Back | Next


by David Weber

"Miss Owens is here, High Admiral."

High Admiral Wesley Matthews looked up at his yeoman's announcement, then rose behind his desk as the slender, shapely, brunette midshipwoman in the sky-blue tunic and dark-blue trousers of the Grayson Space Navy stepped past the yeoman into his office. She was tall for a Grayson—over a hundred and sixty-seven centimeters—and she carried herself with an innate grace.

She also, he noticed, had excellent control of her expression. If he hadn't been looking for it carefully, he would never have noticed the flash of irritation in her gray-blue eyes at the way Chief Lewiston had announced her. There was another flicker of emotion as he stood up, and he wondered if she was irritated about that, as well. If she was, he conceded, she might have a point. The uniformed commander in chief of the GSN was not really in the habit of standing to greet a lowly midshipwoman when she reported to his office.

Then again, he'd never greeted any Grayson midshipwoman in his office under any circumstances before today.

"Midshipwoman Abigail Hearns, reporting as ordered, Sir!" she said crisply, bracing sharply to attention with her visored cap clasped under her left elbow.

"Stand easy, Miss—er, Ms. Hearns," he said, and suppressed an urge to grimace as he started to make exactly the same mistake the yeoman had.

There might have been an ever so slight trace of amusement underneath her eyes' irritation this time as she obeyed his order. It was impossible to be certain, but Matthews wouldn't have been at all surprised. Abigail Hearns looked absurdly young to Grayson eyes, for she was a member of the very first Grayson generation to have received the prolong therapies. For that matter, at just over twenty-two T-years, she really was a mere babe in arms to someone the high admiral's age. But despite her youth, she possessed an air of maturity and assurance he was more accustomed to seeing in people twice her age. Which made sense, he supposed, given who and what she was.

He pointed at one of the chairs facing his desk.

"Sit," he said, and she obeyed with economic grace, setting her cap precisely in her lap and sitting with her feet close together and a spine so straight it never touched the chair back at all.

Matthews resumed his own seat and considered her thoughtfully across his desk. Intellectually, he was delighted to see her in the Navy's uniform; emotionally, he had his doubts about the entire business.

"I'm sorry to have taken you away from your leave," he said after a moment. "I know you haven't seen much of your parents over the last three years, and I know you're only home for a few days before reporting back. But there are a few points I feel we ought to discuss before you board ship for your midshipman's cruise."

She said nothing, only gazing at him with alert respect, and he tipped his chair back slightly.

"I realize that you're in a somewhat awkward position as Grayson's very first midshipwoman," he told her. "I'm sure you realized going in that you would be, just as you realized you were going to be under a microscope the entire time you were at Saganami Island. I'm pleased to say that your performance there was all anyone could have asked of you. Fourteenth in your class overall, and sixth in the tactical curriculum." He nodded approvingly. "I expected you to do well, Ms. Hearns. I'm gratified that you exceeded those expectations."

"Thank you, Sir," she said in a soft contralto when he paused.

"It's no more than the truth," he assured her. "On the other hand, that intense scrutiny isn't going to stop now just because your classroom studies are behind you." He regarded her levelly. "However much you may want to be just one more midshipwoman or one more junior officer, Ms. Hearns, it's not going to be that way. You do realize that, don't you?"

"I suppose, to a certain extent, that's inevitable, Sir," she replied. "But I assure you that I neither expect nor desire preferential treatment."

"I'm perfectly—one might almost say painfully—well aware of that," he said. "Unfortunately, I expect some people are going to insist on trying to show you preferential treatment, whatever you want. You are a steadholder's daughter, after all, and I'm afraid patronage and steadholder privilege are still very much a part of Grayson life. Some people are going to find your birth impossible to forget. And, frankly, other people aren't even going to try. Some of them, in fact, will be too busy trying to curry favor with your father to ever so much as consider whether or not he—or you—want them to."

Those gray-blue eyes flashed once more, but he continued in that same calm voice.

"Personally, I intend to do everything possible to disabuse them of the notion that you might. You've certainly demonstrated to my satisfaction that you genuinely don't want any special treatment, and I respect that."

And, he added silently, even if you hadn't demonstrated it, your father made it crystal clear to me when he requested the appointment to Saganami Island for you. I don't think he had a clue why you wanted to go, but however bewildered he may have been, he made his support for your decision abundantly clear.

"It's going to happen, anyway, of course." He shrugged. "It's an imperfect universe, and people will insist on being people, warts and all, no matter what we do. However, it wasn't the possibility of preferential treatment that I was getting at.

"You're going to be the very first Grayson-born female officer in history. For a thousand years, no Grayson woman has ever served in the military. I happen to agree that it's time that we put that particular tradition behind us, but there's an enormous amount riding on how well you perform. And, to be honest, your birth only makes that even more the case. As a steadholder's daughter, you will be held, rightly or wrongly, to a higher standard than those of humbler birth might be, and our . . . uncertainty over the entire notion of women in uniform will only underline that expectation for those who hold it. At the same time some of our people will continue to doubt that any Grayson-born woman can perform up to standard, however well you actually do. That's not fair, either. And given the fact that we've had female Manticoran officers serving as 'loaners' with us for the better part of fifteen years, now, it's downright silly, too. We've had ample evidence of how well women can perform as both officers and enlisted personnel, regardless of their birth. I suppose it's just our ingrained stubbornness that keeps us from making the conceptual leap from Manticoran women to Grayson women.

"Whatever the cause, though, you're going to find yourself serving with people whose expectations are so high not even a superwoman could meet them. And, conversely, with people who would love to see you fail miserably in order to validate their own prejudices and bigotry. And," he admitted with a wry grin, "all of us are probably going to be a bit awkward about adjusting to the reality you represent."

Despite herself, Abigail's lips twitched, as if to return his smile. But then his grin faded, and he shook his head.

"I'm sure you were already aware of all of that. What you probably never contemplated at the time you first entered the Academy was the extent to which interstellar events would conspire to make things even worse. As it is, all of us have to consider exactly that—thus your orders to report to me for this little chat. And, just for the record, what I'm about to say to you stays in this office, Ms. Hearns. Is that understood?"

"Of course, Sir!"

"Good." He rocked his chair back and forth a couple of times and pursed his lips as he considered his next words carefully.

"I doubt very much," he began after a moment, "that someone with your family background could possibly have spent the last three and a half years on Manticore without realizing just how . . . strained our relationship with the Star Kingdom has become since the cease-fire went into effect. I'm not going to put you on the spot by asking you to comment on the causes of that strain. Given the situation, however, I find myself forced to explain certain concerns to you, and doing that is going to require me to comment on certain events—and individuals—with an unusually brutal degree of frankness."

One of Abigail's eyebrows arched ever so slightly. Aside from that, it might have been a statue in the chair in front of his desk.

"The High Ridge Government's actions since Duke Cromarty's assassination have created an enormous degree of anger and ill will here at Yeltsin's Star," he said flatly. "Prime Minister High Ridge's unilateral acceptance of the cease-fire when we were on the brink of outright military victory angered many members of the Manticoran Alliance, but probably we were the angriest of all, with Erewhon coming in second. That would have been bad enough, but since then, his concentration on the Star Kingdom's domestic political concerns rather than on turning the cease-fire into a permanent peace treaty has made it still worse for all of Manticore's allies. And, of course, in our own case, the fashion in which he and his political associates have insulted and vilified Lady Harrington has only pumped hydrogen into the fire.

"At the moment, I can't think of a single segment of Grayson public opinion which isn't . . . irritated with Manticore for one reason or another. Lady Harrington's partisans are furious for obvious reasons, but High Ridge has managed to make her political enemies every bit as angry with him for reasons of their own. They feel that his conduct of what passes for 'diplomacy' validates every reason they've ever put forward for disassociating ourselves from the Star Kingdom, and, frankly, there are times I actually find myself tempted to agree with them. From the perspective of my own office, however, the military policy his government has elected to pursue, particularly in conjunction with his diplomatic policy, puts every other concern into the shade.

"Sir Edward Janecek is . . . not the ideal choice for First Lord of the Manticoran Admiralty," the high admiral said. "I realize that my saying this puts you in something of an uncomfortable position, given the fact that you're currently in the Royal Manticoran Navy's chain of command, but not to mince words, Janecek is arrogant, bigoted, vengeful, and stupid."

He watched her face carefully, but her expression never flickered.

"From High Ridge's viewpoint, Janacek is also the perfect choice for his current position, as his willingness to downsize the RMN so drastically at this point in time demonstrates. Others of his policies are creating their own problems for us and for our relationship with the Star Kingdom, but I'm not going to burden you with all of my concerns. The specific points you need to be aware of are first, that he's committed to reducing the Royal Navy's strength at a time when he ought to be increasing it. Second, that he doesn't like or trust us or our navy any more than we like or trust him. Third, that he thinks all Graysons are neobarbarian, unthinking religious fanatics. And, fourth, that he has a bitter personal enmity for Steadholder Harrington.

"To be perfectly honest, I strongly considered specifically requesting that you be permitted to make your midshipman's cruise aboard a Grayson ship, rather than a unit of the Royal Navy. In fact, I did very quietly arrange for several of your Grayson classmates to do just that. You, on the other hand, are too visible, both in your own right and as someone who is seen, rightly or wrongly, as Lady Harrington's protégée. I couldn't have arranged it 'quietly' in your case, however hard I tried. And making an official request would have offered far too much ammunition to everyone who's already angry at the Star Kingdom.

"Unfortunately, this was something of a no-win situation. If I requested 'preferential treatment' for you by having you make your middy cruise aboard a Grayson ship, I risked aggravating everyone—Manticoran, as well as Grayson—by emphasizing the strain between our two navies. But if I didn't get you reassigned to a Grayson ship, I left you in a very awkward position, one with the potential to turn out even worse than requesting your reassignment might have.

"With the reductions in the Royal Navy's ship strength, the competition for the remaining commands has become particularly fierce. At the same time, a great many Manticoran officers have been reduced to half-pay status because of their differences with the Janecek Admiralty—or, for that matter, have voluntarily gone onto the inactive list rather than serve under him. Coupled with Janecek's preference for putting officers who support his policies into the command slots available, the removal of the officers who don't support them from active-duty means that an increasing percentage of the Star Kingdom's current starship captains aren't what you might call huge fans of the GSN.

"All of which means that by not requesting your assignment to a Grayson ship's midshipman's berth I accepted the risk that you might be assigned to a ship whose captain shared Janecek's and High Ridge's attitudes. I hoped that it wouldn't work out that way. Unfortunately, it looks like my hopes have been disappointed."

Somehow, without actually moving a muscle, Abigail seemed to stiffen in her chair.

"Officially, the assignments for midshipmen haven't been released yet, but we still have a few contacts within the Royal Navy. Because of that, I know that you've been assigned to the heavy cruiser Gauntlet. She's one of the newest Edward Saganami-class ships, and her CO is Captain (junior-grade) Michael Oversteegen."

He paused once more, and she frowned.

"I don't believe I'm familiar with the name, High Admiral," she said.

"We don't know as much about him as I wish we did," Matthews admitted. "What we do know is that he's young for his rank, that he's fourth in the line of succession to the Barony of Greater Windcombe, that he was promoted from commander out of the zone after Janecek selected Admiral Draskovic as Fifth Space Lord, that he's a junior-grade captain in what ought to be a captain of the list's command . . . and that his mother is Baron High Ridge's second cousin."

Abigail's nostrils flared, and Matthews grimaced.

"It's entirely possible I'm doing him a disservice, Ms. Hearns. But I'm inclined to doubt it given that pedigree and the preferential treatment he appears to be receiving from the current Admiralty. And if he is Janecek's man, then it's entirely possible that you're going to find yourself even more directly in the crossfire than you otherwise might have."

He sighed and shook his head.

"To be honest, I wish now that I'd gone ahead and insisted that you be assigned to one of our own vessels. No doubt that would have been awkward enough for you, since a crew full of Graysons would never have been able to forget that you're a steadholder's daughter. But at least it would have avoided something like this. And at least I could have been confident that you would have had superiors looking out for you rather than have to worry about superiors who may actually want you to fail. And, for that matter, it might have let you slip into the full rigors of shipboard life in an environment closer to one you'd be comfortable in.

"But what I wish I'd done is beside the point now. Requesting a change at this late date could only make things worse. Which means, Ms. Hearns, that I'm very much afraid that your middy cruise is going to be even more stressful than the norm. I don't like putting you in that position, and I wouldn't if I could see any way to avoid it. Since I can't, all I can do is remind you that you will be the first Grayson-born woman ever sworn into the service of the Sword, and that you wouldn't be, regardless of birth, if you hadn't proven that you deserved to be."


HMS Hephaestus wasn't as busy these days.

Everyone knew that, Abigail reflected. The Janecek build-down had slowed the Royal Manticoran Navy's pace everywhere, even here, aboard the RMN's premier orbital shipyard. But if that was the case, it certainly wasn't apparent as she made her way down the space dock gallery to HMS Gauntlet's berth.

At least she'd never suffered from any of the anxiety or discomfort some of her Manticoran classmates at Saganami Island had seemed to experience in artificial environments. A child of Grayson grew up surrounded by environmental hazards which, in their own way, were far more dangerous than those that might have been experienced aboard an orbital habitat. Indeed, Abigail's problems at Saganami had been almost exactly the opposite. She'd been acutely uncomfortable, at first, when she found herself outside on windy days. Those were the sorts of conditions which kicked up atmospheric dust, and Grayson's high concentrations of heavy metals made dusty days dangerous.

Still, there was an enormous degree of difference between conditions here on Hephaestus and those which had obtained in Owens House. The swirling mass of bodies crowded far more densely together than would ever have been permitted back home. On the other hand, she conceded, the fact that the family's sections of Owens House had been spacious and uncrowded didn't necessarily mean the servants' quarters had been the same way.

She dodged a counter-grav come-along towing a long train of floating freight canisters. It required some fast footwork; the come-along's driver had strayed out of the inboard-bound tow lane, and she almost didn't see him coming in time. The tether for her counter-grav locker tried to wrap itself around her right ankle as she twisted out of the way, but he didn't slow down or even look back. She supposed it was possible that he'd never noticed her at all, but she couldn't quite keep herself from wondering if he'd seen her perfectly . . . and recognized her Grayson uniform.

Stop that, she scolded herself. Paranoia is the last thing you need right now! 

She got herself untangled from her baggage, resettled her high-peaked, visored cap on her head, and proceeded along the gallery.

I wonder if I should have reported him? If he really didn't see me, he needs to be jerked up short before he kills someone. And if he did see me, maybe he needs to be jerked up even shorter. But whatever he needs, I don't need to look like I'm whining about how terribly people are treating me.

Her internal debate continued as she made her way through the crowd, but it brought her no closer to an answer before she suddenly found herself at the station end of Gauntlet's boarding tube.

She felt her pace try to slow ever so slightly as the armed Marine sentry noted her approach, but she overrode the temptation sternly. Her heart seemed to flutter in her chest, with a surge of excitement she'd told herself firmly that she wasn't going to feel. After all, it wasn't as if this were the first time she'd reported for duty aboard a starship. There'd been all of those near-space training cruises from the Academy, not to mention the endless hours spent doing things like suit drill, both in simulators and under actual field conditions aboard Hephaestus or one of the training ships. This would be no different, she'd told herself.

Unfortunately, she'd lied. Worse, she admitted to herself, she'd known at the time that she was doing it. This was nothing at all like the near-space cruises, and it wouldn't have been even without High Admiral Matthews' personal little briefing.

She drew a deep breath and walked up to the sentry.

The Marine private saluted her, and she returned the formal courtesy with all the crispness her Saganami instructors had drilled into her.

"Midshipwoman Hearns to join the ship's company," she announced, and extended the record chip with her official orders.

"Thank you, Ma'am," the Marine replied, as he accepted the chip and slotted it into his memo board. The board's screen flickered alight, and he studied it for perhaps fifteen seconds, then punched the eject button. He extracted the chip and handed it back to her.

"You've been expected, Ma'am," he informed her. "The Executive Officer left instructions that you're to come aboard and report to her."

"I see." Abigail kept her tone as expressionless as her face, but something about it must have given away her flicker of trepidation. The sentry's posture never changed, but she thought she saw the faintest hint of a twinkle in his eye.

"If you'll report to the boat bay officer, he'll have someone take care of your locker and get you directed to Commander Watson, Ma'am."

"Thank you, Private . . . Roth," Abigail said, reading his nameplate and making less effort to keep her gratitude out of her voice this time.

"You're welcome, Ma'am." The sentry came briefly back to attention, and Abigail nodded to him and launched herself into the tube's zero-gee.

After the hustle and bustle of Hephaestus' crowded galleries, Gauntlet's boat bay seemed almost quiet. Not quite, of course. There was always something going on in every boat bay aboard every warship in space, and Gauntlet's was no exception. Abigail could see at least two work parties engaged on routine maintenance tasks, and a Marine sergeant's voice sounded with less than dulcet patience as she put a squad through the formal evolutions of an honor guard. Still, there was something soothing about the sudden drop in energy levels and the press of bodies as Abigail landed neatly just outside the painted deck line which indicated where Gauntlet officially began and Hephaestus officially ended. She'd always wondered why the RMN bothered with that line. The Grayson Navy didn't. In the GSN, the shipboard end of a boarding tube belonged to the ship, and the outboard end of the tube belonged to the space station, which had always struck her as a far more sensible arrangement. But the Star Kingdom's navy had its own traditions, and this was one of them.

A junior-grade lieutenant with the identifying brassard of the boat bay officer of the deck looked at her, and Abigail saluted sharply.

"Permission to come aboard to join the ship's company, Sir!"

The lieutenant returned her salute, then held out a hand, and Abigail surrendered her orders again. The lieutenant spent a few more seconds glancing through them than Private Roth had. Then he popped the chip back out of his board and returned it.

"Permission granted, Ms. Hearns," he told her, and Abigail felt an odd little flutter deep inside as she officially became a part of Gauntlet's crew.

"Thank you, Sir," she said as she slipped the chip back into its folio and put both of them back into her tunic pocket. "The tube sentry informed me that I'm supposed to report to the Executive Officer, Sir," she continued respectfully.

"Yes, you are," the BBOD agreed. He keyed his com and spoke into it. "Chief Posner, our final snotty—" he smiled slightly at Abigail as he used the traditional slang for a midshipman "—has just come aboard. I understand that you've been awaiting her with bated breath?" He listened to something only he could hear over his unobtrusive ear bug and chuckled. "Well, I thought that was what you said. At any rate, she's here. I think you'd better come collect her." He listened again, then nodded. "Good," he said, and returned his full attention to Abigail.

"Chief Posner is Lieutenant Commander Abbott's senior noncom, Ms. Hearns," he informed her. "And since Commander Abbott is assistant tac officer, which makes him our OCTO, that means the chief is more or less in charge of our snotties. He'll see to it that you get where you need to be."

"Thank you, Sir," she repeated, and her spirits rose. She'd been even more braced against disaster than she'd realized in the wake of High Admiral Matthews' warnings, but so far things seemed to be going well.

"Wait over there by Lift Three," the lieutenant told her, and flipped a casual wave at the indicated lift shaft. "Chief Posner will be here to collect you shortly."

"Yes, Sir," Abigail said obediently and towed her locker across to the lifts.


"Welcome aboard, Ms. Hearns."

Commander Linda Watson was a short, solidly built woman with dark hair but startlingly light-colored blue eyes. Abigail guessed that the commander had to be in her late forties or early fifties, although it was sometimes hard for Abigail to estimate the ages of prolong recipients. Graysons hadn't had much practice at that yet.

Watson had a brisk, no-nonsense manner which went well with her solid, well-muscled physique, and her voice was surprisingly deep for a woman. But she also had a pronounced Sphinxian accent, and Abigail felt herself warming to the exec almost instinctively as its crispness flowed over her like an echo of Lady Harrington's accent.

"Thank you, Commander," she replied. She seemed to be thanking a lot of people today, she reflected.

"Don't let it go to your head," Watson advised her dryly. "We always welcome every snotty aboard. That's never stopped us from running them until they drop. And since there are only four of you aboard for this deployment, we'll have a lot more time to keep each of you running."

She paused, but Abigail didn't know her well enough to risk responding to her possible humor.

"All snotties are equal in the eyes of God, Ms. Hearns," Watson went on after a moment. "The reason I invited you to drop by my office before you report to Snotty Row, however, is that not all snotties really are equal, however hard we try to make them that way. And, to be perfectly honest, you present some special problems. Of course," she smiled a bit wryly, "I suppose every middy presents some special problem in his or her own way."

She folded her arms and leaned a hip back against her desk, cocking her head to one side as she contemplated Abigail.

"To be perfectly honest, I was strongly tempted to just toss you into the deep end. That's always been my rule of thumb in the past, but I've never had a foreign princess as a midshipwoman before."

She paused again, this time obviously inviting a response, and Abigail cleared her throat.

"I'm not precisely a 'foreign princess,' Ma'am," she said.

"Oh, yes, you are, Ms. Hearns," Watson disagreed. "I checked the official position of both the Foreign Office and the Navy. Your father is a head of state in his own right, despite his subordination to the Protector's overriding authority. That makes him a king, or at least a prince, and that makes you a princess."

"I suppose, technically, it does," Abigail admitted. "But that's on Grayson, Ma'am. Not in the Star Kingdom."

"That's a refreshing attitude." Watson's tone added the unspoken rider "if that's the way you really feel about it," but she continued briskly. "Unfortunately, not everyone is going to share it. So I thought I'd just take this opportunity to make certain that you didn't, in fact, expect any special treatment because of your birth. And to point out to you that you may find yourself laboring under some additional burdens if other members of the ship's company decide that getting on your good side could be a . . . career enhancing maneuver."

The exec was carefully not, Abigail noticed, suggesting that those "other members" might be found among her fellow middies. Nor, she realized a moment later, had Watson suggested that some of Gauntlet's more senior officers might share the same attitude, and she wondered if that was because the commander thought that some of them would.

"As long as you don't expect special treatment, and as long as we don't have anyone else trying to extend it to you anyway," Watson continued, "then I don't expect us to have any problems. Which would be a very good thing, Ms. Hearns. I realize you're actually in the Grayson Navy, not the Queen's Navy, but that makes your midshipwoman's cruise no less important to your career. I trust you fully understand that, as well?"

"Yes, Ma'am. I do."

"Good!" Watson smiled briefly, then unfolded her arms and straightened. "In that case, Chief Posner will see to it that you and your gear get safely stowed away in Snotty Row and you can report to Commander Abbott."


" . . . so we told the Chief that no one had told us Engineering was off-limits." Karl Aitschuler grinned and shrugged his shoulders. He sat at the table in the center of "Snotty Row's" commons area, looking, Abigail thought, remarkably like her younger brother had looked at age twelve after putting something over on one of his nannies.

"And he actually believed that?" Shobhana Korrami shook her head in disbelief.

Shobhana was the other midshipwoman assigned to Gauntlet for this deployment, and Abigail had been delighted to see her. Although she never would have admitted it to anyone, Abigail had been more than a little nervous about the RMN's normal shipboard accommodations, especially for "snotties." Each midshipman or midshipwoman had his or her own private, screened-off sleeping area, but they shared all of their other facilities.

The degree to which male and female students had been thrown together at the Academy had come as a distinct shock to a Grayson girl, especially one of noble birth. Intellectually, though, at least Abigail had known it was coming, which had helped some. Still, she very much doubted she would ever possess the easy acceptance of such proximity which seemed to be part of the cultural baggage of her Manticoran and Erewhonese classmates. And even at its most . . . coeducational, the Academy had offered at least a little more privacy than was going to be possible here. Having at least one other female middy along would have been an enormous relief under any circumstances, but the fact that it was Shobhana made it even more of one. Abigail and the slightly taller, blond-haired, green-eyed Korrami had become close friends during the many extra hours they'd spent together under the tutelage of Senior Chief Madison, the senior Saganami Island unarmed combat instructor.

"Of course he believed it," Karl said virtuously. "After all, who has a more honest and trustworthy face than me?"

"Oh, I don't know," Shobhana replied in thoughtful tones. "Oscar Saint-Just?" she suggested after a moment with artful innocence.

Abigail giggled, then colored as Shobhana looked up at her with a triumphant grin. Shobhana knew how much it embarrassed Abigail whenever she giggled. It wasn't something a steadholder's daughter was supposed to do. Besides, she thought it made her sound like a twelve-year-old herself.

"I'll have you know," the fourth person in the compartment said, "that Oscar Saint-Just looked much more honest and trustworthy than our Aitschuler ever did."

Abigail's temptation to giggle died abruptly. She couldn't quite put her finger on what it was about Arpad Grigovakis' tone, but what should have been another jab of friendly harassment came out with an unpleasant, cutting edge in his well modulated, upperclass Manticoran accent.

Father Church had always taught that God offered good things to offset the bad in any person's life, if she only remained open to recognizing them when they came along. Abigail was willing to take that on faith, but she'd come to suspect that the reverse was also true. And Grigovakis' presence aboard Gauntlet as a counterbalance for Shobhana's seemed further evidence that her suspicions were well founded.

Midshipman Grigovakis was tall, well built, so handsome she felt certain biosculpt had played a major part in his regularity of feature, and unreasonably wealthy even by Manticoran standards. He was also an excellent student, judging by his grades and where he'd stood in their final class standings. Which, unfortunately, did not make him a pleasant human being.

"I'm sure that if Saint-Just did look more honest than me," Karl said in a deliberately light tone, "it was purely the result of sophisticated imagery management by Public Information."

"Yeah, sure it was," Shobhana agreed, throwing her weight into the effort to keep the banter flowing.

"Do you think it was, Abigail?" Grigovakis asked, flashing improbably perfect teeth at Abigail in a smile which, as always, carried that overtone of patronization.

"I wouldn't know," she said as naturally as she could. "I'm sure PubIn could have done it, if they'd wanted to. On the other hand, I imagine looking innocent and virtuous would have been almost as much of an advantage for a secret policeman on his way up as for a middy who got caught where he wasn't supposed to be. So maybe it was all natural protective coloration he'd acquired early."

"I hadn't thought of that," Grigovakis said with a chuckle, and gave her a nod that seemed to say "My, how clever for a little neobarb girl like you!"

"I thought you probably hadn't," she responded easily, and it was her tone's turn to say "Because, of course, you weren't smart enough to." A flicker of anger showed somewhere at the backs of his brown eyes, and she smiled sweetly at him.

"Yeah, well," Karl said in the voice of someone searching diligently for a change of subject, "innocent and virtuous or not, I'm not sure I'm looking forward to dinner tonight!" He shook his head.

"At least you won't have to face the Captain alone," Shobhana pointed out. "You'll have Abigail along. Just do what you always did at Duchess Harrington's dinners."

"Like what?" Karl asked suspiciously.

"Hide behind her," Shobhana said dryly.

"I did not!" Karl swelled with theatrical indignation. "She just happened to be sitting between me and Her Grace!"

"Three different times?" Shobhana asked skeptically.

"You were invited to Harrington House three times?" Grigovakis asked, looking at Aitschuler in obvious surprise leavened by something suspiciously like respect.

"Well, yes," Karl acknowledged with insufferable modesty.

"I'm impressed," Grigovakis admitted, then shrugged. "Of course, I wasn't in any of her sections, so nobody in my Tactical classes got invited. I hear the food was always good, though."

"Oh, it was a lot better than just good," Karl assured him. "In fact, Mistress Thorne, her cook, makes a triple-fudge cake to die for!" He rolled his eyes in the epicurean bliss of memory.

"Yeah, but then she worked your ass off in the simulators," Shobhana told Grigovakis with considerably less relish. "She usually took the Op Force command herself and proceeded to systematically kick our uppity butts."

"I don't doubt it." Grigovakis shook his head with an expression of unusual sincerity. One of the very few points upon which Abigail found herself in agreement with him was his respect for "the Salamander."

"I tried to get into one of her classes when I found out she was going to be teaching at the Island," he added. "I was too late, though." He leaned back in his chair and considered his cabin mates. "So, all three of you had her for Intro to Tactics? I hadn't realized that."

"I almost didn't make it either," Shobhana said. "As a matter of fact, I didn't quite make the initial cut. I was number two on the waiting list, and I only got in because two of the people in front of me had family emergencies that made them miss a semester."

"And how many times did you get invited to dinner?" Grigovakis was working his way back to normal, unfortunately, and his tone clearly implied that he didn't expect to hear that Shobhana had ever received an invitation.

"Only twice," Shobhana admitted calmly. "Of course, everyone got invited at least once. To get invited more often than that, you had to earn it, and, frankly, Tactics wasn't my best subject." She smiled sweetly at Grigovakis' expression. Having even a single "earned" invitation to one of Duchess Harrington's dinners on her record was a mark of high distinction for any Tactics student at the Academy.

"But you had three invitations, did you?" he said, turning back to Aitschuler, who nodded. "And Abigail did, too?" That cutting edge of astonishment was back at the mere possibility that Abigail might have achieved such a distinction.

"Oh, no," Karl said, shaking his head sadly, then paused, waiting with perfect timing for the flicker of satisfaction to show in Grigovakis' eyes. "Abigail was invited ten times . . . that I know of," he said innocently.


"What is his problem?" Shobhana muttered later that ship's evening as she and Abigail shared the shower. It was the midshipwomen's turn to have it first today; tomorrow, it would be their turn to wait while the midshipmen had first dibs.

"Whose?" Abigail worked shampoo into her almost waist length hair. There had been more times than she could count that she'd been tempted to cut it as short as Shobhana wore her own. Indeed, once or twice she'd been tempted to cut it as short as Lady Harrington's hair had been on her first visit to Grayson. Just finding the time to care for and groom it properly had seemed an impossible task more often than not, and its length was scarcely convenient in zero-gee conditions, or under vac helmets, or during phys-ed class. She supposed her inability to actually bring herself to cut it was one of her few unbreakable concessions to the standards of her birth world, where no respectable young woman would ever dream of cutting her hair short.

