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"Begin," the judge said, and Lieutenant Mazarak unleashed a short, straight lunge in sixte.

Han's wrist flicked, brushing the blade to the outside, arm extending in a quick riposte in the same line. But he shortened to parry and fell back, and she followed, her mind almost blank as hand and eye and reflex carried the weight of her actions.

Back and forth, blades grating and slipping, dreamy thought coming in a curiously fleeting pattern. Few Hangchowese bothered with the ancient dueling sword, especially in its Western forms, and Han had never considered it herself until she'd been wounded. Yet it seemed she possessed a natural aptitude, and the elegant converse of steel suited her.

She disengaged and Mazarak pursued, pressing her cautiously, yet Han felt he was more defensive-minded, and she believed she had a better sense of point. She feinted above his hand, dropping her point to go in under his drawn guard, but he parried like lightning and riposted in octave. She put his point aside-barely-with a counter-parry, and he tried a quick double disengage in sixte. But she was ready, seizing his blade and carrying it low and outside in a quick bind that flashed instantly into a fleche. Her epee snaked home as she passed to his left, and the scoring light lit.

"Touch'e," the judge intoned, and they drew apart, breathing just a bit more heavily and saluting as they prepared to reengage for the next point.

Han emerged from the salle, mask in hand and epee under her arm, shaking her sweat-damp hair. She hadn't had it back all that long, and she rather enjoyed the feeling.

"Han," Magda Petrovna said, "that's got to be the silliest sport ever invented."

"Come now, Magda! Its origins were anything but silly."

"Maybe." Magda tucked a proprietary arm through Jason Windrider's. "But I'll settle my quarrels decently . . . with pistols at twenty meters, thank you!"

"Russians have so little soul," Han mourned. "It's fun, Magda. Not like judo, but I had to get back in shape somehow, and I thought I'd try something new." She shrugged. "I like it."

"Well, it certainly seems to've gotten you back on your feet, Admiral, sir," Jason Windrider teased.

"It does, does it, Commodore?" Han asked deflatingly.

Windrider stroked his new insignia and grinned. "Just trying to keep up, Admiral. And you and Magda haven't had your stars all that long."

"No, we haven't," Han said more somberly, glancing at the heavy braid on Magda's cuff.

When she was in uniform, her own sleeves matched Magda's these days, and it made her uneasy. She'd been confident enough when they made her a commodore-but that was before Cimmaron.

Yet the Republic had no choice. It had paid heavily in ships and personnel for its string of victories, and disproportionately so in the flag officers aboard their easily identified command ships.

Nor had all of them died victorious. There were still no formal avenues of communication between the Republic and the Rim Systems, but Vice Admiral Trevayne (and what a shock to discover he was not only alive but in Zephrain!) had supplied a casualty list, and there were few Republican survivors. Neither Analiese Ashigara nor Colin Trevayne was among them, and Han wondered how Trevayne could live with what he'd done. The question held a dread fascination, for he, at least, had demonstrated just how far duty and honor could carry a person.

But the Republic's heavy butcher's bills explained the rapid promotions. Han had been a commodore for less than eighteen months, and ten of them had been spent as Daffyd Llewellyn's patient. What he'd been pleased to call a "fractured" femur had required massive surgical reconstruction, and the antigerone therapies had their disadvantages. To stretch the life span, they slowed the biological clock-including healing speeds. The quick-heal drugs which were part of the doomwhale's pharmaceutical cornucopia could offset that, but not after such rad poisoning as Han had survived, which had made her a semi-permanent fixture at the hospital, though she'd bullied Llewellyn into out-patient status the moment she began therapy.

Magda had been only too glad to turn over the Cimmaron command. And, having experienced the restrictions of a dirtside appointment for the last eleven months, Han didn't blame her at all.

"At least you look healthy enough jumping around with that ridiculous thing." Magda's teasing voice pulled Han back from her thoughts.

"Thanks. BuPers thinks so, too-I got confirmation of my new status yesterday, and I'm back in space next month! I'm going to miss Chang, though."

"I imagine so," Magda agreed, and Han hid a smile as her friends exchanged glances. She knew they both resented the fact that Windrider's promotion made him too senior to remain Magda's chief of staff even while it delighted them both as proof of his professional reputation and future.

"Who's replacing him?" Magda asked after a moment.

"Bob Tomanaga. He's cleared for active duty again, too."

"Tomanaga?" Magda repeated.

"I know-he worried me once, but I was wrong. It's just the way Bob is. He can't seem to be discouraged or even detached no matter what." Han shook her head. "I don't know why he's so round-eyed.

"Certainly not," Windrider agreed, grinning disrespectfully.

"Well," Han paused by her waiting skimmer, "back to the salt mines. You two will join me for supper, won't you?"

"I will," Magda agreed with a slight pout, "and Jason may. His group's spacing out with Kellerman, you know."

"I'd forgotten."

Han frowned, rummaging through her orderly memory. Kellerman was slated to carry out another probe of the rear approaches to the Rim Systems, amid the star systems wrecked from end to end during the titanic clashes of the Fourth Interstellar War. Not that anyone expected much to happen there. Only a handful of habitable planets had survived ISW 4, and most of them had become protectorates of the Star Union of Crucius, not Terran or Orion possessions.

The Crucians still labored under their generations of dedication to the destruction of the Arachnids, which had made them the natural stewards of the brutalized survivors of the "Bugs' " sentient meat animals. It wasn't even a matter of humanity or the Orions shoving an unwanted responsibility off onto someone else, because the Star Union had actually wanted that heartbreaking responsibility. And they'd discharged it well, Han thought. Indeed, there was a great deal to admire about the Star Union.

