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The Troft demesne-ship was dark and mostly silent, only the soft rumble of the engines playing about the background, when Jin Moreau Broom suddenly awoke.

For a minute she lay unmoving in her bunk, wondering what had awakened her. She could hear the steady breathing of her husband Paul on the other side of the tiny cabin, the terrible injury that had torn away most of the flesh on his left leg apparently not interfering with his own slumber. Or maybe it was the massive load of pain-killers flowing through his bloodstream that was the source of his untroubled sleep. Jin keyed in her optical enhancers, confirmed that she and Paul were the only two people in the room, then raised the level on her audios.

Paul’s breathing and the rumble of the engines grew louder. Trying to shut them out of her consciousness, Jin listened.

There it was: footsteps coming from somewhere below her. Irregular footsteps, continually changing in both rhythm and intensity.

Frowning, she keyed her audios back down and checked her nanocomputer’s clock circuit. It was three-ten in the morning, an unlikely time for a shift change. Not really the time for any other serious activity, either.

So who was running around at this hour?

She keyed in her infrareds again, studying her husband’s face. He was deeply asleep, with little chance he would wake up soon and need her. Slipping out of bed, she dressed and left the cabin.

They’d lifted from Caelian less than twenty-four hours ago, but Jin had made a point of memorizing the ship’s deck plans as soon as she and Paul were settled into their cabin. From the direction of the sounds, she tentatively concluded they were coming from the engine core area. Working from her memory of the plans, she found the nearest stairway and headed down.

The engine core was a long cylinder at the lowest part of the ship, bracketed by a pair of narrow, four-meter-high access corridors that doubled as heat-flow mixers. Jin arrived at the catwalk grid running above the starboard corridor and looked down.

In the narrow passageway below her were two of the Qasaman Djinn warriors, Carsh Zoshak and his commander Siraj Akim. Both men were dressed in their powered combat suits, complete with gloves and soft helmets. As Jin watched, Siraj leaped upward, twisting sideways and firing a short burst from the laser that ran along his left forearm to his glove’s little finger, targeting a bundle of empty ration cans that had been placed against the far wall. At the same time, Zoshak dived to the floor beneath him, sliding for a meter on his stomach and firing a burst of his own into a similar package at the opposite end of the passageway. As he slid to a halt he rolled over onto his back, kicked his legs up over his head in a somersault, and ended up facing the opposite direction just as Siraj landed back on the floor in front of him. Over the engine hum Jin heard a triple tongue cluck, and Siraj dropped flat onto the floor in time to get clear as Zoshak fired another shot over his back.

“One of these days,” a soft voice murmured from Jin’s left, “one of them is going to miss.”

Jin turned. Her younger son Lorne was sitting on a thick heat-exchange return pipe, gazing at the activity below them. “I would hope they’ve cranked their lasers down to some kind of practice mode,” she said.

“I’d hope that, too,” Lorne agreed. “But from the damage they’re doing to those cans, I’d say they’re still set high enough to hurt. A lot.”

Jin grimaced. Knowing the Qasamans, Lorne was probably right. “How long have they been here?”

“I don’t know,” Lorne said. “They were already hard at it ten minutes ago when I arrived.” He gestured. “They also haven’t started repeating themselves yet.”

We certainly have more than ten minutes’ worth of drills,” Jin pointed out. “I can’t see Djinni training being any less rigorous than ours was.”

“Probably not,” Lorne murmured. “I wonder what they’re going to do when they get to combine the two regimens.”

Jin looked sideways at her son. “You having second thoughts about this?”

Lorne sighed. “I don’t know, Mom. Nissa Gendreves was right, you know. Technically, what we’re doing is treason.”

“No technically about it,” Jin agreed soberly. If there was any single secret the Dome politicians back on Aventine would fight to the death for, it was the Cobra technology.

And now she, her son, and her husband were on their way to Qasama to hand over that technology to people they barely knew.

People, moreover, who’d once sworn to destroy the Cobra Worlds.

And not just any Cobra technology, either. Dr. Glas Croi’s fancy Integrated Structural Implantation System represented a giant leap forward in the hundred-year-old Cobra program. With the help of the Troft who called himself Warrior—more properly Ingidi-inhiliziyo—Croi had developed Isis to be a fully automated, fully computerized system for implanting bone laminae, servos, and weapons.

In more basic terms, a self-contained Cobra factory.

Governor General Chintawa had intended to announce the Isis project with all due pomp and ceremony and then set up the prototype in Aventine’s expansion regions, where the need for Cobras was the greatest. Instead, he’d ended up scrambling desperately to get the equipment off Aventine before the Troft invaders could discover it. Croi’s mission had been to get it to Caelian, where it could be hidden away from prying Troft eyes and hands.

Instead, Jin and Paul had talked them into giving the whole thing to the Qasamans.

“Maybe it won’t be as bad as we’re thinking,” Lorne said hesitantly into her thoughts. “Dr. Croi said that when Warrior was collaborating on Isis he wasn’t allowed to study the Cobra equipment itself. Maybe the gear’s sealed somehow.”

“Warrior was working with Isis under strictly controlled conditions,” Jin reminded him. “He was also kept at a distance while the tests were being done. So were the rest of the Tlossies. But the Qasamans will be right there in the middle of it.”

“I meant that maybe the nanocomputers and laminae depositors will be fail-safed so that the Qasamans observing the operation won’t be able to get hold of them,” Lorne said.

Jin shook her head. “If Moffren Omnathi and the Shahni want to get hold of the raw components, they will.”

“I suppose,” Lorne conceded. “From what I’ve heard of the Shahni, they’ll haul one of their own people right off the assembly line and dissect him if they have to.”