Now she finished working in the lather and stuck her head under the shower and rinsed vigorously.

"You know perfectly well whose," Shobhana said just a bit crossly. "That asshole Grigovakis, of course! Every once in a while you'd almost swear there was a worthwhile human being inside there somewhere. Then he reverts to normal."

"Well," Abigail said a bit damply from inside the cone of spray, "I always figured he just thought he was so much better than anyone else that we were being obtuse and rude not to acknowledge it spontaneously." She withdrew her head from under the shower, slicked her hair back into a thick rope, and began squeezing water out of it. "So since we aren't going to extend proper obeisance to him on our own, it's clearly his duty to extract it from us any way he can, instead."

Shobhana turned under the other showerhead to look at her in surprise, and Abigail bit her tongue. She knew the caustic bite she'd let into her voice had twanged her friend's mental radar.

"I wasn't exactly thinking about all of us," Shobhana said after a moment. "I was thinking about the way he seems to have a problem specifically with you. And unless my finely honed instincts are deceiving me, I think maybe you have a problem with him, too. No?"

"No, I don't—" Abigail began sharply, then stopped.

"You never were a very good liar," Shobhana observed with a slight smile. "Has to do with that strict religious upbringing, I bet. Now, tell Momma Shobhana all about it."

"It's just . . . well—" Abigail found herself suddenly very busy squeezing water out of her hair, then sighed. "He's one of those idiots who think that all Graysons are cave-dwelling barbarian religious fanatics," she said finally. "And he thinks our customs and notions of propriety are ridiculous."

"Oho," Shobhana said softly, regarding Abigail with knowing eyes through the shower's steam. "Came on to you, did he?"

"Well, yes," Abigail admitted. She knew she was blushing, but she couldn't stop. It wasn't the way Shobhana was looking at her, even given the fact that neither of them had a stitch on at the moment. Women outnumbered men by three to one on Grayson, and for a thousand years, the only really acceptable female career on Abigail's home world had been that of wife and mother. Given the imbalance in births, competition for the available supply of men was often . . . intense. Moreover, Grayson's practice of polygamy meant that any Grayson woman could expect to find herself one of at least two wives, with all of the need for frankness and compromises that implied. All of which meant a Grayson girl grew up accustomed to a degree of explicit "girl talk" which was far more earthy and pragmatic than almost any Manticoran would have believed, given the SKM's view of the Grayson stereotype, just as they grew up accustomed to sharing living quarters and bathing facilities. But that was really part of the problem, wasn't it? She'd grown up accustomed to that sort of openness with other young women, not in a society which had prepared her for overt, direct expressions of masculine interest.

"I'm not surprised," Shobhana said after a moment, head cocked as she considered her friend. "Lord knows if I had your figure, I'd spend all of my time beating men off with a stick! Or, more probably, not beating them off," she admitted cheerfully. "And from what I've seen of friend Grigovakis, the fact that you're from Grayson probably added spice to it, didn't it?"

"I thought so, anyway," Abigail agreed with a grimace. "Couldn't wait to get the 'neobarb ice maiden' into bed where he could thaw her out. And probably brag to all of his friends about it, too! Either that, or he's one of the idiots who believes all Grayson women must be sex-starved, crazed nymphos, our frantic lust stayed only by our religious programming, just because our men are so outnumbered."

"You're probably right, given the crowd he hangs out with. Hell, for that matter, I wouldn't be surprised if he was dumb enough to believe both stereotypes at once!" Shobhana made a face. Then she waved a hand over the shower control and reached for a towel as the water stopped.

"Tell me," she went on, "did he take no for an answer?"

"Not very well," Abigail sighed. She closed her eyes and raised her face for one last rinse, then turned off her own shower and grabbed a towel. "Actually," she admitted through its folds as she dried her face, "I probably didn't say no as . . . gracefully as I could have. I'd only been on the Island for about two weeks at the time, and I was still in some pretty severe culture shock." She lowered the towel and grinned wryly at her friend. "The best of you Manties would curl the hair of any properly raised Grayson maiden, you know! As for someone like Grigovakis—!"

She rolled her eyes, and Shobhana chuckled. But the blonde's green eyes were serious.

"He didn't try to push it, did he?"

"On Saganami Island? With a Grayson? A Grayson everyone insisted on assuming was Lady Harrington's protégée?" Abigail laughed. "Nobody would be stupid enough to follow that closely in Pavel Young's footsteps, Shobhana!"

"No, I guess not, at that," Shobhana conceded. "But I'll bet he's never missed an opportunity to make your life miserable, has he?"

"Not if he could help it," Abigail admitted. "Fortunately, until we wound up assigned here, our paths didn't cross that often. Personally, I'd have preferred for it to stay that way indefinitely."

"Don't blame you," Shobhana said, picking up a fresh towel and starting to help Abigail dry her hair. "But at least you can look forward to the fact that the two of you will be in different navies after graduation!"

"Believe me, I thank the Intercessor for that regularly," Abigail assured her fervently.


An hour and a half later, Abigail Hearns, who was far more anxious than she strove to appear, found herself, along with Mr. Midshipman Aitschuler, seated at the foot of the large table in the captain's dining cabin of HMS Gauntlet. The only really good news, she reflected, was that Karl's class standing was eleven places behind hers. That made him the junior officer present, which meant that at least she wouldn't have to offer the loyalty toast. Although, at the moment, that seemed like a remarkably grudging favor on the Tester's part.

She looked surreptitiously around the dining cabin. One thing about growing up as a steadholder's daughter was that a girl learned at a very early age how to be aware of her surroundings at a social gathering without gawking with ill-bred and obvious curiosity, and that training served her well now.

Lieutenant Commander Abbott was the only person present—aside from Karl, of course—whom she felt she knew at all. Not that she knew him very well yet, of course. The sandy-haired Abbott seemed a pleasant enough sort, in a slightly distant fashion, but that might just be the separation he felt an officer candidate training officer had to maintain between himself and his charges. Aside from that, and from a general aura of competence, though, she had very little to go on in forming an opinion of him.

Which was only about a thousand percent more than she had for anyone else at the table.

Commander Tyson, Gauntlet's chief engineering officer, sat to the right of the empty chair awaiting the captain's arrival. He was a solidly built, slightly stumpy man with muddy colored hair and a face that looked as if it had been designed to smile easily. Commander Blumenthal, the ship's senior tactical officer, faced Tyson across the table, and Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Anjelike Westman, the ship's surgeon, sat to Blumenthal's left. The sixth and final person at the table was Lieutenant Commander Valeria Atkins, Gauntlet's red-haired astrogator. Atkins, seated across from Westman, was obviously a third-generation prolong recipient, and she was also an extremely tiny person. In fact, she was one of the few Manticorans Abigail had met who made her feel oversized.

Commander Tyson, as the senior officer present, had made the introductions all around, and the other three had acknowledged Abigail's and Karl's presence politely enough. But the two middies were too astronomically junior to any of them to feel truly comfortable. The dinners they'd shared at Lady Harrington's invitation helped some, but this was definitely a case of better to be seen than to be heard.

Abigail had just answered a question from Lieutenant Commander Atkins which had clearly been intended to help her feel more at ease, when the hatch opened and Captain Oversteegen entered the dining cabin. His juniors rose respectfully as he crossed to his chair at the head of the table, and Abigail found herself intensely grateful for the controlled expression any steadholder's child had to master at an early age.

It was the first time she'd set eyes on Gauntlet's master after God, and her heart plummeted at the sight. Oversteegen was a tall, narrowly built, dark-haired man with limbs which seemed somehow just too long for the rest of his body. He moved with an economic precision, yet the length of his arms and legs made his movements seem oddly out of sync. His uniform, while immaculately neat, had obviously profited from the attentions of a high-priced tailor and displayed half a dozen small touches which were definitely non-regulation. But what caused Abigail's sudden sense of dismay was the fact that her new captain looked exactly like an athletic, fifty-years-younger version of Michael Janvier, Baron High Ridge, Prime minister of Manticore. Even if High Admiral Matthews hadn't warned her about the captain's family connections, one look would have given them away.

"Be seated, Ladies and Gentlemen," he invited, as he drew his own chair back from the table and sat, and Abigail hid a fresh internal wince. Oversteegen's voice was a light baritone, and it was pleasantly enough modulated, but it also carried the lazy, drawling accent affected by certain strata of the Manticoran aristocracy. And not, she thought, the strata which were particularly fond of Graysons.

She obeyed the instruction to sit back down and felt intensely grateful when the captain's personal steward immediately bustled in, followed by two mess attendants, to begin serving dinner. The arrival of food and drink put a temporary hiatus into any table conversation and gave her an opportunity to take her emotions firmly in hand.

There was little enough conversation even after the servers withdrew. Abigail had already gathered from the ship's rumor hotline that aside from Commander Watson, none of Captain Oversteegen's officers had ever served with him before. That might have helped to account for the lack of table talk as his guests tucked into the really excellent dinner. On the other hand, it might just as well represent Oversteegen's own preferences. The captain had been aboard for over two months before Gauntlet departed Hephaestus, after all, so this could hardly be the first time he'd dined with any of his officers.

Whatever the reason, Abigail was just as happy for it, and she concentrated on being as politely silent as was humanly possible. At one point, she looked up to find Commander Tyson regarding her with a small half-smile, and she blushed, wondering if her efforts to remain seen and yet invisible were that obvious.

But in the end, the meal was finished, the dessert dishes were removed, and the wine was poured. Abigail glanced across the table at Karl, ready to administer a reminding knee kick, but he hardly needed his memory jogged. Obviously, he'd been looking forward to this moment with just as much trepidation as Abigail would have been in his place. But he knew his duty, and as all eyes turned towards him, he picked up his wine, stood, and raised his glass.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, the Queen!" he said clearly.

"The Queen!" came back from around the table in the traditional response, and Karl managed to resume his seat with an aplomb which did a very creditable job of masking the anxiety he must have felt.

His eyes met Abigail's across the table, and she gave him a small smile of congratulation. But then a throat cleared itself at the head of the table, and her head turned automatically towards Captain Oversteegen.

"I understand," that well modulated voice drawled, "that it would be appropriate for us t' offer an additional loyalty toast this evenin'." He smiled at Abigail. "Since it would never do t' insult or ignore the sensibilities of our Grayson allies, Ms. Hearns, would you be so kind as t' do the honors for us?"

Despite all she could do, Abigail felt herself color. The request itself was courteous enough, she supposed, but in that affected accent it took on the overtones of oh-so-civilized contempt for the benighted neobarb among them. Yet there was nothing she could do except obey, and she rose and picked up her own glass.

"Ladies and Gentlemen," she said, her Grayson accent sounding even slower and softer—and more parochial, she supposed—than ever after the captain's polished tones, "I give you Grayson, the Keys, the Sword, and the Tester!"

Only two voices got through the proper response without stumbling: Karl's and Oversteegen's own. Karl was no surprise; he'd heard the exact same phrase at each of the dinners he and Abigail had shared at Lady Harrington's Jason Bay mansion. Nor was it a surprise to her that the other officers around the table had been caught short by the unexpected toast. The fact that the captain got it straight was a bit of a surprise. Then again, it would hardly have suited his aura of superiority to have invited the toast and not been able to throw off the correct response with polished ease.

"Thank you, Ms. Hearns," he said in that same, intensely irritating drawl as she sank back into her chair. Then he looked around the other officers at the table. "I trust," he continued, "that the rest of my officers will recognize the need t' be suitably sensitive t' the courtesies due t' our many allies. And t' the desirability of respondin' t' them properly."

Abigail wasn't sure whether it was intended as a reprimand to his senior officers or as yet another way of underscoring the need to pander to the exaggerated sensibilities of those same primitive allies. She knew which one she thought it was, but innate self-honesty made her admit that her own prejudices might explain why she did.

Whichever his intention might have been, his comments produced another brief pause. He let it linger for a moment, then tipped back in his chair, his wine glass loosely clasped in one hand, and smiled at all of them.

"I regret," he told them, "that the press of events and responsibilities involved in preparin' Gauntlet for deployment has prevented me from gettin' t' know my officers as well as I might have wished. I intend t' repair some of that failure over the next few weeks. I could have wished for at least a few more days t' spend on exercises and shakin' down the ship's company, but unfortunately, the Admiralty, as usual, had other ideas."

He smiled, and all of them—even Abigail—smiled dutifully back. Then his smile faded.

"As Commander Atkins and the Exec are already aware, Gauntlet is headed for the Tiberian System. Are any of you—aside from the Astrogator—familiar with Tiberian?"

"One of the independent systems between Erewhon and the Peeps—I mean the Republic of Haven, I believe, Sir," Commander Blumenthal offered after a moment. Oversteegen arched an eyebrow at him, and the tac officer shrugged. "I don't know much more than that about it, I'm afraid."

"T' be completely honest, Mr. Blumenthal, I'm surprised you know even that much. There's not much there t' attract our attention, after all. And that was especially true durin' the shootin' war." This time his thin smile was downright astringent. "Most of the systems that did draw our attention out that way tended t' be places where the shootin' was goin' on, after all."

One or two people chuckled, and he shrugged.

"Actually, I didn't know anythin' at all about Tiberian until the Admiralty cut our orders. I've done a little research since, however, and I want all our officers t' familiarize themselves with the information available to us. The short version, though, is that we're headin' there t' look into the disappearance of several ships in the general vicinity. Includin'—" his voice hardened slightly "—that of an Erewhonese destroyer."

"A fleet unit, Sir?" Blumenthal's surprise was apparent, and Oversteegen nodded.

"That's correct," he said. "Now, I suppose it's reasonable t' assume, as the Admiralty has and as ONI's analysts agree, that the suspension of hostilities between the Alliance and the Havenites is logically goin' t' lead to a resurgence of the piracy which was so prevalent out Erewhon's way before the war. Certainly, no one in the area was prepared t' take responsibility for making the local lowlifes behave when everyone was busy worryin' about who the Peeps were about t' devour next. The Admiralty consensus, however, is that now that hostilities have ended, the Erewhonese and our other local allies between them have more than enough combat power t' deal with any pirate foolish enough t' set up business in their backyards."

He paused, and Commander Westman frowned.

"Excuse me, Sir," she said in a soft soprano, "but if the Admiralty believes that this is the responsibility of the Erewhonese, why exactly are they sending us out here?"

"I'm afraid Admiral Chakrabarti failed t' explain that t' me in any detail, Doctor," Oversteegen replied. "An unintentional oversight upon his part, I'm sure. However, my best guess, given the general tone of our instructions, is that Erewhon is just a bit upset over its perception that we no longer regard it as the center of the entire known universe."

Abigail hid a mental frown behind an attentive expression. The captain, it seemed, was less than overwhelmed with admiration for whoever had drafted his orders. At the same time, both his tone and his choice of words seemed to her to indicate a certain contempt for the Erewhonese, as well. Not surprisingly, she supposed, given his personal and political connections to the High Ridge Government.

"As nearly as I can tell," he continued, "our mission is intended primarily t' hold Erewhon's hand. Logically, there's nothin' much a single heavy cruiser can do that the entire Erewhonese Navy shouldn't be able t' do even better. However, there's been a persistent perception on the part of Erewhon and certain other members of the Alliance—" his eyes cut ever so briefly in Abigail's direction "—that they're no longer valued since the cease-fire. Our mission is t' demonstrate t' Erewhon that we do indeed place great value on our alliance with them by offerin' whatever assistance we can. Although, if I were the Erewhonese, I believe I would probably be somewhat more impressed by the deployment of a destroyer flotilla or at least a division of light cruisers than by that of a single heavy cruiser. We, after all, can be in only one place at one time. And as all of our experience in Silesia should indicate, what's really needed t' suppress piracy is a widespread presence, not individual units, however powerful."

Despite herself, and despite her instinctive dislike for the captain, Abigail found herself in total agreement with him in that regard, at least.

"If I may, Sir," Blumenthal said with a slight frown, "why, precisely, are we focusing on Tiberian?"

"Because in such a large haystack, we might as well start huntin' for the needle someplace,"Oversteegen said in a poisonously dry tone. "More t' the point, Tiberian is located within the zone where most of these ships seem t' have disappeared. Hard t' be certain, of course, since all anyone really knows is that the ships in question never arrived at their intended destinations."

"That may be, Sir," the tac officer said. "At the same time, with the exception of a few psychopaths like Andre Warnecke, most pirates avoid setting up shop in inhabited systems. Too much chance that the locals will spot them and call in someone else's navy if they don't have the capacity to swat them themselves."

"That's certainly the case under normal circumstances," Oversteegen agreed. "And I'm not sayin' it isn't the case here, either. But there are three special considerations in this instance.

"First, there's the fact that Refuge, Tiberian's single inhabited planet, doesn't have much of a population. Accordin' t' the latest census data available, the entire settled area is concentrated on a single continent in an area somewhat smaller than Ms. Hearns' father's steadin' on Grayson." He nodded in Abigail's direction, and his eyes seemed to gleam with an edge of sardonic humor as she stiffened in her chair.

"The whole population amounts t' less than a hundred thousand," he continued, "and its deep space presence is strictly limited, t' say the least. Frankly, it's not much more likely that pirates would be spotted someplace like Tiberian than they would in a completely uninhabited system. Especially if they showed a modicum of caution.

"Second, one of the ships which seems t' have gone missin' out here was the Windhover, a Havenite-registry transport which was headed t' Refuge with another couple of thousand more settlers from the Republic."

"You mean Refuge was settled from the PRH, Sir?" Commander Tyson asked.

"Yes, it was," Oversteegen agreed. "It seems that some seventy or eighty T-years ago, there was a religious sect in the People's Republic. They called themselves the Fellowship of the Elect, and they held to some pretty . . . fundamentalist doctrines."

This time he didn't even glance in Abigail's direction. Which, she reflected fulminatingly, only underscored the way in which he was oh-so-pointedly not saying "like the Church of Humanity Unchained."

"Apparently," the captain continued, "this Fellowship found itself at odds with the old Legislaturalist regime. Inevitably, I suppose, since they insisted on livin' in accordance with their interpretation of the scriptures. It's a bit surprisin' in some ways that InSec didn't squelch them, but I imagine even Public Information would've had trouble with that one, given that the Legislaturalists were always careful t' give lip service t' religious toleration. Oh, I'm sure InSec made itself highly unpleasant t' them, but tight-knit religious groups can be amazin'ly stubborn, sometimes."

Despite herself, Abigail shifted in her chair, but she also bit her lip and made herself show no other sign of the intense irritation that drawling accent sent through her.

"In the end," Oversteegen said, giving no indication that he'd just delivered a deliberate jab to one of his middies, "the Legislaturalists decided they'd be better off without the Fellowship, so they made a deal. In return for the nationalization of the Fellowship's members' assets, the People's Republic provided them with transportation t' Tiberian and the basic infrastructure t' set up a colony on Refuge." He shrugged. "There were no more than twenty or thirty thousand of them, and whatever their religious beliefs might have been, they'd done a better job than most of stayin' off the BLS, so the Legislaturalists actually showed a small net profit on gettin' rid of them. But not all of them accepted the offer, and a significant number remained behind . . . where," he added in a considerably grimmer tone, "StateSec proved less tolerant than InSec had.

"By the time Saint-Just was overthrown, there were only a few thousand of them left, and they were understandably bitter about the way they'd been treated. So when the Pritchart administration took office, they announced their intention t' join their coreligionists on Refuge. T' do her justice, Pritchart not only accepted their desire but provided state funds t' charter a ship to deliver them, and they departed for Tiberian just over one T-year ago.

"Unfortunately, they never arrived. Which would seem to suggest that although Tiberian is well over t' the side of the area in which most of the disappearances have occurred, it's apparently attracted the pirates' attention for some reason.

"Which brings us t' the third special consideration which applies t' Tiberian. When the Erewhonese launched their own investigation, they attempted to backtrack the courses of the ships they knew hadn't reached their final destinations in order t' determine how far each of those ships had gotten. The idea was t' more precisely plot the zone in which the vessels were actually disappearin'. One of the ships engaged in that effort was the destroyer Star Warrior, who was assigned, among other things, t' track the missing personnel transport with the Fellowship emigrés aboard. She started her investigation at Tiberian itself, where the Refugians confirmed that the Windhover had never arrived. After checkin' with the planetary authorities—which appears not t' have gone without a certain amount of friction—she departed for the Congo System, where another of the missin' merchies was headed.

"She never arrived. Now, Star Warrior was a modern ship, with first-line sensors and the same basic weapons fit as our own Culverin class. It would take a pretty unusual 'pirate' t' match up successfully against that. At the same time, I find it unlikely that an Erewhonese destroyer would be lost t' simple hazards of navigation."

"I would, too, Sir," Commander Blumenthal said after a moment. "At the same time, though, a rather ugly thought occurs to me about where a 'pretty unusual pirate' might have come from these days. Especially this close to Haven."

"The same thought has occurred t' Erewhon, and even t' ONI," Oversteegen said dryly. "Erewhon believes that some of the StateSec and PN warships that have been dropping out of sight as Theisman puts down the opposition t' Pritchart have obviously set up as independent pirates out this way. ONI is less convinced of that, since its analysts believe any such rogue units would get as far away from Theisman as they could. Besides, ONI feels that anyone who wants t' pursue a piratical career would naturally migrate t' Silesia rather than operate in an area as well policed as the one between Erewhon and Haven is rapidly becomin'."

"I'd have to say, Sir," Lieutenant Commander Atkins put in diffidently, "that if I were a pirate, I'd certainly prefer operations in Silesia, myself. Whatever else may be the case in this region, most of the system governments and governors are relatively honest. At least where something like conniving with pirates is concerned. And ONI has a point about how nasty things could turn for any pirate who pisses off someone like the Erewhonese Navy!"

"I didn't say ONI's analysis wasn't logical, Commander," Oversteegen drawled mildly. "And if I were a pirate, my thinkin' would be just about like your own. But it's probably worth bearin' in mind that not everyone in the universe is as logical as you and I. Or as smart, for that matter."

"God knows there are enough pirates already operating in Silesia who don't have the brains to close the airlock's outboard hatch first," Commander Tyson agreed with a grimace. "And if these are some of StateSec's ex-bully boys, brainpower probably isn't exactly at a premium in their senior ranks!"

"That's certainly true enough," Commander Blumenthal put in. He leaned forward slightly, his expression intent, and Abigail was forced to concede that however arrogant and supercilious Oversteegen might be, he was at least managing to engage his senior officers' attention. "On the other hand," the tac officer continued, "apparently whoever these people are—assuming they're really here in the first place, of course—they've so far managed to keep the Erewhonese Navy from getting even a single confirmed sensor hit on them."

He looked a question at Oversteegen as he finished his last sentence, and the captain nodded.

"So far, we're lookin' for ghosts," he confirmed.

Abigail wished she were senior enough to contribute to the discussion herself without direct invitation. She wasn't, but a moment later Lieutenant Commander Westman made the point she herself had wanted to make.

"There's another thing about this entire situation that concerns me, Captain," Gauntlet's surgeon put in quietly. Oversteegen crooked the fingers of his right hand, inviting her to continue, and Westman shrugged.

"I've deployed to Silesia three times," she said, "and most of the pirates out there hesitate to hit personnel transports. The kind of casualties that can cause is enough to get even Silesian System governors mobilized to go after them. But when they do hit a transport, they're very careful to minimize casualties and settle for collecting ransom from the passengers and then letting them continue on their way. Some of them even seem to enjoy playing the part of 'gentlemen buccaneers' when it happens. From what you're saying in this case, though, if there are pirates operating out here, they just went ahead and slaughtered several thousand people aboard that transport headed for Tiberian, alone."

"That's my own view of what probably happened," Oversteegen agreed, and for once his voice was cold and grim, despite that maddening accent. "It's been over thirteen T-months since Windhover disappeared. If any of those people were still alive, they probably would have turned up somewhere by now. If nothing else, they'd be worth more t' any pirate as a potential source of ransom from their relatives or the Refugian government than they would as any sort of forced labor force."

"So whoever these people are," Atkins mused aloud, "they're ruthless as hell."

"I think that's probably somethin' of an understatement," Oversteegen told her, and his drawling accent was back to normal.

"I can see that, Sir," Commander Tyson said. "But I'm still not entirely clear on exactly why we're headed for Tiberian." Oversteegen cocked his head at him, and the engineer shrugged. "We know that Star Warrior already checked Tiberian without finding anything," he pointed out respectfully. "Doesn't that indicate Tiberian has a clean bill of health? And if that's the case, then wouldn't our time be better spent looking someplace that hasn't been cleared?"

Abigail held her mental breath, waiting to see if Oversteegen would annihilate Tyson for his temerity, but the captain surprised her. He only gazed at the engineer mildly for a moment, then nodded.

"I see your point, Mr. Tyson," he acknowledged. "On the other hand, the Erewhonese are operatin' on exactly that theory. Their naval units are continuin' t' concentrate on the systems which haven't yet been checked out. Now that they've backtracked all of the shippin' movements as far as they can, they've moved their focus t' a case-by-case examination of the uninhabited systems out here where a batch of pirates might have set up a depot ship.

"It's goin' t' take them months to do more than scratch the surface, of course, and no doubt we could make ourselves useful helpin' out in that effort. But the way I see it, they've got enough destroyers and cruisers t' handle that job without us, and anything we can offer in that regard would be relatively insignificant in the long run.

"So it seems t' me that Gauntlet would be better employed pursuin' an independent, complementary investigation. The one Erewhonese warship that has been lost since Erewhon began investigatin' these shippin' losses is Star Warrior. And the last star system we know Star Warrior visited is Tiberian. Now, I'm aware that the Erewhonese have already revisited Tiberian and spoken to the Refugians again. But one thing ONI was able to provide me with was a recordin' of those interviews, and my distinct impression was that the Refugians were less than delighted t' cooperate."

"You think they were hiding something, Sir?" Blumenthal asked, frowning. He toyed with his dessert fork for a moment. "I suppose that if the pirates did contact them and offer to ransom the transport's passengers, one of the conditions might be that the Refugians keep their mouths shut about it afterwards."

"That's one possibility," Oversteegen acknowledged. "However, I wasn't thinkin' about anythin' quite that Byzantine, Guns."

"Then why would they hesitate to cooperate in anything that might catch the people responsible for the disappearance and probable murder of their colonists, Sir?" Atkins asked.

"This is a small, isolated, intensely clannish colony," the captain replied. "It has virtually no contact with outsiders—before the war, a single tramp freighter made Refuge orbit once a T-year; once the war started, no one visited them at all until after the cease-fire went into effect. And the system was settled by refugees who deliberately sought an isolated spot where they could set up their own society without any outside contamination. A religious society that specifically rejected contact with nonbelievers."

Once again, his eyes seemed to flick ever so briefly in Abigail's direction. This time, though, she couldn't be certain it wasn't her own imagination. Not that she was much inclined to bend over backward giving him the benefit of the doubt, because it was obvious to her what was going on behind his relaxed expression.

He might as well have me wearing a holo sign that says "Descendent of Religious Lunatics!" she thought resentfully.

"My point," he went on, apparently blissfully unaware of—or, at least, completely unconcerned by—his midshipwoman's blistering resentment, "is that the Refugians don't like outsiders. And that outsiders, like the Erewhonese, may not make sufficient allowance for that when they try t' talk to them. It certainly appears to me that the Erewhonese who interviewed the planetary authorities after Star Warrior's disappearance didn't, at any rate. It's obvious the locals got their backs up. It may even have started when Star Warrior dropped in on them in the first place.

"But if Star Warrior disappeared because she discovered somethin' that led her t' the pirates and the pirates destroyed her, then Tiberian is the only place she could have done it. The system was her first port of call, and so far as we can determine, she never made it t' her second port of call at all. So if there is an actual chain of events, not just some fluke coincidence, between Star Warrior's investigation and her disappearance, Tiberian is the only place we can hope t' find out whatever she did.

"If I'm right, and the Fellowship of the Elect just didn't want t' talk t' a secular bunch of outsiders who failed t' show proper respect for their own religious beliefs, then clearly the thing t' do is t' go try talkin' t' them again. It's entirely possible that no one on the planet realizes the significance of some apparently minor piece of information they gave Star Warrior which might have led her t' the pirates. If there was somethin' like that, then clearly, we have t' find out what it was. And the only way t' do that is t' get them t' open up t' us. And for that—" he turned his head, and this time there was no question at all who he was looking at, Abigail thought "—we need someone who speaks their language."


"Hard skew port! Come t' one-two-zero by zero-one-five and increase t' five-two-zero gravities! Tactical, deploy a Lima-Foxtrot decoy on our previous headin'!"

The thing Abigail hated most about Captain Michael Oversteegen, she decided as she manned her station in Auxiliary Control with Lieutenant Commander Abbott, and listened to the steady, rapid-fire orders from the command deck, was the fact that he actually seemed to be a competent person.

Her life would have been so much simpler if she'd been able to just write him off as one more under-brained, over-bred, aristocratic jackass who'd gotten his present command through the pure abuse of nepotism. It would have made his infuriating accent, his too-perfect uniforms, his maddening mannerisms, and permanent air of supercilious detachment from the lesser mortals around him so much easier to bear if he'd just completed the stereotype by being a total incompetent, as well.

Unfortunately, she'd been forced to concede that although it was obvious that nepotism did explain how a captain as junior as he was had snagged a plum command like Gauntlet in this era of reducing ship strengths, he was not incompetent. That had become painfully evident as he put his ship through a series of intensive drills in every conceivable evolution during the voyage to Tiberian. And given that Tiberian lay just over three hundred light-years from Manticore, with a transit time of almost forty-seven T-days, he'd had a lot of time for drills.

She was being foolish, she told herself sternly, her eyes obediently upon the tactical repeater plot while the current exercise unfolded, but she knew she would have felt a certain spiteful satisfaction if she could have assigned him to what Lady Harrington called the "Manticoran Invincibility School." But unlike those complacent idiots, Oversteegen obviously held to the older Manticoran tradition that no crew could possibly be too highly trained, whether in peacetime or time of war.