But, like the Khanate, the Crucians had declared neutrality when their Human friends began trying to kill one another. Han suspected that the Crucians were rather more distressed over it than the Orions (the Tabbies, after all, had a millennia-long history of civil wars of their own), but that only emphasized their insistence upon maintaining complete impartiality. That very impartiality, however, was invaluable to the Republic, however, because of their control of the star system they had renamed Zeklar. Zeklar had once been called Anderson One, and it was only two transits away from Sol itself. It was also the shortest connection between the Rim and the Innerworlds . . . or would have been, if the Crucians' neutrality hadn't closed that avenue tight. And unlike the Orions, the Crucians were not about to make any exceptions for anyone, so that road was staying shut.

With Zeklar closed, what ought to have been a deadly threat to the Republic had become very much a secondary theatre. The lifeless warp lines there were ill-suited to sustained operations, and neither Han-nor anyone else, it seemed-expected much to come of the probes. But there'd be enough skirmishing to satisfy the newsies, and the Fleet was stretched thin at the moment. The Rim had been demoted to secondary status while the frontline systems were stabilized and the new shipyards got into production.

"It's all right, Magda," she said finally. "Anton and the dockyard are squabbling over Unicorn's repairs. He's not going anywhere without his flagship, and the yard won't turn her loose for at least another forty hours. You'll both have time for supper."

"And for a little something else, God willing," Windrider murmured as he opened the hatch for Han. His eyes twinkled wickedly, and Magda actually blushed. "But we will be there for supper, Admiral. Won't we, Admiral?"

"Unless I brig you for disrespect," Magda growled, and tossed Han a salute. "Bye, Han. See you this evening." And the skimmer swept away.

"Well, Chang, I guess this is goodbye."

"Yes, sir." The bulky captain faced her over her desk, cap under one arm, unreadable as ever, and Han studied him carefully. They liked and respected one another, but there was an inner core to him which she had never cracked. Not that it mattered, she thought with sudden affection. However he ticked, he was the most utterly reliable subordinate a woman could want.

No, not subordinate. Assistant. Better yet, colleague.

"Chang, I won't embarrass you by saying how much I'll miss you," she said slowly, "but I will say that Direhound couldn't find a better skipper. And-" she looked into his eyes "-that no one ever had a better chief of staff."

"Thank you, sir," he said. "It's been a pleasure, Admiral. I-" He broke off suddenly, and gave a tiny shrug.

Han nodded, surprised less that he'd stopped than that he'd spoken in the first place. It was like him, she thought. So very like him.

"Very well, Captain." She held out her hand with the traditional blessing. "Good fortune and good hunting, Chang."

"Thank you, sir," he said gruffly, gripping her hand hard.

She squeezed once, then stepped back as Tsing turned to leave. But he halted at the door of her office and placed his cap very carefully on his head, then turned and threw her an Academy-sharp salute.

Han was startled. Navy regs prohibited headgear indoors dirtside, and it was officially impossible to salute without it. But her own hand rose equally sharply, and Tsing turned on his heel and vanished.

Good bye, Tsing Chang, she thought wistfully. You never doubted me during the mutiny. You fought with me at Cimmaron. You saved my life. I suppose that's all I really need to know about you, isn't it . . . my friend?

"Well, Admiral," Robert Tomanaga crossed Han's office without even a limp to betray his prosthetic leg, "it's a new staff, but it looks good."

"Not entirely new. We've got you and David from the old team. That's a pretty good survival rate, considering."

"I suppose so, sir," he agreed, but his tone was a clear rejection of her implied self-criticism, and she shook her head mentally. Bob Tomanaga's voice and face were as communicative as a printed message and it felt strange to always know precisely what he was thinking, but right now he meant what everyone meant whenever she let her guard down. No one else seemed to think the casualties might have been lighter . . . if only she'd been more clever.

She put the thought aside and leaned back in her chair, considering her new staff. Aside from Reznick, now a lieutenant senior grade, whom she'd been determined to have, she hardly knew any of them, but Bob was right: they looked good.

Her new ops officer, Commander Stravos Kollentai was small, slight, and arrogant-the perfect fighter jock-but his efficiency reports were excellent and he radiated an aura of almost oppressive energy and competence. Her astrogator, Lieutenant Commander Richard Heuss, was a quiet fellow with fair hair and eyes like gray shutters. He said little, but his navigation was beautiful to see.

And finally there was the new staff slot filled by Lieutenant Irene Jorgensen: battlegroup intelligence officer. Fleet had decided to once again remove the intelligence function from the ops officer's jurisdiction. That had happened before, during ISW 4, but the traditionalists in the service had never been happy about it. They'd returned intelligence to its subordination to ops with indecent haste following Raymond Prescott's retirement. Han had never understood exactly why, but there were always internal factions and cliques within the Navy, ready to engage in "turf wars" at the drop of a hat, and the spooks had lost that round.

Unfortunately, the type of war they were fighting had resurrected the overwhelming logic in favor of intelligence's independence. And, Han thought with a small mental smile, the Republican Navy hadn't had as long for its factions and cliques to become set in ceramacrete. Still, even to Han, it felt strange to have the spooks speaking for themselves on the staff again after so long. On the other hand, the tall, scrawny lieutenant who filled the slot on her staff hid a lurking humor behind her muddy brown eyes and appeared to have a computer memory bank concealed somewhere about her unprepossessing anatomy.