Jin felt her throat tighten. Barely two weeks ago, the Shahni had in fact been planning to do essentially that very thing to Jin herself. For all their ingenuity in mimicking Cobra capabilities with their Djinni combat suits, the Qasamans had hit a roadblock when they tried to duplicate the nanocomputer and preprogrammed reflexes that were the core of the whole Cobra project.

They’d wanted Jin’s nanocomputer. She’d made a counter-offer: she and her elder son Merrick would instead go back to Aventine and bring them more Cobras.

But that was before Merrick had been seriously wounded in the Qasamans’ final and successful bid to reclaim their capital city of Sollas and drive the invaders at least temporarily from their world. So badly wounded that it had been impossible for him to accompany Jin back to the Cobra Worlds.

Omnathi had promised that the Qasamans would work to heal her son. He’d further pledged that they would leave Merrick’s implanted Cobra equipment strictly alone.

But while Omnathi was a highly-regarded senior advisor to the Shahni, he wasn’t an actual member of that elite group. Some of those leaders appreciated the work Jin and Merrick had done to help defend their world. But others bitterly resented the fact that the Troft invasion had forced them to work with representatives from the hated Cobra Worlds.

And Jin had no idea which side of that argument was the stronger. Would she arrive at Qasama to find that Merrick had been stripped of his equipment?

Would she arrive to find him dead?

A flicker of pain shot through her head. She fought it back, trying not to let it show in her face. The great, legendary Moreau family, she thought with a touch of bitterness. Merrick’s fate was unknown, Jin’s husband Paul was lying in their cabin with his leg mostly blown away, and Jin herself stood here with a brain tumor that was inoperable by all Cobra Worlds standards.

Not only was the future of a half dozen worlds hanging by a thread, so were the lives of nearly everyone she loved.

“You okay?” Lorne asked.

“I’m fine,” Jin assured him, trying to sound nonchalant.

It was a waste of effort. As a boy, Lorne had had an uncanny ability to sense pain or sickness in his family and close friends, and that skill had only improved with age. “Right,” he said darkly. “Your head again?”

“It’s all right—it’s passed.”

“Right,” Lorne said again, hopping off his seat on the pipe. “Come on—I’m taking you back to your cabin.”

He was reaching for her arm when, with a suddenness that nearly triggered Jin’s programmed evasion reflexes, Zoshak leaped upward and caught the section of catwalk grid beside Jin. He steadied himself, then let go with one hand and fired his glove laser in four carefully aimed bursts at the corner screws that connected his section of mesh to the support rails. Shifting his grip, he pushed up the now released section of catwalk, deftly swung his legs up and through the opening, and landed on top of the next section over. “If you’ll permit me, Lorne Moreau,” he said as he straightened up, “I would be honored to escort Jin Moreau back to her quarters.”

“I appreciate the offer, Carsh Zoshak,” Lorne said, inclining his head. “But I wouldn’t want to take you away from your practice.”

“For the moment, my part of the practice is over,” Zoshak said. “Ifrit Siraj Akim humbly requests that your part begin.”

Lorne frowned. “My part?”

“We seek your advice on narrow-space maneuvering and combat,” Siraj called up from the deck below. “We have several techniques of our own, and would like to show them to you and hear your thoughts. After that, perhaps we could see some of your techniques.”

Lorne looked at Jin. “Mom?”

“It’s fine with me,” Jin said. “Actually, all three of you could get busy with that. I can make it back to my quarters on my own.”

Lorne shook his head. “No,” he said firmly.

“Agreed,” Zoshak said, just as firmly. “And I would request the honor of escorting our ally back to her place of rest.”

Jin felt her stomach tighten. Allies. The Shahni, at least by proxy, had indeed made promises of alliance and cooperation. Harli Uy, temporarily sitting in for his wounded father as governor of Caelian, had accepted those promises and given some reciprocal promises of his own, going so far as to back up his side of the deal by sending two of his own precious Cobras and an equally rare linguist to travel to Qasama with them.

But Harli had no authorization whatsoever to make such a deal. On the contrary, the single genuinely official voice who’d spoken on the matter had vehemently disavowed the entire transaction.

If her family lived through this, Jin thought morosely, they would very likely spend the rest of their lives in an Aventine prison. Or be executed.

But she already had way too many things to worry about to add that one to her list. “Very well,” she said, nodding to Zoshak. “I accept with thanks. Lorne, I’ll see you later. And don’t hurt each other, all right? It’s going to take awhile to get Isis up and running, and we’re going to need all of you in good fighting trim until then.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll play nice,” Lorne said. He looked at Zoshak, still standing on the catwalk, and made a small gesture downward.

For a moment Zoshak frowned. Then his face cleared, and he gave Lorne a short nod. Lorne nodded back.

Without warning, Lorne leaned forward like he was going to fall on his face and shoved himself off into a low dive straight toward Zoshak.

But even as his feet pushed off the floor Zoshak was also in motion, dropping into a crouch and snatching up the section of grid that he’d cut free. Lorne reached the opening, caught the supporting side rails with both hands, and turned his flat leap into a roll-and-drop through toward the deck below. As he fell he spun a hundred-eighty degrees and landed on his feet a meter away from Siraj.

“Impressive,” Zoshak called down as he returned the section of catwalk to its proper place. “We look forward to seeing what you can teach us.”

“As I’m looking forward to learning your tricks,” Lorne called back up. “Hurry back.”

“I shall.” Zoshak straightened up and offered his arm to Jin. “Shall we go?”

“Thank you,” Jin said, nodding at the catwalk and curling her hands into fingertip-laser firing position. “But first we need to tack that down. Warrior won’t be happy if one of his crewers bumps it loose and falls through. I’ll do these two corners—you take the other two.”

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