The fact that he had an obvious talent for cunning, one might even say devious, tactical maneuvers only made it perversely worse. Abigail had found a great deal to admire in the captain's tactical repertoire, and she knew Commander Blumenthal had found the same. Lieutenant Commander Abbott, on the other hand, clearly wasn't one of the captain's warmer admirers. He was far too good an officer to ever say so, especially in the hearing of a mere midshipwoman, but it seemed apparent to Abigail that her OCTO resented the accident of birth which had given Oversteegen command of Gauntlet. The fact that Abbott was at least five T-years older than the captain yet two full grades junior to him undoubtedly had more than a little to do with that. But whatever his feelings might be, no one could have faulted the assistant tactical officer's on-duty demeanor or his attention to detail.

There was an undeniable trace of stiffness and formality in his relationship with the captain, but that was true for quite a few members of Gauntlet's ship's company. After the first week or so, no one aboard was prepared to question Captain Oversteegen's competence or ability, but that didn't mean his crew was prepared to clasp him warmly to its collective heart. The fact was that whatever other talents he might possess, he did not and probably never would have the sort of charisma someone like Lady Harrington seemed to radiate so effortlessly.

Probably, Abigail had concluded, that was at least partly because he had no particular interest in acquiring that sort of charisma. After all, the natural order of the universe had inevitably raised him to his present station. His undoubted competence was simply proof that the universe had been wise to do so. And since it was both natural and inevitable that he command, then it was equally natural and inevitable that others obey. Which meant there was no particular point in enticing them into doing what was their natural duty in the first place.

In short, Michael Oversteegen's personality was not one which naturally attracted the devotion of those under his command. Competence they would grant him, and obedience they would yield. But not devotion.

Arpad Grigovakis, on the other hand, seemed prepared to worship the deck he walked on. Abigail couldn't be positive why that was, but she had her suspicions. Grigovakis, after all, would never be described as a sweetheart of a guy himself. Although he was nowhere near so wellborn as the captain, he definitely belonged to the upper strata of Manticoran society, and he not so secretly aspired to precisely the same image of aristocratic power and privilege. In fact, Abigail thought, Grigovakis probably found Oversteegen a much more comfortable role model than someone like Lady Harrington, no matter how much he might recognize and respect the Steadholder's tactical brilliance.

In Captain Oversteegen's defense, Abigail had to admit that she'd never seen him lend the least encouragement to Grigovakis' apparent desire to emulate his own style. Of course, he hadn't discouraged the midshipman, either, but that would have been expecting a bit much out of any captain.

"Bogey Two's taking the bait and going for the decoy, Sir!" That was Shobhana's voice, and she sounded calmer than Abigail suspected she was. Oversteegen had decided to make Commander Blumenthal a casualty fifteen minutes into the present exercise, and it was Shobhana's day to serve as Blumenthal's assistant, while Abigail played understudy to Abbott on Commander Watson's backup tactical crew. Which meant, Abigail thought just a bit jealously, that at the moment her classmate was in control of a 425,000-ton heavy cruiser's total armament, even if it was only for an exercise . . . and Abigail wasn't.

"Very good, Tactical," Oversteegen replied coolly. "But keep an eye on Number One."

"Aye, aye, Sir!" Shobhana replied crisply, and Abigail felt herself nodding in silent agreement with the captain's warning. The exercise was one of several simulations downloaded by BuTrain to Gauntlet's tactical computers before her departure from Manticore. In theory at least, no one aboard the heavy cruiser had any advance knowledge of their content or the opposition forces' order of battle. Every so often, someone found a way around the security measures and hacked into the sims in an effort to make herself look better, but Abigail was confident that Oversteegen wasn't one of them. The mere suggestion that he might have required such an unfair advantage would be anathema to a personality like his.

Or mine, she admitted, if not for exactly the same reasons.

Sure enough, Bogey One was ignoring the decoy. CIC had identified Bogey Two as a heavy cruiser and Bogey One as a battlecruiser. That meant Bogey One should have better sensors, and in addition, she had a better angle on Gauntlet. She'd been better placed to spot the decoy's separation, but apparently the simulation's artificial intelligence had assumed that Bogey One wasn't positive of her own conclusions. She was allowing her consort to continue to engage the decoy just in case while she herself went after what she'd identified as the real enemy.

"All right, Tactical," Oversteegen said calmly. "Bogey One is comin' in after us. It's not goin' t' take Two long t' kill the decoy, even with its EW. So we need t' prune One down t' size a bit while we've got her all t' ourselves. Understood?"

That was much more of an explanation than Oversteegen usually bothered with. He was actually making a concession to the inexperience of his acting tactical officer, Abigail thought in some surprise.

"Understood, Sir," Shobhana replied.

"Very well, then. Give me a recommendation."

Shobhana didn't reply instantly, and Abigail felt herself lean forward in her own chair, urging her friend on.

"Recommend we change heading to starboard in six minutes, Sir," Shobhana said, almost as if she'd heard Abigail's encouragement.

"Reasons?" Oversteegen asked sharply.

"Sir, Bogey One will have closed into extreme energy range in approximately five-point-seven-five minutes, but she's still coming straight for us. I think she's convinced we're just going to go on running rather than turn and fight against such odds. I think she'll hold her course, trying to bring her own chasers into action, but according to CIC she's a Warlord-C, without bow wall technology. So if we time it properly, we might be able to put an entire energy broadside right down her throat even at extreme range."

There was a moment of taut silence. Then Oversteegen spoke again.

"Concur," he said simply. "Make it so, Tactical." He paused again, then added, "And call the shot."

"Aye, aye, Sir!" Shobhana replied exultantly, and Abigail's eyebrows arched in astonishment. That was the sort of order Lady Harrington might have given under similar circumstances, but she would never have expected to hear it out of Oversteegen.

She watched the crimson bead of Bogey One charging hard after Gauntlet, just as Shobhana had predicted. If Abigail had been in command of that battlecruiser, no doubt she would have been doing exactly the same thing. An Edward Saganami-class ship like Gauntlet was a powerful, modern unit, but scarcely a match for a Warlord-class battlecruiser in close action. The logical course for any ship as heavily overmatched as Gauntlet was in this instance was to run as fast and as hard as she could in the hopes that she might score a lucky missile hit on one of her pursuers' impeller nodes and somehow escape action.

The only problem was that Gauntlet had been surprised in a situation which gave the bogeys too much overtake advantage for even the newest generation of Manticoran inertial compensator to overcome. Which meant that escape was virtually impossible, whatever the heavy cruiser did. And Shobhana was right; if they couldn't outrun Bogey One, then their best choice was the bold choice.

Bogey One swept closer and closer, battering away at Gauntlet with her chase armament. Fortunately, the Peeps—no, she corrected herself, the Havenites—didn't have the equivalent of Ghost Rider. That meant they couldn't fire the same sort of effective off-bore missile broadsides a Manticoran or a Grayson ship might have. Bogey One was restricted effectively to the fire of her bow tubes and energy mounts, which meant her missile fire was far too light to penetrate Gauntlet's active and passive defenses, whereas Gauntlet was able to reply with a steady rain of fire from her broadside tubes. It wasn't as effective as it would have been if she'd had a proper broadside firing arc that let her use her main fire control. Even with Ghost Rider technology, she lacked the telemetry channels without a broadside arc to provide full-time control to more than eighteen birds at a time. She could share her available links on a rotating basis, but that could be risky in a high-EW environment, and it always led to at least some degradation in control. For that matter, not even a missile with Manticoran EW had much chance of survival at this range against the sort of defensive firepower an alert battlecruiser's forward point defense could pour out. But even though only a handful of them were getting through, they were enough to pepper the Warlord with what had to be an infuriating rain of superficial hits.

Of course, if Shobhana's maneuver failed and Bogey One managed to get broadside-to-broadside with Gauntlet . . .  

"Helm, come starboard nine-five degrees, roll one-five degrees to port, and pitch up four-zero degrees on my mark," Shobhana said.

"Starboard nine-five, roll one-five to port, and pitch up four-zero, aye, Ma'am!" the helmswoman responded crisply, and Abigail held her breath as another double handful of seconds trickled past. Then—

"Execute!" Shobhana snapped, and HMS Gauntlet snapped up and around to starboard even as she rolled to present her broadside to her huge, charging opponent.

It was the universe's turn to hold its breath, but the sim's AI decided that Gauntlet's unanticipated maneuver had completely surprised Bogey One's hypothetical flesh-and-blood captain. The battlecruiser held her course, her chase armament continuing to hammer away at where she'd thought Gauntlet was going to be, even as the Manticoran cruiser swerved and rolled.

And then Gauntlet's broadside grasers swung onto target and fired.

The range was still long, and the armor protecting a battlecruiser's forward hammerhead was thick. But there was no bow wall, the range wasn't long enough, and the armor was too thin to withstand the sledgehammers of energy Shobhana Korrami sent crashing into it. It shattered, and the grasers ripped into the ship it had been supposed to protect. The range was too great for the grasers to completely disembowel a ship as big and tough as a Warlord, but they could do damage enough. The torrent of destruction smashed the battlecruiser's chase armament into wreckage, and the big ship's wedge fluctuated madly as her foreword impeller ring was blown apart.

The savagely wounded ship swung sharply to port, snatching her mangled bows away from her impudent opponent and bringing her own starboard broadside to bear. But Shobhana's helm orders had already sent Gauntlet streaking back onto her original course, and the Manticoran cruiser went bounding ahead under maximum military power at almost six hundred gravities. Wounding a kodiak max badly enough to run away from it was one thing; standing still to let it rip you apart after wounding it was quite another.

A tornado of missiles came crashing after Gauntlet from Bogey One's undamaged broadside, and Bogey Two—no longer in any doubt as to which was decoy and which was actual cruiser—charged after her, as well. Damage sidebars flickered as a handful of hits from the enemy's laser head missiles punched through Gauntlet's sidewalls, but her active defenses were too good and her passive defenses just good enough to fend off the tide of destruction while she pulled steadily away from the lamed battlecruiser.

Bogey Two continued the pursuit for another ten minutes, but she was no match for Gauntlet without the Warlord's support, and her skipper—or, at least, the sim's artificial intelligence—knew it. The enemy cruiser had no intention of finding herself all alone in energy range of a ship which had just crippled a battlecruiser, and she broke off before Gauntlet could lure her out from under the Warlord's missile umbrella.

"Well, that was certainly an interestin' . . . adventure," Captain Oversteegen remarked. "All hands, secure from simulation. Division officers, we'll convene in my briefin' room for the post-simulation critique at zero-nine-hundred." He paused for a moment, then surprised Abigail once again with something which would have sounded suspiciously like a chuckle from anyone else. "Commander Blumenthal, you may consider yourself excused from the debrief, in light of your many and serious wounds. I believe that Actin' Tactical Officer Korrami can take your place today."


Abigail didn't actually see Lieutenant Stevenson's hand coming. In fact, she couldn't have analyzed exactly what it was she did see. It might have been a slight shift in the Marine's weight, or perhaps it was the way his shoulder dipped ever so slightly, or it might even been nothing more than a flicker of his eyes. Whatever it was, her own right arm moved without any conscious thought on her part. Her forearm intercepted the left hand slicing towards her head and parried his arm wide to the outside, her own left hand shot out and upwards in a palm thrust to his chin, and her torso pivoted as she twisted in a circle to her left.

The lieutenant's head snapped back as her palm impacted on his jaw, but his right arm looped up and around, and his hand snaked back down on the inside of her left elbow. His fingers closed on her upper arm, his own arm straightened, binding hers, and he shifted his weight to the outside, even as his right ankle hooked into the back of her left calf.

Abigail's feet went out from under her, and the lieutenant's considerably greater weight yanked her sideways. She managed to break his grip on her arm, but not in time to keep herself from going down hard. She hit the mat on her left shoulder and rolled quickly, just managing to avoid Stevenson as he dropped, arms outspread, to pin her. He'd misjudged her speed, and he landed hard on his belly as she spun sideways, pivoting on her buttocks, and her scything legs slashed his arms from under him.

She rolled onto her side, snapping her torso backward, and her elbow slammed hard into the back of his head. The protective headgear they both wore shielded him from the full force of the blow, but it was still enough to knock him ever so briefly off stride, and Abigail used the opportunity to continue her roll. She twisted, supple as a serpent, and landed on his back. Both hands flashed, darting up and under his armpits from behind, and he grunted as they met on the back of his neck. She exerted pressure—not very much; the hold she'd secured was dangerous—but enough for him to recognize the full-Nelson.

His right palm slapped the mat in token of surrender, and she released her hold, rolled off of him, and sat up. He followed suit, and shook his head, then removed his mouth protector and grinned at her.

"Better," he said approvingly. "Definitely better that time. If I didn't know better, I'd have thought you were really trying to hurt me!"

"Thank you . . . I think, Sir," she said after removing her own mouth protector. Actually, she wasn't entirely certain how to take his last remark. Despite her natural athleticism, hand-to-hand combat had been the hardest course for her to master at Saganami Island. She'd enjoyed the training katas, and the way in which the training had sharpened her reflexes and coordination. But she'd had problems—serious ones—when it was time for her to apply her lessons.

The reason hadn't been difficult for her to figure out; it was fixing it that had been hard.

Grayson girls were reared in a culture in which actual physical confrontations were unthinkable. Unlike boys (who everyone knew were rambunctious, obstreperous, and generally ill behaved), well brought up girls simply didn't do things like that. Grayson girls and women were to be protected by those same obstreperous boys and men, not to demean themselves by engaging in anything so crude as fisticuffs!

It was a cultural imperative which had been societized into Graysons for the better part of a thousand T-years, and Abigail had been aware of it—in an intellectual sort of way—long before she reported to Saganami Island. She'd also thought that she'd prepared herself to overcome it. Unfortunately, she'd been wrong. Despite her determination to wear down her father's resistance to her decision to pursue a naval career, she was still a product of her home world. She didn't mind the sweat, the exercise, the bruises, or even the indignity of being dumped on her highly aristocratic posterior in front of dozens of watching eyes. But the thought of actually, deliberately attacking someone else with her bare hands, even in a training situation, had been something else entirely. And to her chagrin and humiliation, her hesitation had been even more pronounced against male sparring partners.

She'd hated it. Her scores had been abysmal, which had been bad enough, but she wanted to be a naval officer. It was all she'd ever wanted, from the night she'd stood on a balcony of Owens House, staring at a night sky, and watched pinpricks of nuclear fire flash among the stars while a single, foreign warship commanded by a woman fought desperately against another ship twice its size in defense of her planet. She'd known what she wanted, fought for it with unyielding determination, and finally won not simply her father's grudging permission but his active support.

And now that it was actually within her grasp, she couldn't overcome her social programming well enough to make herself "hit" someone even as a training exercise? It was ridiculous! Worse, it seemed to confirm every doubt every Grayson male had ever raised about the concept of women in the military. And, she'd been humiliatingly certain, it had done precisely the same thing for all of the Manticorans who believed Graysons were hopelessly, laughably benighted barbarians.

But worst of all, it had made her doubt herself. If she couldn't do this, then how could she ever hope to exercise tactical command in a real battle? How could she trust herself to be able to give the order to fire—to go all out, knowing her own people's lives depended upon her ability to not simply hurt but kill someone else's people—if she couldn't even make herself throw a sparring partner in the training salle?

She'd known she needed help, and a part of her had been desperately tempted to seek it from Lady Harrington. The Steadholder had made it quite clear to all of the Grayson middies that she was prepared to stand mentor and adviser to them all, and surely she, of all people, was uniquely qualified to advise anyone where the martial arts were concerned. But this was one problem Abigail had been unable to take to Lady Harrington. She'd never doubted for a moment that Lady Harrington would have understood and worked with her to solve it, but she couldn't bring herself to admit to "the Salamander" that she had it in the first place. It was impossible for her to tell the woman who had fought off the attempted assassination of the Protector's entire family with her bare hands and killed Steadholder Burdette in single combat on live, planet-wide HD, that she couldn't even make herself punch someone in the nose!

Fortunately, Senior Chief Madison had recognized the problem, even if he hadn't immediately grasped the reasons for it. Looking back, she supposed it was inevitable that someone who'd spent so many years teaching so many middies had seen almost every problem by now. But she suspected she'd been an unusually severe case, and he'd finally solved it by finding her a mentor closer to her own age.

Which was how she and Shobhana had come to become friends. Unlike Abigail, Shobhana had grown up with one older and three younger brothers. She'd also grown up on Manticore, and she'd had no compunctions at all about punching any one of them in the nose. She wasn't anywhere near as athletic as Abigail, and mastering the techniques of the Academy's preferred coup de vitesse had been much more difficult for her, but there'd never been anything wrong with Shobhana's attitude towards diving right in and bouncing someone around the salle!

The two of them had spent more additional hours than Abigail cared to recall working out under Senior Chief Madison's critical eye. Shobhana insisted it had been a fair exchange, that she'd gained at least as much in terms of proficiency and skill as she'd been able to give Abigail in terms of attitude, but Abigail disagreed. Her training scores had gone up dramatically, and she still treasured the memory of the first time she'd taken down a male classmate in just three moves in front of her entire class.

But even now, the ghost of her initial self-doubt lingered. She'd overcome her hesitance to tackle friendly opponents in a training environment, but would she be able to do the same thing in real-world conditions if she had to? And if she couldn't—if she hesitated when it was for real, when others depended upon her—what business did she have in the uniform of the Sword?

Fortunately, Lieutenant Stevenson was unaware of her self-doubt. He'd approached her as a sparring partner on the basis of her raw scores from Senior Chief Madison, and she'd accepted with every outward sign of enthusiasm. That accursed hesitancy had reared its ugly head once more, and he'd twitted her gently about it for the first couple of sparring sessions. But she was getting on top of it again, and this time she intended to stay there.

"I especially liked that variant on the Falling Hammer," he told her now, rubbing the back of his protective helmet. "Unfortunately, I don't think I'm limber enough to twist through it that way. Certainly not straight out of a sitting leg sweep like that!"

"It's not that hard, Sir," she assured him with a smile. "Senior Chief Madison showed me that one one afternoon when I started getting a little uppity. The trick is getting the right shoulder back and up simultaneously."

"Show me," Stevenson requested. "But this time, let's take it slow enough that we don't rattle my brain around inside my skull!"


"So how did Ms. Hearns' sparring session go this afternoon?" Lieutenant Commander Abbott asked.

"Looked like it went pretty well, actually, Sir," Senior Chief Posner replied with a slight chuckle. "Of course, coup de vitesse isn't really my cup of tea, y'know, Commander. But it looked to me like the Lieutenant thought he was going to take her down fast, only it didn't quite work out that way."

"I take it she's gotten over that shyness of hers, then?"

"I don't know if 'shyness' was ever really the right word for it, Sir. But whatever it was, yeah, she seems to be over it. In spades, actually! Seems like asking Lieutenant Stevenson to work with her was one of your better ideas."

"Her training file suggested that could be an ongoing problem area," Abbott said with a shrug. "It seemed like a good idea to get her back up on the horse with someone outside her Academy classes, and the Lieutenant is pretty sensitive and flexible . . . for a Marine."

"Well, Sir, I think he's gotten her out of whatever her shell was," the petty officer agreed with another chuckle. Then he grimaced slightly. "But now that we're more or less on top of that one, have you had any more thoughts about our Mr. Grigovakis?"

It was Abbott's turn to grimace. A good OCTO aboard any warship was half teacher, half taskmaster, half mentor, and half disciplinarian for the midshipmen committed to his care. Which came to quite a few halves. He doubted that any midshipman ever really appreciated the fact that an officer candidate training officer who did his job properly wound up running almost as hard and as fast as his snotties did. Which was one reason a smart OCTO depended heavily on his senior noncommissioned assistant when it came to managing his charges.

"I wish I knew," the lieutenant commander admitted after a moment.

"If I had my druthers," Posner said a bit sourly, "I'd arrange for him to spar with Ms. Hearns, Sir. I realize he's a pain in the ass to everyone, but he seems to have a special problem with Graysons. And nasty as he's been to her when he thinks no one's looking, she might just take the opportunity to trim him down to size. Painfully."

"Don't tempt me, Senior Chief!" Abbott chuckled. "It would be sort of fun, though, wouldn't it?" he went on wistfully after a moment. "I'll bet we could sell tickets."

"Sir, I don't believe you could get anyone to bet against you on that one."

"Probably not," Abbott conceded. "But we do have to figure out some way to show him the error of his ways."

"Could always call him in for a counseling session, Sir," Posner pointed out.

"I could. And I guess if it keeps up, I may have to. But I'd really rather find a way for him to figure it out for himself. I can always hammer him for it, but if he only acts like a human being because someone orders him to, it's not going to stick." Abbott shook his head.

"Sir, I agree that it's better to show a snotty the error of his ways than to just lecture him about it. But with all due respect, Mr. Grigovakis has the makings of a genuine pain in the ass as an ensign if someone doesn't straighten him out pretty quick."

"I know. I know." Abbott sighed. "But at least it looks like he's the only problem child we still have. And however . . . unpleasant a personality he may have, at least he's got the makings of a competent pain-in-the-ass ensign."

"If you say so, Sir," Posner said, with that edge of respectful doubt which was the privilege of the Navy's senior noncoms.

Abbott gazed at him out of the corner of one eye and wondered what the senior chief's opinion of Gauntlet's commanding officer might be. It was a question the lieutenant commander could never ask, of course, much as he might like to. And to be fair, which Abbott sometimes found it difficult to be in Captain Oversteegen's case, the CO didn't seem to take malicious enjoyment in deliberately planting barbed comments under the skins of others the way Grigovakis did. And he never used his rank to snipe at someone junior who couldn't respond in kind, either, the way Grigovakis did with the ratings of Gauntlet's crew when he thought no one was looking. Oversteegen could be equally infuriating, in Abbott's opinion, but he didn't appear to do it on purpose. In fact, if it just hadn't been for that incredibly irritating accent of his—and the way family patronage had obviously enhanced his career—even Abbott wouldn't have had any real problems with the captain.


"Well, keep thinking about it," he told Posner after a moment. "If you can come up with something, let me know. In the meantime, we've got some non-snotty business to take care of."

He turned back to his desk terminal and punched up a document.

"Commander Blumenthal says the Captain wants a live-fire exercise for the broadside energy mounts this afternoon," he continued. Posner's eyes brightened, and the ATO smiled. "In fact, the commander says the Captain has signed off on expending a few decoy drones as live targets."

"Well, hot damn," Posner said. "Full-power shots, Sir?"

"Eventually," Abbott told him. "We want to get as much use out of them as we can before we expend them, though. So we'll go with the mount laser designators for the first couple of passes. We'll score hits regularly for evaluation on the lasers. But then," he continued with a grin, "we'll toss out the decoys on an evasion pattern and give each mount a single full-power shot under local control. Sort of a pass-fail exam, you might say."

He looked up from the outline of the exercise plan, and he and Posner smiled broadly at one another.

* * *

The graser mount compartment was crowded. It always was at action stations, even without the need to pack an extra body into the available space.

At least the designers had made some provision for the necessity, however, which meant that Abigail had a place to sit. It wasn't much of one, squeezed in between the mount captain's station and the tracking rating's. In fact, she just barely fitted into it, and she suspected that it had been designed specifically as a convenient niche for midshipwomen, since she doubted anyone much larger than that could have been crammed into the available space.

The good news was that Chief Vassari, Graser Thirty-Eight's mount captain, was a good sort. He didn't have that air of exaggerated patience some long-service noncoms seemed to assume naturally around any mere snotty. About the only positive thing Abigail could say about that particular attitude was that at least it beat the deliberate testing some enlisted and noncommissioned personnel indulged in. She was willing to admit that testing had its place—after all, she thought with a small, secret smile, she was a Grayson—but that didn't mean it was an enjoyable experience.

Chief Vassari fell into neither category. He was simply an all-around competent person who appeared to assume that someone could do her job until she proved differently. Which naturally made it even more important than usual to prove that she could.

Some of Abigail's classmates had always hated weapons drill, at least on the energy mounts. She understood intellectually that some people had an emotional objection to being sealed into a tiny, armored compartment while its atmosphere—and the atmosphere of its surrounding spaces—was evacuated. On an emotional level, though, she'd always thought that was a silly attitude. After all, a starship was nothing but a hollow space filled with air surrounded by an effective infinity of nothingness. If you were going to have trouble with spending time suited up in vacuum, then you should have made another career choice. On the other hand, she supposed it could be a simple case of claustrophobia. There really wasn't very much space in here, and it wasn't unusual for a weapons crew to spend hours at a time strapped into place, living on their suit umbilicals. All so that there would be a live, human presence on the mount if combat damage should suddenly cut it off from Tactical's central computers.

Of course, today's exercise assumed that every single energy mount in the starboard broadside had been thrown back into local control. Abigail couldn't imagine what sort of damage could have cut all of the broadside's weapons off from central control without destroying the ship outright, but that was hardly the point. The object was to train each individual crew for the unlikely day on which it might be the single lucky mount that was cut off.

Unfortunately, Graser Thirty-Eight was the last energy weapon in the starboard broadside, which meant that Abigail, Chief Vassari, and their people had been sitting here for what seemed like forever with nothing to do but watch other people miss the target.

"Stand by, Thirty-Six," Commander Blumenthal said over the com.

"Thirty-Six standing by," a cultured voice responded, and Abigail grimaced. Commander Blumenthal and Lieutenant Commander Abbott had decided to add an additional wrinkle to this afternoon's exercise and announced that each of Gauntlet's four middies would be acting as the captain of the energy mount to which he or she was assigned. The announcement had not been greeted with universal joy by the crews of the weapons concerned. There was always fierce competition between crews during these exercises, both for bragging rights and because of the special privileges which were normally awarded to the winning mount. Having a mere snotty sitting in the command seat was not considered the best way to enhance one's chances of emerging victorious. Not that anyone would have guessed from Arpad Grigovakis' tone that he had any doubts at all about the outcome. Or that he'd been sitting there waiting almost as long as Abigail had, for that matter.

"Beginning run," Commander Blumenthal announced, and Abigail stared down into the minute plot provided between her and Chief Vassari's stations.

Although all control stations were manned, the grasers themselves weren't fully on line . . . yet. Instead, the crews would be "firing" the laser designators to which their weapons were normally slaved. Unlike the grasers themselves, the designators lacked the power to actually damage the sophisticated drones being used as targets, which would allow each target to be used several times. But the drones would sense and report the amount of energy each laser put on target—assuming it was lucky enough to score a hit at all—to establish the performance of each crew.

Unlike the master plot in CIC or the main fire control plot on the command deck, the tiny on-mount displays were not driven from the main sensor arrays. Instead, they relied upon their mounts' lidar, which had a much narrower field of view. Neither their software nor their imagers were as good as those available to CIC or Commander Blumenthal, either. But that was sort of the point, Abigail reminded herself, watching intently as the corkscrewing, rolling drone swept down Gauntlet's starboard side.

The erratic base course was bad enough, but the drone's rotation on its axis made things even worse. She watched a sidebar readout as the drone flashed by at a range of fifty thousand kilometers, and her lips pursed in unwilling sympathy for Grigovakis. His crew seemed to be managing to track the bobbing, weaving drone surprisingly well, but its spinning motion turned its impeller wedge into a flashing shield. The drone wasn't rotating at a constant speed, either, she noted. At a mere fifty thousand klicks, there wasn't a whole lot of time to analyze its erratic rotation, and Graser Thirty-Six's energy-on-target numbers were abysmally low. Under three percent, in fact.

"Doesn't look so good, does it, Ma'am?" Chief Vassari muttered to her over their dedicated private com link.

"It's the rotation," she replied quietly. "The spin is blocking the laser. It's catching them between pulses."

"Yes, Ma'am," Vassari agreed, and Abigail frowned.

Like any shipboard energy weapon, Gauntlet's grasers fired in burstlike pulses, and the laser designators were synchronized to simulate the grasers' normal pulse rate for the exercise. That pulse rate was high enough that a ship-sized opponent couldn't have rotated its wedge in and out of position rapidly enough to avoid significant damage. In the time it took an impeller wedge over a hundred kilometers across to rotate, each graser would have gotten off sufficient pulses to guarantee at least one or two hits, assuming that its targeting solution was accurate.

But the drone's wedge was less than two kilometers across, and at least ninety percent of Graser Thirty-Six's pulses were being shrugged aside by the spinning wedge. The same thing had happened to the other grasers which had engaged the drone, but Thirty-Six's energy-on-target totals were pretty pathetic even compared to the other mounts. Both Karl and Shobhana had done better, although neither of them was exactly in the running for the victor's trophy.

"Tell me, Chief," Abigail said thoughtfully, "do the on-mount computers keep track of all the firing runs?"

"They display all the EOT numbers, but they only log the totals for their own mounts to memory, Ma'am," Vassari replied. He turned his head, gazing at her narrowly through his helmet visor. "Why?"

"I wasn't thinking about performance numbers, Chief," Abigail told him. "I meant, do the computers plot target motion each time the drone makes a run?"

"Well, yes, Ma'am. They do," Vassari said, then smiled slowly. "Are you thinking what I think you're thinking, Ma'am?" he asked.

"Probably," she admitted with an impish grin. "But is our software up to the analysis?"

"I think so," Vassari said, in the tone of a man who would have liked to scratch his chin thoughtfully.

"Well, we'd better get it set up quickly," Abigail said, gesturing with her helmet at the plot. "They'll be starting Thirty-Six's second run any minute now."

"Yes, Ma'am. How do you want me to handle it?"

"I'm hoping that the drone's running on a canned routine rather than generating random evasion maneuvers. If it is, then there's probably a repeat point where it resets. Look for that. And if we've got the capacity, let's run each individual pass for pattern analysis and see if we can't load an automatic recognition trigger into the firing sequence."