"Have the official orders come through yet, Admiral?" Tomanaga asked, breaking her train of thought.

"Yes. Admiral Iskan will relieve me tomorrow and we'll move out to da Silva."

Thank God. She'd been half-afraid the Admiralty would leave her here now that Cimmaron had been upgraded into what was clearly an admiral's billet even for the admiral-starved Republic.

"I see." Tomanaga frowned. "Any word on our destination, sir?"

"Not officially. But Fleet Ops whispered something about Rigel."

"Rigel, sir?" Tomanaga blinked.

"I think Fleet wants to keep an eye on Admiral Trevayne," Han said slowly, swinging her chair gently. "We're still not sure what happened, you know. I think someone's running a little scared over Zephrain RDS."

"Stupid of them, sir, if you'll forgive me," Tomanaga said.

"Oh? And on what do you base that pronouncement, Commander?"

"I don't think any 'mystery weapon' did in Admiral Ashigara, sir. The ops plan relied too much on surprise and ECM, and they screwed up when they tried a pincer. All it gave them was lousy coordination. That's why the diversion got chewed up when the main attack went wrong."

"And how did it go wrong?"

"I'm not certain," Tomanaga admitted, "but the survivors all agree BG 32 wasn't involved in the Gateway fighting till close to the end-so Trevayne must've been busy destroying the carriers. But carriers are faster than monitors, and Admiral Ashigara's fighters had at least as much effective firepower as BG 32. Of course, she didn't expect to see him there any more than he could have been expecting her, but if she'd had time to launch her birds, she should have been able to stand off and hammer him. The fact that she didn't means that somehow or other he spotted her despite her ECM-probably when he was already in SBM range, at least, of her carriers-and clobbered them before she got the fighters off. It's the only answer I can think of, sir."

"So it was bad luck?"

"Maybe," Tomanaga said, "but it was compounded by bad planning. They should've concentrated in Bonaparte and taken everything in through the new warp point to pin the defenders against the Gateway. Then we'd've had tactical command exercised in one place over only one force that could've withdrawn down a single warp line. As it was, both COs were out of contact and neither could cut and run as long as that might leave the other unsupported-a classic example of defeat in detail, triggered by bad luck, but not caused by it."

"You could be right," Han admitted, for she'd pondered much the same thoughts herself. "But why not new weapons, as well?"

"The time factor, sir. I don't care if Trevayne is a special emissary from God Himself, it takes time to turn research into hardware. That's why we should hit them again now-immediately. Forget the border. We've got the Rump on the run; keep them there with feints and go for Zephrain now, before they really do get new hardware on line."

"I'm inclined to agree, Bob. Unhappily, grand strategy is the First Space Lord's job. And whether you're right or not, it makes sense to picket the old Rigelian and Arachnid systems, whatever the Rim is or isn't up to."

"Agreed, sir, but a monitor battlegroup with carrier support is hardly a 'picket.' It's a vest-pocket task force, and one cut for a mighty big vest. We'd be better employed striking directly at Zephrain rather than worrying about what they may do to us." Tomanaga sounded unwontedly serious, even worried. "If we don't hit them pretty quick, we may find ourselves up against exactly what we're afraid of right now. Give Trevayne time to get the new systems on line, and . . ."

He shrugged eloquently.

"Consider your point made," Han said softly. "Write up a staff appreciation and we'll sit on it long enough to see where they send us. If we wind up out near Rigel and we still agree you know what you're talking about, we'll update it and fire it off. Fair enough?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. Meanwhile, tidy up here and we'll transfer out to Bernardo da Silva."

"Yes, sir."

Tomanaga left, and Han frowned pensively down at the desk she would delightedly turn over to Jack Iskan in two days, wishing she disagreed with her chief of staff.

"Another day with nothing to report, sir." Tomanaga sounded disgusted. "I don't see why they're so damned mesmerized by the need to picket the Rim. Go in now and smash 'em up fast-take some casualties if we have to, but get it over with-and we won't need to scatter a quarter of our available strength out over the damned approaches."

Han tried and failed to imagine Tsing Chang unburdening himself with equal frankness. It was strange how well she got along with someone so different from Tsing. Just as strange as to remember that she'd once distrusted Tomanaga's enthusiasm.

"Well, Bob, we've sent off your appreciation," she said calmly. "In fact, we've done everything we can short of taking it upon ourselves to attack single-handedly."

"I suppose so, sir," Tomanaga agreed sourly, "but the crews are beginning to go stale."

"I know."

Battlegroup 19 had maintained its long, slow patrol of the old Rigelian warp lines, with an occasional foray into dead Arachnid space, for almost five months without a sign of the enemy. They'd encountered a single Tangri battlecruiser, but the horseheads had shown admirable restraint and declined to match themselves against four monitors, two fleet carriers, two light carriers, and four escort destroyers.

Yet that very boredom had been a godsend for Han, and she would have been the first to admit it. Patrol duty wasn't glamorous, but at least it let someone a bit skittish over reassuming a space command ease back into it. Her worries had faded as she grappled with her new responsibilities, and she could look in her mirror now and recognize herself again.

"Well," she said finally, "let's find something to occupy them, then." She swiveled her chair down and frowned-her equivalent of raging consternation-and tapped her terminal. "You've seen this from Shokaku?"

"That freighter, sir?"

The light carrier's recon fighters had found the remains of a freighter drifting erratically around the primary of the Orpheus One System.

"Yes. Does anything about it strike you as odd?"

