looks like a video, though. Unless they found some pirates carousing in port, I doubt it’s any of our interest.”

“Probably not,” Chomps agreed. Still, something in his paranoia-infused gut was rumbling at him. “Play it anyway.”

It was indeed a video. But it wasn’t pirates, carousing or otherwise. It was a spotty, glitchy, seriously scrubbed recording from some kind of prison cell.

They watched it all the way through in silence. An increasingly dark, grim silence.

And when it finally ended…

For a long moment the two men just sat in silence, staring at the blank display. Then, Redko stirred in his seat. “Was that what I think it was?” he asked uncertainly. “Did we just see a man die?”

Chomps took a careful breath. “I do believe we did,” he agreed, feeling a deep chill in his stomach.

Which on some level was strange. He’d been in the Royal Manticoran Navy for ten years, during which time he’d lost at least five of his close colleagues to accidents or disease. Not even counting the whole Phobos tragedy and debacle. Death was supposed to be something military men and women were trained to handle.

But seeing someone die when a crane slipped was a horrible, tragic accident. Watching someone slowly slip away on a recording was somehow different.

Especially when the odds were good the man had been murdered. That took things to an entirely different level of horrible.

Worst of all was the killer’s smile. That hollow, hard-edged smile on his face just before he left the field of view.

And that, Chomps realized suddenly, was what was really driving the chill into his gut. The sense of genuine, casual evil coming off that smile.

“So what do we do?” Redko asked.

Chomps rubbed his cheek. When he’d first agreed to do his uncle this favor, it had been a simple data hack-and-grab. Nothing confidential or groundshattering, and certainly nothing the Star Kingdom wouldn’t have anyway in a couple of months when Damocles returned to Manticore.

And this wasn’t their business anyway. This was Havenite governmental and legal business. Nothing to do with Manticore.

On the other hand…

Information on the whole Secour incident had been spotty, at least the stuff that had been released to the general public. But Chomps knew Guardian had been involved, and his old friend Travis Uriah Long had been aboard her at the time. His part had undoubtedly been minimal, of course, given he was only a petty officer third class at the time.

Or maybe it hadn’t. While his name hadn’t shown up anywhere in the official report, it was shortly after Secour that Long was suddenly plucked from the ranks of petty officers and dropped into OCS. Someone must have been impressed enough with him to have engineered that.

And now, one of the pirates from that incident had been murdered. Travis might like to know what had happened.

With luck, he’d be interested enough to trade what Chomps knew for a few details of his own about the Secour thing. “Let’s start with the spaceport records,” he told Redko. “We can get into those, right?”

“Probably,” Redko said cautiously. “Uh…”

“And we’ll want to see if there’s more information in the Havenite mail packet,” Chomps continued before Redko could assemble the words for a proper objection. “We can download everything, right?”

“I—we can get most of it, probably,” Redko said, and Chomps could hear the rising level of discomfort in his voice. “But we were only supposed to get the pirate data. This is…not that.”

“I know,” Chomps assured him. “Oh, come on, Reddy. Where’s your spirit of adventure?”

“Walking three steps behind my spirit of not wanting to get court-martialed,” Redko countered.

“Fine,” Chomps said. “You can go. Just leave me the personal.”

Redko hissed out a frustrated sigh. “Like you have the first idea how to really do this,” he said in a resigned tone. “Fine. Just remember, you owe me.”

“Don’t worry,” Chomps said grimly. “I doubt either of us is ever going to forget anything that happens today.” Especially, he added silently, the killer’s smile as he walked away from his crime. “Come on—let’s pull that data before someone spots the hack.”

Llyn had finished his Kung Pao chicken and was looking over his city map when his uni-link again trilled.

It was Pinstripe. “The Supreme Chosen One has agreed to see you,” he said without preamble. “Be at the corner of Fourteenth and Castillon at seven o’clock tomorrow morning. You’ll be transported from there to the place of meeting.”