"If the Midshipwoman will allow me, Ma'am," Vassari said with a huge grin, "I like the way her mind works."

"Tell me that if we manage to pull it off, Chief," Abigail replied, and he nodded and began punching commands into his console.

Abigail sat back and watched as the drone flashed through the second of Graser Thirty-Six's firing passes. This time Grigovakis' crew did considerably better . . . which still left them with very low numbers. Not that they were alone, and Abigail wondered who was actually responsible for the drone's axial rotation. No one had warned any of the crews that it might be coming, and that didn't strike her as a typical Commander Blumenthal idea. It sounded exactly like something Captain Oversteegen might have decided to throw into the equation, however, and her smile grew nastier at the thought of possibly overcoming one of the captain's little ploys.

The drone returned to its starting point for Graser Thirty-Six's third and final solo designator run, and she turned to glance at Chief Vassari.

"How's it coming, Chief?" she asked quietly.

"Pretty good . . . maybe, Ma'am," he replied. "We've got good plots on about half the previous runs. Looks like we never got a tight enough lock with our on-mount sensors on the other half, so we don't have a complete data set. The computers agree that it's repeating a canned routine, but we'd really need at least half a dozen more passes to isolate the point at which the routine resets to zero. On the other hand, we've got hard analyses on at least twenty separate runs. If it repeats one of those, and if we've got good enough sensor lock to spot it, we should be in business."

"I guess that's just going to have to be good enough, Chief," she said, watching the numbers for Grigovakis' crew's final firing pass come up on her display. They were the best of the three, but even so they weren't anything to get excited about. The best energy-on-target they'd been able to come up with was under fifteen percent of max possible. That would have been more than sufficient to destroy a target as small as the drone, assuming the graser itself had been firing, but it was still a pretty anemic performance.

"We're up next," she pointed out, and Vassari nodded.

"Stand by, Thirty-Eight," Blumenthal's voice said, almost as if the tac officer had been able to hear her, and she keyed her com.

"Thirty-Eight, standing by," she acknowledged formally.

"Beginning run," Blumenthal told her, and Abigail held her breath as the drone came slashing back down Gauntlet's side yet again.

Graser Thirty-Eight's lidar reached out for the target. The drone was small and elusive, but they also knew exactly where to begin looking for it.

"Acquisition!" the tracking rating announced.

"Acknowledged," Abigail replied, and turned to look at Vassari. The chief was staring intently at his display, and when she glanced into her own, Abigail saw the red sighting circle projected across the drone's small bead of light. The targeting solution looked good, but although the energy mount was tracking smoothly, holding the drone centered in the cross-hairs, it wasn't firing.

Abigail felt the other five members of Graser Thirty-Eight's crew staring at her, but she kept her own eyes on the plot. It had seemed like a good idea when she and Vassari came up with it; now, she wasn't nearly as certain. The drone was almost a third of the way through its pass, and still the laser designator hadn't fired. If it didn't do something soon, they were going to come up with a score of zero, and none of the other mounts had managed to do quite that poorly. She hovered on the brink of ordering Vassari to open fire anyway, on the theory that at least something would have to get through, but she closed her lips firmly against the temptation. It either worked, or it didn't; she wasn't going to second-guess herself in mid-flight and risk losing any opportunity of success. Besides, even if she—

"Got it!" Chief Vassari barked suddenly, and the laser designator "opened fire" before the words were fully out of his mouth.

Abigail watched the plot's sidebar, and her face blossomed in a huge smile as the rest of her crew began to cheer and whistle. The computers had identified the repetition of one of the earlier fly-bys, and Vassari's fire plan had instructed them to synchronize the mount's pulse rate with the recognized spin rate of the target. It meant that they weren't pumping out the maximum possible amount of destructive energy, but what they were pumping out was precisely timed to catch the drone at the moment that it turned the open side of its wedge towards the ship. The energy-on-target total shot up like a homesick meteor, and Abigail wanted to cheer herself as the laser designator systematically hammered the drone.

"Sixty-two percent of max!" Vassari proclaimed exultantly as the drone completed its run. "Damn, but—!" He caught himself, and looked at Abigail with a sheepish expression. "Sorry about that, Ma'am," he said contritely.

"Chief," she said around a grin, "I'm from Grayson, not a convent. I've heard the word before."

"Well, in that case," he replied, "damn, but that was fun!"

"Damned straight it was," she agreed with a chuckle, and punched him lightly on the shoulder. "Now, if it just repeats the same maneuver sequence from where we got it indexed on this pass, we should really kick some butt on the next one."

"Not too shabby, Thirty-Eight," Commander Blumenthal observed over the com in a tone of studied understatement. "Of course, there are still two more runs to go. Stand by for second run, now."

"Thirty-Eight, standing by," Abigail responded, and the drone came slashing back at them again.


"I suppose we should all congratulate you," Arpad Grigovakis said.

The four snotties stood in the rear of the briefing room in which Commander Blumenthal and Captain Oversteegen had just completed their dissection of the afternoon's exercises. Commander Watson hadn't attended, since she'd had the bridge watch, but all of the department heads had been present. By now, most of the other officers had already dispersed to other tasks, but Oversteegen, Blumenthal, and Abbott were still engaged in a quiet-voiced discussion, and the middies hadn't yet been dismissed by their OCTO. Which left them in the seen-but-not-heard-mode with which all middies were intimately familiar, and Grigovakis had kept his voice down accordingly.

Not that keeping its volume down had prevented it from sounding thoroughly sour.

"Darn right we should!" Karl Aitschuler grinned at Abigail and slapped her on the shoulder. There was nothing at all sour about his manner, and Shobhana was grinning even more broadly than Karl.

"I should think so," she agreed. "Seventy-nine percent of max possible overall? I'm not sure, but I think that probably ought to count as a record against a target like that!"

"No doubt it does," Grigovakis conceded, still in that sour-grapes tone. "On the other hand, what are the odds that that sort of targeting solution is going to come up in real life?" He snorted. "Seventy-nine percent or seven percent—either one of them would have destroyed a target that size if it had been for real."

"Sure, but I don't seem to remember Thirty-Six scoring seven percent overall, either," Karl said a bit more sharply.

"Well, at least we didn't take advantage of a freak opportunity that's never going to repeat against a real target, did we?" Grigovakis shot back.

"What, you don't think missiles are ever going to use canned routines?" Aitschuler snorted with an edge of contempt.

"Besides," Shobhana said, glaring at Grigovakis, "one of the things an alert tac officer is supposed to do is recognize any advantage or opportunity she can generate! Which is exactly what Abigail did."

"I never said that it wasn't," Grigovakis replied in a slightly more defensive tone. "All I said was that it's not a circumstance that's likely to repeat in real life, and that that leads me to question just how representative of our actual abilities the entire exercise was."

"What you really mean," Karl said coolly, "is that you're pissed off because Abigail and her crew kicked everybody else's butts—including yours."

"Well, yes." Grigovakis chuckled. It was obviously intended to be a rueful sound, but he didn't quite pull it off. "The truth is, I don't like coming in second best," he said with an air of candor. "And I like coming in seventeenth even less. So I guess maybe I didn't take it very well." He showed Abigail his teeth in what could have been called a smile by the charitable. "Sorry about that, Abigail. But don't think I'm not going to try to return the favor next time. And maybe next time I'll be in the Tail-End Charlie position."

"And what does that mean?" Shobhana asked tartly.

"Only that because Abigail's crew fired last, no one else had the opportunity to match her score by using the same technique," Grigovakis replied innocently.

"No one else had the opportunity because no one else came up with the same idea," Karl told him in disgusted tones.

"Well, of course they didn't. I didn't mean to imply otherwise. Although," he looked thoughtful, "to be perfectly honest, Abigail didn't, either."

"What?" Karl managed at the last moment to hold the volume down to something their seniors might not notice, but the strength of the glare he bent upon Grigovakis more than compensated.

"I only meant that she didn't run the actual analysis herself, Karl," Grigovakis said in the patient tones of the much put upon and misunderstood. "Chief Vassari did that."

Butter wouldn't have melted in his mouth, Abigail thought, but the unstated implication was clear enough. He was suggesting, without quite coming out and saying so, that the entire idea had been Vassari's and that Abigail had simply taken credit for it. Which, his tone and expression clearly emphasized, was no more than might be expected from a neobarb like her.

A wave of fury out of all keeping with the pettiness of the small-minded provocation rolled through her. Karl and Shobhana both made disgusted sounds, but Grigovakis only stood there, smiling at her with that smug sense of superiority. It didn't matter to him that neither Karl nor Shobhana agreed with him for an instant; he didn't need their agreement when he had his own. Besides, what else could have been expected from people with the lamentably poor judgment to side with someone like Abigail over someone like him?

She started to open her mouth, then clamped her jaw muscles firmly, instead, and asked the Intercessor for strength. The Church of Humanity Unchained was not exceptionally well known for turning the other cheek, but Father Church did teach that to assail a fool for being foolish was to assail the wind for being air. Neither could help what it was, and belaboring either of them was a waste of effort which might be more profitably devoted to meeting those aspects of the Test which mattered anyway.

And so, she didn't administer the salutary tongue lashing he so richly deserved. Instead, she smiled sweetly at him.

"You're quite right," she said. "I didn't run the analysis. Chief Vassari is much more familiar with the capabilities of the on-mount sensors and software than I am. Of course," she smiled more sweetly than ever, "sometimes it's not necessary to be personally familiar with the capabilities in order to identify a possibility, is it? You just have to be alert enough to recognize the opportunity when it comes along."

Karl and Shobhana chuckled, and Grigovakis' complexion darkened as the counter shot went home. He opened his mouth, but before he could say anything else, Lieutenant Commander Abbott cleared his throat behind him.

All four midshipmen turned to face him, and Grigovakis turned a shade darker, clearly wondering just how much Abbott had overheard, but the OCTO simply looked at all of them for a second or two.

"I'm sorry we kept the four of you standing around so long," he said finally, his tone mild. "I hadn't realized the TO and the Captain and I would be tied up quite so long. Mr. Aitschuler and Ms. Korrami, I'd like you to report to Commander Atkins. I understand that she's finished grading that astrogation problem she assigned you yesterday. Ms. Hearns, I'd like you to accompany me to my office. Chief Vassari will join us there. Commander Blumenthal has asked me to do a critical analysis of the technique the two of you used, and your input will undoubtedly be useful."

"Of course, Sir," Abigail replied.

"Good." Abbott smiled briefly, then glanced at Grigovakis and waved one hand towards the front of the briefing room, where Commander Blumenthal and Captain Oversteegen were still engaged in conversation. "While we're doing that, Mr. Grigovakis, I believe the Captain would like to speak to you for a moment."

"Uh, of course, Sir," Grigovakis said after the briefest of hesitations.

"When you're finished here, please come by my office," Abbott told him. "I imagine Ms. Hearns, Chief Vassari, and I will still be there, and I'd be interested to hear your input, as well."

"Yes, Sir," Grigovakis said expressionlessly.

"Good." Abbott smiled at him again, then nodded Abigail through the hatch.


Captain Oversteegen's conversation with the tactical officer lasted another fifteen minutes. Then Commander Blumenthal left, and Arpad Grigovakis found himself alone in the briefing room with Gauntlet's CO.

Oversteegen appeared to be in no great hurry. He sat at the briefing room table, paging through several screens of notes on his private memo pad for five or six more minutes before he switched off the display and looked up.

"Ah, Mr. Grigovakis!" he said. "Forgive me, I'd forgotten I asked you t' stay." He smiled and gestured for Grigovakis to have a seat at the table.

The midshipman sank into the indicated chair with a wary expression. It was the first time, outside one of the formal dinners in the captain's dining cabin, that Oversteegen had invited him to sit in his presence.

"You wanted to speak to me, Sir?" he said after a moment.

"Yes, I did, actually," Oversteegen agreed and tipped back in his own chair. He gazed at Grigovakis long enough for the midshipman to fidget uneasily, then cocked his head to one side and arched an eyebrow.

"It's come t' my attention, Mr. Grigovakis, that you don't appear t' have exactly what one might call a sense of rapport with Ms. Hearns," he said. "Would you care t' comment on just why that is?"

"I—" Grigovakis paused and cleared his throat, then gave the captain a small, troubled smiled. "I really don't know why, Sir," he said earnestly. "It's certainly not anything she's ever done to me. We just don't click somehow. Of course, she's the only Grayson I really know well enough to consider myself at all familiar with. That may be part of it, though I know it shouldn't be. To be honest, I'm a bit embarrassed. I shouldn't needle her the way I do, and I know it. But sometimes it just gets away from me."

"I see." Oversteegen frowned thoughtfully. "I notice that you referred t' the fact that Ms. Hearns is a Grayson. Does that mean you're prejudiced against Graysons, Mr. Grigovakis?"

"Oh, no, Sir! It's just that sometimes I find them a bit . . . overly focused. I started to say 'parochial,' but that isn't really the right word. They just seem . . . different, somehow. Like they're marching to a different drum, I suppose."

"I suppose that's fair enough," Oversteegen mused. "Grayson is quite different from the Star Kingdom, after all. I would submit t' you, however, Mr. Grigovakis, that it behooves you t' overcome whatever personal . . . discomfort you may feel around Graysons in general, and particularly around Ms. Hearns."

"Yes, Sir. I understand, Sir." Grigovakis said earnestly, and Oversteegen regarded him silently for a moment or two. Then he smiled, and it was not an extraordinarily pleasant expression.

"Be sure that you do, Mr. Grigovakis," he said conversationally. "I realize some members of the Service—includin' some of its more senior ones—seem t' feel that somehow Graysons aren't quite up t' Manticoran standards. I suggest you disabuse yourself of that notion, if you should happen t' share it. Not only are Graysons up t' our standards, but in many ways, particularly now, we aren't up t' theirs."

Grigovakis paled slightly. He opened his mouth, but Oversteegen wasn't finished yet.

"As a midshipman, you may have failed t' note that the Queen's Navy is currently in the process of buildin' down, Mr. Grigovakis. In my considered opinion, that is . . . not a wise policy. But however wise or unwise it may be, the Grayson Navy, on the other hand, is doin' exactly the opposite. And if you make the mistake of assumin' that simply because Grayson is for all intents and purposes a theocracy it must therefore be backward, ignorant, and inferior, you will be in for an extremely sad and rude awakenin'.

"In addition t' that, you are a member of my ship's company, and it is not my practice t' tolerate harassment of any member of my crew by another. Ms. Hearns has not complained t' me, or t' Commander Abbott. That does not mean we are unaware of the situation, however. Nor does it mean I am unaware that you have a tendency t' speak t' your enlisted personnel with a . . . vigor not yet justified by the level of your experience. I expect both of these practices on your part t' cease. Is that understood?"

"Yes, Sir!" Grigovakis said quickly, fighting a temptation to wipe sweat from his forehead.

"It had better be, Mr. Grigovakis," Oversteegen told him in that same, conversational tone. "And while I'm on the subject, perhaps it wouldn't hurt t' point out another reality t' you. I am familiar with your family. In fact, your Uncle Connall and I served together some years ago, and I consider him a friend. I am aware that your family is quite wealthy, even by Manticoran standards, and can trace its earliest Manticoran ancestors back t' shortly after the Plague Years.

"As such, you rightly enjoy a certain standin' and prominence among the better families of the Star Kingdom. However, I think it would be wise of you t' reflect upon the fact that Ms. Hearns can trace her ancestry in unbroken succession through almost a thousand T-years of history t' the first Steadholder Owens. And that despite the fact that she bears no noble title—beyond, of course, that of 'Miss Owens,' which I've observed she never uses—her birth takes precedence over that of anyone below ducal rank in the Star Kingdom."

Grigovakis swallowed hard, and Oversteegen gave him another wintry smile.

"I'll leave you with one last thought about Ms. Hearns, Mr. Grigovakis," he said. "Your family, as I said, is noted for its wealth. That wealth, however, pales t' insignificance beside the Owens family fortune. We are accustomed t' thinkin' of Grayson as a poor planet, and t' some extent, that's no doubt justified, although I believe you might be surprised if you considered the actual figures and how they've changed over the past ten or fifteen T-years. Steadholder Owens, however, is one of only eighty steadholders . . . and Owens Steading was only the eleventh founded. It's been in existence for nine T-centuries, almost twice as long as the entire Star Kingdom. Steadholder Owens is wealthy, powerful, and unaccustomed t' acceptin' the discourteous treatment of members of his family. Especially its female members. I would be most surprised if Ms. Hearns would ever appeal t' him for assistance in such a minor matter, and I strongly suspect that she would be most upset if she ever discovered that her father had chosen t' take a hand in her affairs. Neither of which, I imagine, would dissuade him in the least. Aristocrats, you know, look after their own."

Grigovakis seemed to wilt in his seat, and Oversteegen allowed his own chair to come fully upright once more.

"I commend t' your consideration the example of the treecat, Mr. Grigovakis," he said. "At first glance, treecats are simply fuzzy, adorable woodland creatures. But they, too, look after their own, and no hexapuma in his right mind ventures into their range. I trust the applicable implications will not be lost upon you."

He held the midshipman's eye a moment longer, then nodded towards the open hatch.

"Dismissed, Mr. Grigovakis," he said pleasantly.


The surge of vertigo-crossed nausea was something Abigail hadn't yet become accustomed to. Privately, she doubted that she ever would, but she had no intention of displaying her unsettling stab of discomfort before more experienced eyes, and especially not just now, with so many of those experienced eyes watching her. And not when Shobhana and Karl were about to have so much more of an . . . interesting time than she was.

Crossing the alpha wall from hyper-space back to normal-space for the first time was the equivalent of the old wet-navy tradition of "crossing the line" back on Old Earth. Just as crossing Old Earth's equator had turned the neophyte sailor into a true "shellback" mariner, it was the first alpha translation back into normal-space which transformed the neophyte spacer from a "dirt-grubber" into a "hyper-dog."

Despite their participation in half a dozen near-space and intra-system training cruises, neither Karl Aitschuler nor Shobhana Korrami had ever left the Manticore System prior to their deployment aboard Gauntlet. Which meant that they were about to suffer all of the traditional indignities inflicted upon those unfortunate souls who had never crossed the wall before. The ceremonies, which would include all sorts of initiation ordeals (many of which had been preserved and translated from Old Earth's oceans), were certain to take some time, and despite the uneasy flutter in her own midsection, Abigail rather wished that she could have been present to help officiate.

Fortunately, however, she was already a hyper-dog, and she'd been very careful to preserve the wall-crossing certificate she'd received from the captain of the transport which had originally delivered her from Grayson to Manticore to prove it. She'd been home six or seven times on leave during her assignment to the Academy, as well, which meant that compared to Karl and Shobhana, she was an old hand at hyper translations. That, at least, meant she wasn't likely to be smeared with grease, have her entire body shaved, be required to drink or eat assorted unpalatable substances, or otherwise be subjected to the rites of passage which the senior members of the lodge so cheerfully inflicted upon the newbies in their midst.

But it also meant that she and Grigovakis, who also had several commercial wall-crossings on his record, were available for regular duty assignment. So while Karl, Shobhana, and the handful of other dirt-grubbers among the enlisted members of the ship's company were undergoing the transformation into hyper-dogs, Abigail found herself working as Lieutenant Commander Atkins' assistant when Gauntlet emerged from hyper-space just outside the hyper limit of the Tiberian System. And also working very hard to project the same blasé attitude towards just another trip across the wall.

Of course, there were compensations to having the duty, she reflected. She might not get to help stuff Shobhana headfirst down a tube into a darkened, zero-gee compartment in her underwear to find and bring back "King Neptune's" floating, stolen "pearls" (usually lovingly saved over-ripe tomatoes or something similarly squishy) in her bare hands, but she did get to see the spectacular beauty of the main visual display as Gauntlet's Warshawski sails radiated the blue glory of transit energy. She'd seen it before, of course. Passenger liners were very careful to make sure their paying customers got their money's worth and provided huge holo displays in their main salons expressly for moments like this. But there was a big difference between that and witnessing it as a member of a starship's command crew.

"Transit completed, Sir," Lieutenant Commander Atkins reported.

"Very good, Astro." Captain Oversteegen tipped his command chair back, watching the main maneuvering plot until it updated, showing Gauntlet's position relative to the local primary and major system bodies. He gave Atkins a few moments to confirm the ship's position—a task Abigail was dutifully performing at her own backup station, as well—then let his chair come back upright.

"Do you have a course for Refuge, Astro?" he asked.

"Yes, Sir. Transit time will be approximately seven-point-six hours at four hundred and fifty gravities."

"Very well," Oversteegen replied. "Let's get a move on."

The captain waited while Atkins passed orders to the helmsman and Gauntlet brought up her impeller wedge and settled on her new heading. Then he stood.

"Commander Atkins, you have the con."

"Aye, Sir. I have the con," Atkins acknowledged, and Oversteegen turned to the exec.

"Commander Watson, would you and Ms. Hearns please join me in my briefing room?"

Abigail tried not to twitch in surprise, but she couldn't keep herself from looking up quickly, and he smiled ever so slightly at her. She felt herself color, but he only stood waiting patiently, and she cleared her throat quickly.

"Ma'am," she said to Atkins, "I request relief."

"You stand relieved, Ms. Hearns," the astrogator replied with equal formality. "Mr. Grigovakis," she looked past Abigail to where Grigovakis had been working with Commander Blumenthal's plotting party.

"Yes, Ma'am?"

"You have Astrogation," she told him.

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. I have Astrogation," he confirmed.

Abigail climbed out of her chair as Atkins moved to the chair at the center of the command deck and Grigovakis took over at Astrogation. She waited respectfully for the captain and exec to walk through the briefing room hatch first, then followed them in.

"Close the hatch, Ms. Hearns," Oversteegen said, and she hit the button. The hatch slid silently shut, and the captain waved her over to the conference table and pointed at a chair.

"Sit," he said, and she sat.

"I imagine you're at least a bit curious as t' why I asked you t' join the Exec and me," he said after a moment, and paused with one eyebrow arched.

"Well, yes, Sir. A bit," she admitted.

"My reasons are simple enough," he told her. "We're goin' t' have t' make contact with Refuge, and as I indicated when I first explained our reasons for comin' t' Tiberian in the first place, I feel it's important that we do so in a way which doesn't get their backs up. In addition, I feel it's equally important that we do so in a nonthreatenin' fashion. For that reason, I've decided that you will be in command of our shore party."

His tone was blandly conversational, but Abigail felt her soul stiffen in instant response.

After his remarks at that initial formal dinner, Oversteegen had seemed completely oblivious to the fact that Abigail was a Grayson. She'd been grateful for that, and even more grateful when she realized the captain must have . . . counseled Grigovakis about his behavior. The midshipman was never going to be a likable person, but at least he'd cut way back on the nasty little innuendos he so enjoyed directing at his fellows. For that matter, he'd eased up considerably on what Karl called his "little tin god" persona with the enlisted personnel with whom he came into contact, and she had no doubt that that, too, related directly to his private interview with the captain.

She'd been surprised at Oversteegen's intervention, and even more at the fact that he'd apparently chosen to intervene directly, rather than delegating the task to Commander Watson or Lieutenant Commander Abbott. But she'd also been undeniably appreciative. She'd never doubted her ability to handle Grigovakis if she had to, but it was a vast relief to have that source of friction removed—or at least considerably diminished—in Snotty Row.

But the gratitude she'd felt for the captain's intervention couldn't offset the stab of pure fury she felt at his present announcement. He might have come down on Grigovakis for creating unnecessary friction between members of his ship's company, but it clearly hadn't been because he disagreed with Grigovakis' view of Graysons. After all, who could be better to serve as spokeswoman to a batch of primitive, isolationist religious fanatics than another primitive religious fanatic?

"Captain," she said after the briefest of pauses in a carefully controlled voice, "I really don't know anything about the Refugians' religious beliefs. With all due respect, Sir, I'm not certain that I'm the best choice for a liaison with the planet."

"I believe you underestimate your capabilities, Ms. Hearns," Oversteegen replied calmly. "I assure you, I've considered this matter carefully, and on the merits, you are the best choice."

"Sir," she said, "I appreciate your confidence in my abilities." She managed to smile without even gritting her teeth. "And I will, of course, attempt to carry out any orders to the very best of my ability. But I'm only a midshipwoman. Isn't it possible that the local authorities will feel offended if someone as junior as I am is sent down as our liaison?"

"That possibility exists, of course," Oversteegen conceded, apparently totally unaware of her blistering resentment. "I believe, however, that it's unlikely. Indeed, I would imagine that a single middy and a squad or so of Marines would be seen as less threatenin'—and intrusive—than a more senior officer might be. And of the middies available t' me, I believe you're the best choice."

Abigail hovered on the brink of demanding to know just why he felt that way, but she bit her tongue and kept her mouth shut. After all, it was fairly evident why he did.

"In keepin' with my desire t' seem no more threatenin' or intrusive than absolutely necessary, Linda," he said, turning his attention to the exec, "I think it would be best not t' put Gauntlet into Refuge orbit. At least initially, I want our contact with these people t' be as low-key as possible. I'd like you t' spend some time with Ms. Hearns, briefin' her on exactly what sort of information we're lookin' for.

"Your object," he continued, looking back at Abigail, "will be t' explain why we're here and t' get a feel for the Fellowship of the Elect's attitude towards our presence. Any information you pick up directly will, of course, be welcome, but I don't expect you t' push hard. Your job is really more t' break the ice and put a friendly face on our visit. Think of yourself as our ambassador. If things proceed as I hope they will, you'll undoubtedly be involved in our further contact with Refuge, but we'll be sendin' down someone a bit more senior for the follow up contact and interviews."

"Yes, Sir," Abigail replied. There was, after all, nothing else she could say.

"Linda," he said to the exec, "in addition t' briefin' Ms. Hearns, I want you t' give some thought t' exactly how many Marines we should send down with her."

"Are you expecting some sort of trouble, Sir?" Commander Watson asked, and he shrugged.

"I'm not expectin' anythin'," he said. "At the same time, we're a long way from home, we've never had any previous contact of our own with Refuge, and I'll feel more comfortable sending someone along t' keep an eye on Ms. Hearns. I'm confident in her ability t' look after herself, of course." He smiled briefly at Abigail. "At the same time, it never hurts t' have someone along t' watch your back, at least until you're certain you know the local ropes. Besides," he smiled more broadly, "it'll be good experience for her."

"Yes, Sir. Understood," Watson acknowledged with a slight smile of her own. Just as if she were a nanny promising Daddy to keep me out of trouble back home, Abigail thought resentfully.

"Once we've dropped her and her contact team," Oversteegen went on, "I'd like t' have some fairly obvious reason for takin' Gauntlet out of Refuge orbit. I don't want t' make too big a point out of how careful we're bein' not t' intrude upon them any more than we have to."

"Well, as you just pointed out, Sir, we're the first Queen's ship to visit Tiberian," Watson said. "And everybody knows how compulsive the RMN is about updating our charts at every opportunity. It'd make perfectly good sense for us to do a standard survey run, wouldn't it?"

"Exactly the sort of thing I was thinkin' about," Oversteegen agreed.

"I'm sure we could draft a note from you to the planetary government explaining what we're doing, Sir," Watson said with a smile. "In fact, Ms. Hearns' official reason for visiting the planet could be to deliver the note in person as a gesture of courtesy."

"An excellent idea," Oversteegen said. "I'll explain that we're lookin' into Star Warrior's disappearance in conjunction with our Erewhonese allies. That'll give Ms. Hearns an openin' t' pursue any avenues of inquiry which suggest themselves. And if we're prepared t' spend the time surveyin' just t' update our charts, it should make things seem routine enough t' help put them as much at ease as possible with our presence."

He leaned back in his chair and gazed at Abigail for a few seconds, then shrugged.

"You may believe I'm overly concerned with tiptoein' around the Refugians' sensibilities, Ms. Hearns. It's certainly possible that I am. However, as my mother has always been fond of sayin', you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. It will cost us very little t' avoid stepping on any exaggerated sensibilities these people may have. And t' be honest, given the fact that they've deliberately sought isolation in this system, I feel we have an added obligation not t' intrude any more deeply upon them than we must."

Abigail managed not to blink in surprise, but it was difficult. He seemed completely sincere. She would never have expected that out of him, and his apparent sensitivity to the Refugians' attitudes and concerns only seemed to underscore his insensitivity to her own reaction at being so casually shuffled off into a stereotyped niche in his brain.

"At any rate," he went on more briskly, "as soon as the Exec has briefed you and selected your landin' party, we can get you down there t' begin talkin' t' these people for us."

* * *

"Oh, shit. Are you serious? A cruiser?" Haicheng Ringstorff stared at George Lithgow, his sensor officer and second-in-command.

"That's what it looks like," Lithgow replied. "We can't be positive yet—all we really have is the hyper footprint and an impeller signature, but both of them are consistent with a single heavy cruiser or battlecruiser."

"A heavy cruiser is bad enough to be going on with, George," Ringstorff said sourly. "Let's not borrow trouble by thinking any bigger than we have to!"

"I'm only telling you what the sensor data says." Lithgow shrugged. "If whoever it is is headed for Refuge—and it looks like they are—our inner-system platforms should get a positive ID for us. In the meantime, what do we do about it?"

Ringstorff smiled thinly. Lithgow had said "we," but what he really meant was "you." Which was fair enough, he supposed, given that Ringstorff was the man officially in charge of the four-ring circus the entire Tiberian operation had turned into.

He leaned back in his chair and ran irritated fingers through his thick, dark hair. Ringstorff was tall for an Andermani, with broad shoulders and a powerful physique, and there were still traces of the Imperial Marine colonel he once had been. But that had been long ago, before certain minor financial irregularities in his regiment's accounts had come to the IG's attention. In light of his excellent record in combat and numerous decorations, he'd been allowed to resign without prosecution or even an official investigation, but his career in the Empire had been over. Which had worked out for the best, perhaps, because for the past twenty-five T-years, Haicheng Ringstorff had found much more profitable employment for his skills.