"You mean aside from what she was doing there to begin with?"

"Exactly. There are no inhabited planets in Orpheus One System. In fact, aside from Shanak and Franos and Telik-both of which belong to the Star Union-there aren't any inhabited worlds within four transits of Orpheus, and haven't been since the Alliance dusted the Arachnids out eighty years ago. I suppose her skipper might've been taking a short cut between Shanak and Rehfrak by way of Zephrain, since it was a Rump registry vessel, not a Tabby. But it's hard to believe anyone would try that, even assuming he could talk the Tabbies into letting him, and I doubt he could. Not when he had a sub-charter from Admiral Trevayne in Zephrain. That made her an official belligerent, and the Tabbies would never have let her pass through their space. But I can't think of anything else he'd be doing unescorted on this side of Zephrain, either, especially this close to Tangri space. Surely everyone knows they've been using that closed warp point in AP Five! They were doing that occasionally even before the Civil War distracted us from the area, and Trevayne's not stupid enough to route a ship through here. Even assuming she'd have anywhere to go out this way."

"But she's here, sir, and she was looted."

"True," Han nodded. "But did you examine the passenger list Shokaku pulled out of her computers?"

"Well, no, sir. Why?"

"They recovered the bodies of all twenty-five crewmen," Han said.

"So? The horseheads don't take prisoners, sir."

"True. But the passenger and crew sections were undamaged. Whoever attacked raked the drive and command sections with primaries and needle beams, then looted the holds and finished off the crew in the process."

"Yes, sir. Typical Tangri work."

Tomanaga was puzzled. Clearly his admiral had noticed something he had missed.

"Except this, Bob. According to the passenger manifest, there were fourteen young women aboard that ship. So where are their bodies?"

"What?" Tomanaga rose and moved to her desk. "May I, sir?" he asked, laying his hand on the swiveled terminal.


He turned the screen and peered at it thoughtfully, mind racing.

"It doesn't make sense," he muttered. "Only the women are missing."

"Exactly. And the Tangri have never shown any particular interest in kidnapping young, female Terrans."

"Yes, sir. So it had to be someone with a use for them. . . . What about ransom? Were any of them wealthy?"

"On a tramp freighter?" Han shook her head. "Navy nurses and doctors from Zephrain."

"So whoever hit her didn't hail from the Rim, either." Tomanaga frowned. "I don't like it."

"Neither do I. Nor, I suppose, did those passengers and crewmen."

"Sorry, sir. I meant I don't like the implications. Whoever did it isn't based at Orpheus-we swept the place with a fine-toothed comb. That means some bunch of Terrans is involved in inter-system raiding. And that, sir, means there's a joker in the deck. If we spot anyone, we can't know whether it's the Rim or these pirates."

"Perhaps." Han cleared her screen and a warp chart flickered to life. She tapped it with a stylus. "Here's our patrol area. Here's Orpheus One." She touched a light dot to one side of their patrol area. "Now, everything Rimward of Orpheus Two belongs to the Rim, and whoever it is can't operate from there, because both sides watch those warp points like hawks. And he can't operate from here-" her arcing stylus indicated their patrol area "-or we'd've spotted him. But that leaves this warp network over here, see?" She tapped the screen. "It connects with Orpheus from the back, through the closed warp point in Bug Eight . . . and it also extends all the way to here. . . ."

"My God! Right into our rear areas!"

"Precisely. I don't know who they are or where they came from, but someone is raiding civilian traffic from a base somewhere along this warp network. There's nothing much out here but outposts and mining colonies-no heavy traffic, sparse populations, slow communications. Most of the 'colonies'-such as they are, and what there is of them-are less than fifty or sixty years old, emplaced since ISW Four. They could be almost anywhere. Take over a mining colony and the nav beacons and you control all communications with the system. Who's to know you've done it?"

"Then we'd better get a drone off immediately, sir."

"Agreed. But what then? It'll take two months just to reach Cimmaron. Then two more months for Admiral Iskan to reply or relay it-four months, minimum, for whoever it is to go on doing whatever they're doing. No, we have to deal with it ourselves."

"But, sir, this area-" he indicated the suspect warp lines "-is outside our patrol area. It'd take us-what, five weeks?-just to get there, and it'd mean abandoning the picket. I don't think the Admiralty would like that."

"The Admiralty isn't out here, Bob: we are. We won't take the entire battlegroup, anyway. We'll take one other monitor, Shokaku, and two of the cans and leave the rest here under Commodore Cruett. I suppose I could detach Cruett, but it's my responsibility if decisions have to be made."

"Yes, sir. But-"

"Bob, we're going. We're supposed to prevent things like this, war or no war. Understood?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. Then get together with Stravos and rough out a set of orders for Cruett. And ask Dick to lay out the best search pattern for us. I don't want to be gone any longer than we have to be."

"Aye, aye, sir."

He left and Han cocked her chair back once more, studying the star map and disliking her thoughts.

TRNS Bernardo da Silva plowed slowly through space, accompanied by her sister monitor Franklin P. Eisenhower and the light carrier Shokaku. Two escort destroyers watched the rear while Shokaku's recon fighters swept the detachment's projected track and flanks, and Rear Admiral Li Han sat on her palatial flag bridge, fingers steepled under her clean jaw line, contemplating her empty plot.

A month of cruising the suspect warp lines, and nothing. Was she on the wrong track? Had she made a major error-one that validated her earlier fears over her judgment? Her face was calm as she silently reviewed her discussions with Tomanaga, her endless perusal of dry facts with Irene Jorgensen. The data was there, she decided once more; only her response to it was suspect.