“Excellent,” Llyn said, impressed in spite of himself. That was quick work for a measly fifty thousand in bribe money. The Canaanite Government-in-Exile was possibly draining its funds faster than he’d realized. That could be a good sign, or a very good sign. “Please thank the Supreme Chosen One for his generosity. I trust you made it clear that he needed to bring only his most trusted people?”

“The Supreme Chosen One neither needs nor appreciates the unnecessary repetition of words,” Pinstripe growled. “Fourteenth and Castillon, seven o’clock.”

“I’ll be there,” Llyn said, resisting the urge to point out that that, too, was an unnecessary repetition of words.

The uni-link went dead.

With a sigh, Llyn put the uni-link away. Khetha wouldn’t be at that corner, of course. Nor would he be in the vehicle they sent. No, they would put Llyn in a car or van and drive him to some secret, undisclosed location where the Supreme Chosen One would be waiting. They would have their talk, and then Llyn would be bundled back into the vehicle for the ride back. Depending on how eager Khetha was, or how clever he thought he was, the trip could be short or could be unnecessarily long.

Because despite having the entirety of the planet to lose himself in, Khetha wasn’t hundreds of kilometers away from Quechua City. In fact, he probably wasn’t even skulking on the outskirts or in the suburbs. He would want to be close to the communication, business, and political center of Casca. More importantly, he’d want quick access to a shuttle that could get him off-planet and to whatever ship he surely had stashed out there.

No, he was right here in the center of town. Possibly within sight of the restaurant where Llyn was currently sitting.

Paranoid people were so predictable.

Not that paranoia would do Khetha any good. By this time tomorrow, no matter how cautiously he played the game, Llyn would have the information he’d come all the way out to the Haven Sector to obtain.

And the Supreme Chosen One would be dead.

According to the city map, there was a shop two blocks away that sold handmade formal-wear scarves. Collecting his things, making sure to leave a good tip with his payment, he headed back out into the sunshine.

The evening was still young, and so far the men and women of HMS Damocles seemed to be behaving themselves.

So far.

Letting her gaze drift across the crowded Hamilton Hotel ballroom, listening to the buzz of conversation and jumping a bit with every slightly raucous laugh, Lisa sent a silent prayer skyward that they would continue to do so. The party, which was theoretically supposed to be more or less confined to the hotel, had already spilled out into the streets, a development which the Cascans’ live-and-let-live philosophy seemed perfectly fine with.

Still, spacers were spacers, they’d been in space a long time, and the last thing Lisa wanted was for the Navy to earn a bad reputation with their Cascan hosts on their very first night off the ship.

Tomorrow things would be different. Tomorrow it would be back to business, with the start of an intensive regimen of meetings and cultural events. The Manticoran and Cascan officers and spacers would be visiting each others’ ships, with plenty of time allotted for talking shop and the exchange of procedural and operational suggestions. Later in the month there would be some tourist trips planned, with the locals no doubt hoping the Manticorans would boost their individual slices of the economy along the way.

But tonight was the first night of shore leave, and their CDF hosts had insisted on throwing a party.

There was a movement from her side, and Lisa looked up as Commander Shiflett sat down in the next seat. “TO,” the Damocles’s XO greeted her. “Aren’t you supposed to be down the street at Commodore Henderson’s little get-together?”

“I was there half an hour ago, Ma’am,” Lisa said. “I was given to understand it was a casual drop-in, drop-out affair.”

“Theoretically, yes,” Shiflett said in a tone that suggested she didn’t entirely agree with that assessment. “I think the captain would appreciate it if you spent a little more time there.” She nodded toward the mass of spacers and petty officers filling the room. “Not, shall we say, slumming.”

Lisa winced. Shiflett was a cousin to one of the Peers—Lisa forgot which one, exactly—and she had a definite Peerage slant to her ideas of how Navy officers should behave. As well as who she thought they should behave with. “I wanted to make sure things were going smoothly, Ma’am,” she said in explanation.

“Very commendable,” Shiflett said. “But that’s what petty officers are for.”