In many ways, his present mission promised to be the most profitable yet. Which it damned well ought to be, given the monumental pain in the ass it seemed determined to turn into!

"What's the schedule on Tyler and Lamar?" he asked Lithgow after a moment.

"Schedule? For these lunatics?" Lithgow snorted.

"You know what I mean," Ringstorff said irritably.

"Yeah, I guess I do," Lithgow admitted. He pulled a memo pad out of his pocket and punched keys, obviously refreshing his memory, then shrugged. "Tyler is due back sometime within the next seventy-two standard hours," he said. "If he and Lamar stayed in company with each other, we can expect both of them in that same window. If they split up, Lamar could be up to another full standard day behind him."

"Shit," Ringstorff muttered. "You know, the whole reason for picking this system was that nobody ever came here."

"That was the theory, anyway," Lithgow agreed.

"Yeah. Sure!" Ringstorff made a disgusted face and thought some more.

"The Four Yahoos might be a little easier to control if we could tell them why we're here and why we're supposed to lie so low," Lithgow pointed out rather diffidently after a moment.

"Not my decision," Ringstorff grunted. Not that Lithgow didn't have a point. But Manpower of Mesa was not in the habit of taking "captains" who were little more than common Silesian thugs into its confidence. For that matter, Ringstorff and Lithgow were the only two members of the hidden depot ship's Mesan crew who knew exactly why they were here. There were times the information restrictions made Ringstorff want to strangle people with his bare hands, but over all, he had to agree that they made better sense than usual in this case.

If everything went well with the main Manpower operation, the captains and crews of the four ex-Solarian heavy cruisers operating out of the carefully hidden base in Tiberian's outer asteroid belt would never know the real reason they'd been here. In that case, both they and the ships might well be useful to Manpower again, somewhere down the road. But if they were needed to support the current operation, then the odds were that once they'd performed their required function, Ringstorff would be instructed to use the remote-controlled nuclear scuttling charges carefully hidden aboard their ships to be sure there were no embarrassing witnesses.

Personally, Ringstorff would shed no tears if he got those orders. The universe would be a better place without Tyler, Lamar, or their two colleagues. Blowing up the ships would be wasteful, however, so preserving their crews' blissful ignorance—and thus obviating the need to eliminate them—was clearly the better option. But still . . .

"It was just a thought," Lithgow said. "Not a very good one, maybe, but a thought."

"I know." Ringstorff sighed. "It probably would have helped if the home office hadn't ordered me to let them play, for that matter."

"I think the geniuses who dreamed up this entire op probably figured there was no point even trying to keep the Four Yahoos from getting back up to their old tricks," Lithgow muttered. "And they were right. It'd make more sense to try to arm-wrestle entropy!"

"You're probably right," Ringstorff agreed. "I think HQ may have thought they could keep them on a leash initially, but after that transport blundered right into us—"

He threw both hands into the air with a grimace of disgust.

"It wasn't like we really had a choice with that one," Lithgow rejoined.

"I know. I know!" Ringstorff said irritably. "But you know as well as I do that that's what really started this entire mess."

Lithgow nodded. The original plan had been for the depot ship and all four of the converted cruisers to remain very quietly on station here in Tiberian until and unless they were required elsewhere. Unfortunately, there'd been some serious slippage in other parts of the schedule, and after four T-months of sitting here doing absolutely nothing, the cruisers' crews of Silesian outlaws had been so bored that Ringstorff had authorized a series of maneuvers and war games to let them play with and familiarize themselves with the capabilities of their vessels. It had made plenty of sense from a readiness viewpoint, after all, and the pirate captains and crews Manpower had recruited for the operation had been delighted by the sophistication of their ships. Most of their ilk had to make do with, at best, castoffs and obsolete units of the Confederacy Navy. The opportunity to trade in their old junkers and replace them with Solarian League technology that was no more than a few T-years out of date was one of the main reasons they'd signed on with Manpower in the first place.

But what Ringstorff hadn't known was that that goody-goody two-shoes Pritchart was going to send a damned transport full of colonists to Tiberian, of all places!

The inhabitants of Refuge had so little interest in contact with the rest of the galaxy that their total orbital infrastructure consisted of one primitive communications station that was probably the better part of a T-century out of date. Tiberian was one of the very few inhabited star systems in this entire region which had absolutely no surveillance platforms of any sort. For that matter, the Refugians had embraced their aggressively nonviolent, pastoral, agrarian lifestyle on their miserable little dirt ball of a planet with such enthusiasm that the system didn't even support a single asteroid resource extraction platform!

That was precisely what had attracted Manpower's attention to Tiberian in the first place. It was the closest star to the real objective, which meant it was ideally located to support the operation at need, and it might as well have been totally uninhabited in terms of the locals' ability to realize anyone was wandering around the outer reaches of their system. So it should have been totally safe to let the pirates play.

Except that the stupid damned transport had dropped out of hyper right on top of them. Not even a merchie's sensor suite could have missed them at that range, which had left Ringstorff no option but to order Tyler to capture it before it could translate back out with the word of their presence.

The elimination of the ship's entire crew and its passengers had been an unpleasant necessity, but one which Manpower's Silesian hirelings had protested. Not out of squeamishness, of course, but because dead passengers couldn't be ransomed by living relatives. They were being paid well for their services, but no self-respecting pirate was going to turn down the opportunity to enhance his profits, and they'd objected to losing this one.

Ringstorff hadn't liked it, but he'd passed on their complaints to the home office, at which point some REMF genius had come up with the notion of placating the pirates by allowing them to dispose of the transport itself through their own contacts in Silesia. At a little over two million tons it hadn't been all that large, but it was still worth the odd billion Solarian credit or two, and the pirates' credit accounts had done well out of it.

Which, unfortunately, had suggested to their stellar intellects that there was no reason why they shouldn't add a few more prizes to the list while they waited for whatever it was their employers had in mind. The same home office genius who had authorized the disposal of the transport in the first place had signed off on their new request, as well. Ringstorff wasn't certain whether that had been solely to keep the hired help happy or if there might not be a more devious motivation. It had occurred to him that the authorizer might have decided that if, indeed, it became necessary to eliminate "the Four Yahoos" and their crews after the main operation's conclusion, it could be convenient to have them identified as common, garden variety pirates. If it was handled correctly, it might even be possible to get the Erewhonese Navy, or the Manticoran Alliance, or even the Havenites to eliminate the "pirates" for Manpower.

It was the sort of complicated, theoretically neat and tidy plan that a certain variety of armchair strategist was fond of. Personally, Ringstorff had no intention of letting anyone else eliminate the Four Yahoos. If they had to go, he was doing it himself, before some half-way competent naval intelligence sort decided to wonder how a batch of "typical" Silesian pirates had gotten their hands on such powerful and modern vessels.

But in the meantime, he felt like a man juggling hand grenades. He was virtually certain that "his" captains had taken at least some prizes they hadn't mentioned to him at all. Certainly enough ships had disappeared in the area to begin attracting an unpleasant amount of attention . . . like the Erewhonese destroyer which had literally stumbled across the depot ship on its way out-system. Fortunately, the destroyer had already informed the Refugians that it was leaving Tiberian, and the Erewhonese appeared to believe that whatever had happened to it had happened somewhere else.

"You don't suppose that this cruiser is here because someone in Erewhonese intelligence has figured out their ship never got out, do you?" Lithgow asked, and Ringstorff grunted in amusement at the way his subordinate's thought processes had paralleled his own.

"The thought did occur to me," he admitted. "But if they had any serious evidence that we popped their ship here, they wouldn't have sent a single cruiser to check it out. They'd have responded in force, even if they didn't realize how much firepower we have, if only to give themselves some tactical flexibility if we tried to run for it."

"So you think they just happen to have turned up?"

"I didn't say that. Actually, I think they probably are here because of the Yahoos' operations. I'll bet you they've been jumping ships they've never bothered to mention to us. And if they have, the Erewhonese—or even the Havenites—could be turning up the heat trying to shake the 'pirates' out of the woodwork. In fact, it's more likely to be Haven than Erewhon, now that I think about it. Erewhon's already checked Tiberian out; Haven hasn't. It would make more sense for the Peeps to follow up their transport's loss here if they're just getting started on their own investigation than it would for the Erewhonese to backtrack through Tiberian for a third time."

"Good point," Lithgow conceded. "Still leaves us the problem of what we do about it, though."

"What I'd like to do would be to pull the hell out of here and take Maurersberger and Morakis with us. Unfortunately, we can't. Oh," he waved one hand, "we could sneak even farther out-system without whoever this is spotting us. I'm not worried about that. But if Tyler and Lamar come back before our visitor leaves, he's hardly going to fail to notice their hyper footprint, now is he? If that happens, it's the Erewhonese destroyer all over again, and in that case, I want all the firepower we've got right where I can put my hands on it in a hurry."

"You really think it would take all four of them to deal with one Peep cruiser?"

"Probably not, but I'm not about to take any chances I can avoid, either! And let's face it, however good 'our' ships are, their crew quality is a little suspect. Whereas if this really is a Peep, Theisman and his bunch have improved their crew quality significantly in the last couple of T-years. Better to have too much firepower than too little, in that case."


" . . . so, Ms. Hearns," Commander Watson said, leaning back in her chair and propping her elbows on its arms, "are there any questions?"

"I don't believe so, Ma'am," Abigail replied after a moment's thought. The exec gave a good brief, she thought. She still might not think very much of Captain Oversteegen's decision to send her down to Refuge, but she felt confident she understood what she was supposed to do once she got there.

Watson studied her for a moment, then frowned ever so slightly.

"Is something troubling you, Ms. Hearns?" she asked.

"Troubling me?" Abigail repeated, and shook her head. "No, Ma'am."

"I wasn't asking whether or not something about your instructions troubled you," Watson said. "But, frankly, Ms. Hearns, I believe that something rather more fundamental is troubling you. And I'd like to know precisely what it is before I send you off groundside out of my sight."

Abigail gazed at her, and behind her own calm expression she took herself sternly to task. Tester, the last thing I need is to sit around sulking like a schoolgirl just because the Captain hurt my feelings! she thought. And just my luck the Exec should decide to call me on it! 

She considered denying Commander Watson's charge, but she wasn't about to compound her fault by adding lying to it. And so she drew a deep breath and made herself meet the exec's eyes levelly.

"I'm sorry, Ma'am," she said. "I don't mean to be overly sensitive, but I suppose that's what I'm being. It just . . . bothers me that the Captain never even seems to have considered assigning this to anyone else."

"I see," Watson said after a few thoughtful moments. "What you're saying is that you resent the fashion in which the Captain seems to have chosen you for this role because of your social and religious background. Is that a fair assessment, Ms. Hearns?"

There was no condemnation in the exec's cool voice, but neither was there any encouragement, and Abigail drew a deep breath. She started to defend herself by denying that she "resented" anything, but that would have been another lie. And so she nodded, instead.

"It sounds petty when you describe it that way, Ma'am," she said. "And maybe it is. I know there certainly have been times since I first reported to the Island that I've been overly sensitive. At the same time, and without seeking to justify myself, I do believe the Captain has made certain assumptions about me and about my beliefs based upon my planet of origin and religion. And I also believe he chose me for this particular assignment at least in part because he considers that the logical person to make contact with a planet full of religious reactionaries is . . . well, another religious reactionary."

"I see," Watson repeated in exactly the same tone. Then she allowed her chair to come back upright and leaned forward, planting her elbows on her desk and folding her forearms.

"I doubt that that was an easy thing for you to say, Ms. Hearns. And I respect the fact that you didn't attempt to waffle when I pressed the point. Nor, although I may have asked about it, have I seen any indication that you're allowing any . . . reservations you may feel about the Captain's attitudes towards you to affect the performance of your duties. Nonetheless, I would raise two points for your consideration.

"First, of the four midshipmen and midshipwomen aboard this vessel, the Captain selected you. Not simply to make contact with a 'planet full of religious reactionaries,' but to command an independent detachment of armed Marines making contact with a planet full of anyone for the very first time in the Star Kingdom's name. You may believe he made that choice because he has assigned you to a particular religious stereotype in his own mind. It is also remotely possible, I submit to you, that he may have made his decision based upon his confidence in your ability.

"Second, while I have been impressed by your intelligence, your ability, and the degree of personal maturity you've demonstrated here aboard Gauntlet, you're still quite young, Ms. Hearns. I won't deliver the traditional timeworn homily on how your perspective will change as you grow older and your judgment matures. I will, however, suggest to you that while it's certainly possible that the Captain has allowed personal attitudes or even prejudices to shape his perception of you, it's equally possible that you've allowed personal attitudes—or even prejudices—to shape your perception of him."

Abigail felt her cheekbones heat, but she made herself sit very upright in her own chair, her head high, meeting the exec's gaze unflinchingly. Watson returned her regard for several seconds, then smiled with what might have been an edge of approval.

"I'd like you to consider both of those possibilities, Ms. Hearns," she said. "As I say, I've been impressed by your intelligence. I think you'll appreciate that I might just have a point."

She held the midshipwoman's eyes for a moment longer, then nodded her head towards the hatch.

"And now, Ms. Hearns," she said pleasantly, "I believe you have a landing party waiting for you in Boat Bay Two. Dismissed."


Abigail did consider the exec's points as Gauntlet's pinnace sliced downward through Refuge's atmosphere and steadied on its course towards the city of Zion, the planet's largest settlement. And as she considered them, she was forced, however grudgingly, to admit that they might have some validity.

She remained convinced that the captain had, indeed, pigeonholed her in his own mind as the product of a religion-blinkered, backward society. And that it was possible, even probable, that he had allowed that view of her to predispose him towards selecting her for her present mission. But however irritating she might find his accent, or his mannerisms—or even his tailoring—she had to admit that he'd never, in any fashion, engaged in the sort of snide, implied sniping Grigovakis and some of her other Saganami classmates had practiced. Neither had he, so far as she could tell, ever allowed any preconception about her on his part to affect the way he evaluated her performance. Nor was he the sort to risk the failure of a mission by assigning anyone to command it but the person he thought best qualified to carry it out.

Even if his prejudices might have inclined him towards selecting her in the first place, he wasn't the kind of officer to make his final decision without careful consideration. And Commander Watson had been right about another thing, as well—Abigail hadn't considered the fact that her assignment to make contact with the Refugians might just as well have reflected his faith in her capability as his prejudice against her own background.

She grimaced as she recognized the truth in the exec's analysis. Whatever Captain Oversteegen might or might not have been guilty of, Abigail had definitely been guilty of allowing her own prejudices and preconceptions to color her view of him. That was humiliating. It was also a failure of her responsibility to Test, and that was even worse.

She gazed out the viewport as the pinnace dipped down below the cloudbase and the untidy sprawl of Zion came into sight. The fact that she'd failed to Test didn't necessarily mean she'd been wrong, but she resolved firmly that before she continued to accept her original conclusions, she would consider all the evidence.

That, however, would have to wait until she returned aboard Gauntlet. For now, she had other things to consider, and whatever the captain's reasons for assigning her to her present task, it was her responsibility to discharge it successfully.

"Five minutes to touchdown, Ms. Hearns," the flight engineer told her, and she nodded.

"Thank you, Chief Palmer," she said, and glanced over her shoulder at Platoon Sergeant Gutierrez. Gutierrez was a San Martino. Quite a few San Martinos had enlisted in the Star Kingdom's military since the planet's annexation, but Gutierrez had joined the Royal Manticoran Marine Corps long before that. Like General Tomas Ramirez, Gutierrez had arrived in the Star Kingdom as a child when his parents managed to escape the Peep occupation of San Martin. In the Gutierrezes' case, they'd done so by stowing away aboard a Solarian League freighter which had dropped them on the planet Manticore with only the clothes on their backs. And like many refugees from tyranny, Sergeant Mateo Gutierrez and his (many) brothers and sisters were unabashed patriots, fiercely devoted to the star nation which had taken them in and given them freedom.

He was also the next best thing to two meters in height and must have weighed somewhere around two hundred kilos, all of it the solid bone and muscle only to be expected from someone born and bred to the heavy gravity of San Martin. Standing next to him in the boat bay, Abigail had felt as if she were five years old again, and his weathered, competent appearance had only emphasized the feeling.

But if he made her feel like a child, his was also a reassuring—one might almost say fearsome—presence. She felt reasonably confident that the pacifistic Fellowship of the Elect was unlikely to attempt to ambush and assassinate her landing party. But after considering all the possibilities, Commander Watson had decided to send not one, but two squads of Marines down with her, and Major Hill, the CO of Gauntlet's Marine detachment, had picked the first and second squads of Sergeant Gutierrez's platoon. Abigail felt moderately ridiculous as the lowly midshipwoman escorted and guarded by no less than twenty-seven armed-to-the-teeth Marines, but she supposed she should take it as a compliment. Apparently, even if the exec had decided to whack her over the head for her sullen attitude, Commander Watson still wanted her back in one piece.

She chuckled quietly at the thought, then looked back out the viewport as the pinnace settled onto the "pad." It wasn't much of a pad. In fact, it was nothing more than a wide stretch of flat, more or less pounded-down dirt. Muddy water from a recent rain covered parts of it in a thin sheet that exploded upwards as the pinnace's vectored thrust hit it, and she shook her head.

Her aerial view had already made it painfully clear that the "city" of Zion wasn't much more than a not-so-large town of single and double-story wooden and stone buildings. From the air, it had appeared that the very oldest portions of the settlement had ceramacrete streets, but the rest of the streets were either paved in cobblestones or simple dirt, like the "landing pad." She'd seen cobblestones enough in the Old Town sections of Owens, but not dirt, and the sight—like that of the landing pad—emphasized just how primitive and poverty stricken Refuge really was.

She drew a deep breath, unbuckled, and climbed out of her seat while Sergeant Gutierrez got his Marines organized. One six-man fire team headed down the ramp and took up positions around the pinnace at Gutierrez's quiet command, and Abigail frowned slightly. They weren't exactly being unobtrusive about their watchfulness. She started to say something about it to Gutierrez, then changed her mind. Commander Watson wouldn't have sent the Marines along if she hadn't wanted them to be visible.

A trio of men stepped out of the neatly painted, thatched-roofed stone cottage which, judging from the aerials and satellite communication array sitting in front of it, was probably the settlement's com center as well as the "control room" for what there was of the landing field. She studied them carefully, if as unobtrusively as she could, as she followed Gutierrez himself down the landing ramp.

The greeting party had timed things pretty well, she thought, because they reached the foot of the ramp almost simultaneously with her.

"I am called Tobias," the oldest-looking of the bearded, brown and gray-robed threesome said. There was a certain watchful wariness in the set of his shoulders and the stiffness of his spine, but he smiled and inclined his head in greeting. "I greet you in all the names of God, and in accordance with His Word, I welcome you to Refuge and offer you His Peace in the spirit of godly Love."

"Thank you," Abigail replied gravely, even as somewhere inside she winced at how someone like Arpad Grigovakis would have responded to that greeting. "I am Midshipwoman Hearns, of Her Manticoran Majesty's Ship Gauntlet."

"Indeed?" Tobias cocked his head, then glanced at Sergeant Gutierrez and back at Abigail. "We are not precisely familiar with the Manticoran military here on Refuge, Mistress Hearns. But as a single small, lightly populated planet, we are—understandably, I think—cautious about unexpected contacts with outsiders. Particularly with unexpected warships. As such, I took the precaution of consulting our library about the Star Kingdom of Manticore when your ship first contacted us. Our records are somewhat out of date, but I notice that your uniform doesn't match the imagery in the file."

He gazed at her expectantly, and she smiled back at him. Sharp as a tack, this one. And it looks like the Captain was right about how wary these people might feel, she admitted, and nodded in acknowledgment of Tobias' point.

"You're correct, Sir," she said, and waved one hand in a small gesture at her sky-blue tunic and dark-blue trousers. "I'm currently serving aboard Gauntlet while completing my midshipwoman's cruise, but I'm not Manticoran, myself. I'm from Grayson, in the Yeltsin's Star System. We're allied with the Star Kingdom, and I've been attending the Royal Navy's academy at Saganami Island."

"Ah, I see," Tobias murmured, and nodded in apparent satisfaction. "I've heard of Grayson," he continued, "although I can scarcely claim that I'm at all familiar with your home world, Mistress Hearns."

He gazed at her speculatively, and she wondered what, precisely, he'd heard about Grayson. Whatever it was, it seemed to reassure him, at least to some extent, and his shoulders relaxed ever so slightly.

"Your captain's message said that you're visiting us as part of an investigation into possible acts of piracy," he said, after moment. "I'm afraid I'm not quite clear on exactly how he believes we can help you. We are a peaceful people, and as I'm sure is apparent to you, we keep much to ourselves."

"We understand that, Sir," Abigail assured him. "We—"

"Please," Tobias interrupted gently. "Call me Brother Tobias. I am no man's master or superior."

"Of course . . . Brother Tobias," Abigail said. "But, as I was saying, my Captain is simply following up the known movements of ships which we know were operating in this area and which subsequently disappeared. One of them was the Erewhonese destroyer Star Warrior, which called here some months ago. Another was the transport Windhover."

"Oh, yes, Windhover," Tobias murmured sadly, and he and his two companions signed themselves with a complicated gesture. Then he shook himself.

"I don't know that we have any information that can help you, Mistress Hearns. What we do know, however, we will willingly share with you and with your captain. As I said, we of the Fellowship of the Elect are a peaceful people who have renounced the ways of violence in all of its forms in accordance with His Word. Yet the blood of our murdered brothers and sisters cries out to us, as must the blood of any of God's children. Anything we can tell you which may aid in preventing additional, equally terrible crimes, we certainly will."

"I appreciate that deeply, Brother Tobias," Abigail told him sincerely.

"Then if you would accompany me, I will guide you to the Meeting House, where Brother Heinrich and some of our other Elders are waiting to speak with you."

"Thank you," Abigail said, then paused as Sergeant Gutierrez started to key his communicator.

"I think you can remain here, Sergeant," she said quietly, and it was Gutierrez's turn to pause, his hand on the com.

"With all due respect, Ma'am," he began in his deep, rumbling voice, and she shook her head.

"I don't believe I have anything to fear from Brother Tobias and his people, Sergeant," she said more crisply.

"Ma'am, that's not really the point," he replied. "Major Hill's orders were pretty specific."

"And so are mine, Sergeant," Abigail told him. "I can look after myself," she let her right hand make a small, unobtrusive gesture in the direction of the pulser holstered at her right hip, "and I don't think I'm in any danger. But these people are probably uncomfortable around armed personnel, and we're guests here. I see no reason to offend them unnecessarily."

"Ma'am," he began again in a dangerously patient voice, "I don't think you quite underst—"

"We're going to do this my way, Sergeant." Abigail's own voice was calm but firm. He glowered at her, but she held his eyes steadily with her own and refused to back down. "Keep an eye on the pinnace," she told him, "and I'll keep my com open so you can monitor."

He hesitated, clearly hovering on the brink of further objections, then inhaled deeply. It was obvious he didn't think much of her order, and she suspected he didn't think a great deal more of the judgment of the person who'd given it. For that matter, she was far from certain Commander Watson would approve of her decision when they got back to the ship and Gutierrez reported. But the captain had emphasized that they were not to step upon these people's sensibilities or beliefs.

"Aye, aye, Ma'am," he said finally.

"Thank you, Sergeant," she said, and turned back to Brother Tobias. "Whenever you're ready, Brother," she told him.

* * *

HMS Gauntlet moved steadily outward from the planet of Refuge. She wasn't in any particular hurry, but Captain Oversteegen had decided he might as well actually go ahead and update his charts on the Tiberian System. As Commander Watson had suggested, it provided a perfectly acceptable reason to move Gauntlet away from the planet. And if he was going to use it as a pretext, he might as well get some genuine use out of it. Besides, it would be a worthwhile exercise for Lieutenant Commander Atkins' department.

"How's it going, Valeria?" Commander Watson asked, and the astrogator looked up from a conversation with her senior yeoman.

"Pretty well, actually," she replied. "We're not turning up any serious discrepancies, but it's pretty obvious that whoever ran the original survey on the system wasn't exactly interested in dotting all the 'i's and crossing all the 't's."

"How so?" Watson asked.

"Like I said, it's nothing major. But there are some minor system bodies that never got cataloged at all. For instance, Refuge has a secondary moon—more of a captured hunk of loose rock, actually—that doesn't appear. We're finding some other little items like that. Small stuff, nothing significant or worth worrying about. But it's an interesting exercise, especially for my newbies."

"Good, but don't get too attached to it. I don't imagine we'll be hanging around very long after we recover Ms. Hearns and her party."

"Understood." Atkins looked around for a moment, then leaned closer to the executive officer. "Is it true she left her watchdogs at the pinnace?" she asked quietly, with a slight smile.

"Now, how did you hear that?" Watson responded.

"Chief Palmer made some observations for me on his way to the planet," Atkins said. "When he reported them to Chief Abrams, he . . . might have commented on it."

"I see." Watson snorted. "You know, the grapevine aboard this ship must be made out of fiber optic, given how quick it works!" She shook her head. "In answer to your question, however, yes. She left Gutierrez and his people at the landing field. I don't think the Sergeant was particularly happy about it, either."

"He doesn't think she's actually in any sort of danger, does he?" Atkins asked in a more serious tone.

"On a planet full of nonviolent religious types?" Watson snorted again, harder, then paused. "Well, Gutierrez is a Marine, so I suppose he could be a little less trusting than us Navy types. But my read right this minute is that he's just a bit on the disgusted side. I think he's put her down as one of those Little Ms. Sunshine types who think the universe is populated solely by kindly, helpful souls."

"Abigail?" Atkins shook her head. "She's a Grayson, Ma'am."

"I know that. You know that. Hell, Gutierrez knows that! But he's also down on a planet we don't know anything about, really, on a first-hand basis, and his pablum-brained midshipwoman has just gone traipsing off on her own with the locals. Not something exactly designed to give a Marine the most lively possible faith in her judgment."

"You think it was the wrong decision?" Atkins asked curiously.

"No, not really. I'm going to give her a little grief over it, when we get her back aboard, and suggest that I sent those Marines along for a reason. But I'm not going to smack her for it, because I think I know why she did it. Besides, she's the one down there, not me, and over all, I think I have considerable faith in her judgment."

"Well," Atkins said, after a glance at the bulkhead time/date display, "she's been dirtside for almost four hours now. Nothing seems to have gone wrong so far, and I suppose she should be heading back shortly."

"As a matter of fact, she's on her way back to the pinnace right now," Watson agreed, "and—"

"Hyper footprint!" The tactical rating whose report interrupted the exec sounded surprised, but his voice was crisp. "Looks like two ships in company, bearing zero-three-four by zero-one-niner!"

Watson wheeled towards him, eyebrows rising, then crossed quickly back to the command chair at the center of the bridge and hit the button that deployed the tactical repeater plot. She gazed down into it, watching until CIC updated it with the red caret that indicated an unidentified hyper footprint on Gauntlet's starboard bow at just over sixteen light-minutes.

"Well, well, well," she murmured, and pressed a com stud on the chair arm.

"Captain speakin'," Michael Oversteegen's voice acknowledged.

"Sir, it's the Exec," she told him. "We've got an unidentified hyper footprint at roughly two hundred and eighty-eight million kilometers. Looks like it might be a pair of them."

"Do we, indeed?" Oversteegen said in a thoughtful voice. "Now, what do you think someone might be doin' in a system like Tiberian?"

"Well, Sir, unless they're as noble, virtuous, and aboveboard as we are, then I suppose it's possible they might be nasty old pirates."

"The same thought had occurred t' me," Oversteegen said, and then his voice went crisper. "Send the crew t' Action Stations, Linda. I'm on my way."


Abigail leaned back in her comfortable chair in the pinnace's passenger compartment, watching the dark indigo of Refuge's stratosphere give way to the black of space, and considered what she'd learned from Brother Tobias and Brother Heinrich.

It wasn't much, she reflected. In fact, she doubted she'd learned a single thing that hadn't already been included in the captain's ONI analyses. Except that it was pretty evident that the captain had been right about the way Star Warrior's captain had rubbed the Refugians the wrong way during his own visit to Tiberian.

It wasn't anything Tobias or Heinrich had said, so much as the way they hadn't said it, she thought. She hated to admit it, but their attitude towards Star Warrior and her crew was precisely the same as the one certain Graysons must have had when Lady Harrington first visited Yeltsin's Star. The irreligious outsiders had come blundering into their star system, bringing with them all of their own, hopelessly secular concerns and all of their readiness to shed blood, and they'd hated it.

It seemed likely to Abigail that both Star Warrior's captain and the landing party from the Erewhonese cruiser which had followed up the destroyer's disappearance had taken exactly the wrong tack with the Fellowship of the Elect. She was sure they hadn't deliberately stepped on the Refugians' sensibilities, but they did seem to have radiated precisely the sort of eagerness to find and destroy their enemies which the Refugian religion would have found most distasteful.

And whatever might have been true in Star Warrior's case, the cruiser which had followed her to Tiberian had obviously been in vengeance-seeking mode. Clearly, the members of her crew who had spoken with Brother Heinrich and his fellow Elders had been both baffled by and at least a little contemptuous of the locals' rejection of their own eagerness to hunt down and destroy whoever had attacked their destroyer.

To be fair to the Fellowship's Elders, they'd recognized that however nonviolent their own religion might be, the suppression of the sort of piracy which had apparently murdered several thousand of their fellow believers was an abomination in the sight of God. That hadn't made them happy about their Erewhonese visitors' attitudes, however. Nor had it made them any less aware of their own religion's commands against violence, and their cooperation, however sincere, had been grudging.