A bell chimed, and she roused, cocking an eyebrow at the com section as David Reznick bent over the battle code printer. He tore off the message flimsy and turned to her.

"Signal from Shokaku, sir. One of the fighters is onto something."

"I see." Han scanned the message. "Doesn't say much, does she?"

"No, sir. But her fighter's going in for a closer look. Shall I sound action stations, sir?"

"Not yet, Lieutenant. We're a good three hours behind those fighters-we'll have time. Excuse me a moment."

Han summoned up the com image of Samuel Schwerin, her flag captain.

"Good morning, Sam," she greeted him. "Shokaku's fighters have picked up something-no telling what yet-on our line of advance. They're going in for a closer look, but it'll take us about three hours to catch up with them, so I thought we might advance lunch to get it out of the way if we have to go to action stations."

"Certainly, sir. I'll see to it immediately."

"Thank you, Sam."

Reznick's printer chimed again as Han signed off, and she waited patiently. If using coded whisker lasers delayed communications, it also eliminated the chance of message interception and greatly reduced the likelihood of long-range detection. Then Reznick handed her the message, and her face tightened almost imperceptibly as she read it. She turned to Lieutenant Jorgensen.

"Irene," she said quietly, "punch up your shipping logs and double-check for me, please. According to Shokaku, this is what's left of a Polaris-class liner. I'm afraid it may be Argosy Polaris."

"Yes, sir," the lieutenant was punching keys, watching the data come up. "Argosy Polaris, sir. Two hundred passengers and a priority medical cargo. Reported overdue at Kariphos ten months ago."

"Damn," Han said softly.

"It's the Polaris, sir," Commander Tomanaga confirmed grimly, studying the drifting hulk on his screen. "Somebody ripped hell out of her, too. Must've been quick and dirty to keep her from even getting a drone away. Look at that."

His finger indicated the relatively small punctures riddling the command section of the big liner.

"Primaries and needles," Han said flatly. "They knew she was armed-not that her popguns would've helped much. So they closed in, tractored her, and blew her command and com sections before she could yell for help."

"But how did they get close enough? And what's she doing way out here? We're six transits off the Stendahl-Kariphos route."

"I don't know how they fooled her master," Han said, "but getting her here wouldn't be hard. There's no damage to her drive pods. They just blasted the command deck and then gave whoever was left his options: surrender or see two hundred passengers vaporized. After that, they used the engine room controls to bring her out here so they could loot her at leisure. Not the approved technique, but workable as long as they were in company with someone with intact nav capabilities."

"Sounds reasonable." Tomanaga's words were calm; his face and tone weren't. "But it was sloppy to leave her intact. They should've blown her fusion plants or dropped her into the primary to hide the evidence."

"No, Bob. This is a lonely spot, and that's a hundred thousand tonnes of ship. Lots of spares and replacements to be scavenged out of her."

"Of course." Tomanaga shook his head. "Shall I send in the examination teams, sir?"

"Yes. And call away my cutter. I'm going too."

Han swam down the passage of the dead liner, her powerful lamp illuminating the splendid furnishing of first class-marred in spots by laser burns and occasional scars of pure vandalism. The raiders must have damped the power before they depressurized the hull, for the blast doors stood open. She'd seen one grisly corpse-a crewman dead of explosive decompression-and she was coldly certain they'd dumped atmosphere intentionally to kill any fugitives.

She turned a corner and spun gracefully, landing on her magnetized boot soles beside the Marine search party which had summoned her. Two troopers were busy sealing a transparent bubble to the bulkhead around a closed hatch.

"Afternoon, Admiral."

Major Bryce saluted her, and she returned his salute, then shifted her magsoles to the deckhead, hanging like a weightless bat to watch over the shoulders of the work detail.

"This is the only hatch holding pressure, Major?"

"Yes, sir. We checked out all the others and came up empty"-he seemed unaware of his own grim double entendre-"but there's atmosphere on the other side of this one."

"How much longer, Major?"

"We've just about got her sealed in, sir." He gestured at the plastic airlock. "Soon's we get a little pressure in there, we'll crack the hatch. Not that it's going to make any difference to whoever sealed it."

Han nodded slowly within her helmet. After ten months, no one could possibly survive beyond that hatch.

"Ready, Major," a sergeant said.

"All right, Admiral," Bryce looked at Han, "would you like to go in?"

"Yes, Major. I would."

"Very good, sir."

Bryce managed things smoothly, and Han found herself sandwiched between the looming combat zoots of a pair of Marine corporals as one of them fed power to the hatch from her zoot pack. The hatch slid open, and the plastic lock creaked as its over-pressure bled into the cabin. The corporals moved awkwardly to either side to permit Han to enter first, and she pushed off through the hatch.

It was a tomb.

The first things she saw in her helmet lamp were the rags and plastiseal packed into a pair of ragged holes; one of the primaries that took out the command deck had passed through this cabin. Someone had kept his wits about him to patch those holes so quickly, and the angle of the punctures might explain why the cabin hadn't been searched-they just about parallelled the passage outside, and the single beam had probably pierced at least a dozen suites. Much of first class must have died practically unknowing, and the raiders had probably assumed this cabin's occupants had done the same.

Her evaluation of the patches took only seconds; then she saw the bodies, and her lips twisted with rage.

Children. They were children!