“I understand, Ma’am,” Lisa said. “But the captain gave me responsibility—”

She broke off as one of the faces across the room suddenly seemed to jump out at her. Plain, average, topped by a neat flow of short blond hair…

An instant later, the face registered: Coxswain Second Class Plover. Definitely not the murderer from the Havenite recording.


“Sorry, Ma’am,” Lisa apologized. “I thought I saw something.”

And instantly felt like an idiot. Because there was no way the murderer could have gotten from Haven to Casca this quickly. Not unless he’d had a fast courier standing by at his beck and call.

Or had been aboard Soleil Azur herself.

Lisa frowned. He hadn’t been aboard Soleil Azur, had he? Surely someone had checked on that.

Hadn’t they?

“Sorry, Ma’am,” Lisa said again. “You’re right. I should go back.”

“Good,” Shiflett said. “Let’s go.”

The lounge that Commodore Henderson had set up for the senior officers’ get-together was more elegant, more refined, and far quieter than the bash going on down the street. Lisa found Captain Marcello near one of the buffet tables, chatting with Commodore Henderson, each man holding a glass of some fragrant wine. “There you are,” Marcello greeted Lisa as she came up. “We were just wondering where you’d gotten to.”

“I was checking on the spacers’ party going on down the street,” Lisa said. “Commodore, this is probably a silly question, but someone did check Soleil Azur’s crew and passenger lists to make sure Mota’s murderer wasn’t aboard, right?”

“I’m sure they did,” Henderson assured her. His smile seemed to go a little more brittle. “On the other hand, empires have risen and fallen because someone was sure something crucial had been done.” He craned his neck, looking around the room. “Come on—I see Commissioner Peirola over there. He’s head of the Department of Ports and Customs.”

Commissioner Peirola was a short, plump man, the sort who clearly loved the good life and didn’t care who knew it. He was standing in the middle of a small circle of officers, some from Damocles, others wearing Cascan Defense Force uniforms, his arms waving expansively yet without spilling so much as a drop from his glass. As Lisa and the others approached she discovered he was discoursing on the joys of imported wines. A stray and probably unfair thought flicked across Lisa’s mind: that Peirola had taken the post of customs chief mainly so that he would have first crack at any delicacies that might arrive at the Quechua City spaceport.

“Of course they were all checked,” he huffed after Henderson finally found an opening in the monologue to ask his question. “Standard procedure, my dear sir. Not to mention plain common sense.”

“Of course,” Henderson said. “You wouldn’t mind checking again, would you? Just to set our minds at ease.”

Peirola gave a theatrical sigh. “This is supposed to be a party, you know. But I suppose our brave men and women in uniform never rest. Come—my tablet’s over with my coat.”

Still holding his glass, he led them to the cloak room and pulled a compact tablet from one of the coat pockets. He dithered a moment, then carefully set the glass on top of the hat ledge and turned on the tablet. A quick punching in of password and access codes—

“All right,” he said, turning the tablet around for the others to see. “Here are the crew photos…here are the passengers. Whose file do you want me to pull up?”

“Commander?” Henderson invited.

Lisa scowled, again feeling like an idiot. None of the faces on Peirola’s tablet looked like the killer on the prison recording. “None of them, Sir,” she said. “Sorry. It was an odd thought.”

“That’s all right.” Henderson gestured to Peirola. “Thank you, Commissioner.”

“No problem,” Peirola said. He turned the tablet back toward him, reached for the power switch.

And paused, a sudden frown creasing his forehead. “Commissioner?” Henderson asked.

“A moment, Commodore,” Peirola said, still frowning. “It looks like someone’s been into the packet the Soleil Azur brought in last week.”

“Someone who?” Henderson asked.

“Someone whose call mark I don’t recognize,” Peirola said. “Someone…no. Someone who hasn’t got a legitimate call mark.”

“You saying you’ve been hacked?” Marcello asked.

“Unless someone’s changed their call mark,” Peirola said, still studying the tablet.

Lisa and Marcello exchanged glances. “And this doesn’t worry you?” Marcello persisted.