It had taken Abigail a good hour to overcome that grudgingness, herself, and she'd come to the reluctant conclusion that Captain Oversteegen had chosen the right person for the job, after all. It irked her enormously. Which, she had been forced to admit, was petty of her . . . which only made it even more irksome, of course. Her own beliefs were in a great many ways very different from those of the Refugians. For one thing, while Father Church taught that violence should never be a first resort, his doctrine also enshrined the belief that it was the duty of the godly to use whatever tools were required when evil threatened. As Saint Austen had said, "He who does not oppose evil by all means in his power becomes its accomplice." The Church of Humanity believed that—helped, no doubt, she admitted, by the threat Masada had presented for so long—and she found the Refugians' hesitance to take up the sword themselves very difficult to understand. Or to sympathize with. Yet at least she understood its basis and depth, and that meant she was undoubtedly a far better choice as Gauntlet's emissary than any of her hopelessly secular fellow middies would have been.

Now if only the trip had actually turned up some vital information that would have led them to the pirates! Unfortunately, as helpful as the Elders had been, in the end, they hadn't been able to tell her anything that seemed significant to her. She'd recorded the entire meeting, and the captain might be able to find something in the recording that she'd missed at the time, but she doubted it. Which meant—

"Excuse me, Ms. Hearns."

Abigail looked up, startled out of her thoughts by Chief Palmer's voice.

"Yes, Chief. What is it?"

"Ma'am, the Captain is on the com. He wants to speak to you."


"Oh, damn!" Haicheng Ringstorff muttered in tones of profound disgust. "Tell me you're lying, George!"

"I wish." If possible, Lithgow sounded even more disgusted than his superior. "But it's confirmed. It's Tyler and Lamar, all right. And our nosy friend couldn't have missed their footprints if he'd tried."

"Crap." Ringstorff shoved himself back in his chair and glared at his com display. Not that he was pissed off with Lithgow. Then he sighed and shook his head in resignation.

"Well, this is why we kept Maurersberger and Morakis on station. Has the Erewhonese challenged Tyler and Lamar yet?"

"No." Lithgow grimaced. "He's changed course to head directly towards them, but he hasn't said a word yet."

"That's going to change, I'm sure," Ringstorff said grimly. "Not that it matters very much. We can't let him go home and tell the rest of his navy about us."

"I know that's the plan," Lithgow said just a bit cautiously, "but is it really the best idea?" Ringstorff frowned at him, and Lithgow shrugged. "Like you, I figure even the Four Yahoos can take a single Erewhonese cruiser. But even after we do, aren't we still fucked? They obviously sent this fellow along to backtrack their destroyer, so if we pop him in Tiberian, they're bound to close in on the system—probably within another few weeks—which will make it impossible for us to go on operating here, anyway. At this point, we can still avoid action if we want to. So why not just pull out, if we're going to have to relocate our operational base whatever happens?"

"You're probably—no, you're certainly—right that we're going to have to find another place to park ourselves," Ringstorff conceded. "But the SOP for the situation was laid out in our initial orders. Now, mind you, I'm perfectly willing to tell whoever wrote those orders to go screw himself, under the right circumstances, but in this case, I think he had a point. If we zap this turkey, it absolutely denies the Erewhonese any information about us. All they'll know is that they lost a destroyer and a cruiser after investigating this system. They're bound to figure that they actually lost them in this system, but if there are no survivors and we nuke the cruiser's wreckage the way we did the tin-can's, they'll never be able to confirm that absolutely. And whatever they may suspect, they won't have any way to guesstimate what we used to take their ships out. If we let this one get away, they'll know we have at least two units, and they'll probably have a pretty good indication that the two they know about were in the heavy cruiser range themselves."

"I can see that. But they're going to figure we must have at least that much firepower, whatever it was aboard, to take their ships out in the first place," Lithgow pointed out.

"Probably." Ringstorff nodded. "On the other hand, they won't be able to be positive that we didn't somehow manage to ambush their cruiser with several smaller units. But, frankly, the main reason I'm willing to take this fellow on is that the Yahoos need the experience."

Lithgow's eyebrows rose, and Ringstorff shrugged.

"I've never been happy about the fact that the basic plan said we had to lie completely doggo—before the home office authorized our . . . peripheral operations, of course—but then be ready at the drop of a hat to produce four heavy cruisers prepared, if necessary, to take on light Erewhonese or Peep naval forces. You really think these jackasses are going to be prepared to stand up to regular naval units at anything remotely resembling even odds, Solly hardware or no?"

"Well . . ."

"Exactly. Maurersberger and Tyler nearly pissed themselves when they had to jump a single destroyer! Let's face it, they may be the best in the business when it comes to slaughtering passenger liners and unarmed merchies, but that's a whole different proposition from taking on regular men-of-war. So the way I see it, this busybody cruiser represents an opportunity, as well as a monumental pain in the ass. We ought to be able to take him out fairly easily, given the odds. If we can, well and good. It eliminates a possible information source for the other side, and simultaneously gives our 'gallant captains' some genuine combat experience and a victory which ought to be a morale enhancer if the balloon ever really goes up on the main op. And if we can't take a single Erewhonese heavy cruiser, then this is damned well a better time to find out than when the entire operation might depend on our ability to do the same thing."

"There is that," Lithgow agreed after a moment's consideration.

"Damned straight there is," Ringstorff said. Then he snorted in amusement. "And I suppose I should also point out that whatever happens to the Four Yahoos, we should be just fine. After all, we're only an unarmed depot ship. Not even Morakis could expect us to get into shooting range of an enemy warship to support her. So if anything unfortunate happens to the cruisers, we'll just very quietly sneak away under stealth. And tell whatever idiot back home in Mesa thought this one up that his precious Silesian pirates couldn't cut the mustard when it came down to it."

"The home office won't be especially pleased with you if that happens," Lithgow warned.

"They'd be even less pleased if we wound up committing these idiots to action during the main operation and they blew it then," Ringstorff replied. "And if they do manage to screw the pooch this time, I guarantee I'll make that point in my report!"

"What about that pinnace of theirs? According to the surveillance platforms, it's just left atmosphere headed after them, but it's never going to catch up before the shooting starts. So what do we do about it afterwards? For that matter, what about Refuge?"

"Um." Ringstorff frowned. "The pinnace is going to have to go," he said. "We have to assume that the cruiser's captain's already passed his intentions and at least some general info on to the pinnace crew. I don't know about the rest of Refuge, though."

He drummed lightly on the edge of his desk with both hands for several seconds.

"I'd prefer to just leave them alone," he said finally. "They don't have any surveillance net of their own, so the only information they could have would have to come from the cruiser's transmissions. I doubt a regular navy captain would want to get them into the line of fire if he could help it, though, so he may not have transmitted to them at all. Of course, the safest solution would be to go ahead and take them out, as well. It's hardly like there are enough people down there to get the Sollies in an uproar over the Eridani Edict, after all! But it would piss off Pritchart—she's already irritated enough over what happened to her transport—and remember that she was a frigging Aprilist before the Pierre Coup. She wouldn't object to breaking however many eggs it took to deal with a problem like this, and it could get nasty if something we did convinced her government to begin actively cooperating with the Erewhonese."

He pondered for a few more moments, then shrugged.

"We'll have to play that one by ear," he decided. "If we can nail the pinnace and its crew, that's the main thing. If it looks like the other side did transmit to the Refugians, we'll just have to take out Zion, as well. We know their planetary com net sucks, so if we wipe out their main groundside com node, we should wipe out any information in it, as well. Hell, we can probably get away with sending in a couple of assault shuttles to take out just their com shack!" He chuckled suddenly. "Matter of fact, if we handled it that way, it might even get us some brownie points for our 'humanitarian restraint'!" Then he sobered. "But if it looks like the information's gotten beyond Zion, then we'll do whatever we have to do."


" . . . so for right now, I want you t' head back t' Refuge. We'll return t' collect you and your people after we investigate this contact."

Abigail watched Captain Oversteegen's face on the small com screen. He looked calm and confident, despite the fact that CIC had confirmed that both of the incoming impeller signatures belonged to something at least the size of heavy cruisers. That was big for a pirate vessel, yet far too small to be any sort of merchant ship. Of course, no pirate was going to be able to match either the technology or the training of the RMN. But still . . . 

"Understood, Sir," she told him, and waited out the light-speed communications delay until he nodded in satisfaction.

"Keep an eye out," he said. "Right now, it looks like we're lookin' at only a pair of ships. And it's still possible we're goin' t' find out that they're regular warships here for a legitimate purpose, too. But whatever they are, they're maintainin' their course along the outer edge of the limit. That's . . . unusual enough t' make me suspicious, but it also means they're not immediately tryin' t' evade us. So if it turns out they're pirates, they're mighty gutsy ones. Either that, or they've got something t' hide that's important enough for them t' risk taking on a heavy cruiser. And if they do, they're not goin' t' hesitate t' go after a pinnace, as well. Exercise your discretion . . . and try not t' get the Refugians involved. Oversteegen, clear."

The screen blanked. Abigail sat and gazed at it for a moment, then shook herself, stood, and stepped forward from the flight engineer's cramped cubbyhole of a compartment to the flight deck.

"You heard, PO?" she asked the pilot.

"Yes, Ma'am," Petty Officer First Class Hoskins replied. She gestured at her maneuvering plot, which was currently configured to display the entire system. The small display was too tiny to show much detail on such a large scale, but it was more than enough to show Gauntlet's friendly green icon speeding rapidly away from the pinnace towards the two unknowns. "'Bout to get kind of lonely, Ma'am," she observed.

"I think I feel sorrier for whoever that is, assuming they're bad guys, than I do for the Captain," Abigail said, and realized she wasn't just preserving a confident front for Hoskins' benefit. "But in the meantime, I suppose we should do what we were told. Let's turn it around, PO."

"Yes, Ma'am. Should I head for Zion, or just for planetary orbit?"

"I think we'll want to stay away from Zion, whatever happens," Abigail said slowly. "For right now, plan on sliding us back into orbit when we reach the planet. We can always change our minds later, if we have to."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am," Hoskins said, and Abigail nodded and turned to make her way back to the passenger compartment.

Sergeant Gutierrez looked up alertly, and she parked herself back in her own chair, across the aisle from the Marine.

"Gauntlet has picked up a couple of unknown hyper footprints," she told him. "She's moving to investigate them now."

"I see, Ma'am." Gutierrez considered her with neutral eyes. "And what about us, if I can ask?"

"The Captain wants us to head back towards Refuge. We can't match Gauntlet's acceleration rate, and he doesn't want to delay to pick us up."

"I see," Gutierrez repeated.

"He doesn't want us to involve the Refugians if anything . . . unexpected happens," Abigail continued.

"Do we have some reason to expect that something will happen, Ma'am?"

"Not that I'm aware of, Sergeant," Abigail replied. "On the other hand, there are two of them. That we know of," she added, and Gutierrez looked at her for a moment.

"Do you really think there could be more of them hiding out there, somewhere, Ma'am?" The sergeant's tone was respectful enough, but that didn't keep him from sounding just a little incredulous.

"I think that, as far as we know, the Alliance has the best sensor technology in space, Sergeant," Abigail told him, keeping her own voice serene. "I also think a star system represents a very large volume of very empty space, and we don't have a system-wide surveillance net in place. So while I don't necessarily think it's likely there are more of them around, I also don't think it's impossible. Which is why I'd like to be prepared for the possibility."

"Yes, Ma'am."

It was plain to Abigail that Gutierrez was humoring her, however respectfully he was doing it. Obviously, he was of the opinion that a midshipwoman who left her Marine bodyguards behind while she wandered off into the middle of an unknown settlement without a qualm and then worried about invisible bogeymen ambushing a Queen's ship had certain problems rationally ordering threat hierarchies. Not that he would ever dream of saying so, of course.

"What sort of preparations did you have in mind, Ma'am?" he asked after a brief pause.

"Well," Abigail said in a thoughtfully serious tone, moved by a sudden visitation from the imp of the perverse, "as I said, the Captain doesn't want us to involve the Refugians. So that seems to me to rule out a return to Zion. In fact, it would probably be a good idea for us to stay as far away from any of the Refugians' settlements as possible. After all, if there are other pirates in the system, they might decide to send one of their other ships after us, as well."

Gutierrez didn't say a word, but Abigail found it difficult not to giggle at his expression. Clearly, he was becoming even more convinced the midshipwoman with whom he'd been saddled was a dip. Now she thought pirates confronted by a Royal Manticoran Navy heavy cruiser would worry about chasing down a single pinnace? It must have been all he could do to not shake his head in disbelief, she reflected, but she kept her own expression completely serious.

"PO Hoskins is a very good pilot," she continued, "but there's no way a pinnace could avoid a regular warship in space. So if someone does come after us, I'm going to have her set us down somewhere on the planet—preferably clear on the other side of it from the closest Refugian settlement. Of course, if they track us in, they'll be able to find the pinnace without too much difficulty, whatever we might do to conceal it. So, in a worst-case scenario like that, we'll have to abandon the pinnace and seek to evade any pursuers groundside until Gauntlet can return to pick us up."

Gutierrez's eyes were almost bulging by now, and Abigail smiled at him with an expression of becoming earnestness.

"Bearing all of that in mind, Sergeant," she told him, "I think it would be a good idea for you to make a complete survey of the survival gear we have on board. Decide what would be useful to us and get it organized into man-portable packs in case we do have to abandon."

Gutierrez hovered on the brink of protest, but he was a Marine. He couldn't quite bring himself to explain to Abigail that she was a lunatic, so instead he swallowed all of the many arguments which must have presented themselves to him and simply nodded.

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. I'll . . . get right on it."


"You know, Captain," Commander Blumenthal said thoughtfully, "these guys seem to have really good EW."

"What d'you mean, Guns?" Captain Oversteegen asked, turning his command chair to gaze in Blumenthal's direction.

"It's really more of a feeling than anything else at this point," Blumenthal said slowly. "But I'm having a lot more trouble getting a lock on their emissions signatures than I ought to be." He gestured at his display. "The recon platforms are less than two million klicks out, and they still aren't getting as much as they ought to. If they were still under stealth, that would be one thing, but they aren't. Instead, they seem to be doing some sort of weird jingle-jangle on our drones' passives. I haven't seen anything quite like it before."

Oversteegen frowned thoughtfully. The possibility that the newcomers might have a legitimate reason for visiting Tiberian had become increasingly less likely. Without the RMN's FTL com capability, there'd been an inevitable light-speed transmission delay of just over thirty-two minutes built into any challenge/response com loop. But they'd passed that point some time ago, and the fact that the unknowns had completely ignored all of Gauntlet's challenges and efforts to establish communications was certainly a bad sign. Unfortunately, neither the current RMN rules of engagement nor interstellar law gave him the right to preemptively attack someone simply because they refused to talk to him.

Normally, Oversteegen had no particular problem with that restriction. In this instance, however, he had quite a large problem with it. Although Gauntlet was only a heavy cruiser, without the magazine space or the launch tubes for the all-up multi-drive missiles which had given the Manticoran Alliance such a decisive advantage over the People's Navy during the final phases of the war, the missiles she did have were significantly longer ranged than those any other cruiser-sized vessel was likely to carry. But the unknowns were already inside his own theoretical envelope for a maximum-range engagement, and they were continuing to close. At the present rate of closure, in fact, he'd be inside their engagement range within less than another twelve minutes.

Which meant this was not a moment at which he wanted to discover that whoever they were had better hardware than they ought to have.

"We still don't have even a national ID, Sir," the tactical officer continued, "and I'm not happy about that."

"It's not just a class we haven't seen before?" Oversteegen's voice was more that of a man thinking aloud than that of someone actually asking a question, but Blumenthal replied anyway.

"Definitely not, Sir. I cross-checked what we do have against everything in the database. Whoever these people are, we don't know them. Not, at least, based on the emissions we've been able to pick up so far, even with the Ghost Rider platforms. That's what worries me. We ought to be able to make some stab at IDing them, and we can't."

Oversteegen nodded. The RMN's long-range, real-time reconnaissance drones gave it an enormous tactical advantage. At the moment, Blumenthal undoubtedly had a far better look at the unknowns than they could possibly have at Gauntlet. But that didn't help a lot if Gauntlet couldn't identify what she was seeing.

"Can you maneuver one of the platforms for a visual ID?" he asked after considering possibilities.

"I think so, Sir. But it'll take a while. And it'll have to be a down-the-throat look, and at that range, even Peeps could probably nail the platform, stealth or no stealth."

"Go for it anyway," Oversteegen decided.


"You know," Ringstorff said, "I don't think I've had an operation get this fucked up in the last ten T-years. A Manty. A frigging Manty!"

He scowled down at his plot. The information it displayed was over nineteen minutes old, given the distance between the depot ship and the cruiser they'd identified as "Erewhonese" on the basis of the sensor emissions their stealthed inner-system platforms had picked up. But they'd forgotten that the Erewhonese weren't the only ones with Manticoran Alliance hardware, and the relayed challenge this HMS Gauntlet had transmitted to Tyler left no doubt about her nationality. His scowl deepened as he considered the implications, but Lithgow, on the other hand, only shrugged.

"No way you could have known until they challenged Tyler," he said. "Who would have expected to see a single Manty cruiser this far from home now?" He grimaced. "They've been pulling their horns in steadily ever since Saint-Just mousetrapped them into that cease-fire."

"Well, pulling in or not, they're here," Ringstorff grumbled.

"Doesn't really change anything, though, does it?" Lithgow asked, and Ringstorff looked at him. "What I mean is, they're obviously working with the Erewhonese, or they wouldn't be here. In that case, all of the arguments in favor of keeping them from passing on any scan data about us still apply, don't they?"

"Sure they do, but you heard Tyler's voice as well as I did. He's scared shitless by the very thought of crossing swords with a Manty!"

"So what?" Lithgow chuckled nastily. "He's already inside their missile range, so it's not like he has any choice about engaging them, anyway. And whatever the Peeps may think, I don't believe Manties are supermen. The Yahoos have state-of-the-art Solarian missiles and EW, and there are four of them. Two of whom the Manties don't even know are there yet!"

"I know." Ringstorff inhaled deeply and nodded, but despite that, he was far more anxious about the possible outcome than Lithgow was. Unlike Ringstorff, Lithgow was a Solarian himself, recruited by Ringstorff's superiors for the job. This was his first trip to what the League still referred to as the Haven Sector, and it had been obvious to Ringstorff for some time that Lithgow resented the enormous respect—one might almost say terror—which Manticoran technological superiority generated in the minds of the locals.

Part of that was the simple fact that Lithgow hadn't been here while the Manties' Eighth Fleet had been busy smashing every Peep fleet or task force in its way into rubble. But an even bigger part of it, Ringstorff was convinced, was the unshakable confidence in their own unassailable technological supremacy which seemed to be a part of the intellectual baggage of every Solly he'd ever worked with.

Still, he told himself, it was always possible Lithgow's view was at least as accurate as his own. He, after all, was an Andermani, and the Andermani—like their neighbors in the Silesian Confederacy, although to a lesser extent—were accustomed to the notion that the Royal Manticoran Navy was the region's premier fleet. No one in his right mind pissed off the Manties. That was a fundamental rule of survival for the various pirates and rogue regimes of Silesia.

Which was the real reason for his concern. Lithgow was certainly correct that Tyler and Lamar couldn't evade action at this point whatever they did, and he was also right that the Yahoos' capabilities were almost certain to come as a nasty surprise to the Manty. Not to mention the fact that the Manty seemed totally oblivious to the other two cruisers creeping up behind him. So by every objective standard, it ought to be the Manty who was in trouble.

Except that the Four Yahoos were all Silesians, which meant they were unlikely to see it that way.


"Who the hell are these people?" Commander Blumenthal demanded rhetorically as he glared at the visual image frozen on his display.

As he'd more than half-feared, the cruiser he was looking at had picked up the recon drone as it came sidling in for an optical pass. The target's forward missile defenses had promptly blown it out of space. In fact, they'd done it considerably more quickly than he'd anticipated, and he didn't like the acceleration numbers on the counter-missile they'd used. Nor did he care for the increasing evidence that their EW capabilities were much, much better than those of any "pirates" he'd ever heard of. For that matter, they were at least twenty or thirty percent better than anything Gauntlet had on file for first-line Peep systems!

"That, Guns," Captain Oversteegen murmured from where he stood at Blumenthal's shoulder, "is an excellent question."

The captain rubbed his lower lip while he furrowed his brow in thought. The visual imagery wasn't as good as he might have wished, and the angle was poor. But it was the first real look they'd gotten, and there was something about it. Something about the turn of the cruiser's forward hammerhead and the angle of the impeller ring . . .

"That's a Solarian design," he said suddenly, his aristocratic drawl momentarily in total abeyance.

"A Solly?" Blumenthal looked up over his shoulder in disbelief.

"I'm almost certain," Oversteegen said, and leaned closer to point at the visual image. "Look at that gravitic array," he said as more recognition features sprang out at him now that he knew what to look for. "And look at the impeller ring. See the offset on the beta nodes?" He shook his head. "And that might explain how good their EW is."

Blumenthal stared back down at the image, as if seeing it for the first time.

"You could be right, Sir," he said slowly. "But what in God's name would Solly heavy cruisers be doing here?"

"I don't have the least idea," Oversteegen admitted. "Except for one thing, Guns. If what they're here for was legitimate, they would have responded t' our challenges by now. And the fact that they're Solly-built, doesn't mean a thing about who's crewin' them, now does it?"

"But how would garden variety pirates this far from the League get their hands on Solly hardware? And if they could do that in the first place, then why waste their time on chicken-stealing level piracy in an area where all of the system economies are so marginal?"

"All very good questions, Guns," Oversteegen acknowledged. He straightened and clasped his hands behind him. "And it occurs t' me that they're also the sort of questions our friends out there aren't goin' t' want anyone to be askin' . . . much less answerin'. Which may explain why they're comin' in on us so steadily now. Of course, it still leaves the question of why they waited so long before they did, now doesn't it?"

He rocked slightly on the balls of his feet, eyes slightly unfocused as he thought hard. Then he nodded to himself.

"A nasty thought just occurred t' me, Guns. If these are Sollies—or, at least, Solly-built—and if the EW we've actually observed is this good, then what's their stealth technology like?"

"You think there are more of them around, Sir?"

"If there's two of them, I don't see any reason why there couldn't be more. After all, two of them are so unlikely, on the face of things, that I'm no longer prepared t' even hazard a guess as t' what they could be up to. But I think it's time we checked our back."

"Absolutely, Sir," Blumenthal agreed, and looked at his assistant.

"Deploy four more of the Sierra Romeo platforms, Mr. Aitschuler. I want a conic sweep of our after aspect immediately!"


"Shit!" Jerome Tyler, captain of the heavy cruiser Fortune Hunter, swore with feeling. No ship he'd ever commanded, or even served upon, before Fortune Hunter would have boasted the sensor sensitivity to have spotted the Manty's recon platform when it came in on her. Nor would they have been capable of spotting the additional platforms the bastard had just deployed astern of himself. Not even Fortune Hunter's systems could manage to hold the drones once they cleared their mother ship's wedge and brought their own stealth systems fully online, but he knew where they had to be headed. Which meant they were probably going to find Juliette Morakis' Cutthroat and Dongcai Maurersberger's Mörder before they got properly into position.

This was all that asshole Ringstorff's fault! He was the one who'd figured it had to be the Erewhonese again. Now he'd committed them to taking on the Royal Manticoran Navy, and the one thing anyone who had ever operated in Silesia knew was that if you took on a single Manty warship, you'd better be damned sure you killed every member of its crew. Because if the Manties knew you'd hit one of their ships, and they had any clue that would let them identify you, they would stop coming after you only after you were dead . . . or Hell was a skating rink.

Tyler forced his thoughts out of their ever tightening circle and drew a deep breath.

Yes, it was all Ringstorff's fault. And, yes, they were up against a Manty. But that just meant their options were clearer.

And that they couldn't let there be any survivors at all.


"There is another one back there, Sir!"

Michael Oversteegen frowned ever so slightly as his repeater plot updated with the drones' report. The stealthed cruiser creeping up on Gauntlet's port quarter was much closer than any Peep could have gotten without being detected. On the other hand, she wasn't as close as another Manticoran ship might have managed, which suggested that the RMN's hardware remained superior to the other side's, even if those were Solly-built ships. Unfortunately, the margin of superiority looked like being much thinner than it should have been, and there were three of them.

That he knew about so far, that was.

He crossed his legs, considering the situation. The two ships he'd already known about were almost dead ahead of him now, but they'd been cautious, maneuvering along the outside arc of the hyper limit without ever crossing it while letting Gauntlet gradually close the range. The discovery of the third unknown unit might very well explain that caution; they'd shaped their course to draw Oversteegen into a position which would permit their consort to maneuver around astern of him.

But now that the third cruiser was almost into position, they'd changed their own vectors to head directly towards him. The current range was just over fourteen million kilometers, with a closing velocity of just over sixty thousand kilometers per second. Given that geometry, the effective powered missile range for a Peep missile would have been just over fifteen million klicks at 42,500 g, which would give them a minute and a half of drive time. Gauntlet's missiles could pull 46,000 g over the same time envelope, which gave her a current powered engagement range of over sixteen-point-three million klicks, but that theoretical advantage was rather cold comfort, given that both sides were already in their own range of the other. On the other hand, the other side's timing hadn't been perfect—not surprisingly, given the limitations of light-speed communications and the perennial difficulty of coordinating with someone whose stealth systems hid him from your sensors as completely as from the enemy's. Oversteegen knew the trailer coming up astern was there now, and that she'd need over eleven more minutes to get into missile range at all . . . assuming he let her do so.

"Things seem t' be gettin' a little complicated," he observed mildly into the silently roaring tension of his bridge. He drummed the fingers of his right hand lightly on his command chair's armrest and considered his options, which were becoming progressively less palatable.

"How do your targetin' solutions on Number One and Number Two look, Guns?" he asked.

"They're not as good as I'd like, Sir," Blumenthal replied honestly. "Against a Peep, my confidence would be high. Against whoever these people are, though—" He shrugged. "They haven't brought their ECM fully on line yet, so I can't be certain how it will affect our targeting solutions when they do. But given what they seem to be able to do to our passive sensors, I have to say I'd be cautious about their reliability."

"But they don't have it up yet," Oversteegen murmured.

"Not fully, no, Sir."

"Captain," Commander Watson said quietly from the com screen at Oversteegen's right knee which linked him to the exec and her backup command crew in Auxiliary Control, "it's my duty to remind you that the current Rules of Engagement require demonstration of hostile intent before one of Her Majesty's starships is authorized to open fire."

"Thank you, Ms. Exec." Oversteegen smiled thinly at her. "I'm aware of the ROE, but you're quite correct t' remind me of them, and the log will indicate you did so. However, under the existin' circumstances, and given these people's refusal t' respond t' any of our challenges, coupled with the obvious effort t' position their third ship t' ambush us from behind, I'm willin' t' consider that they've already demonstrated hostile intent."

A chill wind seemed to blow briefly around Gauntlet's command deck and the already palpable tension ratcheted higher.

"For what it's worth, Sir," Watson replied, "I concur in your evaluation."

"It would be nice if we were both wrong," Oversteegen observed. "Unfortunately, I don't think we are. Commander Atkins."

"Yes, Sir," the astrogator responded.

"Time t' hyper limit at constant accelerations and headin's?"

"Approximately twelve minutes, Sir."

"And how much can we shorten that?"

"Just a moment, please, Sir." Atkins punched new acceleration values and courses into her running plot, then looked back up. "If we go to max military power, Sir, we can hit the limit in ten-point-five minutes, assuming we change heading seventeen degrees to port for a least-time heading."


"Yes, Sir," Blumenthal responded.

"Number Three's current time t' maximum powered missile range at constant accelerations?"

"Assuming constant accelerations, and assigning Peep missile ranges, approximately ten minutes before Number Three enters her estimated engagement range, Sir," Blumenthal replied promptly. "However, I should point out that if these are Solarian-built units, they may be carrying Solly ordnance, as well, and we have no definitive figures on Solarian League missile performance."

"Noted," Oversteegen replied. "And if we go t' Astro's least-time course t' the limit?"

"Approximately nine-point-three minutes. The course change will let her cut the chord on us just a bit. But, again, Sir, that assumes Peep compensator efficiency at max military power, and a Solly-built ship may be able to pull a higher accel than that."

"Understood." It seemed to Gauntlet's bridge crew that a small eternity passed, but it was actually less than five seconds before Captain Michael Oversteegen made his decision.

"Helm, when I give the word, put us on Astro's course for the limit."

"Aye, aye, Sir," the helmswoman said tautly.

"Guns, the instant we change headin', I want full broadsides and the chase tubes on Number One. I know you'll have t' share uplinks, but I want maximum weight of fire. Hit him hard, because I've got a feelin' any of these people who can are goin' t' follow us right across the wall."

"Aye, aye, Sir," Commander Blumenthal acknowledged in a crisp voice.

"Very well, Helm. Execute!"


"What the f—?!"

Jerome Tyler stared at his plot in disbelief as no less than sixty missiles suddenly came roaring towards Fortune Hunter. No heavy cruiser packed a missile broadside that heavy! Had the bastards had missile pods on tow the entire time?

"Tactical! Bring up our EW! Point defense free! And open fire on that son-of-a-bitch!"


"There goes their EW, Sir," Blumenthal reported, and Oversteegen nodded. He also frowned, because the target's electronic warfare capability was enormously better than anything he'd ever seen out of any non-Manticoran unit. It came up faster, and it was far more effective.

The missiles' target faded into a fuzzy ball of jamming, and fiendishly effective decoys came to life on their tethering tractors. Blumenthal's systems didn't quite lose lock completely, but that lock became much looser and more tentative, and at least a quarter of Gauntlet's missiles veered off to target the decoys as the combination of limited telemetry links and the decoys' efficiency came into play. The fact that Gauntlet was bows-on to her target even after course change let her engage with both broadsides and her bow chasers alike, but she had links for little more than a quarter of that many birds without sharing them, and it showed.