She counted five of the huddled little shapes, peacefully arranged in the beds as if merely sleeping, and saw the body of a single adult-a young woman-at a desk to one side. A candle stub was glued to the desk with melted wax, and her head was a shattered ruin, wrought by the heavy-caliber needler death-locked in her hand.

Han looked away and felt her belly knot. There was no nausea-only a cold, deadly hatred for the beings who had wreaked this slaughter of the children she would never bear.

She mastered herself and bent over the stiff corpse of the unknown woman. There was an old fashioned memo pad magsealed to the desk, and Han eased it gently loose. Then she turned back to the lock.

"Dump the air, Major," she said, and for the first time she hated herself for sounding serene under pressure. "And transport the bodies to da Silva."

"Yes, sir." Bryce sounded wooden, and she realized he'd been watching his minute com screen; he'd seen everything his corporals' pickups had seen. "We'll be taking them back to Cimmaron, sir?"

"No, Major," Han said quietly. "It won't help their loved ones to see this. We'll try to identify them and then bury them in space."

"Yes, sir."

"I'm returning to the flagship, Major."

"Yes, sir. Shall I assign an escort?"

"No, Major. I'd rather be alone, thank you."

"Yes, sir."

Han looked up as Tomanaga entered her cabin. He'd seen the pictures of that cabin and knew his admiral well enough to sense the fury behind her calm demeanor, and he took the indicated chair silently, feeling his way through the storm front of her rage.

"You wanted me, sir?"

"Yes," she said calmly. She tapped the memo pad. "I'll want you to drop this off with Irene. It may be useful."

Tomanaga studied her covertly. Her face was as calm as ever, yet she radiated murderous fury. Only belatedly did he realize what it was. Her dark eyes, usually so tranquil, were deadly.

"Yes, sir," he said quietly.

"In the meantime," Han went on carefully. "I'd like to tell you what it is. This, Commander, is a record of what that young woman endured."

"Is there any ID on the attackers, sir?"

"There is," she said coldly. "Allow me to summarize. Her name was Ursula Hauser, and she was a second-year student at New Athens-a philosophy major." Despite her hard-held control, Han's mouth twisted before she could smooth it. "A philosophy major," she repeated softly. "According to her notes, her cabin lost integrity almost immediately, but Ms. Hauser was a quick thinker, and she managed to patch the holes.

"Then, over the intercom, she heard the boarders killing the passengers, Commander Tomanaga." She looked up, her black eyes pits of flame. "They lined them up, sorted out the ones they wanted to keep-the young, pretty women-and slaughtered the rest in number three hold.

"But Ms. Hauser was determined they wouldn't get all the passengers. She knew a little about small craft, so she decided to try to steal a cutter and escape. She was on her way to the boatbay when she came across five terrified children from third class, running for their lives from one of the raiders. She stabbed him to death . . . with a carving knife from the first class galley." She paused, and Tomanaga felt his pulse in his temples. "She took his weapon, but she knew now that they were between her and the boatbay, and while they might let her live, they would certainly kill the children. So she did the only thing she could and looked for a hiding place.

"She was certain they knew their primaries had depressurized her whole cabin block, so she took the children back to her cabin, hoping they would be overlooked and she could get them to the boatbay after the raiders left. But then they dumped the air, and there she was: locked into her cabin with five children, no power, no vac suits, no airlock, and no way out."

Han's voice trailed off and she looked away from Tomanaga's pale face, speaking so softly he could barely hear her.

"So she did what she had to do, Commander. She fed each of those children a lethal overdose of barbiturates from her cabin medical stores. And when she was quite certain they were all dead, she sat down at the desk, recorded all of their names, finished her memo . . . and shot herself." Han stroked the pad. "She was nineteen, Bob."

A long silence fell. Robert Tomanaga had never personally hated any enemy in all his years of service, but at that moment he knew exactly what hate was, and he understood the old, hackneyed cliches about "killing rages."

"But, sir," he sought a professional topic, something to push the sick hatred away, "how did they catch the ship? Argosy Polaris was fast-nothing but a fighter could have overhauled her if she'd had any sort of start. Surely her master didn't allow an unidentified ship into weapons range in the middle of a civil war!"

"No," Han said coldly. "He allowed a Republican cruiser patrol to close with him."

"Oh my God. No. . . ." Tomanaga whispered.

"Precisely. Obviously somewhat modified; they've replaced at least some of the hetlasers with primaries. But that was how he identified them to his passengers when he hove to. I doubt he ever learned his mistake."

"Sir, what-?"

"What are we going to do, Commander?" Han laid the pad aside almost reverently, and when she looked up, her eyes were carved from the obsidian heart of hell. "We're going to find them, Commander Tomanaga. We're going to find the vermin who did this, the vermin who used the honor of the Fleet to cover themselves. And when we do, Commander, I only hope they live long enough to know who's killing them!"

"Admiral! We're picking up something on the emergency distress channel!"

Han straightened in her command chair. Two weeks had passed with no sign of the pirates, but the possible hiding places had been narrowed methodically. Now there were only a handful of systems it could be, and Siegfried, on the far side of the next warp point, was one of them.

"Get a bearing, David," she said with the special serenity her staff had learned to expect in moments of stress. "Bob, send the group to quarters."

"Aye, aye, sir!" Tomanaga snapped, and the high-pitched shrilling of the alert wailed through the massive ship. Han hardly heard it.

"Got it, sir! Oh-one-niner level, two-eight-eight vertical. Looks like a standard shuttle transmission."