Peirola shrugged. “Not really. A fair amount of the data in the packet is public record—news from Haven, the League, and elsewhere. We don’t charge for most of that, you know. Or maybe you didn’t. As for personal notes and business transactions, well, it’s up to the parties involved to encrypt that properly, and most of them have done so.”

“What about the pirate data?” Lisa asked.

“That’s in with the government data, which are the most heavily encrypted files in the lot,” Peirola said. “I shouldn’t have to tell you that—I presume you have the same key as we do.”

“I don’t think that’s what Commander Donnelly was asking,” Marcello said. “I believe she was wondering if those files had also been hacked.”

“Oh.” Peirola peered at Lisa a moment, then returned his attention to his tablet. “Let me see…yes, I believe they were. In fact, it looks like those were the first group of files that were tapped into.”

“Including the video?” Lisa asked.

“There’s a video?” Peirola asked, looking up again. “They caught some pirates on a video?”

“Not exactly,” Marcello said. “Can you see what else they got?”

“I don’t know that they got anything,” Peirola said, a little testily. “All I can tell is that they got in. I can’t tell from here whether anything in there was copied.”

“Then you’d best go someplace where you can, hadn’t you?” Henderson said.

“Really, Commodore, I don’t think it’s that serious,” Peirola protested. “Just because someone got past the firewalls and copied some files doesn’t mean they’ll be able to access them. The encryptions are unbreakable—trust me. They’re not going to be able to get anything critical.”

“How do you know?” Henderson countered. “I hardly think our hacker is just someone who’s impatient to get their mail. This needs to be looked into. As in, now.”

Peirola sighed. But he clearly knew the discussion was over. “Very well, Commodore.” He threw a last, longing look at his wine glass, then tucked his coat under his arm and hurried through the sea of uniforms toward the exit.

“Anything we can do?” Marcello asked.

“I don’t think so,” Henderson said, his eyes following Peirola across the room. “Peirola’s right about the encryption—aside from the public information like news bulletins most everything in a mail packet is going to be unreadable.”

“Unless the hacker already has the decryption code.”

“True,” Henderson conceded. “Either way, it looks like there’s some critical timing involved here. Otherwise, why not wait until the particular message file of interest was delivered and grab it then?”

“Hasn’t everything been delivered already?” Marcello asked, frowning. “It’s been a week since it arrived, hasn’t it?”

“Your question implies a much more efficient mail system than we have here,” Henderson said. “Most of the files are delivered within a couple of hours, but there have been cases where something got hung up in the system for a couple of days. Bureaucratic or computer problem—I don’t know which. We get so few mail deliveries in a typical year that apparently no one’s had enough incentive to fix it. There’s also a will-call option for people who want a message left in the central clearinghouse until they use their passcode to retrieve it.”

“Odd arrangement,” Marcello rumbled. “Why not just collect it and just read it later?”

“There are a few reasons,” Henderson said. “The legitimate ones usually involve business transactions where both parties want to see the message or data at the same time, and in each other’s presence. The less-than-legitimate ones are criminal groups who don’t want a fixed address that can be tracked.”

“A question, Sir?” Lisa spoke up. “Is it possible that the hacker didn’t go in to find something, but to delete something?”

Henderson huffed out a breath. “Wouldn’t that be cute?”

“You still wondering about the passengers or crew?” Marcello asked.

“Or else something in the pirate data,” Lisa said.

“Well, that one, at least, we can check,” Henderson said. “We copied those files over as soon as Soleil Azur arrived in the system. A simple check will show whether there’s any difference between our copy and the original.”

He squared his shoulders. “In fact, I think I’ll go over to my office and do that right now. Captain Marcello, Commander Donnelly; please enjoy the rest of the evening.”

He headed off in Peirola’s wake. “I think, TO,” Marcello commented, “that our mail-pickup duty just got interesting.”

“Yes, Sir,” Lisa said. “Orders, Sir?”

Marcello pursed his lips. “Just a suggestion that you follow Henderson’s suggestion and enjoy the evening,” he said. “I’m guessing that starting tomorrow we’re going to be joining the Cascans on a snipe hunt.”

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