Yet however good their EW might be, it was evident that they couldn't match Ghost Rider's capabilities. Both Number One and Number Two returned Gauntlet's fire almost instantly, but they fired only eight missiles between them. Clearly, those birds came solely from their chase tubes, which suggested that their broadside tubes couldn't match Manticore's off-bore capability.

But that was the only really good news, and Oversteegen watched as his own counter missiles and point defense engaged the incoming fire.

Just as the opposing cruisers' electronic warfare capability was far better than any Peep's would have been, so was their missiles' ECM. Point defense's firing solutions were much poorer than usual, and two of the incoming birds evaded no fewer than three counter missiles each. Blumenthal's last-ditch laser clusters managed to nail both of them before they reached laser head attack range, but Manticoran missile defenses shouldn't have let anything get that close from such a small salvo.

"Two hits on Number One!" one of Blumenthal's ratings announced just as the lasers stopped the second of the near-misses. Which, Oversteegen told himself sourly, wasn't anything to write home about coming out of a sixty-missile launch.

Still, it was better than the other side had done.


Fortune Hunter bucked, and alarms shrilled, as two X-ray lasers slammed into her bow. They came in from almost dead ahead, with no sidewall to interdict, and armor shattered under their ferocious power. Point Defense Four blew apart, and the same hit drove deep, severely damaging Gravitic One and breaching Magazine Two. The second hit came in at a broader angle, with no carry back into the hull, but it also came in directly on top of Missile Four. Seventeen men and women died under those two hits, and six more were wounded, and Tyler felt a deep, panicky stab of near-superstitious dread.

But then the Manty's change of course registered, and his eyes narrowed. He still didn't have any idea how the other cruiser had managed to target him with what had to be both broadsides simultaneously, but it was obvious that the enemy ship was running for the hyper limit. In the Manty's position, Tyler would have been attempting to avoid action from the very beginning against such numerical odds, but that wasn't the way Manties normally handled pirates. Now, though . . .

"The bastards are running," he muttered, and looked up from his plot. "They're running!" he repeated.

"Maybe so, but they're also hammering us a lot harder than we're hammering them!" his executive officer shot back.

"Hell, yes, they are," Tyler agreed with a snort. "And if we'd fired fifteen times as many missiles at them, we'd probably have hit them more often, too! Look at how close two of our birds did get before they stopped them!"

"Well, yeah . . ."

The exec had been with Tyler for almost four T-years, and he had a tendency to try to second-guess his CO. And he was also a fellow Silesian, with the same near phobic respect for the Royal Manticoran Navy. But his panic seemed to ease slightly as he considered the pirate captain's point.

"Damned right, 'well'!" Tyler shot back now, and looked past the other man at his helmsman. "Bring us hard to starboard! Put us as close to parallel with them as you can!"


"They're changing heading to open their broadsides, Sir," Blumenthal reported as Gauntlet's third double broadside blasted from her tubes.

"Not surprisin'," Oversteegen replied in a calm, cool voice. "Only thing they can do, really. But they're not goin' t' be able t' put themselves on a headin' t' follow us across the wall. Stay with Number One, Guns."


Jerome Tyler had already reached the same conclusion as Michael Oversteegen. Whatever he did, Fortune Hunter and Samson Lamar's Predator were going to slide in-system past Gauntlet. But they'd have time for at least eight or nine more broadsides first, and his lips skinned back from his teeth in an ugly smile. No Silesian raider had ever willingly engaged a Manticoran cruiser, but many of them had dreamed of the freak set of circumstances which might have let them do so successfully. The fact that the Manty had to be destroyed was the only thing which had inspired him to engage in the first place, but now that it had been forced upon him, he scented victory, and he wanted it. Badly.

"Pour it on, Tactical!" he snapped. "Communications, raise Mörder! Get her current position—now!"


Joel Blumenthal focused on his plot more intensely than he'd ever done anything before in his life. His eyes flicked across the display, noting shifting vectors, the enemy's fire patterns, and CIC's analysis of the other side's EW and decoys, and he grunted in partial satisfaction.

Number One and Number Two were firing full broadsides, now, and their turn had taken the vulnerable open front aspects of their wedges away from Gauntlet. Worse, the penetration aids and ECM of their attacking missiles were even harder to compensate for as the threat numbers multiplied. But his Ghost Rider recon platforms were real-timing close-range observations of the other ships' EW to him, which gave CIC's computers a much better look at them than the other side had at his own electronic defenses. And good as the pirates' EW might be, it wasn't as good as Blumenthal had originally believed. Or possibly it was; it could be lack of skill on its operators' part.

Whatever the cause, the enemy's EW was slow. However effective their decoys might be, they were much slower to adapt their emissions than Manticoran decoys would have been. Perhaps even more importantly, their mother ships' onboard EW was slow to adapt to the active sensors aboard Blumenthal's remote recon platforms.

Those platforms' FTL grav-pulse transmitters fed his targeting computers with real-time data, and their radar and lidar was getting far better hits off of their targets than they should have done against jammers that capable. He wondered if the pirates even realized how close the platforms were. Or how quickly their targeting info could make its way back to Gauntlet. There was no way to tell, and it didn't really matter, he thought, as he updated his current missile salvo's attack profiles.



Tyler pounded jubilantly on the arm of his command chair, and a hungry sound of triumph rippled around Fortune Hunter's bridge as two of their laser heads broke through the Manty's defenses. The enemy cruiser's sidewall intercepted them, bending and blunting them, and it was unlikely they'd inflicted heavy damage, but it was a start, and more broadsides were already in space.

"I've got Mörder," Tyler's com officer announced. "I'm feeding her current position directly to Tactical."

Tyler waved one hand in acknowledgment. Then he looked down at his repeater plot as Maurersberger's cruiser appeared upon it, and his eyes flamed. Mörder was closing in on the Manty from almost directly astern, and Maurersberger was nearly in range already. The Manty's superior acceleration wasn't enough to overcome the velocity advantage Mörder had built up before the enemy ship altered course.

* * *

"Two hits forward of Frame Sixty," Commander Tyson reported from Damage Control Central. "We've lost Graser Fourteen, Laser Cluster Eight and Ten, and Lidar Two. No casualties from those hits. But we took another one aft of Frame One-Zero-Niner. It took out Missile Twenty and Graser Twenty-Four, and we took heavy casualties on the energy mount."

"Understood," Captain Oversteegen replied, but his eyes were fixed on his tactical plot as he watched Blumenthal's most recent broadsides roaring down upon Number One. Good as the enemy's missile ECM was, Gauntlet's was better, and Oversteegen's eyes glittered in anticipation as the target's counter missiles went wide and its point defense lasers fired late.


"Shit! Heavy damage to Laser Seven and Miss—"

The voice from Damage Control chopped off in mid-word, and Jerome Tyler's hungry smile vanished as Fortune Hunter heaved madly. He clung to his command chair's arms on the bucking bridge, and his face was ashen as alarms screamed and the bridge lighting flickered. At least four missiles from the Manty's last salvo had gotten through this time, and he didn't need more reports from Damage Control to know Fortune Hunter had been badly hurt.

"Captain, our accel is dropping!" the helmsman reported, and Tyler grimaced as he stabbed a quick look at his own displays. Of course their acceleration was dropping—the goddamned Manty had just blown four nodes out of their after impeller ring!

"I've lost contact with Missile Niner, Eleven, and Thirteen," the tac officer reported. "Missile Defense Seven and Niner don't respond either. And I've lost the port decoy!"

"Roll hard port!" Tyler barked. "Get our starboard broadside to bear on them!"


"Good hits on Number One!" Blumenthal announced jubilantly. "Their wedge strength is dropping, Sir!"

"Good work, Guns!" Oversteegen replied, even as he watched Gauntlet's defensive fire annihilate an entire incoming broadside well short of laser head attack range. Number One was bleeding air and trailing debris, and her fire seemed to have dropped. And—yes, she was rolling ship to snatch her damaged flank away from Gauntlet! But it looked like she'd left it too late to evade Blumenthal's follow-up salvo.

"Time t' hyper limit?" he demanded.

"Four minutes, Sir," Atkins responded.

"Communications, record a transmission for Midshipwoman Hearns," Oversteegen commanded.

"Standing by, Sir," Lieutenant Commander Cheney acknowledged.

"Message beg—"

"Incoming! Missiles in acquisition, bearing one-seven-five! Impact in one-five-zero seconds!"

Oversteegen's eyes snapped back to his tactical repeater as the fresh threat came roaring in from astern. It couldn't be from Number Three—not on that bearing! Which meant there was a fourth enemy ship in the system, and they'd missed her completely!

"Stern wall!" he barked. "Get it up now!"


Tyler's eyes clung to the tactical display as the Manty missiles sliced through his badly battered defenses. He no longer had a port decoy, and his EW emitters had taken heavy damage from the hits which had lacerated Fortune Hunter's port flank. His counter missile and point defense crews did the best they could, but it wasn't going to be good enough.


Gauntlet's missiles raced down upon their target and detonated at ranges as short as ten thousand kilometers. The powerful X-ray lasers ripped deep into Fortune Hunter, shattering bulkheads and opening compartments like knives. Energy mounts and their crews were smashed and mangled, missile tube mass-drivers arced madly as their capacitor rings shorted, and atmosphere gushed from the brutal wounds. The cruiser heaved bodily sideways, and then the last hit came slicing in, and Number One Impeller Room exploded with a cataclysmic fury that destroyed her entire forward hammerhead.

The ship tumbled madly as her wedge unbalanced, and then her inertial compensator failed.

Whether any of her crew were still alive when the savage torquing effect on her hull snapped her back scarcely mattered.


Michael Oversteegen was peripherally aware of Number One's spectacular destruction, but he had little attention to spare for it. Not with twenty-plus missiles racing straight for Gauntlet's kilt.

Behind the mask of his features, he cursed himself for not having found whatever ship had just fired. He knew, intellectually, that Blumenthal had done extraordinarily well just to spot Number Three, given the effectiveness of these "pirates' " electronic warfare capabilities. But that was no comfort at all as he watched those missiles come.

Gauntlet's acceleration dropped abruptly to zero as her stern wall snapped up. She was one of the first Edward Saganami-B-class ships which had added that passive defense, and this was the very first time any of them had tested it in actual combat. It had worked well enough for the LACs who'd first employed it during Eighth Fleet's decisive offensive, but a heavy cruiser was scarcely a LAC.

More to the point, it took time for the wall to come up, and time was in very short supply.


Samson Lamar stared in horror at the broken, lifeless wreckage which an instant before had been a heavy cruiser. The sheer, blinding speed with which Fortune Hunter had been transformed into so much splintered rubble stunned him. And it also terrified him, because he knew who the next target of the Manty's wrath had to be.

He opened his mouth to order his helmsman to turn Predator up on her side relative to the Manty, sheltering behind the impenetrable roof of her wedge. But before he could get the order out, Dongcai Maurersberger's missiles exploded dead astern of the enemy ship.


HMS Gauntlet bucked in agony as the incoming laser heads detonated. Her after point defense had knocked out twelve of them, despite the surprise of their launch from stealth. Five more were sucked off by the cruiser's decoys. But the remaining six ran straight in on their target and detonated eighteen thousand kilometers astern of her.

If not for her stern wall, she would have died then and there. Even with it, the damage was terrible. The wall was still spinning up to full power when the lasers came slashing in. It could bend and attenuate them, but it couldn't stop them, and damage alarms shrieked.

"We've lost the after ring!" Tyson barked from Damage Control Central. "Grasers Thirty-Two, Thirty-Three, and Thirty-Four are gone! We've lost at least half the after laser clusters, and I'm getting no response from Environmental Four or Boat Bay Two!"

Oversteegen's jaw tightened. Raising the stern wall had cut Gauntlet's acceleration to zero when it closed the after aspect of her wedge, but without the after impeller ring, it would be halved even after the wall came down. And with his after missile defenses so badly damaged, he dared not lower it at all until he'd wrenched his stern away from the previously unsuspected attacker.

"Can we get the wedge back?" he asked Tyson sharply.

"I can't say for certain, Sir," the engineer replied. He was hammering at his keyboard even as he spoke, eyes locked to the scrolling diagnostic reports.

"I don't like t' rush my officers," Oversteegen said, "but it would be most helpful if you could expedite that estimate."

"I'm on it, Sir," Tyson promised, and Oversteegen looked up from his com screen.

"Helm, reaction thrusters. Bring us ten degrees to starboard and pitch us up fifteen degrees."

"Ten degrees starboard, pitch up fifteen degrees, aye, Sir!"

"Tactical, we need t' find this gentleman astern of us," Oversteegen continued, swiveling his eyes to Blumenthal's section.

"We're on it, Sir," Blumenthal replied. "We've got a good fix on the missiles' launch locus, and these bastards' EW isn't good enough to hide from us when we know where to look for them!"

"Good. Astro," Oversteegen turned towards Lieutenant Commander Atkins, "recompute our course t' the wall t' reflect my last helm orders. Then generate a random course change as soon as we cross the wall. With our after ring down, these people are goin' t' be able t' stay with us after all."

"Aye, aye, Sir."

"Guns," Oversteegen turned back to Blumenthal, "forget about Number Two for now. She's goin' t' slide past us whatever she does; it's Number Three and this Number Four we have t' worry about right now."

"Aye, aye, Sir. I'm recomputing now."

"And as for you, Commander Cheney," Oversteegen said, returning his attention to the communications officer with a thin smile, "I believe we were about t' record a transmission for Ms. Hearns."


" . . . so things are gettin' just a little tight up here, Ms. Hearns." Abigail stared at Captain Oversteegen's impossibly composed face on the pinnace's tiny com screen in something that wasn't disbelief simply because her shock was too deep for her to feel anything yet. She could hear combat chatter and the beeping of priority alarms behind him, but that irritating, aristocratic accent was as calm as ever.

"We've destroyed one hostile, but at least two are in position t' follow us into hyper," he continued. "If they're foolish enough t' come through separated, we should be able t' take them easily. If they stay concentrated, it's goin' t' be a little dicier, of course. Either way, we'll be back t' pick you and your people up as soon as possible.

"In the meantime, however, be advised that at least one enemy heavy cruiser is goin' t' be unable t' follow us. Since they chose t' engage us when they didn't have to, I'm assumin' that they feel they have somethin' here in Tiberian which they have t' conceal at all costs. If that's true, I anticipate that the cruiser which can't follow us will come lookin' for you. I can't advise you from here, Ms. Hearns. You're on your own until we can get back here. Evade any way you can, but avoid contact with the Refugians at all costs. It's our job t' protect people like them; not t' set them up t' draw fire.

"Good luck, Ms. Hearns. Oversteegen, clear."

The screen blanked, and Abigail inhaled deeply. As the oxygen filled her lungs, it seemed as if it were the first breath she'd taken in at least an hour.

She stood up in Chief Palmer's compartment, and her brain began to work after a fashion again.

The captain's transmission was over fifteen minutes old, because the pinnace had no ability to receive FTL transmissions. Which meant it was entirely possible that Captain Oversteegen and Gauntlet's entire company were already dead.

No. She put that thought firmly aside. If it was true, then nothing she and her people could do to evade the enemy would succeed in the end. But if it wasn't true, and she allowed the possibility to paralyze her, then whatever slim chance of survival they had would disappear.

She squared her shoulders and stepped onto the flight deck.

"You heard, PO Hoskins?" she asked the pilot.

"Yes, Ma'am." The petty officer looked back over her shoulder at Abigail, her face taut. "Can't say I like the sound of it very much, though."

"I don't much care for it, myself," Abigail assured her. "But it looks like we're stuck with it."

"As you say, Ma'am." Hoskins paused a moment, then continued. "What are we going to do, Ma'am?"

"Well, one thing we're not going to do is try to evade a heavy cruiser in space, PO," Abigail said, and surprised herself with a smile which held a hint of true humor. "Any proper warship could run us down without too much trouble, and it's not as if we could hide from her sensors. Not to mention the fact that she's probably got at least a dozen or so small craft of her own she could deploy to come after us."

"That's true enough, Ma'am," Hoskins acknowledged, though her tone was dubious. "But if we can't evade them in space, how well can we hope to evade them dirtside?"

"Refuge's got some pretty rough terrain, PO," Abigail replied. "And we've got all of Sergeant Gutierrez's well-trained Marines aboard to help us hide in it. Of course, it would be best of all if we could convince them to not even look for us, wouldn't it?"

"Oh, yes, Ma'am," Hoskins said fervently.

"Well, in that case, let's just see what we can do about that."


"Are you sure about this, Ma'am?" Sergeant Gutierrez asked quietly, and Abigail smiled sourly. At least the towering noncom was asking the question as privately as the pinnace's cramped confines allowed. That, unfortunately, didn't change the fact that he appeared to be less than overwhelmed with her plan.

Such as it was, and what there was of it.

"If you're asking if I'm sure it will work, Sergeant," she said coolly, "the answer is 'no.' But if you're asking if I'm confident this is what will give us our best chance, than the answer is 'yes.' Why?"

"It's just— Well, Ma'am, no offense, but what you're talking about doing would be hard enough if we were all trained Marines."

"I'm aware that Navy personnel aren't trained in planetary evasion and concealment tactics the way Marines are, Sergeant. And if I had another choice, believe me, I'd take it. But you'll just have to take my word for it that there's no way this pinnace could possibly avoid detection, interception, and destruction if we try to stay in space. That's an area where we Navy types have a certain degree of expertise of our own." She gave him a thin smile. "So, the way I see it, that only leaves us the planet. Understood?"

"Yes, Ma'am," Gutierrez said. He remained clearly unhappy, and she suspected he also remained somewhat short of total confidence in her leadership ability, but he couldn't avoid the force of her argument, either.

"Well," she told him with a more natural smile, "at least we already had our survival supplies ready to go, didn't we?"

"Yes, Ma'am, we did." Gutierrez surprised her with a chuckle which acknowledged that he knew she'd given him the initial assignment just to yank his chain. She grinned back wryly, but then their moment of shared humor faded, and she nodded to him.

"All right, Sergeant. Once we're down, I'm going to be relying very heavily on your expertise. Don't hesitate to offer any suggestion that occurs to you. I know what I want to do, but this isn't an area in which I'm trained to know how to do it."

"Don't worry, Ms. Hearns," he told her. "You know the Corps motto: Can do! We'll get through it when we have to."

"Thank you, Sergeant," she said, and she was genuinely grateful for his attempt to bolster her confidence, even though she was just as aware as he was of how slender their chances actually were against any determined orbital and aerial search for them. She smiled briefly at him, then returned to the flight deck.

"How are we coming, PO?" she asked.

"Almost there, Ma'am," Hoskins replied. Her co-pilot had the controls while Hoskins and Chief Palmer put their heads together over the autopilot programming panel. The petty officer looked up at the midshipwoman with an expression that was half-smile and half-grimace. "Too bad we didn't have any canned routines on file for this."

"I know. But Sir Horace didn't have one either when he set it up," Abigail pointed out. "And at least you and Chief Palmer get to work with our own software instead of the Peeps'."

"True, Ma'am," Hoskins agreed, and Abigail smiled encouragingly and returned to the passenger compartment.


"We should hit Refuge orbit in about twelve minutes," Commander Thrush said, and Samson Lamar nodded in acknowledgment of his astrogator's announcement just as if he didn't think this hunt for the Manty pinnace was ridiculous. And pointless.

He doubted very much that the cruiser had taken the time to squeal any sort of detailed download to the pinnace's crew. Certainly it must have had other things on its mind once it realized Cutthroat and Mörder were both behind it. Despite what the Manty had done to Fortune Hunter, the chances of its successfully defeating two more heavy cruisers had to be low, especially in light of the way Mörder's fire had smashed its after impeller ring. And if the cruiser was destroyed, then there was certainly no rush in hunting down its orphaned pinnace! If, on the other hand, the cruiser succeeded in escaping destruction by some unlucky chance, then there was no point in destroying the pinnace, either.

But that pain in the ass Ringstorff had insisted, and Lamar had been unable to come up with any logical reason why he shouldn't just as well do what Ringstorff wanted. On the one hand, there'd been no way to decelerate in time for Predator to join Cutthroat and Mörder's pursuit of the Manty, and, on the other, Predator's base course had already been almost directly towards the planet.

So here she was, a fully armed heavy cruiser hunting for a single pinnace. It was rather like sending a sabertooth tiger to hunt down a particularly vicious mouse.

"Anything yet?" he asked his tac officer.

"Not yet. Of course, if they're lying doggo, they're going to be a pretty small target."

"I know. But Ringstorff says the remote platforms tracked them back to the planet, so they have to be around here somewhere."

"Maybe so, but if I were a pinnace that figured a heavy cruiser might be hunting for me, damned if I'd park myself in orbit where it could find me!"

"Yeah? Where would you hide?"

"The planet's got two moons," the tac officer pointed out. "Well, one and a fraction. Me, I'd probably look for a nice crater somewhere and hide in a ring wall's shadow. Either that, or find myself a nice deep valley down on the planet, somewhere. Damned sure I wouldn't hang around in space!"

"Makes sense to me," Lamar acknowledged after moment. "But we have to start somewhere, so let's get on with it. If they're not in orbit, Ringstorff is just going to make us look somewhere else until we find them, after all."

"What a pain in the ass," the tac officer muttered, unaware that he was paralleling Lamar's own opinion of Ringstorff. Lamar smiled at the thought, and returned to his own console.

Fifteen minutes passed. Predator slowed, killing the last of her motion relative to Refuge as she slid into a high orbit, and her active sensors began a systematic search for any other artificial object in orbit around the planet.

It didn't take them long to find one.

* * *

"There she goes," PO Hoskins said softly, staring down at the palm-sized display of the portable com. The unit's transmit key was locked out to prevent any accidental transmission which might give away their position, but the signal from the orbiting pinnace came in just fine.

Not that it was much of a signal. Just a single, omnidirectional burst transmission which would give away nothing about its intended recipients' location even if it was picked up. But it was enough to let them know what was happening.

High overhead, the pinnace which had returned to parking orbit under the preprogrammed control of its autopilot recognized the lash of radar when it felt it. And when it did, it activated the other programs Hoskins and Palmer had stored in its computers.

Its impellers kicked to life, and the small craft slammed instantly forward at its maximum acceleration, darting directly away from the planet in an obvious, panicky bid to escape.

It was futile, of course. It had scarcely begun to move when Predator's fire control locked it up. The pirate cruiser didn't even bother to call upon the pinnace to surrender. It simply tracked the wildly evading little vessel with a single graser mount . . . then fired.

There was no wreckage.


"Well, that seems straightforward enough," Lamar said with an air of satisfaction.

"Yeah," his tac officer agreed. "Still seems pretty stupid of them, though."

"I think Al may have a point, Sam." It was Tim St. Claire, Predator's improbably named executive officer, and Lamar frowned at him.

"Hey, don't blame me," St. Claire said mildly. "All I'm saying is that Al's right—only a frigging idiot would have sat here in orbit waiting for us to kill him. Now, personally, I figure there's a damned good chance that anyone who's just seen his ship haul ass out of the system with the bad guys in hot pursuit is gonna act like a frigging idiot. Panic does that. But if he didn't panic, then this was way too easy. And if we don't go ahead and look for him some more on our own now, Ringstorff is just gonna send us back here and make us do it later. Besides, it'd give the crew something to do while we wait for Morakis and Maurersberger."

"All right," Sampson sighed. "Break out the assault shuttles and let's get to it, then."


"They didn't buy it, Ma'am," Palmer announced quietly, watching the display as the small tactical remote they'd deployed on a high peak several kilometers from their present position tracked the impeller signatures far above the surface of Refuge. The remote was too simpleminded to give them very detailed information, but it was obvious that the single pirate cruiser was deploying small craft.

"Not entirely, anyway," Hoskins put in, and Abigail nodded, even though she suspected that the pinnace pilot had only said it in an effort to make her feel better. But then another, deeper voice rumbled up in agreement.

"Chances are they're at least half-convinced they got us," Sergeant Gutierrez said. "At the very least, it's going to generate a little uncertainty on their part, and that's worthwhile all by itself. But whether they figure we're already dead or not, it looks like they're going to look down here until they're sure, one way or the other."

"We knew it was likely to happen," Abigail agreed, looking about in the dusk of an early winter evening. Their carefully hidden position was tucked away in a narrow, rugged mountain valley on the opposite side of the planet from Zion. It was winter here, and winter on Refuge, she was discovering, was a cold and miserable proposition.

She shivered, despite the parka from the pinnace's emergency survival stores. It was warm enough, she supposed, but she was a Grayson, raised in a sealed, protected environment, not someone who was accustomed to spending nights outside in the cold.

At least it should be hard for them to find us, she thought. Any planet's a big place to play hide-and-seek in.

These rocky, inhospitable mountains offered plenty of hiding places, too, and Gutierrez and his Marines had rigged thermal blankets for overhead cover against the heat sensors which might have been used to pick them out against the winter chill. Unfortunately, they had only fifteen of the blankets, which wasn't enough to provide cover for all of them even when their smaller personnel doubled up. Worse, they hadn't been able to do away with power sources. Their weapons, the two long-range portable communicators they had to have if they were ever going to contact Gauntlet when she returned, and at least a dozen other items of essential survival gear all contained power packs which could be readily detected by an overhead flight, and the thermal blankets wouldn't do much to change that.

They'd done their best to put solid rock between those power sources and any sensors which might fly past, but there was only so much they could do. 

"All right, Sergeant Gutierrez," she said, after a moment. "Who's got first watch?"


"This has got to be the most boring fucking job yet," Serena Sandoval grumbled as she brought the heavy assault shuttle around for another sensor sweep.

"Yeah?" Dangpiam Kitpon, her co-pilot, grunted. "Well, 'boring' beats the shit out of what happened to the Hunter, doesn't it?"

Sandoval made an irritated sound, and Dangpiam laughed sourly.

"And while we're talking about things that 'boring' is better than," he continued, "I wonder just how 'interesting' things are being for Morakis and Maurersberger about now?"

"You've got an over-active mouth, Kitpon," Sandoval half-snarled, but she couldn't quite dismiss Dangpiam's question. It had been hours since Cutthroat and Mörder had translated into hyper in pursuit of the Manty cruiser. As badly damaged as the Manty had been, they had to have caught up with her quickly, so where the hell were they?

She concentrated on her flight controls, ignoring the moonless winter night beyond the cockpit canopy, and took herself firmly to task for letting Dangpiam get to her. Sure, it was a Manty, but there was only one of it, and it already had the shit shot out of it! It had just gotten lucky against Fortune Hunter, that was all, and—

A signal pinged quietly, and Sandoval's eyes dropped to her panel.

"Well, dip me in shit," Dangpiam murmured beside her.


"Wake up, Ma'am!"

The hand on Abigail's shoulder felt as if it were the size of a small shovel. It felt as strong as one, too, although it was obviously restraining itself, since it was only ripping one shoulder off at a time.

She sat up abruptly, eyes snapping open. The sleeping bag was like an entrapping cocoon, for all its warmth, and she squirmed, fighting her way out of it even as her brain spun up to speed.

"Yes? I'm awake, Sergeant!" she said sharply.

"We've got trouble, Ma'am," Gutierrez told her in a low voice, almost as if he were afraid of being overheard. "Overflight four or five minutes ago. Then whoever it was came back again, lower. They must have gotten a sniff of something."

"I see." Abigail sucked in a deep lungful of icy mountain air. "Should we move, or sit tight?" she asked the platoon sergeant, deferring to his expertise, and heard him scratching his chin in the darkness.

"Six of one, half a dozen of the other, at the moment, Ma'am," he replied after a moment. "We know they must have picked up something, or they wouldn't have come back. But there's no way to know what they picked up. For that matter, they could've come back around and missed us the second time, in which case they may decide that this is a clear area. In that case, it would be the safest spot we could find. And there's always the fact that people moving around are easier to spot than people bellied down in a good hide. I'd stay here, unless—"

Gutierrez never completed the sentence. The whine of air-breathing turbines seemed to come out of nowhere and everywhere simultaneously, filling the night with thunder. Abigail threw herself flat in instinctive reaction, but her eyes whipped around, seeking the threat source.

She caught a brief, nightmare image of a vast, black shape, looming out of the night like some huge, high-tech bird of prey. It wasn't a pinnace, she realized. It was an assault shuttle, the heavily armed, heavily armored kind that could carry an entire company of battle-armored infantry.

Then something flashed in the night.


"There!" Dangpiam shouted, pointing at the visual imagery as the low-light cameras swept the craggy mountain terrain. Sandoval darted a look at the display herself, but she couldn't afford to take her attention off the flight instruments this close to the ground. Not in terrain like this.

"I'll take your word for it," she said as she brought the big shuttle back around for a third pass. "Punch up the com. Tell Predator we've got them, and then tell Merriwell we're about to drop his people on top of the Manties. I'll stand by for support after that, and th—"

Lightning flashed somewhere beneath her and interrupted her in mid-word.


A Royal Manticoran Marine Corps rifle squad consisted of thirteen men or women divided into two fire teams and commanded by a sergeant. Each fire team consisted of a single plasma rifle, the standard heavy firepower of the Marines, covered by three pulser-armed riflemen and one grenadier, and was commanded by a corporal.

Platoon Sergeant Mateo Gutierrez had deployed his two squads to cover the narrow valley in which they'd found refuge, and his instructions had been explicit. No one was to fire without direct orders from Abigail or him, unless it was obvious that they'd been discovered. But if it was obvious, then he expected his people to use their own initiative.

Which was why four plasma rifles fired virtually simultaneously as Serena Sandoval, who'd forgotten that this time she was hunting Royal Manticoran Marines and not terrified, unarmed civilian spacers, swept back over them for the third time.

The assault shuttle was big, powerful, and well armored for an atmosphere-capable craft. But it wasn't well enough armored to survive simultaneous multiple plasma strikes at a range of less than three hundred meters. The incandescent energy ripped straight through its hull, and Abigail tried to burrow her way into the stony ground as Sandoval, Dangpiam, their flight engineer, and the seventy-five armed pirates who'd thought they were hunting mice, vanished in the brilliant blue flare of igniting hydrogen.