"Thank you. Bob, raise Captain Onsbruck. I want one fighter squadron to take a close look; hold the other two back for cover. This could be legitimate or a trap, so tell the pilots to take no chances."

"Aye, aye, sir."

"Thank you." She punched buttons, and Schwerin's face appeared on her com screen. "Captain, until I know exactly what we've got, you will halt the flagship and the battlegroup ten light-seconds short of the signal source."

"Aye, aye, sir."

"Thank you." She cut the connection and turned back to Tomanaga, and the lean chief of staff shivered at the hunger in her normally tranquil eyes.

"And now, Commander," she said softly, "we wait."

". . . know how important it is," Surgeon Commander Lacey told his admiral firmly, "but these are very sick people, sir! Another two days-" He shrugged. "You'll just have to use the statements they've already made."

"Very well. Thank you, Doctor."

Han switched off the intercom and looked around the briefing room at the taut, angry faces. The battlegroup's COs attended via com links to their command decks and looked, if possible, even grimmer than her staff.

"Lieutenant Jorgensen," she said, "you've been correlating the survivors' statements. What conclusions have you been able to reach?"

"Everything they've said is consistent, Admiral," Irene Jorgensen twisted a lock of hair around an index finger, "and according to them, the pirate commander is an Arthur Ruyard. Our prewar data base lists him as CO of the Kearsarge, a Frontier Fleet cruiser. Apparently he seized Siegfried by declaring support for the rebellion; once he controlled communications he dropped that pretense, and he's been raiding commerce-ours, the Rim's, even the Orions'-ever since."

"Oh my God!" Captain Janet MacInnes of the Eisenhower groaned. "Not the bloody Tabbies, too!"

"I'm afraid so, Captain," Jorgensen said, "but they've said nothing about it. I suspect they've chosen to take their losses and deal with the raiders on their own rather than provoking a possible incident because of the Khan's desire for neutrality."

"All right," Han brought the discussion quietly back to immediate problems. "What's your best force estimate, Lieutenant?"

"Sir, they appear to have the heavy cruisers Kearsarge and Thunderer and the light cruisers Leipzig, Agano, and Phaeton. There are also five or six destroyers and a prewar squadron of system defense fighters operating from Siegfried III."

"But Leipzig and Agano were destroyed in action against a Rim destroyer flotilla!" Alfred Onsbruck objected. "I saw copies of the Omega drones."

"I don't doubt it," Captain Schwerin said. "Lieutenant-" he turned to the intelligence officer "-I'll bet none of his ships are listed as current members of the Republican Navy, are they?"

"They aren't, sir. Leipzig and Agano at one time were Republican units; none of the others were ever listed as having come over."

"There you are," Stravos Kollentai said crisply. "Ruyard started with only his ship, then picked off the others from either the Rim or us-probably pretending to belong to the same side until he got close enough to spring the trap." He paused and rubbed his nose. "What bothers me is his crews. I hate to think he found that many potential pirates in uniform!"

"He didn't," Jorgensen said. "Two of his first prizes were TFNS Justicar and Hammurabi-convict ships. According to our survivors, that's where the bulk of his personnel come from."

"I see. And just who are these 'survivors,' Lieutenant?"

"There are seventeen, sir: seven men and ten women. The men worked in Siegfried's mining operations before the war, as did two of the women. The others were aboard ships Ruyard's men captured. I understand-" Jorgensen's plain face twisted with distaste "-that Ruyard intends to found a dynasty. He's been collecting women to 'entertain' his crews, but the prettiest of them are earmarked for his 'nobility.' "

A savage, inarticulate sound came from Han's officers.

"How did they escape?" Kollentai asked after a moment.

"The 'fleet' was out on a raid and they stole an ore shuttle in for repairs-it had a bad drive, but they preferred to take their chances. They made it through the warp point, but then their drive packed in. They drifted for over a month before activating their beacon."

"That," Onsbruck said quietly, "took guts."

"Indeed," Han agreed. "And thanks to them, we know one thing Irene hasn't mentioned yet." She smiled thinly at her subordinates. "This Ruyard doesn't trust any of his prisoners aboard ship for any reason."

"Now isn't that nice of him," Captain MacInnes said softly.

"I see your point, Admiral," Onsbruck said, "but even if we can blast them without worrying about civilian casualties, we have to be in range to do it. And we've got a problem there."

"Agreed." Han nodded with a tight smile. "Commander Kollentai and Commander Tomanaga have given the matter some thought, however. Bob?"

"Thank you, sir." Tomanaga faced Onsbruck, even though he was addressing them all. "Essentially, our problem is that although either one of our monitors outguns their entire 'fleet' by a factor of five, all of their ships are faster than we are."

"Exactly, Commander. So how do you propose to make them stand still for us?" Onsbruck could have sounded scornful, but he didn't.

"Commander Kollentai thought of the answer, sir. Deception mode ECM. We'll come in openly, but what they'll see will be two battlecruisers-da Silva and Eisenhower-and three destroyers-Shokaku, Black Widow, and Termite. Even though the 'battlecruisers' will out-mass anything they have, they won't expect any fighters and their total firepower will be far superior to what they believe we have."

"And if they send scouts out to check from close range?" Schwerin asked.

"According to the escapees, this Ruyard sticks with what works. He closes with his entire force before he drops his mask because his victims are less likely to balk if he gets in close, and, if they do, he's got the close-range firepower to deal with them. The chance to add two 'battlecruisers' to his force should suck him right in where we want him."

"But if it doesn't?" Schwerin pressed.

"Then we'll just have to do our best, sir. Their fighters can't run; they're restricted to Siegfried III. As for the mobile units, long-range strikes from Shokaku should nail at least both heavies before they can transit out. That's better than nothing, sir."

"But not enough." Han's voice drew all eyes back to her, and her face was as cold as her voice.

"We don't talk about it, ladies and gentlemen," she said, "but each of us-even those who only joined up after the mutinies-is here because we believe it is our duty to protect our worlds and our people. That is the only acceptable reason for wearing the uniform we wear, and it is also something which, I hope and believe, we continue to share with the TFN."

She looked at them. One or two looked a bit embarrassed-especially David Reznick-but no one disagreed.

"The commanders of these ships have violated that purpose. They are mass murderers and rapists, but they are also outlaws against us. Against this." She touched the collar of her uniform. "Against our honor."

She paused once more, and her eyes burned.

"No one-no one!-is entitled to do that. The law sets only one penalty for their actions, just as there is only one penalty which can wipe away the dishonor they have brought to our uniform."

She looked at her subordinates once more, seeing her own anger in their faces. Only Tomanaga seemed to fully understand the shame she felt, but all of them shared her fury.

"And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the penalty we will enforce upon them," she finished grimly. She leaned back, her face once more calm, her voice once more serene. "It is my intention to enter Siegfried and attack within the next six hours. Carry on, ladies and gentlemen."

"There, sir," Tomanaga murmured as the enemy light codes crept onto the plot. "Still at extreme range, but they're closing. . . ."

Han nodded, watching the light dots of the piratical cruisers drift slowly closer, the red bands of hostile ships flashing around them. She picked out both heavies and all three of the lights, accompanied by the white dots of four destroyers.

"Data base can't identify the heavies, sir," David Reznick reported. "They've been altered and refitted too much-looks like the missile armament must have been downgraded in favor of primaries, wherever they got them. But I've got good IDs on the lights: Phaeton, Agano, and Leipzig. Two of the tincans are Pike and Bengal, but we don't know the others. Range is fifty light-seconds and closing."

"Thank you, David. Try to raise them, please."

"Aye, aye, sir."

There was a brief silence in response to da Silva's hail, then the screen lit with the image of a thin-faced, scholarly looking man who matched the data base pictures of Arthur Ruyard.

"I am Rear Admiral Li Han, Terran Republican Navy, commanding Battlegroup Nineteen," Han told him. "And you are?"

"Commodore Dennis Khulman, commanding the Twentieth Cruiser Squadron," the thin-faced man replied after the inevitable transmission lag, and Han's eyes did not even a flicker at the lie.

"What brings you out here, Commodore?" she asked with just the right trace of curiosity.

"I was about to ask you that, sir." Ruyard/Khulman smiled. "We're on a standing patrol out of Klatzenberger by way of Tomaline, Admiral. And you?"

"Out of Novaya Rodina via Jansen, Schulman, and Kariphos," Han lied equally smoothly. "We didn't expect to see Republican units out this way."

"No, sir. We didn't either," Ruyard/Khulman agreed.

"Well, I suppose we'd better rendezvous and exchange news, Commodore," Han said, watching the other ships creep closer on her plot.

"Of course, sir. But you'll pardon me if I keep my shields up until we do?" Ruyard/Khulman allowed himself a deprecating shrug. "Can't be too careful out here, sir."

"I certainly agree, Commodore," Han smiled, black murder in her heart.

"Thank you, sir. I make our rendezvous in approximately eighteen minutes at our present speeds. Is that acceptable?"

"It is," Han nodded. "I'll expect you for dinner, Commodore."

"Thank you, sir. I'm looking forward to it."

Li Han cut the communication and smiled savagely at the blank screen.

"Fifteen light-seconds, sir," Reznick reported.

"Very well. When we drop to twelve light-seconds, cut the ECM."

"Cut the ECM, sir?" Reznick was startled into asking the question.

"That's correct, Lieutenant," Han said calmly. She wanted Ruyard to know what he faced. She punched up Shokaku. "Captain Onsbruck?"


"Prepare to launch fighters when our ECM goes down."

"Aye, aye, sir!"

"Thank you."

Han leaned back and watched the outlaw ships inch closer at their reduced speed. Even now Ruyard/Khulman's preplanned surrender demand would be ready, but her message would go out first. The last message he would ever have, she thought coldly: the dropping of her deception the instant before she fired.

She remembered her cold-blooded destruction of the Swiftsure at Aklumar and recognized the similarity, yet the resemblance was only superficial. Swiftsure's people had been enemies, but they had been honorable foes, worthy of a far better end. These enemies were scum.

"Thirteen light-seconds, sir," Reznick reported softly. "Standing by to disengage ECM. Disengaging . . . now!"

The battlegroup's ECM died, and the monitors and carrier stood revealed. Han watched the fighters spitting from Shokaku's catapults, but only with a corner of her eye. Her attention was on the dots of the enemy.

"Sir! Message from Kearsarge!" Reznick sounded startled. "They want to surrender, sir!"

Ruyard was fast on his mental feet, Han thought grimly. He knew he couldn't outrun her missiles, so he wasn't even trying. He was banking on the fact that the Terran Navy-Federation or Republican-always gave quarter if it was asked for. It might be another trap or simply another example of his using the Navy's honor against itself. She watched the last of the fighters launch, and her face was bleak and cold.

"Captain Schwerin."

"Yes, sir?" Schwerin responded, his voice neutral.

"Open fire, Captain," Rear Admiral Li Han said softly.