"God dammit!" Lamar slammed a fist on the arm of his command chair as the report came in. "God dammit! What did those idiots think they were doing?!"

"I imagine they thought they were closing in on the Manties," St. Claire replied tartly. Lamar glared at him, and his exec glared back. "Don't let your emotions shut down your brain, Sam," St. Claire advised coldly. "It looks like Al was right—that pinnace was a decoy." He smiled sourly. "Ringstorff will be pleased we found them."

"Yeah? Well, now that Sandoval's gotten her silly ass blown out of the air, who have we got in position to go get them?" Lamar demanded scathingly.

"Nobody, right this minute," St. Claire admitted. "We've only got so many shuttles. But we can have another bird directly over them within twenty minutes, max. And this time, we'll come in smarter."


"Move, move, move!" Sergeant Gutierrez shouted, driving the Navy personnel before him while his Marines moved along the flanks. At least they all had decent low-light vision equipment, but that didn't make the terrain any less rugged, and Abigail had already discovered that running down a rocky gorge in the middle of a winter night was nothing at all like the track at Saganami Island.

She stumbled over a rock and would have fallen if that same shovel hadn't darted out and caught her. She was a slender young woman, but she knew she couldn't possibly weigh as little as Sergeant Gutierrez made it seem as he held her up one-handed until she got her feet back under her.

"They'll be back overhead as quick as they can," he told her, his breathing almost normal despite the pace he was setting. Of course, a corner of Abigail's mind reflected, Refuge's gravity wasn't that much more than half the gravity to which he'd been born. "The fire will screw up their thermal sensors, at least to some extent," he continued. "But they'll still be able to sweep for the power sources unless we can get back under cover in time."

Abigail nodded in understanding, but unlike Gutierrez, she had no breath to spare for conversation. She concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. That was quite enough to keep her completely occupied, under the circumstances.

"Here! Turn left here!" It was Sergeant Henrietta Turner, the sergeant commanding the second squad Commander Watson had assigned to Abigail all those lifetimes ago. She looked up, and saw Turner literally pushing Chief Palmer down a narrow ravine. Gutierrez had scouted the vicinity carefully before he settled on their first hiding place, and he'd chosen it at least in part because there were others, almost as good, close at hand. Now Abigail saw Palmer disappear, and then it was her turn to follow him into the ravine.

It was so narrow that she couldn't believe Gutierrez would be able to squeeze his bulk into it, but the platoon sergeant fooled her again, following close on her heels as she ducked her head under a stone overhang. The northern wall of the ravine inclined steadily towards the southern wall as it rose, until the gap between them was no more than a meter or two wide. Over the years, debris had gathered, narrowing the gap still further and effectively turning the ravine into a cave, and the party of refugees pressed themselves back against the walls, panting gratefully as Gutierrez finally allowed them to stop.

The overhead cover was actually better than it had been in their original position, but the ravine was so much narrower that they were hard-pressed to fit all of them into the available space. Worse, there was only one entry and one exit.

"Check the remote, Chief," Abigail panted.

"Yes, Ma'am." Palmer slipped his shoulders free of his backpack's straps and delved into it. It only took him a moment to extract the com tied into the remote still watching over their old encampment.

"Damn," Gutierrez said softly as he peered over Abigail's shoulder at the small display and the image of the second shuttle grounded beside the roaring flames of the first. "I'd hoped they wouldn't be quite that fast off the mark." He checked his chrono. "I make it roughly twenty-three minutes."

Abigail only nodded silently, but her heart sank. She'd hoped it would take much longer than that for a follow-up flight to reach their original campsite. The speed with which the pirates had actually managed it dismayed her. This wasn't the sort of tactical problem they'd trained her for at the Academy, and somehow, when she'd devised her plan, she'd assumed they'd have more time to move from covered position to covered position.

She patted Palmer on the shoulder, then nodded to Gutierrez to follow her, and the two of them made their way back to the mouth of the ravine. Abigail crouched there, Gutierrez squatting behind her, and gazed back up the way they'd come. Their position was as close as they were going to get to a private conversation, she thought.

"They're fast," she said finally, and half-sensed Gutierrez's shrug behind her.

"People who fly are always faster than people who walk, Ma'am," he said philosophically. "On the other hand, people who walk can get into places people who fly can't."

"But if they can pin us down in a place like this," she said quietly, "they won't really have to get into here after us, will they?"

"No," Gutierrez agreed.

"And it won't take them long to work their way here," Abigail continued in that same quiet voice.

"Longer than you think, Ma'am," Gutierrez assured her. She looked up at him, and her low-light gear showed her his expression clearly. To her surprise, he seemed completely serious, not as if he were simply trying to cheer her up.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"Ma'am, they can overfly us in just a few minutes, but we're under pretty good cover here. They're not going to see us from overhead, and that means they're going to have to send people in looking for us on foot. Now, we knew exactly where we were going, and it took us a good fifteen, sixteen minutes to get here at a hard run. It's going to take them a helluva lot longer to cover the same distance not knowing where they're going. Especially when they're going to be wondering if the same people who shot down their shuttle are waiting to shoot them up, too."

Abigail nodded slowly as she realized he was right. But even if it took the pirates four or five times as long to cover the same distance, they'd be to the ravine in no more than an hour and half or so.

"We need to buy some more time, Sergeant," she said.

"I'm certainly open to ideas, Ma'am," Gutierrez replied.

"How good are those thermal blankets at blocking sensors, really?"

"Well," Gutierrez said slowly, "they're pretty damned effective against straight thermal sensors. And they'll help some against other sensors. Not a lot. Why, Ma'am?"

"We don't have enough of them to cover all of us," Abigail said. "Even if we did, it will only be a matter of time until they work their way far enough down the valley to spot this ravine." She thumped the rock wall behind her. "And when they do—" She shrugged.

"Can't argue with you there, Ma'am," the sergeant said slowly, in the tone of a man who was pretty sure he wasn't going to like what he was about to hear.

"It occurs to me that if we just stay here, they'll get all of us once they reach this point," Abigail said steadily. "I'm sure you and your people will put up a good fight, but with us pinned down in here, all it would take would be one or two grenades or plasma bursts, wouldn't it?"

Gutierrez nodded, his expression grim, and she shrugged.

"In that case, our best bet is to decoy them away from the ravine," she said. "If we just stay here, we all die. But if some of us use the thermal blankets for cover while we move away from here, then deliberately show ourselves further down the valley, well away from the ravine, we can draw them after us, pull them past the others. There should even be a pretty good chance that they'll assume all of us are somewhere out there ahead of them and extend their perimeter past the ravine without ever realizing it's here."

Gutierrez was silent for several seconds, then he drew a deep breath.

"Ma'am, there may be something to what you're saying," he said very slowly. "But you do understand that whoever does the decoying isn't going to make it, don't you?"

"Sergeant, if we all stay here, we all die here," she said flatly. "It's always possible some of the decoy force might survive." She held up a hand before he could protest. "I know how heavy the odds against that are," she told him. "I'm not saying I think any of them will. I'm only saying that it's at least theoretically possible . . . whereas if we stay here, there's no possibility at all, unless Gauntlet somehow miraculously gets back in the nick of time. Or would you disagree with that assessment?"

"No, Ma'am," he said finally. "No, I wouldn't."

"Well, in that case, let's—" she looked up at the sergeant with a bittersweet smile he didn't quite understand "—be about it."


It wasn't quite that simple, of course. Especially not when Gutierrez found out who she intended to command the decoys.

"Ma'am, this is a job for Marines!" he said sharply.

"Sergeant," she shot back just as sharply, "it was my idea, I'm in command of this party, and I say that makes it my job."

"You're not trained for it!" he protested.

"No, I'm not," she agreed. "But let's be honest here, Sergeant. Just how important is training going to be, under the circumstances?"


"And another thing," she said, deliberately dropping her voice so that only Gutierrez could hear her. "If—when—they finally catch up with the decoys," she said unflinchingly, "they're going to realize they've been fooled if all they find are Marines. That was a Navy pinnace. They may assume some of the crew stayed aboard to draw their fire and cover the rest, but do you think they're not going to be suspicious if they don't find any naval personnel dirtside?"

Gutierrez stared at her, his expression unreadable, as he realized what she meant. That despite anything else she might have said, she knew the decoys were going to die . . . and that she was deliberately planning to use her own corpse in an effort to protect the other personnel under her command.

"You could have a point," he acknowledged, manifestly against his will, "but you really aren't trained for this. You'll slow us down."

"I'm the youngest, fittest Navy person present," she said bluntly. "I may slow you down some, but I'll slow you down the least."


"We don't have time to debate this, Sergeant. We need every minute we've got. I'll let you choose the rest of the party, but I'm coming. Is that clearly understood?"

Gutierrez stared at her for perhaps another three heartbeats. And then, slowly, obviously against his will, he nodded.


"It's taking too long," Ringstorff said.

"It's a big planet," Lithgow replied. The depot ship was far enough from Refuge that Lamar's light-speed message reporting the loss of his assault shuttle had yet to reach it.

"I'm not talking about that," Ringstorff said. "I'm talking about Morakis and Maurersberger. They should have been back here by now."

"It's only been fourteen hours," Lithgow protested. "It could easily have taken them that long just to run the Manty down!"

"Not if this report from Lamar about her impeller damage was accurate, it couldn't," Ringstorff shot back.

"Unless she got it fixed before they caught her," Lithgow said. "Or maybe they got just enough of it back to stay ahead for a few extra hours." He shrugged. "Either way, they'll catch her, or after a few more hours, they'll turn around and come home to announce they've lost her."

"Maybe," Ringstorff said moodily. He moved morosely around the depot ship's bridge for a few minutes. He didn't care to admit, even to himself, how shocked he'd been by Fortune Hunter's destruction. Despite all of his inbred respect for the Royal Manticoran Navy, he hadn't really believed that a single RMN cruiser stood the proverbial chance of a snowball in hell against no less than four Solarian-built cruisers, even with Silesian crews. But he'd viewed Lamar's report carefully, and he was privately certain that if Mörder hadn't hit her with that single totally unexpected broadside, Gauntlet could have taken all three of the ships she'd known about.

Which, he finally admitted to himself, was the real reason he was so antsy. If an undamaged Gauntlet could have taken three of the Four Yahoos, then it was distinctly possible that, even damaged, she could deal with two of them. And that assumed she'd really been damaged as severely as Lamar thought she had.

"Bring up the wedge," he said abruptly. Lithgow looked at him in something very like disbelief, but Ringstorff ignored it. "Take us out of here very slowly," he told his astrogator. "I want a minimum power wedge, and I want us under maximum stealth. Put us outside the outermost planetary orbital shell."

"Yes, Sir," the astrogator acknowledged, and Ringstorff walked back across to his command chair and settled into it.

Let Lithgow feel as much disbelief as he liked, he thought. If that Manticoran cruiser did manage to come back, there was no way in hell Haicheng Ringstorff intended to confront it with an unarmed depot ship. The chances of anyone spotting them that far out from the primary were infinitesimal, and they could slip undetectably away into hyper anytime they chose.

"What about Lamar?" Lithgow asked in a painfully neutral voice, and Ringstorff looked up to find his second-in-command standing beside his command chair.

"Lamar can look after himself," Ringstorff replied. "He's got an undamaged ship, and he's way the hell inside the system hyper limit. He certainly ought to be able to spot a heavy cruiser's footprint in plenty of time to run before it comes in on him. Especially if his damned report about its impellers was right in the first place!"


"I'm picking something up," Sergeant Howard Cates announced.

"What?" Major George Franklin demanded nervously. Franklin wasn't really a "major," any more than Cates was a "sergeant," of course. But it had amused Ringstorff to organize his cutthroat crews' ground combat and boarding elements into something resembling a proper military table of organization.

"I'm not positive . . ." Cates said slowly. "I think it's a power pack. Over that way—"

He looked up from the display of his sensor pack and pointed . . . just as the supersonic whip crack of a pulser dart blew the back of his head into a finely divided spray of blood, bone, and brain tissue.

Franklin cursed in falsetto shock as the scalding tide of crimson, gray, and white flecks of bone exploded over him. Then the second dart arrived, and the major would never be surprised by anything again.


Mateo Gutierrez had his vision equipment in telescopic mode, and he smiled with savage satisfaction as Private Wilson and Staff Sergeant Harris took down their targets.

"Well, they know we're here now," he said, and Abigail nodded beside him in the dark. She'd seen the sudden, efficient executions as clearly as he had, and she marveled, in a corner of her mind, that it hadn't shocked her more. But perhaps that wasn't really so surprising after the last four or five hours. And even if it was, there wasn't time to worry about it now.

"They're starting to circle around to the west," she said instead, and it was Gutierrez's turn to nod. He'd managed, for reasons Abigail hadn't been prepared to argue against, to assign her as his sensor tech. They'd had less than a dozen of the sensor remotes, but they'd planted them strategically along their trail as they scrambled across the mountainside under the cover of their thermal blankets. Abigail was astounded at the degree of coverage that small number of sensors could provide, but very little of the information coming in to her was good.

There were well over two hundred pirate ground troops moving steadily in their direction. It was obvious to her that they weren't even remotely in the same league as Gutierrez and his people. They were slow, clumsy, and obvious in their movements, and what had just happened to the pair that had strayed into Sergeant Harris' kill zone was ample evidence of the difference in their comparative lethality. But there were still over two hundred of them, and they were closing in at last.

She leaned her forehead against the rock behind which she and Gutierrez had taken cover and felt herself sag around her bones. The sergeant had been right about how untrained for this she was. Even with the advantage of her low-light gear, she'd fallen more than once trying to match the Marines' pace, and her right knee was a bloody mess, glued to her shredded trouser leg. But she was better off than Private Tillotson or Private Chantal, she thought grimly. Or Corporal Seago.

At least she was still alive. For now.

She'd never imagined she could feel so tired, so exhausted. A part of her was actually almost glad that it was nearly over.

Mateo Gutierrez interrupted his focused, intense study of their back trail long enough to glance down at the exhausted midshipwoman briefly, and the hard set of his mouth relaxed ever so slightly for just a moment. Approval mingled with bitter regret in his dark eyes, and then he returned his attention to the night-covered valley behind them.

He'd never thought the girl would be able to keep up the pace he'd set, he admitted. But she had. And for all her youth, she had nerves of steel. She'd been the first to reach Tillotson when the pulser dart came screaming out of the dark and killed him. She'd dragged him into cover, checked his pulse, and then—with a cool composure Gutierrez had never expected—she'd taken the private's pulse rifle and appropriated his ammo pouches. And then, when the three pirates who'd shot Tillotson emerged into the open to confirm their kill, she'd opened fire from a range of less than twenty meters. She'd ripped off one neat, economical burst that dropped all three of them in their tracks, and then crawled backward through the rocks to rejoin Gutierrez under heavy fire while the rest of Sergeant Harris' first squad put down covering fire in reply.

He'd ripped a strip off of her for exposing herself that way, but his heart hadn't been in it, and she'd known it. She'd listened to his short, savage description of the intelligence involved in that sort of stupid, boneheaded, holovision hero, recruit trick, and then, to his disbelief, she'd smiled at him.

It hadn't been a happy smile. In fact, it had been almost heartbreaking to see. It was the smile of someone who knew exactly why Gutierrez was reading her the riot act. Why he had to chew her out in order maintain the threadbare pretense that they might somehow survive long enough for her to profit from the lesson.

She'd killed at least two more of the enemy since then, and her aim had been as rock steady for the last of them as for the first.

"I make that thirty-three confirmed," he said after a moment.

"Thirty-four," she corrected, never lifting her forehead from the rock.

"You sure?" he asked.

"I'm sure. Templeton got another one on the east flank while you were checking on Chantal."

"Oh." He paused in his rhythmic search and raised his pulse rifle. Her head came up at his movement, and she brought her own appropriated rifle into firing position.

"Two of them, on the right," Gutierrez said quietly from the corner of his mouth.

"Another one on the left side," she replied. "Up the slope—by that fallen tree."

"You take him; I'm on the right," he said.

"Call it," she said softly, her youthful contralto calm, almost detached.

"Now," he said, and the two of them fired as one. Gutierrez dropped his first target with a single shot; the second, alerted by the fate of his companion, scrambled for cover, and it took three to nail him. Beside him, Abigail fired only once, then rocked back to cover their flanks while the sergeant dealt with his second target.

"Time to move," he told her.

"Right," she agreed, and started further up the valley. They'd picked their next two firing points before they settled into this one, and she knew exactly where to go. She kept low, ignoring the pain in her wounded knee as she crawled across the rocky ground, and she heard the sergeant's pulse rifle whine again behind her before she reached their destination. It wasn't quite as good a position as it had seemed from below, but the rough boulder offered at least some cover, as well as a rest for her weapon, and she rolled up into position, thanking the Marine instructors who had insisted on drilling even midshipwomen in the rudiments of marksmanship.

The pulse rifle's built-in telescopic, light-gathering sight made the valley midday bright, and she quickly found the trio of pirates who were engaging the sergeant. She took a moment to be certain of their exact locations, then swept the lower valley behind them from her higher vantage point, and her blood ran cold. There were at least thirty more of them, pressing up behind their point men, with still more behind them.

Gutierrez had the lead trio pinned down, but they had him pinned down, as well, and he couldn't get the angle he needed on them.

But Abigail could. She tucked the pulse rifle into her shoulder, gathered up the sight picture, and squeezed off the first shot.

The rifle surged against her shoulder, and the left shoulder and upper torso of her target blew apart. One of his companions darted a look in her direction and started to swing his own rifle towards her, but in the process, he rose just high enough to expose his own head and shoulders to Gutierrez.

The platoon sergeant took the shot, and then Abigail had her sights on the third pirate. Another steady squeeze, and she keyed the com they hadn't dared to use until they were certain the pirates were already closing in on them.

"Clear, Sergeant," she said. "But you'd better hurry. They brought along friends."


"Piss on this!" Lamar snarled as the latest reports came up from groundside. His ground troops had run the damned Manties to ground, but in the process they'd run into an old-fashioned buzz saw. He didn't believe the kill numbers they were sending up to him for a moment. Hell, according to them, they'd already killed at least forty of the bastards . . . and even at that, they'd lost forty-three of their own. Not that there was any damned way the Manties had sent forty people down to a dirt ball like Refuge in the first place!

"Piss on what?" St. Claire asked wearily.

"All of this—every damned bit of it! Those frigging idiots down there couldn't find their asses with both hands!"

"At least they're in contact with them," St. Clare pointed out.

"Sure they are! Such close contact that we can't get in there to use the shuttles for air support without killing our own troops! Dammit, they're playing the Manty bastards' game!"

"But if we call them back far enough to get air support in there, the Manties will break contact again," St. Claire argued. "They've done it three times already."

"Well, in that case, maybe it's time for a few 'friendly fire casualties,' " Lamar growled.

"Or time to give it up," St. Claire suggested very, very quietly, and Lamar looked at him sharply.

"I don't like how quiet Ringstorff's been being for the last several hours," his exec said. "And I don't like hanging around this damned planet chasing frigging ghosts through the mountains any more than you do. I say bring our people up, and if Ringstorff wants these Manties, he can go down there and get them himself!"

"God, I'd love to tell him that," Lamar admitted. "But he's still calling the shots. If he wants them dead, then that's what we have to give him."

"Well, in that case, let's go ahead and get it done, one way or the other," St. Claire urged. "Either pull them back far enough to get in there with cluster munitions and blow the Manties to hell, or else tell our ground people to get their thumbs out and finish the damned job!"


"We've lost Harris," Abigail told Gutierrez wearily, and the sergeant winced at the pain and guilt in her voice. The dead staff sergeant's thirteen-person squad was down to four Marines . . . and one midshipwoman.

"At least we did what you planned on," he said. "They're way the hell and gone this side of the others. No way they're going to backtrack and search for survivors that close to the original contact site."

"I know." She turned an exhausted face towards him, and he realized that it wasn't as dark as it had been. The eastern sky was beginning to pale, and he felt a vague sense of wonder that they'd survived the night.

Only they hadn't, of course. Not quite yet.

He looked back down their present hillside. All four of First Squad's survivors were on the same hill, and there was no place left for them to go. The ground broke down in front of them for just under a kilometer, but the hill on which they were dug in was squarely in the mouth of a box canyon. They were finally trapped with no avenue of retreat.

He could see movement, and he realized the idiots were going to come right up the slope at them instead of standing back and calling in air strikes. It wasn't going to make much difference in the end, of course . . . except that it would give them the opportunity to take an even bigger escort to hell with them.

Well, that and one other thing, he told himself sadly as he looked with something curiously like love at the exhausted young woman beside him and touched the butt of the pulser holstered at his hip. Mateo Gutierrez had cleaned up behind pirates before. And because he had, there was no way Abigail Hearns would be alive when the murderous scum at the foot of that hill finally overran them.

"It's been a good run, Abigail," he said softly. "Sorry we didn't get you out, after all."

"Not your fault, Mateo," she said, turning to smile up at him somehow. "I was the one who thought it up. That's why I had to be here."

"I know," he said, and rested one hand on her shoulder for a moment. Then he inhaled sharply. "I'll take the right," he said briskly. "Anything on the left is yours."


"About fucking time!" Samson Lamar swore, and gestured for the com officer to hand him the microphone. "Now, listen to me," he snarled at the ground troops' commander—the third one they'd had, so far, "I am sick and tired of this shit! You get in there, and you kill these bastards, or I will by God shoot every last one of you myself! Is that clear?!"

"Yes, Sir. I—"


Lamar spun to face Predator's tactical section, and his jaw dropped in disbelief as he saw the blood-red icons of incoming missiles. It was impossible! How could—?


Michael Oversteegen's eyes were bloodshot in a drawn and weary face, but they blazed with triumph as Gauntlet's fire streaked towards the single surviving pirate cruiser. The idiots were sitting there with their wedge at standby, and it was obvious that they hadn't even bothered to man point defense stations!

He looked around his own bridge, counting the price his ship and crew had paid to reach this moment. Auxiliary Control was gone, and so was Environmental Two and Four, Damage Control Central, Boat Bay Two, and Communications One. Only two tubes and one graser remained operational in her forward chase armament, and none at all aft. Half her gravitics were gone, and her FTL com had been destroyed. Over thirty compartments were open to space, her surviving magazines were down to less than fifteen percent, and Fusion Two was in emergency shutdown.

Lieutenant Commander Abbott was dead, along with Commander Tyson and over twenty percent of Gauntlet's total crew, and Linda Watson and Shobhana Korrami were both among the many critically wounded in Anjelike Westman's sickbay. Barely a quarter of Gauntlet's after impeller ring—and only one of her after alpha nodes—were on line, and her forward impeller ring had taken so much damage that her maximum acceleration was barely two hundred gravities. Nine of her broadside missile tubes, six of her broadside graser mounts, and four of her sidewall generators had been reduced to wreckage, and there was no way in the galaxy he could take on yet another undamaged heavy cruiser and win.

But he and his people had already destroyed three of them, he thought grimly. If they had to, galaxy or no galaxy, they would damned well take out a fourth. Either way, there was no way he was going to abandon Refuge to the animals who had already slaughtered so many, and he had people of his own down there.

And so he'd come back anyway. Made his excruciatingly gradual alpha translation almost twenty light-minutes out, well beyond detection range from the inner system, and accelerated inward steadily. Now Gauntlet came roaring out of the dark at over fifty percent of light-speed, and every one of her surviving tubes spat missiles at the totally unsuspecting Predator.

It was over in a single salvo.


"Holy shit!"

Gutierrez didn't know which of his surviving Marines it came from, but the exclamation summed up his own feelings admirably. The huge, blinding, sun-bright flashes as whole clusters of laser heads detonated almost directly overhead could mean only one thing. And then, almost instantly, there was a far larger, far brighter, far closer boil of fury, and he knew a starship's fusion bottle had just let go.

"Here they come!" somebody else yelled, and the platoon sergeant jerked his attention back down from the heavens as the pirates below started up the slope at a run. Pulse rifles, tribarrels, and grenade launchers poured in a heavy covering fire, trying to keep the defenders' heads down, but Gutierrez had positioned his people with care and built sangars of rock for cover.

"Open fire!" he shouted, and five pulse rifles poured darts back down the hill. The Marines were running low on ammo, but there was no point conserving it now, and they blazed away furiously. Their one surviving plasma rifle walked its fire across the slope, painting the pre-dawn dark with brief, terrible sunrises, and he could hear the shrieks of wounded and dying pirates even through the thunder of battle as the wave of attackers shredded under that savage pounding.

Still they came on, and he wondered what in God's name they thought they could accomplish now. They were done, damn it! Didn't they even realize what those explosions overhead had meant?!

Maybe they thought they could take some of their enemies alive, use them as hostages or bargaining chips. Or maybe it was simple desperation, the move of people too tired and too tightly focused on the job at hand to think about anything else. Or maybe it was simple stupidity. Not that it mattered either way.

Private Justinian died as a pirate-launched grenade detonated almost directly above her, and Private Williams went down as a head-sized lump of rock was blasted into the breastplate of his unpowered clamshell armor. But the armor held, and Williams dragged himself back up and opened fire once more.

The attack rolled on up the hill, melting under the defenders' fire but still coming, and Gutierrez saw Abigail drop her pulse rifle as her last magazine emptied. She drew her sidearm, holding the pulser in a firing range, two-handed grip, and he realized that even now she was choosing her targets, spending each round carefully, refusing to simply blaze away in blind, suppressive fire.

And then, suddenly, there were no more attackers. Perhaps thirty percent of the force which had come up the slope survived to retreat back down it, but they were the lucky ones. The ones who had just discovered what professionals like Gutierrez already knew. You did not charge into the teeth of modern infantry weapons, however outnumbered the defenders were. Not without powered armor or a hell of a lot more support than those yahoos had had.

He raised his head cautiously and peered out and down. Motionless bodies and writhing wounded littered the frosty hillside between the roaring pockets of flame the plasma rifle had left in the underbrush in its wake, and Gutierrez blinked in disbelief.

They were still alive. Of course, that could still change, but—

"Now hear this," the voice rattled from every com on the planet, hard as battle steel and broadcast over every frequency, "this is Captain Michael Oversteegen, Royal Manticoran Navy. Any pirate who lays down his weapons and surrenders immediately will be taken into custody and guaranteed a fair trial. Any pirate who does not lay down his weapons and surrender immediately will not be given the opportunity t' do so. You will be shot where you stand unless you surrender at once. This is your first and last warning!"

Gutierrez held his breath, staring down the hill, wondering.

And then, by ones and twos, men and women began to step out of cover, lay down their weapons, clasp their hands behind their heads, and simply stand there as Tiberian rose above the eastern horizon at last.

"All right, Sergeant Gutierrez," a soft Grayson accent said beside him. "We've got some prisoners to take into custody, so let's be about it."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am!" Gutierrez gave her a parade-ground salute which somehow completely failed to look out of place, despite his filthy, bloodstained uniform. Or hers. She looked up at his towering centimeters for a moment, and then she returned it.

"All right, people!" Gutierrez turned to his survivors—all three of them—and if his voice was just a little husky, of course it was only due to fatigue. "You heard the Midshipwoman—let's go take these bastards into custody!"


"Ah, Ms. Hearns!"

"You wanted to see me, Captain?"

"Indeed I did. Come in."

Abigail stepped through the hatch into the captain's day cabin, and it slid shut behind her.

The man sitting behind the desk in that cabin was exactly the same man she'd seen at that first formal dinner, down to the last non-regulation touch of the superbly tailored uniform. He still looked exactly like a younger version of Prime Minister High Ridge, and he still had all of the maddening mannerisms, all the invincible faith in the superiority of his own birth, and that incredibly irritating accent.

As if any of that mattered.

"We'll be dockin' at Hephaestus in about three hours," he said to her. "I realize that you'd prefer t' remain aboard until we hand the ship over t' dockyard hands. In fact, I requested permission t' retain you on board until that time. Unfortunately, I was overruled. I've just been informed that a personnel shuttle will be arrivin' in approximately forty minutes t' deliver you, Mr. Aitschuler, Ms. Korrami, and Mr. Grigovakis t' the Academy."

"Sir, we'd all prefer to remain aboard," she protested.

"I know," he said in a surprisingly gentle voice. "And I sincerely wish you could. But I believe there are people waitin' for you. Includin', if my sources haven't misled me, Steadholder Owens."

Her eyes widened, and he permitted himself a slight chuckle.

"It's traditional for immediate family members t' be present for the award of the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, Ms. Hearns. Naturally, I feel confident that that custom is the only reason your father has seen fit t' become the first Grayson-born steadholder ever t' visit Saganami Island. I believe I may also have heard that the Queen intends t' be present, however. And I understand there was some mention of Steadholder Harrington's administerin' your oath as a Grayson officer."

The young woman on the other side of his desk blushed darkly, and his deep-set eyes twinkled. She seemed at a loss for words, then shook herself.

"And will you be present, Sir?" she asked.

"I believe you may count on that, Ms. Hearns," he told her gravely. "I'm informed that there will be more than sufficient preliminary festivities and family greetin's t' give me time t' hand Gauntlet over t' the yard dogs and still make the award ceremony."

"I'm very glad to hear that, Sir," she said, and hard though it would once had been for her to believe it, she meant it.

"I wouldn't miss it for the world, Ms. Hearns," he told her, and rose behind his desk. "Some of my compatriots have seen fit t' express contempt for Grayson. They seem t' feel that such a primitive and backward planet can't possibly have anythin' t' offer a star nation so sophisticated and advanced as our own. I never happened t' agree with that position, and if I ever had, I certainly wouldn't now. Especially not after havin' the honor and considerable privilege of seein' firsthand just what sort of young women Grayson will be calling t' the service of the Sword. And havin' seen it, I intend t' be there when the first of them receives the recognition she so richly deserves."



For more great books visit


Back